High velocity trading rendered visceral

The latest installment of Tim Harford's BBC/Open University podcast (RSS) More of Less has a fantastic and chilling look at the world of high-frequency automated stock trading, where warring algorithms execute millions of trades in an eyeblink. The story's jumping-off point is Knight Capital, whose faulty algorithm hemorrhaged $10,000,000 per minute, ultimately costing the company nearly half a billion dollars. But from there, Harford and co do a great series of examples trying to convey the sheer velocity of these markets. I've been following this stuff reasonably closely and had an abstract sense of it all, but this brought it home for me so firmly that it raised goosebumps.

Last week Knight Capital lost a lot of money very quickly. It was the latest chapter in the story of something called ‘high frequency trading’. Investors have always valued being the first with the news. But high frequency trading is different: algorithms execute automatic trades, conducted by computers, at astonishing speeds. We ask: is the rapid growth of high frequency trading progress, or – as some think – a threat to the stability of the entire financial system?

BBC - Podcasts - More or Less: Behind the Stats

MP3 link

HOWTO survive a robot uprising (just add water)

Randall "XKCD" Munroe's "What If?" site continues to shine -- and possibly even to outshine his most excellent webcomic. This week, Randall (whose background is in robotics), looks at what would happen in a robot uprising. He's rather sanguine about this, given the general uselessness of robots in the field.

Those robots lucky enough to have limbs that can operate a doorknob, or to have the door left open for them, would have to contend with deceptively tricky rubber thresholds before they could get into the hallway...

Hours later, most of them would be found in nearby bathrooms, trying desperately to exterminate what they have identified as a human overlord but is actually a paper towel dispenser...

Battlebots, on the face of it, seem like they’d be among the most dangerous robo-soldiers. But it’s hard to feel threatened by something that you can evade by sitting on the kitchen counter and destroy by letting the sink overflow.

Robot Apocalypse

Cops in USA to drive around in pornoscannerwagons, covertly irradiating people and looking through their cars and clothes

American cops are set to join the US military in deploying American Science & Engineering's Z Backscatter Vans, or mobile backscatter radiation x-rays. These are what TSA officials call "the amazing radioactive genital viewer," now seen in airports around America, ionizing the private parts of children, the elderly, and you (yes you).

These pornoscannerwagons will look like regular anonymous vans, and will cruise America's streets, indiscriminately peering through the cars (and clothes) of anyone in range of its mighty isotope-cannon. But don't worry, it's not a violation of privacy. As AS&E's vice president of marketing Joe Reiss sez, "From a privacy standpoint, I’m hard-pressed to see what the concern or objection could be."

You know, I never looked at that way. I guess that's why I'm not the VP of marketing and he's getting the big bucks.

It would also seem to make the vans mobile versions of the same scanning technique that’s riled privacy advocates as it’s been deployed in airports around the country. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) is currently suing the DHS to stop airport deployments of the backscatter scanners, which can reveal detailed images of human bodies. (Just how much detail became clear last May, when TSA employee Rolando Negrin was charged with assaulting a coworker who made jokes about the size of Negrin’s genitalia after Negrin received a full-body scan.)

“It’s no surprise that governments and vendors are very enthusiastic about [the vans],” says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC. “But from a privacy perspective, it’s one of the most intrusive technologies conceivable.”

Also: "the vans do have the capability of storing images."

Full-Body Scan Technology Deployed In Street-Roving Vans

Switzerland is one gigantic booby-trap

Geoff Manaugh at BLDGBLOG has been exploring the bizarre world of Swiss self-destructing infrastructure, documented in La Place de la Concorde Suisse, John McPhee's "rich, journalistic study of the Swiss Army's role in Swiss society." It turns out that the Swiss Army specifies that bridges, hillsides, and tunnels need to be designed so that they can be remotely destroyed in the event of societal collapse, pan-European war, or invasion. Meanwhile, underground parking garages (and some tunnels) are designed to be sealed off as airtight nuclear bunkers.

To interrupt the utility of bridges, tunnels, highways, railroads, Switzerland has established three thousand points of demolition. That is the number officially printed. It has been suggested to me that to approximate a true figure a reader ought to multiply by two. Where a highway bridge crosses a railroad, a segment of the bridge is programmed to drop on the railroad. Primacord fuses are built into the bridge. Hidden artillery is in place on either side, set to prevent the enemy from clearing or repairing the damage...

There are also hollow mountains! Booby-trapped cliff-faces!

Near the German border of Switzerland, every railroad and highway tunnel has been prepared to pinch shut explosively. Nearby mountains have been made so porous that whole divisions can fit inside them. There are weapons and soldiers under barns. There are cannons inside pretty houses. Where Swiss highways happen to run on narrow ground between the edges of lakes and to the bottoms of cliffs, man-made rockslides are ready to slide...

The impending self-demolition of the country is "routinely practiced," McPhee writes. "Often, in such assignments, the civilian engineer who created the bridge will, in his capacity as a military officer, be given the task of planning its destruction."

Various forms of lithic disguise (Thanks, @MagicPeaceLove!)

UK economic crisis ends, Tories celebrate by committing £1.8B to spying

The pricetag for the UK "snooper's charter" -- a comprehensive warrantless spying proposal from the government -- is in: "at least £1.8 billion." This is how the coalition fight crime, even as thousands of police take to the streets to protest cuts in front line patrols, and even as private companies are taking over "policing duties" in cities and towns across the nation. What austerity, huh? Nothing's too dear when you're spying on an entire nation's entire digital life. Cory

Rocking Horses of the Apocalypse


Artist Carrin Welch's first foray into sculpture is a marvellous set of "Four Rocking Horses of the Apocalypse," made from wood. They're nearly finished, and eminently ridable.

My interpretation of these horsemen from Revelations in the Bible is very loose, it's an artistic idea based mostly on how I want them to look, and less on the many academic and theological interpretations. I want them to appear ominous and imposing, but the catch is that they are giant toys. They are meant to be fantastic and absurd, but also beautiful and magical. You cannot ride one of the mammoths without feeling a little joy. With this world feeling so unstable, and all the theories of its end, the rocking horses bring light to a dark time.

All four horses are expected to be completed by end of May 2012, when they will travel to Burning Flipside for their collective debut. After that I will be collaborating with fellow artists to produce some fun, fantasy images of the rocking horses, and seeking opportunities to show them and let people interact with them.

Welch completed the horses during a period of unemployment, thanks to funding provided by her fans on Kickstarter.

The Four Rocking Horses of the Apocalypse (via Neatorama)

East London residents warned of surface-to-air missiles sited on their roofs for the Olympics

Residents of a gated community in east London got Ministry of Defence leaflets through their doors advising them that their roofs might be commandeered for surface-to-air missiles during the London Olympics this summer. The MoD assured them that the missiles on their roof "will only be authorised for active use following specific orders from the highest levels of government in response to a confirmed and extreme security threat". Gosh, the Olympics sure are wonderful.

Journalist Brian Whelan, a resident at the flats, said: "They are going to have a test run next week, putting high velocity missiles on the roof just above our apartment and on the back of it they're stationing police and military in the tower of the building for two months.

"It's a private, gated community... We have an MoD leaflet saying the building is the only suitable place in the area.

"It says there will be 10 officers plus police present 24/7. I'm not sure if they are going to live in the building."

I'm just waiting for some of our local gang-kids to swipe a few of these.

Here's the brochure (PDF).

Charlie Stross points out that a wily terrorist who buzzes east London with an RC airplane and triggers a launch would succeed in tricking the MoD into showering a crowded residential area with blazing supersonic shrapnel. For bonus points, aim the RC plane to get the missile to shower the white-hot shrapnel over a crowded train station.

London 2012: Missiles may be placed at residential flats

US government orders UK carriers to extend no-fly list Brits travelling to non-US destinations, even on flights that don't pass through US airspace

The Independent's Simon Calder reports that the US Department of Homeland Security has ordered air carriers to hand over the personal information of British people travelling to the Caribbean, Mexico and Canada, even for flights that don't fly over US airspace. What's more, they demand the right to order passengers to be yanked from flights right up to boarding time, without explanation. Essentially, they're extraterritorializing the No-Fly list, a list of thousands and thousands of people who are deemed -- for secret reasons -- to be so dangerous that they're not allowed to fly, but not so dangerous that they can be arrested.

Given that this is April 1, I'm slightly suspicious, as this is so blatantly evil that it's hard to believe that UK carriers would capitulate to it. On the other hand, everyone capitulates to the undemocratic absurdities of the American security-industrial apparatus.

Simon Hughes, the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, told The Independent: "The concern by the US for its own security is entirely understandable, but it seems to me it's a whole different issue that American wishes should determine the rights and choices of people travelling between two countries neither of which is the US."

...Any passenger who refuses to comply will be denied boarding. Those who do supply details may find their trip could be abruptly cancelled by the Department of Homeland Security, which says it will "take boarding pass determinations up until the time a flight leaves the gate ... If a passenger successfully obtains a boarding pass, his/her name is not on the No Fly list." In other words, travellers cannot find out whether they will be accepted on board until they reach the airport...

The US will have full details of all British visitors to Cuba, including business travellers, which could potentially be used to identify people suspected of breaking America's draconian sanctions against the Castro regime.

Neil Taylor, a tour operator who pioneered tourism to Cuba, said: "Imagine if the Chinese were to ask for such data on all passengers to Taiwan, and similarly if the Saudis were to ask about flights to Israel – would the US government understand?

"One also has to wonder how an American traveller in Europe would react if he were denied boarding on a flight from London to Rome because the German government had not received sufficient data from him."

Planning a trip to Canada or the Caribbean? US Immigration may have other ideas... (via /.)

(Image: Malleus Maleficarum (title page) by Heinrich Kramer, Wikimedia Commons)

Ride out the apocalypse with tinned sammiches

Why would you buy a Candwich-brand sandwich in a can? Helpfully, the site lists three value propositions: "Healthy fast food," "Great for vending," and, of course, "Disaster preparedness."

With an extended shelf-life, Candwich™ is ideal for emergency food storage needs in the event of a natural disaster. Candwich™ tastes great, and because of the special Army formulated recipe, the bread stays as soft and sweet after one-year in storage as it did the day it was made (If you can ever keep them around that long)!

It comes in 24-packs, too.

Candwich - The Go Anywhere Sandwich (Thanks, Fipi Lele!)

The (horribly awesome) things that live on Ball's Pyramid

Ball's Pyramid looks like a place where nothing could survive. The remnants of a long-dead volcano, it sits alone in the South Pacific ... a narrow, rocky half-moon some 1800 feet high.

But Ball's Pyramid isn't devoid of life ...

for years this place had a secret. At 225 feet above sea level, hanging on the rock surface, there is a small, spindly little bush, and under that bush, a few years ago, two climbers, working in the dark, found something totally improbable hiding in the soil below. How it got there, we still don't know.

What they found is horribly awesome and awesomely horrible and you need to read the whole story, written by NPR's Robert Krulwich.

Via Elizabeth Preston. If you want a hint, she described this as, "a really beautiful story about some really disgusting giant insects."

Fallout shelter ads


On the always-excellent How to Be a Retronaut site, a great collection of 1960s fallout shelter ads, a perfect capsule of upbeat, cheerful fear-selling.

Fallout Shelter Ads, 1960s

Canadian MP: if you oppose warrantless snooping, you "stand with child pornographers"

Vic Toews, the Canadian Tory MP pushing for the new spying bill says that people who oppose him are "standing with child pornographers." Mr Toews's bill will require ISPs to record all your online activity and give police access to those logs without a warrant. Ontario police recently busted a huge child-porn ring without needing any further spying power. In fact, no one can find any police investigation that has failed for lack of snooping powers. A leaked memo from the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police shows that Canada's law enforcement has been scouring its records for evidence supporting the need for this bill, without luck. (Thanks, Wild Rumpus!) Cory

Texas schoolchildren get criminal citations for cussing in class, shouting within 500' of school

In The Guardian, Chris McGreal looks at the horrific state of policing in Texas schools. The age of criminal responsibility in Texas is 10, and many schools have uniformed police officers on site who ticket small children for throwing paper airplanes or flipping the teacher off. The tickets carry steep fines, and if you graduate with unpaid fines, you go to prison.

Among the more extreme cases documented by Appleseed is of a teacher who had a pupil arrested after the child responded to a question as to where a word could be found in a text by saying: "In your culo (arse)", making the other children laugh. Another pupil was arrested for throwing paper aeroplanes.

Students are also regularly fined for "disorderly behaviour", which includes playground scraps not serious enough to warrant an assault charge or for swearing or an offensive gesture. One teenage student was arrested and sent to court in Houston after he and his girlfriend poured milk on each other after they broke up. Nearly one third of tickets involve drugs or alcohol. Although a relatively high number of tickets – up to 20% in some school districts – involve charges over the use of weapons, mostly the weapons used were fists.

The very young are not spared. According to Appleseed, Texas records show more than 1,000 tickets were issued to primary schoolchildren over the past six years (although these have no legal force at that age). Appleseed said that "several districts ticketed a six-year-old at least once in the last five years".

The US schools with their own police

Free/open spherical lollipop houses


A UK project called Ekinoid aims to produce free/open plans for spherical houses that perch on poles seven feet off the ground. The goal is a house that can be built in a week.

Ekinoid homes will be designed to be as easy as is pratically possible to fabricate (ideally using no expert knowledge or skills), house a family of three/four, and will take under one week to build. Ideally, the main structure should last over 100 years (and then be recycled). Build each town using unskilled labour.

All parts of an Ekinoid home will be designed to suit the local climate and terrain, and will be delivered on-site for fabrication. We think one crane (possibly two) and a team of approximately four people (one skilled, three unskilled) would be adequate for the one-week construction of each house; and after, these newly-skilled people (the new owners) might then help to build more Ekinoid homes, and train new owners. This training would, in principle, work exponentially and would therefore service the whole new community in a very short time.

All the land under the houses would remain useful and accessible.

The Ekinoid Project: 2012 (via IO9)

Hollywood locates barrel's bottom

Ogodogodogod, I can't even bring myself to embed this at full-size. Kickstopper where are you when we need you?

(Thanks, Fipilele. I guess.)