Click here to close now.

Welcome!

iPhone Authors: Aria Blog, XebiaLabs Blog, Pat Romanski, AppDynamics Blog, Cloud Best Practices Network

Related Topics: iPhone, Java, XML, Wireless, SOA & WOA, ColdFusion, Websphere, PowerBuilder, Weblogic, .NET, Linux, Adobe Flex, Symbian, Open Source, SYS-CON MEDIA, Eclipse, Search, AJAX & REA, PHP, Web 2.0

iPhone: Article

New Column: A Geek's Bookshelf

Book Review: A Demon of Our Own Design: Markets, Hedge Funds, and the Perils of Financial Invocation

Geeks like to read – and not only programming books. Most of us read incessantly. Whether it’s popular science, sci-fi or fantasy, a good thriller or an occasional popular history book or biography, it’s a rare geek who isn’t in love with books. And I am no exception, although I have to confess I am rather an extreme case since my love of books and eclectic tastes borders on the “gentle madness” aka “bibliomania.” 

What I am going to do in this regular column is feed my habit by highlighting some of the books I am reading, and (mostly) enjoying. (I will only rarely write negative reviews; it’s a rare book that I “do not put down gently but throw across the room with great force” after all.)

Finally, since I remain involved with Apress (www.apress.com), the publishing company for IT professionals I helped found, is there any potential for a conflict of interest? I don’t think so nor do the kind people at SYS-CON; the kind of books I will be reviewing are the books I read “non-professionally” –for fun – in my spare time. It is only these books, rather than professional books, that I will review.

Title: A Demon of Our Own Design: Markets, Hedge Funds, and the Perils of Financial Invocation
Author: by Richard Bookstaber
Publisher: John Wiley 2007, ISBN 978-0-471-22727-4.
Price: $27.95

Talk about prescience, this amazingly relevant book, 10 years in the making, was actually published in April of 2007 – four months before the market meltdown that was caused by subprime mortgage-backed instruments going very, very south. Yet, in this extremely interesting, extraordinarily well-written book, Bookstaber essentially predicted this, and also (alas) he predicts more crises to come. The first paragraph of the book sets the stage:

“While it is not strictly true that I caused the two great financial crisis of the late 20th century – the 1987 stock market crash and the Long-Term Capital Management (hedge fund debacle)…”

Who is Bookstaber? He was one of the early “quants” on Wall Street. These are the physicists, mathematicians, statisticians, and mathematical who revolutionized trading on Wall Street by trying to search out hidden patterns and values. The foremost among them, the great mathematician James Simon, made a mere $1.7 billion last year by apparently doing exactly this.

The idea, roughly speaking, of most of these strategies is: can you find two (seemingly) equivalent securities that should trade in parallel but are currently not? Buy one and sell short the other, wait (hope) for a regression to the mean and make a bundle. Only you won’t make a bundle unless you use a lot of leverage because the anomalies are small at best. And leverage, as the old Wall Street adage has it, cuts both ways. If something really strange happens (a “black swan event,” in the words of best-selling author Nicolas Taleb whose very interesting book I’ll review soon) that makes the divergence greater than historical norms, your billions upon billions of leveraged investments often leads to catastrophic losses. And they did. What’s worse, there is a Heisenberg quality to this kind of historical/statistical arbitrage. As Bookstaber puts it: “Predicated on their conviction that the relationship had long-term stability, they would take positions based on the assumption that it would return, or converge, back to its historical value. What they did not appreciate was that they had changed history. There had never been someone trading hundreds of billions of dollars in the middle of this relationship before.”

Of course, it isn’t only about statistical arbitrage affected by the size of the investments made by people playing the game. As Bookstaber often points out, there is a certain amount of stupidity, cupidity, and outright deceit at work here. For example, the Enron-related transactions of Citigroup were described by the then head of risk management at CitiBank as: “[our] accounting is aggressive and a franchise risk to us if there is publicity,” which Bookstaber translates beautifully as: “we’re making this up and if anyone finds out, we’re in trouble.” Of course, Enron was found out and billions upon billions were lost and some of the people who went beyond merely aggressive accounting actually went to jail. (He has a wonderful suggestion about how to handle financial reporting by the way – one that will appeal to programmers: replace a lot of the hocus pocus in financial reports by requiring that the raw data be made available in basically XML form, and thus let smart data miners make sense of it without it being filtered through high-priced accounting firms with potential stakes in the matter.)

As this book is just filled with interesting information and great anecdotes, I could go on for a long time describing its virtues. For example, there’s a wonderful discussion of what portfolio insurance is and how it (inevitably with hindsight) led to the crash of 1987, for example. In the end, however, the whole point of this book can be summed up by the following passage:

“The danger to the system is the system…despite all the risks we can control, the greatest ones remain beyond our control. Those are the risks we do not see, things beyond the veil…”

Combine this inescapable fact with the amazing leverage that modern hedge funds can use, throw in the usual amounts of human stupidty and cupidity, the speed with which things happen in our modern era, the interconnections of everything with everything and Bookstaber has convinced me at least that more and more disasters await the financial system.

Before I leave this review though I do want to point out some parts of the book that will be especially interesting to programmers. Here is an amusingly scary one that occurred in the past and perhaps is not so relevant anymore; however, it remains of vital importance to everything we do. He describes how one early crisis (1995) was caused by the use of a now exotic programming language called APL (“A Programming Language”) created by Turing award-winner Ken Iverson. APL was an amazingly fun language for math types. You could invert a matrix with a single key stroke and write the most amazing one-liners. But let’s forget about the maintenance problems of a language that makes PERL seem like COBOL in it lucidity; the real problem was that APL was interpreted in an era when JITs were still a decade away and computers were hundreds of times slower. But many financial calculations require zillions of iterative calculations to compute prospective values, and APL, since it was not compiled in those days, simply couldn’t do them. So oddball situations weren’t well modeled in the financial models built with APL, and, once upon a time, this failure to use a compiled language led to a loss of between 100 and 250 million dollars to UBS – and this was back when a quarter of a billion dollars was real money.  

But more important is his stressing that the worst nightmare of financial machinations is our worse nightmare as well: the effects of tight coupling on systems. OOP was designed to solve this problem but it hasn’t proven the panacea its early proponents had hoped for. And, as anyone who was on the Vista team can testify (for example), tight coupling remains the biggest problem we face for large software projects.

In sum, get this book. Read it and learn. It’s beautifully written and full of insights that apply not only to financial management but to “life, the universe, and everything.”

More Stories By Gary Cornell

Gary Cornell has a PHD in mathematics from Brown University. At various times and among other things he has been a professor, a program director at the National Science Foundation, and a visiting scientist at IBM's Watson Labs. He has written or co-written numerous best-selling and award-winning computer books. Most recently he co-founded Apress (www.apress.com), which under his leadership became one of the largest publishers of books for IT professionals in the world. And he did all this while simultaneously having a truly serious case of the 'gentle madness,' AKA bibliomania.

Comments (4) View Comments

Share your thoughts on this story.

Add your comment
You must be signed in to add a comment. Sign-in | Register

In accordance with our Comment Policy, we encourage comments that are on topic, relevant and to-the-point. We will remove comments that include profanity, personal attacks, racial slurs, threats of violence, or other inappropriate material that violates our Terms and Conditions, and will block users who make repeated violations. We ask all readers to expect diversity of opinion and to treat one another with dignity and respect.


Most Recent Comments
Debbie Moynihan 10/15/07 01:52:26 PM EDT

Interesting review, I love the idea of a geek book review column. The suggestion to make raw financial data available in XML would be interesting. It would be cool to be able to grab data from various companies and do interesting things with it, but that might be a bit scary to some people...

Jane 10/11/07 04:39:13 PM EDT

Nice start to your new column, Gary. Great review of an interesting sounding book.

Paul E. Hanson 10/11/07 04:48:04 AM EDT

I did get a laugh (on a morbid level) that the blame for LTCM debacle does not lay where popularly thought. I will not give away the source for future readers.

Rajat Bhatia 10/11/07 04:28:17 AM EDT

Derivatives, trading and hedge funds are here to stay. They perform a valuable service to the financial markets, though Warren Buffet will disagree with me.

Nevertheless, it is the mis-use of derivatives and the excessive use of leverage that leads to financial disasters. This book provides an excellent insight into why we witness financial turmoil in some of the most liquid markets.

@ThingsExpo Stories
The cloud is now a fact of life but generating recurring revenues that are driven by solutions and services on a consumption model have been hard to implement, until now. In their session at 16th Cloud Expo, Ermanno Bonifazi, CEO & Founder of Solgenia, and Ian Khan, Global Strategic Positioning & Brand Manager at Solgenia, will discuss how a top European telco has leveraged the innovative recurring revenue generating capability of the consumption cloud to enable a unique cloud monetization model to drive results.
As organizations shift toward IT-as-a-service models, the need for managing and protecting data residing across physical, virtual, and now cloud environments grows with it. CommVault can ensure protection &E-Discovery of your data – whether in a private cloud, a Service Provider delivered public cloud, or a hybrid cloud environment – across the heterogeneous enterprise. In his session at 16th Cloud Expo, Randy De Meno, Chief Technologist - Windows Products and Microsoft Partnerships, will discuss how to cut costs, scale easily, and unleash insight with CommVault Simpana software, the only si...
Analytics is the foundation of smart data and now, with the ability to run Hadoop directly on smart storage systems like Cloudian HyperStore, enterprises will gain huge business advantages in terms of scalability, efficiency and cost savings as they move closer to realizing the potential of the Internet of Things. In his session at 16th Cloud Expo, Paul Turner, technology evangelist and CMO at Cloudian, Inc., will discuss the revolutionary notion that the storage world is transitioning from mere Big Data to smart data. He will argue that today’s hybrid cloud storage solutions, with commodity...
Cloud data governance was previously an avoided function when cloud deployments were relatively small. With the rapid adoption in public cloud – both rogue and sanctioned, it’s not uncommon to find regulated data dumped into public cloud and unprotected. This is why enterprises and cloud providers alike need to embrace a cloud data governance function and map policies, processes and technology controls accordingly. In her session at 15th Cloud Expo, Evelyn de Souza, Data Privacy and Compliance Strategy Leader at Cisco Systems, will focus on how to set up a cloud data governance program and s...
Roberto Medrano, Executive Vice President at SOA Software, had reached 30,000 page views on his home page - http://RobertoMedrano.SYS-CON.com/ - on the SYS-CON family of online magazines, which includes Cloud Computing Journal, Internet of Things Journal, Big Data Journal, and SOA World Magazine. He is a recognized executive in the information technology fields of SOA, internet security, governance, and compliance. He has extensive experience with both start-ups and large companies, having been involved at the beginning of four IT industries: EDA, Open Systems, Computer Security and now SOA.
The industrial software market has treated data with the mentality of “collect everything now, worry about how to use it later.” We now find ourselves buried in data, with the pervasive connectivity of the (Industrial) Internet of Things only piling on more numbers. There’s too much data and not enough information. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Bob Gates, Global Marketing Director, GE’s Intelligent Platforms business, to discuss how realizing the power of IoT, software developers are now focused on understanding how industrial data can create intelligence for industrial operations. Imagine ...
We certainly live in interesting technological times. And no more interesting than the current competing IoT standards for connectivity. Various standards bodies, approaches, and ecosystems are vying for mindshare and positioning for a competitive edge. It is clear that when the dust settles, we will have new protocols, evolved protocols, that will change the way we interact with devices and infrastructure. We will also have evolved web protocols, like HTTP/2, that will be changing the very core of our infrastructures. At the same time, we have old approaches made new again like micro-services...
Every innovation or invention was originally a daydream. You like to imagine a “what-if” scenario. And with all the attention being paid to the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) you don’t have to stretch the imagination too much to see how this may impact commercial and homeowners insurance. We’re beyond the point of accepting this as a leap of faith. The groundwork is laid. Now it’s just a matter of time. We can thank the inventors of smart thermostats for developing a practical business application that everyone can relate to. Gone are the salad days of smart home apps, the early chalkb...
Operational Hadoop and the Lambda Architecture for Streaming Data Apache Hadoop is emerging as a distributed platform for handling large and fast incoming streams of data. Predictive maintenance, supply chain optimization, and Internet-of-Things analysis are examples where Hadoop provides the scalable storage, processing, and analytics platform to gain meaningful insights from granular data that is typically only valuable from a large-scale, aggregate view. One architecture useful for capturing and analyzing streaming data is the Lambda Architecture, representing a model of how to analyze rea...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Vitria Technology, Inc. will exhibit at SYS-CON’s @ThingsExpo, which will take place on June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Vitria will showcase the company’s new IoT Analytics Platform through live demonstrations at booth #330. Vitria’s IoT Analytics Platform, fully integrated and powered by an operational intelligence engine, enables customers to rapidly build and operationalize advanced analytics to deliver timely business outcomes for use cases across the industrial, enterprise, and consumer segments.
Today’s enterprise is being driven by disruptive competitive and human capital requirements to provide enterprise application access through not only desktops, but also mobile devices. To retrofit existing programs across all these devices using traditional programming methods is very costly and time consuming – often prohibitively so. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Jesse Shiah, CEO, President, and Co-Founder of AgilePoint Inc., discussed how you can create applications that run on all mobile devices as well as laptops and desktops using a visual drag-and-drop application – and eForms-buildi...
Containers and microservices have become topics of intense interest throughout the cloud developer and enterprise IT communities. Accordingly, attendees at the upcoming 16th Cloud Expo at the Javits Center in New York June 9-11 will find fresh new content in a new track called PaaS | Containers & Microservices Containers are not being considered for the first time by the cloud community, but a current era of re-consideration has pushed them to the top of the cloud agenda. With the launch of Docker's initial release in March of 2013, interest was revved up several notches. Then late last...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Dyn, the worldwide leader in Internet Performance, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 16th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Dyn is a cloud-based Internet Performance company. Dyn helps companies monitor, control, and optimize online infrastructure for an exceptional end-user experience. Through a world-class network and unrivaled, objective intelligence into Internet conditions, Dyn ensures traffic gets delivered faster, safer, and more reliably than ever.
In their session at @ThingsExpo, Shyam Varan Nath, Principal Architect at GE, and Ibrahim Gokcen, who leads GE's advanced IoT analytics, focused on the Internet of Things / Industrial Internet and how to make it operational for business end-users. Learn about the challenges posed by machine and sensor data and how to marry it with enterprise data. They also discussed the tips and tricks to provide the Industrial Internet as an end-user consumable service using Big Data Analytics and Industrial Cloud.
The explosion of connected devices / sensors is creating an ever-expanding set of new and valuable data. In parallel the emerging capability of Big Data technologies to store, access, analyze, and react to this data is producing changes in business models under the umbrella of the Internet of Things (IoT). In particular within the Insurance industry, IoT appears positioned to enable deep changes by altering relationships between insurers, distributors, and the insured. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Michael Sick, a Senior Manager and Big Data Architect within Ernst and Young's Financial Servi...
Performance is the intersection of power, agility, control, and choice. If you value performance, and more specifically consistent performance, you need to look beyond simple virtualized compute. Many factors need to be considered to create a truly performant environment. In his General Session at 15th Cloud Expo, Harold Hannon, Sr. Software Architect at SoftLayer, discussed how to take advantage of a multitude of compute options and platform features to make cloud the cornerstone of your online presence.
Even as cloud and managed services grow increasingly central to business strategy and performance, challenges remain. The biggest sticking point for companies seeking to capitalize on the cloud is data security. Keeping data safe is an issue in any computing environment, and it has been a focus since the earliest days of the cloud revolution. Understandably so: a lot can go wrong when you allow valuable information to live outside the firewall. Recent revelations about government snooping, along with a steady stream of well-publicized data breaches, only add to the uncertainty
The explosion of connected devices / sensors is creating an ever-expanding set of new and valuable data. In parallel the emerging capability of Big Data technologies to store, access, analyze, and react to this data is producing changes in business models under the umbrella of the Internet of Things (IoT). In particular within the Insurance industry, IoT appears positioned to enable deep changes by altering relationships between insurers, distributors, and the insured. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Michael Sick, a Senior Manager and Big Data Architect within Ernst and Young's Financial Servi...
Docker is an excellent platform for organizations interested in running microservices. It offers portability and consistency between development and production environments, quick provisioning times, and a simple way to isolate services. In his session at DevOps Summit at 16th Cloud Expo, Shannon Williams, co-founder of Rancher Labs, will walk through these and other benefits of using Docker to run microservices, and provide an overview of RancherOS, a minimalist distribution of Linux designed expressly to run Docker. He will also discuss Rancher, an orchestration and service discovery platf...
PubNub on Monday has announced that it is partnering with IBM to bring its sophisticated real-time data streaming and messaging capabilities to Bluemix, IBM’s cloud development platform. “Today’s app and connected devices require an always-on connection, but building a secure, scalable solution from the ground up is time consuming, resource intensive, and error-prone,” said Todd Greene, CEO of PubNub. “PubNub enables web, mobile and IoT developers building apps on IBM Bluemix to quickly add scalable realtime functionality with minimal effort and cost.”