How High-Frequency Trading Computers See New York

And four other intriguing things: a landmine app, Windows XP's default beauty, 18th-century string instruments, and the ethics of automation.

1. Michael Lewis describes how high-frequency trading computers see Manhattan and beyond in his new book Flash Boys.

"Any trading signal that originated in lower Manhattan traveled up the West Side Highway and out the Lincoln Tunnel. Perched immediately outside the tunnel, in Weehawken, New Jersey, was the BATS exchange. From BATS the routes became more complicated, as they had to find their way through the clutter of the Jersey suburbs. 'New Jersey is now carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey,' said Ronan. One way or another, they traveled east to Secaucus, the location of the Direct Edge family of exchanges founded by Goldman Sachs and Citadel, and south to the Nasdaq family of exchanges in Carteret. The New York Stock Exchange further complicated the story. In early 2010, NYSE still had its computer servers in lower Manhattan, at 55 Water Street. (They moved them to distant Mahwah, New Jersey, that August.) As it was less than a mile from Brad’s desk, NYSE appeared to be the stock market closest to him; but Ronan’s maps showed the incredible indirection of optic fiber in Manhattan. 'To get from Liberty Plaza to Fifty-five Water Street, you might go through Brooklyn,' he explained. 'You can go fifty miles to get from Midtown to downtown. To get from a building to a building across the street you could travel fifteen miles.' It was a ten-minute walk from RBC’s office at Liberty Plaza to the New York Stock Exchange. But from a computer’s point of view, the New York Stock Exchange was further from RBC’s offices than Carteret."


2. A UN app/exhibit hybrid that simulates walking around landmines.

"Using iBeacon, a low energy Bluetooth technology to find a phone’s location, the Sweeper app detects transmitters hidden throughout the exhibit. When a person comes too close to a transmitter, it acts as a landmine and detonates, filling the user’s headphones with a jarring, visceral explosion followed by an audio testimony of someone’s actual experience."


3. A sweet, shaggy story the default background image that came with Windows XP.

"Although it will forever be associated with Windows XP, Bliss was actually the by-product of a love story. It was a regular Friday afternoon in 1996 when photographer Charles O'Rear took the drive through California's wine country to see his then-girlfriend Daphne. Chuck, as he introduces himself in conversation, has since married Daphne. Bliss, meanwhile, has gone on to become one of the world's most iconic photographs, chosen as the default wallpaper of Microsoft's operating system."

+ Did you know Corbis was founded and is owned by Bill Gates


4. Harry Mairson is designing a programming language to reconstruct the way complex 18th-century string instruments were made

"In 2006, a French luthier named François Denis published Traite de Lutherie, a comprehensive and seminal treatise which attempted to lay out the manner in which string instrument outlines were constructed. There are few, if any, written works on construction technique written at the time these instruments emerged on the historical, musical scene: Denis’ contribution was a historically inspired and a priori reconstruction of what some of those techniques likely were. The most striking thing about Denis’s book is that the construction methods are entirely Euclidean, when we are used to thinking in a Cartesian way about most everything. The designs are realized without graph paper, without Vernier calipers, protractors, or just about anything having to do with measurement.  Instead, virtually everything is done with an (unmarked) ruler, and a compass, save one fixed dimension. That dimension determines, via entirely proportional constructions, all the other ones."

+ And he just got one of these 20 NEH grants


5. On the ethics of automated systems.

"In their paper 'The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence’ (2011), Bostrom and the AI theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky argued that increasingly complex decision-making algorithms are both inevitable and desirable – so long as they remain transparent to inspection, predictable to those they govern, and robust against manipulation. If my self-driving car is prepared to sacrifice my life in order to save multiple others, this principle should be made clear in advance together with its exact parameters. Society can then debate these, set a seal of approval (or not) on the results, and commence the next phase of iteration. I might or might not agree, but I can’t say I wasn’t warned."


Today's 1957 American English Usage Tip

backward(s). The adv. may be spelled either way with only rarely, and by the most careful writers, any difference in meaning. The OED suggests that -wards suggests manner as well as direction: To back out is to move backward out of a place without turning; In backhand the hand is turned backwards in making the stroke. Otherwise euphony is the guiding principle with some writers, who use the -s form before a vowel.


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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