Obligatory post

Herewith, a collection of links to articles that either helped shape or closely mirror the way I think about what happened a decade ago:

  • David Foster Wallace, “Just Asking“: “What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort? “
  • Jim Henley, “Proportion“: “What they really mean is not “remember,” but dwell. Obsess. Lingeringly finger the scab. And most of all, fall in line when assured that some grand policy, however wise or unwise, is put forth in the name of that day and the atrocities that marked it. Don’t listen to these people. You and I do not need their instruction in how to remember or honor our dead.”
  • Paul Bertorelli, “Yes to Commemoration, No to Commiseration“: “To me, the survival lesson we have to learn is resilience, to put the tiny risk of terrorism in perspective and to understand it is not nearly the inflated threat we imagine it to be. It has never and it does not now threaten the Republic. What most threatens is unreasonable fear, over reaction and a political class that capitalizes on both as a cudgel to gain votes or to raise an agency’s budget without restraint.”
  • Jesse Walker: “What Happens Next?“: Subheaded “Six options beyond peace and war,” this is one of the most eerily prescient items I’ve ever read in my life. “[T]here are at least six choices before us, each with its own subgenres and mutant variations. None is perfect, and one is actually insane. But each is worth examining, if only to understand what people actually mean when they call for war, peace, or some other path they can’t quite articulate.”

Are you sensing a theme? Then perhaps you’d like to read the ACLU’s new report on the loss of civil liberties in the past decade. It… isn’t pretty.

The view from up here

I saw an interesting thing last night. “Combat Hospital” — a Shaw Media-produced show about life at KAF in the middle part of the decade, with a multinational health care team at its centre — featured the death of a Canadian Forces officer. It made me think about Nichola Goddard (the analogy having been pounded home thanks to the presence of The Trews and their song about Captain Goddard and highway 401), but it also made me think about the last time I saw any military death on television that didn’t feature an American.

What I’ve been thinking about, though, is how this played out down south. “Combat Hospital” is, like I said, a Canadian production; Shaw owns it and produces it, and it’s filmed in Etobicoke. But it also runs on ABC. And as has been a trend over the past few years, it’s one of these shows produced by Canadians that explicitly features Canadians, or is set in Canada, yet it runs in the United States with absolutely pretentions of being anywhere or anything else. This is the “Rookie Blue”/”Flashpoint”/”The Bridge” phenomenon; “The Bridge” flopped because it was awful, but “Flashpoint” and “Rookie Blue” seem to be doing OK by whatever standards are used to judge television these days. (I watch exactly zero of these shows so I can’t even begin to comment on their quality or how their Canadian-ness is displayed or handled.) Still, you don’t have to be very old, or very sheltered from a media perspective, to remember a time where setting a show, destined for any market south of the border, in Canada was absurd. You just wouldn’t try it. I can’t think of a single time that was done up until a few years ago.

So it was nice to see, acknowledged on TV on both sides of the border, that people not carrying US passports get killed in Afghanistan, and it’s not all stars-and-stripes draped coffins and dead bodies coming home to Dover. The inclusion of The Trews was a nice touch (and one that thoroughly screwed me up) though I wonder how many people watching in the US really understood what it was talking about: that hundred-ish mile stretch of the 401 from CFB Trenton to the Forensic Institute in Toronto, and the bridge guards and the bizarre and yet uniquely Canadian thing that happened without any prompting or poking by anyone in any position of authority at all. I hesitate to call it sublime, but it might have been the most moving and perfect moment of dramatic TV I’ve seen in years. Not necessarily because of what it showed, but what it left out, what every Canadian knew would be next for this fictional officer — and I don’t know a single person in this country who doesn’t get hugely weepy when they think about what process.

Did American viewers get it? I dunno. But I also know I don’t care, because that scene wasn’t for them — it was for us, for the memory of our dead, in recognition of their sacrifices. The returning soldier is something of a cliche, but I think this was different, and more meaningful for the difference.

Cheer down

“Is everybody happy? I’ll soon change that!”

  • Globe and Mail: Truth, justice, and becoming un-American. “A series of tough new U.S. tax laws, designed to root out Americans hiding money offshore, is suddenly prompting many expatriates to consider the ultimate act of national repudiation – becoming un-American. In a move set for 2014, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service will require foreign financial institutions to identify all accounts held by Americans.” In Soviet Russia, state own you!
  • David Sirota, Salon: The New Let Them Eat Cake. “10 shocking, illuminating moments that prove just how out of touch the powerful really are.”
  • Julianne Hing, ColorLines: Raquel Nelson and the Aggressive Prosecution of Black Mothers. “After the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an article raising alarm about the dangers of jaywalking, instead of, say, the dangers that poor urban design pose to transit-dependent families, the solicitor general decided to prosecute Nelson for endangering her children. Earlier this month an all-white jury of middle class folks who admitted they had limited experience taking public transportation in the area found Nelson guilty of second-degree vehicular manslaughter and reckless endangerment.”
  • Fortune: What’s wrong with the airlines? “To say that the airports at San Francisco or Los Angeles are less squalid than Chicago is faint praise, for the difference is so slight that anyone passing hastily through would notice no real improvement. Almost all U.S. airports are utterly barren of things to do. The dirty little lunch counters are always choked with permanent sitters staring at their indigestible food; even a good cup of coffee is a thing unknown. The traveler consigned to hours of tedious waiting can only clear a spot on the floor and sit on his baggage and, while oversmoking, drearily contemplate his sins.” Guess the date on this article!
  • And finally, I listened to this podcast while watching the fourth and fifth innings of this game, at the same time as I was working out at the gym. Which might represent the single most depressing combination of things I’ve ever had to do in my life.

I’ll be back with more depressing news later. Need to refill my Prozac and Jack Daniels.

Getting back to normal

I’ve spent the past week and a bit in a stupor, trying to wrap my head around the triple-threat disaster unfolding in Japan. It’s grim stuff, the kind of thing that makes reasonably good backplot to any number of anime stories (seems like we’ve maybe been down this road before, no?), and the scale was just incomprehensible. There’s a not-insignificant part of me that wonders if the devastation here felt more surreal, and more awful, because of my connections to Japan and my love for the country; I’ve never been to, for instance, Haiti or New Zealand or Chile, so I can’t really comprehend the scale of the disaster that befell those countries. Nor could I really get a handle on the devastation following the Indonesian earthquake and subsequent tsunami — southeast Asia was too foreign for me. This might be something we could term “first-world disaster privilege,” as though we only really understand disasters when they happen to people who are sufficiently like us — but then, I don’t really get why the Christchurch earthquake didn’t inspire those feelings of dread and horror.

Continue reading “Getting back to normal”

Is this a news report or a trailer for a motion picture?

As I mentioned in the previous post, I was up in Port McNeill over the weekend and drove home after teaching this afternoon and evening. McNeill is a long way from everything; this was the furthest up I’d ever been on Vancouver Island and it’s probably about as far north as I’m going to go for a while, barring a sudden need to instruct in Port Hardy all of a sudden (which I don’t think is going to be forthcoming anytime soon). I’ve spent most of the last two months on the road, actually, living out of my suitcase and generally being totally disconnected from my life in Victoria. Last week was strange, in that I managed to spend five nights in my own bed — the first time that had happened since the new year.

One of the interesting things about this travel is that I don’t end up paying much attention to the news. It turns out that unless it’s showing up in my RSS feed while I’m away, I probably don’t know it’s happening — I just don’t feel compelled to put the news on anymore. There are probably a bunch of reasons why this is true, starting with the fact that nothing ever really seems to change, but suddenly my not knowing what’s going on in the world seems like a great weakness, and things seem to be happening with a breakneck pace.

Consider this: When I left for Port McNeill last week, Libya was still a relatively stable country. Now it’s on fire and people are dying, and the situation is changing by the minute. In the time it took to drive from Port McNeill to Campbell River, an earthquake leveled big chunks of Christchurch, and Benghazi airport was more or less rendered inoperable, with Libyan airspace closed and refusing incoming traffic. Ambassadors began to resign their posts. A government — well, okay, a dictator — is poised to fall. I’m almost afraid of going to sleep. Who the hell knows what the world is going to look like when I wake up?

This is always true, of course. It just seems more true now, and more pressing now.

There are moments where it feels like we’re living in some kind of hyperreality, a state that is familiar and yet totally novel. The first time I really noticed it was after STS-107: talking about a Space Shuttle that “broke up on re-entry” — it was like being inside a science fiction story, and yet there it was, more or less live on TV, and unavoidably real. The idea of revolution in the Middle East, regardless of how it started, seems to underlie a lot of fiction, particularly of the action-adventure type, and often of the action-adventure gaming type, and now here we are. I was reminded, on the long and lonely drive that gave me an awful lot of time to think, of the line from “Modern Warfare 2”: “First Makarov turned the US into his scapegoat. The next thing you know, there’s flames everywhere.” Nobody scapegoated the United States here. But damn if there aren’t flames everywhere. If you don’t like that analogy, you can pick the opening to the original “Modern Warfare” where the deposed president of some unnamed country is driven to the civic square and shot on television. It hasn’t happened. Yet. But you can see it coming. Hell, you almost half-expect credits to start rolling over some of the footage we’re seeing.

My colleague, with whom I was traveling tonight, said that it felt like watching the OJ chase all over again. I pointed out that OJ didn’t have access to an air force and wasn’t shelling cities. But he wasn’t entirely wrong. I know in my head that this is mostly media coverage, and that the 24-hour cycle coupled with the immediacy of the Internet and particularly RSS feeds and especially Twitter feeds means that events can appear to be way out of proportion and seem more significant than they are. And I know that the combination of the entire Middle East in flames (or on the brink of bursting into flames) with a particularly deadly earthquake in New Zealand doesn’t mean anything at all — it’s just a stupid coincidence. But if you wanted to design a backdrop to a particularly violent and horrifying kind of early 21st century war movie, this might not be far off from what you’d choose.

I don’t mean to make light of the suffering, or trot out that tired old meme about how we process the world through the framework of entertainment and diversion — really, I don’t. I think I’m trying to process, for myself, what it means to be watching all of this, and to figure out why it all feels so surreal, and yet is completely unsurprising. It’s a very weird feeling, and I’m not sure what to make of it.

See also: full text of the original grim meathook future thing, which seems more appropriate now than ever. And oh, by the way, we’re running out of helium.

As an aside, I learned tonight the true meaning of the term “get-home-itis.” I never got it before — could never really understand how somebody really really really had to get home, to the detriment of their own safety and potentially the safety of their family. Driving through a blinding snowstorm (yes, really) around Woss, I finally figured it out, and when I did, I was awfully grateful I wasn’t driving at that moment, or flying myself home, because I knew in my heart that I would have been making bad decisions because of the desire to get home. It has been a strange, revelatory kind of day.

For the win!

Times Colonist: Man tells how he found loaded M72 rocket launcher in bush next to highway. This story plays out exactly like you would expect it to — guy finds a loaded, live weapon discarded on the side of the Malahat (which raises a number of interesting questions in and of itself). It’s not so much funny as it is just weird, and maybe a little disconcerting; there are a bunch of very legitimate questions that need answering here.

Now, normally, one should not read comments on newspaper stories for the safety of one’s soul (and this goes double at the TC). But I couldn’t resist. I’m glad I did. Because one guy just won the entire Internet for the whole year:

wryguy
9:22 AM on October 29, 2010

Bruce Cockburn sought for questioning.

I… got nothing. I was going to put something witty here, but after that line by wryguy, there’s nothing else to say.

Weapons grade awesome

When Matt Taibbi is on his game, he’s probably one of the best journalists working anywhere today. And, holy hell, is he ever on his game. The conclusion to what is an awesome article about the Tea Party:

The bad news is that the Tea Party’s political outrage is being appropriated, with thanks, by the Goldmans and the BPs of the world. The good news, if you want to look at it that way, is that those interests mostly have us by the balls anyway, no matter who wins on Election Day.

WE R ALL XPRTS NOW

CBC: Don’t text 911

RCMP in British Columbia are warning people not to text message 911 in emergencies.

Sandy Vogstad, with the RCMP’s communication centre, said the province’s 911 system can’t deliver text messages.

“It is the system in general that there is no methodology available technically to push that text through the whole system,” Vogstad said.

Reading comments on CBC.ca is generally a waste of time, but these ones are especially precious — throngs of people arguing that the 911 system is broken, or backwards, or that there’s something wrong with the outfit because they don’t have a spare cell phone kicking around that can receive text messages. (We’ll tackle the mentality that would possess someone to send an SMS message to 911 in the first place some other time.) It’s a lot like reading dslreports.com or something about how the telecommunication companies are a bunch of incompetent idiots because Cat5 is really cheap from Future Shop, so how hard would it be to string more wire around for more bandwidth? Everyone’s a frigging expert on absolutely everything now, even people who don’t know anything.

I’m guessing that the folks who are arguing that 911 should accept SMS don’t realize there’s no such thing as a universal 911 access point. That dialing 911 from a cell phone routes to the cell’s (not the phone’s) default PSAP. That SMS contains no routing information other than a destination address. That GPS is somehow a panacea for finding people (it’s not — the limitations of GPS are poorly understood by people who do not normally use satellite navigation systems for actual navigation purposes that don’t involve staying on the road). That all you need to do is dial 911, shout “Help!” into the phone, and have the universe collapse in on you.

Of course, it doesn’t work like that. It never does, never has, and never will. That’s the perception, though, and I’m trying to puzzle through whose fault that is. The ubiquity of technology — the rapid proliferation of the various types of personal networking gear, and the friendliness of it all — is probably to blame here. But the reality of the telecommunications world is much, much different. Sure, RIM can run all the BlackBerries in the world through their servers. But what happens when those servers go down? They’re built to a fault-tolerance level that would make most people cry out in pain, but even they break, and the howling when they do is deafening.

Doing life-critical telecoms engineering — which is what 911 is — is staggeringly difficult, because it has to work. It’s not OK for the system to be up 99.999% of the time: it has to be up all of the time, and it has to fail gracefully and be workable even when it isn’t. You cannot do this with stuff you buy at Radio Shack, no matter how well this works for you in your day-to-day life.

“My X can do Y” is not a good thing to tell professional engineers and designers whose work is being held to a significantly higher standard than anything you have direct experience with. The amount of effort that goes into this stuff is remarkable, and it never ceases to amaze me that it works as well as it does.

A clean, well-lighted past

You must read this fabulous essay by Gabriel Winant at Salon:

The true, central catalyst of the war, which lent it its moral meaning — that is, slavery — was pushed out of mind. Even Northerners came to believe in the myth of the South’s noble, doomed “Lost Cause.” Human bondage, wrote former Confederate President Jefferson Davis, was “in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident.” Northerners proved willing enough to go along, and to transmute their past into an ennobling myth; there’s a reason that people in both regions, even now, try to deny what the war was about, or to say that slavery was going out on its own anyway, or that the Confederacy had black soldiers. “Gone With the Wind” and “Birth of a Nation,” which in one way or another dramatize this argument, were enormous national hits for just this reason as well. Reconciling white people meant writing out black people. White Americans looked at their black countrymen and said, in effect, “This is our story now, not yours.”

This is what’s just happened at the Mall. Nobody was in the wrong during the civil rights years; King was a happy saint in the American tradition, not a dangerous radical.

Winant goes on to connect this kind of historical revisionism to 9/11 and the manufactured controversy over the Park51 project. It’s a really interesting perspective — not something that would have immediately occurred to me independently. And I’m not entirely sure that he’s right (I am not informed enough about the history of the reconstruction and the social dynamics involved to be able to speak authoritatively on the subject). But in its broad strokes, his argument feels right, if only observationally: We don’t like to talk about the very real history of everyday discrimination and oppression that was a fact of life in that era — and we certainly don’t like to talk about the complicity of ordinary individuals in this whole sorry tale. What we will talk about are the most visible: those who had acts, and names, and deeds — like Bull Connor and James Earl Ray — that inexorably mark them as villains in the civil rights struggle, but we ignore the people who never got their names in the newspapers. They’re the approved bad guys. Everyone else just sort of fades away, and we can pretend — as Winant says — that the past was a time when everyone got along, and what we think of as the civil rights movement was simply an inevitability.

There’s a very interesting discussion about the way that 9/11 is being stripped of its significance, too: “The real meaning of the disaster on September 11 — the way violence begets violence and fanaticism begets fanaticism, the way geopolitical maneuvering makes victims of ordinary people — is all gone. In its place is the vacuous sanctimony that it the place is “hallowed,” but all that seems to mean is that it is not open to Muslims.” You would think that to properly venerate the victims of 9/11 (disclaimer: I am not one of them, nor do I have any real connection to the event beyond being shit-scared for a couple of weeks that year, which I don’t consider victimization at all, though apparently I’m coming to understand this may be a minority view), you might want to talk about these things — understand how geopolitics is played, how decisions made 20, 30, 40 years ago come back to haunt you, how the cycle of violence continues, unbroken to this day, and how this is a really shitty problem that isn’t going to get better anytime soon, unless we start making different choices for ourselves. The moral you’d think you’d want is that the people who were killed that day died so that we’d all have a better understanding of what this world is like, and so that we’d think hard about what we were doing, and thus choose to do something different.

But the morals we are actually taking away from 9/11 seem to be: that it’s important to blow up as many places in the Middle East as possible, that nothing bad ever happens from doing this sort of thing, that considering potential consequences when pondering an action is a sign of weakness, and that under no circumstances should anyone ever think that possibly there might have been a point to the whole thing. In short, we’re using 9/11 to reinforce ideas and beliefs that we held before the damned thing happened in the first place. It’s the whole epistemic closure thing all over again, just writ large. Based on this sort of logic, maybe what we need at Ground Zero is not a mosque, or a church, or anything else of the sort. We need a military base, preferably one with serious offensive power projection capabilities. Is Montana looking to get out of the missile silo business?

To be fair, everybody does this. It’s rare to encounter anyone who is willing to change their minds based on events or data, and thank goodness for those who are. If you thought that US foreign policy was too aggressive before 9/11, you probably saw the attacks as vindication for your views. If you thought the problem was that the Middle East hadn’t been turned into radioactive slag, well, the conclusions there are obvious too. But we aren’t even having this debate anymore — 9/11 Just Happened, and about the only thing that’s worth talking about anymore were the goddamned Muslims that carried it off. (Note, too, that we’re not even talking about the specific Muslims that did it! Everyone’s complicit!) And even that point got the volume turned down until a few months ago. So maybe it’s not surprising that we’re suddenly having this huge argument about the “mosque” “at” “Ground Zero”: we never finished having the argument we should have been having in the first place, and it feels kind of silly to pick it up now that there’s no point anymore. (The “blow shit up” side won the argument, we blew shit up, and uh, well, how’s that working out this week?)

We’ve just decided to not talk about it anymore. There’s an accepted narrative about what happened, and we’ve airbrushed out the gory details. Unfortunately, in doing so, we stripped the event of its power. This is understandable — nobody really wants to have to relive the emotions of that day — but it does mean we’ve lost something important about what went on back in September of 2001.

Hiroshima represents a great example of this in action. The museum there will work very hard to convince you that the nuclear bombing of the city was something that Just Happened, and I suppose to the victims it did. Although you’ll find some interesting discussion about how Hiroshima and Nagasaki were basically excuses to scare the Russians, you will not find any discussion at all about the savagery the Empire inflicted on its neighbors, the brutality of the War in the Pacific, and the very cold, very calculating decisions Truman and his advisers made in dropping the bomb. But any examination of the use of nuclear weapons needs to include that component; you simply can’t view their use in isolation. The point, however, is not to judge, to place blame, or to justify or defend the decision. Fred Clark, writing earlier this month, noted: “The least evil is still evil. The least monstrous is still monstrous. When, as will happen, you are yourself forced to choose between two bad things, then choose the lesser of the evils and choose it boldly. That will be the right choice and, if circumstances are truly as circumscribed as you believe them to be, that will be the right thing to do in that situation. But it still won’t be a good thing. It isn’t a good thing and cannot be made good.” You can’t score points off it, and shouldn’t try to. You just need to understand — so that maybe, just maybe, you can work towards a future where people don’t have to make the choice in the first place.

(I want to note two things, one relevant and one not: First, I’ve been reading a lot of Slacktivist and think everyone else should, too, because Mr. Clark has a brilliant writing style and a shockingly sharp mind. Second, Hiroshima might be an instructive example for 9/11, but for an entirely different reason — the idea of normality in the face of unspeakable horror and tragedy. Put another way, if — 50-some years later — teenagers can make out across from the Industrial Promotion Hall, in the face of something so symbolic, shouldn’t we be able to get past this other thing, too?)

Of course, the applicability of Hiroshima’s example to 9/11 isn’t perfect: there is actually an evil here, perpetrated by very specific people who had other options. The existence of that evil, however, should not blind us to the need to have the discussion about its origins in the first place. This wasn’t an ancient evil that some unsuspecting scientist let loose by accident — this was a man-made evil, and if we’re going to deal with it we need to understand it. I get this is not a popular sentiment, and I realize that The Talk is not going to happen anytime soon, if at all, and by mutual consent.

Here, too, Winant is perceptive. He ends his essay with a point that I suspect will be controversial, but isn’t really: “In the temples of Americana being built, the parts of our national past that don’t belong to the white, conservative population are being sacrificed.” He’s almost right; I’d say the correct construction is more along the lines of “in the temples of Americana being built today, the parts of the national past that don’t belong to the comfortable majority are being sacrificed.” It’s not exactly about race (except when it is); it’s more generalizable to the need of the comfortable to stay comfortable, and to never be challenged in their beliefs or confronted with unpleasant truths. You believe what you believe, and you’re never invited to consider the alternatives.

But then, as he says, this is nothing new.

Greetings, Professor Falken

I am suspending my “do not link to The Atlantic” policy to bring you this fascinating article — Market Data Firm Spots the Tracks of Bizarre Robot Traders, Alexis Madrigal’s discussion of something that starts out strange, and then gets even weirder:

The trading bots visualized in the stock charts in this story aren’t doing anything that could be construed to help the market. Unknown entities for unknown reasons are sending thousands of orders a second through the electronic stock exchanges with no intent to actually trade. Often, the buy or sell prices that they are offering are so far from the market price that there’s no way they’d ever be part of a trade. The bots sketch out odd patterns with their orders, leaving patterns in the data that are largely invisible to market participants.

In fact, it’s hard to figure out exactly what they’re up to or gauge their impact. Are they doing something illicit? If so, what? Or do the patterns emerge spontaneously, a kind of mechanical accident? If so, why? No matter what the answers to these questions turn out to be, we’re witnessing a market phenomenon that is not easily explained. And it’s really bizarre.

It’s thanks to Nanex, the data services firm, that we know what their handiwork looks like at all. In the aftermath of the May 6 “flash crash,” which saw the Dow plunge nearly 1,000 points in just a few minutes, the company spent weeks digging into their market recordings, replaying the day’s trades and trying to understand what happened. Most stock charts show, at best, detail down to the one-minute scale, but Nanex’s data shows much finer slices of time. The company’s software engineer Jeffrey Donovan stared and stared at the data. He began to think that he could see odd patterns emerge from the numbers. He had a hunch that if he plotted the action around a stock sequentially at the millisecond range, he’d find something. When he tried it, he was blown away by the pattern. He called it “The Knife.”

As they say, read the whole thing. And by “the whole thing,” I mean the comments too — uncharacteristically, the comments are a joy to read. There’s lots of reasonably intelligent speculation about what this might mean, informed discussion about whether this really does constitute emergent behavior (probably not, but it’s fun to think about anyway), and Conway’s Game of Life makes a cameo appearance. You can also find a fabulous comment that you’ll likely read twice before you realize the poster is full of baloney (you’ll know when you get there), but might represent a future that is incrementally closer to The Singularity. For fairly obvious reasons, it feels like there’s enough raw material here to build a really interesting SF story (and Robert Charles Wilson’s “Blind Lake” came immediately to mind.)

For me, the science-fictiony aspects of the algorithms’ behavior isn’t the really interesting part. Pulling the curtain back on high-frequency trading and low latency trading, and the ridiculous levels of automation in the stock market was the fascinating bit. We could almost call it “extreme trading” — a world where microseconds (!) matter, and where network latency and the speed of light can be all the difference. (Students of organizational theory will quickly realize that this kind of tight coupling and the intolerance to failure can have serious consequences. Nobody’s going to die, exactly, but do we really want tightly coupled, fault-intolerant, automated systems driving our financial markets? Do we get a choice in the matter?)

Reading far enough into the comments on Madrigal’s post eventually leads to this post at The Market Ticker about high-frequency trading, which will probably not make you feel very good about the people behind HFT. I don’t know whether Karl Denninger is right on this subject or not (he was sufficiently nutty in his former life that I might be inclined to take what he has to say with a big bag of road salt), but his arguments are persuasive, and if he’s right we’ve got another big structural problem on our hands. Poke around a bit in his archives, and this is a recurring theme for him:

But when the secondary markets become the plaything of computers trying to game each other with “Wargames-style” bid and offer manipulation (an unlawful activity), when the public good of price discovery becomes subsumed by millisecond-level computer activity designed and intended to skim off portions of the order flow by distorting that price-discovery mechanism, and when rampant insider-trading and other fraudulent activity gets to the point of being “in your face” and yet is ignored by the authorities that have allegedly made these acts unlawful, then the individual investor, who both has no access to these “technologies of theft” and in addition believes in the rule of law (and lacks the protection of having the employees of the government charged with enforcement all coming from their companies!) have no reason to continue “invest” in what they have (correctly) deduced is a rigged casino.

“Would you like to play a game of Global Stock Market Manipulation?” It’s worrying stuff.