Saturday, May 31, 2014

Book review: "Flash Boys" by Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis, author of the acclaimed "Blind Side" and "Money Ball", recently published a book about high speed trading on Wall Street.  His new book is called "Flash Boys", and this is a review of it.  A very positive review of it.  Michael Lewis has done it again.

About ten years ago, at a party in Princeton, NJ, I (who am a computer programmer who was then teaching computer science at the Univ. of Penn.) had a long conversation with a young mathematician working on a high-speed trading platform for "a small company" in Princeton, NJ.  This young man was full of enthusiasm for his work--it was going to be wonderful (and I was thinking, it's going to make someone a ton of money--but not for people like me).  I listened with half an ear and an inner sense of disgust.

In "Flash Boys", there is described just such a group of high-speed trading software developers, in (of all places) Princeton, NJ at about the time I met this young man.  As with each of Lewis' previous books, which I have also read, this one is a tour de force.  If most of us already wondered, in regards to financial matters on Wall Street, whether the whole thing were not rigged against us, the average EveryMan, now we can be certain of it.  Because Lewis can tell the story in terms that lay people can understand.  And it is a story that, until recently, even supposed experts in financial matters were not necessarily sure of.

It didn't take long for me to develop a feel for the odd, and to me unfamiliar, lingo of the financial world: "the flow", "flash trades", "the hammer", "prop shops", and arbitrage, to name a few.  The appearance of "Boys" in the title is accurate: this is a world of men, testosterone, vicious competition, and high risk.  It is no longer a safe world for EveryMan's retirement investments, or at least, not unless people are willing to pay the hidden, unacknowledged "tax", or percentage of all trades being skimmed off by the high-speed traders on practically every transaction now occurring on stock markets.  The hidden tax does not benefit anyone, except the rarified owners, employees and partners of high-speed trading ventures.

And how do they do it?  This work of non-fiction unfolds like a detective story.  It is, perhaps, mainly the story of one small group of financial workers, sheltered within one Canadian bank, who set out to try and find out what was really happening, and eventually succeeded in uncovering (and explaining to Michael Lewis) how the hidden tax works, how it is inadvertently legal, and why the government regulators have no incentives to stop it (their career path, if they leave the government, is in fact to be hired by high-speed tradings).

The reviews of Lewis' book that I have read, including the New York Times Book Review, do not do this book justice.  If anything, they tend to dismiss the author as paranoid, or exaggerating, or mistaken.  His is "just an opinion".  What?  Not only does he provide names and dates for every nail he drives into this story, but it also dovetails with everything I had perceived over the years, having been acquainted in my profession with both telecom matters and financial programming salary incentives and the rumored drive for ever-increasing speed in trading platforms.  I don't detect anything of paranoia at all.  Nor even of the kind of rage and frustration that many of us of the EveryMan variety must feel towards Wall Street, which has abused the public trust far beyond the wildest expectations even of a sceptic like myself.

The most amazing thing is that Lewis has also managed to make the sobering and sorry tale into a gripping, and sometimes amusing, story.  That is his talent, to expose complex material to lay persons in that field and to bring not only understanding but compassion to the process.

Even if you are certain that you hate Wall Street and all matters financial, consider reading this excellent book.  It will further your understanding of how the world now works, even of how it has always worked, and you may find yourself amused along the way.  And you might just decide to manage your financial resources a little bit differently as a result.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Film Review: "Chef" with spoilers

Someone said it was fun, so I decided to see "Chef", with little prior information.  I can see why it could become popular, because there are some real pluses--it being, to some extent, a rather joyous romp celebrating common  human foibles, social media, high energy music, food as art and comfort, and an all-round likeable cast.

The good news was that the men in this film loved cooking.  That our chef looked like he was going to keel over from high cholesterol or die of a heart attack at any moment did not deter this lively fantasy of a film, or its hordes of athletic, sexy, thin eaters depicted as fanatically desiring these death-dealing cholesterol bombs.   No salads, oh no, not this film.  No vegetables.  Rich deserts abound, though.  Bar-b-que, whole dead pigs, marinated meat, dairy, and white bread, depicted as Latino comfort food.  Watching this film, the pack of aging, over-weight, middle-aged men of this world will feel hope that the babes will still go for them despite their paunches. 

The depicted world is plump with suggestions that are far removed from any reality I've even known.  All real chefs (and even their assistants) are males, young boys are technical wizards, it doesn't matter how overweight men become, women look good, don't gain weight, and love their men no matter what.  In my world, skewed in the other direction, only the women cook and get fat.  And the young men decidedly do NOT appreciate them for either.

As a purely escapist romp, it succeeds.  As a celebration of grossly unhealthy comfort food (that will kill you, but let's don't talk about that), it succeeds.  As something that will remain in my mind for longer than the ten minutes it takes to write the review, it fails.  It is what it is.   If you don't eat meat, are dieting, or value honesty about food, money or sex, or even if you're an intelligent female, be cautioned about what you'll find.

I have to hand it to this film, though.  It is remarkable in that: 1) No one dies.  2) No one gets sick.  3) No guns are depicted.  4) No one smokes (except once, in a bar), and 5) Nothing blows up.  It is by far less violent than the average film.  There are no explicit sex scenes.  So its overall enjoyability, despite my objections, goes up pretty high just by comparison to the average and disgusting amount of violence and explicit sex depicted in almost every film being made today.

Finally, Dustin Hoffman is in it!  And he plays a not-so-nice guy, to the hilt as always.  It's almost worth seeing just for Dustin.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Film review: "You Can Count on Me" (2000) with spoilers

I can't believe this film received so many good reviews.  Yes, the actors (Mark Ruffalo, Laura Linney, Matthew  Broderick, and Rory Culkin) are all easy on the eyes and do a good job of delivering the lines in the script and looking their parts.  The problem, IMO, is the awful script.  This review contains spoilers, so stop reading now unless you are willing to have parts of the plot revealed.

We've all been exposed to enough extreme pessisism of the "life's a bitch and then you die" variety without needing to see yet another film promulgating this view.  The film begins with a car wreck, is pervaded by grief surrounding these deaths that people never get over even many years later, and we are supposed to feel sorry for all these characters who smoke cigarettes, smoke pot, drink when stressed, lie to practically everyone, choose dreadful partners, and have sex wrecklessly.  Maybe people in their late teens or early twenties are this heedless, but these characters are now thirty-ish and are attempting to act as parents, god help the children in their midst.  Movies this pessimistic need to carry a warning label, such as "WARNING: Total Downer", just as any film in which a major character dies of cancer should have to carry a cancer warning.

I wanted to like the Larry Linney and Mark Ruffalo sister-and-brother duo, but their actions were too utterly stupid, self-defeating, destructive and idiotic to keep them sympathetic.  The Laura Linney "single mom" character lies to her boyfriend (who wants to marry her), carries residual anger at him because he didn't ask her to marry him a year ago, sleeps with her obnoxious boss who has a pregnant wife at home, and kicks her indigent brother out of the house for telling her son the truth about his deadbeat father.  Sorry, cannot like anything about this character.  And the brother is just as bad; he gets a woman pregnant while having zero income and has to borrow money from his sister to help the woman get an abortion, showing little remorse.

The brother's lack of remorse about the abortion nullifies the validity of the film's most powerful scene, when the brother brings his sister's son to meet his natural father, resulting in the natural father's utter rejection of the son and a fist-fight with the brother.  The brother's outrage over the father being a child- abandoning jerk is hypocritical, given that the brother walks away from his pregnant girlfriend with scarcely a glance back.

But then, lying hypocrits and eternal grief is what this film seems to be about.  I can't give it nearly as much praise as others, nor can I recommend it despite its charmingly cute cast.  Little needs to be said about the Matthew Broderick character (the mother's boss at the bank where she works, who cheats on his pregnant wife by screwing his female employee).  Just another lying bastard, like everyone else in this sad and hopeless filmscape.