Monday, August 31, 2015


Sextant: A Young Man's Daring Sea Voyage and the Men Who Mapped the World's Oceans
David Barrie (2014, William Morrow)

In 1973, David Barrie sailed from Maine to England aboard the thirty-five foot sloop Saecwen (Anglo-Saxon for 'sea queen'.) Along the way, Barrie, then nineteen, learned celestial navigation from the ship's owner, Colin McMullen, a retired Royal Navy captain. Today's satellite-aided navigation was a decade and more in the future, so, for three and a half weeks, the sun, moon, and stars were the only way they had of knowing where they were. 
The story of the crossing is full of small adventures, like trying not to get hit by larger vessels, and surfing before gale-force winds that threw up awe-inspiring waves. Excerpts from Barrie's journal also recall the small annoyances of life at sea: the tight quarters; the lack of exercise, fresh food, and sleep; and, sometimes, the boredom. Yet no two days were exactly alike: "People sometimes complain of the monotony of the sea, but it is, with the sky, the most changeful of all natural spectacles. Its surface, brushed by the wind, whether gently or with violence, presents patterns of of infinite variety, and its color too undergoes astonishing transformations, depending on factors like the time of day, the depth of water, and the weather."

The voyage of the Saecwen is the framework for a longer, larger story, of how heroic mariners of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries explored and mapped the Pacific Ocean. Captain Cook and Captain Bligh are familiar enough names, but to read about what they actually did, and lived through, is thrilling. Barrie also piques our interest in Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, who sailed around the world by way of the Falklands and Tahiti; George Vancouver, who mapped the northern Pacific areas that bear his name; Robert FitzRoy, who, in addition to captaining Charles Darwin's voyages on the Beagle, developed the use of the barometer as a weather prediction device; and many others.

The tools and methods these men used were being developed at the same time. The sextant reached its modern form in 1731, and a timepiece useable at sea was tested in the 1760s. In the North Atlantic, Barrie learns to fix the Saecwen's latitude by measuring how high the sun is at noon; if he also knows that it's half past two at Greenwich at that moment, he can establish her longitude as well. The first-generation chronometers were not reliable enough on their own to assist in mapping the Pacific – some mariners traveled with a dozen or more. Sextant readings of the angle between the moon and the sun or certain fixed stars (once predictive tables had been developed and published) also helped explorers fix crucial longitude readings for the islands of the Pacific.

Facility with the sextant has begun to decline in the age of the satellite; American naval officers don't learn celestial navigation unless they are specialists. Of course, electronic systems run the risk of all sorts of failures, from jamming equipment to sunspots, so it is probably a bad idea to be exclusively dependent on GPS. More than that, there's the grandeur of the thing: "When I recall learning how to handle a sextant all those years ago, I see myself, a transient speck of life, fixing my position on the surface of our small planet by taking the measure of vast, unimaginably distant suns whose lives are measured in billions of years. The chastening contrast between their calm majesty and my fretful pettiness was overwhelming."

Email publication, September 1 2015

Friday, July 31, 2015

Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County:

Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle
Kristen Green (2015, HarperCollins)

    In the fall of 1958, thousands of Virginia schoolchildren had a semester off from school, while the state's governor promulgated 'massive resistance' against Federal court orders for racial integration. Over the winter, the state backed down and reopened schools, admitting the first black students, but the following fall, Prince Edward County began the most massive resistance yet. Twenty-one schools, white and black, were shuttered in defiance of court-ordered integration. The shutdown would persist through four years, leaving some three thousand students without public schooling.

    For their own children, of course, the patriarchs of the county prepared a soft landing, in the form of Prince Edward Academy. Kristen Green is a second-generation product of the school, and a granddaughter of one of its founders. She was staggered to learn that the white citizens of Farmville had been thinking about a segregation academy since 1954, when the Supreme Court announced the decision in Brown v. Board of Education – a case in which the black high school students of Prince Edward County had been litigants, with the assistance of the Virginia NAACP.

    Green attended the academy, as her mother had before her; but only as an adult, after moving about the country and establishing a career in journalism, did she seek to investigate its origins. Her consciousness is sharpened by the fact that she is married to a brown-skinned man, and they have two daughters. Bringing the family back to Virginia to be closer to Green's parents and brothers meant questioning and confronting some beloved ghosts.

    But what, really, can they tell her? When she interviews one of the Academy's founders, he brags about using public school resources to get the new school off the ground. “We never did let the children miss a year.” He is thoroughly unreconstructed, with nothing, in his eyes, to apologize for. The other children, the children who missed four years of school or had to leave the county, are not his concern. Green's high school history teacher tells her, “I'm just so tired of this subject I could scream. I am tired of rehashing this thing. I just want to move on.”

    Green does not have much more luck with the black citizens she'd like to ask about those days. Many of them are gone, for one thing. Barbara Johns, who instigated the walkout that touched of Farmville's part of the Brown case, moved to her uncle's home in Montgomery, Alabama, to finish high school. The black woman who cooked and cleaned for Green's parents and grandparents sent her only daughter to live with relatives out of state, and the daughter never came back. Green observes, “The separation of children from their parents echoed the indignities of slavery and the irreparable harm done when the closest of relationships were suddenly severed.”

    Irreparable harm, indeed. Prince Edward County's literacy rate lags behind the rest of the state's down to this day. The academy now admits students of all races, but it still drains the public system of resources. Green shows us her own path from ignorance to awareness to a sort of painful guilt, but this is not work that she can do for anyone else, and in any case, guilt is not a fruitful end product. It doesn't do anybody any good unless it leads to greater awareness of what's going on today, and a greater willingness to think of all the children.

Published by email, August 1, 2015

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Flash Boys

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt
Michael Lewis (W. W. Norton & Company, 2015, 2014)

   My grandmother used to say that her favorite grandchild was whichever one she was looking at. I feel that way about Michael Lewis's books. They are generally great, and Flash Boys is amazing. It tells a story that could very easily have gone unreported, but which has undeniable implications for the whole financial world. (I'm being a tad hyperbolic: in footnotes, he mentions a couple of other books that I know I'll want to look for.)

   Flash Boys is structured around the story of Brad Katsuyama, a trader with the Royal Bank of Canada. His job was to take large institutional blocks of stock that a client wanted to trade and break them up so that they could meet the market at a fair price. In 2007, he noticed that the price information he saw on his computer screen wasn't stable enough to work with. As soon as he hit 'Buy', most of the offers at the price he was looking at disappeared, and he'd wind up paying more than he intended.

   Was it a problem with his hardware? No. With his software? No, again. It was with the markets themselves; and that plural noun is a telling detail. The New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq became public, for-profit corporations in 2005. “Once competition was introduced, the exchanges multiplied. By early 2008 there were thirteen different public exchanges, most of them in Northern New Jersey.” All this activity was mediated by computers, of course. Fiber optic cables carried signals at two-thirds the speed of light, and trades were executed in a few thousandths of a second, with no further human intervention.

   What Katsuyama, and Lewis, learned is that some traders ('high frequency traders', or HFT) were working so much faster than the official average price that showed up in RBC's offices that they could run ahead like the big bad wolf reaching Grandma's cottage. They'd find out about RBC's need for ten thousand shares of AnyCorp at forty dollars each by offering to sell one hundred shares at $39.99; within a fraction of a second, they could corner the market on any shares under $40.05 and sell them to RBC with a nice little premium of a few hundred dollars for themselves. When the HFT computers are in the same room in New Jersey as the exchange's computer, they can easily trade rings around a brokerage on Wall Street whose information is always fifteen thousandths of a second slow. And even if their margins are measured in a few pennies or dimes per hundred dollars, this adds up to billions of dollars a year.

   The proliferation of markets, including 'dark rooms' or private exchanges set up within brokerages, only encouraged this scalping. As the name implies, dark rooms operate under rules that are opaque to investors, and indeed to regulators. That would be fine if they were truly honest brokers, but the evidence is clear that they usually aren't. Worse yet, “[E]ven if the Wall Street bank resisted the temptation to trade for itself against its own customers, there was virtually no chance they resisted the temptation to sell access to the dark pool to high-frequency traders.”

   The people who helped Brad Katsuyama figure this out came up with a high-tech solution. They wired their computers to transmit orders to arrive at all the public exchanges at the exact same moment, depriving the scalpers of their time advantage. This system, dubbed 'Thor', put the RBC traders back in the position of making the trades that appeared to be on offer.

   In a meeting with an arm of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Katsuyama had a startling experience: an SEC staffer told him there was something wrong with his new system: “What you are doing is not fair to high-frequency traders. You're not letting them get out of the way.” In other words, Thor was forcing traders to honor bids that had not been offered in good faith. Another staffer, an older man, argued back: “If they don't want to be on the offer they shouldn't be there at all.” The SEC hardly ever argues like that in public, but clearly they were not going to take the lead in finding a solution to this problem, especially considering how many people move from the SEC into lucrative jobs with high frequency trading outfits.

   The game is well and truly rigged, and we hardly dare to know how much; the HFT business works in response to the last set of regulations, from 2007, but that's just the latest in a seemingly infinite series. Every new regulation makes new loopholes. In 2012, Katsuyama and his team had a radical idea: start their own exchange, with a simpler and more transparent structure. He left RBC and assembled a crew of people with expertise on all sides of the business. By the end of 2013, IEX was taking orders, and they are now processing about one per cent of the market.

    After reading Flash Boys, I can see why index funds are so much likelier to make money than actively managed funds – every single time a fund manager goes into the market, he's the prey. You can't win, you can't break even, and you can't get out of the game. Now, however, there is literally one honest broker out there. My individual trades weigh nothing, but I dare to hope that the people who run my IRA funds are getting fair prices on IEX. If not, why not?

Emailed July 1, 2015

Monday, June 1, 2015

H is for Hawk

H is for Hawk
Helen Macdonald (2014, Grove Press)

   A few months after her beloved father died, Helen Macdonald brought home a young goshawk. She let go of her graduate studies at Cambridge, and lived by herself, hand feeding the hawk raw meat. This is an odd thing to do, but not as strange for her as it would have been for most people: she had been interested in falconry since she was a small child, drawing birds obsessively and collecting the major literature on the subject by the age of eight.

   Macdonald is shadowing an experience she read about as a child. Terence White is best known for The Once and Future King, a book a certain kind of bookish kid used to fall into in the days before Harry Potter. Long, dense, and magical, the book also bears a strain of melancholy; the more we get to know White, the more we see why. In his late twenties, he trained a hawk he called Gos, and wrote a small classic about it called The Goshawk. What's remarkable about this is that he made a complete disaster of training Gos, and even at eight, Macdonald could sense this, and find it disturbing.

   She's actually well qualified to handle her new bird, having had other, smaller hawks and falcons, but a goshawk represents a special kind of challenge. They are somehow more ancient, more reptilian, more wild even than other birds men keep. “Half the time she seems as alien as a snake, a thing hammered of metal and scales and glass. But then I see ineffably birdlike things about her, familiar qualities that turn her into something lovable and close.” So lovable, in fact, that she calls her Mabel, “from amabilis, meaning lovable, or dear.”

   Her days, and the book, are filled with close observation of Mabel; and it's as if she can see the world around them through Mabel's eyes. On one of their first trips outside together: “Joggers! Like bats leaving their roost, their numbers build incrementally. ...By the time Mabel and I are halfway home it feels as if we're in a nature documentary about the Serengeti. They are everywhere.” She describes the countryside in acute detail; she's almost always hawking by herself, so she has to trot across woods and fields, and plunge into thorny hedges. The goshawk has no conception of property lines, and Macdonald doesn't always know where she'll come out.

   Since the major characters in H is for Hawk are two dead men and a wild animal, we spend a lot of time in the author's own head. There's an authorial sleight of hand, by which Macdonald describes herself losing her place in human society, almost to the point of losing language, in the most beautiful and precise language imaginable. Is she losing her mind, going feral, going mad with grief? She must have recovered enough to write the book in your hand, but you can't always see how that will occur. “Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.”

   But of course, people are not meant to be wild animals. Macdonald is in conversation with the dangerous example of White's attempted retreat from society; her criticism of him is seasoned with compassion. He had a frightened, lonely childhood, and was never free from sadistic urges that he would have been ashamed to put into practice. But Macdonald remembers in time that the bloodthirstiness of the goshawk is natural to the goshawk, and not to people. “Goshawks are things of death and blood and gore, but they are not excuses for atrocities. Their inhumanity is to be treasured because what they do has nothing to do with us at all.” 
   Macdonald has extraordinary control over this material. The descriptions of the natural world are beautiful, and I was surprised how much of it there was within fifty miles of Cambridge. She can cite sixteenth century falconers, and in the next breath see how her own bird gives them the lie. H is for Hawk is also a wonderful memorial to her father, who passed on a way of seeing the world that is to be treasured.

Any Good Books - June 2015

Friday, May 1, 2015

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

    Mary Norris's career at The New Yorker began with a lucky connection, but continued by dint of patience, perseverance, and talent. Between You & Me is Norris's cheerful memoir of three decades as a proofreader, fact checker, and copy editor. Some of what she's learned has to do with grammar and usage, but she also treats us to history lessons and field trips.

     Naturally, Norris encounters some marvelous writers, including John McPhee, the great natural history reporter. “When McPhee uses an unfamiliar word, you can be sure it's the only word for what he's trying to say, and he savors it, he rolls the syllables in his mouth as if words were food and he were licking his chops.” Then there are others, who go nameless: “There were writers who weren't very good and yet were impossible to improve, like figure skaters who hit all the technical marks but have a limited artistic appeal and sport unflattering costumes.”

     This being The New Yorker, even the proofreaders are legendary. Norris draws a memorable portrait of Eleanor Gould, grammarian and query proofreader. “Clarity was Eleanor's lodestar, Fowler's Modern English her bible, and by the time she was done with a proof the pencil lines on it looked like dreadlocks.” Right next door sat Lu Burke, who “patrolled the halls like a prison warden–you could almost see the ring of keys at her side–and she terrorized anyone new in the copy department.”

    These women schooled Norris in standard spelling and grammar, and in the quirks and shibboleths of The New Yorker's style. She has interesting things to say about hyphens and commas; she explains what a dangling participle is, and why it can't always be fixed.

     I have my quarrels with a few of her stances. Norris places overmuch confidence in the stylings of Strunk and White, though I suppose that is natural in E. B. White's old bailiwick. I don't quite trust her discussion of 'that' and 'which'; and I'm readier than she is to embrace 'they' as the pronoun when 'he' or 'she' can't be determined, for whatever reason. Her
review of the other nominees for that post, however, is extremely entertaining: “Shem and herm sound like Noah's offspring; ho, hom, hos, if they ever had a chance, would have succumbed to the 'ho' problem; se and hir are apparently used by an online group devoted to sexual bondage; ghach is Klingon.” Compared with these, is a simple 'their' really so offensive?

    But it is difference of opinion that makes horse-races, in the immortal words of Pudd'nhead Wilson, and a lively argument can be more fun than immutable authority. Norris does a challenging job well, and writes about it entertainingly. This is her first book, and I'm eager to see what she'll get up to next.

Email edition, May 2015