The 2010 Flash Crash was a United States stock market crash on Thursday May 6, 2010 in which the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged about 1000 points (about 9%) only to recover those losses within minutes. It was the second largest point swing, 1,010.14 points, and the biggest one-day point decline, 998.5 points, on an intraday basis in Dow Jones Industrial Average history.
The Flash Crash was caused by human error.
The [official] report said that this was an unusually large position and that the computer algorithm the trader used to trade the position was set to “target an execution rate set to 9% of the trading volume calculated over the previous minute, but without regard to price or time”.
And that original error was magnified by a sequence of automated knock-on effects:
The New York Times [wrote]: “Automatic computerized traders on the stock market shut down as they detected the sharp rise in buying and selling.” As computerized high-frequency traders exited the stock market, the resulting lack of liquidity “…caused shares of some prominent companies like Procter & Gamble and Accenture to trade down as low as a penny or as high as $100,000.”
Remarkably, the problem self-corrected after a few minutes. But it was not an isolated incident:
The growth of computerized and high-frequency trading in commodities and currencies has coincided with a series of ‘flash crashes’ in those markets. The role of human market makers, who can match buyers and sellers and provide liquidity to the market, is now more and more played by computer programs. If those program traders pull back from the market, then big “buy” or “sell” orders can lead to sudden, big swings. It increases the probability of surprise distortions… In February 2011, the sugar market took a dive of 6% in just one second. On March 1, Cocoa-futures prices dropped 13% in less than a minute on the IntercontinentalExchange. Cocoa plunged $450 to a low of $3,217 a metric ton before rebounding quickly. The U.S. dollar tumbled against the yen on March 16, falling 5% in minutes, one of its biggest moves ever. According to a former cocoa trader: “The electronic platform is too fast; it doesn’t slow things down” like humans would.
We have so much data, and so many smart tools for managing and manipulating it. These are tools so smart that they work automatically, without human direction or intervention. It’s like when your hand touches the cooker: you pull it away before the pain message even reaches your brain, because your nerves respond automatically, much faster than your thoughts.
But with all this data, and all these smart tools – are we cutting ourselves out of the loop too fast?
An analogy from games: dozens of companies are running thousands of A/B tests on millions of data points to try to figure out how to optimise their products.
But even though examining the data might tell you what you’re doing wrong, it cannot tell you how to put it right.
An A/B test divides players into two groups: A is the control, the normal version. B is the test, the new version. For example – you could run an A/B test which changes the way a new type of archer in Age Of Empires is introduced to the player in a tutorial (is that game still going? classic!). The games guys run versions A and B alongside each other and compare the results – checking which group used the new archer type more, were more likely to return to the game the following day, or were more likely to do more of whatever else they were looking to improve.
But if A is what you have now – the current version – then what is B?
B must be defined, built, designed by humans.
It can’t be automated. So you have to invent it yourself.
Using big data and smart tools is an art as well as a science.
Age of Empires is still going! Info on the series can be found here.
All the quotes above are from the Wikipedia article on the 2010 Flash Crash. The best stories are the true ones.
For more posts like this, follow me on Twitter – I’m @toddmgreen – or sign up for posts by email:
I downloaded Digg (now an excellent RSS reader) and connected it to my ten favourite VC blogs. Now, online and offline (important in London since half my commute is on the tube), I have a constant stream of high-quality posts available on my phone.
Posts I read today:
Web vs. native apps for consumer startups
Sticking with struggling investments
Dealing with recruiting mistakes
Snapchat/no revenues debate
Why VCs in particular? Three reasons:
Connections: they know lots of entrepreneurs with new ideas
Incentivised to be open: their aim in blogging is partly to attract interesting new cos, so they have good reason to share what they know
Long-term perspective: unlike tech news (mostly ephemeral and therefore dull), VCs want to invest in ideas that have long-term relevance
So I’m finding Digg + VCs’ RSS feeds a great way to learn. It’s also an efficient way to discover new products, since they’re always plugging their portfolio companies. Combo bonus.
Sounds interesting? Here are the blog feeds, in alphabetical order:
My girlfriend Emma told me that sports photographers use cameras that take 11 photos per second.
(Carmen Basilio beats Tony DeMarco 1955)
That’s because everything happens in a split-second, and they don’t know exactly which will be right shot.
(Wladimir Klitschko – BOSH!)
So instead of taking one shot and hoping it works, they press the button and spread their bets. It’s a focused scattergun approach – you’re taking many shots, but you still need to be in the right place, press the button at the right time, and nail a really great shot.
(Bob Beamon breaks the long jump world record in 1968)
It’s hard to make something great. But if you roll the dice over and over again, you are loading them in your favour.
Over Christmas I watched a lot of episodes of Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World. It’s a fun rattle through famous earthly and not-so-earthly mysteries.
One of the most surprising things I learnt was that the Ancient Greeks made a computer. Yep, a computer!
In 1901, divers near the Greek island of Antikythera found what turned out to be a complicated mechanism for making astronomical calculations – so complicated, in fact, that nothing like it is known to have existed again until the 14th century.
The thing that interests me most about it is how people of the time might have reacted.
We’re surrounded today by technological wonders – being able to speak to my friends in Rwanda via Skype video always amazes me, never mind being able to go into space or fit millions (billions?) of transistors onto a tiny microchip.
So think how mind-blowing it must have been to see something like the Antikythera machine in action over 2,000 years ago!
Maybe God is great
In 2006 I was living in Germany. In Cologne, where I was based, there is a gigantic cathedral. Construction began in 1248 and although for some reason it wasn’t deemed to have been officially finished until 1840, I expect that it has made quite an impression on everyone who has seen it ever since the very beginning.
It is an imposing, ominous-looking building that towers over everything else in the city. Even today, for someone fairly used to being among skyscrapers, it is remarkable. But imagine seeing this in the Middle Ages when your house and most of the other buildings around were wooden huts, and even the greatest rulers had little more than a castle! Definitely enough to make you believe that there might be something in all this God stuff.
I’m going to keep an eye out for info on how people of the time responded to things like the Antikythera machine and the Cologne Cathedral. There might be an interesting comparison between their reactions and ours.
Recently I was writing up a post on studying the history of our time, and how different it would be to when I studied History at university. It struck me that one of the most interesting changes would be that students will be able to access lots of materials in foreign languages.
Clearly, non-book materials will be much more important, and video especially. Google Translate on the web does a passable (but improving) job of translating text. But the idea of studying using foreign-language video got me thinking – wouldn’t it be cool if you combined Google Translate with Siri to make something that would translate speech on the fly?
I wonder whether we will end up owning more and more things, much smaller than this clock, that outlast us.
If you’re not already pretty old, then your home is the only thing you own that you know will outlast you. Everything else is likely to break or decay.
But in future, more durable materials might extend the lives of clothes, furniture, crockery, or cars. When those things are likely to outlive us – not just by a little or by accident, but by decades or more – perhaps we will we see them differently.
The creeping awareness that whatever digital records we create could theoretically live on forever makes some of us more careful about what we type, post, or share.
If we know that, unless we wilfully destroy them, our many household items will long outlast us, would we value them more and look after them better than we do now?
Or would we treat our near-indestructible possessions with abandon, and not worry too much about the faceless masses to whom we are ancestors?
It’s impossible to generalise – different people would act differently.
But if the things we own start to live longer and longer, our relationship with them is likely to change.