Flash Boys, Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana and the bias in the narrative

I just finished reading Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys. It seems like a nice book on financial markets and high frequency trading (HFT), and how HFT makes money. And as is the case with Lewis, the story is very well told.

However, having worked in HFT in the past, and having written a book on market design (which will be out next month), there was one thing about the book that left a massive sour taste – that it makes a value judgment.

Fairly early on in the book, Lewis makes it clear that HFT doesn’t actually add value to the market, and in fact extracts value. And from then on, HFT and hedge funds who practice it are the “bad guys” of the book, and Brad Katsuyama and the rest of the IEX guys are the “good guys”.

If this were to be considered a journalistic account, it would be horrible due to the fact that there is not even an attempt to present the view of the opposite side – of the real flash boys (people working on HFT), and how HFT might actually be beneficial. It also fails to document whatever might be the shortcomings of IEX.

As the Ramanand Sagar retelling of the Ramayana has showed us, when you reduce a story to a story of “good against evil”, the story is robbed of all nuance, and what you get is a rather simplistic version. Any facts in the story that run contrary to this simplistic version tend to be glossed over (or reduced in importance). And what the reader gets is a wholly one sided view which may not actually be correct.

HFT is so fascinating (apart from the money it makes for its practitioners) that there exists scope to write a great value-neutral book about it (and someone who writes as well as Lewis is very well placed to write that). It is thus disappointing that Lewis has eschewed that and has instead written what effectively looks like PR for IEX.

In any case, reading the book gave me one valuable piece of input. In my book (that will be out next month), I’m starting each chapter with a quote. And the quote to the introduction of the book has been supplied by Flash Boys. It goes, ‘”Liquidity” was one of those words Wall Street people threw around when they wanted the conversation to end, and for brains to go dead, and for all questioning to cease’.

Perhaps, the quote suffices to tell you all that is wrong with the book (Flash Boys)!

The Ramayana and the Mahabharata principles

An army of monkeys can’t win you a complex war like the Mahabharata. For that you need a clever charioteer.

A business development meeting didn’t go well. The potential client indicated his preference for a different kind of organisation to solve his problem. I was about to say “why would you go for an army of monkeys to solve this problem when you can.. ” but I couldn’t think of a clever end to the sentence. So I ended up not saying it.

Later on I was thinking of the line and good ways to end it. The mind went back to Hindu mythology. The Ramayana war was won with an army of monkeys, of course. The Mahabharata war was won with the support of a clever and skilled consultant (Krishna didn’t actually fight the war, did he?). “Why would you go for an army of monkeys to solve this problem when you can hire a studmax charioteer”, I phrased. Still doesn’t have that ring. But it’s a useful concept anyway.

Extending the analogy, the Ramayana was was different from the Mahabharata war. In the former, the enemy was a ten-headed demon who had abducted the hero’s wife. Despite what alternate retellings say, it was all mostly black and white. A simple war made complex with the special prowess of the enemy (ten heads, special weaponry, etc.). The army of monkeys proved decisive, and the war was won.

The Mahabharata war was, on the other hand, much more complex. Even mainstream retellings talk about the “shades of grey” in the war, and both sides had their share of pluses and minuses. The enemy here was a bunch of cousins, who had snatched away the protagonists’ kingdom. Special weaponry existed on both sides. Sheer brute force, however, wouldn’t do. The Mahabharata war couldn’t be won with an army of monkeys. Its complexity meant it needed was skilled strategic guidance, and a bit of cunning, which is what Krishna provided when he was hired by Arjuna ostensibly as a charioteer. Krishna’s entire army (highly trained and skilled, but footsoldiers mostly) fought on opposite side, but couldn’t influence the outcome.

So when the problem at hand is simple, and the only complexity is in size or volume or complexity of the enemy, you will do well to hire an army of monkeys. They’ll work best for you there. But when faced with a complex situation and complexity that goes well beyond the enemy’s prowess, you need a charioteer. So make the choice based on the kind of problem you are facing.

 

Poetry

I’ve never really got what the big deal about poetry is. I have friends on facebook and google+ who share bits and pieces of poetry that they like, and shag about it. And most of the time I never get why it’s so hifunda. Yes, I do like some poetry. Like I think Vikram Seth’s The Frog and The Nightingale (which appeared in our 10th standard textbook) is an absolute classic. I can still recite the few stanzas of The Highwayman which I had mugged up for an elocution competition in school. I don’t however, get “modern poetry”, the kind without any rhyme or rhythm. And so, faced with a deluge of such literature, I have been trying to figure out what the big deal about poetry is.

Think about the ancient classics and texts. Think about the Vedas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Iliad, the Odyssey. All of them written in verse. Think about the hundreds of thousands of Vedic schools spread all across India, some of them functional even today, where students did nothing but just mug up to recite the Vedas. Think about the ancient Indian oral tradition, which has managed to preserve the Vedas and our epics in something close to their original forms even today. Can you imagine mugging up all the words of a modern classic, and remembering it well enough to deliver verbatim to your students? I guess you can’t, and you don’t need to, for we have the luxury of writing, and written records. But what in those days in ancient India, where there was no paper? How have such long and magnificent texts survived our oral tradition across centuries? The answer is poetry.

Poetry is a concept that dates back to the times when there was no writing. It was a means to make it easy for someone to memorize a piece of text. By introducing concepts such as rhyme and rhythm, of allegories and metaphors, the poets would make it easy for the transmitters to remember the poems. I’m told (for I haven’t read them firsthand) that the Vedas also have several built-in checksums, to enable easy rememberance, in case a part of a verse gets lost in memory. By this insight, poetry is basically a means to render text in a format that makes it easy for you to remember stuff. That, truly, is the sheer beauty of poetry. An ancient concept designed to transmit, across generations. A concept that was essentially rendered redundant with the coming of writing, because of which it had to reinvent itself. And I’m not sure how successful that reinvention of the form has been (though given the number of people who claim to love poetry, I must say the reinvention has been rather successful).

Now, think of your school textbooks, any subject. And think about how many lines from the prose you can remember verbatim. Exactly as it was in the text. I would guess the answer would be something close to zero, which is the answer in my case. And now think about the poetry you read back in school, and how much of that you can remember. I would assume the number is rather higher. I may not remember complete poems, but I remember at least stanzas from several of the poems I studied back then. For example, I can recite verbatim several of the dohas written by Kabir and Abdurrahim Khankhana, which were part of our school syllabus as far back as when I was in 7th standard. Now think about it – how is it that I can remember entire lines, written in a language I was hardly comfortable with back then, in a dialect I hardly understood, almost twenty years later? It is down to sheer poetry! The rhymes and rhythms and allegories and puns which all make it so easy to remember!

So what is poetry? It is essentially a form of writing which is easy for the reader to memorize, and remember ages later in order to transmit. So what is good poetry? It is a piece of writing, written in a form that sticks in the reader’s head, which possesses him, to the extent that he remembers the words in their entirety, and not just the essence. The thing with great prose is that it enables the reader to easily grasp the idea it is trying to convey. With poetry, it is not just the idea that is to be conveyed, it’s also the expression. And how good a poem is depends on how successful it is in making the expression stick in the reader’s head.

In general, I must admit, I still don’t get ‘free verse’. I think it’s just prose written with lines broken in random places that the “poet” fancies. While they might have some nice puns or allegories, in most cases it is impossible to remember the exact words, for there is little that ties sentences, that creates checksums, that enables readers to remember the expressions. I still like simple good old poetry, though, but few people write that any more. I’ll leave you with a stanza from one of my favourite poems which I still remember:

Once upon a time a frog
croaked away in bingle bog
Every night from dusk to dawn
He croaked awn and awn and awn

Telling Known Stories

I’ve always been skeptical when people have told me that they are telling known stories in their play. Whenever someone tells me something like that, I start wondering what the big deal about it is. About why anyone would want to watch a play that tells a story that they already know. A story where everyone expects the next move that the actors make, the next thing the actors say. I wonder what thrill the actors get when they know that they are contributing little to the audience in terms of story value.

But then, after watching a mindblowing rendition of the Ramayana by kids of Navkis Educational Centre (I was there at the invitation of a friend whose cousin studies in the school and played a major role in the production) last weekend, I must confess that I had been wrong. I must admit that there does exist tremendous value in telling known stories. In fact, from a pure artistic perspective, it is preferable to tell a known story.

There are two parts to every production – the story and the way the story is told. And unless the story is something absolutely mindblowing, or has enough twists and turns and thrills to keep the viewers always on the edge of their seats, it is the latter part that makes or breaks a production. Yeah, of course you need a reasonable plot, a good storyline, but if you look at all the great movies, books or stage production, the best part has been the way that the stories have been told.

So when you are telling a known story, it gives you more scope to experiment in terms of the way that the story is told. You get more freedom to do your own thing, knowing fully well that the viewers know what is happening. You can twist and turn the dialogues, or even dispense with them (as the Navkis kids did). You can leave things unsaid, knowing that the audience will fill in the gaps. In short, you can just freak out with the production, in a way you never can if the audience doesn’t know the story.

Of course it is a double edged sword. Because you are not adding any value in terms of the story itself, the way you present the story can make or break the production. So unless you are confident that you are telling the story in a unique way, you risk tomatoes.

Another thing I was thinking about during the performance on Saturday was about the commercial viability of productions such as this. It was a truly amazing performance by the kids, and for a school play you don’t need commercial success. The thrill of being involved (and each one of the 500+ students of the school was involved in the production) is enough incentive for the players to do a good job. The question is about scalability, replicability and commercialization. I don’t have any answers yet. If you can think of something, let me know.