Strange Vistas

Writing about movies, anime, books, and media

Book cover for Stories of your Life and Others

A lot of dystopian stories posit variations on a Mad Max world where marauders roam the wasteland. That’s a kind of change no one wants to see. I think those qualify as doom. What I mean by disruption is not the end of civilization, but the end of a particular way of life.

— Ted Chiang

You have got to squint to see Ted Chiang.

You could give me a random markdown file with a story, and I could tell if the writer was Peter Watts or Robert Heinlein or Vernor Vinge. As authors, they have distinct voices, styles, concerns that come through whether they are writing about the near-future or post-singularity, fantasy, or body horror. Most would take a few paragraphs – Iain M. Banks might take a chapter.

Not Chiang. The most impressive thing about Ted Chiang’s intricate collection of beautiful (and mostly) science fiction tales, Stories of Your Life and Others, is how muted Chiang himself is.

You can see the connecting tissue, mostly in the concerns, but Chiang is a writer who lets the characters and situations speak – you don’t hear him nearly as much.

It’s an eclectic collection of themes. Among them:

  • The Tower of Babylon, a scientific recounting of what it would be to attempt to pierce the heavens, see Yahweh;
  • 72 Letters, mixing magic with thermodynamics, using the Kabbalah as lexical genetics;
  • Hell is the absence of God, a smirking, chuckling story of speculative fiction (and the only one not science-bent) about what it would be like if Christian myth was literally, visibly real;
  • And of course Story of your Life, whose central conceit the movie Arrival has already spoiled, but which manages to convey its fascination with language and the shaping of reality.

They are filigreed little things, littered with minutia, much more solid than they first appear. Every story in this collection has a distinct voice – Chiang doesn’t have a single one. Nowhere is this more evident than on a “documentary transcript” about how we manipulate each other with beauty. Multiple talking heads bob in and out of the story, each one with their manner and concerns.

They all share a few traits, though. Mostly, the focus on getting back to science fiction roots, when the stories weren’t supposed to be about the gadget but about how the gadget changes us. It’s not just all business and sociology, though – Chiang manages to sneak in jokes about such varied things like histocompatibility genetics – but they are all about the social implications, how things changed because.

Plus, there is a brief afterword, with notes about where the stories came from. People always ask writers where do they get their ideas, but nobody wonders ever asks how for how long they had to work at getting them right. If the details on the stories themselves did not leave it clear, the afterword would cement the impression that Chiang takes a while to let things percolate and edit them so that they are just right. Or, more importantly, so that he is satisfied with them.

With this meticulous attention to detail, it is no surprise he has published only a handful of tales in the last 30 years. It was surprising, however, learning that even after Arrival he is still working as a technical writer. I shouldn't have, however, considering the respect for the craft his stories shows. While the rest of us expect the ideal gig and complain about how shitty our managers are, he just wants to produce something he is happy with, however long it takes. Even if it means holding up a day job.

#books #scifi #tedchiang #storyofyourlife #arrival

The Addams Family cast, 1991

I know what you think of me.

The snob.

The science fiction junkie.

The pedant who sits on film festival juries.

The guy who can’t write an article without somehow connecting it with social issues, his background, or both.

Got me figured out, huh?

Well, let me tell you, I adore The Addams Family.

It was delightfully, gloriously silly, unafraid to revel on its own absurdity, what when you could be both elegant and doltish. With relish. Without being stupid.

If that wasn’t enough, it is about family, and belonging, and fucking over everyone who doesn’t care about who you are. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, of all people, who was a good two decades ahead of our time in giving us Wag The Dog the perfect prescient representation of where we’ve been stuck for about two decades now, and...

No, wait. That was Barry Levinson. Sonnenfeld made... um... Men in Black, I guess. And Wild, Wild West.



It was funny. It was harebrained. It knew what it was doing and it did it with relish.

Commitment should be cherished.

#barrysonnenfeld #comedy #theaddamsfamily #rauljulia #angelicahuston #christopherlloyd #danhedaya #christinaricci #barrylevinson

A couple in a field of flowers, against a blue sky, the may pole ahead of them

There's a moment in Ari Aster's first movie, Hereditary, where I found myself standing up, arms lifted as if to signal someone to stop, frozen. A few seconds earlier I'd been on the couch, enjoying what was evidently a slow build up to something, unsure about where this was leading. Then something happened. The tension had escalated, like something pushing metal doors forward, first just slightly bulging them, then bending, then stretching. The scene picked up speed, and suddenly, the force behind the doors grew, contorting them forward, and they exploded and released whatever was behind them. It happened in an instant. I, as a viewer, knew. The characters did not, not right away. I, however, did not notice I had shot up, instinctively, arms slightly raised and hands half-open, maybe to warn them, nor that it took me a few seconds before I realized I was still standing up, staring at the relative calm, waiting for the people in the screen to figure out what had happened.

Ari Aster's movies get classified as horror, because there isn't a better category. They have terrifying moments – Hereditary's last stretch is nerve-wracking – but his aim during the movie is not to shock you. Instead, Aster wants to unsettle you.

Midsommar is Ari Aster does The Wicker Man, and that should be enough of a warning.

No, not whatever was going on with Nicholas Cage's unintentionally hilarious remake, but Robin Hardy's 1973 classic of old rituals and sexual hang-ups.

Aster is clear about the template his story will follow. Instead of Scotland, he sets his story of foreigners visiting a pagan commune in Sweden during the summer solstice. This means we get scenes of casual horror and violence, wreathed in flowers and dressed in white, gorgeously lit against the midnight sun.

The four students we meet at the start – two from anthropology, one from psychology, and a fool of a friend – all accept the invitation having no idea what to expect. We do. They sleep in a communal house, its walls covered in murals depicting the cult's traditions. There are embroidered tapestries hanging around with pictorial instructions for love spells. Everything is spelled out around them. Their willful blindness is as much to blame for what happens to them as the villagers.

Midsommar's setting might be different from Hereditary, its scope wider, but they have a shared DNA. Their pacing, slow; their development, gradual; their sound design, pulsating and sudden. It cements Aster's status as the King of Family Freakouts and Legacies of Lunacy.

Midsommar, though, is not as tight as Hereditary, and the slower pace gives you more time to process the events. This has an unexpected effect: what happens doesn't feel as horrifying. Still, the fact that as viewers we start to become inured to the events might be the entire point. If the behavior can start to feel normal – expected, even – across two hours, what would happen if you grew up in that community?

By the same account, though, I don't imagine Midsommar will have the same staying power as Hereditary. I still flinch when I remember the latter's turning point, the moment that caused me to shoot up. I expect I'll remember Midsommar and grimace, but that my jaw will remain unclenched.

Still, if you are looking for something different, something that scratches a mental scab you have left alone for a while, Midsommar will gladly do it for you, and won't stop until you taste iron.

#midsommar #hereditary #horror #ariaster #thewickerman #paganism

Furie movie poster

For a brief moment, the Vietnamese action-drama Furie promises to create something different: a criminal underbelly where vovinam-fighting women control crime syndicates while followed by faceless, ineffectual henchmen who only act as cannon fodder.

It mostly, sort of, delivers on that promise, but only in the most half-assed of fashions, while quickly defaulting to more standard setups.

Ngô Thanh Vân stars as Hai Phuong, who we meet in some village in the middle of nowhere, beating a guy with a brick for a $100 debt. The introduction establishes that she's tough, but not invincible (there's an assignment that she has to escape), nor heartless (she doesn't hit her quota for the day because she gives some people a chance). We also learn she doesn't do this out of greed, but to support her 10-year-old daughter Mai, barely, buying $0.10 worth of food at a time in the market to cook on their crumbling river-side shack. She tries to avoid unnecessary fights, hiding when a drunk comes by to scream at her instead of chopping him up for bait. She is mostly trying to keep to herself, ensuring her kid stays in school, focuses on her studies, and has more options than Hai Phuong ever did.

Until a day when, after she gets distracted at a local market, some people kidnap Mai and flee to Saigon.

This happens at exactly the 30-minute mark. It's the first sign that we have been #sydfielded once again. The movie will then follow her around Saigon, reaching out to old contacts (who can't help), tracking down the people who took her daughter. She learns that she is in a race against time, and has only hours before her kidnappers butcher Mai her organs (because of course she stumbles upon a massive, well-organized organ trafficking ring around 60 minutes in).

Using a known structure of well-established beats is not a problem in and of itself. The Invitation made it work. What matters, though, is what you do between the beats. And Furie doesn't do nearly enough.

While it adds some autochthonous flavor during its first 30 minutes, Furie quickly forgets about it. For the rest of its run, it is content with biding its time until the next beat, cramming whatever filler it can find on the gaps. Some of this works, like her attempt to reconnect with an old colleague at a club. However, most fall on the category of “add disposable family melodrama, so people are free to go pee before the climax.” It's not filler; it's background information!

It is the laziest portrayal of organ trafficking, by the way. The one where the kidnappers cram children into a train for transfer into some dismantling facility. Let's disregard the fact that you can't keep organs around on the freezer for later use like ground beef, nor sell them to the first rando who shows up as if we were all compatible. The movie already established in its first 30 minutes that kidnappers can move kids between cities just fine by using the public bus system. Why have an elaborate network to ship them around by train in bulk, which requires you to avoid authorities at every stop? Why not just use the public bus system, as they did earlier, or rent their own minibus and move them a few at a time?

Because you can't have a climatic showdown inside a minibus, dummy.

Fridge logic would be forgivable if the movie had stuck to its guns and remained centered on killer women, from Hai Phuong, to her boss in the village, to the various ladies managing otherwise shady enterprises in Saigon. But the movie introduces a handsome male cop, who initially seems just going to be an ineffectual foil. Instead, he keeps swooping in at the last minute, looking cool, acting as if he's saving the day. After Hai Phuong has already both done all the research and knocked out 99% of the opposition. And the movie plays this with a straight face.

Or it would be something you handwave if the action is spectacular. But while it has its moments, the camera is often too close to the players, and there are only two scenes where the choreography surprises you.

Furie was what it took for me to appreciate The Raid II's “more is more” excesses. Gareth Evans benefitted from directing a sequel to an already successful film, but both Raid movies brought a clear intent to surprise the viewer that Furie could have used. Instead, it's content with sticking to tired structures and being a lower-budget distaff Ajeossi, without any of Bin Won's charm or style.

#veronicango #levankiet #vietnam #furie #action

Poster for The Night Comes for Us

I'd love to see Timo Tjahjanto take a stab at directing a William Gibson adaptation. He'd need to learn some self-control, because it doesn't seem like he can go three minutes without something that shouldn't be near a body chopping into one, but he would be a fit for the sudden eruption of bloody violence that can come up in Gibson's earlier worlds.

The Night Comes for Us, his latest movie, feels like someone put The Passion of the Christ and The Man from Nowhere into a blender, leaned on the button until their bones mostly stopped crunching, then served it as a script smoothie.

It's a basic setup: Ito, a deadly triad enforcer who is supposed to leave nobody alive, takes pity on a girl after his team massacres the girl's entire village. He's not just any enforcer, but one of the feared Six Seas. The triad takes offense at his disobeying them, and sends the other five dreaded killers to follow him into Jakarta and start a cavalcade of carnage.

Indonesian action movies first broke into the West with Gareth Evans' sensational The Raid: Redemption. Not only The Raid was a hit on its own right, but Pete Travis' surprisingly enjoyable Dredd would later liberally borrow from it. The Raid also put Iko Uwais on the map, as well as (to a smaller degree) his co-star Joe Taslim. Both would end up having small parts as “that guy” on a few Hollywood action movies, before reuniting on The Night Comes for Us.

Their signature was the use of Pencak Silat, a hyperkinetic martial art which makes practitioners look as if Bruce Lee had gone on a meth binge and decided to modify Jeet Kune Do to cause as much damage as possible. Night brings it down to the shantytown dirt floor. Assassins efficiently use their signature tools – two wire-wielding women, combined with the urban grime and pervasive crime, were what triggered memories of Jonny watching Molly Mirrors fight on the Killing Floor – but thugs will charge in with cleavers and machetes and anything they have on hand. The defenders don't have the luxury of elegantly knocking one out before moving on to the next – it is an unrelenting wave of bodies coming at them, and they will use anything around them to stab and gouge as they try to survive.

The fights take place in cramped quarters – ramshackle apartments, crowded hallways, stairwells, inside a police truck. They are so full of combatants that even a warehouse seems confining and, filmed often without a single cut, feel improvised and brutal. I haven't seen a movie this obsessed with the specifics of how an individual can get mangled since Hacksaw Ridge (which, I swear, I'll get to around to writing about at some point).

There is no doubt that Tjahjanto is adept at mixing violence and style. His writing leaves a lot to be desired, with his plots brimming with clichés and action movie logic, such as a stylish assassin which shows to help because, I guess, we all wanted to see Julie Estelle again. He is also not consistently good – Headshot was a dull lump of a movie, at most a practice run for Night. When he gets things right, though, his grisly tableaus can make you forget you are watching a movie and generate a reaction closer to reflexive pain avoidance. He is brilliant at visceral butchery, but should look to collaborate with a better writer – I can only imagine what he'd do paired with an Alex Garland. For now, I'll settle for him bringing Stelle's Operator back for seconds.

#timotjahjanto #juliestelle #ikouwais #joetaslim #williamgibson #action #indonesia

Gerard Butler as a cop, leaning against a car

You lied to me, AVClub. You hinted that Den of Thieves might be decent, even though it starred Gerard Butler.

It's not.

It is, at best, a meathead version of Michael Mann's masterpiece Heat.

It seemed like it was going to be a hammy character-slash-actor-focused effort at the start – still a B-movie, but maybe the Re-Animator of cops and robbers movies. It then got into a flexing contest with itself, flew into a 'roid rage fit, floored the plot muscle car, and sped off leaving skid marks before it crashed into a cliche-filled mall of chest-pounding macho-posturing militarized-police aggrandizement. Its tone-deafness and brain-dead huffing-and-puffing might even end up making it a cult item for a particular group in this era, with its hero being a tough-guy cop who chokes information out of a black guy, in the very same sequence as a gay panic scene.

I'm not kidding.

It doesn't even have the decency of being a good bad movie. It's content with graduating from the Wild Things school of clever-characters-and-plot-twists, where the writer wants to surprise viewers but is incapable of placing a single clue that would surprise a stoned five-year-old on an Easter Egg hunt.

What does he do, then?

He keeps everyone in the dark throughout the story, only to explain what went down with flashbacks at the end. Surprise, motherfucker!

There go two hours of my life. On the bright side, I can take it as a warning to stay away from writer/director Christian Gudegast in the future.

#christiangudegast #gerardbutler #pabloschreiber

Birds of Prey poster

How in the name of Martha Wayne's pearls did this alcohol-drenched magenta-tinted Takashi Miike-reminiscent Johnnie To-on-speed glitter-bomb romp get greenlit, nevermind released?

It's even more surprising when you emerge from all its craziness and remember that Birds of Prey spawned out of David Ayer's Suicide Squad abortion.

Some background here: DC Comics saw what Marvel had, and coveted it. Since they had been doing dour affairs where Superman, a reminder of all that's good in humanity, snaps a guy's neck, they decided to double-down on the grime and meanness. Out comes Suicide Squad, a Dirty Half-Dozen of B-list comic book villains, written and directed by David Ayer, the Marylin Manson of macho movies.

One of said B-list villains was Harley Quinn, the crazy girlfriend of Batman's arch-nemesis The Joker. It became a breakthrough role for Margot Robbie, who had been a firecracker on The Wolf of Wall Street, and took the opportunity to turn the hyper up to 11 on her portrayal of Harley as a psychotic cheerleader. The movie sucked, she was a hit. Some Warner Bros. executive decided to make lemonade and signed Robbie on for a first-look deal. She chose a Suicide Squad spin-off as her first choice.

Cue facepalm. Why would she willingly go back to that tepid slime-covered rat-drowning well, now that she gets to work on whatever she wants?

Because she thought it would be fun if she got to do it her way, it looks like.

So we get Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, a movie about what happens after Harley Quinn breaks up with the Joker.

(Who, by the way, was not only the worst choice in a movie full of terrible decisions, but also the single worst portrayal of any comic book character. Ever. And that's counting Roger Corman's Fantastic Four movie, and whatever was going on in Joel Schumacher's Batman adaptations.)

Back on track. Harley breaks up with the Joker. Nobody knows. It behooves her to keep it that way, because Harley's long history of fucking with people means there are a lot of people who want to fuck right back with her, and fear of the Joker keeps them at bay. Tired of him always coming up in conversation, she makes a very public, fireworks-laden break-up statement.

Bunch of other stuff is going on in Gotham at the time, involving a psychotic mobster, a pick-pocket, a killer shooting criminals in the throat with a crossbow, and the people who get dragged into the whole mess.


Now, don't get me wrong. This is not the Unforgiven of comic book movies. It's still a DC movie, but ... it's good! Not in the Wonder WomanI have a message about empowerment and taking superheroes-as-a-symbol seriously” sense, but in the “let's have fun with this shit” sense.

Hell, pretty sure a good chunk of how entertaining it is comes from how much everyone involved seems to be enjoying it. McGregor definitely is, with his narcissistic Roman Sionis, as is Robbie, who gets to play banana to almost everyone else on board. You get the impression that everyone involved went “fuck it, they're never giving me another chance like this, I'm gonna go nuts”.

(Almost undoubtedly true for Rosie Perez, as she has three strikes against her – she's female, Latina, and over 30. She's having just as much fun with this as Robbie, if not more.)

(Sub-parenthetical: By the way, now David Ayer is saying he made a “soulful drama” which was “beaten into a comedy”. The man behind the cinematic abattoir refuse that is Sabotage was going for soulful. Maybe whomever beat Suicide Squad should have hit harder.)

Back to Birds of Prey, though.

I'm not going to say it's brilliant, or perfect. Still, the sole fact that it exists at all in this era of mass-market movies designed by executives dog-piling into a committee feels like an accomplishment. I don't expect we will get to see another coke-fueled bleached-hair short-short-wearing Majima Goro gender-swap leading a movie any time soon.

I have no idea what Margot Robbie is holding over Warner executives, but here's to her continuing to use it for funsies.

#birdsofprey #margotrobbie #ewanmcgregor #rosieperez #cathyyan #dccomics

Sebastian Stan and Margot Robbie in I, Tonya

My snark reflex was to dismiss I, Tonya as “baby’s first Scorsese”. A part of me still wants to make the whole piece about how much director Craig Gillespie cribs from the diminutive director’s style. It would be unfair to the sensational acting work, though.

There’s a chance y’all don’t know this story, as it happened before Instagram was a thing.

In January 1994, figure skating exploded onto the news everywhere. Someone had assaulted Nancy Kerrigan, a contestant, one day before the U.S. Figure Skating Championship, and tried to break her leg with a telescopic baton. Suspicion promptly fell on Tonya Harding, another contestant.

Now, when I describe it like that, it kind of sounds like a professional hit. The whole thing was a circus. The story is so bananas that I don’t want to be responsible for spoiling its insanity. It was so absurd; it became irresistible. Newspapers in places that had zero interest in figure skating, much less U.S.-specific events, kept publishing the latest developments, chronicling fuck-up after fuck-up. It was a time before always-on global news was a thing – CNN had just gotten its big break a few years earlier with the Gulf War. It lasted for months – it’s my first memory of the news cycle morphing into world-wide entertainment, a transition that would cement itself a few months later with the O.J. Simpson case.

(Oh god, can you imagine that happening now? The attackers would probably have streamed the entire thing on Twitch.)

Now there’s I, Tonya, almost three decades later, and it feels more like a goofy comedy than a recounting of events. Can’t say if Gillespie has a style of his own, but can’t argue that he chose the right one to ape for this. Still, never mind the films it cribs from – this is a movie of performances.

Allison Janey has fun with a showy part as LaVona, Harding’s asshole mother. Unfortunately for us, she isn’t in most of this, but probably for the best as far as the rest of the cast is concerned – otherwise, you’d remember nobody else but her.

Margot Robbie plays Harding as the perfect mix of physical grace and uncouth determination, a bundle of bad decisions with a drive to win, a go-getter attitude strapped to someone who started way behind the curve. You can still see Robbie in there, most of the time, but she’s good at hiding herself under a mask of spite-fueled resolve, at first, then a grimace of anger and resentment.

Sebastian Stan is a surprise – he disappears so thoroughly into the part of the useless white-trash husband LaVona refers only as “moustache,” that I didn’t recognize him at all. It’s not a “lose 100 pounds in a week” Christian Bale-style physical transformation. Stan sheds every bit of self-confidence and poise instead to vanish into the mild affectations of Jeff, an individual who knows his only distinguishing characteristic is his shave. Stan makes you feel both that Jeff tries to lift himself by associating with someone talented, and how he resents the fact that his crucial achievement in life was suckering someone with world-class skills into a co-dependent relationship.

Lots of resentment going around in this story, coming from whatever iota of self-awareness these people have.

Not Shawn Eckardt, though. Eckardt was Jeff’s friend, Tonya’s bodyguard, and a key individual in reaching out to the attackers. Eckardt is such an oblivious human caricature that I could not believe Paul Walter Hauser didn’t make up his portrayal to maximize the comedic effect. He is a guy who has forgotten he’s no longer on his basement conspiracy roleplaying game, who chose to cosplay full-time in real life. Kudos to Hauser for being able to play him with a straight face – most people couldn’t have managed.

All together, they managed to make me forget my initial pastiche impression and turn the movie into something that is half biopic and half sociological tragicomedy.

The most fascinating thing about the movie, though? The fact that it almost makes you feel sorry for Harding. It’s evident that many of her wounds are self-inflicted, but she is also competing in a system that judges not only her skill on the ice but also how closely she can pass for a prim finishing-school princess.

It’s worth recommending if you want to see some delightful acting, or to revel in the strangeness of the real. Life can be a gigantic clown car full of people who believe they are much smarter than their actions show them to be.

#itonya #margotrobbie #sebastianstan #allisonjaney #paulwalterhauser

Mel Gibson screaming

Mel Gibson has made some powerfully visceral movies as a director, from The Passion of the Christ to Apocalypto to Hacksaw Ridge (for which I still owe you a write up). His announced remake of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch is a perfect match for the filmmaker I didn't expect him to grow into.

As an actor, however, he has been on check-cashing auto-pilot mode for over a decade. He last made some effort to play a low-key homicide detective trying to find out what happened to his daughter in Martin Campbell's uneven Edge of Darkness in 2010. You'll need to look further back to find something in his filmography where he seems to be enjoying himself, though, and land in Brian Helgeland's Payback back in 1999.

(No, I still haven't seen Dragged Across Concrete. I should. S. Craig Zahler's Bone Tomahawk was a revelation, and his raw meanness would have been a better match for this movie, but I'm getting ahead of myself.)

With that in mind, I can't tell you why I ended up watching Blood Father. I needed something grimy and raspy and bourbon-soaked, I guess. It seemed to fit the bill. It had a decent cast. It was worth a shot.

The fact that it wasn't distributed or produced by Gibson's Icon production should have been a hint.

Gibson plays John Link, an alcoholic ex-con with a history of violence written in his face. When we first see him, at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, he looks like a former biker who got pickled in formaldehyde then left out in the sun for a couple of decades. He runs a tattoo parlor called Missing Link out of his trailer home, which looks more abandoned than parked in some California dustbowl. He is keeping himself clean and mostly sane, until his missing daughter Lydia shows up looking for help.

Which of course she does, because that's the main reason for having a movie dad who looks this much like someone you don't fuck with. Particularly when you are even more of a self-destructive dumb-ass than daddy, and compound things by going at it with a teenager's energy.

Things go to shit right away when drug dealers arrive and shoot his place up. Instead of waiting for the police, surrounded by a good dozen people who would vouch for his innocence, Link instead decides to flee the scene with Lydia, for reasons that aren't entirely clear other than otherwise there wouldn't be a movie.

The movie then putters about for another hour-something, with Gibson getting exactly one scene to go nuts in before it ends in a shoot-out that plays out the exact way you'd expect. It introduces some colorful characters and background bits that could have made this more interesting, if the director was bold enough about making an exploitation film, then does nothing with them. Michael Parks phones it in as yet another Preacher. Raoul Max Trujillo's promise as a Cartel Terminator goes to waste. Miguel Sandoval seems to be having fun for all of fifteen seconds. William H. Macy is barely there.

B movies are an honest craft, folks. If you're going to make one, don't treat it like something to be ashamed of.

The blame lies six parts on the script and half a dozen on the director. When the plot has laid all its cards on the table, the way things play out makes little sense. And as for the person guiding this whole thing, I'd even forgotten director Jean-François Richet's insipid remake of Assault on Precinct 13 existed. I expect Blood Father to soon suffer the same fate.

#bloodfather #melgibson #erinmoriarty #michaelparks #williamhmacy #raoulmaxtrujillo

2010 flash crash

On May 6, 2010, something went amiss in the United States stock market. Starting at 2:42 pm, prices on equity markets began to drop rapidly. Individuals, trading firms, pension funds all reacted panicky, selling into the crash, attempting to cut their losses, and within minutes, over a trillion dollars of value had vanished. Twenty minutes later, the market had bounced back – not to the levels it was half an hour earlier, but to a point where investors could stop thinking about impending doom.

Those with steady hands were barely affected. Some made money. Most active participants lost enough that it sparked conspiracy theories, academic research, congressional hearings, and several federal investigations.

Almost five years later, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission pinned it all on one man. It wasn't an over-leveraged hedge fund manager or a politically connected player doing insider trading, but a random guy trading out of his parents' house in London's edges. They argued that Navinder Sarao, using a home computer and a residential internet connection, created a maelstrom of panicked decisions that engulfed both professional fund managers and high-tech trading firms capable of taking bites out of the market in nanoseconds.

The crash will get its chapter, but, despite its title, Liam Vaughn's Flash Crash does not follow the event itself but Sarao.

The dubbed him The Hound of Hounslow. The picture that emerges through Flash Crash is not what you'd expect from the monicker. Nav Sarao is not the Wolf of Wall Street, some white-shoed Gordon Gecko-worshipping bro-suit, or table-pounding speechifying Boiler Room refugee.

Who he is, and why it's worth having 240 pages around the story of a guy clicking on a screen in a bedroom, I'll let you find out for yourself.

I'll say this: Nav sees systems.

He's not an engineer but a trader, someone who has to go to a programmer to create extensions to his usual platform. His e-mails are part of the public record, so we get to see the features he requested. These are straightforward rules, blindingly simple. He is asking for the financial equivalent of “for every step someone else takes, walk one step back” or “if I want to buy 12 items, and someone sells me just 1, cancel the other 11”. He intends to use these trivial rules to outsmart algorithms that make decisions in billionths of a second over connections that transfer information at the speed of light. If you didn't know you were reading a book about someone accused of causing the financial world to have a near-death experience, you would shake your head at their seeming naiveté.

He doesn't even mean these rules to be his trading heuristics – these features are only there to remove some clicks for him, help him interact faster with the markets. Nav is still in control of all decisions. It's almost impossible to see how these rules would help – even if you know a bit about finance and algorithms. The only way these would work is if Nav knew what multiple competing participants, who employed large teams of mathematicians and programmers, were doing behind the scenes.

And seemingly, he did.

Figuring out how a person like that processes reality, the possibilities of being capable of distilling a tangled process from the manifold of its signifiers, and how that can turn against him, will be what keeps you turning the pages.

#books #nonfiction #finance