High-Frequency Traders Push Closer To Light Speed With Cutting-Edge Cables

High-frequency traders are using an experimental type of cable to speed up their systems by billionths of a second, the latest move in a technological arms race to execute stock trades as quickly as possible. From a report:
The cable, called hollow-core fiber, is a next-generation version of the fiber-optic cable used to deliver broadband internet to homes and businesses. Made of glass, such cables carry data encoded as beams of light. But instead of being solid, hollow-core fiber is empty inside, with dozens of parallel, air-filled channels narrower than a human hair. Because light travels nearly 50% faster through air than glass, it takes about one-third less time to send data through hollow-core fiber than through the same length of standard fiber. The difference is often just a minuscule fraction of a second. But in high-frequency trading, that can make the difference between profits and losses. HFT firms use sophisticated algorithms and ultrafast data networks to execute rapid-fire trades in stocks, options and futures. Many are secretive about their trading strategies and technology.

Hollow-core fiber is the latest in a series of advances that fast traders have used to try to outrace their competition. A decade ago, a company called Spread Networks spent about $300 million to lay fiber-optic cable in a straight line from Chicago to New York, so traders could send data back and forth along the route in just 13 milliseconds, or thousandths of a second. Within a few years the link was superseded by microwave networks that reduced transmission times along the route to less than nine milliseconds. HFT firms have also used lasers to zip data between the data centers of the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq, and they have embedded their algorithms in superfast computer chips. Now, faced with the limits of physics and technology, traders are left fighting over nanoseconds. “The time increments of these improvements have gotten markedly smaller,” said Michael Persico, chief executive of Anova Financial Networks, a technology provider that runs communications networks used by HFT firms. High-frequency trading is controversial, with critics saying that some ultrafast strategies amount to an invisible tax on investors. Industry representatives say such criticism is unfounded.

Big Tech Continues Its Surge Ahead of the Rest of the Economy

While the rest of the U.S. economy languished earlier this year, the tech industry’s biggest companies seemed immune to the downturn, surging as the country worked, learned and shopped from home. From a report:

On Thursday, as the economy is showing signs of improvement, Amazon, Apple, Alphabet and Facebook reported profits that highlighted how a recovery may provide another catalyst to help them generate a level of wealth that hasn’t been seen in a single industry in generations. With an entrenched audience of users and the financial resources to press their leads in areas like cloud computing, e-commerce and digital advertising, the companies demonstrated again that economic malaise, upstart competitors and feisty antitrust regulators have had little impact on their bottom line. Combined, the four companies reported a quarterly net profit of $38 billion.

Amazon reported record sales, and an almost 200 percent rise in profits, as the pandemic accelerated the transition to online shopping. Despite a boycott of its advertising over the summer, Facebook had another blockbuster quarter. Alphabet’s record quarterly net profit was up 59 percent, as marketers plowed money into advertisements for Google search and YouTube. And Apple’s sales rose even though the pandemic forced it to push back the iPhone 12’s release to October, in the current quarter. On Tuesday, Microsoft, Amazon’s closest competitor in cloud computing, also reported its most profitable quarter, growing 30 percent from a year earlier. “The scene that’s playing out fundamentally is that these tech stalwarts are gaining more market share by the day,” said Dan Ives, managing director of equity research at Wedbush Securities. “It’s ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ for this group of tech companies and everyone else.”

Don’t Even Try Paying With Cash in China

“It’s hard for those of us who live outside of China to grasp how paying for everything has gone digital in the country,” writes the New York Times, introducing a Q&A with technology reporter Ray Zhong (who used to live in Beijing):

Most businesses there, from the fanciest hotels to roadside fruit stands, display a QR code — a type of bar code — that people scan with a smartphone camera to pay with China’s dominant digital payment apps, Alipay and WeChat. Paying by app is so much the norm that taxi drivers might curse at you for handing them cash…

Ray: Credit cards were never prevalent in China. The country skipped over a generation of finance and went straight to smartphone-based digital payments.

And the apps are simple for businesses. If a business can get a printout of a QR code, it can get paid by app. They don’t need special machines like businesses do to accept credit cards or many mobile payments like Apple Pay, which are essentially digital wallets of bank cards, while Alipay and WeChat are more pure digital payments… China has a stodgy, state-dominated banking system. These apps have allowed small businesses to connect to modern financial infrastructure easily.

I know paying with a credit card isn’t tremendously difficult, but making it a fraction easier to buy stuff has enabled different kinds of commerce. You probably wouldn’t buy something on Instagram for 50 cents with your credit card, but people in China buy digital books one chapter at a time.

What are the downsides?

Ray: Imagine if powerful tech companies like Google knew everything you’ve purchased in your entire life. That’s one. There are also concerns that Alipay and WeChat are so dominant that no one can compete with them.

Yet towards the end of the interview, the reporter concedes that Alipay and WeChat were “developed for China’s specific needs. I’m not convinced similar QR-code-based digital payment systems will catch on elsewhere. Maybe in India.”

The End of the Oil Age Is Upon Us

A new report suggests that over the next 30 years, at least 80% of the oil industry will be wiped out.

The oil industry is on the cusp of a process of almost total decimation that will begin over the next 30 years, and continue through to the next century. That’s the stark implication of a new forecast by a team of energy analysts led by a former US government energy advisor, seen exclusively by Motherboard. 2020, the forecast suggests, will go down in history as the final point-of-no-return for the global oil industry — a date to which we will look back and remember how the production of oil, as well as other fossil fuels like gas and coal, underwent a slow, but inexorable and largely irreversible decline.

Along the way, some 80 percent of the industry as we know it is going to be wiped out. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to be recognized as a principal trigger for this decline. The new era of oscillating social distancing rules and remote working has crushed once rocketing demand, at least temporarily. But in reality, the broad contours of this decline were already set in motion even before the pandemic hit. And the implications are stark: we are in the midst of a fundamental energy transition which will see the bulk of the fossil fuel industry gradually eclipsed in coming decades.

Gig Workers for Target’s Delivery App Hate Their Algorithmically-Determined Pay

In 2017 Target bought a same-day home-delivery company called Shipt for $550 million. Shipt now services half of Target’s stores, reports Motherboard, and employs more than 100,000 gig workers.

Unfortunately, they’re working for a company that “has a track record of censoring and retaliating against workers for asking basic questions about their working conditions or expressing dissent,” reports Motherboard. For example, an hour after tweeting about how there was now much more competition for assignments, one Seattle gig worker found their account suddenly “deactivated” — the equivalent of being fired — and also received an email saying they were no longer “eligible to reapply”.

“They stamp out resistance by flooding the market with new workers…” complained one Shipt worker, “and they’re actively monitoring all the social media groups. ”
On its official national Facebook group, known as the Shipt Shopper Lounge, which has more than 100,000 members, Shipt moderators selected by the company frequently censor and remove posts, turn off comments sections, and ban workers who speak out about their working conditions, according to screenshots, interviews, and other documentation provided to Motherboard. The same is true on local Facebook groups, which Shipt also monitors closely, according to workers. Motherboard spoke to seven current Shipt workers, each of whom described a culture of retaliation, fear, and censorship online…

Because Shipt classifies its workers as contractors, not employees, workers pay for all of their expenses — including gas, wear and tear on their cars, and accidents — out of pocket. They say the tips on large orders from Target, sometimes with hundreds of items, can be meager. Workers say Shipt customers often live in gated and upscale communities and that the app encourages workers to tack on gifts like thank you cards, hot cocoa, flowers, and balloons onto orders (paid for out of their own pocket) and to offer to walk customer’s dogs and take out their trash, as a courtesy. Shipt calls this kind of service “Bringing the Magic,” which can improve workers’ ratings from customers that factor into the algorithm that determines who gets offered the most lucrative orders…

Unfortunately, that new algorithm (which began rolling out last year) is opaque to the workers affected by it — though Gizmodo reported pay appears to be at least 28% lower. And Motherboard heard even higher estimates:
“Our best estimate is that payouts are now 30 percent less, and up to 50 percent on orders,” one Shipt worker in Kalamazoo with two years under her belt, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, told Motherboard. “I fluctuate between extreme anger and despair. It’s been three weeks since this has been implemented, and one of my good friends told me that she’s down the equivalent of a car payment.”

Another Shipt worker in Palm Springs, California provided Motherboard with receipts for a 181-item order that included six Snapple cases, five La Croix cases, and 12 packs of soda. They had to wheel three shopping carts out of a Ralph’s grocery store and deliver them — and earned $12.68 for the job. The customer did not tip. (Under the older, more transparent pay model, they would have earned $44.19.) “That’s a real slap in the face,” they told Motherboard.

Oceans Are Getting Louder, Posing Potential Threats to Marine Life

Slow-moving, hulking ships crisscross miles of ocean in a lawn mower pattern, wielding an array of 12 to 48 air guns blasting pressurized air repeatedly into the depths of the ocean.

The sound waves hit the sea floor, penetrating miles into it, and bounce back to the surface, where they are picked up by hydrophones. The acoustic patterns form a three-dimensional map of where oil and gas most likely lie.

The seismic air guns probably produce the loudest noise that humans use regularly underwater, and it is about to become far louder in the Atlantic. As part of the Trump administration’s plans to allow offshore drilling for gas and oil exploration, five companies are in the process of seeking permits to carry out seismic mapping with the air guns all along the Eastern Seaboard, from Central Florida to the Northeast, for the first time in three decades. The surveys haven’t started yet in the Atlantic, but now that the ban on offshore drilling has been lifted, companies can be granted access to explore regions along the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific.

Silicon Valley’s dirty secret: Using a shadow workforce of contract employees to drive profits

As the gig economy grows, the ratio of contract workers to regular employees in corporate America is shifting. Google, Facebook, Amazon, Uber and other Silicon Valley tech titans now employ thousands of contract workers to do a host of functions — anything from sales and writing code to managing teams and testing products. This year at Google, contract workers outnumbered direct employees for the first time in the company’s 20-year history.

It’s not only in Silicon Valley. The trend is on the rise as public companies look for ways to trim HR costs or hire in-demand skills in a tight labor market. The U.S. jobless rate dropped to 3.7 percent in September, the lowest since 1969, down from 3.9 percent in August, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Some 57.3 million Americans, or 36 percent of the workforce, are now freelancing, according to a 2017 report by Upwork. In San Mateo and Santa Clara counties alone, there are an estimated 39,000 workers who are contracted to tech companies, according to one estimate by University of California Santa Cruz researchers.

Spokespersons at Facebook and Alphabet declined to disclose the number of contract workers they employ. A spokesperson at Alphabet cited two main reasons for hiring contract or temporary workers. One reason is when the company doesn’t have or want to build out expertise in a particular area such as doctors, food service, customer support or shuttle bus drivers. Another reason is a need for temporary workers when there is a sudden spike in workload or to cover for an employee who is on leave.