Amazing video of simulated galaxy formation

Wired UK recently ran a very interesting article about moving mesh cosmology. In a recent simulation of galaxy formation, billions of points of mass slowly acreate to form stars and galaxies, continuing their cosmic dance for some 14 billion simulated years. The software used to create this marvel is called Arepo (created by Dr. Volker Springel) and utilizes Voronoi tesselation.

One end result is the truly stunning animation below (the animation covers a “mere” 9 billion years).

Raspbmc RC4 on Raspberry Pi

I installed the latest release candidate of Raspbmc (RC4) on my Raspberry Pi during the weekend and have been enjoying flawless video playback ever since.

Installation, as seems usual with the Raspberry Pi (and highly unusual for most Linux flavors), was a breeze. Just download the installer for your OS and follow the instructions on the site. The installer downloads a minimal OS image and writes it to the selected SD card. The next step is simply to insert the card into the Raspberry Pi and power it on. At which point it will proceed to download and install the rest of the system directly from a Raspbmc download server (the Pi obviously needs to be connected to the internet at this point). The most arduous part was making a cup of coffe to enjoy while this was going on (which took about 25 minutes).

Raspbmc in action (UI after startup).

This new RC is based on Raspbian and has support for floating point calculations in hardware. Even though video playback was ok in RC3, UI interaction would become sluggish while playing video. Thankfully this is no longer an issue. Assigning the Raspberry Pi to media center duty has the added benefit of no longer having to put up with the power guzzling and jet engine sound level of the Xbox360. In contrast the Raspberry Pi runs perfectly silent from a 5 volt generic cell phone charger (at 700 mA). Thinking for a while about where to place it I finally decided to just dump it into the cable mess behind the TV bench. It is so tiny it is hardly noticed there anyway (even cased). Interaction is via a wireless keyboard and mouse for the moment, although I might investigate the possibility of hooking it up to our remote. I highly recommend the Logitech Wireless Combo MK260 (check out this site for a list of verified peripherals).

In short, for those of you interested in a low-cost media center computer, choosing the Raspberry Pi is a no-brainer.

Quantifiable Insanity

I felt compelled to write this short piece following the most recent high frequency trading debacle at Knight Capital Group where $440 million flowed down the proverbial drain in less than one hour. I don’t think that automated trading should be banned outright but the volume of trades and the frequency at which stocks are now automatically traded is ridiculous. It seems to me that the diffentiating factor should be the acuity of the traders judgement, not whether you can get your orders in a few milliseconds faster than the next guy.

Consider the following statement:

“I believe in this company and its ability to generate profit and want to invest in it.”

Now try to apply this kind of sentiment to trades performed on a millisecond basis by hordes of autonomous agents. Agents programmed in advance with strategies for eeking out tiny profits from miniscule fluctuations in the markets, fluctuations they themselves stimulate. I would question your rationality if you came to the conclusion that this makes sense.

In a recent Wired article the weird and wonderful world of high frequency and low latency trading is covered in some detail. Even though the article is a bit sensationalist it still highlights the extremes to which these companies will go to get an edge.

In one of the more extreme examples we are told of quants seizing on the story of neutrinos possibly traveling faster than the speed of light. An experiment was being conducted as part of the OPERA experiment which is a collaboration between Cern in Switzerland and the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy. The only problem was the neutrinos sent from Cern were picked up at Gran Sasso an average of 60 nanoseconds too early. After seemingly exhausting all sources of possible error the researchers reached out to the scientific community for help validating or refuting their findings. Few in the scientific establishment believed that the results would hold up, while it is at least implied in the article that some enterprising quants ran the numbers to find out just how much of an edge this would give them if true.

Even though the above example may seem far out, the underlying motivations are very real. Plans exist for laying down dedicated fiber-optic cables straight between trading sites and exchanges (instead of meandering through towns and cities) as well as plans for laying down more optimally routed cables on the ocean floor for faster transcontinental connections (to name but a few). All this proposed investment for what?

The stock markets exist for a reason, to allow companies to raise capital. It puts money that would otherwise sit idle to good use and in so doing promotes economic growth. It keeps people employed and as money invested trickle down to individual employees it will eventually flow back into the wider economy. What part does high frequency trading play in this grand cycle?

It would seem to be time to seriously reevaluate why we invest and trade. We need to return to basics or at the very least take a significant step in that direction.

Curiosity has landed!

I have to say I’m impressed. When I first saw the landing procedure intended for the lander Curiosity headed for Gale crater on Mars I was a bit skeptical. The extremely complicated landing sequence employed for the Curiosity mission seemed like asking for trouble, given that Nasa has a bit of a spotty record when it comes to delivering hardware to Mars.

Curiosity lander.

The curiosity lander was to be lowered to the surface of mars on wires suspended from a delivery vehicle autonomously balancing on thrusters. Some may remember the Mars Climate Orbiter Metric vs. English unit mixup so a bit of scepticism didn’t seem to be misplaced. The more points of potential failure you add would seem to increase the odds of something unforeseen ruining the party.

As it turned out the landing went of without a hitch. Big kudos to everyone involved in this project who accomplished something truly amazing.