“Mind The Gap!” – The life and times of a man on the move Episode 20

An FX technologist finds comfort in pizza and a 2nd screen, Facebook’s hypocrisy exposed, a silly word gets my wrath, Max Headroom makes a comeback, and I impersonate Phileas Fogg.

In this weekly series, I look back on what stood out, what was bemusing, amusing and interesting during my weekly travels, interesting findings within the FX industry and interaction with an ever-shrinking big wide world. This is purely observational and for your enjoyment.

Monday: Treating employees well is the best investment a company can make

“Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success” – Henry Ford

This week, an interesting award was presented to brokerage technology and trading platform integration company Gold-i by a specialist recruitment company that sources professionals to work in the electronic trading technology industry.

Ordinarily, I would not concern myself with the cacophonous irrelevances that surround many award ceremonies in most industries, largely because in most cases they are at best bogus, and at worst a platform for the self-admiring to photograph themselves endlessly whilst clutching said generic plastic molding before entering hashtags and catchphrases that belong on the Big Brother after party blog rather than on business networks such as LinkedIn.

This award, however, deserves a special exception because it was met with genuine response by employees at Gold-i who agreed wholeheartedly with the selection and accreditation, and quite simply if you want to know how good a company is, ask its administration and technical support staff, not its marketing managers or senior executives. Quite simply, those without any vested interest.

On Monday, just a couple of days after the award was presented to Gold-i by Harrington Starr, which recruits personnel for investment banks, hedge funds, prop trading houses, exchanges, MTFs, market makers, brokerages and technology vendors, out came the remarks from employees who quite simply did not have to get so involved.

One that stood out was Darren Beardon, a Technical Support Engineer based at Gold-i’s head office in Guildford, Surrey, which is a medium-sized town just outside the southwestern suburbs of London.

Mr Beardon’s post says all that needs to be said about appreciating the little things that matter when it comes to keeping staff happy. Here it is:

Tuesday: What the heck is wrong with Mark Zuckerberg these days?

Without risking this being perceived as a two-dimensional rant, I think it is time somebody sounded off about the recent bizarre direction that is being taken by social media platforms, and in particular Facebook.

This Tuesday I spoke to some very good friends within technology providers in the FX industry to ask if my findings echoed theirs, and the answer was a unanimous yes.

Facebook, which is in absolutely no position to rest on its laurels or begin ‘picking off’ entire global business sectors, largely because it is rapidly becoming a legacy organization itself, has begun the permanent blocking of business-related pages across the world, with absolutely no explanation and no means of retrieval.

So zealous is this move that attempting to create new Facebook accounts under various email addresses and telephone numbers and then re-establishing a business related page under those new unrelated accounts is quickly spotted by Facebook’s Orwellian algorithm which then disables the page within seconds.

I put this to the test, and found that it is absolutely correct, and many of my colleagues in this industry are finding it a source of despair.

Not only did Facebook and Google both take the advice of the US authorities earlier this year and ban network advertising from OTC derivatives firms, yet allow offensive political pages and discriminatory troublemakers and rabble-rousers to continue to attract (and potentially influence) a massive audience via Facebook pages – you can at just one click of a keyboard find anything from misogyny to xenophobia, all with millions of viewers and various adverts plastered on them – yet somehow a totally above board global enterprise is not able to use Facebook.

Here is what happens:

Anyone creating a new page relating not just to financial technology or electronic trading but to many e-commerce business sectors, will be able to establish the page, and then just after completing all of the details on the entity that the page represents the algorithmic crawlers will check the information and then ask the page owner to submit a photograph of him or herself to Facebook, which comes with a disclaimer that the photograph is only for identification and security purposes and would not be published.

“Hmm, I think I’ll pretend to be a socialist and activist whilst living a capitalist lifestyle funded by capitalists. Yeh. That’s a good idea”…. probably.

A message then appears saying that the identification of the page owner must now be verified by Facebook, and an answer will be returned, however having researched this with an expert in this particular process in Mountain View, California which is Facebook’s home town, the reply I got was “It is a scam. They never reply to anyone, it is just a way of blocking access to pages that they do not want on their platform in a way that does not cause businesses to take to forums en masse to tell everyone that they are being blocked.”

I spoke to companies in the US, Britain and Australia on Tuesday and asked if they had experienced this, and many had.

Even worse, if you have a personal Facebook account and have kept it live ever since the beginning, which was over 12 years ago, with no problem, and then attempt to create a page on that, the same will happen, therefore making a clear point that this is nothing to do with ensuring the identity of the site owner – Facebook collates massive amounts of data about all of its users and is used by authorities around the world as a reference point, therefore they know everything there is to know about anyone who has had a Facebook account for any length of time.

One particular executive, himself a former CTO at a large stock exchange in the Southern Hemisphere, explained “It’s a weird direction that they’re taking when considering that they are almost considered legacy and should be doing everything to maintain sustainable readership and engagement by allowing businesses to use pages that will get lots of repeat views.”

He then said “we are having the same problems, however it looks like their share prices are too!”

Quite…..

Wednesday: A token call to Lake Superior State University

I have always had a great deal of time for the ponderous academia that takes place at Northern Michigan (or is it Southern Ontario?)’s Lake Superior State University.

Up there in the idyllic surroundings of Sault Ste Marie, Michigan (or Sault Ste Marie, Ontario for those partial to Kraft Dinner and maple syrup) a very amusing take on recent articulations takes place.

It is called the Banished Words List, and is issued every January, meaning that in just under two month’s time, the university will unveil the 44th annual list of the most overused, annoying, out of context, and extraneous utterances in popular conversation, documentation or media.

In 1971, Lake Superior State University Public Relations Director W.T. (Bill) Rabe realized that Lake State was still largely thought of as a branch of Michigan Technological University, if it was known at all.

To combat this image, he established the mythical Unicorn Hunters, along with events such as the annual Snowman Burning to welcome the first day of spring and, in 1976, the famous list of words. Here we are, 30 years after his retirement, and the banished words list is a consistent annual feature.

I have recently discovered a word – and i use that description loosely because it quite simply is not part of the English language – that belongs firmly in this year’s list, that being ‘tokenized’.

“Hello, is that Miele customer service? Can you tokenize my washing machine please?” Click… “Hello?”

This non-existent word is the darling of under-educated, over-confident populists who litter the internet with its odious presence on any media classification from advertisements to forums.

Thus far, this nonsensical attempt to appear leading edge or fashionable has not managed to make its way into any respected media such as the Financial Times or Bloomberg, but one wonders how long it can be fended off as each year’s 21-year old bearded media studies interns with their heads to one side and a hessian backpack in the shape of a guitar make their way to Southwark with a box of Central African peace beans in one hand and a MacBook on 12 months interest free hire purchase funded by the entitlement of a student loan that will never be repaid in the other.

So, to anyone tempted to use the completely fabricated word ‘tokenized’ to describe a non-product that may/may not/will never/was never intended to be funded by non-money before vanishing off the face of the earth, please stop it. It is an affront to everyone’s sensibilities.

Thursday: Max Headroom is back!

Back in the mid 1980s, Artificial Intelligence (AI), back then referred to largely as cybornetics, mainly because thirty years ago, scientists and mathematicians had never considered that a fully automated non-biological machine could be able to learn tasks and decipher thought processes without some degree of living matter attached to it, was the subject of either science fiction or derision.

Derision by mainstream comedians often came in the form of a stammering half-human, half-silicon cyborg whose circuitry would often malfunction, resulting in confused thought processes and varied articulation speed and accuracy.

One such example, familiar to anyone who has lived in the UK during the 1980s, is Max Headroom, a fictional artificial intelligence (AI) character, known for his wit and stuttering, distorted, electronically sampled voice. He was introduced in early 1984. The character was created by George Stone, Annabel Jankel, and Rocky Morton.

Max Headroom

Max Headroom was portrayed by Matt Frewer as “The World’s first computer-generated TV host”, although the computer-generated appearance was achieved with prosthetic make-up and hand-drawn backgrounds. Preparing the look for filming involved a four-and-a-half-hour session in make-up, which Frewer described as “gruelling” and “not fun”, likening it to “being on the inside of a giant tennis ball.

Oh how we laughed……

It is not funny anymore, however, because in 2018, Max Headroom is far from a subject of derisory interest that helped shoulder-pad-wearing power dressers of the 1980s to invest a false sense of security in their television presenting skills as they could never be replaced by a robot.

Today, Max Headroom is very much a reality, and the very first AI news reader took his/her/its slot on Thursday, in… yes, you’ve guessed it, China.

Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, has now got its very own non-organic presenter.

Xinhua News claims the presenter “can read texts as naturally as a professional news anchor”, though not everyone may agree. “Hello, you are watching English news programme,” says the English-speaking presenter at the start of his first report.

Sogou, a Chinese search engine, was involved in the system’s development, which is very clever on the part of the very censorship-happy Chinese Communist Party which owns all internet infrastructure and search engines in China, hence this is a mechanical brain that doesn’t even need to be washed.

“I will work tirelessly to keep you informed as texts will be typed into my system uninterrupted,” says the presenter in an introductory video. “I look forward to bringing you the brand new news experiences.”

There is also a Chinese-speaking version with a different face.

Xinhua says the presenters can “work” 24 hours a day on its website and social media channels, “reducing news production costs”. The agency points out that they may be particularly useful for disseminating breaking news reports in a timely manner.

An artificial intelligence (AI) system has been used to synthesise the presenters’ voices, lip movements and expressions. They are based on those of real Xinhua presenters. This is different from using a 3D digital model of a human. It appears that photo-like facial features have been applied to a body template and animated.

The presenter struggled to appear completely natural, said Michael Wooldridge at the University of Oxford. It was stuck somewhat in the “uncanny valley” – a term used to describe human-like robots and avatars which seem subtly unrealistic. “It’s quite difficult to watch for more than a few minutes. It’s very flat, very single-paced, it’s not got rhythm, pace or emphasis,” Professor Wooldridge told the BBC.

China’s Max Headroom – it is no longer a joke

In the closed world of state monitored Chinese media, this is gold for the government, however will the dulcet tones of Sir Trevor McDonald be replaced by a cyborg?

Think of it like this. In 1981, Hyundai Corporation, a vast commercial powerhouse that makes everything from heavy machinery to construction engineering equipment and provides every outsourced service from management consultancy to electronic engineering in computer science firms, began importing cars to Europe and North America.

How the journalists and reviewers laughed. The 1981 ‘Pony’ was met with smirking grins and laughter accompanied by the sarcasm of the palm of the hand repeatedly striking the table. “oh goodness me, what is that?!” they tittered.

“Rhymes with Pony & Trap” quipped one reviewer.

Hyundai now represents over 50% of all market share in every machinery and automotive market worldwide. It is quite simply not funny anymore, hence maybe those who laughed at Max Headroom may now grow to fear him.

Friday: Let the trip commence

After a few meetings with London-based institutional vendors on Friday morning, I began my preparation for what is about to be a three week series of fixtures.

This week in London, there will be some interesting news which I look forward to reporting, and will do so from the quiet carriage of one of Britain’s marvellous trains. Does anyone else think that, despite their age, British trains are the absolute best?

The service is outstanding, polite and courteous, and there is a refreshment trolley that now means no interruptions are required to walk to the catering carriage as they bring it to every passenger, combined with the serenity of the British countryside wafting past at 130mph whilst reliable internet and a nice large table facilitates the best and most scenic mobile office.

Following that, I will head to Australia to host the FinanceFeeds Sydney Cup FX Industry Networking event, which will host over 150 senior FX industry executives – I look forward to seeing you all there!

Heading back from Australia, I will spend 5 days in one of my favorite cities, Johannesburg, South Africa. Not only is it a super place, but the FX industry there has tremendous potential, and there will certainly be more that we can do to help all firms generate more good quality business in Africa’s most highly sophisticated city.

To those who will also make London their home this week, I wish you all a good journey and enjoy the global capital of all things to all people. It truly is the world’s epicenter.

Wishing you all a super week ahead!

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