Galloping Gertie and the financial markets

Galloping Gertie collapsing due to aeroelastic flutter
Aeroelastic flutter bringing down Galloping Gertie

We are currently witnessing high volatility in financial markets around the world. The character of the volatility seems difficult to pin down and is, with a high degree of likelyhood different in nature than preceding financial disruptions.

Because we are not able to understand what is going on, our efforts at remedying the condition may well exacerbate it, without us knowing. Some actions will be right, some actions wrong and the combination of the two impossible to calculate at present.

Heavy debt and complex financial products such as derivatives aside, I wonder if one of the contributing factors in this debacle is the near frictionless transmission, commenting and retransmission of stories from the financial market. Some news organizations are keeping their heads cool, others seem to be publishing simple, highly affective messages that generate clicks.

With no daily respite from the markets, a higher degree of interconnectivity and some of the more frightening aspects of scale-free networks playing off each other to create a sudden Galloping Gertie effect.

Galloping Gertie, or the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge used a new and different kind of construction to build a lighter, cheaper suspension bridge that eventually succumbed to aeroelastic flutter. Happily, no lives were lost, but according to the Wikipedia article the failure

[…] also boosted research in the field of bridge aerodynamics/aeroelastics which have themselves influenced the designs of all the world’s great long-span bridges built since 1940.

The collapse showed the engineers that there were hitherto unknown forces at play, forces that were revealed by the collapse itself. In Max Boisot’s world, we might see the bridge as a sensor, one that is finally able to detect data types that have so far been invisible to us.

Othmar Ammann, a member of the Federal Works Agency Commission that investigated the collapse and a leading bridge designer in his own right later wrote

[…] the Tacoma Narrows bridge failure has given us invaluable information […] It has shown [that] every new structure which projects into new fields of magnitude involves new problems for the solution of which neither theory nor practical experience furnish an adequate guide. It is then that we must rely largely on judgement and if, as a result, errors or failures occur, we must accept them as a price for human progress (source)

I’m adopting Ammann’s analysis of this situation. We have combined complex financial instruments with frictionless information sharing and scale-free networks and are witnessing the effects. I hope we will discover what kind of aeroelastic flutter is at work this time.

A new view on feeds

For some time now, many have followed their friends and interests online. Since people tend to publish in different places, subscribing via an RSS feed at least allows us to not have to go to their website to watch/view/read their content, but many sources make for an unwieldy list.

Google Reader’s endless (continously loading) page makes it a bit easier to churn through all those newsfeeds. When you get to the bottom of the page, items are dynamically added to the list so you can keep on scrolling. Usability-wise, this tweak increases the users’ efficiency.

Even if you are using Google Reader or a similar tool, you’re still dealing with multiple silos of content. Chugging down to the bottom of one writer’s pile leads to no other reward than having to start digging through the next pile. In this respect, merging the different piles into one long list gives you a method for ignoring items of equal old age so you can pay attention to newer stuff.

Reverse chronology doesn’t lead to a “newer is better” way of thinking but it does affect interfaces. We do best what we do most often, so I’m not surprised to see the blogging, flickrer, tubing, twittering crowd of tool-makers bring reverse chronology into the tools and interfaces they make. Indeed, reverse chronology is becoming an interface paradigm in its own right.

If newsfeeds – which offer just one axis of navigation – are preferred format for chewing through the Daily Me things, timelines are a smart way to get an overview.

We didn’t have Twitter or Friendfeed in 2001, but we did have a prototype of Grasshopper. Later known as  Rememble, the service lets you share images, comments, text messages and more and places all of them on a timeline that you can easily navigate. You can then comment, label, edit and share any of those items.

Rememble at zoom level 1
Rememble showing a bird's eye view of posts
Rememble's timeline at medium zoom
Rememble showing individual items at a readable size
Rememble at zoom level 3
Rememble's timeline showing one single item

Rememble didn’t take off like Twitter did. It didn’t have a social network to begin with, but more importantly, I think we the users just weren’t ready for the idea that we should be sharing intentions and experiences with each other (and possibly strangers). Interestingly, though, Rememble offered much of the same functionality as Twitter and Twinkle in 2001 (as did the now-defunct Nokia Lifeblog) but framed itself as a mostly personal memory keeper. But I digress…

Timelines are an interesting way to visualize data, and are useful tools when we make them interactive. The Simile Timeline (see a demo at the original site) lets you explore a timeline on the macro and local level simultaneously. In my view, the dialog in the image below is the micro level, but unfortunately it’s hard to explore two items at the same time. The main benefit of this timeline is that its easy to spot what’s a/synchronous and easy to measure the distance between two events.

Simile's timeline exploration of the Kennedy assassination
The Simile Timeline, showing a minute-by-minute account of the Kennedy assassination

Yugop‘s interface for the MoMA exhibit entitled Design and the Elastic Mind combines splendid non-dynamic poster design with an overlay that shows which items have similarities or are somehow related to one another. Although IntenseDebate and other comment-enabled developers embed pointers to what a debater is saying elsewhere, there are no tools for easily surfacing relationships between entities, whether in a feed or a timeline. You have to dig, search and make your own situational knowledge tools to uncover them.

Dipity is, perhaps a new version of Rememble that takes a “yes, and” approach to the interface, offering timeline, list, flipbook (akin to a carousel/coverflow slideshow) and map views of items. As with every other social application on the planet, you can import your friends, link to your services, etc. but more interestingly you can follow (newspeak for “subscribe to posts from/on”) topics of interest to you, and view them as you prefer.

I’m still looking for a tool that visualizes relationships between entities. Imagine a timeline, list or any sort of representation that can be transformed to a relational view where a node’s network and the valence/strength/direction of ties, reader volume, link freshness/decay, etc are easy to spot and work with. If you’re aware of a tool that does this (well) please let me know.