Saturday, March 18, 2017

CHAOS MONKEYS

"Real life experience is instructive, but the tuition is high."

So says Antonio Garcia Martinez (AGM) at some point in this fascinating book about an engineering grad student who became a "pricing quant" at Goldman, Sachs. He was then lured to work for Adchemy, a startup able to raise funds but not land any customers. When this realization sank in, AGM and two colleagues cooked up AdGrok through a happy combination of their skills, experience, and the fermentation process detailed in this book as the Y Combinator "startup boot camp" (there is a helpful index).

The author pauses to reflect on what personal qualities it took to embark upon a startup. The ability to persevere with single-minded focus, especially to endure what we might euphemistically call the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. AGM has a saltier vernacular, acquired perhaps from years in a difficult family situation, in the all-boys Catholic school, amidst the penury of grad school in engineering, and on Wall Street's "most competitive trading floor during its biggest market catastrophe."

He heaps scorn therefore on those who have "ideas without implementation," the American immigration visa system, slimy lawyers, his bosses - singling one out for being the only decent person in the company and naming the vicious, the vacuous, and those with "more crossed allegiances and conflicts of interest than ..." The voice is distinctive if corrosive. He does go somewhat easy on his former partners (though the British Trader and the Israeli Psychologist will easily recognize themselves). Perhaps some good comes from "Catholic guilt and Hispanic [Cuban] chivalry."

The story aims to communicate some understanding of credit default swaps, basic marketing, and "how to bolt on a real-time ad exchange onto a social media platform." There is, alas, a lightweight feel to the explanation of financial derivatives, deadly when serious alternatives already exist. For an introduction to marketing, there are many textbookish and more or less entertaining accounts. One would take the pages devoted to the value of an ad exchange more seriously for after all Twitter did and paid AGM to advise on its venture. But it is very likely someone with inside knowledge of Amazon's A9 unit might have a more definite treatment of the process.

Nevertheless, AGM has written a very entertaining story. He has used many of the dark arts of novel writing, engaging hooks, building suspense, investing his characters with emotions - I would quote extracts except that my own sensibilities get in the way of such freedom of speech. Withall, this book is a testimony to the dictum that "truth is stranger than fiction."

Among all real life experiences, there are many that cannot be purchased, as they say, for love or money. Few of us will ever experience the "present at the creation" thrill or life-changing awe of deciphering a hitherto unknown language or the making or unmaking of decisions by star-crossed lovers or war-mongers. That is why we read--to extend the experience of our small lives beyond our time and space. Fiction and nonfiction both serve this purpose. One might prefer Gore Vidal's Burr to Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton, or not. Reading either will enrich your life, I assure you. For the same reason, read Chaos Monkeys.

Chaos Monkeys, website

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