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Communications of the ACM

Letters to the Editor

Contribute More Than Algorithmic Speculation


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Letters to the Editor

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Jacob Loveless et al.'s article "Online Algorithms in High-Frequency Trading" (Oct. 2013) is an example of potentially valuable research misdirected. Ask any proponent of free-enterprise economics to explain its merits, and you will likely hear two themes: Profit motivates, and profit accrues by producing and selling valuable goods and services. The first buys the producer a bigger piece of the pie; the second increases the total size of the pie, thus raising, at least on average, the economic status of all. It works, most of the time, quite well.

Unfortunately, there are also many ways to profit while producing grossly inadequate, zero, or even negative economic value. Some of us are drawn to such schemes, so much so they work much more diligently at them than at a productive enterprise. To the extent this happens, free enterprise is undermined. Like printing counterfeit money, it works only if a minority does it, and even then, at the expense of everyone else.

Among the most serious such non-value-producing profit schemes is speculating in zero-sum derivative markets that produce no economic value at all, managing only to shuffle cash between winners and losers. Millisecond trading is just an escalation in vying for money this way. Even in financial markets like common stocks, where the original purpose is investment, and that do contribute to producing value, trading at sub-second time intervals is pure speculation or worse, as genuine investors could collectively be net losers to speculators. Putting effort into developing and using more successful speculation strategies is like going to a potluck dinner but bringing no food, just a bigger plate, while pushing more aggressively toward the front of the line.

Online and one-pass algorithm research can surely be redirected toward value-producing applications (such as robotics) where they can do more than just seize profits at someone else's expense.

Rodney M. Bates, Strong City, KS

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Put Thrills In Everyday Products, Too

As a user experience (UX) researcher, I took note of Steve Benford et al.'s article "Uncomfortable User Experience" (Sept. 2013) on designing discomfort into users' experience with technology. I appreciated Benford et al.'s interest in the framework of Freytag's pyramid and their examples of physical experience (such as amusement park rides and breathing exercises) but was left with questions about applying these ideas to the commercial HCI, particularly the UX, realm.

I venture to say the majority of UX designers reading Communications design hardware or software, not just for entertainment but for educational and productivity purposes. In any domain, UX designers are always looking for new interaction methods on mobile devices, ways to "gamify" tasks, or unique interactions that make their brands more desirable, popular, and memorable. For me, Benford et al. started down an interesting new path but stopped short of defining a clear link between these tactics and the kind of HCI work most developers do, which is probably more cognitive than physical. Could these tactics work for us?

For example, Benford et al. reminded us of interface innovator Ben Shneiderman's guideline that the locus of control should remain with the user, suggesting "distorting this relationship" would only generate discomfort. Moreover, Benford et al.'s examples were physical: thrill ride, walking tour, performance audience member. But this would seem to have been the perfect place to explore possibilities in everyday software development. If in your next mobile app project you wanted to build in a "thrill" for user sociality or enlightenment, how would it work?

Benford et al. certainly inspired unconventional thinking, but I was left wanting acknowledgment there is a place for uncomfortable user experience in everyday products as well.

Elise Lind, Portland, OR

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Survival vs. Reflection in Education

Karen A. Frenkel's news story "CS Enrollments Rise... at the Expense of the Humanities?" (Dec. 2013) reminded me why the trend toward computer science does not diminish the value of a well-rounded education or the humanities in general, even as it identified two aspects of the humanities making them less desirable than computing and IT in today's academic environment:

Bias. The humanities have become politicized to the point they often seem intended to put the agendas of tenured faculty or intellectual movement ahead of students' interests. Such bias plagues all traditional academic disciplines but is disproportionate in the humanities. Moreover, there is often no objective, measurable, or quantifiable way to assess opinions, short of a professor's publishing history, while schools of thought splinter into factions; see, for example, literary criticism; and

Employment. Getting a job with just a degree in the humanities, even in teaching, is a challenge. I know; as an undergrad I studied comparative French and German literature. Granted, humanities graduates may write well and make persuasive arguments, but so do IT workers and programmers. I fault academic institutions more than students for ignoring the employment implications of their programs, including the skills the economy demands and employers pay for; my college did not, for example, offer accounting ... on ideological grounds. Humanities professors comfortable within their intellectual microcosms should reassess their role in today's academic climate and help their students learn the skills they need to create and survive, not just reflect.

Dimitri Darras, Sterling, VA

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Footnotes

Communications welcomes your opinion. To submit a Letter to the Editor, please limit yourself to 500 words or less, and send to letters@cacm.acm.org.


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