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Million Dollar Microsecond

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Picture the scrum of the stock exchange -- the flurry of buying and selling, the split-second decisions that make and break fortunes. Then take out all the humans and accelerate everything until you literally can't keep up. Jad visits the inhumanly fast world of modern-day, high-speed trading with NPR's David Kestenbaum.


Mike Beller, Eric Hunsader, David Kestenbaum, Larry Tabb and Andrew Zolli

Comments [26]

Barry T.Mendelsohn from Ashburn, VA

1) While posting this comment. I noticed that previous comments date back as far as 2013, suggesting Radio Lab is recycling old material and presenting it as new information. Am I missing something?

2) Why hasn't NYNX (or perhaps a regulating agency if industry fails to act on its own) put an end to traders devoting huge resources to get a speed edge by dividing a trading day's time into discrete minute intervals (say 5 milliseconds, for instance) and using a random number generator to schedule the order of precedence for each trade order received in each discrete interval? That would take away the advantage of having the fastest of the fast link to the exchange's server.. Done properly it could even level the ability of the average American to compete for a trade with a multi-billion dollar corporate entity.

3) Changing subjects, capitalists whose investments go directly to a company that uses the investment to build its business are important to the growth of the nation's economy. I can see where the risk those investors make warrant the encouragement of lower taxes on any profits from said investments, i.e., paying a smaller capital gains income tax on sale of shares of that stock. But what is the rational for the lower capital gains tax for investors whose money is not given to a corporation for plowing into its business but merely goes to trade with another investor? I presume there is some justification for giving the same capital gains benefits to both types of investment, but I don't know what it is.

Feb. 04 2018 03:10 PM
Brian from Seattle

I was shocked to hear on this podcast that people were considering transferring light signal over open air from New York City to Chicago. This is known as free space optics (FSO). Back in the early 2000's, I worked for a high flying, very well-funded startup company that was working in FSO technology. The technology was very expensive and challenging. The company eventually folded, (actually, was purchased for cash less liabilities, and then folded). After burning through $400M, they had no intellectual property that anyone was willing to pay for.

There are challenges with FSO. The company I worked for tried to set up a test network in Chicago. The laser, or light, could not cut through the fog unless you put a very, very expensive laser amplifier on the equipment. Even then, it was not reliable.

They also tried to set up a test network in Phoenix. The challenge there was that the light would bend due to refraction when heat rose off of hot surfaces.

Furthermore, this technology is line of sight technology and has a range of, at most, 2 miles on a clear, temperate day. The distance from NYC to Chicago is 713 air miles (would need to add a little more due to Lake Erie). So that would require at least 360 FSO equipment all operating reliably.

I imagine the technology can, and has been, improved since the early 2000s, but most likely not enough to overcome these challenges.

Furthermore, I had never heard that light passing through open air is faster than fiber optic cables. My understanding is that light travels quickest in a vacuum. It seems to me you would want to build cables with a vacuum - as these researchers have done... ( In my opinion, FSO won't work.

P.S. I am not in a science related field, so go easy on me if I am wrong about the science of FSO.

Dec. 11 2016 10:38 PM
Liz from Olympia, WA

The discussion of "high frequency trading" was very interesting, but the tacit approval of it and the phantom financial economy was VERY disappointing.

It is too bad you didn't have David Korten or Michael Hudson as guests as well, to discuss how damaging the-casino-called-Wall-Street has been to the real economy, and how it primarily serves the richest. Elizabeth Warren or William Black would also have served as good representatives of "The Small People."

NPR has, in some ways, become the epitome of the Democratic Party, serving the interests of the wealthiest, the most educated, and identity politics, and abandoning the working and middle classes. You do know that 48% of the people in the U.S. don't own any stocks, don't you?

Dec. 10 2016 07:54 PM
John Lewis III from Virginia

Radio Lab,

Why would you air an inconclusive, outdated story about the "flash crash" without mentioning Navinder Singh Sarao, who is responsible for the stock price manipulation precipitating this event?

Dec. 10 2016 01:57 PM
homebuilding from central usa

Just for fun:

--average human walking speed around 3-4 mph
--maximum human walking speed (where it becomes a jog)5 mph
--maximum ordinary running speed of human 15 mph
--average qualifying speed for Olympic qualifying 100 meter dash female 19.8 mph
--average qualifying speed for Olympic qualifying 100 meter dash male 21.96 mph
(above 2 items involve a static start, of course--so the actual speeds attained are greater)
--maximum horse speed for a race just under 44 mph
--ordinary high speed gallop for a horse 30 mph
--functional maximum for an especially young and fit horse 40 mph
--absolute maximum short sprint speed for a horse 50 mph

Dec. 10 2016 11:55 AM
homebuilding from central usa

Thank you for this exposure.

REACTION TIME is a really big deal for safe driving--for safe walking, etc.

However, it does not receive the attention it deserves. In the medical field, the various laboratory values on rarely, if ever, test this in the United States. Not so in many other countries. Australia, notably at the U of New South Wales, study of reaction times, particularly in the elderly receive a great deal of attention--and their results make it to the point of influence of public health policy. (search for falls in the elderly; Stephen Lord)

For the fun part of a show that goes further into reaction time, do check out drag racing. Each quarter mile race gives the reaction time of the driver's response to the amber lights turning GREEN ! (search at

Dec. 10 2016 11:25 AM
Suzie Chelsea from Tulsa, OK

I was checking proper time zone for a job training web meeting tonight and discovered that the Eastern Time Zone clock on this site is part of a second faster than the time for the rest of the country. I would not have noticed without the new awareness of the relevance of speed equity reported 11.18. Seems quirky that the rest of the country, on this set of timing reports, are in lock step while East Coast has an obvious edge.

Unrelated point - When digital SLR cameras came out, the initial lag time between click to shoot and shutter opening proved to be a nightmare for this photographer.

Nov. 19 2014 01:16 PM
Randy Zeitman from United States

They mentioned everyone having a truce.. but no takers.... so why didn't they suggest legislation that no transactions can take place in less than a quarter second with a random number generator (from static in the sky, not a number list) adding between 0 and another quarter second.

Nov. 17 2014 08:13 PM

Love it! 1 ft of cable=1 nanosecond!

Nov. 17 2014 07:17 PM
greg from florida

great I never new of such thing ever existed, keep up the great work

Nov. 17 2014 07:13 PM
JC Harris from Seattle

I wonder how you guys feel about this story now since the publishing of Flash Boys? You got the technical details right, but the conclusions as to the ramifications of high speed trading? Not so much.

You should do a follow-up since you were probably the first non-technical place that did a story on this topic.

Nov. 14 2014 11:02 PM

Hello Radiolab! Did you guys see this piece in the New York Times today :

I first understood why speed mattered in hft after this episode, and the nytimes article is on how people gamed that speed and how one man took a stand (+ convinced others to stand with him) to say this was not right. Would love to see a follow up episode about the IEX exchange.

Mar. 31 2014 04:11 PM
Steve from Washington, DC

Awesome segment as always. Radiolab has a knack for taking otherwise dry topics and getting them to appeal to us on a primal emotional level.

What was the music at the end of the segment? It's the electronic "Hearts of Space" style music that alternates between the D major and B flat major chords.

May. 06 2013 03:13 PM

seems like a solution to end the race would be to have the market computers collect requests and acknowledge them all at set intervals simultaneously (fixed updates?). but this race is sure to have some awesome technological side effects.

would something like that limit the trade productivity too much? what sort of issues would this cause?

May. 03 2013 10:03 PM
Jim from UK

FIle not found :(

Apr. 10 2013 08:15 PM

In regard to Bret's question, the music is Ruckzuck by Kraftwerk. It was featured as the introduction theme to Newton's Apple starting in 1983.

Feb. 27 2013 05:32 PM

I loved that you put this piece into the show. I thought about that from the first minute of the podcast!

here's a great doc video about the insanity of stock-market speed:

Feb. 25 2013 06:59 AM

Regarding the music from the trading segment - is it the music from 3 2 1 contact?

Feb. 18 2013 05:14 PM

Frank Partnoy wrote a "Wait: The Art and Science of Delay," a book I've heard reviewed a number of times. One story he shares is about UNX and their stock trading computers being too fast. They were doing great in California but when they moved to New York Stock Exchange they eventually had to build a delay into the computers. The opposite of this story.

Feb. 15 2013 02:13 PM

Here is a link to the Grace Hopper nanosecond explanation. She would have loved Radiolab!

Feb. 15 2013 12:01 PM
Bret from Lincoln, NE

Question about the podcast: what's the music you used starting around 26:25 (time based on the entire podcast)? I recognize it as something that might have been a theme song on a show I watched when I was a kid, but I can't figure out how I know it, and it's driving me crazy!

Feb. 13 2013 02:47 PM
Jack from KC

I remember the flash-crash clearly. I was in the kitchen listening to NPR and heard reports of the dow plummeting. My first thought was: damned computers! My second thought was: I have to log on and put any available money into a Dow indexed fund quick!
But of course my trading site was clogged with users and I couldn't get in until the window had passed.
Damned computers!

Feb. 11 2013 12:36 AM
Cat Adams from Pittsburgh

A consequence of turning over the trading to computers is...the humans who formerly had those jobs have to find something else to do. A question I have that I realize was off-topic (but could be answered in its own segment) is: what do those disenfranchised human traders do now that their jobs are performed by computers?

Feb. 08 2013 11:56 AM
Jamahl Garrison-Lowe from NYC

There is a great article that came out in Wired magazine that is a good companion piece to this episode. Click here:

Feb. 07 2013 11:07 PM
Jim Spofford from Texas

What if each stock market assigned a random delay (perhaps a number between 0 and 1 seconds) to all incoming transactions and outgoing information transmissions? Would that be enough to end the 'speed' wars? There would still be a bias toward those with speeder connections, but it seems this idea *might* remove much of the incentive that drives this obligatory behavior and expense.

Feb. 06 2013 11:35 PM
Miss L

Fantastic segment. I am a mad, passionate fan of Planet Money and RadioLab. What a great combination!

Feb. 06 2013 05:36 PM

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