Putting the Brakes on High-Frequency Trading with Physics

In the middle of the East Coast’s slow broil in the summer of 2018, a curious phenomenon surfaced. As a tropical air mass settled in and smothered the metropolitan New York area, a certain breed of stock speculator began feeling the financial heat as the microwave signals linking together various data centers and exchanges began to slow down. These high-frequency traders rely on getting information a fraction of a second before other traders see the same thing and take advantage of minuscule price differences to make money hand over fist.

While you won’t catch us shedding many tears over the billions these speculators lost during the hot spell, we did find the fact that humidity can slow microwave propagation enough to make this a problem for them a fascinating subject, enough so that we covered it in some detail at the time. While financial markets come and go and the technology to capitalize them changes at a breakneck pace, physics stays the same, and it can make or break deals with no regard to the so-called fundamentals.

So it was with great interest that we happened upon Tom Scott’s recent video outlining how one new stock exchange is using physics to actually slow down stock trades, in an attempt to gain a competitive advantage over the other exchanges. In light of the billions lost over the summer to propagation delays amounting to a mere 10 microseconds, we couldn’t help but wonder how injecting a delay 35 times longer using a “magic shoebox” was actually good for business. It turns out to be an interesting story.

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Acoustic Delay Line Memory

Back in the olden days  when computers were both analog and digital, making RAM was actually very hard. Without transistors, the only purely electronic means of building a memory system was vacuum tubes; It could have been done, but for any appreciable amount of RAM means an insane amount of tubes, power, and high failure rates.

One of the solutions for early RAM was something called a delay line. This device used ultrasonic transducers to send a pulse through a medium (usually mercury filled tubes heated to 40°C) and reads it out at the other end. The time between the pulse being sent and received is just enough to serve as a very large, small capacity RAM.

Heated tubes filled with hundreds of pounds of mercury isn’t something you’d want sitting around for a simple electronics project. You can, however, build one out of a Radio Shack Electronics Learning Lab, a speaker, and a microphone.

[Joe] designed his delay line using an op-amp to amplify the train of acoustic pulses traveling through the air. A compactor picks up these pulses and sends them into a flip-flop. A decade counter and oscillator provide the timing of the pulses and a way to put each bit in the delay line. When a button on the electronics lab is pressed, a ‘tick’ is sent into the speaker where it travels across [Joe]’s basement, into the microphone, and back into the circuit.

The entire setup is able to store ten bits of information in the air, with the data conveniently visualized on an oscilloscope. It’s not a practical way to store data in any way, shape, or form, but it is an interesting peek into the world before digital everything.

Video below.

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Storing 32 bits of data in a piece of glass

After finding an old piezoelectric delay line in an old TV, [Mike] decided to figure out how it works and in the process stored his name in sound waves reflecting inside a piece of glass

[Mike] was intrigued by these old-fashioned delay lines after watching [Dave] from EEVblog’s teardown of an circa 1985 camcorder. [Dave] found a piezoelectric delay line in his camcorder – a device that is able to store digital data by sending a sound wave into a glass plate, letting the sound wave bounce through the plate. and picking up the sound on the other end. It’s actually not too dissimilar to a mercury delay line used in the earliest computers.

After sending a pulse through his piezoelectric delay line, [Mike] picked up an echo almost exactly 64 microseconds later. After hooking up a simple circuit constructed out of a 74-series chip, [Mike] found he could ‘loop’ the delay line and keep a pulse going for up to 3 milliseconds.

Three milliseconds isn’t much, but by injecting serial data into the delay line, [Mike] was able to spell out his name in binary, as seen above. It’s just 32 bits stored for a fraction of a second, making it a very volatile, low-capacity memory, but functionally equivalent to the old mercury delay lines of yore.

It’s certainly not what [Mike] or [Dave]’s delay line was designed to do; these video delay lines were used to hold the previous line of video for a form of error correction. Outside [Mike]’s workbench and a few museums, though, you won’t see a delay line used as a form of computer memory. A very cool build and an awesome history lesson, and we thank [Mike] for that.