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December 21, 2009

Bryant Urstadt examines the fast-paced automated trading of stock, a growing trend that critics say is making the financial system more unstable (Trading Shares in Milliseconds). “I first got interested in high-frequency trading in the summer of 2008,” says Urstadt. “Funds were collapsing, banks were teetering, and stocks were in an endless nosedive, but there was one odd exception: secretive funds, all traded entirely by algorithms, were going in the opposite direction, making absolutely huge returns. Some were even having their best year ever. No one seemed to know how they were able to go so far up when everyone else was crashing. That Manoj Narang so graciously explained exactly how funds like his worked was the kind of luck a writer wakes up every morning hoping for.” Urstadt is a regular writer for Harper’s. He has previously written for TR, New York, and Outside.

Jeff Foust reviews the debate over the benefits of human spaceflight (The Future of Human Spaceflight). “We’re at a crossroads,” he says. “In about a year, the space shuttle will be retired, and we’ll have several years where we will not be able to launch humans into space. This raises a question: why spend billions of taxpayer dollars a year on human spaceflight at all? A lot of the rationales that have been used in the past–science, technology spinoffs, international prestige–don’t seem sufficient today. A panel commissioned by the White House decided that the ultimate goal for human spaceflight should be to allow for eventual human expansion into the solar system. With this goal, steps NASA should take become clear: for example, supporting the development of commercial systems to do routine tasks.” Foust is a senior analyst and project manager with Futron in Bethesda, MD, where he studies trends for domestic and foreign commercial, civil, and military launch industries. He is the editor and publisher of the Space Review and maintains the space news aggregator ­Spacetoday.net and the policy blog Space Politics.

Antonio Regalado writes this issue’s photo essay on Bolivia’s vast, untapped deposit of lithium, the key ingredient in the batteries that power electric vehicles (The Lithium Rush). “Bolivia has a populist socialist government along the lines of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, in which domination of information flow is a major goal of the government,” says Regalado. “The government sees itself as the true representative of a suppressed indigenous population. We will see whether their rhetoric about seizing the country’s resources for the state achieves syncretism with the capitalist models of investment most capable of extracting those resources, including lithium.” Regalado is a freelance reporter living in São Paulo, where he writes about slum music, armored cars, and other local phenomena. Previously, he was a science reporter at the Wall Street Journal and an editor at Technology Review covering biomedicine.

Noah Friedman-Rudovsky is a freelance photojournalist who shot the photo essay. “On the salt flats, you find yourself in a sea of pure white that extends to the horizon,” he says. “Workers at the lithium pilot plant work 20-day shifts at this remote spot, wearing ski masks, sunglasses, and overalls, covering every inch of their skin from the sun. They seem connected to the ambitious project that hopes to convert the lithium deposit into social benefits for Bolivia’s poor.” Friedman-Rudovsky photographs stories in Bolivia and across Latin America. His coverage appears regularly in the New York Times, and his photos have been published in the New Yorker, Der Spiegel, Paris Match, and the New York Times Magazine.

Deep Dive

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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