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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The killing of more physicists in Tehran

I wrote about an earlier assassination, using similar methods, back in January. Several murders of physicists, using the same techniques? I can only think of one intelligence service with sufficient motive, chutzpah and capability.

The recent WikiLeaks release of diplomatic cables reveals just how agitated governments in the Middle East are about Iran's bomb program. Neither Arabs nor Israelis want the Iranians to get nuclear weapons. But I don't suppose they can work together on this one...

Physics World: Academics in Iran have been left in a state of critical fear following the murder in Tehran yesterday of nuclear physicist Majid Shahriari and the attempted assassination of another nuclear researcher, Fereydoon Abbasi.

The separate attacks occurred yesterday morning and both were carried out by unidentified assailants on motorbikes who attached explosives to the victims' vehicles as they travelled through the capital. Both scientists were based in the faculty of nuclear engineering at the Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran and they are both said to be key figures in Iran's controversial nuclear programme.

Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, immediately blamed the attacks on foreign enemies saying that "undoubtedly the hand of the Zionist regime and Western governments is involved". As yet, however, no nation or group has claimed responsibility.

"Everyone is shocked. Programmed assassination of scientists is the last thing we could imagine," says Reza Mansouri, a cosmologist at Sharif University in Tehran and a former Iranian deputy science minister. He confirmed that the widely held view in Iran is that this attack was carried out by foreign agents.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Makers: "It's a matter of time."

The past two evenings I had dinner with an in-law (let's call him my uncle-in-law) who is a senior executive at Foxconn (makers of the iPhone and iPad, among other things). He holds engineering degrees from leading universities in Taiwan and the US and has residences in the US, Taiwan and China. Over the years I have had a number of interesting conversations with him about economic and technological development in China.

When I arrived in Taiwan a few months ago I got in trouble by remarking how little things had changed here since my last visit about 5 years ago. Locals here are sensitive about this slowdown in the pace of development. I suspect it is due to the massive flow of talent and capital to mainland China from Taiwan. (I could probably quantify the financial side of this by looking at FDI in China originating from Taiwan in the last 5-10 years and comparing it to Taiwan's GDP and domestic investment in the same period.) Ambitious businesspeople know that the biggest fortunes are to be made there, and Taiwanese companies (like Foxconn) have played an important role in China's economic miracle. But we've recently passed a tipping point -- Taiwanese in China now often feel like "small potatoes" and notice that mainlanders now possess a surfeit of money, ambition and even knowhow.

Some notes from conversation with my uncle.

Foxconn recently almost doubled wages for workers in China.

Foxconn recently added several hundred thousand workers, bringing its headcount to well over 1 million.

Foxconn will expand into the interior of China, where wages are lower. Vietnam and other low-wage competitors lack the necessary infrastructure to compete. [The infrastructure in China is really first rate. In some cases it is superior to what is found in the US or Taiwan!]

My uncle characterizes engineers educated in China as "smart" but poorly trained. He claims that after the difficult college entrance exams university students tend to take it easy, and that the current generation of faculty in China are unworthy of their students (many of these faculty were poorly educated due to the Cultural Revolution). [In my own experience with PRC physicists I would say things are improving.] He noted that recent graduates can be made into good engineers after a year or two of training, but that they lack practical knowledge at first. [I would guess US corporate engineers might say the same of our graduates!] He said something like "sure, they know thermodynamics and circuit theory, but they can't set up a process line..."

My uncle is worried about prospects for the US -- he sees the technology gap between China and the US as almost closed and wonders how America can compete against Chinese workers making much lower wages. He didn't deny that the US is still more innovative, but noted that the gains from this innovation (i.e., jobs and commercial industries) are now captured by those with manufacturing capability. In other words, a key bit of innovation might make a few people (e.g., at a startup) rich, but down the line someone has to actually manufacture and ship products, which creates jobs and wealth at a much larger scale. He is certain that will be done in China. I tried to point out that this is counter to the conventional US mythology (Apple gets the big margins, Foxconn's profit is pennies per iThingy shipped), but he just said "It's a matter of time."

My uncle is confident that the PRC government can control inflation and other social problems in the near term. He characterizes the leadership as corrupt but effective. He also noted that younger Chinese are not willing to work as hard or suffer as much as their parents did. Foxconn had to deal with this by changing overtime policies -- the previous generation of workers would take all the overtime they could get, whereas the younger generation balks at too much.

Coincidentally, another aunt and uncle passed through town yesterday, from Los Angeles, on their way to Shanghai to buy an apartment. Real estate costs in Shanghai and Taipei are ridiculous -- many new apartments (roughly 100 square meters) cost over $1M US! My Foxconn uncle characterizes this as a bubble and notes that many workers have become "slaves to their apartments".

Related: NYTimes economics reporter David Leonhardt on the growing consumer economy in China. Slide show.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Cosmic Dyson

My neighbor in Eugene recommended this Atlantic article on Freeman Dyson, and now I'm recommending it to you :-)

... “It is said that the mental processes of a mathematical prodigy differ in no essential respect from those of ordinary folks who can handle more modest problems,” George Dyson had written—not Freeman’s tree-dwelling son, but Sir George Dyson, Freeman’s father, a composer and the director of the Royal College of Music. “The prodigy’s gift is the power of incessant concentration on more and more complicated mental calculations, until his brain can instantly recall the end products of the thousands of factors with which his mind has been busy.”

The prodigy in question, Freeman Dyson, now middle-aged, stared ahead, his incessant concentration on the road unbroken. He seemed mesmerized by the oncoming pavement, or by some idea or formulation glimpsed in the immateriality beyond the pavement. I asked him whether as a boy he had speculated much about his gift. Had he asked himself why he had this special power? Why he was so bright?

Dyson is almost infallibly a modest and self-effacing man, but tonight his eyes were blank with fatigue, and his answer was uncharacteristic.

“That’s not how the question phrases itself,” he said. “The question is: why is everyone else so stupid?”

... His second book, Darwin Among the Machines, is a history of the luminaries of the information revolution, and as such signals a turn back toward the world of his father. His third, Project Orion, is a history of his father’s spacecraft. His next, Turing’s Cathedral, he conceives as “a creation myth for the digital universe.”

This July in Dick’s Tavern, George [Dyson -- the author, and Freeman's son] was hard at work finishing Turing’s Cathedral, trying to meet an August deadline for delivery of the manuscript. Mounted on the tavern wall, running the length of the bar, was the skeletal frame for one of his Aleut-style kayaks, 25 feet long, with three manholes for paddlers. Beneath this unfinished vessel, the pages of Turing’s Cathedral were laid out in neat stacks along the bar surface, about two chapters per bar stool. The inspiration for the book seems to have come in 1961, when George was 8 and he and a small band of comrades—the sons of field theorists at the Institute for Advanced Study—stumbled upon an old barn on the institute’s campus. Stored inside, along with old farm equipment, were the relics of the antediluvian electronic computer on which John von Neumann conducted his pioneering experiments in artificial intelligence. In Darwin Among the Machines, in a chapter called “Rats in a Cathedral,” George describes how he and his buddies, with wrenches and screwdrivers, lobotomized von Neumann’s machinery. “We blindly dissected the fossilized traces of electromechanical logic out of which the age of digital computers first took form.”

... FREEMAN DYSON is a national and international treasure. His career demonstrates how a Nobel-caliber mind, in avoiding the typical laureate’s dogged obsession with a single problem, can fertilize many fields, in his case particle physics and astrophysics, biology and exobiology, mathematics, metaphysics, the history of science, religion, disarmament theory, literature, and even medicine, as Dyson was a co-inventor of the TRIGA reactor, which produces medical isotopes.

Dyson, clearly a busy man, was extraordinarily generous with his time with me at an early stage of my career. His allowing me to be present at an intimate family affair—his reunion with George—provided the climax and denouement for my best and most successful book. In the field, Dyson was an amusing and never-boring companion. Never have I had a relationship of such asymmetrical understanding. Dyson always got the drift of my ideas and sentences before I was three or four words into them, but the converse was not true. When the physicist spoke of his own pet subjects—quantum electrodynamics, say, or certain characteristics of the event horizon in the vicinity of black holes—I had no idea what he was talking about. Dyson is a discoverer of, and fluent in, the mathematics by which the fundamental laws of the universe operate, and in that language I am illiterate.

Long ago I asked Ted Taylor, the chief of Project Orion, what quality distinguished Dyson from the other Orion men. “Freeman’s gift?” said Taylor. “It’s cosmic. He is able to see more interconnections between more things than almost anybody. He sees the interrelationships, whether it’s in some microscopic physical process or in a big complicated machine like Orion. He has been, from the time he was in his teens, capable of understanding essentially anything that he’s interested in. He’s the most intelligent person I know.”

This is how Dyson strikes me too. But the operative word for me is cosmic. The word terrestrial would not apply. In taking the measure of the universe, Dyson fails only in his appraisal of the small, spherical piece of the cosmos under his feet. Or so it seems to me. For whatever reason, he is emotionally incapable of seeing the true colors of the rampant ingenuity of our species and calculating where our cleverness, as opposed to our wisdom, is taking us.

Kenneth Brower, a longtime contributor to The Atlantic, is the author of 13 books, including The Starship and the Canoe (1978), a dual portrait of Freeman and George Dyson.

Thanksgiving in the tropics

Sorry for the lack of posts recently. I had to give a seminar at National Taiwan University (Tai Da) yesterday, which took a little time, and in addition I've been immersed in a new research idea. The idea came from a talk I heard at the meeting last week in Shanghai. I don't know if it will materialize into anything (that's how research goes), but my brain hasn't been able to let go of it for several days 8-)

Here are two fun posts by Andrew Gelman, blogger and Columbia statistics professor: physicists and economists (sure to get some people riled up!), the von Neumann paradox.

Finally, some pictures I took today. It was way too hot and humid when we first got to Taiwan, but now we're getting some lovely winter weather -- Taiwan is about the same latitude as Hawaii :-) It sure doesn't feel like Thanksgiving or Xmas around here!

Kids playing on the Academia Sinica campus near our apartment:

Strange tadpoles in the pond. In the bottom picture, eating bread someone has thrown in the pond. It's worth clicking to see the larger versions! Tadpole sandwich, anyone?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Communist takeover in China?

My collaborator Robert Scherrer comments on my recent blogging from China :-)


I have been enjoying your blog reports from China. The worst-case scenario for China is obvious: the increasing economic disparity between the wealthy cities and the poorer rural areas leads to a revolution, and the communists take over. (I told that joke to a visiting Chinese faculty member here, and he was not amused....)


Sunday, November 21, 2010

The China question: worst case scenario?

Unless I am mistaken I have been to China 4 times in the last year or so (Hangzhou, Beijing, Shenzhen and Shanghai). Each time I am here I ask the following question (sample size may now be well over 20 or 30):

At 95 percent confidence, what is the worst case scenario for China in the next 10 years? (i.e., what is the worst case scenario that has at least 5 percent probability?)

To ask the question precisely I have to use English, in which case the people I'm talking to are scientists, engineers, professors, business people or students; now that I think about it, I even put the question to some government officials at the ministry of commerce over lunch. I have also asked a less precise version of the question in Mandarin to ordinary people like drivers or hotel staff.

I usually specifically prompt the person I'm asking whether social unrest or environmental catastrophe are possible, but almost no one thinks so. Some sophisticated academic types might acknowledge them as possible outcomes, but all considered them unlikely. The typical worst case scenario involves economic problems, perhaps an rmb-dollar crisis. No one mentioned the possibility of military conflict with the US, or the Taiwan problem.

My priors allowed for the "fragile China" scenario: a giant Potemkin bubble with massive mis-allocation of capital, inhuman working conditions and income inequality leading to social unrest, low-cost labor with little innovation, etc. But from what I've seen and heard that scenario is increasingly implausible.

Shanghai: PPP on the ground

1 USD = 6.64 RMB. Average salary in Shanghai is reportedly 65k RMB or about USD $10k per annum. A good Hadoop programmer might make USD $20k per year. The IMF estimates that the PPP (purchasing power parity) vs nominal exchange rate adjustment for China is about a factor of 2 (i.e., PPP GDP is about twice nominal GDP). That doesn't sound entirely crazy to me but it's very dependent on choice of goods for the PPP basket.

Haircut 10 RMB = $1.50. (My barber in Eugene = $11.)

Hiking shoes, 150 RMB = $23. (Equivalent pair probably $75-100 in US.)

Dinner on campus 9 RMB = $1.35. It's Sunday, and I saw lots of parents visiting their kids. The kids are much bigger than the parents. On the subway, it wasn't uncommon for me (183cm) to be the tallest or one of the tallest people in the train car. But on campus there are lots of kids (even girls!) taller than me.

I ate at this huge cafeteria across from the physics building. The kids were using their IDs as electronic cash cards and could pay separately at each food station. I had to buy exchange tickets at the doorway. I wasn't sure how much money to exchange for tickets. I asked the auntie; she looked at me and said "no way you can eat 20 RMB ($3 USD) worth of food!"

Visitor office at the physics institute. (Apple, where is my product placement fee?!?)

Random Shanghai observations:

Once you leave the highly developed downtown, or walk a few blocks away from the campus, you can see that the material level of society is still pretty low. It's dirty, and people are engaged in very low paying and labor intensive activities. You might see a storefront where people are sorting through trash for recyclables, or people selling roasted yams on the sidewalk. (OK, maybe not that different from NYC... at least you can walk through the roughest looking parts of town without fear of crime.)

The Minhang campus of SJTU is very far from the city center. It's $10-15 USD for a taxi; only $1 on the metro but you might end up standing the entire time. Either way it takes 40+ minutes to get to the center.

The Chinese government is ambitiously ramping up a lot of science projects. At the meeting we heard about a xenon dark matter detector built here at SJTU and a USD $100M cosmic ray observatory proposed in Tibet. I asked the group leader (who was a postdoc at Oregon when I first arrived as a professor) what a similar project would cost in the US, and he replied more than twice as much. I also notice that SJTU is looking to hire in many areas. A professor from Ohio State (not ethnically Chinese) recently left his chaired position and moved his whole family to join SJTU! I can't think of very many countries that have the ambition and optimism (a national-level "will to power") that China has.

From various conversations in Mandarin:

Taxi driver, after hearing me speak in Chinese: "Are you Korean ... Japanese?" "Oh, from America!"

Another taxi driver referred to me (to another Chinese person) as a "lao wai" or "rich foreigner"; usually this means a white person, but I suppose it applies to me as well.

A girl: "Your teeth are so white! Why do Americans have such white teeth?"

A student: "O-re-gon! that's in California?"

Me: "How long have you been in Shanghai?" (girl:) "About 5 months." "Do you like it?" Pause. "No."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Greetings from Shanghai

I'm in Shanghai for a physics meeting, at the Minhang campus of Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU). This new campus is about 15km south of downtown Shanghai.

View from the physics building:

Institute for particle/nuclear/cosmo physics.

Roof deck:

Lunch at the visitor center:

People in China often ask me about my Chinese name. Here it is (simplified characters):

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Darkness on the Edge of Town

If you are a Bruce Springsteen fan this interview of the Boss by Ed Norton can't be missed. Who were Springsteen's influences when he wrote the songs for Darkness on the Edge of Town? Dylan, yes. Ginsberg, no. Terrence Malick, yes.

In 1975, the album Born to Run catapulted Bruce Springsteen from a regional critical favorite to a worldwide megastar.

But after Born to Run's release, a legal battle with his former manager, Mike Appel, kept Springsteen from making a follow-up album for nearly two years. Springsteen spent his time touring extensively across the U.S. with the E Street Band. When he returned to the studio, in 1977, he brought with him dozens of songs that he had written during his exile.

Those studio sessions produced Springsteen's fourth album, 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town. It was musically very different from Born to Run — and drew thematically from the punk-rock movement, the Vietnam War and Springsteen's own reflections about wanting to stay connected to his roots. ...

Some lyrics from Badlands, the first track of Darkness on the Edge of Town.

Poor men wanna be rich, rich men wanna be kings,
And a king aint satisfied till he rules everything.
I wanna go out tonight, I wanna find out what I got.
Now I believe in the love that you gave me.
I believe in the faith that could save me.
I believe in the hope and I pray that some day it
Will raise me above these


For the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside
That it aint no sin to be glad you're alive.
I wanna find one face that aint looking through me
I wanna find one place, I wanna spit in the face of these


Monday, November 15, 2010

On the mat

Title IX is killing a lot of non-revenue men's college sports, like swimming, gymnastics and wrestling. Oregon, which produced a number of NCAA individual champions (and UFC fighter Chael Sonnen), eliminated its wrestling program a few years ago.

An indication of the overall weakness of collegiate wrestling programs is that Cornell is the preseason #1 ranked team this year!

NYTimes: ... every N.C.A.A. wrestling championship since 1989 has been won by teams from Iowa, Oklahoma or Minnesota — with only 4 of 80 N.C.A.A. championships won from outside those states in history — this season, Cornell is the unanimous preseason No. 1.

It is the first time a team from the Ivy League, which prohibits athletic scholarships, has had the top ranking in wrestling and is one of the rare times an Ivy team has been ranked No. 1 outside sports like lacrosse, fencing, squash, and ice or field hockey.

But Cornell is carrying a flag for more than the Ivys. Cornell, which finished second to Iowa in last season’s N.C.A.A. championships, is seeking to become just the second Eastern-based team to win the national wrestling title. Penn State won it in 1953.

I grew up in Iowa, a wrestling hotbed. Both Dan Gable and Cael Sanderson, perhaps the greatest American wrestlers of all time, competed for Iowa State University, in my hometown. I never competed in wrestling, but I remember learning the techniques in gym class and on the playground. In HS it seemed like at every keg party you had to be ready to grapple because some drunk wrestler might grab you and want to roll around on the living room floor or in the back yard! Guys in other sports would try to get out of it by calling the wrestlers gay ("get off me, you homo!"), but in reality they (even football players) wanted nothing to do with close contact with a wrestler. (Note there are no wrestlers in this picture, although wimpier Ivy sports like swimming, cross country and tennis are well represented ;-)

The last actual fight I had (a long time ago!) was with a kid who went on to wrestle for ISU! It started with me hitting a single leg on him and tossing him into a locker. Then we hit each other in the face for what seemed like a long time before a teacher broke it up. One thing I learned from the fight is that two untrained guys can trade shots to the head for a long time before anyone goes down (this is also evident from early UFC fights). I was initially reluctant to hit the other kid in the face (I had never really had to do it before), but he showed no similar reluctance :-)

I did do Judo as a kid (my parents wouldn't let me do Karate or Tae Kwon Do) and later competed in both Judo and BJJ as an adult. I noticed that my Iowa background meant I could usually wrestle better than anyone who hadn't actually competed in wrestling (i.e., at a high school level or higher). If I wanted to get any judoka or jiujitsu player to the ground I could pretty much do it. Judokas would always complain that I was using leg attacks and not nice nagewaza (upper body throws), but this is basically just a convention and wrestling takedowns are all legal in Judo. In any first randori with another judoka I could always get a takedown by faking coming to grips and instead shooting for a leg.

I sometimes worked out at the ISU weight room in Beyer Hall, where the wrestlers trained. The summer between my junior and senior year of HS my schedule (I think determined by some math class I was taking) coincided with that of 1981 World Champion Chris Campbell, an ISU assistant coach. One of my wrestler friends had an amazing poster of Campbell hitting a souffle (suplex) on a Russian en route to winning his world title. Campbell and the Russian are both flying through the air and only the tip of Campbell's toe is touching the mat. He was by far the most amazing physical specimen I had seen at that point in my life. Campbell usually ran in the sweltering heat before lifting weights. He would warm up by doing hyperextensions with a 45 pound plate behind his head. You can see his exceptional lower back musculature in this video (yes, that bulge is his erector spinae), showing him competing in the 1992 Olympics at age 37 (he won the bronze -- see picture below)! But he was much more impressive as a younger man in the early 1980s. Unlike a lot of the Iowa kids, who had wrestling rooms in their basements and competed in tournaments while still in grade school, Campbell started wrestling fairly late. But his physical powers were such that he reached the highest levels of the sport. Somehow it was obvious to me even then that no matter how hard I trained I would never have strength, stamina or quickness like his.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Standard deviations around the world

In an earlier post I investigated the variance (standard deviation) in IQ by country using PISA scores. Looking for additional data, I came across this paper by Rindermann et al., which investigates smart and dumb fraction effects by country. It obtains some interesting results using an IQ estimate computed from PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS scores. I doubt you can do much better than these numbers for country-level estimates. Below is an excerpt from one of his tables; CA = cognitive ability, first column of numbers is the mean, second is the 5th percentile, third is the 95th percentile. As far as I can tell, wealthy, ethnically homogeneous countries have a spread of about 40 points (plus or minus a few points) between 5th and 95th percentile. While there is significant variation in means, the SD seems to vary by only a point or so. You can find countries with larger SD, but I suspect this is because of the amalgamation of sub-populations of different means.

Note: 5th to 95th percentile is about 3.3 SD. For some strange reason the SD in developed, homogeneous countries (e.g., Japan, Korea, Norway, Netherlands, etc.) is roughly 12 plus or minus about one in Rindermann's results, not 15. They claim they normalize the educational achievement scores to a "Greenwich (=UK?) mean IQ" of 100 with SD 15, but the SD for their UK entry is about 14, unless I made an arithmetic error.

Rindermann, in an earlier paper titled The g‐factor of international cognitive ability comparisons: the homogeneity of results in PISA, TIMSS, PIRLS and IQ‐tests across nations, showed that country IQ estimates of Lynn and Vanhanen were consistent with the educational performance data, and that a country level "G" factor explains most of the variation. The Rindermann link above goes to a 120 page pdf that contains Rindermann's paper and lots of commentary from leading intelligence researchers. Apparently his straightforward compilation of data had a big impact in that community ;-)

[See here for scatterplots of L-V estimates of national IQ vs tests of educational achievement.]

Genomics in Taipei, dark energy in Shanghai

Next Tuesday I will give the following colloquium at National Taiwan University (Taida).

Investigating the genetic basis of intelligence

I begin with a brief review of psychometric results concerning intelligence (sometimes referred to as the g factor, or IQ), emphasizing the stability, validity (predictive power) and heritability of adult IQ. Next, I discuss ongoing Genome Wide Association Studies which investigate the genetic basis of intelligence. Due mainly to the rapidly decreasing cost of sequencing (currently below $5k per genome), it is likely that within the next 5-10 years we will identify loci which account for a significant fraction of total IQ variation. Finally, I discuss the near term possibility of genetic engineering for intelligence.

This talk is aimed at physicists and should be accessible without specialized background in psychology or biology.

On Friday I'll be talking about dark energy (slides) at this meeting at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"Too Asian?" in Canada

The article linked to below is about Asian students at elite Canadian universities. I spoke to the McLean's reporter about this while I was visiting BGI in Shenzhen, China. I had to duck out of a meeting into an unused conference room to take his call.

When I first wrote this post the McLean's article hadn't been up very long, but had started to accumulate a lot of heated comments. They pulled the article off the web overnight, probably because they didn't have anyone to filter the comments. Now it is back up.

Here is a very similar WSJ article from five years ago, discussing the high school situation in Silicon Valley.

McLean's: When Alexandra and her friend Rachel, both graduates of Toronto’s Havergal College, an all-girls private school, were deciding which university to go to, they didn’t even bother considering the University of Toronto. “The only people from our school who went to U of T were Asian,” explains Alexandra, a second-year student who looks like a girl from an Aritzia billboard. “All the white kids,” she says, “go to Queen’s, Western and McGill.”

Alexandra eventually chose the University of Western Ontario. Her younger brother, now a high school senior deciding where he’d like to go, will head “either east, west or to McGill”—unusual academic options, but in keeping with what he wants from his university experience. “East would suit him because it’s chill, out west he could be a ski bum,” says Alexandra, who explains her little brother wants to study hard, but is also looking for a good time—which rules out U of T, a school with an academic reputation that can be a bit of a killjoy.

Or, as Alexandra puts it—she asked that her real name not be used in this article, and broached the topic of race at universities hesitantly—a “reputation of being Asian.”

Discussing the role that race plays in the self-selecting communities that more and more characterize university campuses makes many people uncomfortable. Still, an “Asian” school has come to mean one that is so academically focused that some students feel they can no longer compete or have fun. Indeed, Rachel, Alexandra and her brother belong to a growing cohort of student that’s eschewing some big-name schools over perceptions that they’re “too Asian.” It’s a term being used in some U.S. academic circles to describe a phenomenon that’s become such a cause for concern to university admissions officers and high school guidance counsellors that several elite universities to the south have faced scandals in recent years over limiting Asian applicants and keeping the numbers of white students artificially high.

Although university administrators here are loath to discuss the issue, students talk about it all the time. “Too Asian” is not about racism, say students like Alexandra: many white students simply believe that competing with Asians—both Asian Canadians and international students—requires a sacrifice of time and freedom they’re not willing to make. They complain that they can’t compete for spots in the best schools and can’t party as much as they’d like (too bad for them, most will say). Asian kids, meanwhile, say they are resented for taking the spots of white kids. “At graduation a Canadian—i.e. ‘white’—mother told me that I’m the reason her son didn’t get a space in university and that all the immigrants in the country are taking up university spots,” says Frankie Mao, a 22-year-old arts student at the University of British Columbia. “I knew it was wrong, being generalized in this category,” says Mao, “but f–k, I worked hard for it.”

That Asian students work harder is a fact born out by hard data. They tend to be strivers, high achievers and single-minded in their approach to university. [Note I don't think the previous two sentences are attributable to me!] Stephen Hsu, a physics prof at the University of Oregon who has written about the often subtle forms of discrimination faced by Asian-American university applicants, describes them as doing “disproportionately well—they tend to have high SAT scores, good grades in high school, and a lot of them really want to go to top universities.” In Canada, say Canadian high school guidance counsellors, that means the top-tier post-secondary institutions with international profiles specializing in math, science and business: U of T, UBC and the University of Waterloo. White students, by contrast, are more likely to choose universities and build their school lives around social interaction, athletics and self-actualization—and, yes, alcohol. When the two styles collide, the result is separation rather than integration.

... Among Canadian universities, UBC is one of the few institutions that publishes the ethnic makeup of its student body. Toope says that the university’s Asian student population is not “widely out of whack with the community,” although the stats tell a slightly different story. According to a 2009 UBC report on direct undergraduate entrants, 43 per cent of its students self-identify as ethnically Chinese, Korean or Japanese, as compared to 38 per cent who self-identify as white. Although Vancouver is a richly diverse city, according to data from the 2006 census, just 21.5 per cent of its residents identify as a Chinese, Korean or Japanese visible minority.

... Alexandra, who chose to go to Western for the party scene, found she “hated being away from home” and moved back to Toronto. In retrospect, she didn’t like the vibe. “Some people just want to drink 23 hours a day.” Alexandra says she still has friends at Western who live in an “all-blond house” and are “stick thin.” Rachel, Alexandra’s friend, says Western suits them—“they work hard, get good grades, then slap on their clubbing clothes.” But it didn’t suit Alexandra. She now studies at U of T.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

School daze 2

The picture above was taken in the early 80s (see earlier discussion here). Does it look more 70s or 80s to you? Our cohort grew up in between those decades, a bit later than Dazed and Confused, but, it seems to me, before the John Hughes era (e.g., Sixteen Candles, Breakfast Club, which I watched in college). At the time, I thought the most perfectly realized high school movie was Risky Business, which came out my senior year, and made Tom Cruise a star. His character, Joel Goodson, is obsessed with getting into Princeton.

Here are two songs from the period which always make me think of my first girlfriend. I don't think I've ever told her that! Our family had (for odd reasons) two old convertible Fiat Spyders. We lived out in the country, and my brother and I would often put the top down even in the winter, to better enjoy the night sky as the city lights faded to black.

Jack and Diane (John Mellencamp, 1982)
Little ditty about jack and diane
Two american kids growin up in the heartland
Jackies gonna be a football star
Diane debutante backseat of jackies car

Suckin on chilli dogs outside the tastee freeze
Diane sittin on jackies lap
Got his hands between her knees
Jackie say, hey diane lets run off
Behind shade tree
Dribble off those bobby brooks
Let me do what I please

The River (Bruce Springsteen, 1980)
I remember us riding in my brother's car
Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir
At night on them banks I'd lie awake
And pull her close just to feel each breath she'd take

It's wrong, but I like the way you think

A high school classmate (he's in the picture here) writes regarding wrong but flashy scientific results.

Incidentally, I also saw the Ioannidis article you posted, and I think the guy is exactly correct. And it's not just for medical trial-type science - it's all sorts of flashy hot science. One instance that I found interesting because I've watched it develop for several years is David Sinclair's work with resveratrol. This is a compound found in red wine that's supposed to have all sorts of fantastic effects in a bunch of organisms, including making them live longer. One of the things I find interesting is that this is an area where big business is making a big bet on what I believe they know is bogus science. Resveratrol is supposed to activate an enzyme called a sirtuin, and that's supposed to elicit these nice effects. The problem is that the data showing that it activates the enzyme is an artifact of the assay. My boss gave a talk at GlaxoSmithKline explaining all of this, showing the data, publishing the data (with another group publishing the same finding at the same time). Those big companies have top notch chemists and they understood all of this. And after all of this, GSK lays out $720 million for David Sinclair's resveratrol company. I used to think that once big money becomes involved, they would never do something like this. Now I think that they actually may have made a good financial decision. They're laying out less than 10% of their market capitalization, they get a bunch of hype with Sinclair on Oprah and people talking about red wine and this new wonder drug, they will end up taking a bit of a hit once it all unravels, but who cares - by then they're on to something new!

A Nobel laureate down the hall from me recently retracted articles in Nature, Science and PNAS because the underlying data were bogus, and a friend of mine who was in that lab is writing a book on how that fraud was perpetrated. I think this stuff is remarkably common and that Ioannidis is right in his analysis.

Monday, November 08, 2010

School daze

These are the 18 National Merit Finalists from my high school class. I'm in the back row near the middle and my brother is further to the left (he's older than I am but we both graduated the same year). The girl in the front row second from the left (next to the guy with the Ames shirt -- he's a plastic surgeon now!) was my prom date and first girlfriend :-)

In contrast to the current obsession with elite higher education, most of these kids attended public universities. The guy to my left turned down Cornell to attend Iowa State, the guy to my right went to Princeton, one of the girls in the front went to Stanford. There might have been someone who went to Chicago, but I can't remember for sure. There were several other smart kids who missed the Semi-Finalist cut on the PSAT but got equivalently high SAT scores. One of those kids turned down Caltech for Illinois (I think), and another went to Stanford and Columbia Law and is now the outside counsel for my current startup.

By my last year in high school I was spending the afternoons at the university. I took quantum mechanics, a course on ODEs/PDEs, a semester of complex analysis, and a semester of senior level advanced calculus before heading off to college. (I've actually never had a linear algebra class -- I just studied it by myself.) That was pretty exceptional for those days -- I was the first kid at my high school to have such an arrangement. These days I think schools are more open to acceleration. I think there are a few kids every year from Eugene high schools who take advanced math at Oregon. I actually took my first college course (in the comp sci department -- punch cards!) when I was 12.

Having a flexible schedule turned out to be a bad thing for my swimming career. I was so tired from two practices a day and all of that homework from the college classes that sometimes I'd skip afternoon lectures at the university and go home and sleep before practice. My coach noticed I wasn't having a good taper at the end of the season and I had to admit it was because I had been getting too much rest during the high volume part of our training!

Related posts: Some data on regression , Elite universities and human capital mongering

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Medical science?

According to the article we spend $100 billion per annum on this in the US :-(

The Atlantic: Ioannidis [is] ... what’s known as a meta-researcher, and he’s become one of the world’s foremost experts on the credibility of medical research. He and his team have shown, again and again, and in many different ways, that much of what biomedical researchers conclude in published studies—conclusions that doctors keep in mind when they prescribe antibiotics or blood-pressure medication, or when they advise us to consume more fiber or less meat, or when they recommend surgery for heart disease or back pain—is misleading, exaggerated, and often flat-out wrong. He charges that as much as 90 percent of the published medical information that doctors rely on is flawed. His work has been widely accepted by the medical community; it has been published in the field’s top journals, where it is heavily cited; and he is a big draw at conferences. Given this exposure, and the fact that his work broadly targets everyone else’s work in medicine, as well as everything that physicians do and all the health advice we get, Ioannidis may be one of the most influential scientists alive. Yet for all his influence, he worries that the field of medical research is so pervasively flawed, and so riddled with conflicts of interest, that it might be chronically resistant to change—or even to publicly admitting that there’s a problem.

... He first stumbled on the sorts of problems plaguing the field, he explains, as a young physician-researcher in the early 1990s at Harvard. At the time, he was interested in diagnosing rare diseases, for which a lack of case data can leave doctors with little to go on other than intuition and rules of thumb. But he noticed that doctors seemed to proceed in much the same manner even when it came to cancer, heart disease, and other common ailments. Where were the hard data that would back up their treatment decisions? There was plenty of published research, but much of it was remarkably unscientific, based largely on observations of a small number of cases. A new “evidence-based medicine” movement was just starting to gather force, and Ioannidis decided to throw himself into it, working first with prominent researchers at Tufts University and then taking positions at Johns Hopkins University and the National Institutes of Health. He was unusually well armed: he had been a math prodigy of near-celebrity status in high school in Greece, and had followed his parents, who were both physician-researchers, into medicine. Now he’d have a chance to combine math and medicine by applying rigorous statistical analysis to what seemed a surprisingly sloppy field.

... In the paper, Ioannidis laid out a detailed mathematical proof that, assuming modest levels of researcher bias, typically imperfect research techniques, and the well-known tendency to focus on exciting rather than highly plausible theories, researchers will come up with wrong findings most of the time. Simply put, if you’re attracted to ideas that have a good chance of being wrong, and if you’re motivated to prove them right, and if you have a little wiggle room in how you assemble the evidence, you’ll probably succeed in proving wrong theories right. His model predicted, in different fields of medical research, rates of wrongness roughly corresponding to the observed rates at which findings were later convincingly refuted: 80 percent of non-randomized studies (by far the most common type) turn out to be wrong, as do 25 percent of supposedly gold-standard randomized trials, and as much as 10 percent of the platinum-standard large randomized trials. The article spelled out his belief that researchers were frequently manipulating data analyses, chasing career-advancing findings rather than good science, and even using the peer-review process—in which journals ask researchers to help decide which studies to publish—to suppress opposing views. “You can question some of the details of John’s calculations, but it’s hard to argue that the essential ideas aren’t absolutely correct,” says Doug Altman, an Oxford University researcher who directs the Centre for Statistics in Medicine.

... He zoomed in on 49 of the most highly regarded research findings in medicine over the previous 13 years, as judged by the science community’s two standard measures: the papers had appeared in the journals most widely cited in research articles, and the 49 articles themselves were the most widely cited articles in these journals. These were articles that helped lead to the widespread popularity of treatments such as the use of hormone-replacement therapy for menopausal women, vitamin E to reduce the risk of heart disease, coronary stents to ward off heart attacks, and daily low-dose aspirin to control blood pressure and prevent heart attacks and strokes. Ioannidis was putting his contentions to the test not against run-of-the-mill research, or even merely well-accepted research, but against the absolute tip of the research pyramid. Of the 49 articles, 45 claimed to have uncovered effective interventions. Thirty-four of these claims had been retested, and 14 of these, or 41 percent, had been convincingly shown to be wrong or significantly exaggerated. If between a third and a half of the most acclaimed research in medicine was proving untrustworthy, the scope and impact of the problem were undeniable.

... Of those 45 super-cited studies that Ioannidis focused on, 11 had never been retested. Perhaps worse, Ioannidis found that even when a research error is outed, it typically persists for years or even decades. He looked at three prominent health studies from the 1980s and 1990s that were each later soundly refuted, and discovered that researchers continued to cite the original results as correct more often than as flawed—in one case for at least 12 years after the results were discredited.

Carson Chow gives a Bayesian formulation of Ioannidis' argument here (click through to see the equations):

John Ioannidis published a very interesting paper in PLoS Biology in 2005 entitled “Why most published research findings are false.” In it he argued that most affirmative results in biology papers that are based on a statistical significance test (e.g. p-value less than 0.05) are probably wrong. His argument was couched in traditional statistics language but it is really a Bayesian argument. The paper is a wake up call that we may need to look more closely at how we use statistics and even how we do research.

The question he asked was Given some hypothesis, what is the probability that the hypothesis is true given that an experiment confirms the result (up to some level of statistical significance)? ...

In high energy physics (where we don't talk about p values, but rather number of SDs of significance of a result) it has been a common bit of folk wisdom since before I entered the field that at any given time there must be some number of multi-SD anomalies in recent experimental results, but that most (perhaps all) of these will eventually go away. (If you think about it, this is basically Ioannidis' claim.) Fortunately, because we are studying the fundamental laws of Nature (and because everyone in the field understands basic statistics; in medicine it seems almost no one does), these anomalies tend to be revisited, and meta-analyses are always done, so wrong results are not likely to become accepted conclusions for years or decades at a time.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Two honest economists

I highly recommend this podcast discussion between Russ Roberts and John Quiggin (of Crooked Timber) about Quiggin's recent book Zombie Economics. Both parties did a good job of putting aside priors and having an enlightening conversation. Quiggin argues that many economic theories such as the Great Moderation, the efficient markets hypothesis and others have been discredited by recent events and should be relegated to the graveyard.

I think at one point both participants agreed that (or at least entertained the idea that) economics doesn't make progress like a real science. Probably too strong a critique, but at least very honest.

Dark Energy talk

Slides for the talk I'm giving Saturday at this meeting. The talk is titled Dark Energy, with Signatures.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Taiwan photos 6

Happy birthday!



Lego sheep. My daughter made this and then added a party hat.

The office.

Cosmology versus Econophysics

We have a bit of a scheduling conflict here -- a meeting on econophysics from Thursday until Saturday, and another meeting on dark energy and dark matter on Friday-Saturday at Tsing Hua University. I'm already committed to speak at the latter on Saturday.

Which talks sound more appealing to you? :-)

The Market Impact of Boundedly Rational Traders, Relationship between bid-ask spreads and fluctuations in market prices, How do skilled traders change the structure of the market? Optimal Diffusion in Evolutionary Designed Networks

Updated Dark Matter Search with Sub-keV Germanium Detector, SUSY Dark Matter in Light of CDMS-II/XENON Limits, Determining the Dark Energy Equation of State from Gravitational-Wave Observations of Binary Inspirals, Thermodynamics in Modified Gravity Theories

(Plenty more talks, some with slides or the actual papers, at the links above.)

Monday, November 01, 2010

Marshmallow test (video)

Here's a charming video in case you haven't seen it. I posted about the experiment before here -- includes links to the actual papers.

A simple test administered to four year olds has impressive predictive power for later life outcomes. Are we talking about an IQ test? No, a test of self-discipline, or the ability to delay gratification.

Neuroscience, magic and misdirection

When I was growing up I did stage magic. I never reached the highest levels with sleights, but I did do shows for dozens of people at a time (usually birthday parties for younger kids). The most amazing thing I learned as a magician is how to manipulate the (surprisingly narrow) attention focus of the audience. This can come in very handy, although I've sworn never to use my super-powers in academic talks, where clarity and honesty are the main goals :-) (A little showmanship, however, will definitely liven up a classroom or VC presentation!) One thing I can do, even today, is get a laugh from a child by showing them a little sleight of hand.

Analyzing magic tricks is good training for the mind -- it teaches you to expand your mental models beyond what is immediately perceptible. (How does what I am seeing actually constrain what is really happening?) Anyone involved in due diligence should spend some time with a magician, study a few classic con games, or try to deconstruct a few illusions.

In the video below two neuroscientists analyze some street magic, with emphasis on the role of misdirection. (Via Simoleonsense.)

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