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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Ruh Roh!

The dreaded double dip!



Non-Americans see here for explanation of "Ruh Roh" :-)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

India = Silicon Valley + Africa ?

A few hundred million (relatively) affluent middle class knowledge workers surrounded by almost a billion slumdogs is not a desirable development outcome. It may in fact be unstable (see below).

The only way I know of to raise the standard of living of a billion people is through the well-traveled (but dirty and energy intensive) path of industrialization and manufacturing. That is how the West, Japan, and Asian Tigers did it, and what China is doing now. Software parks and call centers are wonderful gleaming instantiations of modernity, but only a small fraction of the population in India have the cognitive ability to write code or deliver complex services in English. India optimists are only thinking about the elite minority -- what about the rest of the population?

We have yet to discover a scalable leapfrog to modernity that avoids heavy lifting in favor of bits.

See previous India posts, like Slumdog brainpower.

WSJ: ... Ravi Venkatesan, until this week chairman of Microsoft Corp.'s India arm, says his nation is at a crossroads. "We could end up with a rather unstable society, as aspirations are increasing and those left behind are no longer content to live out their lives. You already see anger and expressions of it," he says. "I strongly have a sense we're at a tipping point: There is incredible opportunity but also dark forces. What we do as an elite and as a country in the next couple of years will be very decisive."

... "What has globalization and industrialization done for India?" asks Mr. Venkatesan, Microsoft's former India chairman. "About 400 million people have seen benefits, and 800 million haven't."

Calorie consumption by the bottom 50% of the population has been declining since 1987, according to the 2009-10 economic survey conducted by India's Ministry of Finance, even as those at the top of society struggle with rising obesity. Mainly because of malnutrition, around 46% of children younger than 3 years old are too small for their age, according to UNICEF.

Infrastructure in cities and the countryside remains woefully inadequate: In recent years, China has added, on average, more than 10 times as much power as India to its electricity grid each year.

Data from McKinsey & Co. show that the number of households in the highest-earning income bracket, making more than $34,000 a year, has risen to 2.5 million, from 1 million in 2005. But the ranks of those at the bottom, making less than $3,000 a year, also have grown, to 111 million, from 101 million in 2005.

[Can these figures be correct? There are probably > 2.5 million households in Taiwan making over $34k a year!]

... India's modernization was expected to prompt a mass movement of workers from farms to factory floors—a critical component in the transformation of China, South Korea and other Asian nations. But manufacturing as a share of India's economy stood at 16% in 2009, the same as in 1991, according to the World Bank.

Services have increased dramatically as a proportion of gross domestic product, rising to 55% in 2009, from 45% in 1991, according to the World Bank, becoming the chief engine of India's economic strength. But many of the fastest-growing areas, such as finance and technology, employ relatively few and rely heavily on skilled employees. The entire software and technology-services sector, including call centers and outsourcing, directly employs just 2.5 million workers, a tiny fraction of the overall work force.

See also the interview below.

WSJ: Vineet Nayar, chief executive of software exporter HCL Technologies, dismisses complaints about corruption in India as a distraction, arguing that the real question the country needs to ask is whether it is becoming more or less globally competitive.

“Was India more globally competitive in 1990 or in 2005, or will it be more competitive in 2015?” questions Mr. Nayar. “Are the [current and future] policies of the government more populist or will they make India more competitive in the global arena?”

In a world where consumption patterns in the U.S. and Europe are at an all time low, even as they continue to hit new peaks in emerging markets, and where power bases are shifting from the West to emerging markets like China, Brazil and India, “country competitiveness is very important because you can either be used like China is using India for consumption [of Chinese exports],” says Mr. Nayar. Or you can become an exporter yourself.

And in his opinion, India is at that cusp today: Will it be used for its billion people or will it use its billion people?

“And there, unfortunately, my answer is that we are becoming less competitive with every passing day because of lack of investment in critical segments like skill development,” he said.

... “The only real raw material we have is people,” he went on. “If you convert people into consumers, we’ll become Africa. If you convert people into labor productivity, we’ll become America. We are at a cusp between America and Africa right now.”

Paul Allen: Idea Man

The excerpts below are from Paul Allen's new memoir Idea Man.

On Bill Gates and Harvard's notorious Math 55. What professor is Gates talking about below? The professor who currently teaches Math 55 is invited to comment -- anonymously, of course ;-)

... I offered a word to the wise: “You know, Bill, when you get to Harvard, there are going to be some people a lot better in math than you are.”

“No way,” he said. “There’s no way!”

And I said, “Wait and see.”

I was decent in math, and Bill was brilliant, but by then I spoke from my experience at Washington State. One day I watched a professor cover the blackboard with a maze of partial differential equations, and they might as well have been hieroglyphics from the Second Dynasty. It was one of those moments when you realize, I just can’t see it. I felt a little sad, but I accepted my limitations. I was O.K. with being a generalist.

For Bill it was different. When I saw him again over Christmas break, he seemed subdued. I asked him about his first semester, and he said glumly, “I have a math professor who got his Ph.D. at 16.” The course was purely theoretical, and the homework load ranged up to 30 hours a week. Bill put everything into it and got a B. When it came to higher mathematics, he might have been one in a hundred thousand students or better. But there were people who were one in a million or one in 10 million, and some of them wound up at Harvard. Bill would never be the smartest guy in that room, and I think that hurt his motivation. He eventually switched his major to applied math.


On Bill and Steve Ballmer conspiring to steal Allen's stake in the company while he was ill with cancer.

One evening in late December 1982, I heard Bill and Steve speaking heatedly in Bill’s office and paused outside to listen in. It was easy to get the gist of the conversation. They were bemoaning my recent lack of production and discussing how they might dilute my Microsoft equity by issuing options to themselves and other shareholders. It was clear that they’d been thinking about this for some time.

Unable to stand it any longer, I burst in on them and shouted, “This is unbelievable! It shows your true character, once and for all.” I was speaking to both of them, but staring straight at Bill. Caught red-handed, they were struck dumb. Before they could respond, I turned on my heel and left.

I replayed their dialogue in my mind while driving home, and it felt more and more heinous to me. I helped start the company and was still an active member of management, though limited by my illness, and now my partner and my colleague were scheming to rip me off. It was mercenary opportunism, plain and simple. That evening, a chastened Steve Ballmer called my house and asked my sister Jody if he could come over. “Look, Paul,” he said after we sat down together, “I’m really sorry about what happened today. We were just letting off steam. We’re trying to get so much stuff done, and we just wish you could contribute even more. But that stock thing isn’t fair. I wouldn’t have anything to do with it, and I’m sure Bill wouldn’t, either.”

I told Steve that the incident had left a bad taste in my mouth. A few days later, I received a six-page, handwritten letter from Bill. Dated December 31, 1982, the last day of our last full year together at Microsoft, it contained an apology for the conversation I’d overheard. And it offered a revealing, Bill’s-eye view of our partnership: “During the last 14 years we have had numerous disagreements. However, I doubt any two partners have ever agreed on as much both in terms of specific decisions and their general idea of how to view things.”

Bill was right. Our great string of successes had married my vision to his unmatched aptitude for business. But that was beside the point. Once I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s, my decision became simpler. If I were to relapse, it would be pointless—if not hazardous—to return to the stresses at Microsoft. If I continued to recover, I now understood that life was too short to spend it unhappily.

Bill’s letter was a last-ditch effort to get me to stay, and I knew he believed he had logic on his side. But it didn’t change anything. My mind was made up.

In January, I met with Bill one final time as a Microsoft executive. As he sat down with me on the couch in his office, I knew that he’d try to make me feel guilty and obliged to stay. But once he saw he couldn’t change my mind, Bill tried to cut his losses. When Microsoft incorporated, in 1981, our old partnership agreement was nullified, and with it his power to force me to accept a buyout based on “irreconcilable differences.” Now he tried a different tack, one he’d hinted at in his letter. “It’s not fair that you keep your stake in the company,” he said. He made a lowball offer for my stock: five dollars a share.

... “I’m not sure I’m willing to sell,” I countered, “but I wouldn’t even discuss less than $10 a share.”

“No way,” Bill said, as I’d suspected he would. Our talk was over. As it turned out, Bill’s conservatism worked to my advantage. If he’d been willing to offer something close to my asking price, I would have sold way too soon.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Misers' methods for reading the NYTimes

Some people have pointed out to me that I am the cheapest (as in most miserly) person they know in my net worth category. I plead guilty.

The Times wants to charge me $35/month for unlimited digital access (that means on multiple devices, like mobile, tablet, computer). Now, I'm all for supporting journalism, and the Times in particular, but it seems kind of high to me. Let's see how it all works out for the Grey Lady. Perhaps a micropayment scheme would be better? (Has Google rolled their version out yet?)

Apparently they won't limit access to articles reached via link (i.e., from blogs, Twitter, search engine; see below for more details). This is strategic: they want their articles to be read, and to be influential, so don't want to frustrate potential readers who arrive via search or social network.

Therefore, I think you can just type the following into Google to get (free) access to daily NYTimes content (up to 5 articles per day; see note at bottom):

site:nytimes.com < today's date > < keywords >

i.e.,

site:nytimes.com march 29 2011 japan reactor

or

site:nytimes.com 2011/03/29 japan reactor

Soon someone will write a little web or mobile app to do exactly this kind of thing, mashing a nice graphical display with links that connect via Google or Twitter or whatever. Hmm ...

Here is a Twitter feed someone has already put up for this purpose. See also links in comments below.



*** It looks like search engine links are only good for 5 articles a day:

9. Can I still access NYTimes.com articles through Facebook, Twitter, search engines or my blog?

Yes. We encourage links from Facebook, Twitter, search engines, blogs and social media. When you visit NYTimes.com through a link from one of these channels, that article (or video, slide show, etc.) will count toward your monthly limit of 20 free articles, but you will still be able to view it even if you've already read your 20 free articles.

Like other external links, links from search engine results will count toward your monthly limit. If you have reached your monthly limit, you'll have a daily limit of 5 free articles through a given search engine. This limit applies to the majority of search engines.

Statins, cholesterol and medical science

Do statins work? Does high cholesterol cause heart disease? Are people who doubt the conventional wisdom on these two topics excessively skeptical conspiracy wonks? Or is big pharma pulling a fast one on the public by pushing statins?

See also this paper which is mentioned in the article below and which summarizes results of studies from 2008-2010 (response by authors to criticism). See here for earlier discussion on the overall quality of medical research.

MedConnect: ... Dr. Kausik K. Ray of the University of Cambridge (England) and his associates performed a meta-analysis of 11 randomized controlled trials that assessed the effects on all-cause mortality of statins versus a placebo or control therapies on all-cause mortality. They restricted their analysis to data on high-risk patients with no known cardiovascular disease and included previously unpublished data, “to provide the most robust information to date” on statins as primary prevention in this patient group.

The metaanalysis involved 65,229 men and women in predominantly Western populations, with approximately 244,000 person-years of follow-up. There were 2,793 deaths during an average of 4 years of follow-up.

All-cause mortality was not significantly different between patients taking statins and those taking placebo or control therapies. This suggests that “the all-cause mortality reduction of 20% reported in JUPITER is likely to be an extreme and exaggerated finding, as often occurs when trials are stopped early,” Dr. Ray and his colleagues said (Arch. Intern. Med. 2010;170;1,024-31).

This meta-analysis shows that statin therapy as primary prevention in high-risk patients is less beneficial than is generally perceived, and it can be inferred to be even less helpful in low-risk patients, they added.

Monday, March 28, 2011

We're different on the inside

Hmm... I wonder how many pounds of gooey visceral fat are encasing my internal organs? Good thing I just got back from the gym :-)

I'm quasi-paleo and refuse to take statins. Any advice?

NPR: ... The Afghan soldiers, police and civilians he treated in Kandahar had radically different bodies from those of the Canadians he took care of back home.

"Typical Afghan civilians and soldiers would have been 140 pounds or so as adults. And when we operated on them, what we were aware of was the absence of any fat or any adipose tissue underneath the skin," Patterson says. "Of course, when we operated on Canadians or Americans or Europeans, what was normal was to have most of the organs encased in fat. It had a visceral potency to it when you could see it directly there."

... "Type 2 diabetes historically didn't exist, only 70 or 80 years ago," says Patterson. "And what's driven it, of course, is this rise in obesity, especially the accumulation of abdominal fat. That fat induces changes in our receptors that cells have for insulin. Basically, it makes them numb to the effect of insulin."

For a long time, the human body can compensate — the pancreas secretes even larger amounts of insulin, which regulates blood sugar levels. But over time, the pancreas begins to fail to secrete enough insulin, and that is when diabetes develops.

He explains that the increase in abdominal fat has driven the epidemic of diabetes over the last 40 years in the developed world — and that he's now seeing similar patterns in undeveloped regions that have adapted Western eating patterns.

See also the essay below.

Maisonneuve: ... Excessive fattiness is precisely why, when caring for the critically ill in North America, glucose levels are tightly controlled with insulin—a procedure necessary even for those not thought to be diabetic. Stressed by the infection, or the operation that has brought us to the intensive care unit, our sugar levels rise, paralyzing our white blood cells and nourishing the bacteria chewing upon them. But it was never necessary to give the Afghans insulin, no matter how shattered they were.

Among North American adults, 40 percent of us maintain normal glucose levels only by secreting larger than normal quantities of insulin from our pancreas. So we wander in and out of our family doctors’ offices and, if some blood work is done, we are reassured that our glucose levels are normal, that we don’t have diabetes. Mostly, they are and mostly, we don’t. But our bodies are not normal. The Afghans’ bodies are normal. We are so commonly ill we take it to be normal.

Here is our normal: 40 percent of North American adults have metabolic syndrome. The syndrome is caused by being fat, even at levels North Americans would not recognize as abnormal. Obesity prompts the receptors that insulin acts upon to become numb to its effects. As we grow fatter, and insulin resistance proceeds, higher and higher levels of insulin are necessary to get the sugar out of the blood. Eventually, overt diabetes may supervene, as it has for 8 percent of North American adults, a tenfold increase since the turn of the last century. But even prior to the development of diabetes, metabolic syndrome insidiously eats away at the bodies of those it affects.

Metabolic syndrome’s elevated insulin level is why we order a second Whopper; getting fatter, cruelly, stimulates our appetite. It is also why high blood pressure is more common among Westerners, too, and why our cholesterol panels are more alarming. Ultimately and especially, it is why heart attacks are almost unknown among traditional peoples like the Pashtun, while half of us will spend our last minutes with the impression that a large kitchen appliance is sitting on our chests.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

TEDxCaltech





Sorry if you've seen this already, I totally missed it until just now. Here is their web page, with links to lots of video.

Warning: massive doses of Feynman idolatry!

I particularly liked Tony Hey's Feynman and Computation and Lenny Susskind's talk, which mentions liquid helium and partons.

Annals of socially constructed gender roles

A typical conversation between my five year old twins. Guess which is the boy and which is the girl!

I: Let's play with my dolls.

M: You never want to play anything fun!

I: Like what?

M: Like guns, robots or dinosaurs!

Yesterday M asked me why in all the stories the prince does the fighting and the princess always needs rescuing. Unsure, I consulted mommy, who has a PhD in comparative literature from Berkeley. The answer is, apparently, that in the old days princesses were weak and so the princes had to do the fighting. Nowadays (as you can see on TV in Afghanistan) princesses can take care of themselves. M was very confused by this and keeps asking me why the princesses used to be so weak: did an evil wizard do it?

Poker prodigies

Video game training allows younger players to take on a dozen tables at a time in online poker? This seems harder than a simul in chess, where a master can "chunk" the position on the board quickly. If there are many players at each of those dozen tables the poker genius has to keep track of perhaps 30 or 50 hands at a time, and the psychological profile of each of those players. The guy in the article seems to be doing this with the help of software. How long until it's all bots, all the time?

NYTimes: ... Within 18 months, Cates went from routinely losing at local $5 games to winning at the highest stakes of online poker for anywhere between $10,000 and $500,000 per night. In 2010, his reported $5.5 million in online earnings was more than $1 million higher than the nearest competitor. Unlike other young poker millionaires who make the bulk of their money by winning televised tournaments — a proposition that, because of the high number of players and the unpredictability of their actions, involves roughly the same amount of luck as winning a small lottery — Cates earned his stake by grinding, the term used to describe the process of pressing a skill advantage over an extended period of time. Because poker is a game of high variance, where a significant difference in ability can be mitigated by a bad run of cards, a player’s Expected Value (E.V.) must be actualized over thousands of hands. Every year, a few dozen kids go on hot streaks and take a shot at the big time. Almost invariably, these kids are eventually ground down by higher caliber players. What made Cates’s run different wasn’t his total winnings or the speed with which he earned his millions. What caught the attention of the poker world was that the 20-year-old top online earner of 2010 won almost all of his money in head-to-head confrontations with poker’s elite.

The gospel of E.V. that keeps the poker hierarchy in order was shaken. Cates had taken on all comers in 2010, including highly publicized matches against top-flight pros like Phil Ivey, Patrik Antonius, Ilari (Ziigmund) Sahamies and his fellow young gun Tom (durrrr) Dwan. Each of these men has helped turn poker into a multimillion-dollar celebrity enterprise. Each ranks among the 20 or so most recognized players in the world. And in each of his matches with poker royalty, Cates came out hundreds of thousands of dollars ahead.

... The vast sums of money shuttled among the accounts of these young professionals — and the shocking aggressiveness and recklessness with which they played — deepened the divide between the young online players and the older guard who earned their millions when poker was still a game played by men sitting around a table. Since the rise of online poker in the early 2000s, every principle of the game, every lesson learned over hundreds of thousands of hours of play, every simple credo uttered in some old Western gambling movie — all those tersely stated, manly things that made up the legend of poker — has been picked apart and, for the most part, discarded.

Patience is no longer rewarded. If an 18-year-old online whiz can play 12 hands at once, then by his 19th birthday, he is no less experienced than a career gambler who has sat for a dozen years at the big-money table at the Bellagio. It didn’t take long before the young players began crushing established gamblers online, and the question rang out across the poker world: How were these kids, many of whom were too young to set foot inside a casino, outsharking the sharks?

In Command and Conquer, the video game that consumed much of Cates’s childhood, a player leads an army into a real-time battle. The combat units are vaguely futuristic and highly specialized. Success depends on the efficiency with which a player can build his resources and the speed with which he can deploy them. It is a difficult game to play and an even harder game to master. The best players develop a predatory instinct for detecting the exact moment when an opponent has weakened. High-end strategy combines lightning-fast reflexes, unabashed aggression and razor-thin resource management. Reckoning comes by way of particle cannon. By the age of 15, Cates told me repeatedly, he was one of the world’s best Command and Conquer players.

Phil Gordon, a 40-year-old poker professional who has won $3 million in tournaments, written three best-selling books and hosted several TV shows, including Bravo’s Celebrity Poker Showdown, says he believes that the early and immersive training offered by video games, paired with online poker’s increasing space in the mainstream, has laid out a practice ground for a militia of young, fearless, invincible players. “The prototypical successful young gun is fast and unpredictable,” Gordon says. “Those traits make them nearly impossible to beat, especially when playing at warp speeds. The manual dexterity required to play 12 or even 16 or 20 tables at one time is enormous. The mental dexterity required to play well while making that number of decisions in a very short amount of time is even more impressive. Many of the video games the kids grew up with like Command and Conquer or Call of Duty required a similar dexterity and gave these kids a leg up — the more tables they could play accurately, the more decisions they got to make, and the quicker they were able to learn.”

Then there’s the fact that high-stakes poker rewards aggression. A player who cannot fire off a bluff because he is worried about his daughter’s private-school tuition will be quickly run over by the players who don’t have such concerns. While heightened dexterity, comfort with snap decisions and the stamina gained from years spent sitting in front of a computer screen give the young online pro an edge over his older counterpart, the greatest benefit borne from a life spent playing video games lies somewhere in the strange, disconnected relationship between what is simulated and what is real. The armies of Command and Conquer do not suffer real casualties. An unsuccessful session of Minesweeper does not result in the loss of a leg.

In online poker, lost money registers only as debits in the player’s offshore account. When a player loses a million-dollar pot, the action plays out in cartoon animation.

“Most of us young kids who play at nosebleed stakes don’t really have any clear idea about the actual value of the money we win or lose,” Cates says. “Most of us see the money more as a points system. And because we’re all competitive, we want to have the highest score. But really, we don’t know what making $400,000 or losing $800,000 means, because we don’t have families or whatever. This blind spot gives us the freedom to always make the right move, regardless of the amount at stake, because our judgment isn’t clouded by any possible ramifications.”

It is unclear whether Cates actually does understand that the money is real. On the second day of my visit, we took a trip to Best Buy. Cates had grown bored of playing poker and wanted to buy a video game. As we stood in the PS3 aisle, discussing which games looked good, I asked him if he had ever walked into a store like Best Buy — or perhaps a car dealership — and thought to himself, Hey, I can buy out this entire place. Cates smiled sheepishly. He said: “I’m not really into material wealth. Plus, I need to save up some more money. My fiscal goal for 2011 is to reach $10 million in liquid cash.” I asked what the difference might be between $5 million and $10 million, especially for a 21-year-old whose relative spending habits sit somewhere on the line between modest and monastic. He explained: “You can do anything with $10 million. Like, you can buy a house and still have around $5 million left over.”

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Pebble bed reactors



The problems at Fukushima got me thinking about pebble bed reactors, described in the WIRED magazine article below. It would be very sweet to have a reactor that self-regulates its temperature in event of catastrophe. Here is a recent NYTimes article.


WIRED: ... Beneath its cavernous main room are the 100 tons of steel, graphite, and hydraulic gear known as HTR-10 (i.e., high-temperature reactor, 10 megawatt). The plant's output is underwhelming; at full power - first achieved in January - it would barely fulfill the needs of a town of 4,000 people. But what's inside HTR-10, which until now has never been visited by a Western journalist, makes it the most interesting reactor in the world.

In the air-conditioned chill of the visitors' area, a grad student runs through the basics. Instead of the white-hot fuel rods that fire the heart of a conventional reactor, HTR-10 is powered by 27,000 billiards-sized graphite balls packed with tiny flecks of uranium. Instead of superhot water - intensely corrosive and highly radioactive - the core is bathed in inert helium. The gas can reach much higher temperatures without bursting pipes, which means a third more energy pushing the turbine. No water means no nasty steam, and no billion-dollar pressure dome to contain it in the event of a leak. And with the fuel sealed inside layers of graphite and impermeable silicon carbide - designed to last 1 million years - there's no steaming pool for spent fuel rods. Depleted balls can go straight into lead-lined steel bins in the basement.

... The key trick is a phenomenon known as Doppler broadening - the hotter atoms get, the more they spread apart, making it harder for an incoming neutron to strike a nucleus. In the dense core of a conventional reactor, the effect is marginal. But HTR-10's carefully designed geometry, low fuel density, and small size make for a very different story. In the event of a catastrophic cooling-system failure, instead of skyrocketing into a bad movie plot, the core temperature climbs to only about 1,600 degrees Celsius - comfortably below the balls' 2,000-plus-degree melting point - and then falls. This temperature ceiling makes HTR-10 what engineers privately call walk-away safe. As in, you can walk away from any situation and go have a pizza.

... If Wu's pebble-bed "thing" is, well, hot, it's because Chinergy's product is tailor-made for the world's fastest-growing energy market: a modular design that snaps together like Legos. Despite some attempts at standardization, the latest generation of big nukes are still custom-built onsite. By contrast, production versions of INET's reactor will be barely a fifth their size and power, and built from standardized components that can be mass-produced, shipped by road or rail, and assembled quickly. Moreover, multiple reactors can be daisy-chained around one or more turbines, all monitored from a single control room. In other words, Tsinghua's power plants can do the two things that matter most amid China's explosive growth: get where they're needed and get big, fast.


See also here. Unfortunately I believe the S. African project has run out of money.

... In the event of a complete shutdown of helium flow in the pebble bed, the temperature would rise at most to 2,900°F, a level well below the thermal limit of the graphite pebbles. At the higher temperature, the more plentiful uranium-238 nuclei absorb more neutrons (due to an effect called Doppler broadening) and the reactor output decreases, lowering the reactor temperature until an equilibrium is reached. The reactor heat is transferred passively by radiation, conduction, and natural convection to the steel reactor vessel, which is designed to reject the heat without human intervention.


Thursday, March 24, 2011

Duty, Honor, Country: Fukushima grunts

The grunts at Fukushima are not doing it for money. No "Yeah, I calculated the NPV, and, you know, it's just not worth it for me. I really believe in your project, though. And, I share your passion. Good luck."

WSJ: ... In normal times, thousands of workers perform routine tasks of reactor maintenance at the Fukushima Daiichi complex. Now, many of them are being called to volunteer to work, at standard pay, at the troubled plant.

"I'm scared," says Kenji Tada, 29 years old, a worker at protective-coating specialist Tokai Toso Co. "But someone has to go."

... "There isn't a single person who's been doing this because of money,'' says Tadashi Ikeda, senior managing director of Tokai Toso. Plenty of workers are locals who have been forced out of their homes by the radiation levels and are eager to help get things back to normal, he adds.

Mr. Tada says he typically earns about ¥200,000 ($2,470) a month, well below Japan's average monthly salary of ¥291,000. "It can't be helped," he says, adding his mother doesn't want him to go. "Someone has to do it."

... Radiation managers at Tepco take readings at the places where they want to send each day's workers. Shifting winds and leaks from unstable reactors have meant radiation levels in the complex have veered wildly in the space of hours, and hot spots move from one area to another.

Workers wear protective gear and a mask and must have had training in dealing with radioactive environments. Each person also wears two badges, in chest pockets under gear, to track radiation exposure on each visit. Each worker is limited to a total of 250,000 microsieverts for the duration of the crisis, a limit that was lifted last week from 100,000 microsieverts—the borderline for what is considered "low-dose" exposure.

Mr. Tada says colleagues already at the site have told him they were exposed to around 100 microsieverts of radiation after five hours of work, an amount equivalent to one chest X-ray. That is less than the 190 microsieverts Mr. Tada says he logged in four hours of work one recent day, before the crisis.

Not everyone is so sanguine. At the Saitama Super Arena, a stadium north of Tokyo that has been converted into a refugee shelter for people forced from towns near the Fukushima plant, Mitsuyoshi Oigawa says his son was among those asked to return.

Mr. Oigawa says the call came six days after the quake struck and that his son will likely work at the plant for two or three days. Mr. Oigawa says he has tried without success to call his son's cellphone since then. He worries that radiation exposure could sicken his son.

"There's no way to express what I'd do for him," says Mr. Oigawa, 70. "I'd go in his place if I could."

In an evacuee camp in the city of Tamura, about 20 miles west of the Fukushima Daiichi complex, another worker for a nuclear-equipment maker says he got his call to report for duty earlier this week. The man says he thinks he will be carrying and laying pipes that will bring water to reactor No. 3.

The high-school graduate, whose salary is similar to Mr. Tada's, says he was told he could refuse the call. But he says he felt duty-bound to accept, musing that he would be in the position of sacrificing himself for the good of others, as he says Japanese pilots did in World War II suicide missions. "If the call comes, there's only one thing I can say: 'Yes, I'll go.' I thought of the kamikaze—sacrificing yourself for someone else," he says. "My heart is calm."

Are these values unique to the Japanese? No, many Americans would do the same.

Douglas MacArthur (1962, West Point): ... Duty, Honor, Country: Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn.

Unhappily, I possess neither that eloquence of diction, that poetry of imagination, nor that brilliance of metaphor to tell you all that they mean.

The unbelievers will say they are but words, but a slogan, but a flamboyant phrase. Every pedant, every demagogue, every cynic, every hypocrite, every troublemaker, and I am sorry to say, some others of an entirely different character, will try to downgrade them even to the extent of mockery and ridicule.

...

The soldier, above all other men, is required to practice the greatest act of religious training -- sacrifice.

In battle and in the face of danger and death, he discloses those divine attributes which his Maker gave when he created man in his own image. No physical courage and no brute instinct can take the place of the Divine help which alone can sustain him.

However horrible the incidents of war may be, the soldier who is called upon to offer and to give his life for his country is the noblest development of mankind.

...

The shadows are lengthening for me. The twilight is here. My days of old have vanished, tone and tint. They have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were. Their memory is one of wondrous beauty, watered by tears, and coaxed and caressed by the smiles of yesterday. I listen vainly, but with thirsty ears, for the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille, of far drums beating the long roll. In my dreams I hear again the crash of guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange, mournful mutter of the battlefield.

But in the evening of my memory, always I come back to West Point.

Always there echoes and re-echoes: Duty, Honor, Country.

Today marks my final roll call with you, but I want you to know that when I cross the river my last conscious thoughts will be of The Corps, and The Corps, and The Corps.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Almost over? part 2

Are further price declines in the cards? If you think there's some inflation around the corner (say in the next few years), now might be a good time to lever up and buy some real estate.

Here's an interesting figure from a recent paper by Case, Quigley and Shiller. The paper is primarily about wealth effects, but it has some nice panel data. They find that the wealth effect is stronger for housing than for equity assets.



Here is a video from the Financial Times discussing the paper and recent housing data.

More discussion and figures like the one below in this earlier post.


Sunday, March 20, 2011

What is reality? Philip K. Dick

I found this via longform.org. Much more here. Was Dick schizo?

Has anyone read The Grasshopper Lies Heavy? :-)


The God In the Trash: The Fantastic Life and Oracular Work of Philip K. Dick.

Alexander Star The New Republic Dec 6 1993

Dick grew up with his mother on the fringes of Berkeley's fledgling bohemia. A troubled student, he was often "hypochondriacal about his mental condition," as one of his wives later put it. And like many troubled boys of the time, he became a voracious reader of the science fiction pulp magazines that were then at their peak. In Confessions of a Crap Artist, a novel written in 1959, he wryly portrayed himself as an awkward kid spouting oddball ideas from Popular Mechanics and adventure stores: "Even to look at me you'd recognize that my main energies are in the mind."

... Throughout his career Dick longed for a wider audience, and sought to escape the science fiction ghetto. He envied writers such as Ursula Le Guin, who acquired a serious reputation and was even published in The New Yorker. His readers, he complained, were "trolls and wackos." In the '50s and early '60s, he wrote a series of non-science fiction novels, all of which were rejected by publishers at the time. These books were mainly somber tales of thwarted love in northern California, peopled with cranky record salesmen and bitter couples and narrated in a glumly painstaking fashion. On the whole, their vision of domestic life is an unhappy one. In Confessions of a Crap Artist, an accumulation of errant jealousies and petty insults leads to illness and insanity. The novel ridicules the newly formed UFO cults of Marin County, though years later Dick reflected that the cults "didn't seem as crazy to me now ..."

Rebuffed by "mainstream" publishers, Dick abandoned his realist writings in 1963. By then he had discovered a different way out of the Ace formula: he would transform the genre of science fiction from within. Concerned with psychic dislocation, and its moral and philosophical consequences, he began to ignore the expectations of his editors. In particular, he disregarded the most honored conventions of "hard s.f.," that science fiction should be rigorously "extrapolative" of hard science, and that it should be "prophetic" of plausible futures.

... Philip Dick's fictional worlds have a great many attributes, but sanity is not among them. Campbell, the monarch of postwar science fiction, refused to publish his stories because they were "too neurotic." In his preoccupation with abnormal psychology, collective delusions and implanted memories, Dick in part followed the path of irregular science fiction writers of the '50s such as A.E. van Vogt and Theodore Sturgeon. Yet he ranged further in his subversions. Dick continued to rely on the ready-made materials of science fiction, the pulp prose, the planetary conflicts, the "psionic" powers of "precogs" (who read the future) and "telepaths" (who read minds); but he employed these materials to his own extravagant ends.

... Dick's biggest literary advance came in 1962, when he published The Man in the High Castle. This study of an alternate universe in which the Axis won the Second World War was entirely devoid of the usual sci-fi devices. ("No science in it," a character observes. "Nor set in future.") Mr. Tagomi, a Japanese bureaucrat and connoisseur of American antiques, is one of Dick's most sympathetic characters. Repelled by international intrigue and devoted to the occult beauty of old bottle caps and cheap jewelry, he resists Nazi brutality with a fragile but steady will. After Bormann dies, a power struggle breaks out among the remaining Nazi leaders (Hitler has long since entered a sanitarium) and Tagomi unhappily plays one faction off against another, aware that they are all unspeakably evil. Ingeniously, the book contains its own counterfiction: in this America divided into German and Japanese zones, rumors spread of an incendiary novel speculating that the allies actually won the war. The narrative adroitly maneuvers back and forth between these two competing accounts of what is real. The Man in the High Castle was Dick's most assured and subtle work, and he hoped it would win him a wider audience. He was chagrined when reviewers treated it as just another thriller. Ironically, it was the science fiction community that celebrated the book, bestowing the Hugo Award on it in 1963.

In the early '80s Dick's hopes for renown revived, as younger writers arrived at his doorstep, royalties increased and German, French and Japanese editions of his work proliferated. Back in the early '70s he had optioned his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to Hollywood; by 1980 the producers of the film promised that it would be the next Star Wars. (Dick hoped that Victoria Principal would have a starring role.) In fact, Blade Runner was a commercial disappointment in its initial release. But Dick never knew of its early unsuccess. In March 1982, he died of a stroke after proudly attending an advance screening of the movie. ...

Dick explored the problem of decency in a dead world most forcefully in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Rick Deckard is a bounty-hunter, paid to track down and destroy a party of androids that has infiltrated the planet. Deckard employs an "empathy" test that records his subjects' responses to unpalatable thoughts of cruelty and death; the test can distinguish between androids and their identical-looking human counterparts. The typical Dickian twist comes when Deckard, unlike one of his partners, begins to empathize with the androids that he kills. Does this mean that he might be an android himself, or does his powerful feeling of empathy confirm precisely that he is human? Deckard investigates incidents of empathy with the care of an experienced detective, but he cannot take anything for granted. The special horror of his work is that a sudden "flattening of affect" might occur at any time, to others or to himself. The practice of empathy is fragile, uncertain and imperative. ...

This appears to be the full text of The Man in the High Castle.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Wellesley girls

I've spent some time at Wellesley. The first visit was on a tour of east coast grad schools with some other Caltech guys. A family friend (she turned out to be a charming southern belle from Arkansas) at Wellesley arranged for us to camp out in sleeping bags on an indoor balcony in her residence hall. Pretty amazing, when you think about it. My memory is fuzzy but I think showering was a bit of a challenge. Men were not allowed to move from floor to floor without an escort. "Horizontal motion, but no vertical motion" was the slogan :-) My girlfriend at the time was a student at Scripps College, an all-women's school in Claremont, California. So I was pretty familiar with the scene ... sadly, not quite as salacious as the article below makes it out to be.

I wonder what happened to all the girls we met on that trip.

Rolling Stone Magazine: ... As a visiting student from Wheaton College studying at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, for one year, Ross enjoys the unique position of being the lone full-time male student at an all-women’s school. “I really don’t have to introduce myself too often,” he says. It’s established wisdom on campus that the “token guy” who comes to Wellesley every few years will get as much attention as he can handle. David Kent, who spent a year at Wellesley in the late Seventies, wrote about the experience for Esquire: “I became incapable of talking to a girl without thinking how much she craved me and what she’d be like in the sack.” He dated three women a night, he writes, and rarely slept in his own room. Neil Schiavo, a Connecticut College graduate who spent part of the 1994-95 academic year at Wellesley, says, “The first week, it took me forty minutes to get to classes because people were so friendly. I felt like in this one little area in the world, I was Tom Cruise.”

Ross won’t put a number on how many Wellesley students he’s slept with, but admits he’s been dating “a lot.” One group of students placed bets on who could sleep with Ross, and there was also an informal competition to see who could get him into bed first. “Wellesley women are different from other women,” Ross says. “They plan everything out in their heads.” ...

... “It was a challenge to be straight at a school like that,” says Melanie Herman, a 1999 graduate who now works on Wall Street. So women at Wellesley who do choose to date men but have given up on the “Fuck Truck”—the student nickname for bus that runs to Harvard and MIT, both about forty-five minutes away—have to find whoever is available. The most alluring candidates are the professors. Different academic departments have different reputations. “Some of the departments are a little racy and some are a little more tame,” says senior Sandra North. “Some professors are notorious for having sex with their students. Everyone knows who they are.”

Understandably, professors are not cheered by the sometimes unkind stories that are spread about them. “I knew a guy who used to pick up a baby sitter on campus, and people said he was picking her up for a date,” says professor Aaron Girard, “And it wasn’t anything like that. So you can get injustice done pretty easily.” Many of the rumors are completely untrue, he points out—although he admits he has had relationships with students. “I’ve heard rumors about me and several students that had no basis in fact whatsoever,” Girard says. “And the one that was true, no one knew about.”

For a straight male professor, a women’s college offers obvious temptations. In every class, there are at least a few admirers, especially if he has that “professor sex appeal.” And having that appeal doesn’t necessarily mean he’s good-looking—indeed, says a student, many of the most sought-after professors “definitely do not fall into the good-looking category.” ...

Jon Jones, phenom



Watch this great profile of 23 year old MMA phenom Jon Jones, who will fight Shogun Rua for the LHW (205) title later today.

Anyone who has watched Jones fight knows he is incredibly talented. His background is wrestling -- he gave up a scholarship to Iowa State when he started his pro career. I notice he hits a lot of Judo throws in his fights. Most fans think those are greco throws but they aren't -- he's using his legs, which is illegal in greco. When I investigated this, expecting to find that he had trained in Judo as many wrestlers have, I was amazed to discover that he taught himself using internet videos!

Las Vegas Sun: ... Widely regarded as an unorthodox and unpredictable fighter, Jones has built his style based on what he's learned in the gym from instructors and what he's taught himself using methods like YouTube.

While it's known that Jones comes from a Greco-Roman wrestling background, he's evolved that style into his own by combining it with moves he's picked up from studying judo on the Internet.

"A lot of the moves I'm performing aren't actually Greco-Roman, they're judo," Jones said. "You can't use a trip in Greco-Roman. I don't have an official judo coach but I've been, it sounds weird, getting on the Internet and watching a lot of Judo moves. I take it seriously."

This highlight video shows some nice throws, including by Jones.




Is Jones ready for Rua? The biggest question in my mind is whether Rua is fully recovered from knee surgery. If he is, he could give Jones a tough fight, maybe even a beatdown. Rua is a legend, but are his best days behind him? This is one of the most exciting match ups in some time.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Nuclear Boy is sick

Some videos to take us into the weekend here in Asia.

Nuclear Boy





And two more just for fun...


J.R. Oppenheimer




Mario Savio

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Fukushima meltdown: worst case scenario?

UK government Chief Scientific Officer Professor John Beddington comments on the developments at Fukushima nuclear plant. I hope he is correct.

If the Japanese fail to keep the reactors cool and fail to keep the pressure in the containment vessels at an appropriate level, you can get this, you know, the dramatic word "meltdown." But what does that actually mean? What a meltdown involves is the basic reactor core melts, and as it melts, nuclear material will fall through to the floor of the container. There it will react with concrete and other materials that is likely.

Remember this is the reasonable worst case, we don't think anything worse is going to happen. In this reasonable worst case you get an explosion. You get some radioactive material going up to about 500 meters up into the air. Now, that's really serious, but it's serious again for the local area. It's not serious for elsewhere, even if you get a combination of that explosion it would only have nuclear material going in to the air up to about 500 meters.

If you then couple that with the worst possible weather situation, i.e. prevailing weather taking radioactive material in the direction of Greater Tokyo and you had maybe rainfall which would bring the radioactive material down, do we have a problem? The answer is unequivocally no. Absolutely no issue.

The problems are within 30 km of the reactor. And to give you a flavor for that, when Chernobyl had a massive fire at the graphite core, material was going up not just 500 meters but to 30,000 feet; it was lasting not for the odd hour or so but lasted months, and that was putting nuclear radioactive material up into the upper atmosphere for a very long period of time. But even in the case of Chernobyl, the exclusion zone that they had was about 30 kilometers. And in that exclusion zone, outside that, there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate people had problems from the radiation.

The problems with Chernobyl were people were continuing to drink the water, continuing to eat vegetables and so on and that was where the problems came from. That's not going to be the case here. So what I would really reemphasize is that this is very problematic for the area and the immediate vicinity and one has to have concerns for the people working there. Beyond that 20 or 30 kilometers, it's really not an issue for health.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Buffet on derivatives

Transcript of Buffet's recent interview with the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.

NYTimes: ... “If I look at JPMorgan, I see two trillion in receivables, two trillion in payables, a trillion and seven netted off on each side and $300 billion remaining, maybe $200 billion collateralized,” he said, walking through his thinking. “That’s all fine. But I don’t know what discontinuities are going to do to those numbers overnight if there’s a major nuclear, chemical or biological terrorist action that really is disruptive to the whole financial system.”

“Who the hell knows what happens to those numbers?” he asked. “I think it’s virtually unmanageable.”

Mr. Buffett defended Berkshire Hathaway’s use of derivatives, arguing that the company maintains a limited amount. At the time of the interview, the company had only about 250 derivative contracts. (It’s now down to 203.) “I want to know every contract, and I can do that with the way we’ve done it. But I can’t do it with 23,000 that a bunch of traders are putting on.”

... when Berkshire bought General Re in 1998, the reinsurance company had 23,000 derivative contracts. “I could have hired 15 of the smartest people, you know, math majors, Ph.D.’s. I could have given them carte blanche to devise any reporting system that would enable me to get my mind around what exposure that I had, and it wouldn’t have worked,” he said to the government panel. “Can you imagine 23,000 contracts with 900 institutions all over the world with probably 200 of them names I can’t pronounce?” Berkshire decided to unwind the derivative deals, incurring some $400 million in losses.

... Perhaps the most insightful nugget in the interview was Mr. Buffett’s explanation of why corporations use derivatives — and why they probably shouldn’t.

Many companies, as diverse as Coca-Cola and Burlington Northern, argue that they employ derivatives to hedge their risk. The United States-based Coca-Cola tries to protect against fluctuations in currencies since it does business around the world. Burlington Northern, the railroad giant, uses the investments to limit the impact of fuel prices.

Mr. Buffett, who has interests in both companies, claimed there was another agenda. “The reason many of them do it is that they want to smooth earnings,” he said, referring to the idea of trying to make quarterly numbers less volatile. “And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but that is the motivation.”

The numbers all even out eventually, he cautioned, so derivatives don’t really make much difference in the long term.

“They’re going to lose as much on the diesel fuel contracts over time as they make,” he said of Burlington Northern. “I wouldn’t do it.”

My very first post (2004) on this blog was about Fannie Mae's use of derivatives accounting to smooth earnings.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Taiwan photos 11

A new restaurant in our complex.





We're at a beach resort on the southernmost tip of Taiwan right now.





Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Tigers, cubs, and elite clubs



Steve Sailer points me to some excellent essays in the Atlantic on Amy Chua, Tiger Moms, elite college obsession, and the not so hidden group competition just below the surface of our smoothly functioning meritocracy. Before we get to the essays, here's something from the comment thread of Steve's post:

"It's not so much upper class whites that are aghast at Chua. Most upper class whites send their kids to the State Universities and don't have that much academic inclination anyway. Trust me, as someone that lives in an upper middle class white area, I can tell you that their kids don't think Ivy. Not unless the kid plays lacrosse or does crew.

Chua's detractors aren't WASPs - they're mostly Jewish women. Partly it's because Chua's kids are taking Ivy League spots from their kids. Partly it's also because Chua embodies that overbearing Jewish mother that they grew up [with] and refutes the modern liberal Jewish-American parenting style. Jewish mothers are feeling guilty that they're not preparing their kids to battle with the Tiger cubs."


Sandra Tsing-Loh on Amy Chua.

Atlantic: ... But of course, sometimes children—particularly those from cultures in which children are not routinely given names such as “Harvard Wong”—fail in spite of their parents’ diligent efforts. Amid the debate within elite motherdom about Chua’s book, it’s far too easily forgotten that the professional class tends to have a blind spot. Clearly, Yale law professors who write books on economies in developing-world nations do not often ride the bus in America’s cities, for there they might see, as I once did, a Guatemalan maid earnestly working with her son on his math homework and, heartbreakingly, giving him all the wrong answers. (But, my Credit Suisse tablemate would say, he won’t go to Harvard, because she didn’t READ to him! She didn’t READ to him!)

... I do admire Chua’s fortitude, being the sort of lax, self-loathing parent who kicks herself for letting her children be exposed to all the standard Western evils. Just last week, my 8-year-old, Suzy, saw Yogi Bear in 3-D (starring Justin Timberlake as Boo Boo), played a computer game in which she clipped a dog’s toenails, and watched back-to-back reruns of the less-than-elevating Damon Wayans family sitcom, My Wife and Kids. While watching the show and cackling with hilarity, Suzy finished completing her extra-credit report “OWLS by Suzy.” Sample passage:

Some things that I know about owls are that they have large eyes, a large head, and that they are carnivores. Owls come in all different colors, shapes, sizes and they all have a different name. For example the Barn owl, the Elf owl, the Great Horned owl, and the Snowy owl, they all come from the same family, THE OWLS! Okay, that is pretty much all I know about OWLS.

Just having finished Chua’s book, I stared at the page, wondering, She’s only 8, but still, isn’t this … terrible? Why are our kids so cheerfully lazy? Then again, how much should I care?

Because as much as I cavil about Chua’s fears of generational decline, I admit that my own murky hopes for my kids are even more open to question. Truth be told, I am not sure what I want for them. Harangued by my own Tiger Dad, I grew up believing in crack math skills and followed—at least initially—a stereotypical Chinese path of acing my tests; getting into the world’s most prestigious science university, Caltech (early admission, no less); majoring in the hardest, most rarefied subject, physics … And then what? Almost 50 years old now, some 30 years after graduation, I look at my Caltech classmates and conclude that math whizzes do not take over the world. The true geniuses—the artists of the scientific world—may be unlocking the mysteries of the universe, but the run-of-the-mill really smart overachievers like me? They’re likely to end up in high-class drone work, perfecting new types of crossword-puzzle-oriented screen savers or perhaps (really) tweaking the computer system that controls the flow in beer guns at Applebee’s. ...

Caitlin Flanagan, the author of the essay excerpted below, was once a college counselor at Harvard-Westlake, an elite private school in Southern California.

Atlantic: ... The good mothers went to Brown, and they read The Drama of the Gifted Child, and they feel things very deeply, and they love their children in a way that is both complicated and primal, and they will make any sacrifice for them. They know that it takes a lot of time to nurture and guide a child—and also that time is fleeting, and that the bliss of having your kids at home is painfully short-lived—and so most of them have cut back on their professional aspirations in significant ways. The good mothers have certain ideas about how success in life is achieved, and these ideas have been sizzled into their brains by popularizers such as Joseph Campbell and Oprah Winfrey, and they boil down to this: everyone has at least one natural talent (the good mothers call it a “passion”), and creativity, effortless success, and beaucoup dinero flow not from banging your head against the closed door of, say, organic chemistry if you’re not that excited by it, but from dwelling deeply and ecstatically inside the thing that gives you the most pleasure. But you shouldn’t necessarily—or under any circumstances, actually—follow your bliss in a way that keeps you out of Yale. Because Yale is important, too! So important. The good mothers believe that their children should be able to follow their passions all the way to New Haven, Connecticut, and this obdurate belief of theirs is the reason so many of them (Obama voters, Rosa Parks diorama co-creators, gay-rights supporters, champions, in every conceivable way, of racial diversity and tolerance) are suddenly ready to demand restoration of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Because Amy Chua has revealed, in so many blunt and horrifying words, why the good mothers are getting spanked, and why it’s only going to get worse. ...

AND ALL OF this brings us to the reason the good mothers are so furious at Amy Chua; not, really, because she has been harsh to her children. If anything, these revelations have given the good mothers something to feel better about; they would never treat their sweet children like that. Rather, they are angry because her harshness is going to rob their own children of something they fiercely want for them. They want the situation to change in their favor, but in fact the trend is against them. One of the reasons that Western, white parents of today remember an easier admissions environment at the top schools is that in their era, the schools held a dismissive attitude toward Asian students. When the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights investigated the Harvard admissions office in the late 1980s and early ’90s, it found evidence, if not of quotas, then at least of condescension toward the group. “Typical of other Asian applications,” said a handwritten note on one file; “classic VN [Vietnamese] bootstrap case,” said another. Chastened, the schools made a determined effort to read the files of Asian applicants as thoughtfully as they read those of white students. I would wager that the majority of the Asian American kids who apply to elite colleges are not marked for any kind of preferential treatment, and are therefore disproportionately represented in the group of applicants who are going to be judged purely on academic merit. Their ability to dominate in this category means that the Asian threat, as perceived by cheesed-off white professional-class parents, is in fact higher than their worst suspicions.

Chua has accepted, in a way that the good mothers will not, that most children today can’t have it both ways: they can’t have a fun, low-stress childhood and also an Ivy League education. She understood early on—as the good mothers are about to learn, when the heartbreaking e-mails and letters from the top colleges go out this month—that life is a series of choices, each with its own rewards and consequences. In a sense, that is the most unpalatable message of her book, the one that has caused all the anguish: it’s an unwelcome reminder (how can we keep forgetting this?) that the world really doesn’t lie before us like a land of dreams. At best—at the very best—it can only offer us choices between two good things, and as we grasp at one, we lose the other forever.

Flanagan is a bit too optimistic about the treatment that Asian applicants now receive from elite admissions offices. Why you should be suspicious of what the elite schools are up to, despite official statements (from an earlier post):

OCR = Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, which conducted an investigation of anti-Asian bias in Harvard admissions around 1990.

The Chosen, p.510: ... Asian Americans had the highest SATs of all [among groups admitted to Harvard]: 1450 out of a possible 1600. In 1991 the Asian-American/white admission ratio [ratio of percentages of applicants from each group admitted] stood at 84 percent -- a sharp downturn from 98 percent in 1990, when the scrutiny from OCR was at its peak. Though [this ratio] never dropped again to the 64 percent level of 1986, it never returned to its 1990 zenith. Despite Asian Americans' growing proportion of the national population, their enrollment also peaked in 1990 at 20 percent, where it more or less remained until 1994. ... by 2001 it had dropped below 15 percent.

So the "subjective but fair" measures used in admissions resulted in a record high admit rate for Asians during the year Harvard was under investigation by the federal government. But mysteriously the admit rate (relative to that of white applicants) went down significantly after the investigation ended, and the overall Asian enrollment has not increased despite the increasing US population fraction of Asians.

My take on Amy Chua here.



Social Animals

The WSJ reviews David Brooks' new book The Social Animal. I discussed an excerpt which appeared in the New Yorker in this earlier post. David Brooks is in danger of becoming the new Malcolm Gladwell: watch out for sloppy thinking, confirmation bias, and pandering to populist sentiments :-(

WSJ: ... In "The Social Animal," Mr. Brooks avoids the challenge of imitating the master by reviving an older form: the 18th-century didactic narrative, epitomized by Rousseau's "Emile." Rather than dig up true stories, he writes one from scratch, and it's not bad. His main characters are Harold and his wife and business partner, Erica. The plot extends all the way from the day Harold's parents meet to the day Harold dies, yet it takes place in a perpetual present-day America.

The chapters are at once chronological and thematic, tackling an array of topics, like learning (a high-school teacher sparks Harold's intellectual curiosity), social norms (Erica has youthful troubles with authority figures), morality (Erica sleeps with a business leader whom she admires), politics (Harold and Erica work for a presidential candidate), and retirement (they move to Aspen and start a tour business).

[See earlier post for more on Harold, Erica, and their Aspen encounter with the Caltech neuroscientist.]

Mr. Brooks is at his best as a social observer, documenting the changing patterns of contemporary life. He showed that talent in "Bobos in Paradise" (2000)—a modern classic that deconstructed every signifier of millennial upper-class life, from Restoration Hardware catalogs to New York Times wedding announcements. Several passages in "The Social Animal" made me think that Mr. Brooks had been glancing through my own windows or fishing from the banks of my own stream of consciousness.

As in "Bobos," he shows genius in sketching archetypes and coining phrases. Here we learn of the "composure class" (who earn their money "by climbing the meritocratic ladder of success"), "sanctimommies" (mothers who critique their peers' parenting skills) and "extracurricular sluts" (kids who participate in too many organized after-school activities).

... If this story is meant to illustrate a broader point, it must be that "cognitive intelligence" and "emotional intelligence" have an inverse relationship: The brilliant are more likely than the average to be socially awkward. But this is nothing but the stereotype that forms the premise of "The Big Bang Theory" and other pop-culture narratives. In reality, tests of emotional intelligence correlate positively with IQ tests.

But Mr. Brooks makes an even bigger claim: Not only is intelligence not connected to social skill; it's not connected to much of anything. "Once you get past some pretty obvious correlations (smart people make better mathematicians), there is a very loose relationship between IQ and life outcomes." This conclusion misstates the science. To reach it Mr. Brooks has to commit a variety of statistical errors and tiptoe through a minefield of contradictory evidence.

First, he notes that studies selecting a group of high-IQ kids and tracking them over decades have failed to identify future Pulitzer or MacArthur winners. He also cites Mr. Gladwell's "Outliers" to note that American science Nobelists "did not mostly go to Harvard and MIT."

[Never rely on Gladwell in statistical matters. Instead, see here and here.]

The problems here include the tiny sample sizes, the shaky assumption that prize juries (and elite universities) make decisions based only on merit, and the focus on the tails of a distribution (here, the highest extremes of intelligence and academic achievement), which is the method guaranteed to tell you the least about the characteristics that matter across the whole range of human ability. To dismiss IQ testing as invalid because it can't pick out the minuscule minority that will attain world-wide fame is to confuse a positive correlation with a perfect one. Only oracles have perfect records of prophecy, and surely no one desires a world in which IQ tests are that good.

[Using a quick IQ screen at age 17 probably allows you to identify future scientific leaders with 100 times better accuracy than chance, and future business leaders with 5-10 times better accuracy than chance. This follows immediately from (soft) 99+ and 90th percentile IQ thresholds. That is, the fraction of people in each of the two categories that is below the given threshold is very small. See links above.]

Next Mr. Brooks cites a study that found "no correlation between accumulating large wealth and high IQ." But in fact, IQ (measured in high school) was almost the best predictor of wealth (measured in early middle age) in this study's own data set. Its author did show that if you consider only people matched in education, income and other variables, then intelligence is unrelated to wealth. But this is hardly a surprise, since education and income themselves both correlate with IQ. In other words, if you look only at, say, high earners with graduate degrees, you will see that the smartest ones are no richer than the dumbest ones, but you will have learned nothing about the true relationship between intelligence and success.

Similarly, Mr. Brooks describes research showing that, during the dot-com bubble, the average investor in many mutual funds lost money by trading in and out too much, when the investor could have made money by just sitting tight. Such people acted "self-destructively because of their excessive faith in their intelligence," he says. Surely intelligent people can do stupid things. But where is the evidence that intelligence or intellectual arrogance was correlated with bad decisions, let alone caused them? The mutual-fund study said nothing about whether more intelligent investors were more overconfident, or traded more, than less intelligent investors.

In fact, studies that do measure both intelligence and economic outcomes find positive relationships. When you consider that IQ can be measured well in half an hour, these effects are surprisingly large: A random person with above-average intelligence has about a two-thirds chance of being above average in income, compared with a one-third chance for a random person of below-average intelligence.

The research that Mr. Brooks minimizes or ignores does not, of course, prove that intelligence is the only relevant trait for success. A host of "noncognitive" skills, many of which Mr. Brooks explains well, are undoubtedly important. But there is no need to tear down intelligence in order to build up the rest.

Even if differences in intelligence explain 25% of the differences among people in how well they perform at work (a much better estimate than the low-ball 4% cited by Mr. Brooks), there is still three times as much territory left to be mapped out. Surely that's plenty of space for researchers to investigate the role of social acumen, mindset, culture, self-control and much else. A thousand flowers can bloom.

At one point, Mr. Brooks veers into odd territory. Economists and political scientists, he writes, assume that "human beings are pretty much the same. . . . This assumption makes social science a science. If behavior is not governed by immutable laws and regularities," he writes, "then quantitative models become impossible. The discipline loses its predictive value." Perhaps this is an allusion to traditional theories in these fields that neglected differences between people for the sake of mathematical simplicity. But the claim is badly out of date. In fact, human homogeneity is neither an assumption in today's social science nor a requirement of the scientific method. It's ironic that Mr. Brooks neglects the abundant evidence for a key source of differences among people—their genes—which influence their personalities, decisions and achievements.

Mr. Brooks would have also done well to suspend his disbelief when his sources talked about brain research. "When stock traders experience a series of good days, the dopamine released into their brains creates a surge of overconfidence," he writes. He cites only a blog post for this claim. Most of the sources in "The Social Animal" are secondary ones, usually books for a general audience. Without information about the primary sources—like journal articles that report methods and results—it is hard to trust that the science is being communicated and interpreted fairly. In the case of the traders hopped up on dopamine, the story sounds good but the necessary experiments just haven't been done.

In "The Social Animal" Mr. Brooks surveys a stunning amount of research and cleverly connects it to everyday experience. The lessons he draws are often insightful, but they are not reliably correct. Perhaps experiencing his own surges of dopamine and overconfidence, he too often abandons his stance of "epistemological modesty" and instead peddles frothy notions that probably won't last long. But in observing the broader trends of social science—and of contemporary life—he gets a lot right. His own achievement here signals a plateau in the market for social science, not a peak.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Almost over?

What's a factor of 2 between friends? :-) Note no long term appreciation of houses relative to CPI.




Here's Japan for comparison. Our bubble has popped much more quickly.




Yes, Virginia, we knew it was a bubble back in 2005, but no one believed us. Next time, watch the price to rent ratio:




Yes, equities beat housing over the long run, and even at the peak of the biggest housing bubble of the 20th century.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Classics on the arxiv: von Neumann and the foundations of quantum statistical mechanics

Kudos to people who have been posting classic (old) papers on the arxiv.

Proof of the Ergodic Theorem and the H-Theorem in Quantum Mechanics 1003.2133

John von Neumann

It is shown how to resolve the apparent contradiction between the macroscopic approach of phase space and the validity of the uncertainty relations. The main notions of statistical mechanics are re-interpreted in a quantum-mechanical way, the ergodic theorem and the H-theorem are formulated and proven (without "assumptions of disorder"), followed by a discussion of the physical meaning of the mathematical conditions characterizing their domain of validity.

Comments: English translation by Roderich Tumulka of J. von Neumann: Beweis des Ergodensatzes und des H-Theorems. 41 pages LaTeX, no figures; v2: typos corrected.

See also this related article


Long-Time Behavior of Macroscopic Quantum Systems: Commentary Accompanying the English Translation of John von Neumann's 1929 Article on the Quantum Ergodic Theorem 1003.2129

Sheldon Goldstein, Joel L. Lebowitz, Roderich Tumulka, Nino Zanghi

The renewed interest in the foundations of quantum statistical mechanics in recent years has led us to study John von Neumann's 1929 article on the quantum ergodic theorem. We have found this almost forgotten article, which until now has been available only in German, to be a treasure chest, and to be much misunderstood. In it, von Neumann studied the long-time behavior of macroscopic quantum systems. While one of the two theorems announced in his title, the one he calls the "quantum H-theorem", is actually a much weaker statement than Boltzmann's classical H-theorem, the other theorem, which he calls the "quantum ergodic theorem", is a beautiful and very non-trivial result. It expresses a fact we call "normal typicality" and can be summarized as follows: For a "typical" finite family of commuting macroscopic observables, every initial wave function $\psi_0$ from a micro-canonical energy shell so evolves that for most times $t$ in the long run, the joint probability distribution of these observables obtained from $\psi_t$ is close to their micro-canonical distribution.


I've had a long interest in the foundations of statistical mechanics. vN's paper is very clear and better than any of the textbook treatments I have seen. I wish I had had access to it as a student! The paper by Goldstein et al. is also excellent and summarizes some history and relation to current research.

I was very impressed by recent work (see references below) using entanglement and concentration of measure in high dimensions (Levy's lemma) to show that a subsystem of a larger quantum system will display "equilibrium" properties as long as the larger system is in a "typical" state. (An overall constraint on the system, e.g., on its energy, is assumed.) Typicality is defined with respect to the usual Hilbert space measure. The remaining question in my mind, which I mulled over casually the past few years, was whether there existed ergodic theorems showing that under Schrodinger evolution a system would spend almost all of its time in a typical state (there is a simple argument that suggests this is the case; it is a much harder problem to obtain sharp estimates of equilibration times). As I suspected, but failed to confirm even after getting a few books out of the library***, vN had already established this result (and, perhaps, most of the recent results!) in 1929 :-)

To overstate: vN had forgotten (by dying) more about the foundations of stat mech than the rest of the community remembered! Yet another example of (highly) nonlinear returns to brainpower in mathematical and physical sciences.

S. Popescu, A. J. Short, A. Winter: Entanglement and the foundation of statistical mechanics. Nature Physics 21(11): 754–758 (2006); N. Linden, S. Popescu, A. J. Short, A. Winter: Quantum mechanical evolution towards thermal equilibrium. Physical Review E 79: 061103 (2009) http://arxiv.org/abs/0812.2385.


Sadly, in our era of specialization these deep foundational issues tend to be of little interest to most physicists.

Wigner: But it is sad to lose touch with whole branches of physics, to see scientists cut off from each other. Dispersion theorists do not know axiomatic field theory; cosmologists do not know nuclear physics. Quantum mechanics is hard to explain to a chemist ... and yet the best theoretical chemists really ought to know quantum mechanics.

Specialization of science also robbed us of much of our passion. We wanted to grasp science whole, but by then the whole was something far too vast and complex to master. Only rarely could we ask the deep questions that had first drawn us to science.


*** To be precise I found only discussions formulated in terms of coarse grained phase space -- individual (dQ, dP) cells -- as opposed to a more fundamental pure state description of the system. The connection between these pictures is provided by vN in the (now translated) paper linked to above. I believe I actually saw a reference to this paper, but had no idea how to find an English version of it :-)

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

With Pascin at the Dôme

I always wondered who Hemingway had in mind as the dark sister when he wrote the short story With Pascin at the Dôme, which appeared in the collection A Moveable Feast. According to the article Who Was With Pascin at the Dôme?, it was the model Bronia Perlmutter (on the left, below). The early 20th century precursor to Natalie Portman?

Disappointingly, literary muses seldom live up to their fictional depictions. I guess it's because very few struggling writers have good Game ;-) Even the women Hemingway hung around with don't seem that hot.




With Pascin at the Dôme: ... i went over and sat down at a table with pascin and two models who were sisters. pascin had waved to me while i had stood on the sidewalk on the rue delambre side wondering whether to stop and have a drink or not. pascin was a very good painter and he was drunk; steady, purposefully drunk and making good sense. the two models were young and pretty. one was very dark, small, beautifully built with a falsely fragile depravity. the other was childlike and dull but very pretty in a perishable childish way. she was not as well built as her sister, but neither was anyone else that spring.

'the good and the bad sisters,' pascin said. 'i have money. what will you drink?' 'une demi-blonde,'i said to the waiter. 'have a whisky. i have money.'

'i like beer.'

'if you really liked beer, you'd be at lipp's. i suppose you've been working.'

'yes.'

'it goes?'

'i hope so.'

'good. i'm glad. and everything still tastes good?'

'yes.'

'how old are you?'

'twenty-five.'

'do you want to bang her?' he looked towards the dark sister and smiled. 'she needs it.'

'you probably banged her enough today.'

she smiled at me with her lips open. 'he's wicked,' she said. 'but he's nice.'

'you can take her over to the studio.'

'don't make piggishness,' the blonde sister said.

'who spoke to you?' pascin asked her.

'nobody. but i said it.'

'let's be comfortable,' pascin said. 'the serious young writer and the friendly wise old painter and the two beautiful young girls with all of life before them.' we sat there and the girls sipped at their drinks and pascin drank another fine a l'eau and i drank the beer; but no one was comfortable except pascin. the dark girl was restless and she sat on display turning her profile and letting the light strike the concave planes of her face and showing me her breasts under the hold of the black sweater. her hair was cropped short and was sleek and dark as an oriental's. 'you've posed all day,' pascin said to her. 'do you have to model that sweater now at the cafe?'

'it pleases me,' she said.

'you look like a javanese toy,' he said.

'not the eyes,' she said. 'it's more complicated than that.'

'you look like a poor perverted little poupee.'

'perhaps,' she said. 'but alive. that's more than you.'

'we'll see about that.'

'good,' she said. 'i like proofs.'

'you didn't have any today?'

'oh that,' she said and turned to catch the last evening light on her face. 'you were just excited about your work. he's in love with canvases,' she said to me. 'there always some kind of dirtiness.'

'you want me to paint you and pay you and bang you to keep my head clear, and be in love with you too,' pascin said. 'you poor little doll.'

'you like me, don't you, monsieur?' she asked me.

'very much.'

'but you're too big,' she said sadly.

'everyone is the same size in bed.'

'it's not true,' her sister said. 'and i'm tired of this talk.'

'look,' pascin said. 'if you think i'm in love with canvases, i'll paint you tomorrow in water colours.'

'when do we eat?' her sister asked. 'and where?'

'will you eat with us?' the dark girl asked.

'no. i go to eat with my legitime.' that was what they said then. now they say 'my reguliere'.

'you have to go?'

'have to and want to.'

'go on, then,' pascin said. 'and don't fall in love with typewriting paper.'

'if i do, i'll write with a pencil.'

'water colours tomorrow,' he said. 'all right, my children, i will drink another and then we eat where you wish.'

'chez viking,' the dark girl said.

'me too,' her sister urged.

'all right,' pascin agreed. 'good night, jeune homme. sleep well.'

'you too.'

'they keep me awake,' he said. 'i never sleep.'

'sleep tonight.'

'after chez les vikings?' he grinned with his hat on the back of his head. he looked more like a broadway character of the nineties than the lovely painter that he was, and afterwards, when he had hanged himself, i liked to remember him as he was that night at the dome. ...

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