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Monday, December 26, 2011

Finding the Next Einstein

Duke researcher Jonathan Wai interviewed me for his Psychology Today blog, Finding the Next Einstein. Below are my answers to two of his questions.

Psychology Today

Is it true Feynman's IQ score was only 125?

Feynman was universally regarded as one of the fastest thinking and most creative theorists in his generation. Yet it has been reported-including by Feynman himself-that he only obtained a score of 125 on a school IQ test. I suspect that this test emphasized verbal, as opposed to mathematical, ability. Feynman received the highest score in the country by a large margin on the notoriously difficult Putnam mathematics competition exam, although he joined the MIT team on short notice and did not prepare for the test. He also reportedly had the highest scores on record on the math/physics graduate admission exams at Princeton. It seems quite possible to me that Feynman's cognitive abilities might have been a bit lopsided-his vocabulary and verbal ability were well above average, but perhaps not as great as his mathematical abilities. I recall looking at excerpts from a notebook Feynman kept as an undergraduate. While the notes covered very advanced topics-including general relativity and the Dirac equation-they also contained a number of misspellings and grammatical errors. I doubt Feynman cared very much about such things.


Do you think we will ever find another Einstein?

This is a very difficult question. Einstein was special for many reasons, and was the dominant figure in 20th century physics, if not all of science.

In the modern era many more people have access to advanced education-think of India and China plus all of the developed world. While I believe even an average scientist these days is quite an exceptional person, both in terms of ability and the amount of training he or she has received, it is much more difficult now to stand out in the crowd. Think of the NBA: the average player today is much better than the average player of 50 years ago. Any guard in the league is an athletic freak of nature. But when they play against each other they are relatively evenly matched. It may be a long time before we encounter another giant like Einstein who so far surpasses his contemporaries.

If you are interested in psychometrics and the far tail of cognitive ability, I recommend several of Jonathan's papers, including:

Wai, J., Lubinski, D., & Benbow, C. P. (2005). Creativity and occupational accomplishments among intellectually precocious youths: An age 13 to age 33 longitudinal study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97, 484-492. pdf

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas, 2011



Linus said it best (Luke 2.14) in A Charlie Brown Christmas:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Merry Christmas!

We had wonderful weather yesterday in Eugene. After arriving home from the airport I was able to take the kids to the park, wearing shorts in the warm sunshine. Best wishes to everyone!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Tropical xmas in southern China

We went for a walk today after lunch and I took these photos of the Sheraton Dameisha.






Asian admissions, statistical prediction, and all that

This post addresses comments by Sineruse, David Versace, and others on earlier threads here, here and here.

I've been pretty busy during my visit to BGI so I kind of lost track of the conversation. But here are my thoughts.

I think it is possible that Asian "strength of application" overpredicts later career success*. There could be many reasons for this. For example, it could be that Asian hard work boosts test taking results and grades more than it does real world achievement. It could also be that tests and grades are fair, whereas Asians face a certain amount of race-related disadvantage later in their careers -- e.g., unconscious bias, lack of "ethnic affinity" networks, etc. (If you talk to highly trained Chinese scientists and businesspeople returning to China from the US, most will describe an uphill struggle for Asians in the US; this contrasts with glib statements from white Americans about how little anti-Asian bias there is in elite careers). Finally, Asians may have lower rates of sociopathy, which reduces their chances of making it to the top (close inspection suggests it is mostly sociopaths at the top ;-)

I don't think the evidence is overwhelming on this question. But if, say, Asians have a .5 SD advantage in g and 1 SD advantage in conscientiousness or work ethic, that might lead to a "fair" Ivy population representation which is less than 20% if by "fair" we mean: apportion slots based on future success odds. (An additional factor which is usually mistakenly ignored in numbers like +.5/+1 is the large offshore "reservoir" of Asians and the fact that some A-As are drawn from a very elite subgroup in their ancestral countries.) Note though, as emphasized by RKU, the current Ivy standards for what constitutes "success" may not be aligned with the real interests of the Nation. That is, the connection between money and power and actual value creation in our current system seems to have become quite weak of late. What is good for Harvard may not necessarily be what is good for the USA.

Having said all this, I think you are missing a key point -- perhaps because you think mainly in terms of (white) ethnic interests. Even if elite universities are acting in their narrow self-interest in assessing an outright Asian penalty to compensate for inflation of application strength, their methodology may violate the law. While some Asian application profiles overestimate later career prospects, universities should not be allowed to make generalizations based solely on race. This may not be a principle that you believe in, but it's an important one to me. If universities have some other way to correct for false signals in admissions profiles ("this kid scored high, but we know he's just a grind"), then fine. However, I suspect what is going on now is crudely (if perhaps subconsciously) race-based**.


* Something to keep in mind is that Harvard et al. would like to have influence abroad as well as at home, and Chinese ethnicity alumni are well placed to influence what will soon be the largest economy on the planet. Underperformance vs predictor in the US may be compensated by overperformance in the new reality of the coming century. Ask yourself why BGI was more willing to work with me than, say, the Sanger or Broad institutes might have been.

** An astute commenter asks why we should oppose race-based decision making, if there is real correlational information to be had from ethnicity. I offer two reasons: 1. this country has a bad record on race, and striving towards a race-blind society is worth some small sacrifices, 2. the evidence for genetic group differences is not conclusive and should be treated with great caution.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

BGI photos: December 2011

BGI coffee room. I charged the espresso on Chris Chang's badge.




Film crew takes in a technical discussion. Rare mutations, pseudogenes and rs numbers.




Shooting at a hipster pad in Dameisha. Barbeque and a showing of Gattaca :-)


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Season's Greetings from BGI

Greetings from Southern China. We're at about the same latitude as Hawaii, so the weather is quite temperate even in December.





Dutch documentarians shooting in the BGI cafeteria.






Sheraton Dameisha.







Friday, December 16, 2011

National Review: Applying While Asian

Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. Almost every journalist who has talked to me about this issue asks "Gee, how long has this been going on?" and are surprised when I tell them at least 30 years!

But who cares, those Asians don't make trouble: they'll just work harder ...

Applying While Asian


To check or not to check the Asian box? That is the pointed choice faced by Asian-American students applying for admission to what are supposed to be the most tolerant places on earth, the nation’s colleges.

The Associated Press ran a report on Asian students of mixed parentage checking “white,” if possible, on their applications to avoid outing themselves as Asian. The Princeton Review Student Advantage Guide counsels Asian-American students not to check the race box and warns against sending a photo.

... All of this is done to promote a “diversity” of a crude, bean-counting sort. The private California Institute of Technology doesn’t use quotas; its student body is 39 percent Asian. The University of California at Berkeley is forbidden by law from using quotas; its student body is more than 40 percent Asian. Only a bigot would believe that these schools are consequently worse learning environments, or that they are places characterized by monochromatic, lockstep thinking because so many students share a broad-brush ethnic designation.

The author of The Price of Admission, Daniel Golden, calls Asian-Americans “the new Jews,” a reference to the 20th-century quotas that once kept Jews out of top schools. The difference then was that Jews collectively didn’t stand for the policy, now a watchword for disgraceful bias. Stephen Hsu, a professor of physics at the University of Oregon and an outspoken critic of current admission practices, laments that Asians seem strangely accepting of the unfair treatment of their children. The official Asian-American groups tend to support anti-Asian quotas because they are captives of liberal orthodoxy before all else. ...

An NRO commenter writes

I'm whitebread umpteenth generation American. My husband is Chinese by way of Malaysia. We met at the same elite college. The discrimination against Asian students is an open secret--everyone Asian knew, or at least suspected, that it was the case. It's part of why my husband and I have decided to hyphenate my WASP last name with his (thankfully) not terribly ethnic sounding Chinese surname. We don't want our children, 20 years from now, to be hurt when applying for college, should saner winds have not prevailed.

Malaysia actually presents an instructive example. In Malaysia, about 25% of the population is Chinese, and government quotas which require a certain number of ethnic Malays win university places and jobs mean that Chinese students much earn much higher scores than Malay students to win university slots. The result of this is that academic expectation for Chinese students get ever higher, while those Chinese Malaysians who can afford it try to send their kids abroad. It's not an accident that my husband wound up at an American university--it's the result of my in-laws driving him for years to get him there.

And therein lies the rub. My husband comes from a country where racial quotas are explicit, published, and protesting them will cause the government to retaliate. (Malaysia's government recently essentially outlawed freedom of assembly.) Elections are rigged, and everyone knows this. The government has forged an ethnic, institutional and religious alliance to repress the Chinese population. My husband is still surprised that Americans are willing to openly speak out against and protest against the government.

Many Asian immigrants are only recently removed from governments that do not invite the opinions of their citizens. It takes time to learn, really learn, that it is acceptable to demand accountability of institutions and of governments, and I don't see that happening overnight.

But it is happening, slowly. Every Chinese American I've talked to of college age knows about these quotas, and I don't think these first generation Americans will stand for their children being treated in the same manner.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Human capital, globalization and physics 101

In the past few years we have seen a large influx of undergraduate students from China. Since UO non-resident tuition is about $20k per annum, these students must come from relatively affluent families there. The conventional wisdom among professors familiar with China is that most of these kids are slackers -- they didn't do well enough on the gaokao to be admitted to a top Chinese university. How good are "slackers" from China? Judge for yourself.

Below is the score distribution from the course I taught this fall, physics 101 for non-majors (about 200 students total). The black histogram is non-Chinese, the red is Chinese, most of whom, judging by their names, are from PRC. Why was this analysis necessary? Because I noticed the score distribution was very different from previous times I had taught the course. About 20-30 PRC kids scored higher than what is usually the highest score. (Click for larger version.)



Here are two exam problems.

An ant slowly pushes a box of mass .1 kg and coefficient of friction .1 a distance of 10m, moving at constant speed. Calculate the work done.

A satellite orbits the Earth at a distance of 3 Earth radii from the center. Compute its gravitational acceleration.

Future vol



Hmm... pricing in a 30-50% chance of huge vol due to euro credit crisis? If you're sure it's going to happen, some 6-12 month vol swaps might be a good trade. Any experts want to comment? (Are there better instruments for this?) How much further can Merkozy kick the can down the road?

On the volatility of volatility

A pro sez to me: "Vol is totally mispriced right now. Lots of funding requirements in the new year."

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Borges: A poet never rests




"The revelation can occur at any time. A poet never rests.

He's always working, even when he dreams.

Besides, the life of a writer is a lonely one.

You think you are alone, and as the years go by,

if the stars are on your side, you may discover

that you are at the center of a vast circle of invisible friends

whom you will never get to know, but who love you.

And that is an immense reward."

The Deal: The debate over elite schools and elite jobs

More on elitism and credentialism in an article by Editor in Chief Robert Teitelman at The Deal. Related posts.

The cognitive-phonetic dissonance of Asian names for English speakers is on display: I am referred to as "Hsui" and "Hsiu", but never "Hsu" (Hopefully fixed before you read this :-)

The Deal: There is a fascinating discussion unfolding across the Internet that reaches into all kinds of interesting nooks and crannies. Its origin is a paper from Lauren Rivera, "Ivies, Extracurricular and Exclusion: Elite Employers' Use of Educational Credentials." Rivera, a professor at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, spent several years interviewing "elite" professional service firms, meaning investment banking, consulting and law firms. Her conclusions, which have been batted around the blogosphere, come down to a handful of talking points: These elite employers primarily recruit from roughly four "super-elite" universities (these differ slightly depending on the area or the individual, and include both undergraduate and graduate recruiting, though it's amazing to see the schools that are considered "second-tier") and care more for the school than for the academic record; busy evaluators have a lot of leeway in deciding who to interview and who not; and (as in college admission) extracurricular activities have become a key secondary filter, but only if they're out of the norm -- playing college lacrosse, say, as opposed to intramural football.

Reading Rivera's paper is a revelation -- and shocking. "Evaluators," she writes, "relied so intensely on the criteria of 'school' as a criterion of evaluation not because they believed that the content of the elite curricula better prepared students for life in their firms -- in fact, evaluators tended to believe that elite and, in particular, super-elite instruction was 'too abstract,' 'overly theoretical,' or even, 'useless' compared to the more 'practical' and 'relevant' training offered at 'lesser' institutions -- but rather due to the strong cultural meanings and character judgments evaluators attributed to admission and enrollment at an elite school." Rivera quotes a recruitment manager at an investment bank who talks about schools that aren't in the super-elite category: "I'm just being really honest, it pretty much goes into a black hole. And I'm pretty open about that with the students I talk to. It's tough. You need to know someone, you need to have a connection, you need to get someone to raise their hand and say, 'Let's bring this candidate in.' ... Look, I have a specific day I need to go in and look at ... the Brown candidates, you know the Yale candidates. I don't have a reason necessarily to go into what we call the 'best of the rest' folder unless I've run out of everything else. ... Unfortunately it's just not a great situation. There's not an easy way to get into the firm if you're not at a target school."

... Manzi questioned the exclusivity of Rivera's super-elite and argued from personal experience that consultants at least do demand not just high course and test scores, but a certain rigor in course selection, particularly in math and science. Hsiu, a physicist at the University of Oregon, then offered a further distinction between hard and soft firms, which are looking for subtly different skills. His distinction turns almost entirely on quantitative abilities. Hard firms, like hedge and venture firms and tech startups, demand sheer mathematical brainpower and will take it where they can find it. Soft firms such as investment banks, law and consulting firms that sell services, like advice, that is more "nebulous" and harder to measure, and where "prestige" matters more, embrace the elite-school brand more readily. Hsiu can't help but give more value to those measurable standards, although a number of his commenters argued with him on that point.

Hmm... no problems with these other names:

... Bloggers Bryan Caplan, Megan McArdle, Fabio Rojas, Steve Hsui and Jim Manzi have offered up perspectives on an issue that speaks to everything from the crisis in higher education to increasing inequality to the size and influence of finance. Perhaps because of the subject matter, the comments on many of these posts are well worth reading as well.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Gracie Breakdown: UFC 140



Gracie breakdown of the Mir-Nog fight. Glad to see even two blackbelts named Gracie had a little trouble reconstructing exactly what happened. You have to give props to Frank Mir -- 260 lbs with technical and explosive jits. I always wondered how Sakuraba got so good with his acrobatic kimura attacks -- to train that would seem to put your partners at a lot of risk!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Equilibration in progress: legal services

Earlier discussion here, here and here.

WSJ: ... wages are rising in developing countries such as India ... but remain relatively soft here in the U.S. and the U.K.

... The price gap has narrowed between offshore legal processing groups—which charge between $25-$35 an hour for basic legal services such as document review—and domestic services offered by contract review attorneys in places such as the Midwest, which might charge $25 to $30 per hour. ...

The glut of new law school graduates in 2012 will likely put offshore legal services outfits at a further disadvantage, the report found.

Those not familiar with the current realities for new law school grads, see here.

Snap Crackle Pop: UFC 140



WAR Frank Mir!

No time to tap. I love his explosive style of BJJ. In training you're taught to let the other guy tap, but a real fight is different. See here for some technical post-fight comments from Frank. (More MMA and BJJ theory at 2:45 here.)

The fundamental asymmetry of MMA

"F@ck jiujitsu -- I'm gonna break your nose."

"Maybe, but if I get my hands on you there's no tapping. I'm tearing your arm off."

In MMA, it's unfair that the striker gets to hit the other guy at full power, but the grappler has to release the hold when the other guy taps. If there was no referee the striker would think very, very hard before mixing it up. [Some guy tries to break my nose or fracture my skull, and I'm supposed to let him tap?!?]

When I was faculty advisor for the Yale jiujitsu club we considered t-shirts with "Snap, Crackle, Pop" on them, but went with something more conservative like "Yale Brazilian Jiujitsu" :-)

Video of Mir's submission. Nogueira is a top grappler and the last 50 seconds shows some very technical BJJ. Mir escapes a guillotine, gets the kimura, and prevents Nog from escaping a couple of times. Reminds me of what Sakuraba did to Renzo, or Kimura to Helio! On closer review, Nog did have plenty of time to tap, but refused to do so -- just like Helio. Another video.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Differential validity of the SAT

In an earlier comment thread someone asked whether Asian-American college performance is commensurate with their SAT scores. If A-A SAT scores are artificially elevated by cramming then one might expect it to under-predict college GPA. (On the other hand, if Asians are more conscientious and hard working overall, one might* expect that to elevate both SAT scores and college GPA relative to other groups.) This data from the College Board shows that the validity of SAT as a predictor of college GPA is about the same for whites and Asians.


*Regarding cramming, I have yet to see any data which shows that large groups of people can significantly elevate their SAT scores through preparation. Test prep companies will claim this is possible, but detailed studies by ETS suggest otherwise. In our U Oregon data set (covering all students at the university over a 5 year period) it is quite rare to see a change of 1 population SD between max and average score for individual students who take the SAT multiple times.

(Click for larger version. FYGPA = Freshman Year GPA.)

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Jim Manzi: How elite business recruiting really works

Jim Manzi writes about recruiting at elite consulting firms like McKinsey and BCG. The earlier post of mine he refers to is here (click through for more links, including to an even earlier post with excerpts from the Rivera paper).

National Review: There has been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere about a research paper by Lauren Rivera that describes how elite professional service firms (top investment banks, law firms, and management consulting firms) go about hiring. ...

... I’ll focus my comments on management consulting, where I used to work for about ten years. I participated in every stage of the process from job candidate to new junior consultant to hiring partner.

Start with some quick industry background. You can divide management consulting into “strategy consulting” and “other.” Strategy consulting is the elite end of the consulting business. Most of strategy consulting can be sub-divided into two tribes: McKinsey and “Bruce Henderson’s children.” McKinsey is the industry leader. Bruce Henderson founded the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in the 1960s. A number of BCG spin-offs have occurred since (e.g., Bain, SPA, LEK, etc.), and some of these have created further spin-offs. By far the largest and most important is Bain. Together, McKinsey, Bain and BCG (“MBB”) are the dominant elite recruiters for consulting, though a swarm of smaller strategy firms can compete successfully for the best talent.

... Rivera grossly exaggerates the degree to which access is limited to graduates of 4 super-elite schools.

... Rivera grossly overestimates the importance of extracurriculars, and grossly underemphasizes the importance of standardized test scores, and especially, case interviews.

... In my experience as a resume screener, the logic normally goes something like this.

If you don’t have at least 750 on the math SAT, you’re out. The most common score is 800. Math plus verbal scores should be well over 1500, and typically over 1550. GRE, GMAT and other scores should be scaled similarly. [ Note, this would lead to a huge overrepresentation from top schools even if institutional prestige were not directly a factor of consideration. With a filter like that there are a limited number of schools where on-campus interviews would be cost effective. But I think "typically over 1550" may be an exaggeration. ]

Then, your degree should be in something hard: math, physics, electrical engineering, analytical philosophy, computer science and so on. It’s OK to major in history or literature, but you better have some really tough quantitative or analytical classes on your transcript, and have done very well in them. [ I'm not sure if I believe this last part -- I think plenty of humanities and social science types get hired in consulting without any technical background -- especially from HYPS. ]

... In an earlier post, Steve Hsu made a useful distinction between what he calls the “soft” elite firms that Rivera profiles (investment banks, law firms and management consultancies) versus “hard” elite firms such as hedge/venture funds, startups and technology companies. He argues that the hard elite firms produce something more measurable, and therefore rely less on prestige in selecting people. This distinction is a useful starting point, but what has been happening over the past 20 years or so is the increasing migration of value from soft to hard; basically, to math, technology and analytics-intensive work. This is happening within firms and industries – the emphasis on math ability was growing within consulting in the period I worked in it, as it was within banking – and across sectors as technology start-ups and math-intensive finance became the most obvious ways to make real money in America. This isn’t random, but is happening because these are huge opportunities to create value. This is in part why I left consulting to start an analytics software company. It became obvious that this was the way to create value for clients. This won’t last forever, but has been true for some time. [ Italics mine. ]

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Borges' The Witness

I am ecstatic at now having thousands of books, both technical and non-technical, available in searchable formats on my laptop, tablet and iphone.

I came across this brief Borges piece, originally published in 1960, by accident while surfing through my digital book collection. A quick trip to my shelves showed that I had this in physical form, but somehow had never read it.

See also the perils of precocity.

The Witness

In a stable that stands almost in the shadow of the new stone church, a man with gray eyes and gray beard, lying amid the odor of the animals, humbly tries to will himself into death, much as a man might will himself to sleep. The day, obedient to vast and secret laws, slowly shifts about and mingles the shadows in the lowly place; outside lie plowed fields, a ditch clogged with dead leaves, and the faint track of a wolf in the black clay where the line of woods begins. The man sleeps and dreams, forgotten.

The bells for orisons awaken him. Bells are now one of evening's customs in the kingdoms of England, but as a boy the man has seen the face of Woden, the sacred horror and the exultation, the clumsy wooden idol laden with Roman coins and ponderous vestments, the sacrifice of horses, dogs, and prisoners. Before dawn he will be dead, and with him, the last eyewitness images of pagan rites will perish, never to be seen again. The world will be a little poorer when this Saxon man is dead.

Things, events, that occupy space yet come to an end when someone dies may make us stop in wonder—and yet one thing, or an infinite number of things, dies with every man's or woman's death, unless the universe itself has a memory, as theosophists have suggested. In the course of time there was one day that closed the last eyes that had looked on Christ; the Battle of Junin and the love of Helen died with the death of one man. What will die with me the day I die? What pathetic or frail image will be lost to the world? The voice of Macedonia Fernandez, the image of a bay horse in a vacant lot on the corner of Sarrano and Charcas, a bar of sulfur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?

I, quant

A commenter linked to this Guardian interview with a UK quant. I found a number of his comments interesting enough to post here. See the original for more detail about the software he develops. I always felt that if I went into finance it would be as a trader, but with quant skills ;-)

"My parents discovered that I was of a mathematical bent aged three when I was apparently lining up my toys in order of size and then colour. I was one of these terrible, precocious kids who did their mathematics O-level aged 12. After a long academic career I ended up doing theoretical physics for my PhD, and spent a couple of years at Cern in Geneva. Many people I know from back then are still at universities, doing research and climbing the slippery slope to professorships and fellowships. They work the same astonishing long hours as I do, yet get paid a fraction and, from a purely scientific perspective, get to do some really, really interesting science. I often say (only half jokingly) that I "sold my soul" – I make a little over £200,000 a year, including my bonus."


"I said I was a quant, derived from the word 'quantitative'. We're the people of a definite mathematical bent, and if you're looking for a warrior-like analogy, we are perhaps the "armourers" of the financial industry, or, let me think … Traders are the warriors of our world; they go out and fight. I think of them as 'egos on legs'. Sharp suits, looking very smart… We quants are the trader's brain. It's our model that defines not only the risks the trader can take, the model also calculates how much risk he is taking with his particular trades at any given moment and we also predict future movements in valuation, pricing and the like."


"I have been in banking for over 20 years, and for several years I was with one of the major international investment banks. I discovered that I am just not enough of an arsehole to make it there. Why the top people at investment banks are like that? Well you have a thousand vice-presidents vying for 10 managing director posts. What do you think will happen? People will do anything to get ahead, back-biting, back-stabbing, the whole nine yards. For those of us who find life surrounded by other people difficult enough as it is, the requirement to network is hellish."


"Not sure though that I'd voluntarily swap IQ points for EQ – even though I'm certain that I'm going to end up as one of the single old blokes that you might occasionally come across – nice, big house in the country, lots of dogs, materially comfortable and yet utterly alone and mad as a fish.

Later, when asked to elaborate on that final point, he responds via email:

"I've long been aware of the prospect (with some 'tongue-in-cheek') of becoming mad as a fish, and the attractiveness of the current imbalance between EQ and IQ is that I know that my biggest, deepest fear is failure. With the current imbalance, I know that the risk of failure is reduced to its current level: eg, small but still real. That fear of failure drives me and means that I know I'm giving up anything approaching EQ in pursuit of avoidance of failure."

Friday, December 02, 2011

From Walden Pond to quant trading

True story. Theoretical physicist saves enough money during 5 years of postdoc to retire -- living entirely from investment income at $7k per year of expenditures (budget).

I simply saved more than three quarters of my income for five years. The math works out. If you save 83% and spend 17%, you need 25*0.17/0.83 ~ 5 years of savings, where 25 is the inverse of 4%, which is a safe withdrawal rate for at least 30 years.

While enjoying frugal living and retirement in his mid-30's, this former physicist starts a widely followed blog and authors a book: Early Retirement Extreme (ERE).

How does this story end? With the hero living a quiet Walden-esque life of contemplation and home cooked meals? No, of course after a few years he un-retires to join a fund as a quant trader/researcher!

What I like to do is solving impossible problems. Or just “hard problems”—problems that people don’t want to wrestle with. I did this in physics and learned a lot. I realized that I wouldn’t learn very much from solving a similar problem in physics and that’s why I quit physics. The challenge would not have been the same. Fortunately, I realized this quickly and I had the money to quit or “retire from my career“.

ERE is another one such “hard” problem solved (it’s only hard, because it’s somewhat out-of-the-box and thus more a question of shifting your perspective than it being any kind of technical challenge). I’ve written enough material here on the blog and in the book to show you how it’s done. I have the same problem with ERE. The challenge is gone for me. Many others are currently on the road towards financial independence and this is exciting for them but for me it’s just vicarious living. Becoming financially independent, the subject of this blog, is a period of transition and obviously one can only transition once. This is why fresh blood is needed.

[Uhh, part of the challenge is maintaining the minimalist lifestyle, well, for the rest of your life...]

... So what am I going to do now? Well, yesterday I got a job offer as a quant trader/researcher. I took it! I think this fulfills all my criteria. It’s a hard problem, it requires no marketing, no politics, no self-promotion, and no management. As far as I can tell, I’m safe from the Peter principle and can focus on research and development without worrying about suddenly finding myself having to sell or manage my stuff.

When I told this story to my wife she thought perhaps the job offer came from a rich former colleague in physics, who did it just to test him (i.e., f#ck with him) and throw a monkey wrench into the ERE equilibrium! ("Ha ha, Buddha came down from the mountain for chump change!") I won't be surprised if in 10 years this guy is complaining that his second home in the Hamptons is too small ;-)

"I'm not Asian"...

Increasing numbers of Asian-American college applicants understand the odds are stacked against them, and react by not declaring their ethnicity or (in the case of mixed race applicants) checking any box but Asian.

See previous related posts: here , here

I'm Not Asian (AP): Lanya Olmstead was born in Florida to a mother who immigrated from Taiwan and an American father of Norwegian ancestry. Ethnically, she considers herself half Taiwanese and half Norwegian. But when applying to Harvard, Olmstead checked only one box for her race: white.

"I didn't want to put 'Asian' down," Olmstead says, "because my mom told me there's discrimination against Asians in the application process."

For years, many Asian-Americans have been convinced that it's harder for them to gain admission to the nation's top colleges.

... The way it works, the critics believe, is that Asian-Americans are evaluated not as individuals, but against the thousands of other ultra-achieving Asians who are stereotyped as boring academic robots.

Now, an unknown number of students are responding to this concern by declining to identify themselves as Asian on their applications.

For those with only one Asian parent, whose names don't give away their heritage, that decision can be relatively easy. Harder are the questions that it raises: What's behind the admissions difficulties? What, exactly, is an Asian-American — and is being one a choice?

Olmstead is a freshman at Harvard and a member of HAPA, the Half-Asian People's Association. In high school she had a perfect 4.0 grade-point average and scored 2150 out of a possible 2400 on the SAT, which she calls "pretty low."

College applications ask for parent information, so Olmstead knows that admissions officers could figure out a student's background that way. She did write in the word "multiracial" on her own application.

Still, she would advise students with one Asian parent to "check whatever race is not Asian."

"Not to really generalize, but a lot of Asians, they have perfect SATs, perfect GPAs, ... so it's hard to let them all in," Olmstead says.

Amalia Halikias is a Yale freshman whose mother was born in America to Chinese immigrants; her father is a Greek immigrant. She also checked only the "white" box on her application.

"As someone who was applying with relatively strong scores, I didn't want to be grouped into that stereotype," Halikias says. "I didn't want to be written off as one of the 1.4 billion Asians that were applying."

... "If you know you're going to be discriminated against, it's absolutely justifiable to not check the Asian box," says Halikias.

"The whole Tiger Mom stereotype is grounded in truth," says Tao Tao Holmes, a Yale sophomore with a Chinese-born mother and white American father. She did not check "Asian" on her application.

"My math scores aren't high enough for the Asian box," she says. "I say it jokingly, but there is the underlying sentiment of, if I had emphasized myself as Asian, I would have (been expected to) excel more in stereotypically Asian-dominated subjects."

"I was definitely held to a different standard (by my mom), and to different standards than my friends," Holmes says. She sees the same rigorous academic focus among many other students with immigrant parents, even non-Asian ones.

Does Holmes think children of American parents are generally spoiled and lazy by comparison? "That's essentially what I'm trying to say."

Asian students have higher average SAT scores than any other group, including whites. A study by Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade examined applicants to top colleges from 1997, when the maximum SAT score was 1600 (today it's 2400). Espenshade found that Asian-Americans needed a 1550 SAT to have an equal chance of getting into an elite college as white students with a 1410 or black students with an 1100.

Top schools that don't ask about race in admissions process have very high percentages of Asian students. The California Institute of Technology, a private school that chooses not to consider race, is about one-third Asian. (Thirteen percent of California residents have Asian heritage.) The University of California-Berkeley, which is forbidden by state law to consider race in admissions, is more than 40 percent Asian — up from about 20 percent before the law was passed.

Steven Hsu, a physics professor at the University of Oregon and a vocal critic of current admissions policies, says there is a clear statistical case that discrimination exists.

"The actual dynamics of how it happens are really quite subtle," he says, mentioning factors like horse-trading among admissions officers for their favorite candidates.

Also, "when Asians are the largest group on campus, I can easily imagine a fund-raiser saying, 'This is jarring to our alumni,'" Hsu says. Noting that most Ivy League schools have roughly the same percentage of Asians, he wonders if "that's the maximum number where diversity is still good, and it's not, 'we're being overwhelmed by the yellow horde.'"

... Kara Miller helped read applications for the Yale admissions office when she was an undergraduate there, and participated in meetings where admissions decisions were made. She says it often felt like Asians were held to a higher standard.

"Asian kids know that when you look at the average SAT for the school, they need to add 50 or 100 to it. If you're Asian, that's what you'll need to get in," says Miller, now an English professor at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.

... Hsu, the physics professor, says that if the current admissions policies continue, it will become more common for Asian students to avoid identifying themselves as such, and schools will have to react.

"They'll have to decide: A half-Asian kid, what is that? I don't think they really know." ...

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