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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Myth of American Meritocracy

Ron Unz has performed an exhaustive analysis of elite university admissions in The Myth of American Meritocracy (December issue of the American Conservative). He finds strong evidence for de facto quotas on Asian-Americans at Ivy League universities. See below for a brief summary. I suggest reading his entire article, which is filled with additional insights, including one rather shocking surprise. Don't miss the statistical supplement.

Asian-American Quotas at Ivy League Universities?

November 28, 2012 - America’s elite Ivy League universities appear to follow a de facto Asian-American admissions quota policy according to “The Myth of American Meritocracy,”a 30,000-word cover story in the December issue of The American Conservative by publisher Ron Unz.

Unz provides detailed statistical evidence that the pattern of Asian-American enrollment over the last two decades is remarkably similar to what followed the establishment of Ivy League Jewish quotas in the mid-1920s. Soon after the U.S. Department of Justice closed its early 1990s investigation into allegations of anti-Asian admissions bias at the Ivy League:
  • Asian-American numbers at Harvard, Yale, and Columbia began large declines. 
  • Asian-American enrollments throughout the Ivy League strangely converged to very similar levels. 
  • The college-age population of Asian-Americans doubled during 1993-2011 as did their top academic awards, but none of this was reflected in their Ivy League enrollments. 
  • As one example, the percentage of college-age Asian-Americans at Harvard dropped by more than 50% during 1993-2011, a larger decline than that suffered by Jews following the 1925 establishment of ethnic quotas. 
  • Meanwhile, race-neutral Caltech saw its Asian-American enrollment increase closely in line with the growth of the college-age Asian-American population. 
  • Comparing the Ivy League enrollments of Asian-Americans with those of high-performing white subpopulations rules out general “diversity” factors as an explanation for these patterns.

See also Defining Merit. Guess which university produces the most Nobel prizes per student?

Some additional figures from the article (click for larger versions). Note that not only did the number of college age Asian-Americans increase in recent decades, so did (overwhelmingly) their performance at the high end of academic achievement. If admissions were race neutral (meritocratic) at Harvard, why did the percentage of Asians decrease?

The Caltech student population is demographically similar to the most intellectually talented portion of the US population (see below); the Ivy League student population is not -- there are curious distortions.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Persistence, motivation and reliability

GED holders are roughly comparable to high school graduates in terms of cognitive ability, but weaker in terms of personality factors such as conscientiousness. Labor market outcomes for GED holders are closer to those of high school dropouts than to graduates.

Heckman talk (mp3) at Yale Law School (also available on iTunes). For related results on personality and earnings for cognitively gifted individuals, see Earnings effects of personality, education and IQ for the gifted.

James J. Heckman, John Eric Humphries, Nicholas S. Mader

NBER Working Paper No. 16064

The General Educational Development (GED) credential is issued on the basis of an eight hour subject-based test. The test claims to establish equivalence between dropouts and traditional high school graduates, opening the door to college and positions in the labor market. In 2008 alone, almost 500,000 dropouts passed the test, amounting to 12% of all high school credentials issued in that year. This chapter reviews the academic literature on the GED, which finds minimal value of the certificate in terms of labor market outcomes and that only a few individuals successfully use it as a path to obtain post-secondary credentials. Although the GED establishes cognitive equivalence on one measure of scholastic aptitude, recipients still face limited opportunity due to deficits in noncognitive skills such as persistence, motivation and reliability. The literature finds that the GED testing program distorts social statistics on high school completion rates, minority graduation gaps, and sources of wage growth. Recent work demonstrates that, through its availability and low cost, the GED also induces some students to drop out of school. The GED program is unique to the United States and Canada, but provides policy insight relevant to any nation's educational context.

This figure shows that high school completion probability varies mainly according to cognitive ability, whereas GED completion is positively correlated with low non-cognitive ability (i.e., low conscientiousness). (Numerical score 1 = low, 10 = high; click for larger version.)

The related question we will be facing in the near future: what are relative job success probabilities for students with degrees from a traditional college versus those with credentials obtained via online education? For example, consider a smart kid who obtains high grades in linear algebra and C++ from MIT/Harvard/Berkeley edX, but chooses not to attend university, versus a graduate from a traditional engineering program. Exactly what is being signaled or predicted by these two life paths? Who would you hire?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Schwinger on quantum foundations

The excerpt below is from the excellent biography Climbing the Mountain by Mehra and Milton. Milton was one of Schwinger's last Harvard grad students, eventually a professor at the University of Oklahoma. Schwinger's view is the one shared by all reasonable physicists: quantum mechanics must apply to the measuring device as well as that which is measured. Once this assumption is made (as Hawking and others have noted): many worlds follows trivially.
(p.369) Schwinger: "To me, the formalism of quantum mechanics is not just mathematics; rather it is a symbolic account of the realities of atomic measurements. That being so, no independent quantum theory of measurement is required -- it is part and parcel of the formalism.

[ ... recapitulates usual von Neumann formulation: unitary evolution of wavefunction under "normal" circumstances; non-unitary collapse due to measurement ... discusses paper hypothesizing stochastic (dynamical) wavefunction collapse ... ]

In my opinion, this is a desperate attempt to solve a non-existent problem, one that flows from a false premise, namely the vN dichotomization of quantum mechanics. Surely physicists can agree that a microscopic measurement is a physical process, to be described as would any physical process, that is distinguished only by the effective irreversibility produced by amplification to the macroscopic level. ..."
Similar views have been expressed by Feynman and Gell-Mann and by Steve Weinberg. Interestingly, this chapter in the biography seems to describe (in slightly odd language) some Schwinger work on decoherence, analyzing a collaborator's claim that Stern-Gerlach beams could be recombined coherently.

See also my paper On the origin of probability in quantum mechanics.

Schwinger's precocity, explored in the biography in far greater detail than I had seen before, is overwhelming. At age 17 or so he had read everything there was to read about quantum mechanics, early field theory, nuclear and atomic physics. For example, he had read and understood Dirac's papers, had invented the interaction picture basis, had already read the Einstein, Podolsky, Rosen paper and explained it to Rabi when they first met. He met Bethe and they discussed a problem in quantum scattering (Schwinger had improved Bethe's well-known result and noticed an error that no other theorist had). Bethe later wrote that the 17 year old Schwinger's grasp of quantum electrodynamics was at least as good as his own.
Feyerabend on the giants: "... The younger generation of physicists, the Feynmans, the Schwingers, etc., may be very bright; they may be more intelligent than their predecessors, than Bohr, Einstein, Schrodinger, Boltzmann, Mach and so on. ..."
Schwinger survived both Feynman and Tomonaga, with whom he shared the Nobel prize for quantum electrodynamics. He began his eulogy for Feynman: "I am the last of the triumvirate ..."

Saturday, November 17, 2012

DC photos

National Museum of the American Indian.

Hirshhorn Museum. Next four images are of the Ai Wei Wei exhibition.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Fed town

Council on Competitiveness meeting in Washington. Fed town is weird. It's jarring to see people using ancient Blackberries ...

State Department dinner.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Michigan startups

Niowave, a Lansing company with roots in MSU's number 1 ranked nuclear physics program. The founder is shown smoking a cigar in the wedding photo here.

Startup event in Dan Gilbert's beautiful Madison building in downtown Detroit.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

F > L > P > S

Andrei Sakharov with daughter, 1948.

Excerpts below from The World of Andrei Sakharov (link goes to full text) by Gennady Gorelik. See Out on the tail for a discussion of Landau's logarithmic ranking of physicists.
(p.159) Discussing Tamm’s desire that Landau be his official dissertation opponent in his Memoirs, he remarked that the latter “fortunately, refused; I would have felt very awkward because I realized the dissertation’s inadequacies.” Sakharov also talked about his failure in pure physics in the summer of 1947, and how Pomeranchuk (his dissertation opponent) did “a hatchet job” on the same problem, while Landau dealt with it “in an elegant and productive way.” This gave Sakharov the basis to humbly “formulate a system of inequalities: L > P > S” (L for Landau, P for Pomeranchuk, S for Sakharov).

... Sakharov for some reason came to the Institute of Physical Problems, where Landau headed up the Theoretical Department and a separate group doing research and calculations for “the Problem.”
After we finished discussing our work, Landau and I walked out into the Institute garden. This was the only time we talked without witnesses, heart-to-heart. He said: “I really don’t like all this.” (The context was nuclear weapons in general and his participation in this work in particular.)
“Why?” I asked somewhat naively.
“Too much fuss.”
Landau usually smiled a lot and easily, baring his large teeth, but this time he was sad, even mournful.
Landau on the Soviet nuclear weapons effort:
(p.190, quote from 1952-3) "One must use all one’s strength not to get involved in the thick of atomic work. But one has to be very careful refusing it . . . If it weren’t for Box Five [Jewish ethnicity], I would not be doing special [nuclear-weaponry] work, but pure science, in which I now lag behind. The special work gives me a certain amount of personal security. But it’s far from my serving 'for the good of the Homeland' ... I have been reduced to the level of a “scientist slave” and this defines it all."

... Zeldovich was close enough to Landau to know how he felt about this work. Zeldovich considered Landau his teacher, and it was on Landau’s recommendation that Zeldovich was elected Corresponding Member of the Academy of Sciences. However, in the early 1950s, Landau berated Zeldovich with the foulest possible language when the latter attempted to drag him more deeply into secret work in spite of his unwillingness.

On Sakharov and Zeldovich.  Gorelik interprets events surrounding the development of the Soviet H-bomb as I did in the earlier post: Sakharov's Third Idea.
(p.188) From an eyewitness: These two prominent theorists had very different “styles of thinking.” Sakharov was characterized by inventiveness and great profundity while Zeldovich by very quick thinking and high erudition. These scientists created an extraordinarily creative climate; the Institute [Installation] became orphaned after their departure at the end of the 1960s.

Another eyewitness recalls how interesting it was to follow the discussion of these outwardly opposite individuals: One was short in stature, bespectacled, rapid in his movements, and spoke clearly; the other was tall, languid, and spoke with a slight burr. But they were linked by sharp minds and enormous physical intuition. Mutual problems stimulated their thinking and they quickly grasped the crux of processes; hardly anyone managed to follow the course of their reasoning.

... Sakharov himself did not underestimate the heroism of what he had done. Twenty years later, when he received an invitation to come to the United States and lecture, his wife asked him what would interest him the most in America. By that time his imagination was already involved in cosmology and the physics of elementary particles, and he had an altogether different view of the government for which he had created thermonuclear weapons. However, he told his wife that he wanted very much to sit side by side with Ulam to compare the paths by which they had arrived at the same solution (it was in the 1970s, when the roles played by Ulam and Teller in creating the H-bomb were not clear).

Zeldovich admired Sakharov’s talent, treated him “extraordinarily carefully,” “timidly,” and said: “What am I? Now, Andrei, he’s something else!” According to another witness, Zeldovich said: “I can understand and take the measure of other physicists, but Andrei — he’s something else, something special."

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The benevolence of financiers

Olivier Desbarres is (now former) head of Asia FX strategy at Barclays. Condolences to my friends in finance who have to work with people like this. Struggle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster!

(In anticipation of comments: yes, people from all walks of life have meltdowns, but anyone familiar with global finance can detect authentic banker arrogance in this guy...)

Careful observation reveals it's disproportionately sociopaths at (and near) the top.

What a tremendous misallocation of human capital. See The illusion of skill.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

All In

This is creepy to watch given the recent news about Paula Broadwell's affair with (now former) CIA director Petraeus -- her husband is also in the video. Breaking news -- the FBI got involved when Broadwell threatened another woman close to Petraeus via email.

It's disproportionately sociopaths at (and near) the top -- see also Lance Armstrong and Penn State scandal (especially the most recent grand jury presentment). If you watched this Daily Show segment when it first aired you probably thought Broadwell was a normal, even admirable, person. It's only under exceptional scrutiny (by the FBI, or other investigation with power to depose witnesses under oath) that the real truth comes out ...

Training days

Great training footage here of Carlos Condit and Georges St. Pierre. It's incredible how far MMA has come in the last 15 years. I'd say training methods of the top camps are as good as or better than in any other sport. The talent pool that MMA draws from still has a way to go, however. I think we'll see a lot more Jon Jones/GSP level pure athletes if the sport continues to progress.

I especially like the brief part near the end where John Danaher (Renzo blackbelt) is coaching GSP in BJJ, and what Firas (GSP head trainer) says to the team about going hard with the visiting Muay Thai world champion: don't go hard with this guy unless you want to end up in the hospital!

Friday, November 09, 2012

Broad Art Museum

Opening of the Broad Art Museum at MSU.

Senator Levin, Governor Snyder and Eli Broad.

Senator Levin and Eli Broad.

Global fashion equilibration

The timescale is now down to weeks, not seasons. See also Pronto moda and Globalization and high fashion (from 2005!).
NYTimes: ... The Zara headquarters is a huge airplane-hangar-size open space, with regional sales managers sitting at a line of desks running down the middle, designers on either side of them. The managers field calls from China or Chile to learn what’s selling, then they meet with the designers and decide whether there’s a trend. In this way, Inditex takes the fashion pulse of the world. “The manager will say, ‘My customers are asking for red trousers,’ and if it’s the same demand in Istanbul, New York and Tokyo, that means it’s a global trend, so they know to produce more red pants,” the P.R. person said.

I remarked that it must be interesting to see what is fashionable in Turkey but not in New York and vice versa. I imagined that different nationalities still had different tastes, at least in terms of fashion. But I was wrong.

“Actually, the customer is more or less the same in New York and Istanbul,” she said. “There are differences, like Brazilian girls like more brilliant colors, whereas in Paris they use more black. But in general when you find a fashion trend, it’s global.”

Earlier, Echevarría told me that neighborhoods share trends more than countries do. For example, the store on Fifth Avenue in Midtown New York “is more similar to the store in Ginza, Tokyo, which is an elegant area that’s also touristic,” he said. “And SoHo is closer to Shibuya, which is very trendy and young. Brooklyn now is a wildly trendy place to go, while Midtown — well, no New Yorker is actually shopping on Fifth Avenue now.” The buyers there are suburban tourists, he meant.

I recalled how I returned to my hipsterish Istanbul neighborhood after a trip to Brooklyn not long ago and discovered that the Turks were all also wearing those huge scarves wrapped around their necks eight times. I was surprised by how fast a style traveled across the globe, because I don’t see many Turks reading fashion magazines. But it isn’t just magazines that tell us what to wear. People like Ortega do. Or, more accurate, we tell each other, through the conduit of his Inditex stores and others like them.

... A trend can last a half a year, but some are finished in a month. “They thought that animal prints would finish by summer, but it kept going,” she said. “In the beginning of this season we had fluorescent colors. It was a trend in April and May, and it was very successful and then that was it.”

Thursday, November 08, 2012

"They take students like you there."

The touching essay I quote from below is by Eddie Frenkel, a noted Berkeley mathematician. I recommend the whole thing. Eddie and I used play in the regular Junior Fellows basketball game at Harvard's Malkin Athletic Center (MAC), where Spike Lee and Obama also played. I don't recall ever playing with Obama, but I do remember Spike, who was teaching a film class on campus. Spike is no baller, despite being such a big Knicks fan. For some reason I came up with the nickname "Kazakhstani Kid" for Eddie, which he never appreciated. During all the years I knew Eddie we never talked about anti-semitism. I did, however, hear such stories from Bob Nozick (from his Princeton years) and Stephen Greenblatt (Yale). They were, of course, from an earlier generation.

Perceptively, Nozick once asked me if I thought Asian-Americans were discriminated against by elite universities like Harvard. Perhaps he was aware of the 1990 investigation of Harvard by the Department of Education (our conversation would have been in the early 90s); I certainly was not. See also The bar is different.

New Criterion: ... It was 1984, my senior year at high school. I had to decide which university to apply to. Moscow had many schools, but there was only one place to study pure math: Moscow State University, known by its Russian abbreviation MGU, Moskovskiy Gosudarstvenny Universitet. Its famous Mekh-Mat, the Department of Mechanics and Mathematics, was the flagship mathematics program of the USSR. Since I wanted to study pure math, I had no choice but to apply there.

Unlike the U.S., there are entrance exams to colleges in Russia. At Mekh-Mat there were four: written math, oral math, an essay on literature, and oral physics. I had, by then, progressed far beyond high school math, so it looked like I would sail through these exams.

But I was too optimistic. ...

“What’s your name?” she said by way of greeting.

“Eduard Frenkel.” (I used the Russian version of “Edward’’ in those days.)

“And you want to apply to MGU?”


“Which Department?”


“I see.” She lowered her eyes and asked:

“And what’s your nationality?”

I said, “Russian.”

“Really? And what are your parents’ nationalities?”

“Well. . . . My mother is Russian.”

“And your father?”

“My father is Jewish.”


“Do you know that Jews are not accepted to Moscow University?”

“What do you mean?”

“What I mean is that you shouldn’t even bother to apply. Don’t waste your time. They won’t let you in.” ...

But Eddie tried anyway, to no avail.

... We walked out of the room and entered the elevator. The doors closed. It was just the two of us. The examiner was clearly in a good mood. He said:

“You did very well. A really impressive performance. I was wondering: did you go to a special math school?”

I grew up in a small town, we didn’t have special math schools.

“Really? Perhaps, your parents are mathematicians?”

No, they are engineers.

“Interesting. . . . It’s the first time I’ve seen such a strong student who did not go to a special math school.”

I couldn’t believe what he was saying. This man had just failed me after an unfairly administered, discriminatory, grueling five-hour exam. For all I knew, he had killed my dream of becoming a mathematician. A sixteen-year-old student, whose only fault was that he came from a Jewish family. And now this guy is giving me compliments and expecting me to open up to him?!

But what could I do? Yell at him, punch him in the face? I was just standing there, silent, stunned. He continued:

“Let me give you some advice. Apply to the Moscow Institute of Oil and Gas. They have an Applied Mathematics program, which is quite good. They take students like you there.”

The elevator doors opened and a minute later he handed me my thick application folder, with a bunch of my school trophies and prizes oddly sticking out of it.

“Good luck to you,” he said, but I was too exhausted to respond. My only wish was to get the hell out of there!

And then I was outside, on the giant staircase of the immense MGU building. I was breathing fresh summer air again and hearing the sounds of the big city coming from a distance. It was getting dark, and there was almost no one around. I immediately spotted my parents who had been waiting anxiously for me on the steps this whole time. By the look on my face, and the big folder I was holding in my hands, they knew right away what had happened inside.
A reader sent me this list of deceptively simple "Jewish problems" used in oral exams at Moscow State University (MGU):

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Hail to the quants, pundit fail

Pundit idiocracy: "Close race", "Too close to call", "Neck and neck". (I heard this all day long.)

Quants and data geeks: "Obama will win. Unlikely to be close."

From an earlier post High V, Low M:
high verbal ability ... is useful for appearing to be smart, or for winning arguments and impressing other people, but it's really high math ability that is useful for discovering things about the world -- that is, discovering truth or reasoning rigorously.

... The statistical techniques used to analyze data obtained in a messy, complex world require mathematical ability to practice correctly. In almost all realistic circumstances hypothesis testing is intrinsically mathematical.
See also Obama wins! and Expert Prediction. Scorecard of predictions here (accuracy highly correlated with M, not V ;-)

Who is this guy?
Xu Cheng, Moodys’ Analytics: Obama 303, Romney 235 (Note that this prediction was made back in February) “This prediction is tied to the Moody’s Analytics current baseline forecast for U.S. growth, which assumes that most states will continue to recover at slow to moderate speeds.”

Monday, November 05, 2012

Obama wins!

At least, according to the quants who performed the mind boggling, incomprehensible, mysterious, nearly impossible task of averaging state poll numbers to estimate likely electoral vote totals.

Pundit and non-quant reactions evidence of Idiocracy. See earlier post Bounded Cognition.
Chronicle: ... While it may not seem likely, poll aggregation is a threat to the supremacy of the punditocracy. In the past week, you could sense that some high-profile media types were being made slightly uncomfortable by the bespectacled quants, with their confusing mathematical models and zippy computer programs. The New York Times columnist David Brooks said pollsters who offered projections were citizens of “sillyland.”

Maybe, but the recent track record in sillyland is awfully solid. In the 2008 presidential election, Silver correctly predicted 49 of 50 states. Wang was off by only one electoral vote. Meanwhile, as Silver writes in his book, numerous pundits confidently predicted a John McCain victory based on little more than intestinal twinges.

... Most journalists are ill equipped to interpret data, he says (and few journalists would disagree), so they view statistics with skepticism and occasionally, in the case of Brooks, disdain. “The data-driven people are going to win in the long run,” Jackman says.

He sees it as part of the rise of what’s being called Big Data—that is, using actual information to make decisions. As Jackman points out, Big Data is already changing sports and business, and it may be that pundits are the equivalents of the baseball scouts in Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball, caring more about the naturalness of a hitter’s swing than whether he gets on base.

“Why,” Jackman wonders, “should political commentary be exempt from this movement?”

... Last week the professional pundit and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough ranted that people like Silver, Wang, Linzer, and Jackman—who think the presidential race is “anything but a tossup”—should be kept away from their computers “because they’re jokes.” Silver responded by challenging Scarborough to bet $1,000 on Romney (in the form of a donation to the American Red Cross) if he was so sure. This led to hand-wringing about whether it was appropriate for someone affiliated with The New York Times to make crass public wagers.

But the bet seemed like an important symbolic moment. The poll aggregators have skin in the game. They’ve made statistical forecasts and published them, not just gut-feeling guesses on Sunday-morning talk shows. And, in Silver’s case, as a former professional poker player, he is willing to back it up with something tangible.

Alex Tabarrok, an economist and blogger for Marginal Revolution, applauded, calling such bets a “tax on bullshit.” ...
Shout out to Sam Wang, Caltech '86 :-)

Friday, November 02, 2012

MSU photos 6

A tour of some animal facilities.

My office.

MSU Technologies -- exterior and some startup space.

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