Monday, October 31, 2016

Peter Thiel at the National Press Club

More Thiel.

One hundred years of research on intellectual precocity

David Lubinski sent me this comprehensive review of 100 years of research on intellectual precocity. Someone has already posted an un-gated copy online at the link below. Many of the stunning SMPY graphs summarizing their longitudinal (30+ year) study of a population of gifted individuals (including one group measured at the 1 in 10,000 ability level at age 13) appear in the paper. More SMPY.
From Terman to Today: A Century of Findings on Intellectual Precocity

David Lubinski
Vanderbilt University

One hundred years of research (1916–2016) on intellectually precocious youth is reviewed, painting a portrait of an extraordinary source of human capital and the kinds of learning opportunities needed to facilitate exceptional accomplishments, life satisfaction, and positive growth. The focus is on those studies conducted on individuals within the top 1% in general or specific (mathematical, spatial, or verbal reasoning) abilities. Early insights into the giftedness phenomenon actually foretold what would be scientifically demonstrated 100 years later. Thus, evidence-based conceptualizations quickly moved from viewing intellectually precocious individuals as weak and emotionally liable to highly effective and resilient individuals. Like all groups, intellectually precocious students and adults have strengths and relative weaknesses; they also reveal vast differences in their passion for different pursuits and their drive to achieve. Because they do not possess multipotentiality, we must take a multidimensional view of their individuality. When done, it predicts well long-term educational, occupational, and creative outcomes.

The truth about the Chinese economy, from debt to ghost cities

Highly recommended. See also references linked below.
Andy Rothman has interpreted the Chinese economy for people who have serious and practical decisions to make since his early career heading up macroeconomic research at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. He is now an investment strategist for Matthews Asia, where he continues to focus on the Chinese economy and writes the Sinology column. His analysis often diverges from what’s in the headlines, and the contrast between Andy’s interpretation and the dominant, deeply gloomy media narrative of the last year or more is especially pronounced. In this podcast, Sinica hosts Jeremy and Kaiser ask Andy to explain why he’s still bullish after all this time. Don't miss our backgrounder for this episode, The truth about the Chinese economy, from debt to ghost cities.
Some interesting claims made in the podcast:

1. 90% of China factory output consumed in China (not for export).

2. Export component of total GDP now relatively minor.

3. Build up in debt mostly in SOE sector, used to fund infrastructure and create jobs in wake of 2008 crisis (Keynesian stimulus).

4. Real estate finance not highly leveraged -- 30 to 70 percent cash in most transactions.

5. Ghost cities usually due to public + private partnerships in which private apartment developers complete buildings before public infrastructure (e.g., train or subway line) is in place. This leads to 1-2 year ghost city lag that is eventually closed. Follow up investigation of ghost cities shows that occupancy is eventually realized. (I've seen one example like this first hand, east of Shenzhen, where occupancy was indeed waiting on the extension of a train line.)

Saturday, October 29, 2016

How Brexit was won, and the unreasonable effectiveness of physicists

The scale of ... triumph cannot be exaggerated. He ... had brought about a complete transformation of the European international order. He had told those who would listen what he intended to do, how he intended to do it, and he did it. He achieved this incredible feat without commanding an army, and without the ability to give an order to the humblest common soldier, without control of a large party, without public support, indeed, in the face of almost universal hostility, without a majority in parliament, without control of his cabinet, and without a loyal following in the bureaucracy. --- Brexit: victory over the Hollow Men
Dominic Cummings finally reveals some of the details behind the Brexit campaign's victory last summer:
On the referendum #20: the campaign, physics and data science
‘If you don’t get this elementary, but mildly unnatural, mathematics of elementary probability into your repertoire, then you go through a long life like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest. You’re giving a huge advantage to everybody else. One of the advantages of a fellow like Buffett … is that he automatically thinks in terms of decision trees and the elementary math of permutations and combinations… It’s not that hard to learn. What is hard is to get so you use it routinely almost everyday of your life. The Fermat/Pascal system is dramatically consonant with the way that the world works. And it’s fundamental truth. So you simply have to have the technique…

‘One of the things that influenced me greatly was studying physics… If I were running the world, people who are qualified to do physics would not be allowed to elect out of taking it. I think that even people who aren’t [expecting to] go near physics and engineering learn a thinking system in physics that is not learned so well anywhere else… The tradition of always looking for the answer in the most fundamental way available – that is a great tradition.’ --- Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet’s partner.
During the ten week official campaign the implied probability from Betfair odds of IN winning ranged between 60-83% (rarely below 66%) and the probability of OUT winning ranged between 17-40% (rarely above 33%). One of the reasons why so few in London saw the result coming was that the use by campaigns of data is hard to track even if you know what to look for and few in politics or the media know what to look for yet. Almost all of Vote Leave’s digital communication and data science was invisible even if you read every single news story or column ever produced in the campaign or any of the books so far published (written pre-Shipman’s book).

... We created new software. This was a gamble but the whole campaign was a huge gamble and we had to take many calculated risks. One of our central ideas was that the campaign had to do things in the field of data that have never been done before. This included a) integrating data from social media, online advertising, websites, apps, canvassing, direct mail, polls, online fundraising, activist feedback, and some new things we tried such as a new way to do polling (about which I will write another time) and b) having experts in physics and machine learning do proper data science in the way only they can – i.e. far beyond the normal skills applied in political campaigns. We were the first campaign in the UK to put almost all our money into digital communication then have it partly controlled by people whose normal work was subjects like quantum information (combined with political input from Paul Stephenson and Henry de Zoete, and digital specialists AIQ). We could only do this properly if we had proper canvassing software. We built it partly in-house and partly using an external engineer who we sat in our office for months.

Many bigshot traditional advertising characters told us we were making a huge error. They were wrong. It is one of the reasons we won. We outperformed the IN campaign on data despite them starting with vast mounts of data while we started with almost zero, they had support from political parties while we did not, they had early access to the electoral roll while we did not, and they had the Crosby/Messina data and models from the 2015 election while we had to build everything from scratch without even the money to buy standard commercial databases (we found ways to scrape equivalents off the web saving hundreds of thousands of pounds).

If you want to make big improvements in communication, my advice is – hire physicists, not communications people from normal companies, and never believe what advertising companies tell you about ‘data’ unless you can independently verify it. Physics, mathematics, and computer science are domains in which there are real experts, unlike macro-economic forecasting which satisfies neither of the necessary conditions – 1) enough structure in the information to enable good predictions, 2) conditions for good fast feedback and learning. Physicists and mathematicians regularly invade other fields but other fields do not invade theirs so we can see which fields are hardest for very talented people. It is no surprise that they can successfully invade politics and devise things that rout those who wrongly think they know what they are doing. Vote Leave paid very close attention to real experts. ...

More important than technology is the mindset – the hard discipline of obeying Richard Feynman’s advice: ‘The most important thing is not to fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.’ They were a hard floor on ‘fooling yourself’ and I empowered them to challenge everybody including me. They saved me from many bad decisions even though they had zero experience in politics and they forced me to change how I made important decisions like what got what money. We either operated scientifically or knew we were not, which is itself very useful knowledge. (One of the things they did was review the entire literature to see what reliable studies have been done on ‘what works’ in politics and what numbers are reliable.) Charlie Munger is one half of the most successful investment partnership in world history. He advises people – hire physicists. It works and the real prize is not the technology but a culture of making decisions in a rational way and systematically avoiding normal ways of fooling yourself as much as possible. This is very far from normal politics. 

On the eve and day of Brexit I happened to be staying at the estate of a billionaire hedge fund manager, which hosted a meeting of elite capital allocators. At breakfast, more than half of these titans of capital were in shock (others, entirely unperturbed :-) ... Markets were down 8% or more and my host asked for my view. It will play out over years, I said. No one knows where this is going to go. The market is oversold and it's a buying opportunity. So it was.

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences
, Eugene Wigner:
... it is useful, in epistemological discussions, to abandon the idealization that the level of human intelligence has a singular position on an absolute scale. In some cases it may even be useful to consider the attainment which is possible at the level of the intelligence of some other species.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Einstein and Oppenheimer on detachment

These are excerpts from Sam Schweber's Einstein and Oppenheimer: The Meaning of Genius.

Perhaps they can provide some solace as we near the end of this ridiculous election season.
Einstein: He never looked “upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves.” The trite objects of human efforts—possessions, outward success, luxury—always seemed to him “contemptible . . . [and] without the kinship of men of like mind, without the occupation with the objective world, the eternally unattainable in the field of art and scientific endeavor, life would have seemed empty” (Einstein 1954, 9). In his tribute to Max Planck on the occasion of Planck’s sixtieth birthday, Einstein stated that, like Arthur Schopenhauer, he believed that “one of the strongest motives that lead men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one’s own ever shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from personal life into the world of objective perception and thought” (Einstein 1954, 225).
Oppenheimer: In a letter to his brother in March 1932 Oppenheimer declared that “through discipline, though not through discipline alone, we can achieve serenity, and a certain small but precious measure of freedom from the accidents of incarnation, and charity, and that detachment which preserves the world that it renounces. I believe that through discipline we learn to preserve what is essential to our happiness in more and more adverse circumstances, and to abandon with simplicity what would else have seemed to us indispensable; that we come a little to see the world without the gross distortion of personal desires, and seeing it so accept more easily our earthly privation and its earthly horror. . . . [I]n its nature discipline involves the subjection of the soul to some perhaps minor end; and that end must be real, if the discipline is not to be factitious. Therefore I think that all things which evoke discipline: study, and our duties to men and to the commonwealth, war, and personal hardship, and even the need for subsistence, ought to be greeted by us with profound gratitude; for only through them can we attain to the least detachment and only so can we know peace. (Smith and Weiner 1980, 155–156)”
My favorite quote from Marcus Aurelius:
Marcus Aurelius

"Or does the bubble reputation distract you? Keep before your eyes the swift onset of oblivion, and the abysses of eternity before us and behind; mark how hollow are the echoes of applause, how fickle and undiscerning the judgments of professed admirers, and how puny the arena of human fame. For the entire earth is but a point, and the place of our own habitation but a minute corner in it; and how many are therein who will praise you, and what sort of men are they?"

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Low Earth Orbit from your backyard? (startup Vector Space Systems)

It's great to see innovation and competition in space launch technology. These small launchers from startup Vector Space Systems can put 50-100kg payloads (e.g., micro satellites) into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) for $2-3 million.

There are obvious military applications for the rapid placement (or replacement) of satellites. For example, see A2AD Fait Accompli? Commercial applications are relatively unexplored but are becoming feasible now.

Tucson Pathfinder from Jim Cantrell on Vimeo.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Joe Rogan interviews Dan Bilzerian

This is one of the best interviews I've heard in a long time. Warning: NSFW.

Joe Rogan interviews professional poker player and social media icon Dan Bilzerian. If you don't know who he is, check him out on Instagram (guns, girls, private jets, high stakes poker = 20 million followers = NSFW).

Among the topics covered: DB's experience in Navy SEAL training, high stakes poker, online poker in the early 2000s, sex, drugs, heart attacks, life, happiness, hedonic treadmill, social media, girls, fame, prostitution, money, steroids, stem cell therapy, and plenty more.

You can get the interview in smaller topical chunks (one of the best segments is embedded below). At bottom is the full 3 hours.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Gunder Frank debates David Landes on world economic history

This C-SPAN video captures two hours of debate between Gunder Frank (ReORIENT: Global Economy in the Asian Age) and David Landes (The Wealth and Poverty of Nations), which took place at Northeastern University in 1998. Frank and Landes were on opposite sides of a debate over deep economic history, the rise of the West, and globalization.

The debate is a bit tedious but at least one gets a sense of the main points of contention between Frank and Landes. (I was already familiar with both of their positions.) I knew Landes a bit because he was a Senior Fellow when I was a Junior Fellow at Harvard. We dined together on many occasions. If memory serves, he even asked my opinion on some of these issues, perhaps because I was a scientist with broad interests, and of Asian heritage. In those conversations he was much less antagonistic with me than with Frank :-)

Some relevant links from this blog: China 1793, Koxinga, the Needham question.

This is just a screenshot, as I can't embed the video here:

AI, Westworld, and Electric Sheep

I'm holding off on this in favor of a big binge watch.

Certain AI-related themes have been treated again and again in movies ranging from Blade Runner to the recent Ex Machina (see also this episode of Black Mirror, with Jon Hamm). These artistic explorations help ordinary people think through questions like:
What rights should be accorded to all sentient beings?
Can you trust your memories?
Are you an artificial being created by someone else? (What does "artificial" mean here?)
See also Are you a game character, or a player character? and Don't worry, smart machines will take us with them.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Greetings from Westwood (UCLA)

Apologies for the gap in blogging. I was at UCLA to give the seminar below. Westwood is as lovely as ever! Despite all the gloomy news about lack of resources in the UC system I am always impressed at the high quality of research done there.

Video of the talk. Slides.

Friday, October 07, 2016

Where Nobel winners get their start (Nature)

Nature covers some work by Jonathan Wai and myself. See here for a broader ranking of US schools, which includes Nobel, Turing, Fields awards and National Academies membership.
Where Nobel winners get their start (Nature)

Undergraduates from small, elite institutions have the best chance of winning a Nobel prize.

There are many ways to rank universities, but one that’s rarely considered is how many of their graduates make extraordinary contributions to society. A new analysis does just that, ranking institutions by the proportion of their undergraduates that go on to win a Nobel prize. [ Note: includes Literature, Economics, Peace, as well as science prizes. ]

Two schools dominate the rankings: École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena. These small, elite institutions each admit fewer than 250 undergraduate students per year, yet their per capita production of Nobelists outstrips some larger world-class universities by factors of hundreds.

“This is a way to identify colleges that have a history of producing major impact,” says Jonathan Wai, a psychologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and a co-author of the unpublished study. “It gives us a new way of thinking about and evaluating what makes an undergraduate institution great.”

Wai and Stephen Hsu, a physicist at Michigan State University in East Lansing, examined the 81 institutions worldwide with at least three alumni who have received Nobel prizes in chemistry, physiology or medicine, physics and economics between 1901 and 2015. To meaningfully compare schools, which have widely varying alumni populations, the team divided the number of Nobel laureates at a school by its estimated number of undergraduate alumni.

Top Nobel-producing undergraduate institutions

Rank School                Country               Nobelists per capita (UG alumni)
1 École Normale Supérieure France       0.00135
2 Caltech                               US             0.00067
3 Harvard University            US             0.00032
4 Swarthmore College          US             0.00027
5 Cambridge University       UK             0.00025
6 École Polytechnique          France       0.00025
7 MIT                                   US              0.00025
8 Columbia University         US              0.00021
9 Amherst College               US              0.00019
10 University of Chicago     US              0.00017

Small but mighty

Many of the top Nobel-producing schools are private, and have significant financial resources. Among the more surprising high performers were several very small US liberal-arts colleges, such as Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania (ranked at number 4) and Amherst College in Massachusetts (number 9).

“What these smaller schools are doing might serve as important undergraduate models to follow in terms of selection and training,” says Wai, who adds that, although admission to one of the colleges on the list is no guarantee of important achievements later in life, the probability is much higher for these select matriculates.

To gauge trends over time, Wai cut the sample of 870 laureates into 20-year bands. US universities, which now make up almost half of the top 50 list, began to dominate after the Second World War. Whereas French representation in the Nobel ranks has declined over time, top-ranked ENS has remained steady in its output.

Hsu and Wai had previously performed two similar, but broader, analyses of the rate at which US universities produce winners of the Nobel prize, Fields Medal (in mathematics) or Turing Award (in computer science), as well as members of the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. These studies produced rankings of US institutions that are similar to the new, global Nobel rankings.

Lessons learned 
Santo Fortunato, a theoretical physicist at Indiana University Bloomington who has researched trends in Nobel prizewinners, deems the analyses “quite interesting”, but cautions that the methodology cannot produce a highly accurate or predictive ranking. “There is a high margin of error due to the low numbers of prominent scholars,” says Fortunato. [ See here for a broader ranking of US schools, which includes Nobel, Turing, Fields awards and National Academies membership. ]

Wai and Hsu agree that there are statistical uncertainties in their rankings, owing to the small number of prizes awarded each year. The two are confident that the ENS and Caltech lead the pack, but statistical fluctuations could change the order of schools placed from third to ninth, Hsu says.

The researchers say that their findings suggest that more attention should be paid to the role that undergraduate institutions have in their graduates’ outstanding accomplishments. They also argue that quantifiable achievements are a better gauge of the quality of universities than factors such as reputation, graduation rate, faculty and financial resources and alumni donations.

Says Wai, “Our findings identify colleges that excel at producing impact.”
Regarding statistical fluctuations, if one takes the data as an estimator of a school-related probability for each graduate to win a Nobel, then at 95 percent confidence level ENS and Caltech are the top two schools, but fluctuations could (for example) change the order among #3 (Harvard) through #9 (Amherst). In other words, we can't be >95 percent confident that Harvard grads have a higher probability than Amherst grads, although the central value of the estimated probability is higher for Harvard.

Regarding ENS and their elitist method of selecting students, see below. Two years of preparation for the entrance exam! Also: Les Grandes Ecoles Chinoises and The Normaliens.
Wikipedia: The school, like its sister grandes écoles the École Polytechnique and the École Nationale d'Administration, is very small in size: its core of students, who are called normaliens, are selected via either a highly competitive exam called a concours (Baccalauréat + 2 years) ... Preparation for the "concours" takes place in preparatory classes which last two years ... Most students come from the prépas at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, the Lycée Henri-IV, and a few other elite establishments in France. Two hundred normaliens are thus recruited every year ...
Lycee Henri-IV is in the Latin Quarter on the left bank, one of my favorite parts of Paris. The book shops and cafes are filled with serious looking young students. Vive la France! :-)

Monday, October 03, 2016

Renewable energy past the tipping point? (VPRO documentary)

Have we reached the tipping point (i.e., ~$.05 per kilowatt hour) with renewables? The documentary claims that large investments by China and Germany have brought this to fruition, with a million people now employed in the Chinese solar industry. (Elon not so crazy after all? :-)

Genetics, Cognitive Ability, and Education (conversation with Cambridge PhD candidate Daphne Martschenko)

Further conversation with Cambridge PhD candidate Daphne Martschenko concerning genetics of cognitive ability, implications for education policy, etc.

See also earlier conversation:

Dunedin paper referenced in the video (polygenic score prediction of adult success for different SES groups):

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