Thursday, May 31, 2007

The largest Feynman diagram in the world?

As far as I know, the Feynman diagram embedded in the atrium floor of our physics building is the largest in the world. I often overhear campus tour guides describe the diagram as a kind of "molecule" :-/

It's hard to see in the photos, but the diagram is of the Drell-Yan process, where a quark and antiquark fuse into a photon or other gauge boson, which then decays to a lepton-antilepton pair.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Advice to a new graduate

One of the students who has worked part time at Robot Genius is graduating from Stanford in computer science. My advice to him and to others like him is to investigate opportunities at local startups before just joining one of the giants like Google, Microsoft or Cisco.

At a good startup you will likely learn more, have more responsibility and get a deeper look at the interplay between risk, innovation, success and failue. It is sad but true that even the best big companies have a large component of mediocrity -- in my experience the average quality level is often anticorrelated with the amount of time since the company has been a startup. Many bright young graduates will be stuck with little real responsibility, working under a clueless politician who barely understands his or her industry. It's the nature of a large organization that such people can survive and prosper without making any contribution to the competitiveness of their employer.

After working at a startup you won't necessarily have a blue chip name on your resume, but you'll likely have specific accomplishments you can point to, that you had real ownership over. If your grades and other qualifications were good enough to get you hired at Google, they'll still be impressive a few years down the line (for employers who want to check your overall brainpower). But in addition you'll have demonstrated willingness to take risk and have had significant responsibilities. And finally, there's also that lottery ticket which might pay off :-)

This Times article covers Google's fierce compeition to hire the best talent.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — On a spring Saturday, about 90 students from Stanford and as many from the University of California, Berkeley, converged on Google’s corporate campus for a day of spirited team competition over mind-bending puzzles, Lego building problems and video games.

It was called the Google Games, a convivial way for the mostly computer science and engineering students to renew the Stanford-Berkeley rivalry. But behind the fun was a serious corporate recruiting event that underscores a rivalry no less intense: the tug of war for talent between Google and its competitors.

As much of the high-tech industry is enjoying a renewed boom, the competition for top recruits in engineering and other fields is as intense as ever. Companies like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo frequently find themselves going after the same candidates or recruiting in one another’s backyards. At the same time, they are running up against a myriad of start-up companies across Silicon Valley that have been pumped up with venture capital in recent years.

To lure talent, these companies have expanded their recruiting arsenal far beyond the traditional job fair to include a growing number of events like technology lectures, cocktail parties, pizza parties, treasure hunts and programming contests, dubbed “code jams” or “hack days.” Much like the Google Games, these are no-pressure recruiting occasions meant to create excitement around their companies and impress potential recruits as young as college freshmen.

“It comes down to just getting them introduced to our culture, showing them that, hey, being part of Google could be a lot of fun,” said Ken Krieger, a Google engineer who had volunteered to supervise the Lego-building contest.

Google, more than any other company, looms large in this latest chapter of Silicon Valley’s talent wars.

The company has been vacuuming talent wherever it can find it to keep fueling its torrid growth. Its work force has roughly doubled every year for the last several years, to more than 12,200 at the end of March. Google is now adding about 500 workers each month. Its Web site lists nearly 800 open positions in the San Francisco Bay Area alone.

If Google is hungry for top talent, the class of 2007 seems to think that a Google job offer is a prized commodity. Stories about Google’s notoriously tough and sometimes off-putting recruiting process continue to surface. Even so, the company was considered the most desirable employer for all undergraduates this year, and for the first time, it edged out the blue-chip consulting firm McKinsey & Company as the most desirable employer among M.B.A.’s, a position McKinsey had held for the last 12 years, according to surveys conducted by Universum, a research firm.

“Being in an environment where you are going to learn a lot is the most important thing to me,” said Alice Yu-shan Chang, one of hundreds of recruits who are graduating this year and heading for Google.

Ms. Chang, who is finishing master’s degrees in computer science and management science at Stanford, was sought by both Microsoft and Google, as well as eBay and Oracle. She said Microsoft had done what it could to find the right group for her, first at its headquarters in Redmond, Wash., and then, upon learning that she did not want to leave the Bay Area, at its Mountain View campus, not far from Google’s. She received phone calls from company vice presidents and met face-to-face with one of them.

“With Google, you don’t have that much face time with high-up people,” she said. But there was some wining and dining on the part of Google, which Ms. Chang would not discuss in detail because she had signed a nondisclosure agreement. Eventually, Google won, in part because it had agreed to permit Ms. Chang to rotate positions every six months in the first year and half, and because, for her, it was a better cultural fit.

“There are a lot of young people there who are very creative,” Ms. Chang, 25, said. Many of her peers at Microsoft would have been in their 30s and 40s “and more family oriented,” she said.

In the last two years, Google has expanded its university recruiting programs to nearly 200 campuses from about 70. But the ubiquity of its events has ruffled some feathers. Max Levchin, the chief executive of Slide, a technology start-up in San Francisco, said he used to have good luck recruiting from his alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, by going there in midyear and persuading computer-science students to defer graduation and join him in Silicon Valley. “Now all I hear about is Google holding a puzzle hunt this, or Google campus pizza that,” Mr. Levchin said in an e-mail interview. Chief executives at other start-ups had similar frustrations.

Stanford does not keep an official tally of where its students go, and even informal numbers are not in for the class of 2007. But an unscientific, voluntary check of students run by the university’s career center showed that Stanford had funneled more of its graduates to Google than to any other employer in the last three years.

While playing down the rivalry with Microsoft, which is hiring at an even faster rate than Google, albeit into a company nearly six times as large, Google has not shied away from bringing the competition for talent to Microsoft’s door. Google has more openings in the Seattle area than anywhere else in the country other than California and New York.

“I think it’s unlikely that you’ll see us back up a truck to their parking lot,” Google’s director for staffing programs, Judy Gilbert, said. “We have done a lot of things to engage with the local talent in an appropriate way.”

As an example, Ms. Gilbert, a former recruiter for McKinsey, pointed to a lecture this year at Google by Kaifu Lee, the president of Google Greater China, which was intended to appeal to the “large community of Chinese ex-pats” in the Seattle area. Mr. Lee used to head Microsoft’s research organization in China. After Google hired him in 2005, Microsoft sued Google and Mr. Lee, accusing him of violating a noncompete agreement and misusing inside information. The lawsuit was later settled.

Google’s efforts notwithstanding, Microsoft and Yahoo say they are able to hire the candidates they need.

“Our competition is really the market for top talent, not a specific company,” said Scott Pitarsky, Microsoft’s general manager for talent acquisition.

Similarly, Yahoo, which held a hack day at its campus that was attended by about 500 programmers, as well as smaller ones elsewhere, said its recruiting strategies were working. The company also opened a research center at Berkeley in part to attract student interns.

“Dozens of people have come from the labs into Yahoo,” said Bradley Horowitz, vice president for product strategy at Yahoo.

All three companies say their toughest recruiting challenges come from start-ups, who snap up people like Nitay Joffe.

Mr. Joffe, who had summer internships at Google for the last two years, expected to go to work there. But before Mr. Joffe, a recent computer engineering graduate of the University of California, San Diego, accepted a job, a friend suggested he check out a San Francisco start-up, Powerset, which is trying to build a rival search engine.

“Powerset had everything that Google had in terms of what I was looking for — smart people, interesting projects, great amenities,” Mr. Joffe said. Powerset also had one thing Google could not offer: the potential to strike it rich with the Internet equivalent of a lottery ticket.

“When you get a stock option at 5 cents and it goes to $50 ...,” Mr. Joffe said, before his voice trailed off. With Google’s shares hovering around $480, it no longer offers the same potential. “Google isn’t going to $4,000,” said Mr. Joffe, who began working at Powerset recently.

For every recruit who gets away, Google hopes many more enter its pipeline of potential employees at events like the Google Games.

“We never say, ‘Come work for us,’ ” said Ronner Lee, who is in charge of Google’s university programs at Berkeley. “If they like what they see here and they want to approach us with questions, that’s great.”

If the goal was to impress this crowd, it did not hurt that the games were held inside one of Google’s cafeterias, where the food is free, healthful and plentiful. Or that students were picked up at their campuses by Google’s free shuttles, which are outfitted with wireless Internet access. Or that many of the puzzles were created by the No. 2 Sudoku player in the world, who, by the way, happens to work at Google.

David Nguyen, a doctoral student at Berkeley who went to Google for the games, said the company clearly understands its target audience. “This is exactly the kind of person they want,” Mr. Nguyen said, “someone who is going to work and solve problems on a Saturday and enjoy it.”

Friday, May 25, 2007

Virtual meetings

John Battelle describes HP's HALO system for virtual meetings. Please, let this become cheap and widespread so I can stop schlepping around on planes, trains and automobiles. (Earlier rants here and here.)

Last week I got a chance to test drive HALO, Hewlett Packard's super high-end telepresence application. And all I can say is .... Oooooh, I want one. In fact, I want everyone to have one.

Of course, that's pretty impractical. HALO is, in essence, an extraordinarily expensive television studio cum virtual private network, and I can only imagine the cost of building one of them is in the low seven figures. For now, only large enterprises with serious budgets can afford to install such a system.

But man, after you use it, you really, really want to use it again.

I was invite to a HALO meeting by VJ Joshi, the fellow who runs HP's Imaging and Printing Group (IPG), and HALO is one of VJ's many products. IPG is best known for its printing business, but VJ has a larger vision for printing as a platform, and he wanted to bounce it around with me. (HP is a marketing partner of my company FM. Am I guilty of writing glowingly of a partner's products? Yes, but I only do that when, in fact, it's worthy.) VJ is also on the board of Yahoo, so I knew we'd not run out of things to talk about.

I came unsure what to expect - I've done video conferences before, and I was worried that all the usual glitches - latency, crappy video quality, poor audio - would make it hard to really connect. And I wanted to connect with VJ, I had heard a lot about him, and I was eager to pick his brain.

All that fell away when I walked into the rectangular HALO meeting room. The room was paneled in soft, light brown fabric, and dominating its left side was a board room table of sorts - well, half of a board room table, really, an arc of sorts from the stem to the stern of the room. On the wall to my left as I walked in were three 42+inch HD monitors, arranged at table level. Above them was a fourth screen, the same size.

And it was looking at the image on those screens where the mindbender came in: sitting at the table on the "other half" of the room were four people from Hewlett Packard. They looked jarringly real - but in fact, they were sitting in three different locations. They smiled and said hello when I entered, and I got this eerie feeling that I had triggered a family of Disneyland-esque automatons - they weren't reacting to me, were they? Maybe I triggered some kind of response system a la Haunted Mansion, where the ghost starts speaking to you as you pass by?

But nope, these were the folks assembled from various HP locations around the country, ready to meet with me. VJ sat in the middle, in HP's Fort Collins offices. Others were piped in from New York and Vancouver (I was in HP's Palo Alto offices). But as I viewed them, they were all sitting across the table, as if we were all in the same room. It was, as I've said before, really cool.

VJ gave me a brief tour of HALO's features - the fourth screen at the top allows you to manage the experience, share computer screens, and even share images of physical objects (a square light appears on the table next to you, and anything you put in the light can be seen by everyone else). By the time he had finished giving me the nickel tour, I had quite forgotten we were not in the same room. Our subsequent conversation was as nuanced and, well, as human as most meetings I've had face to face. The sound was superb, there was absolutely no latency, and the system adjusts for eye contact - people know when you are looking at them, allowing for the full gestural language of conversation to flourish.

After experiencing HALO, I asked VJ if he thought it was practical to get one of these into every Kinko's in the world. He smiled and shrugged his shoulders as if to say "Why not?" I'm sure that day is a ways off, and because of that, I feel like a got a test ride of the future. Telepresence for me was some kind of Jetsonian fantasy, a silly, far off concept that I understood intellectually, but discounted entirely because it struck me as unrealistic and impractical. But after experiencing it first hand, it strikes me as the kind of impractical idea - like the telephone or the automobile - that will end up changing the world someday.

Of note: Cisco has a similar product in the market, recently featured on Fox's 24 (see here for more, and Charlene Li's site has a write up of it here).

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Japan's brain drain

This Times article describes the exodus of senior engineers from Japan to other Asian countries, in particular companies in Taiwan. Hsinchu is the silicon valley of Taiwan. Japan, unfortunatlely for them, has no silicon valley. The incentives must be particularly attractive for insular Japanese to consider joining a foreign company and living abroad, but there you go. These are exactly the talented risk takers that no nation can afford to lose.

See also here for more on the decline of the chip industry in Japan. Japanese LCD-makers have had to form alliances with Korean and Taiwanese competitors to stay in the display business, where fabs cost billions each.

A Japanese Export: Talent

HSINCHU, Taiwan — One of the hottest exports from Japan these days isn’t video games or eco-friendly cars.

It is engineers.

Japan’s once vaunted electronics industry has downsized to survive global competition, and is inadvertently setting off a brain drain. Thousands of Japanese engineers and other industry professionals have gone to Taiwan, South Korea and China to seek work at aggressive, fast-growing companies that want to use Japanese technological expertise.

One such explorer is Heiji Kobayashi, a 41-year-old semiconductor engineer, whose career hit a dead end when his employer, Mitsubishi Electric, spun off its memory-chip business a few years ago. With job prospects bleak in Japan, he turned to Taiwan’s booming chip industry, where he became a popular commodity.

Last month, he began a new job overseeing the design of factory production lines at Powerchip Semiconductor, a memory-chip maker in this suburban city just south of Taipei. As a deputy director, he gets stock options (rare in Japan) and a secretary, and he is climbing the top rungs of management at the company, which has 6,500 employees.

“My skills are in far higher demand here,” said Mr. Kobayashi, who once worked in Taiwan for Mitsubishi Electric. Such employment mobility was once unthinkable in highly insular Japan, where until recently, workers virtually married into their company and kept their jobs for life, and the strength of its electronics industry was a source of national pride.

However, the recent export of job seekers is a sign of just how much Japan has changed during a decade of increased competition, corporate belt-tightening and the end of lifetime job guarantees. This harsher new world has forced Japan’s famously conservative salarymen to become more aggressive in their job choices, and to view their careers as something for their own benefit and not simply their companies’, employment experts say.

This shift in mindset also underscores how Japan’s long-closed economy is finally integrating with that of its neighbors. China has already replaced the United States as Japan’s biggest trading partner, and many Japanese now see their nation’s and their own personal future as linked to Asia’s red-hot economies.

“Salarymen are taking bigger risks,” said Mitsuhide Shiraki, a professor of economics at Waseda University in Tokyo. “They’re making a logical decision to work in Asia, where they are being better rewarded than in Japan.” The trend has set off some hand-wringing in Japan, where the government fears the loss of technology to Asian rivals. Some Japanese companies are also complaining that they are having trouble finding enough talented engineers at home, especially as fewer young Japanese are now entering the field.

No one knows for sure how many Japanese have left, since the outflow began in earnest less than five years ago. However, employment agencies in Tokyo have reported a surge in inquiries by middle-age Japanese professionals seeking work abroad.

There has also been a growing number of retired engineers wanting to go to less-developed economies where their skills are still highly valued, allowing them to pursue second careers late in life.

“In Asia, we can keep contributing to society,” said Kazumitsu Nakamura, 64, a former engineer for Hitachi who quit to go to Taiwan, and was recently hired by a Hitachi subsidiary to train Taiwanese employees. “In Japan, we would just be collecting pensions.”

Taiwan was one of the first to start courting Japanese professionals, with at least 2,500 moving here in recent years, the Taiwanese government says.

Taiwanese companies have been keen to gain access to Japan’s leading technology in areas like electronics, both to catch up with Japanese front-runners like Sony and to stay ahead of fast-gaining Chinese competitors.

More recently, however, China and Southeast Asian countries like Singapore have also begun hiring Japanese en masse to acquire their know- how, recruiting agencies say.

“This is a new era,” said Tomoko Hata, managing director of Pasona Global, a Tokyo-based recruiting agency that specializes in finding jobs overseas for Japanese. “The number of Japanese working abroad is only going to keep growing.”

The Japanese migrants are finding themselves welcomed with open arms and generous pay packages. The Taiwan government says it has spent $20 million a year since 2003 to recruit foreign engineers, including Japanese, in key industries like semiconductors and flat-panel displays. It has held annual job fairs in Japanese cities like Tokyo and Osaka, and offers subsidies to Taiwan companies to help pay moving costs and the higher salaries that Japanese expect. To avoid angering Tokyo, Taiwan officials say that they direct their efforts at older Japanese engineers nearing retirement age.

“We need experienced engineers, and we need them quickly,” said Lin Ferng-ching, the cabinet minister in charge of technology policy in Taiwan. “Japanese engineers are very well trained, and have good attitudes toward their work.”

Larger Taiwanese companies have offered annual pay packages topping $1 million for candidates in prized technological fields, according to some Japanese engineers. Such a large number of Japanese has moved to Taiwan that some cities are building or planning Japanese-language schools for the engineers’ children.

In Hsinchu, a subeconomy has sprung up to serve the rising number of Japanese, including izakaya (pub-style restaurants), karaoke bars and dubious-looking massage parlors with names like Tokyo Town.

Japan’s trade ministry is trying to stem the outflow of engineers by persuading Japanese companies to offer better pay and more frequent promotions. It has also reminded companies of other alternatives, like laws that forbid former employees from leaking corporate secrets to competitors. Asian diplomats have also said that Japanese officials have complained to them about their efforts to lure Japanese engineers.

“The national government cannot stop these people from going overseas,” said Nobuhiro Komoto, an official in the Japanese trade ministry’s manufacturing policy section. “We’re helping companies think of their own ways to protect their technological know-how.”

While many Japanese engineers say that they have been offered potential jobs by Asian companies, others say that they have looked for work in Asia in hopes of finding something more promising or stimulating.

Pasona Global, the employment agency, said 4,930 Japanese registered last year for job searches in other Asian countries, twice the number five years ago.

Almost every Japanese with technology-related experience attracts job offers, Ms. Hata said. The largest number of offers are from companies in China, she said, but those with the most coveted skills tended to be hired by companies in Taiwan, which is rushing to close the technological gap with Japan.

Hiroshi Itabashi was an engineer with more than 20 years of experience at a midsize Japanese television maker when he got an unexpected phone call in 1999 from Delta Electronics, a fast-growing Taiwanese electronic components company. Delta wanted to start producing TV screens and asked Mr. Itabashi to help set up their operation.

Three interviews later, including one with a Delta executive who flew to Tokyo to have lunch with him on a Saturday, Mr. Itabashi decided to make the jump.

“They gave me this exciting opportunity to build a whole new business from scratch,” said Mr. Itabashi, 56, who asked that his former Japanese employer not be named. “This is something you can’t do in Japan. These days, Japanese companies always seem to be closing down operations, not starting new ones.”

Mr. Itabashi said that his friends were puzzled at first about his moving to a company they had never heard of. But now, they ask him for help finding jobs overseas for themselves. To lure Japanese engineers and their families to Taiwan, a government-run industrial park for technology companies in the southern city of Tainan is building a Japanese-language school. A similar technology park in Hsinchu plans to add a Japanese school and a Japanese restaurant.

“Companies in the park are asking us to do more for the Japanese,” said the director of the Hsinchu Science Park, Huang Der-ray. Though the benefits are great, Japanese going abroad say they sometimes struggle to adapt to vastly different corporate cultures. For Tatsuo Okamoto, a 51-year-old semiconductor engineer, the biggest change was the speed in decision-making at the Taiwanese company, Winbond Electronics, which hired him away from the Tokyo-based chip maker Renesas Technology two years ago.

Dr. Okamoto recalled one instance when a 15-minute chat in the hallway with Winbond’s president was enough to win immediate approval to purchase millions of dollars worth of factory equipment. The same decision in Japan would have taken days of committee meetings, he said.

Dr. Okamoto said the experience opened his eyes to the problems that were hobbling the competitiveness of Japan’s electronics industry.

“Joining a Taiwanese company was a high-risk, high-return decision,” Mr. Okamoto said. “But staying in Japan had become a high-risk, low-return proposition.”

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Mama said knock you out

Ultimate fighting has grown from obscurity to unbelievable popularity -- it will soon surpass boxing as the premier combative sport. And, it will soon be widely recognized that the baddest man on the planet is not a boxer, but an ultimate fighter. ESPN now covers the weigh-ins before big fights, and even the Times has a story today describing NFL players as fascinated by and in awe of professional fighters. The sport will have reached transcendence when The New Yorker runs an in-depth article covering it with more than cliches ("human cock-fighing", "blood everywhere").

I started training seriously in judo and brazilian jiujitsu back in the 90's, when no-holds barred fighting was totally unknown in the US, although already popular in Japan and Brazil. I spent a summer in Tokyo training with professional fighters like Enson Inoue, pictured below. (These pictures are hopelessly old school; young fans and fighters will smile at seeing them again, but I've had them on my web page since I was a professor at Yale and faculty advisor to the judo club.)

Here's an excerpt from an essay Learning How to Fight I wrote over a decade ago.
Unarmed single combat -- mano a mano, as they say -- has a long history, and is a subject which fascinates most men, both young and old. I can remember serious boyhood discussions with my friends concerning which style was most effective -- karate or kung fu, boxing or wrestling, ... How would Muhammed Ali fare against an Olympic wrestler or judo player? What about Bruce Lee versus a Navy Seal? Of course, these discussions were completely theoretical, akin to asking whether Superman could beat Galactus in arm wrestling. There was scarcely any data available on which to base a conclusion.

However, thanks to the recent proliferation of "No Rules" or "No Holds Barred" (NHB) fighting tournaments, both in the U.S. and abroad, we finally have some interesting answers to this ancient question. As with many things, the truth of the matter was known long ago, and then forgotten and relearned many times. Part of the reason for this is that unarmed combat is a peculiar thing -- it is unlikely to occur in its pure form once weapons such as knives, bottles or guns are available, and when it does occur it is usually under special circumstances involving surprise or intoxication or multiple combatants. The clean schoolyard confrontation between two individuals is something which rarely occurs again in later life. Hence, single combat can only be studied in a controlled way as a form of sport. To my knowledge, the last time this was possible was during ancient times in Greece and more recently in Asia. The ancient Greek sport of Pankration (or "All Powers") was the most popular of all of the original Olympic competitions. It combined boxing and wrestling as well as submission holds such as chokes and arm- and leg-locks. In China and Japan, unarmed fighting was also developed systematically in environments where tests through actual combat were frequent, although the modern descendants of those arts are often far from realistic.

In its modern incarnation, NHB fighting is one of the most exciting new sports to hit the market. It has a small but rapidly growing pool of fans and practicioners, despite its undeserved reputation for being bloody and dangerous. In fact, any student of the history of boxing knows that the introduction of padded gloves, along with rules against grappling, have made that sport much more dangerous than real fighting. Padded gloves protect the hands of a boxer and allow repeated blows to the head of an opponent, increasing the likelihood of brain damage. The prohibition against grappling creates an unrealistic environment, where fighters are forced to stand toe to toe and pummel each other, rather than use more efficient takedown and submission techniques to bring the fight to the ground and end it. That wrestling and submission techniques would often prevail against striking was well known to both the ancient Pankrationists and at least some of the martial artists in Asia. This lesson has been re-learned in the NHB context, as fight after fight ends with a grappler applying a submission hold to his opponent, often with neither suffering more than superficial damage. This is in contrast to the flashy styles of fighting popularized in movies and television, as well as to the expectations of fans of boxing. ...

Teddy Roosevelt on judo and jiujitsu. He lined the white house recreation room with tatami mats and earned a black belt under emissaries from the Kodokan.

From a letter to son Kermit, dated 02/24/1905:

Yesterday afternoon we had Professor Yamashita up here to wrestle with Grant. It was very interesting, but of course jiu jitsu and our wrestling are so far apart that it is difficult to make any comparison between them. Wrestling is simply a sport with rules almost as conventional as those of tennis, while jiu jitsu is really meant for practice in killing or disabling our adversary. In consequence, Grant did not know what to do except to put Yamashita on his back, and Yamashita was perfectly content to be on his back. Inside of a minute Yamashita had choked Grant, and inside of two minutes more he got an elbow hold on him that would have enabled him to break his arm; so that there is no question but that he could have put Grant out. So far this made it evident that the jiu jitsu man could handle the ordinary wrestler. But Grant, in the actual wrestling and throwing was about as good as the Japanese, and he was so much stronger that he evidently hurt and wore out the Japanese. With a little practice in the art I am sure that one of our big wrestlers or boxers, simply because of his greatly superior strength, would be able to kill any of those Japanese, who though very good men for their inches and pounds are altogether too small to hold their own against big, powerful, quick men who are well trained.

From "Theodore Roosevelt's Letters to His Children" edited by Joseph Bishop.

From the Times article. NFL players know who is the baddest:

...In Detroit, where Morton spent eight seasons, he was the kind of player who did not get tired even during two-a-days. He can bench press 400 pounds. His body fat is less than 5 percent. But during a sparring session Wednesday, he could not summon the energy to get off his hands and knees. Joker and Gun had to drag him to his feet.

“Let me die in peace,” Morton moaned.

Then he remembered that he was a former professional football player, that his girlfriend was watching, and that Joker and Gun do not believe in peace.

Morton charged at his sparring partner, battering him with a combination of punches and dropping him to the mat with a sweep of his leg. Morton used one hand to grab the man’s neck and the other to pound the side of his face.

If Morton were in the N.F.L., he would have drawn a 15-yard penalty, an automatic ejection, a fine and a possible suspension. But here, he prompted Joker and Gun to do their version of a touchdown dance.

“Look at this guy,” Gun said. “He’s beautiful. He has tons of money. He has an incredibly happy lifestyle. And he’s putting his brain on the line. He’s putting his manhood on the line. It’s hard to say what would make him do it.”

...One of the broadcasters will be Jay Glazer, who has a unique perspective on the bout. Glazer is best known as an N.F.L. analyst, but he also competes in mixed martial arts. When he visits N.F.L. training camps in the summer, players ask him more about fighting than about football.

“Football players are looked at as the biggest and baddest guys on the planet,” Glazer said. “People see them as superheroes. But football players also need someone to look up to. They view mixed martial arts as something even they are unwilling or unable to do. All the guys love Johnnie. But they think he’s nuts.”

Postscript: Johnny Morton, the NFL stud, was viciously knocked out 38 seconds into the first round of his MMA debut. I link to the fight video above, but don't particularly recommend you watch it since Morton is far from a skilled fighter. Mama Said Knock You Out!

Monday, May 21, 2007

The curve of binding energy

I'm teaching about fission, fusion, nuclear power and bombs in class this week. I always search for the simplest way to organize and present complex material (students may disagree ;-). For this set of topics, I am struck by the elegance of the curve below.

It reminded me of The Curve of Binding Energy by New Yorker writer John McPhee, which I read many years ago. In it, he profiles Theodore Taylor, a leading bomb designer at Los Alamos who eventually became an anti-nuclear activist.

Theodore Brewster Taylor was born on July 11, 1925, in Mexico City. His grandparents had been missionaries, and his father was general secretary of the Y.M.C.A. in Mexico. A brilliant boy (he completed sixth grade the same year he started fourth), Ted was enthralled by his chemistry set, or, more precisely, its explosive possibilities.

"He enjoyed putting potassium chlorate and sulfur under Mexico City streetcars," Mr. McPhee wrote. "There was a flash, and a terrific bang."

Dr. Taylor received a bachelor's degree from the California Institute of Technology in 1945 and pursued a doctorate in physics at the University of California. But he failed his oral examinations - he lacked the capacity to focus on things that did not interest him - and he left the department in 1949. (He would eventually earn a Ph.D. from Cornell in 1954.)

He found a job at Los Alamos. "Within a week, I was deeply immersed in nuclear weaponry," Dr. Taylor wrote in a 1996 article in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. "I was fascinated by every bit of information I was given during those first few days."

Preternaturally inept at ordinary tasks (parking a car defeated him), he became an artist of the fission bomb, taking the massive nuclear weapons developed for the Manhattan Project and making them smaller and lighter without sacrificing explosive power. Over the next seven years, he designed a series of ever-smaller bombs, whose cunning names - Scorpion, Wasp, Bee, Hornet - captured both their size and their sting.

Dr. Taylor would develop the smallest fission bomb of its time, Davy Crockett, which weighed less than 50 pounds. (By contrast, Little Boy, dropped on Hiroshima, weighed almost 9,000 pounds.) At the other extreme, he designed Super Oralloy, which was at the time, Mr. McPhee wrote, "the largest-yield pure-fission bomb ever constructed in the world."

Viewed as a theoretical abstraction, Dr. Taylor's work had a cool, compelling elegance. Exploded in the Nevada desert, it made a satisfying flash and bang. The weapons, he often reminded himself, were meant to deter nuclear war, and if the United States did not develop them, the Soviets soon would.

In his 1996 article, he recalled how he spent Nov. 15, 1950, the day his daughter Katherine was born:

"Instead of being with my wife, Caro, I had spent the day at a military intelligence office, poring over aerial photographs of Moscow, placing the sharp point of a compass in Red Square and drawing circles corresponding to distances at which moderate and severe damage would result from the explosion at different heights of a 500-kiloton made-in-America bomb. I remember feeling disappointed because none of the circles included all of Moscow."

Nuclear Weapons Responsibility

Presentation by Theodore B. Taylor, PhD, 20 April 1998, at Mickleton Monthly Meeting, Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)

...It's a long and dreary story, those twenty years or so of working on nuclear weapons. How that happened to take place after my writing home and saying I'm never going to work on these things was, I think, the kind of rationalization that anybody goes through when they are facing an addiction of some kind. That is, you have to make excuses for why you're doing this.

After some student activism at the University of California at Berkeley, in which three of us got very intense about calling for a general strike of all nuclear physicists worldwide, until the bombs were gone, we presented that to [J. Robert] Oppenheimer, who said, "Take it, burn it, forget you ever had anything to do with it, because you're going to be labeled as Communists the rest of your lives if you don't do what I say." Well, we didn't burn it, we didn't forget it, but we didn't pursue it.

Not long after that, I found myself very interested in the work I was doing, which at that time wasn't on bombs, it was high-energy physics at the University of California laboratory. In that situation, I did very well at the laboratory, but I did very poorly preparing for my oral exams on various subjects. I wasn't interested in those subjects. To make a somewhat long story short, I flunked out of graduate school. Although I was reinstated later if I wanted to, my boss at the Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley, Robert Serber, calmed me down. He was very happy with some work I had been doing for him and with other theoretical physicists, and he said, "Don't worry; I'll get you a job at Los Alamos." And so, he called a person who, slightly later, became my boss, Carson Mark, and said, "There's this fellow, here, who's very good at what he's interested and very bad at what he's not interested in. Why don't you hire him? I'll bet he'll do something very helpful to the laboratory."

So Caro - my wife - and I and a four-month-old baby arrived at Los Alamos, November 1949. I suddenly just got so high within a week on what I was doing - finding out there were some real secrets about how these things work, things I had never imagined - but more important to me, as it turned out later, was there were a lot of things not yet followed through. My job was to look for extremes, things that people hadn't really tried before, to answer the question, can you make a bomb that can be fired out of a cannon, can you make a bomb that can be fired out of something more like a rifle, how big can you make a bomb, can you make a bomb that would destroy all of Moscow - which the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima would not do, by a long shot. So I got caught up in extremes. That went on for almost 20 years, not all of it at Los Alamos. I then changed jobs, because I wanted to try my hand at designing nuclear power systems, for peaceful purposes. ...

In reading about Taylor, I couldn't help but notice strange parallels with the life of another cold war Theodore -- Ted Kaczynski, the unabomber.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Prometheus in the basement

Galison: "My question is not how different scientific communities pass like ships in the night,'' he wrote in Image and Logic. ''It is rather how, given the extraordinary diversity of the participants in physics -- cryogenic engineers, radio chemists, algebraic topologists, prototype tinkerers, computer wizards, quantum field theorists -- they speak to each other at all."

Let me add my own little anecdote to Galison's observation. Years ago I was interviewed for an assistant professorship at Columbia (I ended up at Yale, but that's another story). After meeting T.D. Lee in his dilapidated office, I got a tour of Norman Christ's lab downstairs. Christ was originally a quantum field theorist. One of his early papers, on classical Yang-Mills solutions in Minkowski space, the index theorem, and anomaly nonconservation, had a big influence on my research at the time.

But Christ had turned away from formal theory to the use of supercomputers to solve quantum chromodynamics (QCD) in so-called lattice Monte Carlo simulations. In his lab he had built one of the fastest supercomputers in the world, specially designed to handle the 3x3 matrices that occur in QCD. I was impressed to see a workstation used for chip design (VLSI) in the corner of the lab, and to learn that many of the PhD students he trained ended up as chip designers at IBM or Intel.

I asked him about the decision to change fields. Christ smiled at me with a gleam in his eye and told me that physicists invent the tools they require. He sniffed at other scientists waiting for the development of x-ray microscopes or lasers or fast computers. Physicists would remain masters of their own fates!

Galison: Poincare and Einstein

A colleague and I recently discussed Peter Galison and his book Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps: Empires of Time . (See also here and here.) The book explores how practical concerns of the era (in particular, clock synchronization -- important for longitudinal navigation as well as for the European train system) influenced the discovery of special relativity.

Both my friend and I are great admirers of Galison. After earning his doctorate in the history of science, he wrote a second dissertation in particle theory under Howard Georgi while a Junior Fellow at Harvard. Other than particle theorists turned science historians like Sam Schweber or Abraham Pais (see here and here), I can't think of anyone more qualified to work on the (underdeveloped) history of modern physics.

When I learned about special relativity as a kid, I first went through a phase of suspicion about Einstein's operational approach -- how could one be sure, I wondered, that light beams were the best primitive for the operation and synchronization of clocks? After I accepted this idea, I was shocked that someone could be so imaginative as to come up with his clever gedanken experiments, involving moving trains, light beams, lattices of clocks. I thought to myself -- I could have never invented that! It was only much later that I learned about his patent office work on clocks and how synchronization of time between distant rail stations was an important practical problem of the day. I agree completely with Galison that practical concerns had a strong influence on both Einstein's and Poincare's thinking.

NYTimes: ...Einstein's relativity has long been regarded by scholars as a monument to the power of abstract thought. But if Dr. Peter Galison, 48 -- a Harvard professor of the history of science and of physics, a pilot, art lover and nascent filmmaker -- is right, physics and Einstein have flourished more in their connections to the world than in any ivory tower aloofness. And one clue to the origin of relativity can be found in something as mundane and practical as a 19th-century train schedule. ''It's in as plain sight as it could possibly be,'' he said.

As Dr. Galison relates, before the advent of factories began to standardize life, and railroad systems with crisscrossing tracks made it imperative to know which train was where and when, there were too many times, one for every village.

In the last part of the 19th century, the coordination of clocks and the standardization of time had engaged the passions of nations, business leaders, astronomers and philosophers. The patent office in Bern, Switzerland, where Einstein worked, was a clearinghouse for patents on the synchronization of clocks.

In New England, the Harvard and Yale observatories were competing to sell time signals to the public, and in Paris pneumatic tubes snaked under the streets to synchronize the city's clocks with blasts of air. Far from being a bit of abstraction by a loner genius, the clocks that Einstein used as examples in his papers were as familiar then as computers are today.

...In addition to all his high-flown academic activities, Poincaré was immersed in practical work. He was a mining inspector, for example. Most important, he was deeply involved with the French Board of Longitude, even serving as president, sending teams of soldiers and surveyors across the oceans to map the far-flung empire.

Coordinated clocks were central to this enterprise. To measure the longitude of some mountain or port or gold mine in the New World, it was necessary to measure the difference between the time some star crossed the meridian there and the time it did back in Paris. The leaders and rivals in filling in this ''electric world map,'' as Dr. Galison calls it, were England and France, even though for several years they were embarrassingly unable to agree on the distance between their own principal observatories, Greenwich and Paris. Paris lost out to Greenwich as the locus of zero longitude, but in 1909 Poincaré used the Eiffel Tower to broadcast time signals to the world.

...In his papers Einstein was always using modern machines to illustrate his ideas, Dr. Galison noted. ''There is something wonderful about Einstein invoking trains and telegraphs to get a transformation of space-time, Poincaré turning the Eiffel Tower into a radio,'' Dr. Galison said.

''In the long run I think what's happened to them is that we, partly through our own doing and partly through our doing to them, removed these physicists from the concrete situations that they were involved in. And I think in a way lose some of the fascination that these ideas had for them and still could have for us in a way.''

It's our loss, he said.

Galison: "My question is not how different scientific communities pass like ships in the night,'' he wrote in Image and Logic. ''It is rather how, given the extraordinary diversity of the participants in physics -- cryogenic engineers, radio chemists, algebraic topologists, prototype tinkerers, computer wizards, quantum field theorists -- they speak to each other at all."

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Solow on Schumpeter

Via Brad DeLong, Robert Solow's review of a new biography of Joseph Schumpeter.

New Republic: ...In my view--and that of most contemporary economists, I believe--Schumpeter's most original and most lastingly significant book was Theory of Economic Development, ... [where] ...he worked out his conception of the entrepreneur, the maker of "new combinations," as the driving force and characteristic figure of the fits-and-starts evolution of the capitalist economy. He was explicit that, while technological innovation was in the long run the most important function of the entrepreneur, organizational innovation in governance, finance, and management was comparable in significance.

Innovation is not the same thing as invention. Anyone can invent a new product or a new technique of production. The entrepreneur is the one who first sees its economic viability, bucks the odds, fights or worms his way into the market, and eventually wins or loses. Each win means profit for the entrepreneur and his backers, and it also means a jog upward for the whole economy. In the course of this process, which cannot possibly run smoothly, many businesses, individuals, and institutions, themselves founded on earlier successful innovations, will be undermined and swept away. Schumpeter called this birth-and-death process "creative destruction," and realized before anyone else that it was the main source of economic growth. There is no feasible alternative for capitalism; this is capitalism. Here is a characteristically strong statement: "Without innovations, no entrepreneurs; without entrepreneurial achievement, no capitalist returns and no capitalist propulsion. The atmosphere of industrial revolutions--of 'progress'--is the only one in which capitalism can survive."

The picture generated by classical and neoclassical economics had none of this dynamism, turbulence, and intrinsic uncertainty. (Malthus was perhaps a partial exception.) Smooth trends and stationary states, equilibria of one kind or another, predominated. ...

Today, some sixty years after their deaths, Schumpeter's star probably outshines Keynes's. The business cycle has receded in importance, partly because the large industrial economies have sprouted a more stable structure, and partly because the lessons that Keynes taught have been learned by central banks and finance ministries. Instead, long-term economic growth has moved to the top of the political and intellectual agenda, and that was Schumpeter's topic. As Robert Lucas memorably put it, once you have begun to think about economic growth, it is hard to think about anything else. It is a pity that troubled old Schumpeter did not live to see the triumph of his obsession.

The TNR review is subscription-only. To get around this, search on Google for a string from the article, and click on the cached version of the search result. TNR needs some better technologists :-)

Elite cachet

The news is filled with articles about how competitive college admissions has become. See here for the latest from the Times.

The usual culprit mentioned is demographics -- the number of high school graduates each year is at an all time high due to the baby boom echo. However, as pointed out in the article quoted below, the number of slots at top colleges and universities has grown just as fast as the population of graduates -- there are no fewer slots per high school senior than in the past!

The real cause is the growing cachet of elite education. Students who in the past might have only applied to their local state university are now applying to multiple schools across the country. The pool of applicants to top institutions is deeper than before, but it's a sociological trend, not a demographic one.

Washington Post: ...Driven by the baby-boom echo, the number of high school graduates jumped from 2.9 million in 2002 to 3.1 million in 2006, an increase of 8.4 percent.

"But the number of spaces in elite colleges is increasing too, at a nearly identical rate. According to U.S. Department of Education statistics, the 60-odd colleges and universities rated 'Most Competitive" by Barron's Guide to Colleges sent out 199,821 acceptance letters in 2002. In 2006, the number of 'fat envelopes' had increased to 215,738, an 8.0 percent jump. As the nation has grown, its elite colleges have grown along with it.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Gladwell and genius

Malcolm Gladwell shows exquisite taste in the subjects he writes and talks about -- he has a nose for great topics. I just wish his logical and analytical capabilities were better (see also here). This talk at the New Yorker's recent Genius 2012 conference is entertaining, but I disagree completely with his conclusion. Ribet, Wiles, Taniyama and Shimura are probably the real geniuses, not Michael Ventris, the guy who decoded Linear B. (Gladwell also can't seem to remember that it's the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture, not Tanimara. He says it incorrectly about 10 times.) My feeling is that Gladwell's work appeals most to people who can't quite understand what he is talking about.

Gladwell is confused about the exact topic discussed in James Gleick's book Genius. In a field where sampling of talents is sparse (e.g., decoding ancient codexes) you might find one giant (even an amateur like Michael Ventris) towering above the others, able to do things others cannot. In a well-developed, highly competitive field like modern mathematics, all the top players are "geniuses" in some sense (rare talents, one in a million), even though they don't stand out very much from each other. In Gleick's book, Feynman, discussing how long it might have taken to develop general relativity had Einstein not done it, says "We are not that much smarter than each other"!

To put it simply, if I sample sparsely from a Gaussian distribution, I might find a super-outlier in the resulting set. If I sample densely and have a high minimum cutoff for acceptable points, I will end up with a set entirely composed of outliers, but who do not stand out much from each other. Every guard in the NBA is an athletic freak of nature, even though they are relatively evenly matched when playing against each other.

To counteract the intelligence-damping effect of Gladwell's talk, I suggest this podcast interview with Nassim Taleb, about his new book The Black Swan. Warning: may be psychologically damaging to people who fool themselves and others about their ability to predict the behavior of nonlinear systems.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

It's all in da gene: muscles

"Horses ain't like people, man, they can't make themselves better than they're born. See, with a horse, it's all in the gene. It's the fucking gene that does the running. The horse has got absolutely nothing to do with it." --- Paulie (Eric Roberts) in The Pope of Greenwich Village.

Myostatin gene mutation and enhanced musculature. Guess where it's common, and guess where it is extremely rare (results below)?

The second link refers to the same gene in dogs, where the evidence for the phenotypical effect (increased speed, musculature) is stronger. But I suppose they're just dogs and, well, we're different...


...this preprint [pdf] of a paper arguing for an ongoing recent selective sweep in the gene encoding myostatin, an inhibitor of muscle growth. The evidence for selection is based on resequencing of the gene in 146 people, which allows them to perform full-sequence-based tests for selection. They also look at the surrounding haplotypes, which are suspiciously long around the derived alleles (thus hinting at selection).

They speculate that the amino acid changes they find might lead to downregulation of the protein, thus leading to increased muscle mass. Notably, these variants seem to only have a large hold in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Bantu N.E., Kenya (12: 29%, 25%)
Bantu S.W., South Africa (8: 6%, 31%
Mandenka, Senegal (23: 24%, 20%)
Yoruba, Nigeria (24: 8%, 19%)
San , Namidia (7: 0%, 14%)
Mbuti Pygmies, Democratic Republic of Congo (14: 4%, 29%)
Biaka Pygmies , Central African Republic (36: 8%, 14%)
Mozabite, Algeria (Mzab)(29: 2%, 2%)
Orcadian, Orkney Islands (15: 0%, 3%)
Adygei, Russia Caucasus (17: 0%, 3%)
Russian, Russia (25: 0%, 0%)
French Basque, France (24: 0%,4%)
French, France (27: 0%, 2%)
North Italian, Italy (Bergamo) (14: 0%, 0%)
Sardinian, Italy (28: 0%, 7%)
Tuscan, Italy (8: 0%, 6%)
Bedouin, Israel(Negev) (48: 0%, 5%)
Druze, Israel (Carmel) (47: 0%, 1%)
Palestinian, Israel(Central) (49: 1%, 9%)
Balochi, Pakistan (25: 0%, 4%) Brahui, Pakistan (25:2%, 2%)
Makrani, Pakistan (25: 0%, 12%)
indhi, Pakistan (25: 0%, 4%)
Pathan, Pakistan (24: 2%, 0%)
Burusho, Pakistan (25: 0%, 4%)
Hazara, Pakistan
(22: 0%, 0%)
Uygur, China (9: 0%, 0%)
Kalash, Pakistan (25: 0%, 0%)
Han, China (43: 0%, 1%)
Dai, China (10: 0%, 0%)
Daur, China (10: 0%, 0%)
Hezhen, China (10: 0%, 0%)
Lahu, China (10: 0%, 0%)
Miaozu, China (10:0%, 0%)
Oroqen, China (10: 0%, 0%)
She, China (10: 0%, 0%)
Tujia, China (8: 0%, 0%)
Tu, China (10: 0%, 0%)
Xibo, China (9: 0%, 0%)
Yizu, China (10: 0%, 0%)
Mongola, China (10: 0%, 5%)
Naxi, China (10: 0%, 0%)
Cambodian, Cambodia (10: 0%, 0%)
Japanese, Japan (30: 0%, 0%)
Yakut, Siberia (24: 0%, 2%)
Melanesian, Bougainville (22: 0%, 0%)
Papuan, New Guinea (17: 0%, 0%)
Karitiana, Brazil (24: 0%, 0%
Surui, Brazil (21: 0%, 0%)
Colombian, Colombia (13: 0%, 0%)
Maya, Mexico (24: 0%, 0%)
Pima, Mexico (25: 0%, 0%).


...a mutation in dogs that leads to increased muscle mass and speed:

Here we describe a new mutation in MSTN found in the whippet dog breed that results in a double-muscled phenotype known as the "bully" whippet. Individuals with this phenotype carry two copies of a two-base-pair deletion in the third exon of MSTN leading to a premature stop codon at amino acid 313. Individuals carrying only one copy of the mutation are, on average, more muscular than wild-type individuals (p = 7.43 × 10-6; Kruskal-Wallis Test) and are significantly faster than individuals carrying the wild-type genotype in competitive racing events (Kendall's nonparametric measure, τ = 0.3619; p ≈ 0.00028). These results highlight the utility of performance-enhancing polymorphisms, marking the first time a mutation in MSTN has been quantitatively linked to increased athletic performance.

The myostatin gene in humans plays a similar role in muscle growth-- a deletion in the gene leads to extreme muscularity, as evidenced by the "Baby Superman". The gene has also been shown to be under recent selection in humans--variants presumed to lead to more muscularity are far more common in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Pricing a Wall Street Marriage

Ha, ha. One of the funniest things I've read in a while. Thanks to a quant correspondent for this.

I think it's clear ML only vaguely understands the calculation. But I suppose his point is really to expose the thought process ;-)

New terminology and statistic: BT = "Big Time" = career earnings of $25M, with 4% chance of getting there. Anyone care to refine these numbers?

(BT/25 x MPR) -- Pricing a Wall Street Marriage: Michael Lewis
2007-05-08 00:08 (New York)

     May 8 (Bloomberg) -- A few months ago, Bloomberg News reporter Caroline Byrne chronicled a British divorce court's chilling new open-handedness with the ex-wives of rich businessmen.

     A hedge-fund manager named Alan Miller was forced to shell out $10 million for a childless marriage that lasted less than three years; advertising executive Martin Sorrell paid roughly $60 million for losing the affections of his wife. The most recent House of Lords decision had gone so far as to imply that the women were entitled to half of all of the man's future earnings, in perpetuity.

     This news riveted Wall Street Man -- at any rate, it was the most read of any story that week by Bloomberg terminal users. And no wonder: A handful of British judges, far removed from the markets, were orchestrating a financial catastrophe, the losses from which threatened to dwarf those suffered in the Crash of '87, or any three giant hedge-fund collapses combined.

     No longer was it merely the house and the children at stake; it was the BONUS. You could almost hear the thud of 100 British investment bankers shelving their plans to alienate their wives even further.

     Then, a few weeks ago, came a second story by Ms. Byrne -- also the most read by Bloomberg users on that day: A London High Court had ruled that a banker who was ordered to give his ex- wife half of his accumulated wealth ($53 million) was allowed to keep all of his future bonuses. But, as the story explained, only a fool would find mercy in this one decision. British law remains messy: There is still no clear rule, just a bunch of contradictory precedents that, taken together, suggest there's never been a better time to divorce a London hedge-fund manager.

                        `Don't Get Married'

     The situation for rich men has grown so dire that a U.K. divorce lawyer named Jeremy Levison now tells his clients: ``Don't get married. If you must, make sure your other half is as rich as you.''

     British law has now put a fine point on a question that has been hovering over Wall Street for a long time now, and grown more interesting with each tic upward in hedge-fund pay: Why does Wall Street Man get married at all? He cares a great deal about money, obviously, as he spends so much of his life getting it. His chosen career makes him more likely than most to amass a fantastic fortune. The long-running miracle in the financial markets now puts him in line to make not just millions but hundreds of millions.

     And if he does get rich it is because, in theory, he has a special gift for shrewdly assessing the odds of financial transactions. Yet at some point he -- and it's typically ``he'' though on very rare occasions it's a ``she'' -- blithely ignores the odds of this potentially disastrous deal: Why?

                         Through the Roof

     Put another way: The expected benefits of marriage to a young Wall Street male haven't obviously improved but the expected costs to him are going through the roof. Worse, the very act of making a fortune on Wall Street probably only increases the chances of losing a wife.

     Pay an investment banker who seriously dislikes his wife half a million dollars and he may be a bit more tempted than usual to put his marriage at risk, but he'll still think a few times before leaving it. Pay a hedge-fund manager who has even the first doubts about his wife $100 million and he'll set a land-speed record heading for the exit, only to find that he's been driving on a toll road and the lady at the booth plans to charge him half of his net worth, and take away his Maybach in the bargain. Why doesn't he just take the freeway?

                            Call Option

     Of course, it's possible that Wall Street Man isn't nearly as shrewd and calculating in his private life as he is in his professional one. It's possible that, just like ordinary folk, he forgets his narrow financial interests when he falls in love, and only later, when he falls out, appreciates the value of what he has sold: a call option on half of whatever financial fortune he's made. (Obtaining in the bargain, a put option on his soft, aging, hairy body.)

     But I was curious if there might not be a more plausible explanation why so many young men who set out so single-mindedly to become rich on Wall Street ignore the British divorce lawyer's sage advice. To find it I called a man who now runs a very successful hedge fund, and who, before he set off on his own, had a very successful career pricing complex securities for big Wall Street firms. He was a quant with horse sense -- just the sort of person the market would turn to if they wanted to put a price on something that seemed unpriceable.

                            $25 Million

     I asked this man to value a new security: a call option on half the expected earnings of a Wall Street trader or investment banker. Not of a banker or trader who already has made huge sums of money, but a banker or trader who is just launching his career, with dollar signs in his eyes. What, in effect, would a smart hedge-fund manager pay to marry a first-year associate at Goldman Sachs Group Inc.?

     Because this hedge-fund manager knew especially well the fancy end of Wall Street, his assumptions were as interesting as his analysis. He began with a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the present value of the expected future earnings of a banker who made it Big Time, or BT: $25 million was about the right number, he guessed.

     He then further assumed -- again, drawing on his experience of many years watching young men trying to get really, really rich -- that about one in 25 who start out in Wall Street jobs actually make the BT. He then calculated something he called the Market Price of Risk, or MPR, which he described as ``an adjustment that makes risky propositions just as attractive as other investments in the world.''

                        Formula for Truth

     He felt reasonably sure -- here he drew some analogy to pricing of options on catastrophe bonds -- that in this case the MPR should range from 0.5 to 0.75.

     He conceded that he'd fudged quite a bit. He completely ignored the value of the intermediate cases -- the guys who didn't make the BT but still amassed several million dollars. His goal was not smart-bomb accuracy but to land in the general vicinity of truth.

     When he was finished he had a formula: (BT/25 x MPR). And when you plugged into it all his assumptions about risk, likelihood of making the Big Time, etc., that formula yielded a number. But that number had to be divided by two, as the divorcing wife/ex-wife would be given at most a half share. ``In a reasonably competitive market for marriages to junior bankers,'' he concluded, ``you might expect to see $187,500 to $375,000 being invested toward getting a junior banker to the altar.'' And then he realized: ``I didn't even take taxes into account.''

                         Who Got Stiffed?

     People will quibble with his calculation. Valuation models will no doubt improve, if this market ever gets going. But the hedge-fund quant's number does raise an interesting possibility: that all these newly rich hedge-fund managers who now find themselves paying tens of millions of dollars to their ex-wives had a pretty clear idea, when they got married, of the value of what they were selling. And it wasn't that high.    

 It's not the Wall Street traders who failed to run the numbers and, as a result, got stiffed in the deal. It's the women who married them.

My first podcast

Recorded at Network World headquarters outside Boston. We got it done in one take!

A new approach to fighting malware

A recent Geek Squad report says that 78 percent of its consumer revenue comes from cleaning up malware on customer computers. What can companies do to better protect themselves and their users? Stephen Hsu, co-founder of Robot Genius, sits down with Network World's Jason Meserve to discuss his company's new approach to finding and tracking malware before it finds you. (8:26)

In related news, I'm off to Foo Camp in June (photos from last year). I'll post a report on this bellwether of the geek zeitgeist. Will I be the only physicist there?

Oops! My memory is awful. This wasn't my first podcast -- I did one on wormholes here. I guess there are probably more that I've also forgotten about. Here is one from Seed magazine about Message in the Sky.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Two slit experiment

I've been teaching about the two slit experiment in my introductory physics class. The course is for non-science majors, so I'm not allowed to use much math. It's a great challenge to convey the concepts of modern physics under this constraint. The two slit experiment, as emphasized by Feynman, exhibits the central mystery of quantum mechanics. While it's not surprising that waves diffracted through slits can create a static interference pattern on a distant screen, the fact that individual particles like photons or electrons can be made to interfere with themselves, is indeed shocking and mysterious. From a colleague's web page: The dark and light regions are called interference fringes, the constructive and destructive interference of waves.


If we lower the intensity of light (or the flux of electrons), we should be able to see each photon (electron) strike the screen. Each photon (electron) makes a dot on the screen, but where is the interference pattern?


The interference pattern is still there, it simply takes some time for enough photons, or electrons, to strike the screen to build up a recognizable pattern. Interference, a wave phenomenon, is still occurring even if we only let the photons, or electrons, through one at a time. So what are the individual particles interfering with? Apparently, themselves!


One can now demonstrate this phenomenon in an introductory class.
With Two-Slit Interference, One Photon at a Time, TeachSpin has built an apparatus that allows students to encounter wave-particle duality with photons, the quanta of light. With this instrument, students perform the seminal two-slit interference experiment with light, even at the limit of light intensities so low that they can record the arrival of individual photons at the detector. That raises the apparent paradox which has motivated the concept of duality: in the very interference experiment which makes possible the measurement of wavelength, one observes the arrival of light energy in particle-like quanta, individual photon events. How is it possible for light to propagate as if it were a wave and yet to be detected as if it were a particle? This paradox is the central theme in Richard Feynman's introduction to the fundamentals of quantum mechanics: "We choose to examine a phenomenon which is impossible, absolutely impossible, to explain in any classical way, and which has in it the heart of quantum mechanics. In reality, it contains the only mystery. We cannot make the mystery go away by explaining how it works . . . In telling you how it works we will have told you about the basic peculiarities of all quantum mechanics." It is the purpose of this apparatus to make the phenomenon of light interference as concrete as possible, and to give students the hands-on familiarity which will allow them to confront duality in precise and operational terms. When they have finished, students might not fully understand the mechanism of duality - Feynman asserts that nobody really does - but they will certainly have had direct experience of the phenomenon itself.

Money never sleeps

Woo hoo! Michael Douglas is back as Gordon Gekko, and just in time. Too bad Oliver Stone isn't back to direct as well. I predict that this time Gekko will run a huge private equity fund with 10x the capital of the previous one. Jail time will not have been an impediment to raising his latest fund.

From the original:

Gekko: Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies and cuts through and captures the essence of evolutionary spirit. Greed in all of its forms, greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.

Gekko: The richest one percent of this country owns half our country's wealth, five trillion dollars. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons and what I do, stock and real estate speculation. It's bullshit. You got ninety percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own.

Carl Fox: Stop going for the easy buck and start producing something with your life. Create, instead of living off the buying and selling of others.

About the sequel:

NYTimes: Greed is still good.

Or so those at 20th Century Fox hope. Even as their boss, Rupert Murdoch, pursued an uninvited takeover bid for Dow Jones this week, Fox movie executives quietly sealed a deal to revive Gordon Gekko, the suspender-loving financial prowler who made grabbing seem good in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film, “Wall Street.”

When last seen, the corrupt Gekko, an Oscar-winning role for Michael Douglas, was on the brink of surrendering his white cuffs for handcuffs, having been sold out by his protégé Bud Fox, played by Charlie Sheen.

“He went to jail,” acknowledged Edward R. Pressman, who produced the original movie and reached an agreement with Fox this week to develop a sequel in which Mr. Douglas will resume his machinations on a global scale in the hedge-fund era. Mr. Pressman declined to say more about the plot. But the title, he said, will be “Money Never Sleeps,” after one of Gekko’s guiding principles in the first film, written by Stanley Weiser and Mr. Stone.

“Wall Street” was only a modest hit when Fox released it. But it won a passionate following in the financial world, where many found something to love in the predatory Gekko. Speaking by telephone from Bermuda, Mr. Douglas said he wouldn’t mind if he never had “one more drunken Wall Street broker come up to me and say, ‘You’re the man!’ ”

Mr. Stone will not direct the sequel, although the producer said that Messrs. Pressman and Douglas and their new writer, Stephen Schiff (“True Crime”), pressed him to do so for months. Mr. Schiff, who expects to deliver a script later this year, said the Bud Fox character was likely to be missing as well. But a restyled Gekko, he predicted, might start setting trends all over again.

“If you weren’t wearing suspenders before ‘Wall Street,’ you were certainly wearing them after,” he said. As for moral development, don’t expect too much from a villain who taught us that lunch is for wimps, and who bragged: “I create nothing. I own.”

“I don’t think he’s much different,” Mr. Douglas said. “He’s just had more time to think about what to do.”

Thursday, May 03, 2007


Yesterday I heard a great interview (Bloomberg podcast -- unfortunately no longer available online; but see here) with venture capitalist Vinod Khosla (formerly of Kleiner-Perkins, co-founder of Sun), who has been investing in energy technologies of late. One interesting comment he made was that no technology or environmental solution will scale (certainly not enough to affect global warming) unless there is a profit to be made along the way.

Some numbers from this DOE report.

Sources of Electricity

• Currently - around 13 TW of Annualized Average Power Consumption on the Earth.

• Fossil Fuel → Annual Production of 25 billion Metric tons of CO2 ⇒ Requires Massive & Efficient Underground Storage.

• 10 TW ≡ 10^4 One GW Nuclear Power Plants – Will exhaust Terrestrial Uranium Resources in 10 years if constructed.

• Maximum Practical Hydroelectric Resources 0.5 TW.

• Cumulative Energy of Tides and Ocean Currents < 2 TW.

• Total Geothermal Energy on Earth 12 TW.

• Maximum Amount of Extractable Wind Power 2 - 4 TW.

• 120,000 TW of Solar Radiation Strikes the Earth Surface in the form of sunlight.

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