Monday, November 16, 2009

Follow that igon value!

Perhaps fittingly, the first use of "igon value" was in a profile of (then obscure) hedge fund philosopher Nassim Taleb. (See earlier post Pinker on Gladwell.)

New Yorker, April 22 & 29, 2002: [this version retrieved from] ... As the day came to an end, Taleb and his team turned their attention once again to the problem of the square root of n. Taleb was back at the whiteboard. Spitznagel was looking on. Pallop was idly peeling a banana. Outside, the sun was beginning to settle behind the trees. "You do a conversion to p1 and p2," Taleb said. His marker was once again squeaking across the whiteboard. "We say we have a Gaussian distribution, and you have the market switching from a low-volume regime to a high-volume. P21. P22. You have your igon value." He frowned and stared at his handiwork. The markets were now closed. Empirica had lost money, which meant that somewhere off in the woods of Connecticut Niederhoffer had no doubt made money. That hurt, but if you steeled yourself, and thought about the problem at hand, and kept in mind that someday the market would do something utterly unexpected because in the world we live in something utterly unexpected always happens, then the hurt was not so bad. Taleb eyed his equations on the whiteboard, and arched an eyebrow. It was a very difficult problem. "Where is Dr. Wu? Should we call in Dr. Wu?"

I doubt the New Yorker and its famous fact checkers caught the error. Possibly not a single New Yorker employee knows any linear algebra. Who needs all that geeky math stuff? [Update: Apparently the New Yorker did correct the electronic version now available on its site, although one can find references to the error online in 2003. See here and comments below for more.]

Leave it for the Asians like Dr. Wu... :-)

... a man whom Taleb refers to, somewhat mysteriously, as Dr. Wu wandered in. Dr. Wu works for another hedge fund, down the hall, and is said to be brilliant. He is thin and squints through black-rimmed glasses. He was asked his opinion on the square root of n but declined to answer. "Dr. Wu comes here for intellectual kicks and to borrow books and to talk music with Mark," Taleb explained after their visitor had drifted away. He added darkly, "Dr. Wu is a Mahlerian."


Unknown said...

The "Igon value" snafu was noted by a commenter on DeLong's blog in 2003, so it appears the New Yorker corrected it after the original publication.

Steve Hsu said...

Thanks for pointing that out to me. I thought I remembered pointing out the error to my wife (then girlfriend) when I read the original article. I'm not completely senile yet! :-)

CK said...

Gladwell's rebuttal can be found here

zarkov01 said...

Writing "igon value" in place of "eigenvalue" is an inexcusable mistake. Gladwell clearly doesn't know what the term means, but he wrote it anyway. Of course the term is a linguistic inelegance because it pastes together a German and English word. "Eigen" is German for "characteristic" and "characteristic value" is also used.

Anonymous said...

The thing that gets me is that "igon" has no meaning in any discipline, so far as I can make out. A google search using the term brings up essentially nothing. As far as I can make out, it's only use as an ordinary noun (as opposed to a proper name) is in Basque, where it means "ascension". And even as a proper name, there is no one who crops up so prominent that he might have had some scientific value named after him.

What kind of "fact checking" might anyone have done on Gladwell at the New Yorker that would have failed to raise a flag on the word "igon" under these circumstances?

It's not just an issue of institutional ignorance at the New Yorker of basic science (eigenvalues come up not only in linear algebra but in all kinds of applications of linear algebra, including quantum theory and statistics). It's an issue of a failure of common sense. Any word that gets printed should, I'd think, have some previous use with which it is consistent.

Yet "Igon value" got a complete pass.

One really does wonder if these people at the New Yorker don't think of science as being like a mystical incantation, where even nonsense words get written and uttered on a regular basis as part of the ritual.

Ian Smith said...

Me physics professor. Me smarter than all y'all. Me do cage fighten'.

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