Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Singapore from below

I recently came across the blog A Singapore Taxi Driver's Diary, which gives a unique perspective on the squeaky clean city-state of Singapore. It's not surprising that a former scientist who speaks Mandarin and English would have interesting stories to tell after driving a cab for a while.

Probably the only taxi driver in this world with a PhD from Stanford and a proven track record of scientific accomplishments, I have been forced out of my research job at the height of my scientific career, and unable to find another one, for reasons I can only describe as something "uniquely Singapore". As a result, I am driving taxi to make a living and writing these real life stories just to make the dull job a little more interesting. I hope that these stories are interesting to you too.



Since the takeover of leadership by some western “big shots” a few years ago, the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB) of ASTAR, Singapore, a place I have worked for 16 years as a PI (principal investigator), a place that was once flourishing, promising, and pleasant to work in, has been in a mess. Bestowed with the kind of power they had never seen before, these once reputable scientists turned everything in the institute upside down. The previous democratic and consensus-oriented management system that had worked well for more than a decade in the past was thrown out of window and replaced by one that was marked by domineering, manipulation, and incompetence. What they lacked in experience of management, adequate understanding of the institute, and proper respect for fellow scientists as their colleagues, they made up for in arrogance, prejudice, and naked muscle of political power. Some PIs were sent packing, and some were promoted, all up to the new leadership’s manipulative and twisted standards. Despite my considerable contribution to building up this place into what it is today, I was among the first few PIs to be told to go. My employment contract with IMCB was terminated by May, 2008, without any forms of compensation given.

I was hence forced into a deeply difficult position. Becoming jobless at my age is perhaps the worst nightmare that can happen to any ordinary man, not to mention the loss of life-long career. ...

Some good examples: Driving Miss Edgy, Indecent Proposal, Out of Innocence.

If you like these stories, you might also like my 1997 travelogue on Thailand and Japan.

I discovered the Singapore taxi driver via Kaleidoscope, the blog of a theoretical physics student in India.

Financiers: make good!

For those on the Dark Side, please consider the job opportunity below, which might allow you to use your superpowers for Good :-)

In the words of Martin Sheen (Bud Fox's father in the movie Wall Street): "Stop going for the easy buck and start producing something with your life. Create, instead of living off the buying and selling of others."

Vice President of Project Finance

Clean Power Finance, San Francisco, CA

Clean Power Finance is seeking a Vice President of Project Finance to source and execute its project financing strategy. This individual will report to the CEO and source & develop project finance transactions, and originate & structure tax equity and debt required for the Company's unique renewable financing products. This position requires highly sophisticated deal making and negotiation skills, analytical skills, extreme attention to detail and excellent interpersonal skills.

• Ability to source and execute renewable energy project financing structures using a variety of financing vehicles including sale-leasebacks, partnership flips, pass-throughs and debt.
• Ability to apply knowledge to develop innovative modifications to existing project and financing structures/strategies as well as lead the development of new structured finance solutions.
• Coordinate directly with banks, institutional investors, and legal resources to manage the timely execution renewable energy project transactions.
• Partner with legal resources in the drafting and execution of term sheets, financing documents, and contracts associated with renewable energy project financings.

Clean Power Finance is the leading provider of integrated software, services and financing solutions to the solar industry. Based in San Francisco, the company’s mission is to drive the adoption of renewable energy in the mass market. Clean Power Finance delivers an end-to-end solution that supports sales and marketing business processes for integrators, distributors and manufacturers. Since its introduction, the CPF Tools software platform has garnered enthusiastic reviews and currently supports over 30 percent of the solar installer community nationwide.

Universities ranked by ROI

MIT, Caltech and Harvard lead the pack. Berkeley is the top public school and beats out Brown, Columbia and Cornell. (Actually, for in-state students, the percentage ROI for Berkeley is the highest because tuition is low.) Full list and methodology discussion here.

These results are using a sample of graduates who only obtained a bachelor's degree and no higher degree. The ROI dollar amount is the *difference* in income between graduates and non-graduates. (See methodology note at link above.)

As noted by commenters, the results don't really isolate the value added by the university -- for that to be the case one would, at minimum, have to control for SAT or IQ score. See here for earlier discussion. The total earnings are almost a proxy for student quality -- I bet these rankings correlate very highly with average SAT score of the school.

School Name
School Type
Average Cost for College in 2009
30 Year ROI (2010 Dollars)
Annual ROI

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

California Institute of Technology (Caltech)

Harvard University

Harvey Mudd College

Dartmouth College

Stanford University

Princeton University

Yale University

University of California, Berkeley
Public (In-State)

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

China: genomics without political correctness

A reader in Argentina recommends the following article about genomics in China.

Economist: ... with the delivery of 120 spanking new top-of-the-range Illumina sequencing machines. When they have all been installed the building will, so it is claimed, have more DNA-sequencing capacity than the whole of the United States.

... The building belongs to the BGI, once known as the Beijing Genomics Institute. Mr Wong manages the institute’s Hong Kong operation, but the institute itself is based over the border in the People’s Republic proper, in Shenzhen. The BGI itself is one part—arguably the leading one—of China’s effort to show that it can be the scientific peer of the West.

Its boss, Yang Huangming, is certainly the peer of people like Dr Venter, Dr Lander and Dr Collins. He is a man on a mission to make the BGI the first global genomics operation. Part of the reason for building his newest sequencing centre in Hong Kong is to reassure researchers from other countries that the facility will operate inside a reliable legal framework. If all goes well, laboratories in North America and Europe will follow.

... The BGI was the first outfit to clone pigs, and it has developed a new and more effective way of cloning mammals that might ultimately be applied to humans, if that were ever permitted.

But the organisation is involved in even more controversial projects. It is about to embark on a search for the genetic underpinning of intelligence. Two thousand Chinese schoolchildren will have 2,000 of their protein-coding genes sampled, and the results correlated with their test scores at school. Though it will cover less than a tenth of the total number of protein-coding genes, it will be the largest-scale examination to date of the idea that differences between individuals’ intelligence scores are partly due to differences in their DNA.

Dr Yang is also candid about the possibility of the 1,000-genome project revealing systematic geographical differences in human genetics—or, to put it politically incorrectly, racial differences. The differences that have come to light so far are not in sensitive areas such as intelligence. But if his study of schoolchildren does find genes that help control intelligence, a comparison with the results of the 1,000-genome project will be only a mouse-click away.

Of course an almost equally interesting question is when will the Chinese start producing their own successors to the Illumina sequencers?

Monday, June 28, 2010

What's special about Foo?

On my way home I thought a bit about what is so special about Tim O'Reilly's Foo Camp. If I recall correctly, I've now attended 3 times: 2007, 2008 and 2010. Probably what I am about to say is not new, although it does come from my atypical physicist / entrepreneur / amateur social scientist perspective.

There are famous and influential people at Foo, but I imagine other gatherings (that I don't get invited to, such as Davos :-) have even more.

There are smart people at Foo, but average IQs at meetings in certain subfields are even higher.

There are really creative and energetic people at Foo, and on these criteria I doubt it can be surpassed.

But, in my mind, the two things that make the meeting truly unique are:

1. The diversity of talents and viewpoints, with participants ranging from hackers to social activists to scientists to grizzled CEOs and investors. The people at Foo are deliberately trying to create the future and are engaged with all that that entails: technology, ideas, organizations, capital.

2. The unique *social* environment. Tim has managed to create a "social reality distortion field" which enables interactions that are passionate but simultaneously friendly and open. People are genuinely happy to be at Foo Camp, and they are generous, intellectually and otherwise, with others. If I hear an argument at Foo that I don't agree with, I will try to give the speaker the benefit of the doubt, and factor in the unique knowledge and experience they bring to the issue. My questions will be friendly and non-aggressive. This is quite different from what happens at specialized meetings (e.g., among physicists) or in academia in general.

What can other meetings learn from Foo? If organizers are brave enough and set the social tone from the beginning, they can positively affect the quality of the event. Also, since interesting people are often multi-faceted, it might be worth setting aside some time in the evening for short demos or discussions on topics outside the main focus of the meeting. Sometimes at physics workshops I am amazed at how boring the dinner conversations are, given the special brains at the table. Some of the best talks I've attended at Foo are on "life topics'' such as dealing with success and failure, Paleo fitness, work/life balance, living green, etc.

Here is a great post by Scott Berkun, with similar thoughts about what makes Foo special. It seems that Scott and I went to almost entirely different sessions, which is probably why I barely had a chance to say hello to him this year.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Foo 2010 photos

Another wonderful weekend at Foo Camp! I am exhausted but happy :-)

I was too busy to take a lot of photos, but I forced myself to snap a few in aid of long term memory. If you're in one of these pictures and you want me to take it down, just let me know. Click for larger versions.

Tim O'Reilly addresses the campers. To my left are Fitbit CEO James Park and polymathematician Eric Weinstein.

Ben Huh, Mr. Lolcat, discusses internet memes.

A MakerBot 3D printer extruding a black frog.

Bre Pettis with his device.

Two CEOs from back in the day talk cloud data: Larry Augustin (VA Linux and SugarCRM) and Kim Polese (Marimba and SpikeSource)

The tent city. I felt wimpy staying at a hotel, but the tent area is too loud for me at night. I was pleasantly surprised to find a nice population of Foo people there -- I met Qi Lu (President MSFT Online Services / Bing) there over breakfast.

DJ Patil of LinkedIn analytics shows VC Joi Ito a graph of his social network.

Liam Casey of PCH and Bunny Huang of Chumby discuss manufacturing in China. Small startups can attempt hardware plays without huge capex if they are smart and know how to work with China. At the moment few VCs are interested in hardware plays, but that may change.

Charlene Li (of Forrester fame) discusses geek parenting. This year the organizers made a big effort to invite women to Foo, and the gender ratio, although still imbalanced, was better than in the past. Interestingly, this panel was attended almost entirely by dads!

Late night with Abdur Chowdhury (Chief Scientist, Twitter) and Eric Weinstein.

Google Earth demo.

Here is another set of photos on Flickr.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Foo Camp 2010

I'm off to Foo Camp tomorrow. See you in Sebastopol!

Here is a description of last year.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Supply, Demand and Scientists

Longtime reader STS referred me to this excellent article on the career prospects of young American scientists. It's long, but I recommend reading the whole thing.

See also A Tale of Two Geeks , Survivor: theoretical physics.

The Real Science Gap: ... To remain competitive against rising rivals, the nation must reconstruct this system so it once again guides the best of America’s large supply of young scientific ability into research and innovation. This process, experts contend, begins with identifying the real reason that scientifically gifted young Americans are increasingly unable and unwilling to pursue scientific careers. It is not, as many believe, that the nation is producing too few scientists, but, paradoxically, just the opposite.

“There is no scientist shortage,” declares Harvard economics professor Richard Freeman, a pre-eminent authority on the scientific work force. Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a leading demographer who is also a national authority on science training, cites the “profound irony” of crying shortage — as have many business leaders, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates — while scores of thousands of young Ph.D.s labor in the nation’s university labs as low-paid, temporary workers, ostensibly training for permanent faculty positions that will never exist.

Back when today’s senior-most professors were young, Ph.D.s routinely became tenure-track assistant professors, complete with labs of their own, in their late 20s. But today, in many fields, faculty openings routinely draw hundreds of qualified applicants. The tiny fraction who do manage to land their first faculty post are generally in their late 30s or early 40s by the time they get their research careers under way. Today’s large surplus of scientists began in the life sciences but is now apparent in fields as diverse as astronomy, meteorology and high-energy physics. These surpluses, Teitelbaum notes, hardly constitute “market indicators signaling shortages.”

The shortage theorists and the glut proponents, however, do agree on two things: First, something serious is wrong with America’s scientific labor supply. A prime symptom noted by all: a growing aversion of America’s top students — especially the native-born white males who once formed the backbone of the nation’s research and technical community — to enter scientific careers. Increasingly, foreign-born technical and scientific personnel on temporary visas staff America’s university labs and high-tech industries.

The second point of agreement is that, unless the underlying problem is fixed, it will seriously impair the nation’s ability to recruit top-flight homegrown talent — both for domestic innovation and for the high-level, classified, technical work vital for national security.

But disagreement rages about causes and cures. Is the influx of foreigners a cause of high-achieving Americans’ reluctance to become scientists, as the labor force experts assert, or an effect, as the industry interests insist? Once all the political rhetoric and verbiage of blue-ribbon panels is cleared away, the data clearly support those arguing for the existence of a glut of aspiring scientists.

America’s schools, it turns out, consistently produce large numbers of world-class science and math students, according to studies by Harold Salzman of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University and his co-author, B. Lindsay Lowell, director of policy studies for the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University. But the incentives that once reliably delivered many of those high scorers into scientific and technical careers have gone seriously awry.

If the nation truly wants its ablest students to become scientists, Salzman says, it must undertake reforms — but not of the schools. Instead, it must reconstruct a career structure that will once again provide young Americans the reasonable hope that spending their youth preparing to do science will provide a satisfactory career. “It’s not an education story, it’s a labor market story,” Salzman says.

... For the great majority, becoming a scientist now entails a penurious decade or more of graduate school and postdoc positions before joining the multitude vainly vying for the few available faculty-level openings. Earning a doctorate now consumes an average of about seven years. In many fields, up to five more years as a postdoc now constitute, in the words of Trevor Penning, who formerly headed postdoctoral programs at the University of Pennsylvania, the “terminal de facto credential” required for faculty-level posts.

And today’s postdocs rarely pursue their own ideas or work with the greats of their field. Nearly every faculty member with a research grant — and that is just about every tenure-track or tenured member of a science department at any of several hundred universities — now uses postdocs to do the bench work for the project. Paid out of the grant, these highly skilled employees might earn $40,000 a year for 60 or more hours a week in the lab. A lucky few will eventually land faculty posts, but even most of those won’t get traditional permanent spots with the potential of tenure protection. The majority of today’s new faculty hires are “soft money” jobs with titles like “research assistant professor” and an employment term lasting only as long as the specific grant that supports it.

Many young Americans bright enough to do the math therefore conclude that instead of gambling 12 years on the small chance of becoming an assistant professor, they can invest that time in becoming a neurosurgeon, or a quarter of it in becoming a lawyer or a sixth in earning an MBA. And many who do earn doctorates in math-based subjects opt to use their skills devising mathematical models on Wall Street, rather than solving scientific puzzles in university labs, hoping a professorship opens up.

For scientifically trained young people from abroad, though — especially those from low-wage countries like China and India — the calculus of opportunity is different. For them, postdoc work in the U.S. is an almost unbeatable opportunity. Besides the experience and prestige of working in the world’s leading scientific power, a postdoc research position is likely to pay many times more than a job at home would.

... But unless the nation stops, as one Johns Hopkins professor put it, “burning its intellectual capital” by heedlessly using talented young people as cheap labor, the possibility of drawing the best of them back into careers as scientists will become increasingly remote. A nation that depends on innovation for its prosperity, that has unsurpassed universities and research centers, and that has long prided itself on the ingenuity and inventiveness of its technical elite, must devise ways of making solid careers in science once again both captivating and attainable. There’s no shortage of American talent. What’s in critically short supply are the ideas and determination to use that talent wisely.

Coincidentally, I just spent a week with Harvard economist Richard Freeman in Hangzhou.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Gorilla warfare: chimps mean too, bonobos our only hope

I used to bump into one of the authors at lunch (at Silliman; when Yale offered free lunch to cheapskate professors), and he would regale me with stories about his adventures following bands of young male chimps. It's amazing that he and his collaborators have kept up this research for over 20 years now.

NYTimes: ... A band of males, up to 20 or so, will assemble in single file and move to the edge of their territory. They fall into unusual silence as they penetrate deep into the area controlled by the neighboring group. They tensely scan the treetops and startle at every noise. “It’s quite clear that they are looking for individuals of the other community,” Dr. Mitani says.

When the enemy is encountered, the patrol’s reaction depends on its assessment of the opposing force. If they seem to be outnumbered, members of the patrol will break file and bolt back to home territory. But if a single chimp has wandered into their path, they will attack. Enemy males will be held down, then bitten and battered to death. Females are usually let go, but their babies will be eaten.

These killings have a purpose, but one that did not emerge until after Ngogo chimps’ patrols had been tracked and cataloged for 10 years. The Ngogo group has about 150 chimps and is particularly large, about three times the usual size. And its size makes it unusually aggressive. Its males directed most of their patrols against a chimp group that lived in a region to the northeast of their territory. Last year, the Ngogo chimps stopped patrolling the region and annexed it outright, increasing their home territory by 22 percent, Dr. Mitani said in a report being published Tuesday in Current Biology with his colleagues David P. Watts of Yale University and Sylvia J. Amsler of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Dr. Mitani is at the University of Michigan.

... The objective of the 10-year campaign was clearly to capture territory, the researchers concluded. The Ngogo males could control more fruit trees, their females would have more to eat and so would reproduce faster, and the group would grow larger, stronger and more likely to survive. The chimps’ waging of war is thus “adaptive,” Dr. Mitani and his colleagues concluded, meaning that natural selection has wired the behavior into the chimps’ neural circuitry because it promotes their survival.

Chimpanzee warfare is of particular interest because of the possibility that both humans and chimps inherited an instinct for aggressive territoriality from their joint ancestor who lived some five million years ago. Only two previous cases of chimp warfare have been recorded, neither as clear-cut as the Ngogo case.

... Through decades of careful work, primatologists have documented the links in a long causal chain, proving for instance that females with access to more fruit trees will bear children faster.

... Warfare among human groups that still live by hunting and gathering resembles chimp warfare in several ways. Foragers emphasize raids and ambushes in which few people are killed, yet casualties can mount up with incessant skirmishes. Dr. Wrangham argues that chimps and humans have both inherited a propensity for aggressive territoriality from a chimplike ancestor. Others argue the chimps’ peaceful cousin, the bonobo, is just as plausible a model for the joint ancestor.

... Why do chimps incur the risk and time costs of patrolling into enemy territory when the advantage accrues most evidently to the group? Dr. Mitani invokes the idea of group-level selection — the idea that natural selection can work on groups and favor behaviors, like altruism and cooperation, that benefit the group at the expense of the individual. Selection usually depends only on whether an individual, not a group, leaves more surviving children.

Many biologists are skeptical of group-level selection, saying it could be effective only in cases where there is intense warfare between groups, a reduced rate of selection on individuals, and little interchange of genes between groups. Chimp warfare may be constant and ferocious, fulfilling the first condition, but young females emigrate to neighboring groups to avoid inbreeding. This constant flow of genes would severely weaken any group selective process, Dr. Wrangham said.

Samuel Bowles, an economist at the Santa Fe Institute who has worked out theoretical models of group selection, said the case for it “is pretty strong for humans” but remains an open question in chimpanzees.

Chimp watching is an arduous task since researchers must first get the chimpanzees used to their presence, but without inducements like bananas, which could interfere with their natural behavior. Chimpanzees are immensely powerful, and since they can tear each other apart, they could also make short work of any researcher who incurred their animosity.

“Luckily for us, they haven’t figured out that they are stronger than us,” Dr. Mitani said, explaining that there was no danger in tagging along behind a file of chimps on the warpath. “What’s curious is that after we do gain their trust, we sort of blend into the background and they pretty much ignore us.”

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Greetings from Shanghai

Sorry for the long absence. I'm sitting in the first class lounge at Shanghai airport, about to fly back. My failure to blog had nothing to do with the Great Firewall -- my proxy fu works perfectly over here.

This is the first espresso I've had in a week:

This is the view from the lounge (note I'm not traveling first class; just using the lounge):

I spent the first week here in Hangzhou, working on a project I've described before. The company involved is a bit sensitive so I'm not allowed to post any photos.

I spent yesterday in Shanghai and was able to see the Expo. The scale of the exposition is just overwhelming. You could spend a week visiting all the pavilions -- even assuming you didn't have to wait in line. I don't know what will become of this space once the Expo is over -- I visited the Expo grounds in Sevilla (1992) five years after the event and it was like a ghost town.

A couple of travel tips. If you're here in the summer, don't go to the Expo during the day -- it's just too hot. Go in the evening when it's cooler and the lines are shorter. The entrances to the Expo are near metro stations, so very accessible. I stayed at an inexpensive hotel -- only 250 rmb ($35 per night; that's how we roll :-) -- a few stops away from the main entrance on the number 7 line and close to the maglev station so I could get to the airport this morning. There are a wide range of restaurants at the park -- you can have inexpensive fast food, or enjoy a long, relaxed dinner at a fancy place.

The attendees at the Expo were overwhelmingly Asian. I'd guess only 1 percent of the 400k visitors in the park yesterday were from somewhere else. People from a broad variety of backgrounds were enjoying themselves. The Expo started as the World's Fair, which was supposed to be a way for people of an earlier era to see the rest of the world without leaving home. Since most Chinese cannot afford foreign travel yet, the event still retains some of that old glamour for them.

The official theme of the Expo is Better City, Better Life. Many exhibits emphasized green issues; I think the environmental movement in China is progressing very fast, with support from the government. See the plug-in electric car below!

Below are some photos -- click for larger versions.

I had an interesting conversation with an ethnic German guy from Namibia that I happened to sit next to on the train from Hangzhou to Shanghai. He owns a chain of supermarkets there and in South Africa and was in China on a buying trip. He noticed me reading a paper on psychometrics and immediately wanted to discuss the implications for development. (Note the paper was a pretty abstract one -- about causal inference!) His thoughts on the prospects of Africa, and comparisons between the US, China and Africa were quite interesting. He was familiar with the results showing group differences between Asians, Europeans and Africans and he accepted those as consistent with his own experiences. But he claimed that the main factor that held Africans back was lack of drive -- why do something today when it can be done tomorrow? He didn't view this as a fault, though. The mad pace of development in places like China seemed excessive to him: Do material things make people happier? he asked.

According to this German-Namibian, in much of Africa one can survive with a minimum of effort -- long term planning and organization aren't required as they would be in a place with harsh winters. Hence, less selection for such traits has occurred. This is of course an old theory, but it was rather amazing to hear it stated so matter of factly by an educated person with first hand knowledge of Africa.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Great Game: 21st century edition

Strategic interest in Afghanistan will increase dramatically if these results hold up. But how (physically) will these minerals get to market?

NYTimes: ... Armed with the old Russian charts, the United States Geological Survey began a series of aerial surveys of Afghanistan’s mineral resources in 2006, using advanced gravity and magnetic measuring equipment attached to an old Navy Orion P-3 aircraft that flew over about 70 percent of the country.

The data from those flights was so promising that in 2007, the geologists returned for an even more sophisticated study, using an old British bomber equipped with instruments that offered a three-dimensional profile of mineral deposits below the earth’s surface. It was the most comprehensive geologic survey of Afghanistan ever conducted.

The handful of American geologists who pored over the new data said the results were astonishing.

But the results gathered dust for two more years, ignored by officials in both the American and Afghan governments. In 2009, a Pentagon task force that had created business development programs in Iraq was transferred to Afghanistan, and came upon the geological data. Until then, no one besides the geologists had bothered to look at the information — and no one had sought to translate the technical data to measure the potential economic value of the mineral deposits.

Soon, the Pentagon business development task force brought in teams of American mining experts to validate the survey’s findings, and then briefed Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Mr. Karzai.

So far, the biggest mineral deposits discovered are of iron and copper, and the quantities are large enough to make Afghanistan a major world producer of both, United States officials said. Other finds include large deposits of niobium, a soft metal used in producing superconducting steel, rare earth elements and large gold deposits in Pashtun areas of southern Afghanistan.

Just this month, American geologists working with the Pentagon team have been conducting ground surveys on dry salt lakes in western Afghanistan where they believe there are large deposits of lithium. Pentagon officials said that their initial analysis at one location in Ghazni Province showed the potential for lithium deposits as large of those of Bolivia, which now has the world’s largest known lithium reserves.

For the geologists who are now scouring some of the most remote stretches of Afghanistan to complete the technical studies necessary before the international bidding process is begun, there is a growing sense that they are in the midst of one of the great discoveries of their careers.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Great firewall warning

Posting may be reduced for while due to technical difficulties and jet lag :-)

Did I mention I am spending my sabbatical next year at Academia Sinica in Taiwan?

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Volcker: time is growing short

There's more about trade and fiscal balances, etc., but I thought the following was particularly good.
NY Review of Books: ... I think it is fair to say that for some time the dominant approach of economic theorizing, increasingly reflected in public policy, has been that free and open financial markets, supported by advances in electronic technology and by sophisticated financial engineering, would most effectively support both market efficiency and stability. Without heavily intrusive regulation, investable funds would flow to the most profitable and productive uses. The inherent risks of making loans and extending credits would be diffused and reallocated among those best able and willing to bear them.

It is an attractive thesis, attractive not only in concept but for those participating in its seeming ability to generate enormous financial rewards. Our best business schools developed and taught ever more complicated models. A large share of the nation’s best young talent was attracted to finance. However, even when developments seemed most benign, there were warning signs.

Has the contribution of the modern world of finance to economic growth become so critical as to support remuneration to its participants beyond any earlier experience and expectations? Does the past profitability of and the value added by the financial industry really now justify profits amounting to as much as 35 to 40 percent of all profits by all US corporations? Can the truly enormous rise in the use of derivatives, complicated options, and highly structured financial instruments really have made a parallel contribution to economic efficiency? If so, does analysis of economic growth and productivity over the past decade or so indicate visible acceleration of growth or benefits flowing down to the average American worker who even before the crisis had enjoyed no increase in real income?

There was one great growth industry. Private debt relative to GDP nearly tripled in thirty years. Credit default swaps, invented little more than a decade ago, soared at their peak to a $60 trillion market, exceeding by a large multiple the amount of the underlying credits potentially hedged against default. Add to those specifics the opacity that accompanied the enormous complexity of such transactions.

The nature and depth of the financial crisis is forcing us to reconsider some of the basic tenets of financial theory. To my way of thinking, that is both necessary and promising in pointing toward useful reform.

One basic flaw running through much of the recent financial innovation is that thinking embedded in mathematics and physics could be directly adapted to markets. A search for repetitive patterns of behavior and computations of normal distribution curves are a big part of the physical sciences. However, financial markets are not driven by changes in natural forces but by human phenomena, with all their implications for herd behavior, for wide swings in emotion, and for political intervention and uncertainties.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Julian Assange and WikiLeaks

The New Yorker has a great profile of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Assange started as a hacker, studied math and physics for a while at university, and now devotes all of his time to activism. See here for the WikiLeaks short film Collateral Murder.

I was once involved in crypto fun myself ;-)

New Yorker: ... Assange was burned out. He motorcycled across Vietnam. He held various jobs, and even earned money as a computer-security consultant, supporting his son to the extent that he was able. He studied physics at the University of Melbourne. He thought that trying to decrypt the secret laws governing the universe would provide the intellectual stimulation and rush of hacking. It did not. In 2006, on a blog he had started, he wrote about a conference organized by the Australian Institute of Physics, “with 900 career physicists, the body of which were sniveling fearful conformists of woefully, woefully inferior character.”

He had come to understand the defining human struggle not as left versus right, or faith versus reason, but as individual versus institution. As a student of Kafka, Koestler, and Solzhenitsyn, he believed that truth, creativity, love, and compassion are corrupted by institutional hierarchies, and by “patronage networks”—one of his favorite expressions—that contort the human spirit. He sketched out a manifesto of sorts, titled “Conspiracy as Governance,” which sought to apply graph theory to politics. Assange wrote that illegitimate governance was by definition conspiratorial—the product of functionaries in “collaborative secrecy, working to the detriment of a population.” He argued that, when a regime’s lines of internal communication are disrupted, the information flow among conspirators must dwindle, and that, as the flow approaches zero, the conspiracy dissolves. Leaks were an instrument of information warfare.

These ideas soon evolved into WikiLeaks. In 2006, Assange barricaded himself in a house near the university and began to work. In fits of creativity, he would write out flow diagrams for the system on the walls and doors, so as not to forget them. There was a bed in the kitchen, and he invited backpackers passing through campus to stay with him, in exchange for help building the site. “He wouldn’t sleep at all,” a person who was living in the house told me. “He wouldn’t eat.”

As it now functions, the Web site is primarily hosted on a Swedish Internet service provider called, which was created to withstand both legal pressure and cyber attacks, and which fiercely preserves the anonymity of its clients. Submissions are routed first through PRQ, then to a WikiLeaks server in Belgium, and then on to “another country that has some beneficial laws,” Assange told me, where they are removed at “end-point machines” and stored elsewhere. These machines are maintained by exceptionally secretive engineers, the high priesthood of WikiLeaks. One of them, who would speak only by encrypted chat, told me that Assange and the other public members of WikiLeaks “do not have access to certain parts of the system as a measure to protect them and us.” The entire pipeline, along with the submissions moving through it, is encrypted, and the traffic is kept anonymous by means of a modified version of the Tor network, which sends Internet traffic through “virtual tunnels” that are extremely private. Moreover, at any given time WikiLeaks computers are feeding hundreds of thousands of fake submissions through these tunnels, obscuring the real documents. Assange told me that there are still vulnerabilities, but “this is vastly more secure than any banking network.”

For more from Assange's blog, like the following, see here.

... I attended an Australian Institute of Physics conference at ANU with 900 career physicists, the body of which were snivelling fearful conformists of woefully, woefully inferior character. For every Feynman or Lorentz, 100 pen pushing wretches scratching each others eyes out in academic committees ...

The personality quirks brought to life so well in the New Yorker profile are illuminated by Assange's blog entry (Sat 23 Sep 2006: William James Sidis) concerning high IQ and social maladjustment -- excerpted from this essay by Grady Towers :-)

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Shanghai Expo

I'm passing through Shanghai soon and I hope to see the Expo. Anyone have logistical tips or recommendations? Which country pavilions are most interesting?

I love modern architecture, although I'm not sure what to make of the UK pavilion pictured below.

This is the China pavilion:

The Little Mermaid on loan to the Danish pavilion:

More here. NYTimes slideshow. WSJ slideshow.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The nuclear option

The Soviets apparently used nukes 120 times for civilian purposes, including to put out gas fires. See also here.

NYTimes: ...Much of the enthusiasm for an atomic approach is based on reports that the Soviet Union succeeded in using nuclear blasts to seal off gas wells. Milo D. Nordyke, in a 2000 technical paper for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., described five Soviet blasts from 1966 to 1981.

All but the last blast were successful. The 1966 explosion put out a gas well fire that had raged uncontrolled for three years. But the last blast of the series, Mr. Nordyke wrote, “did not seal the well,” perhaps because the nuclear engineers had poor geological data on the exact location of the borehole.

Robert S. Norris, author of “Racing for the Bomb” and an atomic historian, noted that all the Soviet blasts were on land and never involved oil.

Whatever the technical merits of using nuclear explosions for constructive purposes, the end of the cold war brought wide agreement among nations to give up the conduct of all nuclear blasts, even for peaceful purposes. The United States, after conducting more than 1,000 nuclear test explosions, detonated the last one in 1992, shaking the ground at the Nevada test site.

Pundits joked about the appointment of astrophysicist Jonathan Katz to the DOE "dream team" that advised Obama on how to deal with the oil spill. What would an astrophysicist know about capping an oil well? These pundits were unaware of Katz's work as a Jason. (See also here. Jasons Steve Weinberg, Freeman Dyson and Richard Muller invented adaptive optics, which was promptly classified by the military and kept from civilian astronomers for a decade.)

Of course, we all know what happened to Katz once his politically incorrect views came to light. We first mentioned Katz on this blog back in 2004.

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