Monday, December 26, 2011

Finding the Next Einstein

Duke researcher Jonathan Wai interviewed me for his Psychology Today blog, Finding the Next Einstein. Below are my answers to two of his questions.

Psychology Today

Is it true Feynman's IQ score was only 125?

Feynman was universally regarded as one of the fastest thinking and most creative theorists in his generation. Yet it has been reported-including by Feynman himself-that he only obtained a score of 125 on a school IQ test. I suspect that this test emphasized verbal, as opposed to mathematical, ability. Feynman received the highest score in the country by a large margin on the notoriously difficult Putnam mathematics competition exam, although he joined the MIT team on short notice and did not prepare for the test. He also reportedly had the highest scores on record on the math/physics graduate admission exams at Princeton. It seems quite possible to me that Feynman's cognitive abilities might have been a bit lopsided-his vocabulary and verbal ability were well above average, but perhaps not as great as his mathematical abilities. I recall looking at excerpts from a notebook Feynman kept as an undergraduate. While the notes covered very advanced topics-including general relativity and the Dirac equation-they also contained a number of misspellings and grammatical errors. I doubt Feynman cared very much about such things.

Do you think we will ever find another Einstein?

This is a very difficult question. Einstein was special for many reasons, and was the dominant figure in 20th century physics, if not all of science.

In the modern era many more people have access to advanced education-think of India and China plus all of the developed world. While I believe even an average scientist these days is quite an exceptional person, both in terms of ability and the amount of training he or she has received, it is much more difficult now to stand out in the crowd. Think of the NBA: the average player today is much better than the average player of 50 years ago. Any guard in the league is an athletic freak of nature. But when they play against each other they are relatively evenly matched. It may be a long time before we encounter another giant like Einstein who so far surpasses his contemporaries.

If you are interested in psychometrics and the far tail of cognitive ability, I recommend several of Jonathan's papers, including:

Wai, J., Lubinski, D., & Benbow, C. P. (2005). Creativity and occupational accomplishments among intellectually precocious youths: An age 13 to age 33 longitudinal study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97, 484-492. pdf

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas, 2011

Linus said it best (Luke 2.14) in A Charlie Brown Christmas:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Merry Christmas!

We had wonderful weather yesterday in Eugene. After arriving home from the airport I was able to take the kids to the park, wearing shorts in the warm sunshine. Best wishes to everyone!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Tropical xmas in southern China

We went for a walk today after lunch and I took these photos of the Sheraton Dameisha.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Asian admissions, statistical prediction, and all that

This post addresses comments by Sineruse, David Versace, and others on earlier threads here, here and here.

I've been pretty busy during my visit to BGI so I kind of lost track of the conversation. But here are my thoughts.

I think it is possible that Asian "strength of application" overpredicts later career success*. There could be many reasons for this. For example, it could be that Asian hard work boosts test taking results and grades more than it does real world achievement. It could also be that tests and grades are fair, whereas Asians face a certain amount of race-related disadvantage later in their careers -- e.g., unconscious bias, lack of "ethnic affinity" networks, etc. (If you talk to highly trained Chinese scientists and businesspeople returning to China from the US, most will describe an uphill struggle for Asians in the US; this contrasts with glib statements from white Americans about how little anti-Asian bias there is in elite careers.) Finally, Asians may have lower rates of sociopathy, which reduces their chances of making it to the top (close inspection suggests it is mostly sociopaths at the top ;-)

I don't think the evidence is overwhelming on this question. But if, say, Asians have a .5 SD advantage in g and 1 SD advantage in conscientiousness or work ethic, that might lead to a "fair" Ivy population representation which is less than 20% if by "fair" we mean: apportion slots based on future success odds. (An additional factor which is usually mistakenly ignored in numbers like +.5/+1 is the large offshore "reservoir" of Asians and the fact that some A-As are drawn from a very elite subgroup in their ancestral countries.) Note though, as emphasized by RKU, the current Ivy standards for what constitutes "success" may not be aligned with the real interests of the Nation. That is, the connection between money and power and actual value creation in our current system seems to have become quite weak of late. What is good for Harvard may not necessarily be what is good for the USA.

Having said all this, I think you are missing a key point -- perhaps because you think mainly in terms of (white) ethnic interests. Even if elite universities are acting in their narrow self-interest in assessing an outright Asian penalty to compensate for inflation of application strength, their methodology may violate the law. While some Asian application profiles overestimate later career prospects, universities should not be allowed to make generalizations based solely on race. This may not be a principle that you believe in, but it's an important one to me. If universities have some other way to correct for false signals in admissions profiles ("this kid scored high, but we know he's just a grind"), then fine. However, I suspect what is going on now is crudely (if perhaps subconsciously) race-based**.

* Something to keep in mind is that Harvard et al. would like to have influence abroad as well as at home, and Chinese ethnicity alumni are well placed to influence what will soon be the largest economy on the planet. Underperformance vs predictor in the US may be compensated by overperformance in the new reality of the coming century. Ask yourself why BGI was more willing to work with me than, say, the Sanger or Broad institutes might have been.

** An astute commenter asks why we should oppose race-based decision making, if there is real correlational information to be had from ethnicity. I offer two reasons: 1. this country has a bad record on race, and striving towards a race-blind society is worth some small sacrifices, 2. the evidence for genetic group differences is not conclusive and should be treated with great caution.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

BGI photos: December 2011

BGI coffee room. I charged the espresso on Chris Chang's badge.

Film crew takes in a technical discussion. Rare mutations, pseudogenes and rs numbers.

Shooting at a hipster pad in Dameisha. Barbeque and a showing of Gattaca :-)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Season's Greetings from BGI

Greetings from Southern China. We're at about the same latitude as Hawaii, so the weather is quite temperate even in December.

Dutch documentarians shooting in the BGI cafeteria.

Sheraton Dameisha.

Friday, December 16, 2011

National Review: Applying While Asian

Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. Almost every journalist who has talked to me about this issue asks "Gee, how long has this been going on?" and are surprised when I tell them at least 30 years!

But who cares, those Asians don't make trouble: they'll just work harder ...

Applying While Asian

To check or not to check the Asian box? That is the pointed choice faced by Asian-American students applying for admission to what are supposed to be the most tolerant places on earth, the nation’s colleges.

The Associated Press ran a report on Asian students of mixed parentage checking “white,” if possible, on their applications to avoid outing themselves as Asian. The Princeton Review Student Advantage Guide counsels Asian-American students not to check the race box and warns against sending a photo.

... All of this is done to promote a “diversity” of a crude, bean-counting sort. The private California Institute of Technology doesn’t use quotas; its student body is 39 percent Asian. The University of California at Berkeley is forbidden by law from using quotas; its student body is more than 40 percent Asian. Only a bigot would believe that these schools are consequently worse learning environments, or that they are places characterized by monochromatic, lockstep thinking because so many students share a broad-brush ethnic designation.

The author of The Price of Admission, Daniel Golden, calls Asian-Americans “the new Jews,” a reference to the 20th-century quotas that once kept Jews out of top schools. The difference then was that Jews collectively didn’t stand for the policy, now a watchword for disgraceful bias. Stephen Hsu, a professor of physics at the University of Oregon and an outspoken critic of current admission practices, laments that Asians seem strangely accepting of the unfair treatment of their children. The official Asian-American groups tend to support anti-Asian quotas because they are captives of liberal orthodoxy before all else. ...

An NRO commenter writes

I'm whitebread umpteenth generation American. My husband is Chinese by way of Malaysia. We met at the same elite college. The discrimination against Asian students is an open secret--everyone Asian knew, or at least suspected, that it was the case. It's part of why my husband and I have decided to hyphenate my WASP last name with his (thankfully) not terribly ethnic sounding Chinese surname. We don't want our children, 20 years from now, to be hurt when applying for college, should saner winds have not prevailed.

Malaysia actually presents an instructive example. In Malaysia, about 25% of the population is Chinese, and government quotas which require a certain number of ethnic Malays win university places and jobs mean that Chinese students much earn much higher scores than Malay students to win university slots. The result of this is that academic expectation for Chinese students get ever higher, while those Chinese Malaysians who can afford it try to send their kids abroad. It's not an accident that my husband wound up at an American university--it's the result of my in-laws driving him for years to get him there.

And therein lies the rub. My husband comes from a country where racial quotas are explicit, published, and protesting them will cause the government to retaliate. (Malaysia's government recently essentially outlawed freedom of assembly.) Elections are rigged, and everyone knows this. The government has forged an ethnic, institutional and religious alliance to repress the Chinese population. My husband is still surprised that Americans are willing to openly speak out against and protest against the government.

Many Asian immigrants are only recently removed from governments that do not invite the opinions of their citizens. It takes time to learn, really learn, that it is acceptable to demand accountability of institutions and of governments, and I don't see that happening overnight.

But it is happening, slowly. Every Chinese American I've talked to of college age knows about these quotas, and I don't think these first generation Americans will stand for their children being treated in the same manner.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Human capital, globalization and physics 101

In the past few years we have seen a large influx of undergraduate students from China. Since UO non-resident tuition is about $20k per annum, these students must come from relatively affluent families there. The conventional wisdom among professors familiar with China is that most of these kids are slackers -- they didn't do well enough on the gaokao to be admitted to a top Chinese university. How good are "slackers" from China? Judge for yourself.

Below is the score distribution from the course I taught this fall, physics 101 for non-majors (about 200 students total). The black histogram is non-Chinese, the red is Chinese, most of whom, judging by their names, are from PRC. Why was this analysis necessary? Because I noticed the score distribution was very different from previous times I had taught the course. About 20-30 PRC kids scored higher than what is usually the highest score. (Click for larger version.)

Here are two exam problems.

An ant slowly pushes a box of mass .1 kg and coefficient of friction .1 a distance of 10m, moving at constant speed. Calculate the work done.

A satellite orbits the Earth at a distance of 3 Earth radii from the center. Compute its gravitational acceleration.

Future vol

Hmm... pricing in a 30-50% chance of huge vol due to euro credit crisis? If you're sure it's going to happen, some 6-12 month vol swaps might be a good trade. Any experts want to comment? (Are there better instruments for this?) How much further can Merkozy kick the can down the road?

On the volatility of volatility

A pro sez to me: "Vol is totally mispriced right now. Lots of funding requirements in the new year."

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Borges: A poet never rests

"The revelation can occur at any time. A poet never rests.

He's always working, even when he dreams.

Besides, the life of a writer is a lonely one.

You think you are alone, and as the years go by,

if the stars are on your side, you may discover

that you are at the center of a vast circle of invisible friends

whom you will never get to know, but who love you.

And that is an immense reward."

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Deal: The debate over elite schools and elite jobs

More on elitism and credentialism in an article by Editor in Chief Robert Teitelman at The Deal. Related posts.

The cognitive-phonetic dissonance of Asian names for English speakers is on display: I am referred to as "Hsui" and "Hsiu", but never "Hsu" (Hopefully fixed before you read this :-)

The Deal: There is a fascinating discussion unfolding across the Internet that reaches into all kinds of interesting nooks and crannies. Its origin is a paper from Lauren Rivera, "Ivies, Extracurricular and Exclusion: Elite Employers' Use of Educational Credentials." Rivera, a professor at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, spent several years interviewing "elite" professional service firms, meaning investment banking, consulting and law firms. Her conclusions, which have been batted around the blogosphere, come down to a handful of talking points: These elite employers primarily recruit from roughly four "super-elite" universities (these differ slightly depending on the area or the individual, and include both undergraduate and graduate recruiting, though it's amazing to see the schools that are considered "second-tier") and care more for the school than for the academic record; busy evaluators have a lot of leeway in deciding who to interview and who not; and (as in college admission) extracurricular activities have become a key secondary filter, but only if they're out of the norm -- playing college lacrosse, say, as opposed to intramural football.

Reading Rivera's paper is a revelation -- and shocking. "Evaluators," she writes, "relied so intensely on the criteria of 'school' as a criterion of evaluation not because they believed that the content of the elite curricula better prepared students for life in their firms -- in fact, evaluators tended to believe that elite and, in particular, super-elite instruction was 'too abstract,' 'overly theoretical,' or even, 'useless' compared to the more 'practical' and 'relevant' training offered at 'lesser' institutions -- but rather due to the strong cultural meanings and character judgments evaluators attributed to admission and enrollment at an elite school." Rivera quotes a recruitment manager at an investment bank who talks about schools that aren't in the super-elite category: "I'm just being really honest, it pretty much goes into a black hole. And I'm pretty open about that with the students I talk to. It's tough. You need to know someone, you need to have a connection, you need to get someone to raise their hand and say, 'Let's bring this candidate in.' ... Look, I have a specific day I need to go in and look at ... the Brown candidates, you know the Yale candidates. I don't have a reason necessarily to go into what we call the 'best of the rest' folder unless I've run out of everything else. ... Unfortunately it's just not a great situation. There's not an easy way to get into the firm if you're not at a target school."

... Manzi questioned the exclusivity of Rivera's super-elite and argued from personal experience that consultants at least do demand not just high course and test scores, but a certain rigor in course selection, particularly in math and science. Hsiu, a physicist at the University of Oregon, then offered a further distinction between hard and soft firms, which are looking for subtly different skills. His distinction turns almost entirely on quantitative abilities. Hard firms, like hedge and venture firms and tech startups, demand sheer mathematical brainpower and will take it where they can find it. Soft firms such as investment banks, law and consulting firms that sell services, like advice, that is more "nebulous" and harder to measure, and where "prestige" matters more, embrace the elite-school brand more readily. Hsiu can't help but give more value to those measurable standards, although a number of his commenters argued with him on that point.

Hmm... no problems with these other names:

... Bloggers Bryan Caplan, Megan McArdle, Fabio Rojas, Steve Hsui and Jim Manzi have offered up perspectives on an issue that speaks to everything from the crisis in higher education to increasing inequality to the size and influence of finance. Perhaps because of the subject matter, the comments on many of these posts are well worth reading as well.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Gracie Breakdown: UFC 140

Gracie breakdown of the Mir-Nog fight. Glad to see even two blackbelts named Gracie had a little trouble reconstructing exactly what happened. You have to give props to Frank Mir -- 260 lbs with technical and explosive jits. I always wondered how Sakuraba got so good with his acrobatic kimura attacks -- to train that would seem to put your partners at a lot of risk!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Equilibration in progress: legal services

Earlier discussion here, here and here.

WSJ: ... wages are rising in developing countries such as India ... but remain relatively soft here in the U.S. and the U.K.

... The price gap has narrowed between offshore legal processing groups—which charge between $25-$35 an hour for basic legal services such as document review—and domestic services offered by contract review attorneys in places such as the Midwest, which might charge $25 to $30 per hour. ...

The glut of new law school graduates in 2012 will likely put offshore legal services outfits at a further disadvantage, the report found.

Those not familiar with the current realities for new law school grads, see here.

Snap Crackle Pop: UFC 140

WAR Frank Mir!

No time to tap. I love his explosive style of BJJ. In training you're taught to let the other guy tap, but a real fight is different. See here for some technical post-fight comments from Frank. (More MMA and BJJ theory at 2:45 here.)

The fundamental asymmetry of MMA

"F@ck jiujitsu -- I'm gonna break your nose."

"Maybe, but if I get my hands on you there's no tapping. I'm tearing your arm off."

In MMA, it's unfair that the striker gets to hit the other guy at full power, but the grappler has to release the hold when the other guy taps. If there was no referee the striker would think very, very hard before mixing it up. [Some guy tries to break my nose or fracture my skull, and I'm supposed to let him tap?!?]

When I was faculty advisor for the Yale jiujitsu club we considered t-shirts with "Snap, Crackle, Pop" on them, but went with something more conservative like "Yale Brazilian Jiujitsu" :-)

Video of Mir's submission. Nogueira is a top grappler and the last 50 seconds shows some very technical BJJ. Mir escapes a guillotine, gets the kimura, and prevents Nog from escaping a couple of times. Reminds me of what Sakuraba did to Renzo, or Kimura to Helio! On closer review, Nog did have plenty of time to tap, but refused to do so -- just like Helio. Another video.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Differential validity of the SAT

In an earlier comment thread someone asked whether Asian-American college performance is commensurate with their SAT scores. If A-A SAT scores are artificially elevated by cramming then one might expect it to under-predict college GPA. (On the other hand, if Asians are more conscientious and hard working overall, one might* expect that to elevate both SAT scores and college GPA relative to other groups.) This data from the College Board shows that the validity of SAT as a predictor of college GPA is about the same for whites and Asians.

*Regarding cramming, I have yet to see any data which shows that large groups of people can significantly elevate their SAT scores through preparation. Test prep companies will claim this is possible, but detailed studies by ETS suggest otherwise. In our U Oregon data set (covering all students at the university over a 5 year period) it is quite rare to see a change of 1 population SD between max and average score for individual students who take the SAT multiple times.

(Click for larger version. FYGPA = Freshman Year GPA.)

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Jim Manzi: How elite business recruiting really works

Jim Manzi writes about recruiting at elite consulting firms like McKinsey and BCG. The earlier post of mine he refers to is here (click through for more links, including to an even earlier post with excerpts from the Rivera paper).

National Review: There has been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere about a research paper by Lauren Rivera that describes how elite professional service firms (top investment banks, law firms, and management consulting firms) go about hiring. ...

... I’ll focus my comments on management consulting, where I used to work for about ten years. I participated in every stage of the process from job candidate to new junior consultant to hiring partner.

Start with some quick industry background. You can divide management consulting into “strategy consulting” and “other.” Strategy consulting is the elite end of the consulting business. Most of strategy consulting can be sub-divided into two tribes: McKinsey and “Bruce Henderson’s children.” McKinsey is the industry leader. Bruce Henderson founded the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in the 1960s. A number of BCG spin-offs have occurred since (e.g., Bain, SPA, LEK, etc.), and some of these have created further spin-offs. By far the largest and most important is Bain. Together, McKinsey, Bain and BCG (“MBB”) are the dominant elite recruiters for consulting, though a swarm of smaller strategy firms can compete successfully for the best talent.

... Rivera grossly exaggerates the degree to which access is limited to graduates of 4 super-elite schools.

... Rivera grossly overestimates the importance of extracurriculars, and grossly underemphasizes the importance of standardized test scores, and especially, case interviews.

... In my experience as a resume screener, the logic normally goes something like this.

If you don’t have at least 750 on the math SAT, you’re out. The most common score is 800. Math plus verbal scores should be well over 1500, and typically over 1550. GRE, GMAT and other scores should be scaled similarly. [ Note, this would lead to a huge overrepresentation from top schools even if institutional prestige were not directly a factor of consideration. With a filter like that there are a limited number of schools where on-campus interviews would be cost effective. But I think "typically over 1550" may be an exaggeration. ]

Then, your degree should be in something hard: math, physics, electrical engineering, analytical philosophy, computer science and so on. It’s OK to major in history or literature, but you better have some really tough quantitative or analytical classes on your transcript, and have done very well in them. [ I'm not sure if I believe this last part -- I think plenty of humanities and social science types get hired in consulting without any technical background -- especially from HYPS. ]

... In an earlier post, Steve Hsu made a useful distinction between what he calls the “soft” elite firms that Rivera profiles (investment banks, law firms and management consultancies) versus “hard” elite firms such as hedge/venture funds, startups and technology companies. He argues that the hard elite firms produce something more measurable, and therefore rely less on prestige in selecting people. This distinction is a useful starting point, but what has been happening over the past 20 years or so is the increasing migration of value from soft to hard; basically, to math, technology and analytics-intensive work. This is happening within firms and industries – the emphasis on math ability was growing within consulting in the period I worked in it, as it was within banking – and across sectors as technology start-ups and math-intensive finance became the most obvious ways to make real money in America. This isn’t random, but is happening because these are huge opportunities to create value. This is in part why I left consulting to start an analytics software company. It became obvious that this was the way to create value for clients. This won’t last forever, but has been true for some time. [ Italics mine. ]

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Borges' The Witness

I am ecstatic at now having thousands of books, both technical and non-technical, available in searchable formats on my laptop, tablet and iphone.

I came across this brief Borges piece, originally published in 1960, by accident while surfing through my digital book collection. A quick trip to my shelves showed that I had this in physical form, but somehow had never read it.

See also the perils of precocity.

The Witness

In a stable that stands almost in the shadow of the new stone church, a man with gray eyes and gray beard, lying amid the odor of the animals, humbly tries to will himself into death, much as a man might will himself to sleep. The day, obedient to vast and secret laws, slowly shifts about and mingles the shadows in the lowly place; outside lie plowed fields, a ditch clogged with dead leaves, and the faint track of a wolf in the black clay where the line of woods begins. The man sleeps and dreams, forgotten.

The bells for orisons awaken him. Bells are now one of evening's customs in the kingdoms of England, but as a boy the man has seen the face of Woden, the sacred horror and the exultation, the clumsy wooden idol laden with Roman coins and ponderous vestments, the sacrifice of horses, dogs, and prisoners. Before dawn he will be dead, and with him, the last eyewitness images of pagan rites will perish, never to be seen again. The world will be a little poorer when this Saxon man is dead.

Things, events, that occupy space yet come to an end when someone dies may make us stop in wonder—and yet one thing, or an infinite number of things, dies with every man's or woman's death, unless the universe itself has a memory, as theosophists have suggested. In the course of time there was one day that closed the last eyes that had looked on Christ; the Battle of Junin and the love of Helen died with the death of one man. What will die with me the day I die? What pathetic or frail image will be lost to the world? The voice of Macedonia Fernandez, the image of a bay horse in a vacant lot on the corner of Sarrano and Charcas, a bar of sulfur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?

I, quant

A commenter linked to this Guardian interview with a UK quant. I found a number of his comments interesting enough to post here. See the original for more detail about the software he develops. I always felt that if I went into finance it would be as a trader, but with quant skills ;-)

"My parents discovered that I was of a mathematical bent aged three when I was apparently lining up my toys in order of size and then colour. I was one of these terrible, precocious kids who did their mathematics O-level aged 12. After a long academic career I ended up doing theoretical physics for my PhD, and spent a couple of years at Cern in Geneva. Many people I know from back then are still at universities, doing research and climbing the slippery slope to professorships and fellowships. They work the same astonishing long hours as I do, yet get paid a fraction and, from a purely scientific perspective, get to do some really, really interesting science. I often say (only half jokingly) that I "sold my soul" – I make a little over £200,000 a year, including my bonus."

"I said I was a quant, derived from the word 'quantitative'. We're the people of a definite mathematical bent, and if you're looking for a warrior-like analogy, we are perhaps the "armourers" of the financial industry, or, let me think … Traders are the warriors of our world; they go out and fight. I think of them as 'egos on legs'. Sharp suits, looking very smart… We quants are the trader's brain. It's our model that defines not only the risks the trader can take, the model also calculates how much risk he is taking with his particular trades at any given moment and we also predict future movements in valuation, pricing and the like."

"I have been in banking for over 20 years, and for several years I was with one of the major international investment banks. I discovered that I am just not enough of an arsehole to make it there. Why the top people at investment banks are like that? Well you have a thousand vice-presidents vying for 10 managing director posts. What do you think will happen? People will do anything to get ahead, back-biting, back-stabbing, the whole nine yards. For those of us who find life surrounded by other people difficult enough as it is, the requirement to network is hellish."

"Not sure though that I'd voluntarily swap IQ points for EQ – even though I'm certain that I'm going to end up as one of the single old blokes that you might occasionally come across – nice, big house in the country, lots of dogs, materially comfortable and yet utterly alone and mad as a fish.

Later, when asked to elaborate on that final point, he responds via email:

"I've long been aware of the prospect (with some 'tongue-in-cheek') of becoming mad as a fish, and the attractiveness of the current imbalance between EQ and IQ is that I know that my biggest, deepest fear is failure. With the current imbalance, I know that the risk of failure is reduced to its current level: eg, small but still real. That fear of failure drives me and means that I know I'm giving up anything approaching EQ in pursuit of avoidance of failure."

Friday, December 02, 2011

From Walden Pond to quant trading

True story. Theoretical physicist saves enough money during 5 years of postdoc to retire -- living entirely from investment income at $7k per year of expenditures (budget).

I simply saved more than three quarters of my income for five years. The math works out. If you save 83% and spend 17%, you need 25*0.17/0.83 ~ 5 years of savings, where 25 is the inverse of 4%, which is a safe withdrawal rate for at least 30 years.

While enjoying frugal living and retirement in his mid-30's, this former physicist starts a widely followed blog and authors a book: Early Retirement Extreme (ERE).

How does this story end? With the hero living a quiet Walden-esque life of contemplation and home cooked meals? No, of course after a few years he un-retires to join a fund as a quant trader/researcher!

What I like to do is solving impossible problems. Or just “hard problems”—problems that people don’t want to wrestle with. I did this in physics and learned a lot. I realized that I wouldn’t learn very much from solving a similar problem in physics and that’s why I quit physics. The challenge would not have been the same. Fortunately, I realized this quickly and I had the money to quit or “retire from my career“.

ERE is another one such “hard” problem solved (it’s only hard, because it’s somewhat out-of-the-box and thus more a question of shifting your perspective than it being any kind of technical challenge). I’ve written enough material here on the blog and in the book to show you how it’s done. I have the same problem with ERE. The challenge is gone for me. Many others are currently on the road towards financial independence and this is exciting for them but for me it’s just vicarious living. Becoming financially independent, the subject of this blog, is a period of transition and obviously one can only transition once. This is why fresh blood is needed.

[Uhh, part of the challenge is maintaining the minimalist lifestyle, well, for the rest of your life...]

... So what am I going to do now? Well, yesterday I got a job offer as a quant trader/researcher. I took it! I think this fulfills all my criteria. It’s a hard problem, it requires no marketing, no politics, no self-promotion, and no management. As far as I can tell, I’m safe from the Peter principle and can focus on research and development without worrying about suddenly finding myself having to sell or manage my stuff.

When I told this story to my wife she thought perhaps the job offer came from a rich former colleague in physics, who did it just to test him (i.e., f#ck with him) and throw a monkey wrench into the ERE equilibrium! ("Ha ha, Buddha came down from the mountain for chump change!") I won't be surprised if in 10 years this guy is complaining that his second home in the Hamptons is too small ;-)

"I'm not Asian"...

Increasing numbers of Asian-American college applicants understand the odds are stacked against them, and react by not declaring their ethnicity or (in the case of mixed race applicants) checking any box but Asian.

See previous related posts: here , here

I'm Not Asian (AP): Lanya Olmstead was born in Florida to a mother who immigrated from Taiwan and an American father of Norwegian ancestry. Ethnically, she considers herself half Taiwanese and half Norwegian. But when applying to Harvard, Olmstead checked only one box for her race: white.

"I didn't want to put 'Asian' down," Olmstead says, "because my mom told me there's discrimination against Asians in the application process."

For years, many Asian-Americans have been convinced that it's harder for them to gain admission to the nation's top colleges.

... The way it works, the critics believe, is that Asian-Americans are evaluated not as individuals, but against the thousands of other ultra-achieving Asians who are stereotyped as boring academic robots.

Now, an unknown number of students are responding to this concern by declining to identify themselves as Asian on their applications.

For those with only one Asian parent, whose names don't give away their heritage, that decision can be relatively easy. Harder are the questions that it raises: What's behind the admissions difficulties? What, exactly, is an Asian-American — and is being one a choice?

Olmstead is a freshman at Harvard and a member of HAPA, the Half-Asian People's Association. In high school she had a perfect 4.0 grade-point average and scored 2150 out of a possible 2400 on the SAT, which she calls "pretty low."

College applications ask for parent information, so Olmstead knows that admissions officers could figure out a student's background that way. She did write in the word "multiracial" on her own application.

Still, she would advise students with one Asian parent to "check whatever race is not Asian."

"Not to really generalize, but a lot of Asians, they have perfect SATs, perfect GPAs, ... so it's hard to let them all in," Olmstead says.

Amalia Halikias is a Yale freshman whose mother was born in America to Chinese immigrants; her father is a Greek immigrant. She also checked only the "white" box on her application.

"As someone who was applying with relatively strong scores, I didn't want to be grouped into that stereotype," Halikias says. "I didn't want to be written off as one of the 1.4 billion Asians that were applying."

... "If you know you're going to be discriminated against, it's absolutely justifiable to not check the Asian box," says Halikias.

"The whole Tiger Mom stereotype is grounded in truth," says Tao Tao Holmes, a Yale sophomore with a Chinese-born mother and white American father. She did not check "Asian" on her application.

"My math scores aren't high enough for the Asian box," she says. "I say it jokingly, but there is the underlying sentiment of, if I had emphasized myself as Asian, I would have (been expected to) excel more in stereotypically Asian-dominated subjects."

"I was definitely held to a different standard (by my mom), and to different standards than my friends," Holmes says. She sees the same rigorous academic focus among many other students with immigrant parents, even non-Asian ones.

Does Holmes think children of American parents are generally spoiled and lazy by comparison? "That's essentially what I'm trying to say."

Asian students have higher average SAT scores than any other group, including whites. A study by Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade examined applicants to top colleges from 1997, when the maximum SAT score was 1600 (today it's 2400). Espenshade found that Asian-Americans needed a 1550 SAT to have an equal chance of getting into an elite college as white students with a 1410 or black students with an 1100.

Top schools that don't ask about race in admissions process have very high percentages of Asian students. The California Institute of Technology, a private school that chooses not to consider race, is about one-third Asian. (Thirteen percent of California residents have Asian heritage.) The University of California-Berkeley, which is forbidden by state law to consider race in admissions, is more than 40 percent Asian — up from about 20 percent before the law was passed.

Steven Hsu, a physics professor at the University of Oregon and a vocal critic of current admissions policies, says there is a clear statistical case that discrimination exists.

"The actual dynamics of how it happens are really quite subtle," he says, mentioning factors like horse-trading among admissions officers for their favorite candidates.

Also, "when Asians are the largest group on campus, I can easily imagine a fund-raiser saying, 'This is jarring to our alumni,'" Hsu says. Noting that most Ivy League schools have roughly the same percentage of Asians, he wonders if "that's the maximum number where diversity is still good, and it's not, 'we're being overwhelmed by the yellow horde.'"

... Kara Miller helped read applications for the Yale admissions office when she was an undergraduate there, and participated in meetings where admissions decisions were made. She says it often felt like Asians were held to a higher standard.

"Asian kids know that when you look at the average SAT for the school, they need to add 50 or 100 to it. If you're Asian, that's what you'll need to get in," says Miller, now an English professor at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.

... Hsu, the physics professor, says that if the current admissions policies continue, it will become more common for Asian students to avoid identifying themselves as such, and schools will have to react.

"They'll have to decide: A half-Asian kid, what is that? I don't think they really know." ...

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

DNA data deluge

NYTimes reports: DNA Sequencing Caught in Deluge of Data. Spooks and other scientists have similar problems. See also here.

NYTimes: BGI, based in China, is the world’s largest genomics research institute, with 167 DNA sequencers producing the equivalent of 2,000 human genomes a day.

BGI churns out so much data that it often cannot transmit its results to clients or collaborators over the Internet or other communications lines because that would take weeks. Instead, it sends computer disks containing the data, via FedEx.

“It sounds like an analog solution in a digital age,” conceded Sifei He, the head of cloud computing for BGI, formerly known as the Beijing Genomics Institute. But for now, he said, there is no better way.

The field of genomics is caught in a data deluge. DNA sequencing is becoming faster and cheaper at a pace far outstripping Moore’s law, which describes the rate at which computing gets faster and cheaper.

The result is that the ability to determine DNA sequences is starting to outrun the ability of researchers to store, transmit and especially to analyze the data.

... The cost of sequencing a human genome — all three billion bases of DNA in a set of human chromosomes — plunged to $10,500 last July from $8.9 million in July 2007, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute.

That is a decline by a factor of more than 800 over four years. By contrast, computing costs would have dropped by perhaps a factor of four in that time span.

The lower cost, along with increasing speed, has led to a huge increase in how much sequencing data is being produced. World capacity is now 13 quadrillion DNA bases a year, an amount that would fill a stack of DVDs two miles high, according to Michael Schatz, assistant professor of quantitative biology at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island.

There will probably be 30,000 human genomes sequenced by the end of this year, up from a handful a few years ago, according to the journal Nature. And that number will rise to millions in a few years.

In a few cases, human genomes are being sequenced to help diagnose mysterious rare diseases and treat patients. But most are being sequenced as part of studies. The federally financed Cancer Genome Atlas, for instance, is sequencing the genomes of thousands of tumors and of healthy tissue from the same people, looking for genetic causes of cancer. ...

Here's a slide I sometimes use in talks.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Higher education: signaling vs learning

This paper presents evidence in favor of the signaling (as opposed to human capital building) model of elite higher education. Of course, the data is quite crude and different fields may tilt more in one direction or the other. For example, I think most science and engineering students who attend MIT or Caltech are doing it because they feel it will develop their human capital (i.e., they will learn more and receive a perhaps painfully rigorous education) than because of the signaling value, although the latter is non-negligible.

See earlier posts here.

Worker Signals Among New College Graduates: The Role of Selectivity and GPA

Brad Hershbein - The University of Michigan
October, 2011

Recent studies have found a large earnings premium to attending a more selective college, but the mechanisms underlying this premium have received little attention and remain unclear. In order to shed light on this question, I develop a multi-dimensional signaling model relying on college grades and selectivity that rationalizes students' choices of effort and firms' wage-setting behavior. The model is then used to produce predictions of how the interaction of the signals should be related to wages. Using five data sets that span the early 1960s through the late 2000s, I show that the data support the predictions of the signaling model, with support growing stronger over time. I also discuss alternative explanations, including di fferent types of human capital models; provide robustness checks; and relate the findings to both the returns-to-college-quality and employer learning literatures.

From the introduction:

Recently, there has been a sizable interest in the return to attending a more selective or prestigious college. Students who attend more prestigious schools earn more over their lifetime, on average, than those who attend less selective schools, but the mechanism underlying this premium is not well understood. In particular, there is disagreement over whether the earnings di fference is primarily due to the college itself or whether it is driven by unobserved student characteristics. The first of these channels is consistent with human capital theory -- attending the more selective school actually makes the worker more productive -- and the second more closely accords with models of signaling -- more innately productive workers are more likely to attend more selective schools.

[It's also possible that attending the right school gives access to networks and valuable information about career paths; see here.]

Given that annual U.S. higher education expenditures are over $460 billion, but per-student expenditures increase dramatically with college selectivity, understanding why students who attend selective colleges earn more over their lifetimes has dramatic implications for how those dollars are optimally allocated. Recent theoretical work seeking to explain why students increasingly sort by ability across college selectivities suggests a positive complementarity in human capital acquisition between students' ability and the greater resources available at selective colleges, but these models have received little empirical attention. On the other hand, the relatively few studies that have attempted to measure student learning in college have found little di fference across di fferent types of colleges once pre-college characteristics are controlled for (Pascarella and Terenzini 2005; Arum and Roksa 2011). While it is not clear whether the "learning" measured in these studies is of the type that fi rms would care about, this evidence suggests that the return to selectivity is unlikely to be due to human capital alone and that the signaling mechanism is worth a more careful investigation.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Success in legal careers: status, credentials and grades

This detailed study concludes that law school grades, not prestige, have the strongest correlation with career success. I'd be interested in reactions from attorneys to these results. See earlier post credentialistm and elite performance, and links therein. Compare to success of graduate programs in physics in placing theoreticians.

The Secret of My Success: How Status, Eliteness and School Performance Shape Legal Careers

Richard Sander and Jane Yakowitz

If we study the forty thousand law graduates who join the legal profes- sion each year, how well can we predict their future careers? How much of their future is predicted by their social class? The law school they attend? Their law school grades? This paper undertakes the first in-depth examination of these questions. Drawing on several large and recently-released datasets, we examine the role of class, school prestige and law school grades on the career earnings of lawyers and the success of big firm associates in becoming partners. We find that social class strongly conditions who goes to law school, but no longer predicts much about post-graduate outcomes. Law school prestige is important, but it is generally trumped by law school performance (as measured by law school grades). Law school grades reflect both personal characteristics not well captured by pre-law credentials, and one’s relative position in a law school class as measured by pre-law credentials. Our findings suggest that there is little empirical basis for the overwhelming importance students assign to “eliteness” in choosing a law school. [italics mine]

Here is part of Table 10, which displays the deduced impacts of law school eliteness and grade performance in law school on long term career success (earnings) from a large database of Chicago lawyers. In the 1994 survey grades had much larger impact than school prestige. (Click for larger version.)

The authors' comments on this table:

Of course, since there is significant error in the measurement of law school grades, these models almost certainly understate their full impor- tance.38 Moreover, since we are here considering long-term career outcomes – not short-term recruitment – the effect of law school performance is not simply a credentialing effect of high grades leading to attractive job offers. Something about doing well in law school is strongly associated with lasting career success, and proves to have more efficacy than law school eliteness.

The eliteness of one’s law school is, compared with grades, a relatively weak explanatory factor in the 1994 equation. 39 And while the grade coef- ficients are biased in a way that understates their actual influence, the law school coefficients are almost surely overstated. The Chicago Lawyers equations do not include measures of pre-law credentials, such as LSAT scores and undergraduate grades. Since these factors do predict income for broad cross-sections of lawyers, and since the tight hierarchy of law school admissions makes law school eliteness a close proxy for student credentials, an unknown but probably large part of what seems to be explained by school eliteness is actually just a measure of pre-law credentials.

Is it possible that there are two paths to high income legal careers: BigLaw (BL) and RegionalLaw (RL)? Perhaps LS prestige is a big factor for the former and less so for the latter, which draws from regional schools (i.e. state flagship campus). Top partners in RL might make almost as much as those in BL, so that grades (which predict both BL and RL success) have a higher income correlation than LS reputation alone, which only manifests in BL.

The utility of grades or class rank as predictors does not surprise me, as they measure a combination of ability, willingness to work hard, and motivation. See here for results on high school GPA and SAT as predictors of college GPA. However, some fields seem to have ability thresholds that can't be surmounted through hard work.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Godel's proof, compressed

I found this here, but it is originally due to Raymond Smullyan. I first learned about Godel's theorem when I read Douglas Hofstader's book Godel, Escher, Bach in high school. I still remember lugging the thick volume around in my backpack, and working through the early chapters on predicate logic. This treatment is much more compact! :^)

We have some sort of machine that prints out statements in some sort of language. It needn't be a statement-printing machine exactly; it could be some sort of technique for taking statements and deciding if they are true. But let's think of it as a machine that prints out statements.

In particular, some of the statements that the machine might (or might not) print look like these:

P*x (which means that the machine will print x)
NP*x (which means that the machine will never print x)
PR*x (which means that the machine will print xx)
NPR*x (which means that the machine will never print xx)

For example, NPR*FOO means that the machine will never print FOOFOO. NP*FOOFOO means the same thing. So far, so good.

Now, let's consider the statement NPR*NPR*. This statement asserts that the machine will never print NPR*NPR*.

Either the machine prints NPR*NPR*, or it never prints NPR*NPR*.

If the machine prints NPR*NPR*, it has printed a false statement. But if the machine never prints NPR*NPR*, then NPR*NPR* is a true statement that the machine never prints.

So either the machine sometimes prints false statements, or there are true statements that it never prints.

So any machine that prints only true statements must fail to print some true statements.

Or conversely, any machine that prints every possible true statement must print some false statements too.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Talk cancelled

This talk has been cancelled, for complex reasons that I will not discuss.

Podcast roundup: November 2011

Gary Taubes discusses fat, sugar, cholesterol and nutrition on Econtalk. See also medical science?

Progress in the age of Obama -- Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel.

Strongly Coupled Components -- interviews with mathematicians.

The Continental-Analytic Split in philosophy.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Is the wavefunction real?

This is a nice result.

I haven't checked the calculations, but I like the logic very much. I'm kicking myself for not having tried harder to precisely formalize what the authors refer to as the "statistical interpretation" (note: this is quite a confusing terminology for most people -- see Further comments below) of the quantum state. Apparently, once you formalize this interpretation, it is easy to prove that it has to disagree with the predictions of ordinary quantum theory.

This "statistical interpretation" (e.g., that the wavefunction, or quantum formalism, only describes the knowledge state of the observer and does not correspond to physical reality) is the last shaky dodge of those who are against the reality (or correspondence to reality) of the wavefunction. The latter has always seemed to me the natural first interpretation of the formalism, subject, of course, to further analysis.

The quantum state cannot be interpreted statistically

Matthew F. Pusey, Jonathan Barrett, Terry Rudolph

Quantum states are the key mathematical objects in quantum theory. It is therefore surprising that physicists have been unable to agree on what a quantum state represents. There are at least two opposing schools of thought, each almost as old as quantum theory itself. One is that a pure state is a physical property of system, much like position and momentum in classical mechanics. Another is that even a pure state has only a statistical significance, akin to a probability distribution in statistical mechanics. Here we show that, given only very mild assumptions, the statistical interpretation of the quantum state is inconsistent with the predictions of quantum theory. This result holds even in the presence of small amounts of experimental noise, and is therefore amenable to experimental test using present or near-future technology. If the predictions of quantum theory are confirmed, such a test would show that distinct quantum states must correspond to physically distinct states of reality.

Here's what Nature News had to say:

Quantum theorem shakes foundations: The wavefunction is a real physical object after all, say researchers.

Further comments:

There seems to be widespread misunderstanding of what the authors are trying to do in this paper.

They are not trying to refute qm or the standard rules of calculation (e.g., Born rule). Perhaps their use of the term "statistical interpretation" is unfortunate because some people seem to have jumped to the conclusion that they claim to prove qm is deterministic or non-probabilistic. That is not the case.

They are addressing a particular interpretation of qm. This interpretation says: there is an underlying physical reality, but the state Psi only describes an observer's knowledge about that underlying reality. Psi is not itself a direct representation of that reality. ("Psi is not real".) I would classify this as a variant of Copenhagen; its proponents sometimes refer to it as a "Bayesian" or "Epistemic" interpretation. I prefer to call it the "Mysterian" interpretation: reality is some vast mysterious thing (never specified!), Psi only characterizes the observer's mental state; collapse of the wavefunction is simply a Bayesian update of the mental state.

Mysterian/Bayesian: "The reduction of the wavefunction takes place in the consciousness of the observer ... because the state is a construct of the observer's mind and not an objective property of the physical system."

Many Worlder: "The wavefunction is real (i.e., a direct representation of physical reality), but it does not collapse."

Note, both groups try to avoid the possibility that Psi is real and collapses. But see Weinberg's recent preprint for an attempt to understand that possibility:

A modern proponent of the Mysterian point of view is Chris Fuchs. I would be very interested to hear his reaction to this paper. But Rob Spekkens (quoted in the Nature article) also thinks along these lines, and he seems to believe that the (lambda, q) formalization of Mysterianism captures something useful. I am still pondering it myself.

Technically, the (lambda, q) formalization describes a model in which (i) there is an underlying reality (some Mysterians apparently do not actually believe this) and (ii) the state vector Psi does not describe the underlying reality but rather an observer's knowledge about it.

The fact that a given underlying reality lambda has probability q of being consistent with two different preparations of a state, which each yield different pure states phi_0 and phi_1 (their notation), is meant to capture (i) and (ii) above. Remember that to a Mysterian the pure state is a description of a state of knowledge, not of reality. So nonzero q means that two different states of knowledge (preparations) are consistent with the same underlying state of reality.

These Fuchs slides might be of use in understanding the mysterious Mysterians: Being Bayesian in a Quantum World (I am a Bayesian, who lives in a quantum world, but not a Mysterian :-)

This blog post by Matt Leifer is very clear and gives the context for the paper in the qm foundations subfield.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Predictive power of early childhood IQ, part 2

I came across this table in Intelligence by N. Brody. Berkeley Growth Study (61 participants).

See earlier post predictive power of early childhood iq.

Baumeister on Gender Differences and Culture

Nice discussion on Econtalk. I suspect Baumeister has slightly stronger opinions than he expressed to Russ.

Roy Baumeister of Florida State University and the author of Is There Anything Good About Men talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the differences between men and women in cultural and economic areas. Baumeister argues that men aren't superior to women nor are women superior to men. Rather there are some things men are better at while women excel at a different set of tasks and that these tradeoffs are a product of evolution and cultural pressure. He argues that evolutionary pressure has created different distributions of talent for men and women in a wide variety of areas. He argues that other differences in outcomes are not due to innate ability differences but rather come from different tastes or preferences.

The podcast got me through 30 pullups, 100 pushups, situps, kettlebells and cycling :-)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Sonmi 451

My vote for best recent dystopian fiction featuring genetic engineering goes to the An Orison Of Sonmi 451 chapters of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. Can't wait to see the big budget movie. Will they retain the Korean peninsula setting?

Honorable mention: Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake.

Popular wisdom has it that fabricants don’t have personalities. This fallacy is propagated for the comfort of purebloods.

“Comfort”? How do you mean? To enslave an individual troubles your consciences, Archivist, but to enslave a clone is no more troubling than owning the latest six-wheeler ford, ethically. Because you cannot discern our differences, you believe we have none. But make no mistake: even same-stem fabricants cultured in the same wombtank are as singular as snowflakes. ...

Did your second day outside provide any answers? Some: but yet more surprises. The first stood across the anteroom from my cot as I awoke. A pylonic man, over three meters tall and dressed in an orange zipsuit, was studying the bookshelves. His face, neck, and hands were scalded red, burnt black, and patched pale, but he did not seem to suffer pain. His collar confirmed he was a fabricant, but I could not guess his stemtype: lips genomed out, ears protected by hornvalves, and a voice deeper than any I heard before or since. “No stimulin here. You wake when you wake. Especially if your postgrad is as lazy as Boom-Sook Kim. Xec postgrads are the worst. They have their asses wiped for them. From kindergarten to euthanasium.” With a giant, two-thumbed hand, he indicated a blue zipsuit half the size of his. “For you, little sister.” As I changed from my Papa Song’s uniform into my new garment, I asked if he had been sent by a seer. “No seers, either,” said the burnt giant. “Your postgrad and mine are friends. Boom-Sook called yesterday. Complained about your unxpected delivery. I wished to visit you pre-curfew. But Genome Surgery postgrads work late. Unlike slackers here in Psychogenomics. I’m Wing027. Let’s find out why you’re here.” ...

What sort of fabricant was Wing-027? A militiaman? No, a disasterman. He boasted he could operate in deadlands so infected or radioactive that purebloods perish there like bacteria in bleach; that his brain had only minor genomic refinements; and that disastermen’s basic orientation provides a more thoro education than most pureblood universities. Finally, he bared his hideously burnt forearm: “Show me a pureblood who could stand this! My postgrad’s Ph.D. is tissue flameproofing.”

Wing027’s xplanation of deadlands appalled me, but the disasterman anticipated their approach with relish. The day when all Nea So Copros is deadlanded, he told me, will be the day fabricants become the new purebloods. ...

Huamdonggil is a noxious maze of low, crooked ramshacks, flophouses, pawnshops, drug bars, and comfort hives, covering perhaps five square miles southeast of Old Seoul Transit Station. Its streets are too narrow for fords to enter; its alleys reek of waste and sewage. ShitCorp goes nowhere near that quarter. Hae-Joo left the ford in a lockup and warned me to keep my head hooded: fabricants stolen here end up in brothels, made serviceable after clumsy surgery. Purebloods slumped in doorways, skin enflamed by prolonged xposure to the city’s scalding rain. One boy lapped water from a puddle on his hands and knees. “Migrants with enceph or leadlung,” Hae-Joo told me. “Hospitals drain their Souls until they’ve got only enough dollars for a euthanasia jab—or a ride to Huamdonggil. These poor bastards made the wrong choice.”

I could not understand why migrants fled Production Zones for such a squalid fate. Hae-Joo listed malaria, flooding, drought, rogue crop genomes, parasites, encroaching deadlands, and a natural desire to better the lives of their children. Papa Song Corp, he assured me, seems humane if compared to factories these migrants ran away from. Traffickers promise it rains dollars in the Twelve Cities, and migrants yearn to believe it; the truth never filters back, for traffickers operate only one way. Hae-Joo steered me away from a meowing two-headed rat. “They bite.”

I asked why the Juche tolerates this in its second capital.

Every conurb, my guide answered, has a chemical toilet where the city’s unwanted human waste disintegrates quietly, but not quite invisibly. It motivates the downstrata: “Work, spend, work,” say slums like Huamdonggil, “or you, too, will end your life here.” Moreover, entrepreneurs take advantage of the legal vaccuum to erect ghoulish pleasurezones for upstrata bored with more respectable quarters. Huamdonggil can thus pay its way in taxes and bribes. MediCorp opens a weekly clinic for dying untermensch to xchange any healthy body parts they may have for a sac of euthanaze. OrganiCorp has a lucrative contract with the city to send in a daily platoon of immune-genomed fabricants, similar to disastermen, to mop up the dead before the flies hatch. Hae-Joo then told me to stay silent; we had reached our destination.

More excerpts here. See also this.

Paris Review interview with David Mitchell.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Good riddance, JoePa

I've always hated Joe Paterno and Penn State's holier than thou sham. Careful scrutiny suggests it's mostly sociopaths at the top.

NYTimes: ... I have a hard time understanding why a 28 year old man, the grad student, did not go straight into that shower and rescue the kid. He is a coward. Law, lawsuits and all the oversight in the world is valueless unless people step up. This creep Sandusky was “caught” several times, in each case the so called men who witnessed it, quietly back away. Shame on them all. Shame on Mr. Paterno whose god status created the environment.

Paterno admits he was told by the assistant mentioned above that he saw former defensive coordinator Sandusky having anal sex with a naked 10 year old boy in the showers. Paterno reports it to superiors but doesn't follow up further and Sandusky retains an office in the athletic complex. The graduate assistant, a former Penn State QB, is now an assistant coach, so Paterno can hardly claim he didn't find the charge credible. This was definitely a coverup that extended over a decade, and JoePa was involved.

I wonder how the Penn State players feel about using the shower facilities in the Lasch Building (football complex).

Sandusky Grand Jury Presentment.

"When we stood at childhood's gate, Shapeless in the hands of fate, .... May no act of ours bring shame"

The Penn State Alma Mater

For the glory of old State,
For her founders strong and great,
For the future that we wait,
Raise the song, raise the song.

Sing our love and loyalty,
Sing our hopes that, bright and free,
Rest, O Mother dear, with thee,
All with thee, all with thee.


When we stood at childhood's gate,
Shapeless in the hands of fate,
Thou didst mold us, dear old State,
Dear old State, dear old State.


May no act of ours bring shame
To one heart that loves thy name,
May our lives but swell thy fame,
Dear old State, dear old State.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Generation gap

Look for intergenerational conflict to get worse as more boomers retire. Figure via Atlantic Monthly. 2001 net worth by age group.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

OW! Learning can hurt

Two good articles on the state of higher education. The first dares broach the "higher education bubble" question.

NY Review of Books: ... In Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa paint a chilling portrait of what the university curriculum has become. The central evidence that the authors deploy comes from the performance of 2,322 students on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test administered to students in their first semester at university and again at the end of their second year: not a multiple-choice exam, but an ingenious exercise that requires students to read a set of documents on a fictional problem in business or politics and write a memo advising an official on how to respond to it. Data from the National Survey of Student Engagement, a self-assessment of student learning filled out by millions each year, and recent ethnographies of student life provide a rich background.

Their results are sobering. The Collegiate Learning Assessment reveals that some 45 percent of students in the sample had made effectively no progress in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing in their first two years. And a look at their academic experience helps to explain why. Students reported spending twelve hours a week, on average, studying—down from twenty-five hours per week in 1961 and twenty in 1981. Half the students in the sample had not taken a course that required more than twenty pages of writing in the previous semester, while a third had not even taken a course that required as much as forty pages a week of reading.

Results varied to some extent. At every institution studied, from research universities to small colleges, some students performed at high levels, and some programs fostered more learning than others. In general, though, two points come through with striking clarity. First, traditional subjects and methods seem to retain their educational value. Nowadays the liberal arts attract a far smaller proportion of students than they did two generations ago. Still, those majoring in liberal arts fields—humanities and social sciences, natural sciences and mathematics—outperformed those studying business, communications, and other new, practical majors on the CLA. And at a time when libraries and classrooms across the country are being reconfigured to promote trendy forms of collaborative learning, students who spent the most time studying on their own outperformed those who worked mostly with others.

Second, and more depressing: vast numbers of students come to university with no particular interest in their courses and no sense of how these might prepare them for future careers. The desire they cherish, Arum and Roksa write, is to act out “cultural scripts of college life depicted in popular movies such as Animal House (1978) and National Lampoon’s Van Wilder (2002).” Academic studies don’t loom large on their mental maps of the university. Even at the elite University of California, students report that on average they spend “twelve hours [a week] socializing with friends, eleven hours using computers for fun, six hours watching television, six hours exercising, five hours on hobbies”—and thirteen hours a week studying.

For most of them, in the end, what the university offers is not skills or knowledge but credentials: a diploma that signals employability and basic work discipline. Those who manage to learn a lot often—though happily not always—come from highly educated families and attend highly selective colleges and universities. They are already members of an economic and cultural elite. Our great, democratic university system has become a pillar of social stability—a broken community many of whose members drift through, learning little, only to return to the economic and social box that they were born into.

... Is this a crisis? Arum and Roksa say no, since students and their parents continue to seek and pay for places at colleges and universities, and government and graduate schools continue to accept their products, and corporations continue to hire them (and to spend more than $50 billion a year to train their employees in the skills they need). But those already born into the wealthy and professional classes benefit disproportionately from the best educations. Acquire any sort of college education, and you’ll make more money than you would have if you didn’t. But don’t expect you’ll make what you would have if you had studied applied math at Stanford. And no one knows how long families will be able and willing to pay for four years of largely symbolic training that steadily becomes more expensive and loses impact. [italics mine]

This NYTimes article notes that, gee, STEM majors are hard and have high attrition rates. Readers immediately point out that the incentives for slogging through a difficult science or engineering curriculum aren't great. Better to work on your "soft skills" and leave the hard stuff for the suckers.

It's also about career path. Why bust your hump in engineering, when a degree in finance will land you a 6-figures job on Wall St., and a shot at 7 or 8 figures, for about the same effort? Especially knowing that corporate America considers engineers to be discardable, and does not hesitate to offshore engineering jobs to India or the Philippines. Some of the CEOs who whine the loudest about shortage of STEM graduates are the biggest culprits in making engineering an undesirable profession.

I am a foreigner. I have gone to undergrad back home for a Computer Science major. I have then come here to the US to get my MBA - at what is considered a top level institution.

What I saw among my fellow students who were American- those purported to be the best and the brightest, the cream of the crop - shocked me.

Grown men and women who are incapable of doing simple fractions, or understand the concept of percentage increase; let alone integrate a function, or indeed, understand what an integral is.

"Science is hard"? Well, Tough Luck, kids. Life ain't easy. The reason that people drop out of science classes is because they're spoiled brats, who, at the age of 18, lack the willpower to actually pursue something that pays off later. I endured 400 person Linear Algebra lessons in which I understood not a thing, calculus classes that made my eyes bleed, and final exams in which I got the grade of 13 out of 100.

Did I drop out and go study English Lit, or Poli Sci? Did I go and complain that "math is too hard"? No. Like the Indian or Slovenian kid that's busy kicking your American tush in the "Getting stuff done" department I grit my teeth and persevered.

The problem is not so much that kids drop out of math, it is [where they] drop out TO. American children are coddled, and told that it's confidence and people skills that matter, and that's what gets you through in life, and it's OK if you can't tell me what a common denominator is in fractions, because someone else is going to do all the "hard stuff".

Don't get me wrong: Soft skills and people skills matter a lot. They do. They really do, that's why American business culture is still among the top in the world: But make no mistake, the pendulum has swung so far towards the "soft skills" side of the equation that "hard skills" are simply impossible to come by.

See also psychometric thresholds for physics and mathematics and data mining the university.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

The burden of students

I always enjoyed interacting with Sidney Coleman (sadly, now deceased) when I was a postdoc. I was quite pleased to find this interview, part of the AIP Oral History project.

His views about working with students are not surprising to me, despite the high quality of Harvard PhD students. The gap in brainpower between Sidney and even an exceptional graduate student might be vast. It's worth noting that Sidney had a large number of PhD students who became prominent theorists.

I often make the analogy between teaching (or training PhD students) and pushups or running. Perhaps unpleasant while you are doing it, but (hopefully) it makes you stronger. Certainly I learn a lot from teaching, if only from reviewing the material in preparation for lectures. If the students are exceptionally good, I might even learn things from questions asked in class.
But you do enjoy working with students, or do you?

Coleman: No. I hate it. You do it as part of the job. Well, that's of course false...or maybe more true than false when I say I hate it. Occasionally there's a student who is a joy to work with. But I certainly would be just as happy if I had no graduate students. There are plenty of colleagues around here whom I can work with. There are plenty of research fellows; junior faculty. This is true all through the Cambridge area. There's not only Harvard, there are people to work with at MIT, at Brandeis, and there are some good people at places like Northeastern... places loaded with physicists to collaborate with, to talk about physics ideas with, who are ready and KNOW basically how to do research. You know who's good and who's bad. It's not a question of their being embryonically possibly good or possibly rotten. So certainly if I want physicists to collaborate with I don't have to have graduate students. Occasionally there is a graduate student who is a joy to collaborate with. Both David (Politzer) and Eric (Weinberg) were of this kind, but they were essentially almost mature physicists. They were very bright by the time they came to me. In general, working with a graduate student is like teaching a course. It's tedious, unpleasant work. A pain in the neck. You do it because you're paid to do it. If I weren't paid to do it I certainly would never do it.
Interview with Dr. Sidney Coleman by Katherine Sopka at Harvard Physics Department, Cambridge, Massachusetts January 18, 1977.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

My Beautiful Genome

A nice interview with science writer Lone Frank about her book My Beautiful Genome.

Click below for audio.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Festival della Scienza Genova and Italy: final thoughts

Here are the "official" video links from the Festival della Scienza in Genova: my public lecture , interview.

I had a wonderful time in Genova. My visit wasn't very long, because I had to come back to teach.

On the trip I spoke to quite a few young Italians (young here is probably, err, 35 and below), who all expressed pessimism about the future of the country and the economy. On the other hand, at the fancy dinners with Genovese families, I met a number of wealthy business types who reassured me that Italy would be fine and would have no trouble servicing its debt.

On Friday equity markets rallied in relief after the announcement of the latest plan to deal with the Euro debt crisis. However, ominously, bond investors demanded higher rates for Italian 10 year debt.

WSJ: ... Those sorts of concerns played out in Italy's €7.935 billion debt sale on Friday. On each of the four bond issues it sold, Italy was forced to pay higher yields than in the recent past. Most significantly, 10-year debt—a market benchmark—was sold at a yield 6.06%, up from 5.86% only a month ago.

"With a 120% debt-to-GDP ratio and 10-year Italian bonds yielding roughly 6%, they can't do that forever or the borrowing costs will get to an unsustainable level," said Eric Stein, portfolio manager at the Eaton Vance Global Macro Absolute Return Fund. "As your rates go up, it means you're paying more and more to service your debt, and your whole debt dynamics become harder and harder and harder.

As often noted by professionals, equity markets are driven by emotion, whereas bond markets are driven by quantitative analysis.

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