Friday, January 28, 2011

Credentialism and elite performance

More comments on credentialism and elite hiring practices.

See earlier post for Lauren Rivera study of recruitment at elite law firms, consultancies and I-banks. I refer to these as "soft" elite firms, whereas I will refer to hedge/venture funds, startups and technology companies as "hard" elite firms. (Goldman is a mix of the two; hence the internal battles between traders and bankers. I welcome comments from insiders on this particular issue :-) In the latter category performance is a bit easier to measure, and raw prestige plays less of a role in marketing to customers or clients -- i.e., the customer can directly tell whether the gizmo works ("these search results suck!") or the fund made money. Whether or not the advice received from a law/consulting/M&A firm is any good is much more nebulous and, well, soft. ***

1) Rivera's work confirms that in the real world, people believe in folk notions of brainpower or IQ. ("Quick on the uptake", "Picks things up really fast", "A sponge" ...) They count on elite educational institutions to do their g-filtering for them. In the past, as noted by one commenter, firms often asked for SAT scores.

2) Elite soft firms generally want people who are smart, but not too smart. Other factors, like personality, communication and leadership skills, etc. are valued as well. Startups, hedge funds, MSFT/GOOG, etc. generally want the smartest people they can get their hands on, at least for technical roles.

3) The soft firms know that what they do isn't "rocket science" -- it just isn't that hard, and any academic admit to a top university is smart enough. They just have to appear elite and smart enough to snow their clients and sell the work. Thus the emphasis on factors other than intelligence, once the threshold requirement is satisfied. Someone who appears smart and inspires confidence in clients is better than a smarter person who doesn't get along with (often middlebrow) clients.

4) In Rivera's research school prestige was the number one signal used by soft elite firms in evaluating prospective hires. Extracurricular activities came in second, but this is probably just a way to differentiate between applicants who have already been filtered using school prestige.

5) It is odd that the soft firms, which market themselves to clients as being super-smart repositories of brainpower (of course this is largely a fiction; see point 3 above), would rely so heavily on university admissions committees. They effectively outsource a big chunk of due diligence on their most important investment (human capital) to a group of people whose judgement they somehow trust, but perhaps without detailed understanding. When I was on the faculty at Yale I knew people in admissions and it's not clear to me that they were the best able to spot potential in 18 year olds. In studies of expert performance admissions people are less good at predicting UG GPA than a simple algorithm. (The "algorithm" is simply a weighted sum of SAT and HS GPA!)

But this doesn't matter if the success of HYPS grads becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once soft elite firms and large parts of the rest of society (in particular, clients) have accepted the idea that elite universities should be trusted to do the filtering, these schools will automatically produce large numbers of successful alumni -- the imprimatur itself has value. The outsourcing of human capital filtering is more dangerous for hard elite firms, with their more objective criteria: if they find that Yale grads aren't actually any good at pricing derivatives, writing code or designing chips, then they'll have to adopt a different filter. Fortunately, since even the dumbed down SAT is still pretty g loaded, hard elite firms can be confident that the lion's share of top talent is at elite universities.

*** Although I have assigned hedge and venture funds to the hard category, cynical or rigorous readers will note that in most cases there is insufficient data to actually determine the alpha (risk adjusted performance) of a fund manager. Thus prestige and other soft factors may have as much impact as real performance.

Feynman in Chinese

I saw this at the bookstore and it caught my eye. On the left is Surely You're Joking and the right What Do You Care What Other People Think?

I was looking for something to read on the plane. Tomorrow I'm headed back to the US for about 3 weeks. I'll be at UO for a few days for a DOE review of the high energy program, then at Berkeley and Caltech.

I can do that

A fateful conversation in Utrecht, 1971. Later Veltman would claim that the "Harvard mafia" of Glashow and Weinberg had stolen his Nobel prize. For years Veltman's alternative history of the electroweak interactions circulated as a samizdat. He and his former student 't Hooft received their prize in 1999. For more history, see, e.g., here.

Veltman: I do not care what or how, but what we must have is at least one renormalizable theory with massive charged bosons, and whether that looks like Nature is of no concern, those are details that will be fixed later by some model freak ...

’t Hooft: I can do that.

Veltman: What do you say?

’t Hooft: I can do that.

I met Tini Veltman for the first time when I gave a talk at Michigan in the early 90s. I had been at graduate school at Berkeley with his daughter.

Veltman: Where are you now?

Me: At Harvard.

Veltman: Are you proud of dat? (Dutch accent)

Me: I'm just a postdoc.

Veltman: What will you talk about?

Me: The Abbott-Farhi model and gauge-Higgs complementarity.

Veltman: What do you say?

Me: It doesn't work. There is a fermion condensate due to strong coupling.

Veltman: Good. I knew it was crap. But this last part is new.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Credentialism and elite employment

Want an elite job at the very pinnacle of 21st century capitalism? Read the rest of this post. [Additional remarks.]

Here's what I said in an earlier post How the world works: (see also Creators and Rulers.)
Go to the web sites of venture capital, private equity or hedge funds, or of Goldman Sachs, and you’ll find that HYPS alums, plus a few Ivies, plus MIT and Caltech, are grossly overrepresented. (Equivalently, look at the founding teams of venture funded startups.)

Most top firms only recruit at a few schools. A kid from a non-elite UG school has very little chance of finding a job at one of these places unless they first go to grad school at, e.g., HBS, HLS, or get a PhD from a top place. (By top place I don’t mean “gee US News says Ohio State’s Aero E program is top 5!” — I mean, e.g., a math PhD from Berkeley or a PhD in computer science from MIT — the traditional top dogs in academia.)

This is just how the world works. I won’t go into detail, but it’s actually somewhat rational for elite firms to operate this way ...
The paper below is by a Kellogg (Northwestern) management professor, Lauren Rivera. No offense to Rivera, because she gets things mainly right, but much of (good) social science seems like little more than documenting what is obvious to any moderately perceptive person with the relevant life experience. Bad social science, on the other hand, often means completely missing things that a moderately perceptive person would have noticed! ;-)

In reading the excerpts below, keep in mind Rivera's slightly different emphasis on law, consulting and I-banking, as opposed to hedge/venture funds and startups (more quant/technology focused) in my post.

Ivies, extracurriculars, and exclusion: Elite employers’ use of educational credentials

... In the following article, I analyze how hiring agents in top-tier professional service firms use education to recruit, assess, and select new hires. I find that educational credentials were the most common criteria employers used to solicit and screen resumes. However, it was not the content of education that elite employers valued but rather its prestige. Employers privileged candidates who possessed a super-elite (e.g., top 5) university affiliation and attributed superior cognitive, cultural, and moral qualities to candidates who had been admitted to such an institution, regardless of their actual performance once there. However, attendance at a super-elite university was insufficient for success in resume screens. Importing the logic of elite university admissions, firms performed a secondary resume screen on the status and intensity of candidates’ extracurricular accomplishments and leisure pursuits. I discuss these findings in terms of the changing nature of credentialism and stratification in higher education to suggest that participation in formalized extracurricular activities has become a new credential of moral character that has monetary conversion value in labor markets.
Below are some excerpts from the paper.
... So-called “public Ivies” such as University of Michigan and Berkeley were not considered elite or even prestigious in the minds of evaluators (in contrast, these “state schools” were frequently described pejoratively as “safety schools” that were “just okay”). Even Ivy League designation was insufficient for inclusion in the super-elite. For undergraduate institutions, “top-tier” typically included only Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, and potentially Wharton (University of Pennsylvania's Business School). By contrast, Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, and University of Pennsylvania (general studies) were frequently described as “second tier” schools that were filled primarily with candidates who “didn’t get in” to a super-elite school.

Definitions of “top-tier” were even narrower for professional schools, primarily referring to Yale, Harvard, Stanford, and to a lesser extent Columbia law schools, and Harvard, Wharton (University of Pennsylvania), and Stanford business schools.7 A consulting director (white, female) illustrates, “Going to a major university is important. Being at the big top four schools is important. Even it's a little more important being at Harvard or Stanford [for MBAs]; you know it's just better chances for somebody.” A consultant (Asian-American, male) described of being at a “top” school, “It's light-years different whether or not we are going to consider your resume.”

Evaluators relied so intensely on “school” as a criterion of evaluation not because they believed that the content of 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. I discuss the meanings evaluators attributed to educational prestige in their order of prevalence among respondents.
Educational credentials = signaling proxy for brainpower.
In line with human capital, screening, and signaling accounts of the role of educational credentials in hiring (see Bills, 2003 for review), participants overwhelmingly believed the prestige of one's educational credentials was an indicator of their underlying intelligence. Evaluators believed that educational prestige was a signal of general rather than job-specific skills, most notably the ability to learn quickly. An attorney (white, female) described, “I’m looking for sponges. You know a kid from Harvard's gonna pick stuff up fast.” However, it was not the content of an elite education that employers valued but rather the perceived rigor of these institutions’ admissions processes. According to this logic, the more prestigious a school, the higher its “bar” for admission, and thus the “smarter” its student body. A consultant (white, male) explained, “The top schools are more selective, they’re reputed to be top schools because they do draw a more select student body who tend to be smarter and more able.” A law firm partner (white, male) agreed, “If they’re getting into a top-tier law school, I assume that person has more intellectual horsepower and, you know, is more committed than somebody who goes to a second or third tier law school.”

In addition to such an intelligence-based perspective on university admissions, evaluators frequently adopted an instrumental and unconstrained view of university enrollment, perceiving that students typically “go to the best school they got into” (lawyer, Hispanic, male). Consequently, in the minds of evaluators, prestige rankings provided a quick way to sort candidates by “brainpower.” When sorting the “mock” resumes, an investment banking recruiter (white, female) charged with screening resumes at her firm revealed how such assumptions played out in application review. She remarked, “Her [Sarah's] grades are lower but she went to Harvard so she's definitely well-endowed in the brain category…Jonathan… went to Princeton, so he clearly didn’t get the short end of the stick in terms of smarts.” This halo effect of school prestige, combined with the prevalent belief that the daily work performed within professional service firms was “not rocket science” (see Rivera, 2010a) gave evaluators confidence that the possession of an elite credential was a sufficient signal of a candidate's ability to perform the analytical capacities of the job. Even in the quantitatively rigorous field of consulting [HA HA HA], a junior partner (white, male) asserted, “I’ve come to the stage where I trust that if the person has gone to Wharton, they can do math.”

By contrast, failure to attend an “elite” school, as conceptualized by evaluators, was an indicator of intellectual failure, regardless of a student's grades or standardized test scores. Many evaluators believed that high achieving students at lesser ranked institutions “didn’t get in to a good school,” must have “slipped up,” or otherwise warranted a “question mark” around their analytical abilities. ...

An investment banker (white, female) expressed a sentiment that was common across firms, “The best kid in the country may be at like Bowling Green, right. But to go to Bowling Green, interview 20 kids just to find that one needle in the haystack doesn’t make sense, when you can go to Harvard it's like 30 kids that are all super qualified and great.”

The finding that elite employers largely restrict the bounds of competition to students at the nation's most elite universities is important because large-scale studies of status attainment have historically focused on estimating the effect of years of schooling or college completion rather than institutional prestige in explaining occupational outcomes. ...
Rocket scientists need not apply:
... By contrast, those without significant extracurricular experiences or those who participated in activities that were primarily academically or pre-professionally oriented were perceived to be “boring,” “tools,” “bookworms,” or “nerds” who might turn out to be “corporate drones” if hired. A consultant (white, male) articulated the essence of this sentiment: "We like to interview at schools like Harvard and Yale, but people who have like 4.0s and are in the engineering department but you know don’t have any friends, have huge glasses, read their textbooks all day, those people have no chance here…I have always said, [my firm] is like a fraternity of smart people." ...

A banker (white, male) summarized the tradeoff evaluators believed they were facing, “I would trade an outgoing, friendly confident person for a rocket scientist any day.”

Here's an article about the research in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
If you want to get a job at the very best law firm, investment bank, or consultancy, here’s what you do:

1. Go to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or (maybe) Stanford. If you’re a business student, attending the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania will work, too, but don’t show up with a diploma from Dartmouth or MIT. No one cares about those places.

2. Don’t work your rear off for a 4.0. Better to graduate with 3.7 and a bunch of really awesome extracurriculars. And by “really awesome” I mean literally climbing Everest or winning an Olympic medal. Playing intramurals doesn’t cut it.

That’s the upshot of an enlightening/depressing study about the ridiculously narrow-minded people who make hiring decisions at the aforementioned elite companies. The author of this study—Lauren Rivera, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University—gained inside access to the hiring process at one such (unnamed) business, and picked the brains of recruiters at other firms.

The portrait that emerges is of a culture that’s insanely obsessed with pedigree. These firms pour resources into recruiting students from “target schools” (i.e., Harvard, Yale, Princeton) and then more or less ignore everybody else. Here’s a manager from a top investment bank describing what happens to the resume of someone who went to, say, Rutgers: “I’m just being really honest, it pretty much goes into a black hole.”

What’s surprising isn’t that students from elite universities have a leg up; it’s that students from other colleges don’t have a chance, even if those colleges are what the rest of us might consider elite. Here’s what a top consultant had to say about M.I.T.:

You will find it when you go to like career fairs or something and you know someone will show up and say, you know, “Hey, I didn’t go to HBS [Harvard Business School] but, you know, I am an engineer at M.I.T. and I heard about this fair and I wanted to come meet you in New York.” God bless him for the effort but, you know, it’s just not going to work.

There are exceptions, but only if the candidate has some personal connection with the firm. And the list of super-elite schools varies somewhat depending on the field. For instance, Columbia might be considered elite by some investment banks, but others describe it as ”second-tier” or “just okay.”

So going to Harvard is a prerequisite. But you also need to prove, in the words of the recruiters, that you’re not “boring,” a “tool,” or a ”bookworm.” This is where your leisure pursuits come in. Among the acceptable extra-curricular activities listed in the paper: traveling with a world-renowned orchestra and building houses in Costa Rica. It’s good to play sports, but they have to be the right ones. Being on the crew team is acceptable; being on the ping-pong team is not. Ideally, you should be a national or Olympic champion. And if you like hiking, you should summit some impressive peak. ...

Figure from the paper listing top signals used by recruiters: school prestige, extracurriculars, grades, employment prestige.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Quantum questions

The figure below is from my talk on many worlds quantum mechanics. I've tried to boil the issue down to its essentials below. (Warning: basic understanding of quantum mechanics required.)

Objects of increasing complexity can be placed into superposition states in laboratory experiments. Proposals for viruses and bugs (tardigrade arthropods) have been discussed.

Can an "observer" (person) be placed into a superposition state?

Or do they necessarily "collapse" wavefunctions?

If a virus or bug can be placed into a superposition state, why can't you?

See related post: Schrodinger's virus.

E pur si muove

The last two days I gave lectures at the APCosPA (Asia Pacific Organization for Cosmology and Particle Astrophysics) winter school held at National Taiwan University. The first lecture was on black holes and the second on many worlds quantum mechanics. I didn't choose the latter topic (I offered to talk about dark energy instead), but one of the organizers wanted to hear about it. Indeed, the second lecture turned out to be controversial: about an hour into the lecture, the moderator of the session jumped up to proclaim his belief in the Copenhagen Interpretation 8-)

The students, however, seemed to enjoy both lectures. (I'm sure the sight of two professors arguing heatedly about quantum foundations was great fun for them!) I spent about half an hour after each lecture answering additional questions. There were several students from Beijing University who seemed particularly bright.

In fact, the interpretation of quantum mechanics is not entirely disconnected from practical issues in cosmology. The cosmic microwave background data favors inflationary cosmology, in which the density perturbations in the early universe originate in the quantum fluctuations of the inflaton field itself. It is very hard to fit this into the Copenhagen view -- what "collapses" the wavefunction of the inflaton? There are no "observers" in the early universe, and the locations of "observers" (such as humans) are determined by the density perturbations themselves: galaxies, stars and planets are found in the overdense regions, but quantum mechanics itself decides which regions are overdense; there is no classical system "outside" the universe! It seems much more natural to note that differential scattering of gravitons due to more or less energy density in a particular region separates the inflaton wavefunction into decoherent branches. (The gravitons decohere the inflaton state vector through interactions.) But this is accomplished through unitary evolution and does not require von Neumann projection or "collapse". Other observers, living on other branches of the wavefunction, see a different CMB pattern on the sky.

It is not surprising that most quantum cosmologists are many worlders. (During my lecture I noticed a Korean professor who kept nodding vigorously; it later turned out he is a former student of Don Page's and did his dissertation on the Wheeler-DeWitt approach to quantum cosmology.) If practically-minded cosmologists (i.e., those that analyze CMB data) were to think more carefully about it, they might find themselves sympathetic to many worlds as well.

Einstein's Mistakes
Steve Weinberg, Physics Today, November 2005

Bohr's version of quantum mechanics was deeply flawed, but not for the reason Einstein thought. The Copenhagen interpretation describes what happens when an observer makes a measurement, but the observer and the act of measurement are themselves treated classically. This is surely wrong: Physicists and their apparatus must be governed by the same quantum mechanical rules that govern everything else in the universe. But these rules are expressed in terms of a wavefunction (or, more precisely, a state vector) that evolves in a perfectly deterministic way. So where do the probabilistic rules of the Copenhagen interpretation come from?

Considerable progress has been made in recent years toward the resolution of the problem, which I cannot go into here. [THIS REMINDS OF FERMAT'S COMMENT IN THE MARGIN!] It is enough to say that neither Bohr nor Einstein had focused on the real problem with quantum mechanics. The Copenhagen rules clearly work, so they have to be accepted. But this leaves the task of explaining them by applying the deterministic equation for the evolution of the wavefunction, the Schrödinger equation, to observers and their apparatus. The difficulty is not that quantum mechanics is probabilistic—that is something we apparently just have to live with. The real difficulty is that it is also deterministic, or more precisely, that it combines a probabilistic interpretation with deterministic dynamics.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Acts of creation 2

See earlier works in this oeuvre here :-)

March of the Hippos.

Les Dauphins.


Ladybugs of Summer.

Ants with Characters.

Lions and Mice.

Taiwan photos 10

Here are some more photos from Taroko Gorge.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Chess is better

The NYTimes reviews a new biography of Bobby Fischer. 19-year-old Bobby Fischer after a visit to a brothel in Curaçao: “Chess is better,” Fischer said.

... Mr. Brady also makes use of unusually good source material, from Fischer’s own unpublished manuscript to 50 years’ worth of his own conversations with Fischer’s associates, mentors and relatives. Note the omission of the word “friends.” Fischer never had them.

Mr. Brady met Fischer when the prodigy was a 10-year-old boy in New York, followed his career closely and sat with hushed audiences watching Fischer play tournaments. He drew on the archives of Jack Collins, Fischer’s mentor, and Regina Fischer, his mother. When Regina, the Jewish mother of this rabidly anti-Semitic Jewish son, began to understand the depths of her son’s bigotry, she wrote a prophetic letter that appears in these pages, delivering words that could have been Fischer’s epitaph: “The greater the person’s mind and talent, the greater the destruction.”

What changed boyish, chess-loving Bobby into the erratic, loathsome old crackpot and man without a country that he would eventually become? Mr. Brady is not in the business of tossing around facile judgments or easy answers. Instead, he gets as close as he can to a Bobby’s-eye point of view for “Endgame” and tries to convey what Fischer’s character-warping experiences as a public figure may have been like, and how they shaped him. Mr. Brady can credibly describe what went on in his subject’s mind during the 1956 so-called Game of the Century, when this 13-year-old nobody defeated Donald Byrne, a 25-year-old college professor, and shocked onlookers with his cunning and audacity. When Fischer made the especially daring sacrifice of a knight, a tournament referee said, “a murmur went through the tournament room after this move, and the kibitzers thronged to Fischer’s table as fish to a hole in the ice.” [WASN'T IT A QUEEN SACRIFICE?]

See also here and this post from 2008:

Dick Cavett, blogging in the Times, treats us to some recollections of and reflections on Bobby Fischer. Although I've read several biographies of Fischer, I doubt I've seen much live footage of him. The clip below is wonderful and a bit surprising -- it captures a moment, one we'll never see again.

Cavett's focus on Fischer's physical appearance (his height, eyes, even shoulders) is interesting, perhaps odd, but understandable given that celebrity itself is his (Cavett's) main expertise. Sylvia Nasar devoted an equivalent amount of attention to John Nash's appearance in A Beautiful Mind.

I suppose Go is actually better than Chess ;-)

Edward Lasker: "While the baroque rules of Chess could only have been created by humans, the rules of Go are so elegant, organic, and rigorously logical that if intelligent life forms exist elsewhere in the universe, they almost certainly play Go."

I'm sympathetic to this point of view. The rules of Go seem to be a natural embodiment of two dimensional notions of encirclement and control of space. They are much simpler and less arbitrary than those of Chess. I can't say anything about the strategic and tactical subtlety of the game, since I don't play, but experts seem to think it is quite deep (certainly it is more challenging for AI than Chess, if only for combinatorial reasons). One problem with Lasker's contention is that Go doesn't seem to have been invented independently by any human civilizations other than ancient China (supposedly 4000 years ago)!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Happiness and age

Nevertheless, I feel pretty good :-)

Economist: ... People, studies show, behave differently at different ages. Older people have fewer rows and come up with better solutions to conflict. They are better at controlling their emotions, better at accepting misfortune and less prone to anger. In one study, for instance, subjects were asked to listen to recordings of people supposedly saying disparaging things about them. Older and younger people were similarly saddened, but older people less angry and less inclined to pass judgment, taking the view, as one put it, that “you can’t please all the people all the time.”

There are various theories as to why this might be so. Laura Carstensen, professor of psychology at Stanford University, talks of “the uniquely human ability to recognise our own mortality and monitor our own time horizons”. Because the old know they are closer to death, she argues, they grow better at living for the present. They come to focus on things that matter now—such as feelings—and less on long-term goals. “When young people look at older people, they think how terrifying it must be to be nearing the end of your life. But older people know what matters most.” For instance, she says, “young people will go to cocktail parties because they might meet somebody who will be useful to them in the future, even though nobody I know actually likes going to cocktail parties.” ...

I actually like cocktail parties :-) Elsewhere in the article they note extroverts tend to be happier than introverts. What about hypomanics?

Note Added: Andrew Gelman and commenters point out that the data is not as clean as described in the Economist article. See discussion here.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Taiwan photos 9

We're in the Taroko National Park, site of the annual Taiwan Fulbright meeting. Yesterday, I gave a lecture on black holes at a winter school in theoretical physics held in Hualien.

Tea time in Taipei.

National Dong Hwa University in Hualien.

Our hotel in Taroko National Park.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Those cold and timid souls

It may be that stupid people take too much risk in their lives -- perhaps without knowing it. But my guess is that intelligent people tend to be too risk averse. Were it not the case, we'd have more startups, innovation, scientific breakthroughs, and even great art.

Theodore Roosevelt, speech at the Sorbonne 1910:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

I have great respect for Teddy Roosevelt's insights. He understood MMA a hundred years ago; historians of the sport will note that early UFCs didn't even have weight classes! From an earlier post, Mama said knock you out:

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

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

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

Jobless prosperity?

See earlier posts, such as equilibration can hurt. The author of the piece below is a heterodox economist at U Mass, Amherst. The comments are also worth reading.

NYTimes: ... Many journalists argue that globalization is partly to blame for historically low rates of job creation over the last year. Companies in the United States are simply less reliant on American workers – and American consumers – than they once were. Maybe they just don’t need us any more.

Few economists like this argument, but even some mainstream savants like Alan Blinder of Princeton University express concern about the effects of offshoring. And the effects of globalization extend well beyond job loss.

As Harold Meyerson pointed out in The Washington Post, a recent Standard & Poor’s report showed that our largest 500 publicly traded corporations get roughly 47 percent of their revenue from outside the country.

Writing in The Atlantic on “The Rise of the New Global Elite,” Chrystia Freeland provided a vivid anecdotal account of the same phenomenon, letting the chief executive of a green-technology company explain that most of his sales come from outside the United States, and, if he were starting from scratch, most of his workers would, too. A hedge fund manager tells her why the vigorous growth of a new middle class in China and India counterbalances the decline of the American middle class.

A recent Wall Street Journal article by Burton Malkiel warned against “home-country bias,” urging investors to hedge their bets on the American economy by tilting their portfolios toward emerging markets in developing countries.

A recent Time magazine article by Zachary Karabell referred to the new joblessness as a part of a megatrend toward globalization that we just have to live with.

So much depends on who “we” are.

During the 25 years after World War II, the interests of American investors and workers were closely, though not perfectly, aligned. Productivity increases were passed on in the form of higher wages that, in turn, fueled increasing demand for domestically produced goods and services.

Businesses willingly paid taxes to support public programs designed to improve the education, health and security of the labor force on which they relied.

Back in 1953, Charlie Wilson, the chief executive of General Motors, famously expressed the opinion (often slightly misquoted) that what was good for the country was good for General Motors, and vice versa. I doubt that was entirely true then, but it was certainly more true then than it is today.

Large corporations are no less patriotic now than they were then. But their economic incentives have changed. Facing intensified international competition, they have little reason to care about the nationality of their workers, consumers or investors.

Fans of globalization point to many economic benefits: lower-priced consumer goods, rewards for technological innovation and higher living standards for many workers in developing countries.

But however significant these benefits, the other side of the ledger reveals significant costs arising from political realignment and efforts to escape regulation and taxes.

Jobless growth is only one symptom of increased social conflict, intensified economic inequality and weakened democracy. The prosperity in jobless prosperity exists only for the rich.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Real cyberwar

Details of the Stuxnet exploit against Iranian centrifuges in this Times article. The results are impressive on a number of levels. But the US and Israelis should keep in mind that what goes around comes around -- cyberwar is potentially 24/7, and it's very hard to know who your enemy is. Luckily the terrorist threat we face doesn't seem to be very technologically able.

NYTimes: ... The worm itself now appears to have included two major components. One was designed to send Iran’s nuclear centrifuges spinning wildly out of control. Another seems right out of the movies: The computer program also secretly recorded what normal operations at the nuclear plant looked like, then played those readings back to plant operators, like a pre-recorded security tape in a bank heist, so that it would appear that everything was operating normally while the centrifuges were actually tearing themselves apart.

The attacks were not fully successful: Some parts of Iran’s operations ground to a halt, while others survived, according to the reports of international nuclear inspectors. Nor is it clear the attacks are over: Some experts who have examined the code believe it contains the seeds for yet more versions and assaults.

“It’s like a playbook,” said Ralph Langner, an independent computer security expert in Hamburg, Germany, who was among the first to decode Stuxnet. “Anyone who looks at it carefully can build something like it.” Mr. Langner is among the experts who expressed fear that the attack had legitimized a new form of industrial warfare, one to which the United States is also highly vulnerable.

... The most detailed portrait of the damage comes from the Institute for Science and International Security, a private group in Washington. Last month, it issued a lengthy Stuxnet report that said Iran’s P-1 machines at Natanz suffered a series of failures in mid- to late 2009 that culminated in technicians taking 984 machines out of action.

... Publicly, Israeli officials make no explicit ties between Stuxnet and Iran’s problems. But in recent weeks, they have given revised and surprisingly upbeat assessments of Tehran’s nuclear status.

“A number of technological challenges and difficulties” have beset Iran’s program, Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, told Israeli public radio late last month.

The troubles, he added, “have postponed the timetable.”

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Euros and Yuan

Sure, the dollar is on its last legs, but the euro isn't exactly in great shape either.

Open your rmb denominated bank account now with the Bank of China -- FDIC insured! (Net inflow capped at $20k per year per individual.)

NYTimes magazine on Sarkozy, Merkel and the French-German partnership. (I guess Sarkozy speaks German -- I thought Merkel doesn't speak English or French.)

“The Germans have discovered that they are the only serious global economy in Europe, capable of competing with the United States and China,” says John Kornblum, a former American ambassador to Germany. “But they’re afraid their world is coming apart around them, and what they thought would support them, the European Union, is dragging them down. They realized that the stability pact isn’t working, that the Greeks were lying and maybe others, too, that their banks and French banks were deep in the muck, and they understood this is going to cost a lot of money. So they are behaving in a very demanding way, which smells to some like nationalism. But it really is fear.”

... “The Germans don’t see it yet,” he says. “But they will have to take on the role of the United States in Europe, and have the same kind of balancing role we had for such a long time.” At that point, Germany’s marriage with France won’t matter so much anymore.

More from Krugman: Can Europe Be Saved?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Tiger mothers and behavior genetics

Everyone seems to want to know what I think about the WSJ excerpt Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior, from Amy Chua's new book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. See here for some discussion on Quora.

When I first read the piece I thought Chua sounded like a nutcase -- more extreme than even the nuttiest mothers of the other Chinese kids I had grown up with. Later I realized that the excerpt is not from a parenting book, but rather a memoir, and that Chua is making fun of her younger self in the excerpted chapter. See this interview with Leonard Lopate for more nuanced comments from Chua, and this NYTimes article.

The WSJ excerpt has been widely discussed, but I have yet to see anyone point out what the real data says about parents' ability to shape their children (other than by passing on their genes). See here for a long post I wrote just over a year ago on the subject:

In what may have been the most influential article ever written in the field of developmental behavior genetics, Plomin and Daniels (1987) reviewed evidence that a substantial portion of the variability in behavioral outcomes could not be explained by the additive effects of genotype or the environmental influences of families. They suggested that this residual term, which they called the nonshared environment, had been neglected by environmentally oriented researchers who assumed that the most important mechanisms of environmental action involved familial variables, like socioeconomic status [SES] and parenting styles, that are shared by siblings raised in the same home and serve to make siblings more similar to each other. Indeed, Plomin and Daniels argued, once genetic relatedness has been taken into account, siblings seem to be hardly more similar than children chosen at random from the population.

In other words, despite a lifetime of proximity, your adopted child may bear no more similarity to you (in terms of, e.g., intelligence) than someone selected at random from the general population. The shared family environment that your children (biological or adopted) experience has little or no measurable effect on their cognitive development. While there are environmental effects on intelligence (the highest estimates of heritability for adult IQ are around .8, and some would argue for a lower value; see here for Turkheimer's work suggesting low heritability in the case of severe deprivation), they seem to be idiosyncratic factors that can't be characterized using observable parameters such as the parents' SES, parenting style, level of education, or IQ. It is as if each child experiences their own random micro-environment, independent of these parental or family characteristics.

... The naive and still widely held expectation is that, e.g., high SES causes a good learning environment, leading to positive outcomes for children raised in such environments. However, the data suggests that what is really being passed on to the children is the genes of the parent, which are mainly responsible for, e.g., above average IQ outcomes in high SES homes ...

The implications are quite shocking, especially for two groups: high investment parents (because the ability of parents to influence their child's development appears limited) and egalitarians (because the importance of genes and the difficulty in controlling environmental effects seem to support the Social Darwinist position widely held in the previous century).

I have no doubt that certain narrow skill sets (like piano playing, swimming, baseball) can be transmitted through parental effort. But the evidence seems to point the other way for intelligence, personality, religiosity and social attitudes. Are Chinese moms such outliers that they constitute a counterexample to the large-statistics studies cited above? It was shown by Turkheimer that in cases of extreme deprivation heritability can decrease significantly. Can Tiger Moms have the same effect at the positive end of the spectrum?

As a parent myself I am used to the very sloppy epistemology that is par for the course: we did X to the kids when they were younger, which is why they are so Y now, or: if you do X to your kids now, they are more likely to be Y later. In reality, as with any complex system, it is nearly impossible to relate cause and effect in a remotely rigorous way. Nevertheless, the world is full of (often contradictory) parenting advice, and most parents are absurdly overconfident in their opinions.

See figure below (click to enlarge) from Sources of human psychological differences: Minnesota study of twins reared apart, Bouchard et al. (p. 142). MZA = MonoZygotic twins raised Apart, MZT = MonoZygotic twins raised Together. On the personality inventories the MZA and MZT correlations are almost identical -- even more so than for g. Shared family environment did not make twins more similar in personality, and only slightly more similar in IQ.

I stole this figure from Razib. It's from Turkheimer's paper showing that heritability of IQ increases with SES. Thus, Tiger Moms are fighting against diminishing returns: once the child's environment is already pretty good (say, 80th percentile SES), most variation is due to genetics. Note Turkheimer's results show more shared environmental variance than Plomin and Daniels found, but everything is consistent within errors. One objection to Turkheimer's results is that his measurements are of young children, and in other studies it is found that heritability increases with age -- perhaps because children gain more control over their lives and their genetic proclivities become more manifest.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Taiwan photos 8

At the book store.

A ship my daughter made. I asked whether it was a castle, but no, it's a ship :-)

The fancy Humanities and Social Science Library at Academia Sinica.

I'm off tomorrow to Shenzhen for another BGI meeting.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Never Let Me Go

This is a fantastic, if emotionally challenging, movie.

See here for a longer interview which includes the screenwriter Alex Garland. Highly recommended! Also available at iTunes.

The dystopian science fiction setting is primarily a device for Ishiguro to confront the Fundamental Question of mortality.

Have our lives been any different from the lives of the people we save? We all complete. Maybe none of us understand what we've lived through. Or feel we've had enough time.

Here is my daughter's first encounter with the Fundamental Question.

Last night at dinner my 4 year old daughter asked me about death.

"Do all princesses grow old?" she asked.

"But I don't want to die!" she said, knowing, it seems, full well what that meant.

"We might go on to something else after we die," I offered.

"Oh." She thought about that for a while.

My son doesn't seem concerned about any of this, although he does occasionally ask me what the biggest number is. (He also wants to know about the biggest dinosaur and the fastest rocket.) I usually ask him to name the largest number he can think of, and then point out that I can always add one to that to get an even larger number.

When I was a kid I spent a lot of nights pondering life and death and infinity. I still do.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Singularity and economic history

Econtalk interviews Robin Hanson on the singularity. There is nothing particularly new in the discussion for those who have already thought about the singularity, but the introductory discussion about historical transitions in economic growth rates is nice.

Hanson endorses the brain emulation scenario as the most plausible near term route to AI. I agree with this, primarily because Nature has already done so much work to optimize the human brain. I doubt that we will get very far with AI in the near term without exploiting the one existing model at our disposal. (Note, "most plausible" does not mean I think we'll accomplish brain emulation in the next 50 years. It might well take much longer, even though raw computational power will be sufficient.)

... evolution has compressed a huge amount of information in the structure of our brains (and genes), a process that AI would have to somehow replicate. A very crude estimate of the amount of computational power used by nature in this process leads to a pessimistic prognosis for AI even if one is willing to extrapolate Moore's Law well into the future. Most naive analyses of AI and computational power only ask what is required to simulate a human brain, but do not ask what is required to evolve one. I would guess that our best hope is to cheat by using what nature has already given us -- emulating the human brain as much as possible.

Below is a nice summary of long term trends in human population and economic growth, from this Hanson paper.

Humans (really our human-like ancestors) began with some of the largest brains around, and then tripled their size. Those brains, and the innovations they embodied, seem to have enabled a huge growth in the human niche - it supported about ten thousand humans two million years ago, but about four million humans ten thousand years ago.

While data is scarce, this growth seems exponential, doubling about every two hundred and twenty five thousand years, or one hundred and fifty times faster than animal brains grew. (This growth rate for the human niche is consistent with faster growth for our ancestors - groups might kill off other groups to take over the niche.) About ten thousand years ago, those four million humans began to settle and farm, instead of migrating to hunt and gather. The human population on Earth then began to double about every nine hundred years, or about two hundred and fifty times faster than hunting humans doubled.

Since the industrial revolution began a few hundred years ago, the human population has grown even faster. Before the industrial revolution total human wealth grew so slowly that population quickly caught up, keeping wealth per person at a near subsistence level. But in the last century or so wealth has grown faster than population, allowing for great increases in wealth per person.

Economists' best estimates of total world product (average wealth per person times the number of people) show it to have been growing exponentially over the last century, doubling about every fifteen years, or about sixty times faster than under farming...

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Some New Year's reading

I learned about the site via Seth Roberts. It aggregates long magazine articles from numerous sources. Below are some recommendations.

Financial Times on Moscow's stray dogs.

“Genetically, wolves and dogs are almost identical,” says Poyarkov. “What has changed significantly [with domestication] is a range of hormonal and behavioural parameters, because of the brutal natural selection that eliminated many aggressive animals.” He recounts the work of Soviet biologist Dmitri Belyaev, exiled from Moscow in 1948 during the Stalin years for a commitment to classical genetics that ran counter to state scientific doctrine of the time.

Under the guise of studying animal physiology, Belyaev set up a Russian silver fox research centre in Novosibirsk, setting out to test his theory that the most important selected characteristic for the domestication of dogs was a lack of aggression. He began to select foxes that showed the least fear of humans and bred them. After 10-15 years, the foxes he bred showed affection to their keepers, even licking them. They barked, had floppy ears and wagged their tails. They also developed spotted coats – a surprising development that was connected with a decrease in their levels of adrenaline, which shares a biochemical pathway with melanin and controls ­pigment production.

[See related post on Belyaev and fast Fox evolution here. I find it quite plausible that humans domesticated themselves over the last 10k years.]

“With stray dogs, we’re witnessing a move backwards,” explains Poyarkov. “That is, to a wilder and less domesticated state, to a more ‘natural’ state.” As if to prove his point, strays do not have spotted coats, they rarely wag their tails and are wary of humans, showing no signs of ­affection towards them.

GQ on social networking startups in Silicon Valley:

Sitting here pinioned between the photon-cannon brains and futurey salesmanship of Rahul and Jiggity, I realize there's something that makes me simultaneously excited and agitated. It is an unfamiliar sensation: optimism. Jiggity knows. Rahul knows. Everyone at YC knows. The world belongs to them. You can hardly be alive in 2010 and not know that. You can't know what Facebook is without knowing that. This—Silicon Valley in general and YC more specifically—might be the last place in America where people are this optimistic. The last place in America where people aren't longing for a vague past when we were the shit.

Vanity Fair on Goldman Sachs ("a giant hedge fund that front-runs its so-called clients"?):

What Goldman doesn’t get is that all the murk about the ways it has benefited from public money taps into a deep fear that has long existed among those who think they know Goldman all too well. It’s a fear that, as one person puts it, Goldman’s “skill set” is “walking between the raindrops over and over again and getting away with it.” It is a fear that Goldman has the game rigged, even if no one can ever prove how, not just because of its political connections but also because of its immense size and power. And it is a belief that despite all the happy talk about clients and culture (and, boy, is there a lot of that) the Goldman of today cares about one thing and one thing only: making money for itself. Says one high-level Wall Street executive, “Why do you have a business? Because you have a customer. You have to make an appropriate profit. But is it possible that Goldman has changed from a firm that had customers to a company that is just smart as shit and makes a shitload of money?”

Lapham's Quarterly on a precocious 12 year old novelist who later vanished from the world at age 26.

The House Without Windows appeared in February 1927 to overwhelming praise. “A Mirror of the Child Mind,” announced a New York Times headline: “the most authentic and unalloyed document of a transient and hitherto unrecorded phase in plastic intelligence…[a] truly remarkable little book.” They featured Barbara on the front page of that day’s Photogravure Picture Section, showing her correcting a set of galley proofs.

The Saturday Review of Literature found the book “almost unbearably beautiful.” It is not hard to see why. The opening lines evoke a fairy-tale isolation: “In a little brown shingled cottage on one of the foothills of Mt. Varcrobis, there lived with her father and mother, Mr. and Mrs. Eigleen, a little girl named Eepersip. She was rather lonely…” Eepersip emerges from the forest dressed in garlands to try to lure other children away, including her own younger sister ...

Then again, her work always was about escape. Her mysterious disappearance echoes with the final words of The House Without Windows, when the lonely Eepersip finally vanishes forever into the woods.

“She would be invisible forever to all mortals, save those few who have minds to believe, eyes to see,” Follett wrote. “To these she is ever present, the spirit of Nature—a sprite of the meadow, a naiad of lakes, a nymph of the woods.”

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