Tuesday, May 31, 2011

BGI Cognitive Genomics Unit

This is my first visit since the official creation of the Cognitive Genomics Unit (CGU). A few photos below.

Technicians work on Illumina HiSeq 2000 machines. These things go for $500k each.

Among the bioinformaticists. This building used to be a shoe factory :-)

Back at the hotel.

BGI: ... In May 2011, Nature Publishing Group published Nature Publishing Index (NPI) 2010 China, delivering “a dramatic rise in the quality of research being published by China”. BGI Shenzhen, the headquarters of BGI, is ranked 4th of Top 10 Institutions in the index.

Published as a supplement to Nature, the 2010 Index for China ranks research institutions and cities in mainland China. The ranking is based on outputs in Nature research journals in 2010 with comparative data for 2009. The supplement also presents data from other leading journals – Science, Cell, NEJM and The Lancet – showing similar rises in quality output from China.

( http://www.natureasia.com/en/publishing-index/china/2010/ )

NPI 2010 China describes BGI Shenzhen as "Taking the world by a storm". In 2010, BGI Shenzhen has contributed nine articles (CC 3.572) to Nature journals, with the majority of these in genetics and biotechnology. BGI Shenzhen is ranked second and third in the Asia-Pacific region on contributions to Nature Biotechnology and Nature Genetics. ...

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Macau photos

I'm on my way to BGI for another visit. It was cheaper to fly to Macau and take the jetfoil to Shenzhen than to fly direct from Taipei so I decided to stop over (it's my first time in Macau). Macau surpassed Las Vegas in gambling revenues a few years ago, and now having seen the crowds of Chinese gamblers here I would say there is no looking back. The most crazy and opulent things I saw while walking around were in the actual casinos, but I wasn't allowed to take any photos.

The story of how Sheldon Adelson used his Clinton, Bush and Israeli contacts to obtain a foothold here (he owns both the Macau Sands and Venetian) is quite interesting ;-)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What it takes to be a startup founder

This is an interview with Paul Graham of Y Combinator by Charlie Rose. Founders need to be smart, determined and willing to break the rules -- slightly devious :-)

Perhaps Paul should have mentioned The Will to Power.

Video streaming by Ustream

techcrunch: ... Graham says that when people come to him and say they’ve got a great idea, his first response is, “Tell me about your cofounders”. In general the idea is less important, though he says that if it’s a really terrible idea that might reflect poorly on the founders, and a really great idea might lift them up.

“There are some people who just get what they want in the world. If you want to start a startup you have to be one of those people. You can’t be passive and wishy-washy,” Graham says.

Rose followed up with a key question: how can you tell which people have that kind of determination in ten minutes (which is how long YC interviews are)?

Graham says that it’s hard to tell. “We can be fooled about determination — you can usually tell how smart people are in ten minutes. But people can put on an act for determination for ten minutes.” The YC partners also look for mental flexibility — they’ll ask a company to rotate their idea 90 degrees to see how they respond. “Some people will say yeah, that would work. Others will say, ‘Oh no, actually we wanted to do the other thing.’”

Another key factor: Naughtiness. “Startups often have to do slightly devious things,” Graham says. “You can tell if people have a gleam in their eye. You don’t want people who would be obedient employees… we’re not looking for people who did what they were told in life.”

Graham recounted his initial interactions with Loopt founder Sam Altman, who he first spoke to when he was only 19. (“19 going on 40″, Rose added). Altman was actually initially rejected, but he “pushed back like a 40-year old” and told Graham that he would be joining the program.

Asked about the recurring arguments that we’re in a bubble, Graham said, “I worry prices are high, but I’m reluctant to use the word bubble. Things are not crazy. I warn people that prices are high and that they should raise money now, because things could change tomorrow.”

Overall, Graham says that YC partners are “looking for people like us”, explaining that many VCs are MBAs, whereas YC partners are mostly entrepreneurs. This, Rose later added, appears to be the lowest common denominator uniting the people that YC invests in.

... Asked to list ten of YC’s best successes, Graham listed off: Dropbox, Airbnb, Loopt, Heroku, Scribd, Grepplin, Xobni, Justin.tv (it sounded like he could keep going)

Y Combinator keeps track of the successful companies that they initially rejected. One anecdote: Graham says that MIT Professor and YC Partner Robert Morris is a notoriously low grader for the applications. He had given one app a ‘C’, which sunk it in the ratings, and it went on to be successful. Now YC double-checks every app Morris gives a low grade to.

The total value of YC companies is now around $3 billion — YC has invested a total of around $5 million. !!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

MacKenzie on high frequency trading

Donald MacKenzie writes on high frequency trading in the London Review of Books.

Earlier posts: MacKenzie on the credit crisis , two book reviews

LRB: ... No one in the markets contests the legitimacy of electronic market making or statistical arbitrage. Far more controversial are algorithms that effectively prey on other algorithms. Some algorithms, for example, can detect the electronic signature of a big VWAP, a process called ‘algo-sniffing’. This can earn its owner substantial sums: if the VWAP is programmed to buy a particular corporation’s shares, the algo-sniffing program will buy those shares faster than the VWAP, then sell them to it at a profit. Algo-sniffing often makes users of VWAPs and other execution algorithms furious: they condemn it as unfair, and there is a growing business in adding ‘anti-gaming’ features to execution algorithms to make it harder to detect and exploit them. However, a New York broker I spoke to last October defended algo-sniffing:

"I don’t look at it as in any way evil … I don’t think the guy who’s trying to hide the supply-demand imbalance [by using an execution algorithm] is any better a human being than the person trying to discover the true supply-demand. I don’t know why … someone who runs an algo-sniffing strategy is bad … he’s trying to discover the guy who has a million shares [to sell] and the price then should readjust to the fact that there’s a million shares to buy."

Whatever view one takes on its ethics, algo-sniffing is indisputably legal. More dubious in that respect is a set of strategies that seek deliberately to fool other algorithms. An example is ‘layering’ or ‘spoofing’. A spoofer might, for instance, buy a block of shares and then issue a large number of buy orders for the same shares at prices just fractions below the current market price. Other algorithms and human traders would then see far more orders to buy the shares in question than orders to sell them, and be likely to conclude that their price was going to rise. They might then buy the shares themselves, causing the price to rise. When it did so, the spoofer would cancel its buy orders and sell the shares it held at a profit. It’s very hard to determine just how much of this kind of thing goes on, but it certainly happens. In October 2008, for example, the London Stock Exchange imposed a £35,000 penalty on a firm (its name has not been disclosed) for spoofing.

... As Steve Wunsch, one of the pioneers of electronic exchanges, put it in another TABB forum discussion, US share trading ‘is now so complex as a system that no one can predict what will happen when something new is added to it, no matter how much vetting is done.’ If Wunsch is correct, there is a risk that attempts to make the system safer – by trying to find mechanisms that would prevent a repetition of last May’s events, for example – may have unforeseen and unintended consequences.

Systems that are both tightly coupled and highly complex, Perrow argues in Normal Accidents (1984), are inherently dangerous. Crudely put, high complexity in a system means that if something goes wrong it takes time to work out what has happened and to act appropriately. Tight coupling means that one doesn’t have that time. Moreover, he suggests, a tightly coupled system needs centralised management, but a highly complex system can’t be managed effectively in a centralised way because we simply don’t understand it well enough ...

This is the funniest thing I've seen in a long time, if you can understand what the chimp is saying :-)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Taiwan photos 14

Click for larger images. Blogger software seems to generate crappy reduced versions.

A bookstore in the Sogo department store.

With a statue of Chinese polymath (astronomer, mathematician, poet, inventor) Zhang Heng at the Tapei Astronomical Museum.

Saturday, May 21, 2011


Returns to extraversion from the Terman study.

Optimism :-)

Taiwan photos 13: Taipei science museum

Taipei Science Museum 1

We spent today at the Taipei Science Museum. Exhausting, but a lot of fun! Click for larger versions.

They had a nice genetics exhibit.

This is a Galton board or quincunx. It also makes music! The nail lengths vary across the board, so as the balls fall they generate harmonies. The board rotates but is attached to a parabolic (black) backing that amplifies the sound. Max really liked it!

The kids are often as interested in the museum store as in the museum :-)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Expert predictions: Mark Zandi edition

I came across this compendium of Mark Zandi (Chief Economist, Moody's Analytics) predictions. I've read and heard many interviews with Zandi over the years, and he always seems like a thoughtful guy. But it's not surprising that he, like other experts, has no more predictive power concerning complex events than monkeys throwing darts.

What is amazing to me is how Zandi can remain so confident about his capabilities when sufficient evidence has accumulated to the contrary. I suppose talking heads, pundits, market economists (and even some successful scientists and corporate leaders) are selected specifically for this kind of overconfidence. There's no room for intellectual honesty when you're trying to get ahead ;-)

Ritholtz: The Fed, Treasury and the Senate Budget Committee appear to have a favorite private sector economist, one who has managed to become a favorite even though he works for a unit of the same rating agency whose analysis is intrinsically tied to both the market, banking and housing crisis.

Mark Zandi of Moody’s Economy.com is routinely trotted out as an independent expert. He was the sole economist at the August 17 Treasury Conference on the Future of Housing Finance, the Fed’s REO and Vacant Properties conference and has now testified at the September 22nd Senate Budget Committee hearing on “Assessing the Federal Policy Response to the Economic Crisis”.

Never mind that, based on Zandi’s record, either his analysis is just wrong or his independence is compromised. Everyone seems to like to hear the guy who is saying what people want to hear, even the press appears to prefer “feel good” analysis to considering the accuracy of his record. ...

“It’s at least three or four quarters before we see the bottom of the housing market,” Zandi said.

Wire & Staff Reports – Oct 27, 2006

“The housing market correction is in full swing but it probably has another year to go before it bottoms out,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Economy.com.

Los Angeles Times – Jan 6, 2007

“Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Economy.com, said jobs and wages were growing too fast for their own good. He warned that higher wages could induce companies to raise prices, which could lead workers to demand higher wages — an inflationary wage-price spiral.”

[Note: The chart below shows 3-mo. Changes in total civilian compensation. It seems not to demonstrate any wage-price spiral:

Marketwatch - March 26, 2007

"Zandi sees a bottom for sales in spring as sellers become more motivated and start cutting prices." [Note: In August 2010, new home sales fell to the lowest level since 1963, when the government began to keep records.]

New York Times – March 18, 2007

“Weakness in the market has been concentrated in certain segments,” says Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Economy.com. “We’re not witnessing the entire housing market in metro areas caving in.”

MTG Foundation – April 28, 2007


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Jersey Shore meets Korea town

Is this on TV yet? I'm not in the US and I don't watch much TV so I don't know...

While you are waiting you can check out K-Town Cowboys on YouTube.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Startups, back in the day

I did this interview on entrepreneurship a while ago, and just noticed they now have a transcript up. I'm describing events between 2000-2003, when I was CEO of a startup called SafeWeb.

Me: ... It was the usual lose-a-dollar-on-every-transaction-but-make-it-up-in-volume kind of thing that a lot of people experienced this back in the day. So we succeeded wildly in terms of getting users and…but that was just eating up our cash reserves in terms of the bandwidth costs and stuff like that. ... it was apparent to us we couldn’t continue this way; we weren’t going to become profitable on the consumer side. And there were some efforts at that time to see if there was interest in say Yahoo or by Yahoo or other portals to acquire us so that they could have a kind of Yahoo branded privacy experience for their users. Stuff like that. We had some pretty high level meetings. I shook Jerry Yang’s hand and had a meeting with him at Yahoo and we thought, ‘Oh, hey there’s a chance we’re going to get acquired here.’ But those things didn’t play out and so we had to make a very tough decision just to drop that business and head in the enterprise direction. And that was a very tough decision and we had to cut our team quite a bit after that decision. I’ll never forget …

Me: ... Emeryville’s where Pixar is and a bunch of biotech companies just south of Berkeley; it’s right near the Bay Bridge. And it’s a beautiful little place and we were right on the water, we had a beautiful office and one day I had to … well, how do you fire people? You don’t want to fire people in the middle of a work day with other people around so you know, you kind of wait till the end of the day. This is all, if you look up in management books, there’s a whole algorithm for how you fire people. But one of the problems we had was we had to fire a lot of people, we had to do it all at once and there wasn’t space in the office. So what we did, because we didn’t want to call people in sequentially, so we basically ... just told ... guys to meet us outside. The group that we were going to let go and we had a conversation out there. And I’ll never forget ... it was a beautiful, sunny, idyllic day. We were standing next to the Bay but I was firing five or ten guys. And some of these guys were people I had known for years ... one of the guys actually started crying. And it just… I tell you, every time you hire somebody you should picture that you might have to fire them. That forces you to be careful in the hiring because the most painful thing for me at least, as a CEO, that I ever had to do was fire somebody. And you can’t … you’re not a man if you delegate that. You hired him, you brought him in, you've got to face him and tell him what’s going on. And it’s the toughest thing, I think, for me. Anyway, so anybody who’s ever done it knows what I’m talking about.


Me: OK, so, at this point, we were competing well in the SSL VPN space [enterprise security]. We have the potential of closing a pretty big round … like 5, 10 million dollar round, with one of the big Sand Hill shops. And at this time, I’m still the CEO. But what’s happening now is my Department Chair is telling me I have to come back. You’ve been out a year and a half, and you’re going to have to resign or come back. And that’s a typical story, actually. Universities are pretty rigid about this stuff. My wife is also a professor at the same university. So unless she wanted to give up her career, too, I had to go back to the university. I couldn’t stay down in the Valley anymore... very tough decision ... at one point, the senior partner, the managing partner of this fund that wanted to put the money in, we had had a very nice dinner in, you know, one of these. Can’t remember the name of the restaurant. It’s one of the standard restaurants where you eat with VC’s down there. [Laughs] Anyway, so he calls me on the phone ... for some reason I think I’m back in Eugene. He calls me. I’m in my office. I’m actually sitting right where I’m sitting right now. And he says, “Hey, we really like you. We love the company. We think it’s a great opportunity. We want to put the money in. But we’re not putting it in unless you’re CEO. And we don’t like the guy that you have slotted in to take your place.” That was a very tough decision. The future of the company basically bifurcated on that point. So had we taken the money, we would have muscled up. And we probably would not have gone for an acquisition until much later. And it would have been like a 100 million, 200 million dollar acquisition. Instead, because we didn’t get that money, we had to look more immediately for an acquisition. And it turned out to be a smaller acquisition. So my whole life, basically, in that other parallel universe, I would be very different, living in a very different life right now.

Interviewer: And so why did you make that decision? Here you’ve got someone who’s offering you money, who thinks so highly of you as an entrepreneur, that he won’t have anybody else in your place. You still have the possibility for incredible riches. Why give that up?

Me: Well, you know, part of it is, it’s a life choice. And I’m still, to this day, I’m still a professor. So, I’m obviously intellectually interested in the kind of work that I do as a theoretical physicist. And I ultimately chose that, and the family situation, over staying in the company. And, I mean, I became Chairman of the Board of Directors, but I wasn’t the CEO anymore. So, it was a tough decision. I second guess it. I mean maybe I should have stayed, you know.

Kasparov on Fischer

Kasparov reviews Frank Brady's biography of Bobby Fischer. See also here.

NYBooks: ... I was hoping for a little more meat on the topic of the nature of prodigy and Fischer’s early development, beyond his own famous comment “I just got good”—but perhaps there is nothing more. The nature of genius may not be definable. Fischer’s passion for puzzles was combined with endless hours of studying and playing chess. The ability to put in those hours of work is in itself an innate gift. Hard work is a talent.

Generations of artists, authors, mathematicians, philosophers, and psychologists have pondered what exactly it is that makes for a great chess player. More recently, scientists with advanced brain-scanning machines have joined the hunt, looking for hot spots of activity as a master contemplates a move. An obsessive-competitive streak is enough to create a good squash player or a good (or bad) investment banker. It’s not enough to create someone like Fischer.

This is not meant to be a compliment, necessarily. Many strong chess players go on to successful careers as currency and stock traders, so I suppose there is considerable crossover in the pattern-matching and intuitive calculation skills required. But the aptitude for playing chess is nothing more than that. My argument has always been that what you learn from using the skills you have—analyzing your strengths and weaknesses—is far more important. If you can program yourself to learn from your experiences by assiduously reviewing what worked and what did not, and why, success in chess can be very valuable indeed. In this way, the game has taught me a great deal about my own decision-making processes that is applicable in other areas, but that effort has little to do with natural gifts.

Fischer’s brilliance was enough to make him a star. It was his relentless, even pathological dedication that transformed the sport. Fischer investigated constantly, studying every top-level game for new ideas and improvements. He was obsessed with tracking down books and periodicals, even learning enough Russian to expand his range of sources. He studied each opponent, at least those he considered worthy of preparation. Brady recounts dining with Fischer and hearing a monologue of the teen’s astonishingly deep analysis of David Bronstein’s openings before the two were to meet in the Mar del Plata tournament in 1960. No one had ever prepared this deeply outside of world championship matches. Today, every game of chess ever played, going back centuries, is available at the click of a mouse to any beginner. But in the pre-computer era, Fischer’s obsessive research was a major competitive advantage.

In his play, Fischer was amazingly objective, long before computers stripped away so many of the dogmas and assumptions humans have used to navigate the game for centuries. Positions that had been long considered inferior were revitalized by Fischer’s ability to look at everything afresh. His concrete methods challenged basic precepts, such as the one that the stronger side should keep attacking the forces on the board. Fischer showed that simplification—the reduction of forces through exchanges—was often the strongest path as long as activity was maintained. The great Cuban José Capablanca had played this way half a century earlier, but Fischer’s modern interpretation of “victory through clarity” was a revelation. His fresh dynamism started a revolution; the period from 1972 to 1975, when Fischer was already in self-exile as a player, was more fruitful in chess evolution than the entire preceding decade.

Fischer’s uncompromising approach had an even greater impact on the chess world than his results. I am not referring to any “special moves,” as often suspected by those unfamiliar with the game. It was simply that Fischer played every game to the death, as if it were his last. It was this fighting spirit that his contemporaries recall most about him as a chess player.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Scraping by on $250k a year?

Is a family of four barely making it on $250k per year in a high tax/cost-of-living city? I haven't looked carefully at the numbers in this calculation, but the conclusion doesn't strike me as implausible.

I'm glad I live in an eco-hippy college town :-)

Related posts: Working class millionaires , Banker pay , Manhattan blues , On $500k a year

Fiscal Times: ... But just how flush is a family of four with a $250,000 income? Are they really “rich”? To find the answer, The Fiscal Times asked BDO USA, a national tax accounting firm, to compute the total state, local and federal tax burden of a hypothetical two-career couple with two kids, earning $250,000. To factor in varying state and local taxes, as well as drastically different costs of living, BDO placed the couple in eight different locales around the country with top-notch public school districts, using national data on spending.

The analysis assumes that this hypothetical couple – let’s call them Mr. and Mrs. Jones – are each on the payroll of companies, with professional positions. They take advantage of all tax benefits available to them, such as pretax contributions to 401(k) plans and medical, childcare and transportation flexible spending accounts. They have no credit card debt, but Mr. Jones racked up $40,208 in student loan debt in undergraduate and graduate school, and Mrs. Jones borrowed $22,650 to get her undergraduate degree (both amounts are equal to the national averages for their levels of education). They also have a car loan on one of two cars, and a mortgage for 80 percent of the value of a typical home in their communities for a family of four, which includes one toddler and one school-age child.

The bottom line: It’s not exactly easy street for our $250,000-a-year family, especially when they live in high-tax areas on either coast. Even with an additional $3,000 in investment income, they end up in the red — after taxes, saving for retirement and their children’s education, and a middle-of-the-road cost of living — in seven out of the eight communities in the analysis. The worst: Huntington, N.Y., and Glendale, Calif., followed by Washington, D.C., Bethesda, Md., Alexandria, Va., Naperville, Ill. and Pinecrest, Fla. In Plano, Texas, the couple’s balance sheet would end up positive, but only by $4,963.

... Being in the red on a $250,000 annual salary may still seem surprising. But taking responsibility for their retirement and their children’s future is costly. They are maximizing contributions to two 401(k)s--advice that's championed by almost every financial advisor in the country--and all flexible spending accounts available to them, and they are squirreling away $8,000 a year for their kids’ college educations. Their spending is conservative, based on national averages for professional couples with two kids. Not included are those hefty run-of-the-mill payouts for charitable deductions, life insurance premiums, disability insurance, legal fees – or monthly sessions at the hair colorist, or membership at a gym.

As educated professionals, they buy books, newspapers and magazines; they own computers and pay for Internet access. But the Joneses don’t take lavish vacations, don’t belong to a country club, don’t play golf, don’t drive luxury cars, don’t have a swimming pool, don’t buy designer clothes, don’t own or rent a second home, and don’t send their kids to private school. They don’t even shop for groceries at high-end markets. (They spend what the United States Department of Agriculture defines as a “moderate” amount on food for the average family of four.) In short, they’re not “wealthy,” even if they’re in the top 5 percent of earners. ...

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Height, breeding values and selection

I can't wait to read this paper. The results were reported on the blog Genetic Inference, based on a talk at Biology of Genomes 2011.

A few comments:

1. Although known alleles for height only account for 5-10% of variance (out of the expected 80-90%), it is very plausible that loci of smaller effect or MAF (minor allele frequency) account for the "missing heritability". We still lack sufficient statistics to detect most of the individual loci of this type, but it's a matter of time. See beautiful paper from Visscher's group. The results described below suggest that loci just below the (arbitrary) significance threshold currently in use might also be height associated. There is a whole distribution of loci with smaller effect sizes and MAF that are just waiting to be discovered -- we have only found the tip of the iceberg.

2. Even with only a fraction of total additive variance identified, one can still make estimates of breeding value for groups by simply computing the prevalence of known associated loci in each group. How indicative these (large effect/MAF) loci are of the actual breeding values can't be answered a priori, but I would bet they are a good indicator, and this seems to be the case for height.

3. If the results on selection hold up this will be clear evidence for differential selection between groups of a quantitative trait (as opposed to lactose or altitude tolerance, which are controlled by small sets of loci). We may soon be able to conclude that there has been enough evolutionary time for selection to work within European populations on a trait that is controlled by hundreds (probably thousands) of loci.

4. With luck we might get to this level of analysis for g in the next 5-10 years. (I originally wrote 3-5 years but one of my more sober collaborators convinced me that would be quite unlikely!)

5. Understanding the evolution and distribution of quantitative traits like height and g at this level is an important milestone in scientific history.

It's amazing to see scientific and technological progress verify models that you've had in your head since age 12 :-)

Genetic Inference: ... Europeans differ systematically in their height, and these differences correlate with latitude. The average Italian is 171cm, whereas the average Swede is a full 4cm taller. Are these differences genetic? Have they been under evolutionary selection in recent human history?

Michael Turchin gave some pretty convincing answers to these questions, using genetic data from the 129 thousand individuals in the GIANT consortium. He compared the frequencies of alleles that are known to increase height, and found that they are more common in Northern Europe. Interestingly, he found the same relationship for alleles that have weaker evidence for height association, showing that there are still a large number of common height variants hiding in the genome, which are also more frequent in Northern Europe.

Height differences are thus heritable, but have they been under evolutionary selection? Or are these differences merely down to genetic drift? This can also be tested using the GIANT data, which shows significant statistical evidence of selection on height variants in recent history. On top of that, the magnitude of the selection is correlated with the effect size of the height variant, providing strong evidence that these variants are being selected specifically for their impact on height.

This is a textbook example of how an evolutionary study should be done; you show a phenotypic difference exists, that it is heritable, and that it is under selection. This opens the question as to why height has been selected in Northern Europe (or shortness in Southern Europe). Could the same data be used to test specific hypotheses there?

Friday, May 13, 2011

One hundred thousand brains

The calculation below is from a well known theoretical physicist (slightly edited).
I occasionally read your blog and it sometimes gets me thinking in politically incorrect directions. I was just looking at your genomics slides. You are interested in the tails of the intelligence distribution, and seem to think there is a qualitative difference between +3 SD (1 in 1000) and +4 SD (1 in 30,000) ability. I suppose I share your view on this but I thought I'd check by doing a back of the envelope calculation. How many really impressive brains do I think there are in the world? By really impressive I mean capable of doing breakthrough work in a cognitively hard area like physics or math or computer science. Someone who, if I talk to them at a meeting, I can see they're doing really nontrivial things and have something to tell me. Such people are spread out over many different fields, including private industry, but let's see if we can estimate how many there are.

Let me start with physics, which is what I know best. I'd guess the top 100 departments/labs in the world each have on average 10-20 such people. The next 200 places, maybe 5-10, and so on. So maybe 5k such people in physics worldwide. If I include other departments like math, engineering, biology, etc. I'd increase this by a factor of 5 across an entire university. Adding in private industry, military research, burn outs, etc. perhaps doubles the number again. So I'd say maybe 50k in the world. Definitely not more than 100k. I might be biased, but if I set the cutoff a little higher the concentration starts to peak much more strongly in areas like physics (theory) and math departments. But let's stick with this population of 100k, who are drawn from a world population of maybe 1-2 billion people depending on what you think of the educational systems in China and India. Interestingly, this makes the population I identified right around the +4 SD level you are talking about.

I'm not so sure these people can be identified through testing early in their lives, although it's an interesting question. I'm not even sure the people identified as +4 SD on g are the same as the ones I described above, but there is probably a lot of overlap.

I do think that if these 100k people were to disappear, there would be a strongly negative effect on scientific and, eventually, technological progress worldwide. Are there another 100k people of equivalent value to the human race? [italics mine]
There are about 100k Ultra-High Net Worth (UHNW) individuals in the world, defined as having investible assets of at least $30 million USD. So it would appear that most of these brainy types fail to capture the economic returns from their contributions to society -- Zuckerberg, Brin, Page, Gates, Allen, etc. excluded ;-) Would you rather be +4 SD in brainpower, or +4 SD in net worth?

See also Out on the tail, g genomics slides.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Paper Tigers

This NY Magazine essay is all over the map, but worth reading in its entirety as it touches on a number of topics discussed on this blog. Via maoxian.

Coincidentally I was just talking to a Silicon Valley VC who invests in China. He was pointing out the big differences in the personalities and leadership styles of startup founders and CEOs in the two places. What works is highly dependent on cultural context.

NY Magazine: ... And so there is an additional concern accompanying the rise of the Tiger Children, one focused more on the narrowness of the educational experience a non-Asian child might receive in the company of fanatically preprofessional Asian students. Jenny Tsai, a student who was elected president of her class at the equally competitive New York public school Hunter College High School, remembers frequently hearing that “the school was becoming too Asian, that they would be the downfall of our school.” A couple of years ago, she revisited this issue in her senior thesis at Harvard, where she interviewed graduates of elite public schools and found that the white students regarded the Asians students with wariness. (She quotes a music teacher at Stuyvesant describing the dominance of Asians: “They were mediocre kids, but they got in because they were coached.”) In 2005, The Wall Street Journal reported on “white flight” from a high school in Cupertino, California, that began soon after the children of Asian software engineers had made the place so brutally competitive that a B average could place you in the bottom third of the class.

... You could frame it, as some aggrieved Asian-Americans do, as a simple issue of equality and press for race-blind quantitative admissions standards. In 2006, a decade after California passed a voter initiative outlawing any racial engineering at the public universities, Asians composed 46 percent of UC-Berkeley’s entering class; one could imagine a similar demographic reshuffling in the Ivy League, where Asian-Americans currently make up about 17 percent of undergraduates. But the Ivies, as we all know, have their own private institutional interests at stake in their admissions choices, including some that are arguably defensible. Who can seriously claim that a Harvard University that was 72 percent Asian would deliver the same grooming for elite status its students had gone there to receive?

... “At Stuy, it’s completely different: If you looked at the pinnacle, the girls and the guys are not only good-looking and socially affable, they also get the best grades and star in the school plays and win election to student government. It all converges at the top. It’s like training for high society. It was jarring for us Chinese kids. You got the sense that you had to study hard, but it wasn’t enough.”

Mao was becoming clued in to the fact that there was another hierarchy behind the official one that explained why others were getting what he never had—“a high-school sweetheart” figured prominently on this list—and that this mysterious hierarchy was going to determine what happened to him in life. “You realize there are things you really don’t understand about courtship or just acting in a certain way. Things that somehow come naturally to people who go to school in the suburbs and have parents who are culturally assimilated.” I pressed him for specifics, and he mentioned that he had visited his white girlfriend’s parents’ house the past Christmas, where the family had “sat around cooking together and playing Scrabble.” This ordinary vision of suburban-American domesticity lingered with Mao: Here, at last, was the setting in which all that implicit knowledge “about social norms and propriety” had been transmitted. There was no cram school that taught these lessons.

... While he was still an electrical-­engineering student at Berkeley in the nineties, James Hong visited the IBM campus for a series of interviews. An older Asian researcher looked over Hong’s résumé and asked him some standard questions. Then he got up without saying a word and closed the door to his office.

“Listen,” he told Hong, “I’m going to be honest with you. My generation came to this country because we wanted better for you kids. We did the best we could, leaving our homes and going to graduate school not speaking much English. If you take this job, you are just going to hit the same ceiling we did. They just see me as an Asian Ph.D., never management potential. You are going to get a job offer, but don’t take it. Your generation has to go farther than we did, otherwise we did everything for nothing.”

... Aspiring Asian leaders had to become aware of “the relationship between values, behaviors, and perceptions.” He offered the example of Asians who don’t speak up at meetings. “So let’s say I go to meetings with you and I notice you never say anything. And I ask myself, ‘Hmm, I wonder why you’re not saying anything. Maybe it’s because you don’t know what we’re talking about. That would be a good reason for not saying anything. Or maybe it’s because you’re not even interested in the subject matter. Or maybe you think the conversation is beneath you.’ So here I’m thinking, because you never say anything at meetings, that you’re either dumb, you don’t care, or you’re arrogant. When maybe it’s because you were taught when you were growing up that when the boss is talking, what are you supposed to be doing? Listening.”

[In America you have to talk in order to make a good impression -- to be considered a leader. In Asia the same kind of behavior might get you labeled as a showboater or a faker.]

... The law professor and writer Tim Wu grew up in Canada with a white mother and a Taiwanese father, which allows him an interesting perspective on how whites and Asians perceive each other. After graduating from law school, he took a series of clerkships, and he remembers the subtle ways in which hierarchies were developed among the other young lawyers. “There is this automatic assumption in any legal environment that Asians will have a particular talent for bitter labor,” he says, and then goes on to define the word coolie,a Chinese term for “bitter labor.” “There was this weird self-selection where the Asians would migrate toward the most brutal part of the labor.”

By contrast, the white lawyers he encountered had a knack for portraying themselves as above all that. “White people have this instinct that is really important: to give off the impression that they’re only going to do the really important work. You’re a quarterback. It’s a kind of arrogance that Asians are trained not to have. Someone told me not long after I moved to New York that in order to succeed, you have to understand which rules you’re supposed to break. If you break the wrong rules, you’re finished. And so the easiest thing to do is follow all the rules. But then you consign yourself to a lower status. The real trick is understanding what rules are not meant for you.”

... The lesson about the Bamboo Ceiling that James Hong learned from his interviewer at IBM stuck, and after working for a few years at Hewlett-Packard, he decided to strike off on his own. His first attempts at entrepreneurialism failed, but he finally struck pay dirt with a simple, not terribly refined idea that had a strong primal appeal: hotornot.com. Hong and his co-founder eventually sold the site for roughly $20 million.

Hong ran hotornot.com partly as a kind of incubator to seed in his employees the habits that had served him well. “We used to hire engineers from Berkeley—almost all Asian—who were on the cusp of being entrepreneurial but were instead headed toward jobs at big companies,” he says. “We would train them in how to take risk, how to run things themselves. I remember encouraging one employee to read The Game”—the infamous pickup-artist textbook—“because I figured growing the cojones to take risk was applicable to being an entrepreneur.”

If the Bamboo Ceiling is ever going to break, it’s probably going to have less to do with any form of behavior assimilation than with the emergence of risk-­takers whose success obviates the need for Asians to meet someone else’s behavioral standard. People like Steve Chen, who was one of the creators of YouTube, or Kai and Charles Huang, who created Guitar Hero. Or Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos.com, the online shoe retailer that he sold to Amazon for about a billion dollars in 2009. Hsieh is a short Asian man who speaks tersely and is devoid of obvious charisma. One cannot imagine him being promoted in an American corporation. And yet he has proved that an awkward Asian guy can be a formidable CEO and the unlikeliest of management gurus.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Forbidden thoughts

The video below is of the final lecture in Biology 7.012 at MIT (2004), co-taught by Professor Eric Lander, Director of the Broad Institute at MIT and a principal leader of the Human Genome Project, and Professor Robert A. Weinberg, winner of the 1997 National Medal of Science. Weinberg delivers the final lecture.

For more, see the OpenCourseWare 7.012 page. Transcript for this lecture is here.

Weinberg (@ 32:40): ... And what happens if one of these days people discover alleles for certain aspects of cognitive function? Chess playing ability. The ability to learn five different languages. The ability to remember strings of numbers. The ability to speak extemporaneously in front of a class, for what it's worth, for 50 minutes several times a week.

[It seems improbable to me that such abilities will be controlled or strongly impacted by specific alleles. Rather, they are likely to be subtly influenced by large numbers of different genetic loci. But this doesn't necessarily affect the following discussion. Note also that Weinberg neglects the possibility of variation in direction of selection pressure experienced by different isolated groups.]

Whatever ability you want, valued or not so valued, what if those alleles begin to come out? And here's the worse part. What if somebody begins to look for the frequency of those alleles in different ethnic groups scattered across this planet? Now, you will say to me, well, God has made all his children equal. But the fact is if you look at the details of human evolution, some of which I discussed with you a week ago, last week, you'll come to realize that most populations in humanity are the modern descendents of very small founder groups.

... So the fact is it's inescapable that different alleles are going to be present with different frequencies in different inbreeding populations of humanity or populations of humanity that traditionally have been genetically isolated from one another.

It's not as if all the genes that we carry have been mixed with everybody else's genes freely over the last 100,000 years. Different groups have bred separately and have, for reasons that I've told you, founder affects and genetic drift, acquired different sets and different constellations of alleles. So what's going to happen then, I ask you without wishing to hear an answer because nobody really knows?

Then for the first time there could be a racism which is based not on some kind of virulent ideology, not based on some kind of kooky versions of genetics, because the eugenicists in the beginning of the 20th century, as well as the Nazis hadn't had any idea about genetics, they were just using the word, even though they knew nothing about the science of genetics as we understand it today. But what happens if now for the first time we, i.e., you who begin to understand genetics, begin to perceive that there are, in fact, different populations of humanity that are endowed with different constellation of alleles that we imagine are more or less desirable?

What's going to happen then? I don't know. But some scientists say, well, the truth must come out and that everything that can be learned should be learned, and we will learn how to digest it and we will learn how to live with that. But I'm not so sure that's the right thing. And you all have to wrestle with that as well. ...

Sunday, May 08, 2011

g and genomics

Heading down to Hsinchu, the Silicon Valley of Taiwan and home of Tsinghua University (there are two: one in Beijing and one in Taiwan!), to give a talk. Slides.

Special Joint Math Physics Colloquium

May 9(Mon.) 2:00 P.M. at Lecture Room A, NCTS, 4th Floor,
The 3rd General Building, National Tsing Hua University

Speaker: Steve Hsu
(Professor of Physics, University of Oregon,
Visiting Professor, Academia Sinica)

Title: Investigating the genetic basis of intelligence

I begin with a brief review of psychometric results concerning intelligence (sometimes referred to as the g factor, or IQ). The main results concern the stability, validity (predictive power) and heritability of adult IQ. Next, I discuss ongoing Genome Wide Association Studies which investigate the genetic basis of intelligence. Due mainly to the rapidly decreasing cost of sequencing (currently below $5k per genome), it is likely that within the next 5-10 years we will identify genes which account for a significant fraction of total IQ variation. Finally, I end with an analysis of possible near term genetic engineering for intelligence.

This talk is aimed at physicists and should be accessible even to those with no specialized background in psychology or biology.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

What use is game theory?

Fantastic interview with game theorist Ariel Rubinstein on Econtalk. I agree with Rubinstein that game theory has little predictive power in the real world, despite the pretty mathematics. Experiments at RAND (see, e.g., Mirowski's Machine Dreams) showed early game theorists, including Nash, that people don't conform to the idealizations in their models. But this wasn't emphasized (Mirowski would claim it was deliberately hushed up) until more and more experiments showed similar results. (Who woulda thought -- people are "irrational"! :-)

Perhaps the most useful thing about game theory is that it requires you to think carefully about decision problems. The discipline of this kind of analysis is valuable, even if the models have limited applicability to real situations.

Rubinstein discusses a number of topics, including raw intelligence vs psychological insight and its importance in economics (see also here). He has, in my opinion, a very developed and mature view of what social scientists actually do, as opposed to what they claim to do.

Rubinstein reminds me strongly (in intellectual style, manner of speaking) of other great Israeli academics I have known. Such people are a treasure.
Ariel Rubinstein of Tel Aviv University and New York University talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the state of game theory and behavioral economics, two of the most influential areas of economics in recent years. Drawing on his Afterword for the 60th anniversary edition of Von Neumann and Morgenstern's Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, Rubinstein argues that game theory's successes have been quite limited. Rubinstein, himself a game theorist, argues that game theory is unable to yield testable predictions or solutions to public policy problems. He argues that game theorists have a natural incentive to exaggerate its usefulness. In the area of behavioral economics, Rubinstein argues that the experimental results (which often draw on game theory) are too often done in ways that are not rigorous. The conversation concludes with a plea for honesty about what economics can and cannot do.
Here is Rubinstein's Afterward to the 60th anniversary edition of Theory of Games. It is only a few pages and definitely worth reading if you have any interest in game theory, or if you are pressed for time and can't listen to the podcast. See p. 634:
So is game theory useful in any way? The popular literature is full of nonsensical claims to that effect [Remember the FCC bandwidth auctions?] ... Most situations can be analyzed in a number of ways, which usually yield contradictory "predictions" ...
See also Venn diagram for economics :-)

Note Added: Ariel Rubinstein found this post and sent me a nice email with a link to this photo album of cafes around the world where he likes to work. Below is one of the places I've actually been to (Brewed Awakening in Berkeley). I guess academics should not complain about our lot in life :-)

My Navy SEAL story

As everyone knows, it was a SEAL team that got Bin Laden. I only have two data points, but I'm pretty confident those SEALs are tough SOBs :-)

My BJJ training partner for several years (late 1990s) was a former Navy SEAL. Dave had served in Bosnia and was finishing up his undergraduate degree at Oregon. When we started training together he was pretty green and I usually had the upper hand. Physically we were pretty even -- he's about 5"10 and 190 lbs, so a few inches shorter and a bit bulkier than I am -- but my technique was superior. By the time we stopped training together he was a purple belt under Megaton Dias and kicked my butt regularly. The thing I remember about Dave is that he would never quit. A few times I choked him out completely (eyes rolled back, drooling, even memory loss) because he wouldn't tap.

He also never got tired, so after my technical advantage went away I always knew things would go bad for me if we rolled long enough -- he'd just wear me down! In peak condition we'd sometimes go 10 or even 15 minutes before one of us could finish the other. One time we rolled so long I got flat out exhausted and actually tapped because I was so tired I couldn't go on. (To be precise I thought I had him in a submission and blew myself up trying to finalize it; when he reversed the position I was so gassed I just gave up.) Dave was outraged that he'd been denied the chance to really finish me -- he wanted me to keep fighting, but I just couldn't go on! I realized at that moment I'd done something no Navy SEAL would ever do: QUIT! We might be on equal terms as athletes but I had nowhere near his mental toughness. (Mental toughness is what always comes to mind when I watch BUDs training videos, which I love.)

My other SEAL data point was an Annapolis grad, a former wrestler who used to come by the judo room at Yale to spar a little bit. He was a good athlete but didn't know much about submission fighting (this was the mid 1990s), so was easy to tap out. I lost count of the number of times I caught him in a guillotine. Many people think SEALs or other military guys know how to fight hand to hand, but that's a myth. They spend almost all their time training with weapons, which makes sense because unarmed combat is pretty rare on the battlefield. These days there might be some MMA technique taught in the military, but I'll take a trained fighter over a Krav Maga guru any day ;-)

Monday, May 02, 2011

Obama got Osama

This is not usually a political blog, but I couldn't resist.

Somehow Bush couldn't get it done. He did save us from Saddam's WMD threat, though. It only cost us a trillion dollars and immeasurable human suffering.

Crossing the Pacific

Sorry for the lack of posts. I just returned from the US and I'm recovering from jetlag in Taipei.

On my last day at Caltech, just for fun, I gave a lunch talk on my genomics work with BGI. I'll give a similar talk next week at the Taiwan National Center for Theoretical Science to an audience of mathematicians and physicists.

During the talk last week I joked that if we discover some genes affecting cognition, it might be more significant than all my work in theoretical physics. I also mentioned that, because sequencing costs are going down exponentially, I occasionally get the feeling that our work is unnecessary: the explosion of genomic data will produce much more powerful results almost by accident in the next decade or two. So why should we kill ourselves today? People in the audience immediately pointed out that this is always the case in science -- you do what you can with current technology, even though your efforts will seem puny when viewed in retrospect by future experimenters with vastly superior capabilities. However, most areas of science aren't moving quite as fast as genomics, so the feeling is especially strong from my vantage point.

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