Saturday, March 31, 2012

From the Sky Down: the moment of creation


From the Sky Down documents the creation of the U2 album Achtung Baby at Hansa Studios in Berlin. The moment of inspiration for the song One, while working on Mysterious Ways. 

Achtung Baby is one of my favorite albums. I bought it at Tower Records in Harvard Square, and must have listened to it a million times in my Dunster House apartment overlooking the Charles. Songs from the album bring me back to the cold grey Cambridge and Boston of winter 1991. Nothing like the warm Berkeley sunshine I had left behind.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Crossfit Lullaby

Crossfit competitor Blair Morrison does a brutal but very basic workout. AMRAP = As Many Reps As Possible.

Morrison was a wide receiver for Princeton and it's interesting to hear him in other videos talk about mental toughness and overcoming challenges.

How good is Morrison? In earlier years he qualified for and placed highly overall in the Crossfit Games, but as the talent pool deepens that's getting much harder. At the end of the open competition (anyone can compete by submitting video of their performance on the 5 workouts), he's ranked 12th in the NorCal region and 125th overall in the world.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Go figure

The journal made me replace my crude but hopefully charming hand drawn figures with computer-generated ones. Which are better?

(Paper previously discussed here ;

Unfortunately I have no artistic talent, and even less when using a drawing program. My daughter must have gotten her abilities from mom :-)

FIG1: However, if the combined system S' = S + M evolves unitarily (in particular, linearly) as in (1), we obtain a superposition of measurement device states (see figure 1) ... At first, this seems counter to actual experience: properly executed measurements produce a single outcome, not a superposition state. But how do we know for sure? In fact, an observer described by the state M+ might be unaware of the second branch of the wave function in state M- for dynamical reasons related to a phenomenon called decoherence...

FIG2: We emphasize again that universal Schrodinger evolution only admits subjective, but not objective, randomness and probability. Just before the measurement depicted in figure 2, all of the observers are in identical states. ... The first line of the equation has been written to emphasize that in the m basis it appears as if there are 2^N identical observers, each of whom is destined to evolve into a particular one of the O_m. Of course, the observer does not know which of the O_m they will evolve into, because they do not (yet) know the spin state |m> on their branch. But this is a subjective uncertainty because, indeed, the outcome is already pre-determined. This perspective may appear more natural if one considers the time reversal of the final state ...

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Time machines, robots and silicon gods

The NY Times has a great profile of Gil Elbaz, founder of the startup which eventually became Google AdSense.

Elbaz's early aspirations sound like those of other Caltechers, except perhaps the part about being rich :-)

NYTimes: AT 7 years old, Gilad Elbaz wrote, “I want to be a rich mathematician and very smart.” That, he figured, would help him “discover things like time machines, robots and machines that can answer any question.”

He is old enough to have experienced the horribly dull pre-internet technology world. Young people these days can't imagine how much more limited opportunities were then for people with math/sci/engineering ability. From the article, Elbaz definitely had an entrepreneurial bent already as a kid.

... At Caltech, Mr. Elbaz majored in applied science and economics. Interested in the subject of monopolies, he won an award for a paper that determined that companies would take financial losses to corner their markets.

He worked for I.B.M. for two years, looking at the use of computers in problems of manufacturing, then went to Sybase, a database company. This was in the early 1990s, when I.B.M. was stumbling in the transition from mainframe computers to servers and PCs.

His younger brother says he thinks that the experience changed him. Many employees were “just trying to hold on to their jobs, not working together for the company,” Eytan says. He recalls how Gil, concerned about how employees were hoarding their data, “started talking about how much better it would be if people shared data.”

Mr. Elbaz then joined a semiconductor start-up called Microunity and became a consultant, saving money and playing the stock market to help finance his own first business. His father gave him $10,000 to invest for him, which Mr. Elbaz tripled in 18 months. When Mr. Elbaz and a Caltech friend decided to form a company in 1998 — it became Applied Semantics — his father told him to put the stock winnings into it.

Applied Semantics software quickly scanned thousands of Web pages for their meaning. By parsing content, it could tell businesses what kind of ads would work well on a particular page. It had 45 employees and was profitable when Google acquired it in 2003 for $102 million in cash and pre-I.P.O. stock.

While Mr. Elbaz would not say how much he made from the deal, his father’s $30,000 from the stock investments was eventually worth $18 million. “He certainly changed my retirement,” Nissim Elbaz says.

When I met Elbaz a few years ago, I have to admit I thought the business model for his current startup Factual was kind of shaky. Although I'm a proponent of Big Data, doing stuff that is technically cool is not the same as creating economic value. My understanding from someone at WolframAlpha is that cleaning and "curating" data is a lot of work!

... His mental and financial assets, he says, are like gifts he needs to deploy so the world works better.

“If all data was clear, a lot fewer people would subtract value from the world,” he says. “A lot more people would add value.”

Creating clear, reliable data could also make Factual a very big company.

“Gil is pretty far ahead of the rest of us, the one entrepreneur where it takes a few meetings before I really understand everything he is talking about,” says Ben Horowitz, a venture capitalist who backed Factual through his firm, Andreessen Horowitz. “Three years ago, he thought Factual was his biggest chance to change the world. Over time, the world has moved his way.”

... Factual’s plan, outlined in a big orange room with a few tables and walled with whiteboards, is to build the world’s chief reference point for thousands of interconnected supercomputing clouds. The digital world is expected to hold a collective 2.7 zettabytes of data by year-end, an amount roughly equivalent to 700 billion DVDs. Factual, which now has 50 employees, could prove immensely valuable as this world grows and these databases begin to interact.

Evolution and self-transcendence

Jonathan Haidt argues that self-transcendence is an evolutionary consequence of group selection, and not merely a side-effect of our brain wiring.

Podcast interview. Thanks to Arnold Kling for recommending Haidt's book The Righteous Mind.

Our righteous minds made it possible for human beings—but no other animals—to produce large cooperative groups, tribes, and nations without the glue of kinship. But at the same time, our righteous minds guarantee that our cooperative groups will always be cursed by moralistic strife.

... intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning. If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense. Keep your eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post-hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.

... human beings are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee. Human nature was produced by natural selection working at two levels simultaneously. Individuals compete with individuals within every group, and we are the descendants of primates who excelled at that competition. This gives us the ugly side of our nature, the one that is usually featured in books about our evolutionary origins. We are indeed selfish hypocrites so skilled at putting on a show of virtue that we fool even ourselves.

But human nature was also shaped as groups competed with other groups. As Darwin said long ago, the most cohesive and cooperative groups generally beat the groups of selfish individualists. Darwin’s ideas about group selection fell out of favor in the 1960s, but recent discoveries are putting his ideas back into play, and the implications are profound. We’re not always selfish hypocrites. We also have the ability, under special circumstances, to shut down our petty selves and become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group. These experiences are often among the most cherished of our lives, although our hivishness can blind us to other moral concerns. Our bee-like nature facilitates altruism, heroism, war, and genocide.

Once you see our righteous minds as primate minds with a hivish overlay, you get a whole new perspective on morality, politics, and religion. I’ll show that our “higher nature” allows us to be profoundly altruistic, but that altruism is mostly aimed at members of our groups. I’ll show that religion is (probably) an evolutionary adaptation for binding groups together and helping them to create communities with a shared morality. It is not a virus or parasite, as some scientists (the “new atheists”) have argued in recent years. And I’ll use this perspective to explain why some people are conservative, others are liberal (or progressive), and still others become libertarians. People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives. Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds.

An essay by Haidt from 2010 that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Chronicle: ... When I was in graduate school in the 1990s, the prevailing view was that evolution was so slow that there could be no meaningful genetic differences among human groups. The genetic "blueprint" was assumed to have been finalized during the Pleistocene era, the two million years during which our ancestors lived as relatively egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Modern humans all draw cards from the same deck, the same population of genes, except for some trivial variations related to adaptations for cold weather (such as lighter skin and smaller noses).

But now that we can examine partial genetic maps from thousands of people around the world, the old view is crumbling. Genetic evolution is not slow, and it certainly did not stop around 50,000 years ago, when people began leaving Africa and filling every continent save Antarctica. In fact, it now appears that the human diaspora greatly increased the pace of genetic change. When people exposed themselves to new climates, pathogens, diets, technologies, and social structures, they exposed their genes to new selection pressures. You don't need 50 millennia to get big changes. Some Russian fox breeders created what was essentially a new species of tame, doglike foxes in just 30 generations.

Over the next 10 years, therefore, we'll be hearing less about the Pleistocene and more about the Holocene—the 12,000 years since the beginning of agriculture. We've accepted findings that some ethnic groups adapted during the Holocene to digest milk as adults or to breathe more easily at high altitudes. But what will happen when findings come in about personality traits? Nearly all traits are heritable, and some traits surely paid off more handsomely in commercial cultures than in agricultural ones, or on peaceful islands than on raid-prone steppes. Such findings will be among the greatest threats to political correctness ever to emerge from the natural sciences.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Misner, Everett, Feynman

In his PhD dissertation, Charles Misner, following a suggestion from his advisor John Wheeler, formulates quantum gravity in terms of the path integral. This article has a very clear explanation for why the Hamiltonian operator in GR is zero.

Rev. Mod. Phys. 29, 497–509 (1957): Feynman Quantization of General Relativity

Of course, in this kind of formulation the "wavefunction of the universe" plays a central role, and the universe is necessarily a closed system. There is no appealing to outside "observers" for help!

Misner was a contemporary of Everett, and played a role in the development of many worlds quantum mechanics. See here for Dieter Zeh's discussion of the 1957 Chapel Hill meeting where Everett's interpretation and quantum gravity were both discussed.
Feynman presents a thought experiment in which a macroscopic mass (source for the gravitational field) is placed in a superposition state. One of the central points is necessarily whether the wavefunction describing the macroscopic system must collapse, and if so exactly when. The discussion sheds some light on Feynman's (early) thoughts on many worlds and his exposure to Everett's ideas, which apparently occurred even before their publication (see below).

Monday, March 19, 2012

Intuition and the two brains

Albert Einstein:
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
Wigner on Einstein and von Neumann:
... But Einstein's understanding was deeper even than von Neumann's. His mind was both more penetrating and more original than von Neumann's. And that is a very remarkable statement. Einstein took an extraordinary pleasure in invention. Two of his greatest inventions are the Special and General Theories of Relativity; and for all of Jansci's brilliance, he never produced anything as original.
From Schwinger's Feynman eulogy:
"An honest man, the outstanding intuitionist of our age, and a prime example of what may lie in store for anyone who dares to follow the beat of a different drum."
"We know a lot more than we can prove."

Click the button below for great interview with Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. (Podcast available via iTunes: Leonard Lopate Show; see also this transcript of another interview.)

Wikipedia: ..."if the brain is all about making connections, why is it that it's evolved with this whopping divide down the middle?"

... chicks which use the eye connected to the left hemisphere to attend to the fine detail of picking seeds from amongst grit, whilst the other eye attends to the broader threat from predators. According to the author, "The left hemisphere has its own agenda, to manipulate and use the world"; its world view is essentially that of a mechanism. The right has a broader outlook, "has no preconceptions, and simply looks out to the world for whatever might be. In other words it does not have any allegiance to any particular set of values."

... "The right hemisphere sees a great deal, but in order to refine it, and to make sense of it in certain ways---in order to be able to use what it understands of the world and to be able to manipulate the world---it needs to delegate the job of simplifying it and turning it into a usable form to another part of the brain" [the left hemisphere]. Though he sees this as an essential "double act", McGilchrist points to the problem that the left hemisphere has a "narrow, decontextualised and theoretically based model of the world which is self consistent and is therefore quite powerful" and to the problem of the left hemisphere's lack of awareness of its own shortcomings; whilst in contrast, the right hemisphere is aware that it is in a symbiotic relationship.[8] The neuroscientists Deglin and Kinsbourne, for example, conducted experiments which involved temporarily deactivating one of the brain's hemispheres. In their research they found that "when completely false propositions are put to the left hemisphere it accepts them as valid because the internal structure of the argument is valid." However, the right hemisphere knows from experience that the propositions are false.
I've followed this area a bit since learning about Roger Sperry's breakthrough experiments, done at Caltech:
Roger Sperry: ... In his Nobel-winning work, Sperry and Gazzaniga tested four out of ten patients who had undergone an operation developed in 1940 by William Van Wagenen, a neurosurgeon in Rochester, NY.[6] The surgery, designed to treat epileptics with intractable grand mal seizures, involves severing the corpus callosum, the area of the brain used to transfer signals between the right and left hemispheres. Sperry and his colleagues tested these patients with tasks that were known to be dependent on specific hemispheres of the brain and demonstrated that the two halves of the brain may each contain consciousness. In his words, each hemisphere is "indeed a conscious system in its own right, perceiving, thinking, remembering, reasoning, willing, and emoting, all at a characteristically human level, and . . . both the left and the right hemisphere may be conscious simultaneously in different, even in mutually conflicting, mental experiences that run along in parallel."
A problem we face in psychometrics is that it is much easier to measure left-brain ability than right-brain ability ...

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Whit Stillman returns with Damsels in Distress

A big profile in the NYTimes magazine. Very few things are harder than a career as an auteur in independent film.

An earlier post (2009) on this blog, with an interview.

Whit Stillman wrote and directed the trilogy Metropolitan, Barcelona and Last Days of Disco, three of my favorite movies. It's been 10 years since his last film and I've often wondered what became of him.

This Stillman fan echoes Charles Murray on WASP morality:

Whit Stillman primer: ... For the few that might identify with the characters in any of these films, it might be easy to view the Stillman catalogue with nostalgia. But to accept that these are just love letters to some young white kids with lots of money and east coast pedigrees is to miss the larger point. Our soap operas tend to treat the wealthy as deviants, yet the morality we see here is usually reserved for middle class social climbers with prudish attitudes towards sex and a protestant work ethic. It’s a fascinating counter-narrative to the hi-jinks of the Gossip Girl kids and does make you wonder whether or not the obsession with purity and virtue is part of the joke for Stillman. The three movies have also become portraits of a different time and are illustrative of the consistent anxiety and paranoia present for those at the top. Ultimately, we don’t have to feel sad for our protagonists (what would the 99% think after all?), but we can enjoy the dialogue and wonder whether or not types like these really existed. And they’re still funny too.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Revenge of the muppets?

No. This guy will probably regret writing a bitter resignation op-ed.

NYTimes: ... It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off. Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as “muppets,” sometimes over internal e-mail. Even after the S.E.C., Fabulous Fab, Abacus, God’s work, Carl Levin, Vampire Squids? No humility? I mean, come on. Integrity? It is eroding. I don’t know of any illegal behavior, but will people push the envelope and pitch lucrative and complicated products to clients even if they are not the simplest investments or the ones most directly aligned with the client’s goals? Absolutely. Every day, in fact.

It astounds me how little senior management gets a basic truth: If clients don’t trust you they will eventually stop doing business with you. It doesn’t matter how smart you are.

These days, the most common question I get from junior analysts about derivatives is, “How much money did we make off the client?” It bothers me every time I hear it, because it is a clear reflection of what they are observing from their leaders about the way they should behave. Now project 10 years into the future: You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the junior analyst sitting quietly in the corner of the room hearing about “muppets,” “ripping eyeballs out” and “getting paid” doesn’t exactly turn into a model citizen.

Already, the vampire squid is on the counterattack:

WSJ: ... Mr. Smith described himself as an executive director and head of Goldman’s U.S. equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

A person familiar with the matter said Mr. Smith’s role is actually vice president, a relatively junior position held by thousands of Goldman employees around the world. And Mr. Smith is the only employee in the derivatives business that he heads, this person said.

More fun at the Times Dealbook blog:

Former Goldman trader, quit last year

This guy might as well have had a microphone in the room with me during my exit interview…took the words right out of my mouth. To add to one thing he said, I had never heard the term “rip someone’s face off” until I started working at Goldman Sachs. Unfortunately, that phrase was all too often used in the context of client transactions.

Matt Levine, former Goldman employee, now an editor at Dealbreaker:

Maybe if he’d gotten the Rhodes, or won a gold medal for regular tennis at the goyish Olympics, he’d have made MD and would still have a job.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The differences are enormous

Luis Alvarez laid it out bluntly:
The world of mathematics and theoretical physics is hierarchical. That was my first exposure to it. There's a limit beyond which one cannot progress. The differences between the limiting abilities of those on successively higher steps of the pyramid are enormous.
See also Out on the tail. People who work in "soft" fields (even in science) don't seem to understand this stark reality. I believe it is because their fields do not have ready access to right and wrong answers to deep questions. When those are available, huge differences in cognitive power are undeniable, as is the utility of this power.

Nick Metropolis on von Neumann. See also his classic essay The Age of Computing.
Metropolis interview: ... Fermi and von Neumann overlapped. They collaborated on problems of Taylor instabilities and they wrote a report. When Fermi went back to Chicago after that work he called in his very close collaborator, namely Herbert Anderson, a young Ph.D. student at Columbia, a collaboration that began from Fermi's very first days at Columbia and lasted up until the very last moment. Herb was an experimental physicist. (If you want to know about Fermi in great detail, you would do well to interview Herbert Anderson.) But, at any rate, when Fermi got back he called in Herb Anderson to his office and he said, "You know, Herb, how much faster I am in thinking than you are. That is how much faster von Neumann is compared to me."
Herman Goldstine on von Neumann:
Goldstine interview: ... If you ever look at Gauss' collected works, you'll see Gauss also loved to calculate. You just find in Gauss' works huge calculations that he undertook. It was a form of recreation. Von Neumann loved to do these things. It was a kind of being in touch with reality in a peculiar way. He would live to play mathematical games, such as the question of whether the numbers on a box car were prime or composite. He did calculations in his head that nobody else could do. He loved to do things like that. It was just part of his make-up. So calculation was not something abhorrent. Again, if you look in Gauss' collected works, you'll find all kinds of tabular things that he did. In fact, it was probably relaxing for each one of them to turn to calculation just for the fun of it.

... I think they were very alike. I think different people's minds are differently constituted. I never particularly noticed any geometrical interests on von Neumann's part. He once told me he knew nothing about topology. Of course these have got to be taken as relative things. When he said he didn't know anything about topology, that probably meant he knew more than most people. But I think he loved to calculate. If you look at his book on quantum mechanics you'll find a number of things that you might conceivably do by other methods, he did do them by not numerical calculation, but by algebraical calculation. He was masterful at it. He could take the most elaborate formulas and manipulate them down until they were a couple of terms. This he loved. This was part of his virtuosity. You know, there was just nothing he liked so much as to do that.
Both interviews are worth reading in their entirety. See also Only he was fully awake.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Back in the day: startup CEO

I recently came across the audio from a talk I gave at Def Con 9, July 2001 in Las Vegas: itunes; Def Con (couldn't get the video to work). Very interesting to hear myself forecast the future over a decade ago.

I wonder how many people have spoken at Def Con and also given technical briefings in the bowels of Langley ;-)

When I visited China after starting (and exiting) SafeWeb, I thought I might have an unpleasant surprise waiting for me when entering the country. But luckily this cloak and dagger stuff is overblown.

SafeWeb's Triangle Boy: IP spoofing and strong encryption in service of a free Internet

SafeWeb is an encrypted (SSL) anonymous proxy service, used approximately 100 million times per month by hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. Triangle Boy is an Open Source program that lets volunteers turn their PCs into entry points into the SafeWeb network, thereby foiling censorship in countries like China and Iran. Triangle Boy uses IP spoofing and innovative packet routing to minimize the load on volunteer machines. I discuss SafeWeb's goals and technologies, its involvement with the CIA through In-Q-Tel (the agency's venture fund) and the Internet as a catalyst for social transformation in China.

Stephen Hsu is the CEO and co-founder of SafeWeb.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Physicists can do stuff

With the exception of George Church, everyone mentioned below has a background in physics (even Larry Smarr). Physicists are not like other types of "experts" !

See also Prometheus in the basement.

NYTimes: ... Bill Banyai, an optical physicist at Complete Genomics, has helped make that happen. When he began developing a gene sequencing machine, he relied heavily on his background at two computer networking start-up companies. His digital expertise was essential in designing a factory that automated and greatly lowered the cost of mapping the three billion base pairs that form the human genome.

The promise is that low-cost gene sequencing will lead to a new era of personalized medicine, yielding new approaches for treating cancers and other serious diseases. The arrival of such cures has been glacial, however, although the human genome was originally sequenced more than a decade ago.

Now that is changing, in large part because of the same semiconductor industry manufacturing trends that opened up consumer devices like the PC and the smartphone: exponential increases in processing power and transistor density are accompanied by costs that fall at an accelerating rate.

As a result, both new understanding and new medicines will arrive at a quickening pace, according to the biologists and computer scientists.

“For all of human history, humans have not had the readout of the software that makes them alive,” said Larry Smarr, director of the California Institute of Telecommunications and Information Technology, a research center that is jointly operated by the University of California, San Diego, and the University of California, Irvine, who is a member of the Complete Genomics scientific advisory board. “Once you make the transition from a data poor to data rich environment, everything changes.”

Complete Genomics, based in Mountain View, is one of more than three dozen firms hastening to push the cost of sequencing an entire human genome below $1,000. The challenge is part biology, part chemistry, part computing, and in Complete Genomics’ case, part computer networking.

Complete Genomics is a classic Silicon Valley start-up story. Even the gene sequencing machines, which are housed in a 4,000-square-foot room bathed in an eerie blue light, appear more like a traditional data center than a biology lab.

In 2005 ,when Clifford Reid, a successful Silicon Valley software entrepreneur, began to assemble his team, he approached Dr. Banyai and asked if he was interested in joining a gene sequencing start-up. Dr. Reid, who was also trained in physics and math, had spent a year as an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he had become a convert to bioinformatics, the application of computer science and information technologies to biology and medicine.

Dr. Banyai had even less experience in biology. [ ... mastery of so difficult a subject granted the right to invade others ... ]

Formerly with the Internet networking start-ups GlimmerGlass and Silicon Light Machines, he in turn began by reading a pioneering 2005 article in the journal Science in which a group of researchers in George Church’s genetics laboratory at Harvard describe a new technique intended to speed gene sequencing. ...

The other day a colleague in the humanities complained to me that his department had to handle 500 majors whereas physics probably only graduates 30 a year. I should have replied, Yes, but our graduates Can Do Stuff! ;-)

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Halfway in a dream

I managed to track down the Wigner quote I mentioned in an earlier post.

... Perhaps the consciousness of animals is more shadowy than ours and perhaps their perceptions are always dreamlike. On the opposite side, whenever I talked with the sharpest intellect I have ever known -- with von Neumann -- I always had the impression that only he was fully awake, that I was halfway in a dream.

It can be found on page 46 of Philosophical reflections and syntheses by Wigner et al.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Tetlock podcast: expert predictions

I recently came across this excellent talk (podcast number 84 on the list at the link) by Philip Tetlock about his research on expert prediction.

Putting aside the fox vs hedgehog dichotomy, I think the main takeaway is that "expert" predictions are no better than those of well-informed ordinary people, and barely outperform simple algorithms. ... Tetlock took advantage of getting tenure to start a long-term research project now 18 years old to examine in detail the outcomes of expert political forecasts about international affairs. He studied the aggregate accuracy of 284 experts making 28,000 forecasts, looking for pattern in their comparative success rates. Most of the findings were negative— conservatives did no better or worse than liberals; optimists did no better or worse than pessimists. Only one pattern emerged consistently.

“How you think matters more than what you think.”

It’s a matter of judgement style, first expressed by the ancient Greek warrior poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one great thing.” The idea was later expanded by essayist Isaiah Berlin. In Tetlock’s interpretation, Hedgehogs have one grand theory (Marxist, Libertarian, whatever) which they are happy to extend into many domains, relishing its parsimony, and expressing their views with great confidence. Foxes, on the other hand are skeptical about grand theories, diffident in their forecasts, and ready to adjust their ideas based on actual events.

The aggregate success rate of Foxes is significantly greater, Tetlock found, especially in short-term forecasts. And Hedgehogs routinely fare worse than Foxes, especially in long-term forecasts. They even fare worse than normal attention-paying dilletantes — apparently blinded by their extensive expertise and beautiful theory. Furthermore, Foxes win not only in the accuracy of their predictions but also the accuracy of the likelihood they assign to their predictions— in this they are closer to the admirable discipline of weather forecasters.

The value of Hedgehogs is that they occasionally get right the farthest-out predictions— civil war in Yugoslavia, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, the collapse of the Internet Bubble. But that comes at the cost of a great many wrong far-out predictions— Dow 36,000, global depression, nuclear attack by developing nations.

Hedgehogs annoy only their political opposition, while Foxes annoy across the political spectrum, in part because the smartest Foxes cherry-pick idea fragments from the whole array of Hedgehogs.

Bottom line… The political expert who bores you with an cloud of “howevers” is probably right about what’s going to happen. The charismatic expert who exudes confidence and has a great story to tell is probably wrong.

And to improve the quality of your own predictions, keep brutally honest score. Enjoy being wrong, admitting to it and learning from it, as much as you enjoy being right.

See also Intellectual honesty: how much do we know?

Saturday, March 03, 2012

"Only he was fully awake"

A great quote from this review of George Dyson's Turing's Cathedral. Despite the title, von Neumann is the central character.
... mathematician John von Neumann, ... was incomparably intelligent, so bright that, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Eugene Wigner would say, "only he was fully awake."
More Wigner quotes:
I have known a great many intelligent people in my life. I knew Planck, von Laue and Heisenberg. Paul Dirac was my brother in law; Leo Szilard and Edward Teller have been among my closest friends; and Albert Einstein was a good friend, too. But none of them had a mind as quick and acute as Jansci [John] von Neumann. I have often remarked this in the presence of those men and no one ever disputed me.

... But Einstein's understanding was deeper even than von Neumann's. His mind was both more penetrating and more original than von Neumann's. And that is a very remarkable statement. Einstein took an extraordinary pleasure in invention. Two of his greatest inventions are the Special and General Theories of Relativity; and for all of Jansci's brilliance, he never produced anything as original.
Von Neumann in action.

I'm doing my best to increase the number of future humans who will be "fully awake" ;-) My current estimate is that one or two hundred common mutations (affecting only a small subset of the thousands of loci that influence intelligence) are what separate an ordinary person from a vN. There's plenty of additive variance to be exploited, and many desirable human phenotypes that have never been realized. (Also some dangerous ones.)
... The most extensive selection experiment, at least the one that has continued for the longest time, is the selection for oil and protein content in maize (Dudley 2007). These experiments began near the end of the nineteenth century and still continue; there are now more than 100 generations of selection. Remarkably, selection for high oil content and similarly, but less strikingly, selection for high protein, continue to make progress. There seems to be no diminishing of selectable variance in the population. The effect of selection is enormous: the difference in oil content between the high and low selected strains is some 32 times the original standard deviation.

Derivatives history

I'm writing a review (for Physics World) of a recent book on the history of options pricing, and I'm collecting a few links here so I don't lose them. Please ignore this post unless you are interested in arcana ... the actual review will appear here eventually.

AFAIK, high energy physicist M.F.M. Osborne was the first to note log-normal behavior of stock prices. (Bachelier, who amazingly gets so much credit, proposed arithmetic Brownian motion, which neither fits the data nor makes logical sense.) Osborne's book is quite interesting as he explores market microstructure, market making, supply-demand (bid-ask) in detail, going far beyond the usual idealizations made by economists. I had a library copy out years ago but perhaps I should actually buy my own someday. Of course modern HFT types have gone far beyond Osborne's work in the 1950s.

Mathematician Ed Thorp (of Beat the Dealer fame) obtained the Black Scholes equation years before Black and Scholes, but kept it a secret in order to trade on it for his fund. He also first obtained the correct pricing for American options. That he was way beyond Black and Scholes intellectually seems pretty obvious to me. Thorp's web site.

I wish I could remember whether MacKenzie got all this right.

First regulated futures market involved trading of rice in 17th century Japan.

Nordhaus on global warming

Yale economist William Nordhaus, who has studied cost-benefit aspects of potential policy responses to global warming, responds to this recent editorial.

I don't find Nordhaus completely convincing (in fact his discussion of the performance of climate models, point 2, alarmingly misses the point), but the article is worth reading.

NYBooks: ... Then, I saw an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal of January 27, 2012, by a group of sixteen scientists, entitled “No Need to Panic About Global Warming.” This is useful because it contains many of the standard criticisms in a succinct statement. The basic message of the article is that the globe is not warming, that dissident voices are being suppressed, and that delaying policies to slow climate change for fifty years will have no serious economic or environment consequences.

My response is primarily designed to correct their misleading description of my own research; but it also is directed more broadly at their attempt to discredit scientists and scientific research on climate change.1 I have identified six key issues that are raised in the article, and I provide commentary about their substance and accuracy. They are:

• Is the planet in fact warming?
• Are human influences an important contributor to warming?
• Is carbon dioxide a pollutant?
• Are we seeing a regime of fear for skeptical climate scientists?
• Are the views of mainstream climate scientists driven primarily by the desire for financial gain?
• Is it true that more carbon dioxide and additional warming will be beneficial?

As I will indicate below, on each of these questions, the sixteen scientists provide incorrect or misleading answers. ...

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Struggling on $350k a year

For related posts, click the "income inequality" label below. Here's one: real wealth.

WSJ: ... Schiff says his $350,000 salary just isn’t enough. “I feel stuck,” he told Bloomberg.

He says he struggles to pay rent for their duplex in Brooklyn, as well as the summer rental in Connecticut and the $32,000 a year tuition for his daughter’s private school.

“I can’t imagine what I’m going to do,” Schiff told Bloomberg. “I’m crammed into 1,200 square feet. I don’t have a dishwasher. We do all our dishes by hand.”

He said that it would cost at least $1.5 million to buy even a modest apartment nearby.

“All I want is the stuff that I always thought, growing up, that successful parents had,” adding that he “didn’t want to whine.”

I called Schiff and he confirmed his quotes in the article. He said that the main point he was trying to make was that the costs of living well in New York have soared beyond the reach of even the affluent.

“Look, I know my salary of $350,000 is high,” he said. “My whole point is that education and housing in New York are now priced for the wealthy, not the garden variety wealthy. I’m not living high on the hog and going to St. Barts. I mean my summer rental is bare bones, it’s not the Hamptons. ”

He also said that 48% of his salary goes to taxes. “The taxes I pay are absurd,” he said. “Between Federal, New York state and local.”

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