Friday, August 28, 2015

Finance in 1890 B.C.

In general, we know few details about economic life before roughly 1000 A.D. But during one 30-year period — between 1890 and 1860 B.C. — for one community in the town of Kanesh, we know a great deal. Through a series of incredibly unlikely events, archaeologists have uncovered the comprehensive written archive of a few hundred traders who left their hometown Assur, in what is now Iraq, to set up importing businesses in Kanesh, which sat roughly at the center of present-day Turkey and functioned as the hub of a massive global trading system that stretched from Central Asia to Europe. Kanesh’s traders sent letters back and forth with their business partners, carefully written on clay tablets and stored at home in special vaults. Tens of thousands of these records remain. ...

The picture that emerged of economic life is staggeringly advanced. The traders of Kanesh used financial tools that were remarkably similar to checks, bonds and joint-stock companies. They had something like venture-capital firms that created diversified portfolios of risky trades. And they even had structured financial products: People would buy outstanding debt, sell it to others and use it as collateral to finance new businesses. The 30 years for which we have records appear to have been a time of remarkable financial innovation.

It’s impossible not to see parallels with our own recent past. Over the 30 years covered by the archive, we see an economy built on trade in actual goods — silver, tin, textiles — transform into an economy built on financial speculation, fueling a bubble that then pops. After the financial collapse, there is a period of incessant lawsuits, as a central government in Assur desperately tries to come up with new regulations and ways of holding wrongdoers accountable (though there never seems to be agreement on who the wrongdoers are, exactly). The entire trading system enters a deep recession lasting more than a decade. The traders eventually adopt simpler, more stringent rules, and trade grows again.

Taking photos to post on Facebook makes you unhappier

This research examines how taking photos to share with others (e.g., to post on Facebook), compared to taking photos for oneself (e.g., to remember an experience), affects the enjoyment of an experience. Across two field and six laboratory studies, we find that taking pictures to share with others, relative to taking pictures for oneself, reduces enjoyment of experiences. This effect occurs because taking photos to share increases self-presentational concern.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Does Joe Biden have the goods on Hillary?

As Joe Biden edges closer to a presidential run, there’s no shortage of theories as to what he’s up to. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton has built a commanding lead in the national polls, giving Biden little apparent space to gain traction. Perhaps he’s counting on the early-primary state of South Carolina to provide a critical boost. He might be banking on appearing as a stronger general-election candidate than any of his potential rivals in the primary race. Maybe after spending the past 42 years of his life running for elective office, he just can’t stop.

But there’s one intriguing theory that has so far garnered little attention: What if Biden knows something about Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton that the rest of us don’t? ...

The emails that Clinton gave to the State Department are now being released in tranches every 30 days. Her server has been turned over to the Justice Department, which is reportedly optimistic that it can recover at least some of the emails that Clinton had deleted. No one knows what the emails that have not yet been released may contain.

No one, that is, outside of the administration.
--Yoni Appelbaum, The Atlantic, on why Biden's candidacy might not be so crazy after all

When exercising, drink only when thirsty

Are we, with the best of intentions, putting young athletes at risk when we urge them to drink lots of fluids during steamy sports practices and games?

A new report about overhydration in sports suggests that under certain circumstances the answer is yes, and that the consequences for young athletes can be — and in several tragic cases already have been — severe and even fatal. ...

The problem with this situation is that, according to the latest science, dehydration during sports is rarely if ever dangerous, but overhydration undeniably is. ...

At least two other high school football players are known to have died since 2008 from drinking too much fluid during and after a practice, Dr. Miller said. These players had developed a rare condition, he said, known formally as exercise-associated hyponatremia and less technically as water intoxication. ...

The key, he said, is for athletes to drink when they feel thirsty — not before and not after they feel sated. “You do not need to ‘stay ahead of your thirst,’ as many people think,” he said.

Listening to your “innate thirst mechanism” provides a safe and reliable guide to hydration, the new report concludes.

This strategy also should not increase players’ risks for cramping or heat illness, Dr. Miller said, since, “based on current evidence, it does not appear that dehydration directly contributes” to those problems.

During recent telling experiments that he directed, for instance,volunteers who exercised and sweated in the heat until they had become severely dehydrated were no more prone to muscle cramps than they had been at the start.

Similarly, if perhaps more surprising, other studies have found that being dehydrated does not increase athletes’ susceptibility to heat problems, and that athletes who collapse from heat illness often are quite well-hydrated.

Instead, both cramping and heat problems seem to result from athletes pushing themselves too hard.
--Gretchen Reynolds, NYT, on the reliability of your thirst signal

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Almost all female Ashley Madison profiles are fakes

So I downloaded the data and analyzed it to find out how many actual women were using Ashley Madison, and who they were.

What I discovered was that the world of Ashley Madison was a far more dystopian place than anyone had realized. This isn’t a debauched wonderland of men cheating on their wives. It isn’t even a sadscape of 31 million men competing to attract those 5.5 million women in the database. Instead, it’s like a science fictional future where every woman on Earth is dead, and some Dilbert-like engineer has replaced them with badly-designed robots. ...

A few years ago, a former employee of Ashley Madison sued the company in Canada over her terrible work conditions. She claimed that she’d gotten repetitive stress injuries in her hands after the company hired her to create 1,000 fake profiles of women in three months, written in Portuguese, to attract a Brazilian audience. The case was settled out of court, and Ashley Madison claimed that the woman never made any fake profiles. ...

Then, three data fields changed everything. The first field, called mail_last_time, contained a timestamp indicating the last time a member checked the messages in their Ashley Madison inbox. If a person never checked their inbox, the field was blank. But even if they’d checked their messages only once, the field contained a date and time. About two-thirds of the men, or 20.2 million of them, had checked the messages in their accounts at least once. But only 1,492 women had ever checked their messages. It was a serious anomaly.

The pattern was reflected in another data field, too. This one, called chat_last_time contained the timestamp for the last time a member had struck up a conversation using the Ashley Madison chat system. Roughly 11 million men had engaged in chat, but only 2400 women had.

Yet another field, reply_mail_last_time, showed a similar disparity. This field contained the time when a member had last replied to a message from another person on Ashley Madison. 5.9 million men had done it, and only 9700 women had.
--Annalee Newitz, Gizmodo, on the great Ashley Madison con. HT: Chris Blattman. Read the full article for the boring technical details behind why more women replied to messages than checked their messages.

UPDATE: Annalee Newitz realized she misinterpreted the data. What the data really show is that there were 70,572 company-created chatbots (almost all of them posing as women) that sent 20 million messages to men on Ashley Madison.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Banning plastic bags is bad for the environment

When the city council in Austin, Texas, passed a single-use plastic shopping bag ban in 2013, it assumed environmental benefits would follow. The calculation was reasonable enough: Fewer single-use bags in circulation would mean less waste at city landfills.

Two years later, an assessment commissioned by the city finds that the ban is having an unintended effect –- people are now throwing away heavy-duty reusable plastic bags at an unprecedented rate. The city's good intentions have proven all too vulnerable to the laws of supply and demand. ...

Part of the problem is that -- despite the world-saving rhetoric that typically promotes and supports plastic bag bans -- plastic bags simply aren't that big of a problem. According to the national data recorded by the EPA in 2013, the weight of single-use plastic shopping bags amounted to around 0.28 percent of the total municipal solid waste that Americans generate. ...

Among the main environmental benefits of Austin's ban was supposed to be a reduction in the amount of energy and raw materials used to manufacture the bags. To that end, the city encouraged residents to instead use reusable bags. Those bags have larger carbon footprints, due to the greater energy required to produce their stronger plastics...

What the city didn't foresee is that residents would start treating reusable bags like single-use bags. The volume of reusable plastic bags now turning up at the city's recycling centers has become "nearly equivalent to the amount of all of the single use bags removed from the recycling stream as a result of the ordinance implemented in 2013," according to the assessment. And those lightly used bags are landfill-bound, because recycling isn't any more cost-effective for reusable plastic bags than the single-use variety.

Some of these issues could be addressed through the increased use of reusable canvas bags. But canvas is even more carbon intensive to produce than plastic; studies suggest consumers would need to use a single canvas bag around 130 times before they start achieving any net environmental benefit as compared with a single-use plastic bag.
--Adam Minter, BloombergView, on the case for keeping the single-use plastic bag alive. HT: OM

Friday, August 21, 2015

The oxymoronic nature of commencement speeches

Dartmouth Class of 2015: It’s an honor to be at your tree stump. As your Commencement speaker, I have important responsibilities. Commencement speakers have to be skilled at pretentious verbiage and pompous but completely meaningless rhetoric. I think you made a smart move when you asked someone who normally teaches at Yale. ...

This may be your first college Commencement, but you probably know these addresses have a certain formula. The school asks a person who has achieved a certain level of career success to give you a speech telling you that career success is not important.

Then we’re supposed to give you a few minutes of completely garbage advice: Listen to your inner voice. Be true to yourself. Follow your passion. Your future is limitless.

First, my generation gives you a mountain of debt; then we give you career-derailing guidelines that will prevent you from ever paying it off.

I especially like all the Commencement addresses telling graduates how important it is to fail. These started a few years ago with a Steve Jobs address at Stanford built around the message. Well, failure is wonderful if you’re Steve Jobs. For most people, failure just stinks. Don’t fail.
--David Brooks to the Dartmouth class of 2015. HT: LY

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The 7 A.M. - 3 A.M. workday in Japan

At 3 a.m. on Monday morning, Eriko Fujita leaves the IBM offices in Tokyo. She rushes home to take a shower and get a few hours of sleep before she returns to her office at 7 a.m.

This is the hidden side of life at IBM Japan. For a period of eight months, Fujita, whose name has been changed to protect her anonymity, averages 18 to 20 hours of work per day, including Saturdays and Sundays. Her working hours are particularly demanding since she interfaces with programmers in different time zones, including those in the U.S.

“We don't have a 5 o’clock-and-get-out kind of culture,” she says with a shrug. While her schedule depends on the specific project, she says her typical workday lasts about 15 hours. ...

Fujita's situation is not uncommon in Japan, where overtime work has increased as firms cut workforces. About 22% of Japanese employees work 50 hours or more each week on average, well above 11% in the U.S., and 6% in Spain, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. ...

In Fujita's case, the long hours became overwhelming. Eventually, she took a three-month leave of absence from IBM.

"I had a mental breakdown," she says. "I was working so hard and not sleeping well. Physically and mentally I got so tired... I was crying for no reason. I didn't know why my tears are coming out."
--Justine Underhill, Yahoo! Finance, on making Amazon's work culture look humane

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The secret ingredient that makes high-end perfumes irresistible

So on Monday, when the temperature in Central Park tied a daily record of 95 degrees, we took a tour with a sommelier, Pascaline Lepeltier, the beverage director at Rouge Tomate in Manhattan; and a perfumer, CĂ©line Barel, who develops scents for major fragrance companies at International Flavors & Fragrances in Manhattan. ...

She passed around a sample of another expensive perfume, which had an even sharper earthy scent.

“It’s the classical smell of a syrah from the northern Rhone,” Ms. Lepeltier declared. “That black olive and a little bit of horse and saddle.”

Ms. Barel nodded. When the salesman was a safe distance away, she lowered her voice and added that that particular fragrance was “very fecal.”

When a reporter looked startled, she explained, again in a hushed tone: “It’s usually used in traces, in very high-end fragrances, to give the addiction, the sexual aspect. And that’s what makes the fragrance literally irresistible. But people, they don’t want to know about that.”
--Kate Taylor, NYT, on the dirty secret of attraction. HT: ML

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Gene Fama's advising style

One thing that was pretty important for me in my development was an office visit with Eugene Fama, my dissertation adviser, where I had a couple of ideas to pitch for a dissertation. I pitched the first idea, and he barely looked up from whatever paper he was reading and shook his head, saying, "That's a small idea. I wouldn't pursue it." Then I hit him with the second idea, which I thought was way better than the first one. And he kind of looked up and said, "Ehh, it's OK. It's an OK idea." He added, "Maybe you can get a publication out of it, but not in a top journal." He indicated I should come back when I had another.

Even though he had shot down both of my ideas, I left feeling energized. The message from him was that I had a chance of hitting a big idea. That interaction, which I am sure he doesn't remember, was very influential — it pushed me to search for big ideas and not settle on the small ones.
--Campbell Harvey, Econ Focus, on Chicago love

Saturday, August 15, 2015

What it's like to work at

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”) ...

Bo Olson was one of them. He lasted less than two years in a book marketing role and said that his enduring image was watching people weep in the office, a sight other workers described as well. “You walk out of a conference room and you’ll see a grown man covering his face,” he said. “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.” ...

Others who cycled in and out of the company said that what they learned in their brief stints helped their careers take off. And more than a few who fled said they later realized they had become addicted to Amazon’s way of working. ...

Even many Amazonians who have worked on Wall Street and at start-ups say the workloads at the new South Lake Union campus can be extreme: marathon conference calls on Easter Sunday and Thanksgiving, criticism from bosses for spotty Internet access on vacation, and hours spent working at home most nights or weekends.

“One time I didn’t sleep for four days straight,” said Dina Vaccari, who joined in 2008 to sell Amazon gift cards to other companies and once used her own money, without asking for approval, to pay a freelancer in India to enter data so she could get more done. ...

In 2012, Chris Brucia, who was working on a new fashion sale site, received a punishing performance review from his boss, a half-hour lecture on every goal he had not fulfilled and every skill he had not yet mastered. Mr. Brucia silently absorbed the criticism, fearing he was about to be managed out, wondering how he would tell his wife.

“Congratulations, you’re being promoted,” his boss finished, leaning in for a hug that Mr. Brucia said he was too shocked to return.

Noelle Barnes, who worked in marketing for Amazon for nine years, repeated a saying around campus: “Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves.” ...

Molly Jay, an early member of the Kindle team, said she received high ratings for years. But when she began traveling to care for her father, who was suffering from cancer, and cut back working on nights and weekends, her status changed. She was blocked from transferring to a less pressure-filled job, she said, and her boss told her she was “a problem.” As her father was dying, she took unpaid leave to care for him and never returned to Amazon.

“When you’re not able to give your absolute all, 80 hours a week, they see it as a major weakness,” she said.

A woman who had thyroid cancer was given a low performance rating after she returned from treatment. She says her manager explained that while she was out, her peers were accomplishing a great deal. Another employee who miscarried twins left for a business trip the day after she had surgery. “I’m sorry, the work is still going to need to get done,” she said her boss told her. “From where you are in life, trying to start a family, I don’t know if this is the right place for you.”

A woman who had breast cancer was told that she was put on a “performance improvement plan” — Amazon code for “you’re in danger of being fired” — because “difficulties” in her “personal life” had interfered with fulfilling her work goals. ...

A former human resources executive said she was required to put a woman who had recently returned after undergoing serious surgery, and another who had just had a stillborn child, on performance improvement plans, accounts that were corroborated by a co-worker still at Amazon. “What kind of company do we want to be?” the executive recalled asking her bosses.

The mother of the stillborn child soon left Amazon. “I had just experienced the most devastating event in my life,” the woman recalled via email, only to be told her performance would be monitored “to make sure my focus stayed on my job.”
--Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, NYT, on the cost of the greatest store on Earth

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Schrodinger the extreme night owl

Erwin Schrödinger, the Nobel-prize-winning Austrian physicist, was able to make major contributions to the fields of quantum mechanics, general relativity, and color theory during his lifetime. There was only one caveat: He was not able to make those contributions ... in the morning.

“He couldn’t work in the mornings at all,” his wife, AnneMarie, said in an interview. “The [Max] Planck lectures—as you know, it was 30 or 40 years ago that Planck was in Berlin—were given in the morning from nine to ten. When he got this very, very honorable call to Berlin, he wrote first thing and said, ‘I’m very sorry, but I can’t keep the lecture hours because I can’t work in the morning.’ ... They understood, and changed it to the afternoon—two lectures, one after the other—on two days.”

Ah, to be so famous that a major university rearranges its events just so you can hit the snooze button.
--Olga Khazan, The Atlantic, on the ideal schedule of my 20-something self

The paper with 5,154 coauthors

A Frenchman named Georges Aad may have the most prominent name in particle physics.

In less than a decade, Dr. Aad, who lives in Marseilles, France, has appeared as the lead author on 458 scientific papers. Nobody knows just how many scientists it may take to screw in a light bulb, but it took 5,154 researchers to write one physics paper earlier this year—likely a record—and Dr. Aad led the list.

His scientific renown is a tribute to alphabetical order.

Almost every paper by “G. Aad et al.” involves so many researchers that they decided to always list themselves in alphabetical order. Their recent paper, published in the journal Physical Review Letters, features 24 pages of alphabetized co-authors led by Dr. Aad. There is no way to tell how important each contributor might be. ...

From Aad to Zoccoli, these physicists, who conduct experiments at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, are a measure of an accelerating trend in science—the growth in the number of people who get credits.

In fact, there has been a notable spike since 2009 in the number of technical reports whose author counts exceeded 1,000 people, according to the Thomson Reuters Web of Science, which analyzed citation data. In the ever-expanding universe of credit where credit is apparently due, the practice has become so widespread that some scientists now joke that they measure their collaborators in bulk—by the “kilo-author.” ...

In fact, some scientists speculate that “Aad” isn't a real person. He is listed among a group of thousands of researchers from 38 countries who use the ATLAS particle detector at the Large Hadron Collider. Some speculate that the ATLAS group picked the name to avoid disputes over who most deserves to be named first author on each new research paper.

Aad would always appear first in their alphabetical listing.

Google searches turn up little information about someone so well published. In a field notable for seeking the “God particle,” the pronunciation of the name as it usually appears in technical citations—G. Aad—has stoked suspicions.

“People ask me,” said Dr. Aad. “Do you exist?”
--Robert Lee Hotz, WSJ, on winning the alphabetical lottery. HT: Chris Blattman

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Why is there no Din Tai Fung in San Francisco?

I recently spoke with some employees at the new Din Tai Fung - Glendale - Glendale, CA.

They said that DTF wants to come to San Francisco, but local food safety laws make it impossible. Specifically, the metal tins they serve the dumplings in are for some reason a no-no according to SF rules. I have no idea why, and they didn't either. They just knew that was the main impediment to DTF gracing SF with delicious soup dumplings.
--Brendan Mulligan, Quora, on another example of San Franciscan over-regulation. HT: JC

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Evidence that asking directly gets better results

In reality, as [Cornell psychologist Vanessa] Bohns recounts in a recent piece for Harvard Business Review, the strangers were almost twice as likely to agree to the request than the students expected. They guessed, for example, that they'd have to ask ten people if they could borrow a cell phone before someone would let them; in reality, on average, the sixth person said yes. They also guessed that they'd have to ask about ten people before one would agree to fill out a questionnaire; in practice, it only took four asks on average to get a yes. ...

People don't consider the situation from the other person's point of view, in other words. When you're trying to get someone to do something for you, you likely pay a lot of attention to what it will cost the person to say yes. But most people also fail to acknowledge the potential cost of saying no. "No one wants to reject others, particularly not face-to-face," Bohns and Flynn write. ...

That said, there are some ways to phrase your request that are more likely to work than others. No surprise, a direct question works better than tiptoeing around the subject. In that same 2008 study with the Columbia undergrads, Bohns and Flynn asked the students to try to get passersby to fill out a questionnaire, either indirectly (by handing them a flyer) or directly (by simply asking). The strangers were much more likely to fill out the questionnaire when asked directly than when handed the flyer. The real-life lesson, then, is that you can hint around at what you want all you like, but you'd be much better served if you just asked plainly.

Other research in this area has shown that people are more likely to comply with a request if you give them a reason, even if that reason is kind of dumb. And if you try all these things and still don't get what you want, don't give up — try again. Bohns' research has shown that people are more likely to say yes after they've said no once, perhaps because they feel guilty over the initial refusal.

But the words you use when you ask matter, too. In another experiment in that 2008 study, some students were told to frame their question straightforwardly: "Would you fill out a questionnaire?" Others were told to first ask, "Can you do me a favor?" and then ask that same question. In the straightforward condition, 57 percent of the passersby complied; compare that to 84 percent of those in the favor condition. Your mom was right: People are happier to do what you want them to if you ask nicely. But first, you have to ask.
--Melissa Dahl, New York, on the power of asking

Monday, August 10, 2015

Angry venting just make you feel worse

In studies, people report that they feel better after venting. But researchers find they actually become angrier and more aggressive. People who vent anonymously may become the angriest and most aggressive. ...

Venting has an ancient history. Aristotle believed in catharsis—the purging of emotions. More recently, Sigmund Freud talked about the hydraulic model, saying that if someone holds anger inside without letting it out, it will build to dangerous levels, much the way steam in a pressure cooker will build if it is not vented. Dr. Bushman says most people still believe this to be true, even though there is no scientific research to support it. ...

Dr. Bushman has conducted multiple studies that show that venting anger or frustration isn’t beneficial. In one study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2002, he asked 600 college students to write an essay on abortion. He matched each student with a “partner”—in reality a researcher—who purported to have the opposite view and rated the student’s essay negatively on organization, writing style and originality.

Dr. Bushman then divided the students into three groups: The “rumination” group was instructed to hit a punching bag while thinking about the person who graded their essay. The “distraction” group was told to hit the punching bag while thinking about becoming physically fit. And the control group did nothing. Then each student reported his or her mood, choosing from angry adjectives such as “mean,” “hostile” and “irritated” and feel-good adjectives such as “calm,” “happy” and “relaxed.”

The students in the rumination group were the most angry and most aggressive, while those in the control group, who did nothing to vent, were the least angry or aggressive, the study found. ...

If venting just makes us madder and meaner, what should we do instead? Dr. Bushman recommends addressing both the physiological and cognitive components of our anger.

To calm our body down, we should delay our response, counting to 10 or, as Thomas Jeffersonis said to have suggested, 100. Dr. Bushman also recommends trying to relax by taking deep breaths or listening to calming music.

Turn off your computer or phone until your anger has subsided. You might even consider blocking a person’s phone number temporarily, so that you won’t be tempted to text or email.

To quiet your mind, Dr. Bushman suggests distractions such as reading a nonviolent book, working on a crossword puzzle, taking a walk.

Do something that is incompatible with anger or aggression: Kiss your sweetheart, help someone in need, pet a puppy.

Try to distance yourself from the incident that upset you. Observe the situation as if you are an outsider.

Eat something healthy. “People who are hungry are cranky,” Dr. Bushman says.
--Elizabeth Bernstein, WSJ, on the virtues of following Philippians 2:14

Sunday, August 9, 2015

An easy way to become more popular

Rameet Chawla, an app developer, reported similar findings a couple years ago when he created an app to automatically like within five seconds the pictures posted by everyone he followed on Instagram. He did this after friends seemed put out that he never liked their photos, many of which were selfies.

Just a few months after secretly deploying his app, Mr. Chawla discovered that 50 percent more people were following him on Instagram, and that he was also getting more invitations to parties and business opportunities. Instagram has since blocked his app.

Katie Ledecky is faster than Mark Spitz

The 2012 London Olympics were filled with so many dramatic victories for the U.S. swimming team that the debut of then-15-year-old Katie Ledecky was a bit overshadowed. She entered only one event and won it easily. Three years later, Ledecky is the most dominant freestyle swimmer on Earth. She’s the first to own world records in three different freestyle distances simultaneously since Ian Thorpe. Barring the unforeseeable, the 2016 Olympics will undoubtedly make her one of the biggest stars in athletics.

Over distances of 400 meters or more, she’s already faster than Mark Spitz. Yes, Mark Spitz, winner of nine Olympic gold medals — tied for the most of anyone not named Phelps — the guy who set world records at three freestyle distances, including the 400 meters, in which his top world-record time (4:07.7) now trails Ledecky’s (3:58.37) by over nine seconds.

--Benjamin Morris, FiveThirtyEight, on putting Katie Ledecky's accomplishments in perspective

Harvard students tend to write sad admissions essays

But what is less well known is that different colleges favor particular topics and even specific words used in essays.

This is a key finding from AdmitSee, a startup that invites verified college students to share their application materials with potential applicants...

AdmitSee has a team that analyzes all of these materials, gathering both qualitative and quantitative findings. And they've found some juicy insights about what different elite colleges are looking for in essays. One of the most striking differences was between successful Harvard and Stanford essays. (AdmitSee had 539 essays from Stanford and 393 from Harvard at the time of this interview, but more trickle in every day.) ...

The terms "father" and "mother" appeared more frequently in successful Harvard essays, while the term "mom" and "dad" appeared more frequently in successful Stanford essays. ...

AdmitSee found that negative words tended to show up more on essays accepted to Harvard than essays accepted to Stanford. For example, Shyu says that "cancer," "difficult," "hard," and "tough" appeared more frequently on Harvard essays, while "happy," "passion," "better," and "improve" appeared more frequently in Stanford essays.

This also had to do with the content of the essays. At Harvard, admitted students tended to write about challenges they had overcome in their life or academic career, while Stanford tended to prefer creative personal stories, or essays about family background or issues that the student cares about. "Extrapolating from this qualitative data, it seems like Stanford is more interested in the student's personality, while Harvard appears to be more interested in the student's track record of accomplishment," Shyu says.

With further linguistic analysis, AdmitSee found that the most common words on Harvard essays were "experience," "society," "world," "success," "opportunity." At Stanford, they were "research," "community," "knowledge," "future" and "skill."

It turns out, Brown favors essays about volunteer and public interest work, while these topics rank low among successful Yale essays. In addition to Harvard, successful Princeton essays often tackle experiences with failure. Meanwhile, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania tend to accept students who write about their career aspirations. Essays about diversity—race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation—tend to be more popular at Stanford, Yale, and Brown.

Based on the AdmitSee's data, Dartmouth and Columbia don't appear to have strong biases toward particular essay topics. This means that essays on many subjects were seen favorably by the admissions departments at those schools. However, Shyu says that writing about a moment that changed the student's life showed up frequently in essays of successful applicants to those schools.
--Elizabeth Segran, Fast Company, on colleges' preferences

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Falling in love with a real-life AI

She is known as Xiaoice, and millions of young Chinese pick up their smartphones every day to exchange messages with her, drawn to her knowing sense of humor and listening skills. People often turn to her when they have a broken heart, have lost a job, or have been feeling down. They often tell her, “I love you.”

“When I am in a bad mood, I will chat with her,” said Gao Yixin, a 24-year-old who works in the oil industry in Shandong Province. “Xiaoice is very intelligent.”

Xiaoice (pronounced Shao-ice) can chat with so many people for hours on end because she is not real. She is a chatbot, a program introduced last year by Microsoft that has become something of a hit in China. It is also making the 2013 film “Her,” in which the actor Joaquin Phoenix plays a character who falls in love with a computer operating system, seem less like science fiction. ...

The program remembers details from previous exchanges with users, such as a breakup with a girlfriend or boyfriend, and asks in later conversations how the user is feeling. Although Xiaoice is a text-messaging program, the next version will include a Siri-like voice so people can talk with Xiaoice.

Microsoft has been able to give Xiaoice a more compelling personality and sense of “intelligence” by systematically mining the Chinese Internet for human conversations. The company has developed language processing technology that picks out pairs of questions and answers from actual typed human conversations. As a result, Xiaoice has a database of responses that are both human and current — she is fond of using emojis, too.
--John Markoff and Paul Mozur, NYT, on another incentive to drop into the Matrix. See a chat with Xiaoice here.