Saturday, July 25, 2015

What it's like to do research

The steady state of mathematical research is to be completely stuck. It is a process that Charles Fefferman of Princeton, himself a onetime math prodigy turned Fields medalist, likens to "playing chess with the devil." The rules of the devil’s game are special, though: The devil is vastly superior at chess, but, Fefferman explained, you may take back as many moves as you like, and the devil may not. You play a first game, and, of course, "he crushes you." So you take back moves and try something different, and he crushes you again, "in much the same way." If you are sufficiently wily, you will eventually discover a move that forces the devil to shift strategy; you still lose, but — aha! — you have your first clue.

As a group, the people drawn to mathematics tend to value certainty and logic and a neatness of outcome, so this game becomes a special kind of torture. And yet this is what any ­would-be mathematician must summon the courage to face down: weeks, months, years on a problem that may or may not even be possible to unlock. You find yourself sitting in a room without doors or windows, and you can shout and carry on all you want, but no one is listening. ...

In the game of devil’s chess, players have no real hope if they haven’t studied the winning games of the masters. A proof establishes facts that can be used in subsequent proofs, but it also offers a set of moves and strategies that forced the devil to submit — a devious way to pin one of his pieces or shut down a counterattack, or an endgame move that sacrifices a bishop to gain a winning position. Just as a chess player might examine variations of the Ruy Lopez and King’s Indian Defense, a mathematician might study particularly clever applications of the Chinese remainder theorem or the sieve of Eratosthenes. The wise player has a vast repertoire to draw on, and the crafty player intuits the move that suits the moment. ...

Early encounters with math can be misleading. The subject seems to be about learning rules — how and when to apply ancient tricks to arrive at an answer. Four cookies remain in the cookie jar; the ball moves at 12.5 feet per second. Really, though, to be a mathematician is to experiment. Mathematical research is a fundamentally creative act. Lore has it that when David Hilbert, arguably the most influential mathematician of fin de siècle Europe, heard that a colleague had left to pursue fiction, he quipped: "He did not have enough imagination for mathematics."

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

What it's like to work for a Chinese company

Thanks to a lead from my college Chinese teacher, I found a job as a business analyst at a technology company in a suburb of Guangzhou, China’s third-largest city. From the outside, the cheery corporate campus with glass buildings seemed straight out of Palo Alto or Mountain View, Calif. Inside, the cubicles and fluorescent lights were familiar, but it never felt normal to work in a Chinese office.

After two or three months, though, my life settled into a routine. The day started at 8:30, and we all worked until noon, when Kenny G’s saxophone cover of the Chinese classic “Jasmine Flower” over the intercom announced lunch. We would line up at the canteen to buy a cheap plate of oily lotus root and “meat” that appeared to be just chunks of bone and fat.

Nap time was at 1. My whole team would pull cots out from under their desks, tuck in their blankets (one woman even brought a stuffed pig) and sleep until 1:30, when the mournful arpeggios of Richard Clayderman’s easy-listening piano masterpiece “A Comme Amour” signaled the start of the second work period.

Sometimes, in the seconds before I regained consciousness, I would forget where I was; I would look out my window, see the rows of identical blue glass office buildings and feel a deep, existential panic. But then I’d open my Lenovo ThinkPad laptop and drink a Nescafé instant coffee, and I’d be back in the anesthetic glow of Microsoft Office, where everything had a purpose. At 5:30, Kenny G’s “Going Home” announced the end of the day. ...

[My coworker] Jack complained about China, but not about censorship, pollution or human rights. What bothered him were housing prices. Jack had a good job, but to be successful you needed a wife, and to get a wife you needed a house. But a two-bedroom condominium cost $300,000 to $2 million, and prices kept rising, fueled by real estate speculation. So Jack simmered in his cubicle for years, saving for his ticket to marital happiness that remained just out of reach.

It occurred to me that this was an ingenious method of social control.

I lived in the company dormitory, along with the other unmarried workers, in a half-empty “development zone” called Science City. There was nothing to do there and nowhere to eat except the dreaded canteen and an unappetizing fast-food restaurant.

Unlike Jack, most of the workers didn’t own cars, and to reach the city took an hour on the bus, which became so full that it was harder to breathe on board. So my co-workers spent most of their free time alone in their rooms.

Living this way seemed like a slow spiritual death...
--Samuel Massie, NYT, on corporate purgatory

Hey, baby, what's your credit score?

This paper presents novel evidence on the role of credit scores in the dynamics of committed relationships. We document substantial positive assortative matching with respect to credit scores, even when controlling for other socioeconomic and demographic characteristics. ... Moreover, we find that the couple’s average credit score and the match quality in credit scores, measured at the time of relationship formation, are highly predictive of subsequent separations. This result arises, in part, because initial credit scores and match quality predict subsequent credit usage and financial distress, which in turn are correlated with relationship dissolution. Also, even beyond these channels, credit scores and match quality appear predictive of subsequent separations, suggesting that credit scores reveal an important personal skill and attitude. Among the many possibilities, we argue that one such skill and attitude could be an individual’s trustworthiness and present ancillary evidence supporting this interpretation.
--Jane Dokko, Geng Li, and Jessica Hayes, "Credit Scores and Committed Relationships," on the link between financial responsibility and relational success

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Defensive skill differences aren't important in Major League Baseball

Baseball’s statisticians have long been looking for a way—any way—to figure out what a player is worth on defense. It was nothing less than the holy grail of baseball statistics.

...the nerds went to work, coming up with computerized statistics that measured range and outs created, boiling the entirety of defensive performance down to a single number. Problem solved.

But now there’s another problem. A new trend—one that ironically also emerged from baseball’s quest to maximize defense—is rendering all that hard work moot: the defensive shift.

Many of the newfangled metrics that were built to judge a fielder’s range largely ignored where the player was actually standing when the ball was hit. So, the more teams shift defenders in between at-bats, the less the statistic makes any sense. ...

The same batted-ball data that enables range and defensive skills to be quantified also tells teams where to position their players for each batter. This is making it almost impossible to assign proper credit for a great defensive play: Did a player make a play because he has incredible range, or because prescient scouting had him stationed in that area?

The result is something that no one would have predicted: Eyeball scouting may be more necessary than ever. ...

Inside-Edge, a baseball analytics company that provides data to major-league teams, brings a big-data approach to scouting. Instead of just using a spray chart to calculate a player’s defensive value, their scouts watch every single play from every single team—twice. ...

The major revelation: The quality of a fielder doesn’t matter on most plays. Inside-Edge partner Kenny Kendrena says 24% of plays are almost always hits and 62% are almost always outs. ...

Using the eyeball test to study how far a fielder has ranged to make a play—rather than just looking at where on the field he was—significantly cuts into the number of hits that fielders are given credit for impacting. For example, if Colorado shortstop Troy Tulowitzki retrieves a ball behind second base, zone statistics might look at where he was and reward him for making a good play that saved an out. But the human eye may reveal that Tulowitzki started a few feet from where he ended up and deem his efforts routine. With this methodology, Inside-Edge credits major-league teams for saving 179 hits over what was expected with an excellent play as of Tuesday, while bad defense was blamed for allowing 156 hits that normally would be outs.

But that seems like a drop in the bucket given that position players have had 76,112 total chances this season. Baseball’s best defensive team, the Houston Astros, has saved only 25 hits all season because of the skill of its defenders, according to Inside-Edge.
--Andrew Beaton and Michael Salfino, WSJ, on Big Data negating Big Data

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Professional ethicists behave no differently than other people

When I meet an ethicist for the first time – by ‘ethicist’, I mean a professor of philosophy who specialises in teaching and researching ethics – it’s my habit to ask whether ethicists behave any differently to other types of professor. Most say no.

I’ll probe further: why not? Shouldn’t regularly thinking about ethics have some sort of influence on one’s own behaviour? Doesn’t it seem that it would?

To my surprise, few professional ethicists seem to have given the question much thought. They’ll toss out responses that strike me as flip or are easily rebutted, and then they’ll have little to add when asked to clarify. They’ll say that academic ethics is all about abstract problems and bizarre puzzle cases, with no bearing on day-to-day life – a claim easily shown to be false by a few examples: Aristotle on virtue, Kant on lying, Singer on charitable donation. ...

In a series of empirical studies – mostly in collaboration with the philosopher Joshua Rust of Stetson University – I have empirically explored the moral behaviour of ethics professors. As far as I’m aware, Josh and I are the only people ever to have done so in a systematic way.

Here are the measures we looked at: voting in public elections, calling one’s mother, eating the meat of mammals, donating to charity, littering, disruptive chatting and door-slamming during philosophy presentations, responding to student emails, attending conferences without paying registration fees, organ donation, blood donation, theft of library books, overall moral evaluation by one’s departmental peers based on personal impressions, honesty in responding to survey questions, and joining the Nazi party in 1930s Germany. ...

Ethicists do not appear to behave better. Never once have we found ethicists as a whole behaving better than our comparison groups of other professors, by any of our main planned measures. But neither, overall, do they seem to behave worse. ...

What, in that case, is moral reflection good for? Here’s one thought. Perhaps it gives us the power to calibrate more precisely toward our chosen level of moral mediocrity. ...

I was enjoying dinner in an expensive restaurant with an eminent ethicist, at the end of an ethics conference. I tried these ideas out on him.

‘B+,’ he said. ‘That’s what I’m aiming for.’
--Eric Schwitzgebel, Aeon, on the gap between thinking and doing. An update of my July 16, 2009 post. HT: PW. 

Update: See also this Marginal Revolution post on moral philosophers being equally susceptible to cognitive illusions in moral scenarios

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The lifetime burden of being labeled a gifted child

At the time, the new-fangled IQ test was gaining traction, after proving itself in World War One recruitment centres, and in 1926, psychologist Lewis Terman decided to use it to identify and study a group of gifted children. Combing California’s schools for the creme de la creme, he selected 1,500 pupils with an IQ of 140 or more – 80 of whom had IQs above 170. Together, they became known as the “Termites”, and the highs and lows of their lives are still being studied to this day.

As you might expect, many of the Termites did achieve wealth and fame – most notably Jess Oppenheimer, the writer of the classic 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy. Indeed, by the time his series aired on CBS, the Termites’ average salary was twice that of the average white-collar job. But not all the group met Terman’s expectations – there were many who pursued more “humble” professions such as police officers, seafarers, and typists. For this reason, Terman concluded that “intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated”. Nor did their smarts endow personal happiness. Over the course of their lives, levels of divorce, alcoholism and suicide were about the same as the national average.

As the Termites enter their dotage, the moral of their story – that intelligence does not equate to a better life – has been told again and again. At best, a great intellect makes no differences to your life satisfaction; at worst, it can actually mean you are less fulfilled.

That’s not to say that everyone with a high IQ is a tortured genius, as popular culture might suggest – but it is nevertheless puzzling. Why don’t the benefits of sharper intelligence pay off in the long term?

One possibility is that knowledge of your talents becomes something of a ball and chain. Indeed, during the 1990s, the surviving Termites were asked to look back at the events in their 80-year lifespan. Rather than basking in their successes, many reported that they had been plagued by the sense that they had somehow failed to live up to their youthful expectations.
--David Robson, BBC, on the limits of IQ