Thursday, September 29, 2016

The progression of MBA career aspirations

Universum Global essentially asked MBAs to map out their most important career aspirations. Participants were asked to choose their top career goals immediately after finishing their MBAs, within 10 years of earning their MBA, and before they retire. They were given 12 goals to choose from and allowed to pick a maximum of three.

Some 93% of MBAs said they wanted to be “competitively or intellectually challenged” in their first job — a significant insight into how MBA recruiters should be portraying and messaging their companies. After that, 71% said they wanted to have a “secure and stable job”; more than half (58%) said they wanted to “lead or manage a team” in their first role. And 52% said they wanted to feel their work is “serving the greater good.”
Interestingly, just 13% said they wanted to “become wealthy” in their first job. ...

Within 10 years of finishing an MBA, though, a lot changes. Becoming wealthy jumps from 13% to 57% and ranks as the most important career goal. The second-most popular goal, at 51%, is being “seen as a technical or functional expert” in a field. Remarkably, being “competitively and intellectually challenged” drops from 93% to 5%. Meanwhile, having a secure and stable job drops from 71% to 18%, and starting a company zooms from 5% to 29%.

Not surprisingly, by career’s end, holding a C-suite position is the most popular important goal, with 48% of MBAs indicating they want to do so. Serving on a company or nonprofit board becomes the second-most important goal at 36%. Some intriguing, albeit obvious, trends surface across all three time frames. Achieving a healthy work-life balance drops from 48% at the beginning of a career to 41% within 10 years, then to 6% in the “before I retire” prompt. Being competitively and intellectually challenged plunges from 93% to 5% to 1% across a career; similarly, feeling that one’s work is serving a greater good drops from 52% at the beginning of a career to 26%, and then to 14%.
--Nathan Allan, Poets and Quants, on some depressing trends

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

How drugs affected the course of World War II

At a company called Temmler in Berlin, Dr Fritz Hauschild, its head chemist, inspired by the successful use of the American amphetamine Benzedrine at the 1936 Olympic Games, began trying to develop his own wonder drug – and a year later, he patented the first German methyl-amphetamine. Pervitin, as it was known, quickly became a sensation, used as a confidence booster and performance enhancer by everyone from secretaries to actors to train drivers (initially, it could be bought without prescription). ...

In 1940, as plans were made to invade France through the Ardennes mountains, a “stimulant decree” was sent out to army doctors, recommending that soldiers take one tablet per day, two at night in short sequence, and another one or two tablets after two or three hours if necessary. ...

Was Blitzkrieg, then, largely the result of the Wehrmacht’s reliance on crystal meth? How far is [historian Norman] Ohler willing to go with this? He smiles. “Well, Mommsen always told me not to be mono-causal. But the invasion of France was made possible by the drugs. No drugs, no invasion. When Hitler heard about the plan to invade through Ardennes, he loved it [the allies were massed in northern Belgium]. But the high command said: it’s not possible, at night we have to rest, and they [the allies] will retreat and we will be stuck in the mountains. But then the stimulant decree was released, and that enabled them to stay awake for three days and three nights. Rommel [who then led one of the panzer divisions] and all those tank commanders were high – and without the tanks, they certainly wouldn’t have won.” ...

[Hitler's physician] began giving him a “wonder drug” called Eukodal, a designer opiate and close cousin of heroin whose chief characteristic was its potential to induce a euphoric state in the patient (today it is known as oxycodone). It wasn’t long before Hitler was receiving injections of Eukodal several times a day. Eventually he would combine it with twice daily doses of the high grade cocaine he had originally been prescribed for a problem with his ears...

The effect of the drugs could appear to onlookers to be little short of miraculous. One minute the Führer was so frail he could barely stand up. The next, he would be ranting unstoppably at Mussolini. ...

When the factories where Pervitin and Eukodal were made were bombed by the allies, supplies of his favourite drugs began to run out, and by February 1945 he was suffering withdrawal. Bowed and drooling and stabbing at his skin with a pair of golden tweezers, he cut a pitiful sight. “Everyone describes the bad health of Hitler in those final days [in the Führerbunker in Berlin],” says Ohler. “But there’s no clear explanation for it. It has been suggested that he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. To me, though, it’s pretty clear that it was partly withdrawal.” He grins. “Yeah, it must have been pretty awful. He’s losing a world war, and he’s coming off drugs.”
--Rachel Cooke, The Guardian, on bioenhanced warfare. HT: Chris Blattman

Monday, September 26, 2016

Life as a bride in rural India

Upon reaching adulthood, they would be transferred to the guardianship of another family, along with a huge dowry that serves as an incentive to treat them well. The transfer is final. Once married, the new bride cannot return to visit her parents without permission, which is given sparingly, so that the bonds to her old home will weaken.

She must show her submission to the new family: She is not allowed to speak the names of her in-laws, because it is seen as too familiar, and in some places she is not allowed to use words that begin with the same letters as her in-laws’ names, requiring the invention of a large parallel vocabulary. Each morning, before she is allowed to eat, the daughter-in-law must wash the feet of her husband’s parents and then drink the water she has used to wash them.
--Ellen Barry, NYT, on a life to leave behind

Friday, September 23, 2016

Dhaka has the world's worst traffic

Dhakaites will tell you that the rest of the world doesn’t understand traffic, that the worst traffic jam in Mumbai or Cairo or Los Angeles is equivalent to a good day for Dhaka’s drivers. Experts agree. In the 2016 Global Liveability Survey, the quality of life report issued annually by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Dhaka ranked 137th out of 140 cities, edging out only Lagos, Tripoli and war-torn Damascus; its infrastructure rating was the worst of any city in the survey. ...

Yet on my flight to Dhaka I was told that the traffic in the city would be unusually light. For weeks, Bangladesh had been gripped by a hartal, a nationwide general strike and “transportation blockade.” ...

When my plane touched down I caught a taxi, which exited the airport into a roundabout before making its way onto the infamous highway. There, unmistakably, was a traffic jam: cars and trucks, as far the eye could see, stacked up in a configuration that bore no clear relationship to the lanes painted on the blacktop. ...

The distance from airport to hotel was eight and a half miles. The trip had taken two and a half hours. We wheeled into the hotel’s driveway and the cabby spun around to offer his verdict. “Some traffic,” he said. “Not so bad.”
--Jody Rosen, NYT, on my Manila experience

Winning the lottery makes you like incumbent politicians more

Incumbent politicians tend to receive more votes when economic conditions are good. In this paper we explore the source of this correlation, exploiting the exceptional evidence provided by the Spanish Christmas Lottery. Because winning tickets are typically sold by one lottery outlet, winners tend to be geographically clustered. This allows us to study the impact of exogenous good economic conditions on voting behavior. We find that incumbents receive significantly more votes in winning provinces. The evidence is consistent with a temporary increase in happiness making voters more lenient toward the incumbent, or with a stronger preference for the status quo.
--Manuel Bagues and Berta Esteve-Volart, Journal of Political Economy, on your wallet doing the voting

Friday, September 16, 2016

How to get a 3.5% riskfree interest rate for the next 20 years

If someone offered you a guaranteed 3.5% return for 20 years, you’d probably be tempted either to sign up right away or call the cops to arrest the guy for securities fraud.

But the guy offering this deal is Uncle Sam, and you should neither barge in nor run away screaming. You should look closer, because this offer from the U.S. Treasury is legitimate and highly attractive, although it isn’t right for everyone.

The government guarantees that if you hold Series EE savings bonds for 20 years, you will get back twice the amount of money you put in. That translates to a return averaging a whisker more than 3.5% annually. A 20-year U.S. Treasury bond, meanwhile, yields about 2.1%.

In today’s yield-starved world, a 3.5% return sounds almost like manna from heaven. Is there a catch? Of course there is — several, in fact.

First, and worst, that 3.5% return isn’t protected against inflation. And you will earn that rate only if you hold on for the full 20 years; until then, interest accrues only at the current rate of 0.1% annually. ...

You generally can’t redeem savings bonds the first year you own them and, if you cash out within the first five years, you will forfeit the last three months of interest. (That’s not much of a penalty at this point, though, at 0.025%.)

Finally, interest rates could take off between now and 2036, making that 3.5% look a lot less appealing. ...

And you can invest only $10,000 in EE savings bonds per Social Security number each year; if you’re married, you and your spouse together can buy $20,000.
--Jason Zweig, WSJ, on an easy 1.4% alpha per year. Buy at TreasuryDirect.gov.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Why Americans don't favor more redistributive taxation

[A] large share of survey respondents resist full equalization of after-tax incomes even when conventional optimal tax analyses would strongly recommend it. In a hypothetical situation meant to mimic the tax policy problem, between 50% and 95% of respondents choose not to fully offset inequality due to brute luck even when there are neither efficiency costs of redistribution nor differences in desert across individuals. These choices suggest that the two reasons why conventional optimal tax analyses tolerate after-tax inequality—the importance of encouraging effort and the possibility that some people "choose" to have low incomes—are not the only reasons why survey respondents, and perhaps Americans in general, accept it.

The second finding offers an explanation of the first: a large share of survey respondents prefer an alternative logic for taxation than that which is typically used in optimal tax analyses. The conventional logic stems from the use of a social welfare function that exhibits diminishing marginal social welfare of income. When presented with two possible justifications for their choices in the tax problem, between 62% and 79% of respondents prefer, instead of this logic, one tied to a centuries-old idea that Richard Musgrave (1959) named classical benefit-based taxation (CBBT). Under CBBT, taxes are assigned based on the benefit a taxpayer obtains from the activities of the state, with benefit being measured by the state's role in increasing the taxpayer's economic opportunities. In addition to being Adam Smith's first maxim of taxation, CBBT has a long history in public debate over taxes in the United States, from its use as a justification for the new personal income tax in 1913 to its use by presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Barack Obama to advocate for progressivity. In that context, finding support for CBBT among the American public is natural, despite its absence from modern optimal tax theory.

What it feels like to die

For those who do die gradually, there’s often a final, rapid slide that happens in roughly the last few days of life—a phase known as “active dying.” During this time, [Stanford palliative care specialist James] Hallenbeck writes in Palliative Care Perspectives, his guide to palliative care for physicians, people tend to lose their senses and desires in a certain order. “First hunger and then thirst are lost. Speech is lost next, followed by vision. The last senses to go are usually hearing and touch.” ...

“As the brain begins to change and start to die, different parts become excited, and one of the parts that becomes excited is the visual system,” [director of UCLA Brain Injury Research Center David] Hovda explains. “And so that’s where people begin to see light.”

Recent research points to evidence that the sharpening of the senses some people report also seems to match what we know about the brain’s response to dying. Jimo Borjigin, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan, first became intrigued by this subject when she noticed something strange in the brains of animals in another experiment: Just before the animals died, neurochemicals in the brain suddenly surged. While scientists had known that brain neurons continued to fire after a person died, this was different. The neurons were secreting new chemicals, and in large amounts.

“A lot of cardiac-arrest survivors describe that during their unconscious period, they have this amazing experience in their brain,” she says. “They see lights and then they describe the experience as ‘realer than real.’” She realized the sudden release of neurochemicals might help to explain this feeling.

Borjigin and her research team tried an experiment. They anesthetized eight rats, and then stopped their hearts. “Suddenly, all the different regions of the brain became synchronized,” she says. The rats’ brains showed higher power in different frequency waves, and also what is known as coherence—the electrical activity from different parts of the brain working together.

“If you’re focusing attention, doing something, trying to figure out a word or trying to remember a face—when you’re doing high-level cognitive activity, these features go up,” Borjigin says. ...

[A] half-dreaming, half-waking state is common in dying people. In fact, researchers led by Christopher Kerr at a hospice center outside Buffalo, New York, conducted a study of dying people’s dreams. Most of the patients interviewed, 88 percent, had at least one dream or vision. And those dreams usually felt different to them from normal dreams. For one thing, the dreams seemed clearer, more real. The “patients’ pre-death dreams were frequently so intense that the dream carried into wakefulness and the dying often experienced them as waking reality,” the researchers write in the Journal of Palliative Medicine.

Seventy-two percent of the patients dreamed about reuniting with people who had already died. Fifty-nine percent said they dreamed about getting ready to travel somewhere. Twenty-eight percent dreamed about meaningful experiences in the past. (Patients were interviewed every day, so the same people often reported dreams about multiple subjects.)

For most of the patients, the dreams were comforting and positive. The researchers say the dreams often helped decrease the fear of death. “The predominant quality of pre-death dreams/visions was a sense of personal meaning, which frequently carried emotional significance for the patient,” they report.

In patients’ final hours, after they’ve stopped eating and drinking, after they’ve lost their vision, “most dying people then close their eyes and appear to be asleep,” says Hallenbeck, the Stanford palliative-care specialist. “From this point on … we can only infer what is actually happening. My impression is that this is not a coma, a state of unconsciousness, as many families and clinicians think, but something like a dream state.”
--Jennie Dear, The Atlantic, on the drift into eternity

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Richer people spend less time on the Internet

Our dataset contains information for more than forty thousand primary home computers, or “home devices,” at US households in 2008 and more than thirty thousand in 2013. These data come from ComScore, a firm that tracks households over an entire year, recording all of the web sites visited, as well as some key demographics. ...

We find that higher income households spend less total time online per week. Households making $25,000-$35,000 a year spend ninety-two more minutes a week online than households making $100,000 or more a year in income, and differences vary monotonically over intermediate income levels.
--Andre Boik, Shane Greenstein, and Jeffrey Prince on reality as a luxury good

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The new college orientation: Microaggression edition

A freshman tentatively raises her hand and takes the microphone. “I’m really scared to ask this,” she begins. “When I, as a white female, listen to music that uses the N word, and I’m in the car, or, especially when I’m with all white friends, is it O.K. to sing along?”

The answer, from Sheree Marlowe, the new chief diversity officer at Clark University, is an unequivocal “no.”

The exchange was included in Ms. Marlowe’s presentation to recently arriving freshmen focusing on subtle “microaggressions,” part of a new campus vocabulary that also includes “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.”

Microaggressions, Ms. Marlowe said, are comments, snubs or insults that communicate derogatory or negative messages that might not be intended to cause harm but are targeted at people based on their membership in a marginalized group.

Among her other tips: Don’t ask an Asian student you don’t know for help on your math homework or randomly ask a black student if he plays basketball. Both questions make assumptions based on stereotypes. And don’t say “you guys.” It could be interpreted as leaving out women, said Ms. Marlowe, who realized it was offensive only when someone confronted her for saying it during a presentation. ...

“What’s an environmental microaggression?” Ms. Marlowe asked the auditorium of about 525 freshmen. She gave an example. “On your first day of class, you enter the chemistry building and all of the pictures on the wall are scientists who are white and male,” she said. “If you’re a female, or you just don’t identify as a white male, that space automatically shows that you’re not represented.” ...

Another subset of microaggression is known as the microinvalidation, which includes comments suggesting that race plays a minor role in life’s outcomes, like “Everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough.” ...

But some students appeared slightly confused.

“When you use the term ‘self identify’ as a white woman, are you saying that you can choose your race?” one white male student asked.

“I’ll give you an example,” Ms. Marlowe said. “I went to a conference. I was talking to this man. I thought he was black. I was talking about diversity and social justice.”

“He said, ‘I’m Cuban,’ ” Ms. Marlowe told the crowd. “I assumed he was black because he was the same skin complexion as me, and the same type of hair.”

But, Ms. Marlowe said, while it is sometimes difficult to identify a person’s racial or ethnic background based on appearance, she does not believe that gives license to people like Rachel A. Dolezal, the white woman who claimed to be African-American while working for the N.A.A.C.P. in Spokane, Wash. “You can’t say you’re black if you’re not, historically.”

The student still seemed confused.

“Maybe we can unpack it afterward,” Ms. Marlowe told the student. “You want to come see me afterward?”
--Stephanie Saul, NYT, on re-education

Monday, September 5, 2016

What it's like for a chef to get a bad NYT review

[David] Chang, knowing that the [New York Times] review would appear online the next day, slept fitfully, and woke in a bed that “was wet with sweat,” he told me later. Mid-morning, he went uptown, to discuss an expansionary media venture. During the meeting, he broke a promise to himself, and read the review on his phone. He then apologized to his hosts and left. He took a taxi to Momofuku Nishi, where he told his colleagues that they were experiencing something akin to a diagnosis of terminal cancer.

[New York Times critic Pete] Wells’s review began, “Searching for money, for love and for food, we strike bargains. We may be content with one for years until we begin to be shadowed by the suspicion that the terms aren’t working out in our favor anymore.” He protested, genially, about the restaurant’s noise and its uncomfortable seats, praised some dishes, and continued, “Too much of the cooking at Nishi is self-referential, inward looking, and so concerned with technique that you can’t help being conscious of it. In his early days, Mr. Chang used to serve the kind of food chefs like to eat: intense, animalistic, okay with messiness, indifferent to prettiness. Nishi serves the kind of food chefs cook to impress each other.” He gave the restaurant one star.

When I spoke to Chang that day, he talked almost without interruption for ninety minutes, in bursts of defiance, anger, and self-laceration. We met a few days later, and he was barely calmer, although self-awareness softened the effect. He apologized for whining; when he dreamed up conspiracy theories, he labelled them as conspiracy theories, and laughed dryly. (He came to accept, in time, that this article wasn’t planned with thoughts of discussing his restaurant.) When he said “Fuck him!” it was as often with resignation as with scorn. ...

“I can’t ever read that review again—I’ll get so fucking angry I’ll die,” Chang said. “I made a lot of that food! I tasted it! It was delicious. And . . . fuck!”...

Within weeks, the restaurant had abandoned its no-tipping policy and added a brunch menu.

Design secrets of medieval castles

A moat, which is a body of water that surrounds a castle, is often thought of as a water obstacle that had to be crossed; but this wasn’t the primary function of a moat. One of the biggest concerns of the inhabitants of a medieval castle or fortress was the fear that an invading army would dig tunnels under the fortification. This tunneling could either provide access to the castle or cause a collapse of the castle walls. A moat prevented this because any tunnel under the moat would collapse and fill with water. ...

Stairwells were often very carefully designed in Medieval Castles. Stairwells that curved up to towers often curved very narrowly and in a clockwise direction. This meant that any attackers coming up the stairs had their sword hands (right hand) against the interior curve of the wall and this made it very difficult for them to swing their swords. Defenders had their sword hands on the outside wall, which meant they had more room to swing. Another ingenious design of stairs was that they were designed with very uneven steps. Some steps were tall and other steps were short. The inhabitants, being familiar with the uneven pattern of the stair heights could move quickly up and down the stairs but attackers, in a dimly lit stairwell, would easily fall and get bogged down in the stairwells. This made them vulnerable to attacks and slowed their attacks down significantly.
--Will Kalif, The Vintage News, on the ingenuity inspired by war

Saturday, September 3, 2016

How companies track your web browsing without cookies

In the ad tech industry, cookies are gradually being shunted in favor of fingerprinting. The reason that fingerprinting is so effective is that even if you have a device that you think is identical to the device of the person sitting next to you, there are going to be a number of differences in the behavior of your browser. The set of fonts installed on your browser could be different. The precise version number of the browser could be different. Your battery status could be different from that of the person next to you, or anybody else in the world. And it turns out that if you put all of these pieces of information together, a unique or nearly unique picture of the behavior of your device emerges that’s going to be relatively stable over time. And that enables your companies to recognize you when you come back. ...

[Editor’s note: Earlier in the interview, Narayanan had mentioned that the rate at which your battery depletes might be an identifier.] But let’s say you’ve got 41 fonts installed on your browser today. You come back in a week, maybe you have 43 fonts installed. But 41 of those are going to be the same as what they saw a week ago. And it changes slowly enough that statistically you can have a high degree of confidence. In the industry they call these things statistical IDs. It’s not as certain as putting a cookie on your browser, but you can derive a very high degree of confidence.
--Arvind Narayanan, FiveThirtyEight, on the shrinking private domain

Sunday, August 28, 2016

One man's nuclear fears helped create today's San Francisco housing crisis

In 1948, a federal housing bureaucrat named Paul Oppermann, trying to come to terms with the perils of the nuclear age, proposed a solution to the problem of protecting America’s cities from the bomb: empty them out preëmptively by encouraging the population to move to suburbs and small towns of fifty thousand or fewer. “No power in the world could afford to drop an atomic bomb on a city of 50,000 or less” is how the San Francisco Chronicle summarized the talk that Oppermann gave to a local planning organization. Plus, Oppermann explained, you get slum clearance into the bargain. The next year, Oppermann assumed office as San Francisco’s planning director.

The story of Oppermann—who did not send the residents of San Francisco packing but merely crippled growth with arcane lot-size rules and off-street-parking-space minimums—comes down to us via a San Francisco Bay Area cartographer, programmer, and amateur historian named Eric Fischer.
--Mark Gimein, New Yorker, on the power of a single bureaucrat. HT: Marginal Revolution

Friday, August 26, 2016

Foreign intervention has made Syria's civil war endless and more brutal

Most civil wars end when one side loses. Either it is defeated militarily, or it exhausts its weapons or loses popular support and has to give up. About a quarter of civil wars end in a peace deal, often because both sides are exhausted.

That might have happened in Syria: the core combatants — the government and the insurgents who began fighting it in 2011 — are both quite weak and, on their own, cannot sustain the fight for long.

But they are not on their own. Each side is backed by foreign powers — including the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and now Turkey....

Government and rebel forces are supplied from abroad, which means their arms never run out. They also both draw political support from foreign governments who do not feel the war’s costs firsthand, rather than from locals who might otherwise push for peace to end their pain. ...

This is why, according to James D. Fearon, a Stanford professor who studies civil wars, multiple studies have found that “if you have outside intervention on both sides, duration is significantly greater.” ...

Whenever one side loses ground its foreign backers increase their involvement, sending supplies or air support to prevent their favored player’s defeat. ...

These foreign powers are strong enough to match virtually any escalation. None can force an outright victory because the other side can always counter, so the cycle only continues. ...

In most civil wars, the fighting forces depend on popular support to succeed. This “human terrain,” as counterinsurgency experts call it, provides all sides with an incentive to protect civilians and minimize atrocities, and has often proved decisive.

Wars like Syria’s, in which the government and opposition rely heavily on foreign support, encourage the precise opposite behavior, according to research by Reed M. Wood, Jacob D. Kathman and Stephen E. Gent, political scientists at, respectively, Arizona State University; the State University of New York at Buffalo; and the University of North Carolina.

Because Syria’s combatants rely on foreign sponsors, rather than the local population, they have little incentive to protect civilians. In fact, this dynamic turns the local population into a potential threat rather than a necessary resource.

The incentives push them to “utilize collective violence and terror to shape the behaviors of the population,” the researchers found. The images we see of dead mothers and children may not represent helpless bystanders but deliberate targets, killed not out of madness or cruelty but coldly rational calculation.

Severe, indiscriminate attacks on civilians bring little near-term risks and substantial benefits: disrupting the enemy’s control or local support, pacifying potential threats, plundering resources and others.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The to-do list lifehack worth $400,000

[Charles M.] Schwab (oddly enough, no relation to Charles R. Schwab, founder of the Charles Schwab Corporation) was the president of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, the largest shipbuilder and the second-largest steel producer in the U.S. at the time. ...

...one day in 1918... Schwab—in his quest to increase the efficiency of his team and discover better ways to get things done—arranged a meeting with a highly respected productivity consultant named Ivy Lee. ...

As the story goes, Schwab brought Lee into his office and said, "Show me a way to get more things done."

"Give me 15 minutes with each of your executives," Lee replied.

"How much will it cost me?" Schwab asked.

"Nothing," Lee said. "Unless it works. After three months, you can send me a check for whatever you feel it’s worth to you."

During his 15 minutes with each executive, Lee explained his simple method for achieving peak productivity:

1. At the end of each workday, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six tasks.
2. Prioritize those six items in order of their true importance.
3. When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task.
4. Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.
5. Repeat this process every working day.

The strategy sounded simple, but Schwab and his executive team at Bethlehem Steel gave it a try. After three months, Schwab was so delighted with the progress his company had made that he called Lee into his office and wrote him a check for $25,000.

A $25,000 check written in 1918 is the equivalent of a $400,000 check in 2015.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Science is about feeling stupid

I recently saw an old friend for the first time in many years. We had been Ph.D. students at the same time, both studying science, although in different areas. She later dropped out of graduate school, went to Harvard Law School and is now a senior lawyer for a major environmental organization. At some point, the conversation turned to why she had left graduate school. To my utter astonishment, she said it was because it made her feel stupid. After a couple of years of feeling stupid every day, she was ready to do something else.

I had thought of her as one of the brightest people I knew and her subsequent career supports that view. What she said bothered me. I kept thinking about it; sometime the next day, it hit me. Science makes me feel stupid too. It's just that I've gotten used to it. So used to it, in fact, that I actively seek out new opportunities to feel stupid. ...

For almost all of us, one of the reasons that we liked science in high school and college is that we were good at it ... doing well in courses means getting the right answers on tests. If you know those answers, you do well and get to feel smart.

A Ph.D., in which you have to do a research project, is a whole different thing. ... I remember the day when Henry Taube (who won the Nobel Prize two years later) told me he didn't know how to solve the problem I was having in his area. I was a third-year graduate student and I figured that Taube knew about 1000 times more than I did (conservative estimate). If he didn't have the answer, nobody did.

That's when it hit me: nobody did. That's why it was a research problem. And being my research problem, it was up to me to solve. Once I faced that fact, I solved the problem in a couple of days. ...

...we don't do a good enough job of teaching our students how to be productively stupid – that is, if we don't feel stupid it means we're not really trying. ...

Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice. Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. ... The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.
--Martin Schwarz, Journal of Cell Science, on the Peter Principle in research. HT: JK

Monday, August 15, 2016

Why does swimming time only to one-hundredth of a second?

Tonight three legends of swimming—Michael Phelps, Chad Le Clos, and László Cseh—turned in identical times to share silver in the 100m butterfly. Last night, Simone Manuel tied for gold with Canadian Penny Oleksiak in the 100m freestyle. Modern timing systems are capable of measuring down to the millionth of a second—so why doesn’t FINA, the world swimming governing body, increase its timing precision by adding thousandths-of-seconds? ...

In a 50 meter Olympic pool, at the current men’s world record 50m pace, a thousandth-of-a-second constitutes 2.39 millimeters of travel. FINA pool dimension regulations allow a tolerance of 3 centimeters in each lane, more than ten times that amount. Could you time swimmers to a thousandth-of-a-second? Sure, but you couldn’t guarantee the winning swimmer didn’t have a thousandth-of-a-second-shorter course to swim. (Attempting to construct a concrete pool to any tighter a tolerance is nearly impossible; the effective length of a pool can change depending on the ambient temperature, the water temperature, and even whether or not there are people in the pool itself.)
--Timothy Burke, Deadspin, on the limits of precision. HT: JF

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Trump's Android tweets are angrier than his iPhone tweets

But this weekend I saw a hypothesis about Donald Trump’s twitter account that simply begged to be investigated with data:

... Trump himself does indeed tweet from a Samsung Galaxy. But how could we examine it quantitatively? I’ve been writing about text mining and sentiment analysis recently, particularly during my development of the tidytext R package with Julia Silge, and this is a great opportunity to apply it again.

My analysis, shown below, concludes that the Android and iPhone tweets are clearly from different people, posting during different times of day and using hashtags, links, and retweets in distinct ways. What’s more, we can see that the Android tweets are angrier and more negative, while the iPhone tweets tend to be benign announcements and pictures. Overall I’d agree with @tvaziri’s analysis: this lets us tell the difference between the campaign’s tweets (iPhone) and Trump’s own (Android). ...

Which are the words most likely to be from Android and most likely from iPhone?



Trump’s Android account uses about 40-80% more words related to disgust, sadness, fear, anger, and other “negative” sentiments than the iPhone account does. (The positive emotions weren’t different to a statistically significant extent).
--David Robinson, Variance Explained, on the ghost in the Trump machine

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The first North Americans didn't cross the Bering Land Bridge

According to the traditional story, the first people to settle North America arrived around 13,000 years ago near present-day Clovis, New Mexico, having crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Asia and traversed a recently opened, 1,000-mile-long corridor between the Laurentide and Cordilleran ice sheets that covered much of the continent.

Well, that story is almost certainly wrong. For one thing, DNA and archaeological evidence from a number of sites in the United States and Canada demonstrate that humans not only inhabited North America at least 15,000 years ago, but were by that point pretty much spread throughout the continent.

But it’s a different aspect of the story that University of Copenhagen researchers Mikkel Pederson and Eske Willerslev take issue with. “Whether the ice-free corridor could have been used for a Clovis-age migration depends on when it became biologically viable,” Pederson, Willerslev, and their colleagues write in Nature. In other words, it depends on whether there was enough to eat along the way from Alaska to the heart of North America.

To see how much food might have been available, the team took core samples from lake beds in the Peace River basin, right in the middle of the path the ice corridor once took. The researchers searched those for fossils, pollen, and other biological materials. ... The team’s analysis suggests that the region was largely lacking in plant life prior to about 12,600 years ago...

Although the results do not preclude the possibility that people did at some point travel through the corridor, it’s most likely the first people to arrive in the present-day U.S. came via the Pacific Coast, the authors argue.
--Nathan Collins, Pacific Standard, on another scientific folk story on the ropes