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

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Shredding $20 bills to get yourself into the office early

Rare original blog content below:

You may have seen stories about the alarm clock that shreds money unless you wake up. But as far as I can tell, this is just a concept product, not something you can actually buy.

Well, today, I learned that one economist has ingeniously cobbled together her own money-shredding commitment device to get her into the office early. She writes:
I just take a 20 dollar paper shredder and plug it into a 10 dollar outlet timer, which I set to turn on at 8:30am. As soon as the shredder gets power, it'll shred whatever is already placed on top of the feed slot. It works well!
In a follow-up response, she writes:
I only put $20 in an envelope on the shredder. I've only lost $60 so far, using it maybe 1/4 of the days I'm in the office.
What I need is such a device to be installed inside my gym locker.

Your eyes get red in the swimming pool because of urine

The red, bloodshot eyes that people get after being in a swimming pool aren’t caused by chlorine, as thought — but by what happens when people urinate in the water.

People weeing in the pool means the urine reacts with chlorine to create a chemical compound that hurts the eyes, according to the US’s Healthy Swimming Program. And those chemicals can also create poisonous gases that can damage lungs, hearts and nervous systems.

“That ‘chlorine’ smell at the pool isn’t actually chlorine,” said Chris Wiant, chair of the US Water Quality and Health Council. “What you smell are chemicals that form when chlorine mixes with pee, sweat and dirt from swimmers’ bodies.”

Experts have pointed out that despite the story told to children that a dye in the water will show if they’ve urinated in the pool — as almost half of Americans believe — it’s actually very difficult to tell when it has happened. In fact, having red eyes are the biggest indicator, according to the National Swimming Pool Foundation.
--Andrew Griffin, The Independent, on another reason not to go swimming. HT: KSL

Taylor Swift announces she will no longer review for Nature

In what is seen as the opening shot of a global superstar revolt against the establishment, Taylor Swift announced on her twitter feed earlier today that she was no longer content to review papers for Nature without adequate compensation for her time.

Ms. Swift, who is a regular reviewer for the journal on such diverse research topics as Particle Physics, Molecular Medicine and the use of mobile phone data to track infectious disease epidemics, has long been critical of the highly-profitable journal Nature having a policy of giving reviewers a subscription to the journal in return for doing a review.

“I can get Nature for free on the internet, everybody puts the papers on their own websites now anyway”, said the singer of worldwide mega-hit “Shake it off”.

“It’s just not cutting it any more to give me a year’s subscription. I want money.”
--The Allium on the referee's plight. HT: KS

Monday, June 22, 2015

The medical dangers of skinny jeans

Doctors in Australia report that a 35-year-old woman was hospitalized for four days after experiencing muscle damage, swelling, and nerve blockages in her legs after squatting for several hours while wearing tight-fitting denims.

"We were surprised that this patient had such severe damage to her nerves and muscles," said Dr. Thomas Kimber of the Royal Adelaide Hospital in Australia, in an email.

The patient, who was not identified, spent most of the previous day helping someone move, squatting for long periods while emptying cupboards. Clad in skinny jeans, the woman said they felt increasingly tight and her feet were numb as she walked home, making her trip and fall. Unable to get up, she spent several hours stranded outside before getting to the hospital. Kimber and colleagues published a report about the case online Monday in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry. ...

After being treated for four days — and having her jeans cut off — the woman still had some weakness in her legs but walked out of the hospital and later recovered fully. Kimber doesn’t know if the woman still wears skinny jeans but warned her against the dangers of squatting in them.
--Maria Cheng, Associated Press, on a real fashion victim

Why corporations should experiment on us without our consent

Can it ever be ethical for companies or governments to experiment on their employees, customers or citizens without their consent?

The conventional answer — of course not! — animated public outrage last year after Facebook published a study in which it manipulated how much emotional content more than half a million of its users saw. ...

But this outrage is misguided. Indeed, we believe that it is based on a kind of moral illusion.

Companies — and other powerful actors, including lawmakers, educators and doctors — “experiment” on us without our consent every time they implement a new policy, practice or product without knowing its consequences. ...

Why does one “experiment” (i.e., introducing a new product) fail to raise ethical concerns, whereas a true scientific experiment (i.e., introducing a variation of the product to determine the comparative safety or efficacy of the original) sets off ethical alarms?

In a forthcoming article in the Colorado Technology Law Journal, one of us (Professor Meyer) calls this the “A/B illusion” — the human tendency to focus on the risk, uncertainty and power asymmetries of running a test that compares A to B, while ignoring those factors when A is simply imposed by itself.

Consider a hypothetical example. A chief executive is concerned that her employees are taking insufficient advantage of the company’s policy of matching contributions to retirement savings accounts. She suspects that telling her workers how many others their age are making the maximum contribution would nudge them to save more, so she includes this information in personalized letters to them. ...

You can’t answer these questions [of whether the letters worked] without doing a true scientific experiment — in technology jargon, an “A/B test.” The company could randomly assign its employees to receive either the old enrollment packet or the new one that includes the peer contribution information, and then statistically compare the two groups of employees to see which saved more.

Let’s be clear: This is experimenting on people without their consent, and the absence of consent is essential to the validity of the entire endeavor. If the C.E.O. were to tell the workers that they had been randomly assigned to receive one of two different letters, and why, that information would be likely to distort their choices.

Our chief executive isn’t so hypothetical. Economists do help corporations run such experiments, but many managers chafe at debriefing their employees afterward, fearing that they will be outraged that they were experimented on without their consent. A company’s unwillingness to debrief, in turn, can be a deal-breaker for the ethics boards that authorize research. So those C.E.O.s do what powerful people usually do: Pick the policy that their intuition tells them will work best, and apply it to everyone.

Most of the policies and practices that we live by aren’t evidence-based, and good intentions don’t guarantee desired outcomes. The C.E.O. who goes with her gut and tells her employees how much their peers are saving? According to one study, she may actually cause them to save less. ...

We aren’t saying that every innovation requires A/B testing. Nor are we advocating nonconsensual experiments involving significant risk.

But as long as we permit those in power to make unilateral choices that affect us, we shouldn’t thwart low-risk efforts, like those of Facebook and OkCupid, to rigorously determine the effects of those choices. Instead, we should cast off the A/B illusion and applaud them.
--Michelle Meyer and Chris Chabris, NYT, on misguided outrage

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Strange dating preferences for economists

I have a soft spot for economists. I fell for a number of them and was fascinated by their thought processes, which struck me as so efficient, how they sized things up and appraised value with one glance. Their minds seemed to operate in ways mine never did. ...

They say you sometimes project the qualities you lack onto a romantic partner. I began to fetishize those with economic prowess, as though they represented everything I was not.

My sister, who is not an economist but, as an orthodontist who pushes wayward teeth into systematic order, may be the next best thing, would remind me I had the kind of artsy, whimsical brain better suited for language and literature than math and science. She’d sway her arms in an imitation of the flower child she must have thought I was. ...

These inabilities haunted me in college, where I forced myself through economics, microeconomics and game theory, but in each I floundered, making rookie mistakes like inverting supply and demand curves and not pushing my production-possibility frontier to its maximum level of production. I could never grasp why things had to be so black-and-white.

I wish I could say that was the end of my run with economists, but sometimes you keep chasing an elusive ideal. Fresh off that failure, I met a professor of economics and self-proclaimed feminist. I envied his mathematical alacrity, which reminded me of my father, and which I associated with all economists.

On our first date I was so in awe I hardly made a peep. Or maybe it was that I didn’t have an opportunity to squeeze in a word edgewise.

He was a decade older, and I told him I had misgivings about our age gap. As if spurred by the challenge, he continued to pursue me. But once I reciprocated, he pulled away.

His abrupt change of heart reminded me of a guy I dated in college. He was also an economics major, and after eagerly lining up a flurry of dates, he equated his scant interest for me to a graph.

“I thought my like for you would be like this,” he explained, lifting his arm so it made a sharp slope of about +2, “but instead it’s more like this,” he added, lowering his arm to a gently rolling slope of +0.5. ...

It’s too reductive to say that those who deal with numbers are more likely to be tone-deaf to matters of the heart. But in dating these economists, I always felt like our thought processes were not aligned. Yet I also believed they would make me a better version of myself.

Until I finally realized there was no “better” version of myself. I needed to stop shorting my own stock by evaluating myself through an economist’s eyes. So I took myself off the market. ...

In so doing, I hardly expected to meet a man who creates maps for the newspaper most widely read by economists: The Wall Street Journal.
--Patricia Park, NYT, on her strange fetish

Friday, June 12, 2015

An argument that Tom Brady is innocent

Considering that our impartiality was at least implicitly recognized by the N.F.L. in the past, we believe that our analysis of the evidence in Deflategate, in a study released Friday by the American Enterprise Institute, could help resolve this latest controversy.

Deflategate is a dispute about whether the New England Patriots used deliberately underinflated footballs in their playoff victory over the Indianapolis Colts in January. ...

...when we analyzed the data provided in the Wells report, we found that the Patriots balls declined by about the expected amount, while the Colts balls declined by less. In fact, the pressure of the Colts balls was statistically significantly higher than expected. Contrary to the report, the significant difference between the changes in pressure of the two teams’ balls was not because the pressure of the Patriots balls was too low, but because that of the Colts balls was too high.

How could this be? The report’s own findings suggest an explanation: At halftime, N.F.L. officials measured the pressure of “only a sample” of the Colts balls (four out of 12) before they ran out of time; the second half of the game was about to begin. This implies that the Colts balls sat in the warm room where they were to be measured — and thus increased in pressure — for almost the entirety of halftime before being measured.

All of the 11 available Patriots balls, by contrast, were measured at halftime, which suggests that they were measured earlier, when they were colder — and thus lower in pressure. Although this explanation contradicts the Wells report’s conclusions, it fits all the evidence. ...

There are other factors discussed in our study that undermine support for the Wells report’s conclusions. For example, there is considerable uncertainty concerning the actual pressure of the footballs. The N.F.L. official who checked the pressure before the game used some combination of two pressure gauges to measure the Patriots and Colts balls, but it is not known which particular combination.

One of the gauges, as the report notes, records pressures that are higher than the other. If the official used that gauge to measure the Patriots balls (but not the Colts balls) pregame, then those balls may well have started out with too little air, which could explain a later appearance of intentional deflation. The report, however, does not consider that possibility.
--Kevin Hassett and Stan Veuger, NYT, on freeing Tom Brady. HT: CO

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

How the greatest headline in U.S. history almost never was

Vincent Musetto, a retired editor at The New York Post who wrote the most anatomically evocative headline in the history of American journalism — HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR — died on Tuesday in the Bronx. He was 74. ...

The crime behind the headline was lurid even by tabloid standards. On April 13, 1983, Charles Dingle, drinking in a tavern in the Jamaica section of Queens, argued with the owner, Herbert Cummings, and shot him to death. He then took several women hostage, raping one and forcing another, in an apparent bid to confound the police, to cut off Mr. Cummings’s head. ...

But what endured in public memory far longer than the crime was the headline, with its verbless audacity, arresting parallel adjectives and forceful trochaic slams. (The corresponding headline in The New York Times that day proclaimed, genteelly, “Owner of a Bar Shot to Death; Suspect Is Held.” Headlessness was not mentioned until the third paragraph; toplessness not at all.) ...

As several former colleagues have recalled over the years, Mr. Musetto’s headline almost did not come to be. That April evening, as deadline loomed in the newsroom, it occurred to someone that the bar in question might not actually be topless.

“It’s gotta be a topless bar!” Mr. Musetto cried, as his former colleague Charlie Carillo wrote for The Huffington Post in 2012. “This is the greatest headline of my career!” (As quoted by Mr. Carillo, there was an intervening, ungenteel participle between “greatest” and “headline.”)

The Post dispatched a reporter, who phoned from Queens to say, to the relief of all and to the everlasting glory of American tabloid journalism, that topless it was.
--Margalit Fox, NYT, on a fact almost too good to check

Monday, May 25, 2015

Eliminating the need to eat in Silicon Valley

Every night, Aaron Melocik, a software developer, follows a precise food routine. He blends together half a gallon of water, three and a half tablespoons of macadamia nut oil and a 16-ounce bag of powder called Schmoylent. Then he pours the beige beverage into jars and chills them before bringing the containers to work the next day at Metrodigi, an education technology start-up.

At the office, Mr. Melocik stashes one Schmoylent jar in the refrigerator and takes the other to his desk. From 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., he sips from the first jar for breakfast, and the second for lunch. He consumes about 14 fluid ounces of Schmoylent each day so he can focus on coding instead of grabbing a bite to eat.

“It just removes food completely from my morning equation up until about 7 p.m.,” said Mr. Melocik, 34, who has been following his techie diet since February.

Boom times in Silicon Valley call for hard work, and hard work — at least in technology land — means that coders, engineers and venture capitalists are turning to liquid meals with names like Schmoylent, Soylent, Schmilk and People Chow. ...

Demand for some of the powdered drinks, which typically mix nutrients like magnesium, zinc and vitamins, is so high that some engineers report being put on waiting lists of one to six months to receive their first orders. ...

Soylent, Schmilk and some others typically taste like bland, gritty pancake batter. But never mind that, since the meal replacements save techies money and time. While a meal generally costs upward of $50 at Silicon Valley-area restaurants, a week’s worth of Soylent or Schmoylent totals $85. ...

The time wasted by eating is, in Silicon Valley parlance, a “pain point” even for the highest echelon of techie. Elon Musk, Tesla’s founder, once said, “If there was a way that I couldn’t eat so I could work more, I would not eat. I wish there was a way to get nutrients without sitting down for a meal,” according to a new book on the entrepreneur, written by Ashlee Vance. Mr. Musk did not respond to a request for comment about whether he had tried Schmilk or Soylent.

Monday, April 27, 2015

A Soviet computer malfunction almost caused World War III

Thirty years ago, on 26 September 1983, the world was saved from potential nuclear disaster.

In the early hours of the morning, the Soviet Union's early-warning systems detected an incoming missile strike from the United States. Computer readouts suggested several missiles had been launched. The protocol for the Soviet military would have been to retaliate with a nuclear attack of its own.

But duty officer Stanislav Petrov - whose job it was to register apparent enemy missile launches - decided not to report them to his superiors, and instead dismissed them as a false alarm.

This was a breach of his instructions, a dereliction of duty. The safe thing to do would have been to pass the responsibility on, to refer up.

But his decision may have saved the world. ...

"The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word 'launch' on it," he says.

The system was telling him that the level of reliability of that alert was "highest". There could be no doubt. America had launched a missile.

"A minute later the siren went off again. The second missile was launched. Then the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. Computers changed their alerts from 'launch' to 'missile strike'," he says. ...

Although the nature of the alert seemed to be abundantly clear, Mr Petrov had some doubts.

Alongside IT specialists, like him, Soviet Union had other experts, also watching America's missile forces. A group of satellite radar operators told him they had registered no missiles.

But those people were only a support service. The protocol said, very clearly, that the decision had to be based on computer readouts. And that decision rested with him, the duty officer.

But what made him suspicious was just how strong and clear that alert was.

"There were 28 or 29 security levels. After the target was identified, it had to pass all of those 'checkpoints'. I was not quite sure it was possible, under those circumstances," says the retired officer.

Mr Petrov called the duty officer in the Soviet army's headquarters and reported a system malfunction. ...

Now, 30 years on, Mr Petrov thinks the odds were 50-50. He admits he was never absolutely sure that the alert was a false one.

He says he was the only officer in his team who had received a civilian education. "My colleagues were all professional soldiers, they were taught to give and obey orders," he told us.

So, he believes, if somebody else had been on shift, the alarm would have been raised.
--Pavel Aksenov, BBC, on how lucky we are

What it's like to work for Floyd Mayweather

The gig is like no other. [Floyd] Mayweather is such a reality-warping force in his own training camp that he refuses to set a daily schedule of any kind. Each day, his entourage — including his father-slash-trainer, his uncle-slash-trainer, his hand-wrap specialist, his conditioning coach, his bodyguards, and others — wait outside his gated home with their gear packed, often lingering into the early morning hours for the fighter to decide what he wants to do. Mayweather has thrived off this spontaneous model for years, and while those on his payroll have grown accustomed to his eccentric routines, the shifting schedule is especially challenging for [Maywather's personal chef Quiana] Jeffries, one of the newest members of his team.

“If Champ wants a meal at three, four, five, six in the morning, I have to be ready for that,” Jeffries says. “He’s called me at four and says, ‘I want that oxtail.’” She immediately got going on a batch of her special oxtail stew smothered in gravy. ...

Diet, of course, is a key element of his training regimen. “He wants all organic,” Jeffries says — sometimes a tall order in a place like Vegas. She has looked for a farmers’ market, but says she has yet to find one. Even so, it probably wouldn't be open at 3 a.m.. There are several 24-hour supermarkets, but not all the departments of those stores stay open, and racing to get ingredients for Mayweather’s meals has become a kind of sport for her.

“The seafood counters always close early,” she says — so she's befriended night managers who can retrieve special ingredients for her. “They all know who we work for.” She's generally able to get items like king crab legs and shrimp, essential ingredients for the seafood gumbo Mayweather loves, any time of the day or night.
--Geoffrey Gray, New York, on a man unmoored from social conventions

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Letter from Harvard statistics department to Yale statistics department

October 2, 1963

Professor Frank Anscombe, Chairman
Department of Statistics
Yale University
New Haven, Conn.

Dear Professor Anscombe:

At its meeting of September 23, 1963, the Department of Statistics at Harvard University, after sharp and acrimonious debate,* unanimously instructed the Chairman to extend felicitations to the Department of Statistics of Yale University on the occasion of its founding. The members expressed the view that the new department would add vigor and stature to our field in New England and have a fortunate effect on competence in statistics throughout the nation. Consequently, it is our great pleasure to welcome your department and extend our best wishes.

The Chairman was also directed to explore the possibility of cooperative enterprises that the two departments might develop to their joint advantage.

Sincerely yours,
Frederick Mosteller

*The minutes of the meeting are woefully incomplete, but the question whether blue was not a melancholy color for statistics was countered by the opinion that it might be as satisfactory as a shade of red. Concern whether canine tenacity was adequate for either Bayesian or classical statistics was allayed by the depressing thought that it may be superior to complete absence of animal spirits, our diligent researches having failed to uncover any Harvard mascot.
--Letter on display in the common room of the Yale statistics department building

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Oprah's misunderstanding of Anna Karenina

The myth embodied in great romances tells us that love envelops our whole being. Romantic love presses upon us with irresistible intensity. ...

What is more, according to this ideology, we do not choose such love. It befalls us. We “fall in love,” we do not jump in love. Such love is a “passion,” not an action. ...

For this reason, romantic love feels like fate, and an ideology of amoral fatalism often accompanies it. Lovers live in a realm beyond good and evil. After all, good and evil depend on choice, and where fate governs, choice is out of the question. No matter how much pain the lovers cause, one cannot condemn them. Adultery becomes as noble as revolution, and only cramped moralists worry about the pain caused the betrayed spouse or abandoned children.

That is the story Anna Karenina imagines she is living. As one of her friends observes, she resembles a heroine from a romance. But Anna’s sense of herself is not Tolstoy’s sense of her. He places his romantic heroine not in a romance, where her values would be validated, but in the world of prosaic reality, where actions have consequences and the pain we inflict matters.

Oprah Winfrey, who chose Tolstoy’s novel for her book club, followed many others in viewing Anna Karenina as a celebration of its heroine and of romantic love. That gets the book exactly wrong. It mistakes Anna’s story of herself for Tolstoy’s. Just as Anna Karenina imagines herself into the novel she reads, such readers imagine themselves as Anna or her adulterous lover Vronsky. They do not seem to entertain the possibility that the values they accept unthinkingly are the ones Tolstoy wants to discredit. ...

Anna’s story illustrates the dangers of romantic thinking. As she gives herself to her affair, she tells herself that she had no choice, but her loss of will is willed. Returning by train to her husband in St. Petersburg with Vronsky in pursuit, she experiences a sort of delirium:
She was constantly beset by moments of doubt as to whether the car was going forward or back or standing still altogether. Was it Annushka beside her or a stranger? “What is this on the arm, a fur or a beast? And is this me here? Am I myself or someone else?” She was terrified of surrendering to this oblivion. But something was drawing her into it, and she could surrender or resist at will (Part I, chapter 29).
The relativism of motion she experiences is a precise analogue to the delirious moral relativism she is falling into. Though she will later insist she could not have done otherwise, Tolstoy tells us that “she could surrender or resist at will.” Her fatalism is a choice.
--Gary Saul Morson, Commentary, on one of the moral messages of Anna Karenina. HT: SWR