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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Last night, yesterday morning: a Wheeler family story

My father's patrilineal family line, the Wheelers, have a particularly great family story that's been passed down from generation to generation.

The story takes place in the south, probably in Kentucky, sometime before the Civil War; my great-aunt, who knew her grandparents' generation well, placed it around 1950.

County fairs were the big entertainment in those days, huge week-long extravaganzas full of pumpkin growing contests, horse pulls (seeing whose horse can pull the greatest weight), bake-offs, and various carnival games. In the days before movies, let alone television, if you weren't in a city and near a vaudeville theatre, this was just the best it could get.

My great great grandfather, Charles James Merriweather ("C.M.") Wheeler, born around 1830, loved the carnival games as a boy, and as he got older he was especially fascinated by the unconvetional games--where instead of throwing hoops around a nail, you were trying to outwit a carnival veteran.

His favorite booth each year was the memory expert: a man who swore he could remember any story under a hundred words, which had to be grammatically correct of course, after only one hearing. To challenge him, you had to obtain or come up with the story, and read it aloud off a piece of paper; the crowd behind you would follow the words, so there would be a record to compare the carny's response to.

The fireworks came after you'd finish reading; there would be a pause, when it would seem to the crowd perfectly impossible to remember every word; and then the memory expert would rattle it off, the whole thing, in one or two breaths, slap his hand on the money you'd wagered, and add it to the bank, while the crowd gasped and clapped and shook their heads.

Oh, and that wager was a whole quarter, a good day's wage in that time. The Wheelers were schoolteachers who had recently immigrated from Scotland, and a quarter was no small amount to part with on a lark.

If by some miracle you won--something C. M. had never seen, in several seasons of hanging around the booth--you would win a "whole ham". In other words, the cured hindquarter of a hog, a massive two hundred pound piece of meat that would feed a family through the winter--an enormous payoff.

We all know this story in my family because C. M. saved up, wrote the most nonsensical story he could think of, and one summer day plunked down his quarter, waited for the crowd to stop shouting, pulled out his paper and read aloud the following:

Last night yesterday morning, about one o'clock in the afternoon, a hungry boy about 40 years old bought a custard for a levy and threw it through a brick wall nine feet thick, and jumping over it, broke his right ankle above his left knee and fell into a dry mill pond and was drowned. Ten years later on the same day, a cat hatched nine turkey gobblers and a high wind blew Yankee Doodle on a frying pan in Boston, where a deaf and dumb man was talking to his Aunt Peter.

The memory expert got half way through the mill pond, and no farther. C. M. won the ham, became a local hero, and (with plenty of help) brought home a huge surprise for his parents and brothers and sisters.

I asked my father to comment on this, and he said: "Of course he won the prize! This ditty has been handed down from father or mother to son and daughter across five enerations now, in the 150+ years since."

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Friday, February 09, 2018

The certainty of the education reformer

In a recent interview with Reason, economics professor Bryan Caplan made the case against our education system.

Watching it sent me down and epistemological rabbit hole about social change and how we know what we know about its workings and consequences.

There's a ton in this interview that I agree with. I certainly agree that most students don't seem to be getting from their education anywhere near as much as I got from mine.

And I have a lot of trust in the assessment that for most people, much of the value of college, and even high school, comes from the signaling that a degree provides.

At Columbia University, I was often taken aback by how impersonal and anonymous the learning experience was in many classes. In one particularly frustrating computer science class, the professor refused to reveal answers to homework assignments when they were over (so students could, you know, learn from our mistakes), because then he felt he'd have to write new problems for future semesters. And after all, he wasn't really paid to teach; if he was the greatest teacher on earth but not a research asset for the university's brand, he wouldn't be there.

So to some degree, Caplan's right that even top universities are something of a diploma mill. And of course, many colleges are little but a diploma mill.

Still, more of the classes I took in my public and private education taught me something significant then ones that didn't, and I turned out as the sort of student I think we want to produce. Of course, that means analyzing education in general a strange and difficult thing for me--the experience of most people is much worse than mine, and I don't know how much of that difference is me and my background (and genes), how much is a difference in the schools I went to (in progressive, intellectual, diverse Cambridge, MA), and how much is chance.

When Caplan talks about people not coming away from their education with knowledge of politics and literature and such, it seems wildly out of step with what education was for me. I certainly have tons of complaints about the quality of my teachers, and there were lots of times that I wasn't learning much in this or that class, but by and large I did learn in a direction and rate that I would happily apply to society as a whole if I could. Thanks to my elementary school, I discovered Katherine Paterson, J. R. R. Tolkein, Agatha Christie, Roald Dahl, creative writing, and the BASIC programming language. Thanks to my high school, I discovered political activism, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Louise Erdrich, Eugene Ionesco, Man Ray, Huston Smith, Charles Dickens, Stephen Jay Gould, playwriting, theater production, electronic music production, photography, sexual orientation and gender identity, evolutionary psychology, the Pascal programming language, and reading the Bible as literature. Thanks to my college, I discovered newspaper writing, teaching programming, how to write a good essay, the nation of Georgia, the history of Iran, the Shahnameh, Virgil, Rachmaninov, Hume, Octavia Butler, Darryl Scott, Thaddeus Russell, my wife Kate, and how to tell an intellectually acute historian from a complacent one. (Bonus points if you can tell me which kind Alan Brinkley and Simon Schama are.)

Of course, I would have learned a lot and might have had just as much (or more!) smarts and skills if I had had less of a traditional education, or if it had been just mildly supervised, personally directed learning. Likewise, the kids who he's talking about who are graduating without skills or knowledge, or dropping out of college, are mostly people who would not be pursuing knowledge independently.

That's what I feel is most missing from his tone and approach: a recognition of the full landscape of the problem and all of the foolish traps that lie in the direction Caplan is pointing to. It's easy to look at the current direction and point out the existence of failures. And it's fine, even necessary, to make causal inferences, to some degree, that connect the current direction to those failures. But if you're not anywhere near the stage of actually trying out alternatives and trying to leverage their lessons for large numbers of people, then at some point these denunciations move past intellectual inquiry into something more like polemical masturbation.

Of course in the self-branding, publishing world, you need to be a promoter of a simplified view of your ideas, so I'm not saying Caplan can't have a more circumspect and skeptical approach in his actual work than he does in a brief online video! It's just that an awareness of these limitations feels glaringly absent in this interview, and in most loud denunciations of the education system.

That said, I basically agree with the incremental direction he's advocating: towards more student self-direction and focus on apprenticeship.

(And I think it should probably be easier for kids to drop out, and in fact to be kicked out, from school at a younger age; I think the simple fact that students haven't actually chosen to be in school, or at a particular school, or in a particular class, is a huge barrier to their engaging at the level necessary to improve themselves.)

I just think school in that apprenticeship-and-play direction, or in a more radically decentralized and non-coercive direction, has almost all of the same problems with outcome as school now. (I don't think it's the fault of school that there is such a high correlation between books a family has at home and long-term earnings of the children.) I've visited, or sent to my children too, many schools that have massive amounts of undirected time. I've also visited "no excuses" schools with a much more constantly active, regimented focus. My personal sense is that kids were about as happy and learned at both, and I don't know how much of a blessing it would be to liberate students from no excuses schools and send them to self-directed schools instead.

I appreciate Kaplan's looking at the outcomes of students with different numbers of years of college education in order to illustrate how much of the value is just in the signaling of the degree. But I think he could similarly look at the spectrum of educational approaches currently in play. I don't think there have been better outcomes from schools, or state policies, that are incrementally more in the direction that he recommends. He might argue that much of the value of his direction won't show up in earnings and test scores; I would say the same about college.

I'm not a big fan of Diane Ravitch's overall polemical writing, but a few years ago I read and enjoyed her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System. The thesis is that there have been an endless stream of hyper-confident, publicly lauded reformers who have no shred of doubt that they know precisely which changes will obviously improve the education system. One after another, they have done their best to massively intervene in local interactions between children and the adult community members that attempt to educate them; and one after another, these reforms have flamed out and left a wake of destructive disruption.

Ravitch advocates much more caution before presuming that we know that revolutionary new education systems would be better than the systems they replace. This humility is frustratingly rare; there is seldom any reflection from the reformers or their backers that the confidence of the eternal reformist project itself may have been part of the problem. The conversation is instead about which other reform must be the unquestionably true, obviously correct direction.

This is all to say that, warts and all, the collective knowledge and wisdom that has gone into constructing the current system is much greater than your wisdom or mine. And the collective flaws and foolishness are much greater than yours or mine. I don't just mean that in aggregate, since obviously the number of people I'm comparing is wildly different! But I mean taken as a whole, there are thousands of tiny pieces of wisdom and policy correctives to incorporate empirical observation and adjust for unintended consequences.

(The same could also be said of our deeply flawed political and legal system--we might be quite unpleasantly surprised to find out what a popular revolution in America would give us instead, as we are somewhat finding out with the Trump quasi-revolution.)

There are certainly better ways we could be doing this, especially if you afford those alternative ways their own history of accumulated wisdom; such as when you compare our system to other countries'. The inertia of a current system is not a reason in and of itself to avoid changing it. But, that inertia contains information about the nature of attempts to change it that we are being foolish if we do not use to inform those attempts.

If Caplan has an inkling of these complexities and the importance of that sort of wisdom, I don't detect it in this interview.

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Your own Chris Hemsworth pet

In the Black Mirror 4th season episode USS Callister, it was surprising to me that they used DNA alone to create simulations of people when you could just do what they did in the early Black Mirror episode "Wish You Were Here", and scan social media to build a simulation of a personality and body.

What's especially interesting to me about that scenario is how it doesn't really need to perfectly mimic the person. As long as it seems like a person and it matches them closely enough, I suspect our empathetic brains would fill in the rest and we would perceive the full human. Of course we will need to develop AI to the point of general (human equivalent) intelligence before we could really fall in love and reason with such a simulation, but if all you want to do is use them as a prop and exploit them, we are probably very near that technological point already.

Which means, if you think about it, you could have your own Chris Hemsworth or Jessica Alba VR pet very soon. Some of these might be deliberate commercial products, but others will be totally unauthorized products of social media stalking. Have an old flame for an ex? You're not far off from being able to create a simulation of them convincing enough to have virtual sex with or even abuse. Checking out someone on the subway with your hacked HoloLens glasses? Now you can own them forever. (Especially easy since you don't even have a real sense of their personality to compare against.)

I think this sort of thing may enable a flourishing of inhumanity and socially dysfunctional rabbit holes.

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Thursday, February 01, 2018

Biopics that would blow people's minds

Biopic screenplays that would blow people's minds:

* Oney Judge, who escaped from George Washington and was hunted by his goons

* Josephine Baker spying by night

* Paul Robeson singing opera, receiving law degree from Columbia, being persecuted by US gov't... while playing in the NFL

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What skills are needed to be a Quant?

On Hacker News, a user asks, what skills are needed to be a quantitative trader?

My answer:

From many people I have seen succeed and fail at being quants (in the high frequency trading realm, which is different in many ways than the derivatives analysis world), you don't really need any financial background, besides being a thoughtful and reflective thinker who has naturally wondered and thought about how finance works on the national, business, and personal level.

In fact, I don't think you necessarily need to have background knowledge of anything in particular. What you do need, absolutely, is the ability and interest to learn complex concepts and areas of expertise in a diligent and meaningfully insightful way. That is, you need to be something of a Feynman-type thinker, learning statistics and programming and the math of data analysis and algorithmic analysis truly from the inside out, so that if you taught any of it to other people you would be a phenomenal teacher.

If you're not quite sure what that means, consider teaching a statistics class by having the students work their way chapter by chapter through a statistics textbook. Now say that you randomly insert 10 errors in to the textbook: you switch one word for another, you misuse Bayes' theorem in an example, you forget to adjust sample standard deviation to student sample standard deviation, you leave out a crucial paragraph of explanation in a lecture, etcetera. And you don't tell students to anticipate this and point it out.

How many students at a place like Stanford would catch most of these errors or omissions and speak up about their confusion? How many students would already be putting in the consistent, focused, diligent effort so that they could be reasonably confident the problem wasn't just in their laziness or inattention? How many would care so much more about understanding the material than about potentially embarrassing themselves to interrupt you in class?

If you taught that class 10 semesters in a row, in all that time I doubt there would be more than a handful of students who met that standard. If you took those students, with no particular background in finance, math, computer science, or statistics, and put them to work as a quant, it's highly likely they would succeed.

Whereas if you took students who never would have raised a question about any of those errors or omissions and gave them years of experience in all those areas, it's highly likely they would not succeed as a quant.

Of course, you certainly will need to rapidly develop a background in these disciplines, but you'd be surprised how quickly a focused study of finance allows you to surpass the financial knowledge of many professionals.

(Background: I worked as an algorithm developer at a major high frequency trading company for 6 years. Some of the most valuable employees, who generated tens of millions of dollars of value for the company, started with only spotty knowledge of finance, statistics or computer science.)

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"Innocent until proven guilty" is a lie

One common misconception of the comfortable political center is that our justice system presumes innocence. But innocence until guilt is proven is not the practical case for most offenders.

For one thing, when a defendant pleads guilty, guilt is *never proven*.

For another, there are a large number of guilty pleas by innocent people.

And for yet another thing, many criminal convictions rest on no evidence except for police eyewitness testimony, which does not constitute proof.

And for yet one more thing, police testimony has been shown to be likely false in at least hundreds of thousands of cases.

What's most interesting to me is that the assumption that our justice system presumes innocence is taken as an article of faith, quite unlike the assumption, say, that politicians represent their constituents. That is taken to be an ideal principle, sometimes met, but it's not presumed to be met, by and large; even in polite society, everybody knows that politicians frequently represent their donors, entrenched wealthy interests, organizations that get out the vote (like unions), and themselves.

I consider this sort of misleading assumption a "Brinkleyism", after centrist Columbia history professor Alan Brinkley, who muddles all sorts of forgiving assumptions about the workings of power in the United States with the official story that the U.S. power structure has constructed to guide thinking away from understanding its workings. Although you could also call them "The Economist-isms" after the venerable, self-congratulatory, and frequently obfuscating London publication.

For instance, the assumption that police must get a search warrant to force entry to a property, or the notion that Americans didn't like being ruled without representation by King George, or the idea that the U.S. government has long fought against terrorism, or the story that the U.S. government opposed socialist governments taking power for humanitarian and democratic reasons. The more you learn about how politics and justice play out in real life, the more you realize how misleading, inadequate or flat-out wrong these centrist presumptions are.

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