Tag Archives: new york times

Why aren’t math professors sociopaths?

Great open from Chris Hayes:

Imagine you’re a scientist in some sci-fi alternate universe, and you’ve been charged with creating a boot camp that will reliably turn normal but ambitious people into broken sociopaths more or less willing to do anything.

There are two main traits you’d want to cultivate in your recruits. The first would be terror: You’d want to ensure that the experimental subjects were kept off-­balance and insecure, always fearful that bad things would happen, that they would be humiliated or lose their position and be cast out. But at the same time, it would be crucial that you assiduously inculcate a towering sense of superiority, the belief that the project they happen to be engaged in is more important than anything and that, because of their remarkable skills and efforts, they are among the select few chosen to be a part of it. You’d want to simultaneously make them neurotically insecure and self-doubting and also filled with the conviction that they and their colleagues are smarter and better and more deserving than anyone else.

He’s writing about young investment bankers, whose lives, such as they are, are described in Kevin Roose’s new book “Young Money.”  But doesn’t this boot camp actually describe the Ph.D. experience pretty well?  And if so, why aren’t math professors sociopaths?

I can think of one reason:  in finance, the thing you are trying to do is screw over somebody else.  If you win, someone has lost.  Mathematics is different.  We’re all pushing together.  Not that there’s no competition; but it’s embedded in a fundamental consensus that we’re all on the same team.  Apparently this is enough to hold back the sociopathy, at least for most of us.

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Is anybody still editing the New York Times?

From the John Jeremiah Sullivan piece on massage in the NYTimes magazine:

When you feel like that, you don’t leap to be naked in rooms with an assortment of strangers while they rub their hands all over your bare flesh — there’s probably a fetish group for becoming as physically disgusting as you can and then procuring massages, but that’s not my damage. Also, there’s something about massage in general that makes me more, not less, relaxed.

He means “less, not more.”  If you click through you’ll see it’s been corrected in the online version.  So someone noticed it at some point.  But someone should have noticed it before the piece was posted and printed!

See also my complaint about Justin Cronin’s The Passage, which besides being carelessly edited — when you vomit because a vampire bit you, you are retching, not wretching, dammit! — failed to live up to the promise of its very good first 300 pages.  Executive summary:  it starts out as The Stand and ends up as The Dark Tower, and if you think that is not a downgrade then we shall fight.

Back to Sullivan:

But that’s true for so many of us — we fall into our lines of work like coins dropping into slots, bouncing down off various failures and false-starts.

has a nice cadence but does not actually describe a thing that is like the way a coin drops into a slot.  Before the coin goes in the slot, it doesn’t bounce off anything, and after it’s in the slot, it may bounce down off things inside the mechanism (is that what he meant?) but it does so while travelling down a well-defined rigid channel, exactly the opposite of what Sullivan is going for.

Finally:

The yellowish gray-green circles under my eyes had a micropebbled texture, and my skin gave off a sebaceousy sheen of coffee-packet coffee.

Most of this is great, especially “micropebbled,” but “sebaceousy” isn’t right — I’m not sure the “add -y to informalize a word,” move, a lexical way to indicate “kind of” or “sort of,” applies to any adjective, and if it does apply to some, I’m sure it doesn’t apply to “sebaceous.”

 

 

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When he finds out about regexps he’s going to totally freak

Thomas Friedman in today’s New York Times:

 To the contrary, there will surely be a new secretary of state visiting you next year with the umpteenth road map for “confidence-building measures” between Israelis and Palestinians. He or she may even tell you that “this is the year of decision.” Be careful. We’ve been there before. If you Google “Year of decision in the Middle East,” you’ll get more than 100,000,000 links.

Can this really be true?  Nope.  In fact if you Google that phrase you get fewer than 12,000 links.

The problem here is that Thomas Friedman apparently doesn’t know that when you search Google for a phrase you need to put quotes around it.  Without the quotes, you do indeed get more than 100,000,000 results.  That’s because a lot of web pages mention years, decisions, and things located either in the middle or to the east.

It seems plausible that long-time New York Times columnists might not know how to use Google, but it’s appalling if the people who edit and fact-check the columns don’t know how to use Google.

So that this post has some content and is not pure snark, here’s a relevant article by my friend Eszter Hargittai, whose research has taught us a lot about how people use search engines in the real world.

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It’s a recall, not an omen

Already time to take back, or at least complicate, the nice things I said about the Times’s Wisconsin coverage.  Today above the fold:

Broadly, the results will be held up as an omen for the presidential race in the fall, specifically for President Obama’s chances of capturing this Midwestern battleground — one that he easily won in 2008 but that Republicans nearly swept in the midterm elections of 2010…

A Marquette Law School telephone poll of 600 likely voters, conducted last week, found Mr. Walker leading 52 percent to 45 percent; the poll’s margin of sampling error was plus or minus 4 percentage points for each candidate.

I suppose I can’t deny that the results “will be held up as” an omen for November’s election by some people.  But those people will be wrong, and the Times should say so.  At the very least they should avoid giving the impression that the recall vote is likely to be predictive of the presidential vote, an assertion for which they give no evidence, not even a quote in support.

I’m just going to repeat what I said in the last post.  Wisconsin is split half and half between Republicans and Democrats.  In nationally favorable Democratic environments (2008) the state votes Democratic.  In nationally favorable Republican environments (2010) the state votes Republican.  At this moment, there’s no national partisan wave, and you can expect Wisconsin elections to be close.  But incumbency is an advantage.  So Walker is winning, and so is Obama. As the Times reports, the Marquette poll has him up 7.  What the Times doesn’t report is that the very same poll has Obama beating Romney by 8.

I guess the recall might be an omen after all — if Walker actually wins by 7, it means there’s no massive shift to the GOP going on in this state, and you’re a broadly popular incumbent President whose hometown is within a half-day’s drive of most of Wisconsin’s population, your prospects here are pretty good.

Arguing against myself:  2006 was also a great year for Democrats nationally, and incumbent Democratic governor Jim Doyle beat Mark Green by only 7.

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In which I am sentimental about diagramming sentences

Enjoyable op-ed in the Times about the history of the soon-to-be-lost art:

By the latter half of the 19th century, chalkboards had become increasingly common in classrooms; for students, the impact of watching a sentence take shape on that large surface as a comprehensible, often elegant, and sometimes downright ingenious drawing must have been significant. It’s hard to believe anyone but the most dedicated pedant could have actually enjoyed parsing, but plenty of students — including me — loved diagramming.

Me too.  It’s funny:  I don’t have any feeling at all that today’s students need to learn the pencil-and-paper algorithm for long division or square root extraction.  But the vanishing of sentence diagrams makes me sad.  Presumably if I were a linguist instead of a mathematician I’d feel the opposite.

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Miscellaneous linkdump Nov 11

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David Foster Wallace did not write Catcher in the Rye

William Deresiewicz drills into the soul of the modern hipster, or purports to, but in his capsule generational roundup we get this:

As for the slackers of the late ’80s and early ’90s (Generation X, grunge music, the fiction of David Foster Wallace), their affect ran to apathy and angst, a sense of aimlessness and pointlessness. Whatever. That they had no social vision was precisely what their social vision was: a defensive withdrawal from all commitment as inherently phony.

This is in fact the exact opposite of what happens in the fiction of David Foster Wallace, unless somehow the phrase “late ’80s and early ’90s”means that WD is using the phrase “the fiction of David Foster Wallace” to refer to The Broom of the System only — and even in this case a better argument would be “their affect ran to obsessive self-examination and an overreliance on analytic philosophy as self-help,” which, let me tell you, would have made for a much more awesome early ’90s than the one we actually had.

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Put the second law of thermodynamics down and slowly step away, New York Times

From Natalie Angier’s article on “pathological altruism”:

Yet given her professional background, Dr. Oakley couldn’t help doubting altruism’s exalted reputation. “I’m not looking at altruism as a sacred thing from on high,” she said. “I’m looking at it as an engineer.”

And by the first rule of engineering, she said, “there is no such thing as a free lunch; there are always trade-offs.” If you increase order in one place, you must decrease it somewhere else.

Moreover, the laws of thermodynamics dictate that the transfer of energy will itself exact a tax, which means that the overall disorder churned up by the transaction will be slightly greater than the new orderliness created. None of which is to argue against good deeds, Dr. Oakley said, but rather to adopt a bit of an engineer’s mind-set, and be prepared for energy losses and your own limitations.

Stop hurting physics!

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Is Zipcar offering too little insurance?

Ron Lieber in the New York Times says Zipcar is underinsuring its customers:

Today, customers who are 21 or older have $300,000 of liability coverageper accident. That would have to cover mangled limbs, brain damage, pain and suffering and anything else that might befall all the people that a Zipcar vehicle mowed down or plowed into.

Drivers under 21 get much less coverage. Zipcar would have to pay a lot of money to provide $300,000 in coverage to less-experienced college-age drivers, and it figures that most of its users in this age group are covered by their parents’ auto policies anyway. So Zipcar does as little as possible here, offering each state’s minimum requirements and no more….

Zipcar members who do not read the disclosures on the company’s Web site would never know about any of this. And many of them don’t, since the company has persisted with the claim elsewhere on its site that its insurance is “comprehensive.”

Wouldn’t a lawyer for an injured person or the family of an accident victim go after Zipcar first, since that’s where the money is? They could try, but a federal law shields rental car companies in many instances, and Zipcar has already cited it in at least one legal skirmish over someone injured in an accident involving a Zipcar.

Just in case, however, Zipcar still insures itself. In a filing accompanying its initial public offering, the company noted that in the event that it was responsible for an accident, say because it failed to maintain its cars, it had coverage up to $5 million in the United States. That is more than 16 times the maximum protection that it offers its members.

I have no position on how much liability insurance a driver ought to have.  But every advice on this I’ve ever read agrees that the amount of insurance you want goes up with your assets.  It would be truly weird if Zipcar didn’t insure itself against much, much greater losses than its customers do.

According to a Zipcar spokeswoman, Colleen McCormick, the $300,000 in coverage has been adequate for every accident since it began operations. She added that more than half of accidents involve only the Zipcar vehicle itself. When another car is involved, 93 percent of the accidents have resulted in claims of less than $10,000, and 99.3 percent result in claims of less than $50,000.

That makes the company pretty lucky. Sure, accidents with injuries are rare, but what happens when they do occur? According to ISO, a data provider to insurance companies, about 2 percent of bodily injury liability insurance claims in the United States are for more than $300,000; in the State of New York, it’s 3 percent.

For brain damage in a vehicular accident, the median jury award in 2008, the most recent year for which data was available, was $289,793, according to Jury Verdict Research, which compiles the data and publishes it. For leg injuries, the median was $192,775.

Not one but two devious coordinate changes here.  Zipcar says that claims of more than $50,000 make up .7% of half of all claims, so about .4%.  Lieber argues that this makes them very lucky:  3% of claims in New York State are for more than $300,000.  But look closely — the second number only applies to claims involving bodily injury — obviously these will be the most expensive class.  How frequent are bodily injury claims?  Lieber gives no hint.  But he does go on, rather slyly in my view, to narrow his focus to an even smaller class of claims, those involving brain injuries — now the median size of claim is already close to $300K.  But how many bodily injuries involve brain injuries?  Again, we’re in the dark.

I heartily endorse the genre of business piece that uses numbers as part of an argument.  But you need to include all the relevant numbers!

One number that’s plainly important:  how often do Zipcar customers end up facing liabilities that exceed what they’re insured for?  Credit to Lieber for answering this one — it’s “never.”

“Never in 10 million drives has a single person had to come out of pocket” for a liability claim, said Rob Weisberg, Zipcar’s chief marketing officer. “Our coverage is two times our next-largest competitor, and our coverage is greater than most Americans have who insure their personally owned vehicles.”

That doesn’t make those Americans adequately covered. And the logic here strikes me as backward. Insurance is supposed to be for things that would be financially catastrophic. To sell protection against a three-figure fee while leaving members exposed to a seven-figure judgment doesn’t make much sense.

So if you’re a Zipcar member, as I am, now you know what the worst case looks like. Still feeling comfortable with the company’s coverage?

To sum up:  Zipcar is mistreating its customers by failing to offer a service that most of them don’t want, and which, if offered, would not have been used in the company’s entire history.

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Weird NYT walkback on the Hauser case

The New York Times recently revisited the case of Marc Hauser, the Harvard psychologist accused of research fraud.  Nicholas Wade’s new article suggests that Hauser might be more sloppy than dishonest, the victim of a bureaucratic legal process that makes no allowances for innocent mistakes, and that the situation is starting to turn in Hauser’s favor:

Also last month his principal accuser outside of Harvard, Gerry Altmann, allowed that he may have spoken too hastily. Dr. Altmann is the editor of Cognition, a psychology journal in which Dr. Hauser published an article said by Harvard to show scientific misconduct.

When first shown evidence by Harvard for this conclusion, Dr. Altmann publicly accused Dr. Hauser of fabricating data. But he now says an innocent explanation, based on laboratory error, not fraud, is possible. People should step back, he writes, and “allow due process to conclude.”

Here’s Altmann’s response:

[Wade] selectively quotes from me to support the contention that the discrepancy between Hauser’s raw data and the published data were due to “devastating error, but not fraud”. In fact, there has been no stepping back. As I make very clear in this blog (and repeated in emails to Mr. Wade – see below), the information I have received, when taken at face value, leads me to maintain my belief that the data that had been published in the journal Cognition was effectively a fiction – that is, there was no basis in the recorded data for those data. I concluded, and I continue to conclude, that the data were most likely fabricated.

From there, the article gets feisty and strange.

Dr. Hauser’s difficulties began in 2007 when university officials went into his lab one afternoon when he was out of the country and publicly confiscated his records, an action based on accusations by some of his students.

For the next 18 months he had no idea what he was accused of.

Well, unless he actually had fabricated data, in which case he might have had a tiny shred of an idea.

A troika of Harvard department heads then delivered a secret report.

Hold on now, that sounds Russian!

Then there’s this:

Harvard’s investigation has been “lawyer-driven,” says a faculty member who spoke on condition of anonymity, and has stuck so closely to the letter of government-approved rules for investigating misconduct that the process has become unduly protracted — it lasted three years — and procedurally unfair to the accused.

“I think it legitimate to ask why the Harvard brass did not push back against their lawyers,” this member said. “At Harvard we now have the Un-Larry administration — no risk-taking, no thinking outside the box, no commitment to principles that challenge standard university practice,” he said, referring to Harvard’s previous president, the economist Larry Summers.

It’s not clear to me why Harvard’s lawyers would be so keen on besmirching a distinguished and popular professor, or how bending the rules to avoid bringing charges against Hauser would demonstrate a “commitment to principles.”

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