Category Archives: harvard

Harvard Class of 1906, P-S

More from the 25th anniverary report.

Sad people sounded then much as they sound now.  Howard Frank Shurtleff:

“As I try to put down something vivid and revealing about my last twenty-five years, the conviction grows that the promise I gave at graduation has not been realized.  Five years of teaching in Wisconsin and Connecticut ended with my return to the locality where I was born, chiefly because it was necessary for me to be in the open, and my taking up the work of tobacco growing.  The thing has not prospered, seems destined in fact not to prosper, as we produce mostly binders for cigars, and cigarettes are now rapidly replacing cigars.  I have been writing all these years, but I have printed but little.  My friends ask me what I am waiting for.  I don’t know.  I suppose I must remain to the end a puzzle to myself and to my friends, and consider myself lucky if there are any who really wish to call themselves my friends.”

Theron Finlay Pierce died in 1930, just before the book was compiled.  The editors wrote:

“Business was a secondary consideration in his life.  His nature was affectionate and whimsical, and his real interests social and intellectual.  He was particularly fond of travel.  After leaving college he went around the world with his brother and classmate, Roy, and later made frequent trips abroad.  During the last six or seven years of his life he became deeply absorbed in psychic research.  In 1927 he retired from active business for the purpose of devoting his entire time to this subject.

From 1927 to 1929 he lived at Prides Crossing, Mass., and there entertained many of the leaders in the psychic field.  He became greatly interested in the phenomenon of the Margery mediumship.  In 1929 he visited England and succeeded in arranging the test sittings for this medium which took place that fall under the observation of the British Society for Psychical Research.  During his trip he had the pleasure of being entertained by the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and other distinguished members of the London Society.”

Pierce had the opportunity to retire from active business because his father was the oil baron Henry Clay Pierce, who famously battled antitrust laws as a member of the Standard Oil cartel.  As for Mina Crandon, the Margery medium, she was a sensation so widely believed in that Houdini himself made it a special mission to debunk her psychic claims.  Houdini went so far as to accuse Crandon’s husband, a surgeon, of altering Crandon’s body to afford her hiding places on her person for the “ectoplasm” she produced in her seances.

Once again, I find myself wondering — where’s the historical costume drama about this story?  Dissipated oil heir, controversial psychic (who often worked nude), Arthur Conan Doyle, Houdini

Anyway, here’s Otto Henry Seiffert:

“Cooking is also my accomplishment.  I have never issued any publications but if I do, it will be a cook book, which I confidently expect will be translated into all the foreign languages, including Hindustani.  I have laid down the violin forever in favor of the saucepan, which I find in my own particular circle of low-brow acquaintances is much the more popular instrument.  I never lack for an audience and am generous about encores.  I can build up an architectural sauce that makes flounder or whitefish better than the choicest sole a chef ever dreamed of.  They say my Princeton orange cake is a song without words, and my scallops smothered in spaghetti an impromptu that should bring me a niche three feet wide in the Hall of Fame.

I can also mix a cocktail.”

Who knew Smoove B was alive in 1931?


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Startup culture, VC culture, and Mazurblogging

Those of us outside Silicon Valley tend to think of it as a single entity — but venture capitalists and developers are not the same people and don’t have the same goals.  I learned about this from David Carlton’s blog post.  Cathy O’Neil reposted it this morning.  It’s kind of cool that the three of us, who started grad school together and worked with Barry Mazur, are all actively blogging!  We just need to get Matt Emerton in on it and then we’ll have the complete set.  Maybe we could even launch a new blogging platform and call it mazr.  You want startup culture, I’ll give you startup culture!


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Work hard, play hard

A phrase that viscerally annoys me is older than I thought.  Harold Field Kellogg, Harvard ’06, writes:  “We students worked hard and played hard in Paris, but had time to travel through most of the countries of Europe, sketching and painting.”

Google suggests that “Work hard, play hard,” is even earlier, and was said to be a favorite slogan of Theodore Roosevelt.

The Harvard Class of 1906

I recently had to turn in my 20th reunion writeup for my upcoming Harvard Reunion, and that spurred me to pick up and go through the 25th reunion book of the class of 1906, one of a few Harvard redbooks I have in the house.  I’ve just looked at letters G-K so far.

  • William Eugene Hartwell writes “Nineteen hundred and thirty is not the year in which to ask a business man to write, in light mood, the history of twenty-five years.”  But this is the only person I found who referred, even obliquely, to the stock market crash.  How can it be?  It turns out that it wasn’t really clear in 1930 that there was going to be a Great Depression.  The stock market had recouped a great deal of its losses — the real plunge of the market was still ahead.  As far as economic history goes, the class of 1906 was much more concerned about industrial relations, strikes, and riots than about an impending depression.
  • Robert Lee Hale:  “I have no “war record.”  This causes me neither shame nor pride.  I never was carried very far on the mob feeling which prevailed, and trust that in any future war I may be still more skeptical of official myths, and that many others will be so too.”  Hale, an economics professor at Columbia, goes on to express his belief that Sacco and Vanzetti’s guilt had not been proved, but speculates that his classmates won’t agree on this point.  “That is perhaps why, though I know Harvard has many virtues, I have lost all emotional love for it as an institution.”
  • Speaking of academics:  Arthur Holcombe was chair of the Harvard government department by 1930, the author of six books, and seems somewhat apologetic about the whole thing.  “I did not really succeed in leaving, but have been in Harvard, for better for worse, ever since…. I have generally been not far from the Yard, and, if I am permitted to have another twenty-five years, I hope to learn something about the art of life… I like my job, though it is not what I dreamed of doing twenty-five years ago, and I like my classmates’ sons.  They and their classmates are making a new Harvard, even more promising than the old.”
  • Robert Fellows Gowen reports bringing to Harvard “the first radio set seen in that institution,” in 1903.
  • Many modern-sounding sentiments, like this from Charles Francis Hovey:  “On account of the social changes in the last decade, the speed of modern life, the many demands on the time and purse of the individual, art and culture have been somewhat at a disadvantage.  In this scientific age of the machine, with everything so highly commercialized and the many temptations, there appears to be a greater need than ever before for the development of character.”
  • Few class members fought in the war (most of the class was already in its mid-30s when the US entered.)  Most play golf.  Lots of lawyers.  Lots of Masons.  It is very common for the alumni to assert the undistinguishedness of their lives and achievements.  Many mention the fascination of California and no small number have actually moved there.  One recounts a joke which must have been popular at the time:  “I shall, however, stop here and not act as did the gentleman at the funeral who, when the ceremonies were over, rose to his feet and said, “Now may I speak a few words about California.””
  • Clifford Millburn Holland was in the class of 1906.  Know who he was?  Does it help if I tell you he was the chief engineer on what, before his death, was to be known as the Hudson River Vehicular Tunnel?  Holland started working on the tunnel in 1919, and in 1924 was admitted to the Battle Creek Sanitarium (the one run by the Kellogg brothers) with what sounds like a nervous breakdown.  On October 27, he died there, of a heart attack, just two days before the New York tunnelers broke through to meet the New Jerseyans.  How can there not have already been a historical novel based on this story?



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Some of my best friends are cross-dressing kingmakers

Steve Burt profiled in the New York Times Magazine.

I thought the profile was a little too heavy on other people talking about Steve and too light on Steve talking about Steve, so here’s Steve’s long and in part autobiographical essay about Game Theory (the band, not the branch of math) which is subtitled, I’m guessing by Steve himself, “An awkward essay about a deeply ambivalent band with a very unpromising name, including notes on nerd camp, fear of sex, Northern California area codes, and autobiographical digressions, with a book review near the end.”  If you want to read something more directly about poetry, here’s Steve’s essay “Close Calls With Nonsense” from The Believer, which lays out, to the extent that it can be laid out, the state of American poetry as it looks from one vantage.


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Jonah Lehrer, Niall Ferguson, the lecture economy

They apparently had the same problem — their brand was “person who writes books” but their actual business model became “person who gives lectures for five-figure fees.”  The demands of the two roles are very different.

Ideally, a public lecture should be an advertisement inducing people to read your book and engage with your argument presented in full.  What a disaster if the book becomes an advertisement for the lecture instead.

Update:  Stuff on this theme is all over the place today:  here’s Daniel Drezner on “Intellectual Power and Responsibility in an Age of Superstars” and Justin Fox on “the rage against the thought-leader machine.”  Both pieces are great.

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Should Harvard offer a “good enough, but no room” certificate?

There are people who think that the information conveyed by a Harvard diploma is almost entirely made up of the fact of admission to Harvard; that is, that Harvard graduates on average have no more skills than students who got into Harvard but chose to go somewhere else.

I’m not one of those people.  But it got me thinking — the fact of admission certainly conveys some information.  And there are unquestionably lots of students who the admission office feels are academically strong enough to attend Harvard, but who don’t make it into the entering class.

What would happen if the admissions office offered exactly this certification?  A signed piece of paper saying, “At age 17, student X had credentials which would have made academic success at Harvard very likely, had there been room.”  Would that be a valuable piece of paper for a 22-year-old to have?  Would it be in Harvard’s interest to offer a certain number of certificates of that kind?

Related question:  can a student who gets into Harvard, but goes to a lower-ranked school (say, for financial or family reasons) put on their CV that they were admitted to Harvard, but declined?  Something about that strikes me as strange.  But why?  Isn’t it useful information for a potential employer?

(Note:  obviously the above applies with any elite university in place of “Harvard.”)

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Intrigue in the Harvard personals

Harvard Magazine:  “I read it for the articles,” as they say, but there’s a monthly gem that often goes unnoticed:  the personal ads!  Yes, there are still people who take out personal ads in print media.  And here’s one from the most recent issue:

Professional, loving Jewish-Italian family, Brookline, MA,  with mature, beautiful and accomplished daughter age 21 seeks applicant for position of son-in-law.  Must be at least 21, family and career oriented with great expectations.  No political tests though occupants of Zuccotti Park need not apply.  Applicants and/or parents send resume to [address redacted because I know some mischievous types read this blog.]

Can this be real?  Is there any chance the poor daughter knows her parents did this?  Are they just going to, like, leave the resumes fanned out on her childhood desk for her to find?  I cannot lie, I am tempted to write these people.  But surely whatever I’d find out would either be boring or something I didn’t really like knowing.

Also, isn’t “occupants of Zuccotti Park need not apply” a political test?



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Are math departments better at recruitment than elite financial firms?

Via Bryan Caplan, Lauren Rivera at Northwestern studied hiring practices at top financial, law, and consulting firms and found some surprises:

[E]valuators drew strong distinctions between top four universities, schools that I term the super-elite, and other types of selective colleges and universities. So-called “public Ivies” such as University of Michigan and Berkeley were not considered elite or even prestigious… In addition to being an indicator of potential intellectual deficits, the decision to go to a lesser known school (because it was typically perceived by evaluators as a “choice”) was often perceived to be evidence of moral failings, such as faulty judgment or a lack of foresight on the part of a student.

I’m not sure what those four schools are, but they exclude some pretty good undergraduates:

You will find it when you go to like career fairs or something and you know someone will show up and say, you know, “Hey, I didn’t go to HBS [Harvard Business School] but, you know, I am an engineer at M.I.T. and I heard about this fair and I wanted to come meet you in New York.” God bless him for the effort but, you know, it’s just not going to work.

And don’t neglect those extracurriculars:

[E]valuators believed that the most attractive and enjoyable coworkers and candidates would be those who had strong extracurricular “passions.” They also believed that involvement in activities outside of the classroom was evidence of superior social skill; they assumed a lack of involvement was a signal of social deficiencies… By contrast, those without significant extracurricular experiences or those who participated in activities that were primarily academically or pre-professionally oriented were perceived to be “boring,” “tools,” “bookworms,” or “nerds” who might turn out to be “corporate drones” if hired.

All this stuff sounds bizarre to people outside the world of corporate recruitment.  And it is natural for academics like me to read this and silently congratulate myself on our superior methods of judgment.  But surely there are things about our process which would seem just as irrational and counterproductive to people outside of academic mathematics.  What are they?

It might make more sense to concentrate on graduate recruitment as against tenure-track hiring, since then both we and the financiers are talking about recent BAs with little track record in the workplace.

(Linguistic note:  “Counterproductive” is surely a word that people would deride as horrible managementese if it weren’t already in common use.  But it’s a great word!)

(Upcoming blog note: At some point soon I’ll blog about Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, which I just finished, and which is the reason the credentials of financial professionals are on my mind.)



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Math linkdump Nov 11

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