Should we fire people who pick the wrong Final Four?

A thought experiment touched off by Cathy’s latest post on value-added modeling.

Suppose I’m in charge of a big financial firm and I made every trader who worked for me fill out an NCAA tournament bracket.  Then, every year, I fired the people whose brackets ended up in the lowest quintile.

This makes sense, right?  Successful prediction of college basketball games involves a lot of the same skills you want traders to have:  an ability to aggregate information about uncertain outcomes, fluency in quantitative reasoning, a certain degree of strategic thinking (what choices do you make if your objective is to minimize the probability that your bracket is in the bottom 20%?  What if your fellow traders are also following the same strategy…?)  You might even do a study that finds that firms whose traders did better at bracket prediction actually ended up with better returns 5 years later.  Even if the effect is small, that might add up to a lot of money.  Yes, the measure isn’t perfect, but why wouldn’t I want to fire the people who, on average, are likely to make less money for my firm?

And yet we wouldn’t do this, right?  Just because we think it would be obnoxious to fire people based on a measure predominantly not under their control.  At least we think this when it comes to high-paid financial professionals.  Somehow, when it comes to schoolteachers, we think about it differently.

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David English

Got the Sunday Times, which I don’t usually do, and in the Book Review letters section I saw a familiar name:  David English, of Somerville, MA.  I started noticing this guy when I was in grad school.  He writes letters to the editor.  A lot of letters to the editor.  Google finds about 10 pages of hits for his letters to the Times, starting in 1993 and continuing at a steady clip through the present.  He wrote to the New Yorker and New York Magazine, too. And I thought I remembered him showing up in the Globe letter column, too, but Google can’t find that.

Who is David English of Somerville, MA?  And has he actually had more letters to the New York Times published than anyone else alive?

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Math Bracket 2015

March Math Madness is here!  Presenting the 2015 math bracket, as usual prepared by our crack team of handicappers here at the UW math department.  As always, remember that the math bracket is for entertainment purposes only and you should not take offense if the group rated your department lower than the plainly inferior department that knocked you out.  Under no circumstances should you use the math bracket to decide where to go to grad school.

Math Bracket 2015-page-0Lots of tough choices this year!

 

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Strawberries and Cream

I discovered yesterday, three nested directories down in my math department account, that I still had a bunch of files from my last desktop Mac, which retired in about 2003. And among those files were backups from my college Mac Plus, and among those files were backups from 3 1/4″ discs I used on the family IBM PC in the late 1980s. Which is to say I have readable text files of almost every piece of writing I produced from age 15 through about 25.

Very weird to encounter my prior self so directly. And surprising that so much of it is familiar to me, line by line. I can see, now, who I liked to rip off: Raymond Carver, a lot. Donald Barthelme. There’s one poem where I’m pretty sure I was going for “mid-80s Laurie Anderson lyrics.” Like everyone else back then I was really into worrying about nuclear war. I produced two issues of a very mild-mannered underground newspaper called “Ground Zero” with a big mushroom cloud on the front, for the purpose of which my pseudonym was “Bogus Librarian.” (I really liked Bill and Ted’s. Still do, actually.) Anyway, there’s a nuclear war story in this batch, which ends like this: “And the white fire came, and he wept no more.” Who is “he”? The President, natch.

But actually what I came here to include is the first thing I really remember writing, which is a play, called “Strawberries and Cream.”  I wrote it for Harold White’s 9th grade English class.  The first time I met Mr. White he said “Who’s your favorite author?” and I said “I don’t know, I don’t think I had one,” and he said, “Well, that’s terrible, everyone should have a favorite author,” and I probably should have felt bullied but instead felt rather adult and taken seriously.

A central element of his English class was writing imitations of writers, one in each genre.  So I wrote an imitation John Cheever story, and I think an imitation Edna St. Vincent Millay poem (I can’t find this one, tragically.) But the thing Mr. White asked me to read that really sang to me was The Bald Soprano.  Was it that obvious, from the outside, that it was mid-century Continental absurdism I was lacking?  Or was it just a lucky guess?

Anyway:  below the fold, please enjoy “Strawberries and Cream,” the imitation Eugene Ionesco play I wrote when I was 15.

Continue reading

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A boy’s first casserole

CJ had a vision for dinner. I don’t know where he came up with this. But he said he wanted mashed potatoes with green beans and chopped up hardboiled eggs. OK I said but you know what it needs, some Penzey’s toasted onions and we can put some chunks of gruyere in there and it’ll melt. In the end I was suspicious of the hardboiled eggs so we had them on the side. The final product was something I think could easily be sold in the grocery store hot case at $8.99 a pound. I know this looks kind of like barf, but it works. (See also: the Israeli electoral system.)

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There’s no sick burn like a sick barista burn

I bought today’s State Journal at Victor Allen’s.

Barista:  Newspaper.  Victor Allen’s.

Me:  What?

Barista:  We were talking about how maybe we could draw a younger, more college-age crowd if we got people to post that they were here on Instagram, so like if you bought a newspaper you’d take a picture and caption it “Newspaper.  Victor Allen’s.”

Me:  Sorry, I’m in the old category, I don’t use Instagram.

Barista:  Maybe you could post it on your Myspace.

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More pie than plate, Dane County edition

One chapter of How Not To Be Wrong, called “More Pie Than Plate” (excerpted in Slate here) is about the perils you are subject to when you talk about percentages of numbers (like “net new jobs”) that may be negative.

Various people, since the book came out, have complained that How Not To Be Wrong is a leftist tract, intended to smear Republicans as being bad at math.  I do not in fact think Republicans are bad at math and it sort of depresses me to feel my book reads that way to those people.  What’s true is that, in “More Pie Than Plate,”  I tear down an old Mitt Romney ad and a Scott Walker press release.  But the example I lead with is a claim almost always put forward by liberal types:  that the whole of the post-recession rebound has accrued to the 1%.  Not really true!

Long intro to this: I get to polish my “calling out liberal claims” cred by objecting to this, from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:

UW-Madison, the fourth-largest academic research institution in the country with $1.1 billion of annual research spending, has helped spur strong job growth in surrounding Dane County. In fact, employment gains there during the last 10 years far outstrip those in any other Wisconsin county, accounting for more than half of the state’s 36,941 net new private-sector jobs.

I’m pro-UW and pro-Dane County, obviously, but people need to stop reporting percentages of net job gains.  What’s more — the reason job gains here outstrip other counties is that it’s the second-biggest county in the state, with a half-million people.  Credit to the Journal-Sentinel; at least they included a table, so you can see for yourself that lots of other counties experienced healthy job growth over the decade.

But just as I was ready to placate my conservative critics, Rick Perry went to Iowa and said:

“In the last 14 years, Texas has created almost one-third of all the new jobs in America.”

Dane County and Rick Perry, you both have to stop reporting percentages of net job gains.

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Silence: an experiment

Just back from the NICAR, the tribal gathering of all data-oriented journalists, where I gave a talk about the importance of talking openly about uncertainty.

Last night at the conference there was a moment which, for reasons having to do with the demographics of mathematics, was unusual for me:  I was standing in a circle of five people, talking about a technical subject, centered on a talk I hadn’t attended, and the four people other than me were all women.  And it occurred to me:  this is actually a situation where it would be totally natural and appropriate for me not to contribute to the conversation.  So let me try.  Let me try to actually let this discussion go on for five minutes without opening my mouth.

And first of all let me say that I successfully did it.  But it was hard.  I felt twitchy and uncomfortable, just standing there silently.  And it was hard for me to learn about the topic being discussed, because some portion of my mind was still working hard at autogenerating answers to “What could I say now?”, interfering with my ability to listen.

I’m not proud of this.  I think when you’re a man, and you get older and acquire some amount of professional status, you start to feel like it is a kind of universal physical fact that people need to hear your view about the topic under discussion.  Whatever topic it is!  Whether you actually know anything about it or not!

Or maybe it has nothing to do with general social forces, and it’s just me.  In either case, I’m going to try being silent more often and see if I can get used to it.

 

 

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Michael Harris on Elster on Montaigne on Diagoras on Abraham Wald

Michael Harris — who is now blogging! — points out that Montaigne very crisply got to the point I make in How Not To Be Wrong about survivorship bias, Abraham Wald, and the missing bullet holes:

Here, for example, is how Montaigne explains the errors in reasoning that lead people to believe in the accuracy of divinations: “That explains the reply made by Diagoras, surnamed the Atheist, when he was in Samothrace: he was shown many vows and votive portraits from those who have survived shipwrecks and was then asked, ‘You, there, who think that the gods are indifferent to human affairs, what have you to say about so many men saved by their grace?’— ‘It is like this’, he replied, ‘there are no portraits here of those who stayed and drowned—and they are more numerous!’ ”

The quote is from Jon Elster, Reason and Rationality, p.26.

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Idle question: are Kakeya sets winning?

Jayadev Athreya was here last week and reminded me about this notion of “winning sets,” which I learned about from Howie Masur — originally, one of the many contributions of Wolfgang Schmidt.

Here’s a paper by Curt McMullen introducing a somewhat stronger notion, “absolute winning.”

Anyway:  a winning set (or an absolute winning set) in R^n is “big” in some sense.  In particular, it has to have full Hausdorff dimension, but it doesn’t have to have positive measure.

Kakeya sets (subsets of R^n containing a unit line segment in every direction) can have measure zero, by the Besicovitch construction, and are conjectured (when n=2, known) to have Hausdorff dimension n.  So should we expect these sets to be winning?  Are Besicovitch sets winning?

I have no reason to need to know.  I just think these refined classifications of sets which are measure 0 yet still “large” are very interesting.  And for all I know, maybe there are sets where the easiest way to prove they have full Hausdorff dimension is to prove they’re winning!

 

 

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