Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Kindergarten Redshirting, really?!

There has been a lot of talking of kindergarden redshirting, the idea that well to do parents hold their children back so that they start kindergarten older than their peers, so they do better, which builds confidence that stays with them their whole life. There is evidence in soccer that Euroepan football stars tend to be born in months that would make them relatively older for their peer group, giving them the advantage they needed to go to the pros.

This trend goes against my own experiences. Growing up in a fairly typical public school system, I always noticed I was rather average for my grade. Born in March, nowhere near the cut-off. But at MIT, among in theory high achieving kids, I found myself to be relatively old amongst my peers. For example, where I turned 21 mid way through junior year, most turned 21 after junior year, (R- for example).

My theory (perhaps since this is how my mom thinks) is that kids of helicopter parents are pushed at an early age, (I was doing multiplicatoin tables and programming computers before kindergarten), and so parents would want to start their kid early to avoid boredom and to get a jump start, rather than late. Heck, the mark of a high achieving kid was one who skipped a grade.

Not sure if this "red-shirting" is a new trend, or the sample of my friends is somehow biased.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Portrait of Change - Nation’s Many Faces in Extended First Family - NYTimes

This article about Obama's multi-cultural family reminds me partly of why I identified with Obama since I first learned about him. And indeed exciting.
"Mr. Ng stared at the picture and wondered how much had changed since it was taken. After Tuesday’s ceremony, he said, “folks like me will have a chance to be on the other side.”"
When I thought about it, I did notice that I was almost always the only minority in any white house meeting (plenty of women though), but I rarely thought about it. Though I think that may be cultural, as pursuing policy and politics requires giving up financial security for something less tangible.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama Innauguration: Moved by music

Perhaps it was just me, but I was a bit disappointed by Obama's speech. Not that it was bad, but just said nothing new really, and Obama has set a high bar in past speeches.

But I was moved by the John Williams arrangement "Air and Simple Gifts" played a panoply of the pop-stars of classical music, and was touched by the mosaic of colors represented in the simple quartet of musicians, the fact that they demonstrate America still attracts talent from around the world. The theme of the song was nice, with each musician given the chance to express his/her individuality, before coming together in a resounding whole.

I've always liked Simple Gifts especially, we played the Copland arrangement in marching band, and always liked the high drama of the half-time restatement of the theme (which Williams happily stole as he always does), but also portrays a nice essential image of the American spirit, of humility, that the world can be proud of.

So sure, John Williams, blockbuster maestro, did what he is best at, tug at the heartstrings with manipulative music. But it worked for me.

Monday, January 12, 2009

NPR never too late to learn an instrument

A recent NPR story encourages people to learn a new instrument at any age, which reminds of this old interview I saw.

One of the things that sticks with me through the years is an interview with a 100 year old + woman (perhaps she was the world's oldest). The interviewer asked her if she had any regrets. She said just one. When she was 60 she thought of taking up the violin, but figured she was too old. But now, at 100, she realized she could have been playing for 40 years by now.

Just recording this to remind myself of this.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Stephenson's Anathem uses pulp fiction to explain free will

As I get 2/3 into Neal Stephenson's Anathem, I realize the central question it addresses (in a pulp fiction writing style) is consciousness and free will.

And I was reminded of a conversation I had back in college debating whether free will exists, and I was finding it hard to believe that a smart guy like the guy I was debating would disagree with my view that free will can't exist.

We had taken as a given not to consider quantum effects since they're crazy and mess up all intuition. Then in a classical world it seems obvious to me that free will is an illusion, since if there is a state vector that represents the universe, then the laws of physics will always determine definitively the next state for all eternity. Our choices are all predetermined by the state of the particles that make up our brain and its environment.

So the idea that free will is an illusion is disturbing and at the end of the night (literally as the sun was coming up) we had agreed that free will may be an illusion, but people (and any artificial intelligence we designed) must be designed to act as if free will is real.

I felt vindicated years later, listening to my Teaching Company course on philosophy where this Berkeley Prof basically said the current consensus view in philosophy is that free will is indeed an illusion because a brain is a physical system.

Years later, I partially resolved this problem by saying that maybe the future is pre-ordained, but complex (in the formal definition), in that not solvable in less than exponential time, and that it is probably provable that no machine could compute the future faster than the future could actually arrive.

Of course, underlying all this is this nagging idea that this argument depends on classical mechanics, and with quantum mechanics, these arguments fall apart.

So what Stephenson does (and I wonder if this is his own thinking, or he stole this) is reconciles these two ideas (quantum mechanics and complexity) in order to bring consciousness and free will back. Essentially, if i can summarize his 1000 page argument succinctly, is that indeed the future in unknowable because predicting the future is hard, he asserts it is essentially NP-hard. But we know that quantum computers can solve NP problems in polynomial time. And thus our brains are actually quantum computers, and we know this because since we can indeed predict the future. Moreover, given that the future is indeterminate until the quantum states collapse, our consciousness can even influence which states quantum distributions around us collapse to, altering our environment. In fact, this is the definition of consciousness and free will, because otherwise, you have to accept that free will is an illusion.

Anyway, I'm not entirely convinced, but fantastically neat ideas.

But it is especially cool because it is relatively easy reading as it is written in the style of Jurassic Park or Ender's Game or Harry Potter but develops ridiculously sophisticated ideas. So he'll stop the action for chapter long Socratic dialogues, but they're so compellingly written, like a duel, complete with formal rules like the wizard wand duels in Harry Potter, but battling all with ideas.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

A clear failure of the financial bailout: mental health reform (and contract theory!)

One provision of the TARP financial bailout is a clear failure. (The rest requires macro, and I have to little expertise to judge, and doubt anyone does).

One feature that got slipped in is a provision that requires insurance companies to give equal coverage for mental health as they give to non-mental health. No one in the media has noted that this is very bad from the point of view of basic contract theory. Two recent npr stories highlight why.

1. On the media on the DSM
2. Leanord Lopate interviewing Norah Vincent on A Year in the Mental Institution

Health insurance is an example of a contract that deals with uncertainty and private information. On the point of uncertainty, there is much more uncertainty in mental health than there is other health. This is highlighted by the On the Media story which notes that one study finds that 84% of Manhatannites would be classified as having a mental illness under the DSM (the definitive book used to define mental disorders). They also note a study where a researcher had his healthy grad students hospitalized for schizophrenia but told them to act normally. It took them weeks before before they were allowed to go. In a follow up, hospitals were told to look for such grad students and identified dozens, though all the ones the hospitals thought were faking it, were in fact real patients.

Contract theory suggests that the higher uncertainty makes such diseases much more expensive to insure. And thus most rational individuals would choose to have more coverage for non-mental illness, and less coverage for mental illness. The new regulation would likely reduce overall health coverage in the market.

The second concern is the problem of moral hazard. The second npr story above interviews the writer of a recent book who was depressed herself, and later researched the treatment for depression by getting herself hospitalized at different psychiatric wards over the course of a year. She argues quite lucidly and fairly (to me anyway) that there is some room for individual effort involved in mental illness, and that more insurance could reduce the incentives for patients to get better themselves. Of course, there is also moral hazard in non-mental illness, such as eating right and controlling your cholesterol. However, insofar as moral hazard is worse for mental illness, than coverage is more costly, and therefore, people would optimally prefer less coverage for mental health. Again, the new regulation would reduce health coverage overall.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Avenue Q is to the 00's as Rent is to the 80's as Hair is to the 60's

On a whim, R- and I lined up at the new TKTS (with the fabulous new steps, like the Spanish ones in Italy) and saw Avenue Q last night. Can totally identify with the post-college ennui, the longing for the simplicity of meal plans and insta-friends living down the hall, where your purpose in life was simple. Though I'm also happy to be a bit older than that now and past it. Though Avenue Q does feel a tad bit dated in terms of production values and the use of porn on the internet, it mostly hits the values of our time pretty dead on, with pragmatic takes on racism (my favorite song: "Everyone's a little bit racist"), and a generally optimistic pragmatic view on life.

It's especially interesting though to compare Avenue Q with the last three musicals R- and I saw: Hair (the voice of the youth of the 60's), Rent (the voice of the youth of the 80's) and Avenue Q (the voice of the youth of the 00's).

Whereas in Hair, you have spoiled privileged kids fighting for fundamental civil rights, fighting for their lives, and in Rent, you have spoiled privileged kids fighting to rebel against something, to be like the Hair generation, but mostly just whining. Avenue Q moves past that, adopting a healthy pragmatism, where the only epic struggle these privileged kids are overcoming is to find "purpose" in life, ie a sense of Narrative or Story (as Stephenson neatly points out in Anathem) is what people look for once their basic needs are met. But seems like rather a luxury when compared to the struggled of the 60's or even the 80's.

(TAL's David Rakoff has this awesome post-it note comic/story Seasons of Love with an even more jaded view of Rent than my own.)

But I think this evolution is a good thing. That's progress. So I disagree with the disappointed tone of David Brooks' Organizational Kid which chronicled this years ago and was one of my first blog posts.

There was a great line by John Adams used in the recent HBO miniseries:
I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Overcoming Brand Prejudice: Windows and Burger King

There is this longstanding stylized fact that although people prefer
pepsi to coke in blind taste tests, they prefer coke to pepsi when
they can see the logo; evidence of the power of brand.

Two recent examples of companies trying to overcome the power of brand.

1) Microsoft's Mojave experiment.So many people (including many I know when buying a computer) have decided without really trying it that Vista is bad, such is the negative power of the Microsoft brand, and the power of Apple commercials (the irony is that I personally have far more software crashes with my iphone than with Vista, and most mac users I know will reluctantly admit having their share of software problems and recently even viruses. So the Microsoft campaign is to have people try Vista without knowing it is Vista, and see their reactions.

2) Similarly, Burger King has tried the same. Whopper probably loses to Big Mac amongst consumers, but their new ad campaign "Whopper Virgins", by finding people who have never had either, never heard of either, people in remote countries, to offer their taste preferences, on the assumption that they are immune to the power of brand.

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