The Top Five Long Reads of 2010

In 2010, I have saved over 500 articles to my Instapaper account, and I’ve read the majority of them. In early January, I decided that in addition to reporting the books I read, I would also highlight interesting articles I’ve read throughout the year. I ended up focusing a lot more time reading long form articles, which meant that I could no longer achieve my book reading goal. However, I believe that by diversifying my reading, I’ve learned a lot more than I otherwise could have.

My approach in selecting the five articles below was fairly methodical: I spent days going through my Instapaper account (as well as entries on this blog) making sure that the articles I selected truly represented the best (in terms of interestingness and compelling writing) in long form journalism that I’ve read this year. So without further ado, my top five long reads of 2010:

(1) “The Chess Master and the Computer” [New York Review of Books] – Garry Kasparov, perhaps the greatest chess player of all time, reminisces about playing against computers, from the rudimentary machines of the 1980s, to Deep Blue in 1997, to modern-day super computers. I remember when I was in my high school chess club and one student posed this question: “Can chess be solved?” I’ve been fascinated with this topic ever since, and Kasparov sheds some light about solving chess:

Another group postulated that the game would be solved, i.e., a mathematically conclusive way for a computer to win from the start would be found. (Or perhaps it would prove that a game of chess played in the best possible way always ends in a draw.) Perhaps a real version of HAL 9000 would simply announce move 1.e4, with checkmate in, say, 38,484 moves. These gloomy predictions have not come true, nor will they ever come to pass. Chess is far too complex to be definitively solved with any technology we can conceive of today.

And as I postulated previously, Mr. Kasparov is not excluding the possibility of chess being solved one day; he simply argues that it is inconceivable to solve the game of chess with the hardware we have (or can conceive in our minds) today.

This piece was published in January, and it has been on my mind all year. As I was thinking about my top five long reads of 2010, I simply could not ignore Kasparov’s brilliance. An absolute must-read, and in my mind, the best long read of the year.

(2) “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma” [New York Times] – this isn’t an article but an interview (a conversation, really) with documentary filmmaker Errol Morris and David Dunning, a Cornell professor of social psychology. The interview revolves around this central question: are you aware of things you don’t know that you don’t know? As David Dunning put it:

It’s knowing that there are things you don’t know that you don’t know. Donald Rumsfeld gave this speech about “unknown unknowns.”  It goes something like this: “There are things we know we know about terrorism.  There are things we know we don’t know.  And there are things that are unknown unknowns.  We don’t know that we don’t know.”

The whole thing is a total mind-bender, which I love. Here’s Morris contemplating further:

Is an “unknown unknown” beyond anything I can imagine?  Or am I confusing the “unknown unknowns” with the “unknowable unknowns?”  Are we constituted in such a way that there are things we cannot know?  Perhaps because we cannot even frame the questions we need to ask?

NOTE: The Anosognosic’s Dilemma is actually a five part series (see Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5). However, Part 1 is the most interesting, I think.

(3) “Pelé as a Comedian” [Run of Play] — When I first blogged about Phillips’ masterful essay, I wrote:

Every once in a while you come across writing so good, you can’t sit still as you’re reading it.

Phillips’s sheer eloquence and command of the English language wins my award for being the most beautiful piece of writing I’ve read this year:

Then it happens, and it’s impossible even though it’s happening, but it’s happening even though it’s impossible. Everything that’s wrong—the difficulty of controlling the ball, the interposing defenders, the fact that he can’t use his hands—suddenly seems right, because it merely provides the occasion for the astonishing thing he improvises. You laugh, because it’s exhilarating, and you laugh because the consolation it offers is not a consummate, religious consolation, but an imperfect, fragile piece of momentary happiness. It’s a consolation that was made to make you laugh.

It doesn’t matter if you like soccer. It doesn’t even matter if you like sports. You read this piece for the writing. I called it then and I call it now: an absolute must-read.

(4) “Art of the Steal” [Wired] – it’s hard to pick a favorite Wired story of the year (see ten of the best 2010 Wired articles), but I will go with this one because the story is fascinating and reads like a mini mystery. Gerald Blanchard’s career as a thief begins in childhood:

Blanchard pulled off his first heist when he was a 6-year-old living with his single mother in Winnipeg. The family couldn’t afford milk, and one day, after a long stretch of dry cereal, the boy spotted some recently delivered bottles on a neighbor’s porch. “I snuck over there between cars like I was on some kind of mission,” he says. “And no one saw me take it.” His heart was pounding, and the milk was somehow sweeter than usual. “After that,” he says, “I was hooked.”

And intensifies from there. Riveting.

(5) “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science” [The Atlantic] – there were dozens of worthy contenders in The Atlantic this year, but I am choosing David Freedman’s piece because 1) I am a skeptic and 2) This piece has been largely ignored and more people should read about Dr. John Ioannidis’s goal to elucidate the misleading, exaggerated, and even flat-out wrong conclusions medical researchers make:

[Ioannidis] charges that as much as 90 percent of the published medical information that doctors rely on is flawed. His work has been widely accepted by the medical community; it has been published in the field’s top journals, where it is heavily cited; and he is a big draw at conferences. Given this exposure, and the fact that his work broadly targets everyone else’s work in medicine, as well as everything that physicians do and all the health advice we get, Ioannidis may be one of the most influential scientists alive. Yet for all his influence, he worries that the field of medical research is so pervasively flawed, and so riddled with conflicts of interest, that it might be chronically resistant to change—or even to publicly admitting that there’s a problem

A key passage:

When a five-year study of 10,000 people finds that those who take more vitamin X are less likely to get cancer Y, you’d think you have pretty good reason to take more vitamin X, and physicians routinely pass these recommendations on to patients. But these studies often sharply conflict with one another. Studies have gone back and forth on the cancer-preventing powers of vitamins A, D, and E; on the heart-health benefits of eating fat and carbs; and even on the question of whether being overweight is more likely to extend or shorten your life. How should we choose among these dueling, high-profile nutritional findings? Ioannidis suggests a simple approach: ignore them all.

You should read the whole piece to find out the explanation. And while some may consider Ioannidis to be an extremist (not to mention a contrarian), I think it is absolutely essential that we hear out the critics (this notion ties quite well to The Anosognosic’s Dilemma above).

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Notes:

1) I will update this post with five honorable mentions.

2) If you’re interested in reading more of long form journalism, I suggest perusing the longreads website and Twitter stream.

3) You should subscribe to this blog by email using the box on the top right.


The Top Ten Wired Articles of 2010

I subscribed to Wired Magazine (print edition) in December of 2009. I’ve read almost all of the feature articles over the last twelve months. The following is my list of top ten Wired articles which have appeared in print from January until December of this year. I highlight notable passages from each piece as well.

(1) “The Neuroscience of Screwing Up” (January 2010). Jonah Lehrer is one of my favorite science writers (do subscribe to his excellent blog, The Frontal Cortex), and his piece in the January edition of Wired is a good way to begin this list. The piece challenges our preconceptions of the scientific process and how we make mistakes in the scientific quest for answers:

The reason we’re so resistant to anomalous information — the real reason researchers automatically assume that every unexpected result is a stupid mistake — is rooted in the way the human brain works. Over the past few decades, psychologists have dismantled the myth of objectivity. The fact is, we carefully edit our reality, searching for evidence that confirms what we already believe. Although we pretend we’re empiricists — our views dictated by nothing but the facts — we’re actually blinkered, especially when it comes to information that contradicts our theories. The problem with science, then, isn’t that most experiments fail — it’s that most failures are ignored.

(2) “Fill in the Blanks: Using Math to Turn Lo-Res Datasets into High-Res Samples” (March 2010). I highlighted this piece in this entry, and it’s still definitely of the most interesting articles I’ve read this year, not least because the entire concept of compressed sensing was totally new to me:

Compressed sensing works something like this: You’ve got a picture — of a kidney, of the president, doesn’t matter. The picture is made of 1 million pixels. In traditional imaging, that’s a million measurements you have to make. In compressed sensing, you measure only a small fraction — say, 100,000 pixels randomly selected from various parts of the image. From that starting point there is a gigantic, effectively infinite number of ways the remaining 900,000 pixels could be filled in.

(3) “Art of the Steal: On the Trail of World’s Most Ingenious Thief” (April 2010). A fascinating piece about Gerald Blanchard, who has been described as “cunning, clever, conniving, and creative.” Incredible what he was able to accomplish during his stint:

Over the years, Blanchard procured and stockpiled IDs and uniforms from various security companies and even law enforcement agencies. Sometimes, just for fun and to see whether it would work, he pretended to be a reporter so he could hang out with celebrities. He created VIP passes and applied for press cards so he could go to NHL playoff games or take a spin around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with racing legend Mario Andretti. He met the prince of Monaco at a yacht race in Monte Carlo and interviewed Christina Aguilera at one of her concerts.

(4) “Getting LOST” (May 2010). LOST is my favorite show on television (by far), so it’s with some bias that I select this piece into the top 10. This piece has outstanding trivia about the show, an interview with executive producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, and really excellent infographics (my favorite is this one).

(5) “The Man Who Could Unsnarl Manhattan Traffic” (June 2010). Felix Salmon (whose finance blog I follow at Reuters; unrelated, but I also recommend Salmon’s excellent take on bicycling in New York City.) reports on Charles Komanoff, the man whose goal is to alleviate traffic in New York City.

[It is ] the most ambitious effort yet to impose mathematical rigor and predictability on an inherently chaotic phenomenon. Despite decades of attempts to curb delays—adding lanes to highways, synchronizing traffic lights—planners haven’t had much success at unsnarling gridlock. A study by the Texas Transportation Institute found that in 2007, metropolitan-area drivers in the US spent an average of 36 hours stuck in traffic—up from 14 hours in 1982.

Komanoff tracks ALL of this data in a massive spreadsheet, dubbed Balanced Transportation Analyzer (warning! .xls link, 5.5MB):

Over the course of about 50 worksheets, the BTA breaks down every aspect of New York City transportation—subway revenues, traffic jams, noise pollution—in an attempt to discover which mix of tolls and surcharges would create the greatest benefit for the largest number of people.

(6) “Secret of AA” (July 2010). Some 1.2 million people belong to one of Alcoholic Anonymous’s 55,000 meeting groups in the United States. But after 75 years, we still don’t know how it works. Fascinating:

There’s no doubt that when AA works, it can be transformative. But what aspect of the program deserves most of the credit? Is it the act of surrendering to a higher power? The making of amends to people a drinker has wronged? The simple admission that you have a problem? Stunningly, even the most highly regarded AA experts have no idea.

(7) “The News Factory” (September 2010). You’ve probably seen those videos from Taiwan recounting events of the moment through hilarious animated videos (see The iPhone Antennagate; Chilean Miners). What’s fascinating is that there’s an entire company working to create these videos. Next Media Animation (NMA) is a factory churning out  videos:

The team at Next Media Animation cranks out about 20 short clips a day, most involving crimes and scandals in Hong Kong and Taiwan. But a few are focused on tabloid staples in the US—from Tiger Woods’ marital troubles to Michael Jackson’s death. Seeing them filtered through the Next Media lens is as disorienting as it is entertaining.

How can they create such impressive (relatively speaking) videos in such a short period of time?

It takes Pixar up to seven hours to render a single frame of footage—that is, to convert the computer data into video. NMA needed to create an animated clip in a third of that time and render more than a thousand frames of animation in just a few minutes. A team spent two years wrestling with the problem, experimenting with one digital tool after another—Poser, 3ds Max, Maya. “It didn’t look good, and it took too long,” says Eric Ryder, a Next art director. “But Jimmy doesn’t want excuses.”

(8) “The Nerd Superstore” (October 2010). An excellent look into ThinkGeek, a site for nerds. ThinkGeek is a profitable company that carries an assortment of products:

Today ThinkGeek has 51 employees. Single-day orders occasionally top out at $1 million, and an astonishing amount of that product is caffeine. You can purchase it online or from the mail-order catalog in the form of mints, candy, gum, jerky, sprays, capsules, chews, cookies, and powders, as well as in lip balms, brownie mix, and soaps (liquid and solid). The company has thus far pushed more than 1 billion milligrams of the stimulant.

Where else could you purchase awesome sauce, brain freeze ice cubes, and an 8-bit tie all in one place?

(9) “The Quantified City” (November 2010). What can a hundred million calls to 311 reveal about a city? Steven Johnson uses New York City as an example where the collected data is quantified:

As useful as 311 is to ordinary New Yorkers, the most intriguing thing about the service is all the information it supplies back to the city. Each complaint is logged, tagged, and mapped to make it available for subsequent analysis. In some cases, 311 simply helps New York respond more intelligently to needs that were obvious to begin with. Holidays, for example, spark reliable surges in call volume, with questions about government closings and parking regulations. On snow days, call volume spikes precipitously, which 311 anticipates with recorded messages about school closings and parking rules.

The 311 complaints, visualized in an infographic, for one week in September (question for the reader: do you think population density matters here?)

(10) “Teen Mathletes Do Battle at Algorithm Olympics” (December 2010). Excellent piece by Jason Fagone about kids competing at the International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI). While the piece focuses on two students, it’s important to note how elite this event is:

China’s approach to IOI is proof of just how serious the contest has become and how tied up it is in notions of national prestige and economic competitiveness. To earn a spot on the Chinese team, a coder has to beat 80,000 of his compatriots in a series of provincial elimination rounds that last an entire year.

But what’s the downside of such intense training and competition? I ponder the possibilities with some personal reflections in this post.

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Notes:

1) For some of the titles above, I’ve used the titles presented in the print edition of Wired (the titles are usually longer on the Web).

2) If you’re a fan of Wired, what’s your favorite article from 2010? Feel free to comment below.

The Merits of the PhD Degree: Is It a Waste of Time?

I read over a dozen articles this weekend, but it was an article in The Economist which I thought was worth mentioning here. Aptly titled “Why Doing a PhD Is Often a Waste of Time,” the author goes in depth discussing reasons why attaining a PhD degree isn’t worth the cost or the time commitment. As always, I encourage you to read the entire piece, but I do highlight some notable passages below.

This was a nice introduction to the PhD degree:

In most countries a PhD is a basic requirement for a career in academia. It is an introduction to the world of independent research—a kind of intellectual masterpiece, created by an apprentice in close collaboration with a supervisor. The requirements to complete one vary enormously between countries, universities and even subjects. Some students will first have to spend two years working on a master’s degree or diploma. Some will receive a stipend; others will pay their own way. Some PhDs involve only research, some require classes and examinations and some require the student to teach undergraduates. A thesis can be dozens of pages in mathematics, or many hundreds in history. As a result, newly minted PhDs can be as young as their early 20s or world-weary forty-somethings.

Some consider graduate work (working for the PhD) as slave labor (see Reference 1 at bottom):

One thing many PhD students have in common is dissatisfaction. Some describe their work as “slave labour”. Seven-day weeks, ten-hour days, low pay and uncertain prospects are widespread. You know you are a graduate student, goes one quip, when your office is better decorated than your home and you have a favourite flavour of instant noodle. “It isn’t graduate school itself that is discouraging,” says one student, who confesses to rather enjoying the hunt for free pizza. “What’s discouraging is realising the end point has been yanked out of reach.”

An interesting implication in the passage below (that because professors are expensive to hire and cultivate, it is much easier to employ graduate students, regardless of whether they go on to acquire a PhD):

But universities have discovered that PhD students are cheap, highly motivated and disposable labour. With more PhD students they can do more research, and in some countries more teaching, with less money. A graduate assistant at Yale might earn $20,000 a year for nine months of teaching. The average pay of full professors in America was $109,000 in 2009—higher than the average for judges and magistrates

The large number of drop-outs from PhD programs in the United States was a striking statistic:

In America only 57% of doctoral students will have a PhD ten years after their first date of enrolment. In the humanities, where most students pay for their own PhDs, the figure is 49%. Worse still, whereas in other subject areas students tend to jump ship in the early years, in the humanities they cling like limpets before eventually falling off. And these students started out as the academic cream of the nation. Research at one American university found that those who finish are no cleverer than those who do not. Poor supervision, bad job prospects or lack of money cause them to run out of steam.

But I think the most important passage in the piece is this one, regarding the premium that a PhD affords (or not) over Masters and B.S. degrees (I bold the two sentences most revealing sentences in the entire piece):

PhD graduates do at least earn more than those with a bachelor’s degree. A study in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management by Bernard Casey shows that British men with a bachelor’s degree earn 14% more than those who could have gone to university but chose not to. The earnings premium for a PhD is 26%. But the premium for a master’s degree, which can be accomplished in as little as one year, is almost as high, at 23%. In some subjects the premium for a PhD vanishes entirely. PhDs in maths and computing, social sciences and languages earn no more than those with master’s degrees. The premium for a PhD is actually smaller than for a master’s degree in engineering and technology, architecture and education. Only in medicine, other sciences, and business and financial studies is it high enough to be worthwhile. Over all subjects, a PhD commands only a 3% premium over a master’s degree.

Sobering to read these statistics (and I wish The Economist linked to some outside sources for vetting).

The article is factual in nature and doesn’t go in depth of non-economic purposes of pursuing a PhD degree:

Many students say they are pursuing their subject out of love, and that education is an end in itself. Some give little thought to where the qualification might lead.###

And it’s hard to argue with that argument: there will always be students who are passionate about research or have found a particular problem that they want to solve. For the rest of us, a PhD degree is out of reach, and perhaps for the reasons explained in the article, that’s a good thing.

One last note: always be cautious of the bias present in journalism, such as this dinger near the end of the piece:

Many of the drawbacks of doing a PhD are well known. Your correspondent was aware of them over a decade ago while she slogged through a largely pointless PhD in theoretical ecology

Overall, I think this is a really solid article, articulating the draw-backs of the PhD degree. As I mentioned above, I would be interested in reading the other side of the argument from respected sources.

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Reference:

1) A letter from Erick Carreira (an associate professor at Caltech at the time) to a member of his research team, in which Carreira explains that work on evenings and weekends is required. But also see Carreira’s response in The Boston Globe.

The Remarkable Story of the Caltech Beavers Men’s Basketball Team

The gym on the campus of California Institute of Technology (Caltech) doesn’t inspire confidence: it is small, perhaps even claustrophobic. There are many high schools in the country that have larger gyms.

Caltech is a school deeply focused on academics. Athletics, for most students here, is an outlet. The school doesn’t offer any athletic scholarships; the athletic department at Caltech operates on a very modest budget of ~$1M.

When I first found out about Caltech’s basketball team, it was via a graduate student (Josh) who was looking into applying there for undergrad as well. At one point during his visit to Caltech, one recruiting student asked him if Josh was thinking of trying out for the men’s basketball team. Josh asked: why do you ask that? The recruiter explained: “You’re 6’2″. You’d be one of the tallest players on the team!”

A recent New York Times article about Caltech’s basketball team, “Caltech Seeks Winning Basketball Equation,” inspired me to write this post.

You see, Caltech’s basketball team holds one of the most infamous records in the history of sports. Caltech has not won a single game in its conference, the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (the SCIAC), since 1985. As of this writing, Caltech has lost 297 consecutive games in conference play: this is the longest losing streak in all of basketball (college or NBA)It’s also one of the longest losing streaks in all of sports. UPDATE (2/23/11): on February 22, 2011, Caltech’s basketball team defeated Occidental College with a score of 46-45, snapping its 310 game losing streak (stretching a total of 26 years!) in conference play. What an amazing achievement.

Though as the New York Times article attests, some think the streak has grown above 300 already:

Frankly, it is one answer they do not really care to know. After all, current coaches and players had nothing to do with most of Caltech’s losses. Besides, they think the streak is about to end.

Overall, Caltech’s basketball team appears to be the epitome of loser:

The last time Caltech (2-5) won two games in a season was in 2001-2. The last time it won three was in 1996-97. The last time Caltech had a winning season was 1954.

But when Caltech wins, what a jubilation! Such was the case on January 7, 2007, when the Caltech Beavers beat Bard College 81-52. The win was significant, because it snapped Caltech’s 207 game losing streak in NCAA Division III play.

I didn’t attend that game (a new quarter at Caltech would begin the following day, January 8), but news of the victory spread far and wide on campus. Certainly the undergraduates were much more spirited about this news, but the graduate community joined in the fervor as well (can you say Beaver Fever?).

So important was that victory for Caltech, that ESPN showed up (with heavy duty camera equipment) on campus later that week. They were taping a segment that would air for College GameDay; that video is embedded below. One of the segments that ESPN shot was during one of my classes, ACM 95/100 (mentioned here) with Niles Pierce. This was the start of part 2 (of 3) of the course: differential equations. I remember the camera guy mentioning, prior to taping, that he will walk around the classroom to capture some footage. Most of the filming was done from a distance (so as to minimally interrupt the class), but there was this one great moment where the camera guy stepped onto the platform and got within three or four feet within Niles to get this footage (most of the students in attendance laughed at this approach). If you click through that link, you’ll note that the differential equation is rather simple: y’-y=t. I almost felt embarrassed that they were filming this portion (because all of the students in the class solved this kind of equation in their high school calculus classes). So when that video aired, I always made sure to mention (and still do): this was just the second day of class, and believe me, things got a lot more difficult in the coming weeks.

I remember when the class finished, the students rushing out of the doors and wondering what else ESPN was up to that day. Turns out they filmed in a few parts of the campus, though they didn’t use all the footage for College GameDay.

Nevertheless, that victory, combined with national attention, was a tremendous inspiration to students, the faculty, and staff. While many of the undergraduate students were interested in basketball, it was the graduate students (myself included) who suddenly started paying attention. The attendance at the games skyrocketed, people started making signs, and a Beavers fan club was officially born. It was a wonderful experience, even if Caltech couldn’t win again after their victory against Bard College. Later that month, the documentary tracking the Caltech basketball team at the end of 2006, Quantum Hoops, would be released. It was screened to the Caltech community at Beckman Auditorium; the documentary is excellent, and I highly recommend watching it if you’re at all interested in the Caltech Beavers basketball team. Of course, prior to the screening in January, an absolutely necessary addendum had to be made: Caltech won a game!

The whole story is remarkable, really. How do you keep coming back to the court, day in and day out, knowing that you’re likely to get clobbered by your opponent, once again. This was the typical reaction from other schools:

“When you play against Caltech, it’s not about whether you are going to win or not,” whispers Allan Gibson, father of Whittier guard, Marcus Gibson. “It’s about … having a point margin that’s respectable.”

So it’s as though Caltech is expected to lose every single time. And when they win, it’s a statistical aberration (some would call it a miracle). For most people, it’s hard to rationalize how losing at such a profound (and consistent) level affects you mentally. How do you bounce back every night? How does the thrill of playing become diminished when you’ve lost so much, so often (consider that there have been dozens of players at Caltech who’ve never tasted victory in the four years they’ve played for the team)? I don’t have the answer to this question, but it’s something which is worth reflecting.

Asked about the importance of winning, Caltech’s president Jean-Lou Chameau responded:

“Those young people are trying to compete the best they can, so it matters if they win…They really want to win, and we should do everything we can do to help them win. But it does not matter the way it matters at a place like Georgia Tech.”

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Update: After posting this article, I did some more research about Caltech and stumbled upon this excellent essay “Why Caltech Is in a Class by Itself.” I highly recommend reading it to get a semblance for the great meritocracy that is Caltech (no athletic scholarships, no legacy preferences, and no attention paid to satisfy affirmative action.)

For another perspective, watch the video below (it aired on ESPN’s College GameDay on 01/20/2007; ESPN came to film at Caltech after the Caltech Beavers men’s basketball team beat Bard College, snapping Caltech’s astonishing 207 game losing streak in NCAA Division III play). The transcript of the video is below. Note that the titles I cite in parentheses are correct as of the 2007 release date of the video…

Rece Davis: While we’re enjoying the Air Jordan program, the other programs have more faceplants than Johnny Knoxville. The unknown losers grab a moment in the rarified air…

Travis Haussler: “And we said, ‘Hey, if we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going to win this one. It’s not maybe we’ll win this and maybe we won’t. It’s we are going to win this.”

Rece Davis: The basketball antithesis of North Carolina is Caltech. Caltech’s trophy case boasts more than 30 Nobel Prize winners. But Caltech’s mission is to investigate the most challenging fundamental problems in science and technology in a singularly collegial interdisciplinary atmosphere. Sounds like really good work if you can get it. But at a school where quantum mechanics problems are routinely solved, quin-tec’s movie about in a 94 by 50 rectangle was positively vexing. Chris Connolly tells us how the Beavers finally made a quantum leap.

Chris Connolly: California Institute of Technology in Pasadena takes pride in their 31 [as of this writing, 32] Nobel-prize winning lecturers, professors, and alumni. And their two unforgettable moments in sports. First, at the 1961 Rose Bowl, when students cracked the flip card code, for the University of Washington cheering section, producing an unexpected tribute to Caltech. Then at the 1984 Rose Bowl, between UCLA and Illinois, when enterprising Caltech-sters hacked into the scoreboard.

Caltech doesn’t have a football program. It does have a basketball program, that from 1996 until this year [2007] had lost 207 consecutive Division III games.

Wendell Jack (Caltech athletic director): Our student athletes are very focused on what they’re doing academically and what their career goals are. I don’t think we have anybody that has aspirations to play in Europe, or the NBA, for that matters.

Travis Haussler (Caltech junior forward): Well, basketball at Caltech means an outlet for me. It keeps me sane, mostly, here.

Niles Pierce: This is our differential equation…

Chris Connolly: Just completing the school’s famously tough assignments, known as problem sets, requires arduous work that stretches into the wee hours.

Roy Dow (head coach): Collectively, the challenge is that they don’t get any sleep. Like I know when we played Occidental the other night, I know that…that at least half the roster was up until 4 or 5 in the morning doing work.

Chris Connolly: At Caltech since 2003, coach Roy Dow knows fatigues isn’t his only hurdle. Finding players with experience is.

How many of these players were valedictorians of their high school class?

Roy Dow: This year I think we’re down to four. Um, last year we had eight valedictorians and only six guys that played high school basketball.

Chris Connolly: The numbers are no more rational this year. Take Chris Yu, an aeronatics major with a pilots license, who’s already interned at NASA.

Chris, did you play basketball in high school?

Chris Yu: Uh, not for the school team.

Chris Connolly: You didn’t play high school basketball?

Chris Yu: No. No.

Chris Connolly: And you all of a sudden just said: “I want to be on the basketball team in college”?

Chris Yu: Yeah. That’s basically what happened.

Roy Dow: We are going to improve. And hopefully our competitive level is going to improve. But the wins right now, with the makeup of our roster, the reality is that…that there’s not going to be a lot of wins.

Chris Connolly: These students, to achieve at a high level in the classroom and in the lab, have faced relentless defeat on the court. As much as 63 points.

Ryan Sinnett (Caltech senior guard): I mean, I guess that’s life, right? You can’t always win. And if you win at everything, you’re not going to be ready once you get out of here. It’s kind of a nice contrast to academics.

Travis Haussler: We play the same teams every year. And to lose to those teams every year for twenty years is hard.

Chris Connolly: Then on January 6 [2007], all the way from New York State, the Eagles of artistically-rarefied Bard College, came to Caltech’s Pasadena campus for a game. Caltech, wearing the home whites, found itself jumping out to an early lead.

Travis Haussler: Half time was great. We were up seven. And the locker room was like you’ve never seen it. Just yelling and screaming. Just completely electric.

Chris Connolly: At the start of the second half, Caltech went on a 21-6 run.

Travis Haussler: Then with five minutes to go, we were up in the mid-twenties. Maybe up 25 points. And we just knew.

Ryan Sinnett: I’ve actually convinced myself that we’re going to win, you know, every game we go into. So that was how I felt in Bard. And then it came true, and it was like “Wow, this time I was right.”

Chris Connolly: By a score of 81-52, the streak was over and the party was on. What was the scene in the locker room like afterwards?

Ryan Sinnett: Just people were knocking, slamming into lockers, throwing each other all over the place. I am sure we would have been popping champagne bottles if we had them.

Chris Connolly: Instead, they [The Caltech Men's basketball team] celebrated at In-N-Out Burger.

Chris Yu: I’ve done a lot of stuff at this school that have been really rewarding, and this has got to rank up there.

Wendell Jack: I really believe this is the way college athletics was intended to be when it first started out. And this is … this is pure amaterusm. These are kids that play because they want to play. Because they love to play. Because they have the opportunity to play.

Roy Dow: I think college basketball needs Caltech as much as it needs Stanford, or Duke, or UCLA.

Chris Connolly: Further experiments may be necessary. But winning at Caltech may be contagious. Last Saturday, as the men’s team cheered them on, the Caltech women’s team won the first conference game in the history of the program. As one Caltech lecturer [Albert Einstein] might have put it: athletic success really is relative.

Caltech Men’s Basketball Team: GO TECH!

Mind Wide Open: Quotable (on the l’esprit d’escalier)

I am currently reading Steven Johnson’s book on neuroscience, Mind Wide Open. It feels a bit odd to read a book published in 2004 (so much new in neuroscience has been discovered in the last six years), but Mind Wide Open has been sitting on my shelf, begging my attention the last two years. I’ve finally decided that I needed to read it.

There’s a great quote in the book regarding a phenomenon we all often encounter. Imagine you’re engaged in dialogue and are processing what the other person is saying. The other person says something witty or sharp, something that your brain consciously processes. But you want to be able to respond with wit as well, and perhaps you fail. Moments later you step away from the conversation and it hits you: I know what I should have said. Is there a word for such a phrase?

Turns out, the French have an expression: l’esprit d’escalier (or l’esprit de l’escalier). Quoting from Mind Wide Open:

You can see this mechanism captured in the wonderful French expressions l’esprit d’escalier—literally, “the wit of the staircase”—that the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations defines as follows: “An untranslatable phrase, the meaning of which is that one only thinks on one’s way downstairs of the smart retort one might have made in the drawing room.” We haven’t thought of the smart retort in the drawing room because the barb we’re responding to surprised us, caught us off guard. We have plenty of good retorts handy for predictable comments; it’s the ones that come out of the blue that perplex us. Sometimes we’re still mulling over potential retorts on the way down the staircase because we’ve suffered a social slight by not being quick-witted enough to respond. But we’re also mulling because our memory is designed to dwell on events that surprise us.

So next you find yourself wondering: “Why didn’t I think of that when I had the chance,” know that it happens to everyone… What’s interesting, to me, is that there are ways to train our brain to act less surprised, so that we have a greater chance of being able to express that clever retort at the right time.

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Note: you may also be interested in reading a post I published earlier this year, Lost in Translation.

On Competition

In the December 2010 issue of Wired, Jason Fagone writes about teens who perform in competitive Algorithmic Olympics (“Teen Mathletes Do Battle at Algorithm Olympics”). The piece primarily focuses on two kids: Neal Wu (from the United States) and the heavyweight favorite to win the competition, Gennady Korotkevich (from Belarus). I read the story with great interest, not least because I competed in a number of academic competitions when I was in high school and college as well. Below, I highlight some interesting passages and then comment on academic competitions as a whole (from my experience).

A description of Gennady Korotkevich, comparing him to Neal Wu:

A tall kid with skinny arms, short brown hair, and a bashful smile, Gennady Korotkevich started competing at IOI when he was 11. When Wu was 11, he didn’t even know about programming. At last year’s IOI in Bulgaria, Korotkevich upset Wu and everyone else to take first place, becoming the youngest winner in the contest’s 20-year history. This year Korotkevich is back again, at the ripe age of 15, looking to deprive Wu of his last shot at winning IOI. Next year Wu will be in college and therefore ineligible.

Approved languages at the International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI):

The three approved IOI programming languages are Pascal, C, and C++. The Western kids, including Wu, tend to use C++, the most modern and streamlined of the three. But Pascal still has a following in Eastern Europe and Asia, even though coding in it is like “building a car with just a screwdriver and a wrench,” says Troy Vasiga, this year’s IOI chair.

To get a sense of how competitive the landscape is, this passage about China at IOI shed some light:

China’s approach to IOI is proof of just how serious the contest has become and how tied up it is in notions of national prestige and economic competitiveness. To earn a spot on the Chinese team, a coder has to beat 80,000 of his compatriots in a series of provincial elimination rounds that last an entire year. Then he—the competitors are almost all male—has to sit on a stage in front of hundreds of onlookers and answer questions in English like “How will you show the traditional culture of China to the foreign friends?” says Yi Wu, a member of China’s team. China is an extreme example, but pretty much every kid roaming the Waterloo campus this week has beaten hundreds or thousands of countrymen just to get here. Even the losers are brilliant.

The article has good descriptions of the problems faced by the competitors at this year’s IOI event (including the approach that Wu and Korotkevich take to solve the problems):

Every year at IOI, there’s a question so difficult that it humbles even the adults who try to crack it. This year, that question comes on day two. Called SaveIt, it’s a classic ad hoc problem, not solvable with any standard algorithm. SaveIt asks the coder to calculate a table of the shortest distances through a large transportation network consisting of 1,000 cities and 36 hubs. Then, to get the full 100 points, the coder has to cram that table into an incredibly small space and decompress it without losing any information. It’s as if someone gave you an inflated beach ball and said, here, pack this into a cookie jar. If you find the air nozzle, it’s simple. Otherwise, it’s impossible.

After finishing the piece, my impression of this competition is that it is severely stressful for the competitors, and there’s tremendous pressure to perform (not least because many students are representing their home country). I wish the article went more in depth about how the competitors felt about competing at this level (not how they solved the problems, but what the competition did to their stress levels, mental acuity, etc.). In high school, I competed at a number of such events as well: Math Counts (at the regional level), Academic Decathlon (regional and state level, where I won the Super Quiz category at the state championship my senior year), Science Bowl, and Quiz Bowl (regional, state, and national level; our team won second in the state championship twice). I took these competitions seriously, of course, but I never let them interfere with my priorities: doing well in my course work. I personally knew of coaches from other schools that made these events a brutal chore: long study hours, regimented practiced schedules, etc. And while I believe that a strong work ethic is pivotal to doing well in these competitions, I retrospectively look and think that the moment the competition stopped being fun and became a chore, this was the moment I had to step back and re-prioritize my options.

Reading Jason Fagone’s piece, I couldn’t help but think that the majority of the students competing at this level aren’t having much fun: the event is stressful, ultra-competitive, and while the rewards may be incredible (world-wide exposure for placing in the top ten or twenty), at what cost is it worth it? If these students are losing sleep, sacrificing their interactions with friends, and stop paying attention to their health, I argue that the opportunity cost of doing well (or simply competing at that level) may be too high. Now, of course there are students that derive fun from such intense competition (Gennady Korotkevich strikes me as one of those types), I absolutely do not believe that the same can be said for everyone.

I’m worried for some of those kids: the sacrifices they’ve had to make, the burn-out they may experience. It would be interesting to see how the IOI has influenced them in years to come: what college courses they take, what extracurricular activities they pursue, what jobs they take after they graduate from a university.

Speaking of future endeavors of the students, the article mentions that Neal Wu is attending Harvard; one of the courses he is taking is Math 55, a course so demanding it has its own Wikipedia entry:

Problem sets are expected to take from 24 to 60 hours per week to complete. Of those students who could handle the workload, many became math or physics professors, including many members of the Harvard Math Department such as Benedict Gross and Joe Harris; also, Harvard physics professor Lisa Randall ’84 and Harvard economics professor Andrei Shleifer ’82. Moon Duchin ’97 was one of the 17 women to complete the class between 1990 and 2006.

More interestingly: one past student of Math 55 included Bill Gates, who said the experience of taking a class “where everybody had an 800 on their SAT and 5 on their AP” exam was a “neat experience”.

Math 55 is a two-semester sequence of courses, titled Honors Abstract Algebra and Honors Real and Complex Analysis. The course sounds like a hard-core version of ACM 95/100 (three quarter sequence; course description here) that I took at Caltech. And while I’ve never had weeks where I spent 60 hours per week on an ACM 100 problem set, there were at least a couple of weeks where I devoted 30 hours to finish a problem set. And while these problem sets were extremely demanding, the fact that collaboration was allowed (nay, encouraged) made the course a lot more fun than it would have been otherwise. I remember finishing one problem set early and going to a study room in the library, the night before the problem set is due, and teaching the undergraduates (the course had both undergraduates and graduates) everything I knew in a span of six to seven hours. I love teaching and helping others; this was the fun factor for me, many a time: seeing other students comprehend the concepts as I explained them.

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What are your thoughts on this article and competition in general? Have you ever competed at a high-level (academically, in particular) and experienced stress and burn-out? Share your thoughts in the comments.

A Gradual Canticle for Augustine

I’m currently reading Stephen King’s On Writing, and while I generally don’t post reviews/quotes from a book until after I’ve finished reading, this poem within the book was too good not to share.

On pages 63-64 of the book, Stephen King describes how he met his wife, Tabitha Spruce. Stephen and Tabitha both attended a poetry workshop in the living room of instructor Jim Bishop’s house. Stephen King transcribes one of Tabitha’s poems, titled “A Gradual Canticle for Augustine”:

The thinnest bear is awakened in the winter
by the sleep-laughter of locusts,
by the dream-blustering of bees,
by the honeyed scent of desert sands
that the wind carries in her womb
into the distant hills, into the houses of Cedar.

The bear has heard a sure promise
Certain words are edible; they nourish
more than snow heaped upon silver plates
or ice overflowing golden bowls. Chips of ice
from the mouth of a lover are not always better,
Nor a desert dreaming always a mirage.
The rising bear sings a gradual canticle
woven of sand that conquers cities
by a slow cycle. His praise seduces
a passing wind, traveling to the sea
wherein a fish, caught in a careful net,
hears a bear’s song in the cool-scented snow.

Elegant and graceful. According to Stephen King: there was silence when Tabby finished reading. King describes the poem as exhibiting a “combination of crafty diction and delirious imagery.” I wanted to highlight this poem because it is the most vivid thing I’ve read all day.

In case you are wondering about the title: St. Augustine, the Latin-speaking theologian, wrote the Libertine’s Prayer, which goes “O Lord, make me chaste… but not yet.” In St. Augustine’s writing, he focused on man’s struggle to give up belief in self in favor of belief in God. And in the process, he sometimes likened himself to a bear.