Richard Feynman’s Caltech commencement address given in 1974 is titled “Cargo Cult Science.” In it, he describes his experience in experimenting with various pseudoscience trends (extrasensory perception, PSI phenomena, and so on) and explains the difference between this “cargo cult science” and real science. It’s a fascinating read in its entirety. The story actually appears in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character), which I highly recommend reading.
One notable passage I wanted to highlight was Feynman recounting of an experiment that was excellent scientific work:
There have been many experiments running rats through all kinds of mazes, and so on–with little clear result. But in 1937 a man named Young did a very interesting one. He had a long corridor with doors all along one side where the rats came in, and doors along the other side where the food was. He wanted to see if he could train the rats to go in at the third door down from wherever he started them off. No. The rats went immediately to the door where the food had been the time before.
The question was, how did the rats know, because the corridor was so beautifully built and so uniform, that this was the same door as before? Obviously there was something about the door that was different from the other doors. So he painted the doors very carefully, arranging the textures on the faces of the doors exactly the same. Still the rats could tell. Then he thought maybe the rats were smelling the food, so he used chemicals to change the smell after each run. Still the rats could tell. Then he realized the rats might be able to tell by seeing the lights and the arrangement in the laboratory like any commonsense person. So he covered the corridor, and still the rats could tell.
He finally found that they could tell by the way the floor sounded when they ran over it. And he could only fix that by putting his corridor in sand. So he covered one after another of all possible clues and finally was able to fool the rats so that they had to learn to go in the third door. If he relaxed any of his conditions, the rats could tell.
Now, from a scientific standpoint, that is an A-number-one experiment. That is the experiment that makes rat-running experiments sensible, because it uncovers that clues that the rat is really using– not what you think it’s using. And that is the experiment that tells exactly what conditions you have to use in order to be careful and control everything in an experiment with rat-running.
I looked up the subsequent history of this research. The next experiment, and the one after that, never referred to Mr. Young. They never used any of his criteria of putting the corridor on sand, or being very careful. They just went right on running the rats in the same old way, and paid no attention to the great discoveries of Mr. Young, and his papers are not referred to, because he didn’t discover anything about the rats. In fact, he discovered all the things you have to do to discover something about rats. But not paying attention to experiments like that is a characteristic example of cargo cult science.
Feynman’s closing remark on what is truly important—no matter where you work—is your integrity. Because that’s something that cannot be taken away from you:
So I have just one wish for you—the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.
This is a very interesting article about Gil Elbaz, Caltech graduate, and the company he founded, Factual:
Geared to both big companies and smaller software developers, it includes available government data, terabytes of corporate data and information on 60 million places in 50 countries, each described by 17 to 40 attributes. Factual knows more than 800,000 restaurants in 30 different ways, including location, ownership and ratings by diners and health boards. It also contains information on half a billion Web pages, a list of America’s high schools and data on the offices, specialties and insurance preferences of 1.8 million United States health care professionals. There are also listings of 14,000 wine grape varietals, of military aircraft accidents from 1950 to 1974, and of body masses of major celebrities. Odd facts matter too, Mr. Elbaz notes.
He keeps 500 terabytes of storage near Factual’s headquarters. That’s about twice the amount needed to hold the entire Library of Congress. He has more data stored inside Amazon’s giant cloud of computers. His statisticians have cleaned and corrected data to account for things like how different health departments score sanitation, whether the term “middle school” means two years or three in a particular town, and whether there were revisions between an original piece of data and its duplicate.
A quote from Mr. Elbaz: “Having money is overrated when you are brought up not to believe you are entitled to it…You can make enough money to not need things, or you can just not need things.”
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!”
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.”
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  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 , 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.
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.
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.
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.
Trader Joe’s is one of my favorite stores. I love shopping there.
While I was at Caltech for graduate school, I lived in the Catalina Apartments. I can’t describe how happy I was to discover there was a Trader Joe’s where I could do all of my grocery shopping. Indeed, once a week or so, I would make the 0.3 mile trek (see my route) to the Trader Joe’s on S. Lake Street in Pasadena. I’d stock up on drinks, fish, fruits (bananas, and indeed all fruits and vegetables, are sold by the count, not by weight), bread, mochi ice cream, amazing blueberry scones, and so many other wonderful, delectable products. Usually, I’d leave with two bags filled to the top with food.
Trader Joe’s is no ordinary grocery chain. It’s an offbeat, fun discovery zone that elevates food shopping from a chore to a cultural experience. It stocks its shelves with a winning combination of low-cost, yuppie-friendly staples (cage-free eggs and organic blue agave sweetener) and exotic, affordable luxuries — Belgian butter waffle cookies or Thai lime-and-chili cashews — that you simply can’t find anyplace else.
Absolutely true. No other store I’ve been to has an equivalent experience. Every week I went to Trader Joe’s, I bought one new product which I hadn’t bought before. It was hard to buy more because virtually everything I bought, I enjoyed. After about a month or so of shopping there, I bought the same items (the frozen tilapia, for instance), but I still loved discovering new items every week.
It’s little wonder that Trader Joe’s is one of the hottest retailers in the U.S. It now boasts 344 stores in 25 states and Washington, D.C., and strip-mall operators and consumers alike aggressively lobby the chain, based in Monrovia, Calif., to come to their towns. A Trader Joe’s brings with it good jobs, and its presence in your community is like an affirmation that you and your neighbors are worldly and smart.
Monrovia is just a short distance away from Pasadena. The store I mentioned (on S. Lake Street) is not the only Trader Joe’s store in Pasadena (the one on Arroyo Parkway, where I shopped once, is the flagship store; trivia: it is the flagship store because it was the first Trader Joe’s to open). Nevertheless, I really like the claim that people who shop at Trader Joe’s have a sense of affirmation of being worldly and smart.
You’d think Trader Joe’s would be eager to trumpet its success, but management is obsessively secretive. There are no signs with the company’s name or logo at headquarters in Monrovia, about 25 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.
Perhaps this isn’t surprising. But my thinking is this: if it works, why change things?
So how did Fortune Magazine find out about the chain?
To get inside the mysterious world of Trader Joe’s, Fortune spent two months speaking with former executives, competitors, industry analysts, and suppliers, most of whom asked not to be named. What emerged is a picture of a business at a crossroads: As the company expands into new markets and adds stores — analysts say the grocer could easily triple its size in the coming years — it must find a way to maintain its small-store vibe with customers. “They see themselves as a national chain of neighborhood specialty grocery stores,” says Mark Mallinger, a Pepperdine University professor who has done research for the company. “It means you want to create an image of mom and pop as you grow.”
Indeed, I can understand the challenge. If Trader Joe’s expands too rapidly, it loses its vibe and niche presence. I know that people who live in Atlanta drive twenty or more miles to shop at a Trader Joe’s (when a Kroger or a Publix may be a few miles away).
Compared to most supermarkets, Trader Joe’s carries a smaller selection per product (the reasoning makes perfect sense to me):
Swapping selection for value turns out not to be much of a tradeoff. Customers may think they want variety, but in reality too many options can lead to shopping paralysis. “People are worried they’ll regret the choice they made,” says Barry Schwartz, a Swarthmore professor and author of The Paradox of Choice. “People don’t want to feel they made a mistake.”
But it’s the small things that matter. This is the most telling paragraph of the entire piece:
A ringing bell instead of an intercom signals that more help is needed at the registers. Registers don’t have conveyor belts or scales, and perishables are sold by unit instead of weight, speeding up checkout. Crew members aren’t told the margins on products, so placement decisions are made based not on profits but on what’s best for the shopper. Every employee works all aspects of the store, and if you ask where the roasted chestnuts are he’ll walk you over instead of just saying “aisle five.” Want to know what they taste like? He can probably tell you, and he might even open the bag on the spot for you to try.
A pleasant shopping experience, combined with personal attention, means you’re not only going to remember your purchase, but that you’re likely to become a loyal customer and keep coming back. As cliché as it sounds, shopping at Trader Joe’s is an experience. Like the food you purchase there, the experience is to be savored.
Have you ever shopped at Trader Joe’s? Do you have one in your area? Was your experience similar to mine?