The Little Professor Syndrome

Edward Hopper

On the Asperger syndrome :

At first glance, this brightly decorated room is no different from that of any other elementary school. Shelves are filled with storybooks; on the chalkboard, a vertical line of words reads ”prudence,” ”pretzel,” ”prairie,” ”purple.” But the nervous agitation of the boys’ hands, punctuated by occasional odd flapping gestures, betrays the fact that something is off kilter. There is also a curious poster on one of the walls with a circle of human faces annotated with words like ”sad,” ”proud” and ”lonely.” When I ask Cacciabaudo about it, she explains that her students do not know how to read the basic expressions of the human face. Instead, they must learn them by rote.

→ The New York Times

Disgraced Trader’s Struggle for Redemption

“It’s not necessarily about money, it’s about winning,” he told a visiting group of American college students. He told them that to understand trading, they needed to forget everything they learned in economics class and envision the amoral, take-no-prisoners world of “The Hunger Games.”

“The only time when people cooperate is to prolong their own lives,” he said. When rivals are no longer useful, “you stab them in the back.”

He told students he had accepted the fact that he was a rogue trader—but in his telling, it didn’t sound all that sinister.

A rogue trader, he said, “is a risk taker. It’s not a crime. It’s violating the mores established by the institution that you work for. It’s a rebellion against institutional controls that deny individuals opportunities for self-actualization.”

→ The Wall Street Journal

Game Theory Calls Cooperation Into Question

Vervet monkeys are known for their alarm calls. A monkey will scream to warn its neighbors when a predator is nearby. But in doing so, it draws dangerous attention to itself. Scientists going back to Darwin have struggled to explain how this kind of altruistic behavior evolved. If a high enough percentage of screaming monkeys gets picked off by predators, natural selection would be expected to snuff out the screamers in the gene pool. Yet it does not, and speculation as to why has led to decades of (sometimes heated) debate.

Researchers have proposed different possible mechanisms to explain cooperation. Kin selection suggests that helping family members ultimately helps the individual. Group selection proposes that cooperative groups may be more likely to survive than uncooperative ones. And direct reciprocity posits that individuals benefit from helping someone who has helped them in the past.

→ Quanta Magazine

Solving an Unsolvable Math Problem

In “The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field,” published in 1945, Jacques Hadamard quotes a mathematician who says, “It often seems to me, especially when I am alone, that I find myself in another world. Ideas of numbers seem to live. Suddenly, questions of any kind rise before my eyes with their answers.” In the back yard, Zhang had a similar experience. “I see numbers, equations, and something even—it’s hard to say what it is,” Zhang said. “Something very special. Maybe numbers, maybe equations—a mystery, maybe a vision. I knew that, even though there were many details to fill in, we should have a proof. Then I went back to the house.”

→ The New Yorker

Reality = Normal + Fat-Tail Distributions

To illustrate the phenomenon, consider the S&P’s daily percentage returns in terms of quantiles, which divides the performance record into equal-sized portions. The graph below plots the sample return of the S&P (black circles) against the theoretical quantiles (red line), defined here by a random distribution. If the S&P’s daily returns were perfectly random, the black circles would match the red line.

sp.a.25sep2014

Normal distributions are still useful for analyzing markets and designing portfolios. Indeed, even in the daily return plot above it’s clear that the distribution looks quite normal for a fair amount of the sample. We can’t rely on normality alone for modeling markets. Factoring in fat-tails risk is essential. But letting a fat-tail worldview dominate your analysis is every bit as flawed as assuming that normal distributions will prevail. Asset pricing doesn’t neatly fit into one theoretical box, which means that our analytical tool kit shouldn’t be in a conceptual straightjacket either.

→ The Capital Spectator

US Education: How We Got Where We Are Today

“A Nation at Risk,” commissioned by the Reagan administration in 1981, was a scathing appraisal of public education. Its authors – a federal commission of leaders from government, business, and education – spent two years examining American schools, and they were appalled at what they found. Standardized test and SAT scores were falling. The United States was dropping behind competitors such as Japan. The public education system was so bad that not only were US students unprepared to join an increasingly high-tech workforce, 23 million Americans were functionally illiterate. Worst of all, the report concluded, Americans were complacent as their schools crumbled, threatening the very “fabric of society.”

One of the most famous lines in the report said: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

→ The Christian Science Monitor

The Economics of Pricelessness

As Exhibit A, I give you Apple during the reign of Steve Jobs at the top of the Apple reputation economy. That Apple at the time was primarily a reputation economy, and only secondarily a computing hardware market, is clear from the fact that there is a clear hierarchy in its market, with users at the bottom, genius-bar reps one level up, and an invisible secret church in the background with Jobs at the top. Now that he’s gone, the fate of the company depends on the ability of Tim Cook to play St. Peter well.

→ Ribbon Farm