Archive for the ‘Family Matters’ Category

Girls at Pomona, Boys at Caltech

Monday, April 7th, 2008

Apparently most respectable universities have so many more qualified girls than boys that they favor less qualified boys in their admissions, to maintain a semblance of balance.

Yet at the same time, Caltech does the opposite: goes aggressively out of its way to recruit girls, to try to balance its persistently male student body (a ratio of between 2-to-1 and 7-to-1 over the past 20 years).

Why would there be persistent disparity in opposite directions?

One possibility comes from Darwin’s theory of sexual selection (The Descent of Man, 1871). Males of all species exhibit higher variability in all traits than do females. This is true of all sexually reproduced life, whether animal, plant, vertebrate, invertebrate, etc.

This would reduce the Pomona/Caltech paradox to a statistics problem. Caltech seeks students distinguished by just a few traits, and thus would find most candidates from among the wildest statistical outliers. The wildest single-trait outliers tend to be male, per Darwin.

Pomona, by contrast, seeks students with a balanced set of abilities, so single-trait outliers have no special advantage. Since the odds of a multiple-trait outlier, where those traits are all positive, is vanishingly low, there may not exist enough multiple-trait positive outliers to fill even a tiny fraction of all respectable universities.

Males would then be left with no advantage, and even a possible statistical disadvantage, if variability reduces overall genetic fitness (and there is evidence this is true). That is to say, one might speculate the average male candidate could be inferior to the average female, precisely because the statistical spread of individual abilities is wider in the male, and because the reduced fitness caused by the greater variation brings the average of all abilities in the male down, both in the individual and in the population as a whole.

Add in the proposition that females mature emotionally much earlier than males, and you can see how Pomona and other good schools might logically become persistently female, while Caltech and other “single-trait” schools persistently male.

Wealth vs. Prosperity

Saturday, January 19th, 2008

Americans — and especially English-language media — commonly confuse wealth with prosperity. A primer:

  • Prosperity is how much you make. Wealth is how much you have.
  • Prosperity is revenue. Wealth is assets minus liabilities.
  • Prosperity is what America has (high GDP per capita). Wealth is what America doesn’t have (we’re a net debtor, i.e. negative equity).

Once you make this distinction clearly in your mind, you see the error everywhere. For example, consider this Reuters article about subprime lending in expensive neighborhoods. Reuters mistakenly refers to overleveraged owners of expensive homes as “wealthy.” This is obviously wrong, since the source of their problem is insufficient equity, i.e. insufficient wealth. They are prosperous, but spendy, and hence not wealthy enough to stay in their homes.

Discovering a reasoning error is often enough to change behavior. If the wealth/prosperity distinction were clearly understood by more Americans, we would grow rapidly wealthier. China’s government and citizenry understand the distinction, which is a big reason they are advancing so fast.

The Cookie Thief

Thursday, January 10th, 2008

(Contributed by Richard C Hsu)


A woman was waiting at an airport one night,

With several long hours before her flight.

She hunted for a book in the airport shop,

Bought a bag of cookies and found a place to drop.

She was engrossed in her book, but happened to see,

That the man beside her, as bold as could be,

Grabbed a cookie or two from the bag between,

Which she tried to ignore, to avoid a scene.

She read, munched cookies, and watched the clock,

As the gutsy “cookie thief” diminished her stock.

She was getting more irritated as the minutes ticked by,

Thinking, “If I wasn’t so nice, I’d blacken his eye!”

With each cookie she took, he took one too.

When only one was left, she wondered what he’d do.

With a smile on his face and a nervous laugh,

He took the last cookie and broke it in half.

He offered her half, as he ate the other.

She snatched it from him and thought, “Oh brother,

This guy has some nerve, and he’s also rude,

Why, he didn’t even show any gratitude!”

She had never known when she has been so galled,

And sighed with relief when her flight was called.

She gathered her belongings and headed for the gate,

Refusing to look back at the “thieving ingrate.”

She boarded the plane and sank in her seat,

Then sought her book, which was almost complete.

As she reached in her baggage, she gasped with surprise:

There was her bag of cookies in front of her eyes!

“If mine are here,” she moaned with despair,

“Then the others were his and he tried to share!”

Too late to apologize, she realized with grief,

That she was the rude one, the ingrate, the thief!

Being happy for another's fortune is the ultimate form of empathy

Monday, December 24th, 2007

(Contributed by Richard C Hsu)


My brother and I happen to work in the same industry and we recently got nearly identical new jobs. My boss turned out to be really difficult and as I struggled on a daily basis dreading to go to work every day, my brother was doing very well at his, getting lots of praises and even getting a mid-year bonus for excellent performance. And while I knew (intellectually) I was supposed to feel happy for him, I found myself becoming very envious which, in turn, actually made me feel worse about my own situation. I began to think, “why is the fact that his job is going so well affecting my attitude on my job (and life) when it has no impact whatsoever?” That is when I realized that the source of my envy was actually from a lack of empathy and that it is much more difficult to empathize with someone’s fortunes than misfortunes.

The reality is that empathy is far easier to feel when someone is having less fortune than you. When someone else loses a loved one, becomes ill or experiences some other tragedy, you empathize easily because you feel grateful to God for all your blessings – in other words, by putting yourself in their shoes, you realize your own fortune. However, it is much harder to put yourself in their shoes when they become a millionaire, buy a big house or land a high paying job. There is an old saying which says “nothing is as infuriating as seeing your neighbor get rich” but if you can truly be happy for someone else’s fortune, you have achieved the ultimate form of empathy.

Soldiers of Academia – Part Two – Efficacy

Monday, July 2nd, 2007

“Soldiers of Academia” is my phrase for children molded from birth, Spartan-style, by competitive parents hoping to secure admission to the Ivy Leagues.  As described in the previous article, this was effective a generation ago, though perhaps did not result in happier children.  

Today, there is a second problem:  the Soldiers of Academia regimen may have become a false promise, even for those who are solely interested in external measures of success (money, alumni bumper stickers, etc.).

The causes of this new change?  Increasing competition and declining return on investment.

Increasing competition

The Soldier’s competitive funnel begins in first grade, with millions of children competing for just a couple thousand Ivy League spots a decade later. Twenty years ago, few people thought of primary school in this way, so the few who took the Soldier approach could easily outdistance non-Soldiers to grab all the spots at Harvard.

Just one problem now: everyone knows the Soldier model worked. K-6 math and chess tutoring is available in every city. The pool of qualified applicants is exploding. It’s reasonable to expect that, by 2020, your 17-year-old Latin-speaking, Rachmaninoff-playing chessmaster may not seem very special to the Harvard admissions board.

Under those conditions, just as most people would consider it irrational to spend 100% of their childhood preparing for an NBA career, parents may no longer want to bet everything on this particular type of academic boot camp.  The expected value is too low.

Declining return on investment

Even if you beat the odds and get into the Ivy League, today’s payoff is lower. The cost of top-tier private college has risen much faster than inflation, while professional real income per work hour has stagnated.

If you doubt this, interview someone who has just gone to his 20-year high school reunion. Inquire about how his classmates have made out. You may be surprised, as I was, to find the very best students in their high school class are not consistently the most financially secure. Often the opposite.

Top students go to private undergraduate and graduate schools, incurring debts of $150k to $350k. Educational choices (graduate school) and high debt then guide them into professional jobs with high pay, but extremely long work hours (management consulting, investment banking, law, medicine, etc.), which in turn delay marriage and home ownership well into one’s 30’s.

By their 20-year reunion, at age 38, many have no family (either still single or age-induced infertility), just getting out of debt, just thinking about a first house, and so forth.

In contrast, sensible second-tier students go to state schools, incur little debt, settle down early, buy homes, and by age 38 are well on their way to financial security.

I’m not saying, “don’t try for the Ivy League.” But it does make sense to reevaluate the range of possible outcomes, and their probabilities, before sacrificing your child’s joie de vivre in a do-or-die, decade-long rush at the Harvard admissions committee.

Of course, some teaching pressure is well warranted. Everyone applies at least some to help their child to read, write, swim, ride a bike. But there is a point past which this mode of learning is less efficient than intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic fulfillment can produce a good payoff in all conditions. After laying an appropriate groundwork, if you can encourage your child to find something he loves, and to seek marketable applications of that love, your child will probably become highly accomplished at something unexpected. College admissions boards LOVE this, because their dull job is rendered briefly interesting by a quirky candidate. But even failing the run at Harvard, your child will learn early how to seek fulfillment while making a good living, so the Harvard stamp becomes less critical.

My current favorite examples of classical education followed by intrinsic fulfillment are this guy, and also this guy. Call it goofy if you will, but speaking as a guitarist, I can say this is impressive.

Summary: compared to 20 years ago, a decade-long academic push is much less likely to get you into Harvard, and, even if successful, has a lower payoff. As a result, it would seem parents are better off laying a very broad educational groundwork, then letting the child pursue something meaningful and marketable.

Soldiers of Academia – Part One – Dissatisfaction

Monday, July 2nd, 2007

Coastal California knows two large groups of K-12 students I’ll call the “American Indolents” and the “Soldiers of Academia.”

The American Indolents are descended from parents and grandparents who knew only limitless American power and riches: suburban comfort, economic ease, and relative job security. These kids coast on imperial momentum — or think they do — spending afternoons watching TV, smoking pot, playing video games, and generally goofing off.

The Soldiers of Academia are descendants of recent immigrants. Poverty is in recent family memory. Economic advancement is the primary famiy value. Intellectually, they “work to failure,” a weightlifting term meaning that you stop only when physically unable to continue. Imagine the “Rocky” theme song playing in the background as these kids are pushed relentlessly, from early childhood, to maximize academic opportunity. They spend their afternoons playing piano and chess, learning Latin, and going to Kumon math tutoring.

Based on my 30-year observation, the economic outcome is what one would expect: in general, today’s Soldiers become tomorrow’s prosperous doctors and lawyers, while today’s Indolents become tomorrow’s struggling gas station attendants and retail service workers.

Yet these two groups share a common feature: dissatisfaction. Naturally the Indolents are trapped like sharecroppers in dead-end subsistence work. Less obviously, the Soldiers, who marched and drilled through their childhood years to the pleasure of their parents, can sometimes be resentful, anxious adults, unsure what occupational fulfillment might mean.

There is a third, smaller group we’ll call “Intrinsics.” Before the age of 15, they find a calling, vocation, or hobby, intrinsically satisfying, and adaptable to have economic value. Not all Intrinsics are happy, and not all are rich (though many are), but most of them have something more important than wealth, or even than happiness: a sense of fulfillment, purpose or meaning in life.

A key benefit of this approach is that personal fulfillment is not contingent on big success. At the same time, it seems to increase the odds of stratospheric success. There is no external motivation (e.g. money, parental approval) powerful enough to drive you to global excellence. It has to come from being really, really interested in something first.

Warren Buffett did not begin trading stocks at age 11 under pressure from his parents. Teenage Bill Gates did not program minicomputers because his mom forced him. Walt Disney’s love of drawing and entertainment drove his success, over the objection of his father. In all cases, intrinsic enjoyment and curiosity drove achievement, not the other way around.

Thus a parent might prefer to encourage their child to be an Intrinsic instead of a Soldier — someone who knows how to identify a dream, make it marketable, and follow it through. At age 70, I would feel successful to have a happy, relaxed, purposeful 40-year-old daughter. Financial security would probably be a component of her relaxation, but as a means, not an end.

This is particularly important now, because I suspect the Soldiers of Academia model may not work as well in the next 20 years as it has in the last 20.

Exclusionary college admissions

Monday, July 2nd, 2007

The Wall Street Journal says top private U.S. university admissions discriminate by race (”Is Admissions Bar Higher for Asian at Elite Schools?”, Wall Street Journal, 11/11/06, subscription required).

Despite the statistical evidence of bias, these colleges, apparently including the Ivy League, deny the practice exists, as they did when excluding Jews in the early twentieth century. While the problem has waned in the past 15 years — the University of California confessed and went meritocratic in recent years — the SAT disparity mentioned in the WSJ article suggests the practice persists.

For our Wisconsin readers, here is a primer on Asian-American academic excellence. Lesson one: there’s nothing Asian about it. It’s simple opportunity cost: every hour spent on one thing is an hour not spent on something else.

So, to produce academic overachievers, immerse your kids in academia. Go to the library every afternoon. Read. Write. Cancel your summer vacation, and spend the money on Kumon (a respected private math tutor).

Walk into a coastal California public library on a weekday afternoon, and note most faces are Asian (including south Asia). 12% of the California population, but 60% of the library population. This adds up. Consistent effort yields results.

It should come as no surprise, then, that after years of consistent study, many of these kids are academic superstars. What else would you expect? That they’ll get into Harvard by going surfing every afternoon? Unlikely.

“Asian” is an irrelevant red herring. Anybody can do this. By a twist of cultural fate, those who actually do are mainly recent descendants of Asian immigrants. To put quotas on their Ivy League acceptance is to punish a family reverence for academia.

“Reverence” is not too strong. Imagine the family strain of such a singleminded effort. Mom driving the kids around every afternoon. Kids abandoning sports, friends, parties, all in favor of intellectual excellence.

Now imagine, after a dozen years in this academic boot camp, you get a cursory rejection from Harvard, in favor of a less qualified person, due to ethnic background. You’d be mad, wouldn’t you? What could be more contrary to American meritocracy?

Beyond unfairness, in the limit case, this may be socially destabilizing. I suspect such policies will not exist in 10 years, but in the meantime, write your congressman.

That’s the university admissions perspective. The family perspective, covered in the next post: is it actually a good idea to put your kids through 12 years of academic boot camp?

Influence at negative cost

Thursday, May 24th, 2007

Be worthy of imitation.

Self-improvement is intrinsincally worthwhile, but has the side effect of inspiring imitation, which in turn amounts to influence.

Privacy, Google, & Shooting the Messenger

Monday, April 30th, 2007

Google’s effort to index governmental websites may hasten the end of your privacy, but won’t change the outcome. Personal privacy is dead, and only obscurity remains.

The concept of personal privacy began very recently, with the Industrial Revolution and consequent transition to urban living. Before that, most people lived in small towns, where there were no secrets.

The advent of privacy brought with it sociological advantages (one could be unusual without facing close-minded social pressure) and disadvantages (dangerous weirdos can operate unchecked).

For better or worse (I won’t argue for either one), this recent concept of privacy is now declining as the cost of information transmission, storage and search fall to zero. This brings good and bad, but is a technological inevitability.

Google is just a messenger of change. The trend will happen regardless. As Sun founder Scott McNealy said years ago, privacy is dead — deal with it. Anyone can find out anything
about you for under $50, and legislating against that is like shouting at the wind.

In short, then, it’s time to get very comfortable with who you are and what you do, because it might be on the front page of Slashdot tomorrow. Everyone will have access to that info.

Luckily, keep in mind that most people won’t care. We tend to overestimate our own importance (for example, by writing blogs), but in truth, the odds are low that anyone will find out your embarrassing secret, whatever it may be.

Obesity — why now?

Tuesday, March 20th, 2007

The previous post (”Adaptive Morality“) implied that the American obesity epidemic results from one of two things: (i) immoral behavior, or (ii) some new cause which currently has low awareness.

The latter seems more likely. Why? One reason is that obesity arose abruptly in America only in the past 20 years, after over 60 years of gustatory plenty. But the bigger clue is a related, very odd epidemic: thin parents with fat children. Since parents exercise some control over their children’s diet, slim parents would tend usually to result in slim children, barring some new obesity cause with heretofore low awareness.

Here are some possibilities. These are unproven hypotheses, merely correlated trends: both of these have arisen in the past 20 years, exactly concurrent with the obesity explosion.

  • “First-person shooter” video games. I suspect that the chronically activated adrenal response from hours of fight-or-flight action games may flood susceptible individuals with cortisol, causing weight gain. (3/21/07 Addendum: There is some evidence obesity correlates with video games but not television — consistent with the adrenal argument.)
  • Unregulated, powerful, poorly understood stimulant cocktails like Red Bull. Again, I suspect, but can’t prove, that these may chronically activate adrenaline and flood one with cortisol.
  • Prescribed child stimulants like Ritalin, again because of a potential cortisol link. (3/21/07 Addendum: Eric cites that child stimulants are actually prescribed for weight loss. Since stimulants are known to fail long-term — all weight is regained when drugs are stopped — we seem to have made a case for immoral behavior by parents or their doctors.)

Correlation is not causation. But it would be worth some research.