Links: Crowds and the Recession, Snowden, Win $1 Million with Circuits, Social Choice Theory, and More

As promised, more substantive posts (including a reflection on my freshman seminar on math, linguistics, and writing) to come soon, once I finish my thesis.1 For now, assorted links accrued over procrastination during thesis-writing.

  • Terry Tao has a really cool idea about using circuit design from electrical engineering to solve the million-dollar Navier-Stokes problem. A good popular writeup here, or, if there are any analysts who read this blog, take a look at the article itself.

  • An excellent article by Adrian Vermeule on social choice theory in The New Republic. I like how Vermeule argues for the relative merit of non-formal analyses over the more common, formal (i.e., mathematical) approaches. From my limited experience on the mathematical side of things,2 I have to agree; indeed, I’m always surprised why there even is that much formal social choice theory—but then I have a mathematician’s bias, since most of the results beyond the basic ones seem3 to be mere elaborations. What’s interesting is where you move beyond the formal. Now if only someone can solve the problem of the irrationality of voting…4

  • Excellent article by Sean Wilentz on Edward Snowden in The New Republic. Each time I get TNR, I skim through the front parts—I want light reading—and then feel guilty as I put off the dense articles in Books and Arts. But that’s where the gems are!

  • This is great: a late note from your train conductor.

  • On teaching philosophies/statements. Uh, yeah, duh… More broadly: there’s a huge challenge in figuring out who is good at things and who isn’t. But the ways of measuring this in job applications are problematic to say the least. And about phds leaving academia: this. Let me add that our country’s immigration policies are really stupid along these lines. I have really smart friends getting their PhDs in math who want to stay in the US and would certainly contribute to the well-being of our country. Why should it be so hard for them to get visas? (Anyone connected to companies hiring math phds that will sponsor visas: I’d be glad to put you in touch with them.)

  • Congrats to Robert Harrison for being named a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. His Entitled Opinions show is highly recommended!

  • Interesting on copyright: Why It’s a Wonderful Life Comes But Once a Year

  • Geeky valetudinarian5 lifehacking software update: If you don’t use f.lux you should; there’s a new version out that’s even better. (For the science why, see this NYT article: tl;dr version is that blue light at night from screens messes up your sleep.) Also, for those readers who aren’t socially confident enough to sport these terribly stylish red sunglasses (these are better worn over glasses) when looking at their smartphone screens late at night (or slaving away in their depressing fluorescent-lit offices into the wee hours of the morning), and who don’t want to jailbreak their phones (to use f.lux on iPhones), finally someone has produced red screen filters. I’ve tried out this one and then this one, which seems more believable because it’s actually red-looking, but seems less good qua screen protector.6

A few readings on finance, an area that doesn’t often attract smart writing.7 First, my standard proviso: finance isn’t inherently evil—it helps our society allocate finite resources in an efficient way—and everyone should learn more about it; demonizing finance means only bad people will go into it, which will make the world a much, much worse place. These links below assume to a varying degree some familiarity with finance, of the sort that a mathy person with an interest in economics and investing can probably acquire by osmosis and a little bit of reading. The basic reading everyone—mathy or not—should do is Burton Malkiel’s A Random Walk Down Wall Street, which introduces the basic ideas of modern finance and gives excellent advice for everyone about how to invest their money.8

  • I just read a really interesting book about the 2008 financial crisis and its antecedents (e.g., the fall of LTCM), Ludwig Chincarini’s The Crisis of Crowding: Quant Copycats, Ugly Models, and the new Crash Normal. This book is several things. Most importantly, I think, it provides a good narrative of developments in modern finance over the past twenty years. Second is its thesis, about how ostensibly safe things—things that are unrisky according to models based on historic correlations—can become very unsafe if these spaces become crowded. While this thesis is only explicit at certain points (e.g., in discussing the quant crisis of August 2007), it is certainly implicit in many areas. Third, it raises very interesting questions about regulation. A real thought-provoker.9

  • Two other readings along these lines (and a bit more accessible) are by Cliff Asness of AQR: The Great Divide over Market Efficiency (with John Liew) and The Five-Percent Solution (with Antti Ilmanen).

  • Also, a general comment: Matt Levine is really good, and quite funny.10 A few months ago, I decided11 I waste too much time online, and so decimated my rss list, removing even the great Matt Yglesias. But I had to add Matt Levine. A good comment he made, hidden in a column generally incredulous at Facebook for its December stock offering, has a good point hidden about how FB, unlike other companies (cf. Twitter, pretty much every other company), priced its IPO according to the demand, which ought to make more sense than leaving money on the table. So why does everyone harp on them?

  1. There’s an actual hard deadline for that, so it’s plausible I’ll actually be able to satisfy such promises in a timely manner. 

  2. Namely an expository undergraduate thesis on applications of topology to social choice theory, which I haven’t gotten around from removing from the internet yet. 
  3. To me—full caveat that I’m not terribly familiar with the literature. There’s deeper formal stuff going on in sister fields like mechanism design. 
  4. Public Service Announcement: This is not a good topic to bring up on dates. Indeed, even if one is fully aware of the prudence of such caution, steering clear of the topic when it’s broached without giving a (false) impression of political apathy (or otherwise being disingenuous) is quite difficult. But I urge you, dear deeply conflicted reader who understands rational choice but nonetheless has a heart and a conscience, try nonetheless. One approach is to wax romantic on Obama as a literary character, focusing especially on his basketball playing, with references to redemption, self-knowledge, Jeremy Lin, and the Princeton offense. (I should write about that some time; I’ve added it to my growing list of posts to write. At this rate, post to appear circa 2017.) 
  5. In the 1940s, the great neurotics like Bellow and Rosenfeld occupied themselves with things like orgone boxes (worth reading, by Christopher Hitchens), so if I try to salve my existential terrors by distracting myself with moderately evidence-based things like eating turmeric, drinking fermented beet-juice while reading about probiotics (exciting essay on the biome coming “soon”), and using f.lux, I guess we should chalk it up as progress for reason and science? 
  6. I had four deep insecurities going into grad school: I didn’t eat vegetables often, I didn’t really like poetry, I was afraid of multivariable calculus, and I didn’t understand physics. (These last two really aren’t so important if you aren’t going to math grad school.) I’ve resolved the first two; thanks, People’s Food Coop of Ann Arbor and John Whittier-Ferguson! The third one still haunts me at times, though luckily researching partial differential equations doesn’t actually involve that much of the annoying parts of multivariable calculus, and Green’s and Stokes’ Theorems made much more sense when presented simply as the generalized Stokes’ Theorem. The fourth one remains a problem. Hence this question: I can’t discern a difference at night with this filter, which on cursory examination is quite clear, but does seem to be blue-ish in the day when reflecting sunlight; does this mean it’s working? Someone who knows physics, please tell me. Anyways, someday, I’m going to read Spivak’s Physics for Mathematicians, whereupon I will have resolved my last remaining insecurity and will be a model of psychological well-being. 
  7. There’s an obvious incentive for people with smart ideas in finance to focus on making money rather than spreading their knowledge. I’ve been reading a lot of finance recently, and much of it is mediocre in content, execrable in writing. (Curiously, people in finance—even people who have smart things to say—seem to be really bad at differentiating between its and it’s. Thought: Is there a correlation between the quality of the writing and the quality of the financial advice? Pretty much all the bad investment advice I read is horribly-written, except in carefully copy-edited publications, and more than half of the good advice is badly-written.) 
  8. The best basic approach is to follow Malkiel’s advice, and invest in diversified, low-cost index funds. An interesting development is Wealthfront, which potentially makes sense for people who (a) aren’t interested in doing things by themselves and/or (b) are in high-enough tax-brackets that the tax-loss-harvesting offsets the lack of flexibility and the .25% extra expenses. Of course, it would be nice if there was something that provided the very straightforward, algorithmic capabilities of Wealthfront without those fees and with fuller flexibility. Also, FYI, Wealthfront, most people don’t have stock options from IPOs waiting to vest… 
  9. I hasten to add that I don’t agree with everything there. I’m of course not an expert in the financial and economic analyses he proffers. My main gripe is with his rhetorical approach in discussing the social implications. I find it a bit odd that someone from an economic perspective adopts the rhetorical technique of blaming the “greed” of home owners (as well as other, more elite groups), rather than casting the blame on a system with misaligned incentives. And while I wholeheartedly agree with his conclusion that our society needs to educate far more people about finance, for him to put affirmative action first on his list of the source of educational maladies leading to this ignorance, as he does on page 297, is not merely tone-deaf but foolish, whatever one’s views are on affirmative action. (The other two bugbears he lists are grade inflation and meaningless degrees.) Far more important is the fact that our educational system doesn’t emphasize mathematical, probabilistic, and economic reasoning, as it should
  10. If my editorial comments in the footnotes are overly snarky, Levine’s malign influence has something to do with it (along with being cooped up doing math without writing other things for too long). 
  11. I’ve decided this many times, of course.