Freeman Dyson: Rebel without a PhD

You became a professor at Cornell without ever having received a Ph.D. You seem almost proud of that fact.

Oh, yes. I’m very proud of not having a Ph.D. I think the Ph.D. system is an abomination. It was invented as a system for educating German professors in the 19th century, and it works well under those conditions. It’s good for a very small number of people who are going to spend their lives being professors. But it has become now a kind of union card that you have to have in order to have a job, whether it’s being a professor or other things, and it’s quite inappropriate for that. It forces people to waste years and years of their lives sort of pretending to do research for which they’re not at all well-suited. In the end, they have this piece of paper which says they’re qualified, but it really doesn’t mean anything. The Ph.D. takes far too long and discourages women from becoming scientists, which I consider a great tragedy. So I have opposed it all my life without any success at all.

From a lovely interview with Dyson on his 90th birthday.

Countering the wisdom of hindsight

We went to see Darkest Hour last night. Spellbinding performance by Gary Oldman as Churchill. The only parallel I can think of is Bruno Ganz’s evocation of Hitler in Downfall. There are a couple of dramatic-licence slips which are understandable in terms of the script dynamics but overall it’s a fascinating and occasionally moving film. Its most redeeming features are (i) countering the complacency of hindsight by conjuring up the desperation of the British plight after the invasion of France (and before US aid kicked in); and (ii) its revisionist interpretation of the peacemongering activities of Lord Halifax and Neville Chamberlain in the early days of the War Cabinet.

Well worth seeing IMHO.

ps: Makes me realise that I need to read Nicholas Shakespeare’s Six Days in May. No rest for the wicked.

The Winklevii rise again!

Well, well. This from Fortune, no less:

Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss—the brothers who tried and failed to gain control of Facebook after alleging that it had been appropriated from them—have rebounded big-time.

The Winklevoss twins own one of the largest portfolios of Bitcoin in the world—and recent surges in the digital currency’s value have put the value of that portfolio at over $1 billion. That’s an impressive return on an $11 million investment just four years ago.

The brothers have reportedly not sold a single one of their Bitcoins, sitting on them and watching them accrue value. And it’s been a stunning thing to witness: when the Winklevoss’s invested in Bitcoins, the currency was trading at just $120. As of Monday morning, a single Bitcoin’s value was $11,247, according to Coindesk.

My favourite clip from The Social Network is their encounter with Larry Summers (then President of Harvard).

Larry Summers thought it was broadly accurate too:

Keeping calm and carrying on, Cringely style

From Bob Cringely:

This is probably the last picture ever taken of our house in Santa Rosa, California. The time was 11:30PM Sunday and a neighbor had just pounded on our door. Fifty mph winds had been blowing all day but nobody expected fire. Yet the glow you see is from burning houses behind and beside ours. They, too, are gone.

We left with what clothes we could grab. I forgot my computer. I’m still blind and awaiting surgery so Mary Alyce drove one car and we left the other to burn.

By 8AM we were on the Mendocino coast with crappy Internet service and this iPhone. But we were all safe.

Certainly I’d been stupidly feeling a bit sorry for myself, but that ends now.

The schools are closed so with Fallon at my side we’ll buy a notebook and resume writing. Look for my next column as early as tomorrow.

The heading on this blog post is what caught my attention. “I Have No Boils” it read. Bob explains:

Finally, about the headline, my old neighbor Ella Wolfe complained to her doctor once that she was suffering all the trials of Job from the Bible (Ella was approaching 100). “You have no boils,” said her doctor.

Neither do I.

Heartwarming stuff. The good news is that he and his family are safe.

Richard Thaler’s Nobel Prize

It all came from a list he maintained on the blackboard in his office under the heading: “Dumb Stuff People Do”. Eshe Nelson has a nice piece in Quartz which summarises some of them. They include:

The endowment effect — the theory that people value things more highly when they own them. In other words, you’d ask for more money for selling something that you own than what you would be willing to pay to buy the same thing

Loss aversion. “People experience the negative feeling of loss more strongly than they feel the positive sense of a gain of the same size.“

Anchoring. “If you are selling an item, your reference point is most likely to be the price you paid for something. Even if the value of that item is now demonstrably worth less, you are anchored to the purchase price, in part because you want to avoid that sense of loss. This can lead to pain in financial markets, in particular.”

Planning vs doing. The internal struggle between your planning self and doing self. One way to avoid this conflict is to remove short-term courses of actions. Goes against the traditional economic notion that more choices are always better.

Nudges. “Thaler and Sunstein pioneered the idea of using nudges to create alternative courses of actions that promote good long-term decision making but maintain freedom of choice. One method of doing this they found is simply changing the default option—switching users from opt-in to opt-out, for example. “ (Piece includes interesting map of the world showing countries where nudging has become government policy.). The overall philosophy is: if you want people to do something, make it easy to do. Internet companies have become very rich by understanding this.

The availability heuristic. “People are inclined to make decisions based on how readily available information is to them. If you can easily recall something, you are likely to rely more on this information than other facts or observations. This means judgements tend to be heavily weighted on the most recent piece of information received or the simplest thing to recall.” So if you’ve been to a store that had a few spectacularly low-priced items you’re inclined to think that it is, in general, a low-priced store.

Status-quo bias. “Most people are likely to stick with the status quo even if there are big gains to be made from a change that involves just a small cost. In particular, this is one of the implications of loss aversion. That’s why a nudge, such as changing the default option on a contract, can be so effective. Thaler’s research on pension programs shows that while employees can choose to opt-out of a plan, the status quo bias means once they are in it, they are actually more likely to stay put.”

In a way — as the FT points out — Thaler’s biggest contribution was in persuading the economics profession that behavioural traits ought to be included in economic theory and practice. “If economics does develop along these lines”, he wrote, “the term ‘behavioral economics’ will eventually disappear from our lexicon. All economics will be as behavioral as the topic requires.”

Asked how he proposed to spend the money, he replied “as irrationally as possible”.

The MBA: a Grand Tour in the age of Airbnb

Lovely column in today’s FT (behind a paywall, alas) about the MBA degree, a qualification that I’ve long regarded as pernicious. The peg for the piece is the fact that King’s College London is launching a new business school which is very pointedly not offering an MBA. At one point, Broughton retells a story about the “marshmallow challenge” invented by Peter Skillman (a former smartphone company executive):

A team of four or five people is asked to build the tallest possible structure using 20 strands of dry spaghetti, a roll of tape, a ball of string and a marshmallow, in 18 minutes. Mr Skillman found that the most successful were children just out of kindergarten. They immediately began building, and if their tower collapsed they would build again. The worst were recent MBA graduates. They would start by arguing about who had the most expertise, then sketch blueprints and make calculations before constructing a tower. If it collapsed, they had no time to start over.

That sounds too good to be true. Still, as the Italians say, if it’s not true it ought to be.

Bureaucracy and accountability

A discussion about the REF and expenses today has reminded me (as such discussions often do) of this famous dispatch from the Duke of Wellington to his political masters in London.

Portugal, 1812


Whilst marching from Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French forces, my officers have been diligently complying with your requests which have been sent by H.M. ship from London to Lisbon and thence by dispatch to our headquarters.

We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty’s Government holds me accountable. I have dispatched reports on the character, wit, and spleen of every officer. Each item and every farthing has been accounted for, with two regrettable exceptions for which I beg your indulgence.

Unfortunately the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalion’s petty cash and there has been a hideous confusion as to the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in western Spain. This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstance, since we are war with France, a fact which may come as a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.

This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty’s Government so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either one with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both:

1 To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London

or, perchance,

2 To see to it that the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.

Your most obedient servant,


What poetry is for

One of my rules is that whenever Louis Menand writes anything in the New Yorker, I drop tools and read it. IMHO, he’s the best literary critic living today. In July he wrote a marvellous review piece on a whole raft of books about the role and importance (or lack thereof) of poetry. I was struck by this para:

One of [Ben] Lerner’s chief examples of misplaced expectations for poetry is what he calls “nostalgia for a poetry that could supposedly reconcile the individual and the social, and so transform millions of individuals into an authentic People.” He says that this kind of poetry never existed. To which there is a one-word response: Dante. The Divine Comedy is a first-person poem about a man who suffers a crisis (“I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost”), which he resolves by undertaking an imaginary journey that he pretends has been made possible by the soul of a dead woman he loved. That poem, written in the vernacular in the fourteenth century, is still at the heart of national identity in Italy. As the Iliad and the Odyssey were for ancient Greece, and as the Aeneid was for Rome.

Towards the end of the piece Menand quotes from a poem by Frederick Seidel in a post-election collection of 50 poems edited by Amit Majmudar. This is how it goes:

And you could say we’ve been living in clover
From Walt Whitman to Barack Obama
Now a dictatorship of vicious spineless slimes
We the people voted in has taken over.
Once we’d abolished slavery, we lived in clover,
From sea to shining sea, even in terrible times.
It’s over.