Here’s links with commentary from recent reading.
1. Notes on the College admissions scandal. The New York Times has a good explainer. The primary ways people cheated on college admissions where: 1) paying someone else to take SAT tests, and 2) bribing coaches to fake sports resumes. The context here is elite colleges face unrelenting pressure to raise their rankings. In practice this makes them lure in max applicants but only accept a flat cap, because lower acceptance rates equate to greater eliteness. But somewhat surprisingly, this pressure also leads to easy grading, with students rarely flunking out. Why? Because if particular demographics of students flunk out, people will suspect unqualified students must have snuck in. This dynamic makes cheating to get into an elite school work. Because once you sneak in, the university doesn’t want you to flunk out, especially if you’re underqualified. Everyone needs to get an A.
In terms of commentary, Arnold Kling argues the “fundamental scandal is that elite colleges are a positional good for parents. The whole process is built around that.” That is to say, kids weren’t cheating. Parents were cheating so they could brag to their friends. Often not even telling their kids. Thus the people most outraged are rich parents with elite degrees, who have been grinding their kids down playing by the rules. Kevin Carey points out that statistically elite college degrees tend not to matter very much for the wealthy or those with high test scores, as they’ll get fine salaries either way. It makes the biggest difference for the underprivileged, as an entree into upper class culture, networking and jobs. This is true. But downplays the social status allure of the elite college credential, which drives of the problem. Parents cheat for status, not money.
Ross Douthat say many “misunderstand the real function of meritocracy, which is not the facilitation of upward mobility but the legitimation of a ruling class.” That is to say, Harvard’s purpose is not merely to select applicants, but to justify the legitimacy of those who govern. What we’re seeing now in US politics is a breakdown of trust in leadership of our institutions. This breakdown encourages a nihilistic populism.
One proposed response to the scandal is to eliminate test scores on applications. Daniel Friedman walks through why this will makes things worse. The easy way to see this is by asking whether it would be easier or harder for wealthy parents to rig the system if they didn’t have to provide test scores. One less thing to lie about.
Having read a lot of commentary, I suspect nothing will change. The dynamics behind it have been growing for decades, with no end in sight. So if you want to relax bit about getting your kids into an elite college, I’d suggest Bryan Caplan’s book. 🙂
2. Waymo’s self driving blunder. An excellent piece by Timothy B Lee on how Google Waymo is repeating one of silicon valley’s most classic mistakes, Xerox PARC and PCs. In the 1970s, Xerox PARC famously created the Alto computer, with a mouse, copy/paste, windowing, and all the other things that would start the microcomputer revolution. But they failed to commercialize it. Why? Because the Xerox PARC “workstation started at $16,595—more than $45,000 in 2019 dollars.” Instead Apple released the Apple I for $666, the Apple II for $1298. As a side note, I got an Apple II+ as my first computer in high school. It was great! But felt super expensive at the time. Apple did not release a personal computer with all the Alto features until the Lisa in 1983, a flop at $9995. But then the first Mac in 1984 for $2495 was a hit. Lee argues that Google Waymo is making the same mistake by trying to jump directly to fully self driving cars (jumping to the Mac instead of releasing the Apple I). Waymo should go to market with a lessor solution and iterate. If you are into technology and disruption theory, a great read. link
3. Level 2 self driving is pretty silly. On a related note, the levels getting to self driving cars are defined as: level 0 – manual, level 1 – cruise control, level 2 – partial automation (hands on, may have to take back control), level 3 – eyes off (car can stop if needs help), level 4 – full (doesn’t need help), level 5 – no steering wheel. This is ok except for level 2, which is silly. Why? Because with level 2 you’re supposed to let the car drive but still pay attention and keep your hands on the wheel at all times. But human natures being what it is, when it was tried in 2012 by Google “In-car cameras showed users napping, putting on makeup and fiddling with their phones.” Pretty much. Level 2 shouldn’t exist.
4. Survey of political divide in US. Unsurprising voter survey results, but still makes me sad:
How about: “Do you ever think: ‘we’d be better off as a country if large numbers of the opposing party in the public today just died’?”
Some 20 percent of Democrats (that translates to 12.6 million voters) and 16 percent of Republicans (or 7.9 million voters) do think on occasion that the country would be better off if large numbers of the opposition died.
We’re not finished: “What if the opposing party wins the 2020 presidential election. How much do you feel violence would be justified then?” 18.3 percent of Democrats and 13.8 percent of Republicans said violence would be justified on a scale ranging from “a little” to “a lot.”
Since we’re doing voter surveys. Maybe part of this is the demographics of age. See below. If age is the driver, things will get worse. From America’s Defining Divide Isn’t Left vs. Right. It’s Old vs. Young.
5. New paper on Wigner’s friend quantum mechanics. Ok. If you’re not into foundations of quantum mechanics, skip this and jump to #6 below about Zebra stripes and flies! But if curious, plow ahead.
Wigner’s friend is a thought experiment in quantum mechanics. Observer a measures the outcome of a quantum experiment, which collapses the wave function, so observer a records a particular result. Now. If there’s an observer b who watches observer a, what observer b sees is the quantum superposition from the experiment is contagious, in the sense that observer b sees observer a is still in superposition. At least until after observer b does their measurement. This is related to the famous Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment.
At a technical level the contradiction between observer a and b manifests as a violation of the Bell inequality. The experiment in the paper did an extended version of Wigner’s friend, with an outside observer c.
From the abstract “In a state-of-the-art 6-photon experiment, we here realise this extended Wigner’s friend scenario, experimentally violating the associated Bell-type inequality by 5 standard deviations. This result lends considerable strength to interpretations of quantum theory already set in an observer-dependent framework and demands for revision of those which are not.” The last sentence says the observer is part of the quantum system. So the naive Copenhagen interpretation of wave collapse is no good. This paper won’t change any minds. But to me is another small push towards many worlds being reasonable. Your mileage may vary. link to paper
6. Zebra stripes discourage biting flies. One longstanding hypothesis (among many) for why Zebras have stripes is to discourage flies. A new paper supports this idea. Apparently flies can see the Zebras, but the stripe pattern makes them struggle to land. Excellent write up by Ed Yong. Plus lovely pic below, dressing up a horse with stripes to test the theory.
And that’s all for now. Thanks for reading.