Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Quotes of the day

Should you really take financial advice from someone foolish enough to write for a living? Run the numbers. If a typical author earns, say, $3 per book sold and the book sells 20,000 copies, then that's $60,000 in gross income -- before costs. But that may be for a year's work. We're talking maybe $30 an hour.--Brett Arends

There is risk, definitely, but quant funds like us take it all. If a quant meltdown happens, it won't affect the retail investor. All [high-frequency] funds have a profit-and-loss line like this [unusually negative in August 2007, when they all had to sell off in order to meet their margin calls]. And here's the second quant meltdown, in January of '08. It's tiny. You can hardly see it. That's because funds running quantitative strategies are mostly market neutral. When we take a position, we're always balanced somewhere else, and when we unwind, it doesn't affect the market either. We don't take from the retail guy. We make the market more efficient. Things are better for the retail investor because of high-frequency trading. We don't make volatility happen. We reduce it, but it is how we make our money. We create order. When the markets are disorderly, we make a lot of money, but we are doing it by restoring the markets to order.--Manoj Narang

Today, chess programs have become so good that even grandmasters sometimes struggle to understand the logic behind some of their moves. In chess magazines, one often sees comments from top players such as “My silicon friend says I should have moved my King instead of my Queen, but I still think I played the best ‘human’ move.” It gets worse. Many commercially available computer programs can be set to mimic the styles of top grandmasters to an extent that is almost uncanny. Indeed, chess programs now come very close to passing the late British mathematician Alan Turing’s ultimate test of artificial intelligence: can a human conversing with the machine tell it is not human? I sure can’t. Ironically, as computer-aided cheating increasingly pervades chess tournaments (with accusations reaching the highest levels), the main detection device requires using another computer. Only a machine can consistently tell what another computer would do in a given position. Perhaps if Turing were alive today, he would define artificial intelligence as the inability of a computer to tell whether another machine is human!--Kenneth Rogoff

More than any other variable in education—more than schools or curriculum—teachers matter. ... Parents have always worried about where to send their children to school; but the school, statistically speaking, does not matter as much as which adult stands in front of their children. Teacher quality tends to vary more within schools—even supposedly good schools—than among schools. But we have never identified excellent teachers in any reliable, objective way. Instead, we tend to ascribe their gifts to some mystical quality that we can recognize and revere—but not replicate. The great teacher serves as a hero but never, ironically, as a lesson. ... Things that you might think would help a new teacher achieve success in a poor school—like prior experience working in a low-income neighborhood—don’t seem to matter. Other things that may sound trifling—like a teacher’s extracurricular accomplishments in college—tend to predict greatness. ... [Steven Farr] and his colleagues surveyed Teach for America teachers at least four times a year to find out what they were doing and what kinds of training had helped them the most. Right away, certain patterns emerged. First, great teachers tended to set big goals for their students. ... Superstar teachers had four other tendencies in common: they avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.

... Poverty matters enormously. But teachers all over the country are moving poor kids forward anyway, even as the class next door stagnates. ... What did predict success, interestingly, was a history of perseverance—not just an attitude, but a track record. In the interview process, Teach for America now asks applicants to talk about overcoming challenges in their lives—and ranks their perseverance based on their answers. ... Gritty people, the theory goes, work harder and stay committed to their goals longer. (Grit also predicts retention of cadets at West Point, [Angela Lee] Duckworth has found.) But another trait seemed to matter even more. Teachers who scored high in “life satisfaction”—reporting that they were very content with their lives—were 43 percent more likely to perform well in the classroom than their less satisfied colleagues. These teachers “may be more adept at engaging their pupils, and their zest and enthusiasm may spread to their students,” the study suggested. In general, though, Teach for America’s staffers have discovered that past performance—especially the kind you can measure—is the best predictor of future performance. Recruits who have achieved big, measurable goals in college tend to do so as teachers.--Amanda Ripley

And when it comes to textbooks, what happens in Texas rarely stays in Texas. The reasons for this are economic: Texas is the nation’s second-largest textbook market and one of the few biggies where the state picks what books schools can buy rather than leaving it up to the whims of local districts, which means publishers that get their books approved can count on millions of dollars in sales. As a result, the Lone Star State has outsized influence over the reading material used in classrooms nationwide, since publishers craft their standard textbooks based on the specs of the biggest buyers. As one senior industry executive told me, “Publishers will do whatever it takes to get on the Texas list.” Until recently, Texas’s influence was balanced to some degree by the more-liberal pull of California, the nation’s largest textbook market. But its economy is in such shambles that California has put off buying new books until at least 2014. This means that [Don] McLeroy and his ultraconservative crew have unparalleled power to shape the textbooks that children around the country read for years to come.--Mariah Blake

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