Friday, January 30, 2009

My Intelligence is Better Than Your Intelligence!

I happened to stumble across the book Emotional Intelligence sitting on Nathaniel's bookshelf today and commented on it. I have not read it, so take any analysis I have of the book with a giant, massive grain of salt. The premise seems to be that there is this concept, Emotional Intelligence, or EI, that measures, in the words of Wikipedia, "ability, to identify, assess, and manage the emotions of one's self, of others, and of groups." The claim seems to be that it is a better/good/different predictor of "success" than IQ.

I had a conversation with my dad a little while ago in which he made the point that the EI theory is not very sound, and that its only predictors for success are ones which measure factors already known to correlate with "success," such as g.

What is g, you ask? Here you go.

The basic idea seems to be in the second paragraph, in which it talks about how for each specific task, there seemed to be a task-specific component (spatial reasoning, etc.) and some general component that correlates with all of the tests. So a person's performance in math is a combination of his g and his math-specific abilities. Someone with a high g may still do poorly at math, since his math-specific skills may drag him down, but he will do better than someone with an equivalent math score but lower g.

My dad's point, if I remember correctly, was that EQ tests were predictive only insofar as they measured g, which is already known to be predictive of certain kinds of success. Apparently, the tests were equally predictive if the sections of an EQ test which did not measure g were removed.

This is an article (for pay, unfortunately) that says that EQ and IQ together are "a more powerful predictor of 'success' than either measure alone."

I would have to learn more about EQ, IQ, andgbefore making any kind of firm assertion, but as far as I can tell, the concept of g is generally accepted within psychology.

It is an interesting concept, one which I would like to learn more about. Whether EI is really a better and different measurement of success than IQ, what g is, more specifically, and what factors really contribute to intelligence are all interesting areas to pursue. I'll report back with any findings I have.

P.B. (Post Blog) I stumbled across this while looking at stuff and thought it might be interesting.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Doing Science in the Sink

I just performed an interesting and unintentional scientific experiment with an empty milk carton. After finishing off a gallon of (skim!) milk, I went to rinse it out so that the milk didn't sit and smell. When I first turned the faucet on, it was set to spew out hot water, which I realized was unnecessary, so I changed it to cold water after a few seconds. I put the top on, and shook.

When I went to open the carton, I noticed that the sides were puffed out and when I took the top off, a bit of air rushed out. Interesting, I thought, why does this happen?

After a few tests, I found that I was reliably able to reproduce this effect by filling the carton with a few seconds worth (around 3ish) of the hottest water the sink could put out, switching to the coldest water it could put out, and then putting the lid on and shaking. Every time, it would puff out the bottle. Also, filling it with just hot water or just cold water did not have an effect.

After spending a few minutes testing, I had isolated the effect, but did not know the cause. Luckily, my dad happened to be around, and suggested that the answer had something to do with the fact that cold water has a higher capacity for dissolved gas than warm water.

It is just a guess, but I think it could be that the cold water brings extra oxygen (or whatever is dissolved in it) into the carton, and when it is mixed with the hot water, its ability to retain the dissolved gas decreases. The warm and cold water stay separate long enough that there is time to put the cap on, and shaking the bottle mixes them up and causes the cold water to release its gas.

If this is correct (and there is an excellent chance that it is not; I haven't taken chem since 10th grade), it would also mean that the cold water gives up more gas by heating up than the hot water absorbs by cooling down. This seems to suggest that the gas absorption to temperature function is non-linear (or my measuring methods of "about 3 seconds" are not very precise).

Try it at home! All you need is an empty milk carton (or any largeish container which you can close quickly), a faucet which can switch between hot and cold water fairly quickly, and your imagination!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Interesting Look at the Financial Meltdown

I saw this article sitting on the kitchen table the other day and then set about to find it on the internets.

It is fascinating to see how badly the whole financial system was set up that a guy, Harry Markopolos, could spend 9 years specifically detailing how Madoff's company could not be anything other than a Ponzi Scheme, and be basically ignored by the regulatory bodies whose job it was to investigate exactly those issues.

His argument went something along the lines of:

  • Madoff claims to be handling roughly $50 billion in securities.

  • The markets in which he claims to be involved are smaller than that.

  • If he actually did put $50 billion into the market, we would see those trades somewhere.

  • We don't see them, so he can't have invested the amount of money he claims.

The response seemed to be of the form, "yeah, we'll look into it." Turns out Markopolos was right, and nobody is quite sure where that $50 billion went.

The real meat of the column, however, is how the Madoff scandal (and the financial crash in general) was caused not so much by greed, but by a breathtakingly stupid system. Evie would be proud.

Take a look at the article for a better explanation, but the basic problem was that the people running the SEC were using it as a stepping stone to get a job at the same places they were supposed to be regulating. So if Bob the SEC Director of Enforcement was really hard on, you know, criminals who conned people, when he went to them asking for a job, they would probably roll their eyes at "Bob the Buzzkill." On the other hand, if he turned a blind eye, or, even better, actively helped them steal more money, come hiring day, he would be "Bob, the cool guy who got us all those strippers and booze," a much more qualified candidate.

It seems like the solution will come in the form of a system which does not reward and encourage the exact opposite of what it is intended to achieve. How to do that, especially in the face of an established system which, until recently, was doing quite well for itself is an exercise left to the reader.

On the Baddity of Cities

I told you all! Cities are bad for you!

I have heard some criticism of the theory that the article presents, that the hypothesis is not really supported by the data, or that the fact that simply looking at pictures of nature improved performance on certain tests means that something else could be at work. I think these are valid, and that the topic needs some more research, but it is an interesting and intuitively correct hypothesis.

If I spend more than a few days in a city, I do tend to get physically tired and overwhelmed. Each time I go to New York, I am reminded of this. I find that everywhere I go, I am constantly scanning the surrounding area for threats and information. After a few minutes waiting at a subway stop, I have looked at the face of everyone in the terminal, and if anyone new comes in, I turn, look at them, and go back to waiting. It is subconscious, but it causes a lot of stress, since my environment is constantly changing and I am struggling to keep up. If I focus on ignoring my surroundings, I can avoid looking around, but that takes concentration and I still feel uneasy when I hear a turnstile turn but don't look at who came through.

One of my favorite parts of Andover was being able to take a short walk from my dorm and head to the ~100 acre sanctuary, which was a big forested area with a looping path going through it and two ponds. It was my favorite place to go jogging, and was a great way to relax from the pressure of the place. There was rarely anyone else there, or at least it was big enough that I didn't run into people very often, so I could just concentrate on running. In contrast, I haven't found anywhere at Brown where I enjoy running, since I hate running in the city. I tried it a few times, and it was just unbearable. I have to be looking out for cars and people, there are things and places to avoid and I have to remember my route back. If I'm running, I don't want to have to think about anything, and I can't do that in a city (even Providence).

So this article completely made sense, and I would like to see more studies to better establish the validity of the claim for a broader range of people. For me at least, I have known this for a long time.

On the bright side, it could be a lot worse.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

To Cage an Idea

This is a reply to a New York Times article sent to me Evie entitled Who owns your great idea.

I saw a mention of the iShoe guy earlier today, but didn't read too much about it, so it was nice taking a closer look. My initial reaction is that MIT is being overly stingy with the licensing and ownership, and it is creating a worse situation for research. In the true spirit of Laissez-faire economics, the "research-by-students" market is readjusting itself in that, according to the article, students burned by this policy are moving their operations off-campus.

The problem I see with it is that it becomes a huge duplication and waste of effort. If a university sets up a bunch of labs, machine shops, and facilities for its students to use, but they all go off-campus to be able to keep ownership of their inventions, all that lab space at school is wasted.

I can see the school wanting to make back money on its investments in facilities and teaching, both of which can be hugely expensive. However, it seems like there should be a clear distinction between a "university" and a "corporate R&D department." To me, the purpose of a university is to promote the progress and learning of its students as well as support its faculty to conduct basic research. The R&D department is devoted to creating new products for its company to sell, with a focus on shorter-term commercialization.

These two goals are not incompatible and often intersect, but some level of separation should be kept between them in order to let them do what they do best. Universities can conduct research on a wide range of topics without the pressures of needing to produce a viable product. On the other hand, R&D labs have the task of making something you can actually use without a PhD in mechanical engineering. Universities produce tons of raw ideas, companies mine that raw idea-ore and smelt it into products.

A school saying "we want to try to commercialize anything coming out of our students" is like a group of civic engineers saying "let's forget about that whole bridge-building thing and just do some quantum physics." If you want to do quantum physics, become a quantum physicist, but in the mean time, people need bridges now. Similarly, if you want to make money off of selling products, become a company, but don't interfere with the learning process in order to make a buck.

If a student has money to develop and protect an invention on his own, should he? It depends. Turning the job of commercializing a product over to a university is a better bet if you have no interest in business or if finishing school is a priority.

That's a false dichotomy. The student could put the research in the public domain, have a nice bit of padding on their resume, and let the research benefit the maximum number of people.

Invention-hoarding (or "intellectual property" in general) seems to be good[1] for inventors, bad for inventions. It isn't pretty hard to see that being able to sell licenses for an invention you make gives you more money. On the other hand, Erez Lieberman (the iShoe guy) now has to pay $75,000 up front to MIT just to try to commercialize his idea (and even more should he succeed). Also, assuming he does gain exclusive rights, what if someone else wants to come along and make the same thing? If the idea were unpatented (or whatever the equivalent to public domain is for patents), then anyone could try their hand at making such a shoe, and whoever had the best design or best business plan would succeed. If the license is exclusive, only one person can work on a self-balancing shoe at a time.

On a brief societal note, the challenge would become to figure out an appropriate balance between good for the inventor and good for the invention such that a maximum number of stuff is created. Too much "intellectual property" ownership and individual ideas are never combined due to prohibitive licensing costs; too little, and nobody ever makes enough money off of their inventions for it to be worthwhile to invent them (in theory. It's assumed that this would be the case, so nobody has ever really tried).

Last month, the university determined that while the students own the design, R.P.I. owns the idea for the bottles. The students must license it from them [...]

What? That's just absurd. I have an idea for a machine to solve world hunger. Now anyone who invents one may own the design, but they have to pay me for the "idea." How is this "promoting the Progress of Science and useful Arts" again?

"At the same time, they have real potential, and our goal is to encourage them."

That seems to be the heart of it (right at the end of the article). By maintaining strict control over ownership of ideas and design, the university is discouraging invention with university resources, making it more difficult to conduct research and development at all. It seems like RPI is coming up with a more sensible policy, so I guess some good is coming of it.

1. That part isn't even completely clear-cut. A company like Red Hat wouldn't be viable if it didn't share alike its inventions.