musings on music and life

October 16, 2015

on being fooled by randomness

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — sankirnam @ 10:35 am


In “Fooled By Randomness”, author Nassim Taleb makes a very incisive point: what we percieve as survivorship bias is oftentimes just a randomized effect. One can illustrate this by the following process that Taleb also makes in the book. Suppose you have 100,000 people engaged in some activity with a large element of luck or randomness involved (i.e. stock trading/forecasting, or scientific research*). If at every stage you eliminate 90% of the participants, after 5 stages, you will be left with 10 people. Are these people necessarily “better” than the others who were not eliminated? At the outset, before the process began, we might not have said so. However, once everything is over, the mental process of “survivorship bias” kicks in to make an ex post facto rationalization as to why these remaining 10 people are superior.

*One might find the use of “scientific research” in this context odd; after all, it is supposed to be a methodical process, right? Well, as someone who completed a PhD in chemistry, as a practitioner of scientific research, and as a scientist, I can attest that the process of research is all luck. Think about it: research operates on the frontier of human knowledge, whereby the outcomes of what you plan to do are basically unknown. One can make an educated guess, and these educated guesses (or “hypotheses”) form the direction of research inquiries. However, at the moment of doing the experiments, you do not know which one will yield the results you want. This is how science (especially chemistry) operates – by running a lot of experiments, and seeing that one of them worked (due to chance), and then retroactively fitting a model or theory around that result.

This makes me uneasy, in much the same way that finance makes Taleb uneasy, because the conclusion is that scientists are no better than financiers at dealing with randomness! And these are the people we look to for improving our quality of life, solving some of the most pressing problems we as a species collectively face, and furthering the boundaries of human intelligence!

It is disturbing to me that so many processes are now due to luck, or can be described as a “numbers game”. Activities falling in this category include job applications and dating, among others. The very fact that dating has become a “numbers game” is exploited by the numerous dating apps that have proliferated recently, including Tinder, Hinge, and Coffee Meets Bagel. These apps attempt to make the process of meeting people easier, by removing the necessary barriers (i.e. proximity) necessary for communication; however these same barriers are also lowered for rejection! By dramatically lowering the barrier for rejection, people are more prone to wait for someone perfect to come by (even if that is an ideal that may never be materialized), rather than giving existing people of the opposite/same gender who may have expressed interest in them a chance. A similar situation exists in today’s job market; with the current saturation of job seekers in the market, employers can afford to wait for the perfect “purple squirrel” candidate, and if he/she doesn’t turn up, complain that there is a “shortage of STEM workers” and bring in more H1-B workers**.

In short, processes that used to be systematic have now become stochastic. I’m not entirely sure why that is, but my observations about the world around me seem to be consistent with this sentiment.

**On this note, I would like to point out Norman Matloff’s excellent blog. Matloff is a realtalker and makes a key distinction that people fail to observe with H1-B workers: while the program is supposed to bring in the “best and the brightest”, what it is actually accomplishing is bringing in mediocre immigrants en masse and displacing otherwise qualified Americans from their jobs. It’s ironic that I would be bashing the H1 program, as my family immigrated to the US as part of that; however, my father definitely belonged to the “best and brightest” category, having been given a job offer as CTO of a tech startup during the 90’s-00’s dot-com boom.


August 6, 2015


Filed under: Books — Tags: — sankirnam @ 11:36 am

I’m now making my way through The Price of Inequality; although I am not done with the book, I can say that so far it has been very interesting. Economics books can be notoriously dry, but since I am very interested in the subject (for many reasons), I am able to power through. Inequality in incomes and wealth disparities in the USA are getting worse every year – for an excellent visual illustration, see this video:

Shocking. Stiglitz attributes this to the policies that the rich (in particular the 1%) have enacted to keep their coffers overflowing. He singles out the Republicans for constantly endorsing tax cuts as well as fiscal and monetary policies that favor the rich. Stiglitz states that the insane wealth disparity we see today started with the Reagan tax cuts, which were based on Supply-Side Economics and the (now largely discredited) Laffer Curve. The wealth that was supposed to “trickle down” from the rich did not do so; they used whatever they were able to save from the tax cuts to further line their pockets. Until I read this book, I did not realize that the Reagan tax cuts lowered the top marginal tax rate from 70% to 28%!!

Inequality in wealth is not good for the overall health of a country. Government policies are supposed to be able to prevent such things, by “redistributive” methods such as taxation and socialized healthcare. In earlier decades, the terms “socialism” and “communism” had negative connotations, as the US was neck-deep in the Cold War with the USSR. Nowadays, the word “redistribution” has also achieved similar status, which is due to the inordinate power the rich now have thanks to economic policies favoring them. This NYT op-ed article about the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy has a few choice quotes illustrating the consequences of inequality (even though this is from 2012, it is still relevant):

“It’s manifestly silly (and highly polluting) for every fine home to have a generator. It would make more sense to invest those resources in the electrical grid so that it wouldn’t fail in the first place.”

“Is crime a problem? Well, rather than pay for better policing, move to a gated community with private security guards!

Are public schools failing? Well, superb private schools have spaces for a mere $40,000 per child per year.

Public libraries closing branches and cutting hours? Well, buy your own books and magazines!

Are public parks — even our awesome national parks, dubbed “America’s best idea” and the quintessential “public good” — suffering from budget cuts? Don’t whine. Just buy a weekend home in the country!

Public playgrounds and tennis courts decrepit? Never mind — just join a private tennis club!”

To see the extreme of income inequality, look at South Africa, where the rich live in mansions surrounded by high walls topped off with barbed wire, and protected by armed guards. Already we can see the beginnings of this in the various gated communities in suburbs in America. We don’t have to let things get as bad as they do in South Africa before we realize we have a problem here. Unfortunately, the passing of necessary preventative measures is stymied by the gridlock in Congress.

So what is my interest in all this? I’ve always been interested in studying economics; when I was an undergraduate, I actually wanted to double major in it, but then decided not to, simply so I could graduate early. This is something I regret to this day – while I may have graduated in a little over 2 years, I missed out on a lot of key experiences essential to undergraduate life, and so when I think back on it, my undergrad years seem like a very boring extension of high school. Anyway, part of the reason for the lousy job market for chemists (which I am experiencing first-hand) is inequality. CEO’s and other big corporations have become obsessed with furthering profits on a quarterly basis, rather than focusing on improving the underlying R+D, which has a much longer timeframe. And so, one of the ways that CEO’s and other executives can maintain quarterly profits is by continually slashing R+D. This seems like a classic “chicken and egg” conundrum – if one keeps slashing R+D, one will not have products to sell in the future, but at the same time, one has to sell the existing products to make money for R+D. At the same time, while salaries for the average worker or scientist have not noticeably improved (in some measures, PhD chemist salaries are decreasing by constant dollars and PPP), executive salaries are skyrocketing. Simultaneously, globalization has made the job market incredibly competitive and salaries are on a race to the bottom. US universities take in large number of foreign students every year for PhD work, and companies here also preferentially hire foreign workers or H-1 visa holders, because they can be paid less.

To finish off, here are some illustrative passages from the book:

In a world of globalization, creating market value had become entirely separated from creating employment. […] And even when there is investment in the United States, it’s not necessarily investment related to job creation: much of the investment is in machines designed to replace labor, to destroy jobs

[…] social protection can make for a more productive society. Individuals can take on more high-return, high-risk activities if they know there is a safety net that will protect them if things don’t work out.” *This is a similar argument used for keeping the tenure system in universities, interestingly enough.

[…] too many of those at the top don’t want to contribute their fair share to the “public goods” that are necessary if our society, and economy, are going to function.” *Similar to what is stated in the article I linked to above.

[…] if employers don’t pay workers a decent wage, if a society provides so little opportunity that many people become alienated and demotivated, then that society and its economy won’t work well.

[…] free mobility of labor without tax harmonization is an invitation to a race to the bottom” *This is especially relevant today given the buyouts and M&A’s of big corporations in order to relocate to tax havens, where they can pay lower tax rates, at the expense of the American worker.

EDIT (3/9/2016): I just finished watching this excellent movie by former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich on this very topic. It is really well made, and Robert Reich makes some very good points over the course of the documentary. I do have one major point of contention, however. One of Reich’s arguments is that education is the key to strengthening the middle class and improving the economy, and he points out that higher education massively expanded in the United States from 1950-1970 (thanks mainly to the GI Bill). It is pointed out that inequality has increased since the 1980’s and that the ‘economy’ has been doing much worse since then. However, while most other economic indicators may have been going downhill, education rates still increased; today, we have the best educated and most highly qualified workforce in the history of our species on the planet! Yet millennials and people in my generation are still struggling to find gainful employment. There are plenty of PhD’s who are either unemployed, underemployed, or desperately looking for work. If education is the magical panacea to long-term economic stability, then why do the most educated individuals in this country struggle for employment? Superficially, Reich shows that economic downturns are correlated with lower college enrollment, but I’m not sure that’s the case; I’m sure there are statistics that show otherwise. It could be this superficial (and otherwise incorrect) consideration of the relationship between economic growth and higher educational enrollment that has led to the expansion of the H-1B program, and the displacement of otherwise qualified, highly-skilled domestic workers from their jobs.


Edit 2 (5/16/2016): An excellent discussion by John Oliver on this very topic!

February 26, 2014

The secret of scent

Filed under: Books, Uncategorized — Tags: , — sankirnam @ 7:16 pm

I recently finished reading Luca Turin’s The Secret of Scent, and wanted to get my thoughts down before they faded to nonexistence. The book is very compelling, being that the subject matter is about human olfaction. The mechanism of how humans and other animals detect odor is still up for grabs, and there are several competing theories, such as the “lock-and-key” mechanism, or shape-based detection. The author’s central thesis is that the nose operates through a mechanism known as quantum electron tunneling, and he gives a detailed history of the development of the theory. The book is aimed at laymen, and is written for a nonscientific audience. As a chemist, I was very impressed by Turin’s coverage of the basics of organic chemistry, given that all the popular fragrance molecules in use today are small organic molecules! It is noteworthy that Turin is not an organic chemist by training; he got his PhD in biophysics. Turin posits that the odor of molecules as detected by the nose can be correlated with their IR (infrared) frequencies, and one of the biggest pieces of evidence he describes is the similarity of the smell of decaborane and thiols (B-H and S-H bonds both have IR frequencies around 2500 cm-1). Any organic chemist will be all too familiar with the vile smell of divalent sulfur compounds, such as H2S, thiols, thiolate salts, disulfides, and sulfides. However, the moment the sulfur is oxidized, the smell vanishes. Sulfoxides and sulfones do not smell bad at all. Recently, I have been working with aryl-SF5 compounds as part of my graduate research work, and those smell very pleasant, often reminiscent of their -CF3 analoges! Thus, according to Turin’s theory, they should have similar IR frequencies, which I am unfortunately too lazy to look up.

Turin explains that deuterated and non-deuterated molecules smell different when properly purified (by GC methods) and that the smell can be distinguished by trained individuals (he writes about his attempt to demonstrate this with acetophenone and acetophenone-d8). This is due to the isotope effect, which is most pronounced with D-H substitution, since deuterium is twice the mass of protium.

He also attempts to explain the difference in odor between the enantiomers of carvone, suggesting that the C=O stretch in one enantiomer may not be detected as well as other (which is entirely feasible when one considers that molecules in the nose are detected in a protein receptor, which is an inherently chiral environment). His experiment to prove this theory involves mixing simple ketones (such as acetone or MEK) and one enantiomer of carvone to see if the smell matches the other.

The above experiments call for reproduction by interested individuals, and it is noteworthy that Dr. Turin has wriiten about these experiments in detail in a book intended for laymen. His passion for the subject shines through every paragraph in the book.

That being said, here’s another shameless plug (for fluorine and fluorine chemistry). Selective fluorination may be another way to intelligently design new fragance molecules. While it is known that C-F bonds, due to their inherent polarity, are stronger than C-H bonds (and thus vibrate differently), organofluorine compounds are also often more volatile than their nonfluorinated counterparts. This could be useful for designing new “headnote” fragrances, which are the smells one initially detects when applying perfume; they only last for a few minutes or so.

March 22, 2012

Organo Main Group Chemistry

Filed under: Books, Chemistry — Tags: — sankirnam @ 5:30 pm

I recently discovered a good textbook for those interested in organic chemistry:

This is geared towards intermediate undergraduate chemistry majors (preferably after they have finished a year-long course in Organic Chemistry), or can be used by the instructor to supplement the regular sophomore Organic course. The book gives a very broad-based coverage of the organic chemistry of the elements; thus the topic of this book can more correctly be described as “elemento-organic chemistry”. Since the emphasis is on the main-group elements, transition-metal organometallic chemistry is glossed over. Very detailed attention is given to the chemistry of the hypervalent main group elements (such as boron, carbon, silicon, sulfur, phosphorous, germanium, bismuth, iodine, and bromine), since that is the author’s area of expertise. Carbene chemistry (especially that of the stable, NHC (Arduengo) carbenes) has a chapter of its own. Brief mention of stereoelectronic effects as applied to conformation and reactivity of organic substrates is done in the overall context of bonding.

Unfortunately, there is little mention of carbocation chemistry (which is one of my areas of interest). I also feel the author could have been a little bit more attentive in citing the literature appropriately. While I do not doubt his knowledge of the chemistry presented, one of the major uses of a textbook is a primary tool for finding literature citations. To take a random example: If I wanted to find papers on the chemistry of low-valent iron, the first thing I would do would be to find a book or textbook on iron chemistry, flip to the chapter on low-valent iron, and look up the references for that chapter. Also, since this book was translated from Japanese, minor errors in translation and various other typos are scattered throughout. However, they do not impede understanding.

I would recommend this book to interested undergraduate and graduate students in organic chemistry. For instructors, this book can be used as a supplement for sophomore undergraduate chemistry and would make a perfect textbook for undergraduate advanced organic chemistry. At the graduate level, this can serve as an introduction to advanced topics, such as hypervalency, which are not usually taught at the undergraduate level.

It’s not that expensive on amazon:, only $73. This is cheap compared to the astronomical prices I have paid for books in years past.

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