Leaving the Area

April 26, 2005

I spent most of last week attending a conference on Random Networks. Not as one might say, a random conference on networks! It was wonderful. Much of it whizzed by me without so much as a by your leave, but the excitement of the various work being presented was too palpable to miss.

There were physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists, and even people from the medical field (modeling disease spread on random networks).

Everyone should attend at least one cross-disciplinary conference such as this once a year. I came home invigorated and refreshed, and much more theoretically oriented than I was a week before. There were some problems I was working on where I had resorted to numerical experiments for some time. NOw with this new mindset, I put to work, and suddenly, the theory yielded itself, leading to my now having fully analytic results, not requiring computer simulations. I do not think anything but my going to this conference would have inspired me to work on these new results.

I am teaching 3 courses this term, and so am up to the gills with classes; and all the usual editorial work, referee work, etc. So, I worried some about taking out almost a whole week to go attend a conference that had absolutely nothing to do with my own work (though I have been working tangentially on it). Yet, I had read a lot about this area, and decided to go nevertheless. The proof is in the pudding. Taking a few days off to refresh and learn from a new environment led to some of the nicest theory work I ended up doing this week. The moral seems to be that having fun as an academic can also be very productive.

And of course, it also taught me to learn from fields outside my own. This is something I do a lot of, but it is still gratifying to see some proof of it every now and then. I am fascinated by power laws, and will most likely write my next piece for the Journal of Investment Management on that topic.

Time away is time well spent.

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Unreal Education

April 8, 2005

I returned from India ten days ago, where I talked about advanced credit models at the Institute for Financial Management and Research (IFMR) in Chennai. This was a series of three days of talks, where I had planned to speak for 4 hours a day, from 9:30am till about 2pm. I had not bargained on the extreme interest of the students attending the talks, they were extremely engaged and asked questions all the time. I ended up finishing at around 6pm! So much for a quiet day’s teaching, and then time to myself for writing and dealing with referee reports and other administrative work.

Just this weekend I taught an executive MBA class on swaps and floating rate products, and the same thing happened. I was hard-pressed to get even a reasonable amount of the material covered in the class time. The students had so many detailed questions, and they kept me busy answering many things I had not really thought out before hand. It was invigorating.

I count myself fortunate to have had such experiences two weeks in a row. This is clearly the exception, rather than the rule. Students tend to be tired mostly, and worried about their grades. Education without measurement seems to be the only “real” education there is left. As we get better at window-dressing our vitae, it is leading to an arms race – better grades at all costs.

The true problem behind this malaise is a lack of time. As life becomes more and more hectic, employers and other evaluators of students are failing to put in their own efforts to determine the quality of people they wish to hire, leaving this role to the grading system. The consequences are obvious for all to see.

But worse, is the consequence that students will also believe that their true worth can be measured in their grade. This false notion will lead to a disastrous modification of the education system. It already has surfaced in the grade inflation we see. One reported statistic is that 47% of graduating seniors in California high schools have an “A” average. So of course, colleges will begin to discount this, nevertheless, the presure on students to hit this goal still remains, but in addition they have to do more to distinguish themselves from the others. The end result is to burden our children even more, and rob them of their childhoods.

Hence, there is a vicious circle in place. As students focus more on grades, and less on learning, we will see more grade inflation to keep them happy. Grade inflation means students have to do more to separate themselves from the pack, leading to a huge burden, and no time to truly engage in the education process.

I think we all need to slow down.


The Injured Minority

April 5, 2005

Six weeks ago I tore up ligaments in my knee in a failed attempt at learning snowboarding. It took only a moment to wreck the knee, and many weeks later, I am still limping around wondering if it will ever return to normal. There is a lesson in this somewhere that I am avoiding. Maybe it is as simple as the idea that we should stick to what we are good at, and not believe we are good at things we clearly are not cut out for. But it may just be a lesson too hard for someone like me to learn.

But I am wandering off my main point, which is that when you have an ailment, or an affliction, you are drawn to others with the same. Almost every fifth student has come up to me and related his/her own tale of woe on the ski slopes. The first two doctors that treated me in the emergency room both cheerfully informed me of their ski injuries and assured me that like them, I would be back on a snowboard in a couple of weeks. Six weeks later, I am quite sure that retirement from the slopes is the only sane option for me.

Now, when I walk the streets, dragging the bad foot behind the better one, I sometimes encounter another limping person coming from the opposite direction. Our eyes meet, and sometime we both smile, in the same instant commisserating with each other, and also feeling truly connected. We are for that moment, kindred spirits, sharing the yoke of injury, being comforted not to be the only ones in a bad predicament. Misery loves company, for sure.

Its like being in the minority, and when that happens, people tend to feel close to others in the minority. I am now part of the ski injury club, and wear my wounds and limping gait like a badge of honor, proclaiming to all, especially my fellow injured, my membership of pain.

Its actually quite nice, this belonging to the minority. Its a fake cloak, comforting nevertheless! Its the same with the sportsbikers in the Bay area. We have an unwritten code that we wave to each other when passing. When I first started riding I noticed very quickly that everyone waved, and I quickly got with the program too. Its just nice, I felt welcomed, even if it were anonymously. Of course, the Harley guys never wave, they seem to live by some other grim code of angst and pent up anger. The minority of sportbikers is wonderful.

Its hard to feel special, unless one is part of a small group. So what am I going to do when my knee heals and I am kicked out of the damaged-knee-ligament sect? Who knows? I will have to find another minority to latch onto.