Tag Archives: Harvard

How to Find a Job

We recently came across an article in Wired Magazine by Peter Thiel (of Paypal fame and early investor in Facebook) with some very interesting conclusions.

Briefly, he mentions how the best and brightest of our society tend to shoot for elite universities like Harvard, where they then proceed to interact with people more or less just like them and, as the years go by, they tend to reinforce their own principles and become more and more similar. This may seem both obvious and good. We agree that it is obvious. Most of us associate with people similar to ourselves, and studies have been performed to show that most people do the same around the world.

The second point, that it is good for the best and brightest to keep hanging out with the best and brightest, however, might not be so good. Thiel points to a study of entrepreneurs, which showed that those who associated with the most varied groups of people (in different clubs, associations and different activities) tended to be the most innovative. He then ties this back into Harvard, where he says the lack of interaction with diverse people (not necessarily diversity of race or gender, but of interests, goals, etc.) will limit the potential of these best and brightest. He ends with: “Perhaps Bill Gates knew what he was doing when he dropped out of Harvard.”
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Few things annoy economists more than anecdotal evidence. Just think of “mockumentaries” and various news headlines that don’t document “how many” or “how much”, but rather “what happened to a certain person”. It is easy to capture people emotionally with one, drawn out story, but this also goes against an economist’s training in statistics and probabilities. See how Dan Ariely complains about the $48,000 which was spent to rescue one terrier left aboard a ship, only because the dog was featured on local news channels.

Ultimately, and despite Stalin’s morbid quote that “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”, economists are actually correct in wanting to work with concrete data rather than tear-jerking anecdotes, at least for their purposes. This is the main reason why economists have tended to look down upon the humanities, which always seemed to be characterized by fluff.

This, however, might be changing, thanks to Google and Jean-Baptiste Michel of Harvard University. Michel has been digging into the data available thanks to Google books and has been able to start putting quantitative values to cultural studies, such as linguistics. You might not think much of interest could emerge from this, but thanks to this digital collection, we can analyze how often words appear, as well as group of words, and we can study the evolution of words and phrases throughout time. In fact, for the first time we can really estimate how many words truly exist in the english language (apparently slightly over 1 million). We can also find the occurrence of typos, how long it takes new inventions and phenomena to become used in everyday language, how quickly celebrities and pop-culture references fade in and out of existence, among many other things.

We think this is fascinating, and we also welcome the addition of concrete data to fields which seem to abound with anecdotes and personal stories. We do, however, think the term “culturomics” sounds off-putting. Maybe “culturnomics” might work better?

And this also gives us the excuse to show this awesome Google lab “Books Ngram Viewer”: http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=computer%2Ccar&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

I can see many economists, statisticians and mathematicians taking a renewed interest in the humanities in the near future.