WRITING: CAN WE CONTROL OUR FUTURE?

Samantha has an interesting post. It reminds me of Gilda Radner:

“Some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”

Gilda must be thinking about the relative importance of human actions and sheer luck in life. She argues that we cannot completely control our future,  but we can partially influence it by taking proper action now.

Now let’s try to make her idea more precise.

In current period t, I have a reward f_t(a_t, X_t) of happiness. a_t is the action I take in period t, X_t is a random element that summarize the external, environmental impact on me, say luck; X_t follows probability distribution F_t(X_t|h_t), where h_t=\{(a_s, X_s)\}_{s=0}^t is the history of actions I’ve taken and external factors till now. Hence, the future may not be completely chaos: although I cannot know future X_s precisely, by taking actions a_t now, I can influence how future will unfold via F_t(X_t|a_t, X_t).

Suppose I am a rational hedonist,  in a disciplined pursuit of happiness. In the current moment t, I take the best action a_t^* to maximize the expected, accumulative happiness from current time t till the end of my life T (a random variable), given the history h_t. Let V_t(X_t) = \sum_{s=t}^T f_t(a_s^*, X_s) be the best accumulative happiness in expectation from now onward.

In this model, luck is captured by random variable X_t. My karma h_t will influence how future state X_t plays out by partially controlling F_t(X_t|h_t), which is influenced by relative important of action a_t and luck X_t. Given current history h_t, I make the best decision a_t^*, without knowing X_{t+1}, X_{t+2}, ... precisely (although I may know the distribution F_s):

\displaystyle\Large \max_{a_t} f_t(a_t, X_t) + \mathbb{E}[ V_{t+1}(X_{t+1})|a_t].

That is,
“taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.”

Solving this model requires backward induction. The irony is:

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forward.”

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[Atlanta, June, 2006]

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WRITING: ACADEMIC POLITICS, 5

Fair play is a basic principle for almost all games. In basketball, for example, you play with your equals of similar capability. You don’t prey on small guys—there is no glory in such wins.

In school politics, however, fair play rarely matters. The tenure system has tenured (seniors, at associate and full levels) with the life-long job security, and untenured  (juniors, at the assistant level) without that security. The road to tenure is demanding: you need to excel on publication records, external review letters, and internal (school) votes. since only the tenured vote,  juniors are vulnerable to bully and exploitation. Indeed, many juniors struggle to get tenure without losing their souls.

This systematic flaw often turns out the nasty side of the academic politics. Last year the Boss wanted to force out certain seniors. Instead of doing it himself, he asked junior E to chair the research committee ( a cover to screw his targets). Afraid of NO vote, E unwillingly accepted the hot position that is not for juniors. As a result, she became the casualty of the Boss’s game: she angered B and G, who both voted NO on her case.

E was not alone. In my case, because I failed to kiss up to him, he requested twice as many outside reviewers, compared to his darling EW,  to double my chance of getting negative assessments. He cherry picked a few negative teaching comments out of hundreds of positive ones. Despite the fact that most publications are collaborative, he criticized me of no solo work.

In my case, he was the only one voted NO. After my first solo article appeared a month later, he reluctantly changed to ABSTAIN. Only after my second solo came out did he finally say YES. Indeed, he had to review the evaluation letter twice. What a waste of time.

A tiny guy, he never learned how to play basketball, let alone fair play.

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[SIZE MATTERS? ATLANTA, 2005]

WRITING: ACADEMIC POLITICS, 2

Our school politics is bewildering. First, there is the never-ending war between the theorists and the behaviorists. Then, there is the fight between the Jewish and the Middle East. Finally, there is the whole “DIVERSITY” BS.

But what is really toxic is the duel between the pro-boss and anti-boss camps. Because our boss is appointed rather than elected, he is insecure. Instead of doing his business, he focuses on kissing the top and pitting one camp against the one:

1) Teaching: Increasing the teaching load while others on the campus are reducing it, only because his boss hates the school which has higher market pay.

2) Hiring: We are supposed to hire talents. But now hiring is a political means. We have three lines. Yet all three are chaired by non-experts, who are, not surprisingly, in the pro-boss camp. One even refuses to hold any meeting, because of his speech disability. Top it all, common sense has that universities should focus on research and teaching. Guess what? Our boss prioritizes… DIVERSITY!!!

3) Promotion: Your political orientation is the key. The boss can go out of his way to make or break you:
a) If you are his buddy, you can pocket a million dollars, stay for nine years, without publishing a single paper. (In US research universities, for continuing employment or promotion, juniors must publish certain number of papers in top journals within 6-7 years; otherwise, they must leave.)
b) Or, even if you cannot speak a full sentence, you are still allowed to teach, year after year, if you are his buddy.

I am not sure which crime is bigger.

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[Atlanta, June, 2005]

Day 110, 0pt, 1.05:

jog: 3m;
learn: Luenberger, 5.9 5.10;
swim: 30r;
learning in Pelican, 10am-12pm;
read the book willpower instinct, Starbucks, Crystal Cove, 1:10pm-2:30pm;
chat with mom, 6pm-6:30pm;
T finished visiting Michigan, but they are unlikely to make the offer in a day or two;

For Day 111,
submit JDW’s letter online, 20min;
home decoration: search furniture online, 2hs;

[happy moment]
Mom is happily surprised by my call :)

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[animals, San Diego, CA, 7/16/2008]