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Aunt Pythia’s advice

December 8, 2012

Last week I asked you guys to answer this question for me:

Dear Aunt Pythia,
How should I organize my bookshelf? I have 1000+ books.

Booknerd

As usual, you guys impressed me with your various uber-nerdy answers, some by email. Here are some excellent book-organizing suggestions:

  • By color
  • By publisher
  • Via the tool librarything.com
  • By your personal history reading the book – how old were you? This might be hard for me and Little House on the Prairie, which I read numerous times as a kid, then in Dutch to learn the language when I got married to a Dutch man, and now again because I just want to
  • My personal favorite:

    Sort books by copyright date of first editions. This would give an insight into the development of ideas. One problem with this is that it would make locating a book more difficult so an electronic index would be a valuable supplement. My initial thought was to do this only within categories, but as I think of it, it would be interesting to see fiction interspersed with history, philosophy or science.

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

My kid went to California last year to study number theory, computer science and physics at a highly regarded university. After getting his dream summer job with a fast growing startup known for hiring only the brightest and spoiling them with great food, good money and lots of benefits he’s starting to adopt some of the libertarian founders viewpoints on life. For next summer, he’s interviewing with some hedge funds known to recruit and “develop” talented math kids. It is looking like he’s going to the Dark Side. What can be done to turn this around and avoid the pain Mathbabe’s father must have gone through?

Failed Parent

Dear Failed Parent,

First of all, my dad was disappointed when I went into math instead of economics, psyched when I left academics for a hedge fund, and disappointed when I quit finance. So much for role modeling.

Second of all, I find your story consistent with my experience of super smart people finding it shockingly fun to be super smart and developing a viewpoint which allows them (or even encourages them) to take advantage of less smart people because they can and because it’s legal, independent of whether it’s moral.

There’s this whole machine, of which hedge funds are a large part, and some math and science camps too, which feed into this rhetoric and profit from it. I call it the fetishization of intelligence. People get so in love with their talent they think it transcends them above mere morality.

So the story isn’t good, and your son is another cog in the intelligence-as-fetish machine. And moreover, you’re not going to be able to talk him out of it, not now when most of the world is telling him he’s kind of an outsider and weak and unattractive (if he’s like most young men this is how they feel they’re treated, even if they aren’t actually unattractive or weak or outsiderish) whereas there’s this tiny contingent telling him he has super powers. Why would he listen to you?

My advice: wait it out. He’ll probably at some point realize he could be getting more out of life if he had stuff he’d done that he could be proud of. Then it’s time for you to have a list of things he might want to do that don’t involve taking advantage of “dumb money” and do involve applying his brains to discovery and solving important problems. Or at least have a pen and paper ready to help him make such a list.

One more piece of advice: if he claims that what he does is morally neutral because if he didn’t do it someone else would, please don’t pass up that opportunity to point out all the evil that has been done by otherwise decent people with that very line. I can’t tell you how many times I hear that. I refuse to help people feel comfortable with their uncomfortable choices.

Good luck, and please get back to me in 10 years to tell me how things are.

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m a PhD candidate in Math and I’m going to get into quantitative finance. I’m wondering how hard it is these days for a quant to maintain his integrity without undermining success? Any tips in doing so? Have you seen many happy yet righteous quant?

Fish in the Forest

Dear FitF,

After having a few jobs outside academia, I’m pretty sure that you get paid extra in finance partly because you’re smart and the skills you have are rare, but partly because you’re doing something pretty iffy on the righteous scale.

I’m not saying that there are no righteous quants, but I’m saying that if everyone had a righteous score and a salary score, then there would be a negative correlation between those two lists.

So I’m on the job market, and I am not totally against working in finance, because there are all kinds of jobs, but the ones I’m interested in are doing things like making accounting reports machine-readable and consistently formatted, to promote transparency. This doesn’t pay the big bucks as you might imagine.

Here are some snarky tips for you to continue to feel righteous if you work in finance:

  • Figure out what the information is that you know but other people don’t. See if that matters to you. Example: insider trading, does it make you feel dirty? Maybe not, in which case you’re good.
  • Start reading Ayn Rand and develop a sense that you are entitled to be rich because you’re so smart, and that anyone who doesn’t agree must be super dumb (see previous post for how to go about this, although you may be too old to go to summer camps).
  • Do you mind lying? How about omitting the truth? How about pretending to regulators that you have a firm grasp on the underlying risk of a instrument class because there’s a magical mathematical formula someone with a Ph.D. came up with who can’t explain it to anyone? Good?

Good luck, and tell me how it goes!

Aunt Pythia

——

Readers, it’s time for you to answer a question! This one is particularly outside my realm, but I have faith in you good people to help:

Aunt Pythia,

I’ve been finding it really hard as an adult who has stepped out of the higher education track because of a lack of funding to find resources for adults in the same vein as what i found as a young adult. Are there any resources out there that you would recommend for a minority woman aged 29+ looking for training opportunities that are more experiential than internship based?

NYC and Wondering

——

Please ask Aunt Pythia a question! She loves her job and can’t wait to give you unreasonable, useless, and possibly damaging counsel!

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. December 8, 2012 at 9:53 am

    librarything.com currently links to libraryanything.com

  2. Larry Headlund
    December 8, 2012 at 10:34 am

    “Sort books by copyright date of first editions….it would be interesting to see fiction interspersed with history, philosophy or science.”

    Indeed. Marx scholar David Harvey points out how, for example, it was when reading Victor Hugo he would relize ‘So that is where Marx got that idea.’

  3. Deane
    December 8, 2012 at 11:03 am

    I think the question of how to maintain one’s integrity while pursuing a career, almost any career and not just one on Wall Street, is a tricky and ongoing challenge throughout one’s life. The problem is that what you learn through actual experience under many different circumstances, even if some are morally questionable, is by far the best way to develop as a human being and have an ultimately rich and rewarding life. The reality is that no matter what you do, there is a good chance you will find yourself at times working in a company that is doing at least some things what you consider to be morally questionable. Worse, the work you’re asked to do contributes to these activities.

    Some random thoughts:

    a) Always try to remember the moral standards you want to strive for, even if you don’t always succeed.

    b) Avoid sudden movements or noises. If you’re falling short of the moral standards you want for yourself, don’t try to reach them immediately. It won’t do anyone any good if you become in one sudden move morally correct but have no job or career. Plan consciously on how to move in the right direction but where you still have a life with opportunities and adventure.

    c) Keep an eye out and be willing to leap for unexpected opportunities you never even thought about before.

    d) Be willing to take a risk that nobody else would simply because you see all the downsides and you’re willing to accept them if they happen.

    e) But always make sure you have as honest a view as possible of your own skills, talents, weaknesses. It is rather important but extremely difficult not to over- or under- estimate any of this.

    f) Always consult other people so you can see the situation from as many different angles as possible and know the possible consequences of your decision. But don’t necessarily accept their conclusions on what you should do.

  4. ed
    December 10, 2012 at 11:28 am

    A righteous and annoyed HFT quant here.

    Now I can’t speak for other people, but I sleep quite well at night “despite” making money off of other traders. In fact I feel quite good about the work I do and am more proud of it than of the pretty useless theoretical work I did before this. If it wasn’t for me a lot of people would have been worse off by either not being able to make the trades they want in the time frame they like or getting worse prices than they do, and the money I make is imo no different than payment for services rendered, despite its decentralized and distributed nature.

    As a side note, ime intelligence was much more fetishized in academia than it is where I work now – people I work with being intelligent is just another simple fact, while in academia I felt that a lot of people had to make sure to emphasize their superiority over everybody else (maybe to not feel as bad about making less money?). Ymmv of course.

    • Deane
      December 10, 2012 at 11:34 am

      I can’t speak for others, but I have absolutely no objection to “making money off other traders” and do not consider that morally questionable at all. For a clearer example of morally questionable use of interest rate swaps, see, for example, http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=ay5LDbjbjy6c

      • Deane
        December 10, 2012 at 11:40 am

        Let me add to this. I just realized what “HFT” means. I don’t like the impact of high frequency trading on the markets and the instability it creates. But that doesn’t make doing it morally questionable. If HFT needs to be controlled or even eliminated, I view that as the responsibility of the government and not the individual HFT traders like you.

        • ed
          December 10, 2012 at 12:14 pm

          Again, speaking for myself only, my strategies decrease the variance in the market (this will generally be true for any arbitrage-like strategy), but hey if the government/society decide to eliminate them – oh well.

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