Author Archive - Ben

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Which Language to Take?

Friday, February 25th, 2011

Cool thing about Stanford is you can take tons of languages.  Question is: which one it?

A sketchy EE grad student friend of mine (who’s from Greece, by the way, which makes this whole thing pretty impartial) and I set out to rank languages.  We used the following formula:

Value=Number of Speakers*Per Capita GDP of Speakers*(1-Percent of Speakers Who Speak English)

This approach balances economic opportunity and English penetration.  It returns the GDP that you can access once you have learned the language.   For instance, Germany may be home to BMW, Bosch and Q-Cells.  But with 56% of the country that speaks English, you probably can get by without burning 15 units to become conversant.  And you’d certainly surprise some people in North Korea if you started speaking in Korean.  But with a per capita GDP of $1,900, do you really want to do business there?  Plus, you know, the whole personality cult thing.

Of course, this doesn’t take into account opportunities to explore Florentine culture, examine Lenin’s letters or to have that Parisian love affair you always dreamed of having (as the New York Times’ Frugal Traveler apparently did).  But a quick scan might give you some insight.

Good thing they made you sing Frere Jacques back in second grade...

By the way, if you want to check our math, check out this spreadsheet.

Schwarzenegger: Never Give Up

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

I suppose the central question about Schwarzenegger has always been: is this guy actually smart?  He came and spoke an hour ago about climate change and CA politics.  The performance  gave little new info about either of the two topics at hand but did provide some insight about how the Terminator managed to get major reforms pushed through the California legislature.

Yes, Arnold, even after all these years...

In short, the guy isn’t that smart, but he knows several things: 1) exactly what his priorites are (“I don’t want people to die and I don’t want to be dependent on countries that hate us”), 2) how to get people to work together (more on this later) and 3) that he will work harder than anyone else in the room.


The Stanford Duck Syndrome and Stress Strain

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

Apparently, this year’s crop of frosh are super stressed out.  That, it seems, holds for much of Stanford – it’s Week 5 and the bikes at Green already are filling the designated parking.  (That’s not typical, I think).

Civil engineers worry a lot about stress (the pounds per square inch type).  The classic graph of civil engineering, in fact, is the stress-strain curve.  When you put a piece of metal under tension, it gets longer.  We call that change “strain.”  As you increase the stress (the amount of force per area) on a piece of metal, it will strain more and more – linearly with the amount of stress.  That is, if you double the stress, it will stretch twice as much.  The fancy name for that is “linear elastic” behavior.  At some point, the metal breaks down and will start stretching even as you apply the same amount of stress.  We call that the yield point – it can be seen on the graph below as the point where the curve goes horizontal.  If you strain the metal still further, it will become tougher and resist more stress (for a bit).  That’s called strain hardening.  Past that point, well, it breaks.

The Duck Syndrome is Stanford’s take on stress – be stressed out, but don’t show it!  It’s popped up recently in the campus literary magazine, which ran a front cover knock-off of Edward Muybridge’s horse study…as ducks. Anyways, the stress-strain curve is a nice way of thinking about the duck syndrome.  You apply a lot of stress, but people don’t yield.  They’ve got a very steep stress-strain curve (to get technical, a very high Young’s Modulus).    They probably have a yield point and probably some sort of strain hardening (the “ah, screw it I’mma stay up and get this done” moment).  And, much like the steel in bridges, well, we hope they don’t go much beyond that point.

In black, a classic stress-strain curve for steel. Notable is the linear-elastic region (the straight bit), the yield point (where it goes flat), strain hardening (where it gets stronger as it yields) and, well, fracture (the end of the line). Same thing for the Duck Syndrome, weirdly enough...

Andrew Luck and The Value of a Stanford Degree

Friday, January 7th, 2011

A lot of people question the value of a Stanford degree.  Over winter break, for instance, the New York Times published this article suggesting that you can get the same value education at a state school rather than at an elite college like Stanford.

Andrew Luck’s (awesome) decision to stick around for another year offers us an opportunity, I think, to revisit this question.  Figuring out the present value of various cash flows is exactly the sort of problem that a class called engineering economy teaches you how to figure out (a class, by the way, that Luck will have to take in order to graduate).   My sports-fanatic roommate I calculated that Luck is giving up around $14.1 million dollars by sticking around for another year.

That Luck values a year at Stanford at 14.1 million suggests that the school creates value that far exceeds the value of the salary you’ll earn once you graduate.  (To be fair, Luck’s senior year may include things like a Heisman Trophy or BCS championship, events that are not common to all Stanford seniors.  But his dad cited friends and academics as reasons for staying, things we can all appreciate ). By our rough calculations, the present value of a Stanford architectural design major’s salary is a little under a million dollars.  As the graph and Andrew Luck show, a Stanford education is worth a heck of a lot more than the salary you earn once you graduate.

On the left, a common way of valuing a college education: the present value of the additional salary earned because of the degree. On the right, Andrew Luck's valuation of his college degree. Looks like senior year is more valuable than typical metrics would suggest.

Our numbers:

Here’s a few assumptions.  Let’s say Luck, as an architectural design guy, can earn the median Stanford mid-career salary of $119,000 a year.  This is generous since architects aren’t usually that valuable.  Let’s also assume that Luck plays football until he’s 35 and then immediately enters the architectural design market earning that salary.  Also, let’s give him a 10% discount rate.

The present value of Luck’s salary from his degree, then is a cool $258,583.

Let’s also make the dramatic assumption that without a college degree, Luck can’t get a job after his playing career finishes.  (This, by the way, is the worst case:  fellow Stanford quarterback John Elway just got a job as VP of Football Operations at the Broncos, for about $100,000 a year.)

We’ll also assume that Luck earns the same amount of money as an NFL quarterback whether or not he stays for an additional year.  The catch is that he’s now entering a post-lockout NFL.  Sam Bradford, last year’s #1 overall pick as a quarterback, won a 6-year $50 million contract.  My roommate estimates that Luck won’t get more than a $30-million dollar contract because of the bargaining that will happen next year.  The present value of the difference of their contracts?  A $14.37 million dollar loss for Luck.

Combine that $14.37 million dollar loss caused by the contract with the present value of Luck’s architectural design salary ($.258 million) and you see that he’s giving away about $14.1 million dollars for his senior year at Stanford.

We can take these calculations a step further.  Now that Luck has defined the value of a Stanford degree to him, let’s compare that to the present value of the degree based on its salary.  As before, we’ll assume a salary of $119,000 a year, a 10% discount rate and now a 48-year career.  We’ll also assume that without the degree you could make $20,000 per year.  Since I have to go to class, we’ll neglect the tax implications of the income tax bracket change and we get a present value of $979,000 per year.

Age and Achievement…

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

I suppose going home for break made me realize that parents get old and careers end. Which makes you wonder - when do you make your best work? Is it halfway through your career, a quarter of the way? I posit that it depends if you're Brett Favre or Michael Crichton.

George Clooney

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

It’s time to announce TUSB’s first competition: Charlie and me, graph-to-graph, over the next two quarters.

The best news: you vote.  The one with the most Facebook “likes” of our graphs on March 20 gets…well…bragging rights.  But that’s what it’s all about, right?

Here’s what I’ve got to start: an exhaustive poll of the attendees at the George Clooney event on Monday.

An exhaustive survey of the attendees at George Clooney's talk revealed the following

Study…like a Champion

Monday, February 8th, 2010

SLAC hoodie.jpgEver wondered when performance apparel would hit the library? It has. A new company, “Study Like A Champion,” has begun producing sweatshirts, t-shirts and sweatbands designed to amp up your study experience. SLAC aims to be the “Nike of study apparel,” worn by the best students in the country (and, of course, all the wanna-be’s). Photos are available at
How much the hoodie will actually boost your grade isn’t clear. But it sure as hell will do its best. The sweatshirt features a red “DO NOT DISTURB” planted across the back of the hood. It unzips for heat control and has a little hole in the right pocket so you can run your headphones up through the inside of the sweatshirt.
The kicker: it has glow-in-the-dark strings on the hood. Why the glow-in-the-dark-strings, you ask? It’s so that when you’re walking back from Meyer at 1AM bikers – the “haters” – don’t run you over.
The mythology of the SLAC gear is exactly that – the “haters” against the “champions.” It’s a bit like the UnderArmo(u?)r obsession with protecting “our house” or Nike’s love of “just doing it.” For a 5’10 170 pound half-Jewish guy with glasses, it’s a little easier to identify with the SLAC mythology. Think back to all of the times you head out to the library on a Saturday night and take the back exit of your dorm. SLAC is here to tell you that you’re a champion, not a loser. And that you should walk out, loud and proud, iPod blaring Rat-at-at, backpack loaded with fresh notebooks for a “killer study sesh.” Most of all, believing in yourself.
And after all, that’s what apparel is all about. Nike shoes won’t make you any faster. A new suit won’t make you any smarter. And SLAC hoodies won’t make you more prepared for a test. But if it makes me laugh at 1AM in Meyer, I’m all for it.

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The Other Upset this Weekend…

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009


When the No. 14 football team lost to Cal on Saturday, you could hear the campus crumple.
But this Monday, when the #1 ranked men’s cross country team fell apart at the national championships, I think I was the only one who noticed. I ran cross country in high school, and I’ve been a little in awe of these guys since I got here.


Global Warming Debate Invades Inboxes

Monday, November 9th, 2009

A large group of students received emails last night from the a new Objectivists group at Stanford. About half of the people I’ve spoken to received the emails – none of us signed up for a list.
The email, signed by Matt Cook and Dakin Sloss, pointed readers to an article by the two here: The article claims that global warming is a hoax. Specifically, the two argue in the article that an 800-year timelag in some paleo-climate data indicates that CO2 does not drive climate change, but rather that climate change drive CO2 concentrations.
There was a considerable amount of pseudo-science babble in the pair’s article, which is below. I’m not going to argue about the whole “CO2 doesn’t drive climate change” crap. For that, you can go talk to any of the professors in the Stanford faculty, specifically Ken Caldeira, Mark Jacobson or Steve Schneider.
It’s worth, however, looking at how the pair tried to make their argument, because it tells us something about what they’re thinking.