Thursday, November 13, 2008

Curious lessons learned from numbers

To talk about something different this post I'm going to reflect on the meaning of some numbers from my younger days. The first incident is from high school. There were three students in my graduating class who essentially tied for valedictorian. They'd all three gotten straight As in every class and they'd taken six AP courses. My school was on a 4.0 system (A=4, B=3, etc) and AP classes were weighted so that in AP classes were A=5, B=4, etc. If you get 4 for all you're other classes (at least 158 credits), except 5 for your 30 AP credits (each AP class was worth 5 credits) then you're GPA will be about a 4.16. And they should all three tie for first, which they almost did, but Mike came out slightly ahead, Matt came in second and Kirby third. Here's the difference. Mike, the valedictorian, when he was a senior, he was taking four AP classes (that's 20 credits) but all seniors must take 22-24 credits. So, he could take a three credit graded class to give him 23 credits. But a better idea would be to take an easy two credits. He did two student assistant credits which basically amounted to being the personal assistant of a teacher. The class was Pass/Fail. He would go spend two hours a week doing basic office chores, no homework, no studying, and as long as he did what he was supposed to, he would get a Pass. Taking two easy credits turned out to be an auspicious choice. Pass/Fail courses aren't counted towards GPA, and he, in fact, took a number of Pass/Fail courses like this, in order to minimize his work load. Now, let's think about this. If your GPA is about 4.16 then every A in a non-AP class actually lowers your GPA. Thus, if he were to take a regular graded classes then that would've hurt his GPA, even if he got the best grade he possibly could. Mike was good with numbers and he actually set down and calculated the minimum number of credits necessary to graduate (turns out that if you took the minimum number of credits each semester 26 for Freshman, 24 for Sophomores, 22 for Juniors & Seniors you would achieve the minimum number of credits necessary to graduate, which is 188), and knew the maximum number of Pass/Fail classes a student could take and still graduate. In order to ease his workload (which admittedly is a lot, since he is taking 6 AP courses) he pushed towards the minimums. But Kirby, who came in third, was basically the hardest working, took the most credit classes and got the most As, and probably should have deserved to be valedictorian. But the numbers said she came in third. I guess things like this don't matter in the long run, but it is curious. I remember I was in Calculus with Mike, and he, Brian and I would complain about overachievers. The problem with overachievers is they raise the standards. They make it harder for the rest of us. The ideal is not to be an overachiever, but to do just the right amount of work, just enough to get an A. "Nothing to excess" as the ancient Greek maxim says. I never thought such a philosophy would pay off.

The second incident goes even further back, to my middle school days. In Social Studies we learned about the stock market, and, as a bonus, there was some sort of national competition that we could participate in. It's for students, to see how well they would do at picking stocks. The competition basically gives you a set amount of money; of course, they wouldn't literally give us money, but, you know, pretend to give us money. And then we buy shares of stock with that money, and after a set amount of time, whoever has made the biggest profit wins. Now, there're are many good strategies for investing, but generally over the long run the best strategy is to invest in large, stable, reliable companies that will produce stable, reliable long-term gains--namely, blue chips. This is the strategy I followed (per my father's advice) and it's sensible investing, but not for this game. There's no real money being made. The prize is only for the winner. It's not a good idea to play the odds and settle for modest profits, since you don't get to take the profits home with you. The best choice is to buy very risky stocks, buy a whole lot of shares of low-priced start-up companies. You'll make a lot of money with only small increases in price. Of course, you're taking high risks, and genuinely risk losing large amounts of money, but, as I said, this is only pretend money. There's no penalty for losing money. You have nothing to lose by taking high risks in this system Of course if you were to take the same risks in the real world, the losses would be real. But in this system, the gains only come about by winning the most, and you have nothing to lose by taking big risks. I didn't figure this out at the time of course, only much later. But maybe I'll have a kid someday and I can teach him how to game the system. I guess the lesson this contest teaches, whether it wants to or not, is that when there's nothing to lose, it's sometimes best to take big risks. Or at least that's what the smart ones 'll figure out. And what will they become when they grow up.

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