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School Mistreated Edward Thorp

A Man for All Markets: From Las Vegas to Wall Street, How I Beat the Dealer and the Market, by Edward Thorp, begins with some horror stories about school (bolds added):

Just after I turned five I started kindergarten at Dever Grammar School in northwest Chicago. I was immediately puzzled by why everything we were asked to do was so easy. One day our teacher gave us all blank paper and told us to draw a copy of an outline of a horse from a picture she had given us. I put little dots on the picture and used a ruler to measure the distance from one to the next. Then I reproduced the dots on my piece of paper, using the ruler to make the distance between them the same as they were on the picture and with my eye estimating the proper angles. Next, I connected up the new dots smoothly, matching the curves as well as I could. The result was a close copy of the original sketch.

My father had shown me this method and also how to use it to draw magnified or reduced versions of a figure. For example, to draw at double scale, just double the distance between the dots on the original drawing, keeping angles the same when placing the new dots. To triple the scale, triple the distance between dots, and so on. I called the other kids over, showed them what I had done and how to do it, and they set to work. We all handed in copies using my method instead of the freehand sketches the teacher expected, and she wasn’t happy.

A few days later the teacher had to leave the room for a few minutes. We were told to entertain ourselves with some giant (to us) one-foot-sized hollow wooden blocks. I thought it would be fun to build a great wall so I organized the other kids and we quickly assembled a large terraced mass of blocks. Unfortunately my project totally blocked the rear door—and that was the one the teacher chose when she attempted to reenter the classroom.

The last straw came a few days later. I sat on one of the school’s tiny chairs meant for five-year-olds and discovered that one of the two vertical back struts was broken. A sharp splintered shard stuck up from the seat where it had separated from the rest of the strut, so the whole back was now fragilely supported only by the one remaining upright. The hazard was obvious, and something needed to be done. I found a small saw and quietly cut off both struts flush with the chair’s seat, neatly converting it into a perfect little stool. At this, the teacher sent me to the principal’s office and my parents were called in for a serious conference.

Then, during high school, he was cheated:

With ten weeks to go before the American Chemical Society exam, as I practiced taking old tests, I was scoring 990 or more out of 1,000. I told Mr. Stump I was ready to try the ten he had held back. I got over 99 percent on the first two of these as well, so we went directly to the exam from the previous year, on which I did equally well. I was ready.

On the day of the exam my father drove me twenty miles to the El Camino Junior College, where I followed the crowd among the one-story barracks-like buildings to the test room. We had been told that slide rules would be allowed for the first time this year but that they weren’t necessary. As an afterthought I brought along a ten-cent toy slide rule—all I felt I could afford—thinking I could always do a quick rough check of my calculations if I had any extra time.

As I worked through the test I knew every answer. But then the last section of the test was distributed. This part of the exam required many more calculations than I could do by hand in the time allowed. My cheap tiny slide rule was worthless. Out came the full-sized well-machined slide rules all around me. Surprise! Slide rules were not merely optional—they were necessary for anyone who wanted to win. There was no credit given for showing the correct method, only credit for a numerical answer, to a specified level of “slide rule accuracy.” I was sickened by the realization I would likely not place high enough to get the scholarship I needed and unhappy with myself for not preparing by purchasing a hard-to-afford top-of-the-line slide rule. It seemed so unfair to convert a test about chemistry into one about slide rule arithmetic.

Then in college, at U.C. Berkeley, he was cheated again:

The [chemistry] course was taught by a famous professor, and we were using his book. As he was then preparing a revision, he offered 10 cents per misprint to the first student to report it. I set to work and soon brought him a list of ten errors to see if he would pay. He gave me my dollar. Encouraged, I came back with a list of seventy-five more mistakes. That netted me $7.50 but he wasn’t happy. When I returned a few days later with several hundred he explained that they needed to be errors, not mere misprints. Despite my objections, he disqualified nearly all of them. This unilateral retroactive change in the deal, which I would later encounter often on Wall Street, done by someone for their benefit just because they could get away with it, violated my sense of fair play. I quit reporting additional corrections.

And again, in the same class:

As the semester wound to a close, I had missed only a single point out of the hundreds given out for the written exams and the lab work, ranking me number one. After my unfortunate experience with the chemistry exam in high school, this was vindication. Part of our grade came when we were asked each week to chemically analyze a sample that was not known to us. After hearing that some students might sabotage others by secretly changing these unknowns, I made a practice of holding back part of mine so that, if this were done to me, I could prove that I had correctly analyzed whatever I had. On the very last sample given us to evaluate that semester, I was told I got it wrong. I knew better, and to prove it I asked that the part I had saved be tested. The decision on my appeal was left to the teaching assistant for my lab sections, who refused to act. The points I lost caused me to end the term in fourth place rather than first. Outraged, I did not enroll in chemistry the second semester and changed my major to physics. Thus I missed organic chemistry, the study of carbon compounds, and the basis for all living things. It is fundamental for biology.

My own experience in school was similar. For example, in college, I got a math problem correct on a test. The professor marked it wrong because he wasn't very clever and didn't understand the steps of my solution, and he apparently ignored my final answer which was correct. I met with the professor and taught him how to do the problem my way. He agreed that my method worked and my answer was correct. He then refused to award me any points for that problem, claiming he had a policy against changing grades retroactively (regardless of his own errors, apparently). He told me that losing points didn't matter because, if I scored high enough on the rest of the course, I could still get an A. (Of course it mattered: losing the points increased how well I'd have to do on future work to still get an A, and put me at greater risk of a lower grade.)


Elliot Temple on April 4, 2018

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