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Monday, June 26, 2006

Courtesy Works

I've been reading a bunch of technical and pop finance books lately. The following anecdote is from Emanuel Derman's My Life as a Quant:

One day in late 1994 the tension between traders and quants led me to do something particularly stupid. I had spent all day dealing with impatient demands for systems support that I couldn't provide. That evening I took a limo out to Kennedy airport to catch a flight to Vienna, where I was scheduled to give a talk on implied [binomial model] trees at a conference...Boarding my plane, I sat down in my business-class aisle seat and finally relaxed. I was frustrated by the constant battles at work, and swore that I would be pushed around no longer.

As I unwound before takeoff, a family of three boarded the plane at the last minute and began taking their seats, none of which were contiguous. The father, a gentleman of about fifty, took the window seat on my right, his son sat across the aisle from me, and his wife sat farther towards the front of the plane. As I flipped through the pages of the OTOB conference program, the father asked the flight attendant if there were a set of contiguous seats...Finally, after about ten minutes of unsuccessful agitation, he turned to me and asked if I would switch aisle seats with his son. Still smarting from being pushed around all day, I remembered my "no more Mr. Nice Guy" promise to myself. I was seated in the aisle seat I had requested and I wasn't about to give it up for anyone. Turning to him with misplaced firmness, I said, "I'm sorry but I'd rather stay where I am."

As we took off for Vienna, I was appalled at my pointless recalcitrance. Both my seat and his son's seat were on the aisle. I was gaining nothing by being stubborn. And worse, I had now condemned myself to sit for ten hours next to someone to whom I had been unnecessarily objectionable. Guilt began to overwhelm me as I debated with myself how to undo what I had done.

While I writhed, I continued looking through the conference schedule. Then, I noticed, the man on my right extracted a similar schedule from his briefcase and began to look at it, too. I glanced at his face again, and suddenly realized I was sitting next to Bob Merton himself, the developer of continuous-time financial modeling, a Harvard professor and also a partner at Long-Term Capital Management.

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