Social Science Fails Again! Summers and the Winklevoss Twins

When I first heard the exchange that Andy references, I thought it was a pretty good line.  I hold no brief for these guys. But then I thought: here are two undergraduates going to meet with the President of Harvard.  Why is it so odd that they are dressed up?  It hardly speaks well of their humility that they would ask the President to help them, but on the face of it, it seems that they were just trying to dress appropriately.  When I was an undergraduate, I worked for the college newspaper, and a couple of times I interviewed the college president.  And I wore a coat and tie.

Put another way: there seem to have been a**holes in that conversation, and the Winklevoss twins don’t appear to have been the only ones.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

23 thoughts on “Social Science Fails Again! Summers and the Winklevoss Twins”

  1. This, of course, would be an iron law of social science:

    In any group which includes Larry H. Summers, there is at least one major *sshole.

  2. No argument (regarding Summers) here, nor does Jonathan’s observation contradict Summer’s law. But if one credits the version of the meeting portrayed in the movie–and why not, since we’re just having fun–Summers’ law is valid in context. Jonathan’s “when in Rome” argument for dressing up of course is analogous to the interview case. But the Winklevi (Zuckerberg’s term, though I think “Winkelvoi” more accurate) thought that they could get back at Zuckerberg by bringing a disciplinary case against him under the heading “conduct unbecoming a Harvard student.” The only reason they thought that is that they considered themselves the epitome of what *did* become a Harvard student: old-family, athletic, Porcellian Club, fabulously wealthy. And the only reason they went to talk to the President instead of bringing a complaint before the Administrative Board (which would have been laughed out of court in short order) is that they considered themselves, and were, the kind of people whose connections entitled them to a private meeting with the President.

    So I guess I consider Summers’ Law shorthand for a completely valid conclusion. The Winklevoi had an obnoxiously exaggerated view of their own importance.

  3. “And the only reason they went to talk to the President instead of bringing a complaint before the Administrative Board (which would have been laughed out of court in short order) is that they considered themselves, and were, the kind of people whose connections entitled them to a private meeting with the President.”

    Actually, in the movie, they tell Summers that they went to the Ad board and it declined to take the case.

  4. Apparently I am the only person in the whole world who watched The Social Network and sympathized with the Winklevosses against Zuckerberg. It wasn’t class: I’m closer to Zuckerberg, at least in his pre-college years. It wasn’t job function: I sympathize more with the geeks than with suits/jocks, being an engineer myself.

    It’s that, assuming the basic facts of their interaction were accurately portrayed (Facebook expert David Kirkpatrick argues with the details, but not the broad strokes, of the movie’s portrayal: http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/31377), the Winklevosses had a very good argument that Zuckerberg screwed them over by agreeing to do the coding just so he could buy enough time to steal a march on them.

    And as far as attempting to go to the Administrative Board, and then going to Summers: why was this an unreasonable response to Zuckerberg’s actions? If Harvard never touted itself as, among other things, an entrepreneurial hotbed, then the twins would have been out of line. But Summers’ response is just having things both ways: he wants the benefits of clever students and their startup ideas, but none of the grief. And now he’s whining about undergraduates donning suits and ties — the horror! — and telling him that there is strong evidence that another student is violating Harvard’s standard of conduct.

    It was hard for me to muster any sympathy for this useless jackass before seeing TSN; after his latest statements, it’s pretty much impossible.

  5. Andrew: they considered themselves, and were, the kind of people whose connections entitled them to a private meeting with the President.

    My understanding is that this is what Harvard teaches its undergraduates. Two stories about people I knew years — well decades — ago in graduate school who had been undergraduates at Harvard.

    The first is about quite nice who had had a chance to reflect, and moved past this, but told me the following story on himself at a party. He had planned or wanted to attend graduate school at Berkeley. Back then, don’t know if it is still the case, the application deadline to Berkeley was about a month earlier than any comparably ranked department, so he did not bother to get his application in on time. Instead he got it in at the same time as all the others and was shocked that they declined it by return mail, without even cashing his check. It had not occurred to him that the deadline was just that. At Harvard, it was always possible to find a dean to waive any rule or deadline that interfered with what you wanted or needed to do.

    The second is about one of the people in my first year study group, and illustrates the same general principle. First, he managed to get his PhD without taking the required number of courses (he was 2 shy out of 14 required!): managed to get someone to sign off on this. The administrative assistant to the DGS, aka our fairy godmother, said that in all her years, that had never before happened. Second, none of the three people on his committee was willing to be the first to sign off on the dissertation, but he managed to convey to each, without actually lying, that the other two had approved it, and that their signatures were by that point, just a formality. And he became a newly minted PhD!

  6. As a Berkeley Ph.D. in Political Science I have always been perplexed with Harvard’s reputation for excellence in my field. On balance the ones I read seemed very clever and not insightful at all. Assuming these comments can apply to my field, Marcel helps explain why I have never been all that impressed. There is not that much there to impress.

    There is certain type of academic who is clever without being particularly understanding and who uses arrogance and a sense of entitlement to cover up for the vacuity of their actual knowledge. Berkeley had a few, and I watched their grad students gradually come to ape their mannerisms. Based on the likes of Summers and Mansfield Harvard may specialize in them.

  7. James, I like that you took a strict grammarian approach to the plural of the Winklevoss twins’ name. But on standard comedic rules, Winklevii is funnier. Because it sounds like octupi, or some other persistent, multi-tentacled species.

  8. Why do I have to like any of these people? So far the Winklevii seem the least annoying. It seems like y’all would have liked them better if they’d waited for what’shisname in an alley. Does that seem more manly to you?

    And I thought popularity wasn’t supposed to affect our judgments. Didn’t we just go through this with that Florida case?

    I would expect academics to take alleged theft of an idea more seriously. How curious.

    And I knew lots of nice people at Harvard, some even from money. So there.

  9. NCG, I think there’s a difference between outright plagiarism and elaborating on an idea that’s in the air, everywhere around you. As far as I can tell, the Winklevii basically proposed a Friendster/MySpace hybrid for college campuses. It wasn’t an original idea at all. (And Zuckerberg had already created Facemash, which had some of the functionality elements and part of the name of the later Facebook.)

    In fact, one could argue that it’s exceedingly rare for a truly new, paradigm shattering idea to occur. One may have to go back to Turing himself, or Charles Babbage, to find a paradigmatically original idea in the computer world. The rest has been just incremental building on other peoples’ thoughts.

    Now, that’s different from blatant plagiarism. If Zuckerberg had taken their code and reused parts of it (the evidence suggests that he wrote his own code,) and called it CollegeConnex or some such thing, they’d have far stronger grounds for a legitimate lawsuit.

  10. “When I was an undergraduate, I worked for the college newspaper, and a couple of times I interviewed the college president. And I wore a coat and tie.” Things change. Been on campus lately? See many neckties on faculty? When I was in college, all male profs wore jacket and tie. (And many of them smoked in class. Ditto students.) Now, except in the business school, ties are a rarity.

    @NCG. Interesting that I could like a movie so much when I disliked all the characters in it.

  11. So wrote:

    Yes, the few people you guys have met from Harvard represent every Harvard student ever.

    I thought I was being careful not to generalize about Harvard students. I wrote:

    My understanding is that this is what Harvard teaches its undergraduates.

    I also stated that I heard the first story from someone who was reflective and had moved past that. I think you spend devote too much energy to reading between the lines and looking for hidden meaning.

  12. (I just had a browser hiccup. Hope this does not post twice.)

    So wrote:

    Yes, the few people you guys have met from Harvard represent every Harvard student ever.

    I thought I was being careful not to generalize about Harvard students. I wrote:

    My understanding is that this is what Harvard teaches its undergraduates.

    I also stated that I heard the first story from someone who was reflective and had moved past that. I think you spend devote too much energy to reading between the lines and looking for hidden meaning.

  13. Anonymous37: “It’s that, assuming the basic facts of their interaction were accurately portrayed (Facebook expert David Kirkpatrick argues with the details, but not the broad strokes, of the movie’s portrayal: http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/31377), the Winklevosses had a very good argument that Zuckerberg screwed them over by agreeing to do the coding just so he could buy enough time to steal a march on them.

    The problem with this argument is that good ideas are a dime a dozen; it’s translating them into real-world results that is the hard part. This is true in all fields of endeavor; our patent and copyright systems have always recognized it. You can’t patent an idea alone; you must have a working prototype. You can’t copyright an idea for a story or a computer program; you can only copyright the actual implementation.

    If Zuckerberg was good enough to do the hard part – the coding – on his own, why should he have shared the fruits of his labors with people who had nothing but an empty daydream?

  14. The problem with this argument is that good ideas are a dime a dozen; it’s translating them into real-world results that is the hard part. This is true in all fields of endeavor; our patent and copyright systems have always recognized it. You can’t patent an idea alone; you must have a working prototype. You can’t copyright an idea for a story or a computer program; you can only copyright the actual implementation.

    If Zuckerberg was good enough to do the hard part – the coding – on his own, why should he have shared the fruits of his labors with people who had nothing but an empty daydream?

    If Zuckerberg was good enough to do the programming and all of the greatness was in his implementation of the idea, why didn’t he just tell the Winkelvosses outright that he wasn’t going to work for them and then compete with them out in the open? He had a verbal contract with them that he was going to do the coding, and as far as I can tell, he only made that contract so that he could beat them to the punch while stringing them along. If he was up against people with an empty daydream, that shouldn’t have been necessary.

    Yes, the Winklevosses couldn’t copyright the idea, and they should have made him sign an NDA, or a non-compete. But even as things stood, Zuckerberg breached the contract.

  15. I agree — they could have hired other people — who might have done the job they agreed to do — or they could have learned to code themselves, if they had not been (allegedly) lied to. I imagine they are capable of it, even if they might not be as good as Zuckerberg.

    I know there is a convention about inventors who invent while on someone else’s dime, but, I’ve forgotten who ends up owning the thing at the end. It is too bad people are bad at sharing.

    I think some of you may be naive about patents though — my understanding is that people get business method patents quite easily. And corporations get patents for “discovering” things like genes, or avocados with no pits, that have been around forever. What nonsense.

  16. And before everyone jumps on my head, I understand that there are some scientific discoveries that do deserve a patent. I just don’t agree that nature should necessarily be patentable. “Nature” being a subject ripe for debate, of course.

  17. “James, I like that you took a strict grammarian approach to the plural of the Winklevoss twins’ name. But on standard comedic rules, Winklevii is funnier. Because it sounds like octupi, or some other persistent, multi-tentacled species.”

    Of course the correct plural is octopodes…

  18. James et al: my preferred “Winklevoi” is based on treating Winkelvoss as an ancient Greek noun with an extra “s.” Yes, it would probably be Winkelvösser in German, but Winkelvoi is funnier.

    Nothing I said about the Winkelvoi as people makes me think they necessarily didn’t have a case. It seems to me that rough justice was done: the Winkelvoi got a cut of facebook’s profits but nowhere near the vast fortune earned by the guy who actually did the work and brought it off.

    Whether facebook in some cosmic sense deserves to make any profit at all is a question I’m not touching.

  19. So I realize this thread has moved a little from the initial game of “who’s the real asshole,” but it’s worth noting that the Winklevoss twins responded to Summers’s comment. Whether or not Summers himself is or was an asshole, this letter does nothing but corroborate his assessment.

  20. John Gee–you’re right. Even granting for argument that the Winklevoi dressed up out of respect for the office, only assh***s would ask the college president to meet with them at his “earliest convenience.” The Winklevoss’ later letter claims that they attended Summer’s open office hours–but based on the first letter, that’s a bold half-lie. Open office hours was their plan B. They originally expected that they could say “jump” and have Summers respond “how high?”

    And only assh***s write a one page letter on a matter of high importance that contains at least one obvious misquotation and one stupid usage error (“affect” for “effect”–please!).

    That said, Summers should have taken his feet of his desk. All parties to that meeting apparently deserved one another.

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