The Richmond Times-Dispatch on *Average is Over*

by on October 17, 2013 at 2:42 pm in Education, Games | Permalink

Here is one excerpt:

“If you’re not a good [chess] player,” Cowen writes, “the fact that you studied with a top teacher doesn’t mean a thing. … There is nothing [in chess] comparable to the glow resulting from a Harvard degree: Announcing ‘I studied with Rybka’ [a powerful chess engine] would bring gales of laughter, since anyone can do that. … The company selling Rybka tries to make its product replicable and universal, whereas Harvard tries to make its product as exclusive as possible. Now, which model do you think will spread and gain influence in the long run?”

Before you answer that, consider this: A year of tuition, room and board at Harvard will set you back more than $50,000. You can get a copy of Rybka for about $50.

The full piece is here.

Steve Sailer October 17, 2013 at 7:52 pm

“The company selling Rybka tries to make its product replicable and universal, whereas Harvard tries to make its product as exclusive as possible. Now, which model do you think will spread and gain influence in the long run?”

If the last 377 years offer us any hint, Harvard’s.

Anonymous October 18, 2013 at 3:14 am

Only because in the last 377 years there was no competitor to Harvard operating on the replicable and universal model.

Chess October 17, 2013 at 8:14 pm

Stockfish is higher rated than Rybka and it’s free, open-source software. Not sure where that leaves us on the price of college, but I would really like people who do not play chess to stop using chess as a metaphor.

Cliff October 17, 2013 at 9:11 pm

Well Tyler does play chess, so your comment is not exactly relevant.

Chess October 17, 2013 at 10:07 pm

No Tyler Cowen in the USCF player database. There is playing chess and there is playing chess.

MD October 18, 2013 at 4:54 pm

Checkmate, Cliff!

KSZX October 17, 2013 at 10:31 pm

“At the age of 15, Cowen became the youngest ever New Jersey state chess champion.” (see Wikipedia)

Ray Lopez at Chess October 18, 2013 at 12:46 am

Quit trolling chess, Chess. You don’t know chess, Chess. TC can checkmate you in a brilliancy or ending in Fools Mate, Chess. 1. f3 e5 2. g4?? Qh4 mate

To answer the question: I would love to learn chess from Harvard’s chess team for $50k a year, as I would learn more than just replaying games with Rybka or Stockfish or Houdini or Fritz, but it’s too expensive, as TC alludes to. However, I found a solution: move to the Philippines where there are a lot of strong chess players who will coach you for almost peanuts. My game has gone up at least 100 Elo points and closer to 200. I hope to be an expert soon.

prior_approval October 18, 2013 at 1:16 am

So, 35 years ago, someone was a notable chess player, about at the level of at least three programmers I work with today – and one of their wives, for that matter, who was higher ranked than two of the programmers. (Her remarks about beating men are fascinating – just like that of a woman table tennis player.)

I do wonder if Cowen has ever met one of them any World Congress of Chess Composition/World Chess Solving Championship. Like the 56th WCCC & 37th WCSC just a couple of weeks ago, in Batumi? You know, this one – ‘The Georgian Chess Federation and Georgian Chess Composition Association have the honor to invite all WFCC delegates, national teams, individual chess solvers, composers and all those interested in problem chess to attend the 56th World Congress of Chess Composition (WCCC) and 37th World Chess Solving Championship (WCSC) in Batumi at the Black Seaside of Georgia.’

Though admittedly, such events are very old school – they don’t have the actual cachet of being online to a significant degree.

Cliff October 18, 2013 at 9:17 am

No one said he was a grandmaster

dan1111 October 18, 2013 at 4:56 am

I would really like people to stop misapplying the word metaphor.

Ak Mike October 17, 2013 at 9:19 pm

Undergraduate tuition at Harvard University: $38,891
Undergraduate tuition at Northeastern University: $40,780

Harvard is not particularly expensive.

zbicyclist October 18, 2013 at 12:53 am

“Undergraduate tuition at Harvard University: $38,891 … Harvard is not particularly expensive.”

Anonymous October 18, 2013 at 3:25 am

Undergraduate tuition at ETH Zurich: $640. Undergraduate tuition at University of Berlin: $0.

I say Harvard (as well as Northeastern University) is pretty damn expensive.

Dan King October 17, 2013 at 9:31 pm

I have posted my own review of Average Is Over here: http://trotskyschildren.blogspot.com/2013/10/book-review-average-is-over.html

Steve Sailer October 17, 2013 at 9:32 pm

Betting against Harvard has been a losing proposition for hundreds of years, but this is suddenly going to change because of MOOCs? Kind of like how all the characters in Evelyn Waugh novel who take correspondence courses always wind up on top of the characters who went to Oxford …

Dismalist October 17, 2013 at 10:35 pm

It’s only ever a question of alternatives.

Govco October 18, 2013 at 10:42 am

Have libraries wiped out book sellers?

msgkings October 18, 2013 at 2:09 pm

No but Amazon has, and that’s probably the more relevant comparison.

MOOCs will surely enable employers to more easily find talent, but I don’t see how the signalling and networking value of the biggies (Stanford, Harvard, etc) ever goes down. Harvard and Stanford are where the elites send their offspring to signal their status (both the kids and parents) and to enable them to mix with the rest of the elite. There will always be institutions that perform that function, and they will probably always be Harvard and Stanford etc.

zbicyclist October 19, 2013 at 4:43 pm

Consider oil portraits and photographs. Some people have their oil portrait done but lower down – where there was no reasonable way to afford an oil portrait in the 17th century – we are quite happy with the digital photography of the 21st century.

Harvard (etc.) began as an oil portrait and will continue to be an oil portrait — a luxury good with a lot of signaling value (and in the hands of a good portrait painter a superior product). The rest of us will be content with taking photos with our phones.

ajg October 17, 2013 at 10:37 pm

I have not yet had a chance to read Average is Over, so I may simply be reading too much into a misleading excerpt, but I believe your point would be stronger if the comparison were better aligned. I presume you are suggesting that cheap computer programs (or low marginal cost on-line education platforms like MRUniversity) have the potential to outcompete exclusive labor and capital-intensive enterprises. I agree that they do. However, I think that they will not begin to do so until they are able to reliably identify people who will perform well in the future and (probably explicitly) vouch for their skills. Saying you “studied with” a computer program or well-regarded chess player is worlds apart from saying that Harvard’s faculty awarded you a degree. I could well imagine that high marks from a computer chess program that reliably rated someone’s level of play would earn one respect in the chess community. Conversely, I imagine few put much signaling value in having completed a non-degree short-course at Harvard with few admission requirements and universal passage rates. Likewise, Harvard’s degrees would have little intrinsic value if they ceased being reliable indicators of future potential and the strength of a chess ranking program’s market signal would depend upon how well it rated players. To be sure, neither mechanism depends upon the school/program actually teaching anything, so long as it identifies future high performers.

mpowell October 17, 2013 at 11:13 pm

This particular quote makes no sense. People would laugh at you if you said you studied with Rybka… therefore this will put Harvard out of business? Doesn’t that prove the exact opposite?

Ray Lopez at Chess October 18, 2013 at 12:51 am

@mpowell–fair point, if your point is the ‘signalling’ of higher education, meaning it’s not what you learned, but where you learned it. However, people in the chess world would not laugh at you if you could consistently beat the chess playing software Rybka set at the highest level (‘highest level’, since, if you limit the plies, even a club player like me can beat Rybka, but I digress). If you can beat Rybka at the highest level you don’t need to go to Harvard’s chess school or anywhere else–you are already of world championship caliber.

Curt Doolittle October 18, 2013 at 9:14 am

Chess, like cars, and Hitler is a useless analogy. As the comments section demonstrates. Vanity overtakes the analogy.

Bryan may only be half right at times. But that is more right still than the rest of us seem to manage. His critique of education is accurate and informative. And if his solutions are not, then that is a weak criticism if his critique.

(Testing? Seriously? Property accumulated is a test. Nothing written can be. )

FWIW, There seems to be a pretty low corellation betwee chess playing and market success. It may in fact be a contrary indicator. Because there is very little in objective reality that operates by both deterministic rules, transparency of state, and constancy of rate. You cannot move more quickly than your opponent or accumulate allies and capital, engage in delay and tetreat, rely on propaganda, spying and deception to obscure events, or change the rules to suit your advantage.

Which I why I left the chess club at age 13.

Money and power are the only serious games. Everything else is pretentious imitation.

John Mansfield October 18, 2013 at 12:30 pm

Computerized, online education courses would have been a good substitute for about 15% of my undergraduate course work. That’s not a lot to hang a revolution in higher education on.

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