Category: Education

My Conversation with Neal Stephenson

Here is the transcript and audio, and here is the CWT summary:

If you want to speculate on the development of tech, no one has a better brain to pick than Neal Stephenson. Across more than a dozen books, he’s created vast story worlds driven by futuristic technologies that have both prophesied and even provoked real-world progress in crypto, social networks, and the creation of the web itself. Though Stephenson insists he’s more often wrong than right, his technical sharpness has even led to a half-joking suggestion that he might be Satoshi Nakamoto, the shadowy creator of bitcoin. His latest novel, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, involves a more literal sort of brain-picking, exploring what might happen when digitized brains can find a second existence in a virtual afterlife.

So what’s the implicit theology of a simulated world? Might we be living in one, and does it even matter? Stephenson joins Tyler to discuss the book and more, including the future of physical surveillance, how clothing will evolve, the kind of freedom you could expect on a Mars colony, whether today’s media fragmentation is trending us towards dystopia, why the Apollo moon landings were communism’s greatest triumph, whether we’re in a permanent secular innovation starvation, Leibniz as a philosopher, Dickens and Heinlein as writers, and what storytelling has to do with giving good driving directions.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If we had a Mars colony, how politically free do you think it would be? Or would it just be like perpetual martial law? Like living on a nuclear submarine?

STEPHENSON: I think it would be a lot like living on a nuclear submarine because you can’t — being in space is almost like being in an intensive care unit in a hospital, in the sense that you’re completely dependent on a whole bunch of machines working in order to keep you alive. A lot of what we associate with freedom, with personal freedom, becomes too dangerous to contemplate in that kind of environment.

COWEN: Is there any Heinlein-esque-like scenario — Moon is a Harsh Mistress, where there’s a rebellion? People break free from the constraints of planet Earth. They chart their own institutions. It becomes like the settlements in the New World were.

STEPHENSON: Well, the settlements in the New World, I don’t think are a very good analogy because there it was possible — if you’re a white person in the New World and you have some basic skills, you can go anywhere you want.

An unheralded part of what happened there is that, when those people got into trouble, a lot of times, they were helped out by the indigenous peoples who were already there and who knew how to do stuff. None of those things are true in a space colony kind of environment. You don’t have indigenous people who know how to get food and how to get shelter. You don’t have that ability to just freely pick up stakes and move about.


COWEN: What will people wear in the future? Say a hundred years from now, will clothing evolve at all?

STEPHENSON: I think clothing is pretty highly evolved, right? If you look at, yeah, at any garment, say, a shirt — I was ironing a shirt today in my hotel room, and it is a frickin’ complicated object. We take it for granted, but you think about the fabric, the way the seams are laid out.

That’s just one example, of course, but you take any — shirts, shoes, any kind of specific item of clothing you want to talk about — once you take it apart and look at all the little decisions and innovations that have gone into it, it’s obvious that people have been optimizing this thing for hundreds or thousands of years.

New materials come along that enable people to do new kinds of things with clothing, but overall, I don’t think that a lot is going to change.

COWEN: Is there anything you would want smart clothing to do for you that, say, a better iPad could not?

STEPHENSON: The thing about clothing is that you change your clothes all the time. So if you become dependent on a particular technology that’s built into your shirt, that’s great as long as you’re wearing that shirt, but then as soon as you change to a different shirt, you don’t have it.

So what are you going to do? Are you going to make sure that every single one of your shirts has that same technology built into it? It seems easier to have it separate from the clothing that you wear, so that you don’t have to think about all those complications.

There is much more at the link, including discussions of some of his best-known novels…

The AEA’s New Data Policy

The AEA has long had a data repository but no one was responsible for examining the data or replicating a paper’s results and confidential data was treated as an exception. All that is about to change. The AEA has hired a Data Editor, Lars Vilhuber. Vilhuber will be responsible for verifying that the author’s code produces the claimed results from the given data. In some cases Vilhuber will even verify results from raw data all the way to table output.

The new data policy is a significant increase in the requirements to publish in an AEA journal. It takes an immense amount of work to document in a replicable way every step of the empirical process. It’s all to the good, of course, but it is remarkable how little economists train our students in these techniques and make no mistake writing code to be replicable from day one is an art and a science and it needs to be part of the econometrics sequence. All hail Gentzkow and Shapiro!

Here’s more information:

On July 10, 2019, the Association adopted an updated Data and Code Availability Policy, which can be found at The goal of the new policy is to improve the reproducibility and transparency of materials supporting research published in the AEA journals by providing improved guidance on the types of materials required, increased quality control, and more review earlier in the publication process.

What’s new in the policy? Several items of note:

  • A central role for the AEA Data Editor. The inaugural Data Editor was appointed in January 2018 and will oversee the implementation of the new policy.

  • The policy now clearly applies to code as well as data and explains how to proceed when data cannot be shared by an author. The Data Editor will regularly ask for the raw data associated with a paper, not just the analysis files, and for all programs that transform raw data into those from which the paper’s results are computed. Replication archives will now be requested prior to acceptance, rather than during the publication process after acceptance, providing more time for the Data Editor to review materials.

  • Will the Data Editor’s team run authors’ code prior to acceptance? Yes, to the extent that it is feasible. The code will need to produce the reported results, given the data provided. Authors can consult a generic checklist, as well as the template used by the replicating teams.

  • Will code be run even when the data cannot be posted? This was once an exemption, but the Data Editor will now attempt to conduct a reproducibility check of these materials through a third party who has access to the (confidential or restricted) data.  Such checks have already been successfully conducted using the protocol outlined here.

Why so many women in public affairs schools?

This paper presents on three new styled facts: first, schools of public affairs hire many economists; second, those economists are disproportionately female; and third, salaries in schools of public affairs are, on average, lower than salaries in mainline departments of economics. We seek to understand the linkage, if any, among these facts. We assembled a unique database of over 2,150 faculty salary profiles from the top 50 Schools of Public Affairs in the United States as well as the corresponding Economics and Political Science departments. For each faculty member we obtained salary data to analyze the relationship between scholarly discipline, department placement, gender, and annual salary compensation. We found substantial pay differences based on departmental affiliation, significant differences in citation records between male and female faculty in schools of public affairs, and no evidence that the public affairs discount could be explained by compositional differences with respect to gender, experience or scholarly citations.

That is the abstract of a new NBER working paper by Lori L. Taylor, Kalena E. Cortes, and Travis C. Hearn.  I have a vague sense that the same might be true of public policy schools as well.  Why?

Learn like an athlete, knowledge workers should train

LeBron James didn’t always have thick calves, a raging six-pack, and arms like the Incredible Hulk.

Ask LeBron about his off-season training regimen, and he’ll share a detailed run-down of his workout plan and on-the-court practice routine. When he entered the NBA, LeBron wasn’t a strong shooter. I’d bet the house that early in his career, LeBron built his off-season training regimen around his weak jump shot and disappointing 42% field goal percentage during his rookie season. As his Instagram posts reveal, LeBron worked for his strength, agility, impeccable history of injury avoidance, and an outstanding 54% field goal percentage during his 14th NBA season.

Athletes train. Musicians train. Performers train. But knowledge workers don’t.

Knowledge workers should train like LeBron, and implement strict “learning plans.” To be sure, intellectual life is different from basketball. Success is harder to measure and the metrics for improvement aren’t quite as clear. Even then, there’s a lot to learn from the way top athletes train. They are clear in their objectives and deliberate in their pursuit of improvement.

Knowledge workers should imitate them.

That is from David Perell, more at the link.  Recently, one of my favorite questions to bug people with has been “What is it you do to train that is comparable to a pianist practicing scales?”  If you don’t know the answer to that one, maybe you are doing something wrong or not doing enough. Or maybe you are (optimally?) not very ambitious?

There is no great stagnation in policing nature through the use of AI-regulated cat flaps

A cat flap that automatically bars entry to a pet if it tries to enter with prey in its jaws has been built as a DIY project by an Amazon employee.

Ben Hamm used machine-learning software to train a system to recognise when his cat Metric was approaching with a rodent or bird in its mouth.

When it detected such an attack, he said, a computer attached to the flap’s lock triggered a 15-minute shut-out.

Mr Hamm unveiled his invention at an event in Seattle last month.

Here is the full story, via Michelle Dawson.

Economists study busing

This paper dates from 2012, but it is one of the best looks at what we know about busing, based on rigorous analysis of data, combined with natural experiments:

We study the impact of the end of race-based busing in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools (“CMS”) on academic achievement, educational attainment, and young adult crime. In 2001, CMS was prohibited from using race in assigning students to schools. School boundaries were redrawn dramatically to reflect the surrounding neighborhoods, and half of its students received a new assignment. Using addresses measured prior to the policy change, we compare students in the same neighborhood that lived on opposite sides of a newly drawn boundary. We find that both white and minority students score lower on high school exams when they are assigned to schools with more minority students. We also find decreases in high school graduation and four-year college attendance for whites, and large increases in crime for minority males. The impacts on achievement and attainment are smaller in younger cohorts, while the impact on crime remains large and persistent for at least nine years after the re-zoning. We show that compensatory resource allocation policies in CMS likely played an important role in mitigating the impact of segregation on achievement and attainment, but had no impact on crime. We conclude that the end of busing widened racial inequality, despite efforts by CMS to mitigate the impact of increases in segregation.

That is from Stephen B. Billings, David J. Deming, and Jonah E. Rockoff.

Phonics Based Direct Instruction

Linguist John McWhorter strongly supports phonics and direct instruction:

Now that it’s summer, I have a suggestion for how parents can grant their wee kiddies the magic of reading by Labor Day: Pick up Siegfried Engelmann’s Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. My wife and I used it a while ago with our then-4-year-old daughter, and after a mere 20 cozy minutes a night, a little girl who on Memorial Day could recognize on paper only the words no and stop and the names of herself and her family members could, by the time the leaves turned, read simple books.

…Engelmann’s book, which he co-wrote with Phyllis Haddox and Elaine Bruner, was first published in the early 1980s, but it was based on work from the late 1960s. That’s when Engelmann was involved in the government-sponsored Project Follow Through, whose summary report compared nine methods for how to teach reading and tracked results on 75,000 children from kindergarten through third grade. The results, though some critics over the years have rejected them on methodological grounds, were clear: The approach that proved most effective was based on phonics—teaching children how to sound words out, letter by letter, rather than encouraging students to recognize words as single chunks, also called the whole-word system. Specifically, the most successful approach supplemented basic phonics with a tightly scripted format emphasizing repetition and student participation, often dubbed “direct instruction.” As I have previously explained for NPR, the results were especially impressive among poor children, including black ones.

…And yet in the education world, Engelmann’s technique is considered controversial.

Here are previous MR posts on Direct Instruction, the teaching method that works even though many teachers don’t like it.

How to pro-actively address our internet problems

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

It is striking and sad that there is so much over-the-top criticism of social media yet so little faith in education as a possible remedy.

Public school is supposed to be good and effective, right?  The internet is supposed to be destroying our world, or at least democracy and sanity, right?  So why not teach people — in school — how to use the internet better?

As it stands, plenty of teachers give informal advice about how to use the internet, but there isn’t much in the way of formal institutions or curriculums. I am not saying this needs to be a full, semester-long class. But surely internet usage and understanding is worthy of a formal dedication of at least a few weeks of attention, maybe more.

Somehow America has moved very, very far away from a problem-solving mindset.

Addendum: As a side note:

Twitter search is one of the most underrated parts of the internet. If I am looking to learn more about a current event, I typically go to Twitter before Google and type in the relevant search term. The results seem more up-to-date, and I will probably be exposed to a wider range of opinions.

Gender and competition

From American Economic Journal, Applied Economics:

“Do Women Give Up Competing More Easily? Evidence from the Lab and the Dutch Math Olympiad,” by Thomas Buser and Huaiping Yuan.

We use lab experiments and field data from the Dutch Math Olympiad to show that women are more likely than men to stop competing if they lose. In a math competition in the lab, women are much less likely than men to choose competition again after losing in the first round. In the Math Olympiad, girls, but not boys, who fail to make the second round are less likely to compete again one year later. This gender difference in the reaction to competition outcomes may help to explain why fewer women make it to the top in business and academia.

Here is the link to the paper.  Here are earlier, ungated versions.

Is free college a good idea?

C’mon people, this one should be a no-brainer, can’t you at least call upon your craven loyalty to the higher education lobby to reject the free tuition proposals from Warren and Sanders?:

Just three German universities placed in the top 100 world institutions in rankings compiled by Quacquarelli Symonds, a British education consultancy…

In Germany, public funds covered $14,092 per student in 2015, the latest year for which the OECD has compiled numbers. In the United States, public funds covered $10,563 per student. But once private money was taken into account, U.S. university spending was far higher: $30,003 per student, compared with $17,036 in Germany…

“The best German universities look a lot like the University of Colorado. It’s not going to be like the top privates. It’s not even going to be like the top publics,” said Alex Usher, a Canadian education consultant who has studied how countries fund their university systems. “They’re perfectly good schools. They churn out good graduates. They’re not as focused on creating an elite. And in many ways that’s what the top systems in the United States are trying to do.”

The German system is entirely defensible if you believe that higher education is largely a matter of wasteful signaling; that is not my view, but believe it or not I know a few people who hold it.

The simple reality is that when it comes to higher education policy, President Trump is much better than the Democratic Party thought leaders.


Here is the full WaPo article by Michael Birnbaum.

Model this (spoiled rich kids edition)

  • “About 80 percent of respondents reported drinking alcohol at least two or three times a month, and 39 percent reported drinking at least twice a week.” (60% reported drinking once a week or more)
  • “Students who came from lower-income households were much less likely to drink than their wealthier peers; 35 percent of respondents whose parents make less than $40,000 in combined income drank at least once a week while that figure was 69 percent for students whose parents make at least a combined $250,000.”

Via Tyler R.

Is Los Angeles the next Silicon Valley?

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

How could L.A.’s tech scene develop even further? Imagine that virtual reality is the “next big thing” and the gamification of just about everything, including education, proceeds apace. For the next generation of startups, that might throw the balance of power in the direction of expertise in entertainment and design — a sense of the theatrical, in other words, intermediated through tech. That could favor the culture of Los Angeles and Hollywood. Southern California also has a strong background in aerospace and military contracting, two areas that could produce a spillover effect for the next tech booms, especially if they involve transportation. The region also remains the leading U.S. manufacturing center, and that too could be a source of future synergies.


Northern California had an original advantage over Southern California as a center of free thinking and thus as a tech hub. Think back to Haight-Ashbury, the 1960s, Beatniks, LSD and the Whole Earth Catalog, the psychedelic movement, the bohemian and gay cultures of San Francisco. All of that bred an atmosphere of rebellion, and it helped birth the personal computer and a large movement of non-conformist hippie programmers, often working out of their proverbial garages.

But those cultural roots have largely faded, and if anything today San Francisco and the Bay Area are better known for political correctness and a conformist culture of scolding and groupthink. That can’t be good for the region’s long-term creativity.

There is much more at the link.