Category: Education (and an anti-weird technology, at that)

When Syracuse University freshmen walk into professor Jeff Rubin’s Introduction to Information Technologies class, seven small Bluetooth beacons hidden around the Grant Auditorium lecture hall connect with an app on their smartphones and boost their “attendance points.”

And when they skip class? The SpotterEDU app sees that, too, logging their absence into a campus database that tracks them over time and can sink their grade. It also alerts Rubin, who later contacts students to ask where they’ve been. His 340-person lecture has never been so full.

“They want those points,” he said. “They know I’m watching and acting on it. So, behaviorally, they change.”

Short-range phone sensors and campuswide WiFi networks are empowering colleges across the United States to track hundreds of thousands of students more precisely than ever before. Dozens of schools now use such technology to monitor students’ academic performance, analyze their conduct or assess their mental health.


The students who deviate from those day-to-day campus rhythms are flagged for anomalies, and the company then alerts school officials in case they want to pursue real-world intervention.

But don’t worry:

Carter said he doesn’t like to say the students are being “tracked,” because of its potentially negative connotations; he prefers the term “monitored” instead. “It’s about building that relationship,” he said, so students “know you care about them.”

Here is the full WaPo story by Drew Harwell.

“What will you do to stay weird?”

That was a question I asked someone while discussing the topic of careers, in this case academic careers but it applies more broadly.  Virtually by definition, the major pressures are toward conformity, yet a budding innovator may wish to stay weird for purposes of superior creativity and perhaps enjoyment as well.  What strategies can be used, or passively allowed to operate (in case one is weird already) to stay weird?

I thought of a few options:

1. Adhere to a weird ideology.

Libertarianism used to serve this function fairly well.  If you were a libertarian, the mainstream forces might decide you are hopeless and stop pressuring you to conform.  Furthermore, your libertarian peer group would encourage you to stay weird, so that you would stick with them and also weirdness was all they knew.

But these days libertarianism isn’t so weird anymore, even if most people strongly disagree with it.  (“You want to legalize all drugs?  Ho hum.  Just yesterday I read a guy on the internet who wants…”)  And there is a libertarian establishment that will encourage you to conform more than it encourages you to stay weird.

You might thus opt for a weirder view yet, perhaps to be found in the Bay Area.  In any case, this strategy deserves to make the list, even if it does not always work or is less effective than it used to be.  This gets at one of the problems with the internet, namely that by normalizing or at least regularizing the weird, it can be harder to actually stay weird.

Nonetheless support for Trump may offer some new hope here, even though he won 48 percent of the vote.

2. Be gay or lesbian or bisexual.

No longer so effective in keeping you out of the mainstream, mostly for good reasons, but there is a cultural loss attached to this progress.

3. Be a jerk.

People might then just ignore you altogether, or conspire against you.  Either way, the pressures toward conformity will weaken.  Still, you have to be a jerk and that is a high cost for you and for others.  I don’t recommend this method, but it does seem to have worked for a number of leading scientists, just ask Eric Weinstein for his list.

4. Move to the middle of nowhere.  Or move to another country.

The internet might be limiting the effectiveness of this strategy too, although it lowers its costs for the same reasons.

5. Cultivate a highly unusual physical appearance.

Still a live option.

6. Marry someone from another country.

A weird country, preferably.

7. Develop a small group of intensely weird but smart friends, and treat them as your relevant audience.

A very good path, though due to the problems with the other options, your weird friends might themselves turn too normal.  This may require a kind of collective bootstrapping method.

8. Read extensively in weird areas, outside the present and outside of your home nation, and refuse to read much news.

9. Adopt impenetrable terminology.

Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoord-enenthurnuk to that one!

10. Blog rather than tweet.  Stay off Twitter altogether.


11. Avoid conference attendance.  Especially for conferences that are more than five years old.

12. Avoid becoming famous for reasons other than your weirdness.

13. Develop and maintain a highly unusual family structure.

What else might you try?

My Portal podcast with Eric Weinstein

Eric and his team describe it as follows:

In this episode, Eric sits down with Tyler Cowen to discuss how/why a Harvard educated chess prodigy would choose a commuter school to launch a stealth attack on the self-satisfied economic establishment, various forms of existential risk, tech/social stagnation and more. On first glance, Tyler Cowen is an unlikely candidate for America’s most influential economist. Since 2003, Cowen has grown his widely read and revered economics blog Marginal Revolutions with lively thought, insight and prose resulting in a successful war of attrition against traditional thinking. In fact, his well of heterodox thinking is so deep that there is an argument to be made that Tyler may be the living person with the most diverse set of original rigorous opinions to be found in any conversation. The conversation takes many turns and is thus hard to categorize. We hope you enjoy it.

I recall it being about 2.5 hours long, and covering a lot of fresh material, Eric of course is superb.  Here is the link.  Here is the broader set of Portal podcasts, hosted by Eric.

My Conversation with Esther Duflo

Self-recommending if there ever was such a thing, here is the audio and transcript.  In addition to all of the expected topics, including gender in the economics profession, we even got around to Indian classical music and Bach cantatas (she prefers the latter).  Excerpt:

COWEN: Do you worry much that the RCT method — it centralizes authority in too few institutions? You need a certain amount of money. You need some managerial ability. You need connections abroad. It’s not like running regressions — everyone can do it on their PC. Is that, in some way, going to slow down science? You get more reliable results, but there’s much less competition of ideas, it seems.

DUFLO: I think it would be the case if we had not been mindful of this problem from the beginning. And it might still be the case to some extent. But I actually think that we’ve put a lot of effort in avoiding it to be the case.

When you take an organization like J-PAL, just in India we have 200 staff members. And we have, at any given time, 1,000 people running surveys. I say we, but these people are not running my project. These people are running the projects of dozens and dozens of researchers. When I started, I couldn’t have started without having the backing of my team because it was such a risky proposition that you needed to be able to easy risk capital kind of things.

But at this point, because of the infrastructure, it’s much more normal sense. People can get in with no funding of their own, in part because one of the things we are doing as a network is raising a lot of money to redistribute to other people widely. J-PAL has 400 researchers that are affiliated to it, or invited researchers, many of them quite, quite junior.

So that sort of mixture — it was very important to us, and I think we’ve been quite successful at making the tool marginally available. It’s never going to be like running a regression from your computer. But my philosophy is that if you have the drive and you’re willing to put in your own sweat equity, you can do it. And our students and many other students who are not at top institutions are doing it.


COWEN: On the internet, there’s a photo of a teenage Esther Duflo — at least it looks like you — protesting against fascism in Russia on top of a tank, is it?

DUFLO: That was a bus, and it was me. It was me. So that was in 1991. This was not when I lived for one year there. I lived one year in ’93–’94. But this was in ’91. I had gone to Russia about every year since I was a teen to learn Russian. I happened to be there the summer where there was this putsch against Gorbachev. That summer…

And someone gave me that fashizm ne poletit placard and asked me to hold it. And I’m like, “Sure, I’m going to hold it.” So I’m holding my placard. We stayed there for a long time when things were happening. Next time I saw in the evening, my parents called me, “What are you doing?” Because it turned out that that image was on all the TVs in the world. [laughs] And that’s how I very briefly became the face of this revolution.


COWEN: Does child-rearing in France strike you as more sensible than child-rearing in the United States?

DUFLO: Oh very much so, very much so.

COWEN: And why?

DUFLO: You know that book, Bringing Up Bébé?


DUFLO: I think she picked up on something which rings so true to me, which maybe is a marginal point about the US versus France. In France people are reasonably content to just go with the flow and do what everybody does. Every kid eats the same thing at 4:30, has dinner at the same time, has gone through the same experiences, learned the same songs, and everybody thinks they are totally free. But in fact, they are all on this pretty sensible railroad. And also, they don’t agonize about it.

In the US, child-rearing is one more occasion to make a statement about your identity. You’re the kind of mother that carries the baby, or you’re the kind of mother that puts the baby in a stroller. And somehow it almost can predict what you’re going to think about Donald Trump. That’s crazy. Some people are so concerned about what they do. Not only they feel that they have to invest a ton in their children, and they feel inadequate if they are not able to, but also, exactly what they do creates them as people.

In France that’s not there, and I think that makes everybody so much more laid back, children and adults.

Recommended throughout.

Sex Differences in Personality are Large and Important

Men and women are different. A seemingly obvious fact to most of humanity but a long-time subject of controversy within psychology. New large-scale results using better empirical methods are resolving the debate, however, in favor of the person in the street. The basic story is that at the broadest level (OCEAN) differences are relatively small but that is because there are large offsetting differences between men and women at lower levels of aggregation. Scott Barry Kaufman, writing at Scientific American, has a very good review of the evidence:

At the broad level, we have traits such as extraversion, neuroticism, and agreeableness. But when you look at the specific facets of each of these broad factors, you realize that there are some traits that males score higher on (on average), and some traits that females score higher on (on average), so the differences cancel each other out. This canceling out gives the appearance that sex differences in personality don’t exist when in reality they very much do exist.

For instance, males and females on average don’t differ much on extraversion. However, at the narrow level, you can see that males on average are more assertive (an aspect of extraversion) whereas females on average are more sociable and friendly (another aspect of extraversion). So what does the overall picture look like for males and females on average when going deeper than the broad level of personality?

On average, males tend to be more dominant, assertive, risk-prone, thrill-seeking, tough-minded, emotionally stable, utilitarian, and open to abstract ideas. Males also tend to score higher on self-estimates of intelligence, even though sex differences in general intelligence measured as an ability are negligible [2]. Men also tend to form larger, competitive groups in which hierarchies tend to be stable and in which individual relationships tend to require little emotional investment. In terms of communication style, males tend to use more assertive speech and are more likely to interrupt people (both men and women) more often– especially intrusive interruptions– which can be interpreted as a form of dominant behavior.

…In contrast, females, on average, tend to be more sociable, sensitive, warm, compassionate, polite, anxious, self-doubting, and more open to aesthetics. On average, women are more interested in intimate, cooperative dyadic relationships that are more emotion-focused and characterized by unstable hierarchies and strong egalitarian norms. Where aggression does arise, it tends to be more indirect and less openly confrontational. Females also tend to display better communication skills, displaying higher verbal ability and the ability to decode other people’s nonverbal behavior. Women also tend to use more affiliative and tentative speech in their language, and tend to be more expressive in both their facial expressions and bodily language (although men tend to adopt a more expansive, open posture). On average, women also tend to smile and cry more frequently than men, although these effects are very contextual and the differences are substantially larger when males and females believe they are being observed than when they believe they are alone.

Moreover, the differences in the subcategories are all correlated so while one might argue that even among the subcategories the differences are small on any single category when you put them all together the differences in male and female personalities are large and systematic.

Relatively small differences across multiple traits can add up to substantial differences when considered as a whole profile of traits. Take the human face, for example. If you were to just take a particular feature of the face– such as mouth width, forehead height, or eye size– you would have difficult differentiating between a male face and a female face. You simply can’t tell a male eyeball from a female eyeball, for instance. However, a look at the combination of facial features produces two very distinct clusters of male vs. female faces. In fact, observers can correctly determine sex from pictures with greater than 95% accuracy [4]. Here’s an interesting question: does the same apply to the domain of personality?

…There now exists four large-scale studies that use this multivariate methodology (see here, here, here, and here). All four studies are conducted cross-culturally and report on an analysis of narrow personality traits (which, as you may recall, is where most of the action is when it comes to sex differences). Critically, all four studies converge on the same basic finding: when looking at the overall gestalt of human personality, there is a truly striking difference between the typical male and female personality profiles.

Just how striking? Well, actually, really striking. In one recent study, Tim Kaiser, Marco Del Giudice, and Tom Booth analyzed personality data from 31,637 people across a number of English-speaking countries. The size of global sex differences was D = 2.10 (it was D = 2.06 for just the United States). To put this number in context, a D= 2.10 means a classification accuracy of 85%. In other words, their data suggests that the probability that a randomly picked individual will be correctly classified as male or female based on knowledge of their global personality profile is 85% (after correcting for the unreliability of the personality tests).

In other words, you can predict whether a person is male of female from their personality traits almost as well as by looking at their face. Overall, the big differences are as follows:

Consistent with prior research, the researchers found that the following traits are most exaggerated among females when considered separately from the rest of the gestalt: sensitivity, tender-mindedness, warmth, anxiety, appreciation of beauty, and openness to change. For males, the most exaggerated traits were emotional stability, assertiveness/dominance, dutifulness, conservatism, and conformity to social hierarchy and traditional structure.

I have also pointed out that gender equality magnifies differences in gender choices and behavior which is probably one reason why fewer women enter STEM fields in societies with greater equality. Consistent with this, personality differences between the sexes are large in all cultures but “for all of these personality effects the sex differences tend to be larger– not smaller– in more individualistic, gender-egalitarian countries.”

Addendum: See John Nye and co-authors on testosterone and finger length for some biological correlations.

Sierra Canyon High School

15-year-old Lebron James Jr. goes there, and his games will be on ESPN 15 times this year, even though he is mainly a role player and not a star.  Here is more:

What Sierra Canyon strives to provide is controlled madness, controlled chaos. It’s a school not just familiar with athletic fame but celebrity, which has complexities beyond what even LeBron [Sr.] had faced.

For example, Sierra Canyon doesn’t attempt to restrict players’ social media. Players are put through a four-week course to educate them about its benefits and dangers. But Bronny is permitted to say whatever he wishes to his 3.7 million Instagram followers. Stanley and Pippen Jr. had hundreds of thousands of followers themselves.

“We don’t want to stop any of our players from building their brands,” Chevalier says. “They may be able to use that later in life, whether they make it as basketball players or something else.”

LeBron James Jr., by the way, plays on the same team as Zaire Wade, son of Dwayne Wade, LeBron’s former star teammate from the Miami Heat.

Here is the ESPN article, here is a related NYT piece.

My debate with Žižek

It was quite something, the proceedings did not disappoint, here is the YouTube:

I can’t fully access video from this airport location, but I believe the actual debate starts at around 1:06.  After the debate proper, a particular highlight is the four video questions that were taped and sent in from humanities academics.

The Holberg people put on a great event.

My Conversation with Daron Acemoglu

Self-recommending of course, most of all we talked about economic growth and development, and the history of liberty, with a bit on Turkey and Turkish culture (Turkish pizza!) as well.  Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is one excerpt, from the very opening:

COWEN: I have so many questions about economic growth. First, how much of the data on per capita income is explained just simply by one variable: distance from the equator? And how good a theory of the wealth of nations is that?

ACEMOGLU: I think it’s not a particularly good theory. If you look at the map of the world and color different countries according to their income per capita, you’ll see that a lot of low-income-per-capita countries are around the equator, and some of the richest countries are pretty far from the equator, in the temperate areas. So many people have jumped to conclusion that there must be a causal link.

But actually, I think geographic factors are not a great explanatory framework for understanding prosperity and poverty.

COWEN: But why does it have such a high R-squared? By one measure, the most antipodal 21 percent of the population produces 69 percent of the GDP, which is striking, right? Is that just an accident?

ACEMOGLU: Yeah, it’s a bit of an accident. Essentially, if you think of which are the countries around the equator that have such low income per capita, they are all former European colonies that have been colonized in a particular way.


COWEN: If we think about the USSR, which has terrible institutions for more than 70 years, an awful form of communism — it falls; there’s a bit of a collapse. Today, they seem to have a higher per capita income than you would expect a priori, if you, just as an economist, write about communism. Isn’t that mostly just because of what is now Russian, or Soviet, human capital?

ACEMOGLU: That’s an interesting question. I think the Russian story is complicated, and I think part of Russian income per capita today is because of natural resources. It’s always a problem for us to know exactly how natural resources should be handled because you can do a lot of things wrong and still get quite a lot of income per capita via natural resources.

COWEN: But if Russians come here, they almost immediately move into North American per capita income levels as immigrants, right? They’re not bringing any resources. They’re bringing their human capital. If people from Gabon come here, it takes them quite a while to get to the —

ACEMOGLU: No, absolutely, absolutely. There’s no doubt that Russians are bringing more human capital. If you look at the Russian educational system, especially during the Soviet time, there was a lot of emphasis on math and physics and some foundational areas.

And there’s a lot of selection among the Russians who come here…

The Conversation is Acemoglu throughout, you also get to hear me channeling Garett Jones.  Again, here is Daron’s new book The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty.

Nigeria and other Japan-Congo facts of the day

In 2018, the Nigerian government spent more on subsidies for petrol than on health, education, or defence.


CD sales still make up 78% of music revenue in Japan (compared with less than 30% in the UK).


80% of prisoners released late 2018 in a presidential pardon have opted to return to Kinshasa’s infamous Makala jail due to lack of means to live.


Some blind people can understand speech that is almost three times faster than the fastest speech sighted people can understand. They can use speech synthesisers set at at 800 words per minute (conversational speech is 120–150 wpm). Research suggests that a section of the brain that normally responds to light is re-mapped in blind people to process sound.

That is all from 52 things Tom Whitwell learned this year.  Hat tip goes to The Browser — do subscribe!

Income Share Agreements

Mitch Daniels, former Governor of Indiana and now President of Purdue University, writes about income share agreements in the Washington Post:

In an ISA, a student borrows nothing but rather has his or her education supported by an investor, in return for a contract to pay a specified percentage of income for a fixed number of years after graduation. Rates and time vary with the discipline of the degree achieved and the amount of tuition assistance the student obtained.

An ISA is dramatically more student-friendly than a loan. All the risk shifts from the student to the investing entity; if a career starts slowly, or not at all, the student’s obligation drops or goes to zero. Think of an ISA as equity instead of debt, or as working one’s way through college — after college.

An excellent point. If you watch Shark Tank the entrepreneurs are always wary about debt because debt puts all the risk on them and requires fixed payments regardless. Yet when it comes to financing the venture of one’s own life suddenly equity becomes akin to slavery and debt bondage becomes freedom! It’s very peculiar.

Another advantage of ISAs is that they provide feedback. Is the university willing to educate you for free in return for a share of future earnings? That’s a good signal!

ISAs have emerged principally in response to the wreckage of the federal student debt system but they also represent an opportunity for higher education to address another legitimate criticism: that it accepts no accountability for its results. As the lead investor of the two funds Purdue has raised to date, our university is expressing confidence that its graduates are ready for the world of work.

Check out Lambda School. “We invest in you. Pay nothing until you get a job making over $50,000.”

At Purdue, the university I lead, hundreds of students have such contracts in place, and other colleges large and small are joining the ISA movement. Beyond traditional higher education, coding academies and other skill-specific schools are making the same offer: Study for free, and pay us back after you get the good job we are confident you’ll land.

Although the very nature of ISAs protects the participant, early adopters such as Purdue have built in safeguards. A user-friendly computer simulator provides quick, transparent comparisons with various public and private loan options. No investee pays anything for the first six months after graduation or until annual income exceeds $20,000. For those graduates who get off to fast career starts, a ceiling of 250 percent of the dollars that purchased their education limits total repayment.

I’ve been writing about income-contingent loans for years. Milton Friedman was an early advocate. It’s good to see forward movement.

*Towards an Economics of Natural Equals*

The authors are David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart, and the subtitle is A Documentary History of the Early Virginia School.  This is the true history, told by people who know, and with extensive citations from correspondence and primary documentation.


Beginning quite early and throughout his long career, Buchanan studied, endorsed, and extended the Smithian economics of natural equals.

You will find the correspondence of Buchanan and Rawls, the dealings of Buchanan with a skeptical Ford Foundation, the real story behind the Buchanan and G. Warren Nutter “Universal Education” voucher plan, what actually happened in Buchanan’s Chile visit, Chicago vs. Virginia disputes, the anti-democratic views of Murray Rothbard, and the contested history of neoliberalism.  And much correspondence from Ronald Coase.


David Levy worked with Buchanan and Tullock from the late 1970s through their deaths, and he and Peart are extremely careful in their sourcing and quotation practices — get the picture?

Due out Februrary, leap year day, you can pre-order here.

I learned to play the piano without a piano substitutes are everywhere

I was 11 years old when I asked my mum for piano lessons, in 2010. We were in the fallout of the recession and she’d recently been made redundant. She said a polite “no”.

That didn’t deter me. I Googled the dimensions of a keyboard, drew the keys on to a piece of paper and stuck it on my desk. I would click notes on an online keyboard and “play” them back on my paper one – keeping the sound they made on the computer in my head. After a while I could hear the notes in my head while pressing the keys on the paper. I spent six months playing scales and chord sequences without touching a real piano. Once my mum saw it wasn’t a fad, she borrowed some money from family and friends, and bought me 10 lessons.

I still remember the first one. I was struck by how organic the sound of the piano was, as I had become familiar with the artificial electronic sound. The teacher tried to explain where middle C was but I could already play all the major and minor scales, as well as tonic and dominant functions, and the circle of fifths.

Here is the full story by Andrew Garrido.  Via Ian Leslie.

The First Words of Thanksgiving

When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth rock in 1620 they were cold, hungry and frightened. Imagine their surprise when on March 16 as they unloaded cannon from the Mayflower in preparation for battle an Indian walked into their encampment and asked, “Anyone got a beer?” Seriously, that’s what happened. Samoset, the thirsty Indian, had learned English from occasional fishermen.

Even more fortunate for the Pilgrims was that Somoset was accompanied by Squanto. Squanto had been enslaved 7 years earlier and transported to Spain where he was sold.  He then somehow made his way to England and then, amazingly, back to his village in New England around 1619. It’s a horrific story, however, because during his absence Squanto’s entire village and much of the region had been wiped out by disease, almost certainly brought by the Europeans. Nevertheless, in 1621 Squanto was there when the Pilgrims landed and he hammered out an early peace deal and most importantly instructed the settlers how to fertilize their land with fish in order to grow corn.

Squanto instructed them in survival skills and acquainted them with their environment: “He directed them how to set their corn, where to take fish, and to procure other commodities, and was also their pilot to bring them to unknown places for their profit, and never left them till he died.”

Anyone got a beer?


My Conversation with Mark Zuckerberg and Patrick Collison

Facebook tweets:.

@patrickc, CEO of Stripe, and @tylercowen, economist at George Mason University, sit down with our CEO, Mark Zuckerberg to discuss how to accelerate progress.

Video, audio, and transcript here, part of Mark’s personal challenge for the year, an excellent event all around.  This will also end up as part of CWT.