Category: Education

Spock’s Brain

The Santa Monica Observer noted the death of soap opera actress Marj Dusay who also appeared as the alien thief in the classic Start Trek episode “Spock’s Brain”:

…The episode is generally regarded by most fans, and those who took part in its production, as the worst episode of the series. William Shatner called this one of the series’ worst episodes, calling the episode’s plot a “tribute” to NBC executives who slashed the show’s budget and placed it in a bad time slot.

Leonard Nimoy wrote: “Frankly, during the entire shooting of that episode, I was embarrassed – a feeling that overcame me many times during the final season of Star Trek.”

…In his book What Were They Thinking? The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History, author David Hofstede ranked the episode at #71 on the list.

The rock band Phish performs a song entitled “Spock’s Brain”

So what? Well here is the part that caught my attention:

The episode was referenced in Modern Principles: Microeconomics by Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University as an example of how it is virtually impossible to have a command economy; in that not even Spock’s brain could run an economy.

In other words, we also thought it was one of the worst episodes ever because of the bad economics. Econ instructors should use our textbook! Where else can you learn about Spock’s Brain and the command economy?

By the way, I’m pretty sure the obit was AI generated but heh the AI did a good job! I am aware of the irony.

Maybe they are the ones who know?

The top 1% are the only affluent group consistently more inclined than the general population to attribute variation in drive and IQ to both internal causes, particularly to innate causes (the top 1% also differ from the other affluent, at p < .01).  This said, the affluent are not more dismissive than others of environmental causal explanations.  Interestingly, across all income groups, “environmental” explanations for drive and IQ are more popular than the two internal explanations.

That is from a new paper (and here) by Elizabeth Suhay, Marko Klašnja, and Gonzalo Rivero.

Free Tool to Run the Double Oral Auction Experiment

The double oral auction was one of the first experiments that Vernon Smith ran. He was expecting to find that the supply and demand model didn’t work. Instead, the results changed his life and led to a Nobel prize:

I am still recovering from the shock of the experimental results. The outcome was unbelievably consistent with competitive price theory. … But the result can’t be believed, I thought. It must be an accident, so I will take another class and do a new experiment with different supply and demand schedules. (Smith 1991)

I’ve run similar experiments in my principles class. The exercise is fun for the students and it’s always amazing to see how quickly the equilibrium is attained even though none of the participants has any idea what the equilibrium price and quantity are. The experiment can be run with paper and pencil or a laptop in a small class but that gets cumbersome for a larger class. Fortunately, there are some free tools.

Here’s Hampton and Johnson describing provides an online version of the double oral auction that works on all student Internet-enabled devices, including smartphones and iPads, without requiring students or instructors to download any special software. Results can be projected on a screen for debriefing. Instructors can set key parameters. A version with price controls can be setup. The use of the experiment is free for instructors and students. Students do not have to give their email address to play.

The design is the classic market experiment for introducing students to demand and supply. Joseph (1970) makes a strong case for the benefits of the “market experiment” in teaching based on experience with high school and undergraduate students. The original experiment was created by Smith (1962).

….After a trading session, instructors can debrief showing dynamically the history of bids, asks, trades, individual attribution of bids/asks (by clicking the chart), individual total earnings, and the underlying demand and supply curves.

Modern Principles of Economics introduces the supply and demand model and Smith’s classic experiment and thus is an ideal accompaniment.

Emergent Ventures winners, seventh cohort

Nicholas Whitaker of Brown, general career development grant in the area of Progress Studies.

Coleman Hughes, travel and career development grant.

Michael T. Foster, career development grant to study machine learning to predict which politicians will succeed and advance their careers.

Evan Horowitz, to start the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts, to impose greater rationality on policy discussions at the state level.

John Strider, a Progress Studies grant on how to reinvent the integrated corporate research lab.

Dryden Brown, to help build institutions and a financial center in Ghana, through his company Bluebook Cities.

Adaobi Adibe, to restructure credentialing, and build infrastructure for a more meritocratic world, helping workers create property rights in the evaluation of their own talent.

Shrirang Karandikar, and here (corrected link), to support an Indian project to get the kits to measure and understand local pollution.

Jassi Pannu, medical student at Stanford, to study best policy responses to pandemics.

Vasco Queirós, for his work on a Twitter browser app for superior threading and on-line communication.

My Conversation with Garett Jones

Here is the transcript and audio, here is part of the opening summary:

Garett joined Tyler to discuss his book 10% Less Democracy, including why America shouldn’t be run by bondholders, what single reform would most effectively achieve more limited democracy, how markets shape cognitive skills, the three important P’s of the repeated prisoner’s dilemma, why French cuisine is still underrated, Buchanan vs. Tullock, Larry David vs. Seinfeld, the biggest mistake in Twitter macroeconomics, the biggest challenges facing the Mormon church, what studying to be a sommelier taught him about economics, the Garett Jones vision of America, and more.

Here is one bit:

COWEN: But let’s say it’s the early 1990s. Eastern European countries are suddenly becoming free, and they ask you, “Garett, what electoral system should we have?” What do you say?

JONES: What I really would go for is presidential systems, if you can handle it, something like a first-past-the-post system, where those people elected from local districts focused on local problems — which have less of a free-rider problem involved — go up to the parliament and actually argue their case. The presidential element is less important than the parliamentary idea of the single-district voting. I tend to think that creates more accountability on the part of the government.

And more:

COWEN: For the United States, what is the most effective way, in your view, that you would want us to have 10 percent less democracy? What’s the one thing you would change?

JONES: I would change the House of Representatives to a six-year term. I picked that because it’s not outside the range of plausibility, and because I think people would instantly understand what it accomplishes — not because it has the highest payoff, but because it balances payoff with plausibility in a democracy.

And on boosting IQ:

COWEN: But what’s the key environmental lever? Whatever Ireland did [to have induced an IQ rise], it’s not that people were starving, right? That we understand.

JONES: No, true.

COWEN: So why don’t we do more of whatever they did, whatever was done to the East Germans, everywhere?

JONES: Exactly.

COWEN: But what is that lever? Why don’t we know?

JONES: I would say that thing is the thing we call capitalism.

COWEN: Capitalism is a big, huge thing. Not all of capitalism makes us smarter.

JONES: Yeah, that’s the thing — figuring out which things within capitalism — what is it about living in a free society with competitive markets where, at least in our youth and middle age, we feel a need to sell ourselves as valuable creators. There’s something about that that probably is what’s most valuable for boosting cognitive skills. It’s a sort of demand-side desire to try to use our minds in socially productive ways. And I think in communism, we can —

COWEN: So marketing makes us smarter?

JONES: That’s what I would say, yeah.

There is much more at the link, an excellent Conversation.  Here you can order Garett’s book 10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust the Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less.  You can read the introduction to the book on-line.

Education sentences to ponder

The unemployment rate for young college graduates exceeds that of the general population, and about 41 percent of recent college graduates — and 33.8 percent of all college graduates — are underemployed in that they are working in jobs that don’t require a college degree, according to new data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Here is more from Elizabeth Redden.  The sad thing is, this is evidence of meritocracy, not a stinking economy.

Science sentences to ponder: citations vs. innovations

We demonstrate empirically that measures of novelty are correlated with but distinct from measures of scientific impact, which suggests that if also novelty metrics were utilized in scientist evaluation, scientists might pursue more innovative, riskier, projects.

That is from Jay Bhattacharya and Mikko Packalen in a new NBER working paper and scientific innovation and stagnation.

They point out that Eugene Garfield, the scientist behind the development of citation count, did not think it should be used to evaluate individual scientists.  Overall, citations encourage too much work in crowded, “approaching peak” areas, rather than developing new ideas.  In lieu of citations, the authors suggest using textual analysis to determine how much a paper is building on new ideas rather than on already intensively explored ideas.


What is the best model for thinking about this lack of higher ed reporting?

The Education Department opened investigations into Harvard and Yale as part of a continuing review that it says has found U.S. universities failed to report at least $6.5 billion in foreign funding from countries such as China and Saudi Arabia, according to department materials viewed by The Wall Street Journal…

The department described higher-education institutions in the U.S., in a document viewed by the Journal, as “multi-billion dollar, multi-national enterprises using opaque foundations, foreign campuses, and other sophisticated legal structures to generate revenue.”

…Universities are required to disclose to the Education Department all contracts and gifts from a foreign source that, alone or combined, are worth $250,000 or more in a calendar year. Though the statute is decades old, the department only recently began to vigorously enforce it.

Officials accused schools of actively soliciting money from foreign governments, companies and nationals known to be hostile to the U.S. and potentially in search of opportunities to steal research and “spread propaganda benefitting foreign governments,” according to the document.

In addition, while the department said it has found foreign money generally flows to the country’s richest universities, “such money apparently does not reduce or otherwise offset American students’ tuition costs,” the document said.

Here is the full WSJ story.

My Conversation with Tim Harford

Here is the transcript and audio, here is part of the summary:

Tim joined Tyler to discuss the role of popular economics in a politicized world, the puzzling polarization behind Brexit, why good feedback is necessary (and rare), the limits of fact-checking, the “tremendously British” encouragement he received from Prince Charles, playing poker with Steve Levitt, messiness in music, the underrated aspect of formal debate, whether introverts are better at public speaking, the three things he can’t live without, and more.

Here is one bit near the opening:

COWEN: These are all easy questions. Let’s think about public speaking, which you’ve done quite a bit of. On average, do you think extroverts or introverts are better public speakers?

HARFORD: I am an introvert. I’ve never seen any research into this, so it should be something that one could test empirically. But as an introvert, I love public speaking because I like being alone, and you’re never more alone than when you’re on the stage. No one is going to bother you when you’re up there. I find it a great way to interact with people because they don’t talk back.

COWEN: What other non-obvious traits do you think predict being good at public speaking?

HARFORD: Hmmm. You need to be willing to rehearse and also willing to improvise and make stuff up as you go along. And I think it’s hard for somebody to be willing to do both. I think the people who like to rehearse end up rehearsing too much and being too stiff and not being willing to adapt to circumstances, whereas the people who are happy to improvise don’t rehearse enough, and so their comments are ill formed and ill considered. You need that capacity to do both.

And another segment:

HARFORD: …Brian Eno actually asked me a slightly different question, which I found interesting, which was, “If you were transported back in time to the year 700, what piece of technology would you take — or knowledge or whatever — what would you take with you from the present day that would lead people to think that you were useful, but would also not cause you to be burned as a witch?”

COWEN: A hat, perhaps.


COWEN: If it’s the British Isles.

HARFORD: Well, a hat is useful. I suggested the Langstroth beehive. The Langstroth beehive was invented in about 1850. It’s an enormously important technology in the domestication of bees. It’s a vast improvement on pre-Langstroth beehives, vast improvement on medieval beehives. Yet, it’s fairly straightforward to make and to explain to people how it works and why it works. I think people would appreciate it, and everybody likes honey, and people have valued bees for a long time. So that would have been my answer.


COWEN: I’ve read all of your books. I’ve read close to all of your columns, maybe all of them in fact, and I’m going to ask you a question I also asked Reid Hoffman. You know the truths of economics, plenty of empirical papers. Why aren’t you weirder? I’ve read things by you that I disagreed with, but I’ve never once read anything by you that I thought was outrageous. Why aren’t you weirder?

The conversation has many fine segments, definitely recommended, Tim was in top form.  I very much enjoyed our “Brexit debate” as well, too long to reproduce here, but I made what I thought was the best case for Brexit possible and Tim responded.

Emi Nakamura, 2019 John Bates Clark award winner

From a new JEP appreciation by Janice Eberly and Michael Woodford:

Emi’s exposure to economics began early in life. Her grandfather, Guy Orcutt, was a distinguished econometrician (Watts 1991). Both of her parents, Alice and Masao Nakamura, were academic economists; her mother, Alice Orcutt Naka-mura, is a past President of the Canadian Economic Association. In addition to an early exposure to economic ideas, Emi credits her parents with instilling in her “a deep sense of the importance of testing theories empirically” (Ng 2015). Emi attended academic conferences with her mother and began taking economics classes at the University of British Columbia as a high school student. She credits one of these early classes, a master’s class on economic measurement and index number theory taught by Erwin Diewert, with making an early mark in her drive for clarity in measurement. In a similar vein, Emi watched the film “The Race for the Double Helix” about the discovery of the structure of DNA with her parents. They emphasized the role of the empiricist Rosalind Franklin and the notion that “there is nothing worse than a wrong fact.”

Perhaps one lesson here is the importance of mobilizing talent from very early ages.  Here is previous MR coverage of Emi Nakamura.

The culture that is Disney? The culture that is GWU?

The George Washington University faculty and staff ain’t got no culture. Or worse, we’ve got a negative culture. This was the verdict of the Disney Institute, which the president of our university commissioned last year to assess the culture on our campus. Fortunately, the institute, which is the “professional development and external training arm of The Walt Disney Company,” has a remediation plan. It has designed workshops to teach us the cultural “values” and “service priorities” we evidently require….

Our president is rumored to have forked over three to four million dollars to the Disney Institute to improve our culture (he refuses to reveal the cost). A select group of faculty and staff, those identified as opinion leaders, are being offered all-expenses paid trips to the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando “to gain first-hand insight into Disney’s approach to culture.” For everyone else, the university is conducting culture training workshops that run up to two hours. All staff and managers are required to attend. Faculty are strongly “encouraged” to participate, and some contract faculty, who have little job security, evidently have been compelled to do so.

I attended one of these workshops. It was a surreal experience. About a hundred mostly sullen university employees—maintenance workers, administrative staff, faculty members, and more—filled a ballroom. Two workshop leaders strained to gin up the crowd’s enthusiasm with various exhortations and exercises, supplemented by several slickly produced videos. The result was a cross between a pep rally and an indoctrination camp.

We were introduced at the beginning of the workshop to the university’s brand new slogan: “Only at GW, we change the world, one life at a time.”

Here is the full blog post from Dane Kennedy, faculty at GWU.  Via Isaac C.

Reversing the STEM gender gap in Israel?

A new study compares Hebrew-speaking with some Arabic-speaking communities, here is the abstract:

In the past three decades in high‐income countries, female students have outperformed male students in most indicators of educational attainment. However, the underrepresentation of girls and women in science courses and careers, especially in physics, computer sciences, and engineering, remains persistent. What is often neglected by the vast existing literature is the role that schools, as social institutions, play in maintaining or eliminating such gender gaps. This explorative case study research compares two high schools in Israel: one Hebrew‐speaking state school that serves mostly middleclass students and exhibits a typical gender gap in physics and computer science; the other, an Arabic‐speaking state school located in a Bedouin town that serves mostly students from a lower socioeconomic background. In the Arabic‐speaking school over 50% of the students in the advanced physics and computer science classes are females. The study aims to explain this seemingly counterintuitive gender pattern with respect to participation in physics and computer science. A comparison of school policies regarding sorting and choice reveals that the two schools employ very different policies that might explain the different patterns of participation. The Hebrew‐speaking school prioritizes self‐fulfillment and “free‐choice,” while in the Arabic‐speaking school, staff are much more active in sorting and assigning students to different curricular programs. The qualitative analysis suggests that in the case of the Arabic‐speaking school the intersection between traditional and collectivist society and neoliberal pressures in the form of raising achievement benchmarks contributes to the reversal of the gender gap in physics and computer science courses.

The article is “Explaining a reverse gender gap in advanced physics and computer science course‐taking: An exploratory case study comparing Hebrew‐speaking and Arabic‐speaking high schools in Israel” by Halleli Pinson, Yariv Feniger, and Yael Barak.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

How public intellectuals can extend their shelf lives

Scholar’s Stage has a long post on why public intellectuals often have such short careers in terms of quality output.  Here are my tips for extending your shelf life, noting that I am not myself suggesting I have managed all of these, do as I say not necessarily as I do:

1. Take a cue from Kobe Bryant.  As you get older, you have to practice critical thinking more, and harder, compared to when you were young.  Most people let up on their practice habits over time.

2. Avoid criticizing other public intellectuals.  In fact, avoid the negative as much as possible.  However pressing a social or economic issue may be, there is almost always a positive and constructive way to reframe your potential contribution.  This also will force you to keep on thinking harder, because it is easier to take apparently justified negative slaps at the wrongdoers.

3. You probably don’t have as much actual influence as you like to think, and besides fame is a mix of benefits and costs.  So write to meet your own standards of quality, and no I don’t mean your standards for how much influence you think you ought to have.

4. In your copious spare time, keep on picking up and learning new areas of study.

5. Go to some travel locations you never would have gone to before, and without too many firm plans, so for instance avoid having a full schedule of public lectures.

6. Interact with students, and not just in a “famous person interacting with students” kind of way.  The value of having to motivate and explain things to people who don’t necessarily care who you are is high.

7. Shy away from discussion of political candidates as much as possible.  “Run away” is better yet.

8. Try not to write things, including tweets, a less analytical and intelligent person also could have written.

9. Do not press the button.

10. Hang around happy, cheery people.  That said, also have some ornery friends determined to make (intellectual) life difficult for you.  You need both.

11. Continue to read some serious fiction, always.  Genre fiction has other uses, but most of it doesn’t satisfy this stricture.

12. Be very reluctant to purge your friends and acquaintances for perceived intellectual or political wrongdoings.

What else?