An effortless way to improve your memory

Friday, March 9th, 2018

The remarkable memory-boosting benefits of undisturbed rest were first documented in 1900 by the German psychologist Georg Elias Muller and his student Alfons Pilzecker:

In one of their many experiments on memory consolidation, Muller and Pilzecker first asked their participants to learn a list of meaningless syllables. Following a short study period, half the group were immediately given a second list to learn — while the rest were given a six-minute break before continuing.

When tested one-and-a-half-hours later, the two groups showed strikingly different patterns of recall. The participants given the break remembered nearly 50% of their list, compared to an average of 28% for the group who had been given no time to recharge their mental batteries. The finding suggested that our memory for new information is especially fragile just after it has first been encoded, making it more susceptible to interference from new information.

Although a handful of other psychologists occasionally returned to the finding, it was only in the early 2000s that the broader implications of it started to become known, with a pioneering study by Sergio Della Sala at the University of Edinburgh and Nelson Cowan at the University of Missouri.

The team was interested in discovering whether reduced interference might improve the memories of people who had suffered a neurological injury, such as a stroke. Using a similar set-up to Muller and Pilzecker’s original study, they presented their participants with lists of 15 words and tested them 10 minutes later. In some trials, the participants remained busy with some standard cognitive tests; in others, they were asked to lie in a darkened room and avoid falling asleep.

The impact of the small intervention was more profound than anyone might have believed. Although the two most severely amnesic patients showed no benefit, the others tripled the number of words they could remember — from 14% to 49%, placing them almost within the range of healthy people with no neurological damage.

The next results were even more impressive. The participants were asked to listen to some stories and answer questions an hour later. Without the chance to rest, they could recall just 7% of the facts in the story; with the rest, this jumped to 79% — an astronomical 11-fold increase in the information they retained. The researchers also found a similar, though less pronounced, benefit for healthy participants in each case, boosting recall between 10 and 30%.

Della Sala and Cowan’s former student, Michaela Dewar at Heriot-Watt University, has now led several follow-up studies, replicating the finding in many different contexts. In healthy participants, they have found that these short periods of rest can also improve our spatial memories, for instance — helping participants to recall the location of different landmarks in a virtual reality environment. Crucially, this advantage lingers a week after the original learning task, and it seems to benefit young and old people alike. And besides the stroke survivors, they have also found similar benefits for people in the earlier, milder stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

On my way to where the air is sweet

Wednesday, March 7th, 2018

Freakonomics Radio looks at an early education intervention that taught poor parents in Chicago Heights how to teach their own preschool-age children cogntivie and non-cognitive skills:

LIST: So, a first thing to note is we have huge differences across kids. Now, what I mean by that is that our program really, really helps Hispanic and white students and it doesn’t help blacks at all.

DUBNER: How disappointing was it to see that Hispanics and whites moved a lot and blacks didn’t?

LIST: Yeah, I think it’s a mixed bag. I think that when we started down this research agenda, part of our mission was, first of all, to learn about the racial achievement gap and learn about how we can lower that gap. Most of the time we lump Hispanic and African-American kids together, and we say, “What is the solution for minorities in public education?”


LEVITT: And to be honest, we have no real theory for why that is. The two sets of parents were equally engaged in the program and we can control for all sorts of background characteristics and nothing really explains it. So to me that’s really a puzzle, and a puzzle that I don’t have an answer for.


LEVITT: Upon entry into the program, we tested kids to see where they stood in terms of their cognitive skills — how well they could, you know, do the alphabet and math and whatnot — and also their non-cognitive skills, about how well they could sit still and keep things in memory. And what was incredibly interesting to me in our findings is that for the kids who were below average on these non-cognitive skills — the ability to concentrate, to remember things, to kind of think their way through problems — the below-average kids made no progress in our program. So if you started behind, in terms of how ready you were to learn in some sense, then you got nothing out of our program. And that was true whether you scored high on the cognitive scores or not. So, kids could be really high achievers in terms of math and reading but gain nothing from our program if they didn’t have these sort of sit-still skills. But on the other hand if you were above average on these non-cognitive skills, you got huge benefits from our program.

A different intervention seemed to work better at closing the gap:

KEARNEY: We find that kids who were pre-school age in places where they could watch Sesame Street were 14 percent less likely to fall behind when they got to elementary school. If we try and make a comparison of that number to what we see in the literature studying, for example, the Head Start program, our nation’s publicly funded pre-school program, the estimated effects on school performance are very similar.


KEARNEY: This costs $5 a year per kid to produce [vs. $8,000 for Head Start].


KEARNEY: And in fact, that effect is entirely driven by kids who grew up in counties with higher levels of economic disadvantage. So, I mean places that had higher levels of high school drop-out, had a higher rate of single-parent households, had lower household income on average — these were the kids that really saw a relative improvement in their school performance. The effect is largest for boys and African-Americans.

I’ve got to go and incorporate this knowledge into my decisions

Sunday, February 25th, 2018

Arnold Kling found Russ Roberts’ recent interview with Bryan Caplan to be one of his favorite EconTalk episodes, “because Russ pushes back so hard and of course Bryan debates effectively.” I also enjoyed both the Caplan quotes he cited:

I would say if there is no designable test that can show that people learn something, then they haven’t learned it. You might say the test is bad, in which case I would say, ‘Fine. Design a better test, and then show it to me.’ But, if you want to say that people have been transformed but it’s a way that no one can actually show, no matter how hard they try, then I’m going to say, ‘No. That just sounds like wishful thinking.’


I’m weird in this way, in that when I read something that seems true to me, like I just feel this incredible, this weight on the world: ‘I must repent. I can’t keep living the way I used to live anymore. I’ve got to go and incorporate this knowledge into my decisions, day after day. And, I’m a sinner if I don’t.’ But even that is such a weird response to a book. Most people read Tetlock’s Superforecasting and say, ‘Oh, yeah. So interesting. Some people are really great at this stuff. Yeah. Right.’ And then they go back and live their normal lives.

Is the education system really a waste of time and money?

Thursday, February 22nd, 2018

Is the education system really a waste of time and money, Bryan Caplan asks, as his new book claims right on the cover? This is a strange topic to debate with Eric Hanushek, he explains:

Why? Because if Hanushek had absolute power to fix the education system, education might actually be worth every penny. Hanushek is famous for focusing on what schools teach rather than what they spend — and documenting the vast disconnect between the two. If you haven’t already read his dissection of “input-based education policies,” you really ought to. Hanushek, more than any other economist, has taught us that measured literacy and numeracy are socially valuable — but just making kids spend long years in well-funded schools is not.

Tragically, however, Hanushek is not our education czar. Instead, all levels of our education system are extremely wasteful and ineffective. After spending more than a decade in class and burning up over $100,000 in taxpayer money, most Americans know shockingly little. About a third of adults are barely literate or numerate. Average adult knowledge of the other standard academic requirements — history, social studies, science, foreign languages — is near-zero. The average adult with a B.A. has the knowledge base you’d intuitively expect of the average high school graduate. The average high school graduate has the knowledge base you’d intuitively expect of the average drop-out. This is the fruit of a trillion taxpayer dollars a year.

For economists, however, there’s a powerful objection to this condemnation. If students really learn so little, why on earth is education so lucrative in the labor market? Why do high school grads outearn dropouts by 30%? Why do college grads outearn high school grads by 73%? Explain that! Employers want profit and they aren’t dumb. They wouldn’t pay exorbitant premia unless education dramatically improved worker productivity, right?

Wrong. There are TWO solid business reasons to pay extra for educated workers. One is that education teaches useful skills, transforming unskilled students into skilled workers. This is the standard “human capital” story. The other reason, though, is that education certifies useful skills, helping employers distinguish skilled workers from imposters. This is the “signaling” story. In the real world, naturally, it’s a continuum. But since Hanushek is not the education czar, signaling explains most of education’s financial reward.

How can we know this? We should start with the massive gap between learning and earning, combined with the fact that even the most irrelevant subjects and majors yield decent financial rewards. If human capital were the whole story, why on earth would employers care if about whether you’ve studied Shakespeare, Latin, or trigonometry? Think about all the classroom materials you haven’t used since the final exam.

If that doesn’t fully convince you, many other facts that every student knows cut in the same direction. Such as:

1. It’s easy to unofficially attend college classes without enrolling or paying tuition, but almost no one bothers. Why not? Because after four years of guerilla education, there’s one thing you won’t have: a diploma. The central signal of our society.

2. Students’ focus on grades over learning, best seen in their tireless search for “easy A’s.” Signaling has a simple explanation: If a professor gives you a high grade for minimal work, you get a nice seal of approval without suffering for it.

3. Students routinely cram for final exams, then calmly forget everything they learn. Signaling provides a clean explanation: Learning, then forgetting, sends a much better signal than failing.

In The Case Against Education, I also review multiple major bodies of academic research to help pin down the true human capital/signaling breakdown. In the end, my best estimate is that signaling explains 80% of the payoff. Key pieces of evidence:

1. Most of the payoff for school comes from graduation, not mere years of study. This is a doozy for human capital theory to explain; do schools withhold useful skills until senior year? But it makes perfect sense if graduation is a focal signal of conformity to social norms.

2. There has been massive credential inflation since 1940. The education you need to do a job hasn’t changed much, but the education you need to get any given job has risen about three years. Hence, the fact that waiter, bartender, security guard, and cashier are all now common jobs for college grads.

3. Though every data set yields different estimates, the effect of national education on national income is much smaller than the effect of personal education on personal income. How is this possible? Signaling! Give everyone more useful skills, and you enrich the whole nation. Give everyone more stickers on their foreheads, and you fritter away valuable time and tax money.

If you’ve been wondering, “What does signaling have to do with wasteful education?,” I hope you’re starting to see the link. Sure, it’s useful to rank workers. But once they’re ranked, prolonging the ranking game is a socially destructive rat race. When education levels skyrocket, the main result isn’t good jobs for every graduate, but credential inflation: The more education the average worker has, the more education the average worker needs to be employable. And while sending fancy signals is a great way for an individual to enrich himself, it’s a terrible way to enrich society.

Given Hanushek’s work, I’m optimistic that he’ll agree with much of what I’ve said. It’s our remedies that starkly diverge. My primary solution for these ills is cutting education spending. In a word, austerity. Austerity: It’s word I love. It’s a word I believe in. If Hanushek’s bleak assessment of input-based education policies is right, austerity will save tons of time and money with little effect on worker skill.

Cutting waste is easy and transparent

Wednesday, February 21st, 2018

Bryan Caplan has some fun explaining why public education is a waste by analogy:

You think we have too much education, and I think we’re doing education wrong. In other words, you want less education, and I want better education.

My response is that doing less education is easy, and improving the education system is hard. Here’s an analogy I use in the book: Imagine that your friend comes to you and says, “You know that toenail fungus cream that you’re spending a hundred bucks a month on?” “Yeah.” “Here’s clear proof it doesn’t work, so stop using it,” and you say, “Well, I’m not going to stop using it until you give me a toenail fungus cream that does work.”

Your friend says, “Well, I don’t really know one that works, and there’s a lot of debate about it, and it’s really hard to find one. What I do know is that you should stop wasting a hundred bucks a month.”

To me, that’s a lot of what’s going on with education. We’ve got very clear evidence that we’re wasting a lot, but we don’t have a clear idea as to what would be better. All we know is that the system we have now is grossly dysfunctional, so I don’t think we should keep pouring money into it.


Cutting waste is easy and transparent. But making things better is really hard and, in order to do it, you’ve got to trust a bunch of people who have already really screwed up, and that sounds imprudent to me.

Are small schools the next big thing?

Sunday, February 11th, 2018

We‘be started to see one-room schoolhouses again, but we’re calling them microschools:

Coined by British education blogger Cushla Barry in 2010, the term refers to educational institutions that emphasize interdisciplinary project-based learning, building social skills such as communication and critical thinking, and tailoring instruction to the needs of each individual student.

The schools tend to focus on teamwork, and they’re small by design—with student bodies ranging anywhere from half a dozen to roughly 150 students. The size limitations, informed by anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s now famous research on the maximum number of relationships most human beings can comfortably maintain, help the employees stay better connected with their students’ individual needs. Portfolio, located in Manhattan’s upscale TriBeCa neighborhood, is one of the most elite (and expensive) microschools, focusing on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects.

The movement, which grew from scrappy homeschool roots, has been taken up by nerds who want to hack primary education.

Early childhood development programs can only do so much

Tuesday, February 6th, 2018

Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman’s four rules for raising successful children lean heavily on a 1980 program for growth-stunted toddlers in Jamaica:

Trained health aides visited mothers living in poverty for an hour a week and coached them in how to stimulate their children through play.

The intervention, run by British researcher Sally Grantham-McGregor, was simple but it changed those toddlers’ lives. Monitoring into adulthood shows they have gone on to do better at school, earn more money and enjoy better psychosocial skills than their origins would have predicted. They were also less prone to committing crime.

In short, training the parents while their children were still small seemed to be a magic bullet for a wide range of social problems. “Programmes like this are cheap, effective and don’t require large infrastructure,” says Prof Heckman, who, at 73, runs the Center for the Economics of Human Development at the University of Chicago in his hometown.


Prof Heckman estimates that another ECD programme, the high-quality Perry pre-school for poor African-American children in Michigan in the 1960s, gave society a return of $7-$12 for every dollar invested. The participants went on to rely less on welfare, commit less crime and be more productive than their peers who didn’t follow the programme. In short, pre-school proved a lot more cost-effective than university or prison.

Do any of these amazing programs replicate their initial success when repeated elsewhere?

Let’s move on to his four rules:

Lesson one is to aim programmes only at disadvantaged children. Most privileged parents already know — from their own life experiences or from parenting books — that they should read to their children and play with them. They can afford to feed their children healthy food, and they start stimulating them before birth, explains Prof Heckman.

For many poorer parents, however, “reading to the child, stimulating a child, however commonsensical that is, comes as a revelation”, says Prof Heckman.

That’s a pretty damning image he’s painted, which suggests that some kind of even earlier intervention might be in order — maybe something a few years before preschool.

His second lesson: “It’s not about genetics. It’s about having input from parents who are engaged.” You can send children to the most expensive preschools and it won’t help much without good parenting, he says. The importance of hands-on parenting “has not fully made its way into the consciousness of some advocates, but it’s so obvious”.

Let’s ignore all the science and just assert that “it’s not about genetics.” Look, we can agree that it’s not all about genetics, but genes clearly play a huge role.

The corollary is lesson three: “You don’t need lots of money or MBAs.” Just sending relatively low-skilled people to train parents can be enough, as it was in Jamaica.

In fact, we spend twice as much on public education as we used to, and it has had no (positive) effect, so more money is not the answer.

Finally, lesson four: boys and girls are different. When Prof Heckman, his research assistant Jorge Luis Garcia and others evaluated two 1970s childcare programmes in North Carolina, they found that boys benefited more than girls from good childcare (largely because their health improved and their crime levels fell). However, boys also suffered more from bad preschools. “Girls are more resilient,” he concludes.

Fortunately the difference runs in the “correct” direction.

His model country for ECD is Denmark. By focusing on under-threes, the Danes have sharply boosted cognitive skills among disadvantaged children, he says. Even so, Prof Heckman adds, full equality has not been achieved. Children of less-educated Danish mothers still enter adulthood with considerably lower qualifications than their privileged peers. Even in the best of cases, ECD can only do so much.

Early childhood development programs can only do so much.

Modern universities are an exercise in insanity

Friday, January 26th, 2018

Modern universities are an exercise in insanity, T. Greer reminds us — even if we ignore all the other problems and look at just the cost:

How can you possibly justify a $200,000+ college expense? How can you justify a $100,000+ college expense?

This is not necessary.

The average tenure track professor makes $40 an hour. If you were to employ her as a private tutor at the cost of $60 an hour, and had four hours with her a week, and did that for 14 weeks (that’s the length of an average college course folks) that is about $3,400.

Were you to employ three such professor-tutors, that would be about $10,200, or a bit over $20,000 a year. In four years you would have racked up $80,000 in costs. But this is still $30,000 less than the total for the ‘cost conscious’ universities. It is a quarter of what you would pay for Trinity.

Remember: this $80,000 is for private tutoring, where individual attention would give you far and away a better and more thorough education than the 300-kids-in-a-lecture-hall style of classes that dominate undergraduate education today.

But it can get even cheaper. Let’s say you take the general principle of group classes from the university. Say you can find four other people to take all of these other classes with you. Just four. Well that equals out to $680 per class, or $16,000 a person for four years of classes.

To be fair, add in $1000 for textbooks and a subscription to JSTOR, for a total of about 17,000 to 18,000 for four years.

Modern universities are insane.

For the vast majority of human history universities as we conceive of them did not exist. The modern university system did not produce the Mahabharata, The Aeneid, or The Tale of Genji. The modern university system did not produce Ibn Khaldun, Thomas Aquinas, or Alexis de Tocqueville. The universities John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison attended looked or functioned very little like Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton do today. Men like Abraham Lincoln are evidence that a deep reading and appreciation for the liberal arts do not require formal education at all. Make no mistake about it: the humanities existed before the modern university department was conceived; they will exist long after the modern university department has been destroyed.

I would like to see something along the lines of a “liberal education” preserved. But do the math. The important elements — the students, the books, the teachers — can be provided for at under $20,000 a year, and that is with paying the teachers $20 more an hour than they are currently earning. Any attempt to reform the current university system must take this fact as its foundation.

You are quite likely to grind up the humans in the process

Wednesday, January 24th, 2018

Megan McArdle shares some stories of metrics and their unintended consequences:

In December, doctors at a VA hospital in Oregon decided to admit an 81-year-old patient. He was dehydrated, malnourished, plagued by skin ulcers and broken ribs — in the medical professionals’ opinion, he was unable to care for himself at home. Administrators, however, overruled them.

Was there no bed for this poor man? No, the facility had plenty of beds; in fact, on an average day, more than half of the beds are empty, awaiting patients. Was there no money or medicine to care for him? No, and no. Reporting by the New York Times suggests that Walter Savage was, perversely, turned away because he was too sick. Very sick patients tend to worsen the performance measures by which VA hospitals are judged.

If this had happened in isolation, we could simply gape at the monstrosity that bureaucracies are occasionally capable of.

But such examples abound in health care. For example, in the 1990s, New York and Pennsylvania started publishing mortality data on hospitals and surgeons who did coronary bypasses. The idea was that more informed consumers would steer themselves toward the teams with the better statistics — theoretically good for patients, bad for slacking providers. The reality was less ideal: In those states, surgeons seem to have started doing more operations on healthier patients, while turning away the sickest ones who might otherwise have benefited.

From this we can take a few lessons. The first is one that has been well-known to other sorts of businesses: What you measure is what you get, not necessarily what you want. In fact, if your measurement is badly designed, you may get a great deal of something you don’t want.

To illustrate that, look at Wells Fargo, which recently paid a whopping fine because a badly designed compensation system encouraged low-level employees to muck around with customer bank accounts. These machinations generated effectively no revenue for the bank, and annoyed customers, but they did generate income for the employees — and eventually, a stinging, expensive rebuke from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.


I could reel off examples endlessly: purchasing managers who have cozy arrangements to buy a certain amount of product from their vendors in December, and ship it back in January, in order to help some sales director make quarterly targets … universities that compete to turn away as many students as possible, because doing so makes them rise in the U.S. News rankings … law schools that hired their own graduates for temporary make-work jobs in order to boost the schools’ employment statistics. All metrics will be gamed, and the games always have costs. And when the metrics involve our health, those costs can be very high indeed.

Health care and education are particularly ill-suited to management-by-measurement:

Most companies are dealing with reasonably standardized inputs, which can be turned into measurable outputs. But the less you deal with things, and the more you deal with human beings, the less useful productivity metrics are. Human bodies and human minds are both highly variable and immensely complicated. When you are working on them, it is hard to know how much of the final result is a result of your labor, and how much can be credited to the qualities of your initial starting material.

So when we measure outputs, we are getting at best a very distorted picture of the value of the services provided. Modern industrial management is simply not designed for this sort of situation. If you feed human inputs into a machine system, you are quite likely to grind up the humans in the process.

Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them

Monday, January 22nd, 2018

In 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson warns, do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them:

Recently, I watched a three-year-old boy trail his mother and father slowly through a crowded airport. He was screaming violently at five-second intervals — and, more important, he was doing it voluntarily. He wasn’t at the end of this tether. As a parent, I could tell from the tone. He was irritating his parents and hundreds of other people to gain attention. Maybe he needed something. But that was no way to get it, and his parents should have let him know that. You might object that “perhaps they were worn out, and jet-lagged, after a long trip.” But thirty seconds of carefully directed problem solving would have brought the shameful episode to a halt. More thoughtful parents would not have let someone they truly cared for become the object of a crowd’s contempt.

I have also watched a couple, unable or unwilling to say no to their two-year-old, obliged to follow closely behind him everywhere he went, every moment of what was supposed to be an enjoyable social visit, because he misbehaved so badly when not micro-managed that he could not be given a second of genuine freedom without risk. The desire of his parents to let their child act without correction on every impulse perversely produced precisely the opposite effect: they deprived him instead of every opportunity to engage in independent action. Because they did not dare to teach him what “No” means, he had no conception of the reasonable limits enabling maximal toddler autonomy. It was a classic example of too much chaos breeding too much order (and the inevitable reversal). I have, similarly, seen parents rendered unable to engage in adult conversation at a dinner party because their children, four and five, dominated the social scene, eating the centres out of all the sliced bread, subjecting everyone to their juvenile tyranny, while mom and dad watched, embarrassed and bereft of the ability to intervene.

When my now-adult daughter was a child, another child once hit her on the head with a metal toy truck. I watched that same child, one year later, viciously push his younger sister backwards over a fragile glass-surfaced coffee table. His mother picked him up immediately afterward (but not her frightened daughter), and told him in hushed tones not to do such things, while she patted him comfortingly in a manner clearly indicative of approval. She was out to produce a little God-Emperor of the Universe. That’s the unstated goal of many a mother, including many who consider themselves advocates for full gender equality. Such women will object vociferously to any command uttered by an adult male, but will trot off in seconds to make their progeny a peanut-butter sandwich if he demands it while immersed self-importantly in a video game. The future mates of such boys have every reason to hate their mothers-in-law. Respect for women? That’s for other boys, other men — not for dear sons.

The neglect and mistreatment that is part and parcel of poorly structured or even entirely absent disciplinary approaches can be deliberate — motivated by explicit, conscious (if misguided) parental motives. But more often than not, modern parents are simply paralyzed by the fear that they will no longer be liked or even loved by their children if they chastise them for any reason. They want their children’s friendship above all, and are willing to sacrifice respect to get it. This is not good. A child will have many friends, but only two parents — if that — and parents are more, not less, than friends. Every parent therefore needs to learn to tolerate the momentary anger or even hatred directed towards them by their children, after necessary corrective action has been taken, as the capacity of children to perceive or care about long-term consequences is very limited. Parents are the arbiters of society. They teach children how to behave so that other people will be able to interact meaningfully and productively with them.

I remember taking my daughter to the playground once when she was about two. She was playing on the monkey bars, hanging in mid-air. A particularly provocative little monster of about the same age was standing above her on the same bar she was gripping. I watched him move towards her. Our eyes locked. He slowly and deliberately stepped on her hands, with increasing force, over and over, as he stared me down. He knew exactly what he was doing. Up yours, Daddy-O — that was his philosophy. He had already concluded that adults were contemptible, and that he could safely defy them. (Too bad, then, that he was destined to become one.) That was the hopeless future his parents had saddled him with. To his great and salutary shock, I picked him bodily off the playground structure, and threw him thirty feet down the field.

No, I didn’t. I just took my daughter somewhere else. But it would have been better for him if I had.

The UK’s exam-focused educational system is similar to the one in China

Friday, December 29th, 2017

Puzhong Yao graduated with first class honors from Trinity College, University of Cambridge, and received an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He looks at the Western elite from a Chinese perspective — with particular attention to idea’s from Robert Rubin’s autobiography In an Uncertain World:

It was the summer of 2000. I was 15, and I had just finished my high school entrance exam in China. I had made considerable improvements from where I started in first grade, when I had the second- worst grades in the class and had to sit at a desk perpendicular to the blackboard so that the teacher could keep a close eye on me. I had managed to become an average student in an average school. My parents by then had reached the conclusion that I was not going anywhere promising in China and were ready to send me abroad for high school. Contrary to all expectations, however, I got the best mark in my class and my school. The exam scores were so good that I ranked within the top ten among more than 100,000 students in the whole city. My teacher and I both assumed the score was wrong when we first heard it.

As a consequence, I got into the best class in the best school in my city, and thus began the most painful year of my life. My newfound confidence was quickly crushed when I saw how talented my new classmates were. In the first class, our math teacher announced that she would start from chapter four of the textbook, as she assumed, correctly, that most of us were familiar with the first three chapters and would find it boring to go through them again. Most of the class had been participating in various competitions in middle school and had become familiar with a large part of the high school syllabus already. Furthermore, they had also grown to know each other from those years of competitions together. And here I was, someone who didn’t know anything or anyone, surrounded by people who knew more to begin with, who were much smarter, and who worked just as hard as I did. What chance did I have?

During that year, I tried very hard to catch up: I gave up everything else and even moved somewhere close to the school to save time on the commute, but to no avail. Over time, going to school and competing while knowing I was sure to lose became torture. Yet I had to do it every day. At the end-of-year exam, I scored second from the bottom of the class—the same place where I began in first grade. But this time it was much harder to accept, after the glory I had enjoyed just one year earlier and the huge amount of effort I had put into studying this year. Finally, I threw in the towel, and asked my parents to send me abroad. Anywhere else on this earth would surely be better.

So I came to the UK in 2001, when I was 16 years old. Much to my surprise, I found the UK’s exam-focused educational system very similar to the one in China. What is more, in both countries, going to the “right schools” and getting the “right job” are seen as very important by a large group of eager parents. As a result, scoring well on exams and doing well in school interviews—or even the play session for the nursery or pre-prep school—become the most important things in the world. Even at the university level, the undergraduate degree from the University of Cambridge depends on nothing else but an exam at the end of the last year.

On the other hand, although the UK’s university system is considered superior to China’s, with a population that is only one-twentieth the size of my native country, competition, while tough, is less intimidating. For example, about one in ten applicants gets into Oxbridge in the UK, and Stanford and Harvard accept about one in twenty-five applicants. But in Hebei province in China, where I am from, only one in fifteen hundred applicants gets into Peking or Qinghua University.

Still, I found it hard to believe how much easier everything became. I scored first nationwide in the GCSE (high school) math exam, and my photo was printed in a national newspaper. I was admitted into Trinity College, University of Cambridge, once the home of Sir Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and Prince Charles.

I studied economics at Cambridge, a field which has become more and more mathematical since the 1970s. The goal is always to use a mathematical model to find a closed-form solution to a real-world problem. Looking back, I’m not sure why my professors were so focused on these models. I have since found that the mistake of blindly relying on models is quite widespread in both trading and investing—often with disastrous results, such as the infamous collapse of the hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management. Years later, I discovered the teaching of Warren Buffett: it is better to be approximately right than precisely wrong. But our professors taught us to think of the real world as a math problem.

The culture of Cambridge followed the dogmas of the classroom: a fervent adherence to rules and models established by tradition. For example, at Cambridge, students are forbidden to walk on grass. This right is reserved for professors only. The only exception is for those who achieve first class honors in exams; they are allowed to walk on one area of grass on one day of the year.

The behavior of my British classmates demonstrated an even greater herd mentality than what is often mocked in American MBAs. For example, out of the thirteen economists in my year at Trinity, twelve would go on to join investment banks, and five of us went to work for Goldman Sachs.

He goes on to describe his “success” at Goldman, what he really learned at business school, etc.

Kids love dinosaurs

Wednesday, December 13th, 2017

As a near-universal rule, kids love dinosaurs. Or, as psychologists might say, many children develop an intense interest in dinosaurs:

Researchers don’t know exactly what sparks them — the majority of parents can’t pinpoint the moment or event that kicked off their kids’ interest — but almost a third of all children have one at some point, typically between the ages of 2 and 6 (though for some the interest lasts further into childhood). And while studies have shown that the most common intense interest is vehicles — planes, trains, and cars — the next most popular, by a wide margin, is dinosaurs.


“I hear it over and over” from parents, he says: ‘They know all the names! I don’t know how they remember that stuff.’” But Lacovara does, or at least he has some theories. “I think for many of these children, that’s their first taste of mastery, of being an expert in something and having command of something their parent or coach or doctor doesn’t know,” he says. “It makes them feel powerful. Their parent may be able to name three or four dinosaurs and the kid can name 20, and the kid seems like a real authority.”

Intense interests are a big confidence booster for kids, agrees Kelli Chen, a pediatric psychiatric occupational therapist at Johns Hopkins.

They’re also particularly beneficial for cognitive development. A 2008 study found that sustained intense interests, particularly in a conceptual domain like dinosaurs, can help children develop increased knowledge and persistence, a better attention span, and deeper information-processing skills. In short, they make better learners and smarter kids. There’s decades of research to back that up: Three separate studies have found that older children with intense interests tend to be of above-average intelligence.


And it’s probably not a coincidence that the age range for developing intense interests overlaps with the peak ages of imagination-based play (which is from age 3 through age 5).


In a study published in 2007, researchers who followed up with the parents of 177 kids found that the interests only lasted between six months and three years.

There are a number of reasons kids stop wanting to learn anything and everything about a particular topic, and one of the biggest is, ironically, school. As they enter a traditional educational environment, they’re expected to hit a range of targets in various subjects, which doesn’t leave much room for a specialization.


“Maybe at home the interest was being reinforced, and the positive feedback loop was, ‘Johnny knows that’s a pterodactyl, Johnny’s a genius!’ When you’re getting praise over and over again for having information about a subject, you’re on a runaway train to Dinosaurland,” Chatel says. “But then school begins and the positive feedback loops shift to, ‘Johnny played so well with others, Johnny shared his toys and made a friend.’”

It starts much, much too early for me

Saturday, December 9th, 2017

Studies have shown the benefits of later school starts, but what about really late school starts?

Here we report on the implementation and impact of a 10 a.m. school start time for 13-16-year-old students. A four-year observational study using a before-after-before (A-B-A) design was carried out in an English state-funded high school. School start times were changed from 8:50 a.m. in study year 0, to 10 a.m. in years 1-2, and then back to 8:50 a.m. in year 3. Measures of student health (absence due to illness) and academic performance (national examination results) were used for all students. Implementing a 10 a.m. start saw a decrease in student illness after two years of over 50% (p< .0005 and effect size: Cohen’s d = 1.07), and reverting to an 8:50 a.m. start reversed this improvement, leading to an increase of 30% in student illness (p<.0005 and Cohen’s d = 0.47). The 10:00 a.m. start was associated with a 12% increase in the value-added number of students making good academic progress (in standard national examinations) that was significant (<.0005) and equivalent to 20% of the national benchmark.

My teenage self would be nodding in agreement — as would Brian Setzer:

Hey, man, I don’t feel like goin’ to school no more / Me neither. They can’t make you go. No you daddyo yeah! / I ain’t goin’ to school it starts too early for me / Well listen man I ain’t goin’ to school no more it starts much, much too early for me / I don’t care about readin’, writin’, ‘rithmetic or history

The class clown is onto something

Friday, December 8th, 2017

Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education comes out soon, and he managed to get The Atlantic to publish a summary — which is sure to ruffle some feathers:

How, you may ask, can anyone call higher education wasteful in an age when its financial payoff is greater than ever? The earnings premium for college graduates has rocketed to 73 percent — that is, those with a bachelor’s degree earn, on average, 73 percent more than those who have only a high-school diploma, up from about 50 percent in the late 1970s. The key issue, however, isn’t whether college pays, but why. The simple, popular answer is that schools teach students useful job skills. But this dodges puzzling questions.

First and foremost: From kindergarten on, students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market. Why do English classes focus on literature and poetry instead of business and technical writing? Why do advanced-math classes bother with proofs almost no student can follow? When will the typical student use history? Trigonometry? Art? Music? Physics? Latin? The class clown who snarks “What does this have to do with real life?” is onto something.


Suppose your law firm wants a summer associate. A law student with a doctorate in philosophy from Stanford applies. What do you infer? The applicant is probably brilliant, diligent, and willing to tolerate serious boredom. If you’re looking for that kind of worker — and what employer isn’t? — you’ll make an offer, knowing full well that nothing the philosopher learned at Stanford will be relevant to this job.

The labor market doesn’t pay you for the useless subjects you master; it pays you for the preexisting traits you signal by mastering them. This is not a fringe idea. Michael Spence, Kenneth Arrow, and Joseph Stiglitz — all Nobel laureates in economics — made seminal contributions to the theory of educational signaling. Every college student who does the least work required to get good grades silently endorses the theory. But signaling plays almost no role in public discourse or policy making. As a society, we continue to push ever larger numbers of students into ever higher levels of education. The main effect is not better jobs or greater skill levels, but a credentialist arms race.

Lest I be misinterpreted, I emphatically affirm that education confers some marketable skills, namely literacy and numeracy. Nonetheless, I believe that signaling accounts for at least half of college’s financial reward, and probably more.

Definitely read the whole thing. You might learn — and even retain — something.

Some aspects of prodigy and autism do overlap

Friday, November 24th, 2017

Prodigies aren’t typically autistic, but some aspects of prodigy and autism do overlap:

Prodigies, like many autistic people, have a nearly insatiable passion for their area of interest. Lauren Voiers, an art prodigy from the Cleveland area, painted well into the night as a teenager; sometimes she didn’t sleep at all before school began. That sounds a lot like the “highly restricted, fixated interests” that are part of autism’s diagnostic criteria.

Prodigies also have exceptional working memories. In a 2012 study led by one of us, Dr. Ruthsatz, all eight of the prodigies examined scored in the 99th percentile in this area. As the child physicist Jacob Barnett once put it during an interview on “60 Minutes,” “Every number or math problem I ever hear, I have permanently remembered.” Extreme memory has long been linked to autism as well. Dr. Leo Kanner, one of the scientists credited with identifying autism in the 1940s, noted that the autistic children he saw could recite “an inordinate number of nursery rhymes, prayers, lists of animals, the roster of presidents, the alphabet forward and backward.” A study on talent and autism published in 2015 in The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that over half of the more than 200 autistic subjects had unusually good memories.

Finally, both prodigies and autistic people have excellent eyes for detail. Simon Baron-Cohen, an autism researcher, and his colleagues have described an excellent eye for detail as “a universal feature of the autistic brain.” It’s one of the categories on the Autism-Spectrum Quotient, a self-administered test Dr. Baron-Cohen helped develop that measures autistic traits. The prodigies in Dr. Ruthsatz’s 2012 study got high marks in this trait on the test. One of the subjects, Jonathan Russell, a 20-year-old music prodigy who lives in New York, described how startled he gets when the chimes on the subway are slightly off key.

Beyond the cognitive similarities, many child prodigies have autistic relatives. In the 2012 study, half of the prodigies had an autistic relative at least as close as a niece or grandparent. Three had received a diagnosis of autism themselves when young, which they seemed to have since grown out of.

There might even be evidence of a genetic link between the conditions. In a 2015 study published in Human Heredity, Dr. Ruthsatz and her colleagues examined the DNA of prodigies and their families. They found that the prodigies and their autistic relatives both seemed to have a genetic mutation or mutations on the short arm of Chromosome 1 that were not shared by their neurotypical relatives. Despite a small sample size (the finding rested on five extended prodigy families), the data was statistically significant.