The Bigger, Closer Library

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

The Internet is a bigger, closer library than the one Arnold Kling had in school:

When I was in college, I sometimes went to the library just to browse and learn. I might pick a book or journal off the shelf, read something, see a reference to something else, go read that, and so on.

From that sort of self-education perspective, the Internet is like that college library, only bigger and closer. I don’t have to go to the library–I just turn on my laptop or tablet. The contents are not confined by shelf space or budget. As an aside, there is multimedia (YouTube). Also, much more frequent updating.

One downside of the bigger, closer library is that it has many distractions.

I would emphasize those distractions:

The Net is more like cable TV than a library. Most people don’t DVR documentaries, even if infovores do; rather, they turn the TV on and let mindless entertainment wash over them. That’s how they use the Net, too.

Scheduled classes and discussions, libraries, and computer labs all strive to reduce distractions.

An effective school would reduce distractions.

On Exercising the Mind

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

We recognize the benefits of exercise — or practice — even beyond physical fitness, but not to everything:

In learning to speak another language, drive a car or play an instrument, we recognise the value of going over things again and again, of rehearsing, memorising and testing according to established principles. We willingly follow the advice of the tennis coach to take the ball a fraction earlier on the backhand or to overcome a tendency to maintain too upright a posture going into the shot. Ultimately what we are trying to do is to form good habits so that, with sufficient practice, we won’t have to think (for example) about how to reverse the car into a parking bay or return the ball from the left hand corner. It will simply be easy and natural.

However, for major cultural reasons, we are extremely selective in our enthusiasm for areas where we accept the utility of practice, teaching, systematic education, rehearsal and repetition. Very strangely and sadly, exercise has come to feel alien in the area of our intimate emotional and cultural lives. Jane Austen — for instance — would have readily accepted that people have to learn how to have conversations, that there are rules to be practiced in relationships, and that compassion is something that can be learnt. She spoke movingly about what she termed ‘the training of the heart’. But we have subsequently developed a highly negative take on the role of teaching, rules and exercises in emotional, social and cultural life. It has come to seem as if rules will always be oppressive. The idea of learning how to have a relationship, be a friend or have a conversation now sounds unbearably stiff, too formal, pompous or just fake.


There’s now a widespread dislike of generalisations and an assumption that no one knows the secrets of living well; we must simply make up the rules as best we can, there is no accumulated wisdom we can draw from. It’s about starting from scratch every time and cobbling together the answers through painful experiences, one mistake after another. Many influential 20th-century intellectual figures (Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence, Sartre to start the list) were supporters of such spontaneity, naturalness and authenticity — and equal opponents of anything that looked like an ‘answer’ derived from Other People.

The good life is something that can be taught, using exercises of clarification and exercises of reinforcement.

Why Children Need Chores

Sunday, March 29th, 2015

Parents today want their kids spending time on things that can bring them success — learning Mandarin, earning a varsity letter, etc. — yet they’ve stopped asking their children to do one thing proven to lead to success — chores:

Decades of studies show the benefits of chores — academically, emotionally and even professionally.

Giving children household chores at an early age helps to build a lasting sense of mastery, responsibility and self-reliance, according to research by Marty Rossmann, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota. In 2002, Dr. Rossmann analyzed data from a longitudinal study that followed 84 children across four periods in their lives — in preschool, around ages 10 and 15, and in their mid-20s. She found that young adults who began chores at ages 3 and 4 were more likely to have good relationships with family and friends, to achieve academic and early career success and to be self-sufficient, as compared with those who didn’t have chores or who started them as teens.

John McPhee on Sprezzatura

Monday, March 23rd, 2015

John McPhee teaches writing:

In 2000, Abe Crystal, an undergraduate from Columbia, South Carolina, was enrolled in a writing class I teach at Princeton, and one of his assignments was to compose a profile of another student, whose name was Grainger David. This Grainger happened to be the undergraduate president of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s University Cottage Club and was as smoothly verbal and self-possessed as any of Fitzgerald’s characters, including Amory Blaine, of “This Side of Paradise.” In the profile, Abe Crystal mentioned, without amplification, that Grainger David had “sprezzatura.”

Sprezzatura? Of course, in this advanced age of the handheld vocabulary, everyone on earth knows what sprezzatura means, but in 2000 I had no idea, and I reached for an Italian dictionary. Nothing. I looked in another Italian dictionary. Nothing. I looked in Web II—Webster’s unabridged New International Dictionary, Second Edition. Niente. I picked up the phone and called my daughter Martha, who has lived in Italy and co-translated John Paul II’s “Crossing the Threshold of Hope” into English from the Vatican’s Italian.

Her credentials notwithstanding, Martha was no help.

I tried my daughter Sarah, a professor of art and architectural history at Emory, whose specialty is Baroque Rome. Her answering machine was as helpful as Martha.

That evening, I happened to attend a crowded reception at the New York Public Library with my daughter Jenny, the other translator of the Pope’s book, and her husband, Luca Passaleva, who was born, raised, and educated in Florence. “Hey, Luc. What is the meaning of ‘sprezzatura’?”

Luca: “I don’t know. Ask Jenny.”

Jenny: “I don’t know, but that couple over there might know. He’s in the Italian consulate.”

Consul: “Ask my wife. She is literary, I am not.”

Signora: “I’m very sorry. I have no idea.”

Back in Princeton the next day, I had a scheduled story conference with Abe Crystal, his profile of Grainger David on the desk in front of us. With my index finger touching “sprezzatura,” I said, “Abe, what the hell is this?”

Abe said he had picked up the word in Castiglione’s “The Courtier,” from 1528. “It means effortless grace, all easy, doing something cool without apparent effort.”

Soon after he left, I called Sarah again, and she picked up. She said Abe had it right, but the word “nonchalance” should be added to his definition. She said that Raphael carried the ideal of sprezzatura into painting. “He painted his friend Baldassare Castiglione as the ideal courtier, the embodiment of sprezzatura. It’s now in the Louvre.”

Why children differ in motivation to learn

Sunday, March 22nd, 2015

A recent study of 13,000 twins from 6 countries examined why children differ in motivation to learn:

Contrary to common belief, enjoyment of learning and children’s perceptions of their competence were no less heritable than cognitive ability. Genetic factors explained approximately 40% of the variance and all of the observed twins’ similarity in academic motivation. Shared environmental factors, such as home or classroom, did not contribute to the twin’s similarity in academic motivation. Environmental influences stemmed entirely from individual specific experiences.

One Woman’s Drive to Revolutionize Medical Testing

Saturday, March 21st, 2015

Elizabeth Holmes, the 30-year-old CEO of Theranos, is a driven young woman:

Her home is a two-bedroom condo in Palo Alto, and she lives an austere life. Although she can quote Jane Austen by heart, she no longer devotes time to novels or friends, doesn’t date, doesn’t own a television, and hasn’t taken a vacation in ten years. Her refrigerator is all but empty, as she eats most of her meals at the office. She is a vegan, and several times a day she drinks a pulverized concoction of cucumber, parsley, kale, spinach, romaine lettuce, and celery.

Growing up, Holmes was in constant motion. Her father, Chris, worked for government agencies, including, for much of his career, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department, often travelling abroad, overseeing relief and disease-eradication efforts in developing nations; today, he is the global water coördinator for U.S.A.I.D. Her mother, Noel, worked for nearly a decade as a foreign-policy and defense aide on Capitol Hill, until Elizabeth and her brother Christian, two years younger, were born. The family moved several times, which meant there was little opportunity to develop lasting friendships. Holmes describes herself as a happy loner, collecting insects and fishing with her father.

“I was probably, definitely, not normal,” she said. “I was reading ‘Moby-Dick’ from start to finish when I was about nine. I read a ton of books. I still have a notebook with a complete design for a time machine that I designed when I must have been, like, seven. The wonderful thing about the way I was raised is that no one ever told me that I couldn’t do those things.”

Chris Holmes’s great-grandfather Christian Holmes emigrated from Denmark, studied engineering, settled in Cincinnati, and became a physician. When Elizabeth was eight, she was given a tour of the local hospital where he worked and which was named in his honor. He had married the daughter of a patient, Charles Fleischmann, who pioneered packaged yeast and built a baking empire around it. (A nephew, Raoul Fleischmann, started this magazine in 1925, with Harold Ross.) Not all of Fleischmann’s children shared his entrepreneurial drive, and this was a common subject of conversation in the Holmes household. “I grew up with those stories about greatness,” she said, “and about people deciding not to spend their lives on something purposeful, and what happens to them when they make that choice—the impact on character and quality of life.”

In 1993, when Elizabeth was nine, her father took a job in Houston, as executive assistant to the C.E.O. of Tenneco, which was then a manufacturing and energy conglomerate. She knew that her father felt guilty for uprooting the family, so she wrote a letter to console him: “What I really want out of life is to discover something new, something that mankind didn’t know was possible to do.” She reassured him that Texas suited her, because “it’s big on science.”

For several years in the nineteen-eighties, Chris Holmes spent two weeks a month in China, helping American companies invest in large-scale development projects. Soon after the family moved to Houston, Elizabeth started studying Mandarin; by the summer following her sophomore year of high school, she was intent on taking summer classes in Mandarin at Stanford. She repeatedly called the admissions office for information, only to be told, each time, that the program did not enroll high-school students. One day, her father recalls, the head of the program became so annoyed that he grabbed the phone from the employee who was talking to Holmes. “You’ve been calling constantly,” he told her. “I just can’t take it anymore. I’m going to give you the test right now!” He asked questions in Mandarin; she answered fluently, and he accepted her on the spot. She completed three years of college Mandarin while still in high school.

In 2001, in her senior year, Holmes applied to Stanford, was accepted, and then was named a President’s Scholar, which came with a small stipend to select her own research project. Her parents sent her off with a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations,” her father said, “to convey to her: Live a purposeful life.” Holmes elected to study chemical engineering. She was drawn to the work of Channing Robertson, the chemical engineer and, at the time, a dean at the engineering school. Robertson is seventy-one and fit, with thinning hair and a relaxed smile; I visited him in his home on campus. Holmes’s first class with him was a seminar on devices designed to control the release of drugs into the human body. One day, in her freshman year, Robertson said, she came to his office to ask if she could work in his lab with the Ph.D. students. He hesitated, but she persisted and he gave in. At the end of the spring term, she told him that she planned to spend the summer working at the Genome Institute, in Singapore. He warned her that prospective students had to speak Mandarin.

“I’m fluent in Mandarin,” she said.

“I’m thinking, What’s next? She’s already coming into the research group meetings at the end of her freshman year with my Ph.D. students. I find myself listening to her more than to them about the next experiments to be done and the progress that’s been made. I realized she’s different.”

That summer, at the Genome Institute, Holmes worked on testing for severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, an often fatal virus that had broken out in China. Testing was done in the traditional manner, by collecting blood samples with syringes and mucus with nasal swabs. These methods could detect who was infected, but a separate system was needed to dispense medication, and still another system to monitor results. Holmes questioned the approach. At Stanford, she had been exploring what has become known as lab-on-a-chip technology, which allows multiple measurements to be taken from tiny amounts of liquid on a single microchip. “With the type of engineering work and systems I had been focussing on at Stanford, it was quite clear that there were much better ways to do it,” she said.

Before returning to Stanford, Holmes conceived of a way to perform multiple tests at once, using the same drop of blood, and to wirelessly deliver the resulting information to a doctor. That summer, she filed a patent for the idea; it was ultimately approved, in November of 2007. Once back on campus, she went to see Robertson in his office and announced that she wanted to start a company. Robertson was impressed by the idea but urged her to at least consider finishing her degree first.

“Why?” she responded. “I know what I want to do.”

Holmes was consumed by the idea of developing a company. “I got to a point where I was enrolled in all these courses, and my parents were spending all this money, and I wasn’t going to any of them,” she said. “I was doing this full time.” Her parents allowed her to take the money they had set aside for tuition and use it to seed her company. In March, 2004, she dropped out of Stanford; one month later, she incorporated Theranos (the name is a combination of “therapy” and “diagnosis”). She persuaded Robertson to spend one day a week as a technical adviser to the company and to serve as her first board member. Eventually, he retired from his tenured position, and began working at Theranos full time.

Robertson introduced Holmes to several venture capitalists. She insisted that they abide by her terms, which included an understanding that she would retain control and pour the profits back into the company. By December of 2004, she had raised six million dollars from an assortment of investors. As she and the chemists and engineers dug deeper, she became convinced that they could accomplish five objectives: extract blood without syringes, make a diagnosis from a few drops of blood, automate the tests to minimize human error, do the test and get the results more quickly, and do this more economically.

A key to the company’s success was the hiring of Sunny Balwani, a software engineer, now forty-nine, whom Holmes had met in Beijing the summer after her senior year of high school. At the time, he was getting an M.B.A. from Berkeley. He had worked at Lotus and at Microsoft and been a successful entrepreneur, and in 2004 he began graduate studies in computer science at Stanford. He and Holmes spoke often, and they shared a belief that software, not just chemistry or biology, mattered. If Theranos was going to be able to analyze a few drops of blood, engineers would have to develop the software to do it. In 2009, Balwani joined as C.O.O. and president. “Our platform is about automation,” he says. “We have automated the process from start to finish.”

Theranos has managed to keep its technology a secret for much of its decade of existence in part because it occupies a regulatory gray area. Most other diagnostic labs, including Quest and Laboratory Corporation of America, perform blood tests on equipment that they buy from outside manufacturers, like Siemens and Roche Diagnostics. Before those devices can be sold, they must be approved by the F.D.A., a process that makes their tests’ performances more visible to the public. But, since Theranos manufactures its own testing equipment, the F.D.A. doesn’t need to approve it, as long as the company doesn’t sell it or move it out of its labs.

At Their Meets, the Audience Flips, Too

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

Utah’s women’s gymnastics team has the highest average attendance in women’s college sports — and in pro sports, too:

The gymnastics team, ranked fourth this season, is averaging 14,682 through four meets. That is on pace to break the team record of 14,376 last year, when only 18 Division I men’s basketball teams regularly played in front of bigger crowds. (Utah was not one of them, and will not be again this year, despite a resurgence to national title contender.)

Plenty of other fans watch from home. Women’s gymnastics meets are, on average, the third most-viewed events on the Pac-12 Network, behind football and men’s basketball.

“And it’s not a distant third, either,” the network vice president Kirk Reynolds said. “It’s right in there with men’s basketball.”


And if Utah can sell 7,500 season tickets (ranging from $30 to $120), attract 15,000 fans to a two-hour meet, and essentially break even financially, why don’t more universities do the same thing?

Utah, like many other universities, was looking to fill a quota, not seats, in 1975, when it hired a former college diver to coach its women’s gymnastics team:

Marsden, who was paid $1,500, posted fliers around campus looking for would-be gymnasts. At the end of the first season, in 1976, Utah finished 10th in the country. Marsden saw opportunity.


“No one is going to care as much about your program as you are,” Greg Marsden said. “You can’t abdicate that responsibility.”

Which is why Marsden, now 64 and in his 40th season, still designs the team leotards, down to the placement of every sparkle. And why he knows where every outlet is in the team’s 18,000-square-foot practice facility, and the reason it was placed there.

And why, in the middle of Saturday’s meet with No. 16 Stanford, Marsden walked over to the Utah marketing director Jennifer White and whispered in her ear. He was annoyed that a scoreboard was not working properly. Even while coaching, he was concerned with marketing.

“It was his formula that turned this into an attendance dynasty,” said White, who is in her sixth year.

Marsden’s mantra is unchanged: Create a fast-moving event with no lulls, keep the audience informed of the score and let fans know that their enthusiasm creates an advantage. (Utah’s all-time home record is 431-26.)

The marketing model mirrors the N.B.A.’s. Utah’s gymnasts — nicknamed the Red Rocks, from a marketing campaign 20 years ago that stuck — are introduced with pyrotechnics, dramatic lighting and bass-heavy video production. (Among the introductory boasts: the nation’s leading grade-point average.)

Performances, done one at a time so the crowd’s attention is focused, move from one to another with little lag time. The warm-up minutes between the four events (vault, bars, beam and floor) are filled with contests on the floor and attention-grabbers on the video board. There are cheerleaders, a pep band and a student section.


“With how dialed in they are, and how structured their meets are, it’s almost like they were waiting for television to arrive,” said Will O’Toole, coordinating producer for the Pac-12 Network. “And that scene, with 15,000 people, the pyrotechnics, the video — I thought I was at a Knicks game.”

Marsden’s quest to streamline the meets has not always endeared him to other coaches. Utah is the only program to reach the national championships every year of its existence, but it frustrates Marsden that the finals are called the Super Six. He has argued that four teams, rotating through four events, would be much easier to follow for fans and better for television. The national championships will be shown live only on ESPN3, the network’s online platform, and will attract a far smaller audience than the likes of Utah see each week.

And why, Marsden wondered, do six gymnasts perform each event, if only the top five scores count? Make every routine matter, he said.

“A lot of sports have done what they can to make their events more friendly,” he said, citing basketball’s adoption of shot clocks and 3-point lines as an example. “Ours has not done that.”


Utah gymnastics, with a $750,000 budget, breaks even, the university said, thanks mostly to arena revenues from its meets and booster contributions that cover the 12 scholarships.

Steve Sailer notes that the biggest draw in women’s college sports is one where the girls don’t do what they boys do.

Getting Better at Getting Better

Monday, March 9th, 2015

James Surowiecki (The Wisdom of Crowds) notes that we’re seeing the mainstreaming of excellent habits — or excellence habits:

In the late nineteen-fifties, Raymond Berry, the great wide receiver for the Baltimore Colts, was famous for his attention to detail and his obsessive approach to the game: he took copious notes, he ate well, he studied film of his opponents, he simulated entire games by himself, and so on. But, as the journalist Mark Bowden observed, Berry was considered an oddball. The golfer Ben Hogan, who was said to have “invented practice,” stood out at a time when most pro golfers practiced occasionally, if at all. Today, practicing six to eight hours a day is just the price of admission on the P.G.A. Tour. Everyone works hard. Everyone is really good.

This goes beyond athletics to chess and classical music, too.

American policy makers do not read books

Saturday, March 7th, 2015

American policy makers do not read books, T. Greer reminds us:

Some books are surely read, of course, but the harsh truth of the matter is that between their professional responsibilities and the reading burden posed by simply keeping up with current affairs most people charged with crafting American strategy do not have the time to read very many real books. The knowledge they gain from what they read during their policy-making years will be broad, but it is probably not deep.

For some areas this is to be expected–ISIS has hardly been around long enough for many monographs to be written about it. But books upon books about counter-insurgency and terrorism, Islamic millenarian ideology, contemporary Near Eastern society, and the region’s history have been written. Many of these books, especially those with a historical bent, cannot be reduced to a power-point slide briefing or a New York Times op-ed. And if readers of The Stage have learned anything from reading this blog, it should be that the historical and cultural context of our adventures abroad matter. We lose wars when our strategists do not know realize this, and much more besides.

One cannot take this condemnation too far. There is a real limit to what you can expect policy-makers to master. No man can be an expert in all domains and it is too much to expect the Secretary of State to read three or four histories of a troublesome country every time a new crisis begins. Back when John Quincy Adams was America’s premiere grand strategist and it took several weeks for letters to cross the Atlantic it was feasible for statesmen to pull off a reading spree before the trouble was over. This is too much to expect of senior policy makers in this era, who are not only expected to make time in their schedules for fancy photo ops and jet trips across the world, but often must react to crises minutes and seconds after they occur. It is a wonder these men read anything at all.

If the American strategist of 2015 has a deep base of historical, cultural, and scientific knowledge to draw on to guide the decisions he makes this is because he acquired this knowledge base before he was a senior policy maker. You can actually see hints of this in the survey data — Avey and Desch asked policy makers to list the living international relations scholars they thought had the greatest influence on actual policy making. Along with scholars-turned-officials (e.g. Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Anne-Marie Slaughter) and public intellectuals (e.g. Francis Fukuyama, Fareed Zakaria) were a list of men whose scholarly apogee was twenty to thirty years ago, back when our policy makers were undergrads! (Funnily enough many of these men — Samuel Huntington, Albert Wohlstetter, Hans Morgenthau — are not only past their scholarly prime, but are no longer alive!) Those who rose to prominence after 1995 barely register.

China’s Wealthy Parents Are Fed Up With State-Run Education

Monday, February 16th, 2015

China’s wealthy parents are fed up with state-run education and are turning to “progressive” Western alternatives, like Montessori, Waldorf, and unschooling:

Parents hope to spare their children the dull, stressful grind of the state education system by finding them something more laid-back that affords greater freedom for intellectual exploration. Some, like Zhang, have established private academies featuring curricula inspired by ancient Chinese philosophies from Confucianism to Daoism; others have opted for home schooling. With some schools costing up to $8,000 a year, more than three times the average annual income of a Chinese household, alternative education is an option only for a wealthy minority. It has thrived on the growing desire to drop out among those Chinese best positioned to lean in.


Many of the well-connected and affluent parents who have opted to remove their children from the Chinese state education system have themselves often emerged as winners from that system. That means they understand its drawbacks and perils better than most. Nicholas Chang, a former IBM sales manager, attributes his decision to quit his job and home-school his 8-year-old son, Felix, to his personal experience with Chinese schools. Bespectacled and with a youthful smile, not to mention an engineering Ph.D. from prestigious Tsinghua University, Chang exudes the self-assurance of a scholar. But he remembers his time in the classroom as one of ennui and confusion. “I never understand what the purpose of school was,” said Chang, who easily mastered its required routines but felt little interest in learning. “I spent most of my time wondering what one gains from the practice, and what should be the meaning of a true education.”

Chang is seeking the answer by experimenting with his son’s schooling. Chang had enrolled his son in a top-ranked public elementary school, but it was rigid and monotonous; Chang then tried a swanky private academy, but found it too conscious of status and wealth. “The primary role of education is to produce workers and consumers,” Chang said of these schools. “It is a factory.”

Drawn to the philosophy behind the “unschooling movement,” which grants children full autonomy in deciding what to learn in an environment free from institutional constraints, usually at home or within their local community, Chang is testing the method by degrees. His son, Felix, spends his morning memorizing German vocabulary and practicing guitar chords. (“Rote learning is still a crucial skill,” Chang reiterated). In the afternoon, Felix roams the spacious apartment, thumbing through books such as the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and the popular Chinese classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Young foreign expats stop by now and then to provide private lessons in piano, drums, and playwriting.

Chang says he plans to expand the experiment. He named his project Armada Education, embodying his conviction that learning should resemble a joint voyage between the adults, who are the proverbial aircraft carriers, and the children, who are the boats. “They are free to explore,” he explained, “but we are there if they need to come back for fuel.” Asked if he believes his method could be widely adopted in China, Chang strikes a more ambivalent tone. “I believe the way to cultivate a general is not the same as that to train a soldier,” he said. “A true general definitely does not walk such a conventional path. It requires a different set of skills.”

Chang’s view echoes the traditional belief of elite Chinese scholar-officials that education is a vehicle for self-cultivation. In the past century, as China came into increasing contact with the West, this belief often found expression through an admiration for progressive Western ideologies. A few days before the 1919 protests that sparked the May Fourth Movement, the famous American educator and philosopher John Dewey had arrived in China to promote his theory. Among the intellectuals intrigued by Dewey was a young Mao Zedong, a fresh graduate from a local teachers college and Dewey’s stenographer in Changsha. Mao, later to become the figurehead of China’s communist revolution, called Dewey’s thoughts on education and democracy “worth studying.” He carried the philosopher’s books when he opened a revolutionary bookstore in Hunan in 1920.

That flirtation with liberalism ended in 1949, when China’s new communist leaders introduced an education infrastructure closely based on the Soviet model. Teaching instead focused on inculcating a communist worldview and developing skills that would help graduates fulfill assigned social roles. Though the ideological component faded after Mao’s death, today’s education system, with its emphasis on math and science and its tendency to funnel students into narrow academic paths early, still bears a Soviet imprint.

How to Be a Stoic

Friday, February 13th, 2015

Massimo Pigliucci explains how to be a Stoic:

I begin the day by retreating in a quiet corner of my apartment to meditate. Stoic meditation consists in rehearsing the challenges of the day ahead, thinking about which of the four cardinal virtues (courage, equanimity, self-control and wisdom) one may be called on to employ and how.

I also engage in an exercise called Hierocles’ circle, imagining myself as part of a growing circle of concern that includes my family and friends, my neighbors, my fellow citizens, humanity as a whole, all the way up to Nature itself.

I then pass to the “premeditatio malorum,” a type of visualization in which one imagines some sort of catastrophe happening to oneself (such as losing one’s job), and learns to see it as a “dispreferred indifferent,” meaning that it would be better if it didn’t happen, but that it would nonetheless not affect one’s worth and moral value. This one is not for everybody: novices may find this last exercise emotionally disturbing, especially if it involves visualizing one’s own death, as sometimes it does. Nonetheless, it is very similar to an analogous practice in C.B.T. meant to ally one’s fears of particular objects or events.

Finally, I pick a Stoic saying from my growing collection (saved on a spreadsheet on DropBox and available to share), read it to myself a few times and absorb it as best as I can. The whole routine takes about ten minutes or so.

Throughout the rest of the day, my Stoic practice is mostly about mindfulness, which means to remind myself that I not only I live “hic et nunc,” in the here and now, where I must pay attention to whatever it is I am doing, but, more importantly, that pretty much every decision I make has a moral dimension, and needs to be approached with proper care and thoughtfulness. For me this often includes how to properly and respectfully treat students and colleagues, or how to shop for food and other items in the most ethically minded way possible (there are apps for that, naturally).

Finally, my daily practice ends with an evening meditation, which consists in writing in a diary (definitely not meant for publication!) my thoughts about the day, the challenges I faced, and how I handled them. I ask myself, as Seneca put it in “On Anger”: “What bad habit have you put right today? Which fault did you take a stand against? In what respect are you better?”

Peer Pressure and SAT Prep

Monday, February 9th, 2015

Researchers offered 11th-graders a free SAT prep course, but they used two different sign-up sheets, to see how teens respond to peer pressure. The sign-up sheet said:

Your decision to sign up for the course will be kept completely private from everyone, except the other students in the room.


Your decision to sign up for the course will be kept completely private from everyone, including the other students in the room.

If they passed out the sign-up sheet in an honors class, then the “public decision” sign-up sheet got more students to sign up, in a non-honors class fewer:

Sign-Up Rates, Bursztyn and Jensen

Hacking Education

Saturday, February 7th, 2015

The “do it yourself” ethos of tech extends to how techie parents school, or unschool, their children:

According to the most recent statistics, the share of school-age kids who were homeschooled doubled between 1999 and 2012, from 1.7 to 3.4 percent.

And many of those new homeschoolers come from the tech community. When homeschooling expert Diane Flynn Keith held a sold-out workshop in Redwood City, California, last month, fully half of the parents worked in the tech industry. Jens Peter de Pedro, an app designer in Brooklyn, says that five of the 10 fathers in his homeschooling group work in tech, as do two of the eight mothers. And Samantha Cook says that her local hackerspace is often filled with tech-savvy homeschoolers.

“There is a way of thinking within the tech and startup community where you look at the world and go, ‘Is the way we do things now really the best way to do it?’” de Pedro says. “If you look at schools with this mentality, really the only possible conclusion is ‘Heck, I could do this better myself out of my garage!’”

The piece paints a rather unflattering picture of unschooling — but I don’t think it’s entirely the writer’s fault.

Measuring College Learning Outcomes

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

Pressure is growing for outcomes testing in higher education, Stephen Hsu notes, but the CLA+ (Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus) exam, which purports to measure critical-thinking and written-communication skills that other assessments cannot, seems to measure the same general cognitive ability as the SAT, ACT, and GRE.

Community College: What is the Right Price?

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

Arnold Kling is skeptical about free community college:

Just based on my gut feeling, I think that the vast majority of students attending community college do not have favorable outcomes. [...] I am not even sure that students in the lower tier of four-year colleges have favorable outcomes. Instead, the true cost, including what the students pay out of pocket plus subsidies plus opportunity cost, exceeds the benefit for many who attend college. In contrast, President Obama seems to endorse the fairy-dust model of college, where you can sprinkle it on anyone to produce affluence.

Politicians and policy wonks face different incentives:

If I were President Obama, of course, I would champion universal “free” community college. Worst case, my proposal becomes law. A lot of money gets wasted, but it’s not my money. Best case, the Republicans vote it down and I call them anti-opportunity meanies.