The Muppets’ Karaoke Night

Sunday, October 25th, 2015

The Swedish chef and Beaker really make the Muppets’ karaoke night:

Unspoken Hierarchy

Sunday, October 25th, 2015

One of the things that made working at Chris Savage’s startup so exciting and fun was its flat organizational structure:

I felt proud showing off our team dynamic to new employees, because I knew that we approached work in an egalitarian way — there were huge opportunities for individuals to jump in and make a real difference.

Flat was startup-y and awesome. Structure was BigCorp-y and boring.

As our company grew from 2 to 30 people, I was surprised to see how the strengths of a flat organization turned into our team’s biggest weaknesses.

Letting go of our “flat” management style was one of the toughest adjustments that we had to make as we scaled the business. We ended up doing something that I never planned to do — create an organizational chart. And it turned out to be one of the best decisions we made.


As your company gets bigger, responsibilities get chopped up into smaller pieces. The relationships between areas of ownership become exceedingly complex, which clouds the decision-making process. For us, it became hard to take risks — no one was clear on who was responsible for what. We moved more slowly, and it felt harder to learn and be creative.

While people on the team made smaller decisions about their parts of the business, I ultimately acted as a bottleneck for major decisions.

We began to realize that by building a company with a flat org structure, we had done the exact opposite of what we had intended. We had centralized all the decision-making, and we were relying on a secret implicit structure to make progress.

Every company has a structure. If you don’t explicitly define your structure, then you are left with an implicit one, and that can stifle productivity. We had hoped that being flat would let us move faster and be more creative, but as we grew, we ended up with an unspoken hierarchy that actually slowed down our ability to execute.

New Captain America Beats Up Conservatives

Saturday, October 24th, 2015

With all the nuance of a comic book, the Marvel team has replaced Captain America with a new, black Captain American who beats up conservatives:

The Fox & Friends team plays its established role:

Naturally the io9 team describes this as people getting mad that the new Captain America is acting like Captain America:

Is it political? Of course it is. It’s what Captain America as a character has been like since his creation. Like I mentioned, in his first appearance, he punched a goddamn fascist in the face. From then on, it’s been the same.

(Hat tip to our Slovenian guest.)

The Museum Gift Shop

Saturday, October 24th, 2015

The most important tool for the diffusion and understanding of art in the modern world, Alain de Botton argues, is the gift shop:

Though it appears to be a mere appendage to most museums, the gift shop is central to the project of art institutions. Its job is to ensure that the lessons of the museum — which concern beauty, meaning and the enlargement of the spirit — can endure in the visitor far beyond the actual tour of the premises and be put into use in daily life.

The means deployed, however, are rarely on target.


That said, gift shops will rarely sell us actual reproductions of works; fake, copy, pastiche, forgery. Many of the most bitter insults of the art world are designed to denigrate anything which is not the actual product of the master’s hand. We’ve uncritically absorbed the idea that copies are worthless, deeply embarrassing kitsch. The nightmares of curators and gallery directors are haunted by copies. Hang a reproduction by mistake and your career is over. But why? Why are copies always supposed to be terrible? Even asking this straightforward question is suspect. Sometimes, of course, a copy truly violates the original. It mucks up all the details, it gets proportions weirdly wrong, the colours become garish. But not always. What if it’s a really good copy? What if the details are faithful? What if the shapes are harmonious and the colours lovely? A well-made reproduction can carry 99% of the meaning of the original. And maybe that’s all that really matters to us.

We’ve come to think that art belongs in art galleries and thereby condemned ourselves to encountering works at times dictated by museum opening hours and holiday schedules.


Art works have therapeutic power. But usually this passes us by. Not because we are insensitive or unworthy. But for a more basic reason. Their messages are hitting us at the wrong time — at moments when we’ve no need of them — like adverts for winter coats on the first day of spring. Copying is one much-needed solution to this problem, because copies allow us to locate these important, beneficial images in the places where we can encounter them in our times of need.

In the absence of copies, gift shops will sell us a lot of signed tea towels. They have discovered that people will buy objects heavily decorated with names of artists and their works: so we have Picasso table mats and Hepworth pencils.

The Power of Alternative Explanations

Friday, October 23rd, 2015

Scott Adams discusses the power of alternative explanations with Reason:

Mattel’s DC SuperHero Girls

Friday, October 23rd, 2015

Mattel is introducing its new DC SuperHero Girls line:

The new Mattel characters, created through a partnership with Warner Bros.’ DC Comics, are aimed at a 6-year-old girl. The DC SuperHero Girls line, which launches this spring, will include 12-inch dolls, 6-inch action figures, and gadgets such as a Batgirl utility belt. Some of the products will be unveiled for the first time this week at New York Comic Con. The two companies joined forces last year after seeing a hole in the market, one Warner Bros. wants to help fill with girl-oriented books and animated Web series. The studio also is pushing female superheroes into the mainstream with Supergirl, a television show airing this month on CBS, and a Wonder Woman movie slated for 2017.

Mattel DC SuperHero Girls

Mattel’s board replaced the CEO earlier this year while giving Dickson more power to lead a turnaround, and SuperHero Girls will be one of the first major tests of a comeback effort under new leadership. DC supplied the characters from its comic books and then Mattel helped craft a story around them as teenagers in high school — a well-worn and successful plot the company has used with homegrown brands like Monster High. They also softened up the characters for a younger audience. Take Harley Quinn: Joker’s girlfriend is described by DC as “psychotic” after “murdering countless civilians.” The high school version is a “jokester” who lives for “LOLs.”

With a story in hand, Mattel turned to its research arm to figure out what girls really wanted from a superhero. The researchers quickly discovered some big gender differences. Boys are totally fine with killing off the villains; girls wanted the bad guys to be redeemed and turned into friends. Girls also desired different superpowers, including the ability to talk to animals, hear whispers, and force people to tell the truth.

Researchers found that girls didn’t want the superheroes to be too girly, a problem with the first round of dolls that Mattel developed. One girl complained that the toys looked “more pretty than superhero,” and another pointed out that Poison Ivy’s scarf would only get in the way during a fight. Wonder Woman, meanwhile, was too skinny and not athletic enough.

Kim, the toy designer, instructed her team to use gymnasts, dancers, and basketball players as primers for sculpting more muscular versions of the dolls and action figures. “We wanted to have this very strong, toned body, but keeping in mind that they are still in high school, so they’re not fully mature yet,” Kim says. “But they still look like they can save the day instead of being saved.” They also stuck with existing colors, leaving Supergirl’s cape red instead of shifting to pink.

Mattel DC SuperHero Girls Wonder Woman

The new figures have bigger heads, more cartoonish features, and even longer legs.

The Russian Air Campaign

Thursday, October 22nd, 2015

The Russian air campaign makes straightforward military sense, the War Nerd argues:

Russia is using its air force to try to blast out a viable territory for an Alawite/Shia state along the Syrian coastal hills. Assad’s people are longtime Russian clients and allies, and the Russian air force is helping them maintain their key turf against a much more numerous enemy. It may fail, but at least that’s a reasonable plan.

At the moment, Russia’s planes are focusing on a triangle of Sunni-held territory north of Homs, trying to blast a path for Assad’s weak infantry. If you look at these very good graphics put together (it pains me to admit) by the New York Times, you can see what a sensible, traditional military move that is. Scroll down to the two maps captioned “Many of the Initial Airstrikes Were Near the Boundaries Between Government and Rebel Zones” and go to the second map. You’ll see a T-shaped yellow zone marking Sunni-held territory due north of Homs, along the key road to Hama and Aleppo.

That’s where the Russian strikes have been hitting hardest lately, in Sunni-held crossroads towns like Ter Maela, right on the M5 highway that runs north to Hama and Aleppo, south to Damascus. That highway is the key to Syria, a kind of spinal cord like the big vein down a shrimp’s back. If the Russians can obliterate Ter Maela’s defenders thoroughly enough to let Assad’s weak infantry (or maybe his much better Hezbollah or Iranian ringers) take and hold these villages, then the Alawites have the makings of a viable state.

The US air campaign, on the other hand, does not make much sense:

If you were to sum it up, it’d go something like this: “Hit Sunni targets east of the coastal hills, but ignore everything to the west; help the Kurds in the north, but grudgingly, as little as possible, for fear you’ll offend Turkey; and while you’re attacking Assad’s enemies, keep reassuring the Israelis that you’re just as anti-Assad as you are anti-Islamic State.”

Sound stupid? It is. It’s a ridiculous compromise adopted to please the Israelis and Saudis, based on the dumb-ass notion that Sunni fighters in eastern Syria are evil sectarian bastards, but the Sunni fighters facing off against the SAA in the west are “moderates.”

It’s true that Islamic State is uncommonly vile, but let’s not lie; the only faction in Syria that even tries to rise above sectarian hatred are the young Kurdish commies of YPG/J. Every other group is sectarian, and militias that start out sectarian only get meaner as they go, by the iron logic of primitive war, where massacre is the norm. And this sectarian taint isn’t new. Syria’s Sunni were chanting “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the graveyard” long before the fighting started.

Air strikes look clean from air, messy from the ground:

As a rule, you can tell when the media approve of air strikes by the angle. If it’s all nice clean pilot’s-view of distant explosions, it’s a good strike. If they show you funerals, weeping relatives, blasted apartments, it’s a bad strike. So you can tell, just from the headline — “This Is What the Russian Air Strikes in Syria Look Like from the Ground” — that it’s a bad strike.

Adopted Children Do Worse In School, Despite Having Better Parents

Thursday, October 22nd, 2015

Adoptive parents go to great lengths to raise their adoptive children, so why are their young kids’ behavior and test scores worse on average? I can’t imagine — but researchers, willing to dig deep, have come up with this explanation:

One clue might be attachment theory, which holds that a strong bond with at least one nurturing adult—usually the mother—is essential to a child thriving. That adult can be the adoptive parent, but the adoption itself might mean that the bond with the birth parent was disrupted or never formed, Zill writes. In the worst cases, these children might have experienced a traumatic event prior to their adoption. Early trauma can affect the parts of the brain that control mood and learning.

Infants and toddlers with a so-called “disorganized attachment” to their earliest caregivers—those who feel frightened of or dissociated from their parents—are more psychologically vulnerable later in life. Among other things, they have more problems regulating their emotions and managing conflicts without resorting to hostility. Parents who create disorganized attachment with their kids might be the sorts of parents who get their kids taken away and adopted out.

That last line raises some intriguing questions. I’d investigate that line of thinking a bit more thoroughly.

Rodrik Should Have Known

Wednesday, October 21st, 2015

Economist Dani Rodrik found his father-in-law on trial in Turkey on trumped-up charges of leading a coup, and the trial led him to re-examine what makes “real” democracy possible:

When do democracies generate not just electoral majorities but also protection of rights for minorities, equality before the law — the kinds of things that were missing in the Sledgehammer affair?

By some measures, democracy has never been healthier. Electoral democracies account for more than 60 percent of the world’s nations, up from roughly 40 percent in the late 1980s. In practice, though, most of those democracies “fail to provide equal protection under the law,” according to a recent essay that Rodrik published with another economist, Sharun Mukand. To understand why, they examine three kinds of rights. Political rights rest on the strength of numbers. Property rights have the wealth of elites behind them. But civil rights typically benefit a relatively powerless minority, who lack wealth or numbers. For that reason, “a truly functioning liberal democracy that provides civil rights is going to be a very, very rare phenomenon,” Rodrik says. The question isn’t why democracies slide into illiberalism. That’s what you should expect. The interesting question — and one of the key puzzles that his new work tries to solve — is why some democracies manage to remain liberal. What makes the emergence of civil rights possible in societies where, on the face of it, those rights don’t have a strong constituency?

Rodrik’s new scholarship also tackles a second, related puzzle: one about narratives. His foray into Turkish politics pushed him to reconsider a deeply established tradition in economics, one that views policy outcomes in terms of vested interests. These are the powerful groups, like companies or trade unions, that advance their agendas through the political sphere. Rodrik realized there was something missing from scholars’ models of political and economic life: ideas.

Take the liberal intellectuals in Turkey. Their interests and Rodrik’s were the same: a more democratic country. But they bought into a different narrative, he says, one that made them “tools” of the government. They legitimized Sledgehammer for middle-class Turks and the West. It’s not an outcome that vested interests can explain.

“My argument here is not to deny that there are organized groups that have disproportionate power in the policy-making process,” Rodrik says, “but to make the argument that the manner in which these groups define what is in fact in their interest depends on all sorts of things having to do with their ideas, with the stories they’ve constructed, and with how they view their own identity.”


On a less abstract level, Sledgehammer changed another aspect of Rodrik’s thinking. He no longer trusts much of what he reads in the newspaper. The professor had long been skeptical of economics stories. He now feels similarly wary about coverage of political developments in foreign countries. The reason: If you hadn’t known the reality in Turkey, he says, it was simple to accept the usual liberal explanations of what was happening.

“It’s very easy to read these stories, and they resonate with your own worldview as a liberal,” Rodrik says. “And you’re likely to believe it. I wouldn’t say that it turned me into a conservative. But it made me much more skeptical and much more cautious about what one might say is the standard Northeastern-Ivy League-elite-liberal-establishment narrative about how the world works. It’s made me extremely skeptical of what I read in The New York Times, and The New York Times’s take on what’s happening in different countries. In a way, I should have known.”

How Cheap Can Energy Storage Get?

Wednesday, October 21st, 2015

How cheap can energy storage get? Pretty cheap, since lithium-ion batteries appear to be on a typical learning curve:

The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) reviewed a variety of data to find that lithium-ion batteries drop in price by 15% per doubling of volume.

Winfriend Hoffman, the former CTO of Applied Materials, and one of the first to apply the learning curve concept to solar, similarly finds a 15% learning rate in large format lithium-ion batteries

Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), meanwhile, uses more recent data, and finds a 21.6% learning rate in electric vehicle batteries. In fact, the learning rate they find is strikingly similar to the learning rate for solar panels.

So the range of estimates of from 15% to 21%. How cheap does that suggest lithium-ion battery storage will get?


If you’re informed on wholesale electricity prices, the prices above may sound ridiculously high. Wholesale natural gas electricity from a new plant is roughly 7 cents per kwh (though that doesn’t include the cost of carbon emitted). How could batteries priced at 25 cents per kwh, or even 10 cents a kwh, compete? Particularly when you also have to pay for electricity to go into those batteries?

The answer is that batteries don’t compete with baseload power generation alone. Batteries deployed by utilities allow them to reduce the use of (or entirely remove) expensive peaker plants that only run for a few hours a month. They allow utilities to reduce spending on new transmission and distribution lines that are (up until now) built out for peak load and which sit idle at many other hours. In a world with batteries distributed close to the edge, utilities can keep their transmission lines full even during low-demand hours, using them to charge batteries close to their customers, and thus cutting the need for transmission and distribution during peak demand. And batteries reduce outages.

To roughly estimate the value that batteries provide, look at the gap between the peak retail prices customers pay at the most expensive hours of the day versus the cheapest retail power available throughout the day. In a state like California, that’s a difference of almost 20 cents per kwh, from peak-of-day prices of more 34 cents to night time power that’s less than 14 cents. That difference is an opportunity for storage.

Another opportunity is the difference between the cheapest wholesale power price – wind at 2 cents per kwh – and peak of day wholesale prices from natural gas peaker plants, which can be over 20 cents per kwh. Again, the gap is close to 20 cents per kwh.

IQ testing across space and time

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

Raw IQs have been steadily increasing for decades, and IQ tests have been renormed along the way, but this Flynn Effect has been more pronounced in the more abstract, less culturally loaded sections of the test:

The kind of cognitive facilities that come up in normal conversation, such as vocabulary, arithmetic and general knowledge, have only seen small Flynn Effects, which is why the Flynn Effect isn’t easily noticeable in much of daily life (although I’ll point out below where it can be seen).

Flynn Effect and Cultural Load

One of the big changes in daily life over recent centuries has been the growth of what I might call humans having to deal with “machine logic.” People today deal far more often each day than in the past with semi-intelligent machines who can only be dealt with in a certain way according to their logic. You deal with the ATM rather than with a bank teller, with a gasoline pump rather than with a pump jockey, with elevator buttons rather than with elevator operators. You can’t wave your hands around with these machines until they figure out what you want done. You have to follow a precise logical series of steps.


Generation after generation, children grow up in an environment ever denser with the kind of systems logic that the more Flynn Effected-Wechsler subtests ask about. Growing up, kids these days get more practice with the kind of thinking tested on the Raven’s and on some of the Wechsler subtexts. And they legitimately are better at it.

The Flynn Effect is a side effect of the developers of the IQ test being on “the right side of history.”

How a Video Game Helped People Make Better Decisions

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

Carey K. Morewedge and his colleagues developed a couple “serious” computer games to help people make better decisions:

Participants who played one of our games, each of which took about 60 minutes to complete, showed a large immediate reduction in their commission of the biases (by more than 31%), and showed a large reduction (by more than 23%) at least two months later.

The games target six well-known cognitive biases. Though these biases were chosen for their relevance to intelligence analysis, they affect all kinds of decisions made by professionals in business, policy, medicine, and education as well. They include:

  • Bias blind spot — seeing yourself as less susceptible to biases than other people
  • Confirmation bias — collecting and evaluating evidence that confirms the theory you are testing
  • Fundamental attribution error — unduly attributing someone’s behavior to enduring aspects of that person’s disposition rather than to the circumstance in which the person was placed
  • Anchoring — relying too heavily on the first piece of information considered when making a judgment
  • Projection — assuming that other people think the same way we do
  • Representativeness — relying on some simple and often misleading rules when estimating the probability of uncertain events

We ran two experiments. In the first experiment, involving 243 adult participants, one group watched a 30-minute video, “Unbiasing Your Biases,” commissioned by the program sponsor, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), a U.S. research agency under the Director of National Intelligence. The video first defined heuristics — information-processing shortcuts that produce fast and efficient, though not necessarily accurate, decisions. The video then explained how heuristics can sometimes lead to incorrect inferences. Then, bias blind spot, confirmation bias, and fundamental attribution error were described and strategies to mitigate them were presented.

Another group played a computer game, “Missing: The Pursuit of Terry Hughes,” designed by our research team to elicit and mitigate the same three cognitive biases. Game players make decisions and judgments throughout the game as they search for Terry Hughes — their missing neighbor. At the end of each level of the game, participants received personalized feedback about how biased they were during game play. They were given a chance to practice and they were taught strategies to reduce their propensity to commit each of the biases.

We measured how much each participant committed the three biases before and after the game or the video. In the first experiment, both the game and the video were effective, but the game was more effective than the video. Playing the game reduced the three biases by about 46% immediately and 35% over the long term. Watching the video reduced the three biases by about 19% immediately and 20% over the long term.

In a second experiment, involving 238 adult participants, one group watched the video “Unbiasing Your Biases 2” to address anchoring, projection, and representativeness. Another group played the computer detective game “Missing: The Final Secret,” in which they were to exonerate their employer of a criminal charge and uncover criminal activity of her accusers. Along the way, players made decisions that tested their propensity to commit anchoring, projection, and representativeness. After each level of the game, their commission of those biases was measured and players were provided with personalized feedback, practice, and mitigation strategies.

Again, the game was more effective than the video. Playing the game reduced the three biases by about 32% immediately and 24% over the long term. Watching the video reduced the three biases by about 25% immediately and 19% over the long term.

The games, which were specifically designed to debias intelligence analysts, are being deployed in training academies in the U.S. intelligence services. But because this approach affects the decision maker rather than specific decisions, such games can be effective in many contexts and decisions — and with lasting effect. (A commercial version of the games is in production.)

A Not-So-Skeptical Look at Gun Control

Monday, October 19th, 2015

Michael Shermer drops his usual skepticism to argue that we’re better at killing Americans than our enemies are:

If your gut tells you that mass public shootings are alarmingly common, your gut’s right.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines a mass murder as four or more deaths during a single incident with no distinct time period between killings. By this definition, according to Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox, between 1980 and 2010 there were an average of 20 mass murders per year, or an average of one every 2.6 weeks.

I would expect a skeptic to point out that those are really small numbers in a population of over 300 million, with 15,000 homicides per year.

If we could easily stop the hundred or so deaths per year by previously law-abiding young men who are legally sane but alienated, that would be wonderful, but that leaves the other 99.3 percent of homicides by common criminals.

This is the least skeptical argument though:

In other words, the fantasy many of us have of facing down an intruder with a firearm is belied by the fact that a gun is 22 times more likely to be used in a criminal assault, an accidental death or injury, a suicide attempt or a homicide than it is for self-defense.

Guns aren’t randomly sprinkled amongst the population. They’re owned, illegally, by common criminals, they’re bought by suicidal men, and they’re owned by a third of ordinary Americans — who range from extremely conscientious to extremely negligent, with most in between.

Gun ownership isn’t the cause of gun-homicides, gun-suicides, or gun-accidents, and buying a gun does not mean that the gun is likely to be used in a criminal assault, etc. It depends on who is buying the gun and what the buyer’s intentions are.

For most owners, a gun has a negligible chance of going on to be a part of a homicide, suicide, or accidental death.

In the other direction, is a firearm useful for self-defense? Not if you accept Shermer’s straw man:

If you own a gun and keep it safely locked up and unloaded with the ammunition somewhere else (recommended by gun safety experts), do you really think that, in the event of a break-in, you could get to your gun, find your ammo and load it, engage the intruder, accurately aim and kill him, all before he takes your things? If you do, you’ve been watching too many movies. Go to a firing range and try shooting a handgun. It isn’t easy to do. It requires regular training.

If a gun is going to be out of your control, you keep it unloaded, etc. If it is going to be in your control — say, in your holster — you keep it loaded. If it’s going to be somewhere in between — say, on your nightstand — you can keep in an in-between state of readiness — say, unloaded, but with a loaded magazine in reach, or in a quick-opening safe.

A well-practiced shooter can load a magazine and be ready to shoot in a couple seconds.

Shooting a handgun quickly and accurately does take practice — and tens of thousands of shooters do practice regularly. But even “naive” shooters can shoot quickly and accurately across a room.

I’m appalled by the inverted skepticism of this claim:

A 2009 study corroborated these findings. Conducted by epidemiologists at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and published in the American Journal of Public Health, it found that, on average, people with a gun are 4.5 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not possessing a gun.

Perhaps people who are likely to be shot in an assault choose to go get a gun?

Conquistadors Sacrificed and Eaten

Monday, October 19th, 2015

In 1520 a convoy of conquistadors and allies encountered the Acolhuas, who killed and ate them:

Somehow, the caravan — archaeologists estimate it included 15 Spaniards, 45 soldiers from the colonies, 50 women, 10 children and a large number of indigenous allies – was captured. Over the next six months, its members met a grisly end.

Traces of construction show that the Acolhuas had to remake Zultepec, a town just east of the capital, then called Tenochtitlan, to accommodate the prisoners, archaeologist Enrique Martinez said in a statement.

The town was eventually renamed from Zultepec to Tecoaque, which in the native Nahuatl language means: “The place where they ate them.”

The Acolhuas housed the prisoners in ad hoc cells, where archaeologists found the remains of the caravan members with signs that they had been sacrificed. Every few days, Martinez said, the priests chose someone to kill, sometimes in the town square, sometimes in their cell and within earshot of the others.

Tecoaque Figurines

Clay figurines, some represented in European-looking garb, are among the 15,000 artifacts unearthed from the site. They likely played a role in rituals, Martinez told the Associated Press. “We have figurines of blacks, of Europeans, that were then intentionally decapitated.”


Sacrifice was not the end for the victims. Skeletons show the marks of cuts consistent with flesh cleaved from bones, Martinez said, suggesting that the townspeople ate not just the horses but the caravan travelers as well.


Some of the human remains were placed around the site, as on a bone rack of skulls that later greeted the avenging Spaniards sent by Cortés. In another case, inside the pelvis of a woman who was sacrificed and dismembered in a plaza, the Acolhuas placed the skull of a one-year-old child.

Only the pigs were spared the full treatment, apparently because they so baffled the native people.

This reminds me, I thoroughly enjoyed Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico years ago. It’s a first-hand account of a hardy band of adventures conquering an empire run by human-sacrificing priests from atop their pyramid-temples built on a lake inside an extinct volcano. Read it.

How did Singapore universities become world-class?

Sunday, October 18th, 2015

John Gustafson, a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore, explains how Singapore universities became world-class so quickly:

When the Singapore government decides to do something, it never goes halfway. They figure out what resources it will take, and they spend them. And if something simply takes time, no matter what the resource cost, then they (the government) also have a lot of patience. Having consistent political leadership for 50 years will do that. They decided they wanted NUS and NTU to be world-class universities, just the same way they decided, say, that they wanted a subway system that was second to none. There is so little corruption in the Singapore government that it is possible to allocate money to something and not have most of it siphoned off by bureaucrats with bad comb-overs and incredibly generous pension plans. So when the government decides to spend money on education, it (gasp) actually goes to education.

Also, I have noticed some quality controls on the teaching that go beyond what I’ve seen at other universities. They treat education the way they would treat a manufacturing process. Use quality control; measure everything; fix problems as soon as they are discovered; please the customer; show zero tolerance for lousy teaching; treat course descriptions as a legally binding contract for what will be learned by those who take the course and apply themselves.

When professors create final exams, their exams are scrutinized and approved by independent reviewers before they can be given to students.

When they decide which courses to offer, they have one faculty member decide what needs to be taught, and a different faculty member decide who should teach that course, like a separation-of-powers principle.

They bring in external review committees to look at what they teach and how they teach, and solicit critical input that they take to heart. I know other universities use external review committees as well, but when NUS does it, they pick reviewers whose academic credentials have earned them biographical entries in Wikipedia.


It’s amazing how fast universities can excel when they are freed from politics, both internal and external. I think that is what has happened at NUS and NTU.