Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Korean language has no word for "irony" or "parody"

Irony is that special privilege of wealthy nations—Aristophanes, possibly the world’s first satirist, wrote his plays as Athens was becoming the dominant power in the region; Cervantes wrote at the height of Spain’s naval wealth; and Alexander Pope was born the year that England defeated the Spanish Armada. First, one scrambles for wealth; then one luxuriates in mocking the effeteness that comes with it.

Thus “Gangnam Style” signals the emergence of irony in South Korea, meaning that the country has reached the final stage in any state’s evolution. If you don’t think that irony is a measure of eliteness, think of how annoyed you were the last time you were accused of not having any. Americans have told me that Asians have no irony; in Europe, where I last lived, I was told that Americans have none.

South Korea had no irony when I arrived there. I can say that as plainly as I can say that it had no McDonald’s (it arrived in 1988, in Gangnam, of course). The Korean language has no word for irony, nor for “parody,” which is why the Korean press has been using the English word “parody” to describe Gangnam Style.
--Euny Hong, Quartz, on language reflecting culture

Are Paleo diets healthier? Evidence from hunter gatherers

What current health fad do I wish people would ignore?

Stone-age diets. ...

Our image of a carnivorous cave man with blood vessels free of plaques, low cholesterol levels and healthy hearts and brains may be wishful thinking. A postmortem study of 137 mummies from four different premodern cultures, found that atherosclerosis rates in hunter-gatherers was not lower than in farmers. For example, three of five (60%) mummies from an Aleutian hunter gather clan had atherosclerosis, by their 40s. ...

Of course, some half a dozen studies of the Paleo diet have noted benefits– e.g. a study of 10 full blooded diabetic Aborigines showed that temporary reversion to a hunter lifestyle resulted in improvements in glucose and weight. But since these were small studies of 10-15 subjects each that lasted only a few weeks, they are not generalizable. Many diets (including the vegetarian Rice Diet) have shown equally robust short-term benefits–the Achilles’ heel is the failure to show long-term benefits. And there is little evidence that a Paleo diet is any better than simply just eating fewer calories.
--Dr. Murali Doraiswamy, WSJ, on the good old days perhaps not being so good

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Obama's undersecretary for science: Climate science is not settled

The idea that "Climate science is settled" runs through today's popular and policy discussions. Unfortunately, that claim is misguided. ...

The crucial scientific question for policy isn't whether the climate is changing. That is a settled matter: The climate has always changed and always will...

Nor is the crucial question whether humans are influencing the climate. That is no hoax... The impact today of human activity appears to be comparable to the intrinsic, natural variability of the climate system itself.

Rather, the crucial, unsettled scientific question for policy is, "How will the climate change over the next century under both natural and human influences?" ...

Even though human influences could have serious consequences for the climate, they are physically small in relation to the climate system as a whole. For example, human additions to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by the middle of the 21st century are expected to directly shift the atmosphere's natural greenhouse effect by only 1% to 2%. Since the climate system is highly variable on its own, that smallness sets a very high bar for confidently projecting the consequences of human influences. ...

We often hear that there is a "scientific consensus" about climate change. But as far as the computer models go, there isn't a useful consensus at the level of detail relevant to assessing human influences. ...

For the latest IPCC report (September 2013), its Working Group I, which focuses on physical science, uses an ensemble of some 55 different models. Although most of these models are tuned to reproduce the gross features of the Earth's climate, the marked differences in their details and projections reflect all of the limitations that I have described. For example:

• The models differ in their descriptions of the past century's global average surface temperature by more than three times the entire warming recorded during that time. Such mismatches are also present in many other basic climate factors, including rainfall, which is fundamental to the atmosphere's energy balance. As a result, the models give widely varying descriptions of the climate's inner workings. Since they disagree so markedly, no more than one of them can be right.

• Although the Earth's average surface temperature rose sharply by 0.9 degree Fahrenheit during the last quarter of the 20th century, it has increased much more slowly for the past 16 years, even as the human contribution to atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen by some 25%. This surprising fact demonstrates directly that natural influences and variability are powerful enough to counteract the present warming influence exerted by human activity.

Yet the models famously fail to capture this slowing in the temperature rise. Several dozen different explanations for this failure have been offered, with ocean variability most likely playing a major role. But the whole episode continues to highlight the limits of our modeling.

• The models roughly describe the shrinking extent of Arctic sea ice observed over the past two decades, but they fail to describe the comparable growth of Antarctic sea ice, which is now at a record high.

• The models predict that the lower atmosphere in the tropics will absorb much of the heat of the warming atmosphere. But that "hot spot" has not been confidently observed, casting doubt on our understanding of the crucial feedback of water vapor on temperature.

• Even though the human influence on climate was much smaller in the past, the models do not account for the fact that the rate of global sea-level rise 70 years ago was as large as what we observe today—about one foot per century.

• A crucial measure of our knowledge of feedbacks is climate sensitivity—that is, the warming induced by a hypothetical doubling of carbon-dioxide concentration. Today's best estimate of the sensitivity (between 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit and 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit) is no different, and no more certain, than it was 30 years ago. And this is despite an heroic research effort costing billions of dollars. ...

They are not "minor" issues to be "cleaned up" by further research. Rather, they are deficiencies that erode confidence in the computer projections. ...

Yet a public official reading only the IPCC's "Summary for Policy Makers" would gain little sense of the extent or implications of these deficiencies. These are fundamental challenges to our understanding of human impacts on the climate, and they should not be dismissed with the mantra that "climate science is settled."

While the past two decades have seen progress in climate science, the field is not yet mature enough to usefully answer the difficult and important questions being asked of it. ...

Any serious discussion of the changing climate must begin by acknowledging not only the scientific certainties but also the uncertainties, especially in projecting the future. Recognizing those limits, rather than ignoring them, will lead to a more sober and ultimately more productive discussion of climate change and climate policies. To do otherwise is a great disservice to climate science itself.
--Steven Koonin, WSJ, on the fragility of complex models. I have long thought that there is a close analogy between climate models and models of the macroeconomy: It's hard to make accurate predictions of complex systems!

Trees are bad for the environment

Considering all the interactions, large-scale increases in forest cover can actually make global warming worse. ...

The dark color of trees means that they absorb more of the sun’s energy and raise the planet’s surface temperature.

Climate scientists have calculated the effect of increasing forest cover on surface temperature. Their conclusion is that planting trees in the tropics would lead to cooling, but in colder regions, it would cause warming. ...

...we can’t reliably predict whether large-scale forestation would help to control the earth’s rising temperatures.

Worse, trees emit reactive volatile gases that contribute to air pollution and are hazardous to human health. These emissions are crucial to trees — to protect themselves from environmental stresses like sweltering heat and bug infestations. In summer, the eastern United States is the world’s major hot spot for volatile organic compounds (V.O.C.s) from trees.

As these compounds mix with fossil-fuel pollution from cars and industry, an even more harmful cocktail of airborne toxic chemicals is created. ...

Chemical reactions involving tree V.O.C.s produce methane and ozone, two powerful greenhouse gases, and form particles that can affect the condensation of clouds. Research by my group at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and by other laboratories, suggests that changes in tree V.O.C.s affect the climate on a scale similar to changes in the earth’s surface color and carbon storage capacity.

While trees provide carbon storage, forestry is not a permanent solution because trees and soil also “breathe” — that is, burn oxygen and release carbon dioxide back into the air. Eventually, all of the carbon finds its way back into the atmosphere when trees die or burn.

Moreover, it is a myth that photosynthesis controls the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere. Even if all photosynthesis on the planet were shut down, the atmosphere’s oxygen content would change by less than 1 percent.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The plight of the NIH grant applicant

Sigh, the good old days really were better. Or: What happens when support for biomedical research falls by 20% in inflation-adjusted terms over the past decade.


College campus cops with grenade launchers and bayonets

Last week The Chronicle of Higher Education revealed that nearly 120 colleges and universities have acquired [surplus military] equipment through the 1033 program since 1998.

Working off of records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, The Chronicle found that colleges collected equipment running the gamut from office supplies to M-16s to weapons one would only expect to find on a battlefield. The Arizona State University police received 70 M-16s. Lincoln University, in Missouri, ordered 15 military backpacks and 20 bayonets. And the University of Central Florida police department owns an M-79 grenade launcher.

College professors and administrators defend the acquisition of Pentagon equipment for campus police by arguing that 1) the gear is free and 2) why not? ...

But the “better safe than sorry” totally ignores the possibility that owning such weapons could create the urge to use them. That isn’t to suggest that campus cops will open fire on students for no reason, but they could well overreact to a protest—just as the Ferguson police did. ...

Possession of military assault weapons sends a downright bizarre message as to what the campus police see as their purpose, or mission. They exist to keep the peace, not subdue a hostile population, but students might feel otherwise if they encountered their supposed protectors in assault gear and bayonets.
--Juliet Lapidos, NYT, on the militarization of campus cops

Which Boston university has the most desirable singles?

For the uninitiated, Coffee Meets Bagel is an app popular among #millennials these days. The app itself is pretty straightforward: Users are sent profiles of a potential love interest each day along with a picture and some basic biographical information, including education. Users can then like or ignore the potential interest. If both people independently like each other, they are then entered into a chatroom. The rest of the courtship process goes from there.

We asked Coffee Meets Bagel for information comparing the likability of students and alumni at ten Boston-area universities: Harvard, Boston University, Boston College, Northeastern, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Emerson, Brandeis, Suffolk, Berklee, Emerson, and Wellesley.

The results produced popularity data based on 1.2 million matches of Boston-area university students and graduates on its service.



First, that’s a big (and likely unnecessary) ego boost for male and female Harvardians. 36% of users liked Harvard men, the highest-liked percentage of all males at area schools. Harvard women, too, were the 2nd-most-liked among the female schools we looked at. ...

We also received data on which school’s students were the pickiest date-choosers.


--Eric Levenson, Boston.com, on what the millennial reptile brain wants

How cool are Koreans in Asia? Evidence from Lipton ice tea ads

How cool is Korea in Asia? Well, in a television advertisement for Lipton ice tea that ran in Thailand in 2013, the premise is that a guy trying to impress a girl goes from loser to stud when he drinks Lipton, so much so that he suddenly starts speaking Korean ("I love you") for no reason. The ad's slogan: "Never lose your cool." Basically, Koreans are the Marlboro Men of Asia.
--Euny Hong, The Birth of Korean Cool, on the universal sign for cool

The mind-boggling scope of Korea's American Idol

A staggering 4 percent of the population of South Korea auditioned in 2012 for Superstar K, Korea's biggest televised singing competition. That's 2.08 million would-be K-pop stars competing in a single year in a country with a population of 50 million. By contrast, even the behemoth American Idol only has about 80,000 contestants in a given year, amounting to a minuscule 0.03 percent of the U.S. population.
--Euny Hong, The Birth of Korean Cool, on where people really want to be pop stars

Portland, Oregon's slacker hipsterness quantified

Portland has taken hold of the cultural imagination as, to borrow the tag line from “Portlandia,” the place where young people go to retire. And for good reason: The city has nearly all the perks that economists suggest lead to a high quality of life — coastlines, mountains, mild winters and summers, restaurants, cultural institutions and clean air. (Fortunately, college-educated people don’t value sunshine as much as they used to.) ...

[Portland] has more highly educated people than it knows what to do with. Portland is not a corporate town, as its neighbors Seattle and San Francisco have become. While there are employment opportunities in the outdoor-apparel business (Nike, Adidas and Columbia Sportswear are all nearby) or the semiconductor industry (Intel has a large presence in Hillsboro), most workers have far fewer opportunities. ... And yet people still keep showing up. ...

David Albouy, an economics professor at the University of Illinois, has created a metric, the sacrifice measure, which essentially charts how poor a person is willing to be in order to live in a particular city. Portland, he discovered, is near the top of the list. Even when college-educated residents get jobs there, they earn 84 cents for the average dollar earned in other cities, according to Greg Schrock and Jason Jurjevich, professors of urban studies at Portland State University. In 41 of the country’s 50 largest cities, young, educated people earn more than they do in Portland. ...

Portland’s paradox is that it attracts so many of “the young and the restless,” as demographers call them, that it has become a city of the overeducated and underemployed — a place where young people are, in many cases, forced into their semiretirement.
--Claire Cain Miller, NYT Magazine, on where the most educated baristas are

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Why Olive Garden's pasta sucks

When cooking pasta, use salt. And go easy on the breadsticks.

Those are two of many steps Starboard Value LP said late Thursday it would take to boost the value of Darden Restaurants Inc., owner of Olive Garden, if the activist hedge fund was to win control of the entire board. ...

The firm spent one slide noting that it had learned Olive Garden no longer put salt in the water for its pasta.

"If you Google 'How to cook pasta', the first step of Pasta 101 is to salt the water," Starboard wrote. "How does the largest Italian dining concept in the world not salt the water for pasta?"
--David Benoit, WSJ, on one hedge fund doing God's work


Thursday, September 11, 2014

The surprisingly affordable price of elite school naming rights

The big news at Harvard this past week was that a $350 million donation to the Harvard School of Public Health sufficed to rename the school the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Obviously, $350 million is a ton of money. On the other hand, this proves that the price to rename a school at an elite university like Harvard is not infinite, and in fact is quite affordable for many of the ultra-wealthy, such as the 1,645 billionaires in the world.

If a gift must be financially transformative in order to earn naming rights, and the amount that would be transformative for a school is proportional to its endowment, then note that $350 million is 30.9% of the Harvard School of Public Health's 2013 endowment value of $1.134 billion. With that multiple in mind, here are estimates for the price of naming rights to Harvard, Yale, and Stanford's big-money schools for which I could find endowment values (caveat emptor: not all endowment values are coming from the same year, and some endowment values are a few years old):

Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences: $14.3 billion * 31% = $4.4 billion
Harvard Medical School: $3.0 billion * 31% = $930 million
Harvard Business School: $2.9 billion * 31% = $899 million
Stanford School of Medicine: $2.1 billion * 31% = $651 million
Yale School of Medicine: $1.8 billion * 31% = $558 million
Harvard Law School: $1.7 billion * 31% = $527 million
Stanford Graduate School of Business: $1.24 billion * 31% = $384 million
Yale Law School: $1.0 billion * 31% = $310 million
Yale School of Management: $591 million * 31% = $183 million

As I said, billionaires, quite affordable!

Steve Jobs limited his kids' screen time

“So, your kids must love the iPad?” I asked [Steve] Jobs, trying to change the subject. The company’s first tablet was just hitting the shelves. “They haven’t used it,” he told me. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.” ...

Since then, I’ve met a number of technology chief executives and venture capitalists who say similar things: they strictly limit their children’s screen time, often banning all gadgets on school nights, and allocating ascetic time limits on weekends. ...

Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and now chief executive of 3D Robotics, a drone maker, has instituted time limits and parental controls on every device in his home. ... “That’s because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I’ve seen it in myself, I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.”

The dangers he is referring to include exposure to harmful content like pornography, bullying from other kids, and perhaps worse of all, becoming addicted to their devices, just like their parents. ...

I never asked Mr. Jobs what his children did instead of using the gadgets he built, so I reached out to Walter Isaacson, the author of “Steve Jobs,” who spent a lot of time at their home.

“Every evening Steve made a point of having dinner at the big long table in their kitchen, discussing books and history and a variety of things,” he said. “No one ever pulled out an iPad or computer. The kids did not seem addicted at all to devices.”

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Any headline ending in a question mark can be answered by the word "no"

Betteridge's law of headlines is an adage that states: "Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no." It is named after Ian Betteridge, a British technology journalist, although the general concept is much older. ...

Betteridge explained the concept in a February 2009 article, regarding a TechCrunch article with the headline "Did Last.fm Just Hand Over User Listening Data To the RIAA?":
This story is a great demonstration of my maxim that any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word "no". The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bull****, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it.
Five years before Betteridge's article, a similar observation was made by UK journalist Andrew Marr in his 2004 book My Trade. It was among Marr's suggestions for how a reader should approach a newspaper if they really wish to know what is going on:
If the headline asks a question, try answering 'no'. Is This the True Face of Britain's Young? (Sensible reader: No.) Have We Found the Cure for AIDS? (No; or you wouldn't have put the question mark in.) Does This Map Provide the Key for Peace? (Probably not.) A headline with a question mark at the end means, in the vast majority of cases, that the story is tendentious or over-sold. It is often a scare story, or an attempt to elevate some run-of-the-mill piece of reporting into a national controversy and, preferably, a national panic. To a busy journalist hunting for real information a question mark means 'don't bother reading this bit'.
--Wikipedia on questionable stories with questioning titles

How the NY subway tricks people out of their money using arithmetic

We’ve all been there. ... Yes, you need $2.50 to ride the subway, and you have $2.45 on your MetroCard. ...

It turns out the MTA has designed it that way. Imagine how many tourists come to NYC and leave with balances that never get used. Imagine how many people lose metro cards with those balances that never get used. And even if it gets used on a later refill, the MTA gets to collect the cash earlier this way! Win win for them, right?

But now, with some simple math, you can fight back!

First, let’s see how the MTA tricks you out of your money earlier than you might want to release it to them.

When you are buying a MetroCard, you can get a 5% bonus if your purchase is big enough. So you get the following screen early on in the purchase process:



If you click the button on the left, they just got you. Your card will have $9.45 on it, meaning you will get 3 rides and end up with $1.95. ...

Let’s say you don’t take the bait. You click MetroCard. Then you get this screen with three new short cuts:



... But wait a minute. One button leaves you with the same $9.45 card, and gives a remainder of $1.95 after just three uses. The next one is even more frustrating: you end up with a $19.95 card, leaving a remainder after 7 uses of $2.45! That’s right, the nickel we were talking about earlier. The last option does not leave you much better off. You’ll get a $40.95 card, which leads to $0.95 on your card after you use 16 rides. So all three buttons presented leave quite a bit of “insufficient fare” on the card.
So how do you fight back Well, click “Other Amounts” and type your own values:



and remember these three magic numbers: $9.55, $19.05 and $38.10. That’s right. Never use the short cuts. Just type in one of those numbers.

Once you do, you’ll see your excess balances nearly vanish once you apply the 5% bonuses. ...

So in closing, Math is useful. And luckily, you don’t have to be Einstein to outsmart the MTA.
--Ben Wellington, IQuantNY, on overcoming evil nudges

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The optimal ratio of studying to rehearsing: 2 to 3

In 1620, the philosopher Francis Bacon wrote, “If you read a piece of text through twenty times, you will not learn it by heart so easily as if you read it ten times while attempting to recite it from time to time and consulting the text when your memory fails.”

Scientific confirmation of this principle began in 1916, when Arthur Gates, a psychologist at Columbia University, created an ingenious study to further Bacon’s insight. If someone is trying to learn a piece of text from memory, Gates wondered, what would be the ideal ratio of study to recitation (without looking)? To interrogate this question, he had more than 100 schoolchildren try to memorize text from Who’s Who entries. He broke them into groups and gave each child nine minutes to prepare, along with specific instructions on how to use that time. One group spent 1 minute 48 seconds memorizing and the remaining time rehearsing (reciting); another split its time roughly in half, equal parts memorizing and rehearsing; a third studied for a third and recited for two-thirds; and so on.

After a sufficient break, Gates sat through sputtered details of the lives of great Americans and found his ratio. “In general,” he concluded, “best results are obtained by introducing recitation after devoting about 40 percent of the time to reading. Introducing recitation too early or too late leads to poorer results.” The quickest way to master that Shakespearean sonnet, in other words, is to spend the first third of your time memorizing it and the remaining two-thirds of the time trying to recite it from memory.
--Benedict Carey, NYT Magazine, on the golden ratio

Taking the final exam on the first day of class helps learning

But what if, instead, you took a test on Day 1 that was just as comprehensive as the final but not a replica? You would bomb the thing, for sure. You might not understand a single question. And yet as disorienting as that experience might feel, it would alter how you subsequently tuned into the course itself — and could sharply improve your overall performance.

This is the idea behind pretesting, one of the most exciting developments in learning-science. Across a variety of experiments, psychologists have found that, in some circumstances, wrong answers on a pretest aren’t merely useless guesses. Rather, the attempts themselves change how we think about and store the information contained in the questions. On some kinds of tests, particularly multiple-choice, we benefit from answering incorrectly by, in effect, priming our brain for what’s coming later. ...

The excitement around prefinals is rooted in the fact that the tests appear to improve subsequent performance in topics that are not already familiar, whether geography, sociology or psychology. At least they do so in experiments in controlled laboratory conditions. A just-completed study — the first of its kind, carried out by the U.C.L.A. psychologist Elizabeth Ligon Bjork — found that in a live classroom of Bjork’s own students, pretesting raised performance on final-exam questions by an average of 10 percent compared with a control group.

The basic insight is as powerful as it is surprising: Testing might be the key to studying, rather than the other way around. ...

We are duped by a misperception of “fluency,” believing that because facts or formulas or arguments are easy to remember right now, they will remain that way tomorrow or the next day. This fluency illusion is so strong that, once we feel we have some topic or assignment down, we assume that further study won’t strengthen our memory of the material. We move on, forgetting that we forget.

Often our study “aids” simply create fluency illusions — including, yes, highlighting — as do chapter outlines provided by a teacher or a textbook. ...

The best way to overcome this illusion is testing, which also happens to be an effective study technique in its own right. ... Scientific confirmation of this principle began in 1916...

[In the 1930s, Herman] Spitzer wanted to extend the finding, asking a question that would apply more broadly in education: If testing is so helpful, when is the best time to do it?

He mounted an enormous experiment, enlisting more than 3,500 sixth graders at 91 elementary schools in nine Iowa cities. ...

The groups that took pop quizzes soon after reading the passage — once or twice within the first week — did the best on a final exam given at the end of two months, marking about 50 percent of the questions correct. (Remember, they had studied their peanut or bamboo article only once.) By contrast, the groups who took their first pop quiz two weeks or more after studying scored much lower, below 30 percent on the final. Spitzer’s study showed that not only is testing a powerful study technique, but it’s also one that should be deployed sooner rather than later. ...

If tests are most effective when given sooner rather than later, then why not go the distance? Why not give the final on the first day, as well as on the last?
--Benedict Carey, NYT Magazine, on the case for sooner and more frequent testing

It's the Freshman 2.5-6, not Fifteen

...these [freshman] students will probably not gain 15 pounds. They will gain, research shows, just 2.5 to six.

Indeed, the Freshman 15 is largely folklore, known perhaps more for its alliterative allure than its scientific veracity. ...

In America, first-year weight-gain was originally known as the "Freshman 10," and it was presumably adjusted upward as Americans got bigger.

"She appeared to have what is known here as the 'freshman 10,' the 10 pounds many freshmen gain in their first weeks," the New York Times sniffed in 1981 in an article about the first year at Yale for "Miss Foster"—Jodie, that is.

The first article to reference the Freshman 15, meanwhile, was Seventeen magazine in 1989... Before that, the only medical research to mention first-year weight-gain was a 1985 Addictive Behavior study in which the subjects gained an average of just 8.8 pounds. ...

A 2011 study found that having six or more drinks on at least four days per month was the only thing that made a significant difference when it came to keeping one's high-school figure. Even then, the drinkers gained just a pound more than non-drinkers did.

That same study found that in reality, just 10 percent of college freshmen gained 15 or more pounds, and a quarter of them actually lost weight. Instead, college students gain weight steadily throughout their time in school—women gain between seven and nine pounds total, and men gain 12 or 13.

Furthermore, the increase seems to be a natural part of adulthood, not something unique to dorms and dining halls. College freshmen gain just half a pound more than people their age who don't attend college.

And this is not an isolated finding: A 2008 study found an average weight gain of 2.7 pounds. A 2014 study found no change in college students' BMIs between the time they were admitted and the time they graduated. A total of 1858 subjects followed in 14 different studies averaged a gain of just 4.6 pounds during their first years. None came anywhere close to 15 pounds.
--Olga Khazan, The Atlantic, on an alliteration too good to check

Friday, September 5, 2014

The history of why Koreans study like crazy

Confucianism didn't really get into full swing in Korea until its second wave—called neo-Confucianism—in the fourteen century AD.

The rulers adopted neo-Confucianism partly as an excuse to overthrow the old aristocracy (with whom they were fed up). Under this new system, anyone could become an aristocrat. All they had to do was pass an excruciating civil service exam, called the kwako.

In other words, the Korean political system was a meritocratic aristocracy—what an incredible oxymoron. A man from all but the very lowest classes had the right to sit for the kwako (originally instituted in the tenth century). Not only was it really hard, but it was also administered only once every three years. In a given exam year, only a hundred or so people would pass, out of thousands of applicants.

If you passed it, you were instantly given the title of yangban—you became an aristocrat. Not only that, but your whole family line was upgraded in the process. There's a catch, though. A big one. Your male heirs have to pass the kwako exam as well. If your descendents failed the exam three generations in a row, you and your family were stripped of the yangban title and went back to being nobodies. Does this not sound like something out of Grimms' fairy tales?

Ever since then, Korean students have been studying as if their lives, their family lives, and the future lives of their entire bloodline depended on it.

The Ivy League's weak meritocracy

At the admissions end, it’s common knowledge that Harvard selects at most 10 percent (some say 5 percent) of its students on the basis of academic merit. At an orientation session for new faculty, we were told that Harvard “wants to train the future leaders of the world, not the future academics of the world,” and that “We want to read about our student in Newsweek 20 years hence” (prompting the woman next to me to mutter, “Like the Unabomber”). The rest are selected “holistically,” based also on participation in athletics, the arts, charity, activism, travel, and, we inferred (Not in front of the children!), race, donations, and legacy status (since anything can be hidden behind the holistic fig leaf).

The lucky students who squeeze through this murky bottleneck find themselves in an institution that is single-mindedly and expensively dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. ... The benefits of matching this intellectual empyrean with the world’s smartest students are obvious. So why should an ability to play the bassoon or chuck a lacrosse ball be given any weight in the selection process?

The answer, ironically enough, makes the admissocrats and [William Deresiewicz, author of "Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League"] strange bedfellows: the fear of selecting a class of zombies, sheep, and grinds. But as with much in the Ivies’ admission policies, little thought has given to the consequences of acting on this assumption. Jerome Karabel has unearthed a damning paper trail showing that in the first half of the twentieth century, holistic admissions were explicitly engineered to cap the number of Jewish students. Ron Unz, in an exposé even more scathing than Deresiewicz’s, has assembled impressive circumstantial evidence that the same thing is happening today with Asians.

Just as troublingly, why are elite universities, of all institutions, perpetuating the destructive stereotype that smart people are one-dimensional dweebs? It would be an occasion for hilarity if anyone suggested that Harvard pick its graduate students, faculty, or president for their prowess in athletics or music, yet these people are certainly no shallower than our undergraduates. In any case, the stereotype is provably false. Camilla Benbow and David Lubinski have tracked a large sample of precocious teenagers identified solely by high performance on the SAT, and found that when they grew up, they not only excelled in academia, technology, medicine, and business, but won outsize recognition for their novels, plays, poems, paintings, sculptures, and productions in dance, music, and theater. ...

Knowing how our students are selected, I should not have been surprised when I discovered how they treat their educational windfall once they get here. A few weeks into every semester, I face a lecture hall that is half-empty, despite the fact that I am repeatedly voted a Harvard Yearbook Favorite Professor, that the lectures are not video-recorded, and that they are the only source of certain material that will be on the exam. I don’t take it personally; it’s common knowledge that Harvard students stay away from lectures in droves, burning a fifty-dollar bill from their parents’ wallets every time they do. Obviously they’re not slackers; the reason is that they are crazy-busy. Since they’re not punching a clock at Safeway or picking up kids at day-care, what could they be doing that is more important than learning in class? The answer is that they are consumed by the same kinds of extracurricular activities that got them here in the first place.

Some of these activities, like writing for the campus newspaper, are clearly educational, but most would be classified in any other setting as recreation: sports, dance, improv comedy, and music, music, music (many students perform in more than one ensemble). ... But it’s not clear why they could not have had the same experiences at Tailgate State, or, for that matter, the local YMCA, opening up places for less “well-rounded” students who could take better advantage of the libraries, labs, and lectures. ...

The anti-intellectualism of Ivy League undergraduate education is by no means indigenous to the student culture. It’s reinforced by the administration, which treats academics as just one option in the college activity list. Though students are flooded with hortatory messages from deans and counselors, “Don’t cut class” is not among them, and professors are commonly discouraged from getting in the way of the students’ fun. ...

It’s not that students are unconditionally pampered. They may be disciplined by an administrative board with medieval standards of jurisprudence, pressured to sign a kindness pledge suitable for kindergarten, muzzled by speech codes that would not pass the giggle test if challenged on First Amendment grounds, and publicly shamed for private emails that express controversial opinions.
--Steven Pinker, New Republic, on the case for a purer academic meritocracy