How to pass French without knowing French…

…at the University of Michigan in the 1960s, anyway.

Michigan required that all PhD students in psychology pass a proficiency test in two foreign languages… [Amos Tversky] picked French. The test was to translate three pages from a book in the language: The student chose the book, and the tester chose the pages to translate. Amos went to the library and dug out a French math textbook with nothing but equations in it… The University of Michigan declared Amos Tversky proficient in French.

from Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds.


How Angus Deaton thinks you can make the world a better place

When Princeton students come to talk with me, bringing their deep moral commitment to helping make the world a better, richer place, it is these ideas that I like to discuss, steering them away from plans to tithe from their future incomes, and from using their often formidable talents of persuasion to increase the amounts of foreign aid. I tell them to work on and within their own governments, persuading them to stop policies that hurt poor people, and to support international policies that make globalization work for poor people, not against them.

This is (almost) the end of Deaton’s book The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality. This counsel reminds me of the Commitment to Development Index, which shows that there are many policies that rich countries can enact to help the poor beyond their borders besides providing foreign aid, such as easier migration rules and lower tariffs.

Can Big Data Point Us Towards Faster, Higher-Impact Scientific Discoveries?

How can the process of science be better? How can we move faster towards groundbreaking scientific discoveries? In Science magazine, Fortunato et al. write about what large-scale data analysis tells us about the science of doing science. (They call it the Science of Science, or SciSci.)

There is more data available than ever before – “from research funding, productivity, and collaboration to paper citations and scientist mobility” – and that, combined with methods that emerge from collaborations among different kinds of scientists (including the social kind), allows the study of what drives science.

Here are a few findings that struck me:

  1. Lots of science, with more every year! The amount of scientific research has grown exponentially, and the number of new ideas in scientific research has also grown dramatically (but not exponentially).


Source: Fortunato et al. 2018

  1. Most scientists are conservative in their research. Scientists tend to do research on the areas of their expertise. “Although an innovative publication tends to result in higher impact than a conservative one, high-risk innovation strategies are rare, because the additional reward does not compensate for the risk of failure to publish at all.” But those conservative strategies “serve individual careers well but are less effective for science as a whole.”


  1. Interdisciplinarity yields big gains in impact, but not in funding. “The successful combination of previously disconnected ideas and resources that is fundamental to interdisciplinary research often violates expectations and leads to novel ideas with high impact.” But “truly novel or interdisciplinary” grant applications tend to earn lower scores from expert evaluators. The highest impact science is a mix of old and new, “primarily grounded in conventional combinations of prior work, yet it simultaneously features unusual combinations.”


  1. It’s the scientist that creates impact, not the university. “When examining changes in impact associated with each move [by scientists across institutions] as quantified by citations, no systematic increase or decrease was found, not even when scientists moved to an institution of considerably higher or lower rank.”


  1. Collaboration yields impact. “Nowadays, a team-authored paper in science and engineering is 6.3 times more likely to receive 1000 citations or more than a solo-authored paper, a difference that cannot be explained by self-citations.” One possible explanation is #3 above. As you can see in the figure below, the above-average cited papers (black line) are those with larger teams than average (red line).


Source: Fortunato et al. 2018

  1. Who gets credit for a multi-authored paper? “Most credit will go to the coauthors with the most consistent track record in the domain of the publication.”

There’s much more in the review article; I recommend it. But here’s a last word from the authors on how to think about the impact of scientific research: “Science often behaves like an economic system with a one-dimensional ‘currency’ of citation counts. This creates a hierarchical system, in which the ‘rich-get-richer’ dynamics suppress the spread of new ideas, particularly those from junior scientists and those who do not fit within the paradigms supported by specific fields. Science can be improved by broadening the number and range of performance indicators.”

Disclosure: One of the authors of Fortunato et al. is my brother James Evans.

What I’ve been reading this month

what it meansWhat It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, by Lesley Nneka Arimah — A breathtaking collection of stories. The prose is beautiful; it made other books I read or listened to at the same time seem pedestrian. Some of the stories are realistic, others incorporate magical realism. Some take place in Nigeria, others in the U.S., other in both. I’d read a novel by Arimah on any of these stories. One woman observes about her boyfriend: “He didn’t seem to mind how joy had become a finite meal she begrudged seeing anyone but herself consume.” Or a father comments on his daughter: “He should chastise the girl, he knows that, but she is his brightest ember and he would not have her dimmed.” As Marina Warner wrote in the New York Times, “It would be wrong not to hail Arimah’s exhilarating originality: She is conducting adventures in narrative on her own terms, keeping her streak of light, that bright ember, burning fiercely, undimmed.”

economismEconomism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality, by James Kwak — Kwak walks through how a number of simplistic economic models break down in the face of empirical evidence — e.g., the minimum wage, health care markets, the pay of chief executives — and yet a religious adherence to these Economics 101 models often serves to advance the interests of the rich. This is what he calls economism, a “misleading caricature of economic knowledge.” Martin Sandbu wrote in the Financial Times, “Kwak’s book is didactic in the best possible way, and it proves beyond doubt how dangerous a little knowledge can be.” Not an indictment of economics but rather of its misuses.

tadunoTaduno’s Song, by Odafe Atogun — A music superstar – Taduno – who has used his music against a Nigerian dictator returns home after a few months in exile to find that no one remembers him. He has to unravel the mystery and seek to rescue his girlfriend, who has been kidnapped by government forces. Of the premise, one character said, “It all sounds so complicated and strange.” Yes, but also beautiful. The simplicity of Atogun’s prose let me read almost the entire book on one long flight (Addis Ababa – Washington, DC). Taduno reminds us, “When music is silent you hear the laughter of the tyrant.” As George Shankar wrote in the FT, Atogun’s “simple prose lends the narrative a gentle urgency… A powerful, lingering fable.”

browseBrowse: The World in Bookshops, edited by Henry Hitchings — I love bookshops, and I’ve enjoyed exploring the offerings from open market book stalls in Dar es Salaam to a piled-high dolly of books on the sidewalk in Addis Ababa, to proper brick-and-morter bookshops in Rio de Janeiro, Kigali, and Mexico City. In this delightful, creative collection, authors from India, China, Turkey, Colombia, Kenya, the U.K., Denmark, Italy, Germany, the Ukraine, and the U.S. reflect on the role of bookshops — used and new — in their lives. In his essay on bookshops in Bogotá, Colombia, Juan Gabriel Vasquez writes “A good bookshop is a place we go into looking for a book and come out of with one we didn’t know existed. That’s how the literary conversation gets widened and that’s how we push the frontiers of our experience, rebelling against its limits.” This reminds me of sociologist James Evans’s work on how the shift to electronic journals led to a narrowing of citations: “By drawing researchers through unrelated articles, print browsing and perusal may have facilitated broader comparisons and led researchers into the past.”

bintiBinti, by Nnedi Okorafor — Binti leaves her home in Nigeria to attend a university across the galaxy, where only 5 percent of the students are human. (It’s a nice corrective to the Star Trek universe, where humans remain remarkably dominant.) On the way, her ship is attacked, and Binti must try to save her life. Okorafor creates cultures and worlds that deeply value knowledge. (In her book Akata Witch, students who learn new magic are rewarded with currency raining down on them.) In Binti’s tribe, some are born with the “gift of mathematical sight”: and Binti uses equations to calm herself (“my mind cleared as the equations flew through it”) and to wield power. This fast-paced, 90-page novella is a quick, easy introduction to a great contemporary writer of science fiction and fantasy.

my favorite thingMy Favorite Thing Is Monsters – Volume 1, by Emil Ferris — The protagonist of My Favorite Thing Is Monsters would rather imagine herself a monster than admit certain truths about herself. Growing up in Chicago in the 1970s (??), she escapes into horror comics and tries to solve the mystery of her neighbor’s demise. But that description doesn’t do it justice. I found this book kind of astonishing — the depth of adolescent feeling, the sprawling art, at times pulpy and at other times subdued, the exciting story. I can’t wait for Volume 2. (The author’s story is as compelling as the book. Dana Jennings tells it well in the New York Times.)

i am malalaI Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb — Many people know that Malala Yousafzai is an education activist, shot by the Taliban, and eventual winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. This compelling memoir gives an example of passionate activism at great personal sacrifice, at the same time demonstrating the uncertainty and fear around living in an area suffused with violence. “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.” This is the kind of book that makes you ask, “What have I been doing with my life?” in the best of ways.

hostageHostage, by Guy Delisle (translated by Helge Dascher) — In 1997, Christophe Andre was kidnapped from the Doctors Without Borders office where he was working in Russia. He was held for ransom, and Delisle tells his story through this taut graphic novel, which is excruciating in the best way, as we follow the Andre’s thoughts and his efforts to escape. “What gives ‘Hostage’ its most resonant power is not the rush of action but rather the attention to minute detail over the hundreds of pages of relative inaction” (Michael Cavna). I also really enjoyed Delisle’s graphic memoir of his time living in Pyongyang, North Korea.

gratitudeGratitude, by Oliver Sacks — You may know Sacks as the neuroscientist cum storyteller who brought us Awakenings (made into a movie with Robin Williams and Robert De Niro), and many other books. This quartet of essays, published as a book posthumously, discusses work and love and rest. The audiobook is a contemplative 35 minutes long. “Perhaps, with luck, I will make it, more or less intact, for another few years and be granted the liberty to continue to love and to work, the two most important things, Feud insisted, in life.”

african kaiserAfrican Kaiser: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in Africa, 1914-1918, by Robert Gaudi — I knew little of World War I in Africa, and I still feel like I know little. The book relies heavily on accounts from British soldier Richard Meinertzhagen, who seems to have fabricated many of his tales. These tales are included here, with the justification being that they “have the ring of truth.” Separately, the heavy Eurocentrism seems out of place for a book published in 2017: I can count the named Africans in the book on one hand (maybe a six-fingered hand, like Count Rugen in The Princess Bride). And I have little patience for a book with lines like “Tom von Prince, more savage than the savages he fought…” I did enjoy learning about how the Germans and the British would read each other’s captured fiction: “Von Lettow and the Germans, however, were disappointed in the quality of the literature they captured from their enemies from time to time during the war — most cheap detective fiction from the English.” Michael Dirda of the Washington Post loved this book; Allan Mallinson in the Spectator not so much: “Gaudi’s book is so error-strewn that it would fail to qualify even as historical fiction.”

maze runnerThe Maze Runner, by James Dashner — Kids trapped in an artificial environment, battling to survive. Pedestrian prose, and I feel no compulsion to find out what happens next. (Maybe one of my kids will tell me.) I feel like I’d have really liked this if it had been written with a strong female protagonist, preferably with archery skills. (I loved The Hunger Games — the whole series, but especially the first book.)

Kids’ stuff

braveBrave, by Svetlana Chmakova — This graphic novel is a wonderful treatment of bullying (even among “friends”). It’s technically a sequel to Chmakova’s Awkward (which I wrote about last month and also loved) but it can be read as a stand-alone.

Lastly, here are images from two of the three graphic works that I read this month.

Best Valentine’s Day cards ever, from Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing Is Monsters
monsters clip

A bullied young man imagines getting through the school day as a dangerous video game in Svetlana Chmakova’s Brave
brave clip

What I’ve been reading this month

the powerThe Power, by Naomi Alderman – Imagine if women developed the power to give off an electric shock, perhaps due to some environmental contamination. Suddenly the physical strength advantage that men have held (on average) is reversed. Does this new, female empowerment lead to utopian paradise of peace and wisdom? Or does power corrupt (“Why did they do it? … Because they could.”) regardless of gender? Alderman is unflinching in this page-turning (or in the case of the audiobook, “play-pressing”) novel of gender dynamics. Just awesome.

who gets whatWho Gets What – and Why: The New Economics of Matchmaking and Market Design, by Alvin Roth – Roth shared the 2012 Nobel prize in economics for “market design, and in this engaging, clear book, he describes his experiences in creating “matching markets”: “None of these things — kidneys, places in competitive schools, sought-after jobs — can be acquired by the person willing to pay the most or work for the lowest wage. In each case, a match must be made.” (There are cases where sought-after jobs can be acquired by the person willing to pay – see Weaver’s work, but I see what Roth is getting at.) Roth has been at the center of this movement, and he has the stories to prove it. This book provides clear examples of economics at work to improve the world. It also demonstrates both “markets as a tool for coordinating complicated human endeavors” but also that “many markets fail to work well because of poor design … There’s an opportunity to make them work better.”

nutshellNutshell, by Ian McEwan – Imagine a thriller, with a woman and her lover plotting the murder of the woman’s husband (the lover’s brother), all narrated from the womb, by the woman’s unborn child. Sound gimmicky? Not in the hands of McEwan. This baby has a lot of opinions (his mom listens to a lot of podcasts, apparently) and an amazing handle of the English language. Here’s what the fetus has to say on pessimism, reminiscent of the optimistic global trends that Max Roser and Dina Pomeranz highlight: “Pessimism is too easy, even delicious, the badge and plume of intellectuals everywhere. It absolves the thinking classes of solutions. We excite ourselves with dark thoughts in plays, poems, novels, movies. And now in commentaries. Why trust this account when humanity has never been so rich, so healthy, so long-lived?” As Siddhartha Mukherjee wrote, “The writing is lean and muscular, often relentlessly gorgeous.”

pushPush, by Sapphire – The almost interminably harrowing story of Precious Jones, an American teen who has suffered years of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of both her parents. There is no simple happy ending, but there is hope. “‘Open your notebook, Precious.’ ‘I’m tired,’ I says. She says, ‘I know you are but you can’t stop now, Precious. You gotta push.’ And I do.” You may have seen the film, entitled Precious. In light of the World Bank’s World Development Report on education highlighting a global learning crisis (I know, the WDR was far from the first to note that; but it’s salient because it’s new and I helped write it), I noted that Precious reaches ninth grade completely illiterate (having been held back twice). Art imitates life.

scrappyScrappy Little Nobody, by Anna KendrickThe actress from Up in the Air and the Pitch Perfect movies holds forth on her life and philosophy, endearingly and entertainingly. She reveals that she is a sophisticated hyperbolic discounter: “I just want to be a man-child for another three months. Perpetually.” And her take on advice reflect how I feel whenever people ask me for career or publishing advice: “If you are expecting to find advice, I will be no help at all. I have no advice. I do have a truckload of opinions, which I will happily prattle on about to anyone who gives me an opening. I’d just like to add the ‘for entertainment purposes only’ disclaimer to everything in here, like I’m a psychic hotline.”

burning pointThe Burning Point: A Memoir of Addiction, Destruction, Love, Parenting, Survival, and Hope, by Tracy McKay – The author (a friend of mine) discusses her life with and subsequent divorce from a husband addicted to opiates, as well as single parenting an autistic child (and two other children!), her experience with government safety nets, and more. The memoir demonstrates over and over the power of social capital, the value and importance of support from social groups – church groups, quilting groups, blogging groups. These social networks, not built primarily as safety nets, ultimately have the potential to save lives. From reflections – “When you’re a kid you think adults know stuff. You think being an adult means you have answers, that you will understand things and people and mysteries. … Being an actual adult lets you in on the big secret: there are no answers. None at all.” – to anecdotes – “MOM! Look! I made a bracelet out of explosive caps from my cap-gun. I’m wearing it to church in case I hate the songs.”

fireFire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story, by Peter Bagge – What a life! I knew Hurston from her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, but she traveled America (and beyond) gathering folklore and was at the center of the Harlem Renaissance. “She soon became willfully determined to celebrate all aspects of African-American life, to see and preserve the art and beauty in all of it. Yet this warts-and-all approach is the very thing that brought her criticism from most of her Black peers.”

fire clip

norseNorse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman – A retelling of the Norse myths: entertaining and surprising and kind of crazy (like all myths). In his introduction, Gaiman writes, “That’s the joy of myths. The fun comes in telling them yourself—something I warmly encourage you to do, you person reading this.” And I found myself doing just that, sitting with my family around the lunch table and retelling the story of Odin rescuing the mead of poets from the giant Galar.


Kids’ stuff

I have kids and so I have an excuse to read kids’ books, although I reserve the right to read kids’ books long after I’m no longer reading to my children, because why not? I’ll read whatever I want!

moominsThe Moomins and the Great Flood, by Tove Jansson (translated by David McDuff) – When I was in Finland a couple of years ago, I asked people what book every Finn would have read, and the immediate response was, the Moomin books! This is the first Moomin book ever written (in 1945) and the last to be translated into English (in 2005). It is fantastical and whimsical and gorgeously illustrated. Reminiscent of Winnie the Pooh but with magic and more delightful absurdity. And this book in particular includes a candy house that would be reminiscent of Willy Wonka if it hadn’t been published 19 years earlier.

awkward coverAwkward, by Svetlana Chmakova – Penelope Torres, the protagonist of this empathetic graphic novel, is starting at a new middle school, and the travails that she and her friends experience feel authentic even as the plot entertains. And remember…

awkward clip

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Getaway, by Jeff Kinney – I have yet togetaway read a book in this series aloud and not have to stop because I’m laughing so hard, even as my kids demand, “Keep reading! Keep reading!” The Heffley family goes on an international vacation and – unsurprisingly – mayhem ensues. The art, the twists and turns of the plot, the way that every member of the family is deeply flawed, and the boldness of the story in skipping any redeeming sentimentality at the wrap-up: I love it all.

Does increasing teacher salaries improve student test scores?

Over at Development Impact, I just posted a piece — What do we learn from increasing teacher salaries in Indonesia? More than the students did — where I discuss recent work by de Ree et al. on an impressive policy experiment, where Indonesia doubled base pay for many civil service teachers.

Here’s the abstract of their paper:

How does a large unconditional increase in salary affect the performance of incumbent employees in the public sector? We present experimental evidence on this question in the context of a policy change in Indonesia that led to a permanent doubling of teacher base salaries. Using a large-scale randomized experiment across a representative sample of Indonesian schools that accelerated this pay increase for teachers in treated schools, we find that the large pay increase significantly improved teachers’ satisfaction with their income, reduced the incidence of teachers holding outside jobs, and reduced self-reported financial stress. Nevertheless, after two and three years, the increase in pay led to no improvement in student learning outcomes. The effects are precisely estimated, and we can rule out even modest positive impacts on test scores. Our results suggest that unconditional pay increases are unlikely to be an effective policy option for improving the effort and productivity of incumbent employees in public-sector settings.