Ray Dalio on the Upside of Negative Feedback

Our recent podcast “When Is a Negative a Positive?” is about the productive use of feedback. It argues that, while positive feedback has its place, especially for beginners, it is negative feedback that drives improvement.

This belief is firmly held by Ray Dalio, the founder of the Bridgewater Associates, which has been called (in a fine New Yorker profile by John Cassidy) "the world's richest and strangest hedge fund." Bridgewater's "principles" argue for constant, ruthless feedback, and Dalio attributes Bridgewater's success to this culture.

Here are some excerpts from an interview with Dalio that, unfortunately, didn't make it into our podcast:

"Learning about what you’re doing wrong and your mistakes is so much more productive to making improvement because you develop a means for dealing with that -- learning about what you’re doing right."

"Nobody knows what others are doing wrong. It’s a discovery process. So if I think you’re doing something wrong, I convey that to you in a forthright way. You’re an equal partner in that. But the people around us all then are partners in that. And we go through a process of experimenting, because the same things come up over, and over, and over again. So if you’re doing something wrong, it’s going to come up over and over and over again. And pretty soon, when you’re paying attention to it, it then becomes more apparent. So there’s really very little disagreement concerning each person’s strengths and weaknesses. And then of course, everybody sees that converted into productivity, because once they embrace the standing of what they’re doing wrong and have a strategy to not let that stand in their way -- to create a compensating mechanism -- it’s no longer a barrier to their effectiveness. ...

A New Website on Electoral Systems

Joshua Tucker of the Monkey Cage points to a new website designed to collect information on voter behavior in various electoral systems and educate the public about different systems. Here's the rundown, from University of Montreal political scientist André Blais:

A team of scientists has launched the website voteforpope.net. The website has two objectives: inform the public about the various electoral systems that exist in the world to elect state leaders, and collect data on voters’ behaviour under these systems.  We provide information about four electoral systems: one round plurality, two round runoff, alternative vote, and approval vote. The electoral system that is used for the election of the Pope is also described. The visitor is invited to imagine how he/she would vote if the pope was elected under each of these four electoral systems. The study is part of a larger international project designed to better understand the functioning of electoral democracy (Making Electoral Democracy Work). For an example of how such data can help us understand how electoral rules affect vote choice, see Blais et al. 2012. "Assessing the psychological and mechanical impact of electoral rules : A quasi-experiment." Electoral Studies 31 :829-837.

A Better Way to Think About Sustainability

In a recent TED talk for TED2013, design consultant Leyla Acaroglu tackles some persistent sustainability myths and advocates a new way of thinking about sustainability. From the TED blog:

Acaroglu wants you to think beyond choosing a material for your grocery tote. Instead, she encourages us to think about the entire life of a finished product, to think hard about the net impact a product has on the environment. This is life-cycle thinking, not just whether a product can be recycled, but all the parts of its existence: material extraction, manufacturing, packaging and transportation, product use, and end of life.

Electric tea kettles, for example, are an unlikely drain on the environment:

In the UK, 97 percent of households have an electric tea kettle, and 65 percent of tea drinkers admit to overfilling their kettles, boiling way more water than they need for a cuppa. One day of extra energy use from these kettles is enough to light all the streetlights in London for a night. What we need, Acaroglu says, is not better materials for the tea kettle, but a behavior-changing kettle that helps you boil just what you need.

Freakonomics Radio Hits No. 1

It may not last long but as of this writing, Freakonomics Radio is the No. 1 podcast on iTunes. Thanks to everyone for listening!

Would You Eat Steak From a Printer?

We've talked before about one possible future of food production: food printers.  Andras Forgacs is the CEO of a company called Modern Meadow, which is working on printing leather and meat products. He recently took questions on reddit.com; here's his take on his company's progress with replicating hamburger and steak:

Real steak is a big stretch. It won't be the first product since steak is very hard to make for now. Instead, the first wave of meat products to be made with this approach will likely be minced meats (burgers, sausages, etc.) and pates (goose liver pate, etc.). Also seafood is an early possibility since the texture requires may be easier to achieve than premium cuts.

While I doubt anyone will make commercial quantities of premium steak within 10 years, we will eventually get there but it will be an Nth generation product.

What Will the Sequester Do to Education Spending in Your State?

With the sequester looming large, Business Insider has created a  set of interactive maps to demonstrate which states will be hit the hardest by cuts to the education budget. "The report [from the National Education Association] claims that, if the cuts kick in, 7.4 million students would be affected — which means that either the quality of education they receive will go down or be eliminated entirely. The funding cuts could also lead to 49,365 potential job losses," writes Lisa Mahapatra. "But not all states will feel the hit equally. With more than $100 million cuts to their education budget, the states that will be most affected by the sequester are California, Texas, Illinois, New York and Florida."

How to Make School Lunches Healthier

An article in Choices by David R. Just and Brian Wansink illustrates how school administrators can use behavioral economics to nudge kids toward good eating choices and away from the obesity-causing junk food. Just and Wansink point out that administrators often face a difficult choice between nutritious meals and the bottom line:

It may be possible to replace the standard cheese pizza on white flour crust with pizza smothered in spinach, artichoke hearts, and other vegetables on a whole wheat flaxseed crust. But the healthier pizza is more expensive, and fewer children may want to eat it. Hence many school districts walk a tightrope. School districts must increase the health content of their sales while trying to avoid any reduction in their financial viability. Eliminating the less nutritional items often means eliminating the meal budget’s highest margin items. Further, child patronage of the school lunch program is understandably dependent upon schools offering foods that students are familiar with and that they like, and that will satisfy their appetites.

Taking on the Myths of Child Mortality

Hans Rosling, whose fantastic animated-data talks have been featured here before, has a new one about child-mortality trends.

The video was timed to coincide with the release of Bill Gates's 2013 Annual Letter, which notes successful health reforms in Ethiopia and the importance of quality measurements.  "[A]ny innovation -- whether it's a new vaccine or an improved seed -- can't have an impact unless it reaches the people who will benefit from it," writes Gates.

A Better Way to Rank Colleges?

Amidst another scandal surrounding U.S. News and World Report's college rankings, economists Christopher N. Avery, Mark E. Glickman, Caroline M. Hoxby, and Andrew Metrick have proposed another option: rankings based on students' revealed preferences. Here's the abstract:

We present a method of ranking U.S. undergraduate programs based on students’ revealed preferences. When a student chooses a college among those that have admitted him, that college “wins” his “tournament.” Our method efficiently integrates the information from thousands of such tournaments. We implement the method using data from a national sample of high-achieving students. We demonstrate that this ranking method has strong theoretical properties, eliminating incentives for colleges to adopt strategic, inefficient admissions policies to improve their rankings. We also show empirically that our ranking is (1) not vulnerable to strategic manipulation; (2) similar regardless of whether we control for variables, such as net cost, that vary among a college’s admits; (3) similar regardless of whether we account for students selecting where to apply, including Early Decision. We exemplify multiple rankings for different types of students who have preferences that vary systematically.

How to Game a Grading Curve

Students in three of Professor Peter Fröhlich's computer programming classes at Johns Hopkins University recently devised a method to game their final grades.  Frolich grades exams on a curve -- the highest grade in the class, whatever it may be, becomes 100 percent, and "everybody else gets a percentage relative to it."  So students collectively planned a boycott:

Because they all did, a zero was the highest score in each of the three classes, which, by the rules of Fröhlich’s curve, meant every student received an A.

“The students refused to come into the room and take the exam, so we sat there for a while: me on the inside, they on the outside,” Fröhlich said. “After about 20-30 minutes I would give up.... Then we all left.” The students waited outside the rooms to make sure that others honored the boycott, and were poised to go in if someone had. No one did, though.

Catherine Rampell discusses the strategy: