Georgian teachers and Indonesian experiments

I just came across a fascinating piece on a Georgian (the country, not the state) economics blog, Tbilinomics. It won’t really come as a surprise to anyone that teachers in Georgia are chronically underpaid, as they tend to be in many countries, but what’s really surprising is maybe just how much they are underpaid. They make under 60% of the average national of 1000 GEL (372 USD) at around 580 GEL (220 USD)–less than agricultural workers, retail workers, hotel workers… you get the picture.

This salary clearly doesn’t attract the best and brightest into the profession, and it shows in the test scores: Georgia is among the lowest-scoring countries on the international PISA ranking. Scores have been going up steadily, perhaps due to some earlier pay increases for teachers (yes, it used to be worse), and a new proposal would actually see teachers earning substantially more, up to 2 or 3 times their current salary, but would this actually have an effect?

Regardless of how incentivized they are to do better, even if they quit their side job and focus on teaching, pay increases won’t automatically create more qualified teachers, and the teacher’s union in Georgia is apparently pretty powerful. It’s unlikely that pay increases would pay off in the short term, since the money would be going to existing teachers without an accompanying incentive to actually improve instruction quality. Frankly, even if they’re motivated by the pay increase, old habits die hard–education systems all over the world struggle to reform with any sort of speed simply because it’s such a highly personal issue.

And, as Eric Livny points out in the article, this has been tried before: Indonesia ran a large multi-year experiment in teacher pay raises, working with the world bank to collect and analyze the data. When all was said and done, the study found no effect. Even with a custom-designed randomized controlled trial, they couldn’t find evidence that the pay increases improved instruction quality–though the teachers were substantially happier. That sort of goes to support my intuition: people don’t necessarily change because their pay does.

But I’d argue that this finding doesn’t conclusively mean that higher teacher salaries won’t improve teacher quality and student grades in the long run. As long as teacher salaries are coupled with more access to educational resources and student support services, there could certainly be a substantial effect down the line.

Max Planck once said that “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” What he meant, of course, was that old ways are held by the old guard, and until they’re gone, the ways will just stick around. There’s not much we can do about it, and there’s not even much they can do about it–sticking to a paradigm isn’t just a psychological comfort mechanism; old ways are built on heuristics that we’ve been developing our entire lives, and wiping the slate clean isn’t so easy if you haven’t made a habit of doing it previously. 

The logic here, though, is that if we establish higher pay standards now, teaching will become a more attractive career for new entrants. Current teachers will probably stick to what they’re doing and we won’t see much improvement, but future teachers might decide to choose education because it’s a legitimately decent career option. Low salaries just don’t attract the best and brightest candidates (though PhDs seem to be an exception to this rule, particularly in the adjuncting phase), whereas a salary that’s at least average will probably attract a decent mix of above-average people who are passionate about education and people who weighed their financial options and personal aptitude and chose education over, say, nursing or fishing. I’m curious to see if the Indonesian World Bank experiment pays off by attracting more qualified candidates to job openings.

Unfortunately, this means we have to wait. Possibly a while. The old teachers will have to clear out of their jobs (perhaps this could be hastened by a retirement bonus) and the new teachers will have to go to school and get into the workforce.

That’s a lot of outlay for very little near-term benefit, though. The across-the-board pay increase might be the most politically effective way to get the teachers union and others on board, but it’s probably not the most efficient. Another scheme, such as offering different pay levels for different levels of qualification, might be more effective, followed by a gradual phase-in of higher pay across the board as average teacher quality rises.

If the increase is pushed through, however, I’d hope that it would be leveraged for its full research potential as was the case in Indonesia.



Air Pollution Fact Roundup

Recently, the city I’ve called home for the past few months (Chiang Mai, Thailand) has been making it to the top of the most “world’s most polluted” lists on a pretty much daily basis. Today, the PM10 meter maxed out at 999 μg/m3 in one area, and the PM2.5 meter wasn’t far behind at around 850. For reference, the EPA defines an “acceptable” level as being below 12 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3). 12-35 is moderate, 35-55 is unhealthy for sensitive groups, 55-150 is unhealthy for everyone, 150-250 is very unhealthy, and 250-500 is hazardous. The EPA’s scale tops out at 500, since that basically doesn’t exist in the U.S.

I’ve been getting throat and nose symptoms, a dull headache, and general tiredness out of this whole experience, which hasn’t been great. I lived in South Korea for a few years, where the air quality hasn’t been amazing recently (it can go above 100, but I didn’t see above 200 happening much), but I never felt symptoms there. I’m not exercising, barely leaving the house, and generally in kind of a bad mood as a result of all this, which has left me some free time to obsesively research air quality topics. One of the things that’s caught my attention is the “Air Quality Index.” It’s essentially a market basket of various pollutants developed to help people better understand the impact of air pollution on health, which is great, but also confusing, especially when you’d just prefer to know exactly how much PM2.5 is being pumped into the air, since that’s what we’re really worried about.

Air Quality Indexes vs PM2.5

When you look up the air quality in a certain city, you’ll probably see an AQI, or an Air Quality Index–not an actual measurement of any one pollutant. There are a few reasons this is confusing:

  1. Different countries have different air quality standards. In China, a 10 is fine. In Canada, 10 is basically “we can’t count the moose in our backyard.” These different metrics are all calculated using different mixes of pollutants, each of which may be weighted differently, measured over a different period of time, and interpreted differently.
  2. Many AQIs (the EPA’s in particular) are non-linear, as they’ve been normalized to fit the basket of pollutants into a scale ranging from 0-N. That means that multiplying a number on the scale by 2 does not necessarily mean that it will be twice as bad for you–it actually may be much more than twice as bad.
  3. Many AQI measures can be pushed up by less harmful pollutants, which makes them fairly misleading when you really just care about PM2.5.

In general, an air quality index is one good way to get a quick grasp on air pollution, and the equations do make sense. However, in a situation like the one I’m currently in, what I really care about is the mass concentration per cubic meter of PM2.5, and I think it should be more of a general standard than it is. It lets you directly know what the content of the air you’re breathing is, isn’t skewed by different equations or national standards, and it allows for pretty much any air situation to be immediately understood.

When it comes to air pollution data, which we use to make large and small decisions on a regular basis, simpler is better for the public-facing stuff, and in this case that doesn’t mean giving people a mystery number and a color. Ideally, different AQIs would be available as part of the data presented by air pollution information sites, but more emphasis on the concentration would really help improve general understandability. Going with concentration data is more scientific, it’s linear, and it’s universal.

In the meantime, if you see an EPA AQI number anywhere, you can use this calculator to find the actual concentrations of each pollutant.

On Nomaducation: could the next digital nomads be students?

“Digital nomad” is a term that’s been making its way increasingly into the mainstream. As internet access and speeds around the world increase and the economy increasingly goes digital, working remotely or on a freelance basis is becoming increasingly possible. Coincidentally, so is studying online: there are literally thousands of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), more free or easy-to-access educational content than you could ever possibly consume, and even fully-accredited, inexpensive degree programs you can pursue via laptop no matter where in the world you are.

This is all fairly new, so it’s understandable that no community has really emerged around student nomads yet, but maybe that time is close. Maybe the “nomaducation” buzzword is just a few years away from becoming the next “digital nomad.”

I’ve been doing it. Albeit, not on a full-time basis at all: I got my undergrad in the U.S, moved to South Korea to teach for a few years (the savings were a great jump-start), moved back to the U.S, moved to Thailand, and am currently planning on moving to Tbilisi, Georgia. The whole time I’ve been working and studying at the same time, and while it eats up most of my free time it’s been going pretty great. I’ve built a lot of skills and identified some things I really want to work on more deeply. In a nutshell:

  • I’ve improved my math and stats skills,
  • gotten into programming,
  • developed my passion for economics,
  • studied data analysis and visualization,
  • cultivated in interest in behavioral sciences,
  • learned the basics of a few languages,
  • taught English as a foreign language (I actually got pretty good at it–after a while)
  • written for tech, finance, and blockchain publications,
  • learned how small the world can be
  • met people from all over
  • listened to hundreds of hours of podcasts
  • taken so many MOOCs
  • and way more

In terms of knowledge and experience accrued, it’s been a clear win. In terms of time, it’s certainly taking longer than if I’d gone straight to a masters program, but in retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t. I’ve explored so many new worlds since I started my journey that it’s starting to get hard to keep them all straight. That’s why I’ve decided I really need to start specializing–but I digress. Here’s the pitch:

  • Travel is its own form of education
  • Online degrees are getting more common and acceptable
  • Online work is becoming easier to find
  • Living in low-cost countries can often be cheaper
  • Resources to serve the digital nomad community are becoming readily available

Essentially, while it’s certainly not the right call for everyone, I’d argue that “nomaducation,” or studying and travelling at the same time, is a small trend just waiting for a name and a community. That community part is important, and it’s most of the reason I’m writing about this now: I’ll get to that in my next post. Suffice it to say that I haven’t found much of one, I miss it, and (as you might have guessed), I’m taking a shot at creating it.

Where are all the homebrewed bomb drones?

The title alone seems like enough to get me on a list, but this is a topic that’s been turning over in my head for a while now, and ever since the Gatwick incident in December 2018 when as-of-yet unnown drone operators paralyzed an entire airport by just casually flying around. The cheapness and availability of drones combined with humanity’s tendency to blow each other up seems like it should have sparked some sort of an epidemic of drones with explosives strapped to to them committing acts of terrorism.

That’s only happened a few times, though. All I was able to turn up were the following incidents:

Out of those, only ISIS and the Houthi rebels actually did any damage. The Houthi attack is too recent to know if it will be adopted as a future MO, but if ISIS didn’t find it especially effective, it may just not be that great of a way to take out targets. Though they did post a propaganda poster of a drone headed towards the Eiffel Tower [Autoplaying video behind link].


This is hardly a neglected threat–Nicholas Grossman has written a whole book on it, and FBI Director Christopher Wray has expressed his opinion that this will be a big issue in the future. The fact remains, though, that we have yet to see a large-scale, high-profile drone bombing in the vein of other terror attacks. A few possible reasons for this:

  • It lacks the impact of a personal attack: terrorism isn’t about eliminating valuable targets, it’s about sending a message, and sending in a drone just doesn’t say as much as sending in a person.
  • It’s actually not that easy: maybe figuring out how to get sufficient amounts of explosives onto a drone, getting the trigger mechanisms right, flying it into the right spot, and detonating it isn’t as easy as it sounds.
  • Maybe drones just haven’t caught on yet: sure, they’re a hit on the commercial market, but maybe the first domino hasn’t fallen to set off the terrorism market yet. Maybe all the pieces are there, but no one has seen them used destructively enough to copycat them.

Either way, it seems likely that we’re due for that first incident. Drones are easy to get and wiring explosives onto them surely can’t be harder than wiring them other places. A large-scale drone attack is probably coming sometime in the next decade, and that will likely be the start of a trend, which will, unfortunately, probably lead to lots of restrictions on drones and the increased government use of drones and drone countermeasures.

Honestly, I’m more surprised that, given humans’ historical fixation with implementing new and exciting ways of murdering each other, we haven’t already filled the skies with small exploding death-copters. Maybe the world actually is getting more peaceful.


Moving from Humanities to Data (and around the world)

My geographical and intellectual journeys aren’t directly related, but over the past few years, my lack of a stable location has certainly played into my sense of what’s possible, what’s measurable, and how best to understand the forces that shape the world. Long story short, I’ve been making the jump from math-averse humanities major towards a me that is comfortable with numbers, models, uncertainty, and testing hypotheses.

I’ve made a lot of different mental jumps in a lot of different places, though, and since my history education instilled in me a strong sense of narrative (something humans love to impose on the world, whether it belongs there or not), I feel driven to connect the two. In this post: how I apparently am choosing to explain some of my life choices.

tl;dr: I move around a lot, mostly between relatively affordable urban areas in different countries. Humans and cities can only be fully explained with data, which is why I’m going to be making a series of posts recording some interesting pieces of my now multi-year journey towards getting better at doing that. 

Global variables

Since graduating, I’ve lived long-term (6+ months) in several parts of the US, two cities in South Korea, one city in Thailand, and I’ll be moving on to Tbilisi in the Republic (not state) of Georgia pretty soon. Since I’ve sort of fallen into online work, it makes sense for me to live in places that offer more amenities and a lower cost of living than the US.

This has also given me a lot of opportunities to encounter a lot of different ways that things work, as well as radically different perspectives on the way they should work. I’ve generally come around to the idea, though, that these differences exist more on the surface than the photographs and travelogues would have you believe: humans tend to be humans. All other things being equal, the reasons for our behavior tend to change more than the behavior itself does.

The common currency I’ve fixed upon in trying to understand these forces is data. Obviously, you can’t plug variables into a regression and predict every aspect of a country’s culture–but you can make a pretty darn good guess about how things work in that country. As complex as our constructs are, there are global variables underlying them.

The data density of cities

That may be why my primary target in a new country is always the cities: nowhere can you find a higher density and diversity of available data. Walking around a new city for a few days, with open eyes and random feet, is basically skydiving for a certain type of data nerd. You won’t discover everything, and a lot of your impressions will be wrong (they’ll be wronger the less time you spend), but if you pay attention you’ll end up with a collection of means and standard deviations for everything from the price of a beer to the general quality of life experienced by residents.

My infovorous (what is the adjective form of “infovore”?) tendencies probably explain why, despite my rural upbringing, I’m an urbanite at heart. That’s an increasingly expensive thing to be in the states, where urban density and mixed-use zoning tend to meet stiff resistance, which, for better or for worse, has pushed me to venture out into other countries. Most of the cities I find attractive aren’t the ones with idyllic suburban neighborhoods or adorably preserved downtown boulevards, but the ones where you can find a new apartment building going up every corner, gradually being surrounded by the shops and restaurants its residents demand. As far as I’m concerned, aesthetics take a clear back seat to affordability and convenience.

A personal geography

This personal preference for efficiency over beauty probably explains a lot about what frustrated me with humanities (a tendency to emphasize the subjective and unquantifiable aspects of human experience) and what I find attractive about the prospect of engaging with data (the drive to measure what can be measured, to quantify the unquantifiable where possible, and a certain level of comfort with error). Neither extreme is preferable, of course: purely data-based decisions are likely to ignore things that are difficult to measure, while purely qualitative decisions are likely to be subject to a wide array of human psychological errors and biases.

I’m very happy to fall somewhere in the middle of the qual-quant spectrum, as that’s where a lot of truth (with varying confidence intervals) tends to lie, and especially since that’s where I’m likely to remain in terms of my abilities. I’m decidedly weaker on quantitative skills than I’d like, though, which is why, since graduating university in 2014, I’ve been on a journey to improve them. It’s been slower than I’d like, hindered by things like having to “earn money” and “live life,” but I know I’m not the only one trying to reconcile their idealistic teenage degree choices with the facts of a rapidly expanding reality, which is why I’m hoping to make this a series detailing my steps and missteps, the resources I’ve used, the progress I’ve made, and the gravities that have pulled me into various orbits.

This post hopefully takes care of a lot of the “why,” and in future ones I’ll mostly be focusing on the “how.”

Some additions given new information

I’ve written a few speculative posts about Thailand–some updates on those, given my new experiences in Laos:

  1. In Laos, currently the poorest country in SE Asia, I’ve been seeing a higher ratio of “Asian  pickups,” and also a larger Korean and Japanese presence in the market in general. This leads me to believe that there are probably factors beyond necessity playing into the high Thai usage of “American” pickups, but the ratio I’ve observed in Laos has still been roughly 3:1 American:Asian pickups, so my guess may still hold some weight. There’s also a lot of Korean and Japanese aid going to Laos, so it’s possible that their pickup preference may derive from convenience over preference. I’m not ready to make this my master’s thesis yet though, so I’ll stop myself short of any actual research.
  2. ATM fees in Laos are about $2 USD, though given relative Lao income, this is still a fairly steep fee. Again, I believe it is only levied on foreign cards. We did once pay $4 since we were unsure of where the next ATM was going to be and we needed cash, thus contributing another data point to the elasticity of demand equation.

Can moral psychology explain why libertarians are (maybe) bad dancers? (Part 2/2)

In the first part of this post, I summarized a few parts of Jonathan Haidt’s theory of political psychology, particularly the connection between genetics, morals, and brain chemistry. Now let’s apply that specifically to libertarians, given these three traits that Haidt and several coauthors identified:

  1. Libertarians mostly care about individual liberty.
  2. They veer “cerebral” rather than “emotional” in their cognitive styles.
  3. They’re less interdependent and social.

We can assume that, if Haidt’s other research holds true, these traits are at least partially genetic, and that libertarians may be attracted to that political philosophy because it’s associated with a lot of stuff they like, such as not being told what to do, approaching things from a brain over heart perspective, and being mildly to extremely introverted, except at national conventions.

What follows is an extremely non-scientific analysis of why libertarians might, among other things, not be so great at the macarena. It will be short, since you can probably already guess where this is going.

Trait 1: Liberty is all

Libertarians tend to back-burner other priorities in favor of making sure nobody is being told what to do in a way that interferes with their ability to do, within reason, things they want to do. Of course, they apply this to themselves as well, and this points to a pretty (gasp) individualist mode of thought. Let’s assume that someone who is biased towards individualism won’t be so much into things that are other-focused. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing–it just means that libertarians don’t value groups as much, though they have great respect for the individuals within those groups. This trait doesn’t directly point towards non-dancing, except in the sense that libertarians might be more vocal and resolute about abstaining from pressure to participate in activities they don’t like, but it’s a great setup for the next two.

Trait 2: It’s all about that brain

Libertarians also are (or perceive themselves to be) cerebral; they demonstrate a preference for approaching things systematically rather than instinctively. There are obvious upsides to this, but a distinct downside is that, like most people with strong political beliefs, they can have trouble empathizing with people with different values–particularly those high on the care index (liberals) or who place high on a variety of other values that libertarians find less important (conservatives). More directly, though Spock wouldn’t agree, libertarians probably experience less emotional range than average given that they don’t seem to dwell on feelings as much.

This might be exemplified, then, by dancing–or lack thereof. Dancing is inherently an emotional activity, whether due to the chemical production it stimulates in the brain (due both to physical exertion and group proximity), or simply due to the music, style, tempo, et cetera and the switches that the environment flips. Libertarians seem to mostly be drawn from a personality range that doesn’t exhibit a preference for high-emotion activities. Whether this is a genetic or a learned trait, the survey responses and my anecdotal experiences would at least seem to indicate that given a choice, someone with these political beliefs would, on average, prefer talking over a fancy beer to feeling their bones vibrate to the latest EDM.

Trait 3: Libertarians don’t need you! They don’t need anyone!

Here comes the killstroke: at least according to the survey data (as well as stereotypes and probably your personal experience with that libertarian guy you met in college), libertarians are kind of about doing their own thing. Again, not surprising, given their name, but very pertinent to my point. Haidt and co. found that libertarians are less connected to others both “broadly” and “tightly” (that is they have fewer friends overall and smaller direct social circles). This has not gone unnoticed among the subjects; those libertarians surveyed reported that they felt less connected to everyone than average, which jives with their narrower social lives.

That can be spun a number of different ways. Libertarians are just lonely ogres who haven’t found love; libertarians are attracted to their political philosophy because it provides justification for their antisocial ways; libertarians are psychologically disturbed and probably prefer to be alone because it gives them more time to burn ants with magnifying glasses. Personally, I’d argue that libertarians generally feel independent of others and, while they enjoy interacting with people as ordinary humans do, their personality makeup just requires less human contact than average. Whatever combination of genes, chemicals, and learned behavior is responsible, they feel less connected–but they are not necessarily worse off for that lack of connection.

An (speculative) explanation that might follow from what we know so far is that libertarians are generally predisposed to need less group contact through some neurochemical mechanism, and thus generally don’t get much of a biological rush in high-contact settings.

Libertarians drink alone (or in small groups)

So, imagine someone who is a bit of a lone wolf and doesn’t seem to need human company in large doses. Now imagine your typical dance setting–any genre is fine. You’ve got a whole lot of human company there, and someone who doesn’t find all that contact very interesting. They try to get into the dance rhythm, and they can probably fake it for the utilitarian value of building social capital with their friend group, but that oxytocin (et al) doesn’t necessarily flare off as much, and even if it does, they don’t seem wired to get that much connectivity benefit anyway.

Even smaller settings, say with just a few people who spontaneously start a dance party in a fairly quiet bar, would be a bit tricky. Libertarians don’t just have lower rates of desiring broad-group-bonding, but aren’t necessarily that into tight-group bonding either. The exercise might be nice, the music might be infectious, but that interactional aspect isn’t high on their to-do list. They’d prefer to hang back, and if any bonding is to be done, it’ll be less emotion-based and probably not so much about grouping as about mutually beneficial information-sharing or something equally utilitarian.

This group has been quite understudied in most academic branches, possibly because they haven’t made much of a difference and have only just managed to be gain broad recognition in the U.S. Nonetheless, as Haidt points out, they are quite distinct from both the left and the right, and if microscopes were applied to them to the same degree as they are to other groups, there would certainly be some interesting results. This is just one of them.

Conclusion: We need more research! Or not.

That said, my application of Haidt’s research is by no means supported by anything beyond me applying the transitive property and some additional assumptions to his findings. In sum, I argue:

  1. Morals and political beliefs have a basis in genetics and biology
  2. Libertarianism tends to be common among people with less groupish, more individual brains
  3. Dancing is groupish
  4. Libertarians do not enjoy dancing

Anecdotally, this has been true for most libertarians I know. As with everything, however, there is bound to be wide deviation from the average; there is bound to be a libertarian out there who is an absolute beast on the dance floor.

Jonathan Haidt is not to blame for any of this; also, my opinions and perceptions, as all behavioral science enthusiasts know by now, are not guaranteed to be correct.

If you read this and have an opinion about libertarian dancing, drop me a line on Twitter at @braunecon.