tag:blog.jansramek.com,2013:/posts Jan Sramek 2021-06-22T19:29:25Z About tag:blog.jansramek.com,2013:Post/1651940 2021-06-22T18:59:30Z 2021-06-22T19:29:25Z What people get wrong about learning technologies
There is a fascinating pattern of repeated forecasting and product errors that people have been making about the impact of technology on education for over 40 years now. I know, because I made it myself on two separate occasions with two separate products.

Here is a tempting but wrong hypothesis: the best way to use technology to improve learning is by building products that try to replicate a great human tutor, i.e. automated tutors. The people who make this error start with two good premises: 
  1. Private tutors are orders of magnitude better in teaching someone than any other method (see e.g. Bloom's 2 Sigma Problem).
  2. Computers in general and AI in particular are getting better, so we should be able to increasingly emulate what a human tutor does.

This idea of building intelligent tutors has been so mesmerizing to generations of researchers and product people that there is even a book detailing the history of the various (largely failed) attempts to do so [1].  However, the same people completely miss two other things that are also true: 

  1. A lot of what a good private tutor does has nothing to do with selecting the right exercise or hint, and everything to do with providing excitement, motivation, self-confidence, and discipline (which computers can do only so much about).
  2. Given the status quo, there is a lot of far lower hanging fruit in using technology for learning, notably (a) giving people unlimited free/cheap access to high quality content, and (b) using messaging, video, and social media to put people in touch with others, be they human tutors or peers passionate about the same things.
The result is that high-tech platforms with adaptive learning "AI" engines like Knewton fail, whereas products that succeed look more like Lambda School [2] – which, if necessary, could probably be run over Zoom, Slack, and Google Docs, without any custom software at all. Another great example is a company like VIPKid, which correctly realized there was no need to build an AI-tutor, they could build a huge business by just making it easier to hire a human one.

The failure of Knewton and the success of Lambda School or VIPKid are therefore a reflection of two factors – first, building AI tutors is harder than people think, and second, there is a lot of far lower hanging fruit to be picked before one moves to the more challenging technical problems. Of course, this will eventually flip when the low hanging fruit is gone and AI has progressed sufficiently to make AI tutors more effective. However, even with the accelerating progress in AI, I suspect that for the foreseeable future, any "AI tutors" are likely to be glorified exercise banks selected and used in teaching by – you guessed it – human tutors on platforms like Lambda or VIPKid.

[1] One notable class of exceptions are domains where Spaced Repetition works reasonably well, which generally includes standardized testing and some aspects of foreign language learning, leading to success of products like Duolingo and Quizlet.

[2] See also my earlier post, Why Lambda School Works.
Jan Sramek
tag:blog.jansramek.com,2013:Post/1634979 2021-02-18T15:53:00Z 2021-02-18T15:56:16Z Mindstorms: Children, Computers, And Powerful Ideas

Okay, I'll admit it. Despite working on education technologies for several years, I never got around to reading Seymour Papert's Mindstorms, which was generally perceived as a bible by at least some part of the edtech universe. Over the holidays, I finally fixed my omission, and I'm glad I did.

The good

Let's start with the good. The book includes some great ideas. The foreword, written by Mitchel Resnick, the LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research at the MIT Media Lab, does a great job of summarizing the key principles:

Projects. People learn to solve problems (and learn new concepts and strategies) most effectively while they are actively engaged in meaningful projects. Too often, schools start by teaching concepts to students, and only then give students a chance to work on projects. Seymour argued it is best for children to learn new ideas through working on projects, not before working on the projects.

Passion. Seymour knew that people will work longer and harder, and make deeper connections to ideas, when they're working on projects that they're passionate about. Seymour once said: "Education has very little to do with explanation, it has to do with engagement, with falling in love with the material."

Peers. Seymour gives the example of Samba schools in Brazil, where people learn from and with their peers, rather than from teachers. This, in some sense, did hint at what was to come with today's socially networked learning communities.

Play. Seymour referred to play as "hard fun". He recognized that children don't want things to be easy. They're willing to work very hard on things that they find meaningful.

The not answered

After finishing the book, I was left wondering about two main questions:

1) Why are computers the best way to put the foregoing into practice? 

Unfortunately, Seymour never really quite explains why he thought computers were the best way to put these principles into practice. There are strong arguments to be made for this – for example, that it's too hard to train enough teachers to teach this way, or that you can only teach this way in small groups, and we are not willing to pay for enough teachers to do that, so we need computers to backfill that gap. However, the book doesn't say much on this topic. I found myself wanting to know to what extent Seymour thought that computers were less effective but much more affordable private tutors vs just being better period, at least for certain teaching tasks.

2) What did Seymour think about the impact of the rest of the computer revolution on education?

Seymour's focus is clearly on immersive learning environments – his key example is teaching math and physics by having students control and program an imaginary turtle moving through space. But what did he think about everything else that computers would enable? And more specifically, what would he think about where we are today? Excited? Disappointed?

  • On the one hand, despite incredible advancements in technology, very few students learn math and physics via programming today. In that sense, computers had relatively little impact. 
  • On the other hand, one could argue that that what really enabled "projects, passion, peers, and play" was not learning how to program computers, but simply using computers and the internet in particular for two things: (1) accessing an infinite library of great content, for free (by teachers who inspired passion, and provided enough guidance to enable projects), and (2) talking to other people about it (including peers), which made it more like play.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find any talks or articles by Papert where he expressed how he felt about where we ended up by 2005, 2010, or 2015, before his passing in 2016. If you happen to know of some, please let me know.

Jan Sramek
tag:blog.jansramek.com,2013:Post/1532061 2020-07-08T22:30:59Z 2020-07-08T22:39:30Z The coming unbundling of higher education

There is a lot going on in US higher education right now. Harvard and a slate of other universities just announced that this fall, all undergraduate classes will be online only. Parents are now widely starting to negotiate college tuition discounts the same way they would haggle over the price of a car. More broadly, I suspect we are about to finally see the great unbundling of the US higher education market. 

More innovation in US higher ed would be a good thing. Under the existing model, going to college is a bundled package that includes quite a distinct set of component goods:

  1. Signaling for employers and the world more broadly, both on being smart enough to get in and smart/diligent enough to graduate
  2. Credentials for employers in fields where that matters (especially if they are regulated like law or medicine)
  3. Acquisition of professionally valuable knowledge and skills (both hard skills like programming and soft skills like getting along with other people)
  4. Opportunity to build a strong professional network
  5. A vaguely defined chance to become a more rounded person and citizen
  6. A socially-approved party circuit

For a long time, breaking up the bundle and the monopoly of colleges on providing these goods has been challenging. There is a lot of inertia in how society operates, and for higher education to change, a broad variety of stakeholders generally need to become open to some alternative and do so roughly at the same time: the parents, the students, employers, colleges, and the government (which both provides funding and in some cases enforces credentials).

The system was on an unsustainable path well before Covid-19 – tuition inflation was off the charts while many students received education with at best dubious impact on their lifetime earnings potential. However, Covid-19 just probably accelerated the change by a decade. Suddenly, a lot of people are really asking - is it truly worth it to pay $50,000 for a year of sitting at home taking Zoom classes? Or maybe $150,000 if you got accepted into an MBA program? Or would you rather unbundle some of these components and get them on better terms?

Maybe you pay $30,000 for a one-year Lambda School degree, go get a job, work for 2 years, pay off any debt, and then take a one year sabbatical of travel, reading, partying, and/or finding yourself, which you otherwise may have done over the course of a 3-4 year program? Except that at the end of the 4 years, you are left with a high-paying job and some savings rather than $200,000 of student debt and unclear job prospects?

Or maybe you go take a gap year, work on a side project, take an apprenticeship of some kind, or pursue some other path first, and wait to see how the system shakes out. I don't know yet how many viable alternative paths we will discover over the coming years, but it feels like the beginning of a Cambrian explosion in this space.

Jan Sramek
tag:blog.jansramek.com,2013:Post/1522670 2020-06-05T16:55:00Z 2020-06-05T17:04:52Z The End of Education

My final read on education from Neil Postman was his 1996 book, The End of Education. This was my third book on this topic written by him, following Teaching as a Subversive Activity (published in 1969) and The Disappearance of Childhood (published in 1985).

Unfortunately, I don't have much to say about The End of Education, other than "it's more of the same". In some sense, this book is the most disappointing of all three, since there simply isn't even much to either agree or disagree with. Other than meandering endlessly on various tangents, the book just doesn't say much.

Here's a summary of the first 100 pages: schools fail because kids are not motivated to learn. Kids are not motivated to learn because America is missing a great narrative about our purpose in the universe. Essentially "our schools are lost because our nation is lost".

The second and final 100 pages then discuss five possible narratives that would allegedly somehow fix our schools, which Postman titles The Spaceship Earth, The Fallen Angel, The American Experiment, The Law of Diversity, and The World Weavers/The World Makers.

Unfortunately, while some of these titles sound somewhat promising, the detailed discussion doesn't quite convince that any one of these great overarching narratives would make a tangible difference to the behavior of a Grade 5 teacher, or the experience of a student sitting in their classroom.

To his credit, Postman does acknowledge that he's more sure of his diagnosis of the problem that his prescription for possible solutions. However, I'm not sure even the diagnosis is that convincing - yes, perhaps in the early two centuries of the republic, we had a society that was hungrier to improve itself and its life, more unified by a narrower set of cultures and religions etc, but I'm still not quite sure that such differences made our schools worked better (or indeed, whether our schools worked better in the first place).

And so sadly, Postman's writing on education ended up being a disappointment. However, I generally agree with the alleged quip by Lord Acton that we should judge character at its worst but talent at its best. And so it is Postman's most piercing and enduring work, Amusing Ourselves To Death, that will for me always define his intellectual legacy.

Jan Sramek
tag:blog.jansramek.com,2013:Post/1521196 2020-04-28T14:37:00Z 2020-04-28T16:37:21Z The Disappearance of Childhood

After Teaching as a Subversive ActivityI just finished The Disappearance of Childhood, another book by Neil Postman that deals with education, at least broadly speaking. The book was published in 1985, and makes a fairly simple argument:

1. At its essence, childhood is defined by the existence of secrets that adults hide from children, and which children get to gradually discover. By secrets, Postman refers to many aspects of adult life, including money, social relations, sickness, death, violence, etc.

2. Until the invention of the radio, and especially television, it was possible to hide secrets from children. Books cost money, their distribution can be controlled, they can be put on top shelf at home, and they require effort to read. Besides, there are certain things that can only really be experienced by watching them - rather than by reading about them. [1]

3. Since modern media makes secrets obsolete, childhood has largely disappeared. Or, as Postman put it himself "It means - to use a metaphor of my own - that in having access to the previously hidden fruit of adult information, they are expelled from the garden of childhood."

Overall, I think this is an interesting argument, and many people will probably find themselves agreeing with Postman on this. But to me, the book feels a bit too much like it was a nail to someone with a hammer. I don't think it's an accident that Postman's most lasting work, Amusing Ourselves to Death, was also published in 1985. Postman got a lot right in that book about the impact of media on modern society —but extending this to defining childhood feels like a stretch. My own intuition is that at least in my own case, my childhood was defined more by freedom of having both lots of time and little expectations placed on me, rather than by being naive about the world. 

Aside from the core argument, the book unfortunately feels quite similar to Teaching as a Subversive Activity. It's full of diversions and side points which do little to advance the core argument, and seem to be there mostly to show off the author's encyclopedic knowledge. [2]

[1] The Disappearance of Childhood was published in 1985, before the internet, and before the iPhone. Given how exponentially harder these inventions have made it to keep secrets from children, even compared to television, Postman would presumably say that by now, childhood essentially doesn't exist.

[2] Having said all that, I did enjoy a few of the many side points and quips, for example:

"The importance of fairy tales lies in their capacity to reveal the existence of evil in a form that permits children to integrate it without trauma."

"[The disappearance of childhood] can be seen to occur not only in clothing but in eating habits as well. Junk food, once suited only to the undiscriminating palates and iron stomachs of the young, is now common fare for adults. This can be inferred from the commercials for McDonald's and Burger King, which make no age distinctions in their appeals. It can also be directly observed by simply attending to the distribution of children and adults who patronize such places. It would appear that adults consume at least as much junk food as do children. This is no trivial point: it seems that many have forgotten when adults were supposed to have higher standards than children in their conception of what is and is not edible."

Jan Sramek
tag:blog.jansramek.com,2013:Post/1528711 2020-04-08T16:38:27Z 2020-04-08T16:39:15Z Oxbridge Admissions in 2019

Last year, roughly 25,000 different people used OxbridgeAdmissions.com to learn about applying to and studying at Oxford and Cambridge universities.

If you applied to one of these universities in the last few years, please consider submitting a profile describing your experience so that those applying in future years can benefit from your experience. You can get started here.

Jan Sramek
tag:blog.jansramek.com,2013:Post/1521185 2020-03-31T16:03:18Z 2020-03-31T16:03:18Z How to wreck your education system in 16 steps

Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death is a classic that stood the test of time. Published back in 1985, the book successfully predicted much about how new communications technologies would reshape society. So the other day, I grew childishly excited when I discovered that Postman was also an education theorist who wrote several books on education and our school system.

Unfortunately, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Postman's first foray into education, published in 1969, ended up being quite the disappointment. The book starts out OK, with some reasonable critique of the current system. However, the critique drags on and on, with no or limited suggestions for how to do better. Worse still, the tone that seeps from the pages is one of an ivory-tower intellectual, sneering at the teachers who do the hard work without any reasonable ideas for how to make things better. This is particularly surprising, given that Postman actually was a teacher earlier in his life.

The insanity climaxes about two thirds through the book, when the authors finally reveal their 16 suggestions for how to improve the system (as listed below). Disappointingly, their suggestions are mostly the kind of radical soundbite that sound controversial and lofty in theory, and somewhat entertaining at a dinner party debate, but don't stand up to even a brief consideration of whether they might actually work in practice. Some of their suggestions are OK, many are just bad, and a few are just outright insane.

Postman kept writing about education for the rest of his career, going all the way to 1995. Here's hoping that the next few books are better. Teaching as a Subversive Activity gets an F.

The authors' 16 suggestions for how to improve education:

1. Declare a five-year moratorium on the use of textbooks.

2. Have "English" teachers "teach" Math, Math teachers English, Social Studies teachers Science, Science teachers Art, and so on.

3. Transfer all the elementary-school teachers to high school and vice versa.

4. Require every teacher who thinks he knows his "subject" well to write a book on it.

5. Dissolve all "subjects", "courses", and especially "course requirements."

6. Limit each teacher to three declarative sentences per class, and 15 interrogatives.

7. Prohibit teachers from asking any questions they already know the answer to.

8. Declare a moratorium on all tests and grades.

9. Require all teachers to undergo some form of psycho-therapy as part of their in-service training.

10. Classify teachers according to their ability and make the lists public.

11. Require all teachers to take a test prepared by students on what the students know.

12. Make every class an elective and withhold a teacher's monthly check if his students do not show any interest in going to next month's classes.

13. Require every teacher to take a one-year leave of absence every fourth year to work in some "field" other than education.

14. Require each teacher to provide some sort of evidence that he or she has had a loving relationship with at least one other human being.

15. Require that all the graffiti accumulated in the school toilets be reproduced on large paper and be hung in the school halls.

16. There should be a general prohibition against the use of the following words and phrases: teach, syllabus, covering ground, I.Q., makeup, test, disadvantages, gifted, accelerated, enhancement, course, grade, score, human nature, dumb, college material, and administrative necessity.

Jan Sramek
tag:blog.jansramek.com,2013:Post/1521140 2020-03-17T22:28:25Z 2020-03-17T23:26:21Z What happens to homeschooling after COVID-19?

In the last two weeks, I have had numerous conversations about how forcing millions of people to homeschool their kids may permanently shift the popularity of homeschooling. Although I think that will be true at the edges, I remain skeptical about the impact on the bulk of the population. 

Why? For better or worse, my sense is that if we were to be honest about what schools actually provide to society, learning of the curriculum would be the plurality, but quite possibly not even the majority of the value. Schools these days seem to provide at least the following six values to society [1]:

  1. Teaching of the curriculum: maths, science, languages, history, etc.
  2. Teaching of intra-personal skills: patience, ability to pursue goals, discipline, ability to manage boredom, etc.
  3. Teaching of inter-personal (social) skills: interacting with many different adults, and more importantly, one's peers
  4. Friendship formation (and later on, dating)
  5. Watching the kids (= childcare)
  6. Feeding the kids

In theory, homeschooling options could provide all of the above. In practice, I think this is hard for all of the above, but especially for 3 through 6. The reason is that all of those are intrinsically group activities, which get exponentially better and/or cheaper with scale (up to a point).

In theory, homeschooling doesn't have to mean just a parent teaching their own kids. Rather, we could of course see a whole ecosystem of home schools emerging, where one or more parents run a school for a dozen to a few dozen kids. This would make it easier to deliver on 3 through 6 above, but then we run into a whole host of new issues:

  • Reaching consensus: anyone who has ever tried to get a group of parents to agree on anything will appreciate the daunting nature of the task of getting everyone on the same page about anything from curriculum to what will be served for lunch. This gets substantially easier in narrow communities with an existing set of beliefs (e.g. specific religions), which is why this works and will continue to work better there.
  • Inverted U-Curve in Teaching Quality (1/2 above): unless you as a parent happen to have a particular knack for teaching, the most likely reason for why you would be better at 1 and 2 above is not that you're a better teacher, but that you care more. For all the griping about school teachers, most people who go into the profession do so because they care (at least a bit), and for all the griping about their insufficient/out-dated education, they have been taught some useful things, and have learnt some through experience. So an amateur teaching their own kids will do OK, or a professional teaching a group of other people's kids will do OK. What are the odds that an amateur teaching a group of other people's kids is the worst of both worlds?
  • Inverted U-Curve in Network Quality (3/4 above): when it comes to inter-personal skills and friendships, the economies of scale do not stop once you hit 20 kids. If you care about friends, or sports, or dating, the quality of your experience generally gets better as you go from 20 to 100 students. Now, there is a point at which diseconomies and anonymity kick in, but I'd guess that's somewhere in the range of 200 to 400 students, way above the group size that's realistic in homeschooling.
  • Inverted U-Curve in Operational Quality/Cost (5/6 above): my sense is that the cost and difficulty of providing the infrastructure of running a school follows an inverted U-Curve. If you're teaching your own kids, you need a room in the house, and the ability to cook a lunch for a few people. If you're running a big school, you have a building and dedicated kitchen staff. But where do you base a school for 25 people, and how do you get lunch for everyone?
  • Funding models: finally, unless we get school vouchers or something similar, the only parents able to spend out-of-pocket for such a school will be the wealthiest one, who on average have less of a burning need for this, since their kids probably go to a better school already.

Given the above, I'd expect the main mode of school delivery to return to normal once we have dealt with the virus itself. Having said that, what I suspect will change is the acceptability of using remote/homeschool-like tools at the margins. I don't know exactly what these uses will be, but I'd guess stuff like dialing into class over Zoom when sick, moving more of the communication online, perhaps increased focus on learning from peers, etc.

Thanks to my mom, who was a teacher for more than 30 years, for reading drafts of this.

[1] In addition to the six values listed above, schools also provide credentialing. However, at least in the US and in the UK, this has already been unbundled from the schools themselves and is now delivered mostly via independent bodies such as the SAT (College Board) or the various exam bodies in the UK (AQA, OCR, Edexcel, etc).

Jan Sramek
tag:blog.jansramek.com,2013:Post/1506745 2020-01-28T20:50:00Z 2020-02-06T02:24:10Z Why Lambda School works

After the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) mania fizzled out some time in 2015/2016, there was a period of 2-3 years when the education industry (yet again) mostly soured on education technology startups. But after a brief respite, there is a new darling in town now: Lambda School

While journalists continue being skeptical as usual, the data on salary increases before and after people go through the school is impressive. We're told there are hundreds of people whose yearly salary jumped $50,000 or more after completing the course. Some student stories are inevitably a bit more reserved, but the overall picture is impressive.

Back in 2014, as someone who was involved in and spent a lot of time thinking about the education business, I wrote a post called Why it's so hard to make ourselves better. In the post, I discussed the reasons for why we didn't see more big companies being built in online education. I wrote:

The problem with the “customer value proposition” of most education and healthcare products is that they offer:

    • an uncertain, often unmeasurable benefit in the future
    • in exchange for effort (learning) or giving up “easy pleasure” (not eating that desert) today

and then clarified this further by pointing out that:

The challenge with education and healthcare is that often, they can offer neither:

    • Measurability: although we’re making progress in quantifying both domains, isolating the impact of a new product remains difficult.
    • Immediacy: as it turns out, (for now), our bodies and brains just need some time to change.

So why does Lambda School work? Among other things, they figured out a way to overcome these exact challenges:

  1. Lambda made the reward huge — learning most skills that MOOCs offered, for example, wouldn't really move the needle on your expected income in a few years. Lambda picked a domain where a highly valuable skill is both in massive shortage and can be taught in 12 months. So the reward became $50,000 per year of extra income. For virtually every student, that's life changing.
  2. Lambda made the reward measurable — Lambda made incremental student income after completing the school one if not the primary metric they focus on and market. This is very different to most MOOCs or other online education companies, who market a much more vague value proposition. Making the reward not only measurable, but doing so in a "currency" that people care about as much as money massively increases motivation.
  3. Lambda brought the reward forward — most education startups teach you skills that may be valuable at some point in the future, often years out. Lambda found a domain where you could teach someone something extremely valuable in 12 months.
  4. Lambda reduced the financial cost  instead of paying upfront, Lambda uses Income Sharing Agreements where students don't have to pay anything unless they get a better job that pays more money. This removes two problems for students. First, they don't have to worry about where to borrow the money for tuition if they don't have savings. Second, but perhaps even more importantly, the students don't have to worry about wasting their money on a useless course.
  5. Lambda reduced the effort cost — by building a strong curriculum and tools such as peer-to-peer support, mentors, recruiting help for finding the next job, etc., Lambda School reduced the effort of going through the program.

In summary, Lambda offers a big, measurable reward that you can get rather soon, and they significantly reduce both the financial cost and the effort cost of achieving that reward. No wonder it seems to be working.

Jan Sramek
tag:blog.jansramek.com,2013:Post/1474984 2019-11-07T23:06:45Z 2019-11-12T21:35:19Z New updates on OxbridgeAdmissions.com

We're continuing the rollout for the new Oxbridge Admissions site with the launch of the Oxbridge Admissions Blog. These highly curated posts are meant to help perspective Oxford and Cambridge students with everything from potential interview questions, pre-interview test prep, and first-person reviews of stuff like accommodation and food at Oxbridge’s most popular colleges.

To see all posts, visit the Oxbridge Blog archive or start here for General tips for Oxbridge interviews. If you’re looking for something in particular, here’s a breakdown of topics.

Cambridge Courses

Cambridge Colleges

Oxford Courses

Oxford Colleges

Jan Sramek
tag:blog.jansramek.com,2013:Post/1451843 2019-10-01T17:54:00Z 2019-10-03T02:11:44Z Launching OxbridgeAdmissions.com

Quick update on my earlier post about Oxbridge Admissions. After more than a decade of running on its initial design from 2006, I'm happy to share that the new Oxbridge Admissions site is now available in beta. The app is still fairly rough around the edges, but we wanted to get things up and running in time for the 2020 entry application cycle that's just kicking off. We will be fixing some of the more pressing issues over the coming weeks, and there will be a larger UI/UX revision after that too.

As part of the transition, we've also moved from the original oxbridge-admissions.info domain to the nicer oxbridgeadmissions.com. And finally, we've added a new blog, where we will be posting compilations of the most relevant advice from individual profiles, organized both by subjects and colleges.

Good luck to everyone applying this year!

Jan Sramek
tag:blog.jansramek.com,2013:Post/1454263 2019-09-11T19:46:49Z 2019-09-11T19:46:49Z Engineering what we eat - US vs UK vs Europe

A year ago, I wrote a brief post on British and American pharmacies as allegories for our food-sickcare industrial complexSince then, the post sparked a number of interesting conversations with friends. A recurring theme throughout those conversations was a question many of us thought of, but which none of us had a good answer for. 

Why is that in the US and in the UK, purveyors of foods seem to engineer their foods for maximum addictiveness, at the expense of their customer's health, much more so than seems to be the case in continental Europe? 

A few of the most ubiquitous examples would be sweets, portion sizes, and "super-processed" foods including sugar.

1) Sweets. In most Swiss, French, or Czech grocery stores, you can find a salty chocolate bar, a caramel chocolate bar, and an almond chocolate bar. But you cannot find the most addictive version of said product, at least for some people - say a double caramel salty almond fudge chocolate bar. In most American or British supermarkets, you'll find something like that though. Same thing goes for ice cream.

2) Portion sizes. Although there has been some size creep, the X-Large drink size available in most continental cinemas (if they even have an X-Large!) is still equivalent to somewhere between an American Medium or Large, i.e. 1.5 sizes off (and probably half the volume).

3) Super-processed foods & sugar. Europe gets its fair share of processed foods, but it seems to do generally better on what I'd call "super-processed foods": corn syrup, chips made from potatoes or grains processed to a degree where you can't tell which of the two they started with, flavors that don't even attempt to replicate some food group that exists in nature, etc. I'd include sugar in this bracket - continental countries love their pastries, but they generally don't jam sugar into other foods groups with the same ferocity that food producers seem to do in the UK and in the US.

Why could this be happening? There are a few tempting explanations that come up, though I'm not sure any one of them, or even all of these combined, explain this properly.

1) Regulation - European food regulators are just stricter, and they ban or heavily regulate more of the bad stuff.

2) Cultural norms - more of the people who run European food companies have some kind of cultural bias against producing this kind of stuff, and so it doesn't get as extreme. This would not explain why American food brands don't just supply this part of the European market instead though.

3) Timing - Europe is just behind the US in adopting the "fruits" of late-stage capitalism. Give it 10 years, and Europeans will have caught up to the delight of buying a gallon-sized containers of salty caramel fudge almond crunch ice cream.

4) Local tastes - maybe it's hard to develop a taste for some of the more extreme flavors later in life, so this stuff wouldn't sell in Europe. Counter-example: many Europeans who come to the US readily admit that they got used to and started liking some of these flavors within a year or two.

5) Shareholder pressure - although this has been changing, management of European companies still seems to be subject to less pressure from investors to deliver returns at any cost. If your investors are forcing you to grow earnings in a mature market for snacks, generally speaking, the answer will be "Let's add more sugar."

I'm sure that some of these factors go part way towards an explanation, but I feel like there is more going on here. If you're reading this and have other factors to add to the list, I'd be curious to hear them.

Jan Sramek
tag:blog.jansramek.com,2013:Post/1384799 2019-03-12T16:10:47Z 2019-07-02T04:26:17Z Product-market fit for non-profits

In the summer of 2006, just a month or so before going up to Cambridge for my freshman year, I took a couple of weeks out of my summer break to build Oxbridge Admissions. The site was inspired by an earlier, similar site that had existed for a few years, but had become defunct. 

The goal was to help level the playing field for everyone applying to Oxford and Cambridge. For many years, elite boarding schools in the UK and abroad had collected information from their students who applied to the two universities. After coming back from interviews, each student would write a report about the experience. This meant that when a student at those schools decided to apply, they had access to hundreds of written profiles about what to expect and how to prepare. For a young person applying to the venerable universities shrouded in mystery, this was a significant advantage. Unfortunately, those applying from less selective schools, or from schools abroad who rarely if ever sent anyone to Oxbridge, did not have the same advantage. This seemed grossly unfair.

Long story cut short, sitting on the terrace of my parents' house in the Czech Republic, I hastily coded a basic version of the site, and recruited a few friends to help with moderating the submitted profiles. We also put in the work to find the profiles from the earlier site on archive.org and manually copied & pasted many of them into the new site. By August 2006, the primitive site was up and running.

Initially, we had some ambitions to add to and improve the site over time, but those never materialized. During the almost 13 years since the site launched, I probably spent a total of less than a day on updating the code or even maintaining the box it runs on. During that period, it probably took 2-3 hours per year to review and approve newly submitted profiles.

Despite this minuscule effort, the site still ranks #2 to #5 on Google for "Oxbridge Admissions". Over those 13 years, tens of thousands of people have read the profiles. [2] Given that every year, less than 20,000 people apply to either university, that's an amazing number of students who benefited from a more equal footing when applying.

To me, this is just yet another example of the power of product-market fit, even for non-profits: if you get product-market fit right, you can mess up (or not do at all) a lot of other things and still create a lot of value for your users.

[1] Of course, the site looks accordingly — like something that was thrown together quickly in 2006 and not touched since then. Given its ongoing popularity, the site does deserve an update though — I'm working on one that could last for the next 13 years.

[ 2] Dozens end up coming back afterwards to submit a profile of their own.

Jan Sramek
tag:blog.jansramek.com,2013:Post/1359612 2019-01-02T21:29:25Z 2019-01-02T21:33:51Z Could Swiss healthcare work in America?

I've long been curious to learn whether the Swiss healthcare system could work in America, but I've never actually put in the work to understand this. I know that Obamacare was partially inspired by the Swiss model, but I also know it left out some of the key pillars.

So far, I have not done the work to understand how many other things would need to change for the Swiss model to work here — both legislative and cultural. Can the Swiss model co-exist with employer-provided healthcare? High levels of non-compliance? Opaque healthcare markets and lack of transparency in pricing? State vs federal regulation?

I'm going to read more about this topic over the coming weeks. If you have recommendations, I'd love to hear about them — please drop me an email or DM me.

In the meantime, this article by the Foundation for Economic Education seems like an interesting start: Why the Swiss Health Care Model Will Never Work in America.

Jan Sramek
tag:blog.jansramek.com,2013:Post/1343006 2018-11-12T04:33:22Z 2018-11-12T04:33:22Z Acceleration of bad news about climate change

Counter-intuitively, this is an optimistic post.

A month ago, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a new report. Amongst a long list of bad news, the report states that our CO2 emissions "would have to be on an extremely steep downward path by 2030 to either hold the world entirely below 1.5 degrees Celsius, or allow only a brief “overshoot” in temperatures." This is more pessimistic news that many had expected.

Unfortunately, it's not entirely surprising. Three years ago, in Opti-pessi-mistic tweetstorm on climate change, I wrote "It’s a public secret that things are way worse than we think. But scientists can’t say so else they would lose all credibility. Catch 22."

To expand on this point — for a long time, if you were a climate scientist, you needed to walk a fine line. On the one hand, sound alarmist enough to make people care and take this seriously. On the other hand, you couldn't say things that were too pessimistic — for the fear of creating a helpless reaction of "Well, if it's so bad, we can't do anything anyway, so why bother." 

I fear that this dynamic caused a significant under-statement of how bad the situation is. I suspect that we're finally getting to the stage when the science cannot be played down any further, and we may see all the bad news start coming out at once. The IPCC report was probably just the first drop.

I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing though. Over the last twenty years, we've proven that if predictions are just moderately bad or we have "a lot of time", we won't do enough to reduce emissions. Most countries, organizations, and individuals need to face the true magnitude of the crisis to change their behavior. So it's good to see reality come out into the open.

This will be an incredibly difficult fight, but there are signs that make me optimistic — both geo-engineering in general, and CO2 capture in particular.

Jan Sramek
tag:blog.jansramek.com,2013:Post/1326121 2018-09-29T17:56:27Z 2018-09-29T17:56:27Z American healthcare

Much has been written [1] about the American healthcare system and why it fails us, especially for those not in the top 10% [2]. I'm by no means an expert, but over the years, I've often come back to a story I heard from someone at a dinner party a few years ago. We'll call him Paul.

Paul's girlfriend, Tina, needed to get a standard panel of blood tests. She found a clinic, went in, and got her tests done. Two weeks later, she received her results, together with a bill for $5,000.

As it turns out, Tina made a mistake and went to an out-of-network clinic. Panicked, she called her insurance company. Unsurprisingly, they weren't very helpful. Despite her pleading, she was told their maximum was $1,500, that her reimbursement check was in the mail, and that's all they could do.

As a last-ditch effort, Tina called the receptionist at the clinic that did her bloodwork. She explained her situation, not expecting much. Without taking a breath, or even passing Tina to accounting, the receptionist immediately offered something unexpected. "If you can pay by credit card right now, we can settle everything for $500."

Shocked, but not willing to risk her good fortune, Tina took the offer and paid over the phone. A few days later, the $1,500 reimbursement check from her insurance provider arrived. Tina cashed the check, and went shopping.

I don't approve of Tina's ethics, but I thought the story explained much about why our healthcare is so expensive. We've created a system where every party is incentivized to use opaqueness and lack of transparency against everyone else.

[1] I'd start with Catastrophic Care by David Goldhill.

[2] One of many convincing charts, this time from OECD.

Image result for american healthcare cost vs quality

Jan Sramek
tag:blog.jansramek.com,2013:Post/1326119 2018-09-26T22:55:21Z 2018-09-26T22:57:54Z Hobbies

Over the last few years, I've often wondered about the right heuristic for deciding which hobbies to pursue.

"Enjoyment" or "passion" get thrown around, but I've found it's not that simple. Some hobbies create a lot of joy/pleasure upfront, but that enjoyment doesn't necessarily increase with time (e.g. fine dining [1]). Others aren't necessarily fun when you start learning them, but you can get better for years and years, and the enjoyment keeps increasing, too (e.g. tennis).

Besides, there are only 24 hours in a day.

Two years ago, I came up with a somewhat unusual metric, but I've found myself coming back to it ever since. 

The heuristic is pretty simple: "When doing thing __X___, how easily, and how long for, do I forget that I have a smartphone in my pocket/backpack/car?"

(Winner so far: fly fishing.)

[1] I realize many foodies will disagree. I believe they enjoy each meal more as their knowledge increases and palate gets more educated. It just doesn't work that way for me.

Jan Sramek
tag:blog.jansramek.com,2013:Post/1306428 2018-07-25T23:11:16Z 2018-11-16T19:39:12Z Pharmacy as an allegory for our food-sickcare industrial complex

Walk into the average pharmacy, especially in the US/UK.

Half the aisles contain addictive stuff that makes you sick. The other half carry addictive stuff that mitigates just enough of the symptoms to keep you consuming more of the former.

In many cases, the same company produces goods of both types.

This is a bit exaggerated.

Unfortunately, it's also mostly true.

Jan Sramek
tag:blog.jansramek.com,2013:Post/1304546 2018-07-19T21:35:46Z 2018-07-19T21:38:55Z CO2 Capture

Two and a half years ago, I wrote down my best guess for what will happen regarding climate change:

  1. We should try to minimize CO2 emissions.
  2. But, given the incentive structure, we'll most likely fail to eliminate enough, quickly enough.
  3. Since cost of geo-engineering the atmosphere to let through less sunshine is low, at least one actor (private or government entity) will most likely attempt to cool down the planet, at least temporarily ("put sunglasses on the planet").

A month ago, some new data and claims came out on CO2 capture technologies, suggesting that the cost of removing a ton of CO2 could be closer to $100-200, rather than the $600 we had long thought was the minimum cost we could achieve.

$100-$200/ton is still more expensive than what it costs us to reduce our emissions by a ton (~$80). So most people dismissed the new findings as interesting, but not particularly impactful.

They're missing the point though. As Noah Smith articulated in his excellent tweet storm, CO2 Capture gets cheaper with scale, whereas the cost of reducing our emissions gets exponentially more expensive with every ton.

I'm cautiously optimistic about the potential of CO2 Capture — as a research field, and maybe even as an industry.

Jan Sramek