The greatest book(s) on Africa ever written?

Yes, I am talking about the new seven-volume set Architectural Guide to Sub-Saharan Africa.  I am now about halfway through volume II, and will read the rest, albeit slowly.  The books have plenty of text and also a lot of quality photographs.  While they are easy to read, they are not actually fast going.

These books have dozens of authors, so a systematic review misses the point. But just think: do you need to read yet another largely political history of Africa, detailing the conflict in Biafra, the fall of apartheid in South Africa, and the Mugabe dictatorship in Zimbabwe?  At what I hope are your current margins, what exactly are you going to learn?

Should you instead read seven volumes about how Africans (and sometimes non-Africans) have built Africa?  Its homes.  Its businesses.  Its government buildings and non-profit centers.  Its churches and mosques.  What Africa looks like and why.  Every significant discussion is accompanied by a relevant photograph.

Is that not a more important learning?

Where else can you find a sub-chapter “Beyond Design: Finnish Architects in Senegal”?  Which are in fact the most notable vistas in the Nouakchott fish market?  Why does it seem that no building in Mauretania is next to any other building in Mauretania?  (I am reading the West Africa volume, obviously.)

Definitely recommended, a notable achievement.

The whip-banning polity that is Reno

The Reno City Council voted to ban the possession and use of whips without a permit in downtown Reno on Wednesday.

Councilwoman Jenny Brekhus, who said she was not present when the ordinance was introduced, was the only no vote.

Brekhus said that she wants the ordinance applied city-wide and expressed concern that as is, the ban targets certain demographics.

City attorney Karl Hall explained that the ordinance is restricted to the downtown area because complaints to the police were concentrated in that area. He added that there may be areas outside of downtown where whips may be useful.

…Hall also said that those who have a legitimate use for a whip downtown can receive a permit.

This second article I find stranger yet:

The change approved Wednesday comes after police reported a steep increase over the past two years of 911 calls from residents who mistake the sound of a cracking whip for gunfire.

He said they’re also being used in public areas for fights and intimidation.

Lily Baran spoke against the ordinance earlier on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union. She said that the homeless community is known for using the whips and that the ordinance will “perpetuate the criminalization of the unhoused.”

Model that!  Here is the full main story, via the estimable Chug.

Friday assorted links

1. The culture that is Cook Islands quarantine.  They just got back from the Tokyo Olympics.

2. Pierce Brosnan and Colm Toibin are on board with Jack Yeats.

3. 18,000 people in a single building (St. Petersburg, Russia).

4. Otters are moving into Singapore.

5. Haitink dead.  And Yundi Li is in trouble.

6. My University of Kentucky talk on why big tech is underrated.

7. Claims about ports and supply chains.

8. Erik Hoel has predictions for 2050 (oddly he criticizes one of my predictions and then goes on to make a version of the same himself).

The Price of COVID-19 Risk In A Public University

Wow. Duha Altindag, Samuel Cole and R. Alan Seals Jr, three professors in the economics department at Auburn University, study their own university’s COVID policies. The administration defied the Alabama Governor’s public health order on social distancing and created their own policy which caused enrollment in about half of the face-to-face classes to exceed legal limits. Professors assigned to teach these riskier classes were less powerful, albeit they were paid more to take on the risk. I am told that the administration is not happy. I hope the authors have tenure.

We study a “market” for occupational COVID-19 risk at Auburn University, a large public school in the US. The university’s practices in Spring 2021 caused approximately half of the face-to-face classes to have enrollments above the legal capacity allowed by state law, which followed CDC’s social distancing guidelines. Our results suggest that the politically less powerful instructors, such as graduate student teaching assistants and adjunct instructors, as well as women, were systematically recruited to deliver their courses in riskier classrooms. Using the dispersibility of each class as an instrument for classroom risk, our IV estimates obtained from hedonic wage regressions show that instructors who taught at least one risky class were paid more than those who exclusively taught safe courses. We estimate a COVID-19 risk premium of $8,400 per class.

What I’ve been reading

1. Paul A. Offit, You Bet Your Life: From Blood Transfusions to Mass Vaccination, the Long and Risky History of Medical Innovation.  The stories and anecdotes are fun, most of all about the early history of the polio vaccine and how poorly some of the process went.  By the end of the book, however, it doesn’t add up to very much.  The underlying theme is that early innovation is fraught with risk, but Offit is unwilling to draw straightforward conclusions that we should be more tolerant of such risks.  He instead inveighs against the “disturbing show of hubris” from the recent vaccine manufacturers.  Is that really the problem right now?  (How many ways are there for the biomedical establishment to show that its “anti-expected value, anti-corporate” side can morph into subtle forms of anti-vaxx sentiment?)  He also has the annoying tendency, like many of his peers, to dismiss massive ethical issues with a single paragraph that would not withstand scrutiny in an undergraduate philosophy course.  Yes, we will always treat sins of commission as more important than sins of omission, as Offit argues.  But does he endorse this approach?  (He won’t say.)  Does he think we should vary our practices here at the margin?  (He won’t say.  Too inconvenient!)  Still, the book is informative and enjoyable enough, so I don’t regret buying it or finishing it.  But if you are looking for a “biomedical establishment punching bag,” well it is that too.

Straussian Beatles, Paul McCartney solo edition

One thing I’ve always enjoyed about Paul is his willingness to be a plain, flat outright snot about other people.  Did you see lately when he called the Rolling Stones “a blues cover band”?  Not wrong!  Ever listen to the lyrics of “Another Girl“?

Anyway, if you paw through the Ram album you will find some real daggers.  “Dear Boy,” for instance, is Paul mocking Linda’s ex-husband, here are some lyrics:

I guess you never knew, dear boy, what you have found,
I guess you never knew, dear boy,
That she was just the cutest thing around,
I guess you never knew what you have found,
Dear boy.

I guess you never knew, dear boy,
That love was there.
And maybe when you look to hard, dear boy,
You never do become aware,
I guess you never did become aware,
Dear boy.

When i stepped in, my heart was down and out,
But her love came through and brought me ’round,
Got me up and about…

I hope you never know, dear boy,
How much you missed.
And even when you fall in love, dear boy,
It won’t be half as good as this.
I hope you never know how much you missed,
Dear boy, how much you missed

Maybe it’s OK to take public stabs at your new wife’s ex-husband (is it?), but keep in mind Paul was raising the guy’s daughter at the time.  What did she think?  Or maybe up in that Scottish farm she just never listened to Ram, or this song.  Paul himself has admitted the underlying meaning in radio interviews.  The guy, by the way, committed suicide — woe unto him who is attacked by Paul McCartney!

Brian Wilson, by the way, was a big admirer of the voices and harmonies on that one, here is the cut.

Gentler but still cutting is “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey“.  It’s Paul’s account of why he has not been calling “the rellies” back home, namely because they are too boring and too removed from the reality of his life.  Paul is reporting (sarcastically) that his life is too boring to have anything to say to the guy:

We’re so sorry, uncle Albert
We’re so sorry if we caused you any pain
We’re so sorry, uncle Albert
But there’s no one left at home
And I believe I’m gonna rain

We’re so sorry, but we haven’t heard a thing all day
We’re so sorry, uncle Albert
But if anything should happen
We’ll be sure to give a ring

We’re so sorry, uncle Albert
But we haven’t done a bloody thing all day
We’re so sorry, uncle Albert
But the kettle’s on the boil
And we’re so easily called away

Of course he really did have an Uncle Albert, and I bet he didn’t call much.  Can you blame him?  This interpretation, by the way, comes from Paul himself, many years later on satellite radio.

“Too Many People” — the paradigmatic Macca Straussian song deserves a post of its own.  It has more passive-aggressive references to John Lennon than are usually reported.

And that is all just on one album!  Here are previous installments of Straussian Beatles.  By the way, “Yesterday” may in part be about the early death of Paul’s mother.

Thursday assorted links

1. Why so little eSports in Japan?

2. Are emergency sirens dangerous? (NYT, though it seems they help recruit volunteers in rural areas).

3. Which vehicle prices are up the most and the least?  Can you model this?

4. NYT on the postliberal Right and Orban.  A more serious piece than you might have been expecting.

5. Department of counterproductive responses, philosophers’ edition.

6. A (bad, mood-affiliated) critique of long-termism.

7. No more flow for the flow guy, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Understanding the Rise in Life Expectancy Inequality

By Gordon B. Dahl et.al.:

We provide a novel decomposition of changing gaps in life expectancy between rich and poor into differential changes in age-specific mortality rates and differences in “survivability”. Declining age-specific mortality rates increases life expectancy, but the gain is small if the likelihood of living to this age is small (ex ante survivability) or if the expected remaining lifetime is short (ex post survivability). Lower survivability of the poor explains between one-third and one-half of the recent rise in life expectancy inequality in the US and the entire change in Denmark. Our analysis shows that the recent widening of mortality rates between rich and poor due to lifestyle-related diseases does not explain much of the rise in life expectancy inequality. Rather, the dramatic 50% reduction in cardiovascular deaths, which benefited both rich and poor, made initial differences in lifestyle-related mortality more consequential via survivability.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.  And RAD from the comments: “Greater survivability of cardio vascular events allows lifestyle choices to catch-up with people.”

Optimism about Mexico a story of compounding returns

Current per capital income measures at about 19k PPP.  Apply 2.2% growth for 30-35 years and Mexico then approaches the living standard of today’s UK or South Korea!  Since 1994, Mexico’s average growth rate has been 2.09%, including Covid times, so that is hardly outlandish as an assumption.

Here is my latest Bloomberg column on that topic.  Here is one excerpt:

In the meantime, there are reasons to be bullish on Mexico right now. One is that economic globalization has been somewhat halted, and in some areas even reversed. To the extent Americans do not trust Chinese supply chains, the Mexican economy will pick up some of the slack. Mexico is also the natural lower-wage supplier to North American industry. (Its main problem in this regard is that its wages are no longer so low, but that too reflects its progress.)

And if tourism in Asia and Europe remains difficult or inconvenient, Americans will visit Mexico more and grow accustomed to holidaying in locales other than Cancun. Some of those habits are likely to stick.

I do also cover the ifs, and, or buts.  And:

Mexico, like much of Latin America, also has a burgeoning startup scene, especially in ecommerce and fintech. Mexico City might end up as the technology capital of [Spanish-speaking] Latin America. That would help with one of Mexico’s chronic economic problems, namely that small firms decide to stay small to escape regulations and taxes. Successful tech startups, in contrast, can scale more easily and face fewer regulations on average than manufacturing firms.

Recommended.

My Conversation with Stanley McChrystal

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

He joined Tyler to discuss whether we’ve gotten better or worse at analyzing risk, the dangerous urge among policymakers to oversimplify the past, why being a good military commander is about more than winning battlefield victories, why we’re underestimating the risk that China will invade Taiwan, how to maintain a long view of history, what set Henry Kissinger apart, the usefulness of war games, how well we understand China and Russia, why there haven’t been any major attacks on US soil since 9/11, the danger of a “soldier class” in America, his take on wokeness and the military, what’s needed to have women as truly senior commanders in the armed forces, why officers with bad experiences should still be considered for promotion, how to address extremists in the military, why he supports a draft, the most interesting class he took at West Point, how to care for disabled veterans, his advice to enlisted soldiers on writing a will, the most emotionally difficult part and greatest joys of his military career, the prospect of drone assassinations, what he eats for his only meal of the day, why he’s done writing books, and more.

And:

COWEN: If we had to shrink one capacity of the military, say, by 50 percent, and double the capacity of another, what would you pick to shrink and what to expand?

MCCHRYSTAL: This is always the tough one. I tend to think that the maneuver warfare part that we have created for ground warfare in Europe or in the Mideast is probably somewhere where we have to accept some risk. We have to have fewer capabilities there. You could even argue maybe the number of aircraft carriers — big capital things.

I think where we can’t afford — and therefore, I would invest — is in really good people. Now, that seems like a simplistic answer, but we are going to need very crafty people at things like cyber warfare. We’re going to need very innovative people. We’re going to need people with cultural acuity, which means language skills, and that’s going to be more important. So if I was advocating, I’d be leaning toward resourcing harder in those areas.

COWEN: Now, of course, your father was a general. You come from a military family. Why is it that military recruitment, right now, is so well predicted by having had a parent in the armed forces? What’s driving that? And how can we take advantage of that to recruit additional people?

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, we’ve taken advantage of it to the point where it may be counterproductive now. When I would travel the battlefields and go to small bases, invariably, the sergeant or lieutenant in charge was the son or daughter of a friend of mine. In one way, it’s comforting because you know people have entered the service with open eyes and clear expectations, and they make good soldiers, but you don’t want a soldier class in America.

Definitely recommended, there is also a segment about disabled veterans and their rights.  And again here is Stan’s new book Risk: A User’s Guide, co-authored with Anna Butrico.

Wednesday assorted links

1. “It is said that bosses of the ‘Ndrangheta – godfathers and clan leaders – make their most important decisions in front of a plate of dormice…”

2. “A British bakery has been forced to pull its top-selling cookies from the market, after regulators informed the owner that the sprinkles are illegal. The U.S.-made sprinkles contain a coloring that’s legal for some uses — but not for sprinkling.”  Link here.

3. “We propose that people exhibit an insight bias, such that they undervalue persistence and overvalue insight in the creative process.

4. Vaccines in rural Kentucky.

5. No British newborn boys named “Nigel” in 2020.

6. Davis Kedrosky on the Great Coinage Debate.

Causal Inference at Twitter

Twitter engineering had a nice tweet thread on how they use econometrics and causal inference:

 You may have heard about this year’s Economics Nobel Prize winners – David Card, Josh Angrist (@metrics52) & Guido Imbens.

Their publicly available work has helped us solve tough problems @Twitter, and we’re excited to celebrate by sharing how their findings have inspired us. Understanding causal relationships is core to our work on identifying growth opportunities and measuring impact.

This year’s winners laid the foundation for cutting-edge techniques we use to understand where Twitter can improve and how changes affect our platform experience.
To share a few exciting causal inference applications at Twitter:

While online experimentation is helpful to understand the impact of a product change, it may not be the most efficient way to measure long-term impact. We built a causal estimation framework on the idea of statistical ‘surrogacy’ (Athey et al 2016) – when we can’t wait to observe long-run outcomes, we create a model based on intermediate data.

Estimating Treatment Effects using Multiple Surrogates: The Role of the Surrogate Score and the Surrogate Index

Estimating the long-term effects of treatments is of interest in many fields. A common challenge in estimating such treatment effects is that long-term outcomes are unobserved in the time frame needed. We combine this framework with our online experimentation platform to form a feedback/validation loop and to help accurately infer product success. One of the challenges we face is understanding the impact of different actions at Twitter (likes, Retweets etc.) Engagement actions often occur sequentially and at different surface areas. How to disentangle the effect of multiple actions presents many challenges.
We use Double Machine Learning to understand the causal impact of engagement actions.

Our work leverages research by Chernozhukov et al. (2018), and is influenced by Imbens & Rubin (2015).

Causal Inference for Statistics, Social, and Biomedical Sciences
This framework helps the team to interpret search experiments and make Twitter a better place to serve the public conversation. These applications promote a better understanding of tradeoffs among competing signals, helping our engineering team to iterate fast under more principled measurement and decision frameworks, making Twitter a better platform to create and share ideas and information.

We’re grateful for the role that academic research plays in driving innovation across society. We couldn’t do this work without the methodological foundation of the winners’ work and contributions across academia. Work like this inspires product innovation and engineering ideas alike, and we look forward to all that is yet to come.

More details on Twitter Data Science work will be introduced in our upcoming Engineering Blog posts.

Long soccer Covid

This paper estimates the workplace productivity effects of COVID-19 by studying performance of soccer players after an
infection. We construct a dataset that encompasses all traceable infections in the elite leagues of Germany and Italy. Relying on a staggered difference-in-differences design, we identify negative short- and longer-run performance effects. Relative to their preinfection outcomes, infected players’ performance temporarily drops by more than 6%.Over half a year later, it is still around 5% lower.

Here is the full paper, by Kai Fischer, J. James Reade, and W. Benedikt Schmal, via Florian Ederer.  How about chess?

Medicaid coverage doesn’t seem to help for diabetes and asthma

…we use Oregon’s 2008 Medicaid lottery to assess the management of diabetes and asthma, as well as several markers of physical health. This analysis complements several prior studies by introducing new data elements and by analyzing chronically ill subpopulations. While we had previously found that having insurance increases the diagnosis and use of medication for diabetes, we show here that it does not significantly increase the likelihood of diabetic patients receiving recommended care such as eye exams and regular blood sugar monitoring, nor does it improve the management of patients with asthma. We also find no effect on measures of physical health including pulse, obesity, or blood markers of chronic inflammation. Effects of Medicaid on health care utilization appear similar for those with and without pre-lottery diagnoses of chronic physical health conditions. Thus, while Medicaid is an important determinant of access to care overall, it does not appear that Medicaid alone has detectable effects on the management of several chronic physical health conditions, at least over the first two years in this setting. However, sample limitations highlight the value of additional research.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Heidi Allen and Katherine Baicker.  To be clear, my intuition here is to blame “medicine,” and also the patients, not Medicaid per se.