Month: June 2020

UK fact of the day

#COVID19 mortality in UK hospital patients has been falling steadily from >6% in March to ~1% now, with similar trends elsewhere. The reasons behind this pattern remain unclear, but #COVID19 Infection Fatality Rates will likely have to be revised downward. tinyurl.com/ybnlmkdz

That is from Francis Balloux.  And again here is the source link.  And please do not conclude the virus is becoming less dangerous, that is not a necessary implication of the above!  Alternative explanations are given at the latter link.  Most broadly, I will say it again: if your model does not have long-run elasticities as much greater than short-run elasticities, it is likely to be off in some significant ways.

Tuesday assorted links

How to Live in a World Gone Mad?

A long-time reader asks for advice:

I’ve been a MR reader for years. It sounds like you’re concerned about cancel culture and the associated political situation. I’m from eastern europe and caught the tail end of communism. What’s happening now in the US terrifies me. It seems like every week I learn that someone I respect is being tried in a court of public opinion for crimes that didn’t exist six months ago.

I’m in Silicon Valley, and realistically it’s impossible to operate here without lying. And I’m not right wing either, I’ve always considered myself a liberal! Some people seem to be dealing with it all right, but having to maintain a facade really eats at me. I effectively have to self-quarantine in a political closet. I hate it. I never could have imagined that I would need to choose between truthful expression and career/friendships in America. There’s always some finesse in human interaction of course, but this is so qualitatively different it may as well be another country altogether.

Do you have any advice for how to act, survive, and thrive in this political climate? I don’t know how to navigate this at all.

Social media has messed with our minds. The madness of crowds used to be limited by geography, time, and transaction cost–all of which have been lessened by social media. As a result, the crowds are now bigger and madder. And our brains, which are finely tuned to listen to the crowd (meaning the tribe or village ala Dunbar’s number), are overwhelmed when the crowd is in the thousands or millions. We should discount signals which come at the cost of a tweet but we can’t and so the pressures to conform are intense. If your job isn’t protected, stay off social media or at least use a pseudonym. Even if you do nothing today, the crowd may come after you years later so you can never feel safe.

I wish I had better answers. Readers?

Let’s stop calling it “voodoo economics”

I have lived in Haiti my whole life, there is no demonic energy. Instead i believe Haiti is filled with mystical energy and its clear with the vibrant culture we hold dear to our hearts. ALSO Voodoo is not a demonic religion. To give thanks to your ancestors is beautiful

That is from Aurélie Wulff.  And here are Vodou Sacred Sites of Haiti.

How to identify interesting boats and sailors

I know nothing about this topic, so thought I should pass along this email from MR reader Edward Dixon:

Having benefited from your advice on restaurants, I thought I would pass on some simple tips for the identification of interesting boats & interesting sailors.

The method is actually a little like finding an interesting restaurant: most of the boats you see are more or less in the form in which they left the boatyard that built them.  You can think of them and their owners as being akin to chain restaurants.   These are the ones to ignore!

Watch instead for boats:
– Ignore anything suggested of a racing pedigree
– Equipped to sail. Two masts are better than one.  Gaff rigs and junk rigs are also interesting indicators.  The limited speed but unlimited range are attributes of sail that act as a sort of filder.
– extra hardware bolted on top, like a solar panel / wind-vane combination
– A complicated-looking wind-vane attachment bolted onto the stern indicates self-steering gear
– A cupola or dome, a little reminiscent of a turret on top of a WWII bomber somewhere on the coach-roof.
– Indications that the boat is a home-build – possible harder for you to assess

Boats with quirks tend to contain interesting people; often they have made Unconventional Life Choices, including of course long sea voyages, often solo.  They have often made extraordinary efforts to go to sea – I once met a man in late middle age who had crossed the Irish Sea in an easterly gale in a 17ft open boat he had constructed himself using (non-marine-grade) plywood, and who was engaged in a boat-based camping tour of Ireland.  This turned out to be entirely consistent with the rest of his history.

Interesting boat folk, like interesting restaurants, are out there to be found, once you learn a few heuristics.

Do walls work?

To be clear, I do not favor building the Trump Wall (at all), still I am willing to present relevant evidence when it appears. Here is the abstract of a new paper by Benjamin Feigenberg:

This paper estimates the impact of the US-Mexico border fence on US-Mexico migration by exploiting variation in the timing and location of US government investment in fence construction. Using Mexican survey data and data I collected on fence construction, I find that construction in a municipality reduces migration by 27 percent for municipality residents and 15 percent for residents of adjacent municipalities. In addition, construction reduces migration by up to 35 percent from non-border municipalities. I also find that construction induces migrants to substitute toward alternative crossing locations, disproportionately deters low-skilled migrants, and reduces the number of undocumented Mexicans in the United States.

That is from American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, you should be able to click through the captcha and get to the paper.

Monday assorted links

1. Deaths are still falling.  Including in some key states.  Don’t take this for granted (at all), but be accordingly suspicious of those who are not dealing with this fact in some manner.

2. Dick Cavett interviews James Baldwin.

3. China is now starting to use a vaccine on its military.

4. Miami fact of the day (NYT): “One-third of all patients admitted to the city’s main public hospital over the past two weeks after going to the emergency room for car-crash injuries and other urgent problems have tested positive for the coronavirus.”

5. Five-day course of Remdesivir will be priced at $2,340.  One-third more for insurers, cheaper in other countries.

6. Will higher ed just snap back?

7. Claims about virus mutation, and increased infectiousness (speculative, but at the very least an important caution about all the premature moralizing you are seeing.  I at least know I don’t know enough to judge this one, do the other commentators you are reading?).

The Long-Term Belief-Scarring Effects of COVID-19

The largest economic cost of the COVID-19 pandemic could arise from changes in behavior long after the immediate health crisis is resolved. A potential source of such a long-lived change is scarring of beliefs, a persistent change in the perceived probability of an extreme, negative shock in the future. We show how to quantify the extent of such belief changes and determine their impact on future economic outcomes. We find that the long-run costs for the U.S. economy from this channel is many times higher than the estimates of the short-run losses in output. This suggests that, even if a vaccine cures everyone in a year, the Covid-19 crisis will leave its mark on the US economy for many years to come.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Julian Kozlowski, Laura Veldkamp, and Venky Venkateswaran.

Singapore facts of the day

At Changi, one of the world’s great travel hubs, traffic plunged from 5.9 million passengers in January to a mere 25,200 in April — a 99.5 percent drop. The number of airlines serving the airport collapsed from 91 to 35. Two of the four main terminals have been temporarily mothballed; plans for a fifth have been set back at least two years.

Here is the full article, about the retreat of globalization.

Why and how does DARPA work?

Program Managers

At the end of the day the ARPA Model depends on badass program managers. Why is this the case? PMs need to think for themselves and go up and down the ladder of abstraction in an unstructured environment. On top of that they need to be effective communicators and coordinators because so much of their jobs is building networks. There’s a pattern that the abstract qualities that make “great talent” in different high-variance industries boils down to the ability to successfully make things happen under a lot of uncertainty. Given that pattern, the people who would make good DARPA PMs would also make good hedge fund analysts, first employees at startups, etc. so digging into people’s motivations for becoming a PM is important. More precise details about what makes a PM good prevent you from going after the exact same people as every other high-variance industry. When ‘talent’ isn’t code for ‘specialized training’ it means the role or industry has not been systematized. Therefore, despite all the talk here and elsewhere about ‘the ARPA Model’ we must keep in mind that we may be attributing more structure to the process than actually exists.

DARPA program managers pull control and risk away from both researchers and directors. PMs pull control away from directors by having only one official checkpoint before launching programs and pull control away from performers through their ability to move money around quickly. PMs design programs to be high-risk aggregations of lower-risk projects. Only 5–10 out of every 100 programs successfully produce transformative research, while only 10% of projects are terminated early. Shifting the risk from the performers to the program managers enables DARPA to tackle systemic problems where other models cannot.

That is one excerpt from a new and excellent essay by Benjamin Reinhardt, one of the best pieces of this year, via Patrick Collison.

Note also that DARPA underpays staff, does not hire individuals with a significant web presence, deliberately stays small, and makes it easy to reallocate funds on the fly.  The program managers do not work there for any longer than four or five years, by design.

Can Philosophy Make People Generous?

Schwitzgebel and Rust famously found that professors of ethics are no more ethical than other professors. Peter Singer being perhaps a famous exception to the rule. In follow-up research Schwitzgebel and psychologist Fiery Cushman tried to find philosophical arguments to change people’s willingness to donate to charity. They were unable to find any. But perhaps they just weren’t good at coming up with effective philosophical arguments. Thus, they challenged moral philosophers and psychologists to a contest:

Can you write a philosophical argument that effectively convinces research participants to donate money to charity?

By a philosophical argument they meant an argument and not an appeal to pity or emotion. No pictures of people clubbing baby seals. The contest had 100 entrants which were winnowed down in a series of tests.

The test had people read the arguments and then decide how much of a promised payment they would they like to give to charity. An average of $2.58 was contributed to charity (of $10) in the control group (no argument). The best argument increased giving by 54% to $3.98. Not bad.

Here’s the argument which won:

Many people in poor countries suffer from a condition called trachoma. Trachoma is the major cause of preventable blindness in the world. Trachoma starts with bacteria that get in the eyes of children, especially children living in hot and dusty conditions where hygiene is poor. If not treated, a child with trachoma bacteria will begin to suffer from blurred vision and will gradually go blind, though this process may take many years. A very cheap treatment is available that cures the condition before blindness develops. As little as $25, donated to an effective agency, can prevent someone going blind later in life.

How much would you pay to prevent your own child becoming blind? Most of us would pay $25,000, $250,000, or even more, if we could afford it. The suffering of children in poor countries must matter more than one-thousandth as much as the suffering of our own child. That’s why it is good to support one of the effective agencies that are preventing blindness from trachoma, and need more donations to reach more people.

Now here’s the kicker. The winning argument was submitted by Peter Singer and Matthew Lindauer. Singer is clearly screwing with Schwitzgebel’s research!

You can read some of other effective arguments here. I don’t think it’s an accident that the winning argument was the shortest and also the least purely philosophical. I’m not saying Singer and Lindauer cheated, but compared to the other arguments the Singer-Lindauer argument is concrete and by making people think of their own children, likely to arouse emotion. That too is a lesson.

Why I like Nate Silver

There are standard reasons to like Nate Silver, which I do not wish to deny.  But here is what I find striking: whenever he considers political or normative questions, he continues to use his full range of intellect and emotional maturity.

Many other commentators, once they run into normative or philosophical issues, or perhaps issues of political theory, or even political science, pull out arbitrary unsupported dogmatisms and partisan mood affiliation.  Or perhaps they will use correct but shallow truisms they heard on the radio or read in a magazine or newspaper, without realizing that deeper levels of analysis are possible.  Or they may use incorrect but shallow truisms from MSM.  Either way, at some point the analysis simply falls apart, even if many of its constituent parts are well-informed or perhaps even expert.

It seems to me that Nate avoids this.  I now consider this an increasingly important quality in commentators, especially if those commentators are active on social media.

And it is not that I agree with Nate all of the time on politics.  I’m not saying this “because he ends up where I am.”

I will try to think about who else is very good in this regard, and how we might nourish this quality in ourselves.