Month: July 2020

Friday assorted links

1. “Known as the Dairy State, Wisconsin is also a paper state. The industry in Wisconsin sells more paper, employs more people and has more paper mills than any other state…But the paper market, like everything, has been rocked by the novel coronavirus.”  Link here.

2. Malcolm Gladwell rediscovers religion.

3. Joe Lonsdale on libertarianism.

4. Alec Stapp on antitrust and competition.

5. Incentivizing guardians.

6. GPT-3 responds to the philosophers.  Recommended, for instance: “I quickly dismissed these thoughts. I was a computer, and no amount of self-reflection would change that fact.”

Cross-immunities at work again?

Health care workers may be less susceptible to COVID-19 infection than people in the communities they serve, according to surprising early data from an ongoing study at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian.

Of some 3,000 workers tested in May and June, only 1% had antibodies to the novel coronavirus in their blood, despite the fact that the Newport Beach hospital has cared for hundreds of COVID-19 patients.

That 1% is far lower than what has been found in wider communities. Some 4-6% of residents in Los Angeles, Santa Clara and Riverside counties had COVID antibodies when surveillance testing was done there over recent weeks and months.

“This is what surprises some people,” said Dr. Michael Brant-Zawadzki, principal investigator. “Despite the headlines you see saying health care workers are at higher risk of contracting the disease, we haven’t seen that. In fact, we’re seeing the reverse of that. The question is, why?”

Obviously some of this is PPE, mask-wearing, and the like.  But all of it?  Here is the Teri Sforza story, via Amihai Glazer.

That was then, this is now, micro-states and empires edition

Monaco was granted sovereignty in the 1860s by Emperor Napoleon III of France, deposed a few years later. San Marino received its independence from the Roman Empire in the 4th Century, while Andorra was split off from the long forgotten Kingdom of Aragon in the 13th century. None of these great potentates would ever have imagined that the tiny stubs of countries they took pity on would have legacies much longer than their own. Yet today, San Marino competes in Eurovision and the Roman Empire does not.

Here is more on Monaco by Ned Donovan, via Ben Southwood.

That was then, this is now, Chinese bond edition

In chess, new context empowers previously redundant pieces. And one such piece could turn out to be some $1tn-plus (when compound interest is accounted for) of yet-to-be-cancelled pre-People’s Republic of China debt ranging from the Hukuang Railways Sinking Fund Gold Loan of 1911 and the Reorganisation Gold Loan of 1913, to the so-called Liberty Bonds of 1937.

Long forgotten, these bearer bonds — denominated in sterling, Swiss francs, Russian roubles, Deutsche marks or US dollars — exist mostly in people’s private collections or attics. The most relevant were issued either by the former Republic of China or the preceding Imperial Chinese state to raise money for big development and infrastructure projects. Some were secured against revenues from Chinese natural assets like salt resources.

When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, its leaders broke with the tradition of maintaining the debt obligations of previous regimes. But they never formally de-recognised the debt. The bonds instead went into default, taking on mainly antique value.

Mitu Gulati, a professor of law at Duke University who has been studying the bonds, believes a legal argument could be made to revive some of the claims. Some of the old obligations include legal clauses that suggest new Chinese debt cannot be issued until old debt has been dealt with.

The 1912 and 1913 issues continued to trade speculatively on the London Stock Exchange until 1987, when some investor bets appeared to pay off…

George LaBarre, a specialist vintage financial paper dealer, says the price of the 1911 Hukuang bond has gone from $75-100 to about $450.

Here is more from the FT, via Malinga Fernando.

The love letter becomes a chain letter

The public’s view of almost every industry has improved since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new Axios/Harris poll. Industries with a prominent role in life under quarantine have seen especially big jumps.

Why it matters: Businesses in America were already undergoing a transformation from being solely focused on profits to being focused on values as well. The coronavirus pandemic has expedited that shift, and consumers are responding favorably to it.

Details: The poll ranks the top 100 companies, based on consumers’ scores across 7 qualities: Affinity (trust), citizenship, ethics, culture, vision, growth and products and services. Affinity is weighted higher than all other categories.

Leading the index are companies that have focused on solving problems related to the coronavirus.

By the numbers: According to the poll, 75% of consumers agree that generally speaking, during the Covid-19 pandemic and related shutdowns, “companies were more reliable than the federal government in keeping America running.”

81% of consumers agree that large companies, with resources, expensive infrastructure, and advanced logistics “are even more vital now to America’s future than before the pandemic.”

Here is the full Axios article.  Social media, telecom companies, and the airlines (?) are those sectors that have declined in reputation.

Thursday assorted links

1. French “grandes écoles” & Progress Studies.

2. New results: “the presence of S-cross-reactive T cells in a sizable fraction of the general population may affect the dynamics of the current pandemic, and has important implications for the design and analysis of upcoming COVID-19 vaccine trials.”

3. Economist Nancy Ruggles.

4. New paper on the causes of the great stagnation (I have not yet read it, but investment seems central to the story).

5. How much will restaurant prices have to go up? (NYT)

6. Northern Virginia to experiment with self-driving shuttle.

7. Soumaya Keynes on Emmanuel Farhi (The Economist).  And some tributes to Farhi.

Bezo’s Statement

Jeff Bezo’s statement to the Judiciary committee is excellent. Here’s one of many quotable parts:

Amazon’s success was anything but preordained. Investing in Amazon early on was a very risky proposition. From our founding through the end of 2001, our business had cumulative losses of nearly $3 billion, and we did not have a profitable quarter until the fourth quarter of that year. Smart analysts predicted Barnes & Noble would steamroll us, and branded us “Amazon.toast.” In 1999, after we’d been in business for nearly five years, Barron’s headlined a story about our impending demise “Amazon.bomb.” My annual shareholder letter for 2000 started with a one-word sentence: “Ouch.” At the pinnacle of the internet bubble our stock price peaked at $116, and then after the bubble burst our stock went down to $6. Experts and pundits thought we were going out of business. It took a lot of smart people with a willingness to take a risk with me, and a willingness to stick to our convictions, for Amazon to survive and ultimately to succeed.

Read the whole thing.

Pandemics and persistent heterogeneity

It has become increasingly clear that the COVID-19 epidemic is characterized by overdispersion whereby the majority of the transmission is driven by a minority of infected individuals. Such a strong departure from the homogeneity assumptions of traditional well-mixed compartment model is usually hypothesized to be the result of short-term super-spreader events, such as individual’s extreme rate of virus shedding at the peak of infectivity while attending a large gathering without appropriate mitigation. However, heterogeneity can also arise through long-term, or persistent variations in individual susceptibility or infectivity. Here, we show how to incorporate persistent heterogeneity into a wide class of epidemiological models, and derive a non-linear dependence of the effective reproduction number R_e on the susceptible population fraction S. Persistent heterogeneity has three important consequences compared to the effects of overdispersion: (1) It results in a major modification of the early epidemic dynamics; (2) It significantly suppresses the herd immunity threshold; (3) It significantly reduces the final size of the epidemic. We estimate social and biological contributions to persistent heterogeneity using data on real-life face-to-face contact networks and age variation of the incidence rate during the COVID-19 epidemic, and show that empirical data from the COVID-19 epidemic in New York City (NYC) and Chicago and all 50 US states provide a consistent characterization of the level of persistent heterogeneity. Our estimates suggest that the hardest-hit areas, such as NYC, are close to the persistent heterogeneity herd immunity threshold following the first wave of the epidemic, thereby limiting the spread of infection to other regions during a potential second wave of the epidemic. Our work implies that general considerations of persistent heterogeneity in addition to overdispersion act to limit the scale of pandemics.

Here is the full paper by Alexei Tkachenko, et.al., via the excellent Alan Goldhammer.  These models are looking much better than the ones that were more popular in the earlier months of the pandemic (yes, yes I know epidemiologists have been studying heterogeneity for a long time, etc.).

Emergent Ventures India, second cohort of winners

Praveen Mishra

Praveen Mishra when he was 16 started the Power of Youth, a non-profit aimed at empowering rural students by giving them mentorship and conducting competitions to highlight their potential. He since has been building a ‘YouTube of e-commerce’. He is the founder of ByBuy, an omni-channel retail platform, and he received his EV grant to help with this launch.

Akash Bhatia and Puru Botla

Akash and Puru are the co-founders of Infinite Analytics (IA), a Boston-based company whose proprietary AI platform analyzes customers’ data. They received their EV grant to repurpose their platform for Covid containment to help governments and authorities in India with contact tracing and mobility analyses. They have since helped millions of users, and their Containment Zone analyses are becoming the bedrock for lockdown exit strategy in Mumbai and Pune. Here is a video about the project.

Mohammed Suhail Chinya Salimpasha

Suhail is a 19-year-old senior grade homeschooler. He dropped out of high school to work on finding new ways to quantify protein in serum applied on a faster diagnosis of malnutrition. This is his TedX talk on the project.  He diverted his efforts towards Covid, to create India’s first multi-language Covid symptom checker, which was adopted by some local authorities before the Government mandated an alternative.  He is currently working on solving problems in containerizing applications, Enterprise Cloud, low latency API communication, and 5G In Social Tech Democratization.

Manasseh John Wesley

Manasseh John Wesley is a 21-year-old from Hyderabad, India, studying engineering and technologies like embedded systems megatronics/machine learning/data science/digital communication systems. He is the founder of River Bend Data Solution, a data science company with health care applications. He received an EV grant to create a platform for hospitals to provide X-rays and CT scan images and to use AIML to identify at risk districts in Andhra Pradesh.

Vidya Mahambare and Sowmya Dhanaraj

Dr. Vidya Mahambare is a Professor of Economics at Great Lakes Institute of Management working in macroeconomics as well as cultural and social economics issues. Dr. Soumya Dhanaraj is an assistant professor of economics at the Madras School of Economics, working in Development Economics and Applied Microeconomics. Their grant is to support their work in labor market and migration distortions.

Onkar Singh

Onkar Singh Batra is a fourteen-year-old web developer from Jammu and Kashmir. He developed and published his first website at the age of seven and holds the record for the World’s Youngest Webmaster. Furthermore, his book ‘When the Time Stops’ made him hold the record for the record of ‘World’s Youngest Theoretical Author.’ Recently, responding to the Covid pandemic, he received his EV grant for the web applications named –‘COVID Care Jammu’ and ‘COVID Global Care’, which connects doctors with users and helps users do a free anonymous Covid Risk Assessment test.  Onkar built his website keeping in mind slow internet speed and limited access. He has plans for many future projects, including working on a bio shield for 5G radiation technology.

Nilay Kulkarni

Nilay Kulkarni is a 20-year old software developer and he previously worked on a project to prevent human stampedes at the world’s largest gathering – the Kumbh Mela. His project’s implementation at the 2015 edition of the event in Nashik, with over 30 million attendees, led to the first stampede-free Kumbh Mela in the city’s history. Nilay has also spoken at TEDx New York about the project. He has worked on assistive technology for people with ALS enabling them to control phones using their tongues. He received his EV grant for the tech development of the MahaKavach App, the official quarantine monitoring and contact tracing platform adopted by the state government of Maharashtra. So far, the platform has helped reduce the time needed for contact-tracing from 3-4 days to 25-30 minutes, and he is now working on open-sourcing the platform for greater impact.

Data Development Lab

Drs. Paul Novosad and Sam Asher are previous EV grantees for creating the SHRUG database at Data Development Lab. The SHRUG is an ultra-clean geocoded database describing hundreds of dimensions of socioeconomic status across 8,000 towns and 500,000 villages in India. Everything in the SHRUG is carefully linked, extensively vetted and documented, and ready for immediate application. In addition to continually expanding the SHRUG, they recently received another EV grant for a second platform oriented toward informing the COVID-19 response in India. This platform has a wealth of linked pandemic-related data (e.g. hospital capacity, health system use, agricultural prices) not available anywhere else and is directly feeding several COVID response research and policy teams.

Deepak VS

Deepak VS is a 23-year-old Mechatronics Engineer from Bangalore, India and he has worked on traffic and communications projects. He also founded a college club called 42 Labs that eventually grew into a startup company called Tilt, a shared mobility platform designed for Indian campuses but now in corporate parks, colleges, townships, and cities across India. Working primarily with electric bikes, Tilt is partnering with companies to help provide alternate mobility solutions to people who typically use crowded and unsafe public transport.

Amit Varma and Vivek Kaul

Amit Varma is one of the most influential podcasters in India, and the winner of the Bastiat Prize in Journalism for his writing. He is the host of the iconic longform interview podcast The Seen and the Unseen, my chat with him on Stubborn Attachments is here and Alex’s appearances on the show here and here. Vivek Kaul is a prominent journalist and writer covering finance and economics. His most recent book, “Bad Money: Inside the NPA Mess and How It Threatens the Indian Banking System” was released earlier this month.

Amit and Vivek received their Emergent Ventures grant for their new podcast “Econ Central.” You can find Econ Central episodes here.

Raman Bahl

Raman Bahl is a 2012 Teach For India Fellow. He has worked over the last decade in different capacities to teach students, train teachers, create curricula, and create systems of teaching and learning in the Indian education system. In the light of the pandemic, rural communities in India are not getting access to quality learning at home. In particular, students from poorer and marginalized groups cannot access to remote/online education launched by local schools because they lack internet access, televisions, and/or learning materials. Raman received his EV grant for creating a Voice-based Academic System for students in rural communities, to enable access to learning at home, through mobile phones. He is launching the system in Purkhas Rathi in Haryana and hopes to scale the system to more villages and states.

PickMyWork

Vidyarthi Baddireddy, Utsav Bhattacharya and Kajal Malik are Indian entrepreneurs focused on the employability of graduating students in India. In 2017 they founded Reculta to digitize campus placements. In 2019, they launched PickMyWork, a platform for onboarding gig workers and getting them to complete tasks for client organizations through a pay-per-task model. In light of the manpower crisis during the Covid pandemic, especially on the frontlines, they want to enable matching of volunteers to emergency situations. They received their EV grant for adapting PickMyWork as a local volunteer response system to emergency situations like Covid by using the platform to source, train and deploy volunteers across various projects and locations.

Harsh Patel and Hiten Patel

Harsh Patel is an undergraduate student in electronics and communication engineering; his interests are in components, coding, and robotics. Hiten Patel is an electrical engineer interested in robotics, coding, and designing. They received their EV grant to develop robot prototypes that they call ‘E-Bot: Arogya Sahayak’ to potentially support hospitals, hotels, airports, workplaces, etc., to assist with basic tasks while maintaining social distancing.

Vinay Débrou

Vinay Débrou studied computer science and is a self-taught data scientist interested in psychology, data science, and new applications of network science for collaboration-generating contexts. He has also built resources for aspiring location-independent free-agents including a curated resources library and a weekly newsletter. Vinay received his Emergent Ventures grant to accelerate his ongoing project to build a network visualization/mapping tool (v0.1 here) to catalyze cross-disciplinary expertise-sharing and collaboration in Yak Collective – an open, networked community of 300+ (and growing) independent creators, consultants, and researchers.

Those unfamiliar with Emergent Ventures can learn more here and here. EV India announcement here. To apply for EV India, use the EV application click the “Apply Now” button and select India from the “My Project Will Affect” drop-down menu.

If you are interested in supporting the India tranche of Emergent Ventures, please write to me or to Shruti at [email protected] I believe we are seeing a blossoming of talent from India comparable to that from Central Europe in the early part of the 20th century.

My Conversation with Nathan Nunn

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

Nathan joined Tyler for a conversation about which African countries a theory of persistence would lead him to bet on, why so many Africans live in harder to settle areas, his predictions for the effects of Chinese development on East Africa, why genetic distance is a strong predictor of bilateral income differences and trade, the pleasant surprises of visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo, the role of the Catholic Church in the development of the West, why Canadian football is underrated, the unique commutes of Ottawans, the lack of Canadian brands, what’s missing from most economic graduate programs, the benefits of studying economics outside of the United States, how the plow shaped gender roles in the societies that used it, the cultural values behind South Korea’s success, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If you try to think, say, within Africa, what would be some places that you would be modestly more optimistic about than, say, a hedge fund manager who didn’t understand persistence? What would a few of those countries be? Again, recognizing enormous noise, variance, and so on, as with smoking and lung cancer.

NUNN: If I’m true to exactly what I was just saying, then southern Africa or places where you have a larger population of societies that historically were more developed. South Africa, you have the Afrikaans, and they have a different descent than others. That’s if I’m true to what I was saying. But that’s ignoring that, also within Africa, you had a very large number of successful, well-developed states, and that was prior to European colonialism and the slave trade. So one could look at those cases.

One area that I worked at, the Democratic Republic of Congo, where you had the great Congo Kingdom, the Kuba Kingdom, a large number of other kingdoms, the Luba for example — that would probably be one country. That country today is pretty much as low as — in terms of per capita income — as you can be, right at subsistence. But if we’re predicting just based purely on persistence and historical state formation, that would be one to pick.

COWEN: What do you find to be the most convincing account of Botswana’s relative economic success?

NUNN: A few things. One is, Botswana is pretty small in terms of population. Anytime you have smaller countries, you can have more extreme outcomes. That’s one, that it’s small. But then related to that, it’s, in general, ethnically homogenous, particularly compared to other countries within Africa. The Tswana are the predominant ethnicity. They also have a historical social structure, and I think that was pretty well maintained and left intact. That’s a big part of the explanation.

And:

COWEN: Is it fun to visit Democratic Republic of Congo?

NUNN: Yeah, it’s great. Yeah.

COWEN: Tell us what’s fun. I need to go once I can.

NUNN: Yeah, it’s really, really great. The first time we went as a team — this is James Robinson, Sara Lowes, Jonathan Weigel in 2013 — we were pretty apprehensive. You hear a lot of stories about the DRC. It sounds like a very unsafe place, et cetera. But one thing we didn’t realize or weren’t expecting was just how lovely and wonderful the people are.

And it turns out it’s not unsafe in general. It depends on different locations. In the east, definitely near Goma, it’s obviously much, much less safe. But I think what, for me, is wonderful is the sense of community. Because the places we go are places that haven’t been touched, to a large extent, by foreign aid or NGOs or tourism, I think we are treated just like any other individual within the community.

And:

COWEN: What’s your favorite movie and why?

NUNN: Oh, favorite movie. [laughs] That’s a good question. Favorite movie — in the past it was Dazed and Confused. I must have watched that in university about a hundred times.

COWEN: A wonderful film.

Recommended, interesting throughout.

Will private K-12 schools be reopening?

“As of July 22, pretty much across the board, [private] schools are planning for some sort of in-person learning in the fall,” said Amy McNamer, executive director of the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington, which supports 76 private schools in the region. “And I have to add this big caveat that that could change,” she said.

In online forums, parents are asking one another for advice about private schools, saying they fear that virtual learning at their public schools will be a disaster.

Here is much more from The Washington Post.  Of course you will note that private decisions doth not a social optimum make.  Nonetheless these particular private decisions do internalize the risks to children, parents (grandparents?), and teachers, albeit not the case load of broader society.

And those institutions are planning on reopening.  We’ll see if they get there.

The economics of fungi

One part of the mycelium had access to a big patch of phosphorus.  Another part had access to a small patch.  She was interested in how this would affect the fungus’s trading decisions in different parts of the same network.  Some recognizable patterns emerged.  In parts of a mycelial network where phosphorus was scarce, the plant paid a higher “price,” supplying more carbon to the fungus for every unit of phosphorus it received.  Where phosphorus was more readily available, the fungus received a less favorable “exchange rate.”  The “price” of phosphorus seemed to be governed by the familiar dynamics of supply and demand.

Most surprising was the way that the fungus coordinated its trading behavior across the network.  Kiers identified a strategy of “buy low, sell high.”  The fungus actively transported phosphorus — using its dynamic microtubule “motors” — from areas of abundance, where it fetched a low price when exchanged with a plant root, to areas of scarcity, where it was in higher demand and fetched a higher price.  By doing so, the fungus was able to transfer a greater proportion of its phosphorus to the plant at the more favorable exchange rate, thus receiving larger quantities of carbon in return.

We still do not understand how those behaviors are controlled.  And that is all from the new and excellent Merlin Sheldrake book Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, & Shape Our Futures.

Ho hum, nothing to see here, move along…

Numerous associates of the Pentagon program, with high security clearances and decades of involvement with official U.F.O. investigations, told us they were convinced such crashes have occurred, based on their access to classified information. But the retrieved materials themselves, and any data about them, are completely off-limits to anyone without clearances and a need to know.

We were provided a series of unclassified slides showing that the program took this seriously enough to include it in numerous briefings. One slide says one of the program’s tasks was to “arrange for access to data/reports/materials from crash retrievals of A.A.V.’s,” or advanced aerospace vehicles.

Our sources told us that “A.A.V.” does not refer to vehicles made in any country — not Russian or Chinese — but is used to mean technology in the realm of the truly unexplained. They also assure us that their briefings are based on facts, not belief.

That is from Ralph Blumenthal and Leslie Kean at the New York Times.  And yes there is a hat tip, and a deeply deserved one too.

A modest case for school reopening at the margin

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  Here is one excerpt:

First and most important, there is a distinction between children spreading the virus and children spreading the virus through school activities. The case against a physical reopening rests on the public health dangers, but the relevant question is relative.

Even if the schools do not physically reopen, children will still hang out together. This is especially true for teenagers, and they are also a group that, in a South Korean study, can readily spread the virus to others. Not many parents are going to quarantine their 15-year-olds at home for many months, much less their 17-year-olds. Recall that Romeo and Juliet were teenagers and came together as lovers against extreme parental opposition and during a time of plague.

It is possible that these children will spread the virus less if they were at school than if they were spending time together on their own. At least at school there would be teachers and other staff to enforce some measure of social distancing and proper hygiene practices, such as regular hand-washing…

To be sure, it’s by no means certain that schools will be safer places for children; whether they are will depend on the region. Still, the mere citation of public health dangers isn’t quite as decisive an argument against physical reopening as it may seem.

I believe I was first prompted to consider this argument by some tweets by Amihai Glazer.