Month: August 2020

The FDA Burns

If you think the FDA has been slow at approving new coronavirus tests just look at their process for approving sunscreen products.

EWG: The FDA first began working to update sunscreen regulations more than 40 years ago. In February 2019, the agency at long last issued a proposed set of final rules, but they were never adopted.

According to EWG, the Environmental Working Group, the FDA has been too slow to test old ingredients for safety and too slow to allow new ingredients on the market thus leaving us with sunscreen products which are neither as safe nor as effective as they should be. In particular, Europe has better sunscreen protection than the United States. Here’s EWG:

Americans have fewer choices and notably poorer protection than Europeans do from ultraviolet A rays in their sunscreen options. Although most U.S. sunscreens prevent sunburn effectively when used correctly, they aren’t as good as European sunscreens at preventing the more subtle skin damage produced by lower-energy UVA radiation. UVA rays have less energy and don’t burn the skin, but they can cause the skin to age, suppress the immune system and contribute to the development of melanoma.

…Between 2003 and 2010, sunscreen makers applied for FDA permission to use eight sun-filtering chemicals developed by European companies. Four of these – Tinosorb S, Tinosorb M, Mexoryl SX and Mexoryl XL – appear to be more effective than avobenzone, the most common UVA filter permitted by the FDA. The FDA’s failure to respond to these applications prompted Congress to pass the Sunscreen Innovation Act of 2014 (FDA 2014). This act requires the FDA to review new applications for sunscreen active ingredients within 300 days, but it doesn’t relax the standards companies must meet to prove new ingredients are both safe and effective.

In 2015, the FDA responded that the companies involved had not submitted enough information to prove their chemicals were, in fact, safe and effective for use (FDA 2015). The agency asked for more data, including complete study results, measurements of ingredient levels in people’s blood, and long-term studies on systemic toxicity and potential endocrine system disruption. The FDA has also proposed that all sunscreen ingredients, including those already in use, need to have adequate safety testing data.

Some information the FDA wants, such as complete copies of studies, might be easy for sunscreen makers to produce. But in other cases, the companies could take years to satisfy FDA requests. In the meantime, Americans are being shortchanged.

I first wrote about this issue in 2013 and seven years later, despite Congress passing a law in 2014, the FDA still has not acted.

My rule is very simple. I don’t think the FDA is better than the EMA so if any drug or device is approved in Europe it ought to be available for purchase in the United States with a label saying “Approved by the EMA. Not approved by the FDA.” (By the way, we do have reciprocity type agreements with Canada and New Zealand for food so this would not be unprecedented.)

Hat tip: John Thacker.

Addendum: You should actually get more sun to avoid vitamin D deficiency which is bad for a variety of reasons including, in my estimation, greater susceptibility to COVID.

The greatest gaming performance ever?

Or is chess a sport?

First Magnus Carlsen “privatizes” chess competition, naming the major tournament after himself, setting all of the rules, and becoming the residual claimant on the income stream.

He reshapes the entire format into a seven set, four months-long series of shorter tournaments, consisting of multiple games per day, 15 minutes per player per game, with increment.  It seems most chess fans find this new format far more exciting and watchable than the last two world championship matches, which have featured 22 slow draws and only two decisive games (with the title decided by rapid tiebreakers in each case — why not just head to the rapids?).

Magnus won all but one of the “sets” or mini-tournaments, along the way regularly dispatching the game’s top players at an astonishing pace, often tossing them aside like mere rag dolls.  Even the #2 and #3 rated players — Caruana and Ding Liren — stood little chance against his onslaught.  Carlsen kept on winning these mini-tournaments against fields of ten players, typically all at a world class level.

A Final Four then led to a 38-game, seven-day showdown between Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura, not decided until the very last set of moves yesterday.  Note that at the more rapid pace Nakamura may well be a better player than Carlsen and is perhaps the only real challenge to him (at slower classical speeds Nakamura would be in the top twenty but is not at the very top of the rankings).

Nonetheless Carlsen prevailed.  Nakamura had the upper hand in terms of initiative, but in the final five-minute tie-breaking round, Carlsen needed to pull out 1.5 of the last 2 points, which indeed he did.  He drew by constructing an impregnable fortress against Nakamura’s Queen, and in the final “sudden death Armageddon” round a draw is equivalent to a victory for Black.

Along the way, at the same time, Magnus participated in Fantasy Football, competing against millions, at times holding the #1 slot and finishing #11 in what is a very competitive and demanding endeavor.

Emergent Ventures winners, 10th cohort

Sebastian Garren, to found John Paul II Preparatory School’s South Campus in St. Louis, a hybrid on-line and in-person educational alternative for K-12, also stressing Western history and the classics.

John Durant, for career development and writing, and explorations into notions of angels.

Mishka Orakzai of Peshawar, Pakistan, to support her thiscodeworks project intent to make snippets of code more available.

Krishaan Khubchand, 20 years old, studying law at Birkbeck, to study mega-projects and capital allocation, he is also a Progress Studies fellow.

Vignan Velivela.  He started as a robotics engineer at Cruise Automation, is a member of the Explorers Club (wikiBBC) for his work on the lightest planetary rover at Carnegie Mellon, worked on a peer-to-peer lending startup in India that was acqui-hired by PayTm, went to college (BITS Pilani) in India studying EE and Economics, and now is co-founder of AtoB.

Wasteland Ventures (no web page), to support their efforts in talent search and development.

And two Emergent Ventures anti-Covid prizes have been awarded to:

Witold Wiecek, Bayesian statistician and consultant, for his work on the Bayesian modeling of the COVID-19 epidemic, and the design of an optimal vaccine portfolio, in cooperation with the Accelerating Health Technologies team.

Arthur W. Baker, for his efforts on incentive design for vaccines, in cooperation with the Accelerating Health Technologies team.

Here are previous winners of Emergent Ventures grants and prizes.

The polity that is San Francisco

If you were hoping to cure your cabin fever with a quick jaunt to San Francisco to eat a $200 dinner in a geodesic dome next to a homeless encampment, it looks like you’ve missed your chance. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that after a surprise inspection, the city’s health department has ordered Japanese fine dining spot Hashiri to take down the fine dining domes that have made it internationally famous…

Hashiri opted to erect three plastic garden igloos on the sidewalk and reopened for dinner on August 5. The structures, which cost $1,400 apiece, immediately generated controversy, as the restaurant, which caters to the ultra-rich, happens to be located in an area where people experiencing homelessness congregate.

“Mint Plaza is a phenomenal space, it’s just sometimes the crowd is not too favorable,” Matsuura said to the Chronicle. “There are people who come by and spit, yell, stick their hands in people’s food, discharging fecal matter right by where people are trying to eat. It’s really sad, and it’s really hard for us to operate around that.”

The restaurant began receiving hate mail prior to last Thursday’s surprise inspection, which Matsuura suspects was the result of anonymous complaints to the Department of Public Health. The domes were ordered removed “due to the enclosed nature of the structure, which may not allow for adequate air flow,” per the inspection report.

Not enough air flow?  I wonder how many kitchens would pass that test?  Here is the full story, via Air Genius Gary Leff.

Thursday assorted links

1. Interferon treatments probably work against Covid-19.  And NYT coverage.  But a better system of clinical trials is needed.

2. “Taking your dog for walks twice a day for at least an hour in total could soon become the law in Germany.”  And: “A spokeswoman for the agriculture ministry said it was very unlikely private dog owners would receive police visits to check whether they had taken their pooch for a walk.”  And: “The French have the unfortunate distinction of being the European “champions” for abandoning pets that have become too cumbersome for their summer trips.

3. Heckman curve update update.

4. A thread on SalivaDirect.

5. Home field advantage seems to be gone in baseball, left with the crowds.

6. Best Korean films of the new century.

7. Gerald Gaus has passed away.

Against slide decks

I do understand that slide decks are often the main vehicle for venture capital and other pitches, but my own idiosyncratic take is that they obscure more than they illuminate.  I would much rather see the person try to write out a half-page explanation of the plan, so I can better see if one thought follows from the next, and if one step follows from the next.  I learn much better how the person actually thinks.  The separate slide-by-slide, horizontal juxtaposition of the slide deck does not (for me) perform that function very well.  It can too easily hide structure, or the lack thereof.

So in my view writing is (still) underrated.

CCP cancel culture extends into American academia

Classes at some elite universities will carry a warning label this fall: This course may cover material considered politically sensitive by China. And schools are weighing measures to try to shield students and faculty from prosecution by Chinese authorities.

At Princeton University, students in a Chinese politics class will use codes instead of names on their work to protect their identities. At Amherst College a professor is considering anonymous online chats so students can speak freely. And Harvard Business School may excuse students from discussing politically sensitive topics if they are worried about the risks.

The issue has become particularly pressing because at least the first semester at many universities will be taught online, meaning some students from China and Hong Kong will connect with their U.S. classmates via video links. Some academics fear the classes could be recorded and ultimately end up in the hands of Chinese authorities.

Here is more from Lucy Kraymer at the WSJ.

The phantom risk of Covid-19

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

…here is why I am not yet an unreconstructed economic optimist. Covid-19 cases have acquired a stigma, and that stigma is likely to persist above and beyond the dangers associated with the virus itself.

If, say, 20 Covid-19 cases were identified within a high school today, there is a very real risk that those infected students would carry the virus home and infect older and more vulnerable people. There is also a small risk that the students would sustain damage themselves. Not surprisingly, most schools won’t reopen because they cannot deal with the burden — institutionally, legally or otherwise — of being connected to significant numbers of Covid-19 cases.

The question is how this stigma ends. If rates of death and possible long-term damage fell to half of their current levels? One-third? Less? I strongly suspect these same schools still would be unwilling to reopen, due in part to phantom risk.

If rates of death and damage fell to one-fifth of their current level, perhaps, there would be more reopenings — but there would still be a lot of reluctance to restore previous levels of attendance. How about one-tenth the level of mortality? It is hard to say when people will feel comfortable once again.

Along these lines, as long as clusters of reported cases are possible — regardless of mortality rates — many high-rise office buildings will not let workers and visitors simply pile into their elevators.

Many sites likely to experience identifiable, traceable clusters of cases will keep their doors shut, or open them on only a very limited basis. Further declines in the mortality rate won’t help much, because “37 Covid-19 Cases Identified at UC-Berkeley” is enough of a headline to create reputational risk and an institutional response. Even if everyone makes a speedy recovery, that won’t get the same kind of media coverage.

There is much more at the link, and my point will grow increasingly relevant, first of all in NYC and environs (partial herd immunity there, at least for the time being).

Wednesday assorted links

1. Transparent public toilets in Japan, they turn opaque when in use.

2. Guide to the coronavirus genome.  Lots of substance in this one.

3. What if the economy does not tank in August?

4. Researchers can duplicate keys from the sounds they make in locks (link fixed).

5. Netflix and complacency: “Netflix is testing a ‘Shuffle’ button, because you’re tired of picking what to watch.”  Or is it serendipity?

6. Detailed and very good WSJ article on how America fell behind on Covid testing.

Emergent Ventures prizes for best new and recent blogs — Liberalism 2.0 fellows

In recent years, blogs and blog-like entities have proved one of the most effective ways of debating and advancing worldviews and debating ideas. Slate Star Codex, Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish, The Money Illusion, and Paul Graham’s essays are all influential examples. SSC introduced much of the world to the rationalist movement and Effective Altruism. The Dish was at the forefront of the intellectual case for gay marriage. With NGDP targeting, The Money Illusion successfully articulated the case for improvements in monetary policy. Paul Graham’s essays are part of the intellectual firmament behind the explosion of startups over the past 15 years. One could also look to Ben Thompson’s Stratechery, which popularized the subscription newsletter business model and provides some of the very best tech industry commentary. There is now a growing industry of independent Substacks, with Bill Bishop’s Sinocism an influential example.

In 2020, there is an undimmed need for new thinking around how the ideals of liberty and reason can best be applied. You need barely scratch the surface in our prevailing ideologies to find central questions almost completely unaddressed.

Surely better education is an important society-wide goal — but what is the liberal remedy to the failure of our public institutions (like education and healthcare) to generate improvements remotely commensurate with cost increases? Libertarianism remains a valuable critique, but what is a libertarian perspective on why the US can’t develop a COVID-19 vaccine more quickly, or why US universities are so homogeneous and ideological? Conservatives may take exception at the excesses of the so-called social justice movement — but what is a positive and properly balanced theory for how to right various inefficient (and unjust) social wrongs? Advocates for the free market will be biased against restrictions on cross-border trade, but should Indonesia not conclude that industrial policy was of high efficacy for many countries in northeast Asia? Those of a non-interventionist disposition may not worry too much about Taiwan’s near-term security, but would it not be a mistake to neglect the possibility that China’s rise may pose a growing threat to Taiwanese liberty?

It is tempting to believe that we must simply hew more closely to the works of the greats. In closer exegesis and more faithful obeisance to our Bentham, our Mill, our Smith, our Marx, our Hayek, or our Friedman, we’ll find the answers that we seek.

But there is an alternative and more appealing vision, namely that we need new ideas, new syntheses, and new arguments. That said, we need more argumentation and exposition than you will find on Twitter alone.

We therefore invite submissions to a new blog contest, as part of Emergent Ventures (Mercatus Center, George Mason University). Eligible entries:

– Are blogs or blog-like isomorphs. (Posts are reasonably frequent; content is freely available and linkable; at least some posts are mini-essays. Substacks do count, if freely available, noting you are not prohibited from later turning them into profit-making ventures.)

– Started in the past 12 months, or in the next six months.

– Explore ideas relevant to liberty, prosperity, progress, and the foundations of a free society.

“Web 2.0” was a coarse label applied to a broad set of software trends. In a similarly incompletely defined and unapologetic manner, and in homage to the internet-native aspect of these blogs, winners shall be deemed Liberalism 2.0 Fellows.

Within six months, and quite possibly sooner, an initial $100,000 prize will be awarded. Five further awards up to or at a comparable level will be possible if there are enough high-quality submissions (blogs started after this announcement are thus more likely to win the later awards, given the time to prove excellence, though in principle eligible for the first award too). To apply, simply email [email protected], with winners to be announced on Marginal Revolution. Please note that entries will not be acknowledged and only winners will be notified.

I look forward to seeing what you all come up with.

Shoring Up the Vaccine Supply Chain

Supply chains were hit hard early in the pandemic. Disinfectant couldn’t be produced because of a lack of bottles, tests couldn’t be processed because nasal swabs or PPE wasn’t available, the decline of passenger air traffic hit commercial delivery and so forth. I worry about forthcoming stresses on the vaccine supply chain. Billions of doses of vaccine will be demanded in the next year and a lot will depend on complicated supply lines including cold storage, air traffic, styrofoam, vials, bags, needles and many other inputs. Companies and the awesome team at CEPI (give them all a Nobel prize) are planning for vials and needles and other inputs but there are many non-obvious inputs higher up in the supply chain that also need shoring up.

Shark livers–they make vaccines better! From

Writing in Bloomberg, Scott Duke Kominers and I look at some of the odder inputs to vaccines like horseshoe crab blood, shark livers and the vaccinia capping enyzme, VCE. We are actually not too worried about horseshoe crab blood and shark livers as these are used in other industries. Shark livers, for example, are used to produce a lot of cosmetics so we should be able to divert supply as needed. VCE, however, is rarer.

DNA and mRNA vaccine technologies have shown promising results, and two of the leading vaccine contenders, from Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc., use mRNA technology. But mRNA has never been used to produce a commercial vaccine for humans, let alone at scale. And scaling these technologies may not be easy. In particular, mRNA degrades rapidly. To prevent this, it must be “capped” by a very rare substance called vaccinia capping enzyme.

Just over 10 pounds of this VCE is enough to produce a hundred million doses of an mRNA vaccine — but the current manufacturing processes for VCE require so much bioreactor capacity that making 10 pounds would cost about $1.4 billion. More important, global bioreactor capacity cannot support production at that level while also producing other vaccines and cancer-fighting drugs.

If we work hard now, we may be able to find more efficient means of producing VCE. Expanding bioreactor production and repurposing bioreactors from existing large-scale industrial applications will also help to lessen the pressure on the supply chains for multiple types of vaccines.

In addition to supply chains per se we also face the problem that companies are not raising prices enough. Ironically, this means that we need more public investment.

Of course, we might think that private companies would have incentives to coordinate supply chains themselves — and to some extent, they are doing so. But many have pledged to keep their vaccine prices close to costs, both out of altruism and because they may fear public backlash (or legal action) if they’re perceived as “price gouging” in the middle of a pandemic. And if companies don’t stand to profit much from Covid-19 vaccines, then they don’t have much incentive to invest in increasing capacity. In short: If prices can’t rise, then the only way to encourage companies to invest more in production is to reduce their costs — and that means we need public investment.

More generally, it’s not too late to be building more vaccine capacity and to repurpose bioreactor capacity from non-GMP sources, perhaps including veterinary and food sources. There are lots of vaccines in development. The science is promising. We need to take action now so that we can deliver on that promise.

Read the whole thing.

The Australian Aboriginal flag

For those who don’t know, the Australian Aboriginal flag ( is actually copy-righted by an individual although it is recognized as a national flag.

It was created in 1971 by an artist named Harold Thomas and went onto to become culturally accepted as the flag of the Aboriginal people. And then as above, went onto being proclaimed a national flag by the government.

Unfortunately, since then, Harold Thomas has licensed the flag to various private agencies. One of the licenses was exclusive to a clothing label, which now means that no other Aboriginal business can print clothes with the flag on it without paying royalties. (Sitting around 20%) A lot of Aboriginals feel dismay at the current situation of the licensing.

I am rather free market orientated and do respect the artists desires.

But, the situation is rather unique, I can’t seem to find any other examples in the world of a nations/cultures flag being owned by an individual.

The creator has no intention to relinquish the copyright, so movements have already sprung up.

Here is further discussion, via Andrew Burchill.  Imagine in the United States if private individuals had copyrights over the flag (in general, not just particular images), the American bald eagle, the U.S. dollar, and so on.

The Covid cost of professional sports events

We compare COVID-19 case loads and mortality across geographic areas that hosted more vs fewer NHL hockey games, NBA basketball games, and NCAA basketball games during the early months of 2020, before any large outbreaks. We find that hosting one additional NHL/NBA game leads to an additional 783 COVID-19 cases during March-mid May and an additional 52 deaths. Similarly, we find that hosting an additional NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball games results in an additional 31 cases and an additional 2.4 deaths. Back of the envelope calculations suggest that the per-game fatality costs exceed consumption benefits by a wide margin.

That is from Coady Wing, Daniel H. Simon, and Patrick Carlin.  I think we have not a good enough model of the heterogeneities of prevalence across regions for those to be reliable estimates.  Still, I am happy to see more work on the question of what in particular causes Covid cases, and also whether sporting events play a significant role.

The polity that is Australia

The federal government is blocking three out of four applications for Australians to leave the country while the borders are closed, amid concerns they could spread coronavirus when they return home.

MPs from across Sydney, including Liberal Dave Sharma in Wentworth in the eastern suburbs, independent Zali Steggall in Warringah, and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese and fellow Labor frontbencher Tanya Plibersek in the inner west, have been fielding numerous requests for assistance from residents stuck here because of the travel ban.

Mr Sharma said federal government MPs were starting to raise concerns internally about the travel ban, which he described as a “pretty extraordinary restriction on people’s liberty”.

“This is an extreme measure for extreme times but it cannot be something we contemplate keeping in place for the long term,” Mr Sharma said. “There’s no other country of which I’m aware that is imposing an exit permit system, like we’ve got in Australia.”

…Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned recently that the resumption of international travel was “not foreseeable” and unlikely to occur this year.

Good or bad?  In which countries would you be more or less upset by this policy decision?  Here is the article, and here is further coverage.

Via the excellent Samir Varma.