Month: August 2020

The farmer-influencer and the economics of streaming

Though Mr. Gold sells poultry and eggs from his duck farm in Vermont’s northeast corner, most of what he produces as a farmer is, well, entertainment.

Mr. Gold, who is short and stocky, with the good-natured ease of a standup comedian, does his chores while carrying a digital camera in one hand and murmuring into a microphone.

Then, twice a week, like clockwork, he posts a short video on YouTube about his exploits as a neophyte farmer, often highlighting failures or pratfalls. Keeping a close eye on analytics, he has boosted his YouTube audiences high enough to provide a steady advertising revenue of around $2,500 to $4,000 a month, about eight times what he earns from selling farm products.

And this:

It’s a lot of work: Mr. Lumnah wakes up at 3:30 a.m. so he can edit the previous day’s footage in time to post new video at 6 a.m., which his 210,000 regular viewers, who are scattered as far as Cambodia and India, have come to expect. “People will say, it’s lunchtime here in Ukraine,” Mr. Lumnah said.

Others, like Justin Rhodes, a farmer in North Carolina, have parlayed a giant YouTube audience into a dues-paying membership enterprise — he has 2,000 fans who pay annual fees of up to $249 for private instruction and direct communication, via text message. “We don’t sell a single farm product,” Mr. Rhodes said. “Our farm product is education and entertainment.”

Some of them earn money through product endorsement deals, like Al Lumnah, who posts videos five days a week from his farm in Littleton, N.H.

Here is more from the NYT, via Steve Rossi.

The lost colony of Roanoke was never lost, rather it integrated with Native Americans

The English colonists who settled the so-called Lost Colony before disappearing from history simply went to live with their native friends — the Croatoans of Hatteras, according to a new book.

“They were never lost,” said Scott Dawson, who has researched records and dug up artifacts where the colonists lived with the Indians in the 16th century. “It was made up. The mystery is over.”

…The evidence shows the colony left Roanoke Island with the friendly Croatoans to settle on Hatteras Island. They thrived, ate well, had mixed families and endured for generations. More than a century later, explorer John Lawson found natives with blue eyes who recounted they had ancestors who could “speak out of a book,” Lawson wrote.

The two cultures adapted English earrings into fishhooks and gun barrels into sharp-ended tubes to tap tar from trees.

Here is the full article, with other interesting details.  Rising in status: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Robert Axelrod, Marx/Engels, theorists of agricultural productivity.  Falling in status: Earlier colonial historians.

Via Ilya Novak.

A Real World AI Economist?

From Salesforce:

The moonshot goal of this project is to build a reinforcement learning framework that will recommend economic policies that drive social outcomes in the real world, such as improving sustainability, productivity, and equality. To achieve this, we’ll need to advance AI, challenge conventional economic thinking, and create AI that can ground and guide policy making. While none of these tasks are easy, together, they make for a true moonshot.

This moonshot is both ambitious and necessary, and more timely than ever given economic challenges around the world. Importantly, the AI Economist is a powerful optimization framework that can objectively automate policy design and evaluation. This will allow economists and policy experts to focus on the end goal of improving social welfare.

Given the social and ethical implications that economic policies can have, we believe it is essential to have transparency in the process. By open sourcing the AI Economist, not only do we empower collaboration from all over the world but we also enable unfettered review of policy simulations.

The key ingredients are:

  • A high-fidelity simulation that should be grounded in data, and aligned with economic theory as well as with social and ethical values. Simulations should not be prohibitively expensive to run, and should be maintainable and modular.

  • AI policy models should be effective in a wide range of scenarios, explainable, and robust to economic shocks.

  • The simulation and policy models should be calibrated against real-world data and, as much as possible, validated in human-subject studies.

I suppose I am skeptical, but fortunately progress does not depend on pleasing me.  There is much more information at the original link.

For the pointer I thank Mike Doherty.

From the comments, on the value of management consultants

As a retired management consultant, some views on their stated value (as stated by clients, which is not necessarily the same as “value” as seen by other observers, e.g. Douglas Adams). 1. Consultants as temps. Keep own planning staff small, hire consultants when surge capacity needed. 2. New views. Yes, the young consultants may not know your industry well. This fresh look may actually be desired. In my own experience clients oscillated between “Give me people who actually know something about my business!” and “Stop giving me people from inside my world, they just tell me what I already know!” 3. Cowardice. Client knows he must lay off 5,000, call in consultants to figure that out, blame them for it. 4. Sounding boards. Senior executives believe it or not often have no one to talk to, who is not scheming to take their job or playing other politics. Consultants play politics of course, but they are at least transparent: “If I give you advice you find valuable you will hire me again.” 5. Pollination. The client cannot go and ask 5 rival firms what they think about developments in the industry, at least not easily. If the consultants have worked for many clients in the industry, they can transfer best ideas. If you like this, you call it “dissemination of best practices;” if you don’t like it, you call it “stealing and re-selling trade secrets to rivals”. 6. Complexity. A client on its own may not want to invest in learning all it needs about AI, IOT, Bitcoin, on and on. The consultant invests in this knowledge (McKinsey’s research budget is in at least 8 digits, including opportunity costs) and can deliver it packaged up for easy access by the client.

That is from Glenn Mercer.

Monday assorted links

1. New podcast on (serious) natural philosophy.

2. Laos fact of the day.

3. “Her TikTok account as of August 2020 has over 78 million followers.”  Link here, can you name her?

4. Thread on the basics of herd immunity claims.  And the NYT covers herd immunity.  A very good piece in fact.  Semi-herd immunity says I, or “imperfect immunity” to use the terminology of the article.  And you will note the extreme epistemological conservatism emanating from the mainstream experts interviewed.  Appropriate in some ways, not in others.

5. Was Winky Dink the first interactive TV show?

6. “They promised us driverless cars, and all northern Virginia got was this 15 mph one-route public transit shuttle.

7. WSJ review of new Bruno Macaes book on America.  The predictions of the book are holding up very well so far!

Real estate markets in everything

From Fayette, Missouri, listed at $375,000:

1875 Howard County Sheriff’s House and Jail. Extremely unique opportunity!! Extensive renovation in 2005 (supposedly $1.5 million) captures modern high end finishes with traditional architecture and character. This home is 2465 sq ft with three levels of living area, 2 bedroom. 1.5 bath, high end finish throughout, appears to have been totally rewired, replumbed and new HVAC zoned system installed. AND THE BEST PART, connected to the home is a 2500 sq ft legitimate jail with 9 cells, booking room and 1/2 bath. The cell door lock throws appear to be operational. Full basement under the home with lighting throughout. Possibilities are amazing with this property.

Via Anecdotal.

What I’ve been reading

1. Christopher Tugendhat, A History of Britain Through Books, 1900-1964.  Most of all a look at the “well-known in their time, and reflecting their age, but not read any more” books from the stated period, using short, capsule portraits of each work.  It induced me to order some more Elizabeth Bowen, C.P. Snow, and other works.  There should be more books like this.

2. Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet.  Perhaps my favorite novel of the year so far, noting this is from Northern Ireland and my #2 pick by Anne Enright is from Ireland proper.  Usually I dislike stories with a “gimmick” — this one recounts part of the life of Shakespeare’s family during plague times — but this one was tasteful, subtle, and suspenseful.

3. Charles Freeman, The Awakening: A History of the Western Mind AD 500-1700.  A gargantuan work at over 800 big pp., the size and the breadth and title all might seem to herald trouble.  Yet it is really good.  It has chapters on whether England really had a scientific revolution, what was actually published with the new printing press, and how medieval universities really worked.  There were fewer tired summaries of “the usual” than I was expecting.  The author is a specialist on the ancient world, and so there is coverage of Cassiodorus, and what Montaigne took from Plutarch, and numerous other “ancient world” sorts of topics.  Which is a good thing.

4. Despina Strategakos, Hitler’s Northern Utopia: Building the New Order in Occupied Norway.  What did the Nazis have planned for Norway after a supposedly successful conclusion of the Second World War?  Lots of reformed urban townscapes, and with plenty of detail to boot.  Sometimes it is books like this, rather than the recounting of atrocities, that make WWII seem like the truly bizarre event it was.  I am still not sure if restructuring Norway is something fascinating to do, or still super-dull.

Thomas A. Schwartz, Henry Kissinger and American Power: A Political Biography is consistently good and readable.

I found David Broder’s First They Took Rome: How the Populist Right Conquered Italy to be a useful explainer of a complex situation.

Jacob Goldstein, Money: The True Story of a Made-up Thing is a good introduction to its chosen topic.

Heterogeneities, is the more infectious strain of Covid-19 spreading to Asia?

Malaysia has detected a strain of the new coronavirus that’s been found to be 10 times more infectious.

The mutation called D614G was found in at least three of the 45 cases in a cluster that started from a restaurant owner returning from India and breaching his 14-day home quarantine. The man has since been sentenced to five months in prison and fined. The strain was also found in another cluster involving people returning from the Philippines…

The mutation has become the predominant variant in Europe and the U.S., with the World Health Organization saying there’s no evidence the strain leads to a more severe disease.

Here is the Bloomberg story, please consider this subject to further revision!

The Mediterranean equilibrium

The Greek government has secretly expelled more than 1,000 refugees from Europe’s borders in recent months, sailing many of them to the edge of Greek territorial waters and then abandoning them in inflatable and sometimes overburdened life rafts.

Since March, at least 1,072 asylum seekers have been dropped at sea by Greek officials in at least 31 separate expulsions, according to an analysis of evidence by The New York Times from three independent watchdogs, two academic researchers and the Turkish Coast Guard. The Times interviewed survivors from five of those episodes and reviewed photographic or video evidence from all 31.

“It was very inhumane,” said Najma al-Khatib, a 50-year-old Syrian teacher, who says masked Greek officials took her and 22 others, including two babies, under cover of darkness from a detention center on the island of Rhodes on July 26 and abandoned them in a rudderless, motorless life raft before they were rescued by the Turkish Coast Guard.

“I left Syria for fear of bombing — but when this happened, I wished I’d died under a bomb,” she told The Times.

Not a good equilibrium, mind you.  Nonetheless, I do not expect very stiff EU sanctions in response, nor is this likely to change:

Ylva Johansson, who oversees migration policy at the European Commission, the civil service for the European Union, said she was concerned by the accusations but had no power to investigate them.

Here is the full NYT piece.

Sunday assorted links

1. Assorted links on progress studies.

2. James Altucher is bearish on NYC. Not my view, but worth a hearing. Of course I would never live there, but that has always been the case.

3. Arbitrage with stolen books?

4. Manufacturing vaccines, excellent piece (Bloomberg).

5. “A restaurant in central China has apologised for encouraging diners to weigh themselves and then order food accordingly.

6. Professional sports already increase influenza mortality (shh!).

7. NYT piece on Covid and immunology.

8. “When minimizing deaths, we find that for low vaccine effectiveness, it is optimal to allocate vaccine to high-risk (older) age-groups first. In contrast, for higher vaccine effectiveness, there is a switch to allocate vaccine to high-transmission (younger) age-groups first for high vaccination coverage.

The new quicker, cheaper, supply chain robust saliva test

The FDA has just approved a new and important Covid-19 test:

Wide-spread testing is critical for our control efforts. We simplified the test so that it only costs a couple of dollars for reagents, and we expect that labs will only charge about $10 per sample. If cheap alternatives like SalivaDirect can be implemented across the country, we may finally get a handle on this pandemic, even before a vaccine,” said Grubaugh.

One of the team’s goals was to eliminate the expensive saliva collection tubes that other companies use to preserve the virus for detection. In a separate study led by Wyllie and the team at the Yale School of Public Health, and recently published on medRxiv, they found that SARS-CoV-2 is stable in saliva for prolonged periods at warm temperatures, and that preservatives or specialized tubes are not necessary for collection of saliva.

Of course this part warmed my heart (doubly):

The related research was funded by the NBA, National Basketball Players Association, and a Fast Grant from the Emergent Ventures at the Mercatus Center, George Mason University.

The NBA had the wisdom to use its unique “bubble” to run multiple tests on players at once, to see how reliable the less-known tests would be.  This WSJ article — “Experts say it could be key to increasing the nation’s testing capacity” — has the entire NBA back story.  At an estimated $10 a pop, this could especially be a game-changer for poorer nations.  Furthermore, it has the potential to make pooled testing much easier as well.

Here is an excerpt from the research pre-print:

The critical component of our approach is to use saliva instead of respiratory swabs, which enables non-invasive frequent sampling and reduces the need for trained healthcare professionals during collection. Furthermore, we simplified our diagnostic test by (1) not requiring nucleic acid preservatives at sample collection, (2) replacing nucleic acid extraction with a simple proteinase K and heat treatment step, and (3) testing specimens with a dualplex quantitative reverse transcription PCR (RT-qPCR) assay. We validated SalivaDirect with reagents and instruments from multiple vendors to minimize the risk for supply chain issues. Regardless of our tested combination of reagents and instruments from different vendors, we found that SalivaDirect is highly sensitive with a limit of detection of 6-12 SARS-CoV-2 copies/μL.

No need to worry and fuss about RNA extraction now.  Here is the best simple explanation of the whole thing.

The researchers are not seeking to commercialize their advance, rather they are making it available for the general benefit of mankind.  Here is Nathan Grubaugh on Twitter.  Here is Anne Wyllie, also a Kiwi and a Kevin Garnett fan.  A further implication of course is that the NBA bubble is not “just sports,” but also has boosted innovation by enabling data collection.

All good news of course, and Fast at that.  And this:

“This could be one the first major game changers in fighting the pandemic,” tweeted Andy Slavitt, a former acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in the Obama administration, who expects testing capacity to be expanded significantly. “Rarely am I this enthusiastic… They are turning testing from a bespoke suit to a low-cost commodity.”

And here is coverage from Zach Lowe.  I am very pleased with the course of Fast Grants more generally, and you will be hearing more about it in the future.

The T-Cell immune response that didn’t bark

T-Cell immune response (not to be confused with invulnerability) is hardly a new idea in public health. Yet what is striking is how long it took you to hear about it — from the mainstream at least — in the context of coronavirus.

If you go back to February, March, even April or dare I say May, you will not find too many mainstream public health commentators suggesting “there is some possibility of T-cell immunity playing a major role here. That could significantly ease the future casualties and economic burden of Covid-19.” David Wallace-Wells dates the beginning of the discussion to late May, and the “dark matter” hypothesis of Friston, though I believe earlier precursors will be found.

You didn’t even hear much of: “We really are not sure T-cell immunity is a factor. But it could be a factor with probability [fill in the blank], and it is worth keeping that in mind.”

The major New York Times piece on T-Cell immunity doesn’t run until August 6.  And the Wallace-Wells piece is dated August 9.

Think about the underlying equilibrium that could lead to such a strange result.

if you do public health, your status incentives are to deliver warnings, not potential good news.

Your status incentives are always to hedge your bets, and to be reluctant to introduce new hypotheses.

Your status incentives are to steer talk away from the virus “simply continuing to rip,” even if you are quite opposed to that outcome. Other than hitting it with an immediate scold, you are not supposed to let that option climb on to the discussion table for too long.

Your status incentives are to discourage individuals from thinking that they might be have some pre-existing level of protection. That might lead them to behave more irresponsibly, and then you in turn would look less responsible.

Since public health commentators are so concerned with “doing good by us,” they fail to see that their altruistic (and status) motives in these matters mean they do not end up telling us the truth. Not the entire truth, and not upfront in a very prompt matter.

To be fair, I don’t recall seeing mainstream commentators making false claims about T-cell immunity, rather their filters end up being very selective ones and they bring it up only slowly. And because they smush together in their minds the actually quite distinct concepts of “doing good,” “status,” and “informing the public,” they genuinely have no idea that they are not entirely on the side of truth.

And they genuinely have no idea why so many smart people look to “the cranks” for advice and counsel.

And, to be clear, the commentary of “the cranks” in this area has plenty of problems of its own, even though in some ways they have turned out to be a more informative (as distinct from accurate) source on T-cell immunity.

Finally, to recap, we still are not sure how much overall social protection T-cell immunity will bring. Furthermore, we are pretty sure that not many places have a chance of current herd immunity from “a mix of previous Covid exposure plus pre-existing T-cell immunity.”

So I am not trying to induce you to overrate the T-cell immunity idea. I am trying to illuminate the biases of the filters at work in your everyday consumption of Covid-19 information. Those biases too, the mainstream commentators are not so keen to tell you about.

Using Social Media to Bring Down the Power Grid

Social media are a coordination device and coordinated behavior has many advantages. Social media was used to motivate, organize and coordinate movements like the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter. Of course, coordination can also lead to conspiracy theories like QAnon, twitter mobs that police political correctness and riots that lead to death and destruction. For better or worse, coordinated behavior is likely to increase, creating more and more quickly moving mobs. The use and abuse of such mobs is only just beginning. One insidiously clever prospect is the use of seemingly benign coordination to bring down a power grid. What if everyone turns on their air conditioner and lights at the same time? In How weaponizing disinformation can bring down a city’s power grid, Raman et al. discuss how such a scenario could be generate by something seemingly as simple as sending fake coupons!

Social media has made it possible to manipulate the masses via disinformation and fake news at an unprecedented scale. This is particularly alarming from a security perspective, as humans have proven to be one of the weakest links when protecting critical infrastructure in general, and the power grid in particular. Here, we consider an attack in which an adversary attempts to manipulate the behavior of energy consumers by sending fake discount notifications encouraging them to shift their consumption into the peak-demand period. Using Greater London as a case study, we show that such disinformation can indeed lead to unwitting consumers synchronizing their energy-usage patterns, and result in blackouts on a city-scale if the grid is heavily loaded. We then conduct surveys to assess the propensity of people to follow-through on such notifications and forward them to their friends. This allows us to model how the disinformation may propagate through social networks, potentially amplifying the attack impact. These findings demonstrate that in an era when disinformation can be weaponized, system vulnerabilities arise not only from the hardware and software of critical infrastructure, but also from the behavior of the consumers.

Hat tip: Kevin Lewis.

Addendum: California is once again issuing rolling blackouts. Welcome to the future.

Saturday morning assorted links

1. Factors behind the Swedish mortality rate.

2. Some science ideas for a Biden administration.

3. Carlos Slim is financing production of the Oxford vaccine for Mexico (in Spanish).

4. “Robert Drain is the only bankruptcy judge in White Plains, making the small city a popular landing spot for large chapter 11 filings.” (WSJ)

5. This star is moving at eight percent the speed of light and it visibly warps spacetime.

6. A tale of Mike Tyson and A.J. Ayer.

Claims about Richard Wagner

The truth is that Wagner’s popularity was already in relative decline during the Weimar Republic and simply fell further, more quickly, under the Nazis.  During the last years of the Kaiser’s Germany (and despite the cost and privation of the First World War), the Master’s works were still hugely popular, accounting for over eighteen per cent of all opera performances, a share no other composer came to matching.  By the mid-1920s, though, the figure had dropped to around fourteen per cent.

After Hitler took power, Wagner’s share plunged to well below ten percent.

The truth is that many Nazis, in high and low places, were bored to tears by Wagner.

That is all from Jonathan Carr’s excellent book The Wagner Clan.