Month: February 2021

My days as a teenage chess teacher

I’ve already blogged my earlier job working in the supermarket, so I thought I would add a few remarks on my very first job as chess teacher, which I did at ages 14-15.

I had three regular students, two adults (about 50 and late 20s) and one a younger chess prodigy himself, maybe 10 or 11, plus some other occasional students.  I would have had more students if they (or the parents) did not have to pick me up and drive me to the lesson site.  By the way, at that time no one thought it was strange that relative strangers would simply come and pick me up in their cars and take me away.

From this job, I learned a few things rather quickly:

1. At the time a 14-year-old paid chess teacher seemed odd.  But if you just did something, the world might accept it.  Make other people tell you no, don’t do that preemptively yourself.

2. Chess teaching isn’t mainly about chess.  A chess teacher has to have a certain mystique above all, while at the same time being approachable.  Even at 14 this is possible.  Your students are hiring you at least as much for your mystique as for the content of your lessons.

3. Not everyone taking chess lessons wanted to be a better chess player.  For some, taking the lesson was a substitute for hard work on chess, not a complement to it.  The lesson for them was a fun social experience, and it kept the game of chess salient in their minds.  They became “the kind of person who takes chess lessons.”  I understood this well at the time.  Some of the students wanted to show you their chess games, so that someone else would be sharing in their triumphs and tragedies.  That is an OK enough way to proceed with a chess lesson, but often the students were more interested in “showing” than in listening and learning and hearing the hard truths about their play.

4. Students are too interested in asking your opinion of particular openings.  At lower-tier amateur levels of chess, the opening just doesn’t matter that much, provided you don’t get into an untenable position too quickly.  Nonetheless openings are a fun thing to learn about, and discussing openings can give people the illusion of learning something important, if only because you can share opening moves with the top players and thereby affiliate with them.

5. What I really had to teach was methods for hard work to improve your game consistently over time.  That might include for instance annotating a game or position “blind,” and then comparing your work to the published analysis of a world-class player, a’ la Alexander Kotov’s Think Like a Grandmaster.  I did try to teach that, but the demand for this service was not always so high.

6. The younger chess prodigy I taught was quite bright and also likable.  But he had no real interest in improving his chess game.  Instead, hanging out with me was more fun for him than either doing homework or watching TV, and I suspect his parents understood that.  In any case, early on I was thinking keenly about talent and the determinants of ultimate success, and obsessiveness seemed quite important.  All of the really good chess players had it, and without it you couldn’t get far above expert level.

7. I don’t remember exactly how much I was paid, but it felt like a lot of money at the time.  But when I stopped playing chess, I also stopped giving chess lessons.  I felt I had learned — and earned — from it what I could.

Sunday assorted links

1. Rohit Krishnan reviews Stubborn Attachments.

2. “South Korea was the only country in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that had total fertility rate below 1 for two consecutive years.

3. Israel-Syria barter markets in everything prisoners for vaccines (NYT).

4. “Mary Beard, a professor of classics at Cambridge University, posited that while Caligula might have been assassinated because he was a monster, it is equally possible that he was made into a monster because he was assassinated.” (NYT)  How much do we really know about the ancient world anyway?

5. Good news on the South African strain.

6. Gelassenheit.

The equitization of human labor, Fernando Tatis Jr. edition

Fernando Tatís Jr. was 18 years old, just a low-level prospect from the Dominican Republic trying to work his way up in the San Diego Padres farm system, when he made a financial deal that would impact his entire baseball career. And it wasn’t with the Padres.

Tatís signed a contract with Big League Advance, an unusual investment fund that pays minor-league players money up front in exchange for a share of their future MLB earnings.

Tatís, now 22 and widely viewed as one of the sport’s best young stars, today knows what those earnings will be. He agreed to a record-setting 14-year contract with the Padres on Wednesday night worth an eye-popping $340 million, the third-highest total in MLB history.

His new contract also creates a significant obligation for Tatís: to pay a sizable chunk of his new bounty—perhaps close to $30 million—to Big League Advance.

Here is the full WSJ piece, via Rick Pildes.

From the Comments, On FDF

Sure and Tom Meadowcroft have been hitting it out of the ballpark in the comments sections. Two examples.

Sure:

Protocol was made to serve man, not man to serve the protocol.

The reason we have protocols is because we need to weight the harms of waiting without a treatment against the harms that happen if the treatment is counterproductive in some unforeseen manner.

We can, normally, pretty easily measure the benefit side: count up the mortality and morbidity for the illness in question. The risk side is harder so we developed tests and processes to elucidate those: RCTs, literature reviews, regulatory oversight, mandatory waiting periods. At the end of the day though, the whole process is just one giant test to measure the likely harm of a new entity.

So when is a test worth doing? After all I do not order an MRI for every patient even though I could find a lot of early stage cancers that way.

..GSW to the abdomen with crashing bp with minimal response to volume? Straight to the OR. No matter the results of the CT scan they are still getting opened to stop the bleeding.

…So now we look at the vaccine approval process and methods to stretch doses. Pre-test probability that vaccines work? Inordinately high after passing Phase II. Odds that we hit on the precise optimal timing regimen on the first go? Nil.

The likelihood ratios for RCTs and approval mechanisms are powerful. But we are talking thousands of deaths per day. The odds that these tests will remotely alter management decisions is nil. It is malpractice to delay life saving treatment on tests exceedingly unlikely to change management decisions.

And remember the UK is not seeing horrid outcomes for doing this for a while now. A lot of theoretical failure mechanisms are now off the table.

Science is wholly about building a reliable model that accurately predicts future outcomes of current actions. While doing the actual experiment is the gold standard for knowledge acquisition, it is not the only option and in cases like this pandemic is not sufficiently better than past data to merit waiting.

As far as the regulators. I work with some of them directly. They are not overburdened to anywhere near the degree that the frontline clinicians have been hit. When I ask them to explain their cost benefit calculations, they have none. Not I cannot follow them. Not I disagree with them. They have done not an iota of math to justify their course of action.

Sorry, but I believe in evidence based medicine, not eminence based medicine. If you as a regulator cannot explain to me in technical terms the math behind your decision process, even if only back of the envelope, you are not worth putting in charge.

Approve all the vaccines, FDF, fractional dosing trials, and first dose followed by variolation trials should all be done now. It is was [what] the math demands.

Also this from Tom Meadowcroft:

Scientific researchers search for the truth. Medical clinicians use limited data balance cost and benefits in the face of uncertainty to save the most lives.

When searching for the truth, it is important to have high standards of statistical significance, integrity, and patience, because credibility and a reputation for integrity is everything. Every academic knows that a retracted paper or an accusation of playing fast and loose with statistics can be the death knell for a career. As a result it is prudent to be very certain before publishing. Public health officials, particularly those in charge of approving vaccines, dread the possibility that a vaccine that will be given to millions of healthy people, often children, to prevent diseases where death is rare, which could harbor some flaw that causes a hundred avoidable deaths; they seek the highest standards of proof of safety and efficacy before approving such a vaccine.

But a pandemic is not a search for truth, and a COVID vaccine administered in the midst of a pandemic is very different than a measles vaccine administered to 2-year-olds. The pandemic makes these decisions for FDF or for vaccine approvals into clinical decisions, where health professionals should be balancing the certain benefit of reducing the thousands of daily deaths against the uncertain cost of the possibilities of harmful side-effects and uncertain details of efficacy (when does immunity kick in, how long does it last, how valuable is a booster) that additional months of testing and trials would reveal more clearly.

Public health researchers, academics for the most part, lack the ability (and courage) to make the sort of cost/benefit analysis with necessarily limited data that clinical physicians make every day in examination rooms. Any good clinician, faced with the citizenry of a country as their patient, would have opted for FDF, the AZ vaccine, and quite likely reduced doses by the start of the year. Because we are stuck with academics and administrators as our decision makes, unable to see beyond their usual routine of searching for the truth and protecting their reputations, thousands more will die.

Venezuelan relative price fact of the day

As Venezuela enters its eighth year of economic crisis, a deeply personal drama is playing out inside the home: Millions of women are no longer able to find or afford birth control, pushing many into unplanned pregnancies at a time when they can barely feed the children they already have.

Around Caracas, the capital, a pack of three condoms costs $4.40 — three times Venezuela’s monthly minimum wage of $1.50.

Birth control pills cost more than twice as much, roughly $11 a month, while an IUD, or intrauterine device, can cost more than $40 — more than 25 times the minimum wage. And that does not include a doctor’s fee to have the device put in.

Here is the full NYT article.

Should unemployment benefits be taxed?

A number of people on Twitter were mocking this earlier idea of Martin Feldstein’s, now a policy since 1986.  But of course unemployment benefits should be taxed at the federal level.  If your income that year was low, you won’t pay any tax anyway.  As of 2018, about 44 percent of American households paid no federal income tax in any case, so that is covering quite a few of the lower earners.

if you are in the taxable range, in your choices you should be comparing taxable income to taxable unemployment benefits, otherwise there is a distortion in your labor supply decision.  If need be, raise the level of unemployment benefits.  No, that isn’t a wash, because different individuals and households face different possible rates of marginal taxation.  The higher earners (at least potentially the higher earners) should face a higher tax on their unemployment benefits than the lower earners will.  So it is in fact a “progressive” policy.

Marty was right, as indeed he was about many things.  Here is a good CRS overview of the issue.  Here is Marty’s (partially gated) 1974 piece on the issue.  This is exactly the kind of issue Twitter is ill-suited to considering.

Saturday assorted links

1. Do birth subsidies lead to more babies? (NYT)

2. Heartland visas will be part of the Biden immigration bill.

3. U-Roy has passed away (NYT).

4. Both The Dig (1939 British archaeology and sexual restraint) and Minari (Korean immigrant family farming in Arkansas) are excellent movies and show that “old school” substantive cinema is alive and well.  Given the number (and quality?) of delayed releases, this will be quite a year for moviegoing.  At some point.  Nomadland, however, did not thrill me.  It is ultimately a movie for either critics who wish to condescend or viewers who wish to see another portrait of alienated middle America, at this point a dull and overdone topic.  Good negative Richard Brody review here (New Yorker).

5. A 3D map of all the buildings in the Netherlands, colored by their age.

6. High-interest lending and pawn shop activity are both falling.

7. For me at least the Andrew Farrant book on Hayek and Mill and liberalism was priced at zero for Kindle.

Medical ethics? (model this)

Steven Joffe, MD, MPH, a medical ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, said he doesn’t believe clinicians “should be lowering our standards of evidence because we’re in a pandemic.”

Link here.  That sentence is a good litmus test for whether you think clearly about trade-offs, statistical and speed trade-offs included, procedures vs. final ends of value (e.g., human lives), and how obsessed you are with mood affiliation (can you see through his question-begging invocation of “lowering our standards”?).  It is stunning to me that a top researcher at an Ivy League school literally cannot think properly about his subject area at all, and furthermore has no compunction admitting this publicly.  As Alex wrote just earlier today: “Waiting for more data isn’t “science,” it’s sometimes an excuse for an unscientific status-quo bias.”

To be clear, we should run more and better RCT trials of Ivermectin, the topic at hand for Joffe (and in fact Fast Grants is helping to fund exactly that).  But of course the “let’s go ahead and actually do this” decision should be different in a pandemic, just as the “just how much of a hurry are we in here anyway?” calculus should differ as well.  I do not know enough to judge whether Ivermectin should be in hospital treatment protocols, as it is in many countries, but I do not condemn this simply on the grounds of it representing a “lower standard.”  It might instead reflect a “higher standard” of concern for human lives, and you will note the drug is not considered harmful as it is being administered.

If you apply the standards of Joffe’s earlier work, we should not be proceeding with these RCTs, including presumably vaccine RCTs, until we have assured that all of the participants truly understand the difference between “research” and “treatment” as part of the informed consent protocols.  No “therapeutic misconception” should be allowed.  Really?

If the pandemic has changed my mind about anything, it is the nature of expertise.

The First Dose is Good

WSJ: The Covid-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE generates robust immunity after one dose and can be stored in ordinary freezers instead of at ultracold temperatures, according to new research and data released by the companies.

The findings provide strong arguments in favor of delaying the second dose of the two-shot vaccine, as the U.K. has done . They could also have substantial implications on vaccine policy and distribution around the world, simplifying the logistics of distributing the vaccine.

A single shot of the vaccine is 85% effective in preventing symptomatic disease 15 to 28 days after being administered, according to a peer-reviewed study conducted by the Israeli government-owned Sheba Medical Center and published in the Lancet medical journal. Pfizer and BioNTech recommend that a second dose is administered 21 days after the first.

The finding is a vindication of the approach taken by the U.K. government to delay a second dose by up to 12 weeks so it could use limited supplies to deliver a single dose to more people, and could encourage others to follow suit. Almost one-third of the U.K.’s adult population has now received at least one vaccine shot. Other authorities in parts of Canada and Europe have prioritized an initial shot, hoping they will have enough doses for a booster when needed.

Preliminary data also suggest that the other widely used vaccine in the U.K. developed by AstraZeneca PLC and the University of Oxford could have a substantial effect after a first dose .

The Israeli findings came from the first real-world data about the effect of the vaccine gathered outside of clinical trials in one of the leading nations in immunization against the coronavirus. Israel has given the first shot to 4.2 million people—more than two-thirds of eligible citizens over 16 years old—and a second shot to 2.8 million, according to its health ministry. The country has around 9.3 million citizens.

…”This groundbreaking research supports the British government’s decision to begin inoculating its citizens with a single dose of the vaccine,” said Arnon Afek, Sheba’s deputy director general.

The Israeli study is here. Data from Quebec also show that a single dose is highly effective, 80% or higher (Figure 3) in real world settings.

It’s becoming clearer that delaying the second dose is the right strategy but it was the right strategy back in December when I first started advocating for First Doses First. Waiting for more data isn’t “science,” it’s sometimes an excuse for an unscientific status-quo bias.

Approximately 16 million second doses have been administered in the US. If those doses had been first doses an additional 16 million people would have been protected from dying. Corey White estimates that every 4000 flu vaccinations saves a life which implies 4000 lives would have been saved by going to FDF. COVID, of course, is much deadlier than the flu–ten times as deadly or more going by national death figures (so including transmission and case fatality rate)– so 40,000 deaths is back of the envelope. Let’s do some more back-of-the-envelope calculations. Since Dec. 14, there have been approximately 10 million confirmed cases in the United States and 200,000 deaths. There are 200 million adults in the US so 1/1000 adults has died from COVID, just since Dec. 14. If we use 1/1000 as the risks of a random adult dying from COVID, then an additional 16 million vaccinations would have saved 16,000 lives. But that too is likely to be an underestimate since the people being vaccinated are not a random sample of adults but rather adults with a much higher risk of dying from COVID. Two to four times that number would not be unreasonable so an additional 16 million vaccinations might have avoided 32,000-64,000 deaths. Moreover, an additional 16 million first doses would have reduced transmission. None of these calculations is very good but they give a ballpark.

It is excellent news that the vaccine is stable for some time using ordinary refrigeration. Scott Duke Kominers and I argue that there is lot of unused vaccination capacity at the pharmacies and reducing the cold storage requirement will help to bring that unused capacity online. The announcement is also important for a less well understood reason. If Pfizer is only now learning that ultra-cold storage isn’t necessary then we should be looking much more closely at fractional dosing.

When I said that we should delay the second dose, people would respond with “but the companies say 21 days and 28 days! Listen to the science!”. That’s not scientific thinking but magical thinking. Listening to the science was understanding that the clinical trial regimen was designed at speed with the sole purpose of getting the vaccines approved. The clinical trial was not designed to discover the optimal regimen for public health. Don’t get me wrong. Pfizer and Moderna did the right thing! But it was wrong to think that the public health authorities could simply rely on “the science” as if it were written on stone. Even cold-storage wasn’t written on stone!  Now that the public health authorities know that the clinical trial regimen isn’t written in stone they should be more willing to consider policies such as delaying the second dose and fractional dosing.

We are nearing the end in the US but delaying the second dose and other dose-stretching policies are going to be important in other countries.

British real wealth is rising

Sterling climbed to $1.40 for the first time in almost three years as investors looked past gloomy data and instead focused on hopes the country’s rapid coronavirus vaccine rollout will boost economic prospects.

The currency has risen 2.4 per cent against the dollar since the end of 2020, and more than 3 per cent against the euro. It traded as high as $1.4008 and €1.156, respectively, on Friday.

Here is more from the FT.

Profile of Youyang Gu, data scientist

In mid-April, while he was living with his parents in Santa Clara, Calif., Gu spent a week building his own Covid death predictor and a website to display the morbid information. Before long, his model started producing more accurate results than those cooked up by institutions with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding and decades of experience.

“His model was the only one that seemed sane,” says Jeremy Howard, a renowned data expert and research scientist at the University of San Francisco. “The other models were shown to be nonsense time and again, and yet there was no introspection from the people publishing the forecasts or the journalists reporting on them. Peoples’ lives were depending on these things, and Youyang was the one person actually looking at the data and doing it properly.”

The forecasting model that Gu built was, in some ways, simple. He had first considered examining the relationship among Covid tests, hospitalizations, and other factors but found that such data was being reported inconsistently by states and the federal government. The most reliable figures appeared to be the daily death counts. “Other models used more data sources, but I decided to rely on past deaths to predict future deaths,” Gu says. “Having that as the only input helped filter the signal from the noise.”

The novel, sophisticated twist of Gu’s model came from his use of machine learning algorithms to hone his figures.

Here is the full Bloomberg piece by Ashlee Vance, I am especially pleased because Youyang was an Emergent Ventures winner.  Here is Youyang Gu on Twitter.

Friday assorted links

The demand for crypto

Here is an email from a loyal MR reader:

I’ve been importing a few things for a new business. Such a huge opportunity for crypto. And not just for Nigerians.

The payments are a real pain. Many vendors already accept bitcoin. And you could eventually use smart contracts to provide a version of Alibaba Trade Assurance that works for places other than China and with every vendor. The language barrier makes it seem like you are answering an email about a Nigerian Prince, so some kind of escrow to build trust will expand who is comfortable importing.

I’m doing this because it is about 40% of the price to import yourself for the products I need rather than buy from someone on Amazon (who probably bought from a similar exporter). There are very real barriers to be knocked down and eliminate a whole host of middlemen in many products.

I will definitely be using crypto payments for future transactions. The convenience of crypto increases a lot as you do larger orders and build trust with suppliers.

Personnel economics working in the supermarket

Yesterday I outlined my supermarket job from ages 16-18 in suburban New Jersey.  I did know plenty of economics at that time, including Adam Smith and Paul Heyne and most of classical economics, and here are some of the observations I made.  Please note this is all n = 1 or n = 2, these may or may not be generalizable.  Here goes:

1. Mockery was the relevant incentive at the margin, and the “enforcer of first resort.”  If you did something wrong you were mocked, sometimes mercilessly.  My first night on the job I put too many fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator, relative to expectations, and so I heard about that multiple times on my next appearance.  The jokes at my expense were funny.

2. There was strong competition to win overtime hours. Working Sunday 12-5 was a prime slot, and not hard work either because customer demand was slow that day.  Saturday 1-9:30 had extra payoffs as well.  These labor supply curves definitely sloped upwards.  And allocation of overtime hours served to keep the better workers around.

3. My sense was that the demand for labor was pretty inelastic in the following sense: once you were soundly established as someone who would show up, complete your list of tasks, and not steal too much, they really were not looking to fire you.  You were “a keeper,” and in principle they would pay you more in response to a minimum wage hike, rather than firing you.

4. My sense was that the demand for labor was quite elastic in the following sense: the lower-tier workers were given a lot of luxury hours.  For one thing, if you didn’t get an average of at least fifteen hours a week, you might leave for another job.  Second, and more importantly, a lot of the night hours were optional.  Did they really need you back there that Tuesday night after 6 or 7 p.m.?  Well, maybe yes, maybe no.  There was a sense that if customers came by with questions, it was useful to have someone around to help them.  But if the produce department was not making a lot of money, they would cut back on these hours quite readily.  In slow times I didn’t get the 5-10 p.m. slot a whole lot.

5. Department managers, including in produce, were paid an “efficiency wage time profile” of returns, a’ la Eddie Lazear.  That is, in early years they would pay you below marginal product, but pay you above marginal product in the later, outer years.  That schedule would keep you in line, because you needed to avoid getting fired to reap the high later returns.  That said, in the outer years you would end up getting canned, because the prescription is not entirely time consistent.  Why keep someone around who is getting paid above marginal product?  It was called “getting busted.”  At that point you would typically start all over again with another supermarket.  (I did understand this all at the time, though I hadn’t yet read Lazear and a lot of the work hadn’t yet been published.)  A minority of department managers ended up promoted to store managers, but that was hard to pull off, especially without a college degree.

6. There was plenty of employee theft, though never from me.  Things disappeared off the back of trucks, and in this time there was no CCTV.  At a smaller scale, to be caught eating or taking food without a receipt was considered a fireable offense, though if you were a good worker and kept it to brief snacking within limits they did not try too hard to catch you.  They didn’t want to have to fire you, yet they did want to keep the rule in place.  Collusion between male line workers and female cashiers sometimes was a problem, as it meant some people would just take foodstuffs home.

6b. Shoplifting was rampant, though much more in the meat department than in produce.  Overall, the customers and workers were less honest than the bosses.

7. Correctly or not, the line workers typically were cynical about the union.  You paid dues to it, and you were told it gave you higher wages, but otherwise it had no presence in your life.  People saw the dues that left their paycheck, but were not convinced they were getting comparably high wages because of the union.

8. Due to gas prices and commuting costs (you had to keep your car in OK shape, which took competence as well as money), there was a modest degree of monopsony.  Still, everyone understood that a higher cost of labor meant fewer hours and in the longer run fewer hires.  No one thought that allowing vastly more shoplifting would lead the company to hire more labor, which is in fact what the more radical monopsony models imply.  Nope, it wasn’t monopsony of that sort.

9. The store manager, and in turn the department manager, would be terrified when the regional boss would do a store walk-through, and typically that happened by surprise.  That was when they really wanted you to scurry and have everything looking spic and span.

10. Workers had various personality types, and within a given type only so much motivation was possible, no matter what the rewards.  All rewards were seen as temporary, and to be followed by an eventual firing or demotion.  Slackers were slackers, and you had to accept that and work around them accordingly.