Month: November 2021

An update on the mask debate

I am long since tired of this debate, and I see that a lot of people are not joining it in the best of faith.  I can pass along a few updates, namely this study, with some critical commentary attached.  And here is more on the Bangladeshi mask RCT.  With more data transparency, it does not seem to be holding up very well.

That said, I am not sure that either calculation really matters.  Any good assessment of mask efficacy has to be radically intertemporal in nature, and I mean for the entirety of the pandemic.  “Not getting infected” now may well raise your chance of getting infected later on, and that spans for longer than any feasibly designed RCT.  And have you heard about the new “Nu” variant?  It may turn out not to matter, but it does remind us that the pandemic is not over yet.

As a simple first approximation, think of the real value of masks as “a) how many infections are delayed for how long, plus improvements in treatment in the meantime, plus b) how many infections are avoided altogether.”  Even a well-designed RCT is going to focus on a version of b), but only for a limited period of time.  The extant studies don’t at all consider “plus improvements in treatment in the meantime,” or when some of those protected by masks for say a year or two might nonetheless later catch Covid later yet.  So those RCTs, no matter what their results, are grabbing only one leg of the elephant.

To make matters more complicated yet, a “very small” efficacy for masks might (yes, might) translate into a much larger final effect, due to effective R (sometimes) being greater than 1.  So finding a very small effect for masks doesn’t mean masks are only slightly effective.  As the pandemic is ending, you might (again might) have had one less “pandemic cycle” than if you hadn’t tried masks at all.  You can think of masks as a kind of lottery ticket on “one big gain,” paying off only when the timing is such that the masks have helped you choke off another Covid wave.  Again, the RCT is not capable of estimating that probability or the magnitude of its effect.

Yet another part of my mental model of masks has evolved to be the following.  You have two sets of countries, countries that manage Covid well and countries that don’t, argue all you want who goes into which bin but that isn’t the point right now.

Now consider the countries that don’t manage Covid well.  They might wish to stretch out their epidemics over time, so that better treatments arrive, subject to economic constraints of course.  But the countries that manage Covid well probably want the poorly-managed countries to reach herd immunity sooner rather than later, if only to lower the ongoing risk of transmission from a poorly-managed country to a well-managed country.  And to lower the risk of those countries birthing new variants, just as southern Africa now seems to have birthed the Nu variant.

So we have two major points of view, represented by multiple countries, one wanting quicker resolution for the poorly managed countries but the other wanting slower resolution.  Does any study of masks take those variables into account?  No.  Nor is it easy to see how it could.

To be clear, I am not arguing masks don’t work, nor am I making any claims about how much masks may or may not protect you individually, or the people you interact with.  I am claiming that at the aggregate social level we are quite far from knowing how well masks work.

I say it is third doses we should be doubling down on, not masks.  To be clear, I am fine with wearing masks myself, I am used to it, and I dislike it but I don’t hate it.  On this issue, I am not one of those people translating his or her own snowflake-ism into some kind of biased policy view.

But the emerging science on third doses is much stronger, and most countries have been dropping the ball on that one.

Simple advice for watching and understanding on-line chess

Yes, the computer evaluations are extremely useful.  But they are measuring the quality of the position when two computers are playing.  Yet most of the games you care about tend to be two humans playing each other.  And those humans do not play like computers.  The computer might say the game is even, and maybe it is with perfect play, but one side can be much harder (easier) to play than the other.  So I suggest this trick.  Go to analysis.sesse.net, which covers top games (only).  Scan down the vertical list of all possible moves and consider the distribution of outcomes.  If the top move is great for White, but all the others are not, robustness is low, especially if the top move for White is not super-obvious (such as recapturing a Queen, etc.).  If all the sequences look very good for White (Black), you will know that for humans the position probably is somewhat better for White than the single computer evaluation number will indicate.  Robustness against human error will be present.

For the Carlsen match, here is a good Twitch stream, currently with Caruana as commentator.

Air Pollution Reduces Health and Wealth

Great piece by David Wallace-Wells on air pollution.

Here is just a partial list of the things, short of death rates, we know are affected by air pollution. GDP, with a 10 per cent increase in pollution reducing output by almost a full percentage point, according to an OECD report last year. Cognitive performance, with a study showing that cutting Chinese pollution to the standards required in the US would improve the average student’s ranking in verbal tests by 26 per cent and in maths by 13 per cent. In Los Angeles, after $700 air purifiers were installed in schools, student performance improved almost as much as it would if class sizes were reduced by a third. Heart disease is more common in polluted air, as are many types of cancer, and acute and chronic respiratory diseases like asthma, and strokes. The incidence of Alzheimer’s can triple: in Choked, Beth Gardiner cites a study which found early markers of Alzheimer’s in 40 per cent of autopsies conducted on those in high-pollution areas and in none of those outside them. Rates of other sorts of dementia increase too, as does Parkinson’s. Air pollution has also been linked to mental illness of all kinds – with a recent paper in the British Journal of Psychiatry showing that even small increases in local pollution raise the need for treatment by a third and for hospitalisation by a fifth – and to worse memory, attention and vocabulary, as well as ADHD and autism spectrum disorders. Pollution has been shown to damage the development of neurons in the brain, and proximity to a coal plant can deform a baby’s DNA in the womb. It even accelerates the degeneration of the eyesight.

A high pollution level in the year a baby is born has been shown to result in reduced earnings and labour force participation at the age of thirty. The relationship of pollution to premature births and low birth weight is so strong that the introduction of the automatic toll system E-ZPass in American cities reduced both problems in areas close to toll plazas (by 10.8 per cent and 11.8 per cent respectively), by cutting down on the exhaust expelled when cars have to queue. Extremely premature births, another study found, were 80 per cent more likely when mothers lived in areas of heavy traffic. Women breathing exhaust fumes during pregnancy gave birth to children with higher rates of paediatric leukaemia, kidney cancer, eye tumours and malignancies in the ovaries and testes. Infant death rates increased in line with pollution levels, as did heart malformations. And those breathing dirtier air in childhood exhibited significantly higher rates of self-harm in adulthood, with an increase of just five micrograms of small particulates a day associated, in 1.4 million people in Denmark, with a 42 per cent rise in violence towards oneself. Depression in teenagers quadruples; suicide becomes more common too.

Stock market returns are lower on days with higher air pollution, a study found this year. Surgical outcomes are worse. Crime goes up with increased particulate concentrations, especially violent crime: a 10 per cent reduction in pollution, researchers at Colorado State University found, could reduce the cost of crime in the US by $1.4 billion a year. When there’s more smog in the air, chess players make more mistakes, and bigger ones. Politicians speak more simplistically, and baseball umpires make more bad calls.

As MR readers will know Tyler and I have been saying air pollution is an underrated problem for some time. Here’s my video on the topic:

*Get Back*, I

Everything that gets done runs through Paul.  As Adam Minter put it (excellent thread more generally):

Nothing would get done if Paul weren’t there. But it’s a fine line, because he’s irritating. also – Ringo, in my opinion, has deep deep reservoirs of patience. I don’t know how he go through some of those days.

In this “prepping for a no overdubs, pure live performance” setting, the studio doesn’t matter.  And control over studio production was how Paul exerted an increasing authority over the Beatles.  “Let’s work on this more together” de facto meant “let’s give me, Paul, greater influence over the proceedings.”  Yet without his studio expertise as a Williamsonian trump card, Paul has to be more of a pain in the ass to induce effort and focus from the others.

“I’m scared of me being the boss, and I kind of have been for a couple of years,” or something like that, is what Paul says.  “I know it’s right, and you know it’s right” comes shortly thereafter (remember this?).

“Whatever it is that will please you, I will do it” responds George.  John in turn mutters something about maybe they should improvise the whole thing.

George Martin is rendered irrelevant, due to the studio production being omitted, and mostly he stands around and looks like a guy who used to do ads for bad British cars in the 1960s.

Two highlights are Paul singing a mock version of “Gimme’ Some Truth,” and John singing a mock version of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”  Doesn’t the film show it was actually George who broke up the Beatles?  (Or Ringo in 1968?)  Doesn’t the person who leaves first split up the relationship?

What is quiet Yoko thinking the whole time?

And from Dave Bueche:

  • It’s surprising to see them digging around for material.  You’d think they would have had a lineup of songs before they started the project.
  • Twickenham [the studio] seems like a drag.  You can tell they don’t love it either.  It’s big and cavernous and a few colored lights doesn’t change that.
  • There’s a certain sad nostalgia in them playing all the old standards they learned in Germany and Liverpool.  Like they know this the end and they’re sort of reliving the beginning one last time.
  • Paul is clearly more invested than the others.  George seems like he’s trying to just learn the songs, do his bit, same with Ringo.  John seems like he’s a good sport, but other than Don’t Let Me Down – he seems to be going through the motions.
  • It’s fun seeing them cover Dylan and other contemporaries.

The reviews are all “oh, this shows the Beatles loved working together until the very end.”  That’s a pretty superficial read of the material.  To me, Get Back is much more about “how the main value adders control small groups in a somewhat tyrannical and mostly efficient manner, and why this isn’t always stable.”  Mancur Olson remains underrated.

“All Things Must Pass” just wasn’t that good a song, and it would have been worse as a Beatles song.

Here is a very good Jonathan Freedland review.

Friday assorted links

1. Russian army logistics.  And Soviet fact of the day.

2. Adam Minter on Get Back.

3. The police culture that is New Jersey (NYT).

4. “Aligning with Lukianoff and Haidt’s assertions, we found that students’ self-reported prevalence of cognitive distortions positively predicted their endorsement of safetyism-inspired beliefs, the belief that words can harm, and support for the broad use of trigger warnings.”  Link here.

5. Kalshi: “Will Omicron make up greater than 1% of U.S. COVID-19 cases by the new year?”  And here is another market in a new variant.

India fact of the day

India’s most recent National Family Health Survey, which is conducted every five years by the Health Ministry, was released Wednesday and showed the total fertility rate (TFR) across India dropping to 2.0 in 2019-2021, compared with 2.2 in 2015-2016. A country with a TFR of 2.1, known as the replacement rate, would maintain a stable population over time; a lower TFR means the population would decrease in the absence of other factors, such as immigration…

In cities across India — as in other countries — women are opting for fewer children: The urban fertility rate is 1.6.

And the bias against baby girls is diminishing.  Here is the full story.  Via Naveen.

Harford on a Carbon Tax

Tim Harford has a good piece on the virtues of a carbon tax:

A friend recently wrote to me agonising over an ethical question. He was pondering a long-haul trip to see his family but was all too aware that the flight would have a huge carbon footprint. Could the journey possibly be justified? I suggested that my friend find out what the carbon footprint was (a tonne of CO2, it turns out) and then imagine a hypothetical carbon tax. Would he still be willing to travel if he had to pay the tax? If not, the trip wasn’t worth it.

My advice raises the question of what this carbon tax should be. At a carbon tax of £5 per tonne of CO2 — plenty of carbon global emissions are taxed at less than that — the extra tax on that one-tonne return flight would be trivial. At a more serious £50, it would be noticeable but perhaps not decisive. (The emissions trading systems in the EU and the UK until recently implied a carbon price of around £50 per tonne of CO2; the UK price has since leapt. US Democrats are pondering their own carbon tax.) If the carbon tax were a deep-green £500 per tonne of CO2, my friend would have to be missing his family more than most of us ever do.

I realise it is quixotic to advise checking one’s personal consumption decisions against a completely hypothetical tax, but it gets to the core of what a carbon tax is for. It isn’t just an incentive to change behaviour; it’s a source of information about which behaviour we most urgently need to change.

Exactly right. Or as Tyler and I say in Modern Principles, a price is a signal wrapped up in an incentive. Put a price on carbon and every actor in the system will be incentivized to follow the signal and reduce carbon use in ways that no one can predict or plan.

Tim concludes:

…A carbon tax changes that by making the climate impact as real a cost as any other. It sends a signal along all those supply chains, nudging every decision towards the lower-carbon alternative. A shopper may decide that a carbon-taxed T-shirt is too costly, but meanwhile the textile factory is looking to save on electricity, while the electricity supplier is switching to solar. Every part of the value chain becomes greener.

The Covid pandemic is not taking the very best of turns

This was emailed to me, but I am not doing a double indent…in any case I fear the person might be right…

“The prevailing sentiment is that the COVID pandemic is close to over. The vaccines are of course miraculous but we are not currently on a good trajectory.

  • It is increasingly clear that two shots plus a booster of our current vaccines are the least one needs to have effective medium-term protection. Almost nowhere (least of all the US) is on track to reach this kind of coverage. The messaging in the US remains mistaken, where the CDC to this day recommends boosters only for those aged 50 and older. More broadly, the institutional confusion around boosters shows that the adults are not yet in charge.
  • Even though Delta arose in the spring, we are still vaccinating (and boosting) people with the original Wuhan strain. This is insane, and probably meaningfully less effective, and yet nobody is up in arms about it.
  • Severe outbreaks are manifestly possible even in exceptionally vaccinated populations, especially when booster uptake is low. See: Singapore, Gibraltar, Ireland. One should assume that almost every part of the US will see significant waves before COVID “ends”, whatever that turns out to mean. Note that just 60% of the US population is vaccinated today with two doses.
  • There is early suggestive evidence from Israel that boosters may wane.
  • Waning aside, it’s clear that breakthrough infections in boosted individuals are not uncommon. While the vast majority of those infections are not severe, this does mean that there will still be plenty of mutagenesis.
  • It’s unclear that longitudinal cross-immunity is strong. Getting COVID is not enough to confer long-term protection. We probably can’t just “get this over with”, even if we are willing to tolerate a large number of one-time deaths.
  • The currently-breaking news about the South African Nu strain shows that arguments about how the spike protein is running out of mutation search space are almost certainly wrong.
  • While the fog of war is thick right now, the early data on Nu suggests that it may be a big deal. Even if it’s not, however, it has been obvious since we got the vaccines that vaccine escape is a concern. You can debate whether the probability of a vaccine escaping variant is 20% or 80%, but in any case we need effective contingency plans in place. If we fail to respond effectively to Nu, that will be a considerably greater institutional failure than anything that happened at the outset of the pandemic. We’ve had almost two years since the first COVID case and one year from the vaccine approvals to prepare. So I ask: what is the plan for the vaccine-escaping variant?

On current trends, it looks like we will probably need one of two things to effectively end the pandemic: (1) very effective COVID therapeutics (paxlovid, molnupiravir, and fluvoxamine all being candidates but my guess is that none is a silver bullet) or (2) pan-coronavirus vaccines (with broader protection than what is currently available).

It isn’t over yet.

P.S. Has any U.S. health body recommended the clinical use of fluvoxamine (an already-approved drug), or has the FDA given any guidance as to when it might approve paxlovid? If not, can they outline their reasoning? 1,600 Americans died of COVID on Nov 24.”

Nu, a variant of real concern

Here is the Eric Topol thread.  Do read it.  Here is the scary graph, based on preliminary data.  Here is Bloom Lab.  Here is a layperson’s take from the Times of London:

When was the variant first discovered?
South African authorities raised the alarm at 2pm on Tuesday of this week, when they found samples with a significant number of worrying mutations.

The samples dated from tests taken on November 14 and 16. On Wednesday, even as scientists were analysing the genome, other samples were found in Botswana and China, originating from travellers from South Africa.

Why were scientists initially concerned by this variant?
The spike protein is the tool a virus uses to enter cells, and the part of it our vaccines are trained to spot. This variant had 32 mutations in the spike — meaning it would look different to our immune system and behave differently when attacking a body. As a virologist at Imperial College put it, it was a “horrific spike profile”.

Why has worry increased over the course of the week?
When geneticists and virologists looked at the mutations they realised there was a high likelihood they could increase its transmissibility or help it evade immunity. But these concerns were still theoretical. However, today South African scientists spotted a quirk in the testing regimen. PCR tests look for three genes in the coronavirus and amplify them. If, however, the virus was this variant they were only able to amplify two.

In the province of Gauteng, where the proportion of tests coming back positive has rocketed to one in three, they found the proportion in which only two genes were amplified has also rocketed.

What does this mean?
There are three options. It is still possible — though unlikely — this is chance, with the variant’s apparently increased spread relating to an unusual cluster. If it does have a genuine advantage, then it is either better able to spread or better able to infect people who have prior immunity — either from vaccination or infection. Or, it is both.

This might come to nothing, but it is definitely a matter of concern.  One more general point is that even if Nu is a non-event, it seems to show that the space for possible significant mutations is largely than we had thought.

Thanksgiving assorted links

1. Why do frozen turkeys explode when deep fried?

2. “Former South Korean military dictator Chun Doo-hwan has died at age 90. This means all living former South Korean Presidents are currently in jail.”  Tweet link here.

3. David Wallace-Wells on the tragedy of regular ol’ air pollution.

4. The case against the Trump-Biden tariffs (NYT).

5. New dating terms.

6. Walmart “cancels” children’s toy that swears and sings in Polish about doing cocaine.

7. Georgia politician stands by giant topiary chicken that got him ousted as mayor.

8. Long list of things to be thankful for.

Give Thanks to the Green Revolution

It’s well known that the Green Revolution dramatically increased crop yields. In a new paper, Gollin, Hansen and Wingender use a general equilibrium model to show that the effects were even more far reaching. For a given acre, the Green Revolution raised the yields of some crops by 44% between 1965 and 2010. But the total effect was even larger because higher yields incentivized farmers to substitute away from lower-yield crops into higher yield crops. Moreover, higher yields meant that less farm labor was required which shifted populations into manufacturing. When one takes into account all of these knock-on effects the authors find substantial effects on GDP. Indeed, the authors estimate that if the Green Revolution had never happened GDP per capita in the developing world would be half of its current level.

More realistically, if the Green Revolution had been delayed by ten years incomes in the developing world would be 17% lower today. In terms of cumulative GDP what this means is that the investments which made the Green Revolution possible were responsible for some US $83 trillion in benefits.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Green Revolution simultaneously prevented many people from starving but also reduced total population because of reduced fertility. The Green Revolution also meant that less land was used for farming not more.

As Tyler argues in Stubborn Attachments (see also this video) growth is a moral imperative. A ten year delay in the Green Revolution could easily have happened. Indeed, it is happening now.

Photo Credit: Norman Borlaug. 1960s. International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT)

What should I ask Russ Roberts?

I will be doing a podcast with him, specifically focusing on his decision to emigrate to Israel.  Here are the suggestions that Russ solicited from Twitter.  We will release the episode both on EconTalk and on CWT.

So what should I ask him?  Keep in mind this is the Conversation with Russ I want to have…

Model this Apple pricing decision

Apple has one new product that’s already so back-ordered it won’t arrive in time for Christmas. It’s a polishing cloth. Priced at $19.

Unveiled in October after Apple showed off its new line of gadgets, the soft, light gray square is made of “nonabrasive material” and embossed with Apple’s logo. During tests, the rag worked like other microfiber cloths that list for less than half that price. So…why $19?

As it happens, Apple’s pricing strategy rarely allows accessories to fall below that threshold. The 6.3-inch swatch of fabric sits beside 17 other Apple-branded items on the company’s website—a mélange of charging cables, dongles and adapters—each priced at $19. Some, such as the wired earbuds and charging adapter, were once included with new iPhones.

Those $19 Apple items—together with the Apple Watch, AirPods and other small gadgets—are part of the company’s growing Wearables, Home and Accessories category, which had more than $8 billion in revenue in the quarter that ended in October.

Almost every Apple price ends in the number “9.”  Would it matter if we all carried around $30 bills?  There is further discussion in this Galvin Brown WSJ piece.

Via the excellent Samir Varma.

Tyler Cowen on complementarity and gratitude

One fan with a helpful perspective on the Wizards is Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at nearby George Mason University. He says that even he was surprised they were able to move Wall and then Westbrook’s contracts so effectively. But what’s more interesting to him about the Wizards these days is what’s happening on the court. “They have quite a few players who are ‘good enough’ shooters,” Cowen said in an email. “When everyone on the floor is a ‘good enough’ shooter, the good enough shooters are better than you might think.”

This is a useful way of thinking about the entire team. In a league where the ultimate goal is greatness, the Wizards are showing the power of pretty good. It’s the sort of progress that precedes success.

“Their ceiling still might be pretty low,” Cowen said. “But for the time being, we can enjoy the ride.”

Here is more from Ben Cohen at the Wall Street Journal.