Month: December 2021

The Slow Rollout of Rapid Tests

I thought the Biden administration would at least make original pandemic errors. But no, its been making all the same errors. Slow on vaccines, slow on rapid testing and slow on new drugs, and far too little investment. Still after a year and half of shouting it from the rooftops we are getting some rapid tests. Josh Gans has an interesting reminder focusing on Canada that this has been an example of expert failure not just US failure. 

Rapid test advocates such as myself have suddenly moved from fringe crazies who were told they didn’t understand the science to we need them and we need them now.

Several cases in point:

  • The CDC now says that unvaccinated students exposed to Covid can “test to stay.” That is, rather than sending all the students in a class (or a school!) home when one tests positive for Covid, they test the students instead and so long as they are negative, they stay.
  • The US Government is going to order 500 million rapid tests and distribute them free to the public … by mail!

It is hard to appreciate what a sea change this is in terms of attitude. A year ago, when we tried to roll out rapid tests — that had already been purchased and were sitting in their millions in warehouses in Canada — to Canadian workplaces, we were told that those tests had to be administered by health care professionals in PPE in secure and sanitised environments with all manner of precautions taken that really took the “rapid” out of rapid testing let alone exploding the costs to businesses who wanted to keep their workers safe. This was because they required those long-swabs etc. Eventually, short swabs were permitted. Then self-swabbing supervised in the workplace. Then swabbing at home while on a virtual call with a professional for that supervision with the swabs being picked up and then taken for safe disposal. Finally, we got to self-administered, at-home screening without supervision and you could pop your negative swan in the bin. A year after we had been told that you needed a full-court medical professional press to do this, our kids in Ontario were sent home with 5 rapid tests to use over the holidays. Only a couple of weeks ago, the Ontario government’s advisory board, the Ontario Science Table, finally endorsed the use of rapid tests in this way.

The supply chain that is Japanese

McDonald’s Japan has joined the unfortunate ranks of Toyota, Sony and other industrial titans that have fallen victim to a chip supply crisis.

The fast-food group said on Tuesday that because of delivery delays from Canada, it would only be able to offer the smallest serving of french fries at its 2,900 outlets. An emergency plan to ensure “continuous supply of french fries to customers” has been introduced, said a company spokesman.

And this I had not known:

For nearly half a century, Japanese consumers have ordered KFC chicken on Christmas thanks to an advertising campaign that successfully linked the fast-food chain with the holiday. KFC operates a family bucket pre-booking system to ensure that it meets the December 25 rush for deep-fried poultry.

Here is the full FT piece, via David Wessel.

Freddie on worry porn

Bogost’s piece is an absolute classic, maybe the classic, in a particularly strange form of worry porn that progressives have become addicted to in the past half-decade. It’s this thing where they insist that they don’t want something to happen, but they describe it so lustily, imagine it so vividly, fixate on it so relentlessly, that it’s abundantly clear that a deep part of them wants it to happen. This was a constant experience in the Trump era – liberals would imagine that Trump was about to dissolve Congress and declare himself emperor, they’d ostensibly be opposed to such a thing, but they were so immensely invested in the seriousness and accuracy of such predictions that they’d clearly prefer for it to happen. I wrote about Chris Hayes and his bitter yearning for Trump last week, and he’s a good example, someone who ruminates on Trump and the dystopian future he might bring about with such palpable emotional pathology that it’s clear that, on some level, he needs it to happen, so that he can say “I was right.” And so with Bogost here; that level of anxious catastrophizing always carries with it the quiet, throbbing need for the bad dream to come true. Covid is already bad, very bad. I am always so confused that so many people seem desperately to want it to be worse.

Here is the full essay.

How to figure out where crypto is headed

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, the piece has a number of ideas.  You can start with this:

…the concept of relevance is focality, by which I mean the part of the system at which consumers direct their attention. Focality could determine whether crypto ushers in an era of dystopian inequality, or whether most of its benefits accrue to broader society.

That all sounds quite abstract, so consider a simple example from the world of music. Famous artists such as the Beatles or Taylor Swift attract attention with their very names — in other words, they have become focal. Then there are performance spaces or bars that are known for putting on good music, such as the Blue Note or, in an earlier era, the Fillmore. In this case, the venue is focal.

So the question is this: When people patronize crypto institutions, will they attach significance to the “innovator” or to the “intermediary”? Or, to continue the analogy with the music industry, the artist or the venue.

One scenario is that ordinary Americans will simply find crypto too confusing to deal with directly. Rather than choosing their favorite crypto assets, DeFi investments and NFT providers, they will outsource their decisions to well-known intermediaries. Imagine entering into a crypto contract with a company you have an established relationship with, such as a social media company, your bank or perhaps your labor union. The intermediary would deliver a “crypto package,” tailored to the needs of a broad swath of customers.

Significant parts of the crypto world would be relatively centralized….

I think you can imagine which problems would arise in that scenario, including the reemergence of de facto censorship.  Alternately:

Another very different scenario: Users focus their attention on the crypto assets themselves, such as Bitcoin, Ether or Dogecoin. That kind of user focus would mean many of the gains of crypto accrue to the early crypto asset holders. Intermediaries (e.g., Coinbase) can earn a return, but the real brand name value would be held by the crypto asset itself.

Much of today’s crypto world looks like this, though it may not last as crypto broadens in applications and use. If you are long current crypto assets, you may be hoping for this kind of scenario to extend itself, because those assets will accumulate much of the value from higher crypto demand.

Yet another scenario: What if the attention of consumers were focused on the crypto innovators, who in this case would be analogous to better-known musical artists? One person may think “I like the DeFi options at Uniswap,” while another may say, “I am going to use the prediction markets over at Hedgehog.” In this scenario there is relatively little intermediation and heavy competition for consumer attention. Thus most of the gains from competition accrue to the users.

Customers would use or own or invest in crypto in a variety of ways, just as they listen to music on LPs, CDs, MP3s and streaming services. And in the same way that people share their playlists, crypto users could issue their own tokens (currencies) if they wanted, or serve as their own banks in the sense of making their own lending decisions and executing them autonomously.

I don’t know if people are up to all this work (or is it fun?). But in my view this is the best-case scenario — and the most technologically ambitious. Interestingly, crypto’s radical ability to disintermediate, if extended to its logical conclusion, could bring about a radical equalization of power that would lower the prices and values of the currently well-established crypto assets, companies and platforms.

So you can be bullish on crypto’s future without being bullish on current crypto prices. For a simple analogy, Spotify and YouTube have greatly expanded music’s reach, but overall the price of recorded music has fallen, and many performers earn much less than did their peers in the LP era. Or consider the agriculture sector, defined broadly: It has done very well over the last few centuries, but food prices have fallen rather than risen, due to higher output and greater competition.


Texas, Utah, and Idaho fact of the day

The Texas population grew by about four million people in the past decade—far more than any other state in raw numbers, and enough as a percentage to make it the third-fastest-growing state in the nation over that period, behind Utah and Idaho.

Here is the full story, mostly about Texas.  Mobility trends are one simple way to try to predict how America will evolve.  For the pointer I thank the excellent Samir Varma.

What should I ask Sebastian Mallaby?

From Wikipedia:

Sebastian Christopher Peter Mallaby (born May 1964) is an English journalist and author, Paul A. Volcker senior fellow for international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), and contributing columnist at The Washington Post. Formerly, he was a contributing editor for the Financial Times and a columnist and editorial board member at The Washington Post.

His recent writing has been published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Atlantic Monthly. In 2012, he published a Foreign Affairs essay on the future of China’s currency. His books include The Man Who Knew (2016), More Money Than God (2010), and The World’s Banker (2004).

I am also a big fan of his new and forthcoming book on venture capital, namely The Power Law: Venture Capital and the Making of a New Future.

So what should I ask him?

*The Books of Jacob*

By Olga Tokarczuk, so far I am about 300 pp. through a total of nearly 900 pp.  Might this be one of the greater novels of our time?  I liked this description:

The Books of Jacob by the Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk is an epic chronicle of the life and times of Frank and his followers. Over a thousand pages long, dense with history and incident, it is vast enough to make this reader’s knees buckle. As crowded as a Bruegel painting, it moves from mud-bound Galician villages to Greek monasteries, 18th-century Warsaw, Brno, Vienna and the luxurious surroundings of the Habsburg court. It takes in esoteric theological arguments, diplomatic history, alchemy, Kabbalah, Polish antisemitism and the philosophical roots of the Enlightenment. It is a dauntingly ambitious piece of work and one of the responses it arouses is just plain amazement at the patience and tenacity that have gone into its construction.


Dense, captivating and weird, The Books of Jacob is on a different scale from either of these. It is a visionary novel that conforms to a particular notion of masterpiece – long, arcane and sometimes inhospitable. Tokarczuk is wrestling with the biggest philosophical themes: the purpose of life on earth, the nature of religion, the possibility of redemption, the fraught and terrible history of eastern European Jewry. With its formidable insistence on rendering an alien world with as much detail as possible, the novel reminded me at times of Paradise LostThe vividness with which it’s done is amazing.

Both passages by Marcel Theroux.  I still need to read more, but this stands a very good chance of being one of the must-read novels of the twenty-first century.  I ordered my copy pre-emptively from the UK and am very glad I did so, other Americans need to wait until February.

Are wages for same-sex couples converging?

An extensive literature on labor-market outcomes by sexual orientation finds lower wages for men in same-sex couples and higher wages for women in same-sex couples compared to their counterparts in different-sex couples. Previous studies analyzing multiple time periods provide suggestive evidence that the wage penalty for men in same-sex couples is heading toward zero. Using data from the American Community Survey on individuals in couples from 2000 to 2019, we find no evidence that wages, earnings, or incomes of men in same-sex couples are improving relative to married men in different-sex couples. For women in same-sex couples, we see mixed evidence of convergence relative to married women in different-sex couples. The persistence of a wage penalty for men in same-sex couples is concerning in the face of anti-discrimination policies and rising overall tolerance by Americans with respect to sexual orientation.

That is from new research by Christopher Jepsen and Lisa Jepsen, vtekl.

The Rise and Decline of Thinking over Feeling

In texts, both fictional and non-fictional and in English and Spanish, thinking words relating to technology and social organization (experiment, gravity, weigh, cost, contract) become more common between 1850 and approximately 1977 (beginning of the great stagnation) but since then thinking words have declined markedly and feeling words relating to belief, spirituality, sapience, and intuition (e.g. forgiveness, heal, feel) have become more common.

The graph at right shows the ratio of rationality words to intuition words over time in different corpuses. Paper here.

The surge of post-truth political argumentation suggests that we are living in a special historical period when it comes to the balance between emotion and reasoning. To explore if this is indeed the case, we analyze language in millions of books covering the period from 1850 to 2019 represented in Google nGram data. We show that the use of words associated with rationality, such as “determine” and “conclusion,” rose systematically after 1850, while words related to human experience such as “feel” and “believe” declined. This pattern reversed over the past decades, paralleled by a shift from a collectivistic to an individualistic focus as reflected, among other things, by the ratio of singular to plural pronouns such as “I”/”we” and “he”/”they.” Interpreting this synchronous sea change in book language remains challenging. However, as we show, the nature of this reversal occurs in fiction as well as nonfiction. Moreover, the pattern of change in the ratio between sentiment and rationality flag words since 1850 also occurs in New York Times articles, suggesting that it is not an artifact of the book corpora we analyzed. Finally, we show that word trends in books parallel trends in corresponding Google search terms, supporting the idea that changes in book language do in part reflect changes in interest. All in all, our results suggest that over the past decades, there has been a marked shift in public interest from the collective to the individual, and from rationality toward emotion.

The authors blame the change in language towards feelings on the failure of “neo-liberalism” which seems dubious and without plausible mechanism. If anything, I would put the causality the other way. A more plausible explanation is more female writers and the closely related feminization of culture.

The analysis is consistent with my earlier post on how quickly the NYTimes became woke.

Hat tip: Paul Kedrosky.

Which search engine does the most to limit conspiracy theorizing?

Web search engines are important online information intermediaries that are frequently used and highly trusted by the public despite multiple evidence of their outputs being subjected to inaccuracies and biases. One form of such inaccuracy, which so far received little scholarly attention, is the presence of conspiratorial information, namely pages promoting conspiracy theories. We address this gap by conducting a comparative algorithm audit to examine the distribution of conspiratorial information in search results across five search engines: Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, Yahoo and Yandex. Using a virtual agent-based infrastructure, we systematically collect search outputs for six conspiracy theory-related queries (“flat earth”, “new world order”, “qanon”, “9/11”, “illuminati”, “george soros”) across three locations (two in the US and one in the UK) and two observation periods (March and May 2021). We find that all search engines except Google consistently displayed conspiracy-promoting results and returned links to conspiracy-dedicated websites in their top results, although the share of such content varied across queries. Most conspiracy-promoting results came from social media and conspiracy-dedicated websites while conspiracy-debunking information was shared by scientific websites and, to a lesser extent, legacy media. The fact that these observations are consistent across different locations and time periods highlight the possibility of some search engines systematically prioritizing conspiracy-promoting content and, thus, amplifying their distribution in the online environments.

Here is the full paper by Aleksandra Urmana, Mykola Makhortykhb, Roberto Ulloac, and Juhi Kulshrestha.  Of course it is also worth investigating which search engine does the most to “censor” true conspiracy theories.  Are there any?

Via Aleksandra Urman.

*The Last King of America*

This biography of King George III is a new and excellent book by Andrew Roberts, who also wrote a great biography of Napoleon. The subtitle of this one is The Misunderstood Reign of George III, and here is one excerpt:

The war was not unwinnable for the British, but they helped to make it so by refusing to change their basic military doctrine and almost anything fundamental at home, in terms of finances, commercial arrangements, conscription and tax levels.  Had Germain possessed the concentration of powers that William Pitt had enjoyed during the Seven Years War, he might have imposed his will on the whole governmental structure, but an overdevolving of competencies between ministries was rife for the first two years of the struggle.  Until 1777, for example, the responsibility for transporting men and their supplies across the Atlantic was divided between the Ordnance Board (responsible for artillery, engineers, guns and gun powder), the Navy Board (men, horses, uniforms, tents, medicine and camp equipment) and the Victualling Board (food), the Treasury being responsible for all other supplies.  This inevitably led to vast amounts of bureaucracy; Germain and Barrington even corresponded over the selection of a single doctor for Howe’s command.  This Whitehall system of waging war had been successful in the Seven Years War at a distance of over 3,000 miles across the ocean, but this was to be much harder without a single leader like Pitt; indeed it has been described as ‘an effort without parallel in the history of the world.’

I found this book especially good for giving the reader a realistic sense of the American Revolution from the British perspective.