Month: April 2023

Sunday assorted links

1. Padma Desai has passed away.

2. The new Pigou Club?: “Prolific sperm donor with over 500 children must pay $110K if he donates again, court rules.”

3. How to deregulate the airlines (by Air Genius Gary Leff).  And no, we Americans still have not done so.

4. First Congressional rep. to end college degree requirement for staffers.

5. How barbacoa evolved into barbecue.

6. “Militarized Dolphins Protect Almost a Quarter of the US Nuclear Stockpile.

7. In no simple way does the King own all the swans in Britain.

In Defense of Merit

An excellent paper co-authored by many luminaries, including two Nobel prize winners:

Merit is a central pillar of liberal epistemology, humanism, and democracy. The scientific enterprise, built on merit, has proven effective in generating scientific and technological advances, reducing suffering, narrowing social gaps, and improving the quality of life globally. This perspective documents the ongoing attempts to undermine the core principles of liberal epistemology and to replace merit with non-scientific, politically motivated criteria. We explain the philosophical origins of this conflict, document the intrusion of ideology into our scientific institutions, discuss the perils of abandoning merit, and offer an alternative, human-centered approach to address existing social inequalities.

Great work! The only problem? See where the paper was published (after being rejected elsewhere).

USA fact of the day

Funds marketed with a sustainable label were hit with $12.4bn in net outflows in the US in the past 12 months even as green funds in Europe added $126.3bn, according to the data provider Morningstar.

The rift between the jurisdictions is a sign that the political backlash against asset managers who take a position on environmental, social and governance issues in the US have started to dampen appetite for ESG strategies, analysts say.

Here is more from Kenza Bryan at the FT.

Emergent Ventures Africa and Caribbean, third cohort

Dr. Keabetswe Ncube is a Geneticist from South Africa. Her EV grant is for her work in using statistical and genetic inferences to help rural farmers maximize yields.

Frida Andalu is a petroleum engineer by training from Tanzania and a Ph.D. candidate. Her EV grant is to assist in her research of developing plant-based volatile corrosion inhibitors to mitigate top-of-line corrosion in natural gas pipelines.

Desta Gebeyehu is a biochemical researcher from Kenya. Her EV grant is to assist in her research of developing bioethanol-gel fuel from organic waste.

Bobson Rugambwa is a software engineer from Rwanda. After graduating with a master’s from Carnegie Mellon University he co-founded MVend to tackle the problem of financial inclusion in Rwanda.

Sylvia Mutinda is a Chemist and Ph.D. researcher from Kenya. Her EV grant is to assist with her search on strigolactone biosynthesis focusing on countering striga parasites in sorghum farms in Kenya.

Dr. Lamin Sonko, born in the Gambia and raised in the U.S., is an Emergency Medicine physician and recent Wharton MBA graduate. He is the founder of Diaspora Health, an asynchronous telemedicine platform focused on patients in the Gambia and Senegal.

Cynthia Umuhire is an astronomer from Rwanda and Ph.D. researcher. She works as a space science analyst at the Rwanda Space Agency. Her EV grant is to assist her in establishing a knowledge hub for junior African researchers in space science.

Brian Kaaya is a social entrepreneur from Uganda. He is the founder of  Rural Solars Uganda, a social enterprise enabling rural households in Uganda to access electricity through affordable solar panels.

Shem Best is a designer and urban planning enthusiast from Barbados. His EV grant is to start a blog and podcast on urban planning in the Caribbean to spur discourse on the built environment in the Caribbean and its impact on regional integration.

Susan Ling is an undergraduate researcher from Canada. Her EV grant is to continue her research on biodegradable, long-acting contraceptive implants with a focus on Africa, and general career development

Elizabeth Mutua is a computer scientist and Ph.D. researcher from Kenya. Her EV grant is to assist in her research on an efficient deep learning system with the capacity to diagnose retinopathy of prematurity disease.

Youhana Nassif is the founder and director of Animatex, the biggest animation festival in Cairo, Egypt. His EV grant is for the expansion of the festival and general career development.

Esther Matendo is a Ph.D. candidate in food science from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Her EV grant is to assist in her research on plant-based treatments of mycotoxin contamination on maize in South Kivu (one of the main maize production zones in the DRC).

Alex Kyabarongo is a recent graduate of veterinary medicine from Uganda. He is now a political affairs intern at the Implementation Support Unit of the Biological Weapons Convention at the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs in Geneva. His EV grant is for general career development.

Margaret Murage is a Ph.D. researcher from Kenya. Her EV grant is to assist in her research of developing new photosensitizing agents for photodynamic therapy for cancer treatment.

Kwesiga Pather, for design and development of low-cost drones for agricultural uses in Uganda and general career development.

Dr. Sidy Ndao is a materials engineer by training from Senegal. He is the founder and President of the Dakar American University of Science and Technology (DAUST). The university provides a rigorous American-style English-based engineering education to African students.

Chiamaka Mangut is a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University from Nigeria. Her EV grant is to fund new field research using archaeobotanical methods to study ancient populations in the Jos Plateau.

Dr. Yabebal Fantaye is Cosmologist by training from Ethiopia. He is the co-founder of 10 Academy, a training bootcamp to assist recent graduates of quant fields to acquire remote data science-related jobs.

For his very good work on these award I wish to heartily than Rasheed Griffith.  And here is a link to the previous cohort of Africa winners.

The first recorded scientific grant system?

“Encouragements” from the French Académie des Sciences, 1831-1850.

The earliest recorded grant system was administered by the Paris-based Académie des Sciences following a large estate gift from Baron de Montyon.  finding itself constrained in its ability to finance the research of promising but not-well-established savants, the academy seized on the flexiblity afford by the Montyon gift to transform traditional grands prix into “encouragements”: smaller amounts that could broaden the set of active researchers.  Even though the process was highly informal (the names of the early recipients were not published in the academy’s Compte rendus), it apparently avoided suspected or actual cases of corruption…Throughout the 19th century, however, the academy struggled to convince wealthy donors to abandon their preference for indivisible, large monetary prizes in favor of these divisible encouragements.

That is from the Pierre Azoulay and Danielle Li essay “Scientific Grant Funding,” in the new and highly useful NBER volume Innovation and Public Policy, edited by Austan Goolsbee and Benjamin F. Jones.  (But according to the book’s own theories, shouldn’t the book be cheaper than that?)

*Voters as Mad Scientists*, by Bryan Caplan

This new collection has some of Bryan’s best material, and perhaps also his best single piece of writing ever.  Here is an excerpt from “My Simplistic Theory of Left and Right“:


1. Leftists are anti-market.  On an emotional level, they’re critical of market outcomes.  No matter how good market outcomes are, they can’t bear to say, “Markets have done a great job, who could ask for more?”

2. Rightists are anti-leftist.  On an emotional level, they’re critical of leftists.  No matter how much they agree with leftists on an issue, they can’t bear to say, “The left is totally right, it would be churlish to criticize them.”

Yes, this story is uncharitable and simplistic.  But clarifying.  Communists and moderate Democrats are vastly different, but they have something in common: Free markets get on their nerves.  Nazis and moderate Republicans are vastly different, but they too have something in common: Leftists get on their nerves.  Within each side, the difference between moderates and extremists is the intensity of their antipathy, not the object of their antipathy.

The subtitle of the work is Essays in Political Irrationality.  Definitely recommended, buy it here.  Fittingly, the dedication of the book is “To Alex Tabarrok, a captain of reason in a sea of political irrationality.”

Wings at the Speed of Sound — a review

Was it Ian Leslie I promised this review to?  Time is slipping away!

Speed of Sound (songs at the link) was much derided upon its release in 1976, and more recently one scathing reviewer gave it a “1” score out of 10.  Yet I find this an entertaining and also compelling work.  At least Eoghan Lyng had the sense to call it “definitely infectious and decidedly hummable.”  But it’s better than that, and I would stress the following:

1. The album very definitely has its own “sound.”  Super clean production, a limpid clarity in the mix, and sparing deployment of guitar.  Not all of that works all the time, but there is a coherence to a production often described as a mish-mash.  The sound of the whole is best reflected by “The Note You Never Wrote,” a McCartney song sung by Denny Laine, placed wisely in the number two slot.  Nothing on either the disc or the original album sounds compressed, rather it all comes to life.  It’s better than the sluggish, overproduced, horn-heavy Venus and Mars.

2. The unapologetic presentation has held up fine, rejecting its own era of albums that were overloaded with ideas, overproduced, and too self-consciously parading their messages.  Speed of Sound is so deliberately unhip you can hardly believe it — who else in 1976 would pay tribute to “Phil and Don” of the Everly Brothers?  And Paul was thanking MLK (“Martin Luther”) when others were still flirting with the Black Panthers.  Surely he was right that “Silly Love Songs” would persist, so maybe people were hating on how on the mark he was.

2. At exactly the same time Wings was evolving into one of the very best live acts of the 1970s, far better than the Beatles ever were.  (Yes, I know it is hard to admit that.)  Their live act sizzled, and yes I did see it back then and I have listened to it many times since.  Check out the YouTube channel of jimmymccullochfan, for instance “Beware My Love” or “Soily,” or how about “Call Me Back Again“?  For Macca, Wings at this time was essentially a live band, and it proved to be his greatest live band achievement of all time (with some competition from his early 1990s shows), most of all pinned down by Jimmy McCulloch on guitar and Paul on bass.

You have to think of Speed of Sound as a complementary valentine to the live shows, a sweeter and more digestible version of what went into the road.  Most of all it is about Paul and Linda, about the maturation of Wings as a group, about opennness to the world and to each other (a recurring Macca theme) and about domestic life, with recurring melancholy thrown in.  Maybe those ideas are not your bag, but at least you can accept this as one piece of the broader McCartney tableau.

Now Macca knew you might not know about the live shows, but he didn’t care.  He figured he was giving you two monster hits (“Let Em In,” “Silly Love Songs”) in the process, and that was good enough.  And yes I agree he was too much the satisficer in this period.

3. The weak songs are “Wino Junko” and “Time to Hide” — 10% less democracy as Garett Jones says!  “Time to Hide” is almost good, but it relies too heavily on horns and then drags on.  “San Ferry Anne” also has a weak use of horns and the melody never quite takes off.  “Cook of the House” goes into a category of its own.  I’ll say only Wings [sic] needed to get this out of its system to move on to other approaches.  I am pleased, however, that the lyrics are fulsome in their praise of domesticity, compare it to Lennon’s effort in an analogous but not similar vein.  I don’t mind “dares to be appalling” as much as many others do.  Frankly, I enjoy this song.

4. Excellent are “Let ’em In,” “The Note You Never Wrote,” “She’s My Baby,” “Beware My Love,” “Silly Love Songs,” and “Warm and Beautiful.”  That is six very good songs on an album, with “Must Do Something About It” as “pretty good.”  The prominence of the former set on Beatles XM satellite radio should not go unremarked, as presumably listeners are not switching the dial away.  These songs are still popular nearly fifty years later.

5. “She’s My Baby” is the most underrated cut of that lot.  It starts before you realize it and it just gets down to business.  Thumping bass, innovative vocal, it keeps on going and then it segues into “Beware My Love.”  Does not wear out its welcome.

6. There is no good reason to mock “Silly Love Songs,” which is a classic, ecstatic in its peaks, and which deploys disco influences in just the right way.  The vocal and bass lines work perfectly, as does Linda’s vocal counterpoint.  It stays vital at almost six minutes long.  Once you step out of your ingrained bias, it is easy to see this is better than many of the classic McCartney Beatle songs.  I would rather hear it than say Lennon’s soppy “Imagine,” which is ideologically ill-conceived to boot.  Macca in this one is sly, mocking, and sardonic too, such as when he subtly refers to the problematic nature of mutual orgasm (“love doesn’t come in a minute…sometimes it doesn’t come at all…”).

7. “I must be wrong” in “Beware My Love” (plus the preceding guitar break) and “I love you” in “Silly Love Songs” are the two highlight moments of the album.

There are definitely disappointments in this work, but it is time we were able to view its contributions with some objectivity.  Wings at the Speed of Sound is an excellent album, still worth the relistens.  And I really am glad that the Beatles broke up — it meant more music from the group as a whole.

My talk for Amazon Business

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The Georgist polity that is Singapore

Foreigners who have secured permanent residency in Singapore will only pay a stamp duty of 5 per cent, but they will pay 30 per cent — up from 25 per cent — if they buy a second residential property. Entities or trusts purchasing any residential property will now pay a rate of 65 per cent, up from 35 per cent.

Singapore’s minister for national development Desmond Lee called the increases “pre-emptive measures” to damp local and foreign investment demand during a renewed spike in interest. Singaporean citizens, who pay minimal stamp duty on house purchases, will now be prioritised, he said.

Here is the full FT story by Mercedes Ruehl.

Friday assorted links

1. Down Syndrome Barbie.

2. Paul McCartney as singer.

3. Some limits of self-improving AI.

4. The battle over refrigerating butter (WSJ).  “Claire Dinhut, who goes by “Condiment Claire” on TikTok, prefers to eat salted butter cold for its thicker texture. She talked about the Danish word tandsmør, which translates to a layer of butter so thick that a bite leaves teeth marks.”

5. Cass Sunstein: Artificial Intelligence and the First Amendment.  How about bots that pay humans small amounts of crypto to “co-author” articles, so that the bots may receive additional First Amendment protections?

6. A Taiwanese recession?

Great News for Female Academics!

For decades female academics have been told that the deck is stacked against them by discrimination in hiring, funding, journal acceptances, recommendation letters and more. It’s dispiriting to be told that your career is not under your control and that, no matter what you do, you face an unfair, uphill battle. Why would any woman want to be a scientist when they are told things like this:

A vast literature….shows time after time, women in science are deemed to be inferior to men and are evaluated as less capable when performing similar or even identical work. This systemic devaluation of women women results in an array of real consequences: shorter, less praise-worth letters of recommendation, fewer research grants, awards and invitations to speak at conferences; and lower citation rates for their research…

The good news is that this depressing and dispiriting story isn’t true! In an extensive survey, meta-analysis, and new research, Ceci, Kahn and Williams show that the situation for women in academia is in many domains good to great. For example, in hiring for tenure the evidence is strong that women are advantaged. Moreover, women are advantaged especially in fields where they have relatively low representation (GEMP: geosciences, engineering, economics, mathematics/computer science, and physical science).

Among political scientists, Schröder et al. (2021) found that female political scientists had a 20% greater likelihood of obtaining a tenured position than comparably accomplished males in the same cohort after controlling for personal characteristics and accomplishments (publications, grants, children, etc.). Lutter and Schröder (2016) found that women needed 23% to 44% fewer publications than men to obtain a tenured job in German sociology departments.

…In summary, all of the seven administrative reports reveal substantial evidence that women applicants were at least as successful as and usually more successful than male applicants were—particularly in GEMP fields.

…In a natural experiment, French economists used national exam data for 11 fields, focusing on PhD holders who form the core of French academic hiring (Breda & Hillion, 2016). They compared blinded and nonblinded exam scores for the same men and women and discovered that women received higher scores when their gender was known than when it was not when a field was male dominant (math, physics, philosophy), indicating a positive bias, and that this difference strongly increased with a field’s male dominance. Specifically, women’s rank in male-dominated fields increased by up to 40% of a standard deviation. In contrast, male candidates in fields dominated by women (literature, foreign languages) were given a small boost over expectations based on blind ratings, but this difference was small and rarely significant.6

The situation is also very good in grant funding and journal acceptance rates which are either not biased or biased towards women. Similarly, “no persuasive evidence exists for the claim of antifemale bias in academic letters of recommendation.”

There is evidence of bias in student evaluations. Both female and male students rate male professors higher, even in situations where names are known but actual gender is blinded. Male students are more likely to write nasty comments. Most research universities, in my experience, don’t put much weight on student teaching evaluations, beyond do you pass a fairly low bar, but it can be disconcerting to get nasty comments.

There is also mild evidence of differences in salary, although less so when productivity is taken into account.

Some critics will say, but the real discrimination happens before a women applies for a tenure track job! Maybe so but that is a shifting of goal posts and we should take pride in the fact that in the United States today (and most developed countries) there is very little bias against women in high stakes, important decisions in tenure track hiring, journal acceptances, grant funding and so forth. This is a major accomplishment.

It should be noted that the Ceci, Kahn and Williams paper is an adversarial collaboration; Ceci and Williams have published previous work showing that women are, generally speaking, not discriminated against in academia while:

Kahn has a long history of revealing gender inequities in her field of economics, and her work runs counter to Ceci and Williams’s claims of gender fairness. Kahn was an early member of the American Economics Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession (CSWEP). Articles of hers in the American Economics Review (Kahn, 1993) and in the Journal of Economic Perspectives (Kahn, 1995) were the first publications on the status of women in the economics profession. She was the first to identify gender inequities as a concern in economics, something she has revisited every decade since then in her publications. In 2019, she co-organized a conference on women in economics, and her most recent analysis in 2021 found gender inequities persisting in tenure and promotion in economics (Ginther & Kahn, 2021). In short, gender bias in academia has been a long-standing passion of Kahn’s. Her findings diverge from Ceci and Williams’s, who have published a number of studies that have not found gender bias in the academy, such as their analyses of grants and tenure-track hiring in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNASCeci & Williams, 2011Williams & Ceci, 2015).

The Ceci, Kahn, and Williams paper covers much more material than I can cover here and is nuanced so read the whole thing but do also shout the good news from the rooftops!

Another bit on short-termism

A better argument would be that the agency relationship (and habitual firing for inferior short-term performance), rather than capitalism, leads to excess short-termism. Capitalism has plenty of agency relationships, of course, but so do all other systems, including politics and the charitable sector. At least under capitalism there is an incentive to terminate or alter the most destructive agency relationships, precisely because they reduce longer-term wealth.

That is by me, from my recent TLS review essay.

How much smaller will big business become?

At least on the tech side:

Consider the most prestigious service that generates images using AI, a company called Midjourney. It has a total of 11 full-time employees. Perhaps more are on the way, but that is remarkably few workers for a company that is becoming widely known in its field.

Part of the trick, of course, is that a lot of the work is done by computers and artificial intelligence. I don’t think this will lead to mass unemployment, because history shows that workers have typically managed to move from automating sectors into new and growing ones. But if some of the new job-creating sectors are personal services such as elder care, those jobs are typically in smaller and more local firms. That means fewer Americans working for big business.

Or consider ChatGPT, which has been described as the most rapidly growing consumer technology product in history. It is produced by OpenAI, headquartered in San Francisco. By one recent estimate the company has about 375 employees. By contrast, Meta, even after some layoffs, currently has more than 60,000.

Perhaps cloud computing will be run through a few mega-firms such as Microsoft and Amazon, but — due largely to AI — we can expect many firms to radically shrink in size?

Here is the rest of my Bloomberg column.

Executive in Residence, Math Talent Search

Who We Are: Carina Initiatives

Carina Initiatives is a philanthropic fund working to send more kids from more communities to the frontiers of science and technology. We see math as fundamental to future innovation; as such, we fund and support organizations that work to inspire, unearth, and train math talent.

Here is the link.  This has the promise to be an important post, but it needs the right person.