Category: Current Affairs

Remember when people used to savage real business cycle theory?

In Germany, where one in four jobs depends on exports, the crisis gumming up the world’s supply chains is weighing heavily on the economy, which is Europe’s largest and a linchpin to global commerce.

Recent surveys and data point to a sharp slowdown of the German manufacturing powerhouse, and economists have begun to predict a “bottleneck recession.”

Almost everything that German factories need to operate is in short supply, not just computer chips but also plywood, copper, aluminum, plastics and raw materials like cobalt, lithium, nickel and graphite, which are crucial ingredients of electric car batteries.

And this:

The widespread assumption that suppliers close to home are more reliable has not always proved true. During the turmoil caused by the pandemic, some German companies had more trouble getting supplies from France or Italy, because of strict lockdowns, than they did from Asia.

Here is the full NYT piece by Jack Ewing, recommended.

The Promising Pathway Act

Operation Warp Speed showed that we can move much faster. FDA delay in approving rapid tests shows that we should move much faster. There is a window of opportunity for reform. The excellent Bart Madden and Siri Terjesen argue for the Promising Pathways Act.

One particularly exciting development is the Promising Pathway Act (PPA), recently introduced in Congress. PPA would reduce bureaucracy via legal changes and provide individuals with efficient early access to potential new drugs.

Under PPA, new drugs will receive provisional approval five to seven years earlier than the status quo via a two-year provisional approval. Drugs that demonstrate patient benefits could be renewed for a maximum of six years, and the FDA could grant full approval at any time based on real-world as opposed to clinical trial data documenting favorable treatments results.

The PPA allows patients, advised by their doctors, to choose early access to promising but not-yet-FDA -approved drugs. Patients and doctors would make informed decisions about using either approved or new medicines that demonstrate safety and initial effectiveness compared to approved drugs.

…Patients and doctors can log into an internet registry database for early access drugs that would contain treatment outcomes, side effects, genetic data, and biomarkers. Scientific researchers, as well as patients, will also benefit from the identification of subgroups of patients who do exceptionally well or fail to respond.

Data from the registry will open knowledge pathways to improve the biopharmaceutical industry’s research outlays to benefit future patients.

With radically lower regulatory costs plus heightened competition as more companies participate, expect substantially lower prescription drug prices for provisional approval drugs.

Here is the text of the PPA.

FDA Approves American Rapid Antigen Test

I wrote earlier:

What makes the FDAs failure to approve more rapid antigen tests even more galling is that the test being sold cheaply in the Amsterdam supermarket is the Flowflex, an American test made by Acon Labs in San Diego.

Well the FDA has finally approved the Acon test! Apparently it is good enough for the Germans and for US citizens. Hoorah! USA Today notes:

ACON expects to make 100 million tests per month by the end of this year. Production could double to 200 million monthly tests by February, according to the FDA.

…The United Kingdom and Germany have made significant purchases of home tests and widely distributed them to their residents to slow the spread of coronavirus. Such large government purchases allowed manufacturers to continue making tests even when demand softened as cases dropped.

The Biden administration will spend nearly $1.2 billion to purchase up to 187 million home tests from Abbott Laboratories and Celltrion Inc., company officials confirmed. The Department of Defense announced additional contracts totaling $647 million to buy 60 million kits from Abbott and three other testing vendors: OraSure Technologies, Quidel and Intrivio Holdings.

The FDA has authorized seven antigen-based tests that can be used at home without a prescription. The EU has authorized 21 tests beginning with the letter A (I am not sure all of these are authorized for home use but you get the idea.) Turtle slow. Still this is a big improvement.

Frankly, I think all the pressure from people like Michael Mina amplified by myself and others over 18 months and culminating in David Leonhartd’s NYTimes article Where Are the Tests? finally pushed them over the edge.

More energy shocks, and it was crazy to move away from nuclear power

The global energy crunch forced a German electricity producer to halt a power plant after it ran out of coal.

Steag GmbH closed its Bergkamen-A plant in the western part of the country this week due to shortages of hard coal, it said by email. The closure is the first sign that Europe may need to count on mild and windy weather to keep the lights on as the continent faces shortages of natural gas and coal is unlikely to come to rescue.

Energy prices are soaring from the U.S. to Europe and Asia as economies rebound from a pandemic-induced lull and people return to the office. The shortage is so acute that China ordered its state-owned companies to secure supplies at all costs and Europe is burning more of its already depleted stocks of the dirtiest of fossil fuel, a move that may complicate climate talks next month.

Here is much more from at Bloomberg.  Coal is trading at record-high prices, but is this doing us or the environment much good?  You need something to substitute into!

I would like to repeat my earlier question in earnest.  Was anyone forecasting all these energy shortages even a month ago?

Via Anton Maier.

Why isn’t there more debate over the Biden economic plan?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

My colleague Arnold Kling put it well: “With the reconciliation bill, there is no attempt to convince the public that it is desirable to enact an enormous child tax credit or to mandate ending use of fossil fuels in a decade. Instead, what we read is that if you’re on the blue team you want the number to be 3.5, but a few Democrats are holding out for something lower.”

The Democrats say they might be considering a carbon tax to fund their spending plans, and also to address climate change. You might have expected this news to be on the front page every day, and a dominant topic on Twitter and Substack. Isn’t the fate of the planet at stake, or perhaps an economic depression, depending on your point of view?

There was a lengthy and well-done article in the Washington Post on the political risks associated with this plan. It appeared on Page A21 of the paper edition.

And:

The contrast with earlier but still recent times is obvious. As recently as Barack Obama’s presidency, there was a vigorous policy debate on just about every proposal. A fiscal stimulus of $800 billion? That one was hashed out for months, with detailed takes on the multiplier, the liquidity trap and the marginal propensity to consume, coming from all points of view. Then there was Obamacare, which led to even more passionate and detailed debate over the course of years. Who didn’t have an opinion about the “Cadillac tax” or the proper size of the mandate penalty?

And why has this shift occurred?:

One possibility is that the substantive conversations are occurring on private channels, such as WhatsApp, or in person. This leaves the public sphere a relatively empty shell. Another possibility, more depressing yet, is that the main debate is now about political power and tactics, rather than policy per se. Squabbles over symbols are more common than disagreements over substance, and the influence of various interest groups matters more than the strength of any argument.

Another possibility I did not mention is that perhaps (since DT?) the news cycle has been shifting so rapidly that it no longer very easily sustains this older-fashioned style of ongoing debate?  What might some other reasons be?

Revisionism on Deborah Birx, Trump, and the CDC

Photo Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

In October of 2020 Science published a long article by Charles Piller titled Undermining CDC with the subtitle “Deborah Birx, President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 coordinator, helped shake the foundation of a premier public health agency.” The article focuses on a battle between Deborah Birx and the CDC over collecting data from hospitals with the basic message that Birx was an arrogant Trump tool who interfered with the great CDC. One year later, much of the article has a different cast beginning with “premier public health agency”. Hmmpfff. The opening now reads to me as almost laughable:

Zaidi lifted her mask slightly to be heard and delivered a fait accompli: Birx, who was not present, had pulled the plug on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) system for collecting hospital data and turned much of the responsibility over to a private contractor, Pittsburgh-based TeleTracking Technologies Inc., a hospital data management company. The reason: CDC had not met Birx’s demand that hospitals report 100% of their COVID-19 data every day.

According to two officials in the meeting, one CDC staffer left and immediately began to sob, saying, “I refuse to do this. I cannot work with people like this. It is so toxic.” That person soon resigned from the pandemic data team, sources say.

Other CDC staffers considered the decision arbitrary and destructive. “Anyone who knows the data supply chain in the U.S. knows [getting all the data daily] is impossible” during a pandemic, says one high-level expert at CDC. And they considered Birx’s imperative unnecessary because staffers with decades of experience could confidently estimate missing numbers from partial data.

“Why are they not listening to us?” a CDC official at the meeting recalls thinking. Several CDC staffers predicted the new data system would fail, with ominous implications. “Birx has been on a months long rampage against our data,” one texted to a colleague shortly afterward. “Good f—ing luck getting the hospitals to clean up their data and update daily.”

Scott Gottlieb tells this same story very differently in Uncontrolled Spread (my WSJ review).

Deborah Birx convinced the Coronavirus Task Force to direct money to the CDC to modernize its reporting of the COVID hospital data, but the CDC said no.

…The federal government had bought the entire available supply [of remedsivir], and HHS needed to know where to ship its limited doses [but]…the CDC didn’t have actual data on who was currently hospitalized for COVID, just estimates built off a model….Birx said that the government couldn’t ship scarce doses of the valuable medicine to treat estimated patients that were hypothetically hospitalized according to a mathematical formula. So she gave hospitals an ultimatum. If they wanted to get access to remedsivir, they would need to start reporting real data on the total number of COVID patients that they admitted each day. Hospitals quickly started to comply…Rather than cajole the CDC into fixing its reporting system, Ambassador Birx and Secretary Azar decided to recreate that structure outside the agency. The had concluded that getting the CDC to change its own scheme, and abandon its historical approach to modeling these data, would have been too hard.

…Under the new reporting system, 95% of US hospitals soon provided 100 percent of their daily hospital admission data. In an unfortunate twist, the CDC declined to work with the new data, worrying that since it wasn’t their data, they couldn’t assure its providence and couldn’t fully trust its reliability. As one senior HHS official put it to me, the CDC “took their ball and went home.”

…The cofounders of the COVID Tracking Project, one of the most authoritative and closely watched enterprises to report bottom-line information about the pandemic, would later say of the [HHS/Teletracking data], “the data set that we trust the most–and that we believe dose not come with major questions–is the hospitalization data overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services. At this point, virtually every hospital in America is reporting to the department as required. We now have a good sense of how many patients are hospitalized with COVID-19 around the country.” [Link here, AT]

Gottlieb’s story strikes me as much closer to the truth. Why? Notice that on most of the facts the stories agree. Gottlieb says the CDC refused to work with the HHS data and took their ball and went home. The Piller story has CDC people sobbing, angry, and saying “I refuse to do this.” Check. What differs is the interpretation and everything in Piller’s story is infected by an anti-Trump perspective. I don’t blame Piller for being anti-Trump but Trump plays no role in the story he just hovers in the background like a bogeyman. Piller says, for example:

…Birx’s hospital data takeover fits a pattern in which she opposed CDC guidance, sometimes promoting President Donald Trump’s policies or views against scientific consensus.

“Fits a pattern.” Uh huh.

Birx sometimes “promoted President Donald Trump’s policies.” Promoting the policies of the President of the United States? Why that’s practically treason!

Promoting views that go “against scientific consensus” Yeah, the “scientific consensus” of workers at the CDC.

Trump obviously had no interest in how hospital data was collected yet he is portrayed throughout as the hidden puppeteer behind the story.

Gottlieb’s story removes Trump from the equation and that rings true because we now know that the Biden administration has been as frustrated with the CDC as was the Trump administration. Politico writes, for example:

…senior officials from the White House Covid-19 task force and the Food and Drug Administration have repeatedly accused CDC of withholding critical data needed to develop the booster shot plan…

…the CDC advisory committee episode in late August only reinforced perceptions in the [Biden] White House that the agency represents the weakest link in a Covid-19 response…

The agency has for years struggled with obtaining accurate disease data from state health departments, and the pandemic strained the country’s public health infrastructure, causing massive delays in reporting and case investigation.

Withholding critical data. Struggling to obtain accurate data. Massive delays. Sound familiar? Indeed, if these parallels weren’t enough we even have CDC Director Rochelle Walensky overruling CDC scientists to allow boosters–but Walensky, unlike Birx, gets the benefit of the doubt so the story isn’t sold as Walensky going against scientific consensus to promote President Biden.

Evaluations of Trump colored evaluations of all the people and policies of the Trump administration leading to reporting that was sometimes unjust and inaccurate. It will take time to sort it all out.

The world China wants China fact of the day

After years of escalating pressure, last November Chinese diplomats in Canberra warned that to enjoy better relations with Beijing, Australia’s government must address 14 Chinese grievances. It must, among other things, stop funding “anti-China” research, refrain from provocative actions like requesting a more thorough World Health Organization investigation of the origins of Covid-19, stop opposing strategic Chinese investments into Australia, and block private media outlets from publishing “unfriendly” news stories about China.

Here is more from the WSJ, mostly about Aukus, via BM.

Air Filtration and UV Disinfection Greatly Reduce Viruses in Hospital Wards

As I wrote earlier, it’s puzzling that there isn’t more attention given to air filtration and UV light disinfection in hospitals, since these techniques have been shown to kill superbugs.

A recent paper also shows that air filtration and UV disinfection can greatly reduces SARS-COV-II in hospital wards. The authors installed portable air filters with UV disinfection on two COVID hospital wards in the UK. The air was tested for viruses, bacteria and fungi before the filters were turned on, during the time the filters were on and then again after the filters were turned off.

The results:

Airborne SARS-CoV-2 was detected in the ward on all five days before activation of air/UV filtration, but on none of the five days when the air/UV filter was operational; SARS-CoV-2 was again detected on four out of five days when the filter was off.

Importantly, in addition to greatly reducing SARS-CoV-2 the portable filters and UV light also greatly reduced multiple viral, bacterial, and fungal pathogens. In the figure at right Air Filter Off is on the left and Air Filter On is on the right.

My Conversation with Amia Srinivasan

I am pleased to have had the chance to do this, as in my view she is one of the thinkers today who has a) super smarts, b) breadth and depth of reading, and c) breadth and depth of thinking.  That combination is rare!  That said, I don’t quite agree with her on everything, so this exchange had more disagreements than perhaps what you are used to sampling from CWT.

Here is the transcript and audio.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

Amia joined Tyler to discuss the importance of context in her vision of feminism, what social conservatives are right about, why she’s skeptical about extrapolating from the experience of women in Nordic countries, the feminist critique of the role of consent in sex, whether disabled individuals should be given sex vouchers, how to address falling fertility rates, what women learned about egalitarianism during the pandemic, why progress requires regress, her thoughts on Susan Sontag, the stroke of fate that stopped her from pursuing a law degree, the “profound dialectic” in Walt Whitman’s poetry, how Hinduism has shaped her metaphysics, how Bernard Williams and Derek Parfit influenced her, the anarchic strain in her philosophy, why she calls herself a socialist, her next book on genealogy, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

SRINIVASAN: No, it really wouldn’t. Part of why I find this whole discourse problematic is because I think we should be suspicious when we find ourselves attracted to data — very, very thin and weak data — that seem to justify beliefs that have held great currency in lots of societies throughout history, in a way that is conducive to the oppression of large segments of the population, in this particular case women.

I also think one error that is consistently made in this discourse, in this kind of conversation about what’s innate or what’s natural, is to think about what’s natural in terms of what’s necessary. This is a point that Shulamith Firestone made a very long time ago, but that very few people register, which is that — and it was actually made again to me recently by a philosopher of biology, which is, “Look what’s natural isn’t what’s necessary.”

It’s extraordinary. It’s not even like what’s natural offers a good equilibrium point. Think about how much time you and I spend sitting around. Completely unnatural for humans to sit around, yet we’re in this equilibrium point where vast majority of humans just sit around all day.

So, I think there’s a separate question about what humans — as essentially social, cultured, acculturating creatures — what our world should look like. And that’s distinct from the question of what natural predispositions we might have. It’s not unrelated, but I don’t think any of us think we should just be forming societies that simply allow us to express our most “natural orientations.”

COWEN: Should women’s chess, as a segregated activity, continue to exist? We don’t segregate chess tournaments by race or by anything — sometimes by age — but anything other than gender. Yet women’s chess is a whole separate thing. Should that be offensive to us? Or is that great?

Recommended, engaging throughout.  And again, here is Amia Srinivasan’s new and (in the UK, just published yesterday in the U.S.) bestselling book The Right to Sex: Feminism in the 21st Century.

One Billion Vaccinations in a Month!

The news on world vaccinations is good. As of late September of 2021 we have vaccinated 3.43 billion people (2.51 billion people with 2 doses). Even more impressive over the last 30 days the world vaccinated one billion people. That is a tremendous achievement. There are about 7.9 billion people in the world so 44% of the world has had at least one dose and nearly a third of the world population has  had two doses. We are on track to fully vaccinate 70% of all adults in 2021 and most of the world that wants a dose by early 2022. Judging by the US, demand will be more of a constraint than supply as we hit ~60% of the world population.

Learning to live with Woke

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, or maybe try this link, note it is 3x the usual length and not easily excerpted.  Nonetheless here is one bit:

Note that it is not necessary to approve of all U.S. cultural exports to view the spread of wokeism as a net positive for the world. I do not like either Big Macs or Marvel movies, for instance. But at the end of the day I think American culture is a healthy, democratizing, liberating influence, so I want to extend it.

As the motivational speakers like to say, Winners win! And woke is right now one of America’s global winners. Part of what makes America great, and could help to make the rest of the world greater yet, is accepting a certain amount of semi-stupid, least-common-denominator culture.

And:

It drives conservatives and libertarians crazy that woke ideas often have more purchase in the private sector than in the public sector. Private universities, for example, seem “more woke” than public universities.

Still, you read it here first (or maybe not): The halls of power in Washington just aren’t that woke! They are nothing like Twitter or Google or Yale University.

Yes, many woke opponents cite the role of government and the fear of lawsuits as forces driving woke behavior and corporate attachment to wokeism. And surely they have a point. Yet in much of the corporate and nonprofit world, wokeism is not merely a reflexive defense against lawsuits. It is embraced with enthusiasm.

Wokeism has passed a market test that has been going on for decades.

And in sum:

The arguments have been so fully joined because they are about how to define success, which is the fundamental American ideology. I believe such debates are not only healthy but also necessary. I also believe that the ideology of success will endure, though it may take less familiar forms over time. In some ways wokeism is what a feminized, globalized version of 21st century U.S. triumphalism looks like.

You don’t have to like that. But you may have to get used to it.

Recommended, do read the whole thing.

U.S.A. fact of the day solve for the equilibrium

Utah’s population grew faster than that of any other state between 2010 and 2020. Salt Lake City has the lowest jobless rate among all big cities, at 2.8%, compared with a national rate of 5.2%. That the state has rebounded so well from the downturn caused by the covid-19 pandemic is thanks to the Wasatch Front, an urban corridor that includes Salt Lake and Provo, home to Brigham Young University. The four counties that make up the Wasatch Front account for at least 80% of Utah’s economic activity, reckons Juliette Tennert, an economist at the University of Utah.

Here is more from The Economist, they also note that Utah ranks at or near the very bottom for metrics of gender equality.

Emergent Ventures India, new winners, third Indian cohort

Angad Daryani / Praan

Angad Daryani is 22-year-old social entrepreneur and inventor from Mumbai, and his goal is to find solutions for clean air at a low cost, accessible to all. He received his EV grant to build ultra-low cost, filter-less outdoor air purification systems for deployment in open areas through his startup Praan. Angad’s work was recently covered by the BBC here.

Swasthik Padma

Swasthik Padma is a 19-year-old inventor and researcher. He received his EV grant to develop PLASCRETE, a high-strength composite material made from non-recyclable plastic (post-consumer plastic waste which consists of Multilayer, Film Grade Plastics and Sand) in a device called PLASCREATOR, also developed by Swasthik. The final product serves as a stronger, cost-effective, non-corrosive, and sustainable alternative to concrete and wood as a building material. He is also working on agritech solutions, desalination devices, and low cost solutions to combat climate change.

Ajay Shah

Ajay Shah is an economist, the founder of the LEAP blog, and the coauthor (with Vijay Kelkar) of In Service of the Republic: The Art and Science of Economic Policy, an excellent book, covered by Alex here. He received his EV grant for creating a community of scholars and policymakers to work on vaccine production, distribution, and pricing, and the role of the government and private sector given India’s state capacity.

Meghraj Suthar

Meghraj Suthar, is an entrepreneur, software engineer, and author from Jodhpur. He founded Localites, a global community (6,000 members from more than 130 countries) of travelers and those who like to show around their cities to travelers for free or on an hourly charge. He also writes inspirational fiction. He has published two books: The Dreamers and The Believers and is working on his next book. He received his EV grant to develop his new project Growcify– helping small & medium-sized businesses in smaller Indian cities to go online with their own end-to-end integrated e-commerce app at very affordable pricing.

Jamie Martin/ The Queen’s English 

Jamie Martin and Sandeep Mallareddy founded The Queen’s English to develop a tool to help speak English. Indians who speak English earn 5x more than those who don’t. The Queen’s English provides 300 hours of totally scripted lesson plans on a simple Android app for high quality teaching by allowing anyone who can speak English to teach high quality spoken English lessons using just a mobile phone.

Rubén Poblete-Cazenave

Rubén Poblete-Cazenave is a post-doctoral fellow at the Department of Economics at Erasmus University Rotterdam. His work has focused on studying topics on political economy, development economics and economics of crime, with a particular interest in India. Rubén received his EV grant to study the dynamic effects of lockdowns on criminal activity and police performance in Bihar, and on violence against women in India.

Chandra Bhan Prasad

Chandra Bhan Prasad is an Indian scholar, political commentator, and author of the Bhopal Document, Dalit Phobia: Why Do They Hate Us?, What is Ambedkarism?, Dalit Diary, 1999-2003: Reflections on Apartheid in India, and co-author author (with D Shyam Babu and Devesh Kapur) of Defying the Odds: The Rise of Dalit Entrepreneurs. He is also the founder of the ByDalits.com e-commerce platform and the editor of Dalit Enterprise magazine. He received his EV grant to pursue his research on Dalit capitalism as a movement for self-respect.

Praveen Tiwari

Praveen Tiwari is a rural education entrepreneur in India. At 17, he started Power of Youth to increase education and awareness among rural students in his district. To cope with the Covid lockdown he started the Study Garh with a YouTube channel to provide better quality educational content to rural students in their regional language (Hindi).

Preetham R and Vinayak Vineeth

Preetham R. and Vinayak Vineeth are 17-year-old high-schoolers from Bangalore. Preetham is interested in computing, futurism and space; and Vinayak is thinking about projects ranging from automation to web development. They received their EV grant for a semantic text analysis system based on graph similarity scores. The system (currently called the Knowledge Engine) will be used for perfectly private contextual advertising and will soon be expanded for other uses like better search engines, research tools and improved video streaming experiences. They hope to launch it commercially by the end of 2022.

Shriya Shankar:

Shriya Shankar is a 20-year-old social entrepreneur and computer science engineer from Bangalore and the founder of Project Sitara Foundation, which provides accessible STEM education to children from underserved communities. She received her EV grant to develop an accessible ed-tech series focused on contextualizing mathematics in Kannada to make learning more relatable and inclusive for children.

Baishali Bomjan and Bhuvana Anand

Baishali and Bhuvana are the co-founders of Trayas Foundation, an independent research and policy advisory organization that champions constitutional, social, and market liberalism in India through data-informed public discourse. Their particular focus is on dismantling regulatory bottlenecks to individual opportunity, dignity and freedom. The EV grant will support Trayas’s work for reforms in state labor regulations that ease doing business and further prosperity, and help end legal restrictions placed on women’s employment under India’s labor protection framework to engender economic agency for millions of Indians.

Akash Bhatia and Puru Botla / Infinite Analytics

Infinite Analytics received their first grant for developing the Sherlock platform to help Indian state governments with mobility analysis to combat Covid spread. Their second EV grant is to scale their platform and analyze patterns to understand the spread of the Delta variant in the 2021 Covid wave in India. They will analyze religious congregations, election rallies, crematoria footfalls and regular daily/weekly bazaars, and create capabilities to understand the spread of the virus in every city/town in India.

PS Vishnuprasad

Vishnuprasad is a 21-year-old BS-MS student at IISER Tirupati. He is interested in the intersection of political polarization and network science and focused on the emergence and spread of disinformation and fake news. He is working on the spread of disinformation and propaganda in spaces Indians use to access information on the internet. He received his EV grant to build a tool that tracks cross-platform spread of disinformation and propaganda on social media. He is also interested in the science of cooking and is a stand-up comedian and writer.

Prem Panicker:

Prem Panicker is a journalist, cricket writer, and founding editor of peepli.org, a site dedicated to multimedia long form journalism focused on the environment, man/animal conflict, and development. He received an EV grant to explore India’s 7,400 km coastline, with an emphasis on coastal erosion, environmental degradation, and the consequent loss of lives and livelihoods.

Vaidehi Tandel

Vaidehi Tandel is an urban economist and Lecturer at the Henley Business School in University of Reading. She is interested in understanding the challenges and potential of India’s urban transformation and her EV grant will support her ongoing research on the political economy of urbanization in India. She was part of the team led by Malani that won the EV Covid India prize.

Abhinav Singh

Abhinav recently completed his Masters in the Behavioral and Computational Economics program at Chapman University’s Economic Science Institute. His goal is to make political economy ideas accessible to young Indians, and support those interested in advancing critical thinking over policy questions. He received his EV grant to start Polekon, a platform that will host educational content and organize seminars on key political economy issues and build a community of young thinkers interested in political economy in India.

Bevin A./Contact

CONTACT was founded by two engineers Ann Joys and Bevin A. as a low-cost, voluntary, contact tracing solution. They used RFID tags and readers for consenting individuals to log their locations at various points like shops, hotels, educational institutions, etc. These data are anonymized and analyzed to track mobility and develop better Covid policies, while maintaining user anonymity.

Onkar Singh Batra

Onkar Singh is a 16-year-old developer/researcher and high school student in Jammu. He received his first EV grant for his Covid Care Jammu project. His goal is to develop India’s First Open-Source Satellite, and he is founder of Paradox Sonic Space Research Agency, a non-profit aerospace research organization developing inexpensive and open-source technologies. Onkar received his second EV grant to develop a high efficiency, low cost, nano satellite. Along with EV his project is also supported by an Amateur Radio Digital Communications (ARDC) grant. Onkar has a working engineering model and is developing the final flight model for launch in 2022.

StorySurf

Storysurf, founded by Omkar Sane and Chirag Anand, is based on the idea that stories are the simplest form of wisdom and that developing an ocean of stories is the antidote to social media polarization. They are developing both a network of writers, and a range of stories between 6-300 words in a user-friendly app to encourage people to read narratives. Through their stories, they hope to help more readers consume information and ideas through stories.

Naman Pushp/ Airbound

Airbound is cofounded by its CEO Naman Pushp, a 16 year old high-schooler from Mumbai passionate about engineering and robotics, and COO Faraaz Baig, a 20 year old self-taught programmer and robotics engineers from Bangalore. Airbound aims to make delivery accessible by developing a VTOL drone design that can use small businesses as takeoff/landing locations. They have also created the first blended wing body tail sitter (along with a whole host of other optimizations) to make this kind of drone delivery possible, safe and accessible.

Anup Malani / CMIE / Prabhat Jha

An joint grant to (1) Anup Malani, Professor at the University of Chicago, (2) The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), and (3) Prabhat Jha, Professor at University of Toronto and the Centre for Global Health Research, to determine the extent to which reported excess deaths in India are due to Covid. Recent studies show that that the pandemic in India may be associated with between 3 million to 4.9 million excess deaths, roughly 8-12 times officially reported number of COVID deaths. To determine how many of these deaths are statistically attributable to Covid, they will conduct verbal autopsies on roughly 20,000 deaths, with the results to be made publicly available.

And finally:

Aditya Dar/The Violence Archive

A joint grant to Aaditya Dar, an economist at Indian School of Business, Kiran Garimella, a computer scientist at Rutgers University and Vasundhara Sirnate, a political scientist and journalist for creating the India Violence Archive. They will use machine learning and natural language processing to develop an open-source historical record of collective public violence in India over 100 years. The goal is to create accessible and high-quality public data so civil society can pursue justice and governments can make better policy.

Those unfamiliar with Emergent Ventures can learn more here and here. EV India announcement here. More about the winners of EV India second cohort here. To apply for EV India, use the EV application click the “Apply Now” button and select India from the “My Project Will Affect” drop-down menu.

Note that EV India is led and run by Shruti Rajagopalan, I thank her for all of her excellent work on this!

Here is Shruti on Twitter, and here is her excellent Ideas of India podcast.  Shruti is herself an earlier Emergent Ventures winner, and while she is very highly rated remains grossly underrated.

Gödel Prize Winners Don’t Cosplay

Tim Roughgarden, a top-notch computer scientist (co-winner of a Gödel Prize), is teaching a class on blockchains. He’s only just begun to put up material but I liked this bit of “hype” from Lecture One.

It’s worth recognizing that we’re currently in a particular moment in time, witnessing a new area of computer science blossom before our eyes in real time. It draws on well-established parts of computer science (e.g., cryptography and distributed systems) and other fields (e.g., game theory and finance), but is developing into a fundamental and interdisciplinary area of science and engineering its own right. Future generations of computer scientists will be jealous of your opportunity to get in on the ground floor of this new area–analogous to getting into the Internet and the Web in the early 1990s. I cannot overstate the opportunities available to someone who masters the material covered in this course–current demand is much, much bigger than supply.

And perhaps this course will also serve as a partial corrective to the misguided coverage and discussion of blockchains in a typical mainstream media article or water cooler conversation, which seems bizarrely stuck in 2013 (focused almost entirely on Bitcoin, its environmental impact, the use case of payments, Silk Road, etc.). An enormous number of people, including a majority of computer science researchers and academics, have yet to grok the modern vision of blockchains: a new computing paradigm that will enable the next incarnation of the Internet and the Web, along with an entirely new generation of applications.

I share Tim’s excitement at the possibilities. Indeed, I had the pleasure of working with Tim advising a blockchain project (sadly killed by the SEC). By the way, Silvio Micali, another winner of the Godel prize, is a prime mover behind the Algorand blockchain.

Addendum: Here’s a perfect example of a mainsteam media article stuck in 2013.

My January 2020 Bloomberg column on Covid

I thought this one worthy of a redux, here are a few segments:

First, most emergency rooms are not equipped to handle a very high volume of cases, especially infectious diseases…The general economic problem is that emergency rooms typically are not equipped with full surge capacity, nor are there enough emergency room add-ons or substitutes available on very short notice.

And:

Very often, when a pandemic breaks out, talk turns to macro remedies such as air travel bans and quarantines, as China is instituting. Yet often the more important factor is the strength, resilience and flexibility of local public health institutions, and those qualities cannot be created overnight. Just as the Chinese health-care system is undergoing a major test right now, there is a good chance that the U.S. will too.

And:

An additional test could concern child-care and telecommuting. Will U.S. schools need to be shut? At the very least it is something officials should have been planning for. Even if schools are not closed, some number of parents will keep their children at home, whether out of rational fear or not. Anti-vaccine sentiment is fairly high and rising, after all, and even the wisest parents will prefer to be safe than sorry.

Keeping one’s children at home means that fewer people will go to work. Even those with external child-care options, such as day care, may be reluctant to leave their children outside the home for the same reasons they fear the schools. The new question then becomes how robust are work plans, and U.S. supply chains, to a higher than usual rate of workplace absenteeism. There also may be an especially high level in China, which could strain U.S. and other supply chains relying on Chinese producers. Many businesses may need to amend their plans on the fly.

Once again, pandemic preparation is about the flexibility of decentralized institutions. These are not problems that can be solved by top-down planning. Instead, they rely on longstanding institutional capacities, high levels of social trust and improvisational skill.

If and when a good vaccine becomes available for the virus, that will again be about the improvisation and flexibility that will allow for scalability and eventual production and distribution. It is usually difficult to solve such problems quickly, but still there is better and worse performance — and that can make a big difference.

And:

The very first problem the U.S. is likely to face is one of risk communication. Of course the correct message will depend on how the data evolve, but in general there is tension between warnings that get people to take notice, and those that scare them underground or into counterproductive forms of panic.

If you tell people how terrible things are, they feel a loss of control. Many will retreat into conspiracy theories, spread mistrust of health-care institutions, or withdraw altogether from social or professional activity. Those who are sick may be afraid to seek medical attention, for fear of having their movements constrained, driving the disease further underground and distorting the data. Again, trust is of paramount importance.

Recommended.