Category: Uncategorized

Friday assorted links

1. The culture that is Cook Islands quarantine.  They just got back from the Tokyo Olympics.

2. Pierce Brosnan and Colm Toibin are on board with Jack Yeats.

3. 18,000 people in a single building (St. Petersburg, Russia).

4. Otters are moving into Singapore.

5. Haitink dead.  And Yundi Li is in trouble.

6. My University of Kentucky talk on why big tech is underrated.

7. Claims about ports and supply chains.

8. Erik Hoel has predictions for 2050 (oddly he criticizes one of my predictions and then goes on to make a version of the same himself).

What I’ve been reading

1. Paul A. Offit, You Bet Your Life: From Blood Transfusions to Mass Vaccination, the Long and Risky History of Medical Innovation.  The stories and anecdotes are fun, most of all about the early history of the polio vaccine and how poorly some of the process went.  By the end of the book, however, it doesn’t add up to very much.  The underlying theme is that early innovation is fraught with risk, but Offit is unwilling to draw straightforward conclusions that we should be more tolerant of such risks.  He instead inveighs against the “disturbing show of hubris” from the recent vaccine manufacturers.  Is that really the problem right now?  (How many ways are there for the biomedical establishment to show that its “anti-expected value, anti-corporate” side can morph into subtle forms of anti-vaxx sentiment?)  He also has the annoying tendency, like many of his peers, to dismiss massive ethical issues with a single paragraph that would not withstand scrutiny in an undergraduate philosophy course.  Yes, we will always treat sins of commission as more important than sins of omission, as Offit argues.  But does he endorse this approach?  (He won’t say.)  Does he think we should vary our practices here at the margin?  (He won’t say.  Too inconvenient!)  Still, the book is informative and enjoyable enough, so I don’t regret buying it or finishing it.  But if you are looking for a “biomedical establishment punching bag,” well it is that too.

Straussian Beatles, Paul McCartney solo edition

One thing I’ve always enjoyed about Paul is his willingness to be a plain, flat outright snot about other people.  Did you see lately when he called the Rolling Stones “a blues cover band”?  Not wrong!  Ever listen to the lyrics of “Another Girl“?

Anyway, if you paw through the Ram album you will find some real daggers.  “Dear Boy,” for instance, is Paul mocking Linda’s ex-husband, here are some lyrics:

I guess you never knew, dear boy, what you have found,
I guess you never knew, dear boy,
That she was just the cutest thing around,
I guess you never knew what you have found,
Dear boy.

I guess you never knew, dear boy,
That love was there.
And maybe when you look to hard, dear boy,
You never do become aware,
I guess you never did become aware,
Dear boy.

When i stepped in, my heart was down and out,
But her love came through and brought me ’round,
Got me up and about…

I hope you never know, dear boy,
How much you missed.
And even when you fall in love, dear boy,
It won’t be half as good as this.
I hope you never know how much you missed,
Dear boy, how much you missed

Maybe it’s OK to take public stabs at your new wife’s ex-husband (is it?), but keep in mind Paul was raising the guy’s daughter at the time.  What did she think?  Or maybe up in that Scottish farm she just never listened to Ram, or this song.  Paul himself has admitted the underlying meaning in radio interviews.  The guy, by the way, committed suicide — woe unto him who is attacked by Paul McCartney!

Brian Wilson, by the way, was a big admirer of the voices and harmonies on that one, here is the cut.

Gentler but still cutting is “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey“.  It’s Paul’s account of why he has not been calling “the rellies” back home, namely because they are too boring and too removed from the reality of his life.  Paul is reporting (sarcastically) that his life is too boring to have anything to say to the guy:

We’re so sorry, uncle Albert
We’re so sorry if we caused you any pain
We’re so sorry, uncle Albert
But there’s no one left at home
And I believe I’m gonna rain

We’re so sorry, but we haven’t heard a thing all day
We’re so sorry, uncle Albert
But if anything should happen
We’ll be sure to give a ring

We’re so sorry, uncle Albert
But we haven’t done a bloody thing all day
We’re so sorry, uncle Albert
But the kettle’s on the boil
And we’re so easily called away

Of course he really did have an Uncle Albert, and I bet he didn’t call much.  Can you blame him?  This interpretation, by the way, comes from Paul himself, many years later on satellite radio.

“Too Many People” — the paradigmatic Macca Straussian song deserves a post of its own.  It has more passive-aggressive references to John Lennon than are usually reported.

And that is all just on one album!  Here are previous installments of Straussian Beatles.  By the way, “Yesterday” may in part be about the early death of Paul’s mother.

Thursday assorted links

1. Why so little eSports in Japan?

2. Are emergency sirens dangerous? (NYT, though it seems they help recruit volunteers in rural areas).

3. Which vehicle prices are up the most and the least?  Can you model this?

4. NYT on the postliberal Right and Orban.  A more serious piece than you might have been expecting.

5. Department of counterproductive responses, philosophers’ edition.

6. A (bad, mood-affiliated) critique of long-termism.

7. No more flow for the flow guy, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Understanding the Rise in Life Expectancy Inequality

By Gordon B. Dahl et.al.:

We provide a novel decomposition of changing gaps in life expectancy between rich and poor into differential changes in age-specific mortality rates and differences in “survivability”. Declining age-specific mortality rates increases life expectancy, but the gain is small if the likelihood of living to this age is small (ex ante survivability) or if the expected remaining lifetime is short (ex post survivability). Lower survivability of the poor explains between one-third and one-half of the recent rise in life expectancy inequality in the US and the entire change in Denmark. Our analysis shows that the recent widening of mortality rates between rich and poor due to lifestyle-related diseases does not explain much of the rise in life expectancy inequality. Rather, the dramatic 50% reduction in cardiovascular deaths, which benefited both rich and poor, made initial differences in lifestyle-related mortality more consequential via survivability.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.  And RAD from the comments: “Greater survivability of cardio vascular events allows lifestyle choices to catch-up with people.”

My Conversation with Stanley McChrystal

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

He joined Tyler to discuss whether we’ve gotten better or worse at analyzing risk, the dangerous urge among policymakers to oversimplify the past, why being a good military commander is about more than winning battlefield victories, why we’re underestimating the risk that China will invade Taiwan, how to maintain a long view of history, what set Henry Kissinger apart, the usefulness of war games, how well we understand China and Russia, why there haven’t been any major attacks on US soil since 9/11, the danger of a “soldier class” in America, his take on wokeness and the military, what’s needed to have women as truly senior commanders in the armed forces, why officers with bad experiences should still be considered for promotion, how to address extremists in the military, why he supports a draft, the most interesting class he took at West Point, how to care for disabled veterans, his advice to enlisted soldiers on writing a will, the most emotionally difficult part and greatest joys of his military career, the prospect of drone assassinations, what he eats for his only meal of the day, why he’s done writing books, and more.

And:

COWEN: If we had to shrink one capacity of the military, say, by 50 percent, and double the capacity of another, what would you pick to shrink and what to expand?

MCCHRYSTAL: This is always the tough one. I tend to think that the maneuver warfare part that we have created for ground warfare in Europe or in the Mideast is probably somewhere where we have to accept some risk. We have to have fewer capabilities there. You could even argue maybe the number of aircraft carriers — big capital things.

I think where we can’t afford — and therefore, I would invest — is in really good people. Now, that seems like a simplistic answer, but we are going to need very crafty people at things like cyber warfare. We’re going to need very innovative people. We’re going to need people with cultural acuity, which means language skills, and that’s going to be more important. So if I was advocating, I’d be leaning toward resourcing harder in those areas.

COWEN: Now, of course, your father was a general. You come from a military family. Why is it that military recruitment, right now, is so well predicted by having had a parent in the armed forces? What’s driving that? And how can we take advantage of that to recruit additional people?

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, we’ve taken advantage of it to the point where it may be counterproductive now. When I would travel the battlefields and go to small bases, invariably, the sergeant or lieutenant in charge was the son or daughter of a friend of mine. In one way, it’s comforting because you know people have entered the service with open eyes and clear expectations, and they make good soldiers, but you don’t want a soldier class in America.

Definitely recommended, there is also a segment about disabled veterans and their rights.  And again here is Stan’s new book Risk: A User’s Guide, co-authored with Anna Butrico.

Wednesday assorted links

1. “It is said that bosses of the ‘Ndrangheta – godfathers and clan leaders – make their most important decisions in front of a plate of dormice…”

2. “A British bakery has been forced to pull its top-selling cookies from the market, after regulators informed the owner that the sprinkles are illegal. The U.S.-made sprinkles contain a coloring that’s legal for some uses — but not for sprinkling.”  Link here.

3. “We propose that people exhibit an insight bias, such that they undervalue persistence and overvalue insight in the creative process.

4. Vaccines in rural Kentucky.

5. No British newborn boys named “Nigel” in 2020.

6. Davis Kedrosky on the Great Coinage Debate.

Causal Inference at Twitter

Twitter engineering had a nice tweet thread on how they use econometrics and causal inference:

 You may have heard about this year’s Economics Nobel Prize winners – David Card, Josh Angrist (@metrics52) & Guido Imbens.

Their publicly available work has helped us solve tough problems @Twitter, and we’re excited to celebrate by sharing how their findings have inspired us. Understanding causal relationships is core to our work on identifying growth opportunities and measuring impact.

This year’s winners laid the foundation for cutting-edge techniques we use to understand where Twitter can improve and how changes affect our platform experience.
To share a few exciting causal inference applications at Twitter:

While online experimentation is helpful to understand the impact of a product change, it may not be the most efficient way to measure long-term impact. We built a causal estimation framework on the idea of statistical ‘surrogacy’ (Athey et al 2016) – when we can’t wait to observe long-run outcomes, we create a model based on intermediate data.

Estimating Treatment Effects using Multiple Surrogates: The Role of the Surrogate Score and the Surrogate Index

Estimating the long-term effects of treatments is of interest in many fields. A common challenge in estimating such treatment effects is that long-term outcomes are unobserved in the time frame needed. We combine this framework with our online experimentation platform to form a feedback/validation loop and to help accurately infer product success. One of the challenges we face is understanding the impact of different actions at Twitter (likes, Retweets etc.) Engagement actions often occur sequentially and at different surface areas. How to disentangle the effect of multiple actions presents many challenges.
We use Double Machine Learning to understand the causal impact of engagement actions.

Our work leverages research by Chernozhukov et al. (2018), and is influenced by Imbens & Rubin (2015).

Causal Inference for Statistics, Social, and Biomedical Sciences
This framework helps the team to interpret search experiments and make Twitter a better place to serve the public conversation. These applications promote a better understanding of tradeoffs among competing signals, helping our engineering team to iterate fast under more principled measurement and decision frameworks, making Twitter a better platform to create and share ideas and information.

We’re grateful for the role that academic research plays in driving innovation across society. We couldn’t do this work without the methodological foundation of the winners’ work and contributions across academia. Work like this inspires product innovation and engineering ideas alike, and we look forward to all that is yet to come.

More details on Twitter Data Science work will be introduced in our upcoming Engineering Blog posts.

Tuesday assorted links

1. Ted Gioia 12 predictions for the future of music.

2. How and what should a ghost maximize?

3. Agarwal and Budish survey chapter on market design.

4. Can robotic textiles improve your breathing?

5. Colombia’s antimachismo hotline (NYT, a good thing to be clear!).  Encapsulates the broader trend.

6. Puerto Rico now the most vaccinated place in the United States.

7. Janos Kornai, RIP.

Average is over

Thirteen-year-olds saw unprecedented declines in both reading and math between 2012 and 2020, according to scores released this morning from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Consistent with several years of previous data, the results point to a clear and widening cleavage between America’s highest- and lowest-performing students and raise urgent questions about how to reverse prolonged academic stagnation.

The scores offer more discouraging evidence from NAEP, often referred to as “the Nation’s Report Card.” Various iterations of the exam, each tracking different subjects and age groups over several years, have now shown flat or falling numbers…

both reading and math results for nine-year-olds have made no headway; scores were flat for every ethnic and gender subgroup of younger children — with the exception of nine-year-old girls, who scored five points worse on math than they had in 2012. Their dip in performance produced a gender gap for the age group that did not exist on the test’s last iteration.

More ominous were the results for 13-year-olds, who experienced statistically significant drops of three and five points in reading and math, respectively. Compared with math performance in 2012, boys overall lost five points, and girls overall lost six points. Black students dropped eight points and Hispanic students four points; both decreases widened their score gap with white students, whose scores were statistically unchanged from 2012.

In keeping with previous NAEP releases, the scores also showed significant drops in performance among low-performing test-takers. Most disturbing: Declines among 13-year-olds scoring at the 10th percentile of reading mean that the group’s literacy performance is not significantly improved compared with 1971, when the test was first administered. In all other age/subject configurations, students placing at all levels of the achievement spectrum have gained ground over the last half-century.

Here is the full story, please note these are pre-Covid test scores, arguably now the problem could be worse.  Via Luke, a concerned human.

FDA relents on mix and match for third dose

Here is the NYT account, they sound both confused and confusing.  How about “if you have had J&J, it is fine and probably preferable to get a further dose of Moderna or Pfizer”?  Yet suddenly it is fine.

And it is the usual story — people have been doing this for months, and the FDA would not say it is terrible.  Because they knew it wasn’t.  But they wouldn’t say so.  And now the status quo has shifted, and so everyone will treat it as fine, as if the supposed fears of yesterday never ever existed.

Maybe I should insult people more often?

Some of them are frauds

The panel also seemed intrigued by preliminary data suggesting that Johnson & Johnson recipients may be better off with a booster shot from Moderna or Pfizer. Although no vote was taken, Dr. Peter Marks, who oversees the F.D.A.’s vaccine division, said regulatory action to allow boosters with a different vaccine was “possible.”

While some experts emphasized that the data was based on small groups of volunteers and short-term findings, others urged the F.D.A. to move quickly with what has fast become known as a mix-and-match approach, especially for recipients of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, which is much less widely available.

“I’m sold already,” said Dr. Mark Sawyer, an infectious disease specialist with the University of California San Diego School of Medicine. “We need flexibility and to improve access to everyone.”

Others said they worried that the public would end up bewildered if the government kept broadening the categories of people eligible for boosters and which vaccine could be used for extra shots.

“I hope we can do this in a way that doesn’t look like we’re changing rules all the time,” said Dr. Stanley Perlman, a professor of immunology at the University of Iowa.

Health officials and committee members suggested on Friday that the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine had long been less protective. In a particularly biting critique, Dr. Amanda Cohn, a high-ranking C.D.C. medical officer, said a single dose of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine offered less protection than two doses of the mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer or Moderna — a gap that would only grow if it remained a one-shot regimen while the other two-shot vaccines were followed by a booster…

The experts generally agreed that the protection conferred by a single dose was inadequate, but at least some were unconvinced that the second dose would bolster that protection significantly.

The smart people I know who started with J&J took this matter into their own hands some time ago, typically opting for an mRNA supplement.  They are just “people,” yet they had “skin in the game” and they are miles ahead of the FDA and CDC as formal institutions.  Here is a research paper on the question.  Here is another.  And here is a Paul Sax tweet and Op-Ed: “Don’t know anyone who disagrees with this, and the data have been highly suggestive for months.”  And this is after the authorities insisted for months that all vaccines will be treated the same.

Again, I will repeat the perennial question: do our public health agencies wish to maximize their own status and control and feeling of “having done everything properly as they were trained,” or do they wish to maximize the expected value of actual outcomes for the citizenry?  If it is not the latter, and too often it is not, I say they are oppressive frauds.  (And please don’t try to tell me this kind of craperoo is boosting their credibility — in fact they have lost massive credibility with America’s public intellectual class, both left wing and right wing and for that matter centrist.)

I really do not have much sympathy for Kyrie Irving and Bradley Beal and their ilk, but in fact their views are more understandable than you might think from reading MSM.  Their generalized mistrust is not so crazy, even though they are quite wrong in this particular instance.  By the way, don’t take those aspirin any more!

Here is the full NYT article, cringeworthy throughout, and I thank Jordan for the pointer.

Be Green: Buy a Coal Mine!

It’s time to reup the idea of buying coal mines and shuttering them. I wrote about this a few years ago based on Bard Harstad’s piece in the JPE and it came up again on twitter so I went looking for a coal mine to buy. Here’s a coal mine for sale in West Virginia for only $7.8 million! According to the ad, the mine produces 10,000 tons of coal monthly and has reserves of 8 million tons. Now here are some back of the envelope calculations.

(Warning: There may be errors since there are a lot of unit conversions. I invite someone with expertise in the industry to do a more serious analysis.)

Each ton of coal burned produces about 2.5 tons of carbon dioxide (you get more carbon dioxide since the carbon combines with oxygen). Sources: 2.86 short tons. 2.086 short tons.

It costs about $100 to sequester a ton of carbon dioxide for a long time.

Thus, 10,000 tons of coal burnt monthly produce 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide that it would cost $2.5 million a month to sequester. Or buying the mine pays for itself in reduced C02 emissions in about 3 months.

Ordinarily buying up the supply would increase supply elsewhere but coal mines are going out of business–thus no one is investing much in building new coal mines. The supply curve, therefore, is inelastic. In addition, you could buy up the right to mine in precisely those countries that are not committed to reducing coal mining. Indeed, you could buy the right to mine costly-to-exploit coal deposits–those deposits are cheap (since they are costly to exploit) and by taking them off the market you are making the supply curve even more inelastic so you aren’t encouraging much additional supply. Imagine, for example, that coal mining will be banned tomorrow. Thus, companies will be producing all-out today but that means you could reduce a lot of carbon emissions by buying the right to mine from the most expensive producers (who will sell cheap) and you won’t appreciably increase the incentive to mine. Indeed, on the margin, a higher price of energy might even do more to increase alternative sources of power like solar, especially if you buy thermal coal where there are lots of substitutes (there are fewer substitutes for coke coal.) See the Harstad paper and references in my earlier post.

Thus, buying a coal mine and leaving the coal in the ground looks like a cost-effective way of sequestering carbon dioxide.

Addendum: There are also some crazy “use it or lose it” laws that say that you can’t buy the right to extract a natural resource and not use it. When the high-bidder for an oil and gas lease near Arches National Park turned out to be an environmentalist the BLM cancelled the contract! That’s absurd. The high-bidder is the high-bidder and there should be no discrimination based on the reasons for the bid. See this Science piece.

H/t: Austin Vernon.

Jack Yeats, the greatest Irish artist

I am going to pick Jack Butler Yeats (1871-1957, Sligo) as Ireland’s greatest artist. And yes he was the brother of William Butler Yeats and son of the artist John Butler Yeats, notable in his own right.

(For background, here are my earlier posts on William Orpen, John Lavery, Mainie Jellett, and Harry Clarke.  Here are a few contenders whom I ruled out from the get-go.)

Wikipedia offers the following useful description of Jack Yeats:

His favourite subjects included the Irish landscape, horses, circus and travelling players. His early paintings and drawings are distinguished by an energetic simplicity of line and colour, his later paintings by an extremely vigorous and experimental treatment of often thickly applied paint. He frequently abandoned the brush altogether, applying paint in a variety of different ways, and was deeply interested in the expressive power of colour. Despite his position as the most important Irish artist of the 20th century (and the first to sell for over £1m), he took no pupils and allowed no one to watch him work, so he remains a unique figure.

I don’t think there are images I could show to convince you that Yeats should stand above the other contenders.  His signature expressionist works are thick with three-dimensional texture, and they look like crap on-line.  I am fortunate to have seen a large exhibit of them lately in Dublin.  When I first saw some many years ago, I thought they were a splotchy mess, a kind of second-rate Gaelic Kokoscha, but they hold up and improve remarkably well with time.  Everything is where it ought to be.

Here is a “more normal” picture by Yeats:

His scenes are more animated, more impudent, more multi-faceted, and fresher than those of any other Irish painter.  It is easy to imagine him still inspiring painters today, Irish or otherwise, and I don’t think the same is quite true for the other names surveyed.  There is something “whole greater than the sum of the parts” that makes Yeats a clear, easy, and I think (mostly) consensus choice for Ireland’s greatest artist.  And he certainly was “Irish enough” to count.

Here is a good Christie’s short essay, mixed in with six high-quality images of works recently up for sale.  Oh, and here is one of the expressionist horse paintings after all:

The best places to see Yeats works are in Dublin and Sligo, but London and even the Walters in Baltimore have some.  Catch the Dublin exhibit while you can!