Results for “africa”
939 found

52 things Tom Whitwell learned in 2021

Always a good list, here is this year’s edition, and an excerpt:

  1. Beauty livestreamer Li Jiaqi sold $1.9 billion worth of products in one twelve hour show on Taobao. That’s slightly less than the total sales from all four Selfridges stores during 2019. [Jinshan Hong]
  2. 10% of US electricity is generated from old Russian nuclear warheads. [Geoff Brumfiel]
  3. Some South African students sell school Wi-Fi passwords for lunch money. Residents walk up to 6km to connect to schools because 4G data is so expensive. [Kimberly Mutandiro]
  4. Productivity dysmorphia is the inability to see one’s own success, to acknowledge the volume of your own output. [Anna Codrea-Rado]

For the pointer I thank Nabeel.  And here is Whitwell on Get Back and the principles of creativity.

An update on the mask debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Covid pandemic is not taking the very best of turns

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

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

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

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

It isn’t over yet.

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

Nu, a variant of real concern

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best non-fiction books of 2021

What an incredible year for non-fiction books!  But let me first start with two picks from 2020, buried under the avalanche of Covid news then, and missed because I was less mobile than usual.  These books are not only good enough to make this list, but in just about any year they are good enough to be the very best book of that year:

Edward Nelson, Milton Friedman and Economic Debate in the United States, 1932–1972, volumes one and two.

Alexander Mikaberidze, The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History.

Also noteworthy is Reviel Netz, Scale, Space and Canon in Ancient Literary Culture, which I hope to write more about.

Per usual, there is typically a short review behind each, though not quite always.  As for 2021 proper, here were my favorites, noting that I do not impose any quota system whatsoever.  (And yet this list is somehow more cosmopolitan than most such tallies…hmm…)  I don’t quite know how to put this, but this list is much better than the other “best books of the year” lists.  These are truly my picks, ranked roughly in the order I read them:

Jin Xu, Empire of Silver: A New Monetary History of China.

Cat Jarman, River Kings: A New History of the Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads.

Michela Wrong, Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad.

Ryan Bourne, Economics in One Virus: An Introduction to Economic Reasoning Through Covid-19.

Colin Bryar and Bill Carr, Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Amazon.

Ivan Gibbons, Partition: How and Why Ireland Was Divided.

Serhii Plokhy, Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Alan Taylor, American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850.

William Deresiewicz, The Death of the Artist: How Creators are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech, brief discussion of it here.

Roderick Matthews, Peace, Poverty and Betrayal: A New History of British India.

Alejandro Ruiz, Carla Altesor,, The Food of Oaxaca: Recipes and Stories from Mexico’s Culinary Capital.

Tomas Mandl, Modern Paraguay: South America’s Best Kept Secret.

Kara Walker, A Black Hole is Everything a Star Longs To Be.

Tony Saich, From Rebel to Ruler: One Hundred Years of the Chinese Communist Party.

Adeeb Khalid, Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present.

Richard Zenith, Pessoa: A Biography.

John B. Thompson, Book Wars: The Digital Revolution.

Scott Sumner, The Money Illusion: Market Monetarism, the Great Recession, and the Future of Monetary Policy.

Architectural Guide to Sub-Saharan Africa.

Joanne Limburg, Letters to My Weird Sisters: On Autism and Feminism.

McCartney, Paul. The Lyrics.  A remarkably high quality production, again showing McCartney’s skill as manager and entrepreneur.  Perhaps the biggest revelation is when Paul insists that if not for the Beatles he would have been an English teacher.  He also claims that he and not John was the big reader in The Beatles.  It is also striking, but not surprising, when explaining his lyrics how many times he mentions his mother, who passed away when Paul was fourteen.  There is a good David Hajdu NYT review here.

Bob Spitz, Led Zeppelin: The Biography.  They always end up being better than you think they possibly could be, and this is the best and most serious book about them.

gestalten, Beauty and the East: New Chinese Architecture.  Self-recommending…

Is there a “best book” of 2021?  The categories are hard to compare.  Maybe the seven volumes of Architectural Guide to Sub-Saharan Africa?  But is it fair they get seven volumes in this competition?  The McCartney?  (He took two volumes.)  The Pessoa biography?  Roderick Matthews on India?  So much to choose from!  And apologies to all those I have forgotten or neglected…

Read more!  And here is my favorite fiction of 2021 list.  And I will write an addendum to this list as we approach the very end of 2021.

Housing Vouchers and Education Vouchers

Here’s a recent news headline, Can Biden Deliver on His Promise to Expand Housing Vouchers? The link discusses Biden’s efforts to increase housing vouchers which subsidize low-income households to help them rent a home on the private market. Housing vouchers are a solidly Democratic proposal. Moreover, as far as I can tell, there are few people advocating to replace vouchers with public housing. The progressive think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has this to say about vouchers:

Housing Choice Vouchers sharply reduce homelessness and other hardships, lift more than a million people out of poverty, and give families an opportunity to move to safer, less poor neighborhoods. These effects, in turn, are closely linked to educational, developmental, and health benefits that can improve children’s long-term life chances and reduce costs in other public programs.

Here’s the Urban Institute:

The federal Housing Choice Voucher Program plays a critical role in helping to address housing needs for extremely low-income households. Its most important advantage is that vouchers give recipients the freedom to choose the kinds of housing and the locations that best meet their needs. As a consequence, many voucher recipients live in healthy neighborhoods that offer social, educational, and economic opportunities for themselves and their children….even for African Americans and Hispanics, vouchers perform better than public and assisted housing projects in giving families access to low-poverty and racially mixed neighborhoods.

Notice how often the words “opportunity”, “freedom” and “choice” appear. Indeed the testimony from the Urban Institute refers to “the freedom to choose.” Excellent.

I agree with these conclusions. Now here is what is strange. Exactly the same arguments apply to school vouchers and school choice. School vouchers give students the freedom to choose the kinds of schooling and locations that best meet their needs. Yet, while many on the left agree that vouchers are superior to public housing, which tends to freeze the poor into low-quality, poorly maintained housing in poor neighborhoods with a host of cognate problems, they are more reluctant to support education vouchers as superior to public schooling. But all the arguments against public housing also apply to public schooling. Public Housing=Public Schooling. (The right are also strangely reluctant to take credit for housing vouchers even though they have mostly worked in just the way that Milton Friedman would have predicted!)

It’s unclear to me why housing vouchers became accepted on the left but education vouchers are still regarded as suspect. Or to put it the other way, it would be useful to study how housing voucher won over the left.

I look forward to the day when a headline reads, Can the Democratic President Deliver on Her Promise to Expand Education Vouchers?

Ports and Tolerance

An elegant essay by Saumitra Jha on why tolerance between Hindus and Muslims evolved in India’s port cities.

Port Sea Monument Gateway Of India Mumbai Historic

[W]here do institutions of tolerance emerge? Combining the historical accounts, the fieldwork, and the data, it became clear that such institutions develop in very specific places, where two conditions were satisfied. First, Hindus and Muslims needed to have incentives to work together: for example, engaging in business relationships that complemented each other, rather than competed against one another. Second, this complementarity had to be robust: it had to be difficult for one group to replicate or simply steal the source of the others’ complementarity.

One important set of examples of these were ports—like Mahatma Gandhi’s own hometown, Porbandar—that had traded to the distant Middle East during the medieval period. For one month a year, for close to a thousand years, Mecca had been one of the largest markets in the world during the Hajj—and one had to be Muslim to go to Mecca. This gave Muslims in ports—in India, but also on the African coasts, the Malay peninsula, and beyond—a strong advantage in overseas trade and shipping. And, yet, this advantage nonetheless benefited the communities they connected by sail.

Further this complementarity in overseas trade came from a trading network that was intangible, and so impossible to seize, and the scale of the Hajj was so large it was impossible for a Hindu to replicate. Not surprisingly, then—before being disrupted by European colonial interventions beginning in the 16th century—Muslims had dominated overseas trade across the Indian Ocean, from the coasts of Zanzibar to India, Malaysia and beyond, as far as China.

Ports emerged at natural harbors along India’s medieval coasts to accommodate these trading relationships. These ports also witnessed not just the emergence of rules but also beliefs and organizations that supported trade, inter-group trust, and religious tolerance. So much so, that even three centuries later—after Muslim trade advantages had ended due to European colonial interventions, and many of the ports themselves had silted up and become inaccessible to trade—this legacy of beliefs, norms, and organizations continued to shape the way people interacted with one another. The institutions of peace and tolerance outlived the economic incentives that had once sustained them.

Photo Credit: MaxPixel.

What I’ve been reading

1. Carole Angier, Speak, Silence: In Search of W.G. Sebald.  Might Sebald be the only semi-recent writer who can hold a candle to Ferrante, Knausgaard, and Houllebecq?  This book is sprawling, and suffers somewhat from lack of access to the author’s family, but it is a true labor of love.  And Angier has a deep understanding of Sebald, and also brings out the Jewish-related themes in his work (though he was not Jewish himself).  It attempts to be a Sebaldian work itself, and even if it does not always succeed it is the kind of passionate book we need more of.  Recommended, but you have to read Sebald first, if need be start with Die Ausgewanderten [The Emigrants].

2. Arthur Herman, The Viking Heart: How Scandinavians Conquered the World.  Ignore the subtitle!  There have been a number of good books on the Vikings lately, and this is perhaps the most “popular” and big picture of the lot.  The early Vikings swept through Europe in a matter of decades, mixing conquest and trade.  King Canute was pretty impressive it seems.  Specialists may pick nits, but it is very readable and seems to me to give a good overview of the role of the Vikings in European history.  This would be the one to start with.

3. Lawrence Rothfield, The Measure of Man: Liberty, Virtue, and Beauty in the Florentine Republic.  An excellent introduction to Florence, with some focus on issues of liberty and also civic leaderhip.  One should never tire of reading about this particular topic.

4. Howard W. French, Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World 1471 to the Second World War.  Think of this book as a retelling of some standard historical episodes, but with Africa at the center rather than as a recipient of European advances.  This is a useful reframing, and I enjoyed the read.  But perhaps by the end it was the New World that in my mind was upgraded as a more central spot for the rise of modernity?  Too frequently the relevance of Africa has to be rescued by invoking Portugal, as Sweden, Russia, and Turkey simply will not do the trick there.

New out is Diane Coyle, Cogs and Monsters: What Economics Is, and What It Should Be; she is typically wise.

I am happy to see the publication of Calvin Duke’s Entrepreneurial Communities: An Alternative to the State, The Theories of Spencer Heath and Spencer MacCallum.

There is also Kyle Harper, Plagues Upon the Earth: Disease and the Course of Human History, long and comprehensive.

Which were the best eras to visit various places?

Francis Quinn emails me:

I’m an American man, 29, arrived in Amsterdam for the first time yesterday, and I am finding it to be the least crowded European city I’ve been to. Is this COVID-related possibly, do you think, or did the city used to be empty? I even thought I was on a college campus, almost. I’m loving it.

I’m now thinking of a new question for Tyler: *when* was the best year to have visited various places? From 1900-2100 (past and present, future possible travel times for all your readers)?

Good idea, let’s put aside Covid, here are a few observations:

1. The best time to visit the United States is now.  The country keeps on getting better and more interesting, most of all the latter.

2. New York City is a big exception here.  It probably was more interesting to visit NYC in the 1950-1978 period when it was clearly the world’s leading city, culturally and otherwise.  San Francisco (1970s?) and Detroit (1960s?) are exceptions also.

3. Most of Western Europe probably was best to visit in the 1970s or 1980s?  Modern enough to be comfortable, less ruined by excess tourists, and the internet doesn’t really raise the value of Europe much at all.  Note that I am putting aside “visit in 1920 so you can be shocked by the novelty and then brag about it.”  That is an interesting plan, but I think not the question at hand.  And the danger of disease and poor medical care still would have been high.

4. Much of Eastern Europe was best to visit right after the Iron Curtain came down.  Poland is an exception to this, and it is best to visit Poland now.

5. For most of Asia, the best time to visit is right now.  Perhaps Japan was more exciting in the bubble years.  Some parts of China were wrecked by the Cultural Revolution, and Hong Kong was more fun before the takeover.  China was freer and more fun ten to fifteen years ago.  So there are exceptions, but mostly the point stands.  Asia as a whole is getting better and more interesting.

6. For most of Africa, the best time to visit is right now, wars aside.  Ethiopia for instance was obviously much better to visit a few years ago.  I am not sure about Nigeria.  Obviously, for some anthropological or wildlife-related interests, much earlier times might have been better, but not for the typical educated tourist.

7. Right now is the best time to visit Israel.  I suspect some of the Arab countries in the Middle East were better to visit much earlier — Beirut and Cairo for instance.  Yemen was clearly better to visit in the early 1990s.  Iran during the time of the Shah.  And so on.  Overall these points are not a promising sign for the region.  Dubai and the like are clearly best to visit now.

8. Most of Latin America is best to visit now, as the region remains largely unspoilt.  Brazil might be an exception to this, though I have not been lately.  Some parts of Brazil seem to be more dangerous, and an earlier visit may well have been superior.  Ever see the movie Black Orpheus, set in Rio?

9. The 1960s were the best time to visit Haiti.

What else?

Wednesday assorted links

1. Microsoft Taj Mahal no Straussian readings allowed.

2. Evictions have not skyrocketed.

3. Claims about overrated and underrated historical events.  Interesting, though I think he is quite wrong about ancient Greece and Rome.

4. Deriving Covid heterogeneity.  And is Africa more protected?

5. Beethoven’s AI-finished 10th symphony, with a 3:38 clip at the end of the piece.  Eh.

6. A guy who works full-time within VR.

7. Mortality: “Power calculations make it implausible that there is an upper bound below 130 years.”

Are machine guns on the side of the civilized?

From Priya Satia’s recent and interesting Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire:

Evolutionary history likewise advised tolerance in the face of the mass death enabled by the new machine guns, which ended the long technological parity between Europeans and others, making it possible for Europeans to conquer Africa at least.  Robert Routledge’s popular 1876 history of science lifted Adam Smith’s language defending firearms a century earlier to assure those concerned about machine guns’ destructive nature that they favored “the extension and permanence of civilization.”  Their complexity and expense — itself testimony to European genius — ensured that they could be wielded only by “wealthy and intelligent nations.”  But for a notable substitution of “race” for “nation,” he echoed Smith’s language almost verbatim (without citation) in arguing that firearms gave a necessary advantage to “opulent and civilized communities” over “poor and barbarous races,” which were today “everywhere at the mercy of the wealthy and cultivated nations.”

Obviously the same always will be true for nuclear weapons as well, right?

The book, by the way, is especially interesting about how thinking about progress is related to views of imperialism, though note the first 100 pp. are significantly less focused than the rest of the text.