Archive for August, 2011

Math Camp!

Two weeks ago I wrapped up my work as an Epi Scholar with the NYC Department of Health, where I was researching childhood lead poisoning (on which I should be writing more soon). I had a few days off to enjoy the city, and then last weekend I moved to Princeton, NJ. I’m in Princeton to work on an Master in Public Affairs in ‘Economics and Public Policy’ at the Woodrow Wilson School.

The other Woo students (as the school and its denizens are called) and I moved to Princeton three weeks before our “real” classes begin to enjoy a Woo ritual known as Math Camp. We spend a good chunk of each day in classes that teach or review basic concepts in mathematics and economics. There are four math tracks; the one I’m in has already covered some advanced algebra, univariate and multivariate calculus, and some basic linear algebra. We’ll spend the next two weeks doing more calculus and focusing on optimization problems, and touch briefly on some concepts in probability. The Math Camp classes have homework and tests and grades, but their main purpose is to help place us in the most appropriate ‘track’ in our microeconomics, macroeconomics, and quantititative analysis coursework.

I’m sure I’ll end up writing more about Math Camp and the Woo in general, as well as my amazing classmates. I am looking forward to being able to make some comparisons as time goes by — looking at epidemiology and economics, large schools and small schools, public health and public policy, and so forth. But generally I’ll try and keep my writing here about the subject matter I encounter rather than the mechanics of how grad school works.


08 2011

I'm sorry (for technical reasons only)

If you have a lot of RSS feeds for infrequently-updated personal blogs in your feed reader of choice* then you can’t avoid seeing posts that follow this format:

“I’m so sorry I haven’t posted in [length of time which is generally a short period in analog world but forever in the blogosphere]. I really planned on posting more and committed to doing so for [New Year’s, my blogoversary, Ramadan, etc]. But then my [work commitments, school schedule, real research projects] got in the way. I’m really sorry, dear readers, but I’ll try to do better in the future.

I think this genre of post is fascinating because it speaks to our expectations for the frequency with which a good blog should be updated, and our almost universal failure to live up to that ideal. Also, if you’re reading a feed via RSS, you wouldn’t necessarily have noticed the gap in posting without the “I’m sorry” post.

My posting isn’t always as frequent as I’d like it to be, but I was sure I’d never write one of those posts because I find them irksome. However, I’ve encountered an entirely new reason for not posting and thought it was novel enough to share.

I moved to Princeton, NJ a week ago and found that my blog (and the back-end that I access to edit it) are completely blocked on all the Princeton wireless networks. This is disheartening as without such a blockage my musings would likely have a much stronger impact on the elite policy-making world (just kidding). It’s also surprising since I would expect this more at my undergrad alma mater than at Princeton, and I have yet to write anything critical about Reunions. Oddly enough you don’t get any indication that the site has been blocked — no Websense notice — but rather the site just never loads. It took me quite a while to realize it wasn’t me, and for the moment it looks like I’ve been blocked because this site was the source of a phishing attack. I hope to get it resolved and resume my regular posting schedule soon, but I wanted to clarify that this particular gap in my posting is actually due to technical problems and not due to any deficiencies in my work ethic or personal character. And, dear reader, thanks for reading.

*Aside: if you’re reading this via a web browser, you’re old fashioned and should start using Google Reader today. Exceptions granted if you found this link via social media such as Facebook and Twitter.


08 2011

What does social science know?

Marc Bellemare wrote a post “For Fellow Teachers: Revised Primers on Linear Regression and Causality.” Good stuff for students too — not just teachers. The primers are PDFs on linear regression (6 pages) and causality (3 pages), and they’re either 1) a concise summary if you’re studying this stuff already, or 2) something you should really read if you don’t have any background in quantitative methods.

I also really enjoyed an essay by Jim Manzi that Marc links to, titled “What Social Science Does — and Doesn’t — Know.” Manzi reviews the history of experimentation in natural sciences, and then in social sciences. He discusses why it’s more difficult to extrapolate from randomized trials in the social sciences due to greater ‘causal density,’ amongst other reasons. Manzi summarized a lot of research in criminology (a field I didn’t even know used many field trials) and ends with some conclusions that seem sharp (emphasis added):

…After reviewing experiments not just in criminology but also in welfare-program design, education, and other fields, I propose that three lessons emerge consistently from them.

First, few programs can be shown to work in properly randomized and replicated trials. Despite complex and impressive-sounding empirical arguments by advocates and analysts, we should be very skeptical of claims for the effectiveness of new, counterintuitive programs and policies, and we should be reluctant to trump the trial-and-error process of social evolution in matters of economics or social policy.

Second, within this universe of programs that are far more likely to fail than succeed, programs that try to change people are even more likely to fail than those that try to change incentives. A litany of program ideas designed to push welfare recipients into the workforce failed when tested in those randomized experiments of the welfare-reform era; only adding mandatory work requirements succeeded in moving people from welfare to work in a humane fashion. And mandatory work-requirement programs that emphasize just getting a job are far more effective than those that emphasize skills-building. Similarly, the list of failed attempts to change people to make them less likely to commit crimes is almost endless—prisoner counseling, transitional aid to prisoners, intensive probation, juvenile boot camps—but the only program concept that tentatively demonstrated reductions in crime rates in replicated RFTs was nuisance abatement, which changes the environment in which criminals operate….

I’d note here that many researchers and policymakers who are interested in health-related behavior change have been moving away from simply providing information or attempting to persuade people to change their behavior, and moving towards changing the unhealthy environments in which we live. NYC Health Commissioner Thomas Farley spoke explicitly about this shift in emphasis when he addressed us summer interns back in June. That approach is a direct response to frustration with the small returns from many behavioral intervention approaches, and an acknowledgment that we humans are stubborn creatures whose behavior is shaped (more than we’d like to admit) by our environments.

Manzi concludes:

And third, there is no magic. Those rare programs that do work usually lead to improvements that are quite modest, compared with the size of the problems they are meant to address or the dreams of advocates.

Right, no pie in the sky. If programs or policies had huge effects they’d be much easier to measure, for one. Read it all.


08 2011


Paul Farmer has a piece in Foreign Affairs titled “Partners in Help”. Much of it is a re-telling of stories and ideas Farmer has used before (to great effect, of course), focusing largely on the idea of ‘accompaniment.’ I especially like (and wish he would expand on) this ending section:

Another way of putting this is: Beware the iron cage. About 25 years ago, when I was a graduate student at Harvard, I bought a copy of sociologist Max Weber’s collected works. It hurt my back and brain to even look at this giant tome, but his topic — how the “iron cage” of rationality comes to suppress innovation — remains relevant to this day. It occurs through “routinization,” a process by which rationalized bureaucracies gradually assume control over traditional forms of authority. This is often a good thing: Rationalized procedures can improve efficiency and equity. (Atul Gawande made this insight the core of his “checklist manifesto.”) When the World Health Organization launched its directly-observed therapy protocol for tuberculosis, many countries, such as Peru, made great strides against the ancient scourge.

But exceptional events — black swans, in popular parlance — expose the limits of this form of efficiency. When patients began falling ill with drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis, WHO guidelines suggested they be treated with the same first-line drugs as non-resistant patients. Yet treating patients with the very drugs to which their disease had developed resistance not only failed to help them; it enabled the worse strains to spread unchecked among patients’ families and co-workers. This is the double-edged sword of routinization: Rationalized treatment protocols first helped health providers increase the effectiveness and reach of treatment but later prevented them from taking necessary steps to curb the spread of drug-resistant strains. Increases in bureaucratic efficiency can come at the price of decreased human flexibility. In other words, as institutions are rationalized, and as platforms of accountability are strengthened, the potential for accompaniment can be threatened, since it is open-ended, elastic, and nimble.

When the iron cage of rationality leads to a poverty of imagination, cynicism and disengagement follow. It is easy to be dismissive of accompaniment in a world in which arcane expertise is advanced as the answer to every challenge. But expertise alone will not solve the difficult problems ahead. This was the long, hard lesson of the earthquake: We all waited to be saved by expertise, but we never were. True accompaniment does not privilege technical expertise above solidarity, compassion, and a willingness to tackle what may seem insuperable challenges. It requires cooperation, openness, and humility; this concept may, I hope, infuse new vitality into development work.


08 2011

The limitations of life on earth

Our lonely little sliver of biosphere on our sole habitable planet (so far) has its limits. But what are they? How can we know?

From the September 2009 edition of Nature:

The framework presented is an attempt to look holistically at how humanity is stressing the entire Earth system. Provocatively, they go beyond the conceptual to suggest numerical boundaries for seven parameters: climate change, ozone depletion, ocean acidification, biodiversity, freshwater use, the global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, and change in land use. The authors argue that we must stay within all of these boundaries in order to avoid catastrophic environmental change.

… But even if the science is preliminary, this is a creditable attempt to quantify the limitations of our existence on Earth, and provides a good basis for discussion and future refinement.

The actual article, “A safe operating space for humanity” is worth a read if you have access. Interesting concept, even if the numbers themselves are incredibly preliminary.


08 2011

How Sam Childers endangers humanitarians everywhere – reax from the web

(For background see my original long post and this update.)

Sam Childers gets back from Somalia (where he’s currently scouting for a humanitarian mission??) on August 10th, and I’ve been asked to contact him. I plan to, as I want to see if he’s willing to answer some of the many questions that potential donors deserve answers to — based on his own prior statements.

In the mean time, several aid/development bloggers have written about the Machine Gun Preacher:

A couple short mentions: Tom Murphy and Ken Opalo both link, while Tom Paulson at Humanosphere calls it all “fascinating and disturbing.”

Tales from the Hood is a long-running blog written by “J.” While the author is anonymous, many aid / development bloggers have met him (including me) or know who he is and what he does — which is how we know that he’s not just talk: he’s a legit humanitarian bad-ass who’s worked in countries your high school geography teacher has never heard of. J’s work is widely respected and his blog is a watering hole for aid and development workers around the globe. He also has a certain flair for description, as you can see in his piece on Childers:

[Childers] has a custom chopper and a movie deal, and when he’s not out busting caps into LRA, Childers pastors a biker-themed church in rural Pennsylvania (but of course). I think my favorite part is where he states that he is after Joseph Kony. Like, to kill him. Like, good old-fashioned cowboys and Africans.

And nothing says, “I worship the Prince of Peace” quite like vowing to kill someone.

While some commenters on this blog have said that Childers’ actions are just “between him and God” — and thus we shouldn’t criticize him — in reality nobody works in a vacuum. Reckless actions today can make future work via more reasonable approaches impossible. This critique, regarding how what Childers does and says can impact humanitarians everywhere, is very important. Here’s J again:

There is already suspicion, in some cases rightly earned, that humanitarian aid workers may not be strictly humanitarian… But thanks to the Machine Gun Preacher, next time I’m stopped and questioned at a checkpoint, it will be even harder for me to make the case that I’m really there (wherever ‘there’ is) for strictly humanitarian purposes. And so that we’re clear, this is true regardless of whether I’m in Killinochi, Erbil, or LAX. His videos and pics (along with those of many others) are up there, out in the open for all to see…

I have colleagues and close personal friends in South Sudan, including exactly the areas where Sam Childers claims to “help where no one else will.” I frequently must make the decision to deploy people who I supervise and for whom I am responsible to places where the ratio of assault rifles to healthy babies in the general population is far higher than it should be…. We very often go into insecure places where our presence and the associated suspicion that we may have ulterior motives puts not only us, but our local colleagues and those we’re trying to help at greater risk, too.

And so every time the inarticulate Machine Gun Preacher packs heat into South Sudan he makes the entire world more dangerous for me and my friends and innumerable real aid worker colleagues. Every time he puts up another video of himself jumping into his white SUV with an AK47 across his lap, he increases the likelihood that I or someone I care about is going to get shot.

Commenter MB adds this:

As someone who spent many years in South Sudan (pre- and post- CPA), who is currently in Iraq (stuck behind T-walls and armored SUVs)… this burns me up!. Any one who portrays us as CIA, military, armed, mercenary, or anything other than trying to help is beyond stupid! And anyone who would do a “reality series” (is that for real??) about them puts all of our lives, the lives of our friend, colleagues and those we are trying to help, in serious danger!…

Later in the thread the same commenter notes:

I think it’s fairly telling that those of us who have worked in South Sudan, over many years and people currently in South Sudan (a friend did an informal poll of people she knows there) knew nothing whatsoever about this guy.

I’ve heard the same sentiment from others, which is telling. I’ve also exchanged emails with two people in Sudan who have raised other concerns about Sam, and I’m hoping that they’ll decide to share those publicly soon. While there are some supporters who will believe Childers is on a mission from God regardless of what I say (or anyone else for that matter), it’s important for anyone who has information or concerns about Childers to share them as the publicity machine for the movie gears up. On that note, it would be great if someone who edits Wikipedia (I won’t because I think I’m too close to the issue) could update his ridiculously one-sided Wikipedia page to have a more objective voice.

Another aid worker who blogs, Erin in Juba, adds some thoughts here. She notes this passage from the Machine Gun Preacher blog:

As we neared Nimule we began to relax but we weren’t out of danger yet.  We rounded a corner and hurtled in a tribal clash between the Dinka and Madi tribes.  4,000 fighters, armed with pangas (machetes), rudimentary bows, spears and clubs, stormed back and forth looking for someone to fight.  In amongst the drunks I saw an elderly man poised for battle and a young woman with a bow in her hand and a baby slung across her back.  As the situation escalated we had no choice but to lock and load.  Shots were fired and we drove through the screaming remnants of the volatile mob.  Luckily, no one was killed.

If that strikes you as outlandish, you may appreciate Erin’s take:

AGGGGHHHHHH.  Tribal violence in South Sudan is a complicated clusterf[***], to say the least. However, most of the violence is in between the tribes. The traditions of violence and cattle raiding go back generations, and are a tragedy for sure, but because of their specific tribal-focused aims, they tend to not focus on targeting humanitarians.  And then this idiot claims he has “no choice” but to go blazing into the middle of a mob? …

Right. She also notes:

It’s also ironic that Sam claims to work with the SPLA to free child soldiers since the army had its very own child soldier branch (the Red Army).

For now the feedback is this: some aid workers who work in Sudan and other dangerous environments think Childers’ stories should be taken with a grain of salt, and say that what he is doing makes this work more dangerous for everyone. All of the supporting statements seem to be coming from people who are associated with his church and don’t seem to question Rev. Childers at all. They shouldn’t expect the same free pass as the movie brings him more attention. Childers has simply said a lot of outrageous things, and if he wants people to trust his judgment and give him money he has his work cut out for him.


08 2011

Future poverty

I’m not usually a fan of institutional blogs. When a big NGO creates a blog it’s often for solely promotional purposes, and much of what I find interesting is criticism. Also, blogs are often written by younger, lower-level staff who don’t necessarily have the same freedom to innovate and must have their posts approved by higher-ups.

One of the few blogs associated with an NGO that does make it into my Google Reader is From Poverty to Power by Duncan Green at Oxfam. This post at the end of July caught my eye: “By 2015 Nigeria will have more poor people than India or China.”

This post highlights two ideas that I’ve come across again and again in the last year, which make me most optimistic and hesitant about the near future:

  1. A much, much smaller percentage of the world lives in extreme poverty today than 30-40 years ago.
  2. Most of that decline has been driven by reductions in India and especially in China. Thus, as those nations continue to see reductions and many countries in Africa lag behind, the largest countries in Africa with the youngest populations (ie, Nigeria) will soon outpace India and China in terms of absolute numbers living in the worst poverty. While some African countries — I’m thinking of Nigeria and South Africa in particular — have considerable resources to devote to poverty alleviation, when they choose to, those resources pale in comparison to those available to say, the Chinese state.

The commenters on the original post also highlight some important methodological limitations in the Brookings study that Green cited. Read it all here.


08 2011

Another way to help in Somalia

One of the best ways to address the severe acute malnutrition seen during famines — like the one in Somalia now — is a Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF). They’re basically nutritionally fortified peanut butter manufactured to certain quality standards, and they’re incredibly effective.

Which brings me to MANA, or Mother-Administered Nutritive Aid (and yes, a Biblical reference). They’re on a long list of things I’ve been meaning to write about, but my memory was jogged by their Somalia email blast. I’m a natural skeptic about start-up nonprofits, but over time they’ve won me over with their idea. The model is relatively simple: for now they’re manufacturing RUTFs in the US and selling them to UNICEF and large NGOs that have established distribution networks. I like that aspect — they’re not trying to be all things to all men by distributing it themselves, as they’ve recognized that role is better done by others.

But the US manufacturing is just a stop-gap. For one, it’s helping them learn the ropes on producing high quality RUTFs  and supplying these badly needed and under-produced goods to organizations with complicated purchasing requirements. Their end goal is to establish a self-sustaining (ie, profitable) manufacturing plant in Rwanda, and they’re making progress on it.  A donation now will help them make more RUTFs and help them establish the Rwanda facility until it gets to a point where it no longer requires ongoing help.

One reason I think MANA is the right sort of group to establish such a business in Rwanda is that it’s co-founded by Mark Moore, and he’s well situated to work on both the problems of small enterprises in east Africa and international politics and supply chains. Like me, Mark is a Harding alum. He’s a smart guy who spent ten years in eastern Uganda as a missionary (and started the Kibo Group development org), but he also has a Masters in development studies from Georgetown and served as Mary Landrieu’s Africa specialist in the Senate. His work was the sort of evangelical aid I thought of when I read Dave Algo’s recent post on how secular aid and development workers should be less hostile to good aid work done by evangelicals. Well, this it: in my opinion it’s a smart business model run (an being an aspiring development professional, I’d welcome critical feedback in the comments as well) by people who can provide some necessary help to get things set up, and then step back out of the way. Once the facility is up and running in Rwanda it will mean more of our aid money can actually go into the east African economy as NGOs buy RUTFs from MANA and pay its local workers’ wages.

Those who know me well or read this blog know that I have ambivalent feelings about Harding. I went there planning on being a medical missionary, and while I lost my faith I also made many friends, and my experiences there led me to my current interests in global health. So I have good things to say and bad things to say. One of the good things — that I don’t say enough — is that there are a lot of incredibly sincere, hard-working people who come out of the school and do work that I couldn’t find fault with if I tried. This is one of them, and I’m sure they’d appreciate your support.

Monday Miscellany

On coining new words:

The book coins dozens of new terms for the male member, like “thundertube,” “seedstick” and the “Malcolm Gladwell…”

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

On a related topic, Tim Harford highlights a paper called “Male Organ and Economic Growth: Does Size Matter?” That’s right, a cross-country regression on how penis size correlates with economic outcomes over time. Westling, the author, notes that 13.5 cm (5.3 in) is “the GDP maximising size.” It’s a joke yes, but it’s also a serious commentary on interpreting such cross-country regressions. Harford continues:

Well, well. What are we to make of this? I asked Westling how he would characterise his research paper, and he suggested the term “sardonic economics” – and, he added, “Scientifically, this paper is probably as worthless as much of contemporary economics.”

(As an aside, in my last year as an undergrad I wrote my political science thesis doing this sort of cross-country comparison, except I didn’t even do a regression… but the program I was in did not have strong quantitative training.)

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

This week Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column features a great, simple explanation of adjustment by stratification. I’ve actually used this same hypothetical example (lung cancer with drinking alcohol, or with drinking coffee) to explain the concept to friends before. If you’ve ever struggled to explain this sort of thing to someone who isn’t an epidemiologist (or similarly trained researcher) it’s a great read: “Any set of figures needs adjusting before it can be usefully reported.”

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

There’s an entire genre of New York Times articles that should all be subtitled “What you need to know if you make $500k or more each year.” The latest is “Planning Summer Breaks with an Eye on College Essays.” Reminds me of the one about taking private jets to summer camp

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

The always insightful and often disheartening “Sociological Images” blog notes how advertising can reinforce stereotypes about Africa by doing things like erasing Nairobi. I think of this too every time I see a picture of the Pyramids at Giza. If you’ve been, you know that they’re actually surrounded on three sides by city — which isn’t exactly picturesque. But in postcards they’re always shown from one angle, and in movies the ‘ugly stuff’ (ie, where real people live) is often photoshopped out.


08 2011


After years of delays, the new One World Trade Center is going up fast. I took this picture just one block from my office:

Business Week has an interesting account of how the redevelopment of the site was debated and negotiated over the last 10 years. And of course the next month will see a flurry of writing and coverage related to the ten-year anniversary of 9/11. Ten years ago I was a high school student in Arkansas and New York City felt very far away. My mom had been visiting her sister in DC and was flying home that morning. I needed to see the orthodontist in Little Rock so my dad and I drove down together to pick her up at the airport, and heard the first reports on the radio on the drive down. Nobody in my family flew very often so everyone knew she’d be flying — my parents spent the rest of the day contacting people to assure them my mom hadn’t been on one of the flights. I missed all the emotional reactions of learning at school that many people recount, but that afternoon I worked my normal shift at my town’s Kroger grocery store as we had a small rush of people buying supplies, and listened to people talking about lining up to get gas, just in case.


08 2011