Archive for the ‘off topic’Category

Travel tips

I’ve put together a list of tips and suggestions for travelers, drawing on advice from colleagues and friends. It’s geared towards public health or development folks who work in and often travel between low-income countries, as opposed to backpackers, tourists, etc.  The document is in Google Drive so I can continuously update it with suggestions — feedback is appreciated.

Another good resource is How to work in someone else’s country by Ruth Stark, which is written with global health consultants in mind, and contains useful packing advice and good general rules for cross-cultural work. Chris Blattman has written quite a bit about this; see especially his posts on air travel, air travel pt 2, packing, and packing pt 2.


02 2014

ICD-9 E845

Today in class I learned something that improbably brings together my interests in public health and rockets: there’s an ICD (International Classification of Disease) code, E845, for “accident involving spacecraft.” Seriously — a WSJ blog post from 2008 confirms.




04 2013

Fun projects are fun

Jay Ulfelder, of the blog Dart-Throwing Chimp, recently wrote a short piece in praise of fun projects. He links to my Hunger Games survival analysis, and Alex Hanna’s recent application of survival analysis to a reality TV show, RuPaul’s Drag Race. (That single Hunger Games post has accounted for about one-third of the ~100k page views this blog got in the last year!) Jay’s post reminded me that I never shared links to Alex’s survival analysis, which is a shame, so here goes:

First, there’s “Lipsyncing for your life: a survival analysis of RuPaul’s Drag Race”:

I don’t know if this occurs with other reality shows (this is the first I’ve been taken with), but there is some element of prediction involved in knowing who will come out as the winner. A drag queen we spoke with at Plan B suggested that the length of time each queen appears in the season preview is an indicator, while Homoviper’s “index” is largely based on a more qualitative, hermeneutic analysis. I figured, hey, we could probably build a statistical model to know which factors are the most determinative in winning the competition.

And then come two follow-ups, where Alex digs into predictions for the next episode of the current season, and again for the one after that. That last post is a great little lesson on the importance of the proportional hazards assumption.

I strongly agree with this bit from Jay’s post about the value of these projects:

Based on personal experience, I’m a big believer in learning by doing. Concepts don’t stick in my brain when I only read about them; I’ve got to see the concepts in action and attach them to familiar contexts and examples to really see what’s going on.

Right on. And in addition to being useful, these projects are, well, fun!


04 2013

Smartphones on the cheap

Here’s a quick digression from global health that I thought might be interesting to to tech-minded folks.

nsnippets, a fascinating link blog (found via Blattman) has a post called “China’s 65 dollar smartphones” that caught my attention, because I (sort of) have one of these phones. That post is highlighting a  Technology Review piece: “Here’s where they make China’s cheap Android smartphones.” And here’s more on even cheaper phones.

Before moving to Ethiopia I was stuck in a Tmobile contract that was poor value for money with a glitchy phone. Since I’m only back in the US for about 5 months finishing my last semester of grad school I resolved to get an unlocked phone that I could use in the US or abroad, on whatever network I liked, and at a grad student price. I bought one on Amazon from “China Global Inc.” and shipped by some third party directly from China. The exact model isn’t available anymore but you can find similar phones by searching on Amazon for “Unlocked Quad Band Dual Sim Android 4.0 OS.” It gets some incredible double-take reactions because it looks almost exactly like an iPhone in front, but on the back it has the Android logo and just says “Smartphone”:

It cost just $135, and I use a $30/month prepaid plan (also Tmobile) with 100 minutes of talk (which is about right for my usage), unlimited text, and unlimited data — and I’m not locked in at all. My annual cost for this Android smartphone: $495. If you buy an iPhone 5 on Verizon your annual costs are, depending on your contract, in the $920 to $1400 range! I’m sure for some the differences between what I have and a brand new iPhone 5 with 4G (my phone is 3G) are worth $500-1000 annually, but it works for texting, email, search, Twitter, music, games, and so forth — everything I want.

I can’t imagine that everyone with the latest smartphone actually ‘needs it’ — in the sense that if they knew there were good alternatives they would think the difference is worth the value. American phone plans are generally incredibly overpriced, leaving you stuck in a cycle of buying premium products — which are nice — but ironically being locked into keeping them until they’re well past premium.  I think what is happening is that as long as most of your friends have high-priced phones with expensive contracts, that’s the norm and the price seems less absurd.


03 2013


The weekend is almost here, and the new year — so how to celebrate? For a start, here are the results of a mashup meme I tried to start last night on Twitter: #MiddleEarthPublicHealth:


If the Storify version (which shows all the tweets) doesn’t work, you can search on Twitter for the #MiddleEarthPublicHealth hashtag.


12 2012


In lieu of observations about Ethiopia, notes from my work here, or discussion of recent news/articles/links, here’s a picture of the books currently occupying my time at work (fascinating, I know):

Tomorrow I’m off to Mek’ele, the capital of Tigray region in northern Ethiopia, for work for about a week. If you have blog withdrawal in the meantime, I share links to maybe 5-10 articles or blog posts each day on Twitter.


07 2012

Podcast break

Power outages in Addis — at least in my neighborhood — are short but still more or less a daily occurrence. At the office we have a generator that kicks in, but at home I like to think of these outages as “podcast breaks.” Here are two I listened to recently that are particularly worthwhile, even if your power is on:

  • Planet Money has a nice, non-technical summary of Oregon’s randomized Medicaid program. (Previous post on the same subject with more technical details here. Recent NYT coverage here.)
  • Ira Glass spoke in Princeton earlier this year, and he discussed how This American Life has been moving towards more investigative reporting — they brought down a lousy judge in Georgia, for example. Their latest investigative installation is incredible: What Happened at Dos Erres tells the true story of the long-lost survivor of a massacre in Guatemala that wiped out an entire village. It’s a great use of a human narrative to make you care about an important but disturbing story, from the role of the US in that era of Guatemalan history to the role of the investigations in modern Guatemalan politics. The reporting was done in tandem with ProPublica, so there’s an excellent prose version you can read here.

(They’ve also shared some updates on the story here.)


06 2012

What we will lose

In the language of the Tuvan people, khoj özeeri means not only slaughter but also kindness, humaneness, a ceremony by which a family can kill, skin, and butcher a sheep, salting its hide and preparing its meat and making sausage with the saved blood and cleansed entrails so neatly that the whole thing can be accomplished in two hours (as the Mongushes did this morning) in one’s good clothes without spilling a drop of blood.

That’s from this National Geographic article, which analogizes lost linguistic diversity to lost biodiversity. Here’s the kind of knowledge we might lose:

Smaller languages often retain remnants of number systems that may predate the adoption of the modern world’s base-ten counting system. The Pirahã, an Amazonian tribe, appear to have no words for any specific numbers at all but instead get by with relative words such as “few” and “many.” The Pirahã’s lack of numerical terms suggests that assigning numbers may be an invention of culture rather than an innate part of human cognition. The interpretation of color is similarly varied from language to language. What we think of as the natural spectrum of the rainbow is actually divided up differently in different tongues, with many languages having more or fewer color categories than their neighbors.

For more on the ties between language and color, check out the amazing recent RadioLab podcast, “Color.” And FlowingData features a cool map showing the geographic clustering of endangered languages.


06 2012


It’s a busy time of year: this week I’m prepping for a day-long comprehensive exam that covers the core classes at the Woodrow Wilson School, with sections on politics, economics, statistics, and psychology. Next week I’ll be starting my actual final exams. And on June 1st I travel to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where I’ll be working through January 2013. (More on that soon, once I figure out how much – if at all – I’ll be blogging about my internship there.)

So expect few new posts, other than a couple that are already queued up. In the meantime, here are two papers that I have not yet read but that should both prompt a lot of discussion amongst health and development folks:

Gabriel Demombynes and Sofia Karina Trommlerova, in the World Bank’s Kenya office: “What has driven the decline of infant mortality in Kenya?” And here’s a discussion of the paper by Michael Clemens at the CGD blog: “Africa’s Child Health Miracle: The Biggest, Best Story in Development.” Clemens and Demombynes previously coauthored some excellent work criticizing the Millennium Development Villages’ evaluation efforts.

And speaking of the Millennium Villages, Jeff Sachs writes in the Huffington Post: “Breakthroughs in Health in the Millennium Villages.” He’s highlighting a new study in the Lancet by Sachs, Paul Pronyk, and a number of other authors with this long title: “The effect of an integrated multisector model for achieving the Millennium Development Goals and improving child survival in rural sub-Saharan Africa: a non-randomised controlled assessment.”

No time to read these now, but I imagine they will paint very different pictures of what is going on with child health in Africa, using different methodologies, and offer contrasting solutions — I’m looking forward to reading them in the weeks to come and seeing if either paper moves my priors.


05 2012

Phantom data

How did Phantom of the Opera get to 10,000 (!) Broadway performances? Patrick Healy reports (NYT):

From years of detailed audience surveys, the producers and creators of “Phantom” have honed the ways to maximize its appeal, whether emphasizing the show’s love story in advertising or offering sharp discounts so audience members will return. More than 40 percent of “Phantom” patrons have seen it at least once before, and a majority of “Phantom” audiences in 2011 saw no other Broadway show that year. About 68 percent were women, and nearly 60 percent were tourists.

“Based on all our data, we’re able to predict, for virtually each week of the year, what the demand for seats will be, what types of people will be coming and how to price the seats,” said Alan Wasser, the production’s general manager.


02 2012