Conditional cash transfers for energy poverty... and murder reduction

Conditional cash transfers — paying people to change behavior, usually to spur positive ‘social’ outcomes — continue to be in the news. Much of the focus is on their use as poverty reduction tools (Bolsa Familia in Brazil, JSY in India) through encouraging behaviors like antenatal care visits and sending children to school.

Two recent article — one in the NYT, one in Mother Jones — highlighted the use of CCTs and other targeted cash transfer tools for dramatically different outcomes.

In the NYT, poverty and energy issues were at the fore:

The Indian government subsidizes households’ purchases of cooking gas; these subsidies amounted to about $8 billion last year. Until recently, subsidies were provided by selling cylinders to beneficiaries at below-market prices. Now, prices have been deregulated, and the subsidy is delivered by depositing cash directly into beneficiaries’ bank accounts, which are linked to cellphones, so that only eligible beneficiaries — not “ghost” intermediaries — receive transfers.

Under the previous arrangement, the large gap between subsidized and unsubsidized prices created a thriving black market, where distributors diverted subsidized gas away from households to businesses for a premium. In new research with Prabhat Barnwal, an economist at Columbia University, we find that cash transfers reduced these “leakages,” resulting in estimated fiscal savings of about $2 billion.

There’s even more “smart” targeting coming soon. My advisor and colleagues in India have been working to “[describe] how the LPG subsidy could be even more completely targeted to the poor without any actual ‘taking away’ of the subsidy from the rich and middle class, which would likely trigger heavy political push back. As a result, several hundred million additional poor Indians could have affordable access in the next decade without increasing subsidy costs to the government (indeed probably reducing them) or LPG imports — both not likely to be popular.”

In Mother Jones, CCTs were being used to reduce murders:

Richmond hired consultants to come up with ideas, and in turn, the consultants approached [Devone] Boggan. It was obvious that heavy-handed tactics like police sweeps weren’t the solution. More than anything, Boggan, who’d been working to keep teen offenders out of prison, was struck by the pettiness of it all. The things that could get someone shot in Richmond were as trivial as stepping out to buy a bag of chips at the wrong time or in the wrong place. Boggan wondered: What if we identified the most likely perpetrators and paid them to stay out of trouble?

It seems to be working.

It was a crazy idea. But since ONS was established, the city’s murder rate has plunged steadily. In 2013, it dropped to 15 homicides per 100,000 residents—a 33 year low. In 2014, it dropped again. Boggan and his staff maintained that their program was responsible for a lot of that drop-off by keeping the highest-risk young men alive—and out of prison. Now they have a study to back them up.

On Monday, researchers from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a non-profit, published a process evaluation of ONS, studying its impact seven years in. The conclusion was positive: “While a number of factors including policy changes, policing efforts, an improving economic climate, and an overall decline in crime may have helped to facilitate this shift, many individuals interviewed for this evaluation cite the work of the ONS, which began in late 2007, as a strong contributing factor in a collaborative effort to decrease violence in Richmond.”

Kirk R. Smith in Science: In Praise of Power

Professor Kirk R. Smith in an editorial in Science:

Along with advanced biomass combustion, biogas, liquefied petroleum gas, natural gas, and other clean fuels, electric cooking needs to be directly incorporated into modernization plans for the world’s poorest people.

For those worried about CO2 emissions from power plants, consider that modest efficiency measures that reduce 3% of electric power consumption in rich countries (which are also largely supplied by coal) would “free” enough electricity to supply half of all biomass households with induction stoves. New supplies of electricity would produce far less than a 1% increase in global CO2 emissions.* It is not the cooking of the poor that threatens the climate.

Switching from solid to clean forms of energy can bring more health benefits than nearly any other modernization, including clean water and sanitation.† It is too early to tell whether induction cooking can be successfully promoted in biomass-using rural areas, but not too early to predict that electric cooking appliances will be attractive to people as electricity becomes more reliable. Although in one sense the most mundane of energy issues, given that billions do not use modern fuels in their households and suffer great impacts on health, welfare, and the local environment as a result, finding solutions for providing electricity has important implications for global health and sustainable development.

The Archdruid Report & Climate Clarity

John Michael Greer, communicating articulately about perturbations to complex systems (read: climate) at The Archdruid Report:

The next time you fill a bathtub, once you’ve turned off the tap, wait until the water is still. Slip your hand into the water, slowly and gently, so that you make as little disturbance in the water as possible. Then move your hand through the water about as fast as a snail moves, and watch and feel how the water adapts to the movement, flowing gently around your hand. .

Once you’ve gotten a clear sense of that, gradually increase the speed with which your hand is moving. After you pass a certain threshold of speed, the movements of the water will take the form of visible waves—a bow wave in front of your hand, a wake behind it in which water rises and falls rhythmically, and wave patterns extending out to the edges of the tub. The faster you move your hand, the larger the waves become, and the more visible the interference patterns as they collide with one another.

Keep on increasing the speed of your hand. You’ll pass a second threshold, and the rhythm of the waves will disintegrate into turbulence: the water will churn, splash, and spray around your hand, and chaotic surges of water will lurch up and down the sides of the tub. If you keep it up, you can get a fair fraction of the bathwater on your bathroom floor, but this isn’t required for the experiment! Once you’ve got a good sense of the difference between the turbulence above the second threshold and the oscillations below it, take your hand out of the water, and watch what happens: the turbulence subsides into wave patterns, the waves shrink, and finally—after some minutes—you have still water again.

This same sequence of responses can be traced in every complex system, governing its response to every kind of disturbance in its surroundings…

… Once things begin to oscillate, veering outside usual conditions in both directions, that’s a sign that the limits to resilience are coming into sight, with the possibility of chaotic variability in the planetary climate as a whole waiting not far beyond that. We can fine-tune the warning signals a good deal by remembering that every system is made up of subsystems, and those of sub-subsystems, and as a general rule of thumb, the smaller the system, the more readily it moves from local adjustment to oscillation to turbulence in response to rising levels of disturbance.

Living on Earth: Bridging Faith and Reason

Arri Eisen, a close friend, mentor, and Professor of Pedagogy at Emory University, was recently featured on Living on Earth along with two of his most unique students — Lodoe Sangpo and Thabkhe Thabkhe, Tibetan Buddhist monks learning and doing science and taking courses. Check out the interview below.

Batch Download IHME's Global Burden of Disease Data

A few requests had come in to download around 12 countries worth of the recently released Global Burden of Disease from the IHME website. There’s no way to quickly download multiple files; by my count, it requires you to type the country name, click a link, click a tab, and then option-click a CSV file.

The URLs had relatively similar construction, so I wrote a quick R script to download all of the data and save each one as a separate compressed RDS file. I also dropped a couple of redundant columns to try to save some space. The compression is pretty efficient; 25-27 MB files were reduced to between 6.6 - 7.4 MB. Check it out here or below.

Update (April 2015): Updated to allow users to specify download location, making it work better ‘out of the box’; users can specify whether to download as CSV or RDS (or both); fixed some other minor bugs; fixed a major change in the URL structure.

The Briefcase

Kevin Delaney, a high school teacher at Wayland High School, notices a briefcase in his department’s storage room. He’s seen it before, opened it before, but hasn’t really explored its contents — he doesn’t know the treasure within.

After a quick scan, we realized that we had in our hands the astonishing personal collection of Lt. Col. Martin W. Joyce (1899-1962), the 46 year old Army officer who was appointed commanding officer of Dachau Concentration Camp just days after its liberation in late April, 1945. Among the 250 original documents are personal letters, an 85 page scrapbook, his military files, Dachau documents, and a photo album presented to him by Yugoslavian survivors, who credit Joyce and the Americans with saving the lives of some 32,000 survivors. It’s clad in blue and gray striped fabric of prison clothing.

Boston Magazine elaborated a bit on the papers and on Joyce:

Inside were the assorted papers—letters, military records, photos—left behind by a man named Martin W. Joyce, a long-since deceased West Roxbury resident who began his military career as an infantryman in World War I and ended it as commanding officer of the liberated Dachau concentration camp. Delaney could have contacted a university or a librarian and handed the trove of primary sources over to a researcher skilled in sorting through this kind of thing. Instead, he applied for a grant, and asked an archivist to come teach his students how to handle fragile historical materials. Then, for the next two years, he and his 11th grade American history students read through the documents, organized and uploaded them to the web, and wrote the biography of a man whom history nearly forgot, but who nonetheless witnessed a great deal of it.

“Joyce became the thread that went through our general studies,” Delaney says. “When we were studying World War I, we did the traditional World War I lessons and readings. And then stopped the clocks and thought, ‘What’s going on with Joyce in this period?’”

As the class repeatedly asked and answered that question, they slowly uncovered the life of a man who not only oversaw the liberated Dachau but also found himself a participant in an uncommon number of consequential events throughout Massachusetts and U.S. history. In a way Delaney couldn’t have imagined when he first popped open the suitcase that day, Joyce would turn out to be something akin to Boston’s own Forrest Gump—a perfect set of eyes through which to visit America’s past.

So cool and such an impressive, thoughtful way to teach a history class. The icing? The students built a website and put much of the content on the web before turning the collection over to the Holocaust museum.

via kottke

David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon

Robert Krulwich, at his blog, points to a dramatization of DFW’s commencement speech to the class of 2005 at Kenyon college. Excerpted below (read the full transcript).

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

The Koch coke pile in Detroit

The NYT reports on a growing pile of coke, a byproduct of refining, in Detroit. In this case, the coke is produced as a result of tar sands refining; due to its high sulfur and carbon content, it is largely useless in the developed world. It seems that Koch brothers, who have purchased the coke from tar sands operations in Alberta, plan to sell it abroad.

Coke, which is mainly carbon, is an essential ingredient in steelmaking as well as producing the electrical anodes used to make aluminum.

While there is high demand from both those industries, the small grains and high sulfur content of this petroleum coke make it largely unusable for those purposes, said Kerry Satterthwaite, a petroleum coke analyst at Roskill Information Services, a commodities analysis company based in London.

“It is worse than a byproduct,” Ms. Satterthwaite said.”It’s a waste byproduct that is costly and inconvenient to store, but effectively costs nothing to produce.”

Murray Gray, the scientific director for the Center for Oil Sands Innovation at the University of Alberta, said that about two years ago, Alberta backed away from plans to use the petroleum coke as a fuel source, partly over concerns about greenhouse-gas emissions. Some of it is burned there, however, to power coking plants.

Reflections from Pokhara

Mornings have a consistency here, and ordered patterns take hold easily. As the sun rises, young and old alike dot the trail around Fewa Lake. Meditators face the green grey tal, their backs warmed by the sun. Water gently swishes against yellow, blue, and red dinghies. Boys and girls practice karate on a soccer field, jabbing at invisible foes in the distant, lush jungle hillsides. Hotels and cafes stir, staff setting tables with a practiced stillness. Others, meanwhile, splash water on sandy patio tiles, sloughing off the dregs of the past day’s monsoon. A man with an old hiking poll limps assuredly down the path. Every morning we pass each other; today, we knowingly make eye contact, confident in a shared, unspoken secret - that these moments, between the bustle of the daily and the quiet of the night, are precious.

On occasion, in the far distance, the craggy Himalaya emerge through thick clouds. Their summits melt into the heavens, with snow packed peaks camouflaged by puffy atmospheres. Their unmovable enormity seems impossible, their suddenness shocking. Nearly as quickly, they go back into hiding. Their indescribability evokes Ansel Adams: “When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” More precious moments, as the mind is briefly hushed by the scale of the scene.

Between 3 and 4 pm many days, the temperatures cool quickly, the skies darken, and winds pick up. Faint thunder gets closer and closer and closer until the deluge begins. Sometimes the rains last an hour, other times they last longer. The water cleans the air, thick humidity displacing the civilized smells of burnt plastic and exhaust and industry.

When we leave the office, the rains have usually paused. Our taxis perform regular miracles, weaving through wide lanes populated by all manner of beasts - bicycles, water buffalo, chickens, scooters and motorcycles, men and women and children, and sometimes boys on camels or ponies.

We eat as the sun sets. It rises again, and the cycle begins anew, an anything but boring repetition.

R + Global Burden of Disease / Comparative Risk Assessment Data: A tutorial (version 0.1)

R can be scary for those new to it, but it is exceptionally useful for a number of things, including managing, importing, and merging text files; resaving them; and performing statistical analyses to your heart’s content. It is your friend, albeit one that you must learn to love slowly and painfully.

This brief tutorial does not serve as an introduction to R. Instead, it focuses on reading in a large, complex data set with ~1 million rows and 50+ columns. It was created to help facilitate some analysis in a GBD course at Berkeley. It will help you figure out how to do some basic manipulation and subsetting and export these subsetted data into a comma-separated text file (“csv”) for analysis in your favorite spreadsheet program. It is a work in progress and will be updated over time.


I stumbled across an article this evening on Twitter entitled, “Google Adopts the Language of Steve Jobs for New HQ” by Bryan Chaffin. Chaffin quotes a Vanity Fair piece about Google’s new Googleplex. One specific goal of the new building is to spur casual encounters, “to create opportunities for people to have ideas and be able to turn to others right there and say, ‘What do you think of this?’”

That sentiment sounded familiar to Chaffin. It’s precisely what Steve Jobs set out to do at the Pixar campus in Emeryville. From Walter Isaacson’s biography:

Jobs “had the Pixar building designed to promote encounters and unplanned collaborations.”

He did so by designing the building around a huge atrium that included all of the bathrooms (two large facilities for each sex), all of the mailboxes, the company’s café, and the stairwell to get to any other part of the building. Even the screening theaters empty into this atrium, guaranteeing unplanned meetings.

“There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat,” Mr. Jobs said. “That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.”

He added, “If a building doesn’t encourage [encounters and unplanned collaborations], you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity. So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see.”

I went to a workshop bright and early Saturday morning called “Supporting Data Science” that embodied this general thought, except at the level of the university, with its many scales of sacred silos. The meeting drew a varied group of academics, staff, and (a few) students from across the University who came together to discuss challenges and opportunities in working with “big” data (which, in the end, was decided to be any data bigger than you’re accustomed to working with. A little cheeky… and wholly true).

The group of folks who gave ‘lightning talks’ were impressive and included Josh Bloom, Charles Marshall, Henry Brady, Fernando Perez, Ion Stoica, Bin Yu, Cathryn Carson, Dave Dineen and Cyrus Afrasiab, Lee Fleming, and Marti Hearst. The whole thing was moderated and kept moving and interesting by Saul Perlmutter (yup!) and David Culler.

Brady’s comments, in retrospect, honed in on the same essential idea that Jobs shared with Isaacson. Brady discussed how, prior to the advent of personal computers, students and researchers would meet at mainframes, waiting in line to get access to the machine. During those long waits, they’d converse — true and fruitful cross-disciplinary conversation that spurred creativity and built strong bonds between researchers. He lamented the silo’d nature of the academy these days and, perhaps rightly, saw the cross-cutting nature of big data and the challenges associated with managing and interpreting it as a prime area to spur this kind of collaborative exploration moving forward.

Visualizing US Gun Killings in 2010

An impressive visualization created by Periscopic using public data. They calculated counterfactual stories for each of the individuals killed by gun violence, offering an alternate likely cause of death had they not been killed. Their description of their methods:

Our data comes from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, which include voluntarily-reported data from police precincts across the country. In 2007, according to the FBI, law enforcement agencies active in the UCR Program represented more than 285 million US inhabitants—94.6% of the total population. This special dataset is at the raw, or incident, level—containing details of each person who was killed, including their age, gender, race, relationship to killer, and more.

For the gray lines, we calculated alternate stories for the people killed with guns using data from the World Health Organization. To calculate an alternate story, we first performed an age prediction weighted according to the age distribution of US deaths. Using this age, we then predicted a likely cause of death at that age. We do not adjust for life-expectancy differences between demographic groups, as we have not yet found data to that extent. We used data from 2005, the most recent year available.

Traditional cooking and household energy use in the Library of Congress online archives

In the past few weeks, a lot of people have been mining the LoC photo databases for images of public works posters, images of cities early in their development, etc. The archive is outstanding and a lot of the pictures, negatives, schematics, and drawings are available online in multiple resolutions.

I ran some searches for household energy, hearths, cooking fire, cooking stoves, etc and found a number of fascinating results. Many of the pictures from the US were not available online yet - in particular, two libraries of “cooking technologies” from the 1920s and 1930s weren’t around. I’m working on getting access to those through some data request channels. A few that were accessible are below. The majority are from Sikkim and were taken by Alice Kandell between 1965 and 1971. The large one above is supposedly from Jerusalem and was taken between 1900-1920. The seventh one below is from 1908 in Paterna, Spain.

Clearly a wealth of interesting historical information in the archives. Looking forward to further explorations.

Tackling the world's forgotten killer

My advisor, writing at CNN:

About the worst thing you can do is stick burning stuff in your mouth. Every year, tobacco kills more than six million people, according to the World health Organization. Including secondhand tobacco smoke affecting non-smokers, it is the chief cause of ill-health (measured as lost years of healthy life) among men globally and for everyone in North America and Western Europe.

The terrible disease burden imposed by tobacco is recognized by most people, but the risk of another form of smoke is also highlighted in the new “Global Burden of Disease” report released last Month in The Lancet - smoke from cooking fires. About 40 percent of the world still cooks with solid fuels, like wood and coal, in simple stoves that release substantial amounts of the same kinds of hazardous chemicals found in tobacco smoke directly into the household environment. Indeed, a typical wood cookfire emits 400 cigarettes worth of smoke an hour.

This “household air pollution” is responsible for about 3.5 million premature deaths each year. Perhaps it is not surprising that the impact on health is so high when one considers that this smoke particularly affects a very vulnerable group - poor women in developing countries.


Welcome to the new UC (brand)

The University of California system undertook a substantial rebranding effort, highlighted in the video above. It is a dramatic shift - and without a doubt feels more modern. The impetus for the change as described by Vanessa Kanan Correa follows:

Previously, the UC system only used its seal as its primary visual identifier, where it was abused with impunity. We feel it is an important component of the university’s visual ecosystem. But it is a non-distinctive symbol which serves an important bureaucratic function. Now we limit its use to formal systemwide communications, diplomas, official regental and presidential communications, and other official documents. Many of our campuses, and other universities across the country have limited use of their official seals in similar ways.

From this perspective, this is less of a rebranding exercise, but instead the creation of a coherent, consistent, and relevant brand identity where before there was none.

Jury’s out on whether that’s a good thing or not — or how much it will actually impact design choices at each of the separate UC campuses. Probably minimally, at least initially.

The typographic choices are pretty safe — modern, but not too showy or strong. The designers chose Kievet, a sans-serif humanist typeface in the vein of Source Sans or Droid Sans. Kievet has a number of weights and a corresponding web font.

The initial work on FF Kievit began in 1995, as part of a school project. The concept was finished several years later for a corporate client of Method Inc., a design firm in San Francisco. The openness of the characters and their proportions makes it an ideal typeface for use in small print. The clarity of classic sans serif faces (Frutiger and Univers) and the humanistic characteristics of old styles (Garamond and Granjon) were the inspiration for this contemporary design that is equally at home in a headline or a body of text.

The new UC badge itself I’m not particularly fond of. It took me five or ten looks to realize they’re trying to make the background approximate a U through use of negative space. And that C is really, really round. I’ll grant that it looks really modern and catchy — as does the rebrand of the University’s “let there be light” tagline. The problem - and my fear - is that you want to go for a timeless design for properties like this and not capitulate to what’s trendy now. The whole thing looks hip and cool — and could feel dated in six wee little months. We’ll see what happens.

What makes us happy? The Grant Study & Dr. George Vaillant posted a link to the an excellent piece by David Brooks entitled “The Heart Grows Smarter” at the NYT opinion pages. Brooks describes the Grant Study, a longitudinal evaluation of mental and physical health status. It tracked 268 Harvard students for upwards of 50 years, beginning in the 40s and following the participants through war, marriage, divorce, failure, success, and death. Brooks draws some pleasant and hopeful conclusions from the study:

The men of the Grant Study frequently became more emotionally attuned as they aged, more adept at recognizing and expressing emotion. Part of the explanation is biological. People, especially men, become more aware of their emotions as they get older.

Part of this is probably historical. Over the past half-century or so, American culture has become more attuned to the power of relationships. Masculinity has changed, at least a bit.

The so-called Flynn Effect describes the rise in measured I.Q. scores over the decades. Perhaps we could invent something called the Grant Effect, on the improvement of mass emotional intelligence over the decades. This gradual change might be one of the greatest contributors to progress and well-being that we’ve experienced in our lifetimes.

Partly because of Brooks’s writing on the topic, and partly because of the topic (longitudinal cohort studies are super interesting… and super difficult to pull off), I spent a few minutes using google to find out more. One of the most accessible pieces that popped up about the study was Joshua Wolf Shenk’s beautiful and long 2009 essay from The Atlantic (interestingly, Brooks wrote about Shenk’s essay in a separate NYT op-ed piece from 2009).

Shenk’s piece is stunning. He reveals, for instance, that JFK was part of the Grant study — and that his files from the study are sealed until at least 2040. Other participants went on to be in a Presidential cabinet, or run for Senate, or become the editor for the Washington Post, or to write best-selling novels. But the really fascinating stuff arose from Shenk’s juxtaposition of stories of the study participants and descriptions of the study’s brilliant, quirky lead investigator, Dr. George Vaillant.

The study started by collecting every bit of anthropometric data imaginable on the study subjects, including

everything from major organ function, to the measure of lactic acid after five minutes on a treadmill, to the size of the “lip seam” and the hanging length of the scrotum. Using a new test called the electroencephalograph, the study measured the electrical activity in the brain, and sought to deduce character from the squiggles. During a home visit, a social worker took not only a boy’s history—when he stopped wetting his bed, how he learned about sex—but also extensive medical and social histories on his parents and extended family. The boys interpreted Rorschach inkblots, submitted handwriting samples for analysis, and talked extensively with psychiatrists.

Vaillant continued some of the physical measures — and savvily added new ones along the way to help keep the study relevant to potential funders. His real interest, though, lay in the underlying psychology of the participants.

His central question is not how much or how little trouble these men met, but rather precisely how—and to what effect—they responded to that trouble. His main interpretive lens has been the psychoanalytic metaphor of “adaptations,” or unconscious responses to pain, conflict, or uncertainty.

Most psychology preoccupies itself with mapping the heavens of health in sharp contrast to the underworld of illness. “Social anxiety disorder” is distinguished from shyness. Depression is defined as errors in cognition. Vaillant’s work, in contrast, creates a refreshing conversation about health and illness as weather patterns in a common space. “Much of what is labeled mental illness,” Vaillant writes, “simply reflects our ‘unwise’ deployment of defense mechanisms. If we use defenses well, we are deemed mentally healthy, conscientious, funny, creative, and altruistic. If we use them badly, the psychiatrist diagnoses us ill, our neighbors label us unpleasant, and society brands us immoral.”

This perspective is shaped by a long-term view. Whereas clinicians focus on treating a problem at any given time, Vaillant is more like a biographer, looking to make sense of a whole life—or, to take an even broader view, like an anthropologist or naturalist looking to capture an era. The good news, he argues, is that diseases—and people, too—have a “natural history.” After all, many of the “psychotic” adaptations are common in toddlers, and the “immature” adaptations are essential in later childhood, and they often fade with maturity. As adolescents, the Grant Study men were twice as likely to use immature defenses as mature ones, but in middle life they were four times as likely to use mature defenses—and the progress continued into old age. When they were between 50 and 75, Vaillant found, altruism and humor grew more prevalent, while all the immature defenses grew more rare.

This means that a glimpse of any one moment in a life can be deeply misleading. A man at 20 who appears the model of altruism may turn out to be a kind of emotional prodigy—or he may be ducking the kind of engagement with reality that his peers are both moving toward and defending against. And, on the other extreme, a man at 20 who appears impossibly wounded may turn out to be gestating toward maturity.

Vaillant’s other main interest is the power of relationships. “It is social aptitude,” he writes, “not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging.” Warm connections are necessary—and if not found in a mother or father, they can come from siblings, uncles, friends, mentors. The men’s relationships at age 47, he found, predicted late-life adjustment better than any other variable, except defenses. Good sibling relationships seem especially powerful: 93 percent of the men who were thriving at age 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger. In an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” Vaillant’s response: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

Grab a cup of your favorite liquid and prepare to tune out for a half hour as you read the whole article.

Michael Lewis at the Berkeley Public Library

Beth and I attended Michael Lewis’s lecture at the Berkeley Public Library in late October (thanks to Zoe Chafe, who let us know about the event). The talk focused on Lewis’s profile of Obama from Vanity Fair; Lewis was remarkably frank about his interactions with and around President Obama and open about how he interpreted the man and his motivations and how they were shaped by the office.

He ended with some great reflections on Obama, both as an individual and as a President. Worth the 70 minutes of your time. And if you haven’t read the piece, read it now.

On October 17, 2012, author Michael Lewis met with Linda Schacht Gage at the Berkeley Public Library to talk about his recent Vanity Fair article, “Obama’s Way.”

The evening was a program of the Berkeley Public Library, sponsored by the Berkeley Public Library Foundation and the family of Harry Weininger. With support from the East Bay Media Center, the entire program was recorded and is available for all. Enjoy! Special thank you to Michael Lewis and Linda Schacht Gage.

The YouTube videos are embedded below.

Assistant Professor Henry 'Indiana' Jones, Jr: Tenure Denied

Indy’s application for tenure at Marshall College was denied (as recounted at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency). Why, you may ask?

The committee concurred that Dr. Jones does seem to possess a nearly superhuman breadth of linguistic knowledge and an uncanny familiarity with the history and material culture of the occult. However, his understanding and practice of archaeology gave the committee the greatest cause for alarm. Criticisms of Dr. Jones ranged from “possessing a perceptible methodological deficiency” to “practicing archaeology with a complete lack of, disregard for, and colossal ignorance of current methodology, theory, and ethics” to “unabashed grave-robbing.” Given such appraisals, perhaps it isn’t surprising to learn that several Central and South American countries recently assembled to enact legislation aimed at permanently prohibiting his entry.

Moreover, no one on the committee can identify who or what instilled Dr. Jones with the belief that an archaeologist’s tool kit should consist solely of a bullwhip and a revolver.

Also, don’t overlook the fact that

Several faculty members maintain that Dr. Jones informed them on multiple occasions of having discovered the Ark of the Covenant, magic diamond rocks, and the Holy Grail! When asked to provide evidence for such claims, he purportedly replied that he was “kind of immortal” and/or muttered derogatory statements about the “bureaucratic fools” running the U.S. government.

Good stuff. Via DF.

Guess which state has the most medal winners from the Great American Beer Festival?

Subtitle: Mapping the 2012 GABF Winners Using R

The Great American Beer Festival (GABF) announced its winners on October 13. Lots of amazing beers from all over the US. They have a nifty search feature which lets you (1) find beers from specific states, (2) search by year of competition, (3) search by award - gold, silver, or bronze, and (4) search by keyword.

Like a true beer-loving nerd, I was curious to see which state won the most awards and to look at the geographic distribution of winners. I also needed to learn how to make simple maps using R for some work related stuff. The confluence of curiosity and need got me giddy… and set me to work. Turns out that making simple maps in R is… simple.

More on the details of the process in a few days (along with a table outlining the above data). In the meantime, revel in the beer mecca that is California.

Indolence as virtue

I’ve found myself falling into “The ‘Busy’ Trap” as described by Tim Krieder in the NYT far more often since I’ve moved out West. Part of it, I think, is the atmosphere in my department, which is more pressured by the urgency of the work at hand than other places I’ve been (and, as a result, has made more contributions to the field than many other places). Another part is crushing, self-induced pressure to keep on top of myriad obligations. Regardless, Krieder’s exposition rings true — and is entertainingly written, to boot. He makes a strong case for checking our tendency to default to busyness and embrace more leisurely, somewhat indolent behavior.

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done. “Idle dreaming is often of the essence of what we do,” wrote Thomas Pynchon in his essay on sloth. Archimedes’ “Eureka” in the bath, Newton’s apple, Jekyll & Hyde and the benzene ring: history is full of stories of inspirations that come in idle moments and dreams. It almost makes you wonder whether loafers, goldbricks and no-accounts aren’t responsible for more of the world’s great ideas, inventions and masterpieces than the hardworking.

“The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play. That’s why we have to destroy the present politico-economic system.” This may sound like the pronouncement of some bong-smoking anarchist, but it was actually Arthur C. Clarke, who found time between scuba diving and pinball games to write “Childhood’s End” and think up communications satellites. My old colleague Ted Rall recently wrote a column proposing that we divorce income from work and give each citizen a guaranteed paycheck, which sounds like the kind of lunatic notion that’ll be considered a basic human right in about a century, like abolition, universal suffrage and eight-hour workdays. The Puritans turned work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment.

Cookstoves & the shadow of the past

There’s been a lot of “controversy” in the development sphere over the value of cookstove projects, stemming largely from one large trial in one country using one (arguably not) improved stove. The abstract nicely sums up their point:

We find no evidence of improvements in lung functioning or health and there is no change in fuel consumption (and presumably greenhouse gas emissions). The difference between the laboratory and this study’s field findings appears to result from households’ revealed low valuation of the stoves. Households failed to use the stoves regularly or appropriately, did not make the necessary investments to maintain them properly, and use ultimately declined further over time. More broadly, this study underscores the need to test environmental and health technologies in real-world settings where behavior may temper impacts, and to test them over a long enough horizon to understand how this behavioral effect evolves over time.

Cheers to JPAL for bringing in researchers from diverse backgrounds to think about and work on household air pollution and cookstoves. The field moves forward when alternative perspectives force us to think in new ways.

The rub, though, is that many of us in the field are acutely aware of the explicit requirement that any intervention be fully vetted with the community before being deployed. This isn’t the first time the development world has been interested in cookstoves; past large-scale interventions have had mixed success in part due to precisely what’s outlined in the article. Fully vetting devices in the community to make sure they are culturally appropriate, usable, clean, and efficient is a known requirement.

There’s always a chance an intervention will still fail, but due diligence dictates prolonged and complete community engagement. Because a product is available on the local market and has claims of “proven” laboratory performance means little. The laboratory provides a first step to grade stoves — but the field is where final decisions should be made. And the value of an ‘improved’ label is heavily diluted - we’re barraged by dozens of these products regularly. We derive value from meaningful, beneficial, and unobtrusive interaction with and use of appliances. Devices that fail to provide those traits fail to be used. This is definitely true here and seemingly true everywhere.

Two fundamental conclusions from the recent brouhaha stand out. First, the astonishing hype surrounding this article fits within the larger patterns we see in the news machine. A single article, statement, or editorial snowballs and catalyzes a lot of discussion (in the popular media for a news cycle, and in academia for an eternity). Not a bad thing in and of itself, but problematic when the media ignores the history of available knowledge and treats the news as something profoundly new and unequivocally true. Second, the coverage helps focus and hone the message of those working in the field — never a bad thing. It reminds us of past learnings and helps light a path forward.

In a blog post from June 18 on National Geographic, Radha Muthiah (the Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves) and the authors of the above article write,

This research, and the work of others, suggests that the first goal must be to develop cookstoves that people would actually want to acquire, use, and maintain—in addition to ones that meet clear guidelines and standards for cleanliness, efficiency, and safety. To ensure that scarce development resources are spent wisely, all promising cookstove designs must be tested in real world settings to assess their long-run benefits on health and greenhouse gas emission prior to large scale adoption of clean cookstoves. Moreover, additional research should continue in order to provide greater insight into what types of social marketing can improve the general acceptance of the stoves.

No argument there.

Astronaut Don Pettit's Photos from Space

“My star trail images are made by taking a time exposure of about 10 to 15 minutes. However, with modern digital cameras, 30 seconds is about the longest exposure possible, due to electronic detector noise effectively snowing out the image. To achieve the longer exposures I do what many amateur astronomers do. I take multiple 30-second exposures, then ‘stack’ them using imaging software, thus producing the longer exposure.”

Fascinating and striking. Also, Don Pettit seems like the coolest imaginable dude. Megan Garber reported in the Atlantic that

Pettit has found a totally worthwhile way to pass the time not spent berthing space capsules, installing scientific equipment, being a bold explorer into the final frontier, etc. Pettit has been orchestrating space-based science demonstrations, broadcasting them to earth via YouTube in a series he calls Science off the Sphere.

Pettit is clearly incredibly excited about these demonstrations — and his enthusiasm makes for buoyant viewing, even in zero gravity. A couple weeks ago, the astronaut, chemical engineer, and Eagle Scout took zero-gravitied water droplets and used sound waves to manipulate them. It was beautiful and powerful and weird. Yesterday, though, Pettit outdid himself — by stripping down to a seemingly self-cut muscle T, taking a vacuum cleaner hose, and using said hose to create a makeshift, spaceborn didgeridoo.

None of that is a typo.

WSJ: GZA + Science: Rapper Finds Muse in the Stars

So, so dope.

On an early May afternoon in the offices of Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium, a model of Saturn caught the eye of a 45-year-old high-school dropout, and a lyric was born.

“I thought, this is probably the longest spinning record in the world,” said GZA, the hip-hop artist and founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan, referring to the ring system surrounding the planet. About a week later, the words crystallized and he offered them over a vegetarian lunch on the Upper West Side.

“God put the needle on the disc of Saturn / The record he played revealed blueprints and patterns,” he rapped in his signature rhythmic baritone, offering a taste from his forthcoming album, “Dark Matter,” an exploration of the cosmos filtered through the mind of a rapper known among his peers as “the Genius.”

Informed by meetings with top physicists and cosmologists at MIT and Cornell University, “Dark Matter” is intended to be the first in a series of albums that GZA—born Gary Grice in Brooklyn in 1966—will put out in the next few years, several of which are designed to get a wide audience hooked on science.

“Dark Matter” is scheduled for a fall release. Another album will focus on the life aquatic, a subject he’s fleshing out with visits to the labs of marine biologists and researchers, as well as meetings with the likes of Philippe Cousteau.

“After ‘Dark Matter,’ he said, “we’ll be back on earth, but in the ocean.”

Still, he believes that “Dark Matter” will tap into the innate curiosity of listeners—even those with no outward interest in science.

“I don’t think people have ever really been in touch with science,” he said. “They’re drawn to it, but they don’t know why they’re drawn to it. For example, you may be blown away by the structure of something, like a soccer ball or a geodesic dome, with its hexagonal shapes. Or how you can take a strand of hair and can get someone’s whole drug history. They’re different forms of science, but it’s still science.”

He plans to package “Dark Matter” with a short illustrated book that may also include the album’s lyrics and a glossary, “like an epic textbook,” he said.

Robert Krulwich's 2011 Commencement Speech at Berkeley

In May of 2011, Robert Krulwich (co-host of RadioLab and Emmy-award winning communicator extraordinaire) gave the commencement speech at Berkeley’s School of Journalism. The whole thing is fascinating, outlining Krulwich’s path into journalism, his interactions at CBS, and his vision for the future of young journalists. As expected, some of it is specific to journalism, but much of it is sagely gold rendered from words. My favorite bit’s below, but the whole thing is, per the norm, worth a read.

Think about horizontal loyalty. Think about turning to people you already know, who are your friends, or friends of their friends and making something that makes sense to you together, that is as beautiful or as true as you can make it.

And when it comes to security, to protection, your friends may take better care of you than CBS took care of Charles Kuralt in the end. In every career, your job is to make and tell stories, of course. You will build a body of work, but you will also build a body of affection, with the people you’ve helped who’ve helped you back.

And maybe that’s your way into Troy.

There you are, on the beach, with the other newbies, looking up. Maybe somebody inside will throw you a key and let you in… But more likely, most of you will have to find your own Trojan Horse. And maybe, for your generation, the Trojan Horse is what you’ve got, your talent, backed by a legion of friends. Not friends in high places. This is the era of Friends in Low Places. The ones you meet now, who will notice you, challenge you, work with you, and watch your back. Maybe they will be your strength.

Household Energy & Health Photo Database

Took on a fun, work related assignment to create a fast, easy-to-use photo database for our research group. We work in a variety of places and many of the researchers have been at it for quite a while. As a result, they have deep, rich photo collections. We receive some photo requests from the press and fellow researchers, but often have a hard time locating appropriate photographs to share with others. The goal of the site, located here, is to let people go to the site, read an image agreement, and view and download photos related to our work.

Seems reasonably straightforward, but actually making all the pieces come together was challenging. There's the front end, which requires little user interaction and is pretty straightforward. The backend, however, requires that people be able to easily upload and edit photos. To ensure that individuals are properly credited for their shots, the backend script watermarks the image with the text input into the 'name' field and some generic text. Each photo is then processed into a thumbnail by the server to ensure that the page loads relatively quickly.

Leverages PHP5, MySQL, jQuery, and HTML/CSS.

Centrally-planned development

Reading a short piece by Brad DeLong for a technology & development seminar. Opens strongly with the following quotation...

"...the bureaucratic planner with a map does not know best, and can not move humans and their lives around the territory as if on a chessboard to create utopia; that the local, practical knowledge possessed by the person-on-the-spot is important; that the locus of decision-making must remain with those who have the craft to understand the situation; that any system that functions at all must create and maintain a space for those on the spot to use their local, practical knowledge (even if the hierarchs of the system pretend not to notice this flexibility)."

Seems applicable to any program anywhere, but also extremely relevant... and not new. The lesson has not been learned.


O sleep, O gentle sleep, nature's soft nurse, how have I frightened thee, that thou no more wilt weigh my eye-lids down and steep my senses in forgetfulness?

Things are afoot.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today announced a public-private partnership called the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. Click here for a transcript of her speech.

The speech was almost completely spot on, exciting, well-said, and well spoken. She hit a ton of the salient points - she said exposure; she talked about small, poorly ventilated kitchens; and outlined the US vision for the way forward. More on this in the next couple of days.


Queue head explosion

… the effect of JSY on health-system outputs and outcomes using district-level differences in differences that controlled for differences between treated and untreated observations, and differences in treated observations that might have resulted from underlying changes over time…

Berkeley Graduate Student Instructor Teaching Conference

Today was my first real foray into Berkeley academic culture — an 8:30a - 3:30p Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) teaching conference. For those in doubt, it made apparent the serious nature of pedagogy at Cal. There were seven hundred first-time instructors in attendance. That’s a hard number for me to wrap my head around — 700 first time instructors. There are probably two or three times that number who’ve already been through the first-time instructor rigamarole.

I’ve got a sense from my limited interactions on campus that the academic environment here is more serious than other places. This could be a function of a bit of anxiety about the program; the seemingly epoch-long two years its been since I’ve been in a formal academic environment; or just the way it is. Regardless, its radical.

I was going to write about the skull-crushing anxiety about returning to a rigorous academic environment, my doubts in my own mental capability to deal with such academic environment, blah blah yadda yadda. That’s all there, and true. But more importantly is a massive rebirth of wonder and excitement. This place is awesome and I can’t wait to be mentally taxed and learn some rad new stuff.

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