What am I up to now?

July, 2024



I’m in DC for the next three weeks, please say hi! I’ll also be at the Economics of Animal Welfare conference at Brown University on 11-12 July.

In June, I had (hopefully) my last ever exam. We haven’t received our MPhil results yet, so I’ll be a little jittery until those come out next week. I also spent two weeks in Gambia, working on our project with our new team member CL!

Notes on Gambia

One fun fact my friends have probably gotten tired of by now: The Gambia is one of two countries with the definite article “the” in its official name, the other being The Bahamas. This supposedly comes from the first Gambian president’s worry of being confused with Zambia.

I can report feeling stupid whenever I call it The Gambia to a The Gambian. “I missed The Gambia,” I told my friend who met me at the airport. “The Gambia always feels so welcoming.” Gambians don’t make it any easier. Gambians who have spent time in Europe and the US and Canada are careful to use the country’s official name,Gambians who studied in Taiwan or China universally avoid the The. but it’s less common among taxi drivers, tax collectors, or school kids. You know, the salt-of-the-earth The Gambians.English is the second language of Gambians. I asked native Wolof and Mandinka speakers how they referred to the country; most didn’t notice or care, a few reported just Gambia.'' No one reliably used theThe’’ in their first language, even people who always included it in English. They just live in Gambia.

I was there for two weeks, and the middle weekend was Eid al-Adha, or Tabaski. This cost me and CL a work day, but we’re lucky it didn’t cost us two: the government was considering declaring both Monday and Tuesday festival days. The uncertainty isn’t new. When I lived in Sierra Leone, the president would often announce national holidays on the morning of the holiday. When I was out for a morning run, I could see drivers start to pull U-turns as the news spread. Gambia wasn’t quite so last minute, but thankfully the festival only lasted one day.

Banerjee and Duflo’s essay “The Economic Lives of the Poor”Loadbearing. has a memorable section on the importance of festivals and religious spending for people living under the extreme poverty line ($1.08 in consumption per day). Even at the expense of nutrition and health, festival spending remains high in many contexts.The main lever is other forms of entertainment: in India, where festival spending is high, radio and TV ownership is low, and v.v. Gambians conform: it felt like a different country during Tabaski.

I spent Tabaski with a friend’s family; the vibes were Thanksgiving: a football game around noon, a large midafternoon meal, friends and family stopping by, and a lazy evening lounging around. The major difference, and the centerpiece of Tabaski, is the sacrifice. Eid al-Adha is the feast comemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac at God’s insistence, and Muslims sacrifice cattle (udhiya). Gambian families use a ram, which costs about $350.Gambian nominal GDP per capital is about $800. The family I was with was large, and had bought two rams. Around noon, we laid them down and cut their throats; dinner was served about three hours later.

I have killed animals I’ve eaten before, a chicken in Freetown and a goat in rural Sierra Leone. But it’s been a while.


I read Shakespeare’s Kings by Norwich on the flight to Gambia. This is an history of the period covered by Shakespeare’s Henriad (the eight plays about Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III, plus the misattributed Edward III). I’ve read the Henriad twice through. The first was in 2021, entirely on the couch of my first house in Sierra Leone. The days were hot and I didn’t like moving at all, so I lay on the couch in my shorts, and mumble the great speeches and machinations. This read was inspired by a compelling tidbit I had found in the diary of an English colonial officer: the second ever performance of Richard II was staged in Freetown. The play has some plot elements which may be concerning to sitting monarchs, and after the Earl of Essex’s failed uprising in 1601, London’s director of revels had banned the play. In 1607, the HMS Dragon had brought copied of several Shakespeare plays, including the newly printed Hamlet — and Freetown was far enough from London for even such controversial plays to go on. I hadn’t — and still haven’t — been able to find out where in the city the plays were staged, but perhaps I’ll look further next trip. The Royal Navy tends to keep good records.

I also read The Life of Martha Ballard. Martha was the midwife in a small town in Maine at the end of the 18th century; she delivered several babies a week. She also kept a diary every day for almost thirty years. The book is written by an historian of early American women’s labor, and she has much to teach using Ballard as a frame. Ballard is an interesting character, though her diary is not immediately revealing — her most emotional outburst is, in its entirety: “Shocking.” This comes after the acquittal of a judge accused of raping her friend. If we don’t learn much about her internal life from her diary, we can find stuff out from the epidemiology. In the first 300 births she directs, only one mother dies. This is in the 1790s. Today, in Sierra Leone, more than five women would have died in the same number of births. Progress has not been universal.

Earlier this year, I read and wrote about the history of Himalayan mountain climbing. This past month also saw the 100th anniversary of Mallory and Irvine’s death on Mount Everest. My wonderful girlfriend was at Everest base camp on the day, and I sent a message to her group of friends:

On 8 June, 1924, George Mallory and Sandy Irvine attempted to summit Mount Everest. They both died that night. Mallory was 38, and widely regarded as the best climber in Europe. Irvine was just 22, an undergraduate at Oxford, and had never climbed outside of England before his trip to Tibet. While Mallory’s body was recovered, perfectly preserved, in 1999, Irvine has never been found.

The climb remains a mystery — some mountaineers believe that Mallory and Irvine reached the summit, and met calamity on the way down. The most suggestive evidence is a photograph, or the lack of one: Mallory had brought a picture of his wife to place on the summit, and the photograph was not found on his body. Unfortunately, it’s more likely their ascent proved intractable — the route they planned to take was possibly within Mallory’s abilities, but would have stymied Irvine (the most difficult section is an ascent of 40m, at an altitude of 8.610m, rated a V+ or 5.9 free).

Mallory and Irvine’s attempt was the final assault on Everest after four years of English campaigns, and there was not another serious attempt on the mountain until the 1950s. The Dalai Lama had been offended by various English disrespects, and forbade further expeditions. Indeed, the first confirmed ascent, by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hilary in 1954, was staged from the Nepali side. Not until 1960 did a team of Chinese climbers complete the route attempted by Mallory and Irvine.

These are various interesting or fun things I’ve found on the internet this month.

I probably won’t read this book on the history of Chinese keyboards, but I’ve read three book reviews of it. Sounds interesting for any friends working with or designing complicated UIs.

What kills us , and at when? Here are four different charts on death and age, motivated and explained by a writer at Our World in Data.

A spectacularly fabulous opening to a review of a book called The Flattening:

I was told that Thomas Friedman had a new book coming out. All my editor knew about it was the title, but that was enough; he approached me with the chilled demeanor of a British spy who has just discovered that Hitler was secretly buying up the world’s manganese supply. Who knew what it meant but one had to assume the worst.

(Don’t read the book.)

The German ambassador in London at the outbreak of WWI was named Karl Marx.

An unsourced claim on a blog:

If you get toddlers, or hunter-gatherers with no exposure to Western mathematics, to say what number is halfway between 1 and 9, they say 3, because the ratio 3:1 is the same as the ratio 9:3. In other words, our intuitive perceptions of numbers are actually logarithmic and not linear.

The canonical source seems to be Dehaene et al. 2008, which deals with the hunter-gatherers (the Mundurucu in the Amazon). I can’t find the toddlers version.

The best video of the month.

This is a good review of The Iliad, specifically Emily Wilson’s version but it generalizes. A few points I’ll highlight: first, meter doesn’t really matter in translations of poetry which retain meter. The reviewer notes he doesn’t ``notice any patter in where the line breaks occur,’’ which is precisely the problem.Iambs, however, matter a ton, and the feet are often neglected. Here’s a modern example; read the first paragraph aloud. Second, the review has an excellent discussion of why context is important; he says he can’t distinguish “this is how stuff just is, in Homer’s world” and what parts of it are “Homer showing the audience something unusual”. The lack of context makes it unclear what is a choice and what is “just how stuff is”. Third, he asks in a footnote: “are there old-but-popular things that don’t get labeled “classics”?” I can’t think of any, and conversations with LLMs didn’t come up with anything, either. Finally, this review inspired me to watch “Get Over It,” the early 2000s Midsummer Night’s Dream high school adaptation, which was weird but worthwhile.

Here’s a quote from Orwell’s newspaper column, in mid 1944:

Among the German prisoners captured in France there are a certain number of Russians. Some time back two were captured who did not speak Russian or any other language that was known either to their captors or their fellow prisoners. They could, in fact, only converse with one another. A professor of Slavonic languages, brought down from Oxford, could make nothing of what they were saying. Then it happened that a sergeant who had served on the frontiers of India overheard them talking and recognized their language, which he was able to speak a little. It was Tibetan! After some questioning, he managed to get their story out of them.

Some years earlier they had strayed over the frontier into the Soviet Union and had been conscripted into a labour battalion, afterwards being sent to western Russia when the war with Germany broke out. They were taken prisoner by the Germans and sent to North Africa; later they were sent to France, then exchanged into a fighting unit when the Second Front opened, and taken prisoner by the British. All this time they had been able to speak to nobody but one another, and had no notion of what was happening or who was fighting whom.

It would round the story off neatly if they were now conscripted into the British army and sent to fight the Japanese, ending up somewhere in Central Asia, quite close to their native village, but still very much puzzled as to what it is all about.

It turns out this story is slightly more insane than even Orwell wrote, and even possibly true! The British officer who questioned them reported that the Tibetans believed they were dead.

In their terms, their ordeal had been a test of their being, and a means, they hoped, of gaining Nirvana, however confusing and unorthodox those means were. They had survived because from the very first days they had believed that they were dead men caught in an unpredictable Bardo, or netherworld.

To the Tibetans, bodily survival had not been a goal, since they believed that they were already dead. They were traversing the netherworld in order to be reborn. They’d sought shelter, eaten and slept only because their bodies continued to make demands for shelter, food and sleep.


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What am I up to now? - Joseph Levine