What am I up to now?

June, 2024



The “weird” part of my PhD is mostly wrapped up. I have an examProbably my last school exam ever? the first week of June, and then I head to The Gambia for a few weeks of field work.

My next three years are very much like a typical American PhD: head-down research, only emerge for seminars, “a good dissertation is a finished dissertation,” etc. This is a bit of a relief: the first two years of the MPhil+DPhil were rather odd, owing to the somewhat confused expectations of research, coursework, and departmental standing for our cohort. The integrated MPhil+DPhil is a new degree, we’re only the second cohort, and the administration is still figuring things out.My undergrad was weird for a similar reason; when I started, no class had graduated from the joint degree program.

I haven’t minded the chaos – if anything, it has given us greater freedom to explore research paths and not overburdened us with coursework. Especially in a town as hidebound as Oxford, an unfinished rulebook provides a lot of leeway. Already, the administrative hiccoughs are being resolved; the two cohorts which have followed us are going to have an easier and less confusing time of it!

I’ll be in DC for most of July! Please reach out if you want to catch up. I’ll also be at the Economics of Animal Welfare Conference at Brown.

Notes on Nepal

I spent three weeks of May in Nepal with MWG and her friends from Tsinghua. We had five days in Kathmandu, two days in Pokhara, and two weeks scrambling over Himalayas. The country and weather was beautiful. Some disconnected thoughts:

What’s the highway construction plan? We spent more than 40 hours on highways. The typical ride is about 500m of paved road, followed by five kilometers of potted dirt, then another paved section, then repeat. The work continues — I saw more road crews per kilometer than any American or European highway. The paved sections seem chosen at random: some on ascents or descents, some close to a river or far, some close to towns. There are also lots of bridges to nowhere, right next to functioning but bumpy bridges.

The rides were, despite this, comfortable enough. Most of the buses we sat on were as comfortable as any bus between DC and NY, and the seats were often larger. Although the roads were often as bad as those in Sierra Leone, I never had to resort to audio books.

These highways have an interesting type of traffic backup, especially on cliff-side roads with tight corners. It seems like the equivalent of a temporary traffic light, but enforced by norms and risk tolerance. As we approached a corner, traffic in one direction would stop once a truck thinks they can’t make a corner against the waiting oncoming vehicles. Then it’s the turn of the other direction, until one of their vehicles gets spooked by the corner, and the waiting truck gets to try their luck. Sometimes we would pause for fifteen minutes waiting for one of these games of chicken to reverse the flow.Related, in India I noticed that being legally a left-hand-traffic country means little when when your roads are pocked and crowded. It was the same in Nepal: cars will drive on the left, right, and center to reduce bumps. Nepal does have a large corps of traffic police,There was absolutely impeccable mask discipline among these traffic police, presumably for dust reasons. but they would rarely be at these chokepoints.

What are normal characteristics of your car to advertise (Lancaster 1966)? In Nepal, almost all billboards chose ground clearance.Chinese electric vehicles are everywhere. MWG and I saw a lot of these in Central Asia last summer; the curve feels steep.

A puzzle I discussed with BB and RD, especially on the long drives, was the urban-rural differences between Tibet and Nepal. Nepal has about 10x the population of the Tibet Autonomous Region, but Tibet is much more heavily urbanized: 15% of Tibet’s population lives in its capital, compared to 3% of Nepal’s. The boring explanation is political factors. More interesting is the industrialization, infrastructure, and productivity angle. The roads in Tibet are not like the roads in Nepal, and Tibet has Chinese passenger and freight rail (Nepal has none). The standard spatial economics argument (Krugman 1991, Fujita et al. 1999) is that cheaper transportation strengthens the city: the relative benefit of producing a widget in your rural village falls with the cost of buying a big-city widget.

Nepal seems like a geography given to dispersion.Much like Papua New Guinea, which is so mountainous it forgot about half its population in 2022. However, I was suprised by the amount of lowlands: it is a country with a top half and a bottom half. Most of the population lives south of the Himalyas, close to India. The correct comparison for these agricultural regions is not Tibet, but Uttar Pradesh.This mostly lines up with economic reality: the average Nepali is slightly richer than the average UP, and both are much poorer than the average Tibetan. I’ve spent time in rural UP, but we didn’t visit any rural parts of low Nepal.

This leads to the question of migration. Nepalis can cross into India and work without any authorization, and India as a whole is twice as rich per capita as Nepal. Anecdotally, I didn’t meet any Nepalis who traveled to India to work, and I met many who traveled to the UAE, Poland, Qatar.Beware the selection, etc. I’m not surprised by the equilibrium (the benefits of working in India aren’t particularly large), but it does put a damper on reducing migration barriers between low-income countries.

I have various other notes on proselytizing Buddhists, the Geneva convention’s exception for Gorkhas, and the only democratically-elected Maoist head of state in the world. Maybe enough for another post!

All that’s left is to write about is the leaving. My friends flew east from Kathmandu, towards Guangzhou and Chengdu. These flights cross the bulk of the Himalayas, and as the monsoon strengthens, they fly well above 35,000 feet. My flight to Delhi was relatively downhill.

When we took off towards London from Delhi, the temperature above the tarmacA fun etymology, coming from tarmacadam. Macadam is a paving mixture of gravel and dust, invented by a guy named MacAdam. When you mix tar with macadam, the dust doesn’t escape. No one uses tarmac anymore, tho, it’s all concrete. was over 120 F. My flight was beautiful: we performed a radical dogleg around the Wakhan corridor to avoid Afghan airspace. Sitting on the left of the plane, I had a steep view of the first Himalayas I ever met.


The Birth of Korean Cool, Euny Hong

A question I like asking people is, “Why is China bad at soccer?” The most common answer I get is the gaokao – kids are so focused on academics that they don’t have time to kick a ball around. This book is the starting point for a rebuttal. South Korea approaches these problems with authoritarian means: a Ministry for Culture, Five Year Plans, government-run choreography bootcamps. But success doesn’t arrive until after the transition to democracy in the late 1980s.

The book is a bit of a memoir, and doesn’t seek a throughline of the driving factors; there’s no roadmap to success. There are hints: I wish Hong had spent more time on the five year plans, and legislation in support of artists. One of the highlights is a speech by the South Korean president discussing Psy’s (of Gangnam fame) use of patented choreography – and praising him for paying royalties to the appropriate K-pop band.

Besides the government, the other star is Korea’s ridiculous prosociality and homogeneity. They paid off the 1997 IMF loan three years ahead of schedule, in part by soliciting donations from tax payers. Literal tons of gold from jewelry was sent in. The culture is another explanation Hong relies on for the success of K-dramas and Korean cinema: Korean men are seen as good romantic partners by Japanese and Chinese women, and Koreans are inherently tragic figures (who isn’t?), lending a certain pathos.

Hong’s book is outdated: it was motivated by the success of Gangnam Style, when I was in middle school. She deals with a very interesting question which evades easy answers.

Working, Robert Caro.

Caro notes early on that, in both his Moses and LBJ books, he uses the pronoun “I” fewer than a dozen times. This book is about all the “I”s he omits.

The majority is on interviewing. He is a persistently annoying interviewer — he would repeat “what did you see” and “what did you hear” over and over again until some interviewees would kicks him out. But his persistence enables his access. Some subjects would decline interviews until he had asked a dozen times, or until they had nothing to lose. Moses had shut down, according to Caro, a dozen biographies before Caro began his. And Moses’s circle tried to prevent others from talking to him as long as they could — until Caro was invited eventually for a series of interviews with Moses himself.Moses admits to or implies many shady things in these interviews. The last interview, after which Moses refuses any more, covers one time Moses failed to build a road where he wanted to. He was willing to talk about being crooked, but never about losing.

It was similar with southern Democratic senators who mentored or worked with LBJ, and were eventually “betrayed” by him for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Whether out of anger or embarrassment, some of LBJs Senate mentors wouldn’t talk to Caro until their deathbed.

Caro writes about his life as if it’s a normal CV — journalism, then books. But no. He’s 84 years old when this book comes out and his life is a short education, followed by two projects. He attempts to portray this as normal, or even more normal than other researchers. Another writer in the New York Public Library asks Caro how long he’s been working on his biography of Moses:

When I replied, “Five years,” the response was not an incredulous stare. “Oh,” Jim Flexner said, “that’s not so long. I’ve been working on my Washington for nine years.”

Yeah, he’s not normal. The LBJ biography has taken him 49 years and counting.

Working, however, is a short book. Within it, Caro explains his fascination with these two characters fully. The reason to read The Power Broker or The Johnson Years is not for those two people – Wikipedia suffices. The reason is Caro’s craft, diligence, and obsession. For that, the pronoun “I” is necessary.

A tidbit, I’m definitely going to quote in my spatial economics exam:

One of my courses was taught by two professors who had written a well-regarded textbook on highways, including an analysis, in great detail, of highway location: why highways get built where they’re built. They were doing this by means of a mathematical equation. There were factors such as population density, traffic patterns, elevation of grades —that sort of thing. And at each class they would write the equation on the board, and then they would add new factors to it. And this equation was getting quite long. When I was at Princeton, I was a very diligent notetaker, and I was being a very diligent note-taker in this course and writing everything down. And then one day, while I was taking notes, I suddenly thought, No, that’s not why highways get built where they get built. They get built there because Robert Moses wants them there!

The General, C.S. Forester.

This is a fictional biography of Lieutenant General Herbert Curzon, a British officer serving on the Western Front during World War I. Forester paints a portrait of Curzon as a relic of the old army — a brave, simple soldier with a talent for following orders, but lacking in creativity.

Forester’s lightly mocks Curzon’s stodginess, upper lip, and ignorance throughout the book, but he also acknowledges the general’s ability to inspire his soldiers, albeit unknowingly. Curzon’s severe demeanor and straightforward approach to leadership prove effective, even if they are not particularly innovative.

The frame story, which features an elderly Curzon on the promenade at Bournemouth, aims to evoke a sense of pathos. Forester suggests that all men, even the greatest, eventually end up wilted. However, the execution of this frame story is not as neat as it could be. Earlier in the book, Curzon relieves an elderly general of command after rapidly ascending the ranks from major, of <100 soldiers, to brigadier, commanding 100,000 Englishmen. While this could be seen as a premonition of Curzon’s own fate, Forester implies that Curzon’s time as a general was more successful and effective than that of the relieved officer.

Despite the uneven framing,Hey, OK, history is complicated. the structure serves a purpose. Curzon’s life and service are portrayed as accidentally admirable in their own context. On the promenade, he is ignorant of his piteousness, and quite content. He doesn’t need anything else.

These are various interesting or fun things I’ve found on the internet this month.I didn’t have my laptop or internet for most of this month, so only a few.

An American company now uses in ovo sexing. Male laying chicks are useless for eggs and meat, and are macerated after hatching. New technology identifies the male eggs before hatching. Here’s a good article on near-term tech.

I use the Internet Archive every day; it played a large role in my masters thesis. They illegally copied and distributed millions of books during Covid, and now they’re getting walloped in court. The Archive is not particularly well-funded, and if copyright holders seek damages, the entire organization is at risk. I’m personally sympathetic to the Archive’s activities, but not optimistic about their future.

How many planes are there? Today, not that many – about 25,000 commercial,Less than 2,000 of these are what we’d think of as ‘big’ places – 747s, A380s. Most commercial planes are small. another 10,000 military planes. In 1944, the US made 100,000 planes: more than twice the total number in the world today. Over the course of WWII, we made more then 300,000 planes.


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What am I up to now? - Joseph Levine