What am I up to now?

April 6, 2024

March, 2024



The middle third of February was spent in Mexico City with MWG, my sister, and other loved ones. It was very nice to escape dreary Oxford for sunny Mexico, and the mountains, food, and friends were nice too. Notably, I’ve now made three (haphazard, half-hearted) attempts to climb Nevado de Toluca, and failed all three times. I suppose I’ll have to keep going to back to Mexico City until I succeed; a shame. I’m back in Oxford indefinitely. Say hi if you’re passing through!

March is a straightforward, if busy, month. I’m in Oxford indefinitely, with some trips around England for baseball, rowing, or friends. Academically, I have three things to submit in the next seven weeks, only one of which I’ve started (shh). Most of it’s coursework, which will be straightforward to knock out, but my thesis is going to take up remarkable amounts of time — as it should.


One part of my thesis research involves a ton of reading, thankfully. Over a 36 hour period last week, I read at least the abstract of every development paperBy JEL code. published in the top 5 economics journals since 2016. Some cool ones jumped out.

I <3 David Roodman

David Roodman is the development+meta-science GOAT. I read his book on microfinance in 2016 and have been smitten ever since. He’s currently at Open Philanthropy, but has been freelance for much of his career, casually dismantling large sectors of development economics as flawed, pointless, or both, and building it back up stronger.

Trying to find one paper from a top journal, the the second result (props to Google) was a 50 page “Comment” on that paper by Roodman.

The paper finds positive impacts on individual- and firm-level employment and nighttime light emissions. These results are largely ascribable to geocoding errors; to discontinuities from a satellite changeover at end-2009; and to a definition of the treated zone that has unclear technological basis, is narrower than the spatial resolution of nearly all the data sources, and is weakly representative of the geography of broadband availability.

Also props to the authors of the original paper: he gave all his code and data to Roodman, and had feedback on the comment.

Everything on Roodman’s Arxiv profile is golden. Four smackdowns — i.e., should not have been published. One surface-level inspection of an important question, the fertility effects of development programs. Then an attempt to be Correct about immigration, alcohol taxes, and crime.

The effect of reading Roodman is to become less confident in any individual piece of published research, but more confident in fields. Take this review on the impacts of incarceration on crime. He attempted to replicate eight studies (of three dozen), and “revealed significant methodological concerns in seven and led to major reinterpretations of four.” Despite this, the meta, common-sense result that incarceration stops people from committing crime while in prison while increasing the amount of crime they commit after release holds.

Updates on cash transfers

I have a recent post about why we might expect traditional development programs (those which provide training, or goods, or some other complex program to poor people) to be advantaged compared to programs which give cash in the longer term. A friend who reviewed it, DB, suggested thinking about thinking about this in terms of cash vs. in-kind transfers. I finally got around to reading the most important empirical paper on this topic: Cunha et al. in ReStud, which looks at a Mexican program which provided cash or cost-equivalent food bundles to rural villages.

Their focus is the differential price effects of these interventions: do bundles of food reduce the price of those food items in these villages? Do cash transfers push up prices for all goods?

We find that prices are significantly lower under in-kind transfers compared with cash transfers; relative to the control group, in-kind transfers lead to a 4 percent fall in prices while cash transfers lead to a positive but negligible increase in prices. Prices of goods other than those transferred are also affected, but by a small amount. … The effects do not dissipate over the two years of program duration we observe.

I come away unfazed. This looks like a “rural prices are sticky downwards” finding on both the cash and in-kind side.

Cocoa is special

This paper is a bit more niche — the authors found a region (Ghana) very dependent on a single commodity (cocoa) and tracked how adult mental health is affected by fluctuations in the price of that commodity when people were kids. Effect sizes are big!

My guess is this is not very generalizable to other single-good economies. Cocoa is the most volatile 20th century, nationally-dependent commodity I can think of. It’s also a lot more difficult to store. They attribute the effect to lowered nutrition, lowered education investment, and “adult circumstance”, which they never define.

Other: Harry Potter

I’m about two-thirds through a memoir by the webmaster of the largest Harry Potter fansite, covering 2003-2007, the release of the last three books. It’s not a good book, but it’s a great story. Of course, the author is a massive Harry Potter fan, but the level of infection to the pop culture milieu shines through. It’s a bit of an authorized history (Rowling and the publishers all sat down for interviews) but more revealing for that, as long as you remember. The author has disavowed Rowling very strongly since the trans stuff. Also, the Spartz’s (the Nonlinear ones) keep showing up in the book; it is a small world.

I have a memory of being in middle school, and getting called to the principal’s office because my dad was there. Apparently I had hidden a book which had just gotten released from my sisters, so that I could finish it before they did; I guess my parents overestimated my sharing abilities and/or hadn’t wanted to buy more than one book. He had driven all the way to school to scold me and make me tell him where the book was hidden, so my sisters could read it. It couldn’t have been Harry Potter (I started middle school the same year book 7 was released, but it came out during summer vacation), so I’m not sure what book was. But I do remember being infected by the mania that book releases had in the 2000s. According to the Harry Potter book, that wasn’t a thing before Harry Potter, and it certainly hasn’t been a thing since. Now there’s a secular religion if there ever was one.

Other: Animal welfare stuff

I recently re-read Coetzee’s “The Lives of Animals”; this is my favorite book about animal welfare, and I haven’t been able to find anything like it. One friend recommended Derrida’s “The Animal That Therefore I Am,” so i tried reading a contential for the first time since 2016. I sill find the philosophy obscurantist and irrelevant, but there are lucid bits, and the writing is quite fun (tho I suspect some bits are even better in French: “‘Can they suffer?’ amounts to asking ‘Can they not be able?’ And what of this inability?”). Two fun passages:

“The confusion of all nonhuman living creatures within the general and common category of the animal is not simply a sin against rigorous thinking, vigilance, lucidity, or empirical authority, it is also a crime. Not a crime against animality, precisely, but a crime of the first order against the animals, against animals. Do we consent to presume that every murder, every transgression of the commandment ‘‘Thou shalt not kill’’ concerns only man (a question to come), and that, in sum, there are crimes only ‘‘against humanity’’?” (Derrida and Mallet, 2008, p. 48)

“[S]ome great Jewish writers and thinkers of this century were obsessed by the question of the animal: Kafka, Singer, Canetti, Horkheimer, Adorno. By insisting on inscribing that in their work, they will have contributed to an interrogation of rationalist humanism and of the solid ground of its decisions. Victims of historic catastrophes have in fact felt animals to be victims also, comparable up to a certain point to themselves and their kind.” (Derrida and Mallet, 2008, p. 105) This is Derrida’s own translation of Elisabeth de Fontenay from English to French, which was then translated back to English by Mallet. I can’t find the original source, and would welcome it.


I read five books about Everest in February. Cool mountain. Happy to chat about it if anyone’s interested.

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

This article about sci-fi convention governance structures is far more interesting than it has any right to be. Me and MWG are considering going to Worldcon in Glasgow this summer, let me know if you’ll be there!

I’m generally disappointed in most human rights and peace prizes. The style I most like is the Righteous Among Nations, and maybe the Carnegie Hero Prize, but everything else is politics. But there’s not general prize for quiet, bureaucratic heroics. Like this. Just someone doing their job correctly in exceptional circumstances and happening to save the world.

Lamas, the reincarnations of Buddhist leaders, are identified as children. And some of them really don’t want to be who they’re expected to be. This article tells the story of a many of them at different points in their personal rebellions. Touching.

Everyone knows about “PageRank” being named after Larry Page in addition to, you know, ranking pages. But did you know about Leatherman being named after Mr. Leatherman? Or the inventor of Erlang’s name was Erlang? OR Main Street in SF is named after Charles Main? The list compiler calls this list “incomplete and infuriating,” but it’s nice to make have a slightly more legible world.

Mormon Legos are calledBrick’em Young”. That’s all.

We don’t know which leg Captain Ahab lost to Moby Dick. One blogger summarizes the history of the left vs right debate.

At no point in the novel is it stated, or even hinted at, whether that infamous prosthesis fits onto his right or his left limb.

One great line from an artist who accidentally drew Ahab with both legs:

Someone has discovered a mistake in the last full page drawing for the third volume, the drawing of a man struggling with the jaw of a whale. That is, of course, Captain Ahab, and I knew it; but I have given him two good legs whereas Ahab only had one. I can change the drawing if you consent, but I am perfectly willing to let it go through as a revelation of the stupidity of the artist.

The blogger followed up with a gloriously pedantic investigation which relies of wind headings, the positioning of the whaleboat, and balance factors for ivory. I’m skeptical of his conclusion; let’s revisit in a decade or two.

Cavendish Labs is a new org doing UV light/AI virus hunting. They’re based in Cavendish, Vermont, and sent the residents of the town a note&gift announcing their arrival:

“It costs 66 cents to send a letter in the mail, however, with Amazon Prime, it only costs 48 cents to ship a can of tomato sauce or a bag of pasta to an address. So, we found it would be cheaper to mass mail tomato sauce and bags of pasta to the entire town of Cavendish.”


Some classical this month! Only stuff I’ve listened to at least two (and mostly three) recordings of, and recommend my favorite.

Rachmaninoff - Concerto No. 3 / Tchaikovsky - Concerto No. 1, Martha Argerich
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2 In C Minor, Op. 18 & Piano Concerto No. 3 In D Minor, Op. 30, Khatia Buniatishvili
Haydn - String Quartets, Minetti Quartet
Mozart: Requiem, Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Haydn: Symphonies nos. 44, 95 & 98, Ferenc Fricsay
Beethoven: The Late Piano Sonatas Nos 28-32, Op 101, 106, 109-111, Maurizio Pollini
Lalo, Saint-Saens: Cello Concertos; Bruch: Kol Nidrei; Bloch: Schelomo, Jean Martinon

Finally, can anyone recommend multiple Goldberg Variations to listen to? I’ve of course heard the Goulds, and been mildly impressed, but I’m yet to understand why these recordings are so heavily recommended. Is it the articulations? I was blown away by Gould on organ. The Goldberg Variations in comparison were just “good”.


February, 2024

January, 2024

December, 2023

November, 2023

October, 2023

September, 2023

August, 2023

July, 2023

June, 2023

May, 2023

April, 2023

March, 2023

February, 2023

December, 2022

November, 2022

October, 2022

September, 2022

August, 2022

November, 2021

October, 2021

September, 2021

July, 2021

June, 2021

May, 2021

What am I up to now? - April 6, 2024 - Joseph Levine