The 20 best longform articles of 2020

Here’s my annual round-up of the year’s best articles! You can also read along with me at Pocket, where I share the most interesting things I read during the year. (Previously: best of 2019201820172016.)

India’s Pickle Queen Preserves Everything, Including the Past. New York Times. “Mango and lime pickles are commonly sold in the United States, but nothing escapes pickling in India: plums and hog plums, cherries and chokecherries, sprouted fenugreek seeds, bamboo shoots, fat gooseberries, hibiscus flowers and green walnuts. Cooks work with all kinds of fruits, vegetables, flowers, roots and seeds, using every edible part of every possible food.”

Facial Recognition for Pigs: Is it Helping Chinese Farmers or Hurting the Poorest? The Guardian. “[Facial recognition technology] is able to differentiate between pigs by analysing their snouts, ears, and eyes. The system used in Guangxi farms constantly tracks pigs’ pulses and sweat rates; at the same time, voice recognition software monitors individual animals’ cough rates. In this way, it is able to spot warning signs before a pig becomes sick or hungry. Being a ‘highly expressive’ animal, the cameras are even capable of recognising distress in the animals’ faces.”

The Battle to Invent the Automatic Rice Cooker. Atlas Obscura. “The automatic rice cooker is a mid-century Japanese invention that made a Sisyphean culinary labor as easy as measuring out grain and water and pressing a button… So long as you add water and rice in the right proportions, it’s nearly impossible to mess up, as the machines stop cooking at exactly the right point for toothsome rice. But creating an automatic rice cooker was not so easy. In fact, it took decades of inventive leaps, undertaken by some of the biggest names in Japanese technology…. [For centuries before,] Japanese women rose at dawn and labored for several sweaty hours to make rice.”

Learning from the Kariba Dam. New York Times. “As the stony facade continues to crumble, the likelihood rises that the Kariba Dam will not just fail but fall. If the dam collapses, the BBC reported in 2014, a tsunami would tear through the Zambezi River Valley, a torrent so powerful that it would knock down another dam a hundred miles away, the Cahora Bassa in Mozambique — twin disasters that would take out 40 percent of the hydroelectric capacity in all of southern Africa.”

A New Master’s House: The Architect Decolonising Nigerian Design. Al Jazeera. “Nwoko began building his own house in Ibadan with the methods that have remained his hallmarks. He created the bricks with laterite soil extracted on-site during the excavation process… Trees removed during construction were repurposed as flooring, doors, window shutters, and the framework for the roofing… Ventilation portals create pathways for breezes to enter from the floor and for hot air to escape at ceiling level. With this passive cooling system, as well as the natural temperature regulation provided by the mud walls, no air conditioning is needed, year-round.”

For Domestic Workers, Apps Provide Solace – But Not Justice. Rest of World. “Driven to desperation, many domestic workers around the world clearly need innovative solutions. Angela Kintominas, a lawyer and researcher for the Migrant Worker Justice Initiative at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, said the most useful new digital services are those developed in collaboration with migrant-worker organizations. Such groups can provide local context and on-the-ground experience with privacy and data security, she said. Whether all the emerging services follow that prescription is another matter.”

The Strange Reinvention of Icelandic. The Economist. “Icelanders are fiercely proud of their tongue and stay actively involved in its maintenance…. The result is something close to unique—a language that is at the same time modern (it can happily express concepts such as podcasting), pure (it borrows very few words from any other tongue) and ancient (it is far closer to the ancestral Norse tongue than its increasingly distant cousins, Danish and Norwegian).”

Behrouz Boochani Just Wants to be Free. New York Times. “Everyone staying in Lodge 10 was a refugee awaiting resettlement. These men were brought into the country against their will for the noncrime of seeking political asylum in Australia. They were among hundreds of migrants locked up in an old naval base on Manus Island, which lies off the northeast coast of mainland Papua New Guinea. Now they had been moved to this motel with its shared toilets and atmosphere of stultified trauma…. All the men had started out together in the shared misery of detention, but then Boochani did something extraordinary: Letter by letter, pecked out on contraband telephones while locked up on Manus, he wrote his first book.”

Electric Crypto Balkan Acid Test. The Baffler. “European authorities soon traced the power fluctuations to North Kosovo, a region commonly described as one of Europe’s last ganglands. Since 2015, its major city, Mitrovica, has been under the control of Srpska Lista, a mafia masquerading as a political party. Around the time Srpska came to power, North Kosovo’s electricity consumption surged. Officials at the Kosovo Electricity Supply Company in Prishtina, Kosovo’s capital city, told me that the region now requires 20 percent more power than it did five years ago. Eventually, it became clear why: across the region, from the shabby apartment blocks of Mitrovica to the cellars of mountain villages, Bitcoin and Ethereum rigs were humming away, fueling a shadow economy of cryptocurrency manufacturing.”

Inside the Quest for Documents that Could Resolve a Cold War Mystery. Lithub. “Let me explain why, out of the millions of pages of military records from the 1950s, these twenty-one withdrawn memos might matter. It’s not only because any document that a government takes special pains to keep away from historians, using a yellow access-restricted card, is likely to be revealing in some way. It’s also because these documents in particular may help answer one of the big unresolved questions of the Cold War: Did the United States covertly employ some of its available biological weaponry—bombs packed with fleas and mosquitoes and disease-dusted feathers, for instance—in locations in China and Korea?”

Landscape of Fear: Why We Need the Wolf. The Guardian. “Around the same time as the wolves were released, the mountain lion population, once hunted to local extinction, was becoming re-established as well – having crept back in from wilderness areas in central Idaho. Under these twin pressures, over a period of about 15 years, elk numbers halved. Those that did survive behaved differently, too: when the wolves were on the prowl, they retreated to the dimly lit comfort of the woods, where they might wander in clandestine bands. They avoided the cougars, most active at night, by steering clear of landmarks where they might be trapped or surprised from above in the dark – ravines, outcrops, embankments. No longer did they live in an environment defined by its waterholes and pastures, or even by its ridgelines and ravines, but by areas now suffused with danger and relief. A psychological topology, this – one marked with hillocks of anxiety and peaks of alarm. Ecologists know this as ‘the landscape of fear.'”

The Man Who Refused to Spy. The New Yorker. “The prosecution, evidently sensing that the case was not going its way, had quietly informed ICE that it no longer wished to defer Asgari’s deportation [to Iran]: the agency could come collect its prisoner. No sooner had Judge Gwin departed the courtroom than a marshal seated in the gallery approached the defense table to haul Asgari into ICE custody. The turn of events was stunning. Asgari had just been acquitted in a fair trial before a federal judge, but would end the day in prison. By all appearances, the government was acting out of vindictiveness.”

The Abolition Movement. Vanity Fair. “It would be at least honest if we said that enduring arbitrary harassing, beating, tasing, and strangulation by the state was the price of being “associated with reduction in violent crime relative to control areas.” That we don’t say this, and that we only imply it for certain classes of people, exposes the assumptions built into American policing. It’s those assumptions that, on the one hand, allow Henry Earl to be arrested more than a thousand times, and on the other offer a sporting chance for anyone who’d like to try their hand at murder or rape. Policing accomplishes this dubious feat by imposing costs on innocent people who happen to live in proximity to crime, and others who simply happen to resemble in skin color those we think of as criminal. This is a system begging for reform, and the best way to reform an institution as compromised as American policing is by abolishing it.”

Land-Grab Universities. High Country News. “In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which distributed public domain lands to raise funds for fledgling colleges across the nation. Now thriving, the institutions seldom ask who paid for their good fortune… The Morrill Act worked by turning land expropriated from tribal nations into seed money for higher education. In all, the act redistributed nearly 11 million acres — an area larger than Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. But with a footprint broken up into almost 80,000 parcels of land, scattered mostly across 24 Western states, its place in the violent history of North America’s colonization has remained comfortably inaccessible.”

Algae Caviar, Anyone? What We’ll Eat on the Journey to Mars. Wired. “Every pound that NASA transports to and from space costs thousands of dollars, which means food must be lightweight and compact. It also has to last a long time. Like Nespoli’s mashed potatoes, many of the dishes on offer—shrimp cocktail, chicken teriyaki, or one of a couple hundred other options—come dehydrated. And they tend to share another property too, Coleman said: “Everything is kind of mushy.” This is a side effect of NASA’s all-out war on crumbs. On Earth, crumbs fall; in microgravity, they can end up anywhere, including inside critical equipment or astronauts’ lungs.”

The Most Important Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of. Mental Floss. “For 60 years, American drivers unknowingly poisoned themselves by pumping leaded gasoline into their tanks. Here is the lifelong saga of Clair Patterson—a scientist who helped build the atomic bomb and discovered the true age of the Earth—and how he took on a billion-dollar industry to save humanity from itself.”

Why It Took So Long to Invent the Wheel. Scientific American. “The tricky thing about the wheel is not conceiving of a cylinder rolling on its edge. It’s figuring out how to connect a stable, stationary platform to that cylinder…. The invention of the wheel was so challenging that it probably happened only once, in one place. However, from that place, it seems to have spread so rapidly across Eurasia and the Middle East that experts cannot say for sure where it originated.”

Egg-Laying or Live Birth: How Evolution Chooses. Quanta. “Live birth evolved later — and more than once. In reptiles alone, it has evolved at least 121 separate times. And although scientists don’t know exactly when the first live animal emerged from its mother, they do know what forces may have been driving the transition from egg laying and what evolutionary steps may have preceded it.”

When Plants Go to War. Nautilus. “Far from being passive victims, plants have evolved potent defenses: chemical compounds that serve as toxins, signal an escalating attack, and solicit help from unlikely allies. However, all of this security comes at a cost: energy and other resources that plants could otherwise use for growth and repair. So to balance the budget, plants have to be selective about how and when to deploy their chemical arsenal. Here are five tactics they’ve developed to ward off their insect foes without sacrificing their own wellbeing.”

Childish Things: The Anguish of Grandparenting in a Pandemic. The Economist. “The knowledge that children are perpetually passing through themselves on the way to becoming someone else is part of the delight and fascination of parenthood. Their behaviours and traits are in a state of constant evolution, so that the very things that once seemed to define them are always slipping into the past and passing out of memory. All this is just a basic premise of being alive. But it’s also devastating when you think about it. Not quite death, but not quite unrelated either.”

Fall conference highlights

Three weeks, three conferences, many great papers to share!

apsa_4c_logo-300

Ryan Briggs.  “Power to which people? Electoral politics and electrification targeting in Ghana.”  Presented at APSA.

This paper isn’t available yet, and there isn’t an abstract online for it.  However, it focuses on a very interesting puzzle: why do the two main political parties in Ghana differ in their willingness to provide electricity to their core supporters?  I won’t give away the ending here, but the general message is that history and ideology matter more for distributive politics in Africa than is often assumed.  There’s some background in a blog post here.

Abhit Bhandari.  “Political Determinants of Business Formalization.”  Presented at APSA.

This paper also isn’t available yet, which I should take as a sign that I found all the panels where people were presenting genuinely new research!  Another extremely interesting question, though: do the owners of informal businesses have political, rather than economics, reasons to enter the formal sector?  Abhit uses a new dataset of all formal business registrations in Senegal to explore this issue.

Shervin Malekzadeh.  “Education as Public Good or Private Resource in Postrevolutionary Iran.”  Presented at APSA.

A third great paper that’s not online yet!  It seems to draw from Shervin’s PhD thesis, so I’ll share the abstract for that.

Abstract: This project examines efforts by the Islamic Republic of Iran to produce loyal “Islamic Citizens” through its postrevolutionary school system as way of securing the hegemonic rule of the state. Drawing upon eighteen months of fieldwork in Iran, including archival research of textbooks published from 1979 to 2008, as well as interviews and participant observation in two private Islamic high schools in Tehran, I show that Iranian schools have both emancipatory and disciplinary effects on students. Ordinary Iranians do not blindly accept or internalize the ideology of the state, instead resisting, reinterpreting or even ignoring aspects of the postrevolutionary project taught to them in school. Yet they often do so using the language, practices, and formal procedures of dominant groups. The dissertation demonstrates the incoherent and contested nature of the New Islamic Citizen, a concept that has changed often and dramatically over the past 30 years. Competition between rival groups for the moral authority to insert their vision of the ideal Islamic society into the education system accounts for the variation in the political and religious content of formal education. These ongoing and unresolved conflicts have resulted in a postrevolutionary curriculum layered with contradictions and tensions that in turn provide students with the resources and opportunities to challenge the totalizing project of the state. The dissertation reveals the relationship between the politics of schooling and the politics of nationalism in Iran. Looking beyond the usual antinomies of domination/resistance, modern/traditional, or secular/religious attached to the study of political socialization in postrevolutionary Iran, this dissertation contends that interactions of state and society around the topic of schooling contributes to the production of a mutually produced and shared Islamic-Iranian framework for consent and opposition to state rule. This discursive framework is but the latest manifestation of a 200-year effort in Iran to produce an indigenous modernity rooted in an “authentic” and shared national culture.

76376a0fad3cf5f7-dsa

Ken Mitchell.  “Taxation after the Commodity Boom: Argentina, Chile and Brazil.”  [Paper forthcoming.]  Presented at DSA.

Abstract: Latin America’s commodity boom crested round 2010, and the regional terms-of-trade deteriorated thereafter. How commodity price declines might impact the region is a pivotal and potentially a troubling socioeconomic issue. Taxation is a significant area of interest because tax-to-GDP ratios rose fast during the commodity boom (2002-2010) and paid for new social programs (conditional cash transfers, popular sector pensions, etc.) and public employment schemes that expanded the middle class and lowered poverty. More consumer spending resulted, which fueled economic growth. Latin America has been the world’s lowest taxed region post-WWII, and the regional tax-to-GDP ratio flattened during the 1990s, so the end of the commodity boom rightly raises concern that public revenue mobilization might revert to its historical, low norm. Did tax-to-GDP ratios decline with commodity prices? Aggregate taxation combines varied taxes (i.e., income, corporate, consumption, trade, etc.), and here country case studies differ. The Value Added Tax (VAT) merits special attention due to its rising importance as a revenue tool across Latin America. Which national tax strategies managed to maintain commodity boom-era tax-to-GDP ratios? This paper tries to answer the above question by comparing Argentina, Chile and Brazil between 2002 and 2014, with special attention to the period 2010-2014 (i.e., post-commodity boom). Counterintuitive given the literature on taxation specific to Latin America, Argentina, historically an especially low tax country outperforms its neighbors after 2010, something the paper tries to explain. The paper will use OECD tax data to make cross-national comparisons.  [Note: the interesting conclusion is that rising use of credit cards in Argentina explains strong VAT collection even though economic growth slowed after 2010.]

Miguel Niño-Zarazúa.  “Natural resources, electoral behaviour and social assistance in Latin America.” [Paper forthcoming.]  Presented at DSA.

Abstract: The introduction of social assistance in Latin America in the late 1990s coincided with a democratization process in the region and a significant increase in the contribution of revenues from non-renewable resources to the public budgets. This paper provides an analysis of the distributional effects of revenues from the natural resources via social spending. A primary concern is to establish whether the redistribution of income via social spending would have not taken place in the absence of natural resources. Another aspect of this relation is that lessons from Latin America can also provide insights into the political incentives that natural resource rents generate to the incumbent. Experimental and quasi-experimental studies suggest that social assistance programmes can produce electoral gains to the incumbent. Our working hypotheses are the following: H1) revenues from non-renewables have facilitated social spending in Latin America, and H2) natural resources have generated electoral gains to the incumbents in increasingly more competitive political systems. In order to test our hypotheses, we first examine the economics of redistribution via revenues from natural resources, with a particular focus on the incentives that drive incumbent decisions on social spending. Second, we consider a model of income redistribution in which an incumbent can make allocation decisions of public funds in the presence of taxation. We expand the model by allowing revenues from natural resources facilitating social spending without affecting the disposable income of better-off households. We empirically test our hypotheses using fixed effects estimators with instrumental variables in three stages. The results indicate that the expansion of social spending in Latin America over the period 1990-2009 has indeed been facilitated by the natural resource rents; however, the electoral gains hypothesis is not supported by the empirical analysis.

aenlogo

Nasreen Jessani, Caitlin Kennedy and Sara Bennett.  “The human capital of knowledge brokers: An analysis of attributes, capacities and skills of academic teaching and research faculty at Kenyan schools of public health.”  [Ungated draft here.]  Presented at Evidence 2016.

Abstract: Academic faculty involved in public health teaching and research serve as the link and catalyst for knowledge synthesis and exchange, enabling the flow of information resources, and nurturing relations between ‘two distinct communities’ – researchers and policymakers – who would not otherwise have the opportunity to interact. Their role and their characteristics are of particular interest, therefore, in the health research, policy and practice arena, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. We investigated the individual attributes, capacities and skills of academic faculty identified as knowledge brokers (KBs) in schools of public health (SPH) in Kenya with a view to informing organisational policies around the recruitment, retention and development of faculty KBs. During April 2013, we interviewed 12 academics and faculty leadership (including those who had previously been identified as KBs) from six SPHs in Kenya, and 11 national health policymakers with whom they interact. Data were qualitatively analyzed using inductive thematic analysis to unveil key characteristics. Key characteristics of KBs fell into five categories: sociodemographics, professional competence, experiential knowledge, interactive skills and personal disposition. KBs’ reputations benefitted from their professional qualifications and content expertise. Practical knowledge in policy-relevant situations, and the related professional networks, allowed KB’s to navigate both the academic and policy arenas and also to leverage the necessary connections required for policy influence. Attributes, such as respect and a social conscience, were also important KB characteristics.  Several changes in Kenya are likely to compel academics to engage increasingly with policymakers at an enhanced level of debate, deliberation and discussion in the future. By recognising existing KBs, supporting the emergence of potential KBs, and systematically hiring faculty with KB-specific characteristics, SPHs can enhance their collective human capital and influence on public health policy and practice. Capacity strengthening of tangible skills and recognition of less tangible personality characteristics could contribute to enhanced academic–policymaker networks. These, in turn, could contribute to the relevance of SPH research and teaching programs as well as evidence- informed public health policies.

Taryn Young.  “Policy BUDDIES – BUilding Demand for evidence in Decision making through Interaction and Enhancing Skills.”  Presented at Evidence 2016.

Summary:  Policy BUDDIES is a collaborative project including the Centre for Evidence based Health Care (CEBHC and Health systems and services research unit at Stellenbosch University, the South African Cochrane Centre (SACC), the Centre for the Development of Best Practices in Health (Cameroon) and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. The collaborations draw on partners experience in working in the area of knowledge translation. The collaborations draw on partners experience in working in the area of knowledge translation. The project is being conducted in South Africa and Cameroon. The project consists of 5 phases  and commenced with a situational analysis which informed subsequent phases. The situational analysis aimed to understand policymakers’ capacity, as well as enablers and constraints related to demanding evidence during policy formulation and implementation, and to map existing communication between policymakers, research intermediaries and researchers. Health programme managers and programme coordinators in programmes related to MDGs 4, 5 and 6 at provincial level in Cameroon and South Africa were purposively selected and interviewed. One of the aspects which emerged is the need for capacity development in evidence informed policy making and the use of systematic reviews.  We drew on experiences in offering similar workshops as part of the Effective Health Care Research Consortium and the SUPPORT Collaboration and offered workshops in both Cameroon and South Africa in January 2014 and November 2013 respectively. We are currently implementing the buddy model linking researchers and policymakers to work together towards promoting evidence-informed policy making.

policy-buddies-phases-648x401.gif

Yvonne Erasmus.  “What works to build capacity to use research evidence in South Africa and Malawi.”  Presented at Evidence 2016.

Summary: The use of research evidence in decision-making by policymakers in the health sector is critical for enabling the formulation and implementation of the most effective policies and programmes. Despite that reality, many scholars have documented that policymakers often do not sufficiently use research evidence to inform their decisions because of several common barriers (see Innvaer et al 2002; Oliver et al 2014). One of the well-documented barriers to research use is the lack of knowledge and skills in finding, appraising, interpreting and applying evidence as part of the policymaking process.  The DFID-funded Strengthening Capacity to Use Research Evidence in Health Policy (SECURE Health) programme being implemented in Kenya and Malawi has designed a training programme for policymakers in the health sector to strengthen their knowledge and skills in accessing, appraising, synthesising and applying research evidence in policymaking (i.e. the SECURE Health evidence-informed policymaking (EIPM) training programme).  Through these workshops, 76 policymakers comprising Ministry of Health (MoH) and parliament staff from the two countries were trained.  The training workshops effectively increased the knowledge and skills of policymakers in finding, assessing, synthesizing and applying research evidence in their work.