Interesting academic articles for December 2018

I recently figured out that most journals have RSS feeds, which has shifted my strategy for learning about new articles from occasionally remembering to check journals for updates every few months to automatically getting new articles in Feedly.  It’s been great!  Here are some of the things that I’m looking forward to reading in political science and economics.

Peter Van der Windt, Macartan Humphreys, Lily Medina, Jeffrey F. Timmons, Maarten Voors. 2018. Citizen Attitudes Toward Traditional and State Authorities: Substitutes or Complements? Comparative Political Studies.

Do citizens view state and traditional authorities as substitutes or complements? Past work has been divided on this question. Some scholars point to competition between attitudes toward these entities, suggesting substitution, whereas others highlight positive correlations, suggesting complementarity. Addressing this question, however, is difficult, as it requires assessing the effects of exogenous changes in the latent valuation of one authority on an individual’s support for another. We show that this quantity—a type of elasticity—cannot be inferred from correlations between support for the two forms of authority. We employ a structural model to estimate this elasticity of substitution using data from 816 villages in the Democratic Republic of Congo and plausibly exogenous rainfall and conflict shocks. Despite prima facie evidence for substitution logics, our model’s outcomes are consistent with complementarity; positive changes in citizen valuation of the chief appear to translate into positive changes in support for the government.

Arthur Thomas Blouin and Sharun W. Mukand. 2018. “Erasing Ethnicity? Propaganda, Nation Building and Identity in Rwanda.Journal of Political Economy.

This paper examines whether propaganda broadcast over radio helped to change inter- ethnic attitudes in post-genocide Rwanda. We exploit variation in exposure to the gov- ernment’s radio propaganda due to the mountainous topography of Rwanda. Results of lab-in-the-field experiments show that individuals exposed to government propaganda have lower salience of ethnicity, increased inter-ethnic trust and show more willingness to interact face-to-face with members of another ethnic group. Our results suggest that the observed improvement in inter-ethnic behavior is not cosmetic, and reflects a deeper change in inter- ethnic attitudes. The findings provide some of the first quantitative evidence that the salience of ethnic identity can be manipulated by governments.

Viviana M.E. Perego. 2018. “Crop prices and the demand for titled land: Evidence from Uganda.Journal of Development Economics.

I investigate how agricultural prices affect demand for titled land, using panel data on Ugandan farmers, and a price index that weighs international crop prices by the structure of land use at the sub-county level. Higher prices increase farmers’ share of titled land. I also present evidence of a positive impact of prices on agricultural incomes. The effect of prices on land tenure is stronger when farmers have access to roads and markets, when they have undertaken investment on the land, and when households fear land grabbing.

Johannes Haushofer, Jeremy Shapiro, Charlotte Ringdal, and Xiao Yu Wang. 2018. “Income Changes and Intimate Partner Violence: Evidence from Unconditional Cash Transfers in Kenya.” Working paper.

We use a randomized controlled trial to study the impact of unconditional cash transfers on intimate partner violence (IPV) in western Kenya. Cash transfers to women of on average USD 709 PPP led to a significant 0.25 SD increase in a female empowerment index, while transfers to men led to a non-significant increase of 0.09 SD, with no significant difference between these effects. Physical violence was significantly reduced regardless of whether transfers were sent to the woman (0.26 SD) or the man (0.18 SD). In contrast, sexual violence was reduced significantly after transfers to the woman (−0.22 SD), but not the man (−0.10 SD, not significant). Our theoretical framework suggests that physical violence is reduced after transfers to the wife because her tolerance for it decreases, and is reduced after transfers to the husband because he has a distaste for it. We observe a large and significant spillover effect of transfers on domestic violence: non-recipient women in treatment villages show a 0.19 SD increase in the female empowerment index, driven by a 0.16 SD reduction in physical violence. Together, these results suggest that poverty alleviation through unconditional cash transfers can decrease IPV both in recipient and neighboring households.

Marcel Fafchamps and Simon R. Quinn. 2018. “Networks and Manufacturing Firms in Africa: Results from a Randomized Field Experiment.” NBER working paper #21132.

We run a novel field experiment to link managers of African manufacturing firms. The experiment features exogenous link formation, exogenous seeding of information, and exogenous assignment to treatment and placebo. We study the impact of the experiment on firm business practices outside of the lab. We find that the experiment successfully created new variation in social networks. We find significant diffusion of business practices only in terms of VAT registration and having a bank current account. This diffusion is a combination of diffusion of innovation and simple imitation. At the time of our experiment, all three studied countries were undergoing large changes in their VAT legislation.

Margaret McConnell, Claire Watt Rothschild, Allison Ettenger, Faith Muigai, Jessica Cohen. 2018. “Free contraception and behavioural nudges in the postpartum period: evidence from a randomised control trial in Nairobi, Kenya.” BMJ Global Health.

Short birth intervals are a major risk factor for poor maternal and newborn outcomes. Utilisation of modern contraceptive methods during the postpartum period can reduce risky birth intervals but contraceptive coverage during this critical period remains low. We conducted a randomised controlled experiment to test whether vouchers for free contraception, provided with and without behavioural ‘nudges’, could increase modern contraceptive use in the postpartum period. 686 pregnant women attending antenatal care in two private maternity hospitals in Nairobi, Kenya, were enrolled in the study. The primary outcomes were the use of modern contraceptive methods at nearly 3 months and 6 months after expected delivery date (EDD). We tested the impact of a standard voucher that could be redeemed for free modern contraception, a deadline voucher that expired 2 months after delivery and both types of vouchers with and without a short message service (SMS) reminder, relative to a control group that received no voucher and no SMS reminder. By nearly 6 months after EDD, we find that the combination of the standard voucher with an SMS reminder increased the probability of reporting utilisation of a modern contraceptive method by 25 percentage points (pp) (95% CI 6 pp to 44 pp) compared with the control group. Estimated impacts in other treatment arms were not statistically significantly different from the control group.

Elizabeth R. Metteta. 2018. “Irrigation dams, water and infant mortality: Evidence from South Africa.Journal of Development Economics.

Irrigation dams enable farmers to harness substantial water resources. However, their use consumes finite water supplies and recycles agricultural water pollutants back into river systems. This paper examines the net effect of irrigation dams on infant mortality in South Africa. It relies on both fixed effects and instrumental variables approaches to counteract potential bias associated with non-random dam placement, with the latter approach predicting dam placement based on geographic features and policy changes. The analysis reveals that additional irrigation dams within South Africa’s former homeland districts after Apartheid increased infant mortality by 10–20 percent. I then discuss and evaluate possible channels. Dam-induced increases in agricultural activity could increase water pollution and reduce water availability, and I provide supporting evidence that both channels may contribute. These results suggest a potential trade-off between the health costs of agricultural water use and the economic benefits of increased agricultural production.

Ellora Derenoncourt. 2018. “Can you move to opportunity? Evidence from the Great Migration.” Job market paper.

The northern United States long served as a land of opportunity for black Americans, but today the region’s racial gap in intergenerational mobility rivals that of the South. I show that racial composition changes during the peak of the Great Migration (1940-1970) reduced upward mobility in northern cities in the long run, with the largest effects on black men. I identify urban black population increases during the Migration at the commuting zone level using a shift-share instrument, interacting pre-1940 black southern migrant location choices with predicted outmigration from southern counties. The Migration’s negative effects on children’s adult outcomes appear driven by neighborhood factors, not changes in the characteristics of the average child. As early as the 1960s, the Migration led to greater white enrollment in private schools, increased spending on policing, and higher crime and incarceration rates. I estimate that the overall change in childhood environment induced by the Great Migration explains 43% of the upward mobility gap between black and white men in the region today

Medical ethics can tell us why disinviting Steve Bannon was a good idea

Far-right figurehead Steve Bannon has been back in the news recently for being invited to headline the New Yorker’s annual festival, and then promptly disinvited after a liberal outcry that this was giving legitimacy to his xenophobic ideas.  One of the more surprising defenses of Bannon’s invitation came from writer Malcolm Gladwell, who said in a series of tweets that the festival’s audiences should be exposed to competing ideas, and that he hoped Bannon’s views would be discredited by a public debate.

Two tweets from Malcolm Gladwell.  The first says, "Huh.  Call me old fashioned.  But I would have thought that the point of a festival of ideas was to expose the audience to ideas.  If you only invite your friends over, it's called a dinner party."  The second says "Joe McCarthy was done in when he was confronted by someone with intelligence and guts, before a live audience.  Sometimes a platform is actually a gallows."

Gladwell has been roundly criticized for the first tweet in particular, with people noting that he’s making an apolitical, process-oriented claim (“we should be able to discuss different ideas”) about a set of ideas which are deeply political (xenophobia and white nationalism).  This discussion sets two valid points in tension with each other.  I certainly think that freedom of expression is important.  But it’s also true that there’s a real cost to saying that racist ideas should be discussed on the same footing as ideas about diversity and social justice.  When it is appropriate to say that an idea is so bad that it shouldn’t be given a platform for debate?  And how can we take a more nuanced approach than simply banning all ideas that don’t agree with our own politics?

Medical ethics has a concept that’s useful in this situation: clinical equipoise.  Equipoise means that the medical community is genuinely uncertain about whether a treatment will be effective.  They have reason to believe that it could help patients, and at minimum won’t harm them, but don’t yet have proof of its benefits.  This is the ethical justification for conducting randomized controlled trials to determine whether the treatment works.  If a researcher knew in advance that a treatment would definitely help a patient, then there would be no ethical justification for randomly withholding the treatment from the control group.  Similarly, if a researcher already knew that a treatment didn’t work, or might even injure patients, there’s no ethical justification for testing it at all.  RCTs are a tool to improve medical quality of care, not an excuse to test out harmful procedures for the ostensibly neutral sake of “scientific progress.”

The ethics of public debates are arguably similar to those of medical trials.  Debates let people try out new concepts and see how others respond to them, and are ideally done with the goal of leaving the world a better place for having had the debate.  Like clinical trials, they’re most productive when they focus on issues with a range of possible solutions, and with genuine uncertainty about which one would be best.  You could pick any number of examples here: how to best reform failing schools, how to manage the opioid crisis, how to balance the gains from free trade with the harm caused to industries exposed to trade, and so forth.  Debates on such topics can bring out useful arguments from various sides, and enrich the overall conversation.

Many of Bannon’s ideas fail the equipoise test because we already know with certainty that they are harmful to people, and don’t bring any commensurate benefits.  Take his desire to ban all immigration to the US from majority Muslim countries.  This is justified with an ostensible concern about terrorism.  However, there’s data showing that right-wing groups in the US carry out significantly more acts of random public violence than Muslim groups, and that Muslim immigrants in particular virtually never participate in this type of violence.  In addition, many studies have shown that immigration is on average good for economic growth in both sending and receiving countries.  Banning immigration on the basis of religious or national identity is thus discriminatory, harmful to the immigrants themselves, and harmful to citizens of their countries of origin and reception.  The only “benefit” of this policy is that it provides comfort to racists, which clearly should not be the goal of an ethical public policy.

Inviting Bannon to headline a prominent festival suggests that his ideas are worthy of discussion and could enrich the overall debate.  It’s an unethical position to take with someone who has a clear interest in causing harm to others and no credible data on the supposed benefits of his ideas.  The New Yorker made the right choice in disinviting him.

Traffic equilibria in the US and Kenya

A lane of a Nairobi road is taken up by a herd of cattleTraffic on Ngong Rd, Nairobi

As an American in Nairobi, I get asked regularly if it’s difficult to switch to driving on the left side of the road.  It’s actually surprisingly intuitive!  (Aside from the fact that I still regularly hit the windshield wipers when going for the turn signal — they’re on opposite sides of the steering wheel in a right-hand drive car.)  However, it’s taken me more time to transition to a different equilibrium for how drivers interact with one another in traffic.  I’d argue that the US has a rules-oriented equilibrium, whereas Kenya has a attention-oriented equilibrium.

In the US, drivers generally follow the rules of the road, and assume that others will do the same.   This is supported by the presence of other technologies that make driving more predictable, like stoplights at intersections, and sidewalks which keep pedestrians out of the road.  All of this reduces the cognitive load of driving in the US.   The roads are designed to help people drive safely, and you can generally assume that other cars will be where you expect them to be on the road.  Conversely, this also means that it’s easy to be a distracted driver, and it’s more difficult to react quickly when something unexpected does occur.

In Nairobi, drivers are less likely to follow the rules of the road — but they do seem to pay closer attention to the movement of traffic around them, and assume that others will do so as well.  It’s a useful response in a city whose roads are full of pedestrians and the occasional herd of cattle, where traffic rules are sporadically enforced, and where many major intersections only recently got stoplights.  The best way to safely navigate all of this is to constantly assess what other people on the road are doing, and plan one’s own reactions accordingly.  This skill is particularly likely to be put to use at matatu stages, where it’s common to have an enormous bus pull out in front of you at speed with no signal, in the apparent belief that you’ll definitely notice where they’re going in time to give way to them.  Given the risk in traffic moves like these, I’ve really expected to see many more accidents than I have done during my commute, and it seems to me that an increased level of attention is substituting to some degree for other traffic safety procedures.

To be clear, attention to traffic flows isn’t at all a sufficient substitute for traffic enforcement and improved urban planning.  Kenya has one of the highest rates of traffic deaths in the world, and pedestrians are especially at risk, since many people in cities like Nairobi still get around on foot, and there’s very little pedestrian infrastructure in most neighborhoods.  The government often prioritizes the construction of new roads over meeting other needs of urban citizens.  The attention orientation is not an optimal solution, but a second-best response to a number of other policy failures.

The 25 best longform articles of 2017

The image shows a red square with the text "2,952,My year in Pocket

I’ve always been a bookworm, but over the last year or two the number of books I’ve read outside of work has steadily declined.  This was dismaying until I noticed that I’ve just been substituting longform journalism for the other reading I normally might have done.  I do almost all of my reading through Pocket, which recently sent the very reassuring year-end email above.

Here are the 25 most interesting articles that I found out of those almost three million words (!) in 2017, in no particular order.  Check out my 2016 list as well.

Black mothers keep dying after giving birth.  Shalom Irving’s story explains why.  NPR.  “But it’s the discrimination that black women experience in the rest of their lives — the double whammy of race and gender — that may ultimately be the most significant factor in poor maternal outcomes.  ‘It’s chronic stress that just happens all the time — there is never a period where there’s rest from it. It’s everywhere; it’s in the air; it’s just affecting everything,’ said Fleda Mask Jackson, an Atlanta researcher who focuses on birth outcomes for middle-class black women.  …  [Chronic stress] has profound implications for pregnancy, the most physiologically complex and emotionally vulnerable time in a woman’s life. Stress has been linked to one of the most common and consequential pregnancy complications, preterm birth. Black women are 49 percent more likely than whites to deliver prematurely (and, closely related, black infants are twice as likely as white babies to die before their first birthday).”

Every parent wants to protect their child.  I never got the chance.  The Cut.  “But no matter whose fault it is, giving birth to a child with a terminal disease is something I did do. This is just as obvious as it is important: I am the one who was pregnant and gave birth to Dudley. That I continued my pregnancy under mistaken pretenses feels like an irreparable violation, one that I don’t think any man — including the one who loves Dudley as much as I do — is capable of understanding.”

How the US triggered a massacre in Mexico.  ProPublica.  “But unlike most places in Mexico that have been ravaged by the drug war, what happened in Allende didn’t have its origins in Mexico. It began in the United States, when the Drug Enforcement Administration scored an unexpected coup. An agent persuaded a high-level Zetas operative to hand over the trackable cellphone identification numbers for two of the cartel’s most wanted kingpins, Miguel Ángel Treviño and his ​brother Omar.  Then the DEA took a gamble. It shared the intelligence with a Mexican federal police unit that has long had problems with leaks — even though its members had been trained and vetted by the DEA. Almost immediately, the Treviños learned they’d been betrayed. The brothers set out to exact vengeance against the presumed snitches, their families and anyone remotely connected to them.”

The best books on Vermeer and studio method.  Five Books.  “There is quite a lot of argument about Vermeer’s working practice, particularly over whether or not he might have used an optical aid, such as a camera obscura.  But he only had the same things available to him as did any other painter of his day. Because his pictures look quite different from his contemporaries, the big questions are whether he worked in an unusual way, and also how he could have used a lens in his studio. There is very little documentation about Vermeer, and so I had to start by finding out what were the suggested methods and materials for artists at the time, and how people were using lenses. There was a bit of an overlap between alchemy, medicine and painting then, and old artists’ treatises give recipes for cures and experiments as well as for paint. They were all fascinating, and so my reading became very wide, and it took a very long time to write this book. This is why the bibliography is so big.”

The African enlightenment.  Aeon.  “In short: many of the highest ideals of the later European Enlightenment had been conceived and summarised by one man, working in an Ethiopian cave from 1630 to 1632. Yacob’s reason-based philosophy is presented in his main work, Hatäta (meaning ‘the enquiry’). The book was written down in 1667 on the insistence of his student, Walda Heywat, who himself wrote a more practically oriented Hatäta. Today, 350 years later, it’s hard to find a copy of Yacob’s book.”

The hellraisers of Nairobi.  Nairobi Side Hustle.  “From the beginning, Mumbi’s approach was radical and feminist. She realized that women were being excluded from local community associations because of the membership fees, so she set up her own women’s parliament, and made it free to join. Herself a Kikuyu, Mumbi invited women who represented all the different communities around Mathare to join.  Almost immediately, the Parliament got to work on issues that no one else seemed to be touching. ‘For us, we wanted to have a unique platform where women can share and exchange their views about things that are not going right at the community level,’ she said. After a house girl was beaten by her employer and cheated out of her wage, the Parliament helped to form a house girls’ association. And after a woman died in childbirth at the local Huruma Maternity Clinic, they organized a march to demand that the local government shut the clinic down.”

Afghan war rugs and the lossy compression of cultural codingRespectable Lawyer.  This is a Twitter thread, so not so easy to quote here, but it’s a fascinating discussion of how the Soviet and American invasions are visually represented in rugs, and how cultural artifacts get passed between generations of weavers.

India’s Silicon Valley is dying of thirst.  Your city may be next.  Wired.  “Bangalore has a problem: It is running out of water, fast. Cities all over the world, from those in the American West to nearly every major Indian metropolis, have been struggling with drought and water deficits in recent years. But Banga­lore is an extreme case. Last summer, a professor from the Indian Institute of Science declared that the city will be unlivable by 2020. He later backed off his prediction of the exact time of death—but even so, says P. N. Ravindra, an official at the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board, ‘the projections are relatively correct. Our groundwater levels are approaching zero.'”

What do slaveholders think?  Aeon.  “While not every one of the slaveholders I spoke with in the course of this research was as frank as Aanan, his approach bears all the traits of contemporary slaveholding: financial distress, emotional manipulation, illegality, and paternalism. At the end of our conversation, I inquired about Aanan with one of my research partners. Yes, they had heard of him. I updated my field notes: ‘Largest contractor in [town].’”

How did Indonesia and Malaysia become majority-Muslim when they were once dominated by Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms?  r/AskHistorians.  “While Islam was spreading, Southeast Asia was experiencing other rapid changes in matters other than religion. Forests were cleared to make farms, while fishing villages turned into humongous cities within a few generations. People began to leave their villages and head out for the wider world. Animism tends to be localized and unpredictable, but Islam is true no matter where you go and says that no matter what, the pious go to Heaven and the evil fall to Hell. Islam was perhaps the most suitable religion in this brave new world.”

The couple who saved ancient China’s architectural treasures before they were lost forever.  Smithsonian Magazine.  “Liang and Lin—along with a half dozen or so other young scholars in the grandly named Institute for Research in Chinese Architecture—used the only information available, following stray leads in ancient texts, chasing up rumors and clues found in cave murals, even, in one case, an old folkloric song. It was, Liang later wrote, ‘like a blind man riding a blind horse.’ Despite the difficulties, the couple would go on to make a string of extraordinary discoveries in the 1930s, documenting almost 2,000 exquisitely carved temples, pagodas and monasteries that were on the verge of being lost forever.”

What would count as an explanation of the size of China? Marginal Revolution. “Currently there are over one billion Chinese in one political unit, and a bit of scattering.  And there are over one billion Europeans, spread in fairly significant numbers across about fifty political units.  How did such a fundamental difference come to pass?”

Rice and banchan — a love affair.  Ask a Korean.  “If you ever visited a Korean restaurant, even just once, you have seen banchan. Before you receive what you ordered—sometimes, before you order anything at all—an array of dishes come in small plates. One of them, without fail, is kimchi. Others can be meat, fish or vegetables. They can be raw, cooked, tossed, pickled, braised, fermented. Those are banchan: literally, ‘companion to rice.’  Eating food with carbohydrates is hardly unique to Koreans. Nor is eating food with rice, as other rice-growing cultures also center their cuisine around rice. But none of those cultures created a cuisine quite like Korea’s, which obsesses over building a constellation of small dishes to orbit around the rice. To be sure, not all Korean dishes come with numerous banchan. Dishes like gukbap (국밥, or rice-in-soup,) noodles, or bibimbap usually come with the maximum of three or so side dishes. But traditionally, Koreans have considered those banchan-less dishes to be the “lower” food that you would eat when you are out-and-about. Bibimbap, for example, originated as a dish for peasants on the field, who would mix in all the banchan into a large bowl with rice and sauce to eat quickly during their mid-day break. Gukbap and noodles were usually served at guest houses for travelers who needed to eat quickly and continue their journey.”

The Japanese origins of fine dining.  Eater.  “There’s little precedent in Europe for the lightly cooked, lightly sauced, yet intricately plated dishes, what the late writer and critic Josh Ozersky called ‘tweezer food,’ before it appeared suddenly and decisively in France in the 1960s. A great deal of nouvelle cuisine’s innovations, in fact, paralleled classical aspects of Japanese dining, especially the movement’s emphasis on shorter cooking times; minimalist, playful plating; and a focus on extracting the essential aspects of an ingredient, rather than transforming it. Perhaps not coincidentally, from the time that French chefs began visiting Japan (and Japanese chefs began training in France) in the mid-1960s, fine dining has become increasingly like Japan’s most formal dining tradition, kaiseki.”

Why would aliens ever bother with Earth?  Literary Hub.  “For these reasons, it strikes me that if there is intelligent alien life out there in our galaxy, they almost certainly wouldn’t pay us a visit in person in huge city-sized motherships, but by sending their sentient robots as emissaries.”

The origin of cities — part 1The HipCrime Vocab.  “Thus, the origin of cities was long before the agricultural revolution as was very much tied together with the activities of ritual feasting. Many of the ancient megaliths show the same ‘cosmological’ orientation as the early temple cities do. The calendrical orientation was associated with the priestly caste who used astronomical observations to determine the timing of the feasts. The design of these sites was intentionally made to represent a cosmic order manifested on earth, a common theme of early ruling classes who were establishing a celestial ‘order’ on earth – ‘as above so below’ in language of hermeticism. Just as the sacred feasting rituals provided the opportunity for the gift exchanges that led to the interest-bearing debt and inequality, so too did the written debt/credit relationships which supplanted them originate in the sacred context of the temples.”

Here be dragons: finding the blank spaces in a well-mapped world.  VQR.  “Until a century ago, Greenlandic hunters would cut maps out of driftwood. ‘The wooden part would be the fjord, so it would be a mirror image,’ Siggi says. ‘Holes would be islands. Compared to a paper map, it was actually quite accurate.’ … A Danish ethnologist, Gustav Holm, noted that notched into the wood, ‘the map likewise indicates where a kayak can be carried’ when the path between fjords is blocked by ice. Unlike drawings, the contoured wood could be felt, useful in a region where the sun disappears for months at a time.”

New exoskeletons will harness the subtle anatomy of human balance.  Nautilus.  “Unlike the rest of us, the [Kenyan] women were supporting the load [they carried on their head] with the structural components of the body, rather than metabolizing tissues of the body. They were balancing it perfectly on their bones, without the aid of any muscle, tendon, or supporting structures. Over time, Heglund showed, the bones and bodies of the African women had adjusted to perfectly support the head weight in the most energy efficient manner. The structure had adjusted so it aligned in an ideal formation to keep the weight off the muscles.”

The science of suffering.  New Republic.  “By far the most remarkable recent finding about this transmogrification of the body is that some proportion of it can be reproduced in the next generation. The children of survivors—a surprising number of them, anyway—may be born less able to metabolize stress. They may be born more susceptible to PTSD, a vulnerability expressed in their molecules, neurons, cells, and genes.  After a century of brutalization and slaughter of millions, the corporeal dimension of trauma gives a startling twist to the maxim that history repeats itself. Yael Danieli, the author of an influential reference work on the multigenerational dimensions of trauma, refers to the physical transmission of the horrors of the past as ’embodied history.’ Of course, biological legacy doesn’t predetermine the personality or health of any one child. To say that would be to grossly oversimplify the socioeconomic and geographic and irreducibly personal forces that shape a life. At the same time, it would be hard to overstate the political import of these new findings. People who have been subject to repeated, centuries-long violence, such as African Americans and Native Americans, may by now have disadvantage baked into their very molecules.”

How to raise a sweet son in an era of angry men.  Time.  “Boys have always known they could do anything; all they had to do was look around at their presidents, religious leaders, professional athletes, at the statues that stand erect in big cities and small. Girls have always known they were allowed to feel anything — except anger. Now girls, led by women, are being told they can own righteous anger.Now they can feel what they want and be what they want. There’s no commensurate lesson for boys in our culture. While girls are encouraged to be not just ballerinas, but astronauts and coders, boys—who already know they can walk on the moon and dominate Silicon Valley—don’t receive explicit encouragement to fully access their emotions. Boys are still snips and snails and puppy dog tails. We leave them behind from birth.”

How do you count without numbers?  Sapiens.  “None of us, then, is really a ‘numbers person.’ We are not predisposed to handle quantitative distinctions adroitly. In the absence of the cultural traditions that infuse our lives with numbers from infancy, we would all struggle with even basic quantitative distinctions.”

Why clocks run clockwise (and some watches and clocks that don’t).  Hodinkee.  “The idea that one would need to specify motion one way or the other around a circle doesn’t seem to have been very widespread prior to the development of clocks, and people simply seemed to have said left or right, in most cases. Two old terms in English exist: widdershins (counterclockwise) and deosil or deasil (clockwise) though again, these seem to originally have more had the sense of left and right rather than clockwise or counterclockwise per se. ‘Widdershins’ is first attested in 1545 (notably, well after the appearance of public clocks in Europe).”

Why did life move to land?  For the view.  Quanta.  “Life on Earth began in the water. So when the first animals moved onto land, they had to trade their fins for limbs, and their gills for lungs, the better to adapt to their new terrestrial environment.  A new study, out today, suggests that the shift to lungs and limbs doesn’t tell the full story of these creatures’ transformation. As they emerged from the sea, they gained something perhaps more precious than oxygenated air: information. In air, eyes can see much farther than they can under water. The increased visual range provided an ‘informational zip line’ that alerted the ancient animals to bountiful food sources near the shore.”

The self-medicating animal.  New York Times.  “Animals of all kinds, from ants and butterflies to sheep and monkeys, use medicine. Certain caterpillars will, when infected by parasitic flies, eat poisonous plants, killing or arresting the growth of the larvae within them. Some ants incorporate resin from spruce trees in their nests to fend off pathogenic microbes, employing the same antibacterial compounds, called terpenes, that we use when we mop the floor with the original Pine-Sol. Parrots and many other animals consume clay to treat an upset stomach; clay binds to toxins, flushing them out of the body. ‘I believe every species alive today is self-medicating in one way or another,’ Huffman told me recently. ‘It’s just a fact of life.'”

The secret economic lives of animals.  Bloomberg.  “‘Biological markets are all over the place,’ says Ronald Noë, a Dutch biologist at the University of Strasbourg who first proposed the concept of the biological market in 1994. Scientists have since described biological markets in the African savannah, Central American rainforests, and the Great Barrier Reef. Baboons and other social primates exchange grooming for sex. Some plants and insects reward ants for protection. Cleaner wrasses eat parasites off other fish and behave more gently when a “client” has the option of visiting a rival wrasse.”

Let’s build African research centers in Africa

The image shows a photo of LSE and text reading "LSE is the perfect setting for a centre dedicated to Africa and the ongoing education of future generations of African leaders" - Firoz LaljiImage from Africa@LSE

Via Duncan Green, I just learned about the new Centre for Public Authority and International Development (CPAID), which is hosted at the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa at LSE and funded with a £5 million, five-year grant from the Economic and Social Research Council.  According to LSE’s announcement, CPAID will “study how families, clans, religious leaders, aid agencies, civil society, rebel militia and vigilante groups contribute to governance, along with formal and semi-formal government institutions. The research will mainly focus on the lives of ordinary people, in particular vulnerable and marginalised groups and populations … in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Ethiopia.”

These are definitely important topics, and a good corrective to the type of political science research that focuses overmuch on formal institutions in places where the state is weak.  It’s always great to see more research on the DRC and other states affected by conflict, which tend to be understudied.  And LSE’s got a very strong team of researchers.


Why is it seen as neutral and acceptable to build prominent centers of African studies outside of Africa, managed primarily by people who are not from Africa?

Why does the Africa Centre’s founder, who is himself from Uganda, feel that future African leaders are better off being trained in London than in their own countries?

Why are Northern academics so good at studying inequality and uneven post-colonial power dynamics in the South, and so bad at recognizing their own role in perpetuating inequality within the international scholarly community?

Let me be clear: I think it’s really important for every country to have scholars who are interested in international affairs.  Places like the Centre for Africa or Berkeley’s own Center for African Studies do important work making African affairs accessible to their university communities, and to the broader scholarly community.  And I myself am one of those foreign scholars who’s deeply interested in Africa.

My criticism is of the way in which the exclusion of African scholars from knowledge production about Africa is seen as normal and unremarkable.  Even in the field of African studies, where local scholars would seem to have a comparative advantage, only 15% of studies are written by authors based on the continent.  The situation is even worse in the sciences, where less than 1% of the world’s scientific research comes from Africa.  We must be missing so many interesting voices, so many valuable contributions to knowledge, because we’re systematically underinvesting in African academics.  Spending £5 million to set up a research center in the UK rather than somewhere like Accra or Nairobi (or Tamale or Eldoret or Kisangani) only perpetuates the problem.

Fortunately, there are other organizations working to remedy this inequality — and I’m in the process of starting one of them.  Stay tuned for more announcements about this project in the next few days.

Cartographic literacy and the rise of Uber in Africa


Yinka Adegoke set off an interesting thread on Twitter yesterday with the above observation about Uber.  People chimed in to agree that this was common in Accra, Nairobi, Abuja, Bangalore and Beijing as well, and seemed connected to poor local mapping (see the whole thread on Storify).  I was put in mind of a conversation I had with an Uber driver in Accra last year:

  • Driver: “Where should I pick you?”
  • Me:  “Do you see my location on the map?”
  • Driver: “Yes.”
  • Me: “Ok, please pick me there.”
  • Driver: “But where is that?  Tell me where to turn.”

This didn’t actually reflect a problem with the map, as Google Maps is quite accurate in central Accra.  But it did remind me of a point I’ve been making in conversation for years now: cartographic literacy is a historically recent skill.  For most of human history, the average person never would have seen a map, let alone needed one to navigate a well-known environment.  Mentally translating a eye-level view of (say) an urban street into a bird’s-eye view on a map and using this to navigate is a rather unusual task, and an understandable challenge if one hasn’t had to do it very often.

A bit of a detour through European and African cartographic history here.  People have been making maps for a very long time, but up until roughly the Enlightenment, it would have been difficult to use them for overland navigation in the way that we assume maps are to be used today.  In part this was due to limitations of cartographic knowledge and the difficulty of accurately depicting the spherical Earth on a two-dimensional map. However, many maps were also intended to depict connections between places of political or religious significance rather than a literal representation of the terrain between them.  Here are two European maps from the 1480s that capture this variation in intent.

The Martellus world map was made in Italy around 1489.  There’s a clear attempt at cartographic accuracy here, and the coastlines of Europe and northern and western Africa are presented in great detail.  Knowledge of coasts and maritime routes was quite important at the time because the vast majority of long-distance trade went by sea (as in fact it still does today).  The interiors of most countries are largely unlabelled, however, even for European states which were presumably better documented at the time.

The image shows a map of the world from 1489Source: Wikipedia

Compare that map to this Mappa Mundi produced in Germany around 1480.  This is an example of a politico-religious map which places Jerusalem in the center of the world.  It lists a number of contemporary Christian European cities and states, such as Rome and England, but makes no attempt to accurately depict the terrain between them.

The image shows a map of the world from 1480Source: The Morgan Library

In States and Power in Africa, Jeff Herbst argues that many early maps drawn by African cartographers adopt the same politico-religious schema.  He gives the example of a map drawn by Caliph Muhammad Bello of Sokoto for a British explorer in 1824. There’s a brief acknowledgement of some natural features, like major rivers, but this is primarily a map of political relationships between the Sokoto Caliphate (shown many times its actual size) and the smaller cities which were vassals or rivals.  Check out the tiny, misplaced Timbuktu (“Tonbaktoo”) at upper left and Kano (“Kanoo”) at lower right.

denham12Source: Princeton Library

For comparison, here’s an 1844 map of the same area from a British cartographer. It’s a bit hard to read, so I’ve labelled the relevant cities.  Putting aside the “uncharted” areas of the interior, this looks like a recognizably accurate map of the region.

The image shows a map of West Africa from 1844Source: David Rumsey Map Collection

One of the key points here is that these maps are serving different purposes.  For west African merchants, or aspirants to the Caliphate, the roads between these major cities were probably well known, but a map of contemporary political alliances would be quite useful.  For foreigners coming in to conquer, a detailed road map was important to make up for their lack of local knowledge.

All of this brings me back to Uber.  If you’ve lived in a city for most of your life, why would you need to read a map rather than navigating by well-known landmarks?  It’s like being asked to calculate distance in inches when you’re used to kilometers — an inefficient means of producing the same result.  And the mental math of doing a 3D rotation of a familiar street and projecting it onto a horizontal map is rather challenging — perhaps especially for places you know well.

I’ve got my own story about this from the time I was living in Tamale in 2010.  Google Maps hadn’t really made it to Africa yet, my guidebook had only a very small map of the city center, and I wasn’t able to find a paper map of the area.  I bought a bicycle and ended up getting to know the city quite well without ever glancing at a map.  I’ve been back four times since then, now in possession of Google Maps, and to this day I can’t look at a map of the city and make it match up to the streets I know so well.  I have to find the same landmarks that I used at the time and use them to orient myself before the map makes sense.  And I say this as someone with a BA in geography — I am not unaccustomed to maps as a rule!  But it’s given me sympathy for Uber drivers who might be facing the same challenge.