These book sales are not getting equally distributed

Saturday, May 16th, 2020

Wired reports that the coronavirus pandemic is changing how people buy books:

When Andy Hunter launched his ecommerce startup Bookshop in January, he hoped it might carve out a small, cheerful corner of a market dominated by Amazon. Hunter’s pitch was appealing. He offered an easy way to buy books online without further enriching Jeff Bezos, after all. But Bookshop’s success was not guaranteed. In fact, it looked unlikely. Hunter was running Bookshop on a shoestring, working with four staffers out of leftist magazine The Baffler’s Manhattan office, hustling to convince publishers to join its affiliate program and independent bookshops to become partners and receive a portion of the proceeds. It was an optimistic operation. Too optimistic, if anything.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. Bookshop’s business boomed.

“It has been a wild ride,” Hunter says. Bookshop went from a well-intentioned startup facing an uphill battle to one of the most popular ways to buy books online in a matter of weeks. The New York Times, BuzzFeed, Vox, and The New Republic are all affiliate partners now. Its headcount has doubled in size. Hunter expects to hit $6 million in sales by May, eons ahead of its loftiest projections from January. If the company’s performance holds steady, it could do $60 million in sales a year, although Hunter is assuming post-quarantine life will be different. “I’m sure that when things open back up, our sales will drop, maybe even cut in half,” he says. “But even then, we’re still one of the top 10 bookstores in the US.”

It sounds like Bookshop’s major selling point is that it’s not Amazon?

The online retailer is the most dominant force in American bookselling today, accounting for over 90 percent of ebooks and audiobooks, and around 42 to 45 percent of print sales, according to BookStat. Into this fray jumps a new online retailer, Bookshop, which is betting that people will see the value in choosing to buy somewhere else—at a business meant to give independent booksellers a chance to grab back some of the market share. “It’s not really about disrupting an industry,” CEO Andy Hunter says. “It’s about reinforcing an industry. Bookshop is about pulling back from the disruptive influence of Amazon.”

Anti-disrupting (reverse-disrupting?) will prove challenging. For starters, there’s Amazon’s grip on consumer habits. Despite recent movements advocating pushback against Amazon, most people in the United States maintain a favorable view of Jeff Bezos’ “everything store.” Peter Hildick-Smith, president of book audience research firm Codex, says that this includes most people who frequent independent shops; just over three-quarters of that cohort also use Amazon, at an average of five times a month, according to a 2019 survey. Even among bibliophiles, Hildick-Smith says, “It’s not as if everybody’s saying, ‘Gosh, I really don’t like Amazon. I don’t shop there.’” The result? “A very skewed market.”

There’s a bit more to it:

These sellers can also sign up for the company’s affiliate program, which offers a 25 percent commission to stores. If, say, a bookseller doesn’t want to deal with ecommerce, they can sign up for this program and essentially outsource their online sales to Bookshop, which uses the major book wholesaler Ingram to fulfill orders.

The affiliate program is also available to media large and small, from major magazines to micro-famous book bloggers, with a 10 percent commission. When it’s time to publish seasonal roundups, gift guides, reviews, or other books coverage, these media companies will be able to hyperlink to Bookshop and get paid if readers buy something they click on.

Anyway, back to how the coronavirus pandemic is changing how people buy books:

Books about travel, foreign languages, and business are on a downward trend—it’s a terrible time to release a guidebook, for instance. But some speciality publishers have been particularly well-positioned to succeed right now. “Sales are up 15 percent over last year today,” says Margo Baldwin, founder of Vermont-based independent publisher Chelsea Green. “Direct-to-consumer web sales have skyrocketed.” With a focus on nonfiction covering sustainability, increased general interest in gardening and eco-friendly domestic activities has been a boon for the indie. “Our gardening books are doing extremely well, including one that hit a regional best-seller list out West, Gaia’s Garden. That was published over 25 years ago,” she says. “People are really turning towards how to make themselves more self-sufficient.”

The NPD Group highlighted this trend too. “We’re watching a solid increase in the cooking category,” McLean wrote. “It’s clear that everyone really is making bread.”

In addition to homemaking books, children’s educational books are in high demand, as parents have moved en masse to homeschooling. NPD found that “juvenile” book sales have been up 80 percent since the beginning of March. Barnes & Noble has seen this large increase in educational and children’s books. CEO James Daunt says that people are also gravitating toward well-regarded novels, both contemporary favorites and canonical books. “Fat ones are selling more than thin ones,” Daunt says. “Those books that everybody is supposed to have read but perhaps hasn’t.”

“Ebooks are up, audiobooks are up, hardcover was up through the Easter holidays, books for children, books for gifts. The sense is that it might just have been a holiday blip,” Hildrick-Smith says; he says he expects the data for after Easter to become available soon, but until then it’s hard to make a strong assertion about the state of the marketplace.

It’s not all rosy—in fact, it’s a dire time for a large portion of treasured indie shops, as these book sales are not getting equally distributed. While the pandemic caused a spike in interest in Bookshop, buyers have also been flocking to Amazon, which was already the dominant force in bookselling. While Amazon designated books as “non-essential” items, thus elongating shipping times, its vast selection and reputation for consistency have kept its position strong.

“Amazon’s market share by default, we estimate, will grow to at least 70 percent of the market on the basis of the month of April, up from just over 50 percent in the pre-Covid period,” Hildick-Smith says.

There is no reason for concern

Friday, May 15th, 2020

Governments aggravated the horrors of the 1918 flu:

For instance, the U.S. military took roughly half of all physicians under 45—and most of the best ones.

What proved even more deadly was the government policy toward the truth. When the United States entered the war, Woodrow Wilson demanded that “the spirit of ruthless brutality…enter into the very fibre of national life.” So he created the Committee on Public Information, which was inspired by an adviser who wrote, “Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms….The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.”

At Wilson’s urging, Congress passed the Sedition Act, making it punishable with 20 years in prison to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United State…or to urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of production in this country of any thing or things…necessary or essential to the prosecution of the war.” Government posters and advertisements urged people to report to the Justice Department anyone “who spreads pessimistic stories…cries for peace, or belittles our effort to win the war.”

Against this background, while influenza bled into American life, public health officials, determined to keep morale up, began to lie.

Early in September, a Navy ship from Boston carried influenza to Philadelphia, where the disease erupted in the Navy Yard. The city’s public health director, Wilmer Krusen, declared that he would “confine this disease to its present limits, and in this we are sure to be successful. No fatalities have been recorded. No concern whatever is felt.”

The next day two sailors died of influenza. Krusen stated they died of “old-fashioned influenza or grip,” not Spanish flu. Another health official declared, “From now on the disease will decrease.”

The next day 14 sailors died—and the first civilian. Each day the disease accelerated. Each day newspapers assured readers that influenza posed no danger. Krusen assured the city he would “nip the epidemic in the bud.”

By September 26, influenza had spread across the country, and so many military training camps were beginning to look like Devens that the Army canceled its nationwide draft call.

Philadelphia had scheduled a big Liberty Loan parade for September 28. Doctors urged Krusen to cancel it, fearful that hundreds of thousands jamming the route, crushing against each other for a better view, would spread disease. They convinced reporters to write stories about the danger. But editors refused to run them, and refused to print letters from doctors. The largest parade in Philadelphia’s history proceeded on schedule.

The incubation period of influenza is two to three days. Two days after the parade, Krusen conceded that the epidemic “now present in the civilian population was…assuming the type found in” Army camps. Still, he cautioned not to be “panic stricken over exaggerated reports.”

He needn’t have worried about exaggeration; the newspapers were on his side. “Scientific Nursing Halting Epidemic,” an Inquirer headline blared. In truth, nurses had no impact because none were available: Out of 3,100 urgent requests for nurses submitted to one dispatcher, only 193 were provided. Krusen finally and belatedly ordered all schools closed and banned all public gatherings—yet a newspaper nonsensically said the order was not “a public health measure” and “there is no cause for panic or alarm.”

There was plenty of cause. At its worst, the epidemic in Philadelphia would kill 759 people…in one day. Priests drove horse-drawn carts down city streets, calling upon residents to bring out their dead; many were buried in mass graves. More than 12,000 Philadelphians died—nearly all of them in six weeks.

Across the country, public officials were lying. U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue said, “There is no cause for alarm if precautions are observed.” New York City’s public health director declared “other bronchial diseases and not the so-called Spanish influenza…[caused] the illness of the majority of persons who were reported ill with influenza.” The Los Angeles public health chief said, “If ordinary precautions are observed there is no cause for alarm.”

For an example of the press’s failure, consider Arkansas. Over a four-day period in October, the hospital at Camp Pike admitted 8,000 soldiers. Francis Blake, a member of the Army’s special pneumonia unit, described the scene: “Every corridor and there are miles of them with double rows of cots …with influenza patients…There is only death and destruction.” Yet seven miles away in Little Rock, a headline in the Gazette pretended yawns: “Spanish influenza is plain la grippe—same old fever and chills.”

People knew this was not the same old thing, though. They knew because the numbers were staggering—in San Antonio, 53 percent of the population got sick with influenza. They knew because victims could die within hours of the first symptoms—horrific symptoms, not just aches and cyanosis but also a foamy blood coughed up from the lungs, and bleeding from the nose, ears and even eyes. And people knew because towns and cities ran out of coffins.

People could believe nothing they were being told, so they feared everything, particularly the unknown. How long would it last? How many would it kill? Who would it kill? With the truth buried, morale collapsed. Society itself began to disintegrate.

In most disasters, people come together, help each other, as we saw recently with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. But in 1918, without leadership, without the truth, trust evaporated. And people looked after only themselves.

In Philadelphia, the head of Emergency Aid pleaded, “All who are free from the care of the sick at home… report as early as possible…on emergency work.” But volunteers did not come. The Bureau of Child Hygiene begged people to take in—just temporarily—children whose parents were dying or dead; few replied. Emergency Aid again pleaded, “We simply must have more volunteer helpers….These people are almost all at the point of death. Won’t you…come to our help?” Still nothing. Finally, Emergency Aid’s director turned bitter and contemptuous: “Hundreds of women…had delightful dreams of themselves in the roles of angels of mercy…Nothing seems to rouse them now…There are families in which the children are actually starving because there is no one to give them food. The death rate is so high and they still hold back.”

Philadelphia’s misery was not unique. In Luce County, Michigan, a couple and three children were all sick together, but, a Red Cross worker reported, “Not one of the neighbors would come in and help. I …telephoned the woman’s sister. She came and tapped on the window, but refused to talk to me until she had gotten a safe distance away.” In New Haven, Connecticut, John Delano recalled, “Normally when someone was sick in those days [people] would bring food over to other families but…Nobody was coming in, nobody would bring food in, nobody came to visit.” In Perry County, Kentucky, the Red Cross chapter chairman begged for help, pleaded that there were “hundreds of cases…[of] people starving to death not from lack of food but because the well were panic stricken and would not go near the sick.”


Prompted by the re-emergence of avian influenza, governments, NGOs and major businesses around the world have poured resources into preparing for a pandemic. Because of my history of the 1918 pandemic, The Great Influenza, I was asked to participate in some of those efforts.


Then there are the less glamorous measures, known as nonpharmaceutical interventions: hand-washing, telecommuting, covering coughs, staying home when sick instead of going to work and, if the pandemic is severe enough, widespread school closings and possibly more extreme controls. The hope is that “layering” such actions one atop another will reduce the impact of an outbreak on public health and on resources in today’s just-in-time economy. But the effectiveness of such interventions will depend on public compliance, and the public will have to trust what it is being told.

That is why, in my view, the most important lesson from 1918 is to tell the truth. Though that idea is incorporated into every preparedness plan I know of, its actual implementation will depend on the character and leadership of the people in charge when a crisis erupts.

I recall participating in a pandemic “war game” in Los Angeles involving area public health officials. Before the exercise began, I gave a talk about what happened in 1918, how society broke down, and emphasized that to retain the public’s trust, authorities had to be candid. “You don’t manage the truth,” I said. “You tell the truth.” Everyone shook their heads in agreement.

Next, the people running the game revealed the day’s challenge to the participants: A severe pandemic influenza virus was spreading around the world. It had not officially reached California, but a suspected case—the severity of the symptoms made it seem so—had just surfaced in Los Angeles. The news media had learned of it and were demanding a press conference.

The participant with the first move was a top-ranking public health official. What did he do? He declined to hold a press conference, and instead just released a statement: More tests are required. The patient might not have pandemic influenza. There is no reason for concern.

I was stunned. This official had not actually told a lie, but he had deliberately minimized the danger; whether or not this particular patient had the disease, a pandemic was coming. The official’s unwillingness to answer questions from the press or even acknowledge the pandemic’s inevitability meant that citizens would look elsewhere for answers, and probably find a lot of bad ones. Instead of taking the lead in providing credible information he instantly fell behind the pace of events. He would find it almost impossible to get ahead of them again. He had, in short, shirked his duty to the public, risking countless lives.

And that was only a game.

Similar to the dark months after Pearl Harbor

Thursday, May 14th, 2020

World War II offers valuable lessons for the current moment, but when many people picture the World War II economy, they’re thinking about how it operated by 1944 and 1945, when early problems had been solved and war production was at its peak:

By then, industries large and small had joined the war effort: Washing machine manufacturers made artillery shells. Vacuum cleaner companies made bomb fuses. Tanks, airplanes, and anti-aircraft guns rolled off assembly lines that had once produced automobiles. American industry produced more than 96,000 planes in 1940 alone — a 26-fold increase over the 3,611 airplanes produced in 1940. An official military history credits American war production in its heyday with “virtually determining the outcome of the war.”

The current state of the coronavirus pandemic, though, is far more similar to the dark months after Pearl Harbor, when US leaders faced the daunting task of transforming the US economy virtually overnight, than it is to those triumphant final years.

Then as now, every day mattered. In the first months of 1942, top US officials feared that due to lack of equipment, America might lose the war before it got a chance to start fighting it. Their primary goal was transforming the economy as fast as possible.


Their experience still has lessons for policymakers today. Here are five of them.

1) Centralize and coordinate the government’s purchases of medical equipment, including personal protective gear

Without effective coordination, states and the federal government have entered bidding wars for desperately needed medical equipment. Shipments to states have been confiscated, prompting elaborate schemes like Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s efforts to get 1 million N95 masks delivered to Massachusetts. Chaos reigns as hospitals try to sort through the confusion of disrupted supply chains. President Trump insists that the federal government is “not a shipping clerk,” but in fact such coordination is precisely the federal government’s role.

The US faced a similar problem during World War I, when purchasing was decentralized. Different branches of the military, including numerous departments within the Army, competed with each other in bidding for contracts. This led to production delays and increased prices for critical supplies.

In World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the War Production Board. Decisions about what equipment was needed were made by the military, but the board oversaw and coordinated all war production. Its initial role was to get production going in sufficient, previously unthinkable, quantities and to arrange new supply chains to ensure materials ended up in the right hands.

For relatively simple production orders, the board publicized production requirements for the goods it needed and facilitated matching products with interested firms. The more complex and difficult orders were sent to the large, established firms with the greatest expertise in relevant production processes.

But the board’s role did not diminish once production got going. Rather, its focus changed to ensuring that scarce resources were being allocated optimally. Since it takes time for suppliers to expand production to meet demand, ramping up war production so quickly led to short-run scarcity.

The War Production Board was subject to both extensive public scrutiny and congressional oversight from the Truman Committee. Its appeals board heard complaints from business and labor leaders, members of Congress, and state and local politicians. Because requirements were determined by the military, procurement decisions were largely apolitical. Researchers Paul Rhode, James Snyder Jr., and Koleman Strumpf found no evidence that World War II contract placement was systematically biased by political factors.


2) Repurpose existing institutions and take advantage of existing expertise

After Pearl Harbor, policymakers faced the need to transform the economy at a rapid pace. American policymakers feared the war could be lost before it had fully begun, so speed was paramount. One key element of the transition to a wartime economy was policymakers’ decision to transform existing institutions rather than create entirely new ones.

War Production Board Chair Donald Nelson left purchasing and procurement decisions in the hands of the armed forces, using the board to manage and coordinate. This was one of his most controversial decisions, but it was the right choice — at least for the initial phase of the war — for two reasons.

First, in 1942 as in 2020, every day mattered. Keeping purchasing and procurement in the hands of the agencies that had previously made these decisions saved precious time and allowed production to ramp up faster.

Second, only trained military officers had the expertise needed to evaluate whether specialized products such as airplanes, tanks, and radar met quality standards and fulfilled military needs. Nelson recognized that a civilian agency could not match the military’s expertise in determining such technical details.

Depression-era unemployment offices were also repurposed for the war. As unemployment fell sharply in the early 1940s, the US Employment Service pivoted from coordinating services for the unemployed to matching workers to war production jobs, helping employers find replacements for workers entering the military.


3) Availability of materials is a key constraint

During World War II, strategic materials, not labor or manufacturing capacity, proved to be the binding constraint on US wartime production.

That is likely to be just as true today. Constraints on manufacturing capacity are orders of magnitude less severe now than in WWII. More than $100 billion of military contracts were placed in the first six months of 1942, compared to $20 billion in defense contracts over all of 1941 and a 1941 GDP of $129 billion. Production capacity initially fell far short of what was needed for the war effort, even with extensive conversion of civilian manufacturing capacity. Today the US needs vast increases in the production of medical equipment, particularly ventilators, personal protective equipment, and test kits, but the total volume of equipment needed is significantly less than a full year’s GDP.


4) The crisis itself creates strong incentives for manufacturing firms to produce critical equipment

The US did not nationalize major industries to achieve its World War II production miracle. US war production relied primarily on manufacturing by private firms, as the war aligned manufacturing firms’ incentives with those of the nation.

The Defense Production Act is a good mechanism for mobilizing industry — indeed, it was written when the experience of WWII was recent memory — and should be used aggressively as needed.

But with clear and effective federal leadership, its necessary application may be narrow. There are other ways to push industry to produce needed supplies. A government guarantee to buy all medical equipment meeting stated specifications and produced by specified dates at a set price, combined with the incentives provided by the crisis itself, would provide enough incentive for most firms. Voluntary agreements authorized under the DPA would allow firms to cooperate effectively and scale production faster, mimicking the inter-firm cooperation that defined the home front during World War II.

A number of private firms are already converting their production lines to key equipment, from small distilleries making hand sanitizer to Ford Motor Company’s production of ventilators, even in the absence of clear leadership and communication from the federal government.

In WWII, most US firms faced a choice between sitting idle —a home appliance producer cannot produce appliances if it cannot acquire the metal needed to make its products — and participating in war work. The government’s control of raw materials created the incentives for firms to convert voluntarily: Firms that volunteered for war production were able to acquire inputs, while other firms were not.

There was also an overarching incentive for war production: The sooner firms produced the needed materials, the faster the war could be won, and the sooner everyone could get back to real life. That same overarching incentive exists today, and it is powerful.


5) The evidence supports a strategy of relief now and stimulus after the pandemic


My research found that the fiscal multiplier in WWII was much smaller than the typical multiplier because the savings rate was so high during the war. Many products, particularly durable goods, were not available for purchase during WWII because they were not produced at all. Consumer spending rebounded strongly after the war ended, particularly on goods, such as cars and appliances, that were not available during the war.

The experience of WWII suggests that when consumption options are significantly restricted, people may spend a smaller share of income than in other times. Specifically, the closest substitute for buying a particular good now is buying that good in the future, when it is available again, rather than buying another good. The extreme uncertainty of the current situation may also depress the multiplier, since people will delay making decisions and larger purchases.

Today, significant sectors of the US economy have ground to a halt, particularly the travel, arts, and restaurant industries. As in WWII, the ordinary lives of millions of Americans have been abruptly transformed. Significant portions of people’s regular consumption baskets are unavailable, even though no formal rationing has been enacted. So, as in WWII, the multiplier on relief spending may be lower than in a “normal” recession.

The evidence from World War II strongly backs up the paradigm that policy should focus on relief now and stimulus later. Targeting relief funds may help increase the multiplier to the extent that most relief funds are used to buy basic necessities. People who lose all or most of their income in this pandemic recession will be more likely to spend on necessities rather than saving, which would increase the fiscal multiplier. However, perfect targeting may be difficult to achieve quickly.

Further evidence from late in the Great Depression suggests that fiscal stimulus may be particularly effective after a long period of downturn, as it can support pent-up demand. This suggests that policymakers should focus on relief for as long as the pandemic continues, including with further rounds of such relief as needed, but then be sure to follow relief with broad-based stimulus to help the economy rebound.

We can now estimate the effect of blood doping

Wednesday, May 13th, 2020

Endure by Alex HutchinsonWe can now estimate the effect of blood doping, Alex Hutchinson notes, following the introduction of the Athlete Biological Passport in 2012:

The design of the study was straightforward. Iljukov and his colleagues looked at the top eight times from the Russian National Championships between 2008 and 2017 in the women’s 800, 1,500, 3,000 steeplechase, 5,000, and 10,000-meters. Anti-doping authorities started collecting longitudinal data to assemble biological passports in 2009, and began formally using the technique and applying sanctions sometime around 2011. Figuring that the deterrent effect of the ABP program started after the first bans were handed out, the researchers divided the results into two categories: 2008 to 2012, and 2013 to 2017.

There are a few different ways you can slice and dice the data, and the researchers also looked at other metrics like the number of athletes caught doping in these events and the number of Russian women hitting the Olympic qualifying standard. But the simplest outcome is the average of those top-eight times before and after the ABP. Here’s what that looks like for each of the five events analyzed:


For four of the five events, there’s a significant slowdown, ranging between 1.9 percent in the 800 and 3.4 percent in the 5,000. The only exception is the steeplechase, which was still a relatively new event for women in 2008, when it made its first appearance at the Olympics. The steeplechase also involves hurdling over barriers, which introduces an additional performance variable beyond pure endurance capacity.

One way of interpreting these findings, Iljukov says, is to conclude that for elite athletes, “a significant amount of blood transfusion could improve running times by 1 to 4 percent, depending on the distance, but on average 2 to 3 percent.” The paper compares this estimate with early studies of blood doping in elite athletes, including some old Soviet studies that don’t show up in the usual PubMed searches, which support the idea of a 1 to 4 percent range of improvement from a transfusion of 750 to 1,200 milliliters of blood.

These days, the ABP program makes it difficult to get away with adding that much blood to your system. Instead, would-be cheaters are limited to microdosing with small amounts of blood. Iljukov guesses that this might still give a one-second edge to an elite 800-meter runner—far from fair, but much better than the previous situation. Of course, this deterrent only works if the athletes in question are being regularly tested to generate sufficient data for a biological passport.

White manual workers once expected that the American Dream would come true for them

Tuesday, May 12th, 2020

In 2015 life expectancy began falling for the first time since the height of the AIDS crisis in 1993:

The causes — mainly suicides, alcohol-related deaths, and drug overdoses — claim roughly 190,000 lives each year.

The casualties are concentrated in the rusted-out factory towns and depressed rural areas left behind by globalization, automation, and downsizing, but as the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton demonstrate in their new book, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, they are also rampant in large cities. Those most vulnerable are distinguished not by where they live but by their race and level of education. Virtually the entire increase in mortality has been among white adults without bachelor’s degrees — some 70 percent of all whites. Blacks, Hispanics, college-educated whites, and Europeans also succumb to suicide, drug overdoses, and alcohol-related deaths, but at much lower rates that have risen little, if at all, over time.

The disparity is most stark in middle age. Since the early 1990s, the death rate for forty-five-to-fifty-four-year-old white Americans with a BA has fallen by 40 percent, but has risen by 25 percent for those without a BA. Although middle-aged blacks are still more likely to die than middle-aged whites, their mortality has also fallen by more than 30 percent since the early 1990s. Similar declines occurred among middle-aged French, Swedish, and British people over the same period.


White manual workers once expected that the American Dream would come true for them. In Kathryn Newman’s remarkably prescient study of downsizing, Falling from Grace (1988), older people recalled that Elizabeth, New Jersey — where 18 percent of residents now live in poverty — was once a “place of grandeur, where ladies and gentlemen in fine dress promenaded down the main avenue on Sunday.” The Singer Sewing Machine company employed over 10,000 workers, roughly a tenth of the city’s population. The company awarded scholarships to children, sponsored baseball games, and hosted dances and bar mitzvahs in its recreation hall. Each sewing machine had a label, and if returned with a defect, the man who’d made it would fix it himself.

The last American Singer plant closed decades ago, along with thousands of other factories. There were 19.5 million decently paying US manufacturing jobs in 1979, compared to around 12 million today, when the population is almost 50 percent larger.

Serious endurance training makes sitting sort of OK

Monday, May 11th, 2020

Endure by Alex HutchinsonThere are a bunch of different theories about what makes prolonged sitting so bad, Alex Hutchinson notes, but one of them relates to the associated reduction in blood flow in your legs:

Your blood vessels sense the frictional drag of blood rushing past the vessel walls, and respond by producing molecules such as nitric oxide that help keep the vessels supple and responsive. If you spend too much time sitting, this signal is reduced, and you end up with blood vessels that are stiffer and less capable of dilating and contracting in response to changes in blood flow. Over time, that leaves you more likely to develop atherosclerosis, a hardening and narrowing of the arteries, and ultimately heart disease.

You can test how responsive your blood vessels are with a technique called flow-mediated dilation. Basically, you temporarily restrict blood flow with an inflatable cuff like the ones doctors use to measure your blood pressure, then release the cuff and see how much the vessels dilate in response. If you take this measurement before and after a three-hour bout of sitting, you find that the amount of dilation is dramatically reduced after sitting—a bad sign for the health of your arteries.

That’s the protocol used in the new study, which compared 10 male cyclists from the university’s racing team with matched controls who didn’t do any regular endurance training. The graph below shows the percentage increase in blood flow through the lower leg’s popliteal artery when the cuff is released. On the left, you can see that even before sitting, the trained cyclists (black) have a somewhat bigger response than the control group (white), which is expected since endurance training enhances baseline levels of nitric oxide. But the starkest difference, on the right, emerges after three hours of sitting.


The bout of sitting almost wipes out the flow-mediated dilation response in the control group, but it barely changes in the cyclists. Hooray! I can leave my desk in the sitting position for another hour!

Bryan Caplan’s emergency homeschooling how-to guide

Sunday, May 10th, 2020

Bryan Caplan offers his emergency homeschooling how-to guide:

The foremost question for any homeschooler is: What are you trying to accomplish? My answer is twofold:

1. Teach kids what they need to know to become self-supporting adults, even if it isn’t fun.

2. Give kids a happy childhood.

In pursuit of goal #1, I focus heavily on mathematics. Why? Because most good jobs in the modern world require strong math skills, and very few kids like math enough to learn it on their own. I also mandate reading and writing — but I don’t especially care what they read or what they write about. Indeed, the best route is if they read and write whatever excites them most.

In pursuit of goal #2, I give kids ample breaks, a long lunch (at cheap restaurants in healthy conditions), and plenty of outdoor time. If there’s any academic subject outside math, reading, and writing that they enjoy, I energetically support them. But I don’t burden them with any additional mandatory work — not even economics. I naturally encourage kids to consider the possibility that they might change their minds, but I don’t push.

My other goal, frankly, is to do my own job while my kids learn. Most emergency homeschoolers are probably in the same position. How are you supposed juggle your kids’ education and your job simultaneously? The answer: With calm but strict discipline. Specifically:

1. Create a tentative schedule and share it with your kids — then enforce it like clockwork. This means more initial effort for you, but will quickly pay for itself in both time and frustration.

2. On day one, run diagnostic tests to find out what your students already know. Assign tasks with a wide range of difficulties. Once you find the easiest thing they don’t know well, have them practice until they can do it well. Especially for young kids, don’t worry about completing a curriculum by a specific date. Just know your final destination and start marching. Tell your kids they’ll learn new tasks as soon as they master the material they’re doing. Drill, drill, drill.

3. If your kids have short attention spans, build more breaks into the schedule — but then enforce that schedule. If your kids need to run around, build that into the schedule too.

4. Build parental feedback time into your schedule, then require kids to hold their questions until the scheduled time. This is crucial if you want to get your own work done.

5. Start the day with the most boring material. For 95% of kids, that means math.

6. Reliably respond to misbehavior with calm but firm enforcement. Don’t express anger — but don’t feel sorry for them. There is great wisdom in the tautology that, “The rules are the rules.”

7. Don’t judge case-by-case; except in extreme circumstances (e.g. vomiting), remind off-task kids of the schedule and tell them to keep working. Don’t be afraid to use mild punishments to address misbehavior — but scrupulously enforce all the punishments you announce. It is better to turn a blind eye than to make idle threats.

8. Remember: The main cause of unhappiness is the disparity between what you expect and what happens. Similarly, the main cause of parent-child conflict is the disparity between what you expect and what your kids expect. Once your kids take their schedule for granted, they will feel better about the situation. Once everyone knows what to expect, conflict fades away… usually. Remember: If your own parental weakness makes you miserable, you will be unpleasant company for your kids. So think of the children — ultimately they too will suffer if you let them push your around!

9. Be open to constructive student feedback outside of learning time. During learning time, though, stick to the schedule.

10. Don’t tell kids that something is “fun” if they resent it. Just be honest and remind them that some boring work has a big long-run payoff. Before you tell them so, though, critically assess whether the boring task does in fact have a big long-run payoff. Sorry, mandatory musical instruction is absurd. If kids have to suffer, they should suffer for their own benefit — not your pride.


I bought almost all of the Humble Math workbooks, found out my kids’ current level, and set them to work. I can’t say they’re delighted, but at least they’re making good progress and look forward to the breaks. The reading and writing are easier sells. And at the end of the day during Activity period, we exercise outside, then learn about whatever’s on their minds. So far, contagious disease is a hot topic – we’ve studied smallpox, Spanish flu, and more – complete with graphic medical photos from the internet. Personally, I’d like to teach more economics, but I’ll wait until they’re more curious.

I haven’t looked at Humble Math, but I’ve been impressed by Beast Academy.

The data you get when you go out and test people without symptoms is different from the data you get when you only test those who show up in a hospital

Saturday, May 9th, 2020

Testing residents of San Francisco’s Mission District for Covid-19 revealed that the data you get when you go out and test people without symptoms is different from the data you get when you only test those who show up in a hospital:

Slightly more than 2% of the people tested in the four square blocks currently have the coronavirus, for instance. Only 1 in 10 of them has a fever and most have no symptoms at all — which is to say that, absent the testing, they’d probably still be walking around and infecting people without knowing it.

There was more. Of the 981 white people tested, zero have the virus. Latinos are only 44% of the study but 95% of the positives. Men are a bit more than half of the sample but 75% of the positives. Just over half of the people tested say they’re unable to work from home — but that group registers 90% positive. Being in a crowded house appears to be a problem: nearly 30% of the positives come from households of more than five people, though those households make up only 15% of the population. Being poor is a bigger problem: people earning less than $50,000 a year are 89% of the positives, though only 39% of the group studied. Only a quarter of the people with the virus have a primary care doctor. Six of the people with the virus still haven’t been located by the researchers, and informed that they’re ill.

Do you understand what a “95% confidence interval” means?

Friday, May 8th, 2020

Do you understand what a “95% confidence interval” means?, Peter Attia asks:

  1. Distance from earth to nearest star (excluding sun), in light-years
    95% confidence interval: [ _________ , _________ ]
  2. GDP of Mongolia, in USD
    95% confidence interval: [ _________ , _________ ]
  3. Height of tallest man in recorded history, in inches
    95% confidence interval: [ _________ , _________ ]
  4. Depth of deepest part of Pacific Ocean, in meters
    95% confidence interval: [ _________ , _________ ]
  5. Average distance from earth to moon, in miles
    95% confidence interval: [ _________ , _________ ]
  6. Population of Russia in 2019
    95% confidence interval: [ _________ , _________ ]
  7. Maximum number of passengers carried on Emirates A380 aircraft (two-class layout)
    95% confidence interval: [ _________ , _________ ]
  8. Number of passengers who died on the Titanic
    95% confidence interval: [ _________ , _________ ]
  9. Market capitalization of Apple on the day Steve Jobs died, in USD
    95% confidence interval: [ _________ , _________ ]
  10. Fastest lap time in an F1 car around the Monaco circuit, in min:sec
    95% confidence interval: [ _________ , _________ ]
  11. Number of regular season goals scored by Wayne Gretzky in his NHL career
    95% confidence interval: [ _________ , _________ ]
  12. NASAs budget for the year 2019, in USD
    95% confidence interval: [ _________ , _________ ]
  13. Number of Big Macs sold globally in a year (on average) by McDonalds
    95% confidence interval: [ _________ , _________ ]
  14. Number of students from China attending U.S. colleges in the 2018-2019 academic year
    95% confidence interval: [ _________ , _________ ]
  15. Total number of passengers flying domestically on U.S. airlines in 2019
    95% confidence interval: [ _________ , _________ ]
  16. Amount of coal produced by U.S. mines in 2019, in pounds
    95% confidence interval: [ _________ , _________ ]
  17. Breeds eligible to compete at the 144th Westminster Kennel Dog Show
    95% confidence interval: [ _________ , _________ ]
  18. Number of total worldwide searches processed by Google each day
    95% confidence interval: [ _________ , _________ ]
  19. Full weight (including planes, ammunition, people) of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, in pounds
    95% confidence interval: [ _________ , _________ ]
  20. Number of times that the name “Jesus” appears in the King James bible
    95% confidence interval: [ _________ , _________ ]


This is one of the key concepts in How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of Intangibles in Business, by Douglas W. Hubbard.

It will be an interesting autumn

Wednesday, May 6th, 2020

Walter Russell Mead explores what Trump has in common with Napoleon:

Early on, Napoleon had such advantages that nobody could beat him. The strong nationalism of revolutionary France meant that his conscript armies could march farther and faster than other armies—following routes and tactics that were impossible for others, and thereby difficult for opposing generals to anticipate and counteract.

Mr. Trump’s secret weapon in 2016 was similar: a base so engaged and committed that it would stand in line for hours to get a ticket to his rallies. His voters turned out in droves and could be summoned against elected Republicans who tried to defy him. U.S. politics had never seen a force quite like this, and Mr. Trump’s opponents had no idea how to counter it.

Napoleon had other advantages. Thanks to long study, he knew the terrain of his marches in ways that others didn’t, and he combined that with an intuitive grasp of tactics that enabled him to quickly read the key to a battle. At the siege of Toulon, the 24-year-old Napoleon observed that a hill overlooking the harbor could, if occupied by French artillery, pour down such devastating fire on the British fleet that it would have no choice but to withdraw, and without the fleet’s support, the antirevolutionary rebels couldn’t defend the town. That was the stroke that launched his career; he would have many more.

The combination of intense preparation and strategic intuition was critical to Mr. Trump’s rise as well. He studied his battle terrain—public opinion—through long careers as a casino developer and a reality-television host. And his intuitive grasp of the power of issues like trade and immigration to upend U.S. politics left his Republican and Democratic opponents sputtering with rage and surprise.

Napoleon’s sheer cynicism and audacity repeatedly flabbergasted opponents who were accustomed to the slower and more honorable way in which both war and diplomacy had previously been conducted. Mr. Trump’s vitriolic personal attacks, detachment from conventional standards of truthfulness, and disregard for every convention of normal political life often have had the same effect on his opponents.

But by the time of the Russian campaign, Napoleon’s magic was beginning to fade. First in Spain, then in Russia and Germany, French arrogance and Napoleonic tyranny turned not only elite but mass opinion against him. By the 1813 Battle of the Nations in Leipzig, Napoleon faced troops at least as motivated as his own. Millions of Democrats are now as angry and energized as Mr. Trump’s base was in 2016; it will be an interesting autumn.

In Russia, Napoleon’s greatest skills were largely useless. He couldn’t destroy enemy forces in a decisive battle, as the enemy kept retreating. His ability to execute brilliant tactical maneuvers using intricate road networks wasn’t useful in a country with few maps and fewer roads. And the survival of his army would ultimately depend on something he could not provide: an adequate supply line with hay for the horses, and food and winter clothing for the men.

The pandemic puts Mr. Trump at a similar disadvantage. He can’t hold mass rallies in a time of social distancing. He can’t find a cure. He can’t cast the blame on his opponents. And personal protective equipment and tests remain obstinately scarce.

South Korea has a rule for everything

Monday, May 4th, 2020

After two months of intensive social distancing, South Korea is about to open up, and it has a rule for everything:

When meeting in an office, people will wear masks. At meals, diners will sit next to each other or in a zigzag pattern, not directly across. Hotel rooms will be ventilated for 15 minutes after travelers check out. Visitors at zoos and aquariums must stand 6 feet apart. Shouting and hugging will be discouraged at sporting events. So will high-fives.


When Korean tourists descend on the resort island of Jeju during public holidays this week, the strictures say they should be wearing masks. Hotels and restaurants will take their temperature before letting them in, and people will be required to sanitize their hands before shopping at stores.


All churches must take attendance of worshipers, to ease contact tracing later, and everyone must wear masks indoors.


Cashiers are out. The guidelines say shoppers should use unmanned payment kiosks or widely available mobile payments instead of exchanging cash. The country is one of the world’s least cash-dependent, but authorities want the elderly to take up the habit as well. Tickets to concerts and amusement parks should be reserved online.

The VIPS steakhouse chain rearranged tables to put them 3 feet apart and provided disposable silverware and gloves at the salad bar this month. To minimize contact, waiters let customers leave before collecting their plates.

Lots of intrigue punctuated by long pauses to zoom in on the faces

Sunday, May 3rd, 2020

India’s public broadcaster Doordarshan, or DD, hasn’t dominated the ratings there for years, but it started rerunning its 78-party Ramayan during the nationwide lockdown:

Doordarshan viewership has since jumped to hundreds of times regular levels in some slots, reaching hundreds of millions of viewers, according to television ratings company Broadcast Audience Research Council of India. The series is set to end this week.

Suman Nagalia, 69, loved Ramayan when it first came out in 1987 and is now watching it again with her children and grandchildren. Her extended family of eight enjoying it together has helped reassure her during the nationwide shut down.


The television show’s brightly lighted scenes stuffed with colorful characters and extras in wigs, heavy makeup and bright costumes bring to mind grand old movies like “The Wizard of Oz.” The pace is more telenovela: lots of intrigue punctuated by long pauses to zoom in on the faces of actors reacting.

Ramayan Viewing

The new generation of Ramayan fans are sharing Ramayan memes on Twitter and TikTok videos of kids lip syncing dialogue and families worshiping the images of the gods by putting garlands near their televisions. There is even a hashtag, the #Ramayaneffect, to describe, for example, how children are purportedly more respectful after watching the show.

Arun Govil, 68, the actor who starred as the hero Ram, experienced adulation during its first run but says it has reached a new level this time as possibly even more Indians are watching it than in the ’80s.

He had basically ignored social media until last month, when the followers on his Facebook account shot up to more than one million. He started posting life-lesson videos for them and has been swamped with messages.

Average rush-hour speed rose from 39 to 61 mph

Saturday, May 2nd, 2020

Fewer drivers are hitting the road during the pandemic, yet police in some places are seeing an increase in deadly car crashes:

Minnesota and Louisiana recorded more traffic fatalities during the coronavirus crisis than in the same periods of past years, even though there were far fewer drivers on the road because of stay-at-home orders. In states including Missouri, fatality rates increased even as total crash deaths declined, according to state officials.

Speeding is a top cause of crash deaths in the U.S., and highway officials say it is a major culprit in the recent carnage.

Between March 16 and April 21, 35 people died in car crashes across Minnesota — the most in that period in at least six years. At the same time, state officials say, about half as many cars as normal have been cruising along the state’s roads.


In Louisiana, where officials say traffic fell by about one-third after a March stay-at-home order, initial figures show that from March 16 to April 20, the number of fatal crashes rose to 66 from 61 during the same period in 2019, the Louisiana State Police said. Lack of seat-belt usage, impairment and distraction were factors, officials said.


Passenger vehicle miles traveled, a measure of traffic volume, fell in every state, from 31% in Arkansas to 61% in New Jersey during the April 13-17 period compared with the last week of February, according to transportation analytics firm Inrix.

Roads in the 10 biggest metro areas have emptied, with volume down 63% in the New York City region. Meanwhile, cars are going faster during morning and evening rush hours, Inrix found in comparing April 13-17 with the first two weeks of March. The biggest jump in the 10 metro areas came in Los Angeles, where the average 5 p.m. speed rose from about 39 mph to 61 mph on limited-access roads and highways.

Some places have recorded far fewer crash deaths despite an increase in speeding. The California Highway Patrol said there were 10 fatal collisions in the month following the March 19 launch of a statewide stay-at-home order, compared with an average of 150 in that span during the previous four years, based on preliminary data. A spokeswoman pointed to stepped-up public education and enforcement as possible factors.

That said, the highway patrol wrote about 2,500 speeding tickets to drivers caught going more than 100 mph. That was an 87% jump from a year earlier, despite a roughly 35% drop in traffic volume on state roads.

They have been forced to watch in frustration as the insects devoured their farms and gardens

Friday, May 1st, 2020

This has been quite a year. Now Africa is expecting a record wave of locusts:

First came the floods. The waters swamped bean and corn fields and created a breeding ground for a swarm of desert locusts the size of Manhattan that fanned out and destroyed a swath of farmland across eight East African nations as large as Oklahoma earlier this year.

Now their offspring are threatening a historic infestation—a second wave of locusts, 20 times as large as the first, that the U.N. warns could chew their way through 2 million square miles of pastureland, farms and gardens, around half the size of Western Europe.

The swarms, which would be by far the largest on record, are expected to descend as the new coronavirus accelerates across East Africa, raising the prospect of a double-shock to some of the world’s poorest and most heavily-indebted economies.


Compounding the problem, Gen. Kavuma’s unit also spends much of its time on the lookout for people violating stay-at-home orders as Ugandan authorities attempt to halt the spread of the transmission of the coronavirus. Uganda’s lockdown is one of the world’s strictest. During the previous infestation, farmers banged drums, whistled and threw stones to protect their crops. But in recent days they have been forced to watch in frustration as the insects devoured their farms and gardens, trapped inside by fear of the virus and the security forces enforcing the lockdown.

Farmers are trapped inside?