On working with noise

Many people are working from home these days, often with more (or different) distractions than usual, not least the other people in the house. About two thousand years ago, the Roman philosopher Seneca faced related problems. He discussed them in his essay “On quiet and study.” He sets the scene:

I have lodgings right over a bathing establishment. So picture to yourself the assortment of sounds, which are strong enough to make me hate my very powers of hearing! When your strenuous gentleman, for example, is exercising himself by flourishing leaden weights; when he is working hard, or else pretends to be working hard, I can hear him grunt; and whenever he releases his imprisoned breath, I can hear him panting in wheezy and high-pitched tones. Or perhaps I notice some lazy fellow, content with a cheap rubdown, and hear the crack of the pummeling hand on his shoulder, varying in sound according as the hand is laid on flat or hollow. Then, perhaps, a professional comes along, shouting out the score; that is the finishing touch. Add to this the arresting of an occasional roysterer or pickpocket, the racket of the man who always likes to hear his own voice in the bathroom, or the enthusiast who plunges into the swimming-tank with unconscionable noise and splashing. Besides all those whose voices, if nothing else, are good, imagine the hair-plucker with his penetrating, shrill voice, – for purposes of advertisement, – continually giving it vent and never holding his tongue except when he is plucking the armpits and making his victim yell instead. Then the cake-seller with his varied cries, the sausageman, the confectioner, and all the vendors of food hawking their wares, each with his own distinctive intonation.

But wait, he says, maybe the noise is actually on the inside.

By this time I have toughened my nerves against all that sort of thing, so that I can endure even a boatswain marking the time in high-pitched tones for his crew. For I force my mind to concentrate, and keep it from straying to things outside itself; all outdoors may be bedlam, provided that there is no disturbance within, provided that fear is not wrangling with desire in my breast, provided that meanness and lavishness are not at odds, one harassing the other. For of what benefit is a quiet neighbourhood, if our emotions are in an uproar? … You may therefore be sure that you are at peace with yourself, when no noise reaches you, when no word shakes you out of yourself, whether it be of flattery or of threat, or merely an empty sound buzzing about you with unmeaning din.

Then again, maybe it’s easier just to find a quieter room.

“What then?” you say, “is it not sometimes a simpler matter just to avoid the uproar?” I admit this. Accordingly, I shall change from my present quarters. I merely wished to test myself and to give myself practice. Why need I be tormented any longer, when Ulysses found so simple a cure for his comrades even against the songs of the Sirens? Farewell.

I recommend the whole short essay, which you can read here.

Research and answers

Peter Dizikes has a nice profile of economist Amy Finkelstein and her work in health economics in the MIT Technology Review. If you’re not familiar with her work, Finkelstein won the John Bates Clark Medal in 2012 and a MacArthur “genius” fellowship in 2018. (You can find her research here.) Dizikes includes a quote from Finkelstein that really captures the motivation for research that I feel.

“If you made me king or queen of the world, it’s not obvious how we should be designing our health-care system,” she says. “Which makes me a very bad cocktail party conversationalist, because when people say ‘What do you think of Medicare for All?’ or ‘How should we design health insurance?’ my usual reaction is ‘Well, I don’t know the answer, and that’s why I work on it.’ There are a lot of things I know or think I know the answer to, but those are not the things I do research on.” (emphasis added)

I’ve worked in development economics for some years now, and I’ve carried out repeated research on a few topics: education (especially teachers); social safety nets (especially cash transfers); and health. This research has certainly given me views on topics, but there are so many things to know and there are so many different contexts with different variables that I usually go into new research projects with little idea of what I’ll find, even in areas where I’ve worked before.

Here’s to finding new answers through good research.

Introducing Development Economics as Choose-Your-Own Adventure

I sometimes get the opportunity to give a brief introduction to development economics to students of various types. In the past, I’ve written about introducing development economics to middle schoolers in 20 minutes, introducing high school students to development economics with chocolate, and a practical activity for teaching regression discontinuity design that I’ve used with government workers in various countries.

Last week, I spoke to a group of undergraduate economics majors in a development economics class about development economics in practice. Like those popular Choose Your Own Adventure books from my childhood, I turned control of the lecture over to the students. In case it’s useful, here’s a recap of what I did.

Slide1

Since these students are already studying development economics, I didn’t explain what it is, but I did explain how I practice it, in two parts. First, I research solutions to alleviate poverty; and second, I work with governments and others to incorporate that evidence into policy. I provided a little bit of photographic evidence.

Slide2

I talked briefly about the two places where I’ve spent most of my career – the World Bank and the Center for Global Development.

Then, I put up my own low-stakes Jeopardy board with 30 of my finished or ongoing research projects and randomly selected students to pick a project to hear a little bit about. Each square linked to a slide with a little bit of information about the study. For each one, I discussed the research question, the finding, and a little bit about the interaction with policymakers.

Slide4

I only got through a handful of topics in each class (I taught two classes). Over the course of just 25 minutes, the students got a practical sense of the array of work a development economist gets to work on along with some of the ups and downs of trying to influence policy. You can scroll through the individual study slides below.

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It was fun to deliver and to seemed like it was fun for the students. They got to decide what they thought was interesting. What are your favorite tips for introducing development economics research to students?

The top 10 graphic works of 2019

I compiled 11 “best of 2019” lists for graphic novels, graphic memoirs, comics, and the like, and one graphic novel was on seven of the lists: Clyde Fansby Seth.

Another was on six of the lists: Rusty Brown, by Chris Ware.

Rusty Brown by Chris Ware

Eight more graphic novels or memoirs were on three “best of” lists each.

You can see the full list of 89 graphic works that appear on any of the 11 “best of” lists, as well as my compilations from previous years, here.

I read 114 books in 2019. Here are the ones I loved and the ones I didn’t.

Over the course of 2019, I read or listened to 114 books. I adored some, loved many, liked many more, and there were only a few I was unexcited about. Here are the best and the rest.

Books I adored

Among my favorite books of the year are some novels (A General Theory of Oblivion, There There, Mockingbird), short stories (What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky), memoirs (The Lights of Pointe-Noire, The Girl who Smiled Beads, How Dare the Sun Rise), autobiography (Barracoon), poetry (The Sea-Migrations: Tahriib), and one graphic novel (Akissi: Tales of Mischief).

Books I loved

I loved a lot of books this year, so I’ll split these into categories.

Nonfiction I loved

Graphic novels and graphic memoirs that I loved

Fiction I loved

Books I really liked

Nonfiction I really liked

Graphic novels and graphic memoirs I really liked

Fiction I really liked

Poems and plays I really liked

Books that I liked (just, you know, not quite as much)

Books that often had a few ideas or images that really spoke to me but that otherwise I couldn’t really figure out. (No regrets!)

Which books did I get wrong? What were your favorites of the year?

I saw 83 movies in 2019. Here are the ones I loved and the ones I didn’t.

I enjoy movies! I watch movies alone, with my spouse, with my kids, with friends, with my parents, with my siblings. (I haven’t watched a movie with an archenemy yet, but I’m working on it.) Here is what I saw this year. Some are first-time watches; some are rewatches. A few movies appear twice, which indicates that I saw them more than once this year.

Movies I adored

Movies I loved (just, you know, a little less)

Movies I didn’t love but still really enjoyed

Movies I enjoyed reasonably well

Movies that I enjoyed at least some even though they weren’t that great

Movies I hated

Null set. What can I say? I enjoy movies!

Read African Writers: Beyond the Rice Fields, by Naivo

beyond the rice fieldsmadagascarUntil two weeks ago, Beyond the Rice Fields — by Naivo — was the only novel by a Malagasy writer to have been translated into English. The translator, Allison Charette, doubled that number this month with her newly released translation of Ravaloson’s Return to the Enchanted Island.

Beyond the Rice Fields visits Madagascar during the first half of the nineteenth century. A young boy, Tsito, and his family are captured in the forest and sold as slaves. Tsito ends up serving a family with a daughter, Fara, with whom he falls in love. Their story takes place against the backdrop of massive upheaval in Madagascar, with a queen heavily persecuting converts to Christianity and others judged disloyal. Naivo balances an intimate portrayal of Tsito’s and Fara’s lives — the book’s narration alternates between them — with the country’s political shifts. Other characters — Fara’s mother and grandmother, Tsito’s patron, an older slave who serves as a mentor — flesh out the picture. This glimpse into Malagasy history and Naivo’s imagination is well worth the read.

Here is how this ended up being the first Malagasy novel translated into English.

Here are a few lines I liked:
  • One character observes how Madagascar is changing: This is a sacred land, but it is adrift, at the mercy of outside interests, foreign dealings that go far beyond us. This land is rich, but we’re leaving it fit for pigs and stray dogs.”
  • On the subtle art of persuasion: “I just told him that the next time, I’d rip his head off with my own bare hands. Sometimes you need to make a convincing argument.”
  • And, an economist’s favorite euphemism for death: A man “has left for the market of no return.”
Here is what some others thought of the book:
  • Kate Prengel, Words without Borders: “Beyond the Rice Fields is a spiraling, dense, and prickly work, difficult to access until the foreign reader has agreed to put in some time and effort. But once the effort is put in, it is richly rewarding.”
  • Meg Nola, Foreword Reviews: “With quiet surety, the novel pairs an elegantly poetic narrative with an intensifying brutality of events as Madagascar finds itself beset by internal strife, French industrialism, and the zealous efforts of Christian missionaries.”
  • Publishers Weekly: “Naivo provides readers with an astonishing amount of information about Madagascar’s culture and past.”
  • Ann Morgan, A Year of Reading the World: “Vivid, thought-provoking narration; rich, mind-furnishing imagery; and an insight into a place and time that has hitherto been absent from the English-language literary landscape.”

This is book #50 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019. You can read reviews of all the books here.