Ixcanul: A celebration and a caution around indigenous culture

This week I saw Ixcanul (a word in the Mayan language Kaqchikel for “volcano”), a beautiful, compelling movie about a young Mayan woman in rural Guatemala who seeks to rebel against the life laid out for her. Just when I though the plot was unfolding in predictable ways, it surprised me again and again.

Maria and her family are tenant farmers, speak only Mayan, and observe traditional practices, which the film observes and admires. But at the same time, each encounter with the Spanish-speaking world reveals the enormous disadvantage this family is at. They can never speak for themselves, as demonstrated in this exchange when a woman comes to take the population census.

health-department

The ultimate results of this communication barrier — which parallels a massive socioeconomic gap — are disastrous. The film is devastating and gorgeous. See it.

Other reviews: 100% on Rotten Tomatoes with 28 reviews and 83/100 on Metacritic (“Universal acclaim”) with 16 reviews.

The trailer

In the US, it’s currently streaming on Netflix and is rentable on Youtube and Amazon, at least.

How development economists think about development vs how other economists think about development?

In a recent EconTalk episode, Russ Roberts interviews Chris Blattman about his experiment with Stefan Dercon on sweatshops in Ethiopia. 

This exchange amused me.

BLATTMAN: Getting a bad shock when you’re poor means–

ROBERTS: Death.

BLATTMAN: –can mean really terrible things. For these guys, not death. If you have a Grade 8 education in Ethiopia and you have a family that can support you, they’re outside option in the end is living at home and not having anything to do and not being able to contribute to the family, not having any spending money, and maybe having a harder time finding a husband or a wife. Maybe also bad things happen in the household. Maybe you’re contributing to your younger brother going to private school. But these people are not on the margins of death. This isn’t who sweatshops are hiring, at least in this case.

This is NOT to critique the great work that Russ Roberts does on the EconTalk podcast.

But it’s a reminder that many choices in developing countries are not about life or death, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have major implications for human well-being.

Why every academic should have a Twitter profile

If you are interested in greater exposure for your research, I recommend that you create a Twitter account with a recognizable, professional picture and a link to the page where you list your research. You can just use the picture from your research page, if you have one there. (The picture isn’t even essential; your affiliation and the link to your research website will do.)

I recommend this even if you have no intention of using Twitter. I recommend this even if you think Twitter is a waste of time.

Here is why: People who want to popularize research are on Twitter. Other researchers are on Twitter. When someone mentions your research on Twitter, then they often will “tag” you IF you have a recognizable Twitter profile. That tag means that curious people can click over to your profile, then EASILY follow the link to your research page and learn about the rest of your research. 
There are good reasons not to be active on Twitter. I’m listening to Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, and he makes the case that social media gets an outsize influence because we don’t have good metrics of productive impact. So we spend time chasing short-run retweets and likes rather than serious impact from concentrated, uninterrupted work. All good.

But in this case, the cost is low and fixed, probably ten minutes of your time. Again, this isn’t an argument to be active on Twitter. Just make it easy for the people who ARE on Twitter to find your work.

Here’s mine:

In January and February of this year, about 10,000 people have visited my profile page. Some (probably small) fraction of those clicked through to read more about my work.

What do you think? Why am I wrong?

Revenge is a dish best served cold. Twelve years cold. In a production of the Tempest. Performed by prison inmates.

A review of Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed

Felix Phillips is the artistic director of a theater festival. His style is avant-garde: “What was so bad about MacBeth done with chainsaws? Topical. Direct.” But he is pushed out by an underhanded business partner and goes off the grid for twelve years. He starts running a Shakespeare class for inmates at a local prison, and his plans for vengeance ensue. The whole novel is written with eager delight, pushing the plot forward. I couldn’t stop listening to it. 

Margaret Atwood has written an update to the Tempest in which the protagonist is fired during a production of the Tempest, enacts his vengeance during another production of the Tempest, all while his life adheres to the broad outlines of the Tempest. Despite some required suspension of disbelief, it’s an adventure.

You don’t need to be a Tempest expert to enjoy this, but I’d recommend skimming a plot summary of the Bard’s original, just to put Atwood in context.

Odds and ends

On paying taxes: “Such was the minimum price to be paid for the privilege of walking around on the earth’s crust and continuing to breathe, eat, and sh**, he thought sourly.”

On getting fired: “Felix climbed into his unsatisfactory car and drove out of the parking lot, into the rest of his life.”

On swearing: During the class, prisoners had a running competition. They could only use swear words found in the text of the play, and they lost points for any other swears.

Don’t believe me? Read other reviews.

POSITIVE

Viv Groskop, The Guardian: “This is written with such gusto and mischief that it feels so much like something Atwood would have written anyway. The joy and hilarity of it just sing off the page. It’s a magical eulogy to Shakespeare, leading the reader through a fantastical reworking of the original but infusing it with ironic nods to contemporary culture, thrilling to anyone who knows The Tempest intimately, but equally compelling to anyone not overly familiar with the work….It’s riotous, insanely readable and just the best fun.”

Rebecca Abrams, Financial Times: “Rap songs, Disney dolls, video montages and special effects spin her version off into a deliciously brave new world of its own….Hag-Seed is not only a fine example of the shape-shifting versatility of Shakespeare’s texts, but a successful novel in its own right….Hag-Seed displays Atwood’s inventiveness at its shining best, a novel that enchants on its own terms and returns you to the enchantments of the original.”

MIXED

Emily St. John Mandel, The New York Times: “The novel to this point is a marvel of gorgeous yet economical prose, in the service of a story that’s utterly heartbreaking yet pierced by humor, with a plot that retains considerable subtlety even as the original’s back story falls neatly into place. But the prison production of “The Tempest” leads to some of the book’s clunkiest elements.”

Books and authors mentioned in the book (read by the prisoners), besides Shakespeare:

  • Catcher in the Rye
  • Stephen King
  • Curious Incidence of the Dog in the Nighttime 

Chris Blattman on the incubation of ideas until opportunity strikes

Is a factory job better than a cash grant and some training? Chris Blattman and Stefan Dercon have a recent study in Ethiopia where they test these two options with a randomized-controlled trial. Back in December, Chris Blattman discussed with study with Russ Roberts on the EconTalk podcast.

In one interesting bit, Blattman highlights how holding onto an idea and repeatedly seeking an opportunity to implement it can ultimately bear fruit. I transcribed it (abridging a little for readability).

Since you have 300 people lining up for these jobs, instead of taking the first 50 in line who are qualified for the job and hiring them, why not see if we can find a factory owner who will find 150 who are qualified and instead of taking the first 50, we’ll flip a coin and we’ll take 50 out of those 150 qualified applicants as random and we’ll follow them over time and we’ll look at what happens to their incomes and their health and their career trajectories.

I had this idea as a graduate student 10 or 12 years ago, and I always thought, “Every time I meet a factory owner I’m going to feel him out. And I did. Once in a while I’d be on a plane to Uganda to work on one of my projects, usually related to poverty or conflict, and maybe I’d sit by a factory owner, and I’d say here’s this idea that I have, and they’d usually look at me kind of funny. They wouldn’t leap at the possibility. I was just this person they met on a plane, and I was a graduate student. I probably didn’t approach it well, and so it never really materialized.

So I was at a conference in London and there was an Ethiopian businessman who was sort of a real estate mogul. He was giving a talk to a group of development economics at the International Growth Centre, and I approached him afterwards and said, “That was terrific,” and I really enjoyed talking to him and we kept chatting and I said, “I had this idea. I think that your firms not only help achieve growth, but I think they might actually be tools of poverty alleviation. Here’s an easy way to answer that question.” And he said, “That sounds great. Let’s do it.” And so literally five or six weeks later we were on the ground in Ethiopia doing the first randomization.

I recommend the whole conversation.

Getting true voluntary consent for your field experiment may be harder than you think

Kim Dionne recently interviewed Melissa Graboyes on the excellent new Ufahamu Africa podcast. Graboyes wrote a history – The Experiment Must Continue: Medical Research and Ethics in East Africa, 1940-2014. I’m reading the book, and Graboyes provides a rich picture, filled with first-person reports from East African participants in research.

Dionne asked Graboyes for key takeaways. Here’s one on consent, which very much applies to social science research.

People regularly mistake the idea that they are participating in an experiment and it’s designed to benefit them personally, rather than the experiment is designed to generate data that can be used to answer important questions and hopefully get us closer to solving some important problems. This disconnect is really profound and it jeopardizes consent.

The basic components of consent laid in the Nuremburg code, laid out in European guidelines, laid out in U.S. national law, is that consent has to be informed, it has to have understanding, and it has to be voluntary. So we can inform people by giving them a consent form translated into Swahili. We can inform them by reading that consent form in Swahili. But if they don’t understand what we’re saying and can’t accurately describe back the kind of experiment they’re participating in with the commensurate risks and benefits that go with it, that’s not really voluntary consent, and it jeopardizes the idea that they are autonomously choosing to participate. I think that there’s a lot of research going on that is stumbling at that step, that we’re formally checking all the boxes we need to, but that we’re not adhering to the real meaning of what that rule is supposed to be about. [I’ve edited very slightly for readability.]

The interview has much more, and the podcast overall is a delight. I recommend it and Graboyes’ book.