Actually, looking at the large amount of material that doesn’t make it to this blog, I noticed that more than half of it deals with my personal experiences with poverty. It appears that I think on my experiences quite often, but I’m hesitant to share them. Perhaps it’s fear of being seen as wanting sympathy or just simply that I don’t want think about it. .
The intro to the article struck me:
“There’s no way to structure this coherently. They are random observations that might help explain the mental processes. But often, I think that we look at the academic problems of poverty and have no idea of the why.”
It’s quite easy for me to have an academic discussion of the causes and implications of poverty. In fact, it’s my job to. It’s much harder to talk about my own experience with poverty, as it’s a collection of disjointed, chaotic and often incomprehensible experiences that don’t fit well into a tight flowing narrative. I’m sensing that Linda feels the same way and wonder if my reticence might stem from the difficulty of making sense of the chaos.
Linda’s credibility has been called into question. The article that she wrote for her blog is being seen and a clever ploy to extract money from sympathetic readers to fund her dubious book project. To make matters worse, she is multi-lingual, attended private schools as a child and has run a political blog since 2011.
Now, I can’t really comment on what Linda’s goals were in writing the original post or whether her claims are true. I don’t know Linda and won’t embark on a mission to either support or discredit her. The last sentence in the above paragraph struck me though since it also describes the author of this blog (me).
I grew up in awful, awful poverty. The kind that doesn’t ring in pictures of well meaning, hard working folks trying to get by under challenging circumstances. No, my poverty is due to a long family history of abuse, irresponsibility, alcoholism, mental illness and violence. My story is so incredibly extreme that it doesn’t usually elicit sympathy, but rather disgust.
What Linda and I share is that we don’t fit the picture of poverty. We’re white, educated and have it together enough in adulthood to string a few sentences along and have people read them.
My “poverty cred” is often called into question. I think this is natural. In America, we have decidedly fixed ideas of what poverty is and isn’t. It’s hard for many Americans to imagine poverty, and wide collection of experiences make it almost impossible to adequately relate a concise narrative.
Honestly, I never know where to begin with my story of poverty, but my top class education and advanced degrees don’t erase it. My younger brother came from the same situation I did (though from a different father) but instead of collecting degrees, he’s in and out of jail (and the hospital when his girlfriend stabs him). I was extremely lucky.
What Linda and I do share is our teeth. My teeth are bad. I have too many of them for my small mouth and my family were too dysfunctional and mired in insanity to do anything about it. In America, bad teeth are like a glowing neon sign that says “I WAS POOR.” If you have bad teeth and are young, people know what’s up when you smile. (What a relief egalitarian Japan was, where even pop stars have bad teeth!) When you run into someone else with bad teeth it’s a moment of bonding, like war tattoos.
I used to be ashamed of them. Now I wear them like a badge of honor, like a middle finger to the world, irrefutable proof that these awful things happened.
I had planned some grand statistical analysis of this blog (such as that of post 100), but quickly found that 1) the text file version was too big to use and 2) stripping all of the complicated code from it is beyond my computer skillset.
So, I’ll celebrate simply by saying thanks to the four or five people who read this blog for, well, reading. Not much of what I say makes much sense, my politics are often vague and the themes are often haphazard and chaotic, but this remains an important tool for me. It’s not easy working through one’s thoughts and this give me a space to be incoherent, if not batshit nonsensical.
So thanks to all. It means a lot.
As, I’ve nothing else to say, here’s a run down of the top five posts:
1. African Conflict and the Murdock Map of Ethnic Boundaries At more than 15,000 views, this wins the top spot. It’s got pretty pictures and some suspect methodologies.
2. US Bombings in Laos 1965-1973 I thought this was a cool post. I went on a bender for spatial data on conflict for a while. It’s too bad I didn’t pursue it further. This one even came with a movie!
3. Andrew WK: How He Almost Became the US Cultural Ambassador to the Middle East No surprise here. It’s pretty easy to rack up hits on articles about rock stars. Global health… not so much.
4. Japan Earthquake/Tsunami Reporting April 7, 2011 I was downloading police reports of the number of dead and missing during the Tohoku earthquake/tsunami for a while. Then I went to Japan, didn’t have internet and couldn’t keep up with it. It was a valiant effort.
5. Lynching Data Are we starting to see a pattern here? I’m hoping that I haven’t put any misinformation out there with these odd data exercises. Unfortunately, my time is limited these days but it would be fun to get back into it. I was pretty wide-eyed and dreamy about data back then.
A couple of weeks ago, I was mulling over writing a book. Now that I’m fully disoriented from the ASTMH meetings and the submission of a giant NSF grant, I can’t really put my head together well enough to get it going.
So maybe I’ll briefly write about other peoples’ books instead.
As always, I’m reading several books at once. I’m usually horribly bad at finishing anything at all, and books are no exception. Right now, I’ve got the following on my desk:
1. Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (David Quammen, 2012) - Many human diseases actually have their origins in animals. HIV moved from primates to humans. All human influenzas are diseases of animals. Awful infections like ebola and nipah virus are, in fact, bat diseases. However, the story isn’t as simple as humans simply becoming infected through contact with animals. Complex dynamics of inter-species transmission can create a situation where a pathogen turns from benign to deadly. The future of infectious threats requires that we understand these dynamics and prepare for them, particularly as mankind urbanizes and human movement intensifies. A great and easy to read work that doesn’t sacrifice details. Highly recommended.
2. Why Africa is Poor and What Africans Can Do About It (Greg Mills, 2010) - A truly sensible assessment of the roots of Africa’s economic and development problems. Instead of looking backward to colonialism and ambiguous global threats, Mills picks apart what’s wrong with modern African states and pulls no punches. The solutions presented, however, mostly rely on sacking most of the present leaders of African states, a tall order for some places. Even more odd, however, is the glaring absence of the structural adjustment era which attempted to free African states from crushing bureaucracy by dismantling typical state provisions like health care and schools. A great read, though.
3. The Great Escape: Health, Wealth and the Origins of Inequality (Angus Deaton, 2013) Though the 20th century saw incredible advances in living conditions, sanitation and medical technologies which have extended and improved the quality of human life, the benefits have not been uniform. Deaton offers that inequality is not a given, but rather a consequence of progress. It is the case that health disparities between social groups are highly correlated with economic inequality. Health disparities, a consequence of systems which encourage political and social inequality, in turn exacerbate the gaps between the haves and the have-nots. Another great and easy read.
4. Exodus: How Migration is Changing Our World (Paul Collier, 2013) Economist Paul Collier takes on modern human migration, the extent of which the world has never seen before. He explores the political problems behind migration, the process by which people move from migrants to immigrants to citizens and the political implications of newly pluralistic states and an economically integrated world.
5. Asian Industrialization and Africa: Studies in Policy and Alternative to Structural Adjustment (Edited by Howard Stein, 1995) - It’s pretty much what the title says. There are several chapters tracking Asia’s move from a disastrous formerly colonized, agrarian area and poverty stricken area of the world to a powerhouse of industrial development and a major success story. African countries, however, have failed to develop as quickly, some even regressing economically during the 80′s and 90′s. The specific policies that allowed Asia’s success are contrasted with Africa’s failures and recommendations are offered to foster pro-active development in Africa. Asian policies, which were often protectionist and required the active hand of government but worked well at their particular stage of development, were at odds with those recommended during the structural adjustment era which recommended full privatization and haphazard relaxation of government controls.
I just returned from this year’s meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH). For us in the developing country health world, it’s the biggest meeting of the year.. yet surprisingly small. Once you go to a few, you quickly realize you know just about everyone there.
Unfortunately, because I was preoccupied with a crushing NSF deadline, I didn’t get to see many of the presentations. I did, however, get to see many of the great people I know and, despite the deadline pressures, managed to have a great time.
Some highlights (for the layman), though:
1. Nipah virus: This one’s a beast. With a 70% case fatality rate (7 out of 10 people who become infected die), contact with this bug will pretty much assure there’s no tomorrow. Fruit bats area known reservoir though they seem unaffected by the virus. They urinate on pigs who transmit it to humans.
Sometimes, the bats urinate in certain tree sap collection buckets. People drink it directly, fall ill and then transmit to their families and kill them, too.
Because of Nipah’s ubiquity in fruit bats, the ease of isolating and producing stocks of the pathogen and it’s potential for major public health damage, the CDC has listed the virus as a Class C bioterror agent. Wow.
2. Imported zoonotic pathogens: More than 200 transmissible pathogens have been known to be imported into the US via the illegal wildlife trade. Remember, that most living things are mini-ecologies of bacteria, virae and fungi (yes, you too). Those people with the exotic snakes they imported in their bag? They brought more than snakes.
3. Plasmodium vivax (one of the four species of malaria parasites) relapses occur, on average, 14 months later. I found it interesting that it wasn’t 12. My mental transmission model confirmed that a 14 month relapse cycle would be much more suited to sustaining the pathogen than a more predictable 4, 6 or 12 month cycle. I will have to confirm with real (not fantasy) math, though. As vivax is a cold weather malaria, it makes a huge difference. Mosquitoes aren’t nearly as active in the winter.
It turns out, though, that I’m wrong, or misread the presentation (See Update below).
4. Nets with holes might be just as effective as nets without holes. We can stop collecting all those old nets and setting them on fire, now.
5. No one can agree on what dose of Primaquine to use during mass drug administrations to eliminate malaria. It’s kind of important. People with a particular genetic deficiency react badly to the drug, i.e. their red blood cells explode and they sometimes die.
6. A vaccine for malaria is on the way. It’s like the “check’s in the mail” for several decades. You can’t fault anyone for trying. We need one badly.
7. The Burma Restaurant in Washington, DC is truly fantastic, particularly the green tea salad, which tastes nothing like one would expect.
Outside of that, it was great to see friends. I can’t wait to see them again.
A friend wrote me to correct me on the timing of a relapse of P. vivax (and I appreciate it). Actually, it turns out he wrote a paper on it:
“Here: The Plasmodium vivax that was once prevalent in temperate climatic zones typically had an interval between primary infection and first relapse of 7-10 months, whereas in tropical areas P.vivax infections relapse frequently at intervals of 3-6 weeks. Defining the epidemiology of these two phenotypes from temporal patterns of illness in endemic areas is difficult or impossible, particularly if they overlap.”
Here: Tropical P. vivax relapses at three week intervals if rapidly eliminated anti-malarials are given for treatment, whereas in temperate regions and parts of the sub-tropics P. vivax infections are characterized either by a long incubation or a long-latency period between illness and relapse – in both cases approximating 8-10 months.
And Here: Median relapse times for malaria caused by Old World parasites (tropical, 4.5 weeks [95% CI 3.6–5.4]; temperate, 8.5 weeks [95% CI 6.8–10.3]) were shorter than those for malaria caused by New World parasites (tropical, 27.5 weeks [95% CI 21.6–33.5]; temperate, 34.0 weeks [95% CI 32.0–36.0]). In addition, in both hemispheres, median relapse times for infections caused by tropical strains were shorter than those for infections caused by corresponding temperate strains, although this difference was not significant in the New World (Figure 3). The 95th percentile relapse times for the strain categories follow: Old World tropical, 9.5 weeks (95% CI 5.4–13.5); New World tropical, 40.3 weeks (95% CI 34.4–46.3); Old World temperate, 30.9 weeks (95% CI 19.9–41.9); and New World temperate, 97.7 weeks (95% CI 97.6–97.8). The HRs from the survival models (adjusted for neurologic treatment) follow: Old World tropical, 39.6 (95% CI 9.2–171.0; p<0.001); New World tropical, 0.93 (95% CI 0.36–2.41; p = 0.89); Old World temperate, 3.1 (95% CI 2.2–4.6; p<0.001)—all relative to New World temperate (reference).
I had one of those odd old man moments today where I’m watching a squirrel run up a tree. It goes half way up the tree in a split second, stops, then decides there’s nothing to run from after all. It then spends the next 10 seconds trying to get down. In short, the squirrel can climb a tree in a tenth the time it takes to get down. I realize this is a pretty silly observation.
Humans, too, are really good at running up hills, but terrible at getting down them. I remember climbing Mt. Mulanje in Malawi once. Going up was no problem at all. Getting down was dangerous as hell.
We pull better than we push, see right in front of ourselves better than beside ourselves, and have an easier time thinking of the concerns of a few proximal people, than a vast numbers of people who live far away. The latter, obviously, has important implications for global policy.
All of these things, though, are remnants of our evolutionary past and make complete sense when put in the context of our humble, though dangerous, beginnings. Arising in the savannahs of Kenya, humans would have been easy prey for all sorts of predators. When faced with a lion or hyena, a reasonable strategy is to run up the nearest tree and wait for the threat to pass. Thus, getting up the tree is critical for survival, particularly for children. Importantly, if they are eaten before they reproduce, the survival of the species is in question. Better climbers are survivors who are able to pass their climbing abilities on to their own children.
Getting down from the tree, of course, is not critical to survival. Thus, we can take our sweet time clumsily trying to get down, live and be able to pass our clumsy genes on to our children. So threats create effective adaptations and the lack of threat creates useless ones. The same is true for eyesight. Humans, as predatory omnivores, benefit from being able to focus on their prey while hunting, especially when they have the unique ability to run long distances while they wait for their prey (which likely has a serious head start) to tire out.
The Kericho region of Kenya is famous for producing long distance runners. I wonder if they maintained a particular hunting strategy that the Europeans or Asians no longer required.
Of interest to me is why humans might be so clan centric. It has been shown that humans are able to feel empathy for individuals close to them, but have a hard time imagining the sufferings of millions of unfamiliar people. This limitation, of course, allows us to wage wars far from home, and maintain indifference toward the millions living in poverty around the world.
Again, there are evolutionary roots here. Humans, being pack animals are adapted to be concerned about their immediately family and pack members, particularly children. This is important to survival. When any member of the group is threatened, all must be ready to ward off the threat, and protect children, who pass on similar traits to their children. A group of people indifferent to those aorund them would die out quickly. We are poor fighters on our own.
We have lived only in small groups until very recently. Thus, we never formed a need to be concerned with anyone else besides those closest to us. This state of having to care about the welfare of millions (or billions) is entirely new. We haven’t yet adjusted to it, though we make noble attempts. It is possible that we may never fully develop the ability to feel the pain of billions, unless something comes along and starts wiping out those who don’t. If that happened, we’d probably all be dead, though.
I had never thought of the problems of global policy in terms of evolutionary behavior. I guess, I have the squirrel to thank.
2012 is just about over. I was going to write some earth shattering retrospective on the past year, but I just simply thank everyone who read, commented or passed on the contents of this blog.
I’ll leave 2012 with some footage from Japanese greaser band Carol’s last show, which left the club in flames.
I fear that the answer is yes, particularly in small markets. The NYT ran an article yesterday documenting how public libraries are responding to local demand for popular reading. Specifically, they are catering to the public hunger for disposable romance novels.
At the bustling public library in Arlington Heights, Ill., requests by three patrons to place any title on hold prompt a savvy computer tracking system to order an additional copy of the coveted item. That policy was intended to eliminate the frustration of long waits to check out best sellers and other popular books. But it has had some unintended consequences, too: the library’s shelves are now stocked with 36 copies of “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
Now, I’m fine with this. Libraries are free to stock junk. One person’s trashy fiction is another person’s Shakespeare. I wonder, however, if the shift to popular junk fiction isn’t putting someone out of a job or a business. I feel, however, that the friendly public library is doing just that. Certainly, internet sales and e-books are the number one reason book retailers are going extinct. Public libraries, however, must be number two and their influence extends to other types of media.
Ann Arbor used to pride itself as have more bookstores per capita than any other city in the United States. We had more than 15 bookstores (by my count) in the downtown area which sold all kinds of books. These places were great spaces to hang out in, and made Ann Arbor attractive to tourists and visitors. It was something to be proud of. Now, of all the bookstores which were here in 1988, only one remains. It sells exclusively used books. There are other small book retailers, that are really just gift stores in the end.
Libraries did not kill these stores. I do feel, however, that the Ann Arbor Public Library and the (wonderful) Askwith Media Library at the University of Michigan killed the video store. Liberty Street Video died soon after the expansion of the DVD library at the Ann Arbor Public Library, located almost on the same street. Demand for DVDs still exists. The Askwith Library is always busy with students looking to borrow films for the weekend.
I am not trying to slam public libraries. I believe in public libraries and tax payer funded access to open information, even if it is information that some people may not like.
I was interested, however, in the complex issues at play in the simple article.
Are public libraries undermining small, local businesses? Are they setting standards for the small businesses by providing competition where there is none? Liberty Street Video could have responded by offering better services and products. It didn’t. It stuck with VHS until it closed. At the end, it was an awful store. Border’s died because it refused to compete with Amazon’s low prices.
How can public libraries balance potential negative effects on small businesses with the need to satisfy community demand?
Are private donations the solution? It’s worth pointing out that Askwith, UM’s large video library was built using private donations.
Personally, I don’t know, so I though I’d ramble on about it for a while. Though there aren’t many of you out there, what do you think?
The course I took is probably pretty atypical for a business course, though. Ted London, one of my coworkers at the William Davidson Institute, teaches a class entitled “Business Strategies for the Base of the Pyramid.” Basically, it argues that profitable business ventures which target the poorest of the poor are possible and can have positive impacts in terms of poverty alleviation and improvements in public health. He advocates a strategy that partners developed country expertise and capital, with local entrepreneurship and knowledge.
What I’ve learned:
1) Business is about problem solving. I used to think that business was about profit maximization. In essence, though, it is about identifying problems and creating new ways to solve them for mutual benefit. Certainly, part of this includes profit making but often profits mean sustainability. Certainly, if short term gains are your only goal (stock markets, for example), someone will lose. Long term success, however, depends on creating relationships for mutual benefit. Look at the successes of a company like Toyota.
Science, however, is about discovery. We ask questions and seek answers. The limitation here, is that nobody wants to be wrong and thus the identification of problems is of low priority.
2) People in business are easy to talk to. Businesses are primarily about relationships and cooperation. Opportunities are produced by making contacts and listening to what people have to say. People with poor social skills will do badly in business. People like me.
In science, you can have the social skills of a doorknob and it might not make a bit of difference. You can be hardheaded and happily work away in your bubble oblivious to the outside world. This is fine, in an increasingly diversified and interdisciplinary world, a bit of communication and ability to navigate connections between people is becoming ever more important.
Scientists have to learn to talk to people outside science, or we will fail. Not the issue of climate change. The wishy washy (though necessary) language of science doesn’t translate well to policy makers, giving climate deniers plenty of fodder to work with. The world might end, partly because scientists have poor communication skills.
We could learn a lot from business schools. I noted that they write few papers and do multitudes of presentations, which are often graded on form as well as content.
3) Business is not, by definition, evil. Last night, I went to a Holiday Party for the Emerging Markets Club of the Ross School of Business at UM. Half the people there had served in the Peace Corps, hardly what one would expect of MBA students. They are determined to create careers which benefit the world. Certainly, there are evil business people out there, but there are also evil NGOs and evil scientists (known a few). Business is about what you bring to the table and how your goals align with those around you. If you gather conscientious and dedicated folks together, good things can happen. If you can make it profitable, someone will fund you.
In science, we talk about grants in the hundreds of thousands and several millions of dollars. This funds discovery, but does little to benefit impoverished communities directly. In business, they are talking about tens of millions and sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars in capital. Given the right people and the right project, this money can multiply itself and can directly transform the lives of the poorest of the poor in a sustainable fashion. Often, I really wonder what we’re doing. While the information we generate can inform the development of new ways to fight malaria, for example, it often seems like we work in a bubble.
In short, it’s been a great experience. I’m happy to have been able to have the chance to work and learn at the UM B School.
To close, here’s are a couple of videos about Bottom of the Pyramid ventures. The first is about a program that CEMEX, a large Mexican cement manufacturer, has to profitably sell housing to poor communities and the second is a video from the late C.K. Prahalad, a former Professor in the UM B School who pioneered the thinking behind these ventures.
Russell was one of Jackson, Mississippi’s first punk rockers. He would enthusiastically show up to just about any show and tell you about it. It was absolutely true. Being a punk in Mississippi can be a lonely affair but Russell pulled it off, mostly because he never considered that it might be a bad idea. Russell was never afraid of anything. He had a suit of armor forged of smiles and laughter.
Sometimes Russell would show up to our band practice space. We would be trying to write lyrics and Russell would come up with lines that would have us rolling on the ground in laughter. I think that he was completely serious, but it was hard to tell. He would deliver his lines in typical Mississippi fashion, totally serious with complete conviction, dressed up in his ultra thick and authentic outer-Jackson drawl:
“Electric energy, unseen force, thrash into oblivion on a pale white horse”
In retrospect, we should have fired our singer and hired Russell. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to us at the time.
Once Russell led us into the practice space of the WindBreakers, a local band which had achieved some success at the time. I never could figure out if he had the key or he broke in, but we got in, fired up their gear and started jamming out. Russell would again spit off these lyrics that would have you laughing to hard to worry about playing. Eventually, Tim Lee and the WindBreakers showed up with their mouths agape.
You couldn’t really be angry at Russell. He was just too much of a nice guy. Whatever infraction he might have committed was done only in the interest of fun and good times. I never, ever saw Russell say a bad word about anyone at all.
Russell eventually put on a suit and got a job as a jeweler at a mall store. He never ever stopped being Russell, however. Later, after we were somewhat in touch, he sent out a couple emails to me to say “I HOPE YOU’RE HAVING A ROCKIN DAY!!!!!” and really not much more. That was Russell.
Now, I’m kicking myself for not having gone to see him when I was in Jackson last year. Too busy, can always meet him later…. but later will never happen now.
Russell, take it easy, man. You were loved.