Tag Archive | science

Conflict in Africa Getting Worse: A Good Sign?

Conflict events in Africa, 2012

Conflict events in Africa, 2012

Now that the intellectual chaos of PhD defending is over, perhaps now I’ll be able to put together some meaningful sentences.

I started my newfound state of semi-freedom by reading, something I haven’t done in while (outside of papers on malaria). Mo Ibrahim, cel phone magnate and philanthropist was interviewed by the World Policy Journal in the most recent issue.

Mo is responsible for bringing cell phone technology to Sub-Saharan Africa, expanding telecommunications on the continent from a few thousand land lines (outside of North Africa and the country of South Africa) to more than 500 million mobile subscribers today.

The total number of phones in Africa was maybe two or three million fixed-line phones. And this was mainly in South Africa in the south or in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco in the north, and nothing in between. Right now, Africa has more than 550 million mobile subscribers. This is more than the number of mobile phones in Europe, by the way. This brought farmers to the market place. It brought new services. Banking now in Africa is done more with mobiles than in actual physical branches of banks. All kinds of services are available cheap like mobile banking services, which are more used there than in Europe or the United States. It improved elections and democracies. The democratic process improved a lot because of the transparency. It encouraged entrepreneurship and economic growth. So a lot of things happened, especially in a place like Africa, which badly needed that kind of service which bridged so many years of underdevelopment, and that is wonderful. With information at their fingertips, people are able to communicate, able to talk to each other. This should bring a better sense of understanding and less conflict.

It was the last sentence that intrigued me. Could the expansion of cell phone coverage in SSA be associated with a decline in conflict? Armed with my statistical tools, I was ready to check test this hypothesis.

Unfortunately, I was unable to find much data on cel phone coverage. It appears that providers are either reluctant to publicize it, or are too fractured to merit a single source of data.

Data on conflict events, however, are reliably stored at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Database (ACLED). I have written on the database before, but hadn’t looked at it since late 2010.

What I found was disturbing. Conflict events have not decreased in SSA. In fact, there are more than ever. in 2012, there were more than 10,000 events recorded, almost double the number of events in 2011. Many of these events were protests (3,292) but there was a disturbing number of events involving state violence against civilians (2,706).

These events are spread throughout the continent, but far too many are occurring in developed hot spots like South Africa and Kenya (as the map shows).

Now, this could be a result of increased recording of events in the database. it could also be a result of the expansion of cell phone technology and the free exchange of information on the continent.

It is clear, though, that wider access to mobile technologies is not leading to peace on the continent, but rather more violence. However, protest is a hallmark of democracy and development. Let’s hope that these protests, as bloody as they may be, lead to wider access to public liberties and stable governance.

Perhaps this is a sign of good things to come? It’s certainly up to debate.

ACLED

HIV “Cure” Found in Mississippi: Nothing to be proud of

Dubious reports have surfaced that an allegedly HIV positive infant born prematurely in rural Mississippi to an HIV infected mother has been cleared of the virus due to a non-standard administration of HIV drugs. Naturally, I am extremely skeptical.

I wonder if the child ever truly had HIV in the first place. Given that the child was born prematurely, I also wonder how generalizable the strategy would be, assuming that the child did, in fact, have HIV.

The world, however, seems to believe that this is a “cure” for HIV. Optimistically, I would call this a case of prophylaxis.

Most frustrating for me, is the surge of pride from Mississippians. Having grown up there, I don’t think that this is anything to be proud of. The profile of HIV in Mississippi (see my paper draft) is overwhelmingly rural, poor and, most salient, black (See my lit review on HIV in Mississippi).

The simple reason that this so-called “cure” was “found” in Mississippi, as opposed to say, Vermont, is Mississippi’s crushing level of endemic poverty, entrenched racism, and institutionalized marginalization and exclusion. Mississippi’s backward politics and racist history are what caused this epidemic in the first place. Nothing to be proud of.

Equally frustrating are the absurd comments to the effect that “God has come and given us this cure” likely stemming from the heart wrenching involvement of an infant. Assuming that such a deity exists, we should probably fault God with creating the disease in the first place, and allowing babies to be infected through no fault of their own. It seems silly to me to praise a despot for delivering services after he’s made a mess of the place.

Mississippi is sixth in the nation for new cases of HIV. The social dynamics which determine transmission are different in rural and urban areas. Dividing states into clases of rural HIV and urban HIV, Mississippi would come in number 3 just behind Georgia and Louisiana. In fact, though, I would argue that Mississippi’s rate of new HIV cases (25 per 100,000) is actually an underestimate. Health delivery in Mississippi’s HIV hotspots is so inadequate and health care utilization so low, that many new cases are undetected.

I will wait and see if the optimistic reports are true. My feeling is that this is a case of hopeful overstatement. Until then, I will remain skeptical.

Kenya Day 4: Reflections on fish and global capitalism

FIsherman along Lake Victoria

Fisherman along Lake Victoria

Lake Victoria is a rich source of Nile Perch and Tilapia. Both fish are recent introductions to the lake. The Nile Perch, as a top predator, is associated with extensive ecological damage to the Lake’s ecosystem. Extensive fishing of the Nile Perch has led to a decrease in size, and the comeback of several types of local fish fauna.

Local fisherman on hand made boats use crudely fabricated nets to pull a few fish out of the water, they then sell either whole fish or smoked chunks to dealers. Dealers in turn sell the fish to processors, who then sell the fish to European, American and Japanese distributors. The distributors sell the fish to large supermarkets, who, of course, sell the fish to you and me.

Where the fish may bring as much as $20 a kilo in giants such as Whole Foods, a local fisherman can expect approximately $1.00, but the price is set by the world market and also subject to the whims of dealers. Without a union, fishermen have little means to negotiate prices.

As the lure of quick and plentiful cash is hard to resist, local fisherman have abandoned traditional fishing practices to enter the cash economy. This, of course, in itself is not a bad thing, but the money often gets spent on alcohol and prostitutes, rather than school and health fees for children. The nutritional profile of Lake communities suffers, and children are malnourished in an area that brings nearly $500 million dollars in revenue to Kenya.

Worse yet, ready cash creates a new market for sex work and positions are easily filled by poor women from the rural areas with no other options. The result is that the fish trade, and its destabilizing effect on families, is fueling HIV transmission here. Up 40% of people in any community along Lake Victoria may be HIV positive.

The trade has brought people from the inland areas to Lake Victoria, which has led to displacement of indigenous populations. Displacement has serious implications for security and livelihoods but in this area of intense malaria transmission, displacement and encroachment both impacts human health. The movement of populations has changed the genetic profile of local communities. Millennia of interactions between locals and parasite had led to at least some minimal level of genetic balance, which may have been disrupted by the introduction of new humans not acclimated to local strains of the parasite which causes malaria. This present added risks of serious disease.

Now, anyone who reads this blog knows that I am pro-economic development, pro-market and see no merit in suggesting that developing countries uselessly stick to old, antiquated and oppressive ways. No matter how nostalgic we may be for an idyllic past that may or may not have ever existed, the reality is that economic development in many cultural contexts has extended human life expectancy, reduced infant mortality, freed women to not be treated as cattle and reduced the subjugation of social minorities. But being pro-development means that one must support, err, development, which is only occurring slowly here.

The fishing communities suffer for a number of macro level factors.

  1. The nature of global economic disparities means that the government cannot step in and help negotiate fair prices for fish. The producers live entirely at the mercy of the market. The government would probably not be successful in artificially raising prices, but could help reduce price volatility by negotiating a yearly floor.
  2. There is no reliable means of taxing earnings to make sure that money is invested in schools and infrastructure (instead of alcohol). Say what one will about taxation, but the truth is that without it, power lines and roads don’t get built.
  3. The economy here is insufficiently diversified. The entire economy relies on fish, that developed countries may or may not buy. There is sadly little agriculture here, almost no tourism and, like just about all African countries, no manufacturing. A concentrated economy like that along Lake Victoria, could easily bust overnight.

All of these things, however, are challenges that all developing countries are facing. The economy along Lake Victoria is hardly an exception, but the mechanism are at least somewhat more obvious.

Kenya Day 3: Malaria Journal

Girl with a motorcycle, Homa Bay, Kenya

Girl with a motorcycle, Homa Bay, Kenya

As part of our research in Kenya, we have hired a couple of local people to keep journals on malaria. Basically, we give them a notebook, they observe people in the community, watch for conversations about malaria or malaria related things, and write down what they hear.

Called “hearsay ethnography,” it makes ethnographers out of non-professional folks who are already embedded within the community. To date, it has been used in understanding the cultural understanding of HIV in Malawi.

We are turning local young people into anthropologists.

Through this technique, we can minimize the observer effect, i.e. the problem of influencing the data collection environment by being the odd, linguistically challenged white people of ambiguous intent. The writers have to write in English, in a manner assumed to be understood by educated folks, which presents problems of its own, but it’s a somewhat more flexible methodology.

It’s a valuable tool for medical anthropology. Through this study, we hope to begin to understand how people in this area conceptualize malaria, malaria treatment and health delivery.

I hired these guys last May, the money ran out, and I thought that the project was just a bust. To my surprise and delight, the data collectors are still writing in their journals and I was finally able to see the results.

Here’s a sample:

I attended the funeral of a child below five years old at Kamyeri. There were so many people who attended irrespective of their age or gender. The discussion about malaria broke out when the child’s father was narrating the cause of her death. He said that many people may think that his daughter had been bewitched but according to him, her death was as a result of his wife’s negligence.

He went on saying that he wasn’t at home when he received the news about her daughter’s illness. He told his wife to take the child to the hospital. However, he arrived home after two days to find out that the child had not been taken to hospital and have not received any kind of medication. He rushed her to the hospital but it was too late because the child died dew hours after the doctor had confirmed that she had serious malaria.

He went on saying if she would have diagnosed early enough, maybe she could have not died.

He added that before someone make or jump to any conclusions about the cause of any illness, he/she should go to the hospital and get tested in order to know the real cause of a disease he/she must be suffering from.

Then an old woman who was just in front of me said that she had informed the child’s mother to take to her the child so that she could treat her through “frito” and “suro.” ”Frito” means a method in which powder traditional herbs are administered to a patient through snifting, while “suro” means a method in which herbs in a powdered form is put on small cuts made using a knife. However, the woman did not turn up instead she went to a preacher to seek divine healing.

The old woman continued saying that the shivering and headache could have been treated using traditional herbs.

God is the source of human needs. Why Christianity is at odds with Buddhism

God is the source of human needs. Why Christianity is at odds with Buddhism

Does Economic Growth Create Democratic Societies?

I’m in a development mood right now, having had a conversation with someone over whether the American democratic model is portable to other cultures. Let me ramble on about democracy and development for a while.

I say yes, with caveats, of course. There are certainly things about American style democracy that are peculiarly American. Our intense emphasis on property rights being the main candidate. Outside of that, I can see no reason why the American model isn’t transferrable elsewhere, and would even argue that an American (or western style) democracy is not peculiarly Western, but rather a natural outcome of economic growth.

Benjamin Friedman, a Harvard economist, writes in “The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth“:

Economic growth—meaning a rising standard of living for the clear majority of citizens—more often than not fosters greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness, and dedication to democracy. Ever since the Enlightenment, Western thinking has regarded each of these tendencies positively, and in explicitly moral terms.

I tend to agree with this. Persons who participate in an economy also participate within a system that requires them to step outside their small circles of family and friends. They are forced to rely not merely on one another, but rather must negotiate and interact with persons they may not know, and may not even like. Old hierarchies become meaningless, as the nature of jobs and value become fluid. A King may be necessary today, but useless tomorrow. Most salient, violence and force, which are both wholly un-democratic, become less attractive when one has something to lose.

Interestingly, one researcher has found the same result, that GDP leads to democracy, but that these effects were weaker than that of primary education:

Over the last two centuries, many countries experienced regime transitions toward democracy. We document this democratic transition over a long time horizon. We use historical time series of income, education and democracy levels from 1870 to 2000 to explore the economic factors associated with rising levels of democracy. We …nd that primary schooling, and to a weaker extent per capita income levels, are strong determinants of the quality of political institutions. We …find little evidence of causality running the other way, from democracy to income or education.

The interesting piece here is that, in most contexts, primary education is a state-provided service. Thus, using public funds (socialism!) to allow near universal education can actually enable the creation of democratic states. I would argue here, that the authors are taking a narrow view. I believe, though cannot test it, that it is not education, but rather women’s education that creates democratic states.

The development – democracy theory, however, can be countered when one considers mostly undeveloped India. India has a GDP lower than that of Ghana and Papua New Guinea, but is a functioning republic, with disparate, linguistically diverse and culturally heterogeneous states that don’t kill one another after elections. Amartya Sen, an Indian economist, is a devoted believer in democracy as a universal and essential system:

India, of course, was one of the major battlegrounds of this debate. In denying Indians independence, the British expressed anxiety over the Indians’ ability to govern themselves. India was indeed in some disarray in 1947, the year it became independent. It had an untried government, an undigested partition, and unclear political alignments, combined with widespread communal violence and social disorder. It was hard to have faith in the future of a united and democratic India. [End Page 5] And yet, half a century later, we find a democracy that has, taking the rough with the smooth, worked remarkably well. Political differences have been largely tackled within the constitutional guidelines, and governments have risen and fallen according to electoral and parliamentary rules. An ungainly, unlikely, inelegant combination of differences, India nonetheless survives and functions remarkably well as a political unit with a democratic system. Indeed, it is held together by its working democracy.

Readings 1/19/2013

  1. Timeline of the Saharan Crisis (NYT)
  2. To little fanfare, the United States recognizes the Goverment of Somalia for the first time since 1991. (NYT)
  3. The free market at work: Cerberus is having trouble dumping gun maker Freedom Group. No one wants to tarnish their image by owning the company. Looks like a fire sale is about to happen. I still maintain that Bloomberg should buy it and shut it down. (Bloomberg)
  4. Another noble call to treat firearm injuries as a public health problem, comparing firearms to tobacco. As they note, firearms are not tobacco, which is unsafe at any level of consumption. To help reduce injury and death, we need a broad based approach. Of course, they wrote this article with no health from the NIH. (JAMA)
  5. The Fed failed to predict the Great Recession. Someone at the Fed had to see it coming, though. This uncovers a major structural flaw in the Fed. Designed to mitigate crises, it in’t incentivized to act when times are good. (Bloomberg)
  6. The lessons of past slavery need to inform present day business owners, policy maker and slavers to improve working conditions. (History News Network)
  7. Bio-fuels and world hunger(food prices). This guy has the right idea, but misses a couple of important points. First, though the share of corn going to ethanol has been increasing, corn production as a whole has been increasing. Second, he misses that food price increases and volatility have been following the general trends of stock market since 2000, discounting the role of bio-fuels as a cause. Trading food like oil explains the oil like patterns in food. A good article though. (Conservable Economist)
  8. Developing countries are trading with each other more than they are exporting goods to wealthy countries. Mutual trade and accountability could do much for creating regional stability and stable governments. (Economist)
  9. Japan and China need to end this petty bickering before it becomes the end of us all. How far will they take this silly game? (Economist)

And to round this up, a graphic of US troop deployments which presents a picture vastly different from what some of my liberal comrades would like to believe. The Obama admin would do well to advertise this reduction more forcefully.:

US Troop Deployment for FY 2009 and FY 2013

US Troop Deployment for FY 2009 and FY 2013

Today’s Readings 1/18/2013

Happy Friday all! Ten readings for today. What are y’all checking out?

  1. Japan is likely so addicted to deflation that their economy will depressed for the long haul. Inflation is a necessity, particularly in a country that relies on exports. The Japanese, both the government and its overly careful populace, have to finally move out of the managed, fixed currency economy of the past and enter the developed world. (Bloomberg)
  2. Brazilian waxing has had the unexpected, though logical, benefit of reducing incidence of pubic lice. (Bloomberg
  3. Climate change is kicking us in the ass. Congress members may be earning political points (and exposing their own ignorance) by denying it, but the US Global Change Research Program isn’t. (Mother Jones) and here’s the portal for the 170 page report.
  4. The climate change debate isn’t a debate at all. A list of groups on both “sides” (reality vs. fantasy). The disbelievers are, of course, mostly made up of petroleum and coal producers, construction companies and “The Astroturfing Consortium”. (Big Picture)
  5. With the attacks in Mali and Algeria, the situation on the African continent gets worse and worse, and will do future economic growth no favors. (Bloomberg)
  6. Why I should sever my internet connection. Even 3 seconds of interruption at work significantly increases the likelihood of mistakes. (Fiscal Times)
  7. The deficit is NOT our biggest problem, but screaming calamity 24/7 scores political points for right wingers hell bent on eliminating social and entitlement programs. (Krugman NYT)
  8. The IMF’s Christine Lagarde lectures the Americans and the Europeans to get their political houses together or the world economic growth will remain stagnant. (NYT)
  9. Ideology as cognitive bias. It doesn’t pay to be an optimist. (Stumbling and Mumbling)
  10. Ethiopian kids on the way to becoming autodidacts (self taught), through a healthy dose of free tablet computers, but no teachers. (Africa Report)

“Crowded” Vaccine Schedule Deemed Safe….

as one would expect. The Institute of Medicine within the National Academies of Sciences recently produced a 230 page report addressing the concerns of parents that the current recommended vaccine schedule is too “crowded” and thus puts children at excessive risk.

Upon reviewing stakeholder concerns and scientific literature regarding the entire childhood immunization schedule, the IOM committee finds no evidence that the schedule is unsafe. The committee’s review did not reveal an evidence base suggesting that the U.S. childhood immunization schedule is linked to autoimmune diseases, asthma, hypersensitivity, seizures, child developmental disorders, learning or developmental disorders, or attention deficit or disruptive disorders.

Existing mechanisms to detect safety signals — including three major surveillance systems of FDA-approved products maintained by the CDC and a supplemental vaccine safety monitoring initiative by the FDA—provide further confidence that the current childhood immunization schedule is safe.

It’s quite a tempting narrative. Small defenseless children are jabbed multiple times, allowing harmful foreign substances to enter the body, all with the nefarious intent of making profits for large pharma giants. However, children are assaulted by pathogens from the second they exit the birth canal, and continue to be throughout the course of their lives.

The inactivated versions of the pathogens they might otherwise come into contact with should present no extra burden to an immune system that already anticipates invasion. Of course, coming into contact with a dead version of a pathogen is far preferable to coming into contact with the live version. The assertion that the schedule is “crowded”, given daily attacks on the immune system, is completely absurd.

Moreover, the report found that States with loose vaccine policy, have higher incidence of disease, in this case Pertussis:

While parents generally worry about children’s health and well-being, and their concerns about immunization safety can be viewed in that context, delaying or declining vaccination has led to outbreaks of such vaccine-preventable diseases as measles and whooping cough that may jeopardize public health, particularly for people who are under-immunized or who were never immunized. States with policies that make it easy to exempt children from immunizations were associated with a 90 percent higher incidence of whooping cough in 2011.

Of course, we are experiencing record numbers of Pertussis cases. It must be noted, that like influenza, most cases of Pertussis are asymptomatic. In fact, it is estimated that 5 out of 6 cases of Pertussis come without symptoms, yet transmission occurs. (2 out of every 3 influenza cases are asymptomatic. Next time someone tells you they never get the flu, don’t believe them.) Unvaccinated people may still contract the disease, not experience symptoms, and still pass it one to an unvaccinated person, who, of course, could very well die.

Many of the diseases on the vaccine schedule are very much still in circulation. One excellent example is tetanus, a bacteria which lives happily in soil (not rust, as commonly believed). Tetanus passes through our digestive tract regularly through food, but when the bacteria enter the other parts of the body, particularly the low-oxygen environment of the muscles, the usual outcome is to suffer for months and often die a truly horrible death. Nearly all cases of tetanus in the US occur in unvaccinated individuals.

Given tetanus’ ubiquity in the environment, I often scratch my head when parents tell me they don’t vaccinate their children as the risks of the disease far outweigh the risks of the vaccine. Here, of course, it isn’t the vaccine that’s killing kids, but politics and self-serving conspiracy hacks.

Today’s Readings (Sunday) 1/13/2013

  1. Male and female mating behavior is more complicated than previously though, challenging notions that human sexual behavior is evolutionarily determined. (NYT) In other news, courtship may be over (NYT)
  2. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s stimulus plan reeks of petty cronyism and cement laden gifts (Noahpinion), but could have the happy benefit of pulling Japan out of its deflationary trap. (NYT) If, however, the $100B stimulus planning is squandered on pointless projects, rather than updating Japan’s creaking infrastructure, the entire experiment could be for naught. (Economist)
  3. Compartmentalization of the mind could explain why otherwise intelligent people hang on to debunked ideas like climate change denial, Bush-9/11 conspiracies, vaccine/autism links abortion-cancer links, creationism, and birthirism. (Scientific American)
  4. Gun rhetoric vs. gun facts. Regarding guns, what people state as fact could mostly just be wishful thinking. Of course, this is related to readings 2) above (Fact Check) I’m thinking that I have to do a compilation of all of the great gun related articles that have been coming out. I’ve been impressed at the amount of evidence based discussion.
  5. The science of why comment trolls suck, and they do. (Mother Jones)
  6. The Economist agrees that the US debt ceiling is an anachronism and should be abolished. At the very least it would spare us from this yearly round of pointless squabbling. Politicians have plenty of other ways of getting what they want without holding the entire world’s economy hostage. (Economist)
  7. The world suspends aid to Rwanda, blaming them for a wave of conflict in the neighboring DRC, which could stifle growth in a place where growth is needed. (Economist)
  8. Ten trends to watch in finance for 2013 (Big Picture)

And that’s good enough for this Sunday. What have y’all got for readings?

Today’s Readings 1/11/2013

1. The latest redefinition of “teacher” and “student.” Now, students are “entrepreneurs.” It is true that we don’t teach enough risk taking to college students. The present bunch, in particular, is quite risk averse. (Bloomberg)

2. Indonesian nurse passes Japan’s nursing certification despite incredible barriers. Japan needs to accept that there is no future in isolation. (Japan Times)

3. Princeton seeks to divest itself from gun companies. Probably easy said than done. There aren’t many publicly traded gun companies, and private equity investment in firearm manufacturers is shady and difficult to assess. Plus, once one goes down this road, defense is next, then pharma, then agra, then a hot of others. I’m about ethical investments, but where does one stop? (Bloomberg)

4. Yep, colonialism was bad for Africa. (Vox)

5. Africa is suffering from an food crisis in that it imports more and more of its food. This needs to change but will require a herculean change is how Africa manages trade. Africa is capable of feeding itself. An end to farm subsidies in the US and gas refining capability on the Continent wouldn’t hurt either. (Vox)

6. Japanese boy hangs himself after being hit repeatedly by his basketball coach. I once saw an autistic boy savagely beaten by a teacher at a Japanese school and heard countless tales of physical abuse by teachers. It’s disgusting that it’s allowed to continue, but it does. (Japan Times) and (Japan Times)

7. Normal people think that economists are either bozos, space aliens, or both. (Noahpinion Blog).

8. Too few women compromise China’s future, or rather, unchanging attitudes that favor men will be the downfall of Asia as a whole. (Bloomberg)

9. Regarding nationalist Shinzo Abe’s stimulus plan, “It will be a bitter irony if a pretty bad guy, with all the wrong motives, ends up doing the right thing economically, while all the good guys fail because they’re too determined to be, well, good guys.” (Japan Times)

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