Make a reverse Advent calendar for your kids

SOS Children’s Villages Norway have a project for schools that they call a reverse Advent xmascalendar_giftletters2calendar, in which pupils collect funds every day and learn about the organisation’s projects. I think that is a great concept, combining doing some good, letting kids join in the do-gooding, and teaching them something about the world at the same time. I wanted something to implement at home for my 8-year old, however, and when I did not find anything, I decided to make my own.

I felt that to prepare something for all the 24 days before Christmas eve would probably require too much work to do it properly, and would also risk turning the reverse calendar into a chore, so I decided to go for every other day. I wholeheartedly support the thinking behind GiveWell’s strategy of efficient giving, and therefore took as a basis the seven top charities from GiveWell, combining three of those working on deworming to create three groups:

1. Against Malaria Foundation (AMF)
2. Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI)
3. END Fund for work on dewormingSightsavers for work on deworming and Deworm the World Initiative
4. GiveDirectly
5.  Malaria Consortium for work on seasonal malaria chemoprevention

I added four groups from their six Other Standout Charities (GiveWell’s descriptions):

6. Development Media International produces mass media to promote improved health behaviors in developing countries.
7. Food Fortification Initiative and Project Healthy Children work to reduce micronutrient deficiencies through food fortification programs.
8. The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN)’s Universal Salt Iodization program and Iodine Global Network (IGN) aid salt iodization programs in developing countries.
9. Living Goods supports a network of community health promoters in sub-Saharan Africa.

That made 9 charities in total. I also wanted to have represented some well-established charities that my son might have heard of or come across himself, and that I believe do important work but that for various reasons are not able to cut it in the kind of evaluation that GiveWell performs. Thus for the final three I chose:

10. Red Cross
11. Doctors without borders
12. Amnesty International

For each charity, I prepared a one-page document presenting some of the charity’s work xmascalendar_giftlettersin simple language and with some illustrations. (Tip: The organisation Effektiv altruisme, which bases its recommendations on GiveWell, has material available in Norwegian about some of the top charities.) I wanted each donation to be presentable as a round number, and since giving NOK 100 per day had some salience, I settled for an average of NOK 200 (€22) per gift. I ended each document with the words “We give X kroner to cause/charity”.

GiveWell recommends prioritizing the Against Malaria Foundation because they have the most valuable current funding gap, so I decided to allocate 900 NOK to them, 200 to the other four of the top five, and 100 to the rest.

All the envelopes were with Christmas stickers and hung from the curtain pole. The first picture above shows how it looked in the end.


Monthly book roundup – 2016 October

Books finished in October:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016) by Sebastian Junger. Tribe takes the starting point that humans are adapted to live in small communities, “tribes”, and tries to use that to explain some puzzles of modern life.
-Starts with stories from pre-revolutionary US about people from (white) settlements running off to join Indian tribes. More freedom and life better adapted. Surprising-I had not heard of this before, how common was that really?
-Only in Northern European societies and North America so many children sleep alone. And get intense relationship with stuffed animals…
-More loyalty and less fraud e.g. in tribes.
-Blitz-“psychiatric hospitals saw admissions go down” “long standing patients saw their symptoms subside during the period of intense air raids, voluntary admissions to psychiatric wards noticeably declined, and even epileptics reported having fewer seizures” … “… suggested that some people actually did better during wartime”
-Durkheim: when European societies went to war, suicide rates dropped.
-Psychiatric wards strangely empty in France during wars, and same in civil wars in Spain, Algeria, Lebanon, and Northern Ireland. Depression rates declined in Belfast during the troubles.
-Theory of sociologist Charles Fritz: Disasters create community of sufferers. Therapeutic for mental illness.
-Somewhat controversial: victim status and various benefits like lifelong disability hampers reintegration into normal life for former combatants. Not encouraged or allowed to contribute to society. Society also needs to give these people a way to speak out and relieve themselves of their experiences.
-The book was particularly interesting to me since I have a paper studying increased effort/resilience in the aftermath of a dramatic, violent, high-impact event. Recommended. (Update: But see also this smart, critical review by Joanna Burke at the Guardian.)

The Nix: A novel (2016) by Nathan Hill. The following sentence in the synopsis of “The Nix” piqued my curiosity: “[…] Samuel will have to embark on his own journey, uncovering long-buried secrets about the woman he thought he knew, secrets that stretch across generations and have their origin all the way back in Norway, home of the mysterious Nix.” While it was what role Norway played in a US bestselling novel that made me interested, the rest of the sentence made me somewhat sceptical, so I was pleasantly surprised to encounter some really funny scenes in the beginning, as well as engaging non-sentimental others. However, the last half of the book conforms more to what one might expect from the quoted sentence. Ok.

Ratings and old books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2016 September

Books finished in September:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries (2012) by Jon Ronson. Based on Ronson’s earlier magazine articles and interviews, but still very solid, like all his work I have read. The common theme is various strange people and events. Entertaining, but somewhat easy to forget since the pieces do not relate to each other.

Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (2013) by Christopher Hayes. Meritocracy created insulated, partly corrupt, elites in a wide variety of institutions, elites that are out of thouch with and reach of the rest of society. There may be something to that, but I am not sure how much. Ok.

Ratings and old books are in the library.

“Is there really an empirical turn in economics?”

The recent “empirical” turn in economics should be known as an “applied” one and it is just one in a long series of related developments. Moreover, it is a move towards the historical roots of the discipline. Those are some lessons from Beatrice Cherrier‘s essay “Is there really an empirical turn in economics?“. Based on research conducted together with Roger Backhouse, she takes issue with the idea that there has been a revolution in economic research involving empirics. Some points I liked:

  • Empirical work has been live and well, what has changed is its recent larger role in top journals. Besides, the view of theory as dominating in economics is based on looking only at the last 50 years – pre- and immediate post-war economics used to be a lot more empirical.
  • Much theory has become more applied, often involving data. And John Bates Clark medal citations stress “applied,” often taken consisting of a mix of theory and empirics.
  • Increasing availablity of data is a development that has been ongoing since at least the 1960’s. Hype around and criticism of new, large sources of data were the same in the 1970’s as today.
  • Computerization is overrated, much modern empirical work is computationally and numerically very simple.
  • Oscar Morgenstern (of von Neumann and Morgenstern‘s Theory of Games and Economic Behavior fame) proposed that to become a fellow of the Econometric Society, it should be a requirement to “have done some econometric work in the strictest sense” and be “in actual contact with data they have explored and exploited for which purpose they may have even developed new methods.”

H/t: Erwin Dekker.

Monthly book roundup – 2016 August

Books finished in August:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2016) by Frans de Waal. de Waal’s perhaps biggest point is the continuity of abilities between humans and other animals, and he makes the case well for a wide range of abilities, like memory, forward looking behavior, problem solving, tool use, various social skills, and animals (in particular apes, monkeys, birds, elephants). That is perfectly plausible to me, so I did not need convincing on that point, but I was fascinated by the ways other animals, in particular chimps, do better than humans on some traditional cognitive tasks. Examples are the extremely quick memory of chimps (short video, a little longer) and the fact that chimps may remember solutions to tasks/puzzles years later once they have learned it. A quibble: de Waal often appears unnuanced when writing about other fields, and sets up straw-men to argue against, which is not that interesting. Recommended.

Ratings and old books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2016 July

Books finished in July:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

Interface (2005) by Frederick George and Neal Stephenson. Political near future sci-fi thriller. Media operator Cy Ogle takes political polling to a new level, using continuous tracking of people’s emotions to fine-tune political messages. Add to that the ability to control the messenger (the politician), and he has a powerful mix to serve the interests of the Network. Cory Doctorow’s repeated endorsements were what drew me to the book in the first place. Doctorow saw the part about the politician Earl Strong as the prediction of the rise of Donald Trump. I am not so sure, Earl Strong is a minor character in the book, and, unlike Trump, is undone quite quickly in his political ambitions. We could certainly use some real life Eleanor Richmonds, however I doubt that she would have been enough to stop Trump. I liked the book, but would not go so far as Doctorow in calling it a “masterpiece”.

Ratings and old books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2016 May

Books finished in May:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

Adventures in Human Being: A Grand Tour from the Cranium to the Calcaneum (2015) by Gavin Francis. I tend to think of medicine as a depressing subject, since so much of it is concerned with something that is sick or wrong. Gavin Francis offers another perspective: “The practice of medicine is not just a journey though the parts of the body and the stories of others, but an exploration of life’s possibilities: an adventure in human being.” A doctor with wide experience, Francis has many adventures to speak of. This is not a big idea book, but a series of small, interesting stories about how the bodies we all inhabit work. Throughout there are references to history and literature, for instance when we read that the hand is less delicate than is often thought and that the palm can be perforated by a nail without interfering with the rest of the hand’s functioning, we also learn that since the palm is not strong enough to support the body’s weight (a nail would tear through), cruzification could not work by nails alone, and nailing in Roman cruzification probably was probably only through the heel. The most fascinating story, and the one which gives most hope for the future, is the one about how “benign paroxysmal positional vertigo” (BPPV) was cured. This well-known condition gives severe, debilitating nausea, and had been proposed explained in various ways throghout history. It was not until the 1980’s, however, that one John Epley came up with the hypothesis that the cause was tiny, loose particles in the inner ear. Epley’s cure was a series of movements of the head to physically roll these particles away from the problematic areas in which they were perceived as body movements. Medical progress without drugs or any invasive procedure. Unfortunately that may not be representative, though that is not the topic of this book. Recommended.

Ratings and old books are in the library.