Give a Man a Cow

Reading this week:

  • Congo by David Van Reybrouck

When I want to remind myself to do something, I either open up a tab and type in a google search or else send myself an email. This blog post is mostly for my own benefit (all these blog posts are for my own benefit), because writing it will let me close a tab I’ve had open for I think about a year now. As documented elsewhere on this blog, I think about international development a lot, and in this post I am working through some thoughts on program effectiveness vs. a program’s ability to raise money.

Evaluating the effectiveness of development programs is a something I find to be quite fraught. In my limited experience, you very quickly wind up doing something like trying to put a dollar value on quality-adjusted life-years, and then find yourself trying to weigh the relative effectiveness of improving someone’s floor or buying them HIV meds. If you get too wrapped up in effectiveness, I also think you wind up in a bit of a moral conundrum: what if you have a program, but then find some other program is more effective? Aren’t you obligated to transfer all your funds into the new program, lest you are wasting limited resources and letting people die? Then again, if you don’t try to evaluate effectiveness of programs, you will do ineffective programs and waste even more of the limited resources and that is even worse! Not an easy business to be in.

There is of course an ongoing movement to just give people money instead of doing almost any other sort of development project. Giving people money is pretty darn effective in a lot of cases, which should be intuitive. Development projects come in and try to identify a needs gap, and then fill that gap. They come in and go “man these people could really use a cow” and then give them a cow. Instead of trying to identify people’s gaps, you could instead just give them the money and let them fill their own gaps. This makes sense. If someone offered me a cow, I would probably take it, and then just go and sell it and spend the money on whatever I actually wanted (just giving money, I want to say, is far from a cure-all, and there are ways to make the impact of direct cash transfers more effective, but still).

On the other hand, the gigantic advantage, I think, of running a give-people-cows charity is that it is much easier to solicit donations. If you go on the website for Heifer International, they give you a whole “gift catalog” of different animals you can buy for families. As yet another caveat, this is actually misleading, when you “buy” a “cow” from them for a family, they actually just use your $500 to fund their programs in general, though some of those include buying cows for people. But let’s pretend they’re exclusively in the business of buying people animals, because that is what their website wants you to think. Heifer International clearly thinks that people are much more willing to cough up donations if they can believe that they are buying a cute widdle baby goat for a specific, photogenic family in a picturesque but nondescript developing country. Contrast that with GiveDirectly, which firmly believes in direct cash transfers. If you go on the website you really gotta kinda poke around before you find any picturesque families!

The thing I was thinking about when I opened up a tab a year ago is the balance between program effectiveness and funding raising effectiveness. To wit, if my program is half as effective as yours, but I can raise twice as much money, aren’t we doing equal good in the world? What I really wanted to do was come up with a donor discount rate, a reasonable quantification of exactly how much less money you raise when you’re like “hey we’re just gonna give cash to people, they need that $20 more than you do” instead of saying “wanna buy a chicken?”

After thinking about it off and on for a year, I realized that was going to be hard. There are too many variables for me, personally, to figure out. Are there people that will only donate money if they can buy a chicken, or if they can’t buy a chicken will they donate to direct cash transfer charities? Are the different chicken charities competing with each other? How do people pick which charities to donate to anyways? Beats me! Plus market forces have probably already revealed the answer: there are more “donate things” charities than “donate cash” charities (I think), so charity world clearly thinks one method is more effective than the other.

Nevertheless, I will do some pointless math on Heifer International and GiveDirectly. According to the abstract from this decade-old study, for every $1 Heifer International spends, they cause somewhere between $1.19, $1.25, or $2.35 of benefit to a household. Let’s average those and say $1.60. Meanwhile in the year ending June 30, 2020, they raised just south of $108 million and spent about $94 million, doing I suppose $150 million “worth” of “good” in the world. On the other hand, according to this only couple-year-old study(‘s abstract, as I understand it), for every $1 GiveDirectly transfers, the community benefits $2.60 worth. Meanwhile, in 2019, they raised about $42 million and gave about $33 million in grants, doing, by my hokey system, $85.8 million “worth” of “good” in the world. So there ya go. Except in writing this post I have learned that in 2020 they raised $300 million and spent at least $210 million, mostly it seems because MacKenzie Scott really likes what they do. I guess that answers that debate.

Jeez I love what MacKenzie Scott has been up to. If you’re hiring, MacKenzie, I will work so hard at giving your money away.

Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

I know this blog is currently just a tour of the various Smithsonian museums, but hey, they’re great and totally awesome to go to! This past week my super amazing girlfriend’s sister and her sister’s boyfriend (collectively, “A2“) were visiting us. The two of them went to a whole bunch of museums while I was working, but on Saturday I got to go with them to the National Museum of Natural History.

The Natural History Museum is by far the Smithsonian to which I have been the most. I grew up not too far from here and when I was but a wee lad we went all the time on the weekends. Specifically, we went all the time because my brother wanted to go. I always wanted to go to like, any of the other museums, but he whined the loudest so we would always go to the Natural History Museum.

Fortunately the museum as a little something for everyone. A2, for example, was most excited about the dinosaurs. I, too, was actually pretty excited to see this because I hadn’t been to the museum in years and the last time I went they were still remodeling the dinosaur hall, so it was nice to see it finally all together. It actually took me a sec though to register where the dinosaurs actually were because instead of walking into the hall and seeing a big ole’ T-Rex he’s kinda hidden a little bit around the corner and you have to walk in past some boring old mammals to see a fossilized tyrannosaur chomp down on a fossilized stegosaurus. Pretty neat though!

My super amazing girlfriend, on the other hand, was always a big fan of ocean stuff. She is pictured above next to a giant squid (she’s on the right). I have to remind myself while writing this that everyone has not been to the Smithsonian a thousand times, but their ocean hall is pretty darn nice. My favorite part of it is actually a bit off to the side where they have fossils of ancient sea creatures, including really big fish and the like and I just imagine swimming around and then encountering some of these ancient big fish and like, not really liking it at all. The ocean can be a scary place! This is why I read the below sign as a threat:

Historically, as I was being carted around the Natural History Museum looking at the things that other people wanted to look at, I enjoyed the Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals. They got a lot of pretty rocks in there! The centerpiece is of course the Hope Diamond. When I was younger the curse surrounding it seemed a lot more salient but it is still like, wow. I know that picture is terrible but it was harder to get than you think because it was so brilliant that it even overwhelmed my poor cellphone camera. I was also always a big fan of the opals, because I think they are the prettiest and also because they are my birthstone. Another big factor about liking the gems is that they always seemed the most straight-up sciency, probably because they have this one big holographic crystal wall thingy that it supposed to make you feel like you’re inside a molecule, and when I was a kid I wanted to be a scientist, potentially a mad scientist. I would of course go on to get a whole degree in chemistry where I did a lot of stuff on crystals, which makes opals even cooler because they are amorphous and amorphous solids in materials that are usually crystalline have a lot of cool properties and that is neat.

Anyways these days what I find coolest are the anthropological sorta exhibits and also art galleries. Luckily the Natural History Museum had an African Voices exhibit which was pretty neat! It was very dimly lit which is one of the reasons the below photo of two minkisis isn’t too great (of a Mother and Child figure and a Male, and wow also the Smithsonian’s collection website is terrible), and of course forces itself to survey an entire continent of cultures in one exhibit hall, but this is the sort of stuff I enjoy seeing. It has lots of really great displays and reminders to go check out the Museum of African Art and the Museum of African American History & Culture.

But to wrap up one of the coolest things I saw all day was the below copper plate, which was created by the Mississipian culture about 700 years ago. I had known that the Mississipian culture existed, but I had no idea they had art like that and it was a very exciting thing to discover in a museum I had been to many, many times before. I guess goes to show you that there is always reason to broaden one’s horizons.

We didn’t stay way too long in the museum because the rest of the crowd was already pretty museum’d out after three intense days of museums. We wandered out to the mall and took some photos and then got on the metro for the ride home. Overall a pretty darn good day.

Cat Café 4

This blog has many themes. Love, hope, family, the usual. One of these recurring themes, besides 3D printing, Renaissance Festivals, and African colonialism, is of course visiting cat cafés! This past weekend my super amazing girlfriend and I decided to visit Crumbs & Whiskers and it was a hoot!

We decided to go for several reasons. One is that we live in DC now and I had mentioned Crumbs & Whiskers somewhere between several and many times over the course of our relationship. Another is that we are in the market for a cat and we thought it might be nice to go and look at some. The most important reason is probably that it is a lot of fun. This post is titled Cat Café 4 because I have been to cat cafés four times now, once in Singapore, once in New Haven, and twice at Crumbs & Whiskers, though the last time I went to Crumbs & Whiskers was years ago now and they have since moved so it is like a whole new experience.

Well not really a whole new experience. No matter what the general gist of the thing is the same, though I gotta say over the years Crumbs & Whiskers has really refined their experience. It was good last time I went but it was clear they were getting their feet under them, but this time it was a well-oiled machine. Brought you in, sat you down, gave you the ground rules, had you take off your shoes, and carefully monitored you during your time. That sounds like a cat-based big brother, that last sentence, but no it was great. We mentioned we were in the market for a cat and they tried to find the perfect cat for us among the lot, and gently pushed us towards cats they thought would match our personality (or just carried those cats over to us). They also include a polaroid with admission and the hosts were carefully seeing when a good photo op would be. They took a very cute polaroid of the two of us petting a cat. The below picture is not that polaroid, the below picture is me looking out of my mind while surrounded by cats:

We opted for the 70 minute experience on this trip and so we got over an hour hanging out with cats. There are a lot of different things you can do with cats over 70 minutes, especially when there are like two dozen of them. I was impressed by how used the cats were to being handled, especially while they slept, and seemed little perturbed when they were picked up in a comatose state. The hosts knew each cat’s preferred toy and they were more than willing to train us up on proper cat toy usage (trickier than you think!) to get the maximum play out of each cat. I especially liked how waving a toy around could gradually garner you a larger and larger crowd of cats.

But while 70 minutes is a lot of time it is unfortunately not forever and eventually we had to leave. This was a sad moment but now I have a Crumbs & Whiskers sticker and a Crumbs & Whiskers lapel pin and many many cat photos to remember our time together by. I’m excited for Cat Café 5. Until then, here is a picture from the next day of me on the National Mall along with a DeLorean that was there, which felt kinda silly to look at because like, I’ve lived it. Not the time travel bit, but the unreliable car bit:

Renaissance Festival II

When I concluded my last post on the Renaissance Festival, I ended it with “Until next year!” Then of course we all know what happened and that next year wasn’t until this year. A lot has happened since the last time I went to a Renaissance Festival! Many of those things have been documented on this blog, and so my loyal reader(s) you are already familiar with the fact that I started dating my super amazing girlfriend! My dad came to town just to go to the Renaissance Festival opening weekend (the weekend before this has been posted) and we decided to go along as well, which was extra exciting for me and I assume for her because this is the first time my super amazing girlfriend had ever been to a Renaissance Festival!

The photo at the top was the usual opening ceremony of the Renn Fest where the king comes out and greets everyone and welcomes them into Revel Grove. We, however, had showed up 45 minutes early (this is my fault), so the first thing that greeted us at the Renn Fest was a vaccination site, which I view as a good thing but which I was surprised by. I have no doubt there are people who would use this opportunity to get vaccinated, but how many people is that? I don’t know if they administered any vaccines but I don’t think the line could have been very long at any point in the day.

As we waited out the 45 minutes in front of the gate, I took the opportunity to point out some of the archetypical people that show up to Renaissance Festivals. Since I was actively looking for people to point out (pirates, princesses, people not in costumes, people in scifi outfits, etc) this was the first time I think I really noticed the wide range of people that show up to this event. Lemme tell ya, it really is a wide range. I saw people in Trump shirts and I saw gay ravagers walking around with dudes in flip flops. There is a place for everyone at the Renn Fest because drinking out of goblets while wearing silly outfits knows no boundaries.

Before arriving, I had tried to explain the Renaissance Festival to my super amazing girlfriend. Her major reference for Renn Fests was Gilmore Girls, and my various attempts to explain I don’t think helped at all. She was very familiar with craft fairs, and I mentioned all the shops and crafts, but a Renn Fest isn’t exactly a craft fair. She is also familiar with Shakespeare festivals, and I tried to sell the event by pointing out that they often do Shakespeare. I don’t think, however, that I saw excitement in her eyes until she looked at the Renn Fest website and discovered that they sold mac n’ cheese on a stick.

We eventually got that mac n’ cheese, but first we took what dad dubbed “the grand tour,” which is really just a walk around the perimeter. I think the true nature of the Renaissance Festival became clear when we passed by a game booth where you threw very cute rats into hanging buckets. We both played, I got a rat in a bucket, and like the excellent boyfriend I am I won my super amazing girlfriend a prize which she proudly wore the rest of the day. Also as part of the grand tour she bought a flower crown, and I was immensely pleased when she told me it made her feel pretty!

It was the afternoon before we really settled into to watch any of the entertainment at the Renaissance Festival. One of the highlights was watching the Company of Women present a scene from Henry VI, Part III. This was the Shakespeare that my super amazing girlfriend wanted to see, and it was great. At least I assume it was. After the scene I asked my super amazing girlfriend what had happened but she didn’t know either. We also managed to see a very abridged version of Macbeth which was very good!

Eventually we also came to the food! We in fact got the mac n’ cheese on a stick, and throughout the day we also got key lime pie on a stick, chocolate and peanut butter pie on a stick, a buffalo chicken calzone, fried cheese, jalapeno poppers, and a crab cake sandwich, and I am sure other things but I am already hungry writing down this list. It is truly a spectacular array of foods and I am only sad that we don’t have more stomachs.

I also want to mention here what my super amazing girlfriend dubbed her favorite show of the day, which was the Magical Poodles. The most impressive part of any Renaissance Festival show is how far these performers can stretch having one or two tricks. We saw a trio of jugglers who did a whole series of shows and you know what all they did was juggle. They were great though. Anyways our Poodle Lady friend, she was great. I have never trained poodles, so maybe she was at the top of her craft, but the tricks the dogs did were not very impressive. However, they were extremely cute and she was extremely earnest and it was very clear each dog had its own personality it 100% wanted to display as they wandered around the stage or demanded an additional treat before they would perform a trick. These dogs were divas, they knew it, and were twice as cute for it.

All in all it was an excellent day at the Renaissance Festival and I am super excited I got to show my super amazing girlfriend what it was all about. We ate foods and saw shows and got legitimately lost in a maze for a little bit but that gave us an opportunity to take some photos and just be cute together and it was great. I’ve been going to the thing for decades now and I am impressed that you can really find entertainment for all ages and all types as you wander around. We gotta make sure it isn’t another two years before we can go again.