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Photo: Nichole Sobecki for NPR
The cypress sapling above was purchased with money received from the charity GiveDirectly in 2017. More recently, the charity teamed up with researchers to study the impact of cash grants on a wider Kenyan community.

Here’s a new way to look at “trickle down.” Unlike the wealthy, who are more likely to put extra cash into savings, poor people who receive cash actually spread the wealth around. Read about the results of a new study in Kenya.

Nurith Aizenman reports at National Public Radio [NPR], “Over the past decade there has been a surge of interest in a novel approach to helping the world’s poor: Instead of giving them goods like food or services like job training, just hand out cash — with no strings attached. Now a major new study suggests that people who get the aid aren’t the only ones who benefit.

“Edward Miguel, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a co-author of the study, says that until now, research on cash aid has almost exclusively focused on the impact on those receiving the aid. And a wealth of research suggests that when families are given the power to decide how to spend it, they manage the money in ways that improve their overall well-being: Kids get more schooling; the family’s nutrition and health improves.

“But Miguel says that ‘as nonprofits and governments are ramping up cash aid, it becomes more and more important to understand the broader economy-wide consequences.’

“In particular, there has been rising concern about the potential impact on the wider community — the people who are not getting the aid. …

“Miguel and his collaborators teamed up to conduct an experiment with one of the biggest advocates of cash aid. It’s a charity called GiveDirectly that, since 2009, has given out more than $140 million to impoverished families in various African countries.

“The researchers identified about 65,000 households across an impoverished, rural area of Kenya and then randomly assigned them to various groups: those who got no help from GiveDirectly and a ‘treatment group’ of about 10,500 families who got a one-time cash grant of about $1,000. …

“Eighteen months on, the researchers found that, as expected, the families who got the money used it to buy lots more food and other essentials. But that was just the beginning.

” ‘That money goes to local businesses,’ says Miguel. ‘They sell more. They generate more revenue. And then eventually that gets passed on into labor earnings for their workers.’

The net effect: Every dollar in cash aid increased total economic activity in the area by $2.60.

“But were those income gains simply washed out by a corresponding rise in inflation?

” ‘We actually find there’s a little bit of price inflation, but it’s really small,’ says Miguel. ‘It’s much less than 1%.’

“The study — recently released through the website of the National Bureau of Economic Research — also uncovered some evidence for why prices didn’t go up: A lot of local businesses reported that before the cash infusion they weren’t that busy.

“So when they suddenly get more customers, they don’t have to take extra steps like hiring more workers that would drive up their costs — and their prices. In economic parlance, there was enough ‘slack’ in the local economy to absorb the injection of cash.

“Eeshani Kandpal is an economist with the World Bank who has done research of her own on cash transfers — including a study that found that a cash aid program in the Philippines did drive up the cost of certain perishable food items. …

“The new study has a far broader scope, says Kandpal — encompassing not just a much larger number of participants but a vast range of goods and businesses whose pricing practices the researchers meticulously monitored.

” ‘It’s a super credible, interesting study,’ says Kandpal. ‘And very carefully done. … I’d be curious to see if they persist in the longer run,’ she says. ‘Eighteen months is certainly not short. But it’s not terribly long either.’ …

“Michael Faye, co-founder and president of GiveDirectly, says even if it turns out that a one-time cash infusion provides only a temporary boost, ‘I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.’ ”

And wouldn’t you rather see poor folks getting more money than wealthy people and corporations? I myself am doing OK and would really like to experience a more equitable world in my lifetime. More here.

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Photo: Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Craig and Bobby Giurleo carried wreaths out of their shop for customers. Millbrook Farm, family run for generations, was badly wounded this year by a construction road closure. Then some caring neighbors organized a
cash mob.

Six years ago I participated in a cash mob to help a longtime family-run five and dime threatened with bankruptcy. (My post on that.) I was only one of many who bought a lot of great stuff that day, and I’m happy to say the shop is still going.

Recently, another group of local well-wishers did something similar for a family-run farm, where summer and fall sales had gone down 90 percent thanks to an unconscionable road closure.

Deanna Pan wrote at The Boston Globe, “To reach Millbrook Farm from Boston, you must go out of your way. Take Route 2 west into historic Concord, past thickets of snow-drenched woods and picturesque Colonials. If you know where you’re going, you’ll find it, after a series of right turns, tucked back on the Cambridge Turnpike before the road abruptly closes to anyone passing through.

“The family-run nursery — which specializes in flowers and hanging plants in the spring, pumpkins and mums in the fall, and Christmas trees and wreaths in the winter — has survived its share of troubles.

“Sal Giurleo, 80, the brusque family patriarch, started the business 31 years ago, following in the footsteps of his father, an Italian immigrant who grew vegetables for First National grocery stores in the 1940s and ’50s. …

“When construction began on the Cambridge Turnpike this spring, sales at Millbrook Farm plummeted. Although part of the turnpike remained open, roadwork made it virtually impassable. Construction vehicles and machinery frequently blocked both lanes. Until recently, the road was dug up and unpaved. …

Shaun Giurleo, 50, Sal’s youngest son, estimates that by midsummer and fall, sales had plunged 90 percent.

“At their lowest point, they saw no more than one customer a day. Sal had to take out two loans, totaling $52,000, to keep the business afloat. They had no choice but to sell their flowers and plants wholesale at a fraction of the price they would normally charge their customers. …

“The Giurleos prepared for a tight Christmas. Sal worried he would have to take out another loan and sink deeper into debt. He was determined to stay open, no matter the cost. In late November, news of the Giurleo family’s plight proliferated across Facebook, Nextdoor, and e-mail as residents of Concord and beyond urged their friends and neighbors to patronize the struggling Millbrook Farm. …

“The Giurleos’ Christmas miracle arrived early, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Millbrook Farm was unusually busy for a weekday, which Shaun thought was odd. But nothing could have prepared the Giurleos for what happened on the Friday after the holiday. From 9 a.m. until sundown, cars parked up and down the turnpike, as many as 20 at time. The crowds were unlike anything they’d ever seen, driving from as far as Natick and Saugus.

“It was the busiest day in Millbrook Farm’s history. Shaun guesses they sold between 350 and 400 Christmas trees, about half their lot. Saturday was even busier. … At least 10 customers paid for two trees when they only took home one. Another customer asked the Giurleos to charge him $500 for a single tree. …

“ ‘We had a million people here. We weren’t ready. We didn’t know,’ Sal said later, chuckling, …

“Millbrook Farm is now replenishing its inventory with help from other garden centers and wholesalers in the region.

“Inside the storefront [in December], an ebullient Shaun worked the cash register. Despite the weather, the nursery was humming with customers, picking up vibrant wreaths that Shaun had carefully decorated with handmade bows and other baubles, and whatever trees were left until Sal’s shipment arrived.

“The Giurleos won’t recoup all of their losses from the past year, but their business will survive until the next season. Thanks to the influx of sales, Sal immediately paid off his debts.” More here.

Art in Time of War

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Photo: Dalloul Foundation
Installation view of the Ramzi and Saeda Dalloul Art Foundation in Beirut, Lebanon. The private museum is not expected to open to the public for a few years.

Today’s article brings up the dilemma I mentioned recently about trying to share something interesting when the situation on the ground is changing fast and the thing described could disappear overnight. (My version of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “You can’t step in the same river twice.”)

In September,  Rebecca Anne Proctor of artnet News attempted to capture the fluid art scene in Beirut, Lebanon, amid daily antigovernment protests.

“Hanging in the booth of Saleh Barakat Gallery during the 10th edition of the Beirut Art Fair last week was the latest work by Lebanese painter Ayman Baalbaki: a large-scale depiction of Beirut’s Piccadilly Theatre in its present, ruined state, priced at $250,000. Painted in fleshy red and black brushstrokes, the empty, ghostly theatre in Hamra serves as a potent reminder of both the city’s rich cultural history and its present economic predicament.

“Bordered by Syria to the north and east and Israel to the south, the little Levant country of Lebanon is used to continuous states of economic and political woe. Yet after its parliament approved a 2019 austerity budget in late July in an attempt to rescue the economy from spiraling debt and unlock billions of dollars in international aid, many believe the country is now experiencing some of its darkest days yet. …

“The country has also been deeply affected by the Syrian refugee crisis. Lebanon, home to a population of six million, is currently hosting more than 950,000 Syrian refugees, according to the UNHCR. There are also mounting tensions with Israel—in late August, Israeli drones struck an Iranian-backed Palestinian militia in the Eastern Bekaa Valley. …

“ ‘The crisis is very present and things are very tough, but what do you do in such a moment?’ asks the prominent Beirut art dealer Saleh Barakat. … ‘It’s either you close or you make a decision to continue. We took the latter decision. We want to resist by moving on in a positive way.’

“One small silver lining, he says, is that artists feel less pressure to churn out commercial material, freeing them up to experiment. … Often, that results in art that reflects the world around them.

“Most recently, Barakat mounted ‘Interminable Seasons of Migration,’ an exhibition of sculptures made out of bits of car metal by Lebanese artist Ginane Makki Bacho that portrayed the millions of refugees escaping conflict in Syria.

‘I wanted to show the tremendous exodus of people fleeing the war with or without expectation or hope of a secured destination,’ the 71-year-old artist says. …

“Even in times of crisis, however, the art market manages to chug along, and Beirut is home to a number of deep-pocketed collectors who can ride out the storm … ‘It was a really good week,’ [Barakat] says. ‘I was very surprised.’

“The fair remains under the leadership of its founder, French-born Laure d’Hauteville, who has worked to raise the profile of the event. … She claims that ‘the fair has not at all been affected by the economic crisis — we had more museum groups and collectors than ever.’ …

“ ‘I remain an optimist,’ says Mazen Soueid, an economist and advisor to Lebanon’s prime minister, of Lebanon’s future. ‘Resilience is part of the country’s DNA; a lot of the downside is due to the regional rather than the local factors. Let us be frank: the region is at war; and for a country in the middle of a region at war, we are actually still holding up.’ …

“Indeed, the new austerity measures seem not to have dramatically affected Beirut’s rising crop of new museums. … Among them is the Beirut Museum of Art (BeMA), dedicated to Lebanese art and slated to open in 2023. …

“There’s also the Dalloul family collection, known as the Ramzi and Saeda Dalloul Art Foundation (DAF), comprising more than 4,000 Modern and contemporary Middle Eastern artworks. Their private museum is scheduled to open within the next three years. …

“[Some dealers are] facing challenges they never could have anticipated. ‘We are going through a huge crisis,’ says Joumana Asseily, owner of Marfa’ Gallery, … They new austerity measures have affected Asseily’s ability to transport artworks abroad. … Recently, she tried to reclaim three works that were lent to a traveling exhibition in Europe, only to be asked at customs to pay for the objects as if she had purchased them.

“ ‘It’s a nightmare. … I still have artworks stuck in customs — it’s been around eight weeks. [But] even if it is a struggle, I want to stay and work. There are great artists, a great scene, and amazing energy in Beirut.’ ”

More here.

Photos from the Fall

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I was hurrying along Walden Street on a cold and rainy Sunday, awkwardly carrying parcels and a heavy umbrella, when whom should I see but a couple of historical reenactors. So of course I had to put everything down in the damp and find my phone to take a picture. I still don’t know what the occasion was for the guys above or who they were supposed to be, but this sort of thing happens all the time where I live.

Here are a few more photos, going back to October.

First, I wanted to show you the finished mural by Shepard Fairey in Providence. I posted the work in progress here. The sign by RISD Coworks is just one example of the welcome that Providence and the Rhode Island School of Design give to artists in general.

And speaking of RISD, my husband and I took my sister’s husband to the RISD art museum at Thanksgiving, and he loved it. I took pictures of some art I liked below, but I also want to tell you about an auditory installation that meant a lot to us.

In one room, a museum guard pointed out a circle of chairs on a dais and an old-fashioned microphone. You could vaguely hear a tape of voices looping softly in the background. The guard said that one could speak into the microphone and in a few seconds, one could hear the words projected and amplified. I stepped up and said to my sister, who died in September, “Hey, Nell, wherever you are. We’re thinking of you.”

The effect of hearing those words resonate around the room a moment later was spectral, indescribable. We felt we were communicating.

I close with the ruined wall in Providence that features a constantly changing array of artworks. And then one of my shadow pictures, this one taken in late afternoon in the local cemetery.

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Photo: Thomas Jones
Hafod Hardware in Rhayader, Powys, Wales, has a story to tell about generations working in a family business. Its low-budget, Christmas advertising video has gone viral.

The Holy Grail of many small businesses is a video ad that touches people in such a meaningful way that it goes viral. I am not sure if going viral necessarily generates a lot of business, but it definitely generates attention.

Consider, for example, this hardware store in Wales. Unless you lived nearby, you would not actually be able to shop there regularly. But I think that after seeing this video, you might go out of your way to buy something one day and take a selfie.

Copied more or less from the style of a department store giant with a huge ad budget, the ad has managed, on a shoestring, to draw a large following. According to the Guardian, that’s because the small family business has a real story to tell.

Stuart Heritage’s report starts with the department store. “This year’s John Lewis Christmas advert, in which a dragon tries to kill several people then holds up a pudding, reportedly cost £7m [$9,190,300] to make. And that’s fine. It’s a good advert, and John Lewis has a reputation to uphold, and you can’t really put a price on the half a morning of vaguely duty-bound Twitter buzz it generated.

“However, by no means is it the best Christmas ad this year. That plaudit now goes to Hafod Hardware, a tiny independent family-run hardware store in Rhayader, Powys, whose ad cost just £100 [$131.35] to make. …

“A little boy wakes up. He brushes his teeth, eats his breakfast and goes to work. He opens the shop, fixes a broom; he cleans the counter and restocks the shelves. He serves a customer, does a bit of accounting, serves another customer. At the end of the day he switches off the light, bends down to pick up a Christmas tree and – PLOT TWIST! – he’s actually a 30-year-old man. The strapline comes up: ‘Be a kid this Christmas’. …

“The advert is being hailed as a celebration of traditional Christmas spirit, the strength of the independent, and the importance of community. … [But] while it’s impressive that the shop has only spent £100 on the ad – and that was to pay for an engineer to record the song on the soundtrack – it still manages to crib pretty heavily from the John Lewis playbook. There’s a kid. There’s a tree. There’s a slowed-down cover version of a well-loved song. …

“But let’s not be too mean-spirited. The fact is that the Hafod Hardware advert packs an almighty punch, because of the history of the shop itself. It has been open since 1895, fending off competition from bigger companies with every step; and it’s a true family shop, passed down through the generations.

“The grandfather in the advert is the nephew of the founder, the man at the end (his son) runs the shop with him and the little boy could feasibly grow up to run the shop after him. Any old idiot can get a kid to sweep up a shop, but the magic of the ad is that it shows the real flesh and blood lineage of Hafod Hardware. It’s the beating heart of the community, and has been for years. No amount of money can buy that.”

If you were making a video for your business that you hoped would click with a large audience, what would you put in it?

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Vidar Ruud / NTB scanpix
Snow being cleared in Oslo, Noway, in 2018.

As I write to you from a New England village where snow piles are removed by heavy equipment in the middle of the night, I’m remembering that even the “melting machines” of Norway cannot keep up with the challenge.

Here’s a 2018 report from the Norwegian version of The Local.

“According to the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, 2018 has seen twice as much snow as expected, compared to normal levels, and up to 10,000 people are reported to have complained to the city’s Urban Environment Agency (Bymiljøetaten) about the hazardous nature of [Oslo’s] roads and paths, writes broadcaster NRK. …

” ‘In the last few weeks it has been difficult to get around our city, especially for those who aren’t so good on their feet. The plowing budget is almost used up and the Urban Environment Agency has therefore requested more money,’ Lan Marie Berg, head of Oslo Municipality’s environment and traffic department, told NRK.

“The municipality has therefore agreed to allocate an extra 53 million kroner (5.4 million euros) for clearing snow this year. … The Urban Environment Agency will also be given funding to remove ice and snow from paths and roads in residential areas.

“According to the agency, 750 cars have been towed in the capital this winter to allow ploughing vehicles to access necessary areas. 25,500 tonnes of grit had already been spread by the end of January, a significant increase on the 15,000 tonnes spread throughout the entirety of last winter, writes NRK.

“In Oslo, an ice melting machine located at the city’s harbour — nicknamed ‘Terje’ — takes care of much of the snow removed from streets. But with the machine having reached capacity, other solutions must be found by the municipality, including piling snow in streets and parking lots.

” ‘We cannot continue to transport all snow from Oslo at the moment, because deposit sites are closed. In some places, snow must therefore be placed at the side of the road,’ said Urban Environment Agency director Gerd Robsahm Kjørven to NRK. …

” ‘It is snowing now and the snow must be removed. That’s why we’re making the money available, and we’ll have to find space for it before we produce a revised budget for the municipality,’ Robert Steen, a councillor on Oslo Municipality’s finance committee, told NRK.” More here.

Ya gotta do, what ya gotta do. Monday night I was in Providence and, going to bed early, had no idea that a street-parking ban went into effect at midnight. I moved my car into Suzanne and Erik’s driveway at 5 a.m. and, fortunately, hadn’t gotten a ticket by then. I had to walk extra carefully as I had not brought along my lovely Nordic boots with the studs on the bottom. I can definitely relate to the environment and traffic department head’s comment about “those who aren’t so good on their feet”!

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Photo: Diamond Light Source Ltd
Here’s the team taking on the challenge of reading scrolls charred by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. Recent technology is making the impossible possible.

In the always-new-angles-in-archaeology department, here’s a recent story about using advanced technology to read ancient scrolls once thought beyond deciphering.

Nicola Davis writes at the Guardian, “When Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD79 it destroyed the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, their inhabitants and their prized possessions – among them a fine library of scrolls that were carbonised by the searing heat of ash and gas.

‘But scientists say there may still be hope that the fragile documents can once more be read thanks to an innovative approach involving high-energy x-rays and artificial intelligence.

“ ‘Although you can see on every flake of papyrus that there is writing, to open it up would require that papyrus to be really limber and flexible – and it is not any more,’ said Prof Brent Seales, chair of computer science at the University of Kentucky, who is leading the research.

“The two unopened scrolls that will be probed belong to the Institut de France in Paris and are part of an astonishing collection of about 1,800 scrolls that was first discovered in 1752 during excavations of Herculaneum. Together they make up the only known intact library from antiquity, with the majority of the collection now preserved in a museum in Naples.

The villa in which they were found is thought to have been owned by the father-in-law of Julius Caesar, the Roman dictator who was assassinated in 44BC.

“Experts have attempted to unroll about half of the scrolls through various methods over the years, although some have been destroyed in the process and experts say unrolling and exposing the writing to the air results in the ink fading.

“Seales and his team have previously used high-energy x-rays to ‘virtually unravel’ a 1,700 year old Hebrew parchment found in the holy ark of a synagogue in En-Gedi in Israel, revealing it to contain text from the biblical book of Leviticus.

“However, while the En-Gedi scroll contained a metal-based ink which shows up in x-ray data, the inks used on the Herculaneum scrolls are thought to be carbon-based, made using charcoal or soot, meaning there is no obvious contrast between the writing and the papyrus in x-ray scans. …

“As a result the team have come up with a new approach that uses high-energy x-rays together with a type of artificial intelligence known as machine learning. The method uses photographs of scroll fragments with writing visible to the naked eye. These are used to teach machine learning algorithms where ink is expected to be in x-ray scans of the same fragments, collected using a number of techniques.

“The idea is that the system will pick out and learn subtle differences between inked and blank areas in the x-ray scans, such as differences in the structure of papyrus fibres. Once trained on the fragments, it is hoped the system can be used with data from the intact scrolls to reveal the text within. …

“As for what the scrolls contain, the researchers say they are excited.

“ ‘For the most part the writings [in opened scrolls] are Greek philosophy around Epicureanism, which was a prevailing philosophy of the day,’ said Seales. Another possibility is that the scrolls might contain Latin text. While classical libraries are believed to have had a Greek section and a Latin section, only a small proportion of scrolls from Herculaneum have so far been found to be in Latin, with the possibility there is a Latin section within the villa yet to be excavated.

“Dr Dirk Obbink, a papyrologist and classicist at the University of Oxford who has been involved in training the team’s algorithms, … is hoping the scrolls might even contain lost works, such as poems by Sappho or the treatise Mark Antony wrote on his own drunkenness. ‘I would very much like to be able to read that one,’ he said.”

More here.

Hmmm, the scrolls are from the home of Caesar’s father-in-law? I never heard mention of him, and now all I can think about is he must not have raised his daughter to be “above suspicion.” Or was she falsely accused?

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