Another day, another round of government secrecy revelations. Jennifer Valentino-Devries and Siobhan Gorman of the Wall Street Journal report that many of the NSA surveillance activities revealed in Edward Snowden's recent leaks were justified by Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court rulings from the mid-2000s, which used a broad interpretation of how the word "relevant" is phrased in the Patriot Act to permit a vast range of previously restricted data gathering.
As Eric Lichblau detailed in another article on the court over the weekend, the FISC, or FISA court as it's sometimes known, has become a kind of "parallel Supreme Court," issuing important decisions that are almost never made public or subjected to review by other courts.
In a seperate development, the AP reports that, Adm. William McRaven, head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, has "ordered military files about the Navy SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden's hideout to be purged from Defense Department computers and sent to the CIA" in a possible violation of the Freedom of Information Act. Reporter Richard Lardner speculates that this move "could represent a new strategy for the U.S. government to shield even its most sensitive activities from public scrutiny."
Stories like these contribute to the public perception that secrecy -- both decisions made in secret and information being indefinitely kept from the public -- is increasingly become the norm rather than the exception in the U.S. national security community. Much of the secrecy surrounding counterterrorism operations in particular may be necessary -- or at least officials genuinely feel that revealing certain information would be damaging to national security. The less generous interpretation is that a great deal of information is being kept classified to shield it from scrutiny. As others have pointed out, it's a bit disingenuous for the president to "welcome debate" on policies his government has kept out of the public eye for years.
But there's also another way to look at the incentives behind government secrecy, one explored in a recent paper published in the journal Political Psychology. The authors, Mark Travers, Leaf Van Boven and, Charles Judd of the University of Colorado, suggest that readers tend to believe information and recommendations are of higher quality when they're "secret."
In one experiment, subjects read two documents from 1995 about whether the U.S. should intervene to prevent the sale of fighter jets from Belarus to Peru -- a real debate from this era -- one from the State Department supporting intervention and one from the National Security Council opposing it. Some participants were told that the State document was "classified" at the time the decision was made, others were told that it was the NSC that was secret. "On average, the judgment of information quality when it was secret was significantly greater than the judgment of information quality when it was public," they write.
In another test, one document -- a 1978 NSC memo about the sale of military jets to Taiwan -- was judged to be of much higher quality by participants when they were told that it was a "secret document" that had been declassified on the Freedom of Information Act rather than a "non-classified, public document."
The authors posit that there's a "secrecy heuristic" that people use when evaluating the weight of information. Specifically, "(a) people weigh secret information more heavily than public information when making decisions, (b) people perceive the same information as being of higher quality when it is portrayed as secret rather than public, and (c) people evaluate otehrs' decisions more favorable when those decisions are based on secret information rather than on public information."
The authors suggest this effect was very much in evidence following the original Wikileaks disclosures, when people who are normally skeptical about the judgments of U.S. officials were suddenly taking as gospel documents written privately by those very same officials. As Dan Drezner wrote at the time, there was a "natural inclination to think that any Wikileaks document will endow it with the totemic value of Absolute Truth. "If it was secret, then it must be true," goes this logic." In fact, it's quite possible for diplomats or military commanders to be as wrong in private as they are in public.
It's also not hard to imagine the kind of incentive structure that this bias creates. If classified information and secret recommendations are judged to be more credible, there's going to be a natural tendency for the officials crafting and passing along this information to keep as much of it secret as possible.
The New York Times article on the FISA court notes that the judges issued nearly 1,800 surveillance orders last year and didn't deny a single request from intelligence agencies. We obviously can't judge the information these decisions were based on, but assuming that the 11 judges who visit the capital in shifts to meet in a "secure, windowless courtroom" have brains that are wired like the rest of ours, the very secrecy of these requests and the setting in which they're made could be a factor in why they're basically always approved.
We tend to assume that secrets are important. Otherwise, why would they be secret? Therefore the people who have access to secrets are important and worth listening to. It's not long before you have an incentive for more and more of the government's business to be conducted out of public view.
Michael Marder worries about the effect of austerity cuts on European arts funding:
Last month, the Portuguese government announced the definitive closure of 38 cultural and social foundations and 100% cuts in the funding of 14 more.
Likewise, the Spanish government has reduced public funds allocated to cultural organizations by 70% in the last three years. Despite State Secretary of Culture José María Lassalle’s previous affirmation that culture is “neither a luxury nor a caprice,” the new budget of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government did not spare the hallmark Prado Museum, the Institute of Cinematography, or even the Network of Public Libraries, which will receive no money for new books next year.
Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, arts funding has been slashed by 25%. And Italy’s La Scala opera house faces a $9 million shortfall, owing to reductions in subsidies.
Marder worries about the longterm effects of this, writing, "Cultural production, the wellspring of collective imagination, generates resources for finding creative solutions to problems – even those that seem completely disconnected from art."
As I wrote last year, discussing U.S. funding for public television compared to other industrialized countires, European governments fund the arts and culture to an extent that's nearly inconceivable in the American political context.
The most recent comparative study of government arts funding that I can find, a 2005 Canada Council for the Arts report, found that Arts Council of England grants came to about $22 per person. In Sweden, it's around $27. The U.S.? 43 cents. (I'm converting these figures from Canadian dollars.) A 1998 comparison by the Arts Council of England, included in Canadian report, noted that French arts funding accounted for 1.31 percent of public spending. In Finland, it was an astonishing 2.1 percent. The U.S. was .13 percent.
All this is to say that even after dramatic austerity cuts, European countries are likely to fund the arts at levels well above what American voters consider exorbinant. This does not mean that this cuts won't be potentially devastating -- thanks to high levels of government spending, European countries may not have the same infrastructure of private funding to support the arts. In a time of recession, it's hard to image that a phalanx of wealthy individuals and foundations will suddenly emerge, desperate to spend cash on modern dance or installation art.
The other interesting question is how artists will respond. In the winter of 1968, French New Wave filmmakers and their student supporters were willing to take to the streets -- at times clashing violently with police -- to protest government interference in the arts after the Ministry of Culture decided to replace the eccentric preservationist Henri Langlois as director of the Cinematheque Francaise. The protests wound up shutting down that year's Cannes Film Festival. And this was a government that was actually increasing support for the film industry. The ultimately successful cinematheque protests -- Langlois was reinstated -- are today remembered as something of a coming attraction for the more dramatic strikes and sit-ins that were to come that summer.
The trends in European art may not be quite as radical as they were in the late 1960s, but the response might still be interesting to watch. I can't imagine how you would quantify this but it seems reasonable to assume that generous government funding might have something of a moderating effect on the content of art. With artists increasingly left by the state to fend for themselves, could European culture get a little rowdier this decade?
The OECD is out with its latest data on income inequality in member countries and it's a pretty grim picture. "In the first three years of the crisis, the inequality in income from work and capital increased as much as in the previous twelve, the report notes:
The increase in inequality between 2007 and 2010 was been felt more in some countries than in others. As the following chart shows, the increase in Ireland and Spain was shocking, while inequality actually narrowed in Poland, the Netherlands, the Czehch Republic, and Germany:
At the same time that incomes have become more unequal, overall they've also been falling. The Iceland bar in the following graph is pretty astonishing -- the drop in employment income is larger than every other country's drop in total income. Poland, again, comes out looking pretty good:
Poverty rates increased overall -- about 11 percent in the OECD as of 2010 -- affecting households with children particularly hard. Poverty actually decreased among the elderly.
In other words, inequality is increasing even in measures of inequality.
A study for the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests that people in different countries have similar ideas of what it means for a politician to "look presidential," or at least Americans and Bulgarians do. The authors, Abigail Sussman, Kristina Petkova, and Alexander Podorov, write:
In the present study, we tested whether the predictive ability of ratings based on facial appearance would extend to a wider range of candidates. Specifically, we examined whether individuals in the US could predict outcomes in the 2011 Bulgarian presidential elections by evaluating the facial appearance of 18 candidates. The large number of candidates naturally running for the high level office allowed us to accurately test the strength of the relationship between judgments of facial appearance and election outcomes across a broad range of faces. We found that a strong correlation between ratings of facial competence and election outcomes persisted across the full range of candidates, and that US participants' hypothetical choices paralleled actual Bulgarian election outcomes. We demonstrated that competence ratings were more effective at predicting election outcomes than judgments on a variety of other characteristics deemed important by Bulgarian voters as well as ratings of attractiveness. Furthermore, judgments of competence largely drove the correlation between hypothetical and actual votes.
In case you're curious, the candidate above --former European Commissioner for Consumer Protection Meglena Kuneva, the only headshot included in the published paper -- got the highest scores on both "competence" and "honesty" from the American participants who had no idea who she was. She came in second for "attractiveness" to Maria Kapon, who -- it seems relevant to point out -- was the only other woman in the field. (The survey-takers were exactly 50 percent male.) On the question of who the participants would vote for, Kuneva came in third, which is exactly how it turned out in the real election.
The winner of the election, the 49-year-old, silver-haired Rosen Plevneliev, scored highest on hypothetical vote, third highest on competence, and third highest on attractiveness. The top three finishers in the real world election got 83 percent of the hypothetical vote.
This is just one of a number of similar studies. One asked Australians to pick U.S. presidential primary winners. Another that asked Swiss children which French politician they would want to be "captain of their boat". Both were pretty accurate. It apparently works decently across ethnicities as well: Americans and Indians are pretty good at picking Mexican and Brazilian winners.
Research from Niels Johannesen of the University of Copenhagen and Gabriel Zucman of the Paris School of Economics looks at the result ofinternational agreements taken to prevent tax evasion in the wake of the global financial crisis. The results are not very encouraging for reformers:
First, treaties have had a statistically significant but quite modest impact on bank deposits in tax havens: a treaty between say France and Switzerland causes an approximately 11% decline in the Swiss deposits held by Frenchresidents. Second, and more importantly, the treaties signed by tax havens have not triggered significant repatriations of funds, but rather a relocation of deposits between tax havens. We observe this pattern in the aggregate data: the global value of deposits in havens remains the same two years after the start of the crackdown, but the havens that have signed many treaties have lost deposits at the expense of those that have signedfew. We also observe this pattern in the bilateral panel regressions: after say France and Switzerland sign a treaty, French deposits increase in havens that have no treaty with France.
Some of the winners and losers in this trend are mapped here:
Johannesen and Zucman suggests their finding lend support to a "big bang" multilateral agreement on tax havens rather than an incremental approach, though it seems like it would be nearly impossible to wrangle an agreement big enough to make a difference.
Update: Here's a very interesting response from E.J. Fagan at the Task Force on Financial Integrity & Economic Development, who says I'm too pessimistic about the prospects for global action on this issue.
Nieman Journalism Lab reports on an interesting online media experiment in the Netherlands, premised on the notion that online readers are more loyal to individual writers than to the publications they work for:
Arnold Karskens has his own channel on Dutch news startup De Nieuwe Pers (The New Press). For €1.79 a month, readers can subscribe to him and read his war reporting and investigations into war criminals. Don’t care about war crimes? Maybe some of the other journalist-driven channels — on subjects from games to France, from the science of sex to environmental sustainability, from Germany to the euro crisis — would be of interest.
De Nieuwe Pers recently launched in the Netherlands as an online platform for freelance journalists. Users pay €4.49 a month for access to all content on its app or website. But what stands out is the possibility to subscribe to individual reporters, for €1.79 a month. Think True/Slant, but with paywalls.
“News has become more personal,” Alain van der Horst, editor in chief of De Nieuwe Pers, told me. “People are interested in the opinions, the beliefs, the revelations of a certain journalist they know and trust, much more than an anonymous person who writes for a large publication.”
Karskens concurs, stressing that a personal brand is key in this business model. “People read my stuff because I have a clear, crystalized opinion based on over 32 years of war correspondence,” he said. “This really works well for journalists with a distinctive character. It’s not for the average desk slave.”
The comparison to True/Slant, an American blogging hub that attracted some high-profile contributors but shut down after about a year, may not be the most flattering one.
The closest U.S. comparison is probably Andrew Sullivan's -- thus far successful, it seems -- move to a site without a magazine affiliation, supported by subscriptions. But while Sullivan's site is a nine-person blogging juggernaut putting up dozens of posts per day on click-heavy political and cultural issues, De Nieuwe Pers seems to be betting that there are enough interested readers to support writers posting much less frequently on more specialized topics, including investigative journalists who may go days, weeks, or even months without publishing. Karskens says later in the article, "sometimes I won’t be able to publish something for a week, sometimes two weeks... By subscribing to me personally, people support this type of investigation."
I don't know the Dutch media will, but in the United States, I think thelist of writers for whom a significant number of readers might pay $2.33 per month, without knowing how much content they might receive in return, is a pretty short one. I'm interested to see how this works out, though.
Oxford Internet governance Professor Viktor Mayer-Schönberger argues that it's time for data on the Internet to have a legally mandated expiration date:
Our brains reconstruct the past based on our present values. Take the diary you wrote 15 years ago, and you see how your values have changed. There is a cognitive dissonance between now and then. The brain reconstructs the memory and deletes certain things. It is how we construct ourselves as human beings, rather than flagellating ourselves about things we've done.
"But digital memories will only remind us of the failures of our past, so that we have no ability to forget or reconstruct our past. Knowledge is based on forgetting. If we want to abstract things we need to forget the details to be able to see the forest and not the trees. If you have digital memories, you can only see the trees."
Digital memories, he said, are very different to analogue, photographic ones. "Photos, whether blurry or not, still leave a lot of room for interpretation, unlike, say, a high-definition video, where there's no escaping everything you said and did."
Mayer-Schönberger, who advises companies, governments and international organisations on the societal effects of the use of data, advocates an "expiration date" (a little like a supermarket use-by date) for all data so that it can be deleted once it has been used for its primary purpose. "Otherwise companies and governments will hold on to it for ever."
The Guardian is running a series on the topic, which seems to have gained a great deal of political traction in Europe, with "EU justice commissioner, Viviane Reding, heralding the prospect of serious fines for companies that refuse to honour requests from customers to erase personal data."
The topic is starting to appear in courts as well. Last year, the owner of a Spanish camping ground unsuccessfully sued Google to "prevent the search engine from displaying gruesome images of charred bodies from a deadly gas explosion in the late 1970s" when you searched its name.
I think it's reasonable for Facebook users should be allowed to control what data the site maintains about them, but I'm not really sure how this could be fairly implemented for Google results. The gas explosion photos might be unfair to the Spanish company, but what about an oil company that wanted to remove information about a past spill?
More media is moving online, and digital records will increasingly be the only ones available. If a politicians made racist comments in a newsletter in the 1980s, the record has hung around for future journalists to discover. Should they be allowed to disappear just because they're written on a blog?
Responding to the objection that Google's backups will make full deletion impossible, Mayer-Schönberger says "But if you can be deleted from Google's database, ie if you carry out a search on yourself and it no longer shows up , it might be in Google's back-up, but if 99% of the population don't have access to it you have effectively been deleted," he said.
Under this scenario, Google would have access to information that 99 percent of the population didn't. Right to be forgotten laws may aim to empower users, but it seems to me that they would leave the search engines with the power in the relationship.
In a presentation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies today, Frank Rose, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of State for space and defense policy, gave a presentation on the space diplomacy priorities of the Obama adminsitration.
There isn't really a formal international body or set of standards governing the international use of space, though there is increasing movement toward adopting the Space Code of Conduct put forward by the European Union as an international standard. (Notably, this is not being proposed as a binding treaty. Given the difficulty the Law of the Sea has had in the Senate, it's hard to imagine that international space law would fare much better.)
The two main priorities discussed by Rose were taking steps to avoid the weaponization fo space -- a central tenet of the space strategy document released by the White House in 2010 -- and the removal of debris from space. There are over 21,000 piece of trash that are larger than 4 inches orbiting the earth, posing a risk to satellites and even the International Space Station.
The two problems are related. Earlier this month, a piece of debris resulting from China's 2007 shootdown of a satellite -- an even that rang international alarm bells about space militarization -- collided with a Russian satellite. When something blows up in orbit, the shrapnel sticks around for a while. Unfortunately, from a diplomatic point of view, it's often hard to tell the technology that destroys space debris from the technology that destroys satellites. As Rose put it today:
The national space policy directs the us government look at issues associated with active degree removal-that is removal of large debris in space. But I always like to point out, there are serious political technical financial and legal issues associated with that. For example, one person's debris removal system could be another person's anti-satellite weapon.
Rose also noted that the problem is only getting more urgent with new players from Brazil to India to Nigeria entering the space business. Without a set of ground rules, earth's orbit could soon get extremely crowded and extremely messy.
NASA via Getty Images
Prompted by news that Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is releasing a heavy metal album, the Atlantic's Matt Schiavenza questions just how useful China's best known dissident's antics are for advancing the cause of democracy in his own country:
So the fact that Ai is able to embark on these extracurricular ventures at all is, in its way, something of a triumph. But by fanning his celebrity through what amounts to little more than publicity stunts, Ai has evolved into a bumbling parody of himself and in the process has empowered the same force -- the Chinese Communist Party -- that he so regularly vilifies. Unwittingly, Ai has conformed to the Party's definition of a dissident -- a Narcissist more attuned to the whims of foreign admirers than to the interests of his own people.
If Ai were just an artist, or even a politically engaged artist in a more democratic country, he would be totally insufferable --"at once formidable and absurd, courageous and disingenuous, unquestionably brilliant and downright moronic," as critic Jed Perl described his recent show at the Hirshhorn museum in Washington. And no doubt, there's a threshold activists can cross -- let's call it the FEMEN line -- where their actions become more about self-promotion than effecting any sort of change.
But the distinction Schiavenza draws between's Ai's Gangnam-dancing, Elton John-hugging public profile and "the mild-mannered professor" Liu Xiaobo seems to imply that opposition is more legitimate when it comes from refined intellectuals rather than brash self-promoters.
Schiavenza draws some parrallels between Ai and Russia's Pussy Riot, which I think is a useful comparison. Like Ai, Pussy Riot seems to conform to Vladimir Putin's government's cartoon version of what the opposition looks like -- immature, reflexively disrespectful of authority, and supported more in the West than their own country. Even the Russian opposition has kept Pussy Riot at arm's length, while supporting their release from prison, with blogger Alexei Navalny calling them "silly girls" and Mikhail Khodorkovsy chalking up their actions to the "mistakes of youthful radicalism."
I get that Russian activists and the writers and commentators who follow their movement in the West are frustrated that the world only started paying attention when the word "pussy" entered the equation. But arguing that these figures shouldn't be supported because they match the stereotypes described by authoritarian leaders seems dangerously close to letting these leaders define the acceptable limits of public discourse.
One wonders what critics of Ai and Pussy Riot would have said about Fela Kuti, the Afrobeat pioneer who was a persistent and effective thorn in the side of Nigeria's military government in the 1970s at the same time he was declaring his recording studio an independent nation and marrying his 27 backup singers. It takes a certain type of personality to believe your artistic expression is worth the risk of death or arrest. It's not always the most appealing one.
Johannes Simon/Getty Images
The good folks at Next City have invited me to be a guest blogger at this week's "Feeding Cities conference" at the University of Pennsylvania, a meeting focused on food security in a rapidly urbanizing world. This post also appeared at NextCity.org:
I suspect I wasn't the only attendee at this conference who had second thoughts about reaching for the roast beef at the lunch buffet yesterday. In the morning sessions, the prospect that the rest of the world might be quickly adopting a U.S.-style meat heavy diet - in China, for instance, meat consumption has quadrupled over the last 30 years - had been treated as a near-apocalyptic scenario.
After all, industrial-scale meat production has a massive carbon footprint, raises prices of other foods by requiring grains for feed, creates breeding grounds for disease and contributes to chronic health crises like obesity and heart disease. (To say nothing of the welfare of the animals raised for slaughter.)
But the panelists at a breakout session on "food systems" were a bit more sanguine about the red stuff, noting that in places where malnutrition is prevalent, meat, fish and dairy can be an important source of protein and nutrients, particularly for children and mothers. Narayan Hegde, a trustee and principal adviser at India's BAIF Development Foundation, argued that meat in his country is "the main area where we have an opportunity to improve consumption" and enthusiastically described eggs, milk and poultry as "the door" to meat-eating for a society where almost 50 percent of the population is vegetarian.
So perhaps the question is not whether we should eat meat, but how to produce it more efficiently and safely. Roger A. Cady, who studies sustainability issues for Elanco Food Industry & Consumer Affairs was optimistic, sharing a study he had coauthored for the Journal of Animal Science that found that the U.S. population of dairy cows fell from a high of 25.6 million in 1944 to around 9 million in 2007, at the same time U.S. dairy consumption was increasing. The carbon footprint of U.S. dairy production is about 37 percent of what it was in the 1940s, according to Cady. (For what it's worth, Elanco produces medicines and "productivity enhancers" for agricultural animals.)
The health risks posed by meat production are also misunderstood, argued Delia Grace, a program manager at the International Livestock Research Institute. It's true that humans and animals share about 60 percent of diseases and 75 percent of emerging human diseases come from animals, but while outbreaks like SARS and Bird Flu get all the attention for killing tens of people, the conditions that kill tens of millions are older, more common diseases. A group of 13 "zoonoses", including conditions like TB and rabies, kill 2.4 million people every year, Grace said.
Grace also argued that supermarkets are not the solution, drawing on research she has done in Vietnam. In a street-level "wet market," there's only about four hours between pig being killed and being eaten. In supermarkets, on the other hand, meat is wrapped in cellophane - which locks in moisture, creating a breeding ground for bacteria - and power outages are common, meaning food can sometimes be left unrefrigerated for hours. So despite supermarkets being more sanitary, in the traditional sense, the meat in the markets was generally safer.
She also found that in traditional markets, levels of contamination were far lower for meat from female butchers, despite their male counterparts having the same attitudes and knowledge of hygiene. Women tended to be more conscientious about following hygiene procedures.
Of course, none of this is going to satisfy animal rights activists, and one questioner did press the panel over whether "efficiency" in production was just a euphemism for keeping animals more confined and killing them younger. Cady, who said inaccurate films produced by animal rights activists had given the public as misguided ideas about the meat industry, countered, "It's not about pushing the animal past its limits. It's not about denying it freedom. It's about doing it productively with the animal's welfare in mind."
Despite the increasing normalcy of vegetarianism in Western countries, demand for meat will likely increase dramatically in the coming decades - 70 percent over the next 37 years, according to Cady's numbers. The discussion of how to meet that demand in a safer and more sustainable way is certainly a valuable one. Though in the mean time, the veggie wrap tasted just fine.
A meat vendor (L) chops pork meat for a customer at a roadside market in Hanoi on December 26, 2011. The consumer price index (CPI) rose 18.13 percent year-on-year, with food costs the main driver, soaring 24.8 percent, according to the General Statistics Office. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung was quoted as saying that controlling inflation will remain one of the top national priorities of the country's socio-economic development plan for 2012 which aim to keep inflation rate below 10 percent. AFP PHOTO / HOANG DINH Nam (Photo credit should read HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)
Last weekend, a newspaper in Mexico's northern Coahuila state became the latest outlet in the country to announce that it would no longer report on the country's drug violence after receiving death threats from the Zetas cartel. The deicision by the editors of Zocalo follows a paper in Nuevo Laredo which made a similar decision after a series of grenade attacks last year.
A panel at the Cato Institute today, co-hosted by Google Ideas, addressed the question of how data and social media can be effectively deployed to gather information on the drug war, at a time when traditional outlets of information are increasingly self-censoring. As Google Ideas Director Jared Cohen explained in introducing the panel, Mexico is a rare case of a democratic country that has effective media censorship, not due to laws but due to threats of violence posed by non-state actors.
With reporters often unable to file on violent incidents, social media is now frequently filling the gaps explains New York Times reporter Karla Zabludovsky, who is based in Mexico city. "This is becoming the norm in many parts of Mexico," said. "Unconfirmed information from Twitter and blogs are increasingly replacing traditional media in the critical first hours [after an incident] and sometimes well beyond that."
But Zabludovsky argues this reliance on social media comes with a price. "Anonymity means it is nearly impossible to verify who the sources are, if they are indeed at the scene they are reporting from, and what their agenda is," she says.
Mexico is certainly a vibrant social media environment. Internet usage has doubled in the last 10 years to at least 36 percent of the population -- likely higher. 60 percent of internet users are active on social media and 20 percent of those are on Twitter, making Mexico the fifth largest Twitter community in the world.
As Microsoft reseracher Andrés Monroy-Hernández explained, drug violence is one of the most topics on Mexican twitter, with terms like balacera -- shoot-out -- among the most frequently used. Users can track violent incidents near their houses -- often referred to euphamistically as "risky situations" using organically-developed city-specific hashtags such #mtyfollow for the city of Monterrey.
Monroy-Hernandez also compared Mexican Twitter use to the United States, noting that Mexicans are more active retweeters, and tend to use the site more to disseminate information rather than interact with each other. The information broadcasted over Twitter often contrasts sharply with what's available through official channels, he argued:
[In the city of Nuevo Lardedo] the mayor mysteriously disappears for days and refuses to discuss drug violence, the military general who presides over the city doesn’t hold any news conferences or issue any statements to the media. So you can imagine if you are a citizen in this kind of place, you are seeing all sorts of violence and you turn on the TV and all you see is soap operas.
Javier Osorio, a PhD. candidate at Notre Dame, still sees utility in traditional media sources but takes a Big Data approach to them. Osorio has developed linguistic analysis software -- the first of its kind for Spanish, he says -- which he used to comb through media, police, and government reports to build a geo-referenced database of drug violence which notes who is comitting the violence, who is the victim, and the nature of the event. (This contrasts with the official data released by the Mexican governments which tends to just list numbers of deaths without much context.) Osorio's data, for instance, shows that the vast majority of drug-related fatalities are cartel-on-cartel violence, without involement of law enforcement.
I was curious, however, about how reliable this data would continue to be if drug violence is increasingly going unreported. "Sometimes when there is violence against journalists in an area, they still report—they just send it to the national newspaper and report it as “staff.” Since I have so many sources I can cross-validate," Osorio replied.
Monroy-Hernandez suggested that Osorio's dataset could be improved with the inclusion of information from social media:
They are quoting directly from social media without the name of the journalists involved. You'll see articles like "Last night, on Twitter, people were reporting XYZ happening." There's a lot of information showing up on blogs and social media that doesn't show up in traditional media and it would be really interesting to augment some of the data with data from blogs.
Previously: Tracking Mexico's cartels with Google
Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images
It's often said that in the future, wars will be fought over water. But globally, the world may be getting better at saving those precious drops. For a paper in Hydrological Sciences Journal, researchers from the Joint Global Change Research Institute (JGCRI) and the University of Alberta have developed three models for global water use over the next century:
Business-As-Usual Scenario (BAU): assumes the continuation of current trends in population, economy, technology, and human behavior to year 2100.
Low-Tech Scenario: assumes a world of higher population and GDP growth, but lower per-capita income growth than the BAU scenario; with low income growth, less money is invested in technological advancements.
High-Tech Scenario: unlike the low-tech scenario, this assumes a world of lower population and GDP growth but higher per-capita income growth than the BAU scenario; with high income growth, greater investments are likely to promote technological advancements.
The models are charted below:
In the BAU scenario, water use continues to grow but at a slower rate than in previous years. Under the high-tech scenario, use is actually lower in 2100 than it was in 2005. The researchers note that "Such a decline in water use has been observed historically for some developed countries, where per-capita water use declined despite rising populations, likely due to technological improvements and conservation measures."
Of course, this is a worldwide picture. It doesn't address the inequalities in water access between developed and developing countries that are predicted by many to grow in the next cenutry. And even under the high-tech scenario, countries like Yemen are still facing an acute water crisis in just the next decade.
With a cryptic note to customers, the betting market Intrade has announced it is closing down operations. The site's traffic was badly hurt after it was forced to jettison its U.S. customers over a pending lawsuite by the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Since its founding in 1999, the Irish site has provoked quite a bit of debate over its supposed predictive powers. In 2007, for instance, a group of prominent scholars including Daniel Kahneman, Robert Shiller, and Justin Wolfers argued that the United States should deregulate markets like intrade as they have the "potential to stimulate innovation in the design and use of prediction markets throughout the economy, and in the process to provide information that will benefit the private sector and government alike."
InTrade-like prediction markets certainly seem to have a future provided they avoid the attention of the wrong regulators. Competitor Paddy Power, which also offers non-sports markets on outcomes like elections and the Nobel Peace Prize, seems to be raking in record profits. John Authors argues that such markets still have utility in politics:
In 2004, Intrade correctly predicted the vote each of the 50 states made for president. In 2008, Intrade’s one mistake was to fail to predict that Mr Obama would pick up one electoral college vote in Nebraska. Last year, it showed it was not flawless by getting Florida wrong. Mr Obama held the state, but Intrade had put a 69 per cent chance on a Republican victory there.
The record, however, is far more successful than that of polling, which helps explain why the concept has been around for a while. The University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers, who has made a special study of the field, found records of election betting in Wall Street going back to 1884. The average betting turnover per election in the early years of the 20th century, in 2002 dollars, was $37m. Over history, they performed better than the Gallup poll, with an average error in presidential elections of 1.4 per cent against more than 2 per cent for Gallup.
They are also surprisingly hard to manipulate. When the long-shot presidential contender Pat Buchanan encouraged his supporters to buy Buchanan futures on the electronic futures markets run by the University of Iowa, they failed to move the markets for more than a few hours – once the price was too high, sellers emerged and pushed it back down again. And again, attempts to manipulate the markets go a long way back; Mr Wolfers found that the Tammany Hall machine that controlled New York politics at the turn of the last century attempted to skew the markets.
Fine, but the fact that Intrade outperformed the likes of Dick Morris and Karl Rove isn't all that impressive. The 2012 election may have been the most extensively prepolled political outcome in history. Taking an unbiased view of the numbers in the weeks leading up to the election, it was clear that the smart money was on an Obama victory. The main uncertainty was which swing states he would take, which by missing Florida, Intrade failed to predict.
When the number of decision-makers on a given political outcome is even smaller, and information on their preferences is less available, Intrade was even less useful. Intrade notably blew it on the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act, giving the bill a 77 percent chance of being struck down only two days before the decision.
As Barry Ritholtz has tracked, Intrade has also badly missed other decisions including the 2004 Iowa Caucus, and the 2005 Michael Jackson trial. As Ritholtz put it, "Futures markets are really a focus group unto themselves: When the group is something less representative of the target market, they get it wrong with alarming frequency."
The behavior of smaller decision-marking groups like juries, the Supreme Court or even Iowa caucus-goers are much more difficult to predict than national elections where polling data -- if you aggregate enough of it -- is a pretty good predictor of the outcome. Intrade was most useful in the situations where we didn't really need it.
Jean-Marc Dewaele of the University of London investigates, for a study titled "‘Christ fucking shit merde!' Language preferences for swearing among maximally proficient multilinguals":
The present study investigates language preferences for swearing among two groups of multilinguals. The first group consisted of 386 adult multilinguals who filled out the Bilingualism and Emotion web based questionnaire (BEQ, Dewaele and Pavlenko, 2001–2003) and had declared that they were maximally proficient in their L1 and L2 and used both languages constantly. The second group consisted of 20 multilinguals with a similar sociobiographical profile who were interviewed about their language choice for the communication of emotion. A statistical analysis of the quantitative data revealed that despite similar levels of self-perceived proficiency and frequency of use in the L1 and L2, the L1 was used significantly more for swearing and L1 swearwords were perceived to have a stronger emotional resonance. An analysis of the quantitative data from the BEQ and the interview data confirmed the findings of the quantitative analysis while adding rich detail about the difficulties in deciding which language to choose for swearing.
In other words, people like to swear in their first language. As one Greek immigrant to Britain put it, "When I say a swearword in English it won't feel as strong as I say it in Greek."
There are some exceptions though. Dewale reports that "Several participants, typically of Arabic or Asian origin reported that swearing in English allows them to escape the social constraint that weighs on them in Arabic, Kurdish and Chinese, where swearing carries strong social stigma."
The CIA's internal quarterly journal, Studies in Intelligence, has just posted a reprint of a 1962 article, amazingly titled "Some Far-Out Thoughts on Computers." The author, Orrin Clotworthy, writing during the era of room-size computers and punch cards, predicts that computing power will revolutionize intelligence gathering, allowing analysts to predict the behavior of nations and even individuals with a degree of precision that would put Nate Silver to shame (my emphasis):
[There is rising optimism among scholars that we will some day be able to foretell the behavior of large groups of people within reasonable limits, given accurate and timely measurements of certain telltale factors. A single person, they submit, follows an erratic course, just as a single gas molecule does. But when you put enough people together many of the individual erratic actions will cancel each other out and there will emerge a collective behavior that can be formulized. To be sure, what comes out is not likely to be so simple and aesthetically satisfying as Boyle's law for the isothermal pressure-volume relations of an ideal body of gas. Mass cause-and-effect relationships are more elusive for people than for molecules. But they must be there, somewhere and scholars are looking for them.
The impact of new breakthroughs in this area upon the intelligence business is interesting to contemplate. Possibly some American discoveries in mass human behavior patters could be kept secret for long periods to permit our unilateral exploitation of them. Let's imagine, for example, that we discover an extremely high correlation between Tito's popularity among the Yugoslavs and the consumption of slivovitz in that country: when the per capital absorption goes up, his stock goes down. As long as we are aware of this and he is not, we will find it profitable to collect precise data on boozing among the Yugoslavs. To keep our interest undetected, we resort to clandestine collection techniques, because once he learns of it and knows the reason why, he can adopt countermeasures, for instance doctored consumption figures. The variations in this came are endless.
What Makes Sukarno Run?
While one group of researchers, largely sociologists and political scientists, pursues the gas molecule analogy, a amore visionary one will be exploring possibilities with certain individual molecules. Can scientists ever simulate the behavior pattern of a Mao Tse-tun or a Sekou Touré? Theoretically if a man's importance warrants it, they should be able to reduce to mathematical terms and store in an electronic memory most of his salient experience and observed reactions to varying situations. Subjecting this stain-in brain to a hypothetical set of circumstances, they could then read out his probable reaction to the event hypothesized. Here the storage problem alone would be tremendous. Even greater would be the task of teaching the computer to ignore certain stimuli while responding to others. As you read this article you are able to disregard the noise of the air conditioner nearby. It will be some time before a machine can be taught to distinguish between the relevant and the irrelevant in even this elementary fashion. Sill, by say the year 2000, I wouldn't bet against it.
Clotworthy imagines "political weather maps" tracking likely behavior by nations. Sadly, as D.C. residents learned this week, despite massive advances in computing power, we still haven't even gotten the regular weather maps right.
This section is both hilarious and eerie:
As a final thought, how about a machine that would send via closed-circuit television visual and oral information needed immediately at high-level conferences or briefings? Let's say that a group of senior officers are contemplating a covert action program for Afghanistan. Things go well until someone asks, "Well, just how many schools are there in the country, and what is the literacy rate?" No one in the room knows. (Remember, this is an imaginary situation." So the junior member present dials a code number into a dvice at one end of the table. Thirty seconds later, on the screen overhead, a teletype printer begins to hammer out the reguired data. Before the meeting is over, the group has been given through the same method the names of countries that have airlines into Afghanistan, a biograhical profile of the Soviet ambassador there, and the Pakistani order of battle along the Afghnistan frontier. Neat, no?
Very neat! Today, officers have access to more information about Afghanistan than Clotworthy could ever imagine in the palms of their hands -- no teletype required -- though covert actions there probably haven't gotten much easier.
Hat tip: Micah Zenko
Compared to many of the works on display at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery of Asian art, the Cyrus Cylinder isn't much to look at: a hunk of clay roughly the size and shape of a football covered in tiny Babylonian cuneiform. But quite a bit of political history is packed into this unprepossessing canister, normally on display at the British Museum but appearing in Washington starting this weekend as the first leg of five-city U.S. tour.
The cylinder was created in Babylon shortly after the Persian king Cyrus the Great conquered the city in 539 B.C. At the time it was customary for kings to bury tablets as foundation documents to dedicate new buildings. The cylinder's text proclaims Cyrus' victory, criticizes the previous Babylonian king, and states that the various religious communities deported by the Babylonians will be allowed to return home and worship at their temples in peace.
The cylinder is often described as the world's first bill of rights, but the exhibit's curator John Curtis, keeper of special Middle East projects at the British Museum told me that that's a bit misleading:
"The concept of human rights as we understand it didn't really exist at all. But it's still very unusual document. It does promise some rights that contemporary documents don't. Cyrus promises to restore Gods to the temples from which they'd been removed. Essentially he's guaranteeing freedom of worship. The second thing he promises to do is send back people who had been deported to Babylon....It also says that he's freeing the people of Babylon from forced labor. The last thing is that even though he's captured the city, he doesn't set fire to it, he allows the people to stay and live in peace.We know that it's much more than just a foundation document. It was a proclamation."
At a media preview this morning, British Museum Director Neil MacGregor explained that the cylinder indicates what made the Persian empire -- which at its height stretched from China to Egypt and the Balkans, encompassing nearly all of what we now call the Middle East -- so unique for its time. The Persians were the first "road empire," stretching laterally across land rather than centering on a river like the Egyptians, and the first multi-lingual, multi-ethnic empire. The Persians were also pioneers in establishing a colonial bureaucracy to oversee the people they conquered -- through governors known as satraps -- rather than simply turning up every few years to demand tribute in exchange for not burning their cities down.
The Persians weren't big history writers, so until recently most of what we knew about them came from accounts by others. Cyrus gets favorable treatment in the Old Testament for allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple, and some of the language in the Book of Ezra echoes what's on the cylinder, only with Jehovah substituting for the Babylonian god Marduk as the deity guiding the King's actions.
Greek authors are the main source of Ancient Persian history, which MacGregor suggested this was akin to "only knowing about 20th century America from Soviet sources." Cyrus was one of the few Persian kings to get favorable treatment by Greek scholars, particularly Xenophon, author of a biography called the Cyropaedia. The biography was popular among political thinkers during the renaissance -- Machiavelli was a fan -- and the enlightenment. The Sackler's exhibit includes an annotated Cyropaedia owned by Thomas Jefferson. The cylinder was discovered in modern day Iraq in 1879 -- a major find as it seemed to confirm the biblical account of Cyrus as a benevolent and religiously tolerant ruler.
Though it resides permanently in London, the cylinder has been the source of some controversy in modern Iranian history. In 1971, it was shipped to Iran to be the centerpiece of an elaborate celebration thrown at the ancient city of Persepolis by Shah Reza Pahlavi to commemorate the 2,500 year anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire. The lavish event, which included food flown in from Maxim's of Paris, gallons of champagne and Baccarat crystal was estimated to cost more than $200 million, provoked the ire of Ayatollah Khomeneni's followers, and is seen by some historians as the beginning of the end of the Shah's rule.
Though it has a sometimes uncomfortable relationship with the country's pre-Islamic past, the current Iranian government has also embraced Cyrus. The cylinder was viewed by more than half a million people when it was displayed in Tehran in 2010 with President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad comparing Cyrus' support for the Jews to his own government's support for the Palestinian cause.
Coming on the heels of its visit to Iran, the cylinder's American tour is bound to be imbued with political significance -- as well as somewhat naïve headlines along the lines of "Can a text from ancient Persia break down mistrust between enemies?"
That's obviously a question to which the answer is no, but the cylinder is still worth reflecting on. As Sackler Director Julian Raby put it, this was a document that viewed the people under a ruler as "subjects not objects." It's a political notion we shouldn't take for granted.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
On sea, as on land, one country's territory ends where another begins. But what about when there is no border? How far out into the Atlantic does the United States end? Or -- in an increasingly relevant case -- how much of the Arctic Ocean belongs to each of the countries that ring it? How this is determined, it one of the cases where the "geo" in geopolitics becomes particularly relevant.
The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which went into effect in 1994, gives countries rights to their continental shelf. Geologists define continental shelf as the shallow part of a continent that's submerged underwater, but for legal purposes, it's defined as 200 nautical miles offshore.
However, the all-important Article 76 of the treaty lets countries claim shelf beyond 200 miles in two situations:
1. Countries can claim shelf 60 nautical miles from the foot of the continental slope, specifically "the point of maximum change in the gradient at its base."
2. They can also claim areas where the thickness of the sediment at the sea floor is at least 1 percent of the distance to the foot of the slope. In other words, if you're 100 miles out from where the slope of North American continent hits the Atlantic Ocean floor and the sedimentary layer on the sea floor is at least a mile thick, that's still America!
If those seem like odd criteria, scientists agree with you. "There are two definitions of continental shelf, a geological one and a political one," says Deborah R. Hutchinson of the U.S. Geological Survey. "Article 76 is full of ambiguities, because you're trying to put science in a legal framework."
There are limits on what's called the Extended Continental Shelf (ECS). And it only applies to rights to the sea floor. The water above the ECS is international. And a country can't extend its shelf indefinitely.
Since 2001, more than 50 countries have made continental shelf submissions under the treaty. Hutchinson notes that governments avoid referring to these as "claims" -- "The ECS is yours to define. You're not claiming it. It's yours already." But overlaps do sometimes occur. Britain has competing continental shelf claims with Argentina. Tanzania and the Seychelles are at odds over shelf in the Indian Ocean.
The United States is of course is not party to the Law of the Sea Treaty due to ongoing congressional opposition -- though it has been supported by the last three presidents -- but is nonetheless engaged in a multiagency effort to define the country's ECS, a project that has included dozens of cruises in the Atlantic, Pacific, and is due to wrap up in 2015. (Perhaps by that point, the U.S. will be a party to the treaty and can actually define its claims internationally.) Hutchinson is on the USGS team tasked with measuring sediment thickness using seismic techniques developed by the oil industry. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration is mapping the sea floor to determine slope as part of the same effort. According to Hutchison, countries typically use whichever condition is most advantageous.
Hutchison also says that Russia's designs in the Arctic may have been a motivation behind the U.S. push to define its shelf. "Russia was the first country to put a submission in and they included a huge swathe of the Arctic. That was sort of a wake-up call that the U.S. needs to know where our ECS is. We want to make sure that we're in line with what other countries are doing."
The map below shows the area beyond the 200 nautical mile line -- outlined in red -- that Russia claimed in its 2001 submission.
The map below shows the areas around the world (the red numbers) where the U.S. is exploring potential ECS:
The issue of shelf claims continues to heat up. In December, China filed a continental shelf claim that it claims gives it control over disputed islands in the East China Sea -- and nearby gas reserves -- based on the shape of the slope on the sea floor. "I don't think anybody thinks the law of the sea will help resolve these boundary disputes," she says.*
*Correction: The original version of this post misleadingly implied that this quote referred to all sea boundary disputes. The U.S.G.S. points out that the Law of the Sea has frequently been used to resolve international disputes, particularly among South Pacific nations.
Images courtesy of continentalshelf.gov and the UN
Mutlu Ozdogan and Christopher Kucharik of the University of Wisconsin and Alan Robock of Rutgers say an India-Pakistan nuclear war would have a devastating impact on U.S. agriculture:
Crop production would decline in the Midwestern United States from climate change following a regional nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan. Using Agro-IBIS, a dynamic agroecosystem model, we simulated the response of maize and soybeans to cooler, drier, and darker conditions from war-related smoke. We combined observed climate conditions for the states of Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri with output from a general circulation climate model simulation that injected 5 Tg of elemental carbon into the upper troposphere. Both maize and soybeans showed notable yield reductions for a decade after the event. Maize yields declined 10-40 % while soybean yields dropped 2-20 %.
A 2007 study by ecologists at Rutgers found that even after post-Cold War nuclear weapons reductions, a superpower vs. superpower nuclear war could still produce enough smoke to generate the agricultural catastrophe and mass famine known as "nuclear winter."
Scott Olson/Getty Images
War of Ideas is a blog on the theory behind the practice of global politics. Foreign Policy associate editor Joshua E. Keating brings you the latest research, data, and intellectual debates from around the world.