What Can Les Mis Teach Us About Revolutions?

LesMiserablesMuch to my fiancee’s disappointment, we have not yet seen this movie. But after a great review by Erin Simpson on the connection with political violence, I am intrigued:

Why do some revolutions succeed, while others barely get off the ground? Many of the academic debates surrounding civil wars and insurgencies boil down to the relative weight of the opposing factions’ resources (means), grievances (motive), and political openings (opportunity).

The revolutionaries in Les Mis don’t lack for grievances. The revolution of 1830 had ended Bourbon rule in France, but disappointed both those who wanted to forge a republic and those who wanted the restoration of a Bonapartist regime. In addition, Paris was plagued by pervasive unemployment, censorship, poor public services, and a growing gap between factory owners and factory workers. But unwashed masses do not a revolution make — it was comparatively middle class Parisian students who led the 1832 uprising.

As the street urchin Gavroche makes clear in Les Mis, the students are afforded a compelling opportunity for their revolt: the public funeral of Gen. Jean Maximilien Lamarque, one of the most prominent anti-monarchist figures in France at the time. Co-opting public events and demonstrations is a standard tactic for urban uprisings — which is why, for example, government censors in China tolerate criticism of the regime but not calls for public gatherings or protests.

While the students have sufficient opportunity and solid grievances, they lack the means to pursue their revolution. Not only are they short on weapons and ammunition, they also lack broad public support: Few residents donate furniture to their barricades. As a result, the rebellion fizzles — government troops are able to march through Paris and isolate the rebels after a few short days. Clandestine organizations like the students’ secret society may avoid government detection, but wider mobilization is inherently limited — leaving only empty chairs and empty tables, as the survivors sadly sing.

This is exactly the kind of thing I love to read or blog about–see my take on Public Enemies for example. I hope to have a similar post if Gangster Squad lives up to expectations. Thanks to Trey Causey for sharing the link to the FP piece on Twitter.

For more on grievances and civil war, see Paul Collier’s Breaking the Conflict Trap.

Is e-Voting in Our Future?

Image Source: Pavel Podolyak

There are 96 million smartphones and wireless PDA’s in the US. As of 2012, none of them can be used to cast a ballot in a US election. In an age where you can do almost everything else online, though, some observers are asking when this might change.

Voting electronically from somewhere other than a polling place is technically known as i-voting. Australia allowed i-voting for its overseas defense personnel in 2007. Deployed troops with residency in California can also vote by e-mail. The Indian state of Gujarat introduced remote electronic voting in 2011, and about three-quarters of ballots were cast that way. The most famous example of internet voting is Estonia. The option was first available to Estonians in 2005, and has grown rapidly in popularity in subsequent biennial elections. France, Latvia, Sweden, and Switzerland have also tested out the idea.

Of course there are security issues to be worked out:

Viruses could be used to take over voters’ phones; rogue countries like Iran could commandeer computers and change results without our knowledge; government insiders could write software that decides who wins; denial-of-service attacks could take down the Internet on Election Day.

In 2010, researchers from the University of Michigan demonstrated this risk by attacking an internet voting pilot project in Washington, D.C.

But there may be an upside to balance out the risks: increased turnout. That has been the result in at least one of the Canadian cities that introduced i-voting:

In all, 80 Canadian cities and towns have experimented with Internet voting in municipal elections. The town of Markham, in Ontario, has offered online ballots in local elections since 2003.

An independent report by digital-strategy firm Delvinia showed that early voting increased 300% the first year Internet voting was allowed. Twenty-five percent of the people who voted online in 2003 said they didn’t vote in the prior local election, and overall turnout rose nearly 10% from 2006 to 2010, according to the report.

The link in the CNN piece appears to be broken, but you can read Delvinia’s internet voting reports here.

Internet voting still has its downsides, and current technology is a long way away from being able to provide the security necessary for widespread i-voting in the US. But with California’s existing system and New Jersey’s recent experiment, we are one step closer to the future.

Germany’s Open Source Political Party

From Josh Kron at The Atlantic:

With Germany’s 2013 federal elections swift approaching, the Pirates have become the protest party of the moment. The Party is not limited to Germany. It didn’t even begin there. Sister Pirate Parties have won elected seats in Austria, Czech Republic, Spain, and Switzerland. Chapters have opened in, among others, Estonia, Taiwan, Bosnia, Nepal, New Zealand, Morocco, Kazakhstan, Argentina, Russia, Mexico, Canada, and the United States. Of course, not all are officially registered as political parties, much less winning elections, but their appeal clearly crosses borders.

The rise of the Pirate Party — the spillover of online dissent into a political party — was perhaps inevitable. “Cyberspace is not so much a distinct realm as it is the very environment we inhabit,” write the authors of Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace. Private and public attempts to manipulate cyberspace leave what they call “a chilling effect” with “profound consequences on freedom of speech,” raising “important and sometimes troubling public policy issues — particularly for the relationship between citizens and states.”

The broad appeal of the Pirate Party is noteworthy, as is their “hacking” of the political system in order to better understand how it works. However, this is not an endorsement of the party itself, which according to Kron is akin to the Communist Party both in its origin and its attitudes toward (intellectual) property. The next two planned posts will involve political parties and the internet in two different ways.

Where Do Kilograms Come From?

International Prototype Kilogram (CGI, from Wikipedia)

The history of the kilogram dates back to 1799, when Enlightenment thinkers set about re-envisioning a whole host of the micro-institutions that govern everyday life. In the wake of the French Revolution, they reset the calendar to Year 0 and generated a set of interrelated measurement standards that we now know as the metric system. This work continued the efforts of the Consultative Commisioner for Units under Louis XVI, and lives on to this day:

Once a year, three officials bearing three separate keys meet at the bottom of a stairwell at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, in Sèvres, France. There they unlock a vault to check that a plum-size cylinder of platinum iridium alloy is exactly where it should be. Then they close the vault and leave the cylinder to sit alone, under three concentric bell jars, as it has for most of the past 125 years.

This lonely cylinder is the International Prototype of the Kilogram, known colloquially as Le Grand K, and it is the last remaining physical object to define a unit of measure. It’s a quaint throwback to a time when people compared the ocean’s depth to the span of a man’s outstretched arms and the second to a tiny fraction of a year. Now we fix our rulers to the speed of light and our clocks to a spectral property of cesium. By thus linking measurement to fundamental and unchanging phenomena, scientists have paved the way for GPS satellites, gravity-wave detectors, and many other precision technologies that simply wouldn’t have been possible before.

The trouble posed by the master kilogram is apparent in the many friction-filled steps by which it calibrates other masses. Once every few decades, a scientist plucks the cylinder from its perch with chamois-leather-padded pincers, rubs its surface with a cloth soaked in alcohol and ether, and steam-cleans it. Then he puts the prototype in a precise balance that compares it to the bureau’s official copies, which are in turn compared to copies kept by member countries. And thus the prototype’s mass trickles down to set the standard for the rest of the world.

The whole article is worth reading.

Micro-Institutions Everywhere: Bike Paths

Some think, including many Dutch themselves, that bike paths have always been there…. Cycle paths weren’t really necessary [when] cyclists outnumbered auto traffic by far. After WWII, everything changed.

Specifically, Dutch incomes went up dramatically in the post-war boom, more people bought cars, and many more lane-miles for cars were built. As auto traffic grew, the risk for cyclists–especially children–increased noticeably. During the oil crisis of the early 1970’s, the government instituted “car-free Sundays,” which showed people that they could still get around cities without their cars.

In 1975, the government created “demonstration routes” in The Hague and Tilburg to encourage cycling. The video says that “in retrospect, this was the start of the modern cycling movement” in the Netherlands.

Why do bike paths qualify as micro-institutions? First and most simply, they are coordination devices. According to the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, “Bicycle lanes make the movements of both motorists and bicyclists more predictable and as with other bicycle facilities there are advantages to all road users in striping them on the roadway.”

Second, in this case they were clearly a result of government policy to encourage a specific behavior. Third, protestors played an interesting role: see the video at about 6 minutes in for an example of an “informal” bike path that protestors created by painting the pavement. Later on, it was formalized into a modern bike path.

None of this is to suggest, as some would, that the greatest need of the US today is more bike lanes. Rather, it is to show how quickly an informal micro-institution can become formalized, and then how soon people think of it as something that has “always been there.”

[via @brainpicker] 

A (More) Perfect World

What would a world without traffic lights look like? The short answer, in my view, is “better.” As I have told anyone who will listen (OK, mainly Nathan) many times, solving this problem is one of the key obstacles toward structuring my own view of a perfect world. As it turns out I am not alone, and this is actually an achievable goal.

See this article from 2006:

European traffic planners are dreaming of streets free of rules and directives. They want drivers and pedestrians to interact in a free and humane way, as brethren — by means of friendly gestures, nods of thehead and eye contact, without the harassment of prohibitions, restrictions and warning signs….

“Only two out of our original 18 traffic light crossings are left, and we’ve converted them to roundabouts.” Now traffic is regulated by only two rules in Drachten: “Yield to the right” and “Get in someone’s way and you’ll be towed.” Strange as it may seem, the number of accidents has declined dramatically.

And here for videos of this working in various Asian cities.

A (more) perfect world is achievable.

[Via Mike Munger and Russ Roberts]

Food politics: EU-Russia edition

As Russian and EU diplomats prepare for a summit, relations have turned icy. Russia has tightened it’s restrictions on vegetable imports from Europe in the wake of an E coli outbreak that’s killed over two dozen people. More from the BBC here.

This food politics stuff is getting to be a real thing. Surely there are others out there who cover it better. If you have links, send them this way.