Dollar Bills and US State Borders

A number of proposals (not all serious) have been floating around lately to redraw the borders of the US. According to this list nearly every US state has groups wanting to partition it somehow. One idea was fifty states with equal population. Another is to redraw borders based on the actual communities that exist–in this case measured by how dollar bills travel:


Dirk Brockmann, a physicist, used information about dollar bill travel patterns from to track the movement of currency. He then used that information to re-allocate the US into states based on “effective communities.” Specifically, he drew borders where dollar bills are least likely to cross.

There are a few interesting borders that jump out. Both Pennsylvania and Missouri are divided into eastern and western chunks. Major metropolitan areas that currently cross several state borders (eg Chicago) have their own state in Brockmann’s map. Notice also that the northernmost part of California is lumped together with Oregon and Washington–not unlike the proposed State of Jefferson. Dollar bills do not appear to cross the Red River from Texas to Oklahoma very often.

One component that would be interesting to add to this is how dollar bills travel internationally. US currency is frequently used in other (especially developing) countries so it would be neat to see how a dollar bill moves around once it’s outside of the US. Does it stay in the first non-US country it reaches, or move around more from there? This data could also be incorporated into a project like Brockmann’s: some communities near international borders might trade with neighboring countries more than they do other parts of their own.

Internet Policing in Syria and Around the World

A while back I tweeted Fred Benenson’s chart of the Syrian internet shutdown. His post also included a video, which I share below.

It turns out there are about 61 countries around the world that could be “unplugged” pretty easily by governments. On the private side, Google regularly receives takedown requests for specific websites from authorities. Slate mapped these across the world:

Google received nearly 2,000 requests from more than 50 countries to strike content from its websites in the first half of this year. Turkey is the most vigorous meddler. Among other efforts, Turkey requested that Google strike more than 400 YouTube videos that criticized the Turkish government.

The U.S. ranks second. Most of its 273 requests are court orders, many of which relate to defamation lawsuits against individuals or organizations.

Because Google is beholden to the laws of each country, Google’s legal constraints determine its compliance. According to Google’s website, it does not always comply with a request. Some orders are falsified. In other cases, it can’t find the described content to take it down.

The map is kind of terrible–circles are a notoriously bad way of comparing information when they require comparison by area–but I did not want to go to the trouble (for this post at least) of getting the underlying data and mapping it myself. If any brave souls want to try, please do. The underlying point is important–internet politics is becoming more and more relevant to everyday life.

PyCon 2012 Video Round-Up

The videos from PyCon 2012 are posted. Here are the ones I plan to watch, along with their summaries:

Checking Mathematical Proofs Written in TeX

ProofCheck is a set of Python scripts which parse and check mathematics written using TeX. Its homepage is Unlike computer proof assistants which require immersion in the equivalent of a programming language, ProofCheck attempts to handle mathematical language formalized according to the author’s preferences as much as possible.

Sketching a Better Product

If writing is a means for organizing your thoughts, then sketching is a means for organizing your thoughts visually. Just as good writing requires drafts, good design requires sketches: low-investment, low-resolution braindumps. Learn how to use ugly sketching to iterate your way to a better product.

Bayesian Statistics Made (as) Simple (as Possible)

This tutorial is an introduction to Bayesian statistics using Python. My goal is to help participants understand the concepts and solve real problems. We will use material from my (nb: Allen Downey’s) book, Think Stats: Probability and Statistics for Programmers (O’Reilly Media).

SQL for Python Developers

Relational databases are often the bread-and-butter of large-scale data storage, yet they are often poorly understood by Python programmers. Organizations even split programmers into SQL and front-end teams, each of which jealously guards its turf. These tutorials will take what you already know about Python programming, and advance into a new realm: SQL programming and database design.

Web scraping: Reliably and efficiently pull data from pages that don’t expect it

Exciting information is trapped in web pages and behind HTML forms. In this tutorial, you’ll learn how to parse those pages and when to apply advanced techniques that make scraping faster and more stable. We’ll cover parallel downloading with Twisted, gevent, and others; analyzing sites behind SSL; driving JavaScript-y sites with Selenium; and evading common anti-scraping techniques.

Some of it may be above my head at this stage, but I think it’s great that the Python community makes all of these resources available.

New Waze to Map

As cliché as phrases like “the Wikipedia of…” have become, here is an idea that seems promising: crowd-sourced mapping.  The project is called Waze and the plan is as follows:

Take the case of Waze, a company based in Tel Aviv, Israel, that believes it has unlocked the key to turning maps and traffic data into a commodity so cheap that no one will be able to charge for it—not even them. Waze has created a combination of smart-phone apps and websites that lets users build maps and report traffic conditions within a Wikipedia-like system.

Waze was born in 2006, when founder Ehud Shabtai coded an add-on for a commercial GPS system that let users map the location of speed cameras. Within three days, he says, users had mapped every camera in Israel.

To see just how revolutionary this is, consider the efforts that early states had to go through to map their territory. Below are several key quotes from James Scott’s Seeing Like a State. Although the point of the chapter from which they are drawn concerns cadastral mapping (maps of an area typically used to convey information about ownership, taxation, and the like), the argument can apply to the larger category of top-down maps without much overgeneralization.

“The fiscal or administrative goal toward which all modern states aspire is to measure, codify, and simplify land tenure….” (p. 36)

“These state simplifications, like all state simplifications, are always far more static and schematic than the actual social phenomena they presume to typify.” (p. 46)

“All centralizing states recognized the value of a uniform, comprehensive cadastral map Carrying out the mapmaking, however, was another matter. As a rule of thumb, cadastral mapping was earlier and more comprehensive where a powerful central state could impose itself on a relatively weak civil society.” (p. 49)

Shabtai’s traffic camera maps turns this hierarchy right on its head. Rather than enshrining the powerful, crowd-sourced maps empower the everyman. Politics is everywhere.

Waze Guided Tour