Technology and Government: San Francisco vs. New York

In a recent PandoMonthly interview, John Borthwick made a very interesting point. Many cities are trying to copy the success of Silicon Valley/Bay Area startups by being like San Francisco: hip, fun urban areas designed to attract young entrepreneurs and developers (Austin comes to mind). However, the relationship between tech and other residents is a strained one: witness graffiti to the effect of “trendy Google professionals raise housing prices” and the “startup douchebag” caricature.

New York, on the other hand, has a smaller startup culture (“Silicon Alley”) but much closer and more fruitful ties between tech entrepreneurs and city government. Mayor Bloomberg has been at the heart of this, with his Advisory Council on Technology and his 2012 resolution to learn to code. Bloomberg’s understanding of technology and relationship with movers and shakers in the industry will make him a tough act to follow.

Does this mean that the mayors of Chicago, Houston, or Miami need to be writing Javascript in their spare time? Of course not. But making an effort to understand and relate to technology professionals could yield great benefits.

Rather than trying to become the next Silicon Valley (a very tall order) it would be more efficacious for cities to follow New York’s model: ask not what your city can do for technology, but what technology can do for your city. Turn bus schedule PDF’s into a user-friendly app or–better yet, for many low-income riders–a service that allows you to text and see when the next bus will arrive. Instead of calling the city to set up services like water and garbage collection, add a form to the city’s website. The opportunities to make city life better for all citizens–not just developers and entrepreneurs–are practically boundless.

I was happy to see San Francisco take a small step in the right direction recently with the Open Law Initiative, but there is more to be done, and not just in the Bay Area. Major cities across the US and around the world could benefit from the New York model. See more of the Borthwick interview below:

Doublespeak: A Chrome App for the Orwellian Web

tl;dr: Doublespeak is a new Chrome web extension that replaces political doublespeak with plain English. It’s open source so you can help expand the dictionary of terms. 

George Orwell is well-known for introducing the terms “newspeak” and “doublethink” in his novel 1984. A portmanteau of the two, doublespeak, is more common in our modern lexicon–and unfortunately, so is the term that it represents. Another of Orwell’s works, “Politics and the English Language,” explains doublespeak using examples that seem almost quaint today (1946):

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.

Although Orwell is gone, the problems he describes are not. If anything, doublespeak has gotten worse in this age of “rendition,” TSA security theater, and PRISM.

Tim Lynch addressed this problem in the context of the War on Terror in 2006:

By corrupting the language, the people who wield power are able to fool the others about their activities and evade responsibility and accountability. Professor William Lutz, author of The New Doublespeak, notes: “Doublespeak is language that pretends to communicate but really doesn’t. It is language that makes the bad seem good, the negative appear positive, the unpleasant appear attractive or at least tolerable. Doublespeak is language that avoids or shifts responsibility, language that is at variance with its real or purported meaning. It is language that conceals or prevents thought; rather than extending thought, doublespeak limits it.”

It is true, of course, that dishonesty has always been a part of the human experience, but doublespeak is a pernicious variation of dishonesty. Doublespeak perverts the basic function of language, which is to facilitate a common understanding between human beings.

1984-posterLynch goes on to list several examples: “stop-loss” orders as a stand-in for conscription, the replacement of warrants by “national security letters,” and the renaming of Guantanamo prisoner suicides as “asymmetrical warfare.”

A–perhaps the–key point of Orwell’s conception of doublespeak is that words have meaning. Although this runs counter to postmodernism, it points out that language is a key front in the battle for ‘hearts and minds.’ Witness the recent discussion between a well-spoken University of Wisconsin student (‘Madiha’) and an on-campus recruiter for the NSA:

NSA RECRUITER 1: I’m focusing on what our foreign intelligence requires of [us], so…you can define ‘adversary’ as [an] enemy and clearly, Germany is not our enemy, but would we have foreign national interest from an intelligence perspective on what’s going on across the globe? Yes, we [would].

MADIHA: So by “adversary”, you actually mean anybody and everybody. There’s nobody, then – by your definition – that is not an adversary. Is that correct?

NSA RECRUITER 1: That is not correct.

Doublespeak has the power of the state behind it, which includes a great deal of technological sophistication. Until recently, I was more optimistic about the power of the internet to oppose conventional sources of political power. Although the recent Snowden revelations have diminished my confidence in technology as a political force, we can still use it as a tool to take back language.

To that end, I have developed a simple tool that you can use to counter doublespeak in your web viewing experience. It known as Doublespeak and is available as a Chrome web extension. Right now it has a small dictionary of three terms that it replaces, but can easily be extended for more. The code is also open-source on Github. When you install the extension, clicking its icon in the browser window will open a duplicate of the current page in a new tab, but with doublespeak terms replaced by their plain English equivalents.

Here are a few examples of the Doublespeak extension at work on these three pages:













Obviously it does not replace the text in images, but I think that makes the last example all the more striking. The extension should respond to titleized words, but some other special cases (e.g. all uppercase) are not handled in the current version (0.1).

If you have suggestions for new additions to the dictionary or other features, please let me know.

Statistics as Principled Argument

correlationThat’s the title of a book I recently came across by the late Robert P. Abelson. The thesis of the book is that statistics is a tool for organizing an argument. Abelson’s focus is his own discipline of psychology but many of his points apply to social science more broadly.

Throughout the book Abelson accumulates a list of his “laws”:

  1. Chance is lumpy.
  2. Overconfidence abhors uncertainty.
  3. Never flout a convention just once.
  4. Don’t talk Greek if you don’t know the English translation.
  5. If you have nothing to say, don’t say anything.
  6. There is no free hunch.
  7. You can’t see the dust if you don’t move the couch.
  8. Criticism is the mother of methodology.

My main gripe with the book is how much of it hinders on frequentist hypothesis testing. For example, I don’t consider the difference between a p-value of .05 and one of .07 to be a “principled argument.” Abelson does give some attention to Bayesian methods, but a book developing the idea of statistics as rhetoric from a Bayesian point of view would be more coherent.  Perhaps we will see something along these lines from Andrew Gelman’s work on ethical statistics.

Net Neutrality: Why You Should Care

Image via TheNextWeb

Image via TheNextWeb

What is net neutrality? It’s the idea that Internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all traffic equally, not giving preferential treatment to certain users, types of data, or equipment. With FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski on the way out, nominee Tom Wheeler may not be able to avoid this fight if he succeeds Genachowski.

Here’s the Tim Wu of the New Yorker on the essence of the issue:

An important aspect of the Internet’s original design is that many prices were set at zero—what have been called zero-price rules. The price to join the network is zero. The price that users and sites pay to reach others is zero: a blogger doesn’t need to pay to reach Comcast’s customers. And the price that big Web sites charge broadband operators to carry their content is also zero. It’s a subtle point, but these three zeros are a large part of what makes the Internet what it is. If net neutrality goes away, so does the agreement to freeze prices at zero….

Admittedly, it is hard to know exactly how things would work out if the zero-price rules are abandoned. Cable still has serious market power, and might, on balance, be able to charge more than it gets charged. But if you’re a cable operator, why take that bet when you’re already sitting on giant profit margins? Why risk the best business going? Beyond cable operators, a battle royale over Internet programming and termination fees would ultimately be terrible for consumers; the Internet would start to get both worse and more expensive.

Think of it this way: net neutrality, which sets all these prices at zero, is effectively a grand truce between the big app firms and the infrastructure providers. It eliminates an unnecessary middleman: consumers deal directly with content vendors and app firms. That’s a much healthier market dynamic than one driven by hidden, passed-on costs. If cable TV isn’t a good enough example, consider the dysfunction of the health-care industry, where consumers never see what they are paying for. That’s what the present rule avoids.

YSPR will continue to monitor this issue and provide updates here.

Great Gatsby, Copyright, and the Public Domain

f_scott_fitzgerald_in_carIs the Great Gatsby in the public domain? The book was written in 1925 and Fitzgerald passed away in 1940. Copyright generally expires 70 years after the author’s death, so you could be forgiven for thinking the answer is “yes.”

If you live in Australia, Canada, or another jurisdiction outside the US, you can already get the book through sites like Project Gutenberg Australia. US residents should not click that link–had SOPA been passed, this site could have been censored for even providing the link. In these United States, however, Gatsby is still not in the public domain.

Here’s Duke’s Kevin Smith (who we’ve talked to before) on the convoluted reasoning behind this:

Let’s look for a minute at F. Scott.  Because he died in December of 1940, his unpublished works do enter the public domain in the United States as of 1/1/11.  His published works, however, are another story.  If a Fitzgerald work was published between 1920 and 1922, as This Side of Paradise was, for example, it is in the public domain.  But any works published in 1923 0r later, such as The Great Gatsby, are still protected.  After 1922 (and prior to 1963), a work that was published with copyright notice  and the copyright in which was renewed is given a term of 95 years from publication (the initial 28 year term plus a renewal term, after the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, of 67 years).  Thus published works from this time period are protected until at least 2019; — 1923 plus 95 years equals 2018, so works published that year will rise into the public domain on 1/1/2019.  The author’s date of death does not make any difference for these works.

This distinction seems designed to confuse librarians and other users of works.  An archive of Fitzgerald manuscripts, for example, could digitize and make available those items that were never published, or that were published earlier in F. Scott’s career (like Tales of the Jazz Age).  But a manuscript of Gatsby or Tender is the Night is still subject to protection.

The EFF had a nice explainer on this topic recently as well. Copyright restrictions aren’t just tougher in the US, they’re also subject to the whims of Congress. Congressional action can remove books from the public domain even after they’re put there by law, thanks to this Supreme Court decision.

How does this regulation affect the availability of books? Rebecca Rosen of The Atlantic called it the “missing 20th century” based on Paul Heald’s study, “Do Bad Things Happen When Works Fall Into the Public Domain?” Here’s a chart of books available from Amazon by decade of publication:

Amazon pub domain-thumb-615x368-83391

Continuing to extend copyright protection every time Mickey Mouse gets close to being put in the public domain helps Disney, but it does not help the spread of knowledge. Don’t get me started on Hollywood, though–I’m off to see the movie.

Internet Sales Tax FAQ

sales-tax-santaWe’ve got a week of Internet politics-related topics queued up for you this week. Today we’ll take a look at the prospect of an internet sales tax. Later in the week we’ll discuss why The Great Gatsby still isn’t in the public domain, and then take an overview of the net neutrality debate. The FAQ’s below are a summary of this explainer from CNN.

What’s the current state of sales tax law? 

In the US Supreme Court’s last major decision on the issue (Quill Corp. v. North Dakota), it ruled that a retailer must have a physical presence in a state in order to be required to collect sales taxes in that state. Technically you are required to pay a use tax by your state if you order online from another state–just as you would be required to do so when purchasing physical goods outside your home state. But who actually does that? Virtually no one.

How much revenue would an online sales tax bring in?

The National Conference of State Legislatures estimated that states could gain $23 billion from sales taxes on internet commerce.

What’s going to change, and when? 

Last week the Senate voted 69-27 in favor of the so-called Marketplace Fairness Act. It now has to pass the House, where it will likely face more resistance. The Obama administration supports the bill, so if it passes the House it will become law. Even if passed the changes will go into effect no earlier than October 1, 2013. If you have any major online purchases in mind you may want to make them before then–another stimulus of sorts.

Micro-Institutions Everywhere: The Five-Day Work Week

5dayweekWhen it came about in the early 20th century, the five-day workweek was a triumph. Labor unions bargained collectively to get workers another day off, doubling their free time to enjoy the country’s booming prosperity. Now, though, it is an anachronistic holdover of a bygone era. (Many professionals are at their employer’s beck and call 24/7 anyway.)

From the NYT, a while back:

The idea that all employees should sit in the same place for eight hours a day, five days a week, seemed maddeningly inefficient to me. I knew that I was at peak productivity at certain times throughout the day, with regular lulls in between. The flexibility to determine when and where I worked made me a better worker….

In today’s world, where we are constantly connected, the office should be reconceived as a gathering place to communicate ideas and to reinforce personal bonds. Beyond that, employees should be given the respect, and the responsibility, to manage their own schedules and complete their work on their own time, from wherever they choose. This is the principle we followed in my business, called Khush. We came to the office three days a week for five hours a day, starting around noon.

Of course this would not work for some jobs, where the work is dependent on a physical location, public convenience, or tools in a fixed location. Construction workers, gas station attendants, and barbers, for example, will never work from home–nor would I want them to.

This raises a larger point: people don’t want jobs, they want what jobs provide. Money and a way to pass the time. A social network, perhaps. A sense of accomplishment. But not work for its own sake.

Communication Technology and Politics

Cell phone coverage (black) and conflict locations (grey) in Africa (Pierskalla and Hollenbach, 2013: Fig. 1)

Cell phone coverage (black) and conflict locations (grey) in Africa (Pierskalla and Hollenbach, 2013: Fig. 1)

We have been on a technology kick this week, first talking about modern etiquette and then how technology improved traffic in LA. Today I want to point out two neat papers at the intersection of communication technology and politics.

The first article deals with “narrowcasting”-type technologies. Pierskalla and Hollenbach (2013) analyze the association between cell phone coverage and conflict in Africa.* They use 55×55 km grid cells rather than the more conventional country-year observational units for their analysis. Here’s the abstract:

The spread of cell phone technology across Africa has transforming effects on the economic and political sphere of the continent. In this paper, we investigate the impact of cell phone technology on violent collective action. We contend that the availability of cell phones as a communication technology allows political groups to overcome collective action problems more easily and improve in-group cooperation, and coordination. Utilizing novel, spatially disaggregated data on cell phone coverage and the location of organized violent events in Africa, we are able to show that the availability of cell phone coverage significantly and substantially increases the probability of violent conflict. Our findings hold across numerous different model specifications and robustness checks, including cross-sectional models, instrumental variable techniques, and panel data methods.

Another neat paper I came across recently deals more with broadcasting technologies. Adena et al (2013) explore the association between radio broadcasts in pre-war Germany and pro- or anti-Nazi sentiment. The identification strategy is rather simple: before the Nazi party took power, radio broadcasts were anti-Nazi. That changed in 1933 when the Nazis took over. According to their paper it took a very short time for sentiments to change:

How far can media undermine democratic institutions and how persuasive can it be in assuring public support for dictator policies? We study this question in the context of Germany between 1929 and 1939. Using quasi-random geographical variation in radio availability, we show that radio had a significant negative effect on the Nazi vote share between 1930 and 1933, when political news had an anti-Nazi slant. This negative effect was fully undone in just one month after Nazis got control over the radio in 1933 and initiated heavy radio propaganda. Radio also helped the Nazis to enroll new party members and encouraged denunciations of Jews and other open expressions of anti-Semitism after Nazis fully consolidated power. Nazi radio propaganda was most effective when combined with other propaganda tools, such as Hitler’s speeches, and when the message was more aligned with listeners’ prior as measured by historical anti-Semitism.

There are several nice features that these papers have in common. The first is spatially disaggregated data, allowing for more fine-grain analysis of variation over space. (Although as a commenter at one ISA panel pointed out, this is not necessarily useful for all research questions.) Another feature I like is that both go to great lengths to test the robustness of their findings–this is a positive development for the field and I hope the trend continues.

See also: Thomas Zeitzoff sends along two more papers on the topic: “Opium for the Masses: How Foreign Media Can Stabilize Authoritarian Regimes” (Kern and Hainmueller, 2009) and “Propaganda and Conflict: Theory and Evidence from the Rwandan Genocide” (Yanagizawa-Drott, 2012).


*Note: Jan got his PhD at Duke and Florian is currently in the program. Both are friends of mine.

Micro-Institutions at the Gym

exerciseJason Gay of the Wall Street Journal has 27 rules for the gym, and then 25 more. Below are some interesting examples of norms and insider know-how.

There’s coded language:

“Great job!” is trainer-speak for “It’s not polite for me to laugh at you.”

Be cautious about any class with the words “sunrise,” “hell,” or “Moby.”

Getting the etiquette of workout machines is important:

Gyms have two types of members: Members who wipe down the machines after using them, and the worst people in the universe.

Understanding interpersonal dynamics is the key to long-term success and acceptance by the in-group:

There’s the yoga instructor everyone loves, and the yoga instructor everyone hates. Memorize who they are.

The scale in the locker room weighs everything seven pounds heavier. Do NOT dispute this. The psychological stability of the entire gym membership depends on this.

Gym clothing also sends important signals:

Don’t buy $150 sneakers, $100 yoga pants, and $4 water. Muscle shirts are for people with muscles, and rhythm guitarists.

Here’s a helpful rule on gym clothing. If you’re not sure your shirt smells? Your shirt smells.

The most important lesson is that maybe you don’t need a gym after all:

Fancy gyms can be seductive, but once you get past the modern couches and fresh flowers and the water with lemon slices, you’re basically paying for a boutique hotel with B.O.

The best gym on earth is outside, and it’s totally free.

But if you do choose the gym route be sure to get the politics right, or else!

James C. Scott on the Politics of Everyday Life

Scott photographed at home for an interview with NYT

Scott photographed at home for an interview with NYT

We talk a lot on this blog about micro-institutions. I initially used the term in October, 2011, and did not know of anyone else using it at the time. Since then I have found a paper from 2011 that uses the term, but I do not have any more specific date information. In the coming weeks I plan to flesh out more of what I mean by a micro-institution and review what we have learned about them so far here on YSPR.

Undoubtedly the work of James C. Scott influenced my thinking on the politics of everyday life. That’s why I was excited to see this passage in his new book, Two Cheers for Anarchism:

For the peasantry and much of the early working class historically, we may look in vain for formal organizations and public manifestations. There is a whole realm of what I (JCS) have called “infrapolitics” because it is practiced outside the visible spectrum of what usually passes for political activity. The state has historically thwarted lower-class organization, let along public defiance….

By infrapolitics I have in mind such acts as foot-dragging, poaching, pilfering, dissimulation, sabotage, desertion, absenteeism, squatting, and flight. Why risk getting shot for a failed mutiny when desertion will do just as well?… The large-mesh net political scientists and most historians use to troll for political activity utterly misses the fact that most subordinate classes have historically not had the luxury of open political organization. That has not prevented them from working microscopically, cooperatively, complicitly, and massively as political change from below.

Certainly the overlap between infra-politics and micro-institutions is not one-for-one. Scott focuses on resistance and subversion, whereas I tend to emphasize cooperation and the role of norms in clarifying expectations of social behavior. Nevertheless Scott’s pioneering work has been hugely influential on my thinking thus far, and all of his books come highly recommended.

See also: 

Scott speaks at Cornell on The Art of Not Being Governed

Does the Internet Have a Political Disposition?