Tanzania fact of the day

by on March 19, 2018 at 2:14 am in Current Affairs | Permalink

Since coming to power in the country of 55m on the east coast of Africa in 2015, Mr Magufuli, nicknamed “the bulldozer” from his time as roads minister, has bashed foreign-owned businesses with impossible tax demands, ordered pregnant girls to be kicked out of school, shut down newspapers and locked up “immoral” musicians who criticise him. A journalist and opposition party members have disappeared, political rallies have been banned and mutilated bodies have washed up on the shores of Coco Beach in Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital. Mr Magufuli is fast transforming Tanzania from a flawed democracy into one of Africa’s more brutal dictatorships. It is a lesson in how easily weak institutions can be hijacked and how quickly democratic progress can be undone.

…The main lesson of Tanzania is that constitutions which concentrate power in the presidency can quickly be subverted.

Here is more from The Economist.

According to no less an authority than Danny Baker, this story is absolutely true.

Harrods in the sixties employed someone to be sacked- surely the best job in the world.

Apparently  the employee was paid to sit among the boxes on Harrods top-floor smoking his pipe and reading the Sporting Life. From time to time a bell would ring and he would be summoned to a department where an irate customer was  being mollified by the Head of the Department.

Let us say today that Lady Ponsonby-Waffles has discovered one of the precious china teacups she recently purchased is chipped.

The Department Head greets our friend with “Lady Ponsonby-Waffles is a most valued customer, your failure to check the quality of her china cups has led to her current predicament, you sir are fired”

Despite Lady Ponsonby-Waffles pleas for mercy, the Head cannot be swayed. Our friend slopes disconsolately to the exit. Lady Ponsonby-Waffles drops her complaint convinced to the store’s determination to enforce the highest standards. Our friend, once passing the Department’s exit, slips back to his Sporting Life and his Pipe, to await the next occasion he would be called upon to be sacked.

Here is the link from Henry Tapper, via Steve Stuart-Williams.

Sunday assorted links

by on March 18, 2018 at 1:14 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

Pop superstar Miley Cyrus now being sued for copyright infringement — with damages potentially hitting $300 million.  That is, for one lyric in her hit single, “We Can’t Stop”.  The song is from her fourth studio album, Bangerz, released in 2013.

The lawsuit is coming from Michael May, better known as Flourgon, a Jamaican dancehall artist.  Flourgon had several Jamaican hit singles in the late 1980s and 1990s, and remains an active performer today.

May alleges that Cyrus ripped off his catch-phase, ‘We Run Things,’ which is actually the name of a song written by May.  In “We Can’t Stop,” Cyrus repeats the lyric ‘we run things’ in the chorus.

“We run things/Things don’t run we” are the lyrics of Miley’s single.

In May’s track, the lyrics are: “We run things/Things no run we.”

Here is the full article, via Ted Gioia.

It’s early March, two weeks before Russia’s polling day, but the presidential election season is already in full swing in Chubulga, a reindeer-herding settlement in north-eastern Yakutia. It’s an hour’s flight to the nearest village, which is itself a further two hours from the nearest asphalt road and 5,000km east of Moscow.

With a population of just three, this district is unlikely to turn the electoral tide. But with election officials desperate to raise turnout and show support for current president Vladimir Putin, no expense has been spared.

So they sent a team of election officials by plane, plus some trudging through the snow.  And this:

Results differ across regions. Some areas allegedly concoct results to show their loyalty to the Kremlin: Putin regularly polls above 99 per cent in Chechnya. In major cities like Moscow and St Petersburg, Putin is so unpopular among the middle class that he wins less than half the vote, despite accusations of voter fraud. In Yakutia, Putin’s last election return of 69 per cent was typical for ­Russia’s far-flung provinces. But the region’s vastness means that the key is maintaining the 75 per cent turnout. As a result, officials have to go further than anywhere else to show democracy in action.

Here is the FT story by Max Seddon, via BaldingsWorld.

You may recall last week a spate of stories and tweets claiming that fake news spreads further and faster on Twitter.  For instance, there is Steve Lohr at the NYT, who doesn’t quite get it right:

And people, the study’s authors also say, prefer false news.

As a result, false news travels faster, farther and deeper through the social network than true news.

That struck me as off-base, and you can find other offenders, so I went back and read the original paper by Vosoughi, Roy, and Aral.  And what did I find?:

1. The data focus solely on “rumor cascades.”  The paper does not establish the relative ratio of fake news to real news, for instance.  The main questions take the form of “within the data set of rumor cascades, what can we say about those cascades?”

2. It still may (or may not) be the case that real news has its major effects through non-cascade mechanisms.  Most people are convinced of 2 + 2 = 4, but probably not because they heard it through a rumor cascade.

3. Within the universe of rumor cascades, this paper measures average effects.  It does not mean that at the margin fake news is more powerful.  For instance, the rumor “Hillary Clinton is Satan” may have been quite powerful, but that does not mean a particular new rumor can achieve the same force.  2 + 2 = 5 won’t get you nearly as far in terms of retweets, I suspect.

4. Overall the results of this paper remind me of another problem/data issue.  At least in the old days, children’s movies used to earn more than films for adults, as stressed by Michael Medved.  That doesn’t mean you have a quick money-making formula by simply making more movies for kids.  It could be a few major kid’s movies, driven perhaps by peer effects, suck up most of the oxygen in the room and dominate the market.  And then, within the universe of cascade-driven movies, kid’s movies will look really strong and indeed be really strong.  That also doesn’t have to mean the kid’s movies have more cultural influence overall, even if they look dominant in the cascade-driven category.  In this analogy, the kid’s movies are like the fake news.

5. I am not sure how much the authors of the paper themselves are at fault for the misunderstandings.  They can defend themselves on the grounds of not being literally incorrect in their statements in the paper.  Still, they do not seem to be going out of their way to correct possible and indeed fairly likely misinterpretations.

6. The strongest argument for the coverage of the authors’ paper is perhaps the coverage of the authors’ paper itself.  The incorrect interpretations of the result did indeed spread faster and further than the correct interpretations.  I even delayed the publication of this post by a few days, if only to make its content less likely to be true.

Saturday assorted links

by on March 17, 2018 at 3:45 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. AMA with Patrick Collison.

2. If Finland is the world’s happiest country, why does it seem so…?

3. How Amazon determines if a streaming investment was worth the cost.

4. A literal world map.

5. “So it could be that Virginia-style favorites are inadvertently doing their opponents a big favor by slowing the pace down to a crawl, essentially giving away some of their talent advantage by allowing more randomness to seep into the game.”  Do generalize that point!  It’s a bit like the old chess adage suggesting that the best way to play for a draw is to play for a win.

Greeting cards and cliché more generally bear witness to the fact that the most banal and the most meaningful regularly coincide, and that something always remains beyond the reach of words. Cliché is a place where life and language resist one another.

By recognising the radical imperfection of language, cliché can help ameliorate the damage it does. The continual return of these stock phrases reminds us that, though language can say ‘I love you’ or ‘Our deepest sympathies’ – which ties the love and grief we feel with all those who have ever, and will ever, love and grieve – it can never completely capture this grief or this love. After which, the universality of our love, our grief, begins to feel less like an act of violent conceptuality and more like an act of community, transposing us into a commune with all the living and the dead.

Greeting cards serve as a reminder that it is often with the clichéd and the ordinary that the fabric of language starts to unravel, and the pulse of life – that which will always remain beyond words – begins to bubble up from beneath.

Here is more, by Daniel Fraser.  Do you prefer that take, or a single tweet on the topic by Robin Hanson?

The town of Plattsburgh, New York, has become the first in the US to place a moratorium on cryptocurrency mining. It’s not an outright ban, at least not yet — it doesn’t affect miners currently operating in the city, just new ones looking to set up shop, and it’s only in place for 18 months.

Why Plattsburgh, New York? It’s simple: the small town has the “cheapest electricity in the world,” as Mayor Colin Read told Motherboard. Mining involves using high powered computers to solve complex problems, and thus be rewarded with cryptocurrency. It generates a lot of heat and uses an inordinate amount of electricity. It makes sense that these mining enterprises would look for places with inexpensive electricity. The problem is that it’s resulted in higher electric bills for everyone else in the town.

Here is the full story, via the excellent Samir Varma.

Titus Levi on *Black Panther*

by on March 17, 2018 at 12:24 am in Film | Permalink

Titus emails to me:

I had an atypical reaction: I left the theatre feeling very, very sad.

First, for the reasons enumerated here.

Second, because everything good and noble turned out to be incredibly fragile. All it took was an alternate vision of how to use power and Paradise degenerated into civil conflict. Mind you, this is a civil war that lasted only a few hours, but still.

Third, it’s heartbreaking to look up to a place… that doesn’t exist. The whole “what if Africa (or some part of it) hadn’t been colonized?” question unsettled me. We lost so much.

Fourth, T’Challa never told Killmonger, “My father was wrong to abandon you.” Never. And he felt it strongly. Strongly enough to challenge his father in a vision. Why did he say nothing about this?

Fifth, after the civil conflict everything goes… right back to normal. No reconciliation process. No sense for how to address the resentments lingering in the shadows. Nada. That struck me as facile.

Anyway, leave it to me to be a killjoy in response to a feel-good movie.


Friday assorted links

by on March 16, 2018 at 12:00 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

At the University of Arizona, school officials know when students are going to drop out before they do.

The public college in Tucson has been quietly collecting data on its first-year students’ ID card swipes around campus for the last few years. The ID cards are given to every enrolled student and can be used at nearly 700 campus locations including vending machines, libraries, labs, residence halls, the student union center, and movie theaters.

They also have an embedded sensor that can be used to track geographic history whenever the card is swiped. These data are fed into an analytics system that finds “highly accurate indicators” of potential dropouts, according to a press release last week from the university. “By getting [student’s] digital traces, you can explore their patterns of movement, behavior and interactions, and that tells you a great deal about them,” Sudha Ram, a professor of management systems, and director of the program, said in the release. “It’s really not designed to track their social interactions, but you can, because you have a timestamp and location information,” Ram added.

That is from Amy X. Wang at Quartz.

Here is one of them:

But there is a risk too that repoliticising desire will encourage a discourse of sexual entitlement.

Here is another:

By contrast, gay men – even the beautiful, white, rich, able-bodied ones – know that who we have sex with, and how, is a political question.

Here are many more, by Amia Srinivasan, definitely recommended to those of you who are interested, and do note that sex is not like a sandwich.  The piece closes with:

In the very best cases, the cases that perhaps ground our best hope, desire can cut against what politics has chosen for us, and choose for itself.

Via S.M.  Here is more about the still massively underrated author.

Longevity FAQ

by on March 16, 2018 at 1:02 am in Education, Medicine, Science | Permalink

From Laura Deming, you will find it here, essential reading for our time.  Here is one bit:


at a glance: a fraction of your cells get older than the others, so we’d like to eliminate them

As you get old, so do your cells. But some of your cells get old in a way that is much worse than the others. You may have heard of a thing called telomerase. If you remember correctly, it’s the thing that keeps the end of your DNA long enough that your cells can still divide. When one of your cells runs out of telomerase, it can’t make many more copies of itself. If the cell sticks around, refuses to die even when it stops working, and starts secreting signals to the immune system, we call that a ‘senescent cell‘.

What happens when you get rid of these cells? Some animals that age faster than normal have a lot of these ‘senescent cells’ and are good experimental models in which to ask that question. In 2011, a group from the Mayo Clinic cleared out many of the senescent cells in one of those animal models, and found that the resulting mice were healthier in old age (among other things, they did not get cataracts and bent spines, which typically emerge in old age). In 2016, the same investigators found that getting rid of senescent cells in normal mice made them live a longer healthy lifespan. Knocking out senescent cells is tricky, because they don’t have many unique identifiers. Companies are working to either find things empirically that kill senescent cells, or figure out specific mechanisms by which to try to destroy them.

It starts off like this:

Hi! I’m Laura Deming, and I run Longevity Fund. I spend a lot of time thinking about what could increase healthy human lifespan. This is my overview of the field for beginners.

Does it end with you living to 129?  I genuinely do not know.

Thursday assorted links

by on March 15, 2018 at 3:07 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink