Who says North is “up”?

There are several childhood lessons that I trace back to dinners at Outback Steakhouse: the deliciousness of cheese fries, the inconvenience of being in the middle of a wraparound booth, and the historical contingency of North as “up” on maps.

Who started using the NESW arrangement that is virtually omnipresent on maps today? Was it due to the fact that civilization as we now know it developed in the Northern hemisphere? (Incidentally, that’s why clocks run clockwise–a sundial in the Southern hemisphere goes the other way around.)

That doesn’t appear to be the case according to Nick Danforth, who recently took on this question at al-Jazeera America (via Flowing Data):

There is nothing inevitable or intrinsically correct — not in geographic, cartographic or even philosophical terms — about the north being represented as up, because up on a map is a human construction, not a natural one. Some of the very earliest Egyptian maps show the south as up, presumably equating the Nile’s northward flow with the force of gravity. And there was a long stretch in the medieval era when most European maps were drawn with the east on the top. If there was any doubt about this move’s religious significance, they eliminated it with their maps’ pious illustrations, whether of Adam and Eve or Christ enthroned. In the same period, Arab map makers often drew maps with the south facing up, possibly because this was how the Chinese did it.

So who started putting North up top? According to Danforth, that was Ptolemy:

[He] was a Hellenic cartographer from Egypt whose work in the second century A.D. laid out a systematic approach to mapping the world, complete with intersecting lines of longitude and latitude on a half-eaten-doughnut-shaped projection that reflected the curvature of the earth. The cartographers who made the first big, beautiful maps of the entire world, Old and New — men like Gerardus MercatorHenricus Martellus Germanus and Martin Waldseemuller — were obsessed with Ptolemy. They turned out copies of Ptolemy’s Geography on the newly invented printing press, put his portrait in the corners of their maps and used his writings to fill in places they had never been, even as their own discoveries were revealing the limitations of his work.

map_projectionsPtolemy probably had his reasons, but they are lost to history. As Danforth concludes, “The orientation of our maps, like so many other features of the modern world, arose from the interplay of chance, technology and politics in a way that defies our desire to impose easy or satisfying narratives.” Yet another example of a micro-institution that rules our world.

Playing Chicken with Your Calendar

The ever-interesting Brendan Nelson on meeting chicken:

You have a regular meeting in your calendar. It’s with just one other person. Sometimes you have things to talk to them about and sometimes you don’t. But as long as your calendar says you both have to go, you will both go.

The day of the meeting comes round. There are lots of things that need to be done that day. You look at that meeting sitting obstinately in your calendar and think how useful it would be to get that time back.

Inspiration strikes: why not cancel the meeting? A couple of mouse clicks, an automatic notification sent out, a joyously blank calendar. It seems so easy.

But you can’t bring yourself to do it, to cancel a meeting at such short notice. It would make you look disorganised, unprepared. And what about the other person?

More at the link.

African Statistics and the Problem of Measurement

We have briefly mentioned Morten Jerven’s work Poor Numbers before, but it deserves a bit more attention. The book discusses the woeful state of GDP figures in Africa and the issues that arise in making cross-national comparisons between countries whose statistical offices operate very differently (interview here).

Discussing Jerven’s work now is especially timely given current events. Jerven was scheduled to speak at UNECA on statistical capacity in Africa. However, Pali Lehohla of South Africa strongly objected to Jerven’s ideas and led the opposition which ultimately prevented Jerven from speaking. Had he been allowed to present, Jerven’s speech would have summarized the issues thusly: 

I would argue that ambitions should be tempered in international development statistics. The international standardization of measurement of economic development has led to a procedural bias. There has been a tendency to aim for high adherence to procedures instead of focusing on the content of the measures. Development measures should be taken as a starting point in local data availability, and statisticians should refrain from reporting aggregate measures that appear to be based on data but in fact are very feeble projections or guesses. This means that it is necessary to shift the focus away from formulas, standards, handbooks, and software. What matters are what numbers are available and how good those numbers are. Comparability across time and space needs to start with the basic input of knowledge, not with the system in which this information is organized. (Jerven, 2013, p.107).

African Arguments gave Jerven a chance to respond to his opposition:

The initial response from many economists working on Africa varied between, ‘so what?…we already know this’, ‘we don’t trust or use official statistics on Africa anyhow’ and ‘I know but what is the alternative?’ Many more scholars in African studies and development studies, who were generally concerned with the long-standing use of numbers on Africa as ‘facts’, were relieved that there was finally someone who sought, not only to unveil the real state of affairs, but genuinely wanted to answer some of the problems that users face when trying to use the data to test their scholarly questions….

We need to rethink the demand for data and how we invest in data in Africa and beyond. My focus has been on Africa because the problem is particularly striking there. To fix the gaps we should first re-think the MDG and other donor agendas for data and do a cost benefit analysis – what are the costs of providing these data and what is the opportunity cost of providing these data? The opportunity cost is often ignored. Local demand for data needs to come into focus. A statistical office is only sustainable if it serves local needs for information. Statistics is a public good, and we need a good open debate on how to supply them.

This is a major issue, and all social scientists–not just economists–should be aware of Jerven’s work. As James C. Scott has pointed out, measurement is a political act.

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:

Strategizing for the Best Parking Space

Mind Your Decisions on parking lot strategy, from Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (which I have purchased but not yet read):

It seems that the people who actively look for the “best” parking place inevitably spend more total time getting to the store than those people who simply grab the first spot they see…

They observed two distinct strategies: “cycling” and “pick a row, closest space.” They compared the results. “What was interesting,” [Professor Andrew Velkey found], “was although the individual cycling were spending more time driving looking for a parking space, on average they were no closer to the door, time-wise or distance-wise, than people using ‘pick a row, closest space.’”

The best way that I have found to operationalize “pick a row, closest space” is to go a few rows out from the row nearest the store entrance(s). It is important to be driving down the row facing away from the store, so that the first spot you reach is the closest.

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.

Reputation in Hacker Culture

I have long wanted to do a project on reputation in hacker culture. As I have delved into this further (and I still enjoy reading about it), it turns out Eric Raymond said it better than I could, nearly 20 years ago:

Like most cultures without a money economy, hackerdom runs on reputation. You’re trying to solve interesting problems, but how interesting they are, and whether your solutions are really good, is something that only your technical peers or superiors are normally equipped to judge.

Accordingly, when you play the hacker game, you learn to keep score primarily by what other hackers think of your skill (this is why you aren’t really a hacker until other hackers consistently call you one). This fact is obscured by the image of hacking as solitary work; also by a hacker-cultural taboo (now gradually decaying but still potent) against admitting that ego or external validation are involved in one’s motivation at all.

Specifically, hackerdom is what anthropologists call a gift culture. You gain status and reputation in it not by dominating other people, nor by being beautiful, nor by having things other people want, but rather by giving things away. Specifically, by giving away your time, your creativity, and the results of your skill.

Micro-Institutions Everywhere: Shipping Containers

Bridge in Wuppertal, Germany

Bridge in Wuppertal, Germany

Dollar bills have several features that make them ideal for modern commerce. They are impartial, lightweight, and memoryless. You can use them to buy a gun or a granola bar, to pay a drug dealer or a dry cleaner. As a vehicle for trade, it does not get much better.

Suppose the dollar bill had a brother, a younger but larger relative whose own contributions similarly smoothed the pathways of globalization. That brother would be the shipping container:

Think of the shipping container as the Internet of things. Just as your email is disassembled into discrete bundles of data the minute you hit send, then re-assembled in your recipient’s inbox later, the uniform, ubiquitous boxes are designed to be interchangeable, their contents irrelevant.

Once they enter the stream of global shipping, the boxes are shifted and routed by sophisticated computer systems that determine their arrangement on board and plot the most efficient route to get them from point to point. The exact placement of each box is a critical part of the equation: Ships make many stops, and a box scheduled to be unloaded late in the journey can’t be placed above one slated for offloading early. Imagine a block of 14,000 interlocked Lego bricks—now imagine trying to pull one out from the middle.

That’s Andrew Curry in the latest edition of Nautilus, and the whole article is worth a read.

The Problem with Tipping

Association between tipping and corruption at the country level, by Magnus Torfason. I have no idea what's going on to the left of zero.

Association between tipping and corruption at the country level, by Magnus Torfason. I have no idea what’s going on to the left of zero.

The topic of tipping has been on my mind since a dinner in San Francisco this April, when Allan Dafoe brought up the difference between Sweden and the US. In Europe, the pattern seems to be that workers are paid more and tips are not expected. Sometimes (eg in Germany) a waiter would likely be told to keep the change from a cash payment, but the reason given for this is that making change is demeaning. In the US, most waitstaff are paid a paltry $2.13/hour and make the rest up in tips. Why has the micro-institution of tipping endured in the US, and what are advantages and weaknesses of it?

One advantage of tipping is that it helps solve the principal-agent problem between the restaurateur and the staff. It is difficult for the restaurant manager to monitor the quality of servers, but much easier for the customers to do so. Thus, having customers set the compensation level for servers encourages them to be responsive. This in turn keeps customers coming back to the restaurant, which is the manager’s goal. However, tip-pooling can undermine this effect, as can the opportunity for servers to offer lower quality service to a higher volume of tables.

A major disadvantage to tipping is that it seems only weakly correlated with service quality. In an informal, small-n poll of fellow grad students on the same San Francisco trip, most of us tip a relatively fixed percentage of the bill (20-25 percent) regardless of service. This tends to be associated with work experience in the service industry, which can also lead to higher tipping percentages. Furthermore, small “nudges” such as paying on an iPad that offers tips in round dollar amounts rather than percentages can have a strong effect on the tips received by staff.

Another problem with tipping is uncertainty about when it is or is not appropriate. In a country where it is never appropriate, there is no uncertainty. When tipping exists in some settings but not others, there can be a great deal of uncertainty about when to use it. Restaurants and taxis seem like obvious tipping situations. But what about when you order food for carry-out? (I vote yes, but a smaller percentage.) And why not tip the attendants on a flight, who provide beverage and sometimes food service?

These and other problems with tipping are well-known, yet the micro-institution seems fairly ingrained in American society. If there were one profession where I would add tipping it would be my pharmacist–they often provide fast and friendly service for something I could not do myself. On the whole, though, we would be better off without this confusing and inefficient practice.

See also:

Why Do We Tip? (Planet Money podcast)
Should Tipping Be Banned? (Freakonomics podcast)
Research by Michael Lynn (over 50 papers)

Mapping Literal Place Names

Place names are another one of those micro-institutions. They often carry a linguistic legacy indicating some important discoverer, inhabitant, or conqueror. Changes in place names are significant too. (Would Sinatra’s “New Amsterdam, New Amsterdam” have rolled off the tongue nearly as nicely?) As the names accumulate history and new generations become accustomed to them, however, we often lose the literal sense of their meaning. In an effort to help undo that, the Atlas of True Names “reveals the etymological roots, or original meanings,of the familiar terms on today’s maps of the World, Europe, the British Isles and the United States.”

Here are a couple of examples, and there is much more at the link: