Constitutional Forks Revisited

Around this time last year, we discussed the idea of a constitutional “fork” that occurred with the founding of the Confederate States of America. That post briefly explains how forks work in open source software and how the Confederates used the US Constitution as the basis for their own, with deliberate and meaningful differences. Putting the two documents on Github allowed us to compare their differences visually and confirm our suspicions that many of them were related to issues of states’ rights and slavery.

Caleb McDaniel, a historian at Rice who undoubtedly has a much deeper and more thorough knowledge of the period, conducted a similar exercise and also posted his results on Github. He was faced with similar decisions of where to obtain the source text and which differences to retain as meaningful (for example, he left in section numbers where I did not). My method identifies 130 additions and 119 deletions when transitioning between the USA and CSA constitutions, whereas the stats for Caleb’s repo show 382 additions and 370 deletions.

What should we draw from these projects? In Caleb’s words:

My decisions make this project an interpretive act. You are welcome to inspect the changes more closely by looking at the commit histories for the individual Constitution files, which show the initial text as I got it from Avalon as well as the changes that I made.

You can take a look at both projects and conduct a difference-in-differences exploration of your own. More generally, these projects show the need for tools to visualize textual analyses, as well as the power of technology to enhance understanding of historical and political acts. Caleb’s readme file has great resources for learning more about this topic including the conversation that led him to this project, a New York Times interactive feature on the topic, and more.

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.

Organized Crime Roundup

I have been arguing for years that organized crime has an inherently political component. Certainly I am not alone, and researchers far superior to me have made the same point–for example, Charles Tilly and James Buchanan. However, mainstream political reporting seems to have been catching onto this over the past few months. I have rounded up a few of these posts that will be of interest to long-time readers. See also my working paper on violence following targeted leadership removals in Mexico.

Are Mexican Drug Lords the Next ‘Terrorist Targets’?” by Douglas Lucas. Lucas accurately describes the framing of drug lords as terrorists to be a form of “mission creep.”

Peter Andreas responds to Moisés Naim’s essay in “Measuring the Mafia-State Menace.” I was not aware of Andreas’s work until Daniel Solomon recently shared it on Twitter but now I have several of his books (including this one) on my reading list.

Although somewhat sensationalized, Christian Caryl also has a nice overview piece on global organized crime at Foreign Policy: “Mob Rule.” Some of the statistics there seem questionable but the overall point–that students of politics should pay attention to organized crime–is a valid and important one.

Finally, World Politics Review features an interview with Brian Phillips, who argues that targeting DTO leaders in Mexico has not reduced violence. This matches my own research on the topic.

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:



Micro-Institutions Everywhere: Defining Death

From the BBC:

In the majority of cases in hospitals, people are pronounced dead only after doctors have examined their heart, lungs and responsiveness, determining there are no longer any heart and breath sounds and no obvious reaction to the outside world….

Many institutions in the US and Australia have adopted two minutes as the minimum observation period, while the UK and Canada recommend five minutes. Germany currently has no guidelines and Italy proposes that physicians wait 20 minutes before declaring death, particularly when organ donation is being considered….

But the criteria used to establish brain death have slight variations across the globe.

In Canada, for example, one doctor is needed to diagnose brain death; in the UK, two doctors are recommended; and in Spain three doctors are required. The number of neurological tests that have to be performed vary too, as does the time the body is observed before death is declared.

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.

The Aesthetic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy

On episode 18 of the Loopcast, Sina and his guest discuss fashion and national security. Around 23:00 comes the money quote: “There’s a lot of black hair dye involved being a dictator.” Here’s the logic:

[I]n a democracy, your hair turns grey very quickly in a four year term…. But in a dictatorship, the hair gets oddly darker: it just turns to an eerie shade of black…. [Dictators] want to remain relevant. They didn’t want to get old…. They didn’t want it to seem like they had been getting old and getting crushed by the responsibility of their job.

While a random sample of hair shades and a thorough hypothesis test is beyond the scope of this post, I’ll let the readers judge for themselves based on the photos below. Note that one source of bias may be that US presidents try to look young and vital for the election but let their hair go after that.

Democratic Leaders:

Bill Clinton, 1993 and 1999

Bill Clinton, 1993 and 1999


George W. Bush, 2001 and 2008


Barack Obama, 2009 and 2011

(More US president before/after photos here.)


Hosni Mubarak in 2012: Imprisoned and hospitalized but not grey

Hosni Mubarak in 2012: Imprisoned and hospitalized but not grey

Muammar Qaddafi ruled Libya for 42 years

Muammar Qaddafi ruled Libya for 42 years

Hugo Chavez not letting grey get the best of him

Hugo Chavez kept grey at bay until the very end

The Political Economy of *Killing Them Softly*

killing-them-softlyOver the weekend I rented Killing them Softly expecting a relatively mindless movie featuring Brad Pitt as a hitman. I was only half right. During several key scenes George W. Bush and his administration officials can be heard giving statements to the press about the financial crisis; Barack Obama is elected near the end. The man hiring Pitt refers to the “corporate mentality” of his bosses and tries to pay him less than he is owed. The plot centers around a gambling racket in New Orleans. Do you get the metaphor yet?

Yes, the movie is a cautionary tale about greed and risk in light of the 2008 financial crisis. The following quotes from an interview with writer and director Andrew Dominik make the connection clear:

[A]s I started adapting it, it was the story of an economic crisis, and it was an economic crisis in an economy that was funded by gambling — and the crisis occurred due to a failure in regulation….

I always feel that crime films are about capitalism, because it’s the one genre where it’s perfectly acceptable for all the characters to be motivated by desire for money only. I always think in some ways the crime film is the most honest American film, because it portrays Americans as I experience them. Particularly in Hollywood, people are very concerned with money….

The film’s not about Obama, it’s about a crisis in the economy, and the people who have to clean it up.

Don’t worry–the movie doesn’t come off as hokey or the metaphor as forced. (The use of politicians as background audio is mostly in the first half.) It’s a satisfying film whether you want the shoot-em-up I expected or something a bit deeper.

For more YSPR fun at the movies see these posts on Public Enemies and Moneyball.

Blogging, Two Years On

Tuesday marked the second anniversary of YSPR. I wrote the first post while at a political science conference, so it seems fitting that I spent the last couple of weeks travelling to ISA and MPSA. From those two conferences it is clear that blogging and social media are playing an increasingly prominent role in the field. At ISA there was a strong turnout for the blogging reception. While in Chicago for MPSA I had the pleasure of joining a dinner for conflict scholars hosted by Will Moore and Christian Davenport. One notable aspect of that dinner was that in the invitation email everyone had a personal website or blog.

I sincerely appreciate everyone who has visited this blog over the past two years and expressed their support either online or in person. For others who may be starting a blog or thinking about doing so, here are a few lessons I have learned over the past year:

1. Schedule your writing. Making time to write is an important habit to get into. Whether it’s daily or weekly, set aside some time that you can avoid distractions and just write. I usually like first thing in the morning, but you may prefer late evening or another time of day.

2. Schedule your posts. I used to hit “publish” as soon as I wrote something, but that changed this year. Instead, I like to line up about a week’s worth of posts at a time. This allows me to arrange some continuity between posts. It also gives time for my ideas to gel and to ruminate over new post ideas without feeling rushed (and sometimes catch typos).

3. Get involved in a community of writers. Blogging can feel like a solitary task, but it doesn’t have to be. A year ago I got in touch with Duke professor Marc Bellemare since I enjoy his blog. We now get lunch or coffee occasionally and chat about all manner of interesting topics. There are also a few scholar-bloggers I know primarily through blogs and Twitter (Jay Ulfelder, Trey Causey).  Creating friendships with people who will respond to your writing and offer critique when you need it is invaluable.

Thanks for being part of the conversation!

What Can Novels Teach Us?

Is it worthwhile for a social scientist to read fiction? What can novels teach us about human behavior? This post summarizes the work of several authors who would answer the first question with a resounding “yes,” and describes their arguments about how novels help us understand social behavior.

Most recently I had the pleasure of reading Michal Suk-Young Chwe‘s new book, Jane Austen, Game Theorist. Austen herself likely would have preferred the term “imaginist,” which is how the title character in Emma describes herself, referring to her strategic thinking abilities. Chwe’s argument in the book is that Austen is systematically analyzing strategic thinking through her novels. Austen certainly understood that novels could help teach social behavior: she writes in Northanger Abbey that novels contain “the most thorough knowledge of human nature [and] the happiest delineation of its varieties.” On Wednesday we will take a more detailed look at Chwe’s argument. In the meantime you can find a presentation summarizing the book here.

Austen would be in good company with Ariel Rubinstein. The central thesis of his recent book, Economic Fables, is straightforward: “Economic models are not more, but also not less, than stories–fables.” (You can read the book for free here, or see Ariel explain the motivation behind the book in this video.) Rubinstein’s view is actually the converse of Austen’s: he is not arguing that works of fiction are illustrative of human behavior, but that many social science models are themselves useful fictions. (Ed Leamer has advanced a similar view with a more practical twist in his book, Macroeconomic Patterns and Stories.)

Tyler Cowen helps to identify the key differences and similarities between models and novels in his paper, “Is a Novel a Model?” Here is the abstract:

I defend the relevance of fiction for social science investigation. Novels can be useful for making some economic approaches — such as behavioral economics or signaling theory — more plausible. Novels are more like models than is commonly believed. Some novels present verbal models of reality. I interpret other novels as a kind of simulation, akin to how simulations are used in economics. Economics can, and has, profited from the insights contained in novels. Nonetheless, while novels and models lie along a common spectrum, they differ in many particulars. I attempt a partial account of why we
sometimes look to models for understanding, and other times look to novels.

This interview with Tyler contains a summary of his perspective on novels and much more.

Cowen’s former GMU Economics colleague Russ Roberts also agrees that novels are useful for understanding social behavior–so much so that he has written three of them. Each of the novels illustrates one main economic lesson, and all of them support the idea of free markets for solving problems. Roberts interviewed Rubinstein the Econtalk podcast, in which they discuss some of the ideas that led to Rubinstein’s new book.

Overall this attention to useful fictions is a positive development for social science. Novels can help reach a much wider audience than journal articles and many nonfiction books. One danger–which we are far from now but still exists–is that we value the elegance of the novel itself (the language it uses) rather than the lessons it teaches. Another downside is that it is difficult to convey the policy relevance of a novel. Nevertheless, teaching lessons about human behavior in an enjoyable and memorable form is a huge step forward from most contemporary social science.