What Google search tells us about ourselves

May 21, 2017

Discovering what people really think has often proved elusive. Just ask those pollsters who assured us that Donald J. Trump had no chance of becoming the 45th president of the USA. I am fascinated by the gap between what people say and what they really think or do. Sometimes we lie to ourselves – we really do have good intentions, but we do lack self-awareness. Other times we hide what are socially unacceptable views. What social scientists need are ways to get around these biases. I have already blogged about big data and its potential. One key area is Google search. The omniscient Google is our friend, confidante and confessor. We have all googled something that we wouldn’t dream of asking somebody in the flesh. Such search queries are anonymous, or at least that’s how we feel. Every time we type in a search we reveal something about ourselves. It is like a societal x-ray of our collective hopes fears and desires. In particular, Google’s anonymous, aggregate data can also tell us about the dark sides of our thoughts and behaviours. This tool is the subject of a new book by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz created a map of racism based on searches with racial slurs and racist jokes. He then studied how this affected voting across the United States. He used it to analyse how it affected voting in the 2012 presidential election. What he discovered was that in those areas of the country with the highest number of racist searches Obama’s results were markedly worse than those of John Kerry, the unsuccessful white Democratic candidate in 2004. This variable was far more relevant than education levels, age, church attendance, or gun ownership was. Although Obama won, the effect was important. Obama lost roughly 4 percentage points nationwide just from explicit racism. He was, however, able to get back 1% or 2% from higher African-American turnout. In 2012 the conditions were favourable the the Democrats. But this data is also germane to what happened in 2016 and the rise of Trump. According to Nate Cohn, the biggest predictor of Trump support in the Republican primaries was the racist searches. We need to be careful – correlation is not causation. Nevertheless it does provide a partial explanation of the Trump phenomenon.

What can Google tell us about Sex lies and videos? One revealing fact is that in 2015 2.5 billion hours of porn were seen on Pornhub, the largest pornography site on the Internet. To put this number in perspective, it is more than the entire history of our species on Planet Earth. And in surveys 2.5% of men say they are gay. But Google tells another story; 5% of male porn searches are for gay porn. There are more gay searches in tolerant areas, such as California, than in places like Mississippi. But the difference is not that high 5.2% compared to 4.8%

We parents do tend to want to project things onto our kids. In fact, of all Google searches starting “Is my 2-year-old…” the most common next word is “gifted.” We like to think that as parents we have equivalent expectations and dreams for our sons and daughters. But the abovementioned question is not asked equally about young boys and young girls. Parents are two and a half times more likely to ask “Is my son gifted?” than “Is my daughter gifted?” They show similar biases when using other phrases related to intelligence. Stephens-Davidowitz asks if the parents are simply picking up on legitimate differences between young girls and boys. In fact, at this age girls tend to have larger vocabularies and use more complex sentences. In American schools, girls are 11% more likely than boys to be in gifted programs. Nevertheless, parents seem to find that their male progeny are the gifted ones. With their daughters their concerns are more about appearance. “Is my daughter overweight?” is googled approximately twice as much as is “Is my son overweight?” this is despite the fact that whereas 30% of girls are overweight the corresponding figure for boys is a little higher- 33%.

A team of researchers from Columbia University and Microsoft analysed data from tens of thousands of anonymous users of Bing, Microsoft’s search engine. They coded a user as having recently been given a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer based on unmistakable searches, such as “just diagnosed with pancreatic cancer” or “I was told I have pancreatic cancer, what to expect.” The researchers wanted to discover what symptoms were strong predictors of a diagnosis. They examined the searches that had been made before the actual diagnosis, comparing the few who were finally diagnosed with the cancer to those who weren’t. Here’s how Stephens-Davidowitz explains what were remarkable results:
“Searching for back pain and then yellowing skin turned out to be a sign of pancreatic cancer; searching for just back pain alone made it unlikely someone had pancreatic cancer. Similarly, searching for indigestion and then abdominal pain was evidence of pancreatic cancer, while searching for just indigestion without abdominal pain meant a person was unlikely to have it. The researchers could identify 5 to 15 percent of cases with almost no false positives. Now, this may not sound like a great rate; but if you have pancreatic cancer, even a 10 percent chance of possibly doubling your chances of survival would feel like a windfall.”

In Everybody Lies Stephens-Davidowitz talks about the digital truth serum. The truth about what we think is so hard to find that we need every tool at our disposal. As a sceptic of opinion polls and surveys I like the idea of using proxies. However, as I pointed out in my post about big data there is a danger of finding spurious correlations, with cherry picking on an industrial scale. Nevertheless, I do feel that this book has hit on something.

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Hobbits, hooligans, and Vulcans: why democracy may not be the best system

May 7, 2017

The Secretary of the Authors’ Union

Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee

Which said that the people

Had forfeited the government’s confidence

And could only win it back

By redoubled labour. Wouldn’t it

Be simpler in that case if the government

Dissolved the people and

Elected another?

Die Lösung (The Solution) by Bertolt Brecht

______

Brecht was writing about the Volksaufstand, the People’s Uprising in East Germany, which began with a strike by East Berlin construction workers on 16 June 1953. It turned into a popular revolt against the communist regime. The Volkspolizei and Soviet tanks were needed to put it down. It was obviously satirical, but after recent events maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to sack the electorate. Democracy seems to be in crisis. The current incumbent of the White House seems to have little appreciation for democratic niceties and seems to be a fan of the authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin. After the Brexit vote there was a surge of basic questions on Google about what the European Union was and what the implications of leaving were. I know what the polls say, but I still have a sense of foreboding; Marine Le Pen may become the president of France. What the hell is going on?

Into the fray has come Georgetown professor Jason Brennan with a shocking critique of universal suffrage. In Against Democracy Brennan argues for epistocracy, a knowledge-based voting system. This is how the philosopher defines the concept:

In an epistocracy, political power is to some degree apportioned according to knowledge. An epistocracy might retain the major institutions we see in republican democracy, such as parties, mass elections, constitutional review, and the like. But in an epistocracy, not everyone has equal basic political power. An epistocracy might grant some people additional voting power, or might restrict the right to vote only to those that could pass a very basic test of political knowledge. Any such system will be subject to abuse, and will suffer from significant government failures. But that’s true of democracy too. The interesting question is whether epistocracy, warts and all, would perform better than democracy, warts and all.”

After Words: Hobbits, Vulcans, and the flaws of democracy:

This kind of criticism is not new; voter ignorance has worried political philosophers since Plato. Brennan posits that citizens do a pretty bad job of evaluating political issues. His taxonomy of voters, who he divides into hobbits, hooligans, and Vulcans, is certainly provocative. Hobbits are those who are uninterested in and with little knowledge of politics. Hooligans, on the other hand, tend to know more than hobbits do. However, they will only listen to arguments which support their worldview; opposing arguments are ignored. They also lack any kind of social scientific sophistication. Finally we have the Vulcans who combine extensive knowledge and analytical sophistication with open-mindedness. As the name suggests, Vulcans do not allow their emotions and biases to impair their judgement. Alas, few of us can ever aspire to Vulcanhood. Luckily, I am one of them. However, the vast majority of voters are a mix of hobbit and hooligan. Surveys show that they lack even the most basic notions. And what little knowledge they do have is analysed in a highly biased way.They are like football fans. Brennan is a libertarian. At the heart of the problem is rational ignorance:

Each individual vote has so little impact on the final outcome, voters have little incentive to either acquire relevant knowledge or rein in their biases. They are therefore easily hoodwinked by unscrupulous demagogues. We spend far more time researching when we are going to buy a flat-screen TV or a car. Than we do on voting. This is logical in that if we make a mistake, it will be our sole responsibility and we will have to live with it. Responsibility is spread among millions.

In general we only allow people to make important decisions if they possess a certain degree of competence. We wouldn’t dream of allowing quacks to make medical decisions. Imagine you are facing an operation. You are told that rather than being operated on by a professional doctor your fate will be determined by a hundred randomly-picked laymen, who will democratically decide on how to operate on you, voting on each step of the medical procedure. We assume that people should not be allowed to make important decisions for others unless they have sufficient knowledge to do so. Even if you survive, you have suffered a violation of your rights. You should never have been exposed to the incompetence of these laymen. Brennan calls this idea the “Competence Principle.”

I find this critique of democracy thought-provoking. It does make some interesting points, but it is ultimately flawed. I think the analogy with medicine doesn’t stack up. Politics is not susceptible to this kind of analysis. If you have two candidates in an election, you cannot vote on the basis of each candidate’s IQ. Mr. Brennan thinks he is more qualified to vote than a plumber, but I’m not so sure. I don’t want to do a Michael “We’ve had enough of experts” Gove, but I am sceptical about non-partisan technocratic solutions. Smart people can easily do dumb things. As George Orwell said – there are some ideas so wrong that only a very intelligent person could believe in them. Smarter people are not immune from biases they are just more eloquent and are able to justify their prejudices. These elites may be on the left or right. Brennan and Caplan, the author of The Myth of the Rational Voter, come from a libertarian perspective. Many libertarians think that many in the general public are economically illiterate. They would like to see more influence of the marketplace. On the other hand, in his 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, Thomas Frank took a more left-wing perspective, looking at the rise of populist anti-elitist conservatism in the United States. Why do relatively poor people vote against their own self-interest?

I am also sceptical about the voting tests which will limit universal suffrage. Can we really trust governments to implement epistocracy in any kind of unbiased way? I mentioned gerrymandering in a previous post. In the political process these tests will surely be manipulated to favour likely voters of the party in power and exclude those who would against. What would the voter eligibility test include? What would be the pass mark? Some of Brennan solutions would be a logistical nightmare. In the end it is hard to get away from the Churchillian dictum that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

 


Jason Brennan and the case for epistocracy

May 7, 2017

On his blog, Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Jason Brennan says that the case for epistocracy does not depend on Plato’s philosopher kings or guardian class. There are many other possible forms of epistocracy:

  1. Restricted Suffrage: Citizens may acquire the legal right to vote and run for office only if they are deemed (through some sort of process) competent and/or sufficiently well-informed. This system has representative government and institutions similar to modern democracies, but does not imbue everyone with voting power. Nevertheless, voting rights are widespread, if not as widespread as in a democracy.
  2. Plural Voting: As in a democracy, every citizen has a vote. However, some citizens, those who are deemed (through some legal process) to be more competent or better informed, have additional votes. So, for instance, John Stuart Mill advocated a plural voting regime. As we discussed above, he though getting everyone involved in politics would tend to ennoble them. However, he remained worried that too many citizens would be incompetent and insufficiently educated to make smart choices at the polls. Thus, he advocated giving better educated people more votes.
  3. The Enfranchisement Lottery: Electoral cycles proceed as normal, except that by default no citizen has any right to vote. Immediately before the election, thousands of citizens are selected, via a random lottery, to become pre-voters. These pre-voters may then earn the right to vote, but only if they participate in certain competence-building exercises, such as deliberative fora with their fellow citizens.
  4. Epistocratic Veto: All laws must be passed through democratic procedures via a democratic body. However, an epistocratic body with restricted membership retains the right to veto rules passed by the democratic body.
  5. Weighted Voting/Government by Simulated Oracle: Every citizen may vote, but must take a quiz concerning basic political knowledge at the same time. Their votes are weighted based on their objective political knowledge, perhaps while statistically controlling for the influence of race, income, sex, and/or other demographic factors.

 


Time is on their side – how authoritarian rulers love tinkering with clocks and calendars

April 30, 2017

On August 15th 2015 North Korea went back in time. The government decreed that the clocks be turned by half an hour. So now North Korea has its own time zone, but what is the point of all this fuss? It has to be said that the Pyongyang regime has form in this area. It already had its own calendar – the Juche calendar, whose years are counted from 1912, which was the year in which its founder and “eternal president”, Kim Il-sung, was born. 1912 in the Gregorian calendar became Juche 1 in the new calendar, and we are now in Juche 106. The calendar began to be used on 9 September 1997, which is the day on which the Republic came into being. Curiously there are no pre-Juche years and the years before the Glorious Leader came into the world are based the Gregorian calendar, the most widely used calendar around the world.

I just want to on a quick digression about the Gregorian calendar. It takes its name from Pope Gregory XIII, who introduced it in October 1582. Britain maintained the Julian calendar, which was 11 days behind for another 180 years. The Calendar (New Style) Act 1750 introduced the Gregorian calendar to the British Empire, bringing Britain into line with the majority of Western Europe. The introduction was not straightforward; 1751 was a short year, lasting just 282 days from 25th March, New Year in the Julian calendar to 31st December. The year 1752 then began on 1 January, but it was necessary to synchronise the calendar in Britain with that of Europe. It was necessary to correct it by those eleven days. It was decided that Wednesday 2nd September 1752 would be followed by Thursday 14th September 1752. This led to civil unrest with rioters demanding “Give us our eleven days”.

As we shall see such temporal megalomania is not new. There is long historical tradition of rulers adjusting clocks and calendars as a way of demonstrating political power. King Canute is said to have wanted to turn back the tide. That was impossible, but surely there is no better way for a leader to leave his imprint on the world by altering what is such a fundamental aspect of our daily lives. This is controlling time itself.

The French revolution upended many ideas and it certainly had a significant impact on time: the years, the months and the days of the week were all reformed. Year I, written in Roman numerals began on 22 September 1792, the beginning of the “Republican Era”. The twelve months were each divided into three ten-day weeks called Décades, with the tenth day, décadi, replacing Sunday as the day of rest. That makes 360 days, so five or six extra days, known as complimentary days had to be added at the end of each year. The Republican calendar had the following twelve months, whose names were based on nature, especially the typical weather in and around Paris.

Autumn:
Vendémiaire in French (from French vendange, derived from Latin vindemia, “grape harvest”)
Brumaire (from French brume, “mist”)
Frimaire (From French frimas, “frost”)

Winter:
Nivôse (from Latin nivosus, “snowy”)
Pluviôse (from French pluvieux, derived from Latin pluvius, “rainy”)
Ventôse (from French venteux, derived from Latin ventosus, “windy”)

Spring:
Germinal (from French germination)
Floréal (from French fleur, derived from Latin flos, “flower”)
Prairial (from French prairie, “meadow”)

Summer:
Messidor (from Latin messis, “harvest”)
Thermidor (or Fervidor) (from Greek thermon, “summer heat”), starting 19 or 20 July
Fructidor (from Latin fructus, “fruit”)

The title of Émile Zola’s novel Germinal comes from the revolutionary calendar and the seafood dish lobster thermidor may well have been named after the 1891 play Thermidor, set during the Revolution.

The ten days had more prosaic names:

primidi (first day)
duodi (second day)
tridi (third day)
quartidi (fourth day)
quintidi (fifth day)
sextidi (sixth day)
septidi (seventh day)
octidi (eighth day)
nonidi (ninth day)
décadi (tenth day)

The Décades were abandoned in Floréal 1802.

The Soviet reform of the Gregorian calendar was very different from the French Revolution’s reforms. They did not do away with the Gregorian calendar. This was probably a good thing as the Gregorian calendar had only been introduced after the revolution. This is why the October Revolution actually took place in November. A lag of 13 days had now accumulated in the Julian calendar. On 24 January 1918 the Council of People’s Commissars issued a Decree that Wednesday, 31 January 1918, was to be followed by Thursday, 14 February 1918. I don’t know if there were any riots, but I suppose they had more important things to worry about. Although if there had been any protests, I am sure Trotsky would have had them all shot.

In May of 1929, Yuri M. Larin proposed a radical change to the week. He eventually got Stalin’s support. On August 26, 1929, the Council of People’s Commissars (CPC) decreed that all productive enterprises were to transition from the traditional work week interrupted by a weekend, to a continuous production week. The idea was simple divide all workers into shifts. The uninterrupted week, the nepreryvka, would apply not only to factory workers, but to retail and government employees too. With factories and stores open and producing 24 hours a day, every day of the week, productivity was bound to soar. Alas with so much in this planned economy, it didn’t turn out that way, and On June 26, 1940, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet restored the seven-day week.

On 16 March 1940 World War Two was in the phoney war stage. In Spain General Franco had been in charge of the whole country for less than a year. On this day at 23:00 Spain changed from Greenwich Mean Time to 00:00 Central European Time. Two years later the change of time zone was made permanent so as to be in line with what had become Nazi-occupied Europe. So thanks to the Generalissimo’s affinity with Nazi Germany Spain has been in the wrong time zone for seven decades. It is the farthest West of all countries on CET, a time which they share with countries as far east as Poland and Hungary. This has created the Galicia problem. For example one day in mid-December the official sunrise time is 8.56am, which means that children begin their school day in complete darkness. Curiously, Spain’s Iberian neighbour Portugal adopted CET under the Cavaco Silva government in 1992. It was a fiasco with negative effects on academic performance, sleep habits and insurance companies reported a rise in the number of accidents. To add insult to injury, there were not even any savings on energy. In 1996 the experiment was abandoned.

India and China have something unusual in common. Despite their size, the each has a single time zone. In comparison, the United States, a country of similar geographical area to China, has four major time zones, each separated by an hour. What I understand is that people just have different schedules. After independence in 1947, the Indian government established IST (India Standard Time), which is five and a half hours ahead of Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). GMT is now considered another time zone, whereas UTC is not a time zone, but a time standard that is the basis for time zones worldwide. No country or territory officially uses UTC as a local time.

For nine years Venezuela enjoyed Chavez time. In 2007 the darling of the left, Hugo Chavez turned the clocks back by half an hour in 2007 to move Venezuela into its own time zone. According to the Economist it was to allow a “fairer distribution of the sunrise” but also ensured that the socialist republic did not have to share a time zone with its great foe, the United States. Like North Korea, Iran Afghanistan and Burma have their own time zones.

And then we have Turkmenistan. On August 10, 2002, the government of the central Asian country passed a law to rename all the months and most of the days of week. The names come from a number of Turkmen national symbols. These are described in the Ruhnama, the Book of the Soul, a bizarre mixture of autobiography, self-help and dodgy history. The names were chosen according to, as described, a book written by Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan’s first president for life.  Wikipedia has a handy summary: The months include

Türkmenbaşy (January) Meaning: “The Leader of Turkmen”, the adopted name of Saparmurat Niyazov, president of Turkmenistan

Baýdak (February) Flag – the Turkmenistan flag day is celebrated in February on Niyazov’s birthday

Gurbansoltan  (April)– The name of Niyazov’s mother.

Ruhnama (September) Niyazov’s book, defined as a spiritual guide for the Turkmen nation.

Niyazov also changed the days of the week, but he  died in 2006. and two years later the cabinet of Turkmenistan restored the old names of the months and days of week.

This is the end of my brief tour of how autocrats have sought to leave their mark on time. I hope you enjoyed it and I will be back on 18 Floréal CCXXV or Dynçgün the 7th of Magtymguly if you prefer.


Where do country names come from?

April 23, 2017

I was listening to the BBC’s Word of Mouth podcast this week and they had a fascinating feature on how countries got their names. It was a very informative programme, which made me want to investigate further. Some of these origins are pretty straightforward; France is the land of the Franks, Poland of the Poles, Uzbekistan of the Uzbeks and Thailand of the Thais. However, some are more interesting.

Some places got their names after real or legendary people:

Bolivia Simón Bolívar

Colombia Christopher Columbus

Éire (Ireland)             Éire (Ériu), a Celtic fertility goddess

El Salvador Jesus (literally, The Saviour)

Israel Jacob, who was also called Israel in the Bible

Mozambique             Mussa Bin Bique

Philippines    King Philip II of Spain

Saudi Arabia             Muhammad bin Saud

Wikipedia also has some interesting dependent territories named after people:

Bermuda        Juan de Bermúdez

Cook Islands             Captain James Cook

Falkland Islands Anthony Cary, 5th Viscount Falkland

Martinique     Martin of Tours

South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands George III of the United Kingdom and John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich

Virgin Islands Saint Ursula and her 11,000 virgins

The programme also looked at certain controversies or curiosities regarding names. For the Dutch, Holland is just a region of the country. Indians call their country Bharat and the official transliterated name of the People’s Republic of China is: Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo. China takes its English name from the state of Quin, a western Chinese kingdom during the Zhou dynasty. The programme also cited the theory, which I first heard on QI, that America is not named after Amerigo Vespucci, but Richard ap Meryk, whose name is anglicised to Richard Amerike or Ameryk. He was a fifteenth-century Anglo-Welsh merchant, royal customs officer and, sheriff of Bristol. I remain sceptical, but it is an interesting theory. I also learned that Pakistan’s name is a semi-acronym: the P is from Punjab; the A from the Afgania province; the K from Kashmir; the S from Sindh, and the -Stan from Baluchistan. They also featured what must be the most misleading name in the atlas. The Viking Erik the Red managed to persuade 500 Icelanders to go to barren, frozen land, where they set up two colonies. In a brilliant piece of marketing he had called it Greenland.

There are a lot of inaccurate folk etymologies. Brunei is one example. According to legend, Brunei was founded by Sultan Muhammad Shah. Upon discovering the place he is said to have exclaimed Baru nah, which is loosely translated as “That’s it!” or “Eureka”, from which the “Brunei” was derived. It sounds funny, but a more credible theory is that Brunei comes from the Sanskrit bhūmi, which means ‘land’.

Venezuela means ‘Little Venice’, and was so named because it reminded explorers Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci of the Italian city. The connection does seem somewhat tenuous, although more apt now after years of misrule, the country does seem to be sinking fast.

The Oxford dictionaries blog has an A-Z of country name origins. Here is a selection:

Andorra The name Andorra comes from a local Navarrese word, andurrial, meaning ‘shrub-covered land’. It has also been suggested that the country took its name from Arabic al-Gandura, ‘the wanton woman’, a legacy from the Moors.

Argentina The name Argentina is said to have been coined by Spanish explorers who, when they first came to the region, noticed the silver ornaments worn by the natives. Thus the word is from the Spanish argentine, ‘silvery’, and means ‘(Land of) the Silver (River)’.

Japan The name means ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ and is a reference to Japan’s location east of China. It comes from the Chinese pronunciation of ‘Jipen’, from the Chinese characters rì, ‘sun’, and bĕn, ‘origin’.

Liberia Liberia is from the Latin liber ‘free’ – the same root of the word liberty – and is so called because it was founded in 1822 as a settlement for freed slaves from the US, and proclaimed independent in 1847.

Madagascar The name Madageiscar originated with explorer Marco Polo in the 13th century as a result of hearsay and misunderstanding. He never visited the island and mistook the Italian version of the Arab name for Mogadishu, Mogadiscio, on the Somali coast to refer to the island which he called Madeigascar.

Nauru The island’s name may be derived from anáoero, ‘I go to the beach’.

New Zealand The name New Zealand comes from the Dutch province of Zeeland, ‘sea land’.

Panama Panama is named after the capital, Panama City, which is said to mean ‘(Place with) an Abundance of Fish’ – though some believe it comes from a Cuna phrase panna mai, ‘far away’.

Sierra Leone Sierra Leone means ‘Lion Mountains’ from the Portuguese sierra, ‘mountain chain’, and leão, ‘lion’. However, there are no lions here, even if there once were.

Solomon Islands The islands were named by the Spaniard Àlvaro de Mendaña de Neira (1542–95), inspired by Inca stories of islands 600 leagues to the west of Peru that had been the source of the gold that adorned the court of King Solomon.

Spain Spain may come from the Punic span or tsepan, ‘rabbit’, which were numerous in the peninsula, or from the Punic sphan,‘north’, since it was north of Carthage – or it may come from the Basque ezpaña, ‘lip’ or ‘extremity’, a reference to this south-western area of Europe.

Zimbabwe Zimbabwe means ‘stone enclosure’ or ‘stone dwelling’ from the Bantu zimba, ‘houses’, and mabwe, ‘stones’.

The programme featured Avalon, as an example of a fictional country. They could have included more. I am currently watching the second series of The Man in The High Castle, which of course has its origins in a Philip K Dick novel. After the Axis victory in WWII the Greater Nazi Reich, a fascist puppet state on the East coast, is created. And the coming week an adaptation of Margaret Attwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale will be shown on Hulu. So Gilead, a Christian-fundamentalist theocracy will become more famous. Some 500 years ago Thomas Moore invented Utopia. The name was a Greek pun meaning both no place and good place. Hollywood gave us Freedonia in Duck Soup and Bacteria, a satire of Italy under Mussolini in The Great Dictator. And finally I remember Qumran from the original Yes Minister series of the 1980s. The hapless Minister of Administrative Affairs, Jim Hacker is on a visit to this oil-rich sheikdom located in the Persian Gulf. Hacker is not looking forward to “five hours of orange juice” and so a communications room is set up near the reception, which will contain illicit liquor. Then Hacker is periodically called to the room with messages from Mr Haig, Mr Walker from the Scotch Office, Mr Smirnoff of the Soviet Embassy, and a delegation of teachers.

The examples we have seen have been from books films and TV shows. But the New York Times actually invented a Central Asian country Kyrzbekistan, instead of Kyrgyzstan. The mockery directed at the paper on social media was unceasing:

Rumour has it that #Kyrzbekistan has been given the go-ahead to enter Eurovision 2015.

 Austranians don’t like Kyrzbesistanis ever since they have sided with Luxemstein in the United States of Amigos question #Kyrzbekistan

I suppose, if all nations are “imagined communities”, the NYT making one up just took that to its logical conclusion. #kyrzbekistan

You can’t just will a country out of existence… Stand up for #kyrzbekistan!

This concludes my journey into the origins of country names. I will conclude with a map about country etymologies that featured on the internet. I think I may have seen it already on Facebook, but it makes a lot more sense now. This is definitely one for the geography geeks. However, there are some errors on the map, so this would not be appropriate for a university thesis. i recommend clicking on the full -size version once you have opened it up.


How many countries are there?

April 23, 2017

Here is a nice complementary video from CGP Grey:


My favourite podcasts #2

April 14, 2017

In 2008 I did a page listing my favourite podcasts, which I subsequently updated. Now though, there are just so many podcasts that I have decided to a new page. Here are my new choices:

99% Invisible

99% Invisible is a Radiotopia production, which looks at unseen and overlooked aspects of design, architecture, and activity in the world. Presenter Roman Mars goes into the things that you don’t normally think about such as McMansions, Ouija boards, Freud’s couch, barcodes and revolving doors. The length of the shows is kind of on the short side, especially with ads and credits, but I suppose it’s better to be left wanting more.

All in the Mind

ABC Radio Australia’s All in the Mind examines the mind, brain and behaviour, and the fascinating connections between them. The presenter, Lynne Malcolm looks into such topics as dreaming, depression, addiction and the psychology of conspiracy theories. If you find the workings of the human mind fascinating, this is the podcast for you.

Freakonomics Radio

If you want a show just focussed on economics, then I recommend Planet Money. Freakonomics has become more wide-ranging, but I do enjoy it. The economist, Steve Levitt now appears rarely, so it is Steve Dubner, who features mainly. Some of my favourite episodes have been Bad Medicine, In Praise of Maintenance, Why Uber Is an Economist’s Dream, and The Economics of Sleep.

 Hidden Brain

In The Hidden Brain Shankar Vedantam uses psychology and storytelling to look at the unconscious biases that shape human behaviour.  Topics have included boredom, slanguage, losing face, the perils of power and the science of deception.

Moral Maze

The panel take a current news issue and look at the moral background to the question. Topics have included selfie culture, political discourse, virtue signalling and fake news. Host Michael Buerk does a great job.

Open Source with Christopher Lydon

This show’s host, Christopher Lydon, is credited with creating the first podcast ever recorded in July 2003. I can’t remember when I first started listening to Lydon’s program The Connection, but I used to love Lydon’s interviewing style. He then got involved in a contract dispute and he left. I did rather lose touch with his career but recently I have started listening again. His interviews deal with the big ideas in culture, the arts and politics.

Pop Culture Happy Hour

NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour is a lively look at books, comics, films, music television podcasts etc. The panellists delve into pop culture themes and topics such as Oscar documentaries, Justin Timberlake, the S-Town podcast, memes and the TV show, The Americans.

Social Science Bites

Social Science Bites is a podcast by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton, who are also behind the Philosophy Bites podcast. For the last five years social scientists have been presenting their perspectives on humans and society. Each 20-minute podcast includes a downloadable written transcript of the conversation. Topics have included: race, violence, the happiness industry and behavioural economics. They have some very prestigious and insightful speakers such as Steven Pinker, Paul Seabright, Danny Dorling and Robert Schiller. With its March 2017 Gary King Big Data Analysis podcast, Social Science Bites reached its 50th episode.

The Allusionist

This is the perfect podcast for word nerds. This is another Radiotopia production. Programmes have included features about romantic novels, the political lexicon and puns.

The Food Chain

I am not particularly into food podcasts, but I like the BBC’s Food Chain which looks into the economics, science and culture of what we eat. It has looked at such topics as vegetarianism, bottled water, junk food and food fads.

The Human Zoo

The Human Zoo is a BBC podcast Michael Blastland, the man behind the More or Less podcast, and Nick Chater, Professor of Behavioural Science at Warwick University and looks at the fascinating area of psychological research, especially those hidden human biases. If you like Daniel Kahneman, this is the podcast for you.

The Long View

This programme, which is presented by Jonathan Freedland, uses history to compare to current, showing that there is nothing new under the sun. For example, a medieval blood libel is compared to fake news, Donald Trump’s border wall to the 1840s Great Hedge of India and modern military drones to the Nazi V1 and V2 weapons.

The Philosopher’s Arms

The conceit of the Philosopher’s Arms is to look at philosophical conundrums in front of a live audience in a pub. The term “pub philosopher” may have a derogatory connotation, but I have become a fan of the abovementioned drinking establishment and its much-loved landlady, Gladys. Host Matthew Sweet and guest philosophers look at the prisoner’s dilemma, moral disgust, free will and more importantly, is a Jaffa Cake a cake or a biscuit.  But remember: think responsibly.

Word of Mouth

I love language podcasts and this BBC podcast, which was created by the Irish writer and broadcaster, Frank Delaney. It is now presented by children’s novelist and poet, Michael Rosen. Topics have included Roald Dahl’s language, taking turns in conversation, inventing brand names and PR – How Not To Do It.

There are many more I could have mentioned – Serial, S-Town, and You Must Remember This spring to mind but I didn’t want to make the list too long. Indeed while researching this week I discovered that the satirical magazine Private Eye also has a podcast, Page 94. Where will I find the time?