Paul Mason of BBC makes some interesting points about what makes political dissent more feasible in modern autocracies than before. Of course, one of his main points is that Internet Changes Everything, a claim so common that I always become suspicious when I see it: what lazy thinking is this trope hiding? But in this case there are real truths here, albeit somewhat overblown. And he is careful to qualify his point:

What happens to this new, fluffy global zeitgeist when it runs up against the old-style hierarchical dictatorship in a death match, where the latter has about 300 Abrams tanks? We may be about to find out.

One other interesting idea is that the demographics in these autocracies are now beginning to look like those of the “Western” world fifty years ago: larger middle class, better-educated youth. One should be careful in drawing historical analogies too far, but it is interesting to consider. Also, remember that here the middle-class and the well-educated are facing a much worse situation than the baby boomers, with a large percentage not really having a secure future.


Are petro-states more aggressive?

In an article in International Organization (here, for registered users), Jeff Colgan claims that states with large oil and gas resources as well as what he calls revolutionary agendas are more likely than “stable” oil producers or non-producing states to start disputes with other states. The article is an attempt to counter the common assumption that having a valuable resource makes a state more vulnerable to aggression from states lacking those resources, one variant of the classic resource curse.
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The scientific publishing deluge, part II

Way back before my inexplicable hiatus from the blog, I wrote a post about scientific publishing. Well, it’s time for another long post in my not-likely-to-be-concluded series of moaning about the state of journal publishing and possible solutions. Part I can be found here. Today, we look at the problem of cost with regards to journal publishing. I had originally planned for it to cover more topics, but this one issue has already made this post long enough.
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The heat is on – Climategate as a peek into scientific controversies


Remember the previous -gate? Not the current one with the leaking cables, but the other one with the climate scientists who got their internal communication leaked to the internet, sparking fierce debate on the possible ideological bias of climate research? That’s right: it’s time to come back to Climategate. Two of my colleagues here at the institute, Tomas Moe Skjølsvold (blog here) and Marianne Ryghaug, have gone through the e-mails that were leaked and looked at what it says about the way a community of researchers relates to the outside world. How do they prepare for criticism, and how do they resolve disputes over methodology?
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Bruno Latour, secret agent

The excellent OrgTheory blog has a post on Bruno Latour where they imagine what the world looks like for a man who rejects anthropocentric agency (but not anthropogenic climate change?). I don’t think these things are easy to talk about, too many pitfalls of language, but I have wondered about the same things (even if I don’t like the way people dismiss this as bullshit out of hand). Quote:

Bruno has gotten so good at practically deploying this new conceptual scheme (along with the radically new ontological partition of the world that it carries along with it) so as to transpose this newly acquired and newly mastered habits of perception and appreciation to discover evidence of the agentic capacities of those entities that were previously thought not to exercise it, in the history of Science and Politics. He has even uncovered evidence of humans being aware of this evidence, but then he noted that they proceeded to hide this evidence by creating elaborate systems of ontology and metaphysics in which non-human agency was explicitly denied, and in which it was explicitly conceptualized as being an exclusive property of so-called “persons” (where persons is now a category restricted to humans) only.

Some of the comments are illuminating in a way the post is not.

Good quote

“What I do now seems adequate,” she reasons. “It must be. I keep getting world records.”

On very old athletes and aging.

Words do come easy

Speaking of the joy of archives, here’s a real nugget from the team behind the Google Books digitalising effort: the first report on a wealth of themes that was previously simply impossible because the information was not available electronically. Using simple quantitative techniques they have looked at the occurrence of certain phenomena in books from the 1700s to the present. The findings are crude, and not really subject to any stringent analysis, but just the thought of what can be gleaned from the database in the future is exciting. The dataset is currently 500 billion words large.

So what have they found so far? Well, for example, verbs are becoming more regular. Rationality prevails! Is there hope for an esperanto-speaking world? Not really.

The most interesting finding is for me the one about how we discuss the past and new technology. Check this out:

“’1951’ was rarely discussed until the years immediately preceding 1951. Its frequency soared in 1951, remained high for three years, and then underwent a rapid decay, dropping by half over the next fifteen years.” But the shape of these graphs is changing. The peak gets higher with every year and we are forgetting our past with greater speed. The half-life of ‘1880’ was 32 years, but that of ‘1973’ was a mere 10 years.
The future, however, is becoming ever more easily ingrained. The team found that new technology permeates through our culture with growing speed. By scanning the corpus for 154 inventions created between 1800-1960, from microwave ovens to electroencephalographs, they found that more recent ones took far less time to become widely discussed.

Amazing stuff. Once they get beyond simple word frequencies, this should be really exciting. The future is a wonderful place to live. But will we remember?