A Response to Sherry Turkle

16 Nov

Chaste, who has contributed earlier to the site, critiques an article by Sherry Turkle.

Her article:
http://web.mit.edu/sturkle/www/whitherpsychoanalysis.html

Chaste’s response –

My main issue is that it is a sloppily done article. A thorough piece generally bases itself on a careful theoretical apparatus or produces such solid evidence that most of its claims are very difficult to argue against. This author simply strings together a bunch of speculations, at least 70% of which have at least equally convincing arguments against them. I simply do not see the point of such pieces, for they are little better than a chat-like aggregation of ideas. And her efforts at an MIT-based incestuous self-aggrandizement do little for the credibility of her analysis.

Here are just a few examples to show how very thorough she is in her sloppiness. She talks about the possibility of exploring alternative personas in cyberspace, and how this represents a very different possibility of self-exploration than anything that went before. But isn’t she led to such conclusions by assuming as given that the “virtual reality” of cyberspace is more analogous to “reality” than to fantasy as “virtual” would suggest? Thus, couldn’t a man in his fantasy life in decades and centuries past explore alternative personas based on the films he watched from day to day or the gossip stories he read in newspapers or heard from neighbors? Or take her example of the effect of HCI affection in the shaping of emotions. None of her examples go beyond children aged 10: a time at which they have barely outgrown belief in the tooth fairy. Unless she can give substantial evidence of emotions in adult lives, why should we distinguish HCI from the countless other things that children set store by? And when she does venture into adult HCI, her ineptness is only laughable. She talks of a man who chooses a female persona as a convenient outlet for his assertiveness. First, the man’s responses are reactive rather than exploration-oriented; second, his choice of a female persona appears to be dictated by little more than convenience. Only in an age of post-modernist sloppiness can the choice of a convenient medium be confused with meaningful self-exploration. And I do not need to tell you that avatars are not aspects or sub-personalities of Hindu gods, but are their incarnations: the latter is a discrete entity at a point in time throughout all space.

And now to a couple of things in this essay that actually sparked my interest. First, of course, is the definition of what it is to be human, and why I find it rather absurd that humans would ever accord machines a similar status. At one time, I had toyed with the idea that what gives human beings their uniqueness is an arbitrariness induced by biochemical arbitrariness in their responses to various stimuli. But frankly, all that is pointless palaver. No one has ever seriously taken any definition of humanity based on objective ideas like intelligence. All those crappy definitions of race were largely based in politics and economics, and what support they got from neutral academics was largely based on those academics being at their wits end to produce a logical rebuttal. What people perceive as most worthy about themselves is inevitably what has always driven their definition of what is human. Thus, there were very few serious Christians who ever subscribed to the racial hierarchies of 19th-century race science, precisely because they saw in non-white people the same capacity for Christian redemption that they most valued in themselves. What people regard as valuable can of course change. But let me glance at some of the odds stacked against machine creations. I will start by assuming a sophisticated persona that is not programmed with a limited set of instructions but is constantly changing itself based on selective crawling of web data. As such it would be a storehouse of information and insights on any topic including the manners of various subgroups of our times that a human could only dream of. Given current IP laws, digitally generated personas cannot be owned by the owner of the persona generator. Besides, such persona generators are unlikely to be monopolies. Hence the personas will lack that most important value in human eyes, namely, market value. They will be infinitely reproducible. It is also impossible to conceive of personas as serious stakeholders which could accrue value for themselves through participation in the market and in social spaces. Who would allow a persona a serious stake in anything when that demand for a stake could simply be disposed of with a mouse-click? It is difficult to see why personas should be much more effective than the characters in Shakespeare or in Emily Bronte. Claiming this would be succumbing to the seduction by the latest medium: no different from claims by conservatives about the effect of media violence based on an assumed confusion between reality and screen by the audience.

The other point that interested me pertains to the possible psycho-pharmacological uses of such personas. I think she is trying to make the point seem more important than it is by using some trendy term like “psycho-pharmacological.” The fact that she talks about them primarily in relation to children and the elderly points out the less glamorous spin on it, namely, that they are more effective toys at killing time and keeping unproductive people occupied at low cost. She could have pointed out (which she does not) that intelligent personas could be used as effective and cheap socializing tools both for children and for entrants into a new culture. But doubtless, that sounds less sexy.

Understanding Voter Disinterest

15 Nov

Voter indifference in the US is commonly understood as an effect of the media environment. For example negative advertisements or availability of entertainment that had pushed news programming to a distinct second. While the above view may very well be true, it is unlikely that is either the sole or even the major cause of the dwindling number of voters.

To understand voter disinterest fully, one must try to see it in a “personal” context that takes into account the rationale behind why a person chooses to engage in a democratic process. By doing so, one may understand the downturn in voter interest as an artifact of the spatial (nation or culture-specific) and temporal (historical) locality. More specifically, US voter’s indifference towards politics can be seen as a side-effect of living in an era where economic and social conditions are relatively (and in absolute terms when measured as life expectancy etc.) good. Given that an average American voter tends to view government’s role in resolving social and economic issues as rather limited, it is not altogether surprising that a US voter may conclude that s/he have little to gain from voting. The contention is corroborated by the fact that the voter group that does rely upon the government – older adult voters, who need Medicaid and Social security benefits, votes most often in the elections.

The lack of growth in citizen’s level of political knowledge (Delli Carpini and Keeter, 1996), in spite of the increase in the amount of information available, can similarly be explained by lack of motivation in voters. Research by Robert Luskin identifies interest and intelligence as key variables affecting the level of political sophistication also ties into the above analysis. Luskin states, “Education, too, may be motivational in part. In an educated society, the blanket ignorance of politics may be a solecism. We learn about the things we care about.” Education, by making a person more aware of the actual role of government and the services it offers, as opposed to the widely perceived peripheral role of government, can make people more motivated to vote.

Rational self-interest or disinterest cannot fully explain voter disinterest in the US. There is an argument to be made, that aside from the differences that emanate from different school systems and the perceived differences in the importance of government’s role in alleviating social or economic problems, nearly all the other differences can be traced to differences between media environments. One key difference in US media markets and media markets in other countries is the lack of a comparatively large public broadcaster. NPR and PBS fare poorly in terms of budget, viewership and production values when compared to their counterparts in say Britain (BBC) or Canada (CBC) or other developed countries. One may impute from the above that the presence of a large public broadcaster in a media market has an important salutary impact on the way politics is covered.

The effect of a large public broadcaster can be understood in terms of the kind of programming shown by public broadcasters – primarily thematic coverage of news. Thematic coverage of news as opposed to incident oriented coverage of news, the most prominent model on network news, allows citizens to trace the arc of accountability to the government or other social and economic factors, according to Shanto Iyengar, a professor at Stanford University. This, in turn, may make a person more motivated to vote

In all, voter disinterest can be more fully understood by analyzing factors influencing voter’s perception of his/her self-interest and government’s role in helping achieve their interests, whether it be security or employment.

Comments Please! The Future Of Blog Comments

11 Nov

Often times the comments sections of blogging sites suffer from a multiplicity of problems – they are overrun by spam or by repeated entries of the same or similar point, continue endlessly, and are generally overcrowded with grammatical and spelling mistakes. Comments sections that were once seen as an unmitigated good are now seen as something irrelevant at best, and a substantial distraction at worst. Here, I discuss a few ways we can re-engineer commenting systems to mitigate some of the problems in the extant models, and possibly add value to them.

Comments are generally displayed in a chronological or reverse chronological order, which implies that, firstly, the comments are not arranged in any particular order of relevance and, secondly, that users just need to repost their comments to position them in the most favorable spot – the top or the bottom of the comment heap.

One way to “fix” this problem is by having a user based rating system for comments. A variety of sites have implemented this feature to varying levels of success. The downside of using a rating system is that people don’t have to explain their vote for, or against, the comment. This occasionally leads to rating “spam”. The BBC circumvents this problem on its news forums by allowing users to browse comments either in a chronological order or in the order of reader’s recommendations.

Another way we can make comments more useful is by creating message board like commenting systems that separate comments under mini-sections or “topics”. One can envision topics like “factual problems in XYZ” or “readers suggested additional resources and links” that users can file their comments under. This kind of a system can help in two ways – by collating wisdom (analysis and information) around specific topical issues raised within the article, and by making it easier for users to navigate to the topic, or informational blurb, of their choice. This system can also be alternatively implemented by allowing users to tag portions of the article in place – much like a bibliographic system that adds a hyperlink to relevant portions of the story in comments.

The above two ways deal with ordering the comments but do nothing to address the problem of small irrelevant repetitive comments. These are often posted by the same user under one or multiple aliases. One way to address this issue would be to set a minimum word limit for comments. This will encourage users to put in a more considered response. Obviously, there is a danger of angering the user, leading to him/her adding a longer, more pointless comment or just giving up. On average, I believe that it will lead to an improvement in the quality of the comments. We may also want to consider developing algorithms that disallow repeated postings of same comments by a user.

The best way to realize the value of comments is to ask somebody – preferably the author of the article – to write a follow-up article that incorporates relevant comments. Ideally, the author will use this opportunity to acknowledge factual errors and analyze points raised in the comments. Hopefully, this follow-up piece will be able to solicit more comments, and the process would repeat again, helping to take discussion and analysis forward.

Another way to go about incorporating comments is to use a wiki-like system of comments to create a “counter article” or critique for each article. In fact, it would be wonderful to see a communally edited opinion piece that grows in stature as multiple views get presented, qualified, and edited. Wikipedia does implement something like this in the realm of information but to bring it to the realm of opinions would be interesting.

One key limitation of most current commenting systems on news and blog sites is that they only allow users to post textual responses. As blog and news publishing increasingly leverages multimedia capabilities of the web, commenting systems would need to be developed that allow users to post their response in any media. This will once again present a challenge in categorizing and analyzing relevant comments but I am sure novel methods, aside from tagging and rating, will eventually be developed to help with the same.

The few ideas that I have mentioned above are meant to be seen as a beginning to the discussion on this topic and yes, comments would be really appreciated!

Making Comments More Useful

10 Nov

Often times comments sections of blogging sites suffer from a multiplicity of problems – they are overrun by spam or by repeated entries of the same or similar point; continue endlessly and generally overcrowded with grammatical and spelling mistakes. Comments sections that were once seen as an unmitigated good are now seen as something irrelevant at best and a substantial distraction at worst. Here below I discuss a few ways we can re-engineer commenting systems so to mitigate some of the problems in the extant models, and possibly add value to them.

Comments are generally displayed in a chronological or reverse chronological order, which implies that firstly the comments are not arranged in any particular order of relevance and secondly that users just need to repost their comments to position them in the most favorable spot – the top or the bottom of the comment heap. One way to “fix” this problem is by using a user based rating system for comments. A variety of sites have implemented this feature to varying levels of success. The downside of using a rating system is that people don’t have to explain their vote ( Phillip Winn) for or against the comment leading occasionally to rating “spam”. BBC circumvents this problem on its news forums by allowing users to browse comments either in a chronological order or in the order of reader’s recommendations.

Another way we can make comments more useful is by creating message board like commenting systems that separate comments under mini-sections or “topics”. One can envision topics like “factual problems in XYZ” or “readers suggested additional resources and links” that users can file their comments under. This kind of a system can help in two ways – by collating wisdom (analysis and information) around specific topical issues raised within the article and by making it easier for users to navigate to the topic or informational blurb of their choice. This system can also be alternatively implemented by allowing users to tag portions of the article in place – much like a bibliographic system that hyperlinks relevant portions of the story to comments.

The above two ways deal with ordering the comments but do nothing to address the problem of small irrelevant repetitive comments, often times posted by the same user under one or multiple aliases. One way to address this issue would be to set a minimum word limit for comments. This will prod users to put in a more considered response. Obviously, there is a danger of angering the user leading to him/her adding a longer more pointless comment or just giving up but on an average, I believe that it will lead to an improvement in the quality of the comments. We may also want to consider coding in algorithms that disallow repeated postings of same comments by a user.

The best way to realize the value of comments is to ask somebody – preferably the author of the article- to write a follow-up article that incorporates relevant comments. Ideally, the author will use this opportunity to acknowledge factual errors and analyze points raised in the comments. Hopefully, then this follow up piece will be able to solicit more comments and the process repeated again helping take discussion and analysis forward.

Another way to go about incorporating comments is to use a wiki-like system of comments to create a “counter article” or critique for each article. In fact, it would be wonderful to see a communally edited opinion piece that grows in stature as multiple views get presented, qualified, and edited. Wikipedia does implement something like this in the realm of information but to bring it to the realm of opinions would be interesting.

One key limitation of most current commenting systems on news and blog sites is that they only allow users to post textual responses. As blog and news publishing increasingly leverages multimedia capabilities of the web, commenting systems would need to be developed that allow users to post their response in any media. This will once again present a challenge in categorizing and analyzing relevant comments but I am sure novel methods, aside from tagging and rating, will eventually be developed to help with the same.

The few ideas that I have mentioned above are meant to be seen as a beginning to the discussion on this topic and yes, comments would be really appreciated.

Advice on Studying in the US: Why, Why Not, and How

8 Nov

The number of foreign students studying in the US increased for the first time in four years buoyed by a 32% increase in the number of Indians joining graduate programs. Graduate education in the US has become increasingly popular for Indians meanwhile undergraduate population of Indian students in the US is still far behind (about a sixth of the graduate population) and for good reason. Here below I try to come up with a guide to issues that an incoming undergraduate applicant may want to think about before coming to the US.

Why not?

Finances: Undergraduate education in the US is extremely expensive, especially at top-tier private schools, and given the income disparity (in dollar terms) between India and US. In addition, the chances that an international student will get hired right away after graduation with a top-notch salary are slim given visa issues. A prospective undergraduate applicant may also want to factor in the pressure that s/he is likely to come under (or feel) if his/her parents are taking a large loan to finance their education. There is also a good chance that the undergraduate will probably have to work 20 hours per week (or more illegally) to supplement his or her income, which in turn will cut into the study time.

Age and associated factors: Add to the above the fact the relative immaturity and youth that make it harder to adjust to a completely new culture. It is not merely adjusting to a new culture but adapting to it to such a degree, and with enough rapidity, so as not distract you from studies for a significant time.

Why?

Going to a liberal arts college in the US allows one a lot of choices in sampling different courses. This kind of choice is relatively absent in colleges in Asia or even Europe. Then there are top-tier facilities, labs, faculty etc. which may make the expense seem worthwhile. In addition, doing an undergraduate degree will almost certainly improve your chances of doing graduate school here.

If you have considered the above arguments and still want to apply for getting an undergraduate degree in the US, then here is the drill –

Decided? Then Prepare

The preparation should ideally start at least about a year and a half before you want to join the school. An international student needs to give TOEFL (Test for English as a foreign language), SAT and generally SAT 2s in at least one or more subjects – especially if you are applying to top universities. English, of course, would be the main challenge. Given that SAT now has a writing section; it is of paramount importance that students develop good writing skills. You may want to engage a tutor to understand “expository” writing techniques. A preparation program can be really helpful especially because you will get to meet people who are in the same boat. Preparation center staff can also provide you helpful pointers on admission essays etc.

Schools: It is foolhardy to limit your choices to Harvard or MIT or two other top universities that you may have heard of in India. There are a lot of top-tier universities in the US including Princeton, Stanford, Dartmouth, Yale, UC Berkeley, Cornell, Georgetown etc. It is imperative that you apply to at least 8 -10 universities. There may also be an argument for applying to mid-ranked private schools like Boston University or NYU for typically they have the dollars to fund top international students. One type of university you don’t want to apply to is – large state universities that never fund international students at undergraduate level and typically won’t do much for your career prospects.

Funding: A lot of top universities engage in what is called “need-blind admission”. Chances are that once you are admitted into Harvard or Yale and don’t have the money to pay for their tuition, they will pony up the rest. On the other hand, chances are that your family will still need to contribute a good 10-15 grand a year. It is also a mistake to imagine that all the “aid” from universities will be in the form of grants, a majority of the aid is in the form of subsidized loans.

Application: The art of getting into a US university is self-aggrandizement and careful positioning. It is expected that your application will include records of volunteer activity, membership to various clubs and other “leadership” experience. The other important thing in application is how you place yourself academically – here’s what I mean – say, if you are great in Chemistry – give a SAT II exam for Chemistry and get a 750 plus score on it and then write how much you want to get a Chemistry degree in your “Statement of Purpose”. Given the way universities in US work, one can change fields on the first day of the school so you can still do engineering or English literature.

Remaking Blog Powered Webzines

5 Nov

“Eight percent of internet users, or about 12 million American adults, keep a blog. Thirty-nine percent of internet users, or about 57 million American adults, read blogs,” according to a study (pdf) conducted by Pew Internet & American Life Project.
The astounding number of people who maintain blogs, nearly all of whom have joined the bandwagon in the past couple of years, has been driven by the fact that blogs have finally delivered the promise of Internet – they have given an average user the ability to self-publish. Of course, the self-publishing revolution has not been limited to blogs but extends to places like myspace.com, flickr.com, and youtube.com- that have lowered the bar to “publish” content to the world.

From blogs to better content

The popularity of blogs has led to the creation of enormous amount of content. This, in turn, has spawned a home industry devoted to finding ways to sift through the content that has led to the evolution of things like tagging, “digging”, RSS, blog aggregators, and edited multiple contributor driven sites like huffingtonpost.com and blogcritics.org. Among all the above innovations, it is the last innovation I am particularly excited about for it has the capability of creating robust well written independent online magazines. For these sites to be able to compete with the ‘establishment magazines’ like Newsweek, they need to rethink their business and creative plan. Most importantly, they need to focus on the following issues –

  1. Redesign and repackage. For sites like blogcritics.org to move to the next level, they need to pay more attention to web design and packaging of their stories. To accomplish this, they may want to assign “producers” for the home page and beyond. “Producers” would be in charge of creating a layout for the home page, choosing the news stories and the multimedia elements displayed there. By assigning more resources on design and slotting multimedia elements, the sites can add to the user experience.

    There are twin problems with implementing this feature – labor and coming up with graphics. Blogcritics.org portrays itself as a destination for top writers and hence fails to attract talent in other areas critical to developing an online news business including web and multimedia design and development.

    Blogcritics.org and other sites similar to it should try to reach out to other segments of professionals (like graphic designers, photo editors) needed to produce a quality magazine. They may also want to invest programming resources in creating templates to display photo galleries and other multimedia features. In addition, these sites may want to tap into the user base of sites like Flickr and Youtube so as to expand the magazine to newer vistas like news delivered via audio or video.

  2. Most read stories/ emailed stories list and relevant stories– Provide features on the site that make the reader stay longer on the site including providing a list of most read or emailed stories. Another feature that can prove to be useful is providing a list of other relevant stories from history and even link to general information sites like Wikipedia. This adds value to the user experience by providing them access to more in-depth information on the topic.
  3. Comments – Comments are integral to sites like blogcritics.org but they have not been implemented well. Comments sections tend to be overrun by repeated entries, pointless entries, grammatical and spelling errors, spamming and running far too long. To solve this, they should create a comment rating mechanism, and think about assigning a writer to incorporate all the relevant points from comments and put it in a post. A Gmail like innovation that breaks up comments into discussions on a topic can also come in handy.
  4. Most successful webzines have been ones that have focused on a particular sector or a product like webzines devoted to Apple computers. The market for news, ideas, and reviews is much more challenging and the recent move by Gannet to use blog content will make it much harder to retain quality content producers. Hence, one must start investigating revenue sharing mechanisms for writers and producers and tie their earnings to the number of hits their articles get.
  5. Start deliberating about an ethics policy for reviewing items including guidelines on conflict of interest, usage of copyrighted content, plagiarism etc. and publish those guidelines and set up appropriate redressal mechanisms for settling the disputes.
  6. Create technical solutions for hosting other media including audio, images, and video.
  7. Come up with a clear privacy and copyright policy for writers, users who comment, and content buyers. In a related point, as the organization grows, it will become important to keep content producers and other affiliates informed of any deals the publishers negotiate.
  8. Allow a transparent and simple way for writers/editors to issue corrections to published articles.

Playing with Numbers: Coming up with Objective Ratings of a Subjective Reality

1 Nov

Statistics are only meaningful to the extent that people can identify the phenomenon being measured, come up with a sensible measurement scales to measure primary or secondary observable phenomena and then interpret the results and display them in a lucid fashion. Often times that’s too much to ask and our world is now crumbling under the load of heaps of pointless incomprehensible statistics.

Increasingly, we are trying to understand the world around us via numbers. To this end, a host of research centers and organizations now annually release rankings on issues ranging from corruption to democracy to freedom of press. These rankings are then featured on prime real estate across media and used in homilies, laudatory notes and everything in-between; to buttress indefensible claims; and to bring a sense of “objectivity” to a media-saturated with rants of crazed morons.

“Lost in translation” are subtleties of data, methods of data collection and of analysis, and the caveats. What remains, often times, are savaged numbers that peddle whatever theory that you want them to hawk.

Understanding with numbers

The field of social science has been revolutionized in the recent decades with “positivist” approaches using statistics dominating the field. The rise in importance of “numbers” in research is not incidental for numbers provide powerful new ways, particularly statistics, to analyze concepts. Today numbers are used to understand everything from democracy to emotions. But how do we go about measuring things and assigning number to thing which we haven’t yet even been able to define, much less explain?

Let me narrow my focus to creation, interpretation and usage of rankings to substantiate the problems with using statistics.

More Specifically, Rankings

Reporters Sans Frontiers (Reporters without Borders and henceforth called RSF) came out with its annual “Worldwide Press Freedom Rankings”. The latest rankings place USA at 53, along with Botswana and Tonga, India at 105 while Jamaica and Liberia are ranked 26 and 83 respectively. The top-ranked South Asian country in the rankings is Bhutan at 98. Intuitively, the rankings don’t make any sense and a little digging into RSF’s methodology for compiling these rankings explains why.

Media’s fascination with rankings

The rankings received wide attention and made it to the front pages of countless newspapers. There is a reason why rankings are the choice nourishment of media starved of any “real information”. Numbers capture, or so is thought, a piece of “objective” information about the “reality”. Their usage is buoyed by the fact that rankings are seductively simple and easy to interpret. Everyone seems to intuitively know the difference between first and second. All that needs to be done is present the fluff, the requisite shock and horror and the article is written.

On to the problems with rankings or the “rank smell”

How can you measure objectively when you need a subjective criterion to come up with a scale?

This is something I raise earlier when I talk about how we can understand concepts like democracy or say emotions using numbers. Researchers do it by assigning number or related phenomenon – in the case of emotions it may be checking the heart rate or doing a brain scan or counting the number of times you use certain words, while in the case of democracy it can be how frequently the elites change, or how many people vote in the elections. But still numerous problems remain especially when we try to order these relatively hazily defined concepts. Say for example the elite turnover in US Congress has of late been fairly close to 2% and that doesn’t seem fairly democratic to me and how does it compare with somewhere like India, where elite turnover may be higher but where members of one family have held key positions in India politics since inception.

Relativity
To rank something means to determine the relative position of something. Rankings NEVER tell one about absolute position of something unless of course they are an incidental result of a score on a shared scale. For instance – RSF’s ranking of USA at 53 in the worldwide press freedom rankings doesn’t tell one whether USA’s press enjoys freedom over say a particular bare threshold below which a functioning press can’t be legitimately said to exist. A lot of people have misinterpreted India’s slide from 80, in 2002, to 105. They believe that it is a slide in absolute terms but the rankings only tell us of a slide in relative terms. There may be an argument to made that India is doing better than it is doing in 2002 in absolute terms but not in relative terms to say other countries. In other words, the press freedom in India may have improved since 2002 but as compared to other countries, India’s press is less free today.

The scale of things

To rank something, one has to use a common scale. Generally a scale, especially one measuring a complex concept like democracy, would be a composite scale of a variety of variables. One now needs to think of a couple of things. How does one weight the variables in the scale between time periods and between countries? For example how do you account for higher usage rates of media in one country (and possibly associated higher level of censorship) to say a country with low media usage and possibly lower total censorship? One may also argue that the media penetration is lower by deliberate action (as in limitation for foreign content owners to broadcast) or other factors (poverty). One must also tackle the problem of assigning “weight” to each facet.

Methodology

RSF ranking are based on a non-representative survey of pre-chosen experts. Hence it is more of a poorly conducted opinion poll rather than a scientific survey. Statistics gets its power of generalizability from the concept of randomization. RSF methodology is more akin to conducting a poll of television pundits on who will win the elections and I am fairly sure that the results would be more often wrong than right.

Secondly, questionnaire includes questions about topics like Internet censorship. No explicit mechanism has been detailed where we know that these scores are weighted based on say Internet penetration in each country. If no cases of Internet censorship was reported in Ghana, and it consequently gets a higher ranking as compared to a country Y whose press is freer but did report one case of Internet censorship – it implies the system is flawed. Let me give you another example. India has the largest number of newspapers in the world and there is a good chance that the total number of journalists harassed may well exceed that of Eritrea. It doesn’t automatically flow that Eritrean press is freer. One may need to account for not only the number of journalists (for more journalists per capita may mean a freer press) but also crime against journalists per capita. In the same vein we may need to account for countries which in general have a high crime rate and where journalists by pure chance, rather than say a government witch hunt, may have a higher chance of dying.

One also need to account for the fact that statistics on these crimes are hard to come by especially in poor countries with barebones media and there is a good chance that they are under-reported there.

On the positive side
Rankings do give one some estimate about the relative freedom of a country. Proximity to Saudi Arabia in the ranking does give us an idea about the relative media freedom.

A lot of the criticism lobbed against India’s low placement in the RSF rankings has been prompted by people’s perception of India as a functioning democracy with a relatively free press. What goes unmentioned are episodes like Tehelka and the one faced by Rajdeep Sardesai of recently. India’s press, especially in small towns, is constantly under pressure from the local politicians who monitor aggressively.

What can RSF do?
I would like to see a more detailed report on each country especially marking areas where India is lagging behind. Release more data. Aside from protecting sources, there should be no concerns regarding release of more data. Release it to the world so policymakers and citizens can better understand where improvements need be made.

Release a composite score index that is comparable across time rather than countries. There are far too many problems comparing countries. Controlling for major variables like economic growth etc., we can get a fairly good estimate of how things changed in the course of a set of years.

Conclusion

Whenever we do use numbers to understand concepts, we sacrifice something in what we understand or our conceptual understanding. Some numbers like demographics are relatively non-debatable. Even there debates have arisen in defining who are say Caucasians etc? More debatable are how numbers are used in say the realm of content analysis. What does it mean when a person says a particular word in a sentence? Does it mean that somebody who uses the word “evil” twice in describing Bush hates him twice as much as the person who only uses it once? The understanding and “counting” of words has largely been limited to simple linear additions. We haven’t yet tried understanding strength of words as an equation of countless variables or more importantly learned how to work with that much data so we use shortcuts in our understanding.

Numbers can give one a sense of false objectivity. The ways numbers are trimmed and chopped to support a particular point of view leave them meaningless, yet powerful.

The problems that I describe above are twin fold – errors in coming up with rankings and errors in reporting the rankings. In all, we need to be careful about the numbers we see and use. It doesn’t mean that we need to distrust all the statistics that we see and burrow our nose but we can do well by being careful and honest.

Closing Thought

According to UNECA, Ethiopia “counted 75 000 computers in 2001 and 367 000 television sets in 2000. Only 2.8 % of the total number of households in the country had access to television and approximately 18.4 % of people had a radio station in 1999 and 2000.” These numbers do inform. They talk about poverty. For the West, obsessed with issues of liberty and running from its own increasingly authoritarian regimes, press freedom is “the” issue. In the hustle, they miss some of the more important numbers coming from other countries that tell different stories.

Debunking Nuclear Peace, Deterrence, and Associated Posits

23 Oct

Social scientists and casual analysts have for long understood the importance of nuclear weapons as a direct correlate to their destructive power. Given that we live in a world where some of the lowest technology weapons take the most number of lives and are the most effective in waging war, and where “low-intensity war” is the new buzz word, the exaggerated importance of nuclear weapons and the consequent paranoia of nuclear-armed countries rife in literature seems utterly baseless.

I posit that possession of nuclear weapons imbue no special properties to a nation and no special protection against attack and doesn’t protect it from retribution if it is found to have erred. Superiority in conventional and not-so-conventional weapons, including Phosphorus and Depleted Uranium bombs, remains the primary criterion in military supremacy and ability to initiate action and respond to aggravation.

The enormous destructive power of nuclear weapons and the stigma associated with their usage has proven to be their undoing in the “real world” as opposed to the “realist world”. A slew of “realists” have argued that nuclear weapons guarantee peace between states. Aside from the “hot” cold-war era that led to the deaths of millions, the 1999 Kargil War between two nuclear-tipped nations, India and Pakistan, provides an easy rebuttal to the argument.

Others have posited that possession of Nuclear weapons by a regime limits the options of other countries in dealing it. “Chaste” in his article presents the 1999 Kargil invasion by Pakistan as an example where Pakistan’s nuclear capability limited India’s options in the field. The scenario that he mentions is not particularly true for India did respond back with a fairly robust counter-attack, successfully repulsing Pakistan’s attack and only held back at the personal assurances of Clinton. Even if we discount this particular example, concerns remain as to whether states will genuinely have fewer options in dealing with a nuclear-tipped rogue state. I believe that the answer is no and will try to corroborate my point my examining two possible scenarios– a rogue state conducts a terrorist attack against a much more powerful nation, and an event where it conducts a terrorist attack against say an equally or less powerful nation.

If a rogue state were to sponsor a terrorist attack against say the US, the US will respond militarily much in the same way as it has done in the past. If the rogue state were to choose a nuclear-tipped response at that juncture, it would be annihilated fairly quickly given the overwhelming nuclear superiority of the US. One may reasonably argue from the above that unless a regime is self-destructive, and then there would be repercussions even in a non-nuclear scenario, it would not use any nuclear weapons. And if the regime doesn’t choose to use nuclear weapons then we can take nuclear weapons out of the equation and see the conflagration as a “conventional” war.

Let’s consider now if a “rogue state” were to conduct a terrorist attack against an equally or less powerful nation. This is akin to the example of Pakistan sponsoring terrorist attacks against India. The choices that India has are already limited because, though India has conventional superiority against Pakistan, a conflagration with Pakistan will inevitably cost a lot, cause a fair amount of lives and create the threat of communal discord. If Pakistan were to use a nuclear weapon against India, as a response to a conventional attack by India, it would be stigmatized at the world stage and would swiftly result in a host of powers joining hands with India to at least affect a regime change. Here again, given the stigma of using nuclear weapons and given the repercussions of using one, the chances that Pakistani regime will ever use nuclear weapons against India are very limited. Even if India were to pro-actively launch strikes against “terrorist hideouts” in “Azad Kashmir”, there would be little that Pakistan could do to affect it except reply back with conventional firepower or via sponsorship of more terrorism.

Hence, one can safely assume that for most purposes, the possession of nuclear weapons is immaterial. This framework leverages the universal stigma against using nuclear weapons and hence will hold only until the stigma continues to be powerful and the will of the international community to be punish the errant strong.

Strategic perspectives on dealing with a nuclear North Korea and Iran

22 Oct

The following commentary is Chaste and can be seen as a follow-up to my article on the topic.

“I agree with most of your points. And I do understand the strategic value of combating naivete with naivete. After all, there is no strategic value in calling your opponent out on his underlying reasoning. He will deny the underlying motive and simply brand you a conspiracy theorist. On the other hand, one could argue that your opponent adopts naivete self-consciously is simply a front, and as a delaying tactic. Once a particular naive position is exposed, he will adopt another slightly less naive one and thus prolong his contention endlessly. For this, it may be useful to clearly address all underlying reasons up front. As mentioned, I am unable to evaluate the relative strategic merits of the two positions.

So, with that caveat clearly stated, here is what I believe to be the crux of the issue. I do not think that anyone seriously believes that the leaders of DPR Korea or of Iran will use nuclear weapons against another country. What the west objects to, is precisely the acquisition of deterrents by these target regimes. Such deterrents could embolden these target regimes to engage in non-nuclear anti-western activities. Recall for example that Pakistan started openly funding and training groups dedicated to fomenting violence in Indian Kashmir around the same time that it is thought to have acquired nuclear capability. This surely was no coincidence. Such Pakistani activity in the past was followed by Indian invasions. But with a nuclear Pakistan, India has been forced to accept the deaths of thousands of its security forces, an actual invasion in Kargil, and the deaths and displacement of tens of thousands of Kashmiri civilians with little more than a lot of sound and fury. Thus, what the west worries about is not that Iran may bomb Israel, but that it might be emboldened to be a more active supporter of groups like Hezbollah or Hamas.

What the west worries about is the removal of the threat of overwhelming force as a factor in their dealing with target nations like Iran or DPR Korea, and the possibility of having to rely primarily on diplomacy. Successful diplomatic outcomes generally require either diplomatic pressure which can deliver total victory in a zero-sum game, or normal diplomacy which delivers a compromise settlement. Diplomatic pressure requires the building of a multi-national near consensus, which in turn can dramatically alter the stakes consequent on the different choices made by the target nation.

The west faces problems in exerting diplomatic pressure on both counts. The first problem is the building up of a multi-national near consensus. No one outside the area cares much about DPR Korea (this may actually make a consensus more possible), and a majority of nations oppose the western agenda in the middle-east. The second problem lies in the difficulty of dramatically altering the stakes for the target nations. This will be inherently difficult in the case of an isolationist country like DPR Korea. In the case of the broader middle-east, this is difficult because of the middle east’s reserves of precious oil.

The West’s best shot with DPR Korea is that of an aggressive investment in the “sunshine” policy. This will make DPR Korea less isolationist, and allow multi-national players to dramatically alter the stakes consequent on its different choices. There is no appetite for such a policy in large part because DPR Korea does not appear to be particularly interested in anything beyond self-preservation. Therefore, the west can substantively ignore DPR Korea’s nuclear deterrent, beyond its opportunities for political posturing.

Iran is a different case since it does have interests beyond mere self-preservation: subversion of Israeli policy at least concerning Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and its aspirations to being a regional power in an oil-rich region. With the difficulty in forging a multi-national consensus against Iran on these issues and the difficulty of dramatically altering the stakes for an oil-rich nation, the west will have no choice but to use normal diplomacy, which can only deliver a compromise settlement. But the west has no interest in compromising either on Israeli policies or in arriving at an agreement that respects Iran’s aspirations to be a regional power. Because of the West’s refusal of any diplomatic compromises and the difficulty of building up diplomatic pressure, the west is very keen on retaining overwhelming force as a factor in its dealings with Iran. As I have mentioned before, the last option will be neutralized if Iran acquires a nuclear deterrent.”

Why North Korea wants nukes? and How to live in a nuclear world?

21 Oct

The testing of a nuclear device by North Korea has drawn the ire of US, South Korea, and Japan, among others. Countless penny-a-quote pundits have come forth with their opinions as to why North Korea developed nuclear weapons, with most “analysis” limited to understanding North Korea’s development of nukes as an act of villainy by the autocratic “thug” ruling the “hermetic” kingdom. That the puerile minds of non-analysts bloated on clichéd Hollywood fare will offer such trash is expected but the relative lack of other explanations is stunning.

Why does North Korea want nuclear weapons? I argue that North Korea wants nuclear weapons for the same reason India and Pakistan wanted them, and that is as a deterrent against hostile action from other states. Walter Pincus, of The Washington Post, traces North Korea’s initial interest in nuclear weapons to the threats made by US presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower to use nuclear weapons against North Korea during the Korean War.

"In 1950, when a reporter asked Truman whether he would use atomic bombs at a time when the war was going badly, the president said, " That includes every weapon we have."

Three years later, Eisenhower made a veiled threat, saying he would "remove all restraints in our use of weapons" if the North Korean government did not negotiate in good faith an ending to that bloody war.

In 1957, the United States placed nuclear-tipped Matador missiles in South Korea, to be followed in later years, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, by nuclear artillery, most of which was placed within miles of the demilitarized zone." N. Korean Nuclear Conflict Has Deep Roots (N. Korean Nuclear Conflict Has Deep Roots (WP) )

Aside from the initial nuclear threats, today over forty thousand American troops man the Korean peninsula and another thirty thousand stay on a base in Japan. Stack on to this the fact that Japan is widely acknowledged to have the capability to produce nuclear weapons at a short notice, and we can begin to understand North Korea’s motivations for developing nuclear weapons as a response to its threat perception.

One may argue that understanding the motivations behind North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear capability does not fundamentally change anything for either U.S.; South Korea or Japan, all of whom still see a nuclear-tipped North Korea as a threat. I believe differently – understanding North Korea’s actions in terms of its threat perception can inform our policy in multiple ways. Firstly, if you look at North Korea’s actions as a primarily defensive measure then one may argue that North Korea will probably only use nuclear weapons if attacked. This posit is most likely to hold true because U.S. owns an arsenal of over 10,000 nukes and any usage of nuclear weapons by North Korea will evoke a swift, debilitating response.

Secondly, the lessons learned should inform US diplomacy in the future – especially towards Iran, Cuba, and Iran. Threats from the US will only hasten these countries attempts to develop a nuclear arsenal.

Lastly, we all need to adjust to the idea of a nuclear-capable world. Nuclear weapons, as recent past has shown, are not particularly hard to develop or acquire – this is I say given three third-world countries, namely Pakistan, India, and North Korea, have been able to develop them. Aside from this, a slew of countries, including Israel and Japan already have nuclear weapons or can easily make them. In short, nuclear weapons technology will continue to proliferate, and there is very little we can do to stop this process.

This brings us to question of the repercussions of such a world. The fact remains that the probability that anyone will use a nuclear weapon is remote given that it will bring universal international castigation and a swift response from other powers. Secondly, given the rapid rise in ability of non-nuclear weapons like say MOAB or cluster bombs to afflict harm and destruction, and the comparatively less vocal condemnation on their use will bias countries towards using these “conventional” weapons. Thirdly, possession of nuclear weapons doesn’t equate to the capacity of reliably delivering them and even if one possesses the technology for delivery, the threat of universal condemnation and a swift response limits the probability of their use to nearly zero.

There are a few legitimate concerns about a nuclear-tipped world, and they have been dealt with below. Possession of nuclear weapons by a nation does limit U.S. choices against that nation, but the concern is largely theoretical for any use of nuclear weapons will result in a very strong response from the US. The second concern is about the ability of nuclear weapons to annihilate civilization. This concern stems from our understanding of the severity of the nuclear threat from cold war days when a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union could have produced complete annihilation.

The scenario today is a bit different, and war between the U.S. and Russia, the only other power capable of delivering a similar nuclear response, is remote. Of course, conditions can change, but it still seems unlikely that we will reach such a scenario. Another facet that has garnered a lot of attention is the threat of terrorists using dirty nuclear bombs. There are two parts to the issue – one is state-sponsored terrorism which will be dealt in much the same way as response to conventional attack, and the second is threat of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons from stockpiles of nations. This second threat must be dealt with the US trying to provide infrastructure and monetary assistance to countries to help them secure their stockpiles of nuclear material.

In all, we can take two things away from this discussion – the threat emanating from nuclear proliferation is greatly exaggerated, and that clichéd panic button responses of putting blanket sanctions against nations are unlikely to work.