Jun
19

How to Rig an Election

"The greatest political paradox of our time is this: there are more elections than ever before, and yet the world is becoming less democratic" (p. 1). This paradox is explained in How to Rig an Election (2018) by Cheeseman and Klaas (published by Yale). In sum: "How is it possible that the flourishing of elections has coincided with a decade of democratic decline? The answer is that dictators, despots and counterfeit democrats have figured out how to rig elections and get away with it." (p. 3) The book is an excellent read for undergraduate students, it is clear and accessible. The chapters cover gerrymandering (Ch 1), vote buying (Ch 2), repression (Ch 3), hacking the election (Ch 4), stuffing the ballot box (Ch 5), playing the international community (Ch 6). Each chapter provides a range of examples of each issue, from a set of countries the authors have more experience with (which are global in nature). The focus of the book is on contexts where democracy does not have deep roots (they say the emphasis of cases is more on how to "strengthen or build democracy, rather than rescue or defend it").

The chapter on hacking the election is fascinating in that it sheds light on new directions of rigging, particularly the use of technology. The authors state that there is "a clear risk that we are heading towards a future, previously imagined only in science fiction movies, in which our actions and beliefs are recorded and manipulated at a level of detail that was hitherto unthinkable. And whether we like it or not, such methods are being increasingly deployed in an ever-larger number of elections, with important consequences. When elections are decided by small margins, big data can be decisive." (p. 148)

Conclusion? "In the twenty-first century, elections will be rigged with strategies both old and new, because autocrats have learnt a simple but sad truth: it is easier to stay in power by rigging elections than by not holding them at all. For that reason, we must learn an even more uncomfortable truth: right now, those who rig elections are outfoxing not only their own people but also the international community. Unless we learn how to identify these strategies and address them, then election quality will continue to decline. Over time, this is likely to call the basic legitimacy of democracy into question, as people grow frustrated with elections that fail to usher in change." (p. 239) 

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Jun
14

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates

Gates' How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need (2021) is well written. The book seems to aim for an audience that has had minimal engagement with climate change conversations. The first chapter sets the scene for the author's positionality, followed by a few chapters on climate science 101. For those moderately versed in the climate conversation, these might be skimmed. Chapters 4 to 9 present the crux of the subtitle, available solutions and needed breakthroughs. Unsurprisingly, the book takes a technological focus on mitigation, and admittedly it offers little on politics, economics, values or societal transformation.

This book was not on my reading list, but I picked it up after a guest lecturer made mention of it positively. I was most interested in the proposals (Chapters 4-9). In Ch 4 we get nuclear, offshore wind, hydrogen, carbon capture, amongst a few others. The chapter raises some interesting points that infrequently come up in transition conversations, such as all the infrastructure requirements - from massive transmission systems to housing electrical services (we tend to focus on supply infrastructure and use, not distribution). Gates does not much engage with all the metals required for the proposals to occur. Ch 5 reiterates the point as an enabler for changing how we produce products and raises the challenge of cement as a GHG producer with no simple replacement. Ch 6 grapples with agriculture and land use, calling for changing foods (artificial and lab meat) and reducing food waste; it points to the challenges of fertilizer and deforestation. Ch 7 covers transportation and calls for electrofuels, advanced biofuels and electrification all around, but does not really contest how the system works nor where all those metals are to be sourced (nor the injustices in the extractives sector). Ch 8 deals with heating and cooling; proposals are clean electricity and efficiency. Ch 9 delves into adaptation, which includes a pitch for CGIAR and agricultural research, with an emphasis on tech solutions; calls for climate smart city planning, restoring ecosystems, desalination, climate financing and a cautious bit on geoengineering. Ch 10 touches on "smart energy policies"; some recap from previous chapters, a call for research, and a wide range of brief points. Ch 11 has "the plan": research (more, high risk/high reward, prioritized); market shifts (governments lead via incentives, regulation / standards, price carbon). Ch 12 concludes with what "we" do, citizens, which include advocacy and personal adjustments.

Given that Gates has been involved in some experimental blue skies work, one surprise is how inside-the-box much of this book is. Keep driving (electric), keep flying (advanced biofuels), keep your diet (lab grown meat), make minor adjustments (reduce food waste, energy efficient heating/cooling); whether it was intended or not, the message is not all that demanding nor urgent. There is no talk of serious redistribution (beyond the charity model). There is no talk of climate justice. Quite comfortable. Even so, if Gates is keen on this messaging spreading, why not make the book open access? It does not appear that Gates is in need of book sales revenue, why not make it accessible to more people? That would align with the Gates Foundation position on open research... 

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Jun
10

Another Now

What would the world look like is the 2008 financial crisis inspired a radical transformation of society as we know it (rather than bailing out the banks to continue the status quo)? Yanis Varoufakis has ventured some answers in his Another Now (2020). The book is fictional, which the author uses to present a range of viewpoints and perspectives. In this regard, the characters provide a unique opportunity to have a discussion. For those interested in alternatives, this will be of interest. I won't spoil the story, but as a preview, the author writes:

"Costa's long-standing assessment of the crash of 2008 was that it had been too good a crisis to waste, and yet waste it we did. It could have been used to transform society radically. Instead, we not only rebuilt the world as it had been before but, by bailing out the banks and making the working people pay off the debt, we had doubled down on it, instituting a global regime in which, effectively, political and economic power had been handed over wholesale to the most bankrupt of bankers. Costa had always believed that an alternative had been available to us. A road we never took. Now, it seemed, he had Kosti's dispatches to prove it." (p. 39) 

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Jun
04

The Data Detective

Harford has written a pile of books on economics and ran a show decoding the world of statistics. I picked up The Data Detective: Ten Easy Rules to Make Sense of Statistics (2021) to see if it might be useful for undergraduates in the social sciences. Harford is a good storyteller, hence the pile of books, but the ten commandments and the golden role (be curious) are quite vague (essentially: avoid bias, use different data types, put data in context, know the source, question big data and algorithms, be open to change your mind). Useful, but not specific. At times the author speaks to fellow data nerds, however the majority of the content is introductory (too generic for university students). Well suited for a mass market book.

The book is in response to the "statistics lie" narrative, but a cautionary tale of how to engage them carefully and cautiously. The pitch: "I want to convince you that statistics can be used to illuminate reality with clarity and honesty. To do that, I need to show you that you can use statistical reasoning for yourself, sizing up the claims that surround you in the media, on social media, and in everyday conversation. I want to help you evaluate statistics from scratch, and just as important, to figure out where to find help that you can trust." (p. 9)

A few notes:

"The counterintuitive result is that presenting people with a detailed and balanced account of both sides of the argument may actually push people away from the center rather than pull them in. If we already have strong opinions, then we'll seize upon welcome evidence, but we'll find opposing data or arguments irritating. This biased assimilation of new evidence means that the more we know, the more partisan we're able to be on a fraught issue." (p. 36)

"A randomized controlled trial (RCT) is often described as the gold standard for medical evidence. In an RCT, some people receive the treatment being tested while others, chosen at random, are given either a placebo or the best known treatment. An RCT is indeed the fairest one-shot test of a new medical treatment, but if RCTs are subject to publication bias, we won't see the full picture of all the tests that have been done, and our conclusions are likely to be badly skewed." (p. 125-6)

"Modern data analytics can produce some miraculous results, but big data is often less trustworthy than small data. Small data can typically be scrutinized; big data tends to be locked away in the vaults of Silicon Valley. The simple statistical tools used to analyze small datasets are usually easy to check; pattern-recognizing algorithms can all too easily by mysterious and commercially sensitive black boxes." (p. 183).

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