March 21st, 2012

[BRIEF NOTE] "This is how the 41st general election should’ve turned out"

Facebook's Antonia linked to an eyeopening post at by Brian-Michel LaRue analyzing the possible consequences of robocalling in the last election. The analysis draws from the paper "Does misinformation demobilize the electorate? Measuring the impact of alleged “robocalls” in the 2011 Canadian election" (PDF format). The paper's abstract?

The paper presents evidence on the effect of voter demobilization in the context of the Canadian 2011 federal election. Voters in 27 ridings (as of February 26, 2012) allegedly received automated phone calls (‘robocalls’) that either contained misleading information about the location of their polling station, or were harassing in nature, claiming to originate from a particular candidate in the contest for local Member of Parliament. I use withinriding variation in turnout and vote–share for each party to study how turnout changed from the 2008 to the 2011 election as a function of the predominant party affiliation of voters at a particular polling station. I show that those polling stations with predominantly nonconservative voters experienced a decline in voter turnout from 2008 to 2011, and that this effect was larger in ridings that were allegedly targeted by the fraudulent phone calls. The results thus indicate a statistically significant effect of the alleged demobilization efforts: in those ridings where allegations of robocalls emerged, turnout was an estimated 3 percentage points lower on average. This reduction in turnout translates into roughly 2,500 eligible
(registered) voters that did not go to the polls. The 95%-confidence interval gives a lower bound estimate of 1,000 fewer votes cast in robocall ridings, which is still a sizable effect.

The paper's conclusion?

In 27 of the 308 ridings, voters allegedly received automated phone calls containing false information on the location of their election site, or harassing them in the name of one of the contestants. The results suggest that, on average, voter turnout in those ridings affected by the demobilization efforts is significantly lower than in the ridings where no automated phone calls have been reported. The point estimate gives 3 percentage points. As such, the effect is considerably smaller than the 50 percent reduction in turnout that Barton (2011) finds. But since nothing is yet known about the total numbers of voters that actually have received a phone call, if any, those numbers
are not comparable. Besides, Barton’s results are based on a framed-field experiment with little consequence of failing to go to the polls and it may be difficult to draw inferences regarding actual elections. In either case, Barton also reports that pre-election warnings against possible fraudulent messages inoculates voters against misinformation effects, and generally restores voter turnout. If his findings are taken at face value, the outlook is positive: having been warned, the Canadian electorate should now be guarded against any future attempts at demobilization.

LaRue's analysis based on the above paper?

The NDP would still be the Official Opposition, thanks in large part to its support in Québec, the almost total collapse in support for the Bloc Québécois, and lingering indifference towards the Liberals after Adscam.

Factoring in all of the reported incidences of robocalling and its effects at the individual poll level, combined with other voting irregularities in certain ridings, it is clear that the Liberal Party was the biggest victim, losing 14 seats it shouldn’t have. Close behind was the New Democratic Party, losing 4 seats it rightly should’ve won. (There was no discernible effect on the fortunes of the Bloc Québécois or Green Party.) The 18 seats the Conservative Party shouldn’t have won gave them the majority government they so desperately sought.

Go, read the paper and LaRue's extrapolation. If both are correct, something terrible happened last May.

[URBAN NOTE] On Toronto's early spring being more like early summer

Toronto's weather today--21 degrees Celsius and shining--is record-breaking.

Environment Canada is predicting a high of 23 C at Pearson International Airport's weather station and similar temperatures for the rest of the region.

The temperature will be a bit cooler closer to Lake Ontario, with the high expected to be more like 16 C, Environment Canada said.

Record high temperatures have already been set at 23 weather stations in Ontario, including Cobourg, Collingwood, Goderich, Sudbury, Hamilton Munro Airport, Toronto Buttonville and Wiarton, said CP24 meteorologist Bill Coulter.

On Wednesday night, the temperature will dip to a low of 13 C, but it is expected to soar to 26 C on Thursday, when more records will likely be shattered.

A rare March heat wave is giving Torontonians a break from usual March weather – normal highs of 6 C and lows of -3 C – and setting records almost daily with summer-like temperatures.

Speaking about a heat wave the way CP24 just did is misleading, inasmuch as the entire winter has been absurdly warm. This is uncharted territory for Torontonians, with wholesale changes to the entire year's environment upcoming. Insect ecologies, for instance, will be radically changed, some species doing better thanks to the early warming and others worse.

What will become of the Toronto climate, this year and in following years? I wonder; I fear, even.

[URBAN NOTE] Two Toronto Star articles about mass transit options

Tess Kalinowski, the paper's transportation journalist, examines the consequences of the 512 St. Clair streetcar, which runs along St. Clair Avenue, on its neighbourhood. Running on a recently built dedicated right that was years in construction, the 512 St. Clair streetcar has been used by opponents of light rail as a paradigm of what will happen to Scarborough if subways aren't built: neighbourhoods and streets will be disrupted, with terrible economic and other consequences, for years on end. Kalinowski's conclusion seems to be that--even if you allow for an identity between streetcars and light rail--the lessons from St. Clair is that the dedicated streetcar right-of-way didn't leave any lasting damage.

Shrouded in a dusty cloud of controversy from the outset, the St. Clair streetcar’s dedicated lane still draws mixed reviews nearly two years after its completion.

But if the St. Clair streetcar is the disaster being touted by Mayor Rob Ford, there are few current signs of it on the street, or in the statistics.

Condo hoardings and stylish restaurants are elbowing out empty storefronts, suggesting the streetcar right-of-way may have been a rite of passage for St. Clair.

If city council votes as expected Wednesday, in favour of light rail on Sheppard Ave. E., Scarborough will get a version of transit that is superior even to St. Clair, which is significantly improved because it now runs on its own lane, says TTC Service Planning manager Mitch Stambler.

“Industry best-practice LRT, as per Sheppard or Finch, has stops further apart so the light-rail vehicles can really get going. The speed and reliability will be dramatically faster and reliable,” he said.

The 512 streetcar “is better but it’s not as excellent as it could be,” Stambler acknowledges. The TTC still has route-management work to do in terms of preventing short-turns and bunching on St. Clair.

TTC officials have admitted project management on the St. Clair right of way was a painful lesson in how not to build transit. But there have been gains. Round-trip times are down 14 per cent on average.

A midday Saturday trip has been reduced to 56 minutes from 70. Ridership of 32,400 people daily on the 512 streetcar is up 17 per cent in the morning rush — 13 per cent overall since pre-construction days in 2005, Stambler says.

Still, Sutton Group realtor Josie Stern is on the fence about how much the streetcar right-of-way has contributed to higher property values in the area, where housing prices have risen 35 to 40 per cent — “a bit more than the city as a whole.”

Royson James seems to be of two minds. James does begin his article by noting that the dream of extending subways through Scarborough is flawed by the established decades-old trend of low job growth in suburban Toronto despite rapid population growth. Without this job growth, the likelihood of these lines being profitable is minimal. Opting for light rail systems--especially where the funding is already there--would make sense. But James instead ends his article by calling for new funding systems--like the proposed levy on commercial parking spots--to pay for a Scarborough subway line instead.

[Scarborough resident Novina] Wong refuses to settle. And, unlike the mayor who spouts subways but won’t pay for them, she says council should explore all funding tools.

“Of course money matters. And no one wants to pay more taxes, levies or fees. But at the same time we know there is no such thing as a free ride. If the traditional funding model does not work, council must demonstrate its willingness to look at new ways of funding. And that includes any potential public/private partnerships or other sources of revenues.

“Building a subway is an extraordinary opportunity and calls for extraordinary measures. Honking our cars alone will not cut it.”

Wise words and some good advice for Ford, who she says has captured Scarborough’s heart by standing up for the former city.

“On March 21 we ask for the collective wisdom of council . . . And Mr. Mayor, with due respect, we ask you to extend an olive branch and seek a solution with your colleagues that all sides can live with.”

[LINK] "Chinese Coup Rumors Run Wild Online, Then Disappear"

I saw a commenter on Facebook suggest that there was a coup in China not an hour ago. That, so far as I can tell now, is false. Bloomberg News' Adam Minter explains what happened. It turns out that the thorough opacity of Chinese politics and the known Orwellian nature of censorship on microblogging services created the perfect environment for the rapid spread of wild rumours.
These are strange days for China’s netizens. On March 15, the Chinese Communist Party relieved Bo Xilai, the Chongqing Party Secretary, of his duties after his police chief allegedly attempted to seek asylum in the United States. It was arguably the biggest political story to hit China in two decades, and Chinese microbloggers embraced it with gusto. In the hours following the concise, two-sentence official statement the state media carried about the firing, citizens posted millions of tweets to Sina Weibo, China's most popular microblog, speculating about the causes and circumstances of Bo’s abrupt fall. The Weibo frenzy lasted for roughly a day, but then, with ruthless efficiency, the censors that troll Chinese microblogs -- whether they represent the party or the controversy-averse microblog owners -- quickly vacuumed up most of those tweets, abolishing them from the site. Searches, too, for “Bo Xilai” on Weibo produced no results. The Chinese public knows nothing about what is happening between the factions who supported Bo, and those who opposed him. Amidst all this opacity, politically-interested netizens have fallen into a seemingly paranoid mood. This is especially the case for those who have something to gain or lose from the rise and fall of political leaders, such as businessmen whose success is highly dependent upon good relations with local governments. One of China’s best-known real-estate developers, Pan Shiyi, tweeted this on Monday night for his 9.2 million followers:
This evening Weibo was strange indeed, there were some words that could not be sent out on Weibo. I saw a line of commentary dropped several times from Weibo, but what I saw made my scalp tingle; was it gremlins? Better to turn off the computer and go to sleep.
Pan has a habit of posting cryptic tweets that regularly generate hundreds of responses. But this post landed in the midst of political scandal at the highest levels -- and it spurred rumors at the lowest levels. By Wednesday afternoon, it had been forwarded (or, retweeted) and commented on almost 3,000 times. Perhaps because of the post's ambiguity, censors have not removed it from the site. The reactions have been varied. Some netizens advised Pan to get some sleep (“early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy”); some thought he had seen a ghost. Others responded by simply writing “Bo Xilai” -- and many, many others responded simply with “Ferrari,” in reference to a mysterious weekend car wreck in Beijing involving a Ferrari and, rumors have it, somebody powerful. But the most curious interpretations of Pan's tweet came Tuesday mid-morning: Some suggested that a coup d’etat had taken place Monday night near Zhongnanhai, the Chinese Communist Party's leadership compound. This rumor spread rapidly, in various forms (and forums), online and offline. In a post that has since been deleted from Weibo (but is posted as an attachment to this article), one user wrote:
According to reports, Beijing people said that last night the 38th Army was seen on Chang’an Avenue [which runs in front of Zhongnanhai] and an accumulation of police and military vehicles were in front of the Diayoutai State Guesthouse, signaling there will be big changes soon in our government.
Several responders to Pan Shiyi’s tweet claimed they’d heard shots near Chang’an Avenue. Meanwhile, Weibo users, and The Epoch Times, a U.S.-based newspaper with connections to the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, circulated photos of military vehicles on Chang’an Avenue that were allegedly taken during the alleged coup. Later, however, netizens began circulating a link to a military website from which the photos had been lifted: It turned out that the pictures were from night rehearsals for the 2010 National Day parade. By lunchtime Tuesday though, coup rumors were flying fast and furious on Weibo. One microblogger summed up the surprise of many when he wrote: “I tried the word 'coup' and it’s not blocked.” Indeed, it wasn’t –- but "coup" was not featured on Weibo’s trending topic lists, either. (However, a general lack of transparency in regard to the trending topic list means that nobody really knows how a subject ends up on it.)
It goes without saying that this sort of thing can be destabilizing. If it's impossible to deal with rumours openly on account of the censors who'll delete all discussion, then it's almost a foregone conclusion that things can spill out of control. This is especially true if the censors don't deny something but just delete the discussions: what are they hiding?

[BRIEF NOTE] Is China about to democratize?

I thought I'd follow my previous pot about rumours of a coup in China with this one, starting with a Daniel Drezner post, "Wen, Tiananmen, and the democratization football". There, Drezner deals with speculations that premier Wen Jiabao might be interested in revisiting the official verdict on the Tiananmen Square student protests in 1989 before his tenure is up, quite possibly triggering China's democratization.

Now, a few notes of skepticism. First, we've heard this song-and-dance routine about Wen before. He's talked about political reform a lot, and every time he does it gets covered in the foreign press and squelched in the domestic Chinese press.

Second, while the CCP elite might be in agreement on not wanting to return to the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, it's quite a stretch to go from that consensus to an agreement to revisit 1989. I have every confidence that a large swatch of the CCP elite looks at Tiananmen as identical to the Cultural Revolution in terms of instability and chaos.

So this seems like yet another CCP episode of Lucy yanking away the democratic football from hopeful liberals... and yet.

[The Financial Times' Jamil Anderlini] makes two persuasive points and omits an even more persuasive argument. He correctly observes that Wen is approaching lame duck status and that his primary political impediment has been removed. So maybe he is less constrained than in the past.

The omitted argument is a bit tangential, but bear with me. It relates to this Keith Bradsher story in the New York Times about China's relaxation of foreign capital strictures[.]

Both the inward rush of capital and the capital flight by affluent Chinese are interesting. They could force the central government to start making credible commitments with respect to property rights. Only such commitments will ensure that the locally wealthy Chinese will not immediately have their capital move to the exit whenever possible. Oddly, Wen deciding to open up Tiananmen might be a way of signaling to investors that Beijing intends to be a bit kinder and gentler than it's been over the past decade.

The international diversification of China's wealthy elite has another effect. Via Erik Voeten, I see that John Freeman and Dennis Quinn have a new paper in the American Political Science Review that concludes, "financially integrated autocracies, especially those with high levels of inequality, are more likely to democratize than unequal financially closed autocracies." Why?

[M]odern portfolio theory recommends that asset holders engage in international diversification, even in a context in which governments have forsworn confiscatory tax policies or other policies unfavorable to holders of mobile assets. Exit through portfolio diversification is the rational investment strategy, not (only) a response to deleterious government policies. Therefore, autocratic elites who engage in portfolio diversification will hold diminished stakes in their home countries, creating an opening for democratization.

Freeman and Quinn might as well be talking about China right now. Soo.... maybe the "princelings" are less worried about democratization than they used to be.

Discussions about the relationship between a country's system of government and its level of development are common. A rule of thumb is that the speed of a country's economic growth is less relevant than the level of GDP per capita achieved. Broadly, the wealthier the country the most likely it is to be a democracy. Sebastian Tong noted last year that the critical threshold seems to be about $US 6000. China just breached that threshold three years ago.

Looking at 150 countries and over 60 years of history, [Russian investment bank Renaissance Capital] found that countries are likely to become more democratic as they enjoyed rising levels of income with democracy virtually ‘immortal’ in countries with a GDP per capita above $10,000.

” Only five democracies above the $6,000 income level have died. Even democracies above the $6,000 level have a 99 percent chance of sustaining their political system each year. The only exceptions were the military coups in Greece in 1967 ($9,800), Argentina in 1976 ($8,180) and Thailand in 2006 ($7,440), and the events in Venezuela in 2009 ($9,115), as well as Iran in 2004 ($8,475),” RenCap global chief economist Charles Robertson writes.

The $6,000 per capita GDP seems to be a crucial level, marking the point where a country is likely to shift to democracy. Tunisia, which early this year triggered the wave of uprisings against autocracy across the Arab world, recently crossed that threshold.

Conversely, democracy is most fragile at the lowest income levels and when incomes are shrinking. The world’s populous democracy, India, is a notable exception as its per capita income was under $800 from 1950-1967, and only exceeded $2,000 in 2003.

By this criteria, Nigeria’s democracy is safer than it has ever been. However, RenCap also notes that wealthy energy exporters tend to resist the democratization trend since their low levels of taxation give their people less incentive to demand political accountability.

These findings suggest that the best way to overthrow an autocratic regime is to trade and invest heavily in the country.

“Tourists intent on fermenting revolution should smoke cigars in Cuba, party in Belarus, dress like Indiana Jones at Petra, in Jordan, visit ‘Tatooine’ in Tunisia, and buy t-shirts in Swaziland,” Robertson writes.

And while democracy has become entrenched in major emerging economies such Brazil, Mexico and South Korea, the world’s biggest emerging economy remains far from politically free.

According to Robertson, China has just entered a most dangerous political period, with per capita GDP at $6,200 in 2009. Even assuming 9 percent annual growth in per capita GDP, the country will remain in the most dangerous $6,000-10,000 range until 2014.

“The Communist Party of China is right to fear a revolution, and history suggests it will be lucky to avoid democracy by 2017, assuming per capita GDP has reached $15,550 by then,” he adds.

[BRIEF NOTE] On the latest breakthrough in neutrino communication systems

It's a minor surprise that the Economist has become my go-to site for breakthroughs in neutrino-based communications.

The neutrino is a unique particle, an exceptionally light and electrically neutral that's most notable for traveling almost exactly at the speed of light (likely just short of the speed of light, notwithstanding debunked claims of faster-than-light travel) and for hardly interacting with normal matter at all. To be sure of intercepting the average neutrino produced by the sun in the course of its nuclear fusion, you'd need a solid barrier of lead one light-year thick. The difficulty of intercepting neutrinos makes them of interest to scientists who are interested in examining environments impervious to the electromagnetic spectrum, places like the interior of the sun (or other stars).

More recently, the durability of the neutrino has made people interested in extraterrestrial intelligences wonder if advanced civilizations might make use of neutrinos to create unstoppable signals across interstellar distances. I first came across the idea in this 2009 Centauri Dreams post speculating about Antarctic neutrino observatory, but a 2011 article from the Economist went into greater detail, suggesting that neutrino beams could be used not only as signals but as awesome tools that could manipulate the fluctuations of Cepheid variable stars into intelligible signals. An article printed this month announced that, for the first time, neutrinos have been used to communicate data. This news was expanded upon by a post at the Economist's technology blog, Babbage. The facilities of Fermilab in Chicago, including the MINERvA neutrino detector, were key.

MINERvA uses a beam of neutrinos sent from Fermilab’s accelerator, the Main Injector, to a detector roughly 1km (0.6 miles) away. The beam is created by smashing pulsed bunches of trillions of protons into a graphite target. For a week before the start of a maintenance break, however, it runs at half its typical intensity, not ideal for MINERvA’s day job, but just dandy for the communications test. (The data collected are nonetheless used for MINERvA's everyday research.)

The detector is hidden underground to ensure that the rare events observed in it are due to neutrinos and not cosmic rays, which do not penetrate rock. As a result, the experiment’s neutrinos must travel 240 metres through the Earth’s crust, precisely the sort of thing the theorists envisaged.

The message, which read "neutrino", was transcribed into a string of "0s" and "1s" using the standard code employed in digital communications. The beam was then tweaked so that a pulse created using a full bunch of protons corresponded to a "1", while one with no protons signalled a "0". The pulses were separated by 2.2 seconds and the message was repeated in cycle for about two hours.

At the receiving end, each "1" translated into an average of 0.8 neutrino events registered in the detector; a "0", naturally, translated into none. This was enough to reconstruct the message accurately.

Practical neutrino-phones are, of course, a long way off. For a start, the data-transmission rate, at a piddling 0.1 bits per second with a bit error rate of 1%, leaves a lot to be desired, though it could be improved with a more intense beam, which would anyway be required to send messages over long distances. A bigger problem is that MINERvA’s detector, at 5 metres long, 3.5 metres high and weighing 170 tonnes, is not exactly portable. And the Main Injector is many times heftier still. All the same, who said fundamental physics has no real-world applications?

The paper in question is "Demonstration of Communication using Neutrinos", available at arXiv.

That site's blog suggested one practical use for neutrino communications systems, in communicating with underwater craft like submarines. When submerged, submarines can communicate with surface facilities only through extremely low frequency (ELF) radio waves that firstly can only penetrate a hundred or so metres and secondly can only transmit around 50 bits per second. A neutrino-based communications system that transmitted at comparable speeds and could be picked up at unlimited depths anywhere on the world's oceans would be an obvious replacement for ELF radio. As the blog notes the data transmission rate for neutrino communications systems would need to be improved by several orders of magnitude, while the bulkiness of the detector systems--MINERvA masses five tons--is another issue. Still, I'm not inclined to bet against further progress in this domain.