Category Archives: Uncategorized

Africa Is a Big Place

Africa has been in the US news more than it usually is (which isn't saying much) because of the ongoing outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in West Africa. One of the things that is always shocking when a new place appears in the news is the degree of geographic cluelessness of Americans. When it comes to Africa, my experience indicates that people generally greatly underestimate its size and, distressingly, sometimes don't realize that Africa is actually a continent made up of over 50 sovereign states. Africa is, in fact, huge. It's easy to underestimate its size, in large part, because of the projections we use to render a three dimensional space in two dimensions of a map. Most common projections compress the area of more equatorial regions and the African continent straddles the equator.

There is all sorts of anxiety about travel from African countries as a result of the EVD epidemic in West Africa. The deal is that the epidemic is localized to the far western portion of the continent.  Southern and eastern Africa, the destinations most likely to be visited by American tourists for example, are a long way from this part of the continent. While working on a paper with my colleague Simon Jackman today, I made an offhand comment about Freetown (Sierra Leone) probably being closer to Sao Paulo (Brazil) than it is to Nairobi (Kenya). Simon being Simon, said, "we can test that," and he called up the wonderful Great Circle Mapper page. We figured out the distance from the Freetown to Nairobi airports, which turns out to be 3522 miles, and then plotted out a a circle with that radius centered on Freetown. The results can be seen here, and here is a screenshot of the resulting map:


Circle of radius 3522 mi (the distance from Freetown to Nairobi) centered on Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Circle of radius 3522 mi (the distance from Freetown to Nairobi) centered on Freetown, Sierra Leone.

So, what do you know, Sao Paulo is, in fact, closer to Freetown than Nairobi is. Cape Town and Johannesburg are outside the circle, but you know what's in it? Pretty much all of western Europe. Of course, this doesn't mean that Sao Paulo is socially closer to Freetown, but it is remarkable nonetheless. I just ran into this cool video of world air traffic on a 24-hour loop. One striking feature of this video is that there really isn't much traffic between the corner of West Africa currently afflicted by EVD and just about anywhere in the world (including Nairobi!). Now, Nigeria would be a different story altogether. There are plenty of connections from Lagos or Port Harcourt to the rest of the world...

Along these lines of Africa being a big place, Kai Krause made this great graphic a few years ago showing the size of the African continent relative to a variety of other countries and other land masses.

(Text Processing) Paradigms Lost

Tom Scocca has wrote a brilliant essay in Slate today on the absurdities of Microsoft Word being the standard text processing tool in the age of digital publishing. I struggle to get students doing statistical and demographic analysis in R to not use Word because of all the unwanted junk it brings to the most trivial text-processing task. Using the word2cleanhtml website, Scocca shows how a two-word text chunk written in Word contains the equivalent of eight pages of unnecessary hidden text!

I encounter all the nonsense associated with the annoying default "annoying typographical flourishes" that Scocca discusses in my role as associate editor of a couple of journals and a regular reviewer for NSF. Both of these roles make extensive use of web-based platforms for managing workflows associated with writing-intensive tasks (ScholarOne for editing and Fastlane for NSF) and both snarf on the typographical annoyances Scocca enumerates ("smart" quotes, automatic em-dashes, etc.). When you do an NSF panel, you receive a briefing explaining that if you are going to write your panel summaries in Word, you need to turn off smart quotes and avoid other things that will lead to nonsense in the plain-text formatted fields of Fastlane. Of course, no one does this.

Don't get me started on track changes...

I do the great majority of my own writing in a plain text-processor. My personal favorite is Aquamacs, a Mac-native variation on GNU Emacs. Emacs is definitely not for everyone, but there are lots of other possibilities. Scocca writes that he has turned to TextEdit, which is another Mac-native, but there are plenty of other options that run on different systems. Here is a list of possibilities.

It will be interesting to see how online collaborative tools such as Google Docs change the way people do text processing.  I find that more of my students do their work in Google Docs. It's certainly not a majority yet but the fraction is growing rapidly each year. As Scocca notes, Google Docs provides a much more sane alternative to track changes, among other things.

Microsoft clearly needs to get serious and do a bit of innovation here if they want to stay in this particular game. I, for one, will not miss MS Word if it should go the way of WordStar.

On Newspaper Front Pages

Expert wrangler of predicaments Phillip Mendonça-Vieira has put together a very cool time-lapse movie from about 12,000 screenshots of the front page of the  The movie is interesting to watch in a Koyaanisqatsi kind of way, but what I find most poignant is his commentary that accompanies the movie. Mendonça-Vieira writes,

Having worked with and developed on a number of content management systems I can tell you that as a rule of thumb no one is storing their frontpage layout data. It's all gone, and once newspapers shutter their physical distribution operations I get this feeling that we're no longer going to have a comprehensive archive of how our news-sources of note looked on a daily basis. comes close, but there are too many gaps to my liking.

This, in my humble opinion, is a tragedy because in many ways our frontpages are summaries of our perspectives and our preconceptions. They store what we thought was important, in a way that is easy and quick to parse and extremely valuable for any future generations wishing to study our time period.

This really resonated with me.  Some time back, we wrote a paper that garnered quite a lot of media coverage. Indeed, we even got the 'front page' of the, if only fleetingly. I am very glad that I had the presence of mind to save that screen shot as a pdf so I would be able to preserve this 15 minutes of fame for posterity. If they had been available, I would have bought lots of paper copies.  However, what I am left with is this:


This really is a shame and clearly represents a serious challenge for the historians of tomorrow and the archivists of today.

You'd Think There'd Be More Snow

We here in near-coastal California have been getting more than what seems like our fair share of rain recently.  Perhaps my perceptions of the local weather patterns have simply been conditioned on the very dry weather we've experienced over the last several years.  When I checked on the snow water content in the Sierra, I expected this year to fall on the far wet end of the scale.  Much to my surprise (and horror), when I checked this morning, I saw that this year appears to be only a little wetter than average (and drier than average for the first part of the winter).  Of course, maybe "a little wetter than average" is the new wet year in the more arid climate cycle of the North American West.  Just inspecting the plots, it is clear that there is still plenty of time for snow-water content to increase.  The wettest year on record (1982-1983) has a big bulge in May.  However, it had built steadily for the months preceding, unlike this year.


Extreme Disappointment in Virgin America

When one becomes an anthropologist, one expects to have travel adventures.  Somehow, I never expected to have a travel adventure when plying my trade as a panelist for the National Science Foundation in the wilds of Arlington, Virginia.  Bear in mind that Arlington is just across the Potomac River from Washington DC and is served by two pretty major airports.  When I fly to DC, I typically fly into Dulles (IAD) because one can get a direct flight from SFO there but not to National.  

I had my ticket made through the government contract travel agency, Sato Travel.  You fill out a web-based form indicating the times you need to be at your government function and what your constraints are for travel.  I diligently did this and received my itinerary.  They had me flying American Airlines out of SFO through Chicago and into National.  The total trip time was eight and a half hours.  Worse, on my return flight, I had 40 minutes in Chicago O'Hare between flights.  Given the on-time record of flights in and out of O'Hare, I might as well have booked a spot on the floor there for the night to sleep. AA is not exactly a major player in the Bay Area airline market, so this seemed a little strange to me.  I, like many of my friends at Stanford who travel a lot between SFO and IAD, usually take United flight 225, which arrives SFO at around 12:45 (midnight). Sure, it gets in late, but it's direct, you can get your business done in DC before you leave, avoid the worst of DC traffic getting out to the airport, and you can still typically make it to the kids' sporting events (or whatever) on Saturday morning.  So, I was surprised to say the least when Sato sent me this itinerary.  My concern over getting stuck in Chicago made me call Sato and change my ticket.

When I finally was able to speak to a human being, I asked if I could get put on my usual United 225.  "No," she replied, because United is not the government contract carrier.  This raised my hackles a bit.  I said "Surely, there must be a direct flight that I could get on a contract carrier."  She informed me that the contract carrier was Virgin America and that, yes, there was a direct flight from SFO-IAD. Well, this seemed a lot better than the onerous itinerary through Chicago, so I went ahead and re-booked. Oh, and the direct flight cost $75 less than the original itinerary.  That's the efficiency of private contractors at work for you: booking an itinerary that no sane human being would choose that actually costs more than the direct flight!  Yep, good thing we let these efficient contractors take care of things and not leave it to a wasteful government. Anyway, my new itinerary secured, I was actually excited to fly Virgin as I had heard good things about them. 

Let me say that, having now dealt with Virgin, I am somewhat less excited.  My flight to IAD was uneventful, though I learned that the price one pays for the fancy entertainment system (pretentiously called "Red") are the smallest seats I have ever tried to cram my 76" frame into.  I was miserably uncomfortable.  But at least I got to play an Asteroids knock-off the whole time to take my mind of the pain in my butt.

Our panel finished today and at about two o'clock, I went to the Virgin America site to check in.  I checked in and printed my boarding pass.  By a fluke of peculiar luck, I actually saved a pdf copy of my boarding pass.  One can see that I have a seat assignment and that every looks cool, right?

My Virgin America Boarding PassI went to a cafe and tried to get some work done, got some dinner, and then found a cab to take me to the airport.  I was schooled by my Pakistani cab driver in the finer points of Emperor of QawwaliNusrat Fatah Ali Khan's lyricism, which we listened to with quite some volume on the drive out to Fairfax County.  He also told me that the reason Americans are so, um, girthsome shall we say, is that we eat beef tainted by bovine growth hormone.  It would seem that we should eat neither beef nor pork meat. I wasn't about to argue, but I digress...

I got to the airport in plenty of time, found my way out to the gate in the funny pointy-hatted shuttles they have at Dulles, and proceeded to wait for my flight to board.  When I finally got up to the gate to board, they scanned my boarding pass several times, finally giving me the "Sir, can you step over to the podium" treatment.  Worried that I was about the receive a cavity search, I soon learned that they had given my seat away because I hadn't checked in!  "How is that possible?" I asked.  "Don't I have a boarding pass here in my hand?" (suggesting that I had, in fact, checked in for those of you who are a little slow on the uptake).  Well, yes I did, but you see, I wasn't in the system for some reason.  He promptly took the boarding pass, tore it up and threw it in the waste basket (didn't even recycle). I was irate.  I asked them what they were going to do for me. Nothing.  Not a thing.  I made a scene, something that goes very much against my nature. Nothing.  Next flight, seven o'clock tomorrow morning.  A fine how do you do.

I have had some bizarre travel experiences, but I have never experienced anything like this. The marketing garbage on the Virgin America web site reads "It's time to bring great service back to the skies."  Apparently, that doesn't mean bringing great service to the ground before you take off or to the computer system that handles check ins, or to compensating passengers when the airline screws them over.  Say what you will about United, but they at least would have given me a free ticket and a hotel room.

I don't think that I will be subjecting my knees or butt to the teeny-tiny Virgin America seats again any time soon...

More on Science in the Obama Times

As a follow-up to my post on science and the Obama Inaugural, I wanted to note a terrific essay  by Dennis Overbye on the civic virtues of science in the New York Times. He argues that virtue emerges from the process of science: "Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth."  Continuing, he writes,

That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world.

There is a certain egalitarian, round-table ethos to science done well.  It doesn't matter what degrees you have or where from.  What matters is whether you ask and answer interesting questions. Of course, institutions that support science frequently care about degrees and where they're from, but in my experience, good scientists don't. While there are certainly barriers to entry (e.g., the cost of higher education, the difficulty of mastering a subject), there is no fundamentally esoteric knowledge in science.  When it's working right, everything is transparent.  It has to be because no one will believe you unless it can be repeated.

I certainly hope the rhetoric of respect for science and the idea that empirical research will inform policy continues and gets translated into tangible support for research in the coming years.

Data, Statistics, Science, Imagination and Common Purpose

In President Obama's Inaugural Address, "data" and "statistics" were the 247th and 249th words spoken. Science was very much foregrounded in the President's address:

We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its costs.

We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.

All this we can do. All this we will do.

There is tremendous congruence between this stated respect for science and the somber chastisement over our collective "failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age."  The Bush administration sought to suppress science because facts about the world can be politically inconvenient.  The implications of scientific research don't always jibe so well with our desire for short-term gratification.  I hope that President Obama can truly help to focus our political debates onto the serious decisions that we need to make as individuals and as a society.  

I am thrilled by the prospect that the age of know-nothingness in Washington DC might be over, but am also realistic that these things take time.  Let's hope we can make this change while we still actually have time!

A Great Career for a Biological Anthropologist

The fabulous Cambridge-based singer-songwriter, Mieka Pauley turns out, like Pete Seeger and Bonnie Raitt, to be a Harvard graduate.  Mieka attended Harvard when I was a grad student, concentrated (Harvardese for "majored") in biological anthropology, and took a class I taught when I was a lecturer there for the 2000-2001 academic year.  I just got back in touch with her and she informed me that bio-anthro actually comes up all the time in interviews she does.  What do you know?  It seems that biological anthropology is useful for something after all! I suppose it shouldn't really surprise me (note my recent post on folk songs and Human Nature) all that much.  Maybe it's her training in biological anthropology that brought out the deep appreciation of the human condition that comes through in Mieka's music?  I heartily recommend her new album, Elijah Drop Your Gun.

Disturbing Tag Cloud

Using the tag cloud widget for WordPress, I find that my most commonly used tag currently is "economics."  How can that be?  It's not even one of my categories. Perhaps it is my broad definition of economics?  Perhaps it is my frequent discontent with the way that human behavior gets discussed in the economics literature? Maybe I'm really interested in economic questions.  I think I definitely need to write more posts on diarrhea...