The Journal of Theory

A Digest for Hesitant Generalists

Month: November, 2011

THEORY: Electronic information sharing is only becoming more difficult in Iran

Remember when Google’s shuttering of Reader’s social features destroyed Iranians’ last best hope at uncensored communication and information sharing (via a little bit of hyperbole)? Now, in another blow, Herdict reports that VPNs have been banned in Iran:

Iran’s Minister of Communications and Technology Reza Taghipour announced the VPN usage would be criminalized in the country. In the past, Iranians had frequently used VPNs to bypass strict content controls to access blocked sites such as Facebook and Gmail. Earlier in the month, Iranians noticed increased difficulties with accessing their VPN accounts after the government ordered that VPNs be disconnected.

Iran’s decision to ban VPNs comes as the most recent measure taken against what the Iranian government claims is a cultural ‘soft war’ between Islamic countries and the West. …

It is unclear, however, whether or not the criminalization of VPNs will have its intended chilling effects. This past summer, Iran declared a ban on satellite dishes, which Iranians have continued to use. Moreover, as Iranian journalist Hadi Nili has pointed out, preventing people from using VPNs will still be difficult, “There will always be new ways to bypass measures by the government,” he says.

Iranians should be able to find a way around this latest attempt to censor free communication, but still, these guys can’t catch a break.

THEORY: Not even the Internet can keep up with China

I have touched Qingchui Peak (“Thumb Mountain”) in Chengde (above) and thus will live to hundreds of years old. This may leave me enough time to digest what has happened in China in the past two weeks alone. Some of the more interesting stories:

– Minimum wage hike coming to manufacturing hub Guangdong on 1/1:  BoingBoing
– Let them debate cake/the Chongqing versus Guangdong models: NPR
– Chinese IT firms mutually agree to “curb” “harmful” information spread online: AFP
– Almost 60,000 typically wealthy Chinese per year seek medical services overseas: China Daily
– U Michigan discovers paper-cut propaganda posters from Cultural Revolution: The History Blog

THEORY: The best development organizations are run like businesses

Michael Schrage makes a seemingly counterintuitive point, although admittedly not his own, at HBR: put your best people on your most boring challenges.

How do you get the best value from your best people over time? The majority insisted that top talent’s time should focus on the highest value-added problems and opportunities. …

But one of your biggest issues is also — and will always be — the boring and horrendously inefficient scut work that all organizations accrue. NextJump’s Charlie Kim (yes, I got his permission to attribute), the founder of one of the internet’s most successful loyalty and rewards programs, argued that as organizations scale, they often slip, slide and default into less than mediocre processes that get the job done. Unfortunately, the job gets done in manual, jury-rigged or improvised ways that are deadly dull to manage and excruciatingly boring to fix.

Reaction: top-level in-country managers of aid and development organizations a) should recognize that opportunities to add value aren’t always exciting or even obvious; b) should set up a feedback system enabling anyone within the organization to report problems and inefficiencies; c) should be able to spin any “boring” problem as one whose solution would benefit the organization significantly; and d) should have sufficient resources to assign talented staff to identified (or even to identify) problems.

Example red flag: if your staff are spending more time wrangling financial reconciliations than implementing, monitoring and evaluating programs, it might be time to re-evaluate systems, policies and/or organizational structure. While reassigning field staff, flying in HQ staff or contracting out to highly qualified programmers or business consultants to address these “boring problems” can be expensive, won’t you think of the long-term improvements in efficiency?

THEORY: Italian surveillance company supporting crackdown on Syrian protesters

An Italian surveillance company, Area SpA, is developing a surveillance system for the government of Syria—a government responsible for over 3,000 deaths since protests began in March. Bloomberg reports that Area are providing the Syrian government with hardware and software to record all Internet traffic, e-mails and telecommunications; to monitor communications in close to real-time; and to analyze networks of electronic contacts.

Because of sanctions on exports to Syria, the United States government may need to take a closer look at the companies that originally produced the items included in Area’s surveillance package. According to US-based NetApp, the company was not aware of their products having been included, as “NetApp’s Italian subsidiary sold the equipment through an authorized vendor in Italy which then re-sold it to Area.”

via Blake Hounshell

THEORY: Genetic research on autism has implications for family planning

Check out my wonderful friend Hannah Waters‘s piece at Nature Medicine on current research on genetic testing for autism and the implications for families, now and in the future. Because researchers acknowledge that currently, costly chromosomal microarrays “can only identify an associated genetic abnormality in 8–25% of known clinical cases of autism”,

One company is banking on … sibling re-occurrence. In 2010, the French biotech company IntegraGen, which currently offers sequencing services to researchers, opened an office in Cambridge, Massachusetts dedicated to the development of a genetic risk assessment test targeted at children whose older sibling has autism. Their approach goes against the grain: instead of running microarrays to screen for rare CNVs, they identify SNPs shared by people with autism to assess susceptibility for the disorder. “The idea of SNPs being a risk prediction thing is not new, but it’s new to autism,” says vice president of US operations Larry Yost. “If you talk to people who are involved with [SNPs and CNVs], there is a potential role for both.”

This is just one of the approaches detailed in Hannah’s entirely interesting piece. Read the whole thing here.

THEORY: There are icebergs in the Amazon

According to Leonardo DiCaprio’s interview with the New York Times, even naked Amazonians dig Titanic:

Mr. DiCaprio said he hadn’t thought about it much and had come to terms with being continually associated with the dopey Jack Dawson. “I’m not haunted by it, but it certainly follows me,” he said. “I’ve been to the Amazon, and people with no clothes on, and I’m not exaggerating, know about that film. I’ve accepted it.”

This one goes out to everyone who everyone who proudly claims, “I’ve never even seen Titanic!” Get with the program.

THEORY: Eid Mubarak: This ram is toast

Happy Eid! Adding to the evidence that (some) people living around Tamale Metro aren’t so capital constrained as aid workers assume: the Eid livestock market.

While I acknowledge that most families pool resources to raise or purchase the sacrificial animal for Eid al-Adha, the fact is that the market sets the rate for livestock. The ram below was being sold today for about GHS 500 (USD 312), and his equally hearty friends were selling like hotcakes:

Also, technology! You can livestream the Hajj on YouTube:


THEORY: 1% of bloggers absorb 99% of confrontational interactions

María José Luzón, a faculty member of the Department of English Philology at the University of Zarazoga, has published a paper in the December 2011 issue of Applied Linguistics called “‘Interesting Post, But I Disagree’: Social Presence and Antisocial Behaviour in Academic Weblogs”. The abstract:

The purpose of this article is to analyse interaction in academic weblogs, focusing on discursive features that provide cues as to the participants’ interpersonal behaviour. The data for this study consisted of postings and their corresponding comments taken from 11 academic weblogs. The analysis of the corpus allowed us to work out a framework of different categories of discursive indicators of social and antisocial behaviour. Following Rourke et al. (1999), the indicators of social behaviour were categorized into the following types: (i) affectivity, (ii) cohesiveness, and (iii) interactivity. The indicators of antisocial behaviour were classified into three groups: (i) negative socioemotional behaviour, (ii) group exclusion, and (iii) confrontational interaction. The study shows that bloggers and weblog readers use a great variety of discursive strategies aimed at constructing and sustaining affective and solidarity relations in the community and creating an identity for themselves as competent members of the disciplinary community.

While analyzing eleven blogs doesn’t strike me as fairly representative, anyone who disagrees with me and Luzón is soo dumb. No further comments.

THEORY: Herman Cain is a brilliant performance artist

This clip is really worth watching, especially if you tend to gloss over Herman Cain headlines. Rachel Maddow puts the gaffe-shaped pieces together and tells America to wake up and smell the Herman Cain performance piece:


Memo to Cain: reality television’s piece de resistance is the final shot of The Hills. You have your work cut out for you.

THEORY: New Haven trick-or-treaters get a trick as treatment

I may be biased because he’s my boss, but I’m into Dean Karlan‘s Halloween behavioral experiments. This year:

The purpose of the experiment, in which over 300 trick-or-treaters participated, was to test the strength of the “follow the leader” effect by determining whether people were more likely to donate to wealthy charities or poorer ones …

In the experiment, trick-or-treaters formed a line in front of Karlan’s steps and were asked by volunteers whether they wanted to “play a game.” At the front of the line they received a slip of paper randomly assigning them to either one of two tables or telling them to choose between the two tables. Volunteers then gave each child five Tootsie Rolls and led them to their table. Both tables had two orange pumpkin buckets, with the one representing the wealthy charity already containing 360 Tootsie Rolls and the “poor charity” bucket containing just 15 Tootsie Rolls. Children were randomly assigned to either the full bucket or the mostly empty one, and each trick-or-treater was given the choice of how many Tootsie Rolls, if any, to donate to kids who did not have any.

A cardboard cutout of President Barack Obama was featured at one table. The role of the Obama cutout … was to see if his presence inspired children to donate more candy.

Results forthcoming. In the meantime,  you can read two of Karlan’s Halloween working papers now: one on 2007’s ambiguity experiment, and the other on the trust and political symbolism experiment run during the 2008 election year.