Archive | December 2010

Mapping America: Every City, Every Block

As if to say that race doesn’t matter in the US, the New York Times, using block level Census data, has come up with a sweet online app to explore the distribution of racial groups in the United States.

Still waiting for the huge block level data dump for the rest of us data nerds.

Movie of the Week: The Devil Came on Horseback (2007)

In 2003, the Sudanese government responded to rebel uprisings in western Sudan by employing Northern Sudanse/Arab militias to wage a campaign of rape, burning, displace and extermination against the farming communities of western Sudan, or Darfur. Estimates vary, but it is thought that more than 400,000 people have been killed in the conflict, either due to violence or deplorable health conditions within refugee camps, and that tens of thousands of women have been systematically raped, often in the presence of their children or close relatives. To this day, the United States and the United Nations have done next to nothing.

In 2004, retired Marine captain Brian Steidle took a contract to act as an unarmed observer of a brokered ceasefire between North and South Sudan. Provided with only a camera and basic logistic support he became witness to some of the most horrific atrocities the world has ever known.

For 7 months, Steidle photographed and documented the remains of burned villages, decaying bodies of men, women, children and infants. He interviewed women in the refugee camps along the Chadian border as they related stories of systematic and state sponsored rapes. Steidle was even able to interview the perpetrators of these atrocities, as they matter of factedly described their jobs, and role of the Sudanese government in providing compensation and training.

Steidle returned to the United States to spread the word about what was occurring in Darfur, meeting with broad public support, but resulting in little substantive official action. I remember the half-hearted handwaving of the Bush administration, who took what seemed like a lifetime to argue about the meaning of the word “genocide,” and the failure to provide even the most basic of military interventions to prevent it. Iraq and state sponsored torture during the Bush admin were travesties of US policy with implications that will last forever. What happened in Darfur and the US governments complicity by non-action are entirely unforgivable. If there is ever a cause to try the members of the Bush admin for war crimes, it is their role as indifferent accomplices in one of the worst genocides in human history.

If anything, the Devil Came on Horseback should serve to remind us of the stratified nature of human worth. A single American soldier is like a bar of gold, while one million propertyless women in the middle of an African desert are worth no more than the sand they live on. Had it been photographs of white, English speaking people being killed, raped and tortured, the American public would have screamed in outrage. However, the refusal of the US to recognize the humanity of the Darfurians only serves to propagate a cycle of racist and ethnic marginalization that allows genocide to occur.

Patterns of mortality rates in Darfur conflict The Lancet, Volume 375, Issue 9711, 23 January 2010-29 January 2010, Pages 294-300, Olivier Degomme, Debarati Guha-Sapir

Hagan, J., Brooks, R. and Haugh, T. (2010), Reasonable Grounds Evidence Involving Sexual Violence in Darfur. Law & Social Inquiry, 35: 881–917. doi: 10.1111/j.1747-4469.2010.01208.x

US Bombing of Laos 1965-1973 Part 2: The Movie

Using STIS (Space Time Intelligence System) from TerraSeer, I was able to make this animated movie of all US bombing events in Laos from 1965-1973. Dots are sized proportional to the total pounds of explosives dropped.

Note what happens when you get to about 1970.

Google Books Ngram Viewer: War vs. God vs. Sex vs. Science

A couple of years ago, my graduate school financial support was working at the Center for Statistical Consultation and Research (CSCAR) at the Univ. of Michigan. In that time, it was fascinating to see that English departments had caught up with the world and started taking advantage of our now vast computing resources to mine thousands of years worth of written work. Researchers can now get amazing insights into the development of language, cultural trends and the evolution of social attitudes and historical change.

Google Books has managed to digitize nearly 11% of all the world’s written work. Assuming that World War III doesn’t break out and decimate the world wide web and that which powers it, they might be able to get to at least 50% by the end of my lifetime. Fortunately, they’ve put all their scanned text into a database and made it publicly available.

The Ngram Viewer tracks the percentage of times a word or word sequence is mentioned relative to the entire body of scanned literature.

I just spent five minutes playing with it, and found that, God was really big in the 16th and 17th centuries, but His almighty popularity has waned. Now, the all powerful deity must compete with “War”. God and war still outpace science in the English language press, but we appear to be gaining ground against sex! Belief in fantasy figures and killing far outpaces procreation and rational thought. Josef Stalin and Santa Claus beat Hugh Hefner and Darwin.

US Bombings in Laos 1965-1973

During the Vietnam War, the US spread combat operations to neighboring Laos. The US secretly waged widespread bombing runs on nearly every corner of the country, as illustrated by the map on the left. Laos experienced more than 30,000 casualties during the bombings, more than 20,000 people have died since bombing ceased in 1974 due to leftover unexploded munitions, and many more tens of thousands were needlessly displaced. A UN report notes that Laos is, per capita, the most bombed country on the planet, with .84 tons of explosives dropped per person from the years 1965 to 1974.

The true extent of the carnage was not known until Clinton declassified military records for the entire Vietnam War. The US military keeps meticulous records of all combat operations, recording the date, precise location, type and number of aircraft and total pounds of explosives dropped. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency’s Office of Humanitarian Demining has been working with the Laotian government to assist in the clean up of leftover landmines and unexploded ordnance. It is estimated that it may take up to 3000 years to clean up all unexploded ordnance in Laos alone.

The U.S. Government spent nearly 17 million dollars every single day to bomb Laos. What it has spent to clean it up, is, as of yet, a pittance (2.7 million a year) and the State Department has reduced this amount even further for 2011. Over 280 million bombs were dropped on Laos. It’s estimated that up to 80 million of them never exploded.

It is through a Laotian demining group that I was able to get a hold of this data set.

The Pattern of Bombing

The United States bombed Laos almost daily for nine years, a country we were not even at war with. Out of 2,858 total days, the United States Air Force bombed Loas for 2,290. Even the Air Force gets weekends and holidays off. Things got really intense in 1968-70 during Operation Menu (Nixon’s secret bombing campaign of Cambodia and Laos), and then spiked again just before the Vietnam War ended.

The military, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, followed seasonal bombing patterns, peaking in summer and falling back during the Christmas season. A time series decomposition confirms an overall peak in 69 to 70, but while the number of bombing runs may have peaked then, the intensity was only magnified. As larger and larger planes came in to the fold (such as the B-52) and smaller craft such as the A-1’s became phased out in favor of the F-4’s, the US military became more efficient in it’s bombing runs, becoming able to drop more tonnage of explosives using fewer aircraft. (It’s incredible what you can learn from data)

The Spatial Distribution of Bombing

Density of bombing events in Laos. Dark means more dense, light mean less dense.

The United States bombed nearly every quarter of Laos, but some areas were hit worse than others. In particular, the eastern end of the southern part of Laos, and the area around the province of Xieng Khouang. Areas along the Thai and Cambodian borders suffered less bombing but probably experience the largest influx of refugees.

Relative to the population Xieng Khouang had the largest tonnage of explosives per person dropped on it, followed by the Southernmost province, Attapu. Bombing runs were not uniformly spread across provinces, but appeared to target specific areas more than others in terms of overall tonnage dropped. There appear to be specific hot spots in the south, which could represent any number of things, but none of which are in this data set.

Pounds of explosives dropped per person. Population data was drawn from a 1995 census.

IDW interpolation of pounds of munitions dropped. Note heavily concentrated spots in the middle of the country, and in the south.


The Vietnam War is widely perceived as having been an incredible policy blunder. That the American government was unwilling to cut it’s losses and stop early was not only a sign of incredible American arrogance, but has resulted in decades of ruined economies, loss of life, and a series of disastrous South East Asian governments, not the least of which was the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge. This data set, while historically important, should also serve as a reminder of things to come, as the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq comes to the fore. It’s unfortunate that while the Vietnam war is a part of the daily lives of all Laotians, that it rarely registers on the radar of the average American, and if it does, it’s considered to be a problem exclusive to those who served. While the effects of the war on those who fought in Vietnam cannot be understated, the incredible burden that generations of Laotians will experience cannot be forgotten.

Knowing that we were not at war with Laos, the most troubling part of this data set is realizing the incredible monetary expense of the operation. 17 million dollars per day. More than 4 million tons of explosives were levied on Laos. All of which were provided by private contractors such as McDonnell Douglas. I could imagine (although I have no evidence), that the bombing campaigns were less strategic and more corrupt, a dangerous collusion of profit and policy. The secrecy surrounding the bombings make me all the more suspicious. The connections between defense contractors and actions in the Vietnam War and the possibility that the War was extended by those with monetary interests is well worth pursuing. Investigations into the mistakes of Vietnam could go far to inform present day discussions of the merits/demerits of entering long term conflicts. Of course, in the case of Iraq, the milk has already been spilled.

War is devastating in the long term for the US economy. Government spending which could be used to invest in infrastructure and social development projects, is diverted to support an endless war effort. In the short term, however, defense contractors and those involved in defense manufacturing profit. It has been suggested that the workers during the Vietnam war were dependent on defense related manufacturing, so much so, that Reagan’s promises of expanding defense spending helped usher him in office. While our manufacturing jobs may trickle overseas, defense manufacturing must remain in the United States. This creates an internal economy that is dependent on endless war around the world, supported by people who don’t have to fight it. Remember the incredible uproar over the cancellation of the F-22?

I don’t know where I stand on Chomsky besides thinking that he has interesting opinions, but I found this clip interesting. It would be worthwhile to know whether his claims can be verified or not:


NRA, “National Survey of UXO Victims and Accidents, Phase 1,” Vientiane, undated but 2009, p. 39.

Why Inequality is Bad: Why I’d Rather Live in Michigan Than Mississippi

It came up today that, despite inequality in the US, even the poorest of Americans might be better off than the citizens of the poorest countries on the planet. The United States is more unequal than the Ivory Coast using the Gini coefficient, but the poorest of American workers still makes several hundreds of times more money than even the average resident of the Ivory Coast. So, the conversant suggest, is inequality in itself necessarily a bad thing?

YES, I say and here’s why.

Extreme inequality such as we have in the United States is the opposite of freedom. Think about it this way. People in the middle ages were indentured to their feudal lords. Peasants could not own their own property to produce goods, but rather would rent land from their Lords for a (hefty) portion of the products they produced. Could they go and start their own farm and perhaps sell their goods to another person for a higher price? No. The reason they could not do this, is because of a lack of economic equality and their inability to own their own land and create goods to sell on their own.

The same is true today, as more and more people are unable to own homes, and must rent from wealthy landowners or live paycheck to paycheck, groveling for the few pennies that the Koch Brothers might send them.

Extreme inequality is economically unsound Right now, the United States’ economy is in the doldrums. This is due, in large part, to the lack of spending power amongst it’s populace. After the New Deal and World War II, the United States saw the largest expansion of it’s economy in history. This was in no small part to the expansion of the middle class and the incredible spending power which middle class households had. Want to sell cars? The middle class was buying. Houses? The middle class was buying.

Now, we have no middle class. We have rich, and we have poor and little in between, unless you count families living off credit cards and squatting in their foreclosed houses. This spells trouble for the economy. Little spending power aside from daily necessities mean a decline in manufactured goods, and a decline in consumer goods over all. Bottom line is, if you impoverish your populace, you kill your customers, unless you are running a check cashing business or a liquor store, in which case you’re made in the shade.

Little spending power also means less money in local coffers. Property taxes are levied on the marketable value of a home, which now is sinking, because no one can buy a house. This means less money for schools, fire departments, police and health care. Schools are essential for creating a skilled workforce. Without the redistribution of wealth to support schools, we get an even dumber populace, reducing our ability to be a competitive economy.

Much of the great gains of the wealthiest people in this country in the past decade has been due to overseas economies buying American made goods. American made goods made in China, of course. One has to assume that the Chinese will at one point become savvy enough to be able to survive without us. That’s when the shit will hit the real fan.

Extreme inequality breeds violence. This is really the crux of it all. This has been true throughout history. Ever heard of a peasant revolt? What inequality is really good at is creating resentment, and the perception that one is receiving less than his or her fair share.

This perception that one is being cheated breeds anger, which breeds hatred, which eventually breeds violence. Has anyone noticed that the most unequal areas of the country are also the most crime ridden? Or that the most equal areas (Utah) are the safest places to be? You can be poor. If everyone around you is also poor and everyone in your society is also poor, you have nothing to hate, because you have (or don’t have) what everyone else does.

Lynchings were largely driven by the same inequality which predicated the Great Depression. Poor African Americans, seeking better opportunities moved to areas such as Kentucky and Florida. This, of course, was unwelcome to poor white in those areas, who saw them in competition for money and jobs. The powers that be, of course, used this to their political advantage, pitting poor whites against poor blacks. This not only generated voting support but also served to distract poor white folk from their true enemy, which was wealthy landowners who refused to pay a fair wage. The data confirm that lynchings were the worst in areas of high inequality and high percentages of white people.

This story played itself out in South Africa to create apartheid (wealthy politicians pitting poor Dutch farmers against indigenous blacks) and in Hitler’s Germany (Hitler pitted poor and unemployed Germans against a perceived wealthy Jewish population). The same was true in Bosnia and in the incredible abuses wrought by the Japanese Army in China and continues to rear it’s head in the de facto apartheid of Israel.

In short, inequality creates the perfect storm of wealth groups pitting disadvantaged groups against one another. Chaos creates a population that is easy to control. More equality puts people on equal footing, reducing the ability for the wealthy to play political games with the power, and thus reducing the likelihood of violence.

Does this sound familiar? It should. Check out the rhetoric encouraged by the right against undocumented workers. Think it’s a coincidence that we’d be having conversations of shoot to kill along the border by State Representatives and “illegals stealing our jobs”? Think again.

Income Inequality in the US

Thankfully, our elected representatives have saved the day. They have said NO to asking that the wealthy pay their fair share for government services. They have said NO to government enslavement of the American people and YES to letting the free market continue enslaving the American people. The private sector does a better job of controlling people’s lives anyway. Good work.

Income inequality in the US is at an all time high. The average American worker, assuming he has a job, makes less than he did a decade ago, despite Mr. Bush’s sacred tax cuts for the wealthy. The wealthy, on the other hand, have made some of the biggest gains in history indicating that tax cuts for wealthy people do, in fact, work. We have lost more jobs under Bush’s tax cuts than at any single time since the Great Depression. And somehow, this is all OK and we’re supposed to believe that keeping disastrous economic policies in place that even a tax hound like Reagan would balk at, is somehow going to make the world a better place.

The Famous Gini Coefficient

The Gini Coefficient is a measure of income inequality. The larger the coeffiecient (closer to 1), the greater the inequality. Below is a map of the Gini coefficient for all counties in the Continental United States (thanks to data compiled by this man). Remember, high==bad, low==good. In this picture, red mean high levels of inequality and blue means low levels of inequality. The Gini coefficient is highest in largely African-American counties in the Southern United States and throughout Appalachia. It is appalling that there are counties in the United States that have a level of income inequality that’s seen over the poorest countries of Africa and Central America. In fact, the United States as a whole is only a step above the Ivory Coast, one of the poorest countries on the planet.

Perhaps, not coincidentally, the South, while not only a bastion of economic segregation, is also an area of low taxes on the wealthy (some areas have no property tax) and high sales tax. I don’t know whether there is a causal link between low taxes on wealthy people and inequality, but it’s worth exploring. I bet it’s true.  If it’s true that all politics are local, then this preferential treatment given to the wealthy that exists throughout the South should be a broad indicator of the success or failure of tax policy countrywide. 

At the very least, low taxes on wealthy persons means underfunded schools, exacerbating a cycle of low education, low skills and poverty which continues for generations. Low taxes on the wealthy mean low accountability on a class of people that, worldwide, routinely operate in their own interests, seeing the masses as nothing more than a means of fattening their stock divideds. Low taxes on the wealthy means poor health infrastructure. People who are not healthy cannot work to their full potential, creating a cycle of subsistence and dependence on government services, imprisonment and a state of poverty than’s handed down from generation to generation.

So thanks, Mr and Ms. Senators. Thanks for acting in our interests.

Movie of the Week: Bombhunters

During the Vietnam War, the United States dropped nearly 550,000 tons of explosives on Cambodia through secret bombing campaigns, reaching to nearly every corner of the country. A certain percentage remain unexploded to this day, and deaths from unexploded munitions are common. More than 40% of Cambodia’s population lives in poverty, a situation resulting, in part to years of bombing during the Vietnam War and the subsequent rise of the brutal Khmer Rouge government. Scrap metal presents an economic opportunity for poor Cambodians, who are able to earn a little cash for their families, by selling stripped bomb casings. “Bombhunters” follows a few of these steel scavengers.

To turn the steel into cash, TNT must be removed from the shell casings. the work is generally done by hand, with few tools. As one can assume, it is dangerous work, and injuries and deaths are common. The makers of “Bombhunters” interview not only the scrappers themselves (who are sometimes just children), but also their families and mothers. The directors visit a hospital which treats bomb injuries, providing graphic detail of lost limbs, burns and death.

Steel is sold to dealers who in turn sell it to Thai recyclers. Recycled steel is turned into building products, some of which is then resold back to Cambodia. Recycled steel is also sold on the world market, paticularly to China. Rising steel prices create economic incentives for bomb scavengers, fueling a perfect storm of poor families in desperation and economic exploitation. Scap metal usually brings between 8 and 12 cents a kilo. The film has been credited which the creation of policy in Washington which provides money for professional removal of unexploded munitions, which has reduced deaths by nearly 50%. It’s easy to see why.

Slavery Voyages Database

Between 1513 and 1867, more than 10 million people were brought to the Americas as slaves. It’s a miserable chapter in human history, yet played a disgustingly key role in the creation of the United States. Researchers at Emory University have gathered records from more than 35,000 slavery voyages and created, a research tool that allows you not only to download their incredible data set, but also to create your own reports and visualizations.

Of course, it is estimated that between 12 and 27 million people live in slavery in 2010. In absolute numbers, that’s more than at any time in human history. More than 1.3 million children are trafficked every year, and more than 300 million people, mostly women and children, while not considered slaves in the traditional sense, work under conditions of forced labor. We have much to do.

December 10th: International Human Rights Day

On December 10th, 1948, the United Nations ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR is a landmark document in human history. For the first time, a community of nation states formally recognized that all human beings have a right to not be enslaved, not to be oppressed, and not to live in fear. While the post-1948 world was potentially the bloodiest in human history, that such a set of baseline rules and standards exists at all is a positive step forward in creating a sane and humane world.

It is, of course, highly ironic that Lio Xiao Bo is receiving his Nobel Peace Price on International Human Rights Day.

To celebrate Human Rights Day, check out this cool visualization of products around the world produced using forced and child labor, products which are largely sold to wealthy nations such as the US. It is important to celebrate the ratification of documents such as the UDHR, but it is also important to recognize that we still have very much to do.

The preamble to the UDHR is below:

* Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
* Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
* Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,
* Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,
* Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
* Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,
* Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,
* Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

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