Nightlight data and fuzzy math

This is almost a little too pat to be entirely convincing… but it makes sense that authoritarian regimes would have more ability, if not more incentive, to manipulate, exaggerate and outright make up statistics than democracies:

China, Russia and other authoritarian countries inflate their official GDP figures by anywhere from 15 to 30 percent in a given year, according to a new analysis of a quarter-century of satellite data. […]

“The key question that the paper tries to tackle is whether the checks and balances provided by democracy are able to constrain governments’ desire to manipulate information or, more specifically, their desire to exaggerate how well the economy is doing,” Martinez said via email. “The way I try to answer the question above is by comparing GDP (a self-reported indicator, prone to manipulation) and nighttime lights (recorded by satellites from outer space and much harder to manipulate) as measures of economic activity.” […]

For the world’s freest democracies — places such as the United States, Canada and Western Europe — a 10 percent increase in the average intensity of nighttime lighting in a given year correlated with, on average, a 2.4 percent increase in year-over-year GDP. Less free and open countries, however, reported larger GDP gains for the same percent change in nighttime lighting. And the least-free countries of all showed huge increases in annual GDP relative to the freest countries, working out to between a half and a full percentage point of extra GDP for the same light increase.

One question that comes to mind: Is it possible that countries where personal consumption accounts for a relatively small share of GDP (e.g. China) are able to grow more “darkly” than countries where personal consumption plays a larger role (e.g. the US)? The idea being that factories might give off less light per capita at night than, say, driving to a restaurant or staying up late watching Netflix in a brightly lit house. (I have absolutely no idea whether this is the case.) Likewise for economies where the services sector plays a greater role (think of all those computer screens and florescent-lit offices). Looking at the paper, it appears the author has already accounted for just those possibilities, and that the autocracy bias is still strong even when controlling for differences in economic structure.

Of course, it’s not exactly surprising that China manipulates economic data rather liberally; this is a country where the official population figure could be off by 90 million.

Nowhere to hide

1984 China facial recognition

1984: What you thought you were getting vs what you’re actually getting

Must-have gear for the modern “bobby on the beat”:

As China’s annual Spring Festival migration is now under way, Zhengzhou railway police are among the first in the country to wear glasses with a facial recognition system at four entrance gates at the city’s east train station to help them capture fugitives and those traveling using other people’s identities, online official media outlet the Paper reported yesterday.

A pair of such glasses capable of recognizing faces in milliseconds can help reduce stress on railway police as hundreds of millions of people will travel during the holiday period. Zhengzhou police have already caught seven fugitives allegedly involved in major criminal cases such as human trafficking and hit-and-runs and 26 individuals traveling on other people’s identities.

Beijing LLVision Technology Co. developed the glasses. In testing, the spectacles were able to identify a target from among a database of 10,000 people in 100 milliseconds, though this may take a little longer in practice because of environmental interference, said LLVision founder Wu Fei.

What would be really awesome, is if they integrated these glasses with your “social credit score,” so that the wearer would instantly know if you were debt-ridden, irresponsible, unpatriotic, or socially toxic, merely by looking at you. Imagine what would happen if they sold these to the public? All hell would break loose in the West, but in China, I reckon it might actually lead to a weird sort of techno-Confucianism.

China’s adoption of intelligent technologies in the security field in recent years has attracted worldwide attention. Under its Sky Net initiative, China has deployed 170 million surveillance cameras, the majority of which are equipped with facial recognition and real person-identity document matching systems. Late last year, a BBC reporter tested the efficiency of the Sky Net system with the help of Guiyang police. It took just seven minutes from uploading his selfie to the cloud platform to his being ‘arrested’ at a train station.

“Sky Net”… they didn’t, did they?……

Faceborg’s war on human nature

Two items on the metastasizing, Borg-like entity known as Facebook recently caught my eye.


Facebook just announced sweeping changes to fix significant problems with its newsfeed, the main conduit for news and information for over 2 billion people. However, the problems with Facebook’s newsfeed won’t be fixed with these tweaks. In fact, they are likely to get much worse as Facebook attempts to fix them. […]

To see why failure was (and will continue to be) inevitable, let me recast the situation:

  • Facebook is actively micromanaging the information flow and social interactions of over 2 billion people, and insanely complex and highly uncertain task.
  • Facebook is making the sweeping decisions on how to micromanage the newsfeed centrally (with a small team of young executives empowered to relentless tweak the system by the dictatorial fiat of the company’s CEO).
  • Facebook’s goals are a selfish utopianism (in its version utopia, the world revolves around Facebook).

The Current Year is very weird, when you think about it. The idea of a “small team of engineers in Menlo Park,” led by this guy –

– controlling the main spigot of news and information for over one-quarter of the human race is like something out of a cheesy sci-fi movie. Yet, it is not far from the reality.

The right thing for Facebook to do here would be to drop all the micromanagement and simply let each user control his/her own News Feed experience by default, with a full set of tools and filters. No shady algorithm controlling what you see. No censorship except of spam and illegal content.

This would probably require some adjustments to Facebook’s business model, as the News Feed accounts for 85% of the company’s revenue. I suspect, though, that the core reason Facebook insists on controlling that spigot has nothing to do with money.


In everyday life, we tend to have different sides of ourselves that come out in different contexts. For example, the way you are at work is probably different from the way you might be at a bar or at a church or temple. […] But on Facebook, all these stages or contexts were mashed together. The result was what internet researchers called context collapse. […]

In 2008, I found myself speaking with the big boss himself, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. I was in the second year of my PhD research on Facebook at Curtin University. And I had questions.

Why did Facebook make everyone be the same for all of their contacts? Was Facebook going to add features that would make managing this easier?

To my surprise, Zuckerberg told me that he had designed the site to be that way on purpose. And, he added, it was “lying” to behave differently in different social situations.

Up until this point, I had assumed Facebook’s socially awkward design was unintentional. It was simply the result of computer nerds designing for the rest of humanity, without realising it was not how people actually want to interact.

The realisation that Facebook’s context collapse was intentional not only changed the whole direction of my research but provides the key to understanding why Facebook may not be so great for your mental health.

To me, the experience of using Facebook is akin to being in a room filled with everyone I know, yammering away at high volume. It’s unpleasant, and I avoid it as much as possible.

I remember when Zuckerberg infamously said that “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” I recall being very creeped out by that sentiment. It’s deeply totalitarian, similar to the argument that “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear”; i.e. that only criminals or bad people desire privacy. It also flies in the face of some basic observations about human behavior.

The question is, will users put up with forced “context collapse” and micromanagement of the News Feed over the long run, or will they revolt against this form of paternalistic social engineering? I’m betting on the latter.

You bet he’s sorry

Beijing is undeniably a tough place to live. But you’d better think twice before complaining about it:

A Chinese blogger whose essay criticising life in Beijing went viral on social media last week – before it was deleted and slammed by state media – has apologised for his “imprecise writing”.

The essay “Beijing has 20 million people pretending to have a life”, written by a Beijing-based blogger under the pseudonym of Zhang Wumao, sparked heated debate over the quality of life in China’s big cities after he posted it on his WeChat social media account on July 23.

The article grumbled about a series of difficulties living in Beijing, including choking smog, sky-high property prices, the city being “overrun” by outsiders and the lack of human warmth.

“Beijingers have increasingly felt the congestion, smog and high property prices, which mean they cannot move at home and cannot breathe outdoors,” Zhang wrote.

He argued the city was only livable for old residents of Beijing who could lead a leisurely life because they have “five apartments” in the city.

…..And the smackdown:

It drew more than five million views on WeChat, but later attempts to click through to the essay were answered with a message saying the content had violated regulations released by the Cyberspace Administration of China.

Zhang apologised for the essay during an interview with the Economic Observer newspaper on Friday.

Zhang was quoted as saying that he did not think too much when writing the piece and some of his figures such as “20 million Beijingers” and the elderly’s “five apartments” were imprecise.

He said he “has no discontent about Beijing” and appreciated everything the city has given him.

The apology came after various state media outlets published commentaries defending Beijing.

People’s Daily published an commentary, arguing the author was simply stirring up emotion.

Repent, heretic!

Apparently the censors have decided that any type of criticism of the prevailing order – including even things like the quality of life in major cities – in other words, any type of speech that might induce a flicker of negative emotions, and reinforce a narrative of social and economic disgruntlement… has to go.

Of course, the point is not to change people’s minds about the terrible smog and soul-killing traffic in Beijing. These are universally recognized features of the city, and it’s highly unlikely that censoring social media diatribes about these unpleasant facts of life will make people stop thinking about them, or grumbling about them in private.

The real point is to set an example for people who were thinking about aiming their criticism at more, shall we say, sensitive topics. If this is what we do to people who complain about smog…

It’s the broken windows theory of censorship.