Iran Votes: Reflections Four Years Later

Published June 14, 2013 | Share your thoughts
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Four years ago, in mid-June, I headed on a trip to Iran after not having the visited the country for a decade. It was meant to be a personal trip, but in many ways I got more than I bargained for. As I wrote in a journal on route to Tehran:

“When I planned this trip months ago it was to be a personal experience, a rekindling with old memories… After all, the last time I crossed the Atlantic, I never envisioned that I would not see Iran again for so many years. I hoped that the country that I left would be a better country when I returned to it. But no one seems to have had anticipated the events that have transpired in the past few weeks in Iran.” – 2009/06/29

***

My trip coincided with the aftermath of the most divisive election in post-revolutionary Iran, on the 30th anniversary of the birth of the Islamic Republic.
I arrived in Iran in the aftermath of the election, but like many others had followed the events closely in the preceding months and weeks through the news and social networks. Weeks before the election I asked a reformist friend living in Iran how he thought the election would turn out. His sentiments I passed off as naïve pessimism. “[The reformist] will win, but [the conservative] will become the president.” But how? “Aji maji lataraji” Hocus pocus.

On the other side of the world we were watching the country hold its first live presidential debates on state-controlled media, reflecting a move towards greater transparency and engagement. We were seeing candidates, who were by all measures old guard conservatives, morphing into maverick reformists. We were seeing student movements, dormant following their bloody suppression ten years earlier, bloom once again. Reformist friends posted pictures of their green or yellow wrist-bands on Facebook, videos of a 20-km chain of green-clad men and women were shared, shared, shared. Conservative friends were conspicuously silent. Was this Iran’s Carnation Revolution?

***

The day before the election, even my pessimistic friend seemed to have embraced a cautious optimism along with 40 million others who cast their vote in the election. As the election levers were pulled, the polls on this side of the world still fluctuated, and the outcomes were anything but predictable. Nevertheless, it seemed evident to me that Iran had entered an era where different perspectives and new movements would not be silenced. The idea that the friends I’d left years ago now had themselves the opportunity to live in a true democracy where every person would have a voice compelled me:

“While cynicism remains strong and every candidate can be criticized and rightfully so, I can’t help but admire those who go to the polls to make a sincere effort towards a better tomorrow. They go with optimism and the hope that promises that have been made will be delivered. Whatever the outcome of this election, with a vote-turnout that is expected to reach into 80% (pretty incredible!), I am most glad that Iranians are so passionate about the opportunity to vote and take their fate into their own hands. I hope the same kind of fervor and call to responsibility is carried on in the post-election era because as it goes… any day without apathy is a good day.” – 2009/06/12

Some of last memories I had of Iran from nearly a decade before were seeing the former president Mohammad Khatami’s election posters plastered on every wall almost over night. Iran was on the verge of change. What an exciting time it was to be there again after all these years.

***

On the 14th of June, 2009, there was a rapid change in the mood. If the color green had spattered Facebook newsfeed before, now it flooded the newsfeed. Searing images, videos, reports began to trickle out of the country. Protests, speeches, and more protests. Then came the terrifying reports: the detentions, the prisons, and the blood. Like many others I was glued to the news as I packed my bags, trying desperately to understand what was unfolding.

***

Today I look at the list of my friends living in Iran on Facebook and their faces, smiling or stern, stare back at me through the screen. Unlike four years ago, there are no colors and no slogans decorating the wall in favour of one candidate or another. No green, no yellow, no red, no blue, no purple. Living in one of the world’s healthiest democracies, I cherish my right to vote. So I wonder if Iranian youth, many looking for reform, have succumbed to voter apathy as many news reports claim?

Scrolling down the sea of faces, I see a solitary slogan against a green background audaciously proclaiming: “I will vote”.

iranian_vote

A heated debate is taking place beside the picture.

A brother admonishes his sister’s slogan, viewing participating in the election as giving legitimacy to a flawed democracy “To vote is trample the blood of those who died in the Green Wave.” Below, a young woman expresses her doubt and uncertainty “I don’t know what to do!!!” Further down, the original poster defends her slogan with pleas for optimism “I think voting is the only path which won’t be followed by any regrets. We’ll do our best though there may be little hope.”

In seeing these snapshots, it has become apparent to me that my friends living in Iran are not indifferent. Though their dreams of dialogue, engagement and reform have been deferred, their spirit is unwavering. They vote or abstain from voting not out of apathy, but because they are angry, frustrated, or against all odds—holding on to a morsel of hope for a better tomorrow.

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  • May 12, 2013 » A little knowledge is a dangerous thing
    mount stupidVia @SMBC. Forbes Mag (2011) writes on the importance of avoiding Mount Stupid in decision-making. #
  • Fishermen in the Information Marketplace

    Published May 12, 2013 | One response so far
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    Fishermen in the Information Marketplace
    Behavioral, Economic and Social Changes Associated with Introduction of Mobile Phones in Fishing Communities of Kerala, India
    By Marzieh Ghiasi (April 2012)


    Give a man a fish, and you will feed him for a day.
    Teach him how to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime.
    But give him a mobile phone and you’re really talking!

    - The International Development Magazine, 2005

    Kerala-fishermen-fishing*Image source

    What is the broad context?

    The vast and rapid adoption of information and communication technologies (ICT) globally has led to a lot of speculation about how societies are integrating these technologies and how they are in turn being altered by them. According to Steward (1955: 38) unique local features such as subsistence needs are thought to affect local cultural contexts, socio-economic arrangements and the way technologies are adopted. Steward (1955: 40) outlined three steps to evaluate the how culture, technology and production relate and interact. The first was to identify the material and socially-derived needs in a society; the second behavior and exploitative patterns in a society; and the third, the extent to which these patterns affect other social arrangements. Examining each of these allows us to appraise what kind of needs ICTs are meeting, how they are affecting behavior, and broad social superstructures.

    The state of Kerala, in South West India, has the second largest fishing output in India, and a substantial portion of the industry is based on traditional fishing practices. The cultural practices, the introduction of new technologies and the economic output of these communities have been closely monitored and cataloged. Throughout the years fishing industry has undergone mechanization, and the introduction of ICT into communities. However, these technologies have been received differently and have affected local culture differently. In this paper I examine how mobile phones, in particular, have been adopted to meet needs of fishing communities Kerala. I will further examine whether mobile phones are reinforcing or changing behavior and exploitative patterns in these societies. Finally, I look at how these patterns are influencing more indirectly other aspects of the culture.

    What does this post explore?

    Many studies on the mobile phones in the developing world focus solely on economic output as a measure of effective technology integration. Though on the short term, economic benefits lead to diffusion of technologies, over the long term and integration of technologies depend on how well they serve the social well-being of fishing communities. I argue that mobile phones in fishing communities of Kerala have been adopted and integrated into the culture because they enhance users’ the capacity for decision-making by increasing choice and reducing risk, by establishing evenly distributed information flow.

    In the first section of this post I will describe the social and economic context of Keralite fishing communities prior to the diffusion of mobile phone technology. In the second section of the post I will examine the outcomes associated with the diffusion of mobile phone technology and its outcomes related to the communities’ fishing activities with respect to spatial and economic decision-making. Finally, I describe five ways that mobile phones have been integrated into spatial decision making, and the effect on economic arrangements. I will also examine the broader socio-cultural outcomes of the diffusion and adoption of this technology and its impact on socio-economic hierarchy, cooperation and collusion, and gender roles. I will conclude by assessing whether the outcomes observed in Kerala are a product of unique environmental, socio-economic and spatial arrangements in the region or if they can be generalized to elsewhere.
    Continue Reading »

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    Permanent linkMarzieh Ghiasi

    The Origins of AIDS (Jacques Pepin)

    Published March 30, 2013 | Share your thoughts
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    The Origins of AIDS (2011)
    Jacques Pepin
    306 pages

    AIDS was first identified in North America in 1981 and its infectious agent human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was isolated two years later. In the subsequent 30 years, AIDS has become a global pandemic that has led to around 30 million deaths. Pepin’s book tackled the origins of this devastating infectious disease subject in three parts: first, he examined the origin of the virus itself; second, he examined the context that permitted and even promoted outbreak of the virus; finally, he examined the global routes by which the virus traveled. Each part of the story was addressed through a historical lens and supported several lines of evidence, including viral biology, epidemiological and sociological data.

    The book began by examining current scientific understandings of where and when HIV made the transition from a simian ancestral virus to a human virus. Pepin examined colonial-era records, and modern molecular clock analysis of samples to pin-point the origin of the M strand of HIV-1 which is responsible for the vast majority of the global burden of AIDS. These lines of evidence point to a ‘patient zero’ in the Congo around 1921, with a confidence interval of ±10 years. Outlining the theories proposed to explain how the virus jumped, Pepin suggested that the most plausible is the ‘cut hunter theory’, where handling and consumption of chimpanzee bush meat is believed to have provided a route for cross-species transmission. However, palaeo-virological evidence suggests that simian variants of the virus have existed since at least the 15th century, in areas populated by humans. Why did the AIDS epidemic not emerge earlier?

    To investigate this question, Pepin took the reader to late 19th century, where sociopolitical trends led to greater access to weapons for hunting, and increased urbanization and public health campaigns which facilitated the spread of HIV. The colonization of central and West Africa by European powers brought about increasing urbanization, accompanied by great gender imbalance as these newly created cities became predominantly populated by young men seeking jobs. In early 20th century, these urban centers became breeding grounds for the sexual transmission of the virus facilitated by prostitution.

    While the behavioural component of the spread of AIDS has long been established, Pepin explored a second less-discussed but perhaps equally important factor: interavenous injections conducted as part of colonial public heath campaigns. I cringed a little when I began to read this part of the book since it quickly brought to mind the discredited AIDS origins theories. However, Pepin outright rejected such conspiracy theories. Rather what he described, thoroughly and with good evidence, is a classic “road to hell is paved with good intentions situation” and the culprit: un-sterile injections. Pepin provided evidence for repeated use of needles and lack of sterilization processes that may have exposed individuals to greater risk of exposure to HIV than they would have been otherwise. An excerpt in the book from medical archives describes common practices of the time, where “the syringe [was] used from one patient to the next, occasionally retaining small quantities of blood”. Pepin described “the largest ever iatrogenic epidemic” in Egypt where non-sterile anti-schistosomiasis injections were associated with a rise in blood-borne HCV infections. He postulated that in Central Africa the iatrogenic amplification of AIDS may have similarly occurred via “well-meaning” campaigns targeted to combating tropical diseases among the general population and containing sexually-transmitted such as syphilis among prostitutes and high-risk individuals.

    The latter chapters of the book followed the route of HIV out of central Africa in the 1970s at the heels of globalization and decolonization processes that led to great inter-continental migrations and dispatching of foreign nationals into the area. Pepin provided evidence that the jump was likely facilitated by a single Haitian who worked in the Congo. In Haiti, the virus proliferated and jumped to North America via commercial blood trade and sexual transmission, though the author argued that the former is probably responsible for the vast dissemination of the disease. While the latter part of the book was very interesting, I felt that it lacked the detail of the former part of the book. I think this in part had to do with the fact that there has been massive investigations into the African origins of HIV, and details about the early years of HIV in the Carribean and North America remain more murky.

    Overall, the Origins of AIDS provided a comprehensive and enjoyable to read account of the origins and the rise of AIDS. Through synthesizing current scientific research and archival documents Pepin reinforces the book’s central thesis that AIDS is a “tragedy… facilitated (or even caused) by human interventions.” The book’s narrative, interwoven with vast amounts of quantitative and qualitative evidence, made a compelling case that this global pandemic was not singularly driven by biology or individual behaviours, but broader social, political and economic frameworks.

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    Permanent linkMarzieh Ghiasi

    Drug-resistant Tuberculosis

    Published March 25, 2013 | Share your thoughts
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    http://www.mcgilldaily.com/2013/03/drug-resistant-tuberculosis/

    Image source: Stop TB PartnershipImage source: Stop TB Parnetship

    Drug-resistant Tuberculosis
    Very much an issue, and it’s spreading like wildfire
    By Marzieh Ghiasi
    March 25, 2013

    New strains of tuberculosis (TB) threaten efforts to eradicate one of the world’s deadliest diseases. An alarming study published in the March edition of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Emerging Infectious Diseases journal reveals the discovery of the first cases of totally drug-resistant TB in South Africa. These findings come on the heels of the discovery of virtually untreatable strains of TB in the hospital wards of Mumbai, India last year.

    TB, a bacterial lung disease, infected an estimated 8.7 million people in 2011, according to the most recent statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO). While inactive in the majority of those infected, the active form is transmitted through air. The disease is a leading infectious killer worldwide. Second only to HIV/AIDS, it kills one person every ten seconds. In those afflicted, it leads to severe weight loss, chronic coughing – often of blood-stained mucus – and destruction of lung tissues. Dr. Madhukar Pai, a leading McGill tuberculosis expert, explained that the disease is not only physically debilitating, but also accompanied by social stigma and a heavy economic burden.

    Multi-drug-resistant TB (MDR-TB) encompasses strains of the bacteria that do not respond to two critical drugs used to treat TB, isoniazid and rifampicin. When an individual is infected with the drug-resistant bacteria, physicians have to resort to ‘second-line’ drugs for treatment, which, according to Pai, have many side effects, are more expensive, and are not readily available.

    “The regular drug-sensitive TB requires a standard six month treatment, [and] it’s not inexpensive, like three days of antibiotics,” he explained. “[For MDR-TB] that treatment lasts two years…even if you give all of this stuff for two years, about 50 per cent of patients are dead.”

    In the past five years, a subset of patients has begun developing extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB), which is resistant to even more drugs and has worse survival rates. Although the WHO has not yet formally adopted the term totally drug-resistant TB (TDR-TB), the strains identified in India and South Africa are believed by researchers to be unresponsive to all known drugs.

    While the contexts of India and South Africa are very different, Pai says drug resistance in TB has similar “underlying drivers in both countries.” In India, the mismanagement of patients, which pushes them from physician to physician, has been identified as an important culprit in exacerbating TB. Poor diagnostics and fake drugs, which make up 10 per cent of the total TB drug supply in India, also leave patients receiving ineffective treatment.

    The crisis is further complicated in South Africa, where nearly one out of every five adults lives with HIV. The presence of “extensively drug-resistant TB plus HIV” Pai says, “is a complete disaster.”

    In recent years, a combination of efforts, including vaccination campaigns and national control strategies, have been implemented to fight TB by the South African government. However, the fight remains at a standstill as the casualties rise. The TB vaccine of choice BCG (Bacillus Calmette–Guérin), developed ninety years ago, is only partially effective. The rise of drug-resistant strains has prompted greater efforts to develop improved vaccines against the disease in order to protect people before they’re infected, but these efforts have led to disappointment. In February, MVA85A, which was touted at the first new TB vaccine in a century, failed clinical trials.

    Meanwhile, control efforts have given mixed results. Some reports suggest that India’s current strategy to defeat TB may actually be promoting more deadly drug-resistant strains. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Zarir Udwadia, whose research team discovered totally drug-resistant TB in India, criticized the country’s strategy as “a futile exercise [that will] serve to amplify resistance.”

    One of these strategies includes giving the same standard regimen of drugs to anyone suspected of having TB, without checking for resistance, which would entail additional costs. For some patients, these regiments do not work and only heighten the presence of drug-resistant strains. Similarly, in Eastern European countries, poor management of TB has only aggravated the problem. Other strategies have included quarantining. Notably, in South Africa, when extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis broke out, many patients were involuntarily detained in prison-like hospitals.

    “It doesn’t work. They broke out,” Pai said. “Keep on doing the wrong thing and you end up with drug-resistant bacteria that don’t respond to any interventions.”

    The broadest effort to combat TB, the Stop TB Partnership, consists of 1,000 international governmental and non-governmental organizations. The project aims to provide treatment for fifty million people and prevent 14 million deaths by 2015. However, the economic crisis has led some countries to reduce or stop contributing to TB prevention programmes.

    On March 21, McGill University launched its International TB Centre in an event attended by experts from across Canada. Dr. Anne Fanning, researcher at the University of Alberta and the Chair of Stop TB Canada, described global efforts against TB, local efforts against TB particularly in Inuit communities, and scientific research as three areas that need serious attention.

    “[All of this] needs the support of the government of Canada,” she emphasized.

    Pai similarly believes that all countries need to take TB more seriously. He warned that the chronic underfunding of these programs across the world might only lead to compounded costs for everyone later.

    “In today’s day and age there is no sense in thinking of global health as a problem that doesn’t bother us or affect us.” He said, “TB anywhere is TB everywhere.”

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    Permanent linkMarzieh Ghiasi

    Man rooh miforoosham/I sell souls

    Published March 22, 2013 | Share your thoughts
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    من روح می فروشم (سیمین بهبهانی) (I Sell Souls (Simin Behbahani
    تو را که خانه‌ی نیین است
    بازی نه این است
    – سعدی
     
    You whose house is of straw and hay
    Do not take fire for play

    Sa’adi –

    من روح می فروشم،
    وز هرچه نارواتر،
    در شهر خودپرستی،
    سودا و سود خلقی
    پرواری جسم و جان را،
    گر زانکه چاره باید،
    طبعی عزیز کُشتم
    وانگه به سوگواری،
    آیات کفر دیدم،
    وانگه به خیره گفتم
    در حلقه‌ی خموشان،
    تا خود، خموش بودن
    از «دور و کور گشتم»،
    شد بوف آن غزالی
    باغ دو چشم خود را
    کاین خوشه‌های اشکم
    شامم چه نام دارد؟
    بر بام من چه بارد؟
    سرد است سرد جانم،
    گویی که خانمانم
     
    گویم به خود که باری…
    صد شعله بر فروزد
    سعدی خموش خواهد
    «تا خانه‌ات نیین است،
    کالای من همین است
    این نارواترین است
    در چارسوق پستی
    دیری‌ست کاین چنین است
    پروانه‌ی امان را
    این است و آخرین است
    در آستان خواری
    اشکم در آستین است
    طعن جنون شنیدم
    کاین حکم عقل و دین است
    سر حلقه چون نگینم
    فرمان هر نگین است
    دل موج خیز خون شد
    کز آهوان چین است
    آباد می‌پسندم
    انگور دستچین است
    ژرفی که وهنماک است
    برفی که سهمگین است
    یخ بسته استوخانم
    قطبی ترین زمین است.
     
    گوگردِ سرخ داری
    شعری که آتشین است.
    این شعله را و گوید:
    بازی تو را نه این است.»
     
    I sell souls, the merchandise of my trade1
    Of all things vile, this is most depraved
    In the city of vanity, on the intersection of depravity
    Worldy trade and profit, has for some time been this way
    To indulge the body, and security ensure
    This is the first and the last resort
    A cherished spirit I killed in an abject state
    Tears on the sleeve, my anguish relate
    I saw blasphemous verses, I heard a deranged tirade
    This is the order of reason and faith, gazing I bade
    In the ring of the silent ringmaster, the gem I am
    For silence is the commandment of every gem
    The blind search, with blood the heart deluged
    The owl to a gazelle transformed2
    The garden of my eyes, blossoming I desire
    For the clusters of my tears are but handpicked grapes
    What can my night be called? It is a frightening abyss
    What falls on my roof? It is burdensome snow
    My body is cold, cold, my bones are bound in a frozen fold
    It is as though I dwell, on the Earth’s farthest pole
     
    To myself I have told… when red sulfur you hold3
    .A fiery poem set ablaze, a hundred flames will it raise
    :Sa’adi quenches this flame and says
    ,Until your house is of straw and hay“
    ”.Do not take fire for play

    Notes:
    [1] The namesake of the poem is difficult to translate and frankly ambiguous in meaning. The poem actually uses a singular form of ‘soul’ (rooh) as opposed to ‘souls’ (rooha). My choice was between the more accurate “I sell my soul”/”I sell the soul”/”I sell a soul” (all of which are different and depend on personal interpretation of the poem in Persian), because Persian doesn’t have definite/indefinite articles and the less accurate “I sell souls”. I was very reluctant to make this choice, but creating an aesthetically pleasing translation won out over literal translation.
    [2] This line, the previous and the few after were difficult for me to decipher. I would appreciate any input. Considering the previous line, I am speculating that the “owl” in this line is probably referring to the nihilist masterpiece by Sadegh Hedayat “The blind owl“. In the book the narrator confesses his thoughts to his shadow on a wall which looks “exactly like an owl”, these thoughts include the memory of girl with black eyes who the narrator is fixated by: “In her eyes, in her black eyes, I found the eternal night, the dense darkness I had been searching for”. The ‘Chinese deer’ (changed to ‘gazelle’ in the translation) refers to a deer which produced a substance in a gland under its belly used as a perfume, musk. The line may have been inspired by Mohtasham Kaashaani or Bedil Dehlavi. The former (line 4) refers to sharp black eyes that can cut the throats of Chinese deers (recalling the black eyes that the ‘owl’ is obsessed with). The latter refers to musk from hair having had origin in the blood in the belly/heart of Chinese deers.
    [3] Sulfur has long been associated with fires (in the phrase ‘fire and brimstone’, brimstone refers to sulfure), while red sulfur was a therapeutic pancea/elixir/cure-all used by Middle Eastern alchemists.

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  • Jan 6, 2013 » Underwater Sculptures
    Full fathom five thy father lies;
    Of his bones are coral made;
    Those are pearls that were his eyes:
    Nothing of him that doth fade
    But doth suffer a sea-change
    Into something rich and strange.

    - William Shakespeare (The Tempest, 1610)
    via Jason DeCaires Taylor and Messy Nessy. #
  • Jan 5, 2013 » Words from Teddy Roosevelt
    I was looking up great historical speeches and stumbled on Citizenship in a Republic, a 1910 speech by Teddy Roosevelt. The point is compelling in these cynical times.
    It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
    # #
  • The full circle

    Published November 13, 2012 | Share your thoughts
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    Maybe this is the sign of an impending quarter-life crisis…. but I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what inspires me and what I want to achieve in life. I was fortunate enough as kid to always have access to libraries, and found solace, constancy and direction in books that I had nowhere else. More so than school, than parents, than teachers it was the books the words of often long-dead friends, that influenced and shaped the paths I chose and the decisions. But there is a long way from Verne’s journey to the center of the Earth to Dosteovsky’s contemplative meanderings through the alleys of St. Petersburg– and none of it seems particularly relevant to how I ended up sitting in a cafeteria in Montreal.

    I became involved in research in civil/environmental engineering in high school, and right up to the point I was about to enter college I was convinced I was going to be an engineer. But as it is in life, sometimes the two roads diverge, and when I received the acceptance letters for the Faculty of Engineering and the Faculty of Science I had to make a choice. I drew the lists you’re supposed to, looked at pros and cons, and tried my best to take a circumspect approach. But when it came down to the decision, it was rather arbitrary– I just knew. So at the end there I was, in the Faculty of Science, with hundreds of specialties and thousands of courses I could take. I have to admit at that point I was quite envious of the people who knew exactly what they wanted, because the more lists I made the less certain I found myself.

    After jumping from program to program, taking dozens of courses that I would probably never need again (looking at you physical chemistry), by (fortunate) happenstance I finally found my place in Anatomy. For some time, though, it seemed to me that there was absolutely no rhyme and reason in the paths and places life had taken me. As an adult, I’d escaped the certainty of books, and ended up in the chaos of the real world.

    Recently, I was looking at a pile of old writings and drawings I’d brought from my last trip to my grandmother’s place… and by old, I mean from when I was 5. That year, I’d found the translated version a book called “The Incredible Journey Through the Human Body” by Nicholas Harris. I remember the hours I spent utterly obsessed with this book and its characters (and of course that shy moment where I learnt where babies come from). Looking at the pages of my old notebook, I find it striking that years later I should have ended up in taking a course working with cadavers and exploring the human body in person. I probably shouldn’t lend this meaning, given that I didn’t remember at all during the duration of my degree. But, frankly, I have this strange suspicion that this entire time a little 5-year-old with with a book in hand was nudging me as she looked out curiously though my eyes.

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    Permanent linkMarzieh Ghiasi

    FiveThirtyEight: Predictive analysis in the Social Sciences

    Published November 07, 2012 | Share your thoughts
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    In discussing the US presidential elections with American friends over the years, I’ve heard frequent complaints, and I quote “the entire thing is treated like a horse race surrounded by a media circus“. I have to confess that despite my sensibilities, when it comes to this particular horse race I find myself an entertained spectator through ‘Five Thirty Eight‘.

    Reading Asimov’s Foundation series as a kid made me long-time predictive statistics enthusiast. To my delight, I found and have followed Nate Silver’s blog and his election forecasting since his pseudonym (Poblano) days back in 2008. But, what really caught my attention in this case were not just Silver’s forecasts. It was the logical way in which he laid out his arguments and the remarkable clarity in which he delineated his supporting evidence for the layperson. This was in direct contrast to the pundits I was reading from who appeared to be, very literally, making up things. Of course, there was also the thrill of watching the numbers go up and down, and change left to right and right to left.

    It was not a tremendous surprise, at least for me, to see that Silver’s predictions were right for the 2008 election. However, this election was presented by the majority of pollsters and pundits as one that would be incredibly close, a sentiment which Nate Silver contested at least on the basis of his electoral college number-crunching. Consequently, there was a lot of speculation not only on which candidate would win, but also which pollsters, pundits, and analysts would be redeemed and which would burn away in fiery shame after the election results rolled in. Gambling on the gamblers. One interesting article was one that came out this week, a column by Jonah Goldberg that questioned Silver’s predictions, and simultaneously appealed for a move away from the “cult of numbers”.

    “I’m not saying Silver’s just lucky or shoveling garbage. He’s a serious numbers guy. But so are the folks at the University of Colorado’s political science department whose own model is based on economic indicators. Its Oct. 4 findings predict Romney will win, as do others… I like to think that people are different, more open to reason, and that the soul — particularly when multiplied into the complexity of a society — is not so easily number-crunched.”

    Well, Nate Silver was right. Which has led some to speculate that he maybe be Nostradamus reincarnate or a witch. To be fair, so were a a number of other witches and wizards. The implications of the election outcomes aside, I was pretty satisfied that FiveThirtyEight turned out to be completely on target (though I think the writing is worth it even if the predictions were completely wrong).

    Given the coverage that these ‘grand wizards’ of the ‘cults of numbers’ are getting (stretching the metaphor here), it is clear that there will more and more demand to reach forecasting into quarters where it hasn’t really been applied before, outside perhaps advertising research. In fact, the future is already here. There was an article in nature back in 2009 that attempted to model insurgencies, laying the groundwork for predictive models (see Sean Gourley’s great TED Talk), millions of dollars are being spent to develop computational social science models that can forecast “Cloudy, with an 80% chance of war”. Earlier this year Slashdot had an article on these models with the headline “Asimov’s Psychohistory Becoming a Reality?” I’m personally very interested in health planning and policy, and curious how this emerging predicative statistics arms race will affect policy making in this arena.

    Asimov’s psychohistory (and the driving force behind the novel’s narrative) was based on the premise that “while one cannot foresee the actions of a particular individual, the laws of statistics as applied to large groups of people could predict the general flow of future events.” But, this vision might not even be the most ambitious, as neuroscience and psychology are fields moving towards creating a deterministic model of the individual as well (though realistically, such developments are many years away). I’m personally a numbers gal but in the courses I am taking and the groups I collaborate in, there is always the reminder that there are people behind the numbers and that there are facets of individuals and societies that absolutely cannot be quantified.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely looking forward to a future where policies are based on empirical evidence rather than somebody’s gut feelings or popular opinion. However, I do wonder whether there are things that we miss as we seek to quantify and fit every facet of social patterns and behaviour into statistical models. Though I am not per se concerned about number crunching ‘the human soul’ I think Goldberg presented at least one important idea in his article: are there in fact facets of humanity that are simply not quantifiable, and not predictable? Or can we encompass everything we are and we will be as a society into neat statistical models?

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    Permanent linkMarzieh Ghiasi