RBC smartphone review

Really cheap and full-featured smartphones arrive in Africa.

For your weekend edification, I bring you a smartphone review. I have not actually seen or touched the phone in question, for reasons that will become evident, so I am going entirely on Web information.

The phone is a basic model sold by transnational South African mobile telco MTN. It’s the Mobicel Astro, and retails for 449 rand or $33.

This is not the cheapest on the market. MTN will sell you this for 249 rand or $18. Vendors sensibly avoid the term “smartphone” for such handsets. They don’t run a full mobile OS and are limited to browsing and, crucially, messaging and VOIP with WhatsApp. The Astro is recognizably from the same genus as the iPhone and its many emulators.

Here is a table comparing the Astro to the original and the latest iPhone.

I leave out the infinite variety of apps they can all run. Here are a few; I mark with an asterisk the ones where the smartphone does as good a job as a purpose-built device, for the others it’s second best, just as with a Swiss Army knife.

*Phone, *calculator, *clock/timer/alarm, *calendar/diary, *geolocator, *messaging device, *notebook, camera, recorder, compass, flashlight, Web browser, word processor, spreadsheet processor, music player, video player, photo viewer, UI for plug-in sensor, game console.

Some quick takeaways.

1. The specs of the Astro are at least as good as those of the original iPhone in every respect, at under a tenth of the price.

2. Apple has not given its customers any price gains, and has even raised prices.

3. Technical progress since the first iPhone has been modest. The $1000 iPhone XS has just two significant new functions over the 12-year-old original: the selfie camera (which the Astro has) and the biometric ID (which the Astro lacks).

Now of course Apple fans will say: iPhones are better made; everything works better and faster; the A12 processor chip in particular is a monster that can run a battleship; the image quality from the camera is of a different order from cheap phones. All true. I maintain that the main revolution was all in the original iPhone, and the Astro matches it.

The Astro and its competitors are far more important devices in their social impact than an incremental status display like the iPhone XS. In Africa the Internet means mobile, outside a few lucky cities. Mobile phone penetration is 44%: more than one per family. A third of these phones are smart, or 250 million. Cheap handsets will speed this up.

Much of this impact is good: better access to information on health, prices and technology, for one. But we have seen in the well-educated USA and UK the hacking of major elections by manipulation of social media. In the Rwandan genocide 0f 1994, the Interahamwe only had old-fashioned radio to work with. Their successors will have Facebook and Twitter.

Embracing “Impossible” Data

Image result for snowing indoors

As I waited for my train to London in one of those cavernous railroad stations up North, flakes of snow started to fall around me. My first thought was “Huh – it’s snowing”, followed seconds later with a shocking realization: “I’m indoors…and it’s snowing!!!”.

I looked up into the gloomy reaches of the arched ceiling high above me and concluded there must a hole in the roof through which an outdoor snowstorm was casting some flakes. I walked outside to check. It was certainly a cold November day, but the sky was clear and there was not even a skiff on the ground. Yet when I walked back inside, it was still very lightly snowing by the tracks where I had been standing.

Later that evening, in a downstairs bar off Pall Mall, I related my strange tale to my companions, who began forming theories. Because this particular watering hole is popular with spooks — who enjoy eavesdropping and puzzle solving in equal measure — pretty soon the whole place was engaged in a lively debate regarding how my impossible data could indeed be possible. It was fun discussion and without rancor.

Contrast that with different impossible data: Your doctor brings back your “routine tests” and says that even though you feel fine, you are gravely ill. Something in you shouts NO and you understandably come up with every possible reason why the impossible data just can’t be correct.

Those two cases of “impossible data” are at the extremes where the data are either entirely fun and non-threatening to learn from vs. terrifying to the core. Most impossible data is between those poles, and I wonder as a teacher and as a citizen whether we can instill in people a stronger habit of seeing impossible data like indoor snow instead of proof of terminal illness.

How do we get a gun rights advocate to do something other than scream “fake news!” when a study shows that gun owners are more likely to be shot? How do we get a firm atheist to appreciate evidence that highly religious people are happier and healthier? What is the magic that makes impossible data an exciting chance to learn more about the world rather than something to shut out at all costs?

Perhaps Less Than Meets the Eye

I hesitate in commenting upon the Jeffrey Epstein matter. After all, the motto of the RBC is that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Somehow, the feel of this story is more National Enquirer than, say, the sort of measured and sober analysis which this blog attempts to traffic in. However, the indictment and arrest of Epstein today, coupled with Wednesday’s decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit unsealing vast amounts of material filed in a defamation suit in New York, take this matter outside of the seamy margins of “journalism” practiced by the likes of the Enquirer.

While I haven’t checked, I have to assume that these two coincident developments are “trending” on FaceBook and Twitter. There is, simply put, a tsunami of what might best be described as prurient speculation as to the identities of the famous and near-famous who might be implicated in Epstein’s alleged one-man sex-trafficking ring. However, let me point out the following:

I think that the caveat set forth by the Second Circuit in its opinion deserves more attention than it is likely to receive:

[T]he  media  does  the  public  a  profound disservice when it reports on parties’ allegations uncritically. We have previously  observed  that  courts  cannot  possibly  “discredit  every statement or document turned up in the course of litigation,” and we have criticized “the use by the media of the somewhat misleading term ‘court  records’  in  referring  to  such items.”  Even  ordinarily  critical readers  may  take  the  reference  to  “court  papers”  as  some  sort  of marker of reliability.  This would be a mistake.


We  therefore  urge  the  media  to  exercise  restraint  in  covering potentially defamatory allegations, and we caution the public to read such accounts with discernment. 

Slip op. at 23-24, footnote omitted.

The one thing that we know is that the public will not read “such accounts” with discernment. And, this lack of discernment is certainly stoked by the current resident of the White House who, for instance, claims that he was the victim of some vast electoral conspiracy. However, I have done my job by striking this cautionary note.

Update: I have uploaded a copy of the Epstein indictment here.

Census Litigation Update

I’ve posted the government’s latest filing in the ongoing Census litigation in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland. (There is similar litigation ongoing in two other district courts.)

In essence, the government is claiming that the Supreme Court’s action upholding the current injunction is based solely on the claim that the rationale behind the initial actions of the Secretary of Commerce was pretextual. As such, the case is essentially moot because the government will no longer rely upon that rationale. Thus, no further discovery should be allowed at this point. Then, as explained by the government:

Any new decision by the Department of Commerce on remand providing a new rationale for reinstating a citizenship question on the census will constitute a new final agency action, and Plaintiffs will be fully entitled to challenge that decision at that time.

Government Motion at 1-2.

Thus:

Here, no amount of discovery will change the fact that the March 2018 decision that was the subject of Plaintiffs’ lawsuit has been vacated and the matter remanded to the agency. The Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Commerce have been asked to reevaluate all available options following the Supreme Court’s decision and whether the Supreme Court’s decision would allow for a new decision to include the citizenship question on the 2020 Decennial Census. In the event the Commerce Department adopts a new rationale for including the citizenship question on the 2020 Decennial Census consistent with the decisions of the Supreme Court, the Government will immediately notify this Court so that it can determine whether there is any need for further proceedings or relief. But proceeding to discovery now in connection with a new decision that has not yet been made would be premature. It would also be extremely inefficient.

I will update as necessary.

UPDATE: Here’s the Court’s letter order denying the government’s attempt to short-circuit the litigation. The Court made short work of the merits of the government’s position:

Plaintiffs’ remaining claims are based on the premise that the genesis of the citizenship question was steeped in discriminatory motive. The discovery contemplated by the Court related to the recently discovered evidence in this case goes directly to that issue. Regardless of the justification Defendants may now find for a “new” decision, discovery related to the origins of the question will remain relevant. Given that time is of the essence, therefore, the prudent course is to proceed with discovery. As both sides acknowledge, the schedule may be adjusted as circumstances warrant.

As to the procedural issue that the case is now moot, the Court said:

Additionally, Defendants suggest in their filing that Plaintiffs’ Rule 60(b) Motion is now moot. If Defendants wish to further litigate that issue, while conducting discovery, an appropriate motion can be filed and the Court will formally respond upon full briefing. In the meantime, in accordance with the Order being issued today, discovery shall commence.

Simply put, the Court saw through the government’s attempt to issue a new order, either by the Secretary of Commerce or via an Executive Order issued by Trump, and thus avoid investigation into the intent behind the inclusion of the citizenship question.

Disorder in the Court

I have uploaded the transcript of the telephone conference/hearing in the case ongoing in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland concerning the census question re: citizenship. I have highlighted certain passages and made a few comments.

The transcript shows the government is in total disarray. Not only is the chain of command not being followed (that would have required that directions come from the Secretary of Commerce or the Attorney General), but the Justice Department attorneys have been given no official direction whatsoever. (Twitter is not an authorized mode of governmental communication.)

Let’s be as clear as possible: The basic incompetency of Donald Trump to discharge the duties of his office is no longer seriously in doubt. His strutting performance tomorrow will only serve to underline that fact.

He Shall Be Released?

When I first began to practice law, I was with a small, general practice firm that took whatever walked in the door. At one point, we had a federal court appointment to represent a defendant in an alleged drug conspiracy involving the Pagans motorcycle gang.

In response to our discovery requests, the U.S. Attorney’s Office dumped on us a ton of wiretap transcripts between the various Pagans and their followers and even mail that had been picked up in physical searches. When I say “dumped,” I mean “thrown in a box, randomly and in no particular order, and delivered to us.” It was my job to go through each piece of paper to see whether there was any possible evidence that would exculpate our client.

As I read the material, a strange pattern appeared. The Pagans did not believe that they were engaged in any wrongdoing. Rather, they believed that they were the objects of a conspiracy of by law enforcement and were being unfairly persecuted. In a very real way, it was like looking through a window into a universe of some alternative reality.

Tonight, I read the Sean Hannity/Paul Manafort text message “conversation.” Again, I had the same feeling of looking at some alternative reality. Manafort believed that the Office of Special Prosecutor, particularly Andrew Weisman, was in a conspiracy with the “Main Stream Media” to frame him. I don’t know whether Hannity actually also believed that, but he certainly feed Manafort’s fantasy.

The text stream ended on June 5, 2018. Since then, Manafort has been convicted by a jury of five counts of tax fraud, one count of failure to file a report of foreign bank and financial accounts and two counts of bank fraud. The jury voted 11-1 on 10 other charges. And, of course, Manafort has pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy. There was a conspiracy, but no one conducted by prosecutors.

I haven’t had much contact with the criminal justice system since those early days in practice. But perhaps because also I watched Martin Scorsese’s documentary Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story tonight and then read the text exchange, I saw certain of Dylan’s lyrics in a different light. That is, perhaps most criminal defendants are as self-deluded as those Pagans and Paul Manafort:

Down here next to me in this lonely crowd
Is a man who swears he’s not to blame
All day long I hear him cry so loud
Calling out that he’s been framed

Medical Journal: 10/28/18

Had a moderately rough time in Prague, but suddenly today I’m feeling better: not normal, but better. As of this morning, I seem to be able to croak rather than whisper reliably, which makes a huge difference. And I just spent an hour on my feet in the Rijksmuseum without undue strain. Was going to cut my trip short by two days; now I’m shooting for one.

Where Is Blaise Pascal When You Really Need Him?

Both the Washington Post and the New York Times have reported that the Trump White House refused to approve the written testimony of Dr. Rod Schoonover for entry into the permanent Congressional Record. Dr. Schoonover had testified on Wednesday before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on the dangers that climate change poses to the security of the US.

Both the Post and the Times had links to the MS Word document of
Dr. Schoonover’s comments complete with the editorial comments of the WH censors reviewers. I have posted a copy of that document here. (I have added the RBC “Seal” and OCR’d the document.) Reading the document is more alarming than the fact of the suppression of Dr. Schoonover’s comments. It reveals a White House or NSC staff that is dominated with climate-denier ideologues.

For instance, one comment reads:

[T]here is nothing exceptional about current climate and it is profoundly incorrect to say that ‘characteristics of global climate are moving outside the bounds experienced in human history.” There was faster and greater Medieval warming around the year 1000 when Norse settled southern Greenland and developed a thriving agricultural society.

BJME 3.

The blog Skeptical Science shoots a hole in that nonsense:

Firstly, evidence suggests that the Medieval Warm Period may have been warmer than today in many parts of the globe such as in the North Atlantic. This warming thereby allowed Vikings to travel further north than had been previously possible because of reductions in sea ice and land ice in the Arctic. However, evidence also suggests that some places were very much cooler than today including the tropical pacific. All in all, when the warm places are averaged out with the cool places, it becomes clear that the overall warmth was likely similar to early to mid 20th century warming.


Since that early century warming, temperatures have risen well-beyond those achieved during the Medieval Warm Period across most of the globe.  The National Academy of Sciences Report on Climate Reconstructions in 2006 found it plausible that current temperatures are hotter than during the Medieval Warm Period.  Further evidence obtained since 2006 suggests that even in the Northern Hemisphere where the Medieval Warm Period was the most visible, temperatures are now beyond those experienced during Medieval times  (Figure 1).  This was also confirmed by a major paper from 78 scientists representing 60 scientific institutions around the world in 2013.


Secondly, the Medieval Warm Period has known causes which explain both the scale of the warmth and the pattern. It has now become clear to scientists that the Medieval Warm Period occurred during a time which had higher than average solar radiation and less volcanic activity (both resulting in warming). New evidence is also suggesting that changes in ocean circulation patterns played a very important role in bringing warmer seawater into the North Atlantic. This explains much of the extraordinary warmth in that region. These causes of warming contrast significantly with today’s warming, which we know cannot be caused by the same mechanisms.

However, at the center of the WH attack is the “uncertainty principle.” That is, the proposition that we cannot act on the threat of global climate change because it is possible that our conclusions are not airtight. Thus, they include this quote from Syukuro “Suki” Manabe: “Don’t put your model in a race with nature. Your model will lose this race.” The quote is literally accurate but taken out of context. What Manabe did in his work was to simplify his models, taking out complexities and, thereby, isolating specific factors in climate change. See here. Manabe believes in the reality of CO2 driven climate change and the basic accuracy of climate models.

Finally, we get to Blaise Pascal and his famous wager. In its most simple form, Pascal posits that we cannot by human reason either prove or disprove whether God exists. He points out that if a wager was between the equal chance of gaining two lifetimes of happiness and gaining nothing, then a person would be a fool to bet on the latter. He then concludes that it is irrational to risk an eternal life of happiness for the possibility of gaining nothing. (“If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.”) (I’m certain that many of the members of the RBC would jump on me if I did not point out that one of the flaws in the wager is that there are many competing gods and that one cannot, using human reasoning, prove which is the true god.)

But that’s not the choice we face in addressing global climate change.

First, modeling, while not perfect, allows us to fairly accurately compute the future temperature rise and rise in ocean acidity due to CO2 buildup. Thus, we are out of “coin flip” territory. The probabilities of a disastrous outcome are, if not certain, very high.

Second, we can assess our costs, but downside and upside, with some degree of accuracy. We have projections of populated areas that are threatened by sea rise, species that are at risk of extinction, and the geographic shift of areas that can be used in agriculture.

Basically, Pascal basic approach was correct. Weigh the upside against the downside. He was in error in assessing the upside (i.e., that there are many competing gods) and could not calculate the probabilities involved. We are not so limited. Except in the White House.

Feline asthma

Cat asthma as a political argument to Republican pet owners.

This is about public policy, promise.

My elderly cat Hobbes now has a respiratory problem, as I do. It’s probably feline asthma. Cats get asthma like humans, while dogs don’t. One cause, say vets, is air pollution.

Credit: MeowValet on YouTube

The literature seems stronger on indoor air pollution than outdoor. Second-hand tobacco smoke is a culprit, as are wood fires and incense. I found a serious controlled Taiwanese study on indoor pollution making the link. The effect of outdoor pollution has been less studied for animals. One Mexican study creepily found similar lesions in the brains of big-city dogs to those found in humans with Alzheimer’s.

It seems safer just to rely on the parallelism in the symptoms and mechanisms of cat and human asthma, and the massive literature connecting the human form to air pollution, to conclude that all air pollution is bad for cats too. The effect is reinforced by the height difference: cats and dogs breathe in air at car exhaust level.

This hypothesis suggests a political strategy. In the USA, there are said to be 49.2 million households with a cat. There are 50.4 million with children under 18. That’s 39% each. I couldn’t find a combined breakdown, but let’s assume that the two are independent. That would give 30 million childless households with a cat. The real total will be different, but it’s still a very large number.

This demographic skews old, white and therefore Republican. It cares for its cats. It strikes me as a good argument to make to this group in favour of the energy transition and the GND that the policy will protect the health of their pets.

Some will say: this is ridiculous. Are there really a non-trivial number of voters who will be swayed by the health of cats but not the health of children? If there are, surely they are either “low-information voters” – idiots – or moral imbeciles, and lost causes in either case?

My answers are (a) quite likely and (b) no.

Let me make the case for the defence. The questions are linked by the broader issue of moral myopia.

Continue reading “Feline asthma”

Weekend Radio Show Recommendation

You read that arightly, I am recommending a radio drama rather than a film this week: 1938’s War of the Worlds (click here to listen). To the extent people have heard of it at all, they know it as the show that allegedly drove America into a national panic about invading Martians (in truth, very few people actually listened to the broadcast). What it ought to be remembered for is its high level of artistic achievement.

The radio play was performed by the Mercury Theater troupe founded by two wildly talented people: Orson Welles and John Houseman.
Howard Koch, who later became justly famous as the co-scripter of Casablanca, gets the credit for brilliantly adapting H.G. Wells’ novel to radio in a fashion that took advantage of everything the medium and the Mercury Theater company could do. The novel’s rather lengthy set-up chapters and some of its clunky plot development (i.e., having the narrator run into someone who provides crucial information) were a function of the book being told through the eyes of a single narrator. In contrast, staged as a fake news broadcast with scattered, breathless, reports coming in as the Martians wreak havoc, the radio play grips you by the throat immediately and gives the listener a range of details from different geographic locations in an utterly realistic fashion.

Radio also of course opens up opportunities to add sounds — the screams and footfalls of panicked crowds, the horrible, metallic, unscrewing of the Martian cylinders, and the terrifying zzzaaapppp of those heat rays! It’s high craftmanship that still leaves us the fun of imagining how it all looked.

Last, but not least, what an explosion of talent this troupe of actors represented! Not just the big names, but also people like Ray Collins, Dan Seymour, Kenny Delmar, and Frank Readick. They are all perfect at creating characters with voice alone, each of whom seems like a real human being responding to out of this world events. Some New York theater fans were disappointed when talented, stage-trained actors they admired began transferring to new, middle brow, media like radio and film, but the upside was that the whole country and indeed the whole world got to enjoy the dramatic gifts and skills of companies like the Mercury Theater.

I loved listening to radio play as a kid (the image above is of the record album of it my parents had) and it’s just as suspenseful and exciting for me today. War of the Worlds is in the public domain so you can give it a listen anytime. You won’t regret it.

p.s. If you want to see a film version of the same story, Walt Disney’s 1953 version provides way more entertainment value that Spielberg’s grim and weirdly lifeless, gazillion-dollar version.