Gambia Election 2016


The West African country of The Gambia held an election last Friday. To everyone’s great surprise, the incumbent president lost. Adama Barrow defeated the autocratic Yahya Jammeh, who seized power in a coup 22 years ago.

“As returns coming in from major regions clearly indicated that he was going to lose, [incumbent president] Mr. Jammeh asked his key advisers to annul the votes… He then gathered at the statehouse his top military security advisers, police officers and intelligence officials and asked for their support to discredit the vote. The officers told him that chaos would break out if they did so.”

The Gambia, which is around the size of Delaware, is surrounded by Senegal and has a population of approximately 2 million people. Election coverage appears in Al Jazeera and the New York Times, among other places. NYT’s coverage is unusually in-depth for such a small African country.

So, hooray for the first electoral change in power in Gambia’s history! Ghana, a bigger, richer, better governed country in West Africa, votes on Wednesday.

USA-Pakistan Diplomacy Jaw Drop

This morning I read a Washington Post article, shared by a friend, entitled “Pakistan’s surprisingly candid readout of Trump’s phone call with prime minister“. The article features a  sort-of transcript of a call this week between President-elect Trump and Pakistan’s Prime Minister.

Based on the readout’s tone and style, I thought it might be a hoax because it’s almost hammy in reproducing Mr. Trump’s speech patterns:

“President Trump said Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif you have a very good reputation. You are a terrific guy. You are doing amazing work which is visible in every way. I am looking forward to see you soon. As I am talking to you Prime Minister, I feel I am talking to a person I have known for long.”

Still, the New York Times is now reporting that the readout seems to be real.

President Trump said Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif you have a very good reputation. You are a terrific guy.

The NYT article notes that the White House and State Department are concerned about Mr. Trump speaking off the cuff to foreign heads of state, etc.; not so surprising. Then, smack in the middle, the NYT reports the following, and my jaw drops again:

“Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington, said his government’s decision to release a rough transcript of Mr. Trump’s remarks was a breach of protocol that demonstrated how easily Pakistani leaders misread signals from their American counterparts.”

It seems strange, doesn’t it, for a former ambassador to go on record saying his government breached protocol? In fact, it sounds like he’s siding with the US, warning us not to be dumb. I am intrigued. I shall poke around a little more.

Ideas from Poli Sci

As a political science graduate student, I studied how governments work and how citizens behave. I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the “big ideas” from my grad school years, with particular reference to last week’s election.

As a discipline, poli sci is pretty pessimistic. Its scholars think a lot about interests, power, and the often-unintended outcomes that emerge from the interplay of various interest groups and actors. Cooperative outcomes that increase human welfare aren’t impossible, but they aren’t terribly common, either.

Some of the thoughts on my mind, then, most of them worrisome:

  1. Political science has rarely predicted inflection points.
  2. Ethnic/identity salience is more easily triggered than un-triggered.
  3. Institutions rely at least as much on norms as they do on written/formalized rules.
  4. Social norms that restrain individual behavior take a long time to build and we know more about how they are broken than built.
  5. Virtuous and vicious cycles of behavior are an empirical reality.
  6. National/regional political movements provide cover for local score-settling.

And the abstracts of some articles that have stuck in my mind, some directly related to the thoughts above and some not.

(Photo: Gortyn Law Code, in public domain)

July 2016 Shootings

The shooting deaths this week, first of more black men by police, then of Dallas police officers, feel particularly bleak. I want to say we’re at a breaking point, but I fear we may not be. The headlines on the New York Times’s digital front page, below, describe the past, present, and specter of the future. It’s a sort of poetry of horror:

Violence Divides a Nation Torn by Race

Here’s what we know about the shootings in Dallas, Baton Rouge and Minnesota

Ambush in Dallas: 5 Officers Die in Sniper Attack at Protest

Gunman Said to Be Army Veteran; Police Kill Him with Robot

Study Confirms That Use of Force Is More Likely on Blacks

Styrofoam Homes

Go figure: Folks are trying out styrofoam homes in Kajiado District in Kenya. They’re apparently economical, pleasantly insulated, and environmentally friendly in a timber-poor environment.

To make houses, polystyrene foam is sandwiched between two slabs of steel wire mesh. Once these have been joined together, they are sprayed with cement to support and strengthen the walls.

The tiny air bubbles trapped in the foam mean polystyrene houses can control climatic conditions better than buildings made of timber or concrete. Because air is a poor conductor of heat, the house stays cool when external temperatures are high and warm when it is cold outside.

A little internet searching reveals that such construction isn’t new: there’s a polystyrene panel manufacturer that’s been operating since at least 2012.

(Photo courtesy of Koto Housing Kenya)

Yellow Fever (Not) in the News

There’s currently a  yellow fever outbreak in Angola that is wildly under-reported. The Economist makes this remark about the disease that really struck me:

“It occupies a strange place on the spectrum of infectious tropical diseases. Not as important as malaria. Not as terrifying as Ebola. Not as revolting as elephantiasis. Yet yellow fever is a grave illness, incurable once contracted. It kills 80,000 Africans a year. And that is a scandal, both because it can be prevented by a single inoculation and also because yellow fever now risks spreading to Asia, where it has never before taken hold.”

(Image courtesy of ZEISS/R. Heinzen, E. Fischer, and A. Mora/Flickr)

Is That Even a Thing?

I loved this article, and the author’s third explanation of why we’ve started asking, “Is that even a thing?”:

[One reason we ask “Is That Even a Thing?” is] the closing gap between satire and the real thing. The absurd excess of things has reached a point where the ironic detachment needed to cope with them is increasingly built into the things themselves, their marketing and the language we use to talk about them. The designator “a thing” is thus almost always tinged with ironic detachment. It puts the thing at arm’s length. You can hardly say “a thing” without a wary glint in your eye. The volume, particularity and inanity of the phenomena effectively force us to take up this detachment. The complaint that the young are jaded or ironic is misplaced; it’s the conditions that are this way.


I am one happy project manager! Last week, US Common Sense launched our public finance sustainability website, We’ve been sweating it out for months and now we’re live. Here’s hoping the site will foster good research, debate about our methods, and more public awareness of the state of local finances!


About GovRank: We want all citizens, journalists, and public officials to have greater access to information about their governments’ finances. Recognizing the challenges of data availability, comparability, and transparency, US Common Sense compiled data for over 13,000 local governments and all 50 states dating back to 2008-09… We collected more than 97,000 financial reports and nearly 70,000 budgets; extracted “top line” financial figures; and ranked local and state governments’ relative performance.

And a personal reflection: Several friends have remarked that the site’s data gives ammunition to folks who want to cut public employee pensions and benefits. I firmly believe the data can equally well be used to argue for responsible funding of such benefits. As a humanist, I have to believe making information visible eventually makes the world a better place and act accordingly.