Which are the world’s worst airports?

Which are the world’s worst airports?

LIKE expensive watches that never break, the world’s best airports can be boring. You land, breeze through passport control and check into a hotel within minutes. The experience is pleasant, but not memorable. The worst airports have more character. To adapt Tolstoy, lovely airports are all alike, but every wretched airport is wretched in its own way.

Consider Juba. The airport in South Sudan’s capital is a sweltering tent next to a festering puddle. Planes are often late, so passengers must sweat for hours. The departure lounge has no toilets, no food and no queuing system. Lucky is the traveller who finds a chair that is only half-broken. Since dirty water and tropical diseases are common, so are upset stomachs. Tough luck. Travellers should have thought twice before eating salad.

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Security is haphazard. Big important people’s flunkies carry their bags, which are ostentatiously passed round, not through, the scanner. Since the machine seldom works, little people are in effect upgraded to big important status by not having their bags scanned for guns and explosives, either.

South Sudan is at war, so many UN planes take off from Juba carrying aid workers and emergency supplies. Aggressive officials in sunglasses take pleasure in obstructing them. When your correspondent was booked on a UN flight, he was assured by the government that his papers were in order. Yet at the airport he was told to get a fourth permit, as well as the three pricey ones he had already obtained. This required a trip across town and a tedious haggle. Predictably, he missed his plane.

Juba has three terminals, but only one is in use. After South Sudan became independent in 2011, the government planned to build an airy structure of glass, steel and concrete. Work started in 2012, but stopped when the bills were not paid. In 2016 the government decided to build a more modest terminal. But it, too, stands half-completed and empty, next to the tented camp that people actually have to use. Travellers are advised to bring a good, long book.

All are bored

Working out which is the world’s worst airport is not easy. The best rough-and-ready attempt is the Guide to Sleeping in Airports, a website that publishes an annual survey based on voluntary submissions from irate travellers. It ranks airports by qualities such as discomfort, poor service, bad food, cumbersome immigration procedures and how hard it is to grab forty winks while waiting for a connection.

Overall, Juba was rated worst in 2017. Since photographing any airport in South Sudan will get you arrested, the description of its “horrific smells and filth” is accompanied by an artist’s impression which makes the departure lounge look far nicer than it is.

The ranking is inevitably skewed by sampling bias. It misses truly awful places that hardly anyone visits, and over-emphasises less egregious ones that handle more people. Juba won its “worst in the world” ranking not only on demerit but also because so many foreign charity workers pass through and complain about it. Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, comes second not because it is really the second-worst in the world but because it is swamped with haj pilgrims every year and cannot cope.

Because gripes spring from disappointment, expectations matter. Travellers in the rougher parts of the world applaud wildly when a plane lands without crashing; more pampered types are enraged if the Wi-Fi is slow. It was the mismatch between expectation and reality that doubtless propelled three Greek hubs (Crete, Santorini and Rhodes) into the Sleeping in Airports worst ten. Hordes of northern Europeans flew to Greece for a cheap holiday in 2017, where they encountered strikes, delays and other indignities to which they were unaccustomed. Many reached for their smartphones and complained.

To illuminate some of the gaps in existing rankings of bad airports, The Economist conducted an unscientific, anecdotal poll of its globe-trotting correspondents. It attracted more, and more passionate, responses than nearly any other internal survey we have done. Here are some of our reflections from the departure gates of hell.

Several airports in war zones are worse than Juba. Our Africa editor cites Bangui, in the Central African Republic: “The fence around it has been stolen, so when big jets come in to land the pilots keep their hands on the throttle so they can pull up if they see people trying to run across the runway (which lies between a refugee camp and the city, and so has lots of crossing traffic). On the plus side it has sandbagged bunkers on its roof and was designated the final fallback position by French forces during the civil war, so if you are in it you are about as safe as you can be.”

Although each awful airport is unique, four themes recur: danger, bullying by officials, theft and delay. Sometimes, all these reinforce each other. For example, it takes ages to get through Lubumbashi airport (in the Democratic Republic of Congo) because truculent security officials slow things down in the hope that passengers will give them “un cadeau” to hurry up. If you hand over $1, they let you board without your bags getting checked at all. Such transactions are often referred to as “bribes”, but are really a form of extortion with menaces. They make air travel in places like Congo slower, riskier, costlier and much more unpleasant.

Air travellers make tempting targets for thieves. They are rich enough to afford an air ticket, which in many places makes them rich indeed. They carry luggage, some of it valuable. They are often far from home and unfamiliar with local rules. Finally, airports are full of choke points through which travellers must pass if they are to board their planes, creating opportunities for crooked officials to fleece them.

The ones in Manila are especially creative. Some have been known to plant bullets in luggage so they can “find” them and demand bribes not to have the owners arrested. This scam is known in Tagalog as “laglag bala” (“drop bullet”).

In Johannesburg the pilfering is covert but rampant. Our correspondent grumbles: “Despite packing absolutely nothing of value in my checked bags they are regularly rifled through and were twice slashed open (they weren’t even locked). Once I found someone else’s sunglasses case in my bag; mislaid, perhaps, by luggage handlers in a looting frenzy.”

Some travellers are harassed by officials who seem to fear that, if they do not look busy, they will be replaced by machines, as many have been at modern airports. The magnificently uniformed functionary in Delhi who demands to see your papers—despite having just watched another functionary inspect them—falls into this category. Other officials harass travellers for the sheer fun of wielding power. Our former Cairo bureau chief writes, of Saudi immigration procedures: “The queues are subtly divided by nationality and caste. If you happen to be a Baloch labourer, your lot is to sit on the floor for hours, getting barked at and swatted by swagger-stick-wielding Saudi policemen. Anyone who falls asleep risks a thrashing.”

Rules change at borders, and some airport officials enforce them mindlessly. One correspondent recalls that in Santiago, Chile: “I once got detained for two hours for failing to declare an unopened, sealed bag of almonds. I then had to write a declaration expressing my contrition for bringing the nuts. When I failed to do so without cracking up I was threatened with arrest. The lady next to me was being interrogated for smuggling in a lone banana.”

The worst airports reflect the vices of the governments that regulate them. Pyongyang has a totalitarian vibe. A correspondent writes: “The plane played rousing music when we flew over the border into North Korea, and we were handed copies of the national newspaper and asked not to fold it, since it had a photo of Kim Jong Il on the front page.” The only consolation is that the airport has a chocolate-fondue fountain.

Venezuela’s half-Marxist, half-gangster, wholly incompetent government, which has prompted much of the middle class to emigrate, does not make the journey easy or pleasant. Our Bello columnist grumbles of Caracas: “Your hand baggage will be searched in detail twice (by the National Guard, who are drug smugglers who claim to be fighting drugs).” Our organised-crime correspondent also has miserable memories: “The departures board showed our flight as delayed up to the moment when it showed it as closed. I waited endless hours for the next flight in a fast-food restaurant, the only place with seats, and watched a mange-ridden dog licking out the polystyrene containers strewn on the floor.”

Poor countries have an excuse for poor airports. Rich countries do not, which is perhaps why travellers are particularly irked to find grottiness in, say, Brussels, the heart of the European Union and a noted centre of gastronomy. Our Charlemagne columnist writes of Charleroi, its second airport: “It is grim, grimy and cramped, and has atrocious food. The planes leave and land at ungodly hours. And the only real way into town is a coach that runs every 30 minutes and is frequently overbooked: more than once I’ve queued in the rain only to see it drive off as I reach the front.” Many correspondents moaned about Berlin, where a new, unfinished terminal is six years late. Another European airport that elicits howls is Luton, which claims, fancifully, to be close to London. An intern writes: “Going on holiday and returning to Luton is like having a wonderful dream and waking up to find yourself in a puddle under a railway bridge.”

Airports all around the world have to cope with growing crowds. The number of passengers has roughly doubled since 2005, to an estimated 4bn in 2017. Some have done so brilliantly, harnessing technology and smart design to usher more people swiftly through. Singapore, Seoul and Munich score highly on this measure.

American airports, by and large, do not. This is not simply because security has grown tighter since 2001—that is true everywhere. It is because security and immigration screening are far more hasslesome than they need to be. Border officials are rude, and there are too few of them. Surveys suggest that every year millions of tourists shun the world’s greatest country because getting in is so horrible. A “trusted traveller” programme speeds things up a bit, but only for a handful of passengers.

Idiotic bureaucracy abounds. Travellers from Europe to Latin America who change planes in the United States must pass through immigration control, thus running the risk of missing their connection. What is the point of asking people who do not wish to enter the United States why they wish to enter the United States? Transit passengers in Singapore or Nairobi do not have their time wasted like this.

Our overall judgment (readers are invited to visit our travel blog, Gulliver, to dispute it) is that, adjusted for national income per head, several busy American airports would be contenders for worst in the world. Washington Dulles has the worst-designed ground transport: travellers must enter and leave a mobile pod by the same door, so everyone crowds round in the hope of getting off first, thus blocking it. JFK is the main gateway to the world’s capital of consumerism, yet scarcely any retail therapy is available to treat travellers’ boredom. But Miami is surely worst of all. The queues at passport control take nearly as long to navigate as Leif Erikson took to cross the Atlantic in a longboat.


Charities are becoming more professional

Charities are becoming more professional

WITH 3,700 square metres of retail space, the Emmaus megastore on the outskirts of Preston, a northern English city, is the biggest charity shop in Britain. Customers wander among endless rows of sofas, testing the cushions and examining the other wares, from bric-a-brac to bicycles. Some staff are volunteers. Others were once homeless, and the £250,000 ($337,000) the store makes a year goes towards their housing, training and food.

Charity shops increasingly resemble other retail outlets, with appealing layouts, professional customer service and managers who honed their skills on the high street. Indeed, all kinds of non-profit organisations have become more businesslike over the past few decades. This shift is global, says Lester Salamon of the Johns Hopkins Centre for Civil Society Studies. But it has progressed furthest in rich countries, where the non-profit sector (which we generally take to exclude hospitals, universities and religious groups) is a bigger part of the economy.

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In the 1980s governments began to fund charities less through grants and more through contracts. The shift is continuing. According to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), between 2001 and 2015 the share of state funding of British charities that was in the form of contracts rose from 49% to 81%. The Economist’s analysis shows that, of 12 American government departments with plentiful data, ten increased the share of charities’ funding that came through contracts over the same period. In 2010 the European Commission noted the same trend.

Bidding for contracts has forced charities to find ways to undercut or outbid rivals. Often, getting paid has meant hitting performance targets, such as finding work for 100 jobless people within a month. They have also had to employ more qualified staff. To win a contract to care for disabled people, for example, a charity would need to employ a certain number of staff with degrees in social work.

A further impetus to professionalise came from “voucher” schemes, in which governments provided tokens to be exchanged for services. That turned a charity’s clientele into customers with choices. To woo them, it would have to make its offering sufficiently attractive.

With fewer grants, charities’ income streams became less predictable. Many sought to smooth their revenues by selling more goods and services. In America in 1982, such sales made up 48% of non-profit income. According to Janelle Kerlin and Muhammet Coskun of Georgia State University, by 2013 that figure (which includes government contracts) had risen to 56%. The recession that followed the financial crisis accelerated the trend. Between 2008 and 2015 British charities’ revenue from selling goods and services to the public rose from 18% to 23% of the total, according to the NCVO.

Managers from mainstream retailing brought a fresh eye to charity shops, says David Borrett, the director of retail at Sue Ryder, a British charity whose thrift shops help fund its hospices. After an IT update, it now tracks how store layouts affect sales. Charity shops have started selling new items, too. These typically make up 20-30% of revenue. Belts and gloves are donated less often than trousers, so charity shops buy them in to “round off the offer”, says Mike Taylor of the British Heart Foundation, another charity. And vintage gear, rather than always being sold in the shop that receives it, is now often shipped to youthful towns where it is in greater demand. The most valuable stuff, which might previously have mouldered on a cluttered shelf, is sold online, often via eBay for Charity, which has raised $725m.

Charity cases

As the non-profit sector becomes more professional, young people are keener on qualifications tailored for it. According to Roseanne Mirabella of Seton Hall University, the number of courses at American universities in non-profit management and philanthropic studies rose from 284 in 1986 to 651 in 2016. Charity work is also becoming more popular among graduates who studied other subjects. In 1980, 8% of newly minted Masters in Public Policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government took jobs in the non-profit sector. By 2015 that had risen to around 30%.

More MBAs are going into charity management. While studying at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Matt Forti and Andrew Youn planned the One Acre Fund, a charity they launched in 2006 that lends to African smallholders so they can pay for agricultural training, equipment and high-yield seeds. Techniques from statistics classes helped them decide which interventions would increase harvests most. The contacts they made also proved useful. They raised about $36,000 from classmates and teachers for the pilot programme, and still occasionally consult professors for advice before expanding into new countries.

Oversight, too, has become more hardheaded. In the 1990s newly rich tech workers started to join the boards of grant-making foundations in America. Some became involved in setting up non-profit organisations, nurturing them like startups in what some call “strategic” or “venture” philanthropy. The trend spread. The European Venture Philanthropy Association, founded in 2004, now has 210 members in 29 countries. David Fielding of Attenti, a London-based recruitment firm for non-profit executives, says he speaks to around ten financiers a week who want to be more active in the charity sector.

Spare some change?

Demand for trained fundraisers has grown rapidly, says Michael Nilsen of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, a trade group active in eight countries. Jen Shang of the University of Plymouth measures the effect of tweaks to marketing materials on donor satisfaction and future giving. She shares her findings with students in America, Britain and China. To attract a new giver, she has shown, a charity should emphasise the good it does. The focus should then switch to the donor. Rewriting a thank-you letter to say “your donation has saved children like Tera” instead of “we have saved children like Tera” can boost future giving by roughly 10%.

Another effective fundraising technique is to make giving feel like shopping. A charity that used to ask for money for poor African villagers may now invite a donor to buy them a goat. World Vision, a Canadian charity, has an online catalogue with dozens of gifts to send to impoverished places. The most popular is an alpaca, which costs C$250 ($204).

Fundraisers have also got better at courting big donors. Firms such as Factary in Britain and DonorSearch in America find links between philanthropists and a charity’s trustees to help with setting up the crucial first meeting. A “steward”, a kind of PR officer for high-value donors, keeps them on board by organising trips to see the charity’s work and giving updates on its successes, says Elizabeth Zeigler of Graham-Pelton, a fundraising consultancy.

As charities have focused on results, they have sometimes overstepped the mark. Fundraising practices were called into question in Britain after the suicide in 2015 of Olive Cooke, a generous charity volunteer and donor. Data-sharing among fundraisers meant she was bombarded with begging letters. Though it is not thought that these caused her suicide, her family has said they greatly distressed her. Her death alerted the sector to the problem, says Peter Lewis of the Institute of Fundraising, a trade group. Later that year, after a government inquiry, a new code of conduct banned charities from passing on donors’ data without express permission. Charities across the EU will face similar rules from May 2018.

Charities have also been criticised for raising executive pay closer to business levels. Tax data show that between 1988 and 2014 the pay of senior management in American non-profit organisations (including hospitals and universities) rose twice as fast as that of other staff—and twice as fast as total expenditure. According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2014 about 2,700 American non-profit executives earned more than $1m a year. (Most of these ran big hospital groups or universities; a few were megapreachers.) Though an effective boss can be well worth a high salary, some volunteers and donors find such high remuneration a turn-off.

One of the biggest remaining differences between charities and businesses is in access to capital. Unlike a business, a charity cannot sell shares. But few have steady income streams or valuable assets against which to borrow. New types of charitable financing are starting to fill the gap. “Impact investing”, in which the promised return is a philanthropic outcome as well as (or instead of) a financial one, has boomed in recent years. For example, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation has backed Acelero Learning, an early-years education firm, and Revolution Foods, a company in California that serves healthy lunches in schools in hard-up areas.

Another idea is for a third party to guarantee a charity’s loan. In 2014 Root Capital, a non-profit organisation that lends money to farmers, needed cash for a programme to help coffee growers in Latin America. USAID, the international development arm of the American government, gave it a loan guarantee worth $15m. If Root borrowed money and could not pay it back, USAID would make up some of the difference. Without the risk of default it was able to borrow $12.5m, including from the Ford Foundation and Starbucks.

Loans to charities, like those to firms or individuals, can also be split into different tranches. The slice with the highest risk and lowest returns can be taken by foundations or government agencies. This makes the remaining slices more attractive to private lenders. Though such innovations are promising, they remain a rarity.

More businesslike charities should be better equipped to survive and thrive. They should also do more good. A literature review in 2014 by academics at the Vienna University of Economics and Business found numerous studies showing that better-qualified managers were associated with higher and more stable revenues. But charities also face new competition from a surprising source: the rise of the charitable business.

In America corporate philanthropy doubled in real terms between 1990 and 2015, to $18bn. A study of 20 European countries showed that corporations gave about €22bn ($26bn) in 2013, more than foundations did. Though much of this flowed through charities, it establishes businesses, in their customers’ minds, as entities that can have charitable aims.

A “fourth sector” (after public, private and voluntary) is springing up, consisting of organisations that straddle the line between business and charity. They call themselves “low-profit limited liability companies”, “social enterprises” and other names. These range from builders that seek to make a profit from housing poor people to fashion labels that employ disabled people to design and sell handbags. A report from the European Parliament suggests there are 200,000 in Britain, France, Spain, Italy and Poland. Over 2,000 B-corps, for-profit outfits that meet certain standards for do-gooding, have been launched in more than 50 countries.

Profiting from purpose

Many charity workers welcome this. The more minds thinking about how to improve the world, the better. Some fear, though, that if the line between charities and businesses fades further, donors and volunteers may become less willing to give away their money and time. But a charity that learns from business how to do good better should be able to persuade them.


How powerful people use criminal-defamation laws to silence their critics

How powerful people use criminal-defamation laws to silence their critics

IN OCTOBER 2015, a month before the election that returned Myanmar to a form of civilian rule, a Burmese writer named Maung Saungkha posted a poem on his Facebook page: “On my manhood rests a tattooed/portrait of Mr President/ My beloved found that out/After we wed/She was gutted/Inconsolable.” He was found guilty of defaming Thein Sein, then Myanmar’s president, and sentenced to six months in prison. Mr Thein Sein had suffered no material damage. He served out his term in office without anyone mistaking him for a penis tattoo. But Mr Maung Saungkha believes that in the run-up to the election the government was aiming to “spread fear, curtail freedom of speech and silence activists”.

Governments pursuing such goals have many options. They can press blasphemy laws into service, as those of Indonesia, Pakistan and dozens of other countries do. They can twist the media to their will. In Russia Vladimir Putin and his cronies control the main television-news stations. Or they can simply ban speech they dislike. In China and Vietnam independent bloggers are often arrested. Three Lao citizens recently received long jail terms for violating a decree forbidding online criticism of the government or ruling party.

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All these approaches attract international criticism. So some governments turn instead to defamation laws. Defamation is recognised almost everywhere as grounds for a civil claim, in which subjects of wanton and damaging falsehoods can demand financial compensation. But when defamation is a criminal offence, governments can go beyond fining critics who have caused demonstrable harm, and imprison them simply for speaking. Though several countries have recently decriminalised defamation, many more still prosecute it zealously. And even where it can no longer lead to jail, charges can stifle criticism if courts award vast damages.

To know, to utter and to argue

The American constitution’s first amendment grants strong protection to speech, especially criticism and insults aimed at public figures. But in most of Asia, and much of Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, defamation is in some circumstances a crime, as it is in Canada and 23 members of the European Union. Between 2009 and 2014 at least 15 EU countries sentenced journalists to criminal penalties, including fines and jail, for insults and defamation.

Criminal-defamation laws come in many forms. Thailand prohibits even the slightest criticism of its king, who is believed to be semi-divine. Serajeddin Mirdamadi, a journalist in Iran, is serving a six-year prison sentence for what was deemed “propaganda against the state”. In Morocco three years ago a 17-year-old was sentenced to three months in jail for rap lyrics about police corruption that were deemed to “harm public morality” and “offend a state institution”. Moroccans can also be imprisoned for “any offence” directed at the royal family or “inciting prejudice against territorial integrity”—a charge aimed at critics of Morocco’s disputed claim of sovereignty over Western Sahara.

It takes bravery to speak out against the government in a country with such laws. In Cambodia, for instance, one way that the prime minister, Hun Sen, has held onto power since 1985 has been by using defamation laws against his opponents, most notably Sam Rainsy, one of the founders of the main opposition party. Since he fled to France in 2015 to avoid arrest in one defamation case, Mr Sam Rainsy has been convicted in absentia in two others, both of which attracted jail sentences.

Mr Hun Sen also targets ordinary citizens with defamation suits. Ou Virak, a political analyst, faces charges for a remark made during a radio programme. Five human-rights activists were detained for more than a year over charges stemming from leaked recordings that allegedly captured flirtatious remarks between another opposition politician and his hairdresser. A spokesman for Mr Hun Sen’s party said that Mr Ou Virak had claimed the affair was concocted by the party to smear an opponent. The party filed a criminal-defamation complaint against him, demanding around 400m riel ($100,000) in damages.

“Face-saving is really important,” says Mr Ou Virak. “If you criticise the government, they take it personally.” He has struggled to find a lawyer: opposing a despot is not a good career move.

In civil defamation cases, plaintiffs must show they were materially harmed by someone else’s words; for example, malicious rumours spread by a business rival to destroy a company; or a criminal record invented by an ex-lover to destroy a career. The court will decide on suitable recompense. Under criminal-defamation laws, insults themselves are illegal, never mind whether they caused any harm.

In May a Burmese woman was sentenced to six months in jail for sharing Facebook posts deemed insulting to Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader, under a law that criminalises “defaming, disturbing [or] threatening…any person by using any Telecommunications Network”. At least 65 people have been charged under it since Ms Suu Kyi’s government took power. Between 2013 and 2015 the army-backed government that passed the law used it just seven times. Even an accusation usually means jail, because defamation is not a bailable offence. On July 7th Myanmar’s parliament published modest amendments that would make defamation bailable and ban third-party suits. But their passage is uncertain, and activists argue that the law is so pernicious it should be revoked altogether.

Thailand’s lèse-majesté law is possibly the strictest criminal-defamation law anywhere. The current version states that “the King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action.” Anyone who “defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir-apparent or the regent” can be imprisoned for up to 15 years. The government, which seized power in 2014 and delayed an election planned for this year, has charged at least 77 people with lèse-majesté, 22 with sedition and 120 for violating an order forbidding public discussion of a proposed referendum to give it more power. Virtually all have been convicted, many in military courts.

A broadly drawn criminal-defamation law is a weapon that can be wielded, not just by the government, but by anyone thin-skinned who has enough money to hire a lawyer. In 2008 a hospital in Indonesia misdiagnosed a woman as having dengue when she actually had mumps; after an e-mail she had written to friends complaining about the misdiagnosis was circulated on social media, doctors at the hospital filed a defamation complaint against her. She was acquitted only after more than a year and two criminal trials.

In Thailand last March a mining company filed charges against four journalists for reporting on environmental harms allegedly caused by a mine it manages in Myanmar. (The case was eventually dismissed.) A journalist working for the BBC could be imprisoned for five years if he is convicted on a charge of criminal defamation filed by a Thai lawyer who was unhappy with his reporting. In 2014 a journalist in Greece was sentenced to three months in prison for criticising a school director’s political views; two years later an aggrieved Greek businessman brought charges against another journalist that resulted in a 26-month prison sentence. (It was overturned on appeal.)

Large fines for those found guilty of defamation are yet another way to chill free speech. Government officials in Singapore have sued and bankrupted critics for statements that politicians in many other places would have disputed, laughed off or simply ignored. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founder, all but admitted to using defamation suits this way. “If we had considered them serious political figures, we would not have kept them politically alive for so long,” he said in 2003 of two opposition politicians. “We could have bankrupted them earlier.”

Agnes Callamard, a former UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, spies a welcome global trend toward decriminalising defamation. In recent years Jamaica, Kenya, Mexico and Zimbabwe have repealed their laws. India is considering doing so. But too often progress is more on paper than in reality. Cambodia has removed jail time for defamation convictions, but it remains for failure to pay court-ordered fines, which can turn an award of hefty damages into de facto imprisonment. So it remains easy for the government to mute its critics. “They had to pick on someone to make an example of,” says Mr Ou Virak. “And I said the first thing.”


How Israel spots lone-wolf attackers

How Israel spots lone-wolf attackers

HIS last Facebook post was perhaps the only clue of Raed Jaradat’s yearning for vengeance: it showed a Palestinian teenager lying dead with her headscarf soaked in blood and the message “Imagine if this were your sister.” Dania Irsheid, 17, had been shot by Israeli security forces in October 2015 at the entrance to the Ibrahimi mosque (Jews call it the Cave of the Patriarchs) in Hebron. Police said she had tried to stab Israelis; Palestinian witnesses say she was unarmed.

The next day Raed, a 22-year-old accounting student from the town of Sair, near Hebron, went to a checkpoint nearby and stabbed an Israeli soldier in the neck before he, too, was shot dead. Later his 19-year-old cousin, Iyad, was killed during stone-throwing clashes with Israeli troops. Raed and Dania had never met but, at his funeral, their fathers said their children should be married “in Paradise”.

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Such is the rhythm of the Palestinian “stabbing intifada”. Since its outbreak in late 2015, there have been hundreds of knife and car-ramming attacks against Israelis. If the violence has ebbed, it may be in part because the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) have become better at forestalling attacks. Israeli spooks reckon they have lessons to offer Western countries struggling to stop lone wolves.

One is that conventional intelligence organisations, even Israel’s well-honed system, are designed to penetrate organised terrorist groups, so they struggle to spot imminent attacks by self-radicalised individuals or small groups. After reviewing the profiles of scores of attackers, IDF intelligence officers found they often acted on the spur of the moment. They were rarely linked to militant factions, and were not especially religious or poor. Many had a grievance: a son who felt unjustly treated, a brother who was disinherited, a bride who was beaten by her husband, and so on.

Sometimes they were teenagers bullied at school who wanted to be admired as “martyrs”—Clark Kent becomes Superman, as one officer put it. Often they were so inept that they appeared to be trying to commit “suicide by IDF”. And, as with teenage suicides, there was a pattern of copycat attacks, or at least a tendency of those close to a “martyr” to seek revenge. In Sair, for instance, 13 people have died since 2015 in attacks on, or confrontations with, Israelis.

These days IDF algorithms monitor the social-media accounts of young Palestinians to look for early-warning signs. These include “tripwire” terms such as the “sword of Allah” or “day of the sword”, associated with the writings of past attackers. The IDF also monitors the activity of relatives, friends, classmates and co-workers of recent “martyrs”.

The parents of those deemed suspicious might receive a telephone call or a visit from the Shin Bet security service, and their names could be passed on to the Palestinian Authority. Their phones are tracked to see if they meet other suspects, or leave their districts to move towards potential Israeli targets. In such cases, security forces detain the suspect.

How much of this could be applied in the West? Perhaps not much. Israel holds millions of Palestinians under occupation. Its security barriers restrict their movement and keep them segregated. The army can seal off restive areas, enforce curfews and impose punishments, such as the demolition of homes. In contrast, most Muslims in the West move and mix freely as full citizens. Israeli-style ethnic profiling and ubiquitous electronic surveillance would be neither possible nor desirable.

Still, cleverly fusing clues from social media with other information might help, as could early intervention to steer suspects away from possible violence. That means keeping would-be attackers online, where they can be watched.


Teenagers are better behaved and less hedonistic nowadays

Teenagers are better behaved and less hedonistic nowadays

AT THE gates of Santa Monica College, in Los Angeles, a young man with a skateboard is hanging out near a group of people who are smoking marijuana in view of the campus police. His head is clouded, too—but with worry, not weed. He frets about his student loans and the difficulty of finding a job, even fearing that he might end up homeless. “Not to sound intense,” he adds, but robots are taking work from humans. He neither smokes nor drinks much. The stigma against such things is stronger than it was for his parents’ generation, he explains.

Young people are indeed behaving and thinking differently from previous cohorts at the same age. These shifts can be seen in almost every rich country, from America to the Netherlands to South Korea. Some have been under way for many years, but they have accelerated in the past few. Not all of them are benign.

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Perhaps the most obvious change is that teenagers are getting drunk less often (see chart 1). They start drinking later: the average age at which young Australians first try alcohol has risen from 14.4 to 16.1 since 1998. And even when they start, they sip rather than chug. In Britain, where a fifth of 16- to 24-year-olds do not drink at all, the number of pubs is falling by about 1,000 a year, and nightclubs are faring even worse. In the past young people went out for a drink and perhaps had something to eat at the same time, says Kate Nicholls, head of the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, a trade group. Now it is the other way round.

Other drugs are also falling from favour. Surveys by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction show that the proportion of 15- to 16-year-olds who have tried cigarettes has been falling since 1999. A rising proportion of teenagers have never tried anything mind-altering, including alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, inhalants and sedatives. The proportion of complete abstainers rose from 11% to 31% in Sweden between 2003 and 2015, and from 23% to an astounding 61% in Iceland. In America, all illicit drugs except marijuana (which is not illicit everywhere) have become less popular. Mercifully, the decline in teenage opioid use is especially steep.

Nor are young people harming each other as much as they used to. Fighting among 13- and 15-year-olds is down across Europe. Juvenile crime and anti-social behaviour have dropped in England and Wales, and with them the number of juvenile convicts. In 2007 almost 3,000 young people were in custody; by 2016 the number was below 1,000.

Teenagers are also having less sex, especially of the procreative kind. In 1991, 54% of American teenagers in grades nine to 12 (ages 14-18) reported that they were sexually experienced, and 19% claimed to have had sex with at least four partners. In 2015 those proportions were 41% and 12%. America’s teenage birth rate crashed by two-thirds during the same period. As with alcohol, the abstention from sex seems to be carrying through into early adulthood. Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University in California, has shown that the proportion of Americans aged 20-24 who report having no sexual partner since the age of 18 rose from 6.3% for the cohort born in the late 1960s to 15.2% for those born in the early 1990s. Japan is a more extreme case. In 2015, 47% of unmarried 20- to 24-year-old Japanese men said they had never had sex with a woman, up from 34% in 2002.

In short, young people are less hedonistic and break fewer rules than in the past. They are “kind of boring”, says Shoko Yoneyama, an expert on Japanese teenagers at the University of Adelaide. What is going on?

They tuck you up

One possible explanation is that family life has changed. A study of 11 countries by Giulia Dotti Sani and Judith Treas, two academics, found that parents spend much more time on child care. In America, the average parent spent 88 minutes a day primarily looking after children in 2012—up from 41 minutes in 1965. Fathers have upped their child-care hours most in proportional terms, though they still do much less than mothers. Because families are smaller, the hours are spread across fewer offspring.

Those doted-upon children seem to have turned into amenable teenagers. In 28 out of 34 rich countries surveyed by the World Health Organisation, the proportion of 15-year-old boys who said they found it easy to talk to their fathers rose between 2001-02 and 2013-14. Girls found it easier to talk to their fathers in 29 out of 34 countries. The trend for mothers is similar but less strong. And even teenagers who do not talk to their parents seem to listen to them. Dutch surveys show that teenagers have come to feel more pressure from their parents not to drink. That is probably the main reason for the decline in youthful carousing since 2003.

Another possibility is that teenagers and young people are more focused on school and academic work. Across the OECD club of rich countries, the share of 25- to 34-year-olds with a tertiary degree rose from 26% to 43% between 2000 and 2016. A larger proportion of teenagers believe they will go on to university.

As a result, they may be staying at home more. Mike Roe, who runs a drop-in youth club in Brighton, in southern England, says that ten or 15 years ago clubs like his often used to stay open until 11pm on school nights. That is now regarded as too late. Oddly, though, teenagers are not necessarily filling their evenings with useful work. Between 2003 and 2012, the amount of time 15-year-olds spent doing homework fell by an hour a week across the OECD, to just under five hours. 

Meanwhile paid work is collapsing. In 2016 just 43% of American 16- to 19-year-olds were working in July, during the summer holidays—down from 65% two decades earlier. The retreat from lifeguarding and burger-flipping worries some Americans, including Ben Sasse, a senator from Nebraska, who argues that boring paid work builds character and resilience. Teenagers are no fools, however. The average 16- to 19-year-old American worker earned $9.20 an hour in 2016. Though an improvement on previous years, that is a pittance next to the cost of university tuition or the large and growing wage differential between professional-level jobs and the rest. The fall in summer working has been mirrored by a rise in summer studying.

Ann Hagell, a British adolescent psychologist, suggests another explanation. Today’s young people in Western countries are increasingly ethnically diverse. Britain, for example, has received large flows of immigrants from Africa, south Asia and eastern Europe. Many of those immigrants arrive with strong taboos against drinking, premarital sex and smoking—at least among girls—and think that only paupers send their children out to work. Ms Hagell points out that teenage drinking is rarest in London, where immigrants cluster.

Finally, technology has probably changed people’s behaviour. Teenagers are heavy internet users, the more so as they acquire smartphones. By their own account, 15-year-olds in OECD countries spent 146 minutes a day online on weeknights in 2015, up from 105 minutes in 2012. Chileans lead the rich world, putting in an average of 195 minutes on weekdays and 230 minutes on weekend days.

Social media allow teenagers’ craving for contact with peers to be squared with parents’ desire to keep their offspring safe and away from harmful substances. In America, surveys known as Monitoring the Future have recorded a decline in unsupervised hanging-out, which has been especially sharp since 2012. Teenagers who communicate largely online can exchange gossip, insults and nude pictures, but not bodily fluids, blows, or bottles of vodka.

The digital trade-off comes at a cost. Sophie Wasson, a psychologist at Harvard-Westlake, a private high school in Los Angeles, says that some teenagers seem to use social media as an alternative to face-to-face communication. In doing so, they pass up some opportunities to develop deep emotional connections with their friends, which are built on non-verbal cues as well as verbal ones. Ms Wasson believes that social media widen the gap between how teenagers feel about themselves and what they think their friends want them to be. Online, everybody else is always happy, good-looking and at a party.

Technology also enhances surveillance. Parents track their children’s phones and text frequently to ask where they are. Benjamin Pollack, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, remembers attending a camp in Israel when he was in high school. He communicated with his mother every day, using Facebook Messenger and other tools. As it happens, his mother had attended the same camp when she was a teenager. She contacted her own mother twice in eight weeks.

Worries about teenagers texting and playing computer games too much (and, before that, watching too much television) have largely given way to worries about smartphones and social media. Last November Chamath Palihapitiya, formerly a Facebook executive, said that his children were “not allowed to use that shit”. But strong evidence that technology is rewiring teenagers’ minds is so far lacking. American and British data show that, although heavy internet use is associated with unhappiness, the correlation is weak. One paper on Britain by Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein suggests that heavy computer and smartphone use lower adolescents’ mood much less than skipping breakfast or skimping on sleep.

Sufficient unto the day

Still, something is up. Whether it is a consequence of phones, intrusive parenting, an obsessive focus on future job prospects or something else entirely, teenagers seem lonelier than in the past. The OECD’s PISA surveys show that the share of 15-year-olds who say they make friends easily at school has dropped in almost every country (see chart 2). Some Western countries are beginning to look like Japan and South Korea, which struggle with a more extreme kind of social isolation in which young people become virtual hermits.

Perhaps they will get round to close friendships in time. One way of thinking about the differences between the youth of today and yesterday is that today’s lot are taking it slow. They are slow to drink, have sex and earn money. They will also probably be slow to leave home, get married and have children. What looks to older generations like indolence and a reluctance to grow up might be, at least in part, a response to medical developments. Babies born today in a rich country can expect to live for at least 80 years. Goodness knows at what age they will be entitled to state pensions. Today’s young people have all the time in the world.


Internet firms face a global techlash

Internet firms face a global techlash

HOW much bigger can they get? The five biggest technology firms—Alphabet (Google’s parent), Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft—have published financial results in recent weeks that put their combined quarterly revenues at $143bn. Yet this rude financial health conceals a more troubling long-term trend: governments, long willing to let internet firms act as they wish, are increasingly trying to tie them down.

This goes far beyond the latest row over sexism and tolerance of diverse political viewpoints in Silicon Valley, sparked by a memo written by a Google employee (see article). Scarcely a week passes without a sign of the shift in attitudes. On August 1st Amber Rudd, Britain’s home secretary, warned that unless the firms did more to block extremist content from their platforms, they would be forced to do so by new laws. Stephen Bannon, the chief strategist at the White House, reportedly wants to regulate Facebook and Google as utilities. Steven Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, has talked of taking action against Amazon because it allegedly does not pay its fair share of tax.

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Under pressure from the Chinese government, Apple removed several “virtual private networks” (VPNs)—services that enable users to bypass China’s censorship apparatus—from its local app store. In June Canada’s Supreme Court ordered Google to stop its search engine returning a result advertising a product that infringed on a firm’s intellectual property. And on August 9th it emerged that the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, which preserves old versions of edited web pages, has been blocked in India, apparently by order of the department of telecommunications.

The examples vary, but they amount to a significant change in the regulatory environment. When the internet went mainstream in the late 1990s, tech firms and most democratic governments embraced its global nature. Firms operated largely free from onerous rules (blocking pornography featuring children has been the main exception).

One reason is technological. It has become easier to enforce borders in cyberspace. Tools that use “IP addresses”, the numbers that identify internet connections, have become much better at enabling online firms and regulators to work out where users are. The shift to smartphones has increased governments’ power. App stores have local links, for example to payment services, which make it easier to monitor and control users’ activity.

Meanwhile, as the internet has penetrated every aspect of life offline, incumbents from publishers to carmakers are coming to see the tech titans as a threat to their survival. Indeed, tech firms are easy targets for anyone worried about change. They employ relatively few people, and pay little tax. President Donald Trump does not see them as natural allies, as Barack Obama did. (Mr Obama’s administration was packed with former Google employees.) Some governments are unsettled by the growing role in their national lives of firms whose values are distinctively American, in particular in their commitment to free speech ahead of privacy.

One consequence of governments’ fading deference towards tech firms is a more muscular approach towards taxation. Apple is expected soon to put €13bn ($15.3bn) into an escrow account while courts consider its appeal against last year’s ruling by the European Commission that the firm owed back taxes in Ireland, home to its European headquarters. Another consequence is public policies that pay little heed to their needs, for example on immigration. Mr Trump has complained that tech firms import foreign workers rather than hiring Americans, and has ordered a review of the rules governing work visas.

Shooting the messenger

For more than two decades internet platforms have largely been treated as intermediaries. They have been seen as more like telecom companies, which may transmit criminal material for which they are not liable, than media firms, which can be prosecuted or sued for what they publish. Now, governments in America and Europe are starting to hold them responsible for what their users do and say. Germany is the most striking example. From October 1st it will require social-media platforms to take down hate speech, such as Holocaust denial, within 24 hours or face fines of up to €50m.

Under Germany’s law, the clock starts when firms are alerted by users or the authorities. But some governments are thinking of requiring firms to block some objectionable content as soon as it appears (as they already do with child porn). Britain’s government, for example, wants them to block Islamist propaganda, such as videos of beheadings. It has ignored tech firms’ complaints that this will be difficult and costly. Distinguishing such content from mainstream reporting on the war in Syria is harder than sifting out child porn. Automated techniques will block some legitimate content. Humans will often have to make the final decision.

Border control

Tech firms have been building barriers in cyberspace for some time. Their aim has been commercial: to keep users within “walled gardens” where it is easier to sell them services. But governments are also erecting borders—and theirs are more constraining. Like China, Russia plans to clamp down on VPNs. Both countries now require data on domestic users to be stored within their borders. Such data-localisation rules are a growing problem in democratic countries, too. In January the European Commission complained about “unjustified restrictions on the free movement of data” within the EU.

Even as the internet starts to fragment into local versions, some countries are trying to extend their legal reach beyond their borders. In the past internet firms would ignore requests from governments that sought to censor what people elsewhere saw online, for example requests originating in Thailand, with its stifling lèse-majesté laws that ban all criticism of its king. But now some democracies are passing extraterritorial laws that seek to regulate online content wherever it appears. “We risk a heckler’s veto, where any single country can get a piece of information removed not just within that country but anywhere around the world,” says Alan Davidson, who served in Mr Obama’s administration and is now a fellow at the New America Foundation, a think-tank.

The Canadian ruling against Google, which applies worldwide, could be just the start. Later this year the European Court of Justice will decide whether the EU’s much-contested “right to be forgotten” applies not just to Google’s European sites, but to all of them. This would mean that links to information about people that is deemed “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” in the EU will no longer be returned in response to any Google search anywhere. If the firm does not comply, it may face stiff fines.

The biggest long-term threat to tech firms is probably antitrust law. Regulators, particularly in America, have long held that online, competition is only a click away. But they are increasingly concluding that even in cyberspace competition can be restricted by dominant firms, for instance when the tech giants buy up smaller rivals before they mature into a threat, or discriminate against their offerings (for example, in search rankings). Governments have also started to fret about foreign data monopolies, which they think hoover up local information and turn it into valuable artificial-intelligence services.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that Europe has produced no big digital platform of its own, such thinking is common in the EU. In June the European Commission hit Google with a €2.4bn fine for abusing its “monopoly” in online search. But elsewhere, too, regulators are becoming more active. In Japan the head of the Fair Trade Commission has warned that exclusive access to data could be used to restrict competition. Even in America, such thinking is gaining ground.

As tech giants build up their offline presence, they can expect regulatory scrutiny to increase still further. Though Amazon has so far got off lightly, its recent purchase of Whole Foods, an American grocer, is likely to change that. Amazon’s fulfilment centres (warehouses from which products are shipped) have created hundreds of thousands of jobs; earlier this month it sought to hire 50,000 people across America in one day. That has given it brownie points with governments. But as more retail jobs are lost to e-commerce, and positions at Amazon become automated, the mood could shift. Amazon is not alone in venturing into the physical world. Google is experimenting with self-driving cars and Facebook with drones, which will bring new headaches and increased oversight.

The tech giants are not all equally vulnerable. As a legacy of the antitrust investigations it faced in the 2000s, Microsoft still has plenty of lawyers and lobbyists. It also comes under less scrutiny than Facebook and Google, which play a bigger role in consumers’ daily lives. Both firms are now ramping up their lobbying operations, having seen how Microsoft only belatedly recognised the risks that accompany commercial dominance. Google, for example, has around 500 people in its public-affairs and regulatory team, only a handful of whom work from its headquarters in California. Many are based in Europe. “Each company learns from the mistakes of those that went before,” says Mr Davidson.

Complying with a proliferation of new laws means expanding local teams: Facebook is planning to have 650 “moderators” in Germany to enable it to respond to takedown requests within the stipulated 24 hours. Services and technical infrastructure are also becoming more fragmented. On August 4th it emerged that Google had agreed to tighten monitoring of terrorist and other offensive material on its YouTube video-sharing service in Indonesia. Amazon and Microsoft, for their part, have built data centres in certain jurisdictions, such as Germany, to be able to comply with data-protection rules.

The firms hope that funding local initiatives will help curb resentment. Google’s “Growth Engine for Europe” aims, among other things, to help small businesses hone their digital skills. Facebook’s “Journalism Project” will seek to fight fake news and to develop new subscription services with publishers, including Axel Springer, which played a big part in the campaign against Google in Europe. In October Microsoft published a book that could easily be mistaken for a political party’s manifesto. It lists dozens of detailed public-policy recommendations, ranging from protecting privacy to fighting cybercrime. Amazon, which faced criticism a few years ago for its working conditions, has started offering public tours of its fulfilment centres in Europe.

Things fall apart

Governments sometimes have good reason to claim sovereignty over the digital realm. They are responsible for national security and elected to uphold national laws. But their regulatory push threatens to create a “splinternet”, with national borders reproduced in cyberspace. That would harm the internet’s function as an open forum where people can communicate freely and come up with new global products and services—which is precisely what made it great in the first place.


Britain’s election is the latest occasion to bash pollsters

Britain’s election is the latest occasion to bash pollsters

WESTMINSTER was agog. On May 31st, eight days before Britain’s general election, the Times splashed on YouGov’s forecast of a hung parliament. Other pollsters were predicting an average lead of eight percentage points for the incumbent Conservatives. Party grandees, sure that Theresa May, the prime minister, would secure a big majority, rubbished the prediction—as did officials from the opposition Labour Party, convinced they were heading for defeat. Jim Messina, a former campaign manager for Barack Obama who flew in to advise the Conservatives, tweeted that he had “spent the day laughing at yet another stupid poll”.

On the eve of the election, the polling average put the Conservatives at 44% of the vote, and Labour at 36%. In the event, Labour beat expectations by five percentage points, gaining 30 seats and denying Mrs May a majority. YouGov was vindicated. Mr Messina has not tweeted since.

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Critics of polling spy a pattern. They cite a series of surprise results leading up to the latest: the Conservatives’ narrow win in Britain in 2015, after predictions of a hung parliament; last year’s vote for Britain to leave the European Union, after every big political party campaigned to stay; and Donald Trump’s successful insurgent campaign for the American presidency.

Sam Wang, a neuroscience professor at Princeton and part-time psephologist, kept a pre-election promise to eat an insect on live television if Mr Trump won more than 240 electoral-college votes. Some Britons also made foolhardy food wagers. In 2015 Paddy Ashdown, a former leader of the Liberal Democrats, a small party, said he would eat his hat after pooh-poohing the exit poll (one specially made of marzipan was later presented to him). Last week Matthew Goodwin, a political scientist, went one better by eating a copy of his book about Brexit (again, on live television) after he insisted that Labour had no chance of getting 38% of the vote.

Statistical models of election outcomes attempt to quantify the uncertainty in polls’ central findings by generating probability estimates for various outcomes. Some put Hillary Clinton’s chance of victory against Mr Trump above 99% (Mr Wang came to grief because his model almost totally discounted the chance the polls in battleground states were all askew). Among the model-makers, Nate Silver, an American journalist, was a shining success. He came to prominence by using polling averages to call every state correctly in the presidential contest of 2012. Indeed, that success may have encouraged misplaced faith in statistical models. He did as badly as the pollsters before Britain’s election in 2015. But he rightly spied uncertainty in the Trump-Clinton race, and stuck to his guns despite much ridicule.

Predicting the outcome of elections is an inherently chancy endeavour. “If you look into the crystal ball,” says an experienced pollster, “you’ve got to be ready to eat ground glass.” In fact, the accuracy of polling in developed countries has not declined over the past half-century. American pollsters’ predictions for presidential races are even improving (see chart 1). Last week’s five-point average error in Britain was not far from the average of 4.3 points in general elections since 1979.

But pollsters’ job is getting harder. The number of people willing to answer their questions is plummeting. Of every ten people in rich countries they contact by telephone, at least nine now refuse to talk. New political faultlines are complicating their efforts to find representative groups to question, and voters’ changing behaviour blindsides them as they try to discern the truth behind polling responses. Old political allegiances are weakening and public opinion is becoming more fickle. Confidence in polling has been shaken. Pollsters are scrambling to regain it.

One of the problems they face is beyond them to fix: electoral systems that confound shares of the total vote. Mrs Clinton defeated Mr Trump in the popular vote by 2.1 percentage points—within one point of the average polling prediction—but lost because of the rules of the electoral college. Britain’s first-past-the-post system regularly produces parliaments that only hazily reflect national vote shares; in 2015 the nativist UK Independence Party got 12.6% of the vote, but just one of 650 seats. Though pollsters urge caution in translating vote shares into final results, that warning often goes ignored.

In such systems, knife-edge local contests can be decisive. Just 77,747 extra votes distributed suitably across Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania would have netted Mrs Clinton 46 more electoral-college votes, enough to take the White House. A total of just 75 British voters switching to the Conservatives, in the seats where they lost by the narrowest margins, could have given Mrs May a working majority. British pollsters would still have got the vote share badly wrong. But they would have come in for less criticism, since their central prediction would have fallen on the right side. Like servants and goalies, pollsters are noticed only when they fail.

As for the Brexit referendum, more polls had put Leave than Remain ahead. “The message of the polls was, it’s very much a toss-up,” says John Curtice of Strathclyde University. But that got lost as the two big parties campaigned for Remain, and newspaper columnists simply could not believe that so many British voters would really plump for the upheaval of leaving the EU.

The widespread impression that polls are bunk may also have been partly due to the much-publicised betting odds offered online. Earlier this century, online betting exchanges beat pollsters before several big elections. Economists argued that the forecasts made by punters with money on the line were likely to be more considered than the sometimes offhand responses given to pollsters. But the betting markets have flunked their recent tests. Bettors favoured a Remain victory, a Clinton presidency and a Conservative parliamentary majority, with closing odds of more than 80%.

Last week’s election in Britain weakened the evidence for the theory that campaigns have little effect on voting behaviour, advanced by many political scientists. Mrs May’s support seems to have plunged during her dismal campaign: Survation, the pollster that most accurately predicted the final result on the eve of the election, and YouGov both gave her party double-digit leads just three weeks before election day. Picking up such rapid changes in public sentiment is straightforward, though not cheap: it requires larger sample sizes and more frequent surveys. These also help with the “noise” found in any random sample, which pollsters refer to as sampling error.

Far more intractable is the bias that creeps in when samples are not representative of the electorate. Taking bigger samples does not help. The margins of error cited by pollsters refer to the caution appropriate to sampling error, not to this flaw, which is revealed only on polling day.

A striking example came in 1936, when Literary Digest, a weekly American magazine, asked its affluent readers whom they would vote for in that year’s presidential election. Nearly 2m replied. But the sample, though large, was horribly biased. Based on it, Literary Digest forecast a landslide for Alf Landon. He went on to lose all but two states to Franklin Roosevelt.

Poll another day

When Mrs May announced this year’s snap election, British pollsters had not yet got their houses fully in order after their failure in 2015. An inquiry by the British Polling Council, an industry group, blamed unrepresentative samples: British polls have long tended to overstate support for Labour and understate support for the Conservatives (see chart 2).

Faced with an election much sooner than they had expected, they made rushed tweaks in the hope of correcting this bias. That led to a wide variation in their predictions. On the eve of the election they pegged the Conservative lead as anywhere between one point and 13. One pollster, whose firm predicted a double-digit lead, says that his “golden rule” was to adopt any plausible adjustment that would take a point or two off Labour and reallocate that share to the Conservatives.

Such adjustments seem to have contributed to the latest miss. Preliminary estimates by Will Jennings and Patrick Sturgis of Southampton University suggest that fixes intended to account for variable turnout—in previous elections, declared Labour supporters have been less likely than others to end up casting a vote—increased the average estimate of the Conservative vote share by five percentage points. Survation credits its success to sticking closer to the raw numbers. “It’s the ultimate Greek tragedy, isn’t it?” says Michael Turner of BMG Research, the pollster that gave the Conservatives the largest lead. “What you do to correct the error ends up causing it.”

Internet-polling companies try to sidestep sampling bias by recruiting large, stable “panels” made up of the right numbers of the educated, the young and so on, from which they pick representative samples each time they run a poll. But this can still produce poor results. After finding that its internet polling in 2015 oversampled politically engaged voters, who tend to be leftish, YouGov tried hard to recruit less-engaged voters to its panel.

For telephone and face-to-face pollsters, who try to avoid bias by choosing randomly from a list of telephone numbers or addresses, another problem looms. Across the rich world, they are struggling to find anyone willing to talk to them. In 1980, 72% of Americans responded to a phone call seeking their opinion. That share had plummeted to 8% by 2012, and has kept falling. Last year, less than 1% of calls received a reply. Essential government statistics, such as figures on consumer confidence, unemployment and household income, are also being undermined by fading willingness to respond to official surveys.

Pollsters would not worry so much if everyone were equally unlikely to respond. But some types of people are more reluctant than others. Pollsters refer to this variation as non-response bias. According to Matt Lackey of Civis Analytics, a data-science firm, it now takes an American pollster 350 calls to find a young Latino man willing to answer questions—21 times as many calls as required for an elderly white woman. Low response rates contributed to the failures of predictions in individual states before last year’s presidential election. “The biggest misses…were in places with low-educated voters,” says Mr Lackey. “And those were also the places that had the lowest response rates.”

Weight, weight, don’t tell me

To deal with non-response bias, pollsters try to correct their samples by a process known as weighting. The idea is simple: if one group is likelier to respond to a survey than another, giving a lower weight to the first group’s answers ought to set matters right. The procedure is well-established and respectable: all pollsters weight their samples to correct for the differences in response rates between large demographic groups, and usually by similar amounts to each other.

But adjusting weights is also one of the ways pollsters can do what political scientists call “herding”. If one weighting scheme produces a seemingly outlandish result, the temptation is to tweak it. “There’s an enormous pressure for conformity,” says Ann Selzer, an American pollster. Polls can thus narrow around a false consensus, creating unwarranted certainty about the eventual outcome.

Not what he was expecting

The British Polling Council tries to discourage herding by requiring its members to publicise any changes they make to their methodologies. Before the most recent election, British pollsters largely managed to resist the temptation—though YouGov’s final prediction, which relied on different methods from those used for the one in the Times, put the Conservatives’ lead at seven points, close to the average for other pollsters. And seven of the eight pollsters who predicted the outcome of the Brexit referendum adjusted their methods late in the campaign. All of those revisions favoured Remain by at least one percentage point.

To make weighting work, pollsters must pull off two difficult tricks. The first is to divide their samples into appropriate subgroups. Age, sex, ethnicity, social class and party affiliation are perennial favourites. The second is to choose appropriate weights for each group. This is usually done with the help of a previous election’s exit poll, or the most recent census.

But the old political dividing lines are being replaced by new ones. Increasingly, samples must be weighted to match the voting population for a much larger set of characteristics than was previously needed. Levels of education, household income and vaguer measures such as people’s feelings of connection to their communities have all started to be salient. Before the Brexit vote, both the Conservatives and Labour supported remaining in the EU, but their supporters split. Well-educated people voted heavily for Remain. Those with authoritarian leanings split for Leave by 66%, according to an analysis by NatCen, a social-research organisation. Age, always a factor in voting behaviour, is becoming more important. Young Britons seem to have plumped for Labour by an overwhelming 40-point margin last week, while the oldest were even keener than usual on the Conservatives.

The latest dividing line is disaffection. Unusually high turnout by white Americans living in rural areas, most of whom have low levels of education and a long history of political disengagement, helped propel Mr Trump to his narrow victory. Voters with poorer health and lower social cohesion, as measured by low expressed willingness to co-operate with others, also favoured Mr Trump. Many Britons who did not bother to vote in 2015 turned out for the EU referendum; they favoured Leave by a 20-point margin.

Even when pollsters do break their samples into appropriate groups, voters’ changing behaviour can still trip them up. Most British pollsters, for example, assigned lower weights to young people’s responses to reflect their habitually low turnout: just 43% of under-24s voted in the previous general election, compared with 66% across all age groups. But those that most heavily discounted the young portion of their samples did worst in their predictions this time round, suggesting that the youth vote rose. The past is also little help in deciding how to weight samples before one-off votes like the referendums in Britain, Italy and Colombia last year.

Spotting new electoral rifts and changing electoral habits will require much more data (and data science) than pollsters now use. And picking up changing social attitudes means measuring them, too—which will take never-ending checks and adjustments, since those measurements will suffer from the same problems as pre-election polls. Pollsters will also have to improve their handling of differential turnout and undecided voters. Most accept self-reported intention to vote, which turns out to be a poor guide. And they often assume that undecided voters will either stay away or eventually split the same way as everyone else, which seems not to have been the case in recent contests.

And dealing with declining response rates will probably require new ways to contact prospective voters. During the early days of internet polling, many feared that online samples were bound to be unrepresentative, mainly because they would include too few older people. But Britain’s online pollsters silenced their critics in the Brexit vote, where they came two percentage points closer than telephone pollsters to the result. Some startups are now testing what they call “programmatic sampling”: advertising very short surveys to smartphone users. Google, which runs bespoke market surveys for companies, tries to ensure representative samples by using browsing history to guess respondents’ demographics.

Finally, pollsters will have to become more statistically sophisticated. Sampling 1,000-2,000 people and massaging their responses to correct for past errors looks increasingly antiquated. YouGov’s recent success was based on rolling questionnaires administered daily to 7,000 people from a 50,000-strong online panel, with the results combined using advanced number-crunching known as “multilevel regression and post-stratification”.

Whither forecasting

Perhaps pollsters’ strongest defence is that no one else does better. In 2012 Peggy Noonan, an American columnist, contended that Mitt Romney would defeat Mr Obama because she had seen more Romney yard signs. Other commentators have based election predictions on nothing more than attendance at rallies or the volume of partisan posts on social media.

If such guesswork was all there was to go on, many more election results would be shocks. They would routinely cause market turmoil. From one vote to another, politicians would have no way to gauge the public mood. Turnout would suffer: a recent study of Swiss referendums found that it rose in close votes, but only when there were pre-vote polls. Pollsters sometimes deserve a kicking. But without them, democracies would fare worse.


睡眠追跡アプリのSleep Cycle、「いびき検出」をAndroid版に追加

睡眠追跡アプリのSleep Cycle、「いびき検出」をAndroid版に追加



睡眠トラッキングアプリのSleep Cycleは、いびきをかくユーザーが睡眠中の騒音を追跡する機能をAndroid版アプリに追加した。

Sleep Cycle は、ユーザーが自分の睡眠の質を知り、気持ちの良い状態で目を覚ますのを助けるよくできたアプリだ。枕センサーを使って同じようなことをするアプリがほかにあるが、Sleep Cycleはスマートフォンのセンサーだけを使ってデータを収集し、同等の機能を備えている。







(翻訳:Nob Takahashi / facebook

Instagram’s founders are reportedly resigning from Facebook

Instagram’s founders are reportedly resigning from Facebook

Eight years after launching Instagram and six years after selling it to Facebook, Instagram co-founders CEO Kevin Systrom and CTO Mike Krieger are leaving the company, according to The New York Times. The founders apparently did not give a reason for their departure when they informed the company today that they’re resigning and that they’ll depart in the next few weeks.

But according to TechCrunch’s sources, tension had mounted this year between Instagram and Facebook’s leadership regarding Instagram’s autonomy. Facebook had agreed to let it run independently as part of the acquisition deal. But in May, Instagram’s beloved VP of Product Kevin Weil moved to Facebook’s new blockchain team and was replaced by former VP of Facebook News Feed Adam Mosseri — a member of Zuckerberg’s inner circle.

“Adam is a very strong willed individual” said a source, and “Chris [Cox, Facebook’s Chief Product Officer] and Kevin never really got along.” Between the two, they could pressure Instagram to do more for Facebook — which was important given the impact of scandals and dwindling teen usage on Facebook’s brand. “When Chris started taking initiative and with Adam as more of the old-school in-crowd of Facebook, it was clear that it wasn’t going to be pleasant. I saw that this guy [Systrom] is gonna get squeezed.”

Systrom and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had historically gotten along, but they had diverging opinions at times. A source said that a few times a year they’d clash before resolving things. Those clashes included “Sharing back to Facebook. Kevin wanted to keep the sharing on Instagram but at some point Mark wanted content production on Instagram to flow to Facebook. But things got more heated lately. “Recently Mark decided to pull all of the links to Instagram from Facebook.”

The evidence of that standoff can be seen in Facebook, which last year confirmed it was adding a shortcut to Instagram to its bookmarks menu. That shortcut has since disappeared.

After growing the app to 1 billion users, conquering its archrival Snapchat, turning it into a massive advertising business, Instagram’s founders may feel that they’ve done their duty and are ready to tackle different challenges. And rather than fight through Facebook’s impositions, they’d rather go build something new.

The departure follows fellow Facebook acquisition WhatsApp’s founders leaving under much more grim circumstances. Brian Acton cited Facebook privacy concerns amongst reasons for his departure, tweeting “Delete Facebook” amidst one of its recent scandals. Over the coming days, we’ll investigate whether any similar concerns contributed to the exit of the Instagram founders. Instagram spokespeople did not respond to several requests for comment.

CEO Kevin Systrom still gives final approval of all ads on Instagram

The pair, former Stanford classmates, originally built a social location app Burbn but discovered its photo filters were by far the most popular part of the app. By combining tools to make grainy photos from early smartphone look good with a social feed for sharing them, Instagram became perhaps the world’s most succesful mobile app. Deemed such a threat, Facebook spent $715 million to acquire the startup and its less-than 50 million monthly users.

Supercharged by Facebook’s engineering team, Krieger could finally rest a little after spending years fighting server fires in attempts to manage Instagram’s meteoric growth. Sales, internationalization, anti-spam, and other resources from Facebook let Instagram fuel its growth and sprout an advertising business.

The moment of truth for Instagram came in late 2016 with the launch of Stories, a clone of Snapchat’s trendy ephemeral sharing feature. At the time, Systrom admitted “they deserve all the credit”. But by jamming Stories atop the already-thriving Instagram feed, sorting them to show your best friends first unlike Snapchat, and focusing on performance in developing countries Snap neglected, the copycat soon surpassed the original. Instagram Stories now has 400 million daily users compared to 188 million on Snapchat’s whole app.

During those six years, Instagram also had its share of troubles. Cyberbully became rampant, leading the company to eventually invest heavily in artificial intelligence and human moderators to keep the app clean. Russian military operatives spread misinformation and propaganda on Instagram that reached 20 million Americans, implicating the company in an election interference scandal that will continue through the upcoming mid-term elections.

Facebook had largely allowed Instagram to run independently. Systrom and Zuckerberg worked closely, yet Instagram wasn’t forced to drown its users in cross-promotion for other Facebook products or make worrying privacy decisions. As Mosseri moved in and Facebook wanted Instagram to pull its weight, its autonomy was endangered, leading to disagreements between the two factions’ leaders.

Perhaps the strongest legacy of Systrom and Krieger will be how Instagram changed global culture. It made non-artists feel creative, and let people give friends a window into their world, engendering empathy and friendship.

At the same time, a desperate lust for Likes led many people to manicure their online image while hiding their sorrows and vulnerabilities. Instagram became the premier venue for success theater, where people engender health-harming envy in others by showing off just their most glamorous moments. And when Instagram launched Stories to try to get users to share more than just their life highlights, it ended up normalizing the behavior of interrupting every special moment with their smartphone camera.

Systrom took a stand on the digital well-being issue, saying “We’re building tools that will help the IG community know more about the time they spend on Instagram – any time should be positive and intentional . . . Understanding how time online impacts people is important, and it’s the responsibility of all companies to be honest about this. We want to be part of the solution. I take that responsibility seriously.”

Perhaps Systrom and Krieger’s next project will seek to offset some of the distortions to society caused by their creation.

Car-sharing network Turo expands service in UK

Car-sharing network Turo expands service in UK

Turo — the peer-to-peer car-sharing marketplace sometimes referred to as the ‘Airbnb of cars’ — is expanding to the UK. And this time, everyday car owners can actually use it.

The San Francisco-based company expanded to the UK once before in 2016. But at the time, the Turo platform was only offered to small rental car companies under its commercial host program. Now, anyone who owns or leases a 2008 model-year or newer vehicle can list it on the Turo app. The company’s insurance partner Allianz covers all vehicles rented by its pre-approved users.

Turo first launched in 2009 as Relay Rides and rebranded with a new name in 2015. Since then, the company has expanded to new markets, including Canada and Germany. Turo now has 8 million users, a third of whom were added this year, according to the company.

The UK is the company’s most-searched-for destination outside North America, according to Turo CEO Andre Haddad, who added that British guests in the U.S. and Canada represent its largest portion of international travelers. “This makes us confident that now is the right time to expand here,” Haddad said in a statement.

Turo markets itself to car owners as a way to earn extra money and cover the cost of owning their vehicle. Although some of its customers have turned into power users, people who own a fleet of vehicles that are listed on Turo. The average trip on Turo earns an owner £130 ($170, according to the company

Turo has received over $205 million in funding from Kleiner Perkins, August Capital, Shasta Venture and Google Ventures, among others. The company closed a $104 million Series D round earlier this year, which included investment from Sumitomo Corporation and American Express Ventures.