Quick analysis of the Italian referendum results

The 2016 Italian referendum torpedoed the constitutional reform presented by the government presided by Matteo Renzi (41). According to the final count, which includes 1.2 million votes cast overseas, the reform was rejected by almost 60% of the voters.

Three parties played a predominant role during the electoral campaign: the ruling Democraric Party (PD), leaded by the chief of government Renzi, the Five Star Movement (M5S), founded and leaded by Beppe Grillo (68), and the Lega Nord (LN), leaded by Matteo Salvini (43). The fourth Italian party, Forza Italia, for different reasons – including the health of Silvio Berlusconi (80) – played a minor role.

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Cosa possiamo imparare dal M5S

Leggo e rispondo al post di Massimo Mantellini (Il M5S, il wifi e il principio di precauzione) in cui si evidenzia con preoccupazione come il Movimento abbia portato in Parlamento, dunque in qualche modo legittimandole, posizioni anti-scientifiche; un “pensiero tossico, banale e a suo modo inattaccabile, che nuoce al Paese intero”.

Il Movimento Cinque Stelle con un bacino elettorale che si aggira tra il 25 e il 30% (8.5-10 milioni di persone) è necessariamente complesso in termini di rappresentanza demografica e di diversità di opinione. Considerando un astensionismo del 25%, se vi trovate in fila al supermercato delle 10 persone che vi precedono circa due votano M5S. Purtroppo questa complessità raramente traspare nelle narrazioni giornalistiche, e chi fa informazione tende (troppo) spesso a preferire i tratti caricaturali (da cappello di carta stagnola o da gita in Corea del Nord, per intenderci). Ma questo tipo di informazione è sbagliata: primo perché distorce nella semplificazione, secondo perché incoraggia comportamenti macchiettistici, grotteschi e sbracati da parte di chi sedendo in istituzioni affollate cerca visibilità.

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Road to Rome: The organisational and political success of the M5S

The Five Star Movement (M5S) obtained two major victories in the second round of municipal elections on 19 June 2016 in Rome and Turin. Rome attracted the most international attention but it is M5S’ victory in Turin that is likely the most consequential for them and other European anti-establishment parties.

In Rome, a municipality with 2.8 million people and an annual budget of €5 billon, Virginia Raggi (age 37) gained doubled the votes of her contender Roberto Giachetti (age 55). In Turin, a city with a population of 900,000 and an annual budget of €1.69 billion, Chiara Appendino (age 31) outstripped Piero Fassino (age 66) by about 10 percentage points.

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Explicit semantic analysis with R

Explicit semantic analysis (ESA) was proposed by Gabrilovich and Markovitch (2007) to compute a document position in a high-dimensional concept space. At the core, the technique compares the terms of the input document with the terms of documents describing the concepts estimating the relatedness of the document to each concept. In spatial terms if I know the relative distance of the input document from meaningful concepts (e.g. ‘car’, ‘Leonardo da Vinci’, ‘poverty’, ‘electricity’), I can infer the meaning of the document relatively to explicitly defined concepts because of the document’s position in the concept space.

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Italy’s Five Star Movement – a spectral analysis of its political composition

To talk about identity and soul of the Five Star Movement (M5S) is not only politically contentious but also practically challenging because of the different axes (at least three) along which the M5S has been developing: the vertical top-down axis from Beppe Grillo to his followers (and sympathising voters), the horizontal axis connecting thousands of militants across the country to local, flexible and loosely organised meetups, and finally the cloudy axis linking Internet users through the different online communicative platforms pertaining to the Movement. The academic literature and the media have been prevalently interested in mapping the provenance of votes. I will try here to show some data also on the position of the M5S derived from its 2013 electoral program and the political background of both the onsite and online activists of the Movement.

But let’s first start briefly introducing the trajectory of a movement that vehemently refuses to be called a party or to be associated with any traditional political identity.

Continue reading on the blog of the WZB.

NDVI, risk assessment and developing countries

The Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) estimates the greenness of plants covering the surface of the Earth by measuring the light reflected by the vegetation into space. The main idea behind the NDVI is that visible and near-infrared light is absorbed in different proportions by healthy and unhealthy plants: a green plant will reflect 50% of the near infrared-light it receives and only 8% of the visible light while an unhealthy plant will reflect respectively 40% and 30%. NDVI can then be used to quantitatively compare vegetation conditions across time and space (and indeed is quite widely used, a Google Scholar search on NDVI produced 60,500 hits).

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Eyes on Guatemala

The Economist has published an article on malnutrition in Guatemala. Hunger is not new in the country, with half of the children population not eating enough Guatemala is the six-worst country in the world, but in some Maya communities children chronic malnutrition can reach 75% (the Economist says 80%). These figures are astonishing, especially because the problem is not food scarcity.

But this as well is hardly new. It was 1981 when Amartya Sen published his Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation demonstrating that hunger is mostly caused by inequality rather than scarcity. There is no lack of food in Guatemala if you have the money to buy it. In Guatemala City is taking place, as we speak, the 14th Festival Gastronómico Internacional so it seems difficult to talk about a famine or about an emergency (according to the Longman Dictionary an emergency is “an unexpected and dangerous situation that must be dealt with immediately”). The problem is the lack of a functioning state. Because a state cannot function with tax revenues estimated at just 10% of GDP.

Democracy is highly unrepresentative in Guatemala. Who should push for a better redistribution of resources has no voice. National newspapers point constantly the finger at the government (presidency, parliament, judiciary) in a impressive campaign of delegitimation. The Rosenberg tape was just part of it. I’m not defending the government, but saying that criticising it and attempting to systematically destroy its credibility are not quite the same thing. While the headlines cover crime, corruption and hunger the real battle within the country is on the tax reform. A battle that so far every government has badly lost.

Back into Poverty

Increase in food prices has pushed back into poverty at least 100 million people in 2008 and, according to the United Nations Standing Committee on Nutrition (here, p. 60),

erase at least four years of progress towards the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 1 target for the reduction of poverty. The household level consequences of this crisis are most acutely felt in LIFDCs [Low-Income Food-Deficit Countries] where a 50% rise in staple food prices causes a 21% increase in total food expenditure, increasing these from 50 to 60% of income. In a high income country this rise in prices causes a 6% rise in retail food expenditure with income expenditure on food rising from 10 to 11%. FAO estimates that food price rises have resulted in at least 50 million more people becoming hungry in 2008, going back to the 1970 figures.

According to the World Bank (here) this means that between 200,000 and 400,000 more children will died every year for malnutrition until 2015.

Selva Amazónica, More Valuable Standing Than Felled

An article published on Science this week analyzes the development of the region across the Amazon deforestation frontier. In three words: boom and bust. It means that comparing the Human Development Index of different classes of Brazilian municipalities, from prefrontier municipalities to heavily post frontier deforested municipalities, you can see how the HDI relatively grows in the first phase of the deforestation (on the frontier line) and relatively declines when deforestation is completed.  In other words,

when the median HDI of each class is plotted against deforestation extent, a boom-and-bust pattern becomes apparent, which suggests that relative development levels increase rapidly in the early stages of deforestation and then decline as the frontier advances. Hence, although municipalities with active deforestation had development levels that approached the overall Brazilian median, pre- and postfrontier HDI values were substantially lower and statistically indistinguishable from each other (P > 0.9). These results are robust to the particular thresholds used to define the frontier classes. A boom-and-bust pattern is also found for each of the HDI subindices: standard of living, literacy, and life expectancy.

This strongly suggests that the poor have no choice but to exploit every resource available. It is difficult to think that farmers or loggers do not see that they are compromising their very own future. They simply have no choice. The challenge is giving them a choice.

On the Evolution of Thinking

What if we are becoming the very same Artificial Intelligence that we are trying to design? The doubt has has been raised by Nicholas Carr in an article published one year ago on The Atlantic and now published on Le Monde. The theory is intriguing and the discourse goes, in the words of developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf, more or less in this direction:

We are not only what we read, We are how we read.

So, learning directly from the voice of Socrates is not the same as learning from the Internet. The way we approach new ideas and knowledge influences how we assimilate them and how we develop our thinking. The risk is that our mind might find so attractive the effectivness of the Google’s algorithm to try to replicate it forgetting all the ambiguity that has made us what we are. What we are so far.

Update: Have a look at this article on Le Monde about the influence of the new information technologies on culture.