Sunday, February 28, 2010

Cogs in the Machine

You know those annoying anti-spam tests on Facebook and email?  The ones that make you identify distorted images like these:
Well, it turns out that every time you solve one, you're providing free labor to Google.  It's true.  The system is called ReCaptcha, and it was invented by Carnegie Mellon computer scientist Luis Van Ahn.  Check out this short video to learn more about this bizarre and mildly creepy scheme.  My question: does this program violate Google's "Don't Be Evil" ethic?

Health Care is Not a Game

What can game theory tell us about the health care reform battle?  Apparently not much.  Game theory can be an incredibly powerful tool for modeling social behavior, but sometimes it just complicates the obvious.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Lord, Make Me Blissful, But Not Yet

This year's TED conference just wrapped up, and among the ideas generating the most chatter was Daniel Kahneman's claim about happiness.  According to Kahneman, a psychologist and Nobel laureate at Princeton, happiness levels for individuals increase with income, but only up to 60,000 $/yr.  "Above that it's a flat line" he said in an interview with CNN.  Does this mean we all should just shut off our ambition and go canoeing once we hit $60k?

I'd argue no.  And furthermore, I think Kahneman's statistic is misleading for two reasons.  Firstly, reported happiness isn't the whole picture.  There are many other dimensions of value, such as life satisfaction or immediate pleasure.  Secondly, the threshold beyond which utility decreases, known in economics as the 'bliss point,'  is not fixed.  In a rich country like the U.S. happiness is a relative, rather than absolute, value.  $60K a year does not represent some magical amount of material wealth, but instead an arbitrary point highly influenced by external social factors.  Economist Marco Bertoli has a brilliant article looking at this phenomenon in the context of energy efficiency.  Snapshot: 

"Finally, if the bliss point exists, but figures show that individuals never achieve it, the correct question would be: how does it happen that the bliss point for individuals keeps moving further, becoming more and more unattainable? Why did we condemn ourselves to this constant Sisyphean challenge?"

Short answer: people are jealous, overly concerned with social status, and prone to addiction.  Research shows that experiences generate more happiness than do material goods.  One possible explanation for this is that comparing experiences is much trickier than comparing material wealth.  This makes unique experiences less susceptible to social jealousy or power cravings.  Maybe that canoe trip isn't looking so bad after all.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Information Nexus

1. Sex Appeal Ranking of U.S. Presidents
2. White House Hip Hop Performance
3. Chaos Rules
4. The Most Depressing Article Ever
5. Sci-Phi: Science versus Philosophy


Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens seems to be headed for retirement soon, and in anticipation here's a lengthy rundown of potential replacements.

My ideal pick: Cass Sunstein.  Never gonna happen, but still.
My reality-based pick: Senator Amy Klobuchar.
Craziest pick: Obama nominates himself.

Luckovich is God

I'll start drawing my own political cartoons pretty soon, but until then its all Luckovich all the time.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


Donatella Porta and Michael Keating say it all:

 The purposes of social science research are often contested.  For some, the aim is explanation of social behavior, on the assumption that it has causes that are knowable and measurable.  Few people now think that social science works like Newtonian mechanics, with fixed mechanisms that are predictable.  Some social scientists, however, do aim to approximate this; if they do not always succeed, it is because there is missing information which, in principle, could be supplied.  Other scholars prefer the analogy of biology, with social behavior evolving over time in response to learning and adaptation.  Some of the work in historical institutionalism is informed by this idea.  Yet some social scientists disclaim the idea of explanations and causation altogether, seeking rather to understand the motivations and calculations of actors who are not pre-determined in their behavior.  This breaks altogether with the natural science analogy and is closer to the approach and methodology of historians.  Expressed in modern social science as the choice between agency and structural explanations, this dilemma corresponds in many ways to the old philosophical debate as to how far human beings are possessed of free will.

Epistemological debates often pit positivists or realists, who believe in the concrete reality of social phenomena, against constructivists or interpretivists, who emphasize human perception and interpretation. 

Methodological debates are often framed as a confrontation between the quantitative methodologies used by positivists and the qualitative ones used by constructivists and interpretivists.


Nicholas Kristof has a great column today about possible environmental causes of autism spectrum disorders.  For more information about the crazy conspiracy theories and misunderstandings surrounding autism and vaccines, check out Denialism by Michael Specter.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Cartesian Coordinate Systems

Thanks, René Descartes, for inventing this nifty tool.  Political Compass has an interesting survey that tries to guess your political ideology based on two issue dimensions.  It doesn't really make much sense, because people have preferences on many, many dimensions (economics, environment, foreign policy, etc.), but it's still fun.

New York Magazine probably has the best Cartesian coordinate system out right now, called The Approval Matrix.  It's sort of like a modern-age Harper's Index, and apparently it holds Godlike authority.

The Thinking-Man's Shooter

Check out this great review of Bioshock 2, would you kindly?  I enjoyed the first one mainly because of its philosophical depth (Ayn Rand's Objectivism gone hellishly awry), but I'm disappointed to see that the sequel took the easy way out by building a story around collectivism.  Introducing this symmetry into the series may be smart for marketing purposes, but it seems a bit obvious and old-fashioned.  History contains actual examples of the failures of collectivist political philosophies--we don't need a video game to imagine them.  Bioshock was brilliant precisely because history has never seen a libertarian philosophy applied to its logical end.

Pursuing a mythical "third way" that deviates from the familiar collectivist-libertarian ideological spectrum may be ultimately futile, but potential ideas pop up all the time.  Libertarian paternalism, grounded in psychology and popularized by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler's book Nudge, offers the best hope.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Internet Identity

This letter from the new Adbusters issue is making me rethink this whole blog thing:

"Social Networking Sites (SNSs) promise limitless, boundless friendship – a phenomenon that should make us happier than ever. But our optimism over connectivity has gradually morphed into cynicism and resentment. It turns out virtual life is less about connectivity than self-branding."

It's true that much of social networking's appeal derives from the desire to construct a certain identity, but I don't think that's a bad thing, necessarily.  Consciously cultivating a certain identity, such as being a good student or athlete, can have positive effects on motivation and decisionmaking.  Embarrassment caused by a deviation from that identity, such as failing a test, can be self-correcting.  SNSs might magnify the effects of embarrassment and pride, but the core issue remains the quality and characteristics of the identity itself.

Start Learning About The Borda Count

Remember the 2000 Presidential election, when Florida became a debacle in part because of voters who picked Nader instead of Gore?  Part of the reason why that outcome was maddening was because everyone knew most Nader voters, if they had to pick, preferred Gore over Bush.  Unfortunately the plurality voting rule used in Florida was blind to that information.

Imagine for a moment you're back in college or high school, with a class ranking based on your academic achievement.  How would you like your class rank to be based solely on the number of A's you have received in class?  Of course that plan sounds terrible, because someone with all F's and a single A would beat a kid with all B+'s and no A's!  Well, that's exactly how our plurality voting works in the U.S.  So how about GPA?  It seems to do a pretty good job of measuring overall academic achievement; is there a voting-rule equivalent to GPA?  Yes, it's called the Borda count.

The Borda count, invented by French mathematician Jean-Charles de Borda, works like this: each voter ranks candidates in order of preference.  Most Nader voters, for example, would rank Nader > Gore > Bush.  Points are assigned to the three candidates: two points for the first choice (Nader), one point for the second choice (Gore), and zero points for the last choice (Bush).  Points are added up for each candidate, and whoever captures the most total points wins.

The advantage of the Borda count is its ability to incorporate more information about a voter's preferences, as the GPA analogy shows.  As a result winners selected using the Borda count tend to be more moderate than those picked by plurality rule.  The Borda count, as with all voting systems, has flaws, but its ability to more accurately reflect the will of the voters makes it far superior to the current plurality-rule regime.  I will return to this topic in the future to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of other voting systems, as well as the academic field of social choice theory, which studies the mathematical properties of voting rules.

Thoughts on Global Heating

Even though cap-and-trade climate change legislation is dead, dead, dead, this short video by Annie Leonard (who did The Story of Stuff) is a wonderfully presented critique of the policy.  Check it out if you haven't already:

On a related note, since climate change is back in the news thanks to real and perceived mistakes by East Anglia University and the IPCC, a persistent error is popping up in media coverage: referring to climate change deniers as "skeptics."  These "skeptics" don't want to look at the data objectively; they already have their minds made up.

Mistaking denialism for skepticism allows anti-environmentalists to free-ride off the positive association people draw from the word skepticism.  Labels affect how people perceive and frame issues, and current environmental reform advocates are unnecessarily ceding an advantage.  

Upwards of 90% of climate change research funding is devoted towards technology and the natural sciences.  Though this research is obviously critical, a greater emphasis on the social and political aspects of climate change could prove to effective in the short-term.

Let's Begin, Shall We?

Let me begin by stating what this web-log is not.  This is not a current events aggregating web-log.  Anybody who spends time online probably gets filtered news and opinion from a zillion different sources.  Nor is it a bizarre-news aggregator.  Specializing in some particular theme or subculture might be a way to build internet prestige, but it is too constricting for me.  

This blog is simply an idiosyncratic chronicle of my thoughts on various issues.  I'll focus mostly on political, economic, and environmental topics, but include political science, natural science, and philosophy as well.  Throw in subtle notes of art and culture and we've got a nice brew going here.

I envision Unity Politics consisting of short opinion essays with applicable links, spiced up with the occasional book review (I'm a non-fiction fiend).  Once I build some institutional love, I'll start drawing original political cartoons and posting them.

Nothing to explain about the name Unity Politics.  I just thought it had a nice plain-vanilla professionalism to it.  Enjoy!