Friday, June 24, 2011

Information Nexus

1. The New Bipartisanship
2. Tyler Cowen Answers Your Questions
3. This Truly is an Amazing Idea
4. This is a Really Popular Class at Harvard
5. Al Gore's Getting Frustrated

Quote of the Week

Philosophers Julian Baggini and Peter Fosl on group agency:
It may seem strange to consider things like corporations or nations or mobs or social classes as agents, but the issue often arises in reflections about whether one should make judgements that attribute collective responsibility. People did speak of the guilt of the German nation and demand that all Germans contribute to war reparations after World War I. When the government of a truly democratic nation goes to war, because its policy in some sense expresses "the will of the people," the country arguably acts as though it were a kind of single agent. People also, of course, speak collectively of the responsibilities of the ruling class, corporations, families, tribes, and ethnic groups. Because human life is populated by collectives, institutions, organizations, and other social groupings, agency can sometimes be dispersed or at least seem irremediably unclear. These "gray zones," as thinkers like Primo Levi (The Periodic Table, 1975) and Claudia Card (The Atrocity Paradigm, 2002) have called them, make determining agency in areas like sexual conduct and political action exceedingly difficult.
There are three ways of understanding how we talk about collectives as agents. One is that it's just mistaken and that collectives cannot be agents. The second is that collectives are agents in some alternative, perhaps metaphorical sense – that they are like real agents but not quite the same as them. The third is that collectives are as much agents as individual people, who are themselves perhaps not as singular, cohesive, and unified as many would like to believe.
From The Ethics Toolkit: A Compendium of Ethical Concepts and Methods.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Impossible Conundrum: State Secrets and Journalism

Intelligence Squared is out with its newest debate, asking the question: should freedom of the press extend to state secrets? This is one of these impossible "gray-area" questions that has no empirical answer because it deals with a tricky philosophical trade-off. Of course governments (and businesses, for that matter) need some level of secrecy to operate effectively. But clearly decisions regarding what stays secret should not be made solely by the organization in question, because their individual incentives (social status, turf, etc.) might not line up with what's best for society. It's a complex question with a lot of dimensions--perfect for this format.

The debate gets pretty spicy near the end, but never loses its intellectual heft. Enjoy:

Social Science for the Masses

I try to listen to podcasts fairly regularly, because I love the medium. They tend to be short, snappy, and can fill previously unused time with rewarding intellectual stimulation. I also get a lot of my book recommendations from podcasts: many non-fiction authors will do radio shows as part of their publicity process. It's fun to hear thinkers engage in verbal thrust and parry as well; too often writing is the only means of communicating information for academics and public intellectuals.

Recently I've discovered a fantastic new podcast: EconTalk hosted by Russ Roberts, an economist at George Mason University. Episodes consist of incredibly substantive interviews of scholars discussing social science topics. The podcast manages to snag lots of eminent thinkers (past guests include Gary Becker, Cass Sunstein, Nassim Taleb, and William Easterly) as well as more obscure researchers who have lots to say but access to few popular communications mediums (besides perhaps blogging). The quality of the interviews is probably the best I've ever heard (sorry Tom Ashbrook), and despite the host's strong libertarian leaning, the intellectual discourse is fair and sincere.

Archives on iTunes go back several years, and they're definitely worth combing through to pick out topics of particular interest. Philosophy Bites, a similar podcast dealing with philosophical questions, is also a fascinating way to hear academics share their insights.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Patent Pending: Syllaberry

By now some of us might be familiar with Bananagrams, a simple Scrabble-like word game that for some reason has a banana theme. Because of its success, several other fruit-themed word games have popped up: Appletters and Pairs in Pears. I won't comment on the quality of the game mechanics, but I will say that 'bananagrams' is a very clever name. 'Appletters' is much clumsier, and 'pairs in pears' is just plain rotten. Here's my suggestion/prediction for the next fruit-themed word game: Syllaberry (a play on syllabary). Instead of having an alphabet-based game where letters are the basic unit, Syllaberry could involve manipulating syllables in some way. Just a thought.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Heavyweight Non-Fiction

Most non-fiction books that cover conceptual topics (like science or social sciency stuff) can usually be split into two groups, those written by experts (like academics) and those written by non-experts (like journalists). Over the past six months or so, I've noticed a trend in my non-fiction book selection: I've become less and less discriminatory regarding the author's level of expertise. I've pretty much been selecting books based solely on how much the topic interests me. Once I realized this, I reflected a bit on which books really affected me and which ones didn't. My conclusion? Academic heavyweights write better books. [note: I'm only talking about widely-circulated popular non-fiction books; real academic textbooky books are in a different category altogether]

Experts writing about a topic within their field of research start off with an initial stock of credibility in my eyes, while journalists or other lightweight non-fiction writers have to earn that trust. Heavyweight authors tend to fill their pages with more original and creative ideas, probably because they have actual academic contributions from which to draw on. Lightweights, by contrast, are not direct knowledge-producers and must restrict themselves to analyzing and synthesizing existing research. Often this results in more novel topics and book titles for the lightweights (they've got to find the gaps), but it also means the topics are less ambitious and more marginal.

Malcolm Gladwell might be the best example of a lightweight author: great writing, clever and fascinating topics, tons of cool little analyses and observations. But if I compare his books with those written by actual experts in the research fields from which he draws upon, there's no comparison. Nudge by legal scholar Cass Sunstein and economist Richard Thaler gives a much better overview of behavioral economics and unconscious decisionmaking than does Blink, while Bursts by graph theorist Albert-Laszio Barabasi provides a much deeper and more rigorous understanding of social cascades than does The Tipping Point

I recently finished The Information by James Gleick (a lightweight), and I was stunned by the complete lack of creativity and original thinking. Marketed and publicized as a deep inquiry into the concept of "information," the book was merely a cobbled-together assortment of different scientific histories (a chapter on linguistics, one on logic, electrical engineering, early computers, etc.). The Hidden Reality by physicist Brian Greene delivered in a single chapter the most fascinating and unorthodox expression of the concept of information I've ever read. So don't be seduced by clever topics or good newspaper coverage (journalists surely promote their own). It's time to get picky and get smart. Read heavyweight non-fiction.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Some Thoughts on BitCoin

There has been a lot of buzz lately about BitCoin, a new alternative "currency" that exists entirely online and without any sort of central authority. Previous electronic currencies have been hindered by theft and double-counting, but BitCoin seems to have solved these problems by using a clever peer-to-peer interface. The Economist has a pretty comprehensive description of some of the technical details of BitCoin, but to get the basic gist here's a totally biased marketing video:

Although BitCoin is certainly an interesting idea, it has some pretty massive flaws:
Bitcoin does not have a central bank capable of printing and lending bitcoins; it has an "algorithm" which through some convoluted mechanism allows bitcoins to be "mined". Essentially it randomly allocates bitcoins to early adopters. This is a very good system for early adopters (free money!) It is a nonsensical system for a real currency, not to mention being obviously unscalable (what happens when everyone tries to mine bitcoins all day long?). To solve this second problem, the supply of bitcoins is algorithmically limited, which is again good for early adopters. But that brings us to...
The macroeconomic qualities of BitCoin make it extremely vulnerable to a depression-like collapse of demand, where everyone wants to hold onto BitCoins and not spend them. Add to that the riskiness of convertibility (exchanging BitCoins for U.S. dollars, for example) and the notion of BitCoin-as-a-game-changer seems ridiculous.

But many critics (and supporters) are getting too sensationalistic about BitCoin's scope and prospects. If you look at BitCoin in the context of other alternative currencies it's clear that this asset exists merely to promote and foster certain social or philosophic values. Some alternative currencies, like Ithaca Hours, promote local community. Some have built-in time horizons for spending or rapid value-loss in order to limit saving and boost consumption. BitCoin is merely an experiment that fits nicely into the quickly-emerging anti-authoritarian, tinkering, globalized, open-source anonymous internet civilization. Although fascinating, ultimately BitCoin is not nearly as important as the political fight to keep all internet transactions (denominated in major currencies) tax-free.

Check out this great EconTalk podcast about BitCoin.