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cosma

Dissent Is the Health of the Democratic State

by Cosma Shalizi on February 16, 2013

This is a book with some important, even profound, ideas about politics,institutions, the virtues of democracy and what it takes to realize them, but it is written so so very, very diffusely that it will will have next to no impact, which is a shame. Let me try to lay out the main path of argument, which is rather lost amid the authors’ digressions and verbiage.

We live in big, complex societies, which means we are thoroughly interdependent on each other, and that we will naturally have different ideas about how our life in common should go, and will have divergent interests. This means that politics we shall always have with us. It also means that political problems are largely ones about designing and reforming the institutions which shape how we interact with each other. But because political problems are so hard, even if we could agree on what we wanted our institutions to achieve (which we don’t), we can basically never know in advance what the best institution for a given problem is. (That markets should always and everywhere be the default institution is a claim Knight and Johnson carefully examine before rejecting, whereas I would simply mock.) We also can basically never be sure when changed conditions will make existing institutions unsatisfactory. Put this together and what we need is, as they say, experimentation, with meta-institutions for monitoring how the experiments are going, and deciding when they should be changed or stopped. [click to continue…]

In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You

by Cosma Shalizi on May 30, 2012

Attention conservation notice: Over 7800 words about optimal planning for a socialist economy and its intersection with computational complexity theory. This is about as relevant to the world around us as debating whether a devotee of the Olympian gods should approve of transgenic organisms. (Or: centaurs, yes or no?) Contains mathematical symbols (uglified and rendered slightly inexact by HTML) but no actual math, and uses Red Plenty mostly as a launching point for a tangent.

There’s lots to say about Red Plenty as a work of literature; I won’t do so. It’s basically a work of speculative fiction, where one of the primary pleasures is having a strange world unfold in the reader’s mind. More than that, it’s a work of science fiction, where the strangeness of the world comes from its being reshaped by technology and scientific ideas—- here, mathematical and economic ideas.

Red Plenty is also (what is a rather different thing) a work of scientist fiction, about the creative travails of scientists. The early chapter, where linear programming breaks in upon the Kantorovich character, is one of the most true-to-life depictions I’ve encountered of the experiences of mathematical inspiration and mathematical work. (Nothing I will ever do will be remotely as important or beautiful as what the real Kantorovich did, of course.) An essential part of that chapter, though, is the way the thoughts of the Kantorovich character split between his profound idea, his idealistic political musings, and his scheming about how to cadge some shoes, all blind to the incongruities and ironies.

It should be clear by this point that I loved Red Plenty as a book, but I am so much in its target demographic1 that it’s not even funny. My enthusing about it further would not therefore help others, so I will, to make better use of our limited time, talk instead about the central idea, the dream of the optimal planned economy.

That dream did not come true, but it never even came close to being implemented; strong forces blocked that, forces which Red Plenty describes vividly. But could it even have been tried? Should it have been?

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Maladministration of Organs

by Cosma Shalizi on August 4, 2006

Kieran’s post about his book on organ donation gives me a hook to write something about the other end of the system, about organ recipients and the institutions which are supposed to match them up with donated organs. More specifically, how one such institution, the Kaiser HMO of Northern California, quite spectacularly failed several thousand people who were depending on them, by not matching them up. The story has been around since early May, when it was broken by Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber in the Los Angeles Times (cached here), since confirmed by an investigation by Medicare/Medicaid. It doesn’t seem to have gotten all that much attention among the blogs, but it’s outrageous, and deserves, for that reason alone, to be better known.

(I was hoping to end my guest-blogging here by kvetching about econophysics, which is merely trivial; but that will have to wait until next week, back at my own blog.)

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The Starry Heavens Above

by Cosma Shalizi on August 2, 2006

Now this is what I call “filling the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them”.

(Via David R. in e-mail.)

One Big Mutual Fund, or, The Ownership Society

by Cosma Shalizi on July 31, 2006


Attention Conservation Notice: Over 1500 words on a wacky quasi-socialist economic scheme, from someone utterly lacking in credentials in economics. The scheme does not respect the sanctity of private enterprise, but at the same time would not reduce the alienation of labor one iota. Includes a lengthy quotation of a game-theoretic impossibility result.

In the previous installment in this series of modest proposals for the reform of corporate governance, I looked at ways of making the incentives of the managers of large, publicly-held corporations align more closely with those of their long-term shareholders. This left alone the question of the beneficiaries of corporate value; assuming that the managers are busily working to maximizing their revenue streams, who benefits from their industry and diligence? Having just read Mark Greif’s great essay on redistribution in n+1, I would like to make a suggestion. (Issue 4; long excerpt here, as pointed out by Matt in the comments.)

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Brunch in the Ruins

by Cosma Shalizi on July 30, 2006

It’s a hot, lazy Sunday, which seems like a good time for browsing through livejournal communities dedicated to photos of peacefully rusting machines, quietly crumbling buildings, and similar modern ruins:

Abandoned Places [via David Chess]

Decayed Machinery [via I forget who, years ago]

The photographers are all amateurs, so the quality (to the slight extent I can judge) is quite variable, but many manage to capture the suggestion of sunset and sadness, of unhappy stories brought to a close, which fascinates me about such scenes. Some of these photos, in fact, seem as good as, say, those in Terry Evans’s book on the former Joliet Arsenal, Disarming the Prairie, bringing to mind the words of the poet:

These are the halls of the dead, where the spiders spin and the great circuits fall quiet, one by one.

— But I see I’m getting melodramatic, and it’s just too hot and sticky and still to sustain that.

Inducing Disorientation in Larval Economists

by Cosma Shalizi on July 29, 2006

As a good neoclassical, neoliberal economist, Brad DeLong is acutely aware that the market system is not natural at all, but a delicate historical anomaly. He is worried that it is so familiar to his students that they will find alternate modes of social organization almost incredible; accordingly he wants to mess with their heads:

Would making Berkeley’s first-year economics Ph.D. graduate students this fall read short biographies of William Gates and William Marshall as a way of getting at the idea that there are non-market societies that work very differently from our own today—would that be a teaching idea of extraordinary brilliance or of total insane lunacy?

The rest of the post is an extended excerpt from the New York Review of Books review of a biography of William Marshal (which goes on to my to-read list). The question I have is, what should DeLong make his students read, to give them a vivid sense of just how differently production and distribution could be and have been organized? Argonauts of the Western Pacific, perhaps? Gilgamesh?

And: those of us who teach things other than economics, what books do or should we hand out as ice-axes for our students’ frozen seas? ( This one is mine.)

Frederick Mosteller Is Dead

by Cosma Shalizi on July 28, 2006

Via everyone in the profession: the statistician Frederick Mosteller has died. Mosteller was one of the great leaders of the generation of statisticians in which our field went from being an annex of mathematics (as it was when he attended Carnegie Tech) to an autonomous, institutionalized discipline. He had an astonishing range as a researcher, but is perhaps best known for his work on stochastic theories of learning theory and the authorship of the Federalist Papers. He was also a notable teacher, as his essay “Classroom and Platform Performance” suggests, and in the later part of his career tried to bring elementary inferential hygenie to educational research. More anecdotes are available from Tales of the Statisticians, or this brief sketch by his student Stephen Fienberg.

How to Make Our Ideas Clear — to Others

by Cosma Shalizi on July 26, 2006

In the comments to my post on Onsager, Maynard Handley explains why he finds himself somewhat unsympathetic, as Onsager apparently did not expend the effort necessary to make himself understood by others.

You, the author of the paper, have a responsibility to make your ideas comprehensible. If the first method you choose to explain them fails, then you listen to what people say about where they lost all track of understanding and write a new paper—- with NEW explanations, not the same explanations that failed last time only renumbered. … [This is] not something that is drilled into young scientists; that it is YOUR responsibility to make your ideas clear to others, not their responsibility to try to figure out what you are talking about. As science grows ever larger and ever more complex, I think it is time for all scientists to be much more explicit and much more ruthless on this point.

Whether this is really a fair criticism of Onsager, I couldn’t say, but the general point is true, important, and a perfect hook for the next thing I wanted to post about.

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The Nobel Prize Winner as Neglected Genius

by Cosma Shalizi on July 25, 2006

A staple of bad movies and trashy novels about scientists (i.e., the kind I read) is the neglected genius whose ideas are rejected with incomprehension by the scientific establishment during his life, because they are simply Too Far Ahead Of His Time to be grasped by lesser mortals, only for the scientific community to rediscover these insights decades later. This sort of thing can make for entertaining fiction (if dreary self-mythologization), but it simply doesn’t happen all that often in real life, especially not when the hero is a part of the establishment, and indeed a much-honored one. It certainly doesn’t show up, with documentary evidence, in the staid, reliable pages of Reviews of Modern Physics. Nonetheless:

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Two Menances to the Keystone State

by Cosma Shalizi on July 25, 2006

Two of my more public-spirited fellow citizens have recently identified looming threats to our own Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

  1. Our beloved junior senator, Rick Santorum (via Pharyngula):
    Most scientists unfortunately, those that certainly are advocating for this [embryonic stem cell research], and many others feel very little moral compulsion. It’s a utilitarian, materialistic view of doing whatever they can do to pursue their desired goals.

    I, for one, will be happier voting on Mr. Santorum’s re-election in November, knowing that my ballot will play a part in the age-old struggle between utilitarian materialism and deontological idealism, as well as the sagas of human-canine relations and Old Corruption.

  2. Our beloved linguistics professor, Mark Liberman:
    More than a third of all Pennsylvanians are native speakers of a language other than English — and many of them have not even tried to learn English since immigrating, or at least prefer to carry out their daily lives in another language, living together in neighborhoods where their native language dominates. Some people worry that the majority status of English is critically endangered. 25 years ago, a major political figure warned that these “aliens … will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion”, and so far, his prediction seems to be right on the money.

    And let’s not forget what they’ve done to our cooking!

Chronicle on Cole

by Cosma Shalizi on July 24, 2006

Under the rubric “Can Blogging Derail Your Career?”, the Chronicle of Higher Education has seven bloggers discussing Yale’s decision to not hire Juan Cole as a professor of history, and the role, if any, played by his blog in that decision: Siva Vaidhyanathan, Dan Drezner, Brad DeLong, Michael Bérubé (all: yay!), Glenn Reynolds and Ann Althouse (both: hiss), and Erin O’Connor (null result), with a “response” by Cole, which doesn’t actually address the others’ posts specifically, and reads like a separate essay on the same subject as the others. (Via DeLong.)

(Some of the things which were written about Cole as part of the controversy (e.g.,) give the impression of a professor who attains incomprehensibility not through obscurity but through foaming at the mouth. As it happens, though, I sat in on his seminar on millenarian movements when I was a post-doc at Michigan, and nothing could be further from the truth. I suppose I could have missed all the sessions which degenerated into hours-long rants about Zionist Entities… Of course, I don’t know why Yale didn’t give him the job, but if it was because they thought he was too spittle-flecked to be presentable to parents and alumni, they were misinformed.)

The fact that this post is not filed under “Middle East Politics” isn’t going to stop anyone in the comments, is it?

Critical Sensation

by Cosma Shalizi on July 24, 2006

First off, I should thank Henry and the rest of the Timberites for the kind invitation to guest-post, and that very warm introduction. In exchange, I’m going to blog more or less as I usually would, only here. This means some big bricks of posts about “complex systems”, so called, which is or was my scientific field, more or less; and also any miscellaneous outrages which catch my eye this week. Mounting my usual hobby-horses on this stage is a poor exchange for their generosity, but mounting hobby-horses is why I started blogging in the first place, and anyway I’m big on conscienceless nomothetic exploitation of cooperators.

Today I want to talk (below the fold) about some recent work in the statistical mechanics of disordered systems, which might help explain how our sense organs work, and actually involves some good uses of the self-organized criticality and power laws; tomorrow or the day after I’ll get to the smoldering question of “Why Oh Why Can’t We Have Better Econophysics?”

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