Everything Old Is New Again

by Kieran Healy on July 1, 2008

Consider the following piece in the Daily Telegraph, which may begin making the rounds:

Scientists find ‘law of war’ that predicts attacks: Scientists believe they may have glimpsed a “law of war” that can be used to predict the likelihood of attacks in modern conflicts, from conventional battles to global terrorism. … The European Consortium For Mathematics in Industry was told today that an international team has developed a physics-based theory describing the dynamics of insurgent group formation and attacks, which neatly explains the universal patterns observed in all modern wars and terrorism. The team is advising the United Nations, the Pentagon and Iraq. …

Most remarkable, “or the case of modern insurgent conflicts, our results are in close agreement with observed casualty data.” “What we found was really quite startling,” said Prof Johnson. “Although wars are the antithesis of an ordered system, the datapoints for each war fell neatly on to a straight line.” The line meant they obeyed what scientists call a power law. The “power laws” describe mathematical relationships between the frequency of large and small events.

This finding is remarkable given the different conditions, locations and durations of these separate wars. For example, the Iraq war is being fought in the desert and cities and is fairly recent, while the twenty-year old Colombian war is being fought in mountainous jungle regions against a back-drop of drug-trafficking and Mafia activity. This came as a shock, said the team, since the last thing one would expect to find within the chaos of a warzone are mathematical patterns. …

“We can use the power-law distribution to accurately predict the likelihood of different sized attacks occurring on any given day. This is useful for military planning and allocating resources to hospitals. .. “The fact that the power-law distribution seems to be constant across all long-term modern wars suggests that the insurgencies have evolved to find an ideal solution to the problem of how to fight a stronger force. … “Unless this structure is changed then the cycle of violence in places like Iraq will continue,” said Dr Gourley.” We have used this analysis to advise the Pentagon, the Iraqi government and the United Nations.”

This one has all the ingredients: a few economists, some physicists, a couple of papers on arxiv, power laws, media coverage, and of course the thrilling sense that no-one has noticed anything like this before. Except, of course, they have.

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Bumper Sticker

by Kieran Healy on July 1, 2008

Seen outside a Walgreens. Maybe the owner was getting some antibiotics.

Blogs, Participation and Polarization

by Henry on July 1, 2008

Eric Lawrence, John Sides and I have just finished writing a paper which looks at the first decent dataset that allows us to figure out what blog readers look like. This isn’t a final version (there are comments from Eszter and a couple of other readers that we want to incorporate – further comments and criticisms welcome), but it is just about fit for wider human consumption. The paper is “available at “:http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers_LAB.cfm?abstract_id=1151490 SSRN (if you’re signed up with them, we’d love you to download it from there cos it’ll bump up our hit count), and at “http://www.themonkeycage.org/blogpaper.pdf”:http://www.themonkeycage.org/blogpaper.pdf if that’s more convenient. So what do we find?
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The unsustainable has run its course

by John Quiggin on July 1, 2008

Unlike national central banks, the Bank for International Settlements doesn’t have to worry too much about the effect of its statements on business and consumer confidence or on the possibility of political flak. Hence, it has usually tended to give a less rosy view of the economic outlook than other official and quasi-official institutions. The latest assessment is particularly gloomy .

The full annual report has the cheery title “The unsustainable has run its course and policymakers face the difficult task of damage control” (Overview here).

The money quote:

Perhaps the principal conclusion to be drawn from today’s policy challenges is that it would have been better to avoid the build-up of credit excesses in the first place. In future, this could be done through the establishment of a new macrofinancial stability framework, which would call for both monetary and macroprudential policies to “lean against the wind” of the credit cycle

It’s hard to disagree with this, but equally hard to imagine such a framework (reminiscent of the “new global financial architecture” proposed in the late 90s) being introduced without the stimulus of a truly dire financial crisis.

Footnotes and Heresies?

by John Holbo on July 1, 2008

“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” You’ve all heard that. It’s A.N. Whitehead. At some point I read something which suggested that the thought continues: ‘because he had the foresight to write out all the heresies in advance.’ Or words to that effect. I thought that was rather witty. Now I bother to look at the original source, Whitehead’s Process and Reality (Amazon has an edition you can search inside.) And apparently the witty, heretical sting in the tail isn’t there. Curious. Does anyone know what’s going on? I’d sort of like to go one quoting the thing. I’ve done so informally on a few occasions. I didn’t think of it. Did someone else famous say it?

I have also discovered that if you Google Whitehead you get sponsored ads that promise: “No More Whiteheads! Whitehead Removal for under $25 Satisfaction Guaranteed.” Ha! You could never do that to Plato.