Tom Lehrer song ripping on quantitative social science

Tom Lehrer was is a cold war era lefty musical satirist, best known for Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, and his jingles about math, science, and nuclear holocaust. In addition to being a musician, he also taught math and stats at MIT and Santa Cruz. His courseload at MIT through the 1960’s included the Political Science department’s quantitative modeling course, an experience that seems to have made him very mocking about the sciences of society. The song below is addressed to sociology but, as he admits, it’s really about all quantitative approaches to social science.

Some choice bits:

They can take one small matrix,
and really do great tricks,
all in the name of socioloigy.

They can snow all their clients,
by calling it a science,
although it’s only sociology.

Elsewhere in the same clip are very nerdy mathematical songs, and a good satire about professors thinking we’re brilliant, and a School House Rock type kids song. Before stumbling on this, I discovered and rediscovered a bunch of other wonderful songs, such as the Vatican Rag, “I got it from Agnes”, and Oedipus Rex. I was especially into Selling Out.

Philip K. Dick's vanity was his best protection from his vanity

I went on a deep dive and learned several fascinating things about Philip K. Dick and his life. Foremost, he named his daughter “Isa Dick”. Talk about a Dick move.
Among his notes about A Scanner Darkly were a question and answer. Question: “How will the book sell?” Answer: “Such inducements have no appeal to the superior man.” I like that he both considered the question unselfconsciously and posed himself to deny interest in it. I like how, in the context of an answer to a question about himself, the funny construct of the “superior man” isn’t about superiority to everyone else, like it would come off in any other context, but superiority to oneself. The phrasing was so peculiar that I Googled it. Expecting to find more by him, I stumbled on the same phrasing in the divination manual The I Ching, or The Book of Changes, which he wrote a book about and got deeper into as he fought less hard against schizophrenia and started to imagine us all in the Matrix.
In his notes he had written under each question, and prior to each answer, numbers and dashes and codes that looked meaningless until I had made the I Ching connection. The questions were real questions he had, and the answers were divined. His roll for the question about how the book will sell was for hexagram 58, where I found the quote about the superior man. That means that he didn’t endogenously pose himself to deny his crass interests, but that his reading emboldened him. In that context, it’s very clear that The Superior Man is best imagined as a version of you that’s notable only for being superior to yourself.
No, I’m wrong. Dick’s question was crass because he was vain. His attraction to the I Ching’s was an attraction to the idea that the Universe is organized around the Superior Man, which is vain. His speechifying about being The One who saw into the computer simulation controlling us was an assertion that he was host to the superior. The only thing that pulled him from the vain thought of his book sales was the vain thought that he was too much better than everyone else to worry about them. Any of my tea leaf reading about this softer interpretation of the superior man says more about my hopes than about either Dick or the Book that inspired him.
I was also interested to learn that, after his divorce, he lived communally but maybe not inappropriately with 1970s street kids, that he was very much from the Bay and Berkeley, and that despite his reputation for a variety of drugs, his devotion was exclusive to prescription amphetamine, on which he wrote most of his books. The mathematician Paul Erdos had the same hangup. They were contemporaries in more ways than one.
I learned all this from the audio commentary track on a Scanner Darkly DVD, which had Linklater, Keanu Reeves, Isa Dick, the flick’s screenwriter, and another person. It’s funny to hear Reeves philosophize without the benefit of a script. Nearly every time he spoke up, it was to helpfully and prosocially elicit more commentary from one of the others, but it came off like a philosophical conversation between a bunch of sage elders as convened and presided over by a stoned 14 year-old.


Image is from this comic about the man.

Hey look, Andrew Gelman didn't rip me a new one!

My website redesign was supposed to be a time-intensive and completely ineffectual effort to increase my readership. But mere days after, I landed one of the most steely-eyed, critical voices in the scientific discourse around the replication crisis. Scientists, as they exist in society’s imagination, should have an Asperger’s caliber disinterest in breaking errors gently, any otherwise attending to the feelings of others. Andrew Gelman is a more active, thoughtful, thorough, and terrifying bad methods sniper in scientist-to-scientist discourse today. Yikes. He found my blog, which sent him down a little rabbit hole. I seem to have come through it OK. Better than the other Seth he mentions!:
My own role in the social science’s current replication discourse is as a person with very interesting opinions that no one but me really cares about. Until today! Here is what I have to offer:


This entry was posted on Thursday, July 26th, 2018 and is filed under Uncategorized.

1920's infoviz, when "Flapperism" as the culmination of Western civilization

This image offers a schematic of Western history with a two-axis timeline that brings attention more effectively to long periods. It was published in the journal Social Forces in 1927.
Its author Arthur Dahlberg was a science popularizer and Technocrat active through the 20’s and 30’s. His books, which presented economic systems as closed plumbing systems and other visual metaphors, brought technocratic ideas to many important thinkers in the first half of the 20th century, making him the route by which Technocratic ideas influenced the science of complex systems. Technocracy was a social movement and economic theory that can best be glossed as capitalism under a planned economy. It was popular among farmers and other rural Americans, but was ridiculed otherwise. Nevertheless, its popularity brought it to the attention of people like Herbert Simon, who made fundamental contributions to organization theory, cognitive science, and economics, and Donella Meadows, whose own stocks-and-flows theories of economic system successfully forecasted today’s population growth and global climate change in the 1970s. His influence on original thinkers in the second half of the last century is what piqued my interest in him, and led me to this fun illustration of the state of the art of information visualization in the 1920’s. I love how it all leads to “Flapperism”, which we’ll guess he takes to mean some kind of societal fizzling over.

in Cognitive Science: Synergistic Information Processing Encrypts Strategic Reasoning in Poker

It took five years, but it’s out, and I’m thrilled:
You can get an accessible version here
I’m happy to answer questions.


This entry was posted on Friday, June 15th, 2018 and is filed under Uncategorized.

Words with doubles give me troubles

Here is a list I’ve been maintaining for myself for a few years now:

  • successful
  • occurring
  • acceleration
  • vanilla
  • corollary
  • Jennifer
  • accommodate
  • appalling
  • embarrassing
  • beginning
  • Renaissance
  • happening
  • questionnaire
  • recommendation
  • tomorrow
  • etiquette
  • graffiti
  • terrific
  • necessary and necessarily
  • traveling
  • Caribbean
  • committee
  • commitment
  • committed
  • commission
  • commodity
  • interrupted
  • palette
  • modeling
  • asymmetry
  • occurrence
  • my colleague Mubbasir (who says he gets Mubassir regularly (i.e. not just from me))
  • dissemination
  • assessment
  • Moroccan
  • satellite
  • reconnaissance
  • possession
  • accessible
  • vacillation
  • palette

You’ll notice that most of these have a double. This says something (to me) about how we (I) encode words. I seem to be sensitive to whether a words has double letters or not, but not where they go or even how many pairs of doubles there are. The result is that even if you a word has doubles, it’s often tough to remember where the double goes (Is it “grafitti” or “graffiti”?), and also to know if a word should have one pair or two (“graffiti” or “graffitti”?). Call this a heterophenomenological dispatch from my head to yours.


This entry was posted on Monday, May 21st, 2018 and is filed under lists.

Satie's doodles

These are a few of my favorite doodles from the “A Mammals Notebook” collection of Erik Satie’s whimsical (i.e. silly) writings and drawings and ditties. Who knew he also wrote and joked and drew? I scanned many many more:


This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 2nd, 2018 and is filed under Uncategorized.

Waiting in the cold: the cognitive upper limits on the formation of spontaneous order.

It’s a cold Black Friday morning, minutes before a major retailer with highly anticipated products opens its doors for the day. There are hundreds of people, but no one outside. Everyone is sitting peacefully in their car, warm and comfortable, and in the last seconds before the doors open, the very first arrivals, the rabidly devoted fans who drove in at 2AM, peacefully start to walk to their rightful place before the door as it is about to open, with numbers 2 through 10 through 200 filing wordlessly and without doubt into their proper places behind. There was no wonder or doubt so no comment, that hundreds of people spent only as much time in the cold as it took to get to the double doors, and everyone retained their rightful place in the tacit parking lot queue.
This utopian fiction isn’t fictional for being utopian, just for being big. This kind of system is a perfectly accurate description of events for a crowd of 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 people. I was there. It only starts becoming fanciful at 5 or 10 or more. Naturally, the first person to arrive knows that they are first, the second that they are second and the tenth that they are tenth. But knowing your place isn’t enough, you have to realize that everyone else knows their place.
I broke the utopia the first time I showed up at Wilson Tire to get my winter tires changed out. I had heard that they don’t take appointments and that I should arrive early, even before they open, to get served without being so far back in the day’s queue that I literally wait all day. So I drive up and park among the other five or so other cars and get out to wait by the benches by the door. I was worried that there were so many other cars, but with no one at the benches by the door I figured that they must be employees or something and I rushed to take my position at the front of the queue. This was at about 6:40, a little more than a quarter of an hour before the doors were to open. New Hampshire is usually still cold when you’re switching to or from your summer tires, and I never acclimated, so I was suffering through the cold, and suddenly I wasn’t alone. Four other people got out of their cars to join me, and as new people arrived the cold crowd outside the front door got bigger, with a sort of rough line forming up. I slowly realized that I was a defector, and that I had best imagine myself as behind the people who I had forced out of their cars. That cohort of us milled on the concrete landing, some starting to stand up in an actual queue, me staying more relaxed in my bench, trusting that others would be smart enough to know I was near the front, even though I hadn’t been smart enough waiting from my car to realize that they were. The later arrivals, who saw the milling but had no sense of its order, avoided the mess by queueing up on the asphalt, further away. Immediately before the doors opened one guy with incredible hubris got out of his car at the last minute and cut in front of all of us to be the first served. I was steamed, as much at him as at the docility of the others in my early bird cohort for not saying anything. But I tend to be more of a litigator than most.
It was only after several minutes that I realized that he must have been the first, he’d probably arrived at 6, and his confidence in boldly taking his rightful place was built on the recognition that the other early arrivals would realize he’d been first. But I never did, at least not in time, with the result that I made 5 people get out of their cars who, until my arrival, had peacefully and stably trusted each other to stay warm in their cars, and queue up physically when the time was right. But if I hadn’t done it, someone else would have. It’s much harder for the late arrivals than the early ones.
Number 1 doesn’t just know they’re first, they also know that 2 knows that they are first. 2 knows who 1 is and knows that 1 knows they know. They know that 3 won’t know who is 1 and who is 2, but they realize that 3 will be able to trust 1 and 2 to know each other. 4 might also realize that they are driving into a queue, but 5 and 6 just see a bunch of cars with no order. They know that they are number of 5 or 6, but they think that they’re they’re the last beans in a pile, rather than the last in an increasingly tacit queue. And even if they realize they’re in a queue, 6 might not trust that 5 realizes.
For a car queue to form, it’s not enough to know that you are 10, you have to realize that 9 know they are 9 (and who 10 is), 8 knows they are 8 (and who 9 is), 7 knows they are 7, and so on down to 1, 2, and 3, who know each other, and who know that they know each other knows. When everyone has the capacity to realize they are in a queue, they can queue in the warmth of their cars. But where are minds top out, and common knowledge of the queue breaks down, defection begins.
I’ve now had my tires changed out a few times at Wilson. Number 1 is never the first out of their car. It’s always number 4 or 5 or, in my case, 6. They tend to sit on a bench a few feet from the door. They are followed within a minute or so by the person who came right before them, who wants to signal their priority. And once two people are out, the cascase begins, and everyone else gets out, with the earliest birds standing by the door instead of sitting on the bench, so as to secure their proper place (and signal that they’re securing it). This stays stable, with the sitters knowing their place relative to the standers, and the standers knowing it too. But persons 9 and 10 come upon a disorderly sight, a confusing mix of sitters looking relaxed even though they were the nervous defectors, and standers trying to be in line without looking like they’re in line. 9 adapts to this unsteady sight by standing further away from the door on the asphalt, and 10 lines up behind 9. When the doors open, 9 and 10 watch with apparent wonder as the gaggle by the door fails to devolve into jockeying and each person wordlessly finds their proper place. Of course, it shouldn’t be any surprise: as long as everyone knows their own number, there is enough information for everyone to find their place and even enough information for everyone to keep everyone else accountable
This inevitable degradataion of newcomer’s mental models from queue to pile, from ordered to disordered, creates growing insecurity that people adapt to by moving from an imaginary line to a physical one. In a physical line, you don’t even have to know which number you are, you just have to know where the end of the line is, and so it can scales to hundreds or thousands. On the way to the physical line, a variety of alternative institutions—the very comfortable car queue, the cold but somewhat trustful bench queue, the eventually self-organizing aggregation by the door—ascended and then degraded as common knowledge of them degraded.
A line seems like a simple and straightforward thing. But what for me was moving to the bench to start a line looked others like someone trying to cut in a line that had already existed. If we were all capable of thinking harder and deeper, so capable that we could count on each other to always be doing so wordlessly, then Black Friday shoppers or summer blockbuster campers could enjoy a much more comfortable, satisfying, and civilized norm. But quiet pressures like human reasoning limits, and the degradation of common knowledge they trigger, cause cultural processes to select for institutions that are easy to think about. If you look around, you’ll see lots of situations where cognitive simplicity has won out over social efficiency or fairness, and absent a lot of awkward conversation, it’s perfectly natural to expect it.

Testing it

I may be making this all up, but it’s very easy to test. All I’d have to do is get up at 5:30AM for the next 30 days and drive over with a clipboard record the following events:

    • Time and number of each arrival
      Time at which each person exits their car
      Order of entry into the tire shop.
  • Everything I’m saying make pretty clear predictions. With few people in the parking lot, people will stay in their cars. With many, they will start to get out and queue up. The first person out of the car will usually be the fourth or fifth arrival. The first arrival may tend to be the last out of the car.
    This could be done from afar, at any tire shop, two times a year in any region with winters. An especially nice property of the domain is that this queueing problem, being something people only deal with a few times a year, is sort of a one-shot game, in that every morning brings entirely new people with more or (probably) less experience at navigating the trust and reasoning issues that make parking lot queues so fraught. But it’s hard to get out of bed, which I guess explains why there are so many theorists.


    This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 1st, 2018 and is filed under Uncategorized.

    Many have tried, none have succeeded: "Pavlov's cat" isn't funny.

    “Pavlov’s CAT!!!! GET IT?”
    Here are 20 more or less professional cartoonists who had precisely that original thought. Guess how many of them managed to make it funny. I’m posting this because I’m surprised at how much failure there is on this. Is the idea of Pavlov’s Cat inherently, objectively unfunny?
    Pavlov's Cat: 'Dream on Buddy.'
    Pavlov's cat.
    Bonus, slightly fewer people made it to Schrödinger’s dog. Somehow, a few of these are kind of funny. Why is Schrodinger’s Dog less hackneyed than Pavlov’s Cat? What does it mean about humor or semantics. Also notice the different roles of the dog compared to those of the cat.
    And what does not original plus not original equal? Still not original.
    OK, fine, the last one is funny.


    This entry was posted on Friday, April 20th, 2018 and is filed under Uncategorized.