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.

Stop, look, and listen: A tour of the world's red crosswalks

My favorite thing about traveling is the little things. And with Google’s Maps, you can celebrate those without going anywhere. Here are “stop walking” signs from cities around the world.


As expected, Europe has a lot of diversity, particularly Switzerland:
Geneva, Switzerland has this skinny person
Lucerne, Switzerland has a lanky Giacometti type
Zurich, Switzerland also goes lanky, but a little more of the Age of Aquarius, Platonic ideal, smooth edges, hard ideas style that you get in that city.
More of Europe:
Berlin, Germany is v. different.
Vienna, Austria, which put these up during a recent Eurovision contest, gets the prize.

Oslo, Norway means business!
Stopping and going, Brussels, Belgium has style

North America

The huge US is depressingly homogeneous, especially in comparison to the much smaller Switzerland. Maybe there’s a monopoly in the US traffic-light market?
St. Louis
Zooming out to the rest of North America doesn’t seems improve things, though I admit I could have looked harder.
Montreal, the least Anglophone Canadian city, deviates from the US mold by only a bit, by hollowing out the hand. It’s “walk” guy is better though — I’ve got a picture of one below.
I pathetically couldn’t find any lights in Mexico City and haven’t checked other major Mexican cities, though I’m guess that border towns at least will look American.


In Africa, I tried Addis Ababa, Lagos, Accra, Nairobi, and even Cairo, but Google hasn’t shot any of them. I only found Streetview in South Africa. Here is Pretoria

East Asia

There is also very little Streetview in China. I tried Beijing, Shanghai, and a few other Chinese cities. All I found was Hong Kong. I guess that by the time we come to envy China for not having been scanned, Google will have them scanned too. China has over 200 cities of population over 1,000,000. There are only 9 in the US that big. Other parts of east Asia, like Japan and South Korea, are much better.
Hong Kong is realistic enough to automatically have its identity fizzed out by Google’s algorithms.
Tokyo, Japan. Looks like a worker. I was told that, in Japanese, the word for jaywalking translates to “red light, don’t care.”
Seoul, South Korea

South Asia

I didn’t have any luck finding lit crosswalks in south Asia, but that could be my problem.

Southeast Asia

In southeast Asia, I only looked in Manila, which only recently went up on Streetview in the past year I think, but they mostly only have crosswalks in their upscale neighborhoods, and, in-line with the USA-philia over there, those few look very much like the American ones

Middle East

In the Middle East (and outside of Israel), I only found usable intersections in Dubai, whose lights look like the Swiss ones above. Only connection I can think of is that that’s where they keep all their money
Israel has more. Here is Tel Aviv. Pretty manly, right? Wait till you see Sao Paolo.

South America and Latin America

South America is also very diverse. I only looked a bit, and many cities are unscanned, but it seems that there is a lot more interesting variety there than in other parts of the world. In fact, you can find different lights in the same intersection! In Santiago you’ll see a silhouette of the “walk” light — sprightly fella — and a more generic “walk” light guy walking in the other direction. These two really are from the same intersection.
Santiago, same intersection, walking guy walking the other way
Bogota, Colombia
It looks like Sao Paolo, Brazil has a burly burly strong man. I can’t figure out if the crookedness adds to or subtracts from his apparent virility.

“Walk” lights

“Walk” lights are harder to catch in Streetview than “stop”s. That said, I got a not-bad collection of those too. The lessons above stick: the US is homogenous; variety happens elsewhere. And, outside the US, the walker tends to be green and walk to the left instead of the right.
London, UK
Moscow, Russia
Tokyo, Japan
Seoul, South Korea
If there is some important cross-walk of the world you think I really missed out on, I’m happy to add more.

Natural selection, statistical mechanics, and the idea of germs were all inspired by social science

It’s only natural to want to hold your scientific field as the most important, or noble, or challenging field. That’s probably why I always present the sciences of human society as the ones that are hardest to do. It’s not so crazy: it is inherently harder to learn about social systems than biological, engineered, or physical ones because we can’t, and shouldn’t ever, have the same control over humans that we do over bacteria, bridges, or billiard balls. But maybe I take it too far. I usually think of advances in social science as advances in what it is possible for science to teach us, and I uncritically think of social science as where scientific method will culminate.
So imagine my surprise to learn that social science isn’t the end of scientific discovery, but a beginning. According to various readings in John Carey’s Faber Book of Science, three of the most important scientific discoveries since the Enlightenment — the theory of natural selection, the germ theory of disease, and the kinetic theory of gasses — brought inspiration from human social science to non-human domains. One of Darwin’s key insights toward the theory of evolution came while reading Malthus’s work on human population. Just in case you think that’s a fluke, Alfred Russell Wallace’s independent discovery of natural selection came while he was reading Malthus. (And Darwin was also influenced by Adam Smith). Louis Pasteur developed the implications of the germ theory of disease by applying his French right-wing political philosophy to animalcules. The big leap there was that biologists rejected that very small insignificant animals could possibly threaten a large and majestic thing like a human, but Pasteur had seen how the unworthy masses threatened the French elite, and it gave him an inkling. Last, James Maxwell, the man right under Newton and Einstein in physics stature, was reading up on the new discipline of Social Statistics when he came up with the kinetic theory of gases, which in turn sparked statistical mechanics and transformed thermodynamics. Physicists have started taking statistical mechanics out of physical science and applying it to social science, completely ignorant of the fact that it started there.
All of these people were curious enough about society to think and read about it, and their social ponderings were rewarded with fresh ideas that ultimately transformed each of their fields.
I think of science as a fundamentally social endeavor, but when I say that I’m usually thinking of the methods of science. These connections out of history offer a much deeper sense in which all of natural science is the science of humanity.
Thanks to Jaimie Murdock and Colin Allen for the connection between Malthus and Darwin, straight from Darwin’s autobiography

In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favorable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavorable ones to be destroyed. The results of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then I had at last got a theory by which to work.

How would science be different if humans were different?

How would science be different if humans were different — if we had different physiological limits? Obviously, if our senses were finer, we wouldn’t need the same amount of manufactured instrumentation to reach the same conclusions. But there are deeper implications. If our senses were packed denser, and if we could faithfully process and perceive all of the information they collect, we would probably have much more sensitive time perception, or one way or another a much refined awareness of causal relations in the world. This would have the result that raw observation would be a much more fruitful methodology within the practice of natural science, perhaps so much so that we would have much less need for things like laboratory experiments (which are currently very important).
Of course, a big part of the practice of science is the practice of communication, and that becomes clear as soon as we change language. Language is sort of a funny way to have to get things out of one head and into another. It is slow, awkward, and very imperfect. If “language” was perfect — if we could transfer our perfect memories of subjective experience directly to each other’s heads with the fidelity of ESP — there would be almost no need for reproducibility, one of the most important parts of science-as-we-know-it. Perfect communication would also supersede the paratactic writeups that scientific writing currently relies on to make research reproducible. It may be that in some fields there would be no articles or tables or figures. Maybe there would still be abstracts. And if we had unlimited memories, it’s possible that we wouldn’t need statistics, randomized experiments, or citations either.
The reduction in memory limits would probably also lead to changes in the culture of science. Science would move faster, and it would be easier to practice without specialized training. The practice of science would probably no longer be restricted to universities, and the idea of specialized degrees like Ph.D.s would probably be very different. T.H. Huxley characterized science as “organized common sense.” This “organization” is little more than a collection of crutches for our own cognitive limits, without which the line between science and common sense would disappear entirely.
That’s interesting enough. But, for me, the bigger implication of this exercise is that science as we know it is not a Big Thing In The Sky that exists without us. Science is fundamentally human. I know people who find that idea distasteful, but chucking human peculiarities into good scientific practice is just like breaking in a pair of brand-new gloves. Having been engineered around some fictional ideal, your gloves aren’t most useful until you’ve stretched them here and there, even if you’ve also nicked them up a bit. It’s silly to judge gloves on their fit to the template. In practice, you judge them on their fit to you.

Bern, Switzerland hires ex biker gang to scare trash sinners straight

I met a Swiss behavioral economist who had partnered with his city to see how “nudges” could prevent people from sneaking out in the night and illicitly leaving bags of trash at neighborhood recycling stations. Many Swiss cities tax trash per bag to incentivize waste reduction, with the side-effect that shirking takes the form of discreet dumping. Treatments for the side-effect take many forms. The most wild, according to this economist, was an initiative from Bern in which the city hired the Euro equivalent of Hell’s Angels to hide in the bushes and pop out to catch people in the act. It sounded too wild to be true, and the hiding was maybe an exaggeration, but I got pointed to a few articles from Swiss tabloids that support the story, this one from 20 Minuten and the one below from Blick, translated by Jillian.

The Green Rockers of Bern
Their reputation precedes them. The Broncos security forces don’t just look mean; they also have a reputation in Bern for taking drastic measures — qualities that are now bringing the security group, which is no longer in association with the rock club of the same name, into unexpected territory. According to the Berner Zeitung, the municipality of Köniz has commissioned the Broncos to ensure that people don’t throw extraneous trash into the recycling bins meant for aluminum, glass, and tin.
The services of the Broncos in the fight against “trash sinners” cost the community a cool 9000 francs. But the Broncos aren’t just there to look mean. They’re supposed to be doing preventative work — and passing out leaflets.


This entry was posted on Sunday, August 2nd, 2015 and is filed under systems of culture.

Louisiana's "daiquiri exemption" and other drinks while driving.

Short article on states that permit drinking while driving. File under heterogeneity and the living tension between governance institutions that exist at different scales.


This entry was posted on Saturday, May 16th, 2015 and is filed under systems of culture.

Cultural arbitrariness is not the thing that is at the root of how race doesn't exist.

On the old Radiolab episode about race, the producers used an interesting fact to make an argument that race doesn’t exist — that it’s entirely a social construct. It turns out that the genetic variability within races is greater than the variability between races; the average difference between two people of the same race is greater than that of groups of people across races. In that sense, the idea of race is not really meaningful. But the same is true for the sounds p and b.
Put your finger to your throat and say “ppuh.” Then say “bbuh.” The vibration you felt for the second one is called voicing; it’s supposed to be the only difference between p and b. That said, things get fuzzy fast. Say “pee.” “Pee” doesn’t start out voiced, but it ends that way (in contrast with “bee,” which is voiced more from the beginning). Depending on context, you can actually move voicing up a lot more and still be perceived as uttering a p. And you can move voicing down from the beginning and still be a b. There are big individual differences too, so that the thing that came out of my mouth as a p might have come out of your sounding like a b. In real everyday language, the fluctuations are so wild that the variability within p or b is greater that then variability between them.
Does race exist? As much as p and b do. So wait: Do p and b exist? It turns out that there are sharp people working to destroy the ideas of the sounds p and b. For example, cognitive scientist Bob Port put his career behind undermining the static approaches to phonology that permitted the idea of linguistic atoms. And there’s something to it. It turns out that p and b are really complicated. But he can still pronounce his name. It seems you don’t have to be able to draw a clear line between them for them to be used by reasonable people as ideas. To take them too seriously is wrong, and to think that they can’t be used responsibly, or even usefully, is also wrong.
p, b, and race all look superficially like basic building blocks, but really they are each a complicated result of things like physiology, culture, and the context of each instant. So they are constructs, but not just social constructs. Their cultural arbitrariness is not the thing that is at the root of how they don’t exist. What does it mean for you? These constructs aren’t insubstantial because they are nothing, they are insubstantial because they are complicated.

"No wang-wang zone"

My dad lives in the Philippines, and I was in the Manila airport on my way to visit him. I was in the part where you get in line and wait for them to glance at your passport when I saw a cheap computer printed sign taped to a column.

This is a no wang-wang zone.
We have cameras, don’t embarrass yourself.
Stay in line.

I couldn’t help but notice it, which made me wonder why I’d never seen it before — I’ve been visiting that country every few years since I was 12. It didn’t seem like a very airport type of sign.
Eventually I had a chance to ask my stepmom, and she explained. Wang-wang is pretending that you’re really important. Say you don’t want to wait in traffic. You light up the siren on your dashboard, get over to the shoulder, and plough on past all the suckers. Or say you don’t want to wait in line at the airport. You put on a pair of sunglasses, tell your family to follow you in a tight pack while tittering about your celebrity or photographing you, and stroll confidently past all the long lines right on through to baggage. It’s called wang-wang because of the first example: That’s the sound a siren makes.
I’m not one of these Foucault-fawning critical theory types — at all — but when I think about wang-wang I can’t shake words like “postmodern” and “postcolonial.” They don’t usually go together, but I think wang-wang is both. The Philippines was colonized for centuries and the country, despite its merits, has a bad case of some of the worst aspects of Western culture, like extreme wealth disparities, deified celebrities, and the use of bureaucracy for interfacing between citizen and state.
Naturally there are forms of resistance to those things, and wang-wang is one, but it stands out to me for how savvy it is to the arbitrariness of power. The terms of being a powerful person are a bit arbitrary in any culture, but they are so blatantly arbitrary in the Philippines, partly because of the colonial mold: their governance system and economic structure were copied and pasted from Western models with Western loans and no regard for this idea that a country’s political and economic systems should be congruent with its culture. The common result is the portfolio of asymmetries that characterize life in the developing world, like asymmetry in wealth, in power, in the development of urban and rural places, in the relative amounts of law and lawfullness, and in the amount of admiration for Westerners over compatriots.
If asymmetry is the common result of orthodox international development, the “no wang-wang zone” is the postmodern result: a rule in an airport immigration lobby chastising this new kind of person who can break all the rules by pretending to be the kind of person who can break all the rules.

Xeno's paradox

There is probably some very deep psychology behind the age-old tradition of blaming problems on foreigners. These days I’m a foreigner, in Switzerland, and so I get to see how things are and how I affect them. I’ve found that I can trigger a change in norms even by going out of my way to have no effect on them. It’s a puzzle, but I think I’ve got it modeled.
In my apartment there is a norm (with a reminder sign) around locking the door to the basement. It’s a strange custom, because the whole building is safe and secure, but the Swiss are particular and I don’t question it. Though the rule was occasionally broken in the past (hence the sign), residents in my apartment used to be better about locking the door to the basement. The norm is decaying. Over the same time period, the number of foreigners (like me) has increased. From the naïve perspective, the mechanism is obvious: Outsiders are breaking the rules. The mechanism I have in mind shows some of the subtlety that is possible when people influence each other under uncertainty. I’m more interested in the possibility that this can exist than in showing it does. Generally, I don’t think of logic as the most appropriate tool for fighting bigotry.
When I moved in to this apartment I observed that the basement door was occasionally unlocked, despite the sign. I like to align with how people are instead of how the signs say they should be, and so I chose to just remain a neutral observer for as long as possible while I learned the how things run. I adopted a heuristic of leaving things how I found them. If the door was locked, I locked it behind me on my way out, and if the door wasn’t I left it that way.
That’s well and good, but you can’t just be an observer. Even my policy of neutrality has side effects. Say that the apartment was once full of Swiss people, including one resident who occasionally left the door unlocked but was otherwise perfectly Swiss. The rest of the residents are evenly split between orthodox door lockers and others who could go either way and so go with the flow. Under this arrangement, the door stays locked most of the time, and the people on the cusp of culture change stay consistent with what they are seeing.
Now, let’s introduce immigration and slowly add foreigners, but a particular kind that never does anything. These entrants want only to stay neutral and they always leave the door how they found it. If the norm of the apartment was already a bit fragile, then a small change in the demographic can tip the system in favor of regular norm violations.
If the probability of adopting the new norm depends on the frequency of seeing it adopted, then a spike in norm adoptions can cause a cascade that makes a new norm out of violating the old one. This is all standard threshold model: Granovetter, Schelling, Axelrod. Outsiders change the model by creating a third type that makes it look like there are more early adopters than there really are.
Technically, outsiders translate the threshold curve up and don’t otherwise change its shape. In equations, (1) is a cumulative function representing the threshold model. It sums over some positive function f() as far as percentile X to return value Y in “X% of people (adopters early adopters (E) plus non-adopters (N)) need to see that at least Y% of others have adopted before they do.” Equation (2) shifts equation (1) up by the percentage of outsiders times their probability of encountering an adopter rather than a non-adopter.
If you take each variable and replace it with a big number you should start to see that the system needs either a lot of adopters or a lot of outsiders for these hypothetical neutral outsiders to be able to shift the contour very far up. That says to me that I’m probably wrong, since I’m probably the only one following my rule. My benign policy probably isn’t the explanation for the trend of failures to lock the basement door.
This exercise was valuable mostly for introducing a theoretical mechanism that shows how it could be possible for outsiders to not be responsible for a social change, even if it seems like it came with them. Change can come with disinterested outsiders if the system is already leaning toward a change, because outsiders can be mistaken for true adopters and magnify the visibility of a minority of adopters.

Update a few months later

I found another application. I’ve always wondered how it is that extreme views — like extreme political views — take up so much space in our heads even though the people who actually believe those things are so rare. I’d guess that we have a bias towards over estimating how many people are active in loud minorities, anything from the Tea Party to goth teenagers. With a small tweak, this model can explain how being memorable can make your social group seem to have more converts than it has, and thereby encourage more converts. Just filter people’s estimates of different group’s representations through a memory of every person that has been seen in the past few months, with a bias toward remembering memorable things. I’ve always thought that extreme groups are small because they are extreme, but this raises the possibility that it’s the other way around, that when you’re small, being extreme is a pretty smart growth strategy.

Auspicious and inconsequential

Photo on 16-06-14 at 12.49
“Auspicious” and “inconsequential” are two tidy words for describing the experience of being burger customer number one. I like that they can coexist with so little friction. Maybe it works because auspicious wafts superstitious.