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.

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.

Two GIFs about peer review, and an embarrassing story …




It is common to have your papers rejected from journals. I forwarded a recent rejection to my advisor along with the first GIF. Shortly after, I got the second GIF from the journal editor, with a smiley. It turns out that I’d hit Reply instead of Forward.
At least he had a sense of humor.


This entry was posted on Saturday, December 17th, 2016 and is filed under audio/visual, science.

Extra info about my appearance on BBC Radio 4

I was on a BBC radio documentary by Jolyon Jenkins, “Rock Paper Scissors.” The goal of the documentary was to show that this seemingly trivial game is secretly fascinating, because of what we humans make of it. My own academic contribution to that fun claim has been published here and in much more detail here.
Jolyon was a gracious host, but the documentary was released without any word or warning to me, and with rough spots. I’ve got to clarify a few things.
The most important is an error. The show ended with my describing a game in which people “irrationally” herd together and make lots of money. The results of this game were reported faithfully in the show, but the game itself got defined wrong, and in a way that makes the results impossible. Here’s the full game: All of you pick an integer 1 through X. Each person gets a buck for picking a number exactly one more than what someone else picked. ADDITIONALLY, the number 1 is defined to be exactly one more than number X, making the choices into a big circle of numbers. The documentary left that last bit out, and it’s really important. Without anything to beat X, I’m guessing that everyone will converge pretty quickly on X without much of this flocking behavior. It’s only when the game is like Rock Paper Scissors, with no single choice that can’t be beat by another, that you start to see the strange behavior I describe in the show.
Three more things. All of the work was done with my coauthor and advisor Rob Goldstone at IU, who wasn’t mentioned. Second, it’s not accurate, and pretty important, the way that Jolyon implicitly linked my past work to my current employer. The work presented on the show was performed before I started with Disney Research, and has nothing to do with my work for Disney Research. Last, a lot of what I said on the show was informed by the work of Colin Camerer, specifically things like this.


This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 5th, 2015 and is filed under audio/visual, updates.

Enfascination 2013

29742_396066756605_704462_n“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Thus spoke Martin Luther King Jr. in a great endorsement for humility, curiosity, and discovery.
On Thinko de Mayo, from 1PM, you will have five minutes to help us see how dangerous we are. You may share anything at all during your five minutes, as long as you personally think it’s fascinating. Your goal is to transmit your sense of fascination to others. FB page:
If the constraints of themes help you brainstorm, try “Science towards nescience.” But generally, you should trust yourself. If you manage nothing more than five minutes of wobbling, inarticulate, ecstatic blubbering then Well Done: You have successfully expressed the unfathomable depth of your subject.
This is the ten-year anniversary of these lectures –– ten years since I attempted the world’s nerdiest 21st birthday kegger. This will be the fifth and probably last in Bloomington. Ask me for help if you’ll have slides or a demo.
Past topics have included:
Slide Rules, Counting the Permutations of Digit Strings, Conceptions of Time in History, Chili Peppers, How to cross a glacier, The Singularity, Indiana Jones, Rural desert water distribution systems, Hexaflexagons, Small precious things, Wilderness Camps as Commodity, DIY Cooking, Roman Emperor Deaths , Joy of Science, Salt , Three Great Banquets in Italian History, How to Sharpen a Chisel, Some Properties of Numbers in Base Ten, The Physiological Limits to Human Perception of Time, Geophagy, Pond Ecology, Superstition: For Fun and Profit, Counterintuitive Results in Hydrodynamics, The Wolof Conception of Time, Arctic String Figures, The Seven Axioms of Mathematics, Dr Seuss and his Impact on Contemporary Children’s Literature, Twee, Motorcycle Life and Culture, Cultural Differences Between Japan and the US, Brief history of the Jim Henson Company, Female Orgasm, Insider Trading: For Fun and Profit, Film of Peter Greenaway, A Typographical Incident with Implications for the Structure of Thought, Cooperative Birth Control, Tones in Mandarin, Unschooling and Deschooling, Q&A: Fine Beer, DIY Backpacking, Chinese Nationalism in Tibet, Biofuels, The Yeti, The Health Benefits of Squatting, The Big Bang, How to Pick Stocks Like a Pro, Food Preservation Technique, or Managing Rot, Infant Visual Perception, Demonstrations in Number Theory, Rangolis, Kolum, The Hollow Earth, Edible Mushrooms: For Fun and Profit, Human Asexuality, A History of the California Central Valley Watershed, An Account of the Maidu Creation, The Paleoclimatology of the Levant, Rural India, German Compound Words, Manipulating Children, Physics of Time, Animal Training on Humans, Constructed Languages, This Week’s Weather, The XYZs of Body Language, Light Filtration Through Orchards, Our Limits in Visualizing High Dimensional Spaces,Twin Studies.
Last year’s audio:
And video/notes from before that:

UPDATE post-party

Here is what happened:

  1. The Tiger Café by Ronak
  2. Jr. High School Poetry Slam by Lauren
  3. The “Border” language by Destin
  4. Perception/Objectivity by Paul Patton
  5. Readings from James Agee by Jillian
  6. “A signal detection theory of morality” or “The morality manatee” by Seth
  7. Dreams and the four candies by Danny
  8. Pick Two by Adam
  9. Trust and Trust Experiments by Jonathan

Rock-Paper-Scissors ms. on Smithsonian, NBC, and Science Daily blogs.

This is my first (inter)national press, I’m a little embarrassed to feel excited about it. Its also a pleasant surprise, I wouldn’t have expected it to have general appeal.

Enfascination 2012 audio


Some things take time, but it only takes an instant to realize that you have no idea what’s going on. This epiphany-every time it happens-is punctuated by the sound of 500 stars around the universe literally exploding, dissolving their planets and neighbors in flaming atoms, in silence. It happens every instant, forever. As right as you were, its impossible for you to know how right.

The 2012 program from May 5, 2012, featuring:

  • “Hoosier Talkin’,” Sarah on the southern Indiana dialect
  • “A brief history of Western art” by Eran
  • “Introduction to conducting” by Greg
  • “Infant perception” by Lisa
  • Poems read by Jillian
  • “The paleoclimatology of the Levant” by Seth
  • “Tweepop” by Robert
  • “Direct perception” by Paul Patton
  • “Slide rules” by Ben

"Seth Frey the Sandwich Guy"

In high school I would bring very large sandwiches constructed with many pounds of meat and bread. They were famous enough that I would sell them. I bought some in exchange for people’s souls. Jonathan Lazarus wouldn’t sell his, but he offered to make me a song instead, and I couldn’t have hoped for more.

This is 1998 or 1999. He died two weeks ago, hit by a train. His brother Ben made this video to remember Jon. RIP Jonathan Lazarus. RIP also Sean Emdy who was in the same high school class, and was killed the same way in 2003 or 2004. Thanks also to Ben.