Thursday, 28 February 2013


The seventies, when men drew elves. '"Perhaps a male character does not want to be a warrior; he wants to be more of a nurturing type."'

Thought for the day

to hell with anything unrefined
has always been my motto

-- from archy & mehitabel

Monday, 25 February 2013

Just a bit more Addison

This is so true:
There is scarce a thinking Man in the World, who is involved in the Business of it, but lives under a secret Impatience of the Hurry and Fatigue he suffers, and has formed a Resolution to fix himself, one time or other, in such a State as is suitable to the End of his Being. You hear Men every Day in Conversation profess, that all the Honour, Power, and Riches which they propose to themselves, cannot give Satisfaction enough to reward them for half the Anxiety they undergo in the Pursuit, or Possession of them. While Men are in this Temper (which happens very frequently) how inconsistent are they with themselves? They are wearied with the Toil they bear, but cannot find in their Hearts to relinquish it; Retirement is what they want, but they cannot betake themselves to it; While they pant after Shade and Covert, they still affect to appear in the most glittering Scenes of Life: But sure this is but just as reasonable as if a Man should call for more Lights, when he has a mind to go to Sleep.

Since then it is certain that our own Hearts deceive us in the Love of the World, and that we cannot command our selves enough to resign it, tho' we every Day wish our selves disengaged from its Allurements; let us not stand upon a Formal taking of Leave, but wean our selves from them, while we are in the midst of them.

The Man of Business has ever some one Point to carry, and then he tells himself he'll bid adieu to all the Vanity of Ambition: The Man of Pleasure resolves to take his leave at least, and part civilly with his Mistress: But the Ambitious Man is entangled every Moment in a fresh Pursuit, and the Lover sees new Charms in the Object he fancy'd he could abandon. It is, therefore, a fantastical way of thinking, when we promise our selves an Alteration in our Conduct from change of Place, and difference of Circumstances; the same Passions will attend us where-ever we are, till they are Conquered, and we can never live to our Satisfaction in the deepest Retirement, unless we are capable of living so in some measure amidst the Noise and Business of the World.

Sunday, 24 February 2013


Manners ancient: Addison in The Spectator, 1711.
There is another Set of Correspondents to whom I must address my self, in the second Place; I mean such as fill their Letters with private Scandal, and black Accounts of particular Persons and Families. The world is so full of Ill-nature, that I have Lampoons sent me by People who cannot spell, and Satyrs compos'd by those who scarce know how to write. By the last Post in particular I receiv'd a Packet of Scandal that is not legible; and have a whole Bundle of Letters in Womens Hands that are full of Blots and Calumnies, insomuch that when I see the Name Cælia, Phillis, Pastora, or the like, at the Bottom of a Scrawl, I conclude on course that it brings me some Account of a fallen Virgin, a faithless Wife, or an amorous Widow. I must therefore inform these my Correspondents, that it is not my Design to be a Publisher of Intreagues and Cuckoldoms, or to bring little infamous Stories out of their present lurking Holes into broad Day light. If I attack the Vicious, I shall only set upon them in a Body: and will not be provoked by the worst Usage that I can receive from others, to make an Example of any particular Criminal. In short, I have so much of a Drawcansir in me, that I shall pass over a single Foe to charge whole Armies. It is not Lais or Silenus, but the Harlot and the Drunkard, whom I shall endeavour to expose; and shall consider the Crime as it appears in a Species, not as it is circumstanced in an Individual. I think it was Caligula who wished the whole City of Rome had but one Neck, that he might behead them at a Blow. I shall do out of Humanity what that Emperor would have done in the Cruelty of his Temper, and aim every Stroak at a collective Body of Offenders. At the same Time I am very sensible, that nothing spreads a Paper like private Calumny and Defamation; but as my Speculations are not under this Necessity, they are not exposed to this Temptation.
 Manners modern, from xkcd.

Friday, 22 February 2013

One purpose of social science: expanding the vocabulary

The Enlightenment coffee house

Social science differs from physical science for two reasons. The first one is a matter of degree. As we go up the scale of complexity in the objects we study, our laws get less exact. Physical laws are very precise. The laws of biology are less so: rabbit breeding is less predictable than the swing of a pendulum. Humans and human societies are even more complex than living bodies, so social scientific laws are even less exact.

The second is a difference of kind. It is a good thing for humans to be able to control and predict the natural world. Not that the power cannot be misused, but it is useful for us to understand animal breeding, global warming and the physics of lasers. On the other hand, it is much more ambiguous for humans to be able to control and predict other humans. To know when this is good, you have to ask with Lenin: who, whom? For instance, predicting crime could be extremely useful, but the idea has furnished material for a large number of cyberpunk dystopias.

These differences mean that in social science, universal scientific laws may be difficult to find, and sometimes not worth finding.

A law narrows down what is possible. Falling bodies on earth accelerate only at 9.81, not 9.79 or 9.93, meters per second per second.

Another goal of social science might be to find and name what Jon Elster calls mechanisms: things that can happen, though they will not necessarily. If mechanisms turn up often enough in social life, then they will enter the public mind and vocabulary. They then expand the ability of the average citizen to understand and predict his or her world. On average this is likely to be a good thing - more likely than the search for deterministic prediction of a specific social situation, like a project to predict outbreaks of conflict.

I know two waves of research which have expanded our vocabulary. The first is game theory. Any educated person knows what a Prisoner's Dilemma is, and many people can identify a Chicken Game or a Battle of the Sexes. You can even nowadays find Guardian articles which complain about the price discrimination practices of train companies. Underneath the hood is contract theory, and perhaps in future this will be a commonplace too.

The second comes from psychology, and it is happening now. Just world theory, loss aversion, and similar concepts are gathering media interest. In a few years, with luck, they will become commonplaces, widely enough known that groups of people can use them to swiftly understand what's going on in a particular situation.

Thinking about social science in this way lets me stay rigorous - a mechanism has to be well-defined and have conditions where it applies - while admitting that social life is, as Dan Kahneman might say, a low-validity environment, and that the people on the ground in a given situation may be better placed to apply the right concept than I am.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Thackeray on charitable donations and the Dictator Game

There is scarcely any man alive who does not think himself meritorious for giving his neighbour five pounds. Thriftless gives, not from a beneficent pleasure in giving, but from a lazy delight in spending. He would not deny himself one enjoyment; not his opera-stall, not his horse, not his dinner, not even the pleasure of giving Lazarus the five pounds. Thrifty, who is good, wise, just, and owes no man a penny, turns from a beggar, haggles with a hackney-coachman, or denies a poor relation, and I doubt which is the most selfish of the two. Money has only a different value in the eyes of each.
from Vanity Fair.

Macaulay on Addington

"So effectually indeed, did he retort on vice the mockery which had recently been directed against virtue, that, since his time, the open violation of decency has always been considered among us as the mark of a fool."
Macaulay has lots of interesting remarks about the changes in public morality, from the Puritans, to the license of Charles II's court, and back again. As he tells it, bad behaviour in public ends when it becomes, not shocking, but ridiculous. Which tangentially reminds me of this classic from the Onion.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Stuck in the shallows, 19th century edition

I've finally got hold of my Kindle notes, which Amazon makes it ridiculously hard to copy and paste.

"Now, on the contrary, much knowledge is traced on paper, but little is engraved in the soul. A man is certain that he can find information at a moment's notice when he wants it. He therefore suffers it to fade from his mind. Such a man cannot in strictness be said to know anything. He has the show without the reality of wisdom. These opinions Plato has put into the mouth of an ancient king of Egypt."

But Macaulay had little tolerance for them, and he would probably have just as little with the modern version.

Kahneman's sideswipes at traders and political scientists

I'm reading the Kahneman book. It is a really great piece of popular science - a deep and broad overview of the field. It has been reviewed in the JEL with the title Barbarians At The Gates (as in, psychologists at the gates of economics... a reversal of the usual position!)

Along with the psychological theory, there are some tangential insights into the financial crisis, as revealed by Kahneman and Thaler's study of a firm of stock market traders. Context: they discover that the performance of a trader's portfolio in one year is completely unrelated to performance the next year. Now read on:


And he seemed like such a nice man

Embarrassingly, he also has opinions about my own fine profession, referencing Philip Tetlock's famous study of, ahem, "experts":