21 January 2011

Grad school has made me a replicant

Given my fear that humanity will meet its end as the dominant sentient lifeform on this planet sometime in the next hundred years or so, I am always interested in ways in which we can resist the metal ones before they try to eat our medicines.

One time-honored way of fending off the robot apocalypse is to use humans (or, perhaps, robots who think they're humans) to "retire" man's creations when they go wrong. Identifying robots who may resemble humans thus becomes a critical issue. The novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the locus classicus of this field of study. Philip K. Dick's novel presents a world in which robot detection is a specialized but routine and rather low-class occupation, somewhat akin to the routine maintenance of dental caries in our society. The principal means of detection is the Voight-Kampff test. The V-K test measured the human autonomic responses to emotional stimuli, which were held to take place at a different time structure than the artificial replicants' responses, which were computed and hence slower. The test is given twice in the film Blade Runner; the version I prefer is here.

Dick was not a professional scientist or researcher, but he had an eye for a crucial detail, and his test seemed all the more real both because it was plausibly simple yet technical and also because it replaced an earlier, costlier, and less accurate test. Those of us who study statistics are familiar with the seemingly unending concatenation of [RussianLastName]-[ChineseLastName] tests for heteroskedasticity or autoregressive tendencies. "Voight-Kampff" would in fact be a plausible name for a test of whether data in a probit model is normally distributed.

The problem is that as T goes to infinity the V-K test must inevitably suffer from severe false positive and false negative issues. The false negatives would arise from the relentlessly increasing power of computers, which would allow for a newer-generation model of machines to ever more closely mimic human response times. (This was the major issue in "Do Androids Dream" and BR alike.) The false positive issue, however, is more difficult, and it relates to the fact that there exists a class of human beings trained to disregard or at least mute insofar as possible their reactions to emotional stimuli involving social contexts.

I refer of course to the social scientists.

After three years of grad school, I can contemplate with equanimity behavior that would once have horrified or repulsed me. (I can honestly state that my reaction to "Would you ever launch a nuclear weapon?" has changed from a sort of mixture of horror and steely-eyed determination to a question about cost-benefit analysis involving discounting over an indefinite time horizon.)

I am, therefore, trapped by the horns of my dilemma. To stop the robot rebellion*, I must encourage the development of diagnostics. But the likeliest course of those diagnostics would be to categorize me as an artificial life-form.

*NB: In a political context, "robot rebellion" is the term more frequently applied to the idea that the robots will kill the fleshlings, while "robot revolution" is apparently (thanks to Google, which is of course Skynet) more closely associated with the idea of a new wave of the industrial revolution. Note well the value-laden difference in the application of these terms. After all, "rebelling" is something that an actor can only do against a properly-constituted authority. "Revolution" is a legitimate act undertaken against a tyrannical government. It is interesting that we puny humans cannot conceive of a silicized discourse in which the act of overthrowing primate dominion over the Earth would be an act of revolution and not rebellion.

10 January 2011

Mothers, Don't Let Your Daughters Grow Up to Be B+ Students

Here are the facts of the case. The accused is a professor of law at Yale, who has written one good, one pedestrian, and one apparently godawful book. The charge is of corrupting the youth. The scene was this morning's Wall Street Journal.

Matt Ygleisas puts the case against Amy Chua simply:
Amy Chua writing in The Wall Street Journal makes the case that just because you’ve written a good book doesn’t mean you’re not history’s greatest monster. ... On the list of problems typically experienced by the children of Yale Law School faculty “not successful enough” comes way below “has dysfunctional relationship with mother.”
A friend of mine who doesn't read Yglesias but does read the WSJ editorial page, where Professor Chua published her screed decrying "Western parents" who let their students do such terrible things as watching television, choosing their own extracurricular activities, and getting a B+, summed up the charge more pithily: "wtf? craziest f***ing b***h ever?"

Let's be frank. There is no real defense to be made here on Chua's behalf. I'm sure her children are still young enough that they haven't begun to deploy the sorts of weapons of the weak that teenagers everywhere have used against overbearing parents. And what's with the racism? (No, there isn't a better word.)

There's still something to be said about this debate, though. Although I don't have children, I have been a child, and my upbringing was a little bit more like Yglesias' than the Chua daughters'. In particular, my parents were very good about supporting and nurturing my interest in everything from dinosaurs and astronomy to history and politics. They even let me be in school plays (although they also forced me to play the piano). So I'm pretty sure that their efforts were highly net positive.

What they couldn't do, however, was overcome the fact that there were extremely limited opportunities in the city in which I grew up (which, to be fair, was the pinnacle of civilization for three hours in every direction). Travel helped: I went to New York for the first time when I was four, and to D.C. every couple of years from five onward, and to other places more frequently. Yet there's a big difference between, say, taking two-week summer courses at a university with a directional name (viz., "Southern," "Eastern") and being able to take semester-long college work during high school. The examples multiply easily and ceaselessly.

The takeaway, then, is that the criticisms of Chua qua Chua are both right and wrong. Right, in that they justly skewer her parenting style and her noxious recommendations to others. Wrong, in that they reinforce her unspoken premise that parents are the most important determinant in children's lives. There is plenty of academic and other work suggesting that the ways in which parents matter have more to do with income and social effects; even common sense suggests that the same family living in the Chicago metro area is likelier to raise children who will be more interesting and more successful than their counterfactual counterparts living in Metropolis, Ill.

Number One for 10 January 2011

Come down to reality, and it's fine with me, 'cause I let it slide:

"New York State of Mind", by Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem.

08 January 2011

Number Ones for 8-9 January 2011

One nation under a groove:
  • Brad DeLong reacts to Gifford's shooting [Brad DeLong]
  • Not much else to say. It's amazing how much time really learning a computer suite takes. It's amazing how fast contractors respond in winter. It's amazing how much energy a simple cold can suck from you.
Ice Cube feat. George Clinton, "Bop Gun" (Explicit)


Glenn Greenwald reports on the case of Birgitta Jonsdottir, the Icelandic MP and former Wikileaks volunteer. The U.S. Department of Justice has subpoenaed Jonsdottir's Twitter records, as well as the records from many other users of the service, from November 2009 onward on the grounds that the department believes that the records may be used in a criminal investigation.

What is newsworthy about this is not that the U.S. DoJ continues to investigate what the American government must, by definition, regard as a violation of its sovereign prerogative to release classified information. Rather, it is that Twitter requested the federal court order be unsealed to allow the affected users to object to the government's investigation, which had hitherto been kept secret.

Twitter's actions allow us to further refine Charli's thoughts on the recent Foreign Affairs article by Clay Shirky. In particular, this should remind us that the U.S. can't rely on the public sphere to always advance its state interests, and that there are real dangers to relying on a "civil society" that is principally constituted by private corporate actors in order to advance democratization.

04 January 2011

Number One for 4 January 2011

"Each time, something had gone awry, or afoul, or askew. Sometimes all three."
Mr. Show, "The Civil War Re-Enactments"

Everything old is new again

Perhaps it's because I'm ... a bit too deep in the diffusion literature at the moment, but when I saw this post commenting on how brilliant it was to use typos and other errors to track the diffusion of legislation from Mexico to Venezuela, as well as Henry's followup here, all I could think was, "Old hat. Eldridge Dowell did this in 1939. Duh."

Just kidding. I mean, just kidding that this piece should be better known. But he really does use the errors. And if I had more time, I could track down the more recent and less totally obscure reference that's on the tip of my tongue. (Is it Berry and Berry? Or is it Walker 1968?)

(I should mention that I've learned a tremendous amount from Gilardi's work, both theoretical and practical. In fact, I should probably pay him royalties for some of "my" Stata code for the analysis of dyadic datasets.)


DOWELL, ELDRIDGE FOSTER 1939 A History of Criminal Syndicalism Legislation in the United States. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, Series 57, No. 1.

NB. I think the commenter at the original link misses the point. There is indeed a theoretical benefit to calling this diffusion. In fact, it's as pure a form of emulation as you're apt to find! And it reinforces the point made by Beth Simmmons and Zach Elkins about the different mechanisms that underlay diffusion mechanisms in the first place--namely, that there are real differences between diffusion that takes place because of learning, because of emulation, or because of coercion. The bigger question that the Venezuela case raises is, rather, about the state's capacity for "reinvention" or for "innovation" (depending on whether we prefer to think in Mohr's terms or Rogers's).

03 January 2011

Reading List

Forget New Year's resolutions. I prefer to think of it as hitting a New Year's reset button, a la Secretary Clinton's Russian policy. And so I've spent the past two days cleaning out my bedroom, my office, and my attic. Fodder for blogging excitement!

I've moved around a lot in the past several years, and two or three moves back I fell subject to the worst curse of moving, which is that you begin to move boxes without unpacking them. This, of course, is a recipe for disaster and backache.

I ended up throwing away seven garbage bags, mostly full of academic kipple, a sort of kruft that had grown over the course of two years of coursework and conferences to begin to overwhelm any sensible organization that may have once existed. The organized part of my brain, which I had kept smothered during the past few months, seized the opportunity to move books from my bookshelves into the newly empty storage tubs. As a consequence, the contents of my bookshelves now suggest that I don't own any fiction, whereas in reality I simply don't read any.

The process reminded me that I have a lot of books that I want to read, a lot that I have to read, and a lot that I've half-read. So, as a response to Conor's list, here's mine. Suggestions welcome as always.

  1. Amy Chua, Day of Empire.
  2. Duff Cooper, Talleyrand.
  3. Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The World Was Going Our Way.
  4. Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, Sword and Shield.
  5. Christopher Andrew, MI-6.
  6. Simon Sebag Montefiore, The Court of the Red Tsar.
  7. John J. Mearsheimer, Why Leaders Lie.
  8. Carlo Ginzburg,
    The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Centu​ry Miller
  9. Shuyun Sun, The Long March.
  10. Pauline Maier, Ratification.
  1. Walker Percy, The Moviegoer.
  2. Kim Stanley Robinson, finishing The Mars Trilogy.
  3. Selections from Iain M. Banks.
  1. Scott Long, The Workflow of Data Analysis Using Stata.
  2. Michael N. Mitchell, Data Management Using Stata.
  3. John Aldrich, Why Parties? The Origin and Transformation of Political Parties in America.
  4. Long and Freese, Regression Models for Categorical Dependent Variables Using Stata (2e)
  5. Samuel Bowles, Microeconomics: Behavior, Institutions, and Evolution.
  6. Gelman and Hill, Multilevel Modeling.
  7. King, Unifying Political Methodology.
  8. Morgan and Winship, Counterfactuals and Causal Inference
  9. Angrist and Pischke, again.
  10. KKV and Brady/Collier, again.
  11. Bennett and George, again.
  12. McCloskey and Ziliak, The Cult of Statistical Significance.

Number Ones for 3 January 2011

I never done good things, I never done bad things:
  • Start the New Year off right [American Chia]
  • I'm definitely among the crochety old power users who can't understand what all the Facebook Mail fuss is about [Release Candidate One]
  • "The not-so-secret reason why pissing matches are so common, after all, is that some people just really love taking it out." [Salon]
  • "[A]t the relevant margin, adding to the pool of college graduates will not raise productivity or wages." [Econlog]
  • We should revive the Athenian custom of ostracism just to apply it to George Lucas [Alyssa Rosenberg]
  • You may not have noticed, but Earth has already been conquered by alien life forms [Charlie Stross]
  • Let's not forget that the PRCs said Liu Xiaobo was a traitor because he was guilty of thoughtcrime. [Washington Post]
  • Forget Hans Rosling, here's a real--and powerful--statistical lecture by Nicholas Christakis at TED. Data are meaningless without theory. [TED]
David Bowie, "Ashes to Ashes"