Today's Idea: A New Society of Fellows

Acedemics,Ideas — Zac Townsend @ October 30, 2012 9:51 am

Before he stepped down as Harvard's president in 1933 and with Nazi rumblings overseas in Germany, Abbott Lawrence Lowell wished to break the stronghold of the German Ph.D. degree on American academic life, believing it stifled creativity with its overlong list of formal requirements. Lowell designed the Society of Fellows as an alternative to the Ph.D. Its relative freedom encourages members to pursue lines of thinking that transcend traditional academic disciplinary boundaries and allow them to focus their attention on larger questions more fundamental to society. [Wikipedia]

Now, today, you're required to have a PhD to apply to be a Junior Fellow! In this time when everyone is talking about interdisciplinary studies, why doesn't this program exist somewhere as originally designed?

The US ought to have a program that compares favorably to the All Souls Fellowship, which I imagine this would. Now keep in mind that there are institutions that have such programs -- Demos, New America Foundation, etc -- but academic institutions are unique in the freedom they can give. There can be no doubt that part of the reason lies with the greatness of university libraries and the faculty. As for the faculty, one wonders if they would accept the brilliance of one not formerly initiated, but that is all the more reason to accept the best.

It reminds me, but would not be identical to what Cesar Hidalgo says about Media Lab:

At the Media Lab, the whole goal that I see is that I have to be creative and I'm free to be creative, and I'm not constrained to a subject category. I don't need to be creative in chemistry, or I don't need to be creative in physics, or I don't need to be creative in policy. It's not about a subject category, the criticism of: well that is not, from the subject, it's not valid. What that creates is a group of people that have interaction between artists and technologies and designers and theoreticians and thinkers, and experimentalists, which all share a pursuit of freedom and of new ideas.

I find that it's a little bit paradoxical because this idea of pursuing creative freedom is the oldest idea in academic. The idea of an academic is someone that is doing something that nobody told him or her to do, someone that is running with his ideas and trying to make them happen. There might be people that think that those ideas are not worth even pursuing, they don't make sense. It might be that those ideas are not going to have applications in the next 200 years. Who knows? But it's an academic who will go away with his/her ideas, or take them where he or she wants.

I would say that this is something that nowadays is a little bit lost in academia, because there are subject categories that constrain the departments much more heavily, in many cases. The Media Lab doesn't have that problem. The Media Lab is a bit of the solution to that. We're going to do something that has to be cool, it has to be interesting, it has to be important, but we don't care in which subject it fits.

Security Isn't Free, Either

Economics,Ideas,Reading — Zac Townsend @ October 30, 2012 9:30 am

On the tradeoff between risk and reward. It begins with a simple anecdote:

I once heard a Harvard professor give a talk describing the yumminess vs. safety scale for food regulation. Yummy food (yes, I’m quoting here) is frequently unsafe, and safe food rarely yummy. Head to the Texas border, he said, to see it in action. The same ingredients are used in burritos on either side of the border, but the Mexican version, with its unpasteurized cheese and fresher, unmedicated chicken, bursts with both flavor and, occasionally, Salmonella. The American version is recognizable as a burrito but has little taste in common with its more daring cousin. We’ve sacrificed some deliciousness in favor of safety.

But don't be fooled, this guy has things to say:

Such questions are the stuff of nightmares and of responsible government, and the abilities to humanely understand, resolve and – most of all – explain their nuances are the differences between great leaders and tyrants.

I have been very interested lately in thinking about risks and too which extents government should go to mitigate them. I don't have anything fully formed on the topic yet, but is pretty obvious that as the limit reaches probability zero on any risk the cost function approaches infinity. That is, it gets more and more expensive to decrease smaller and smaller risks toward making something not happen with probability one. That might be worth it if the risk is nuclear attack on New York, but it makes less sense in the case of things the government avoids just because they look bad.

All Hail the Nanny State

New York City,Reading — Zac Townsend @ October 30, 2012 9:25 am

On Bloomberg's social policy:

There can be no ambiguity about the progressive nature of Bloomberg’s long, unprecedented war on smoking and obesity: It is aimed squarely at the city’s poor. Uncertainty about this exists only because the agenda has passed in a spread-out package of citywide initiatives over a decade, each one just small enough—just un-ambitious enough—to be mocked as silly and then adjusted to by residents, and later imitated around the country, without smelling of “welfare.” The public face of the agenda, in fact, has been about taking away, in the form of bans and restrictions, rather than handing out. See: the two major smoking bans (bars in 2002, parks in 2011); the 2005 phase-out of trans fats; the 2008 requirement of restaurants to display calorie counts. While these “draconian” restrictions drew attention and protest, other city programs—such as expanded food stamps, diet education, quitting-smoking assistance, even coupons for farmers markets—have thrived in complement with their higher-profile cousins.

The Art of the Art Heist

Humanities,Reading — Zac Townsend @ October 30, 2012 9:03 am

Heist as art criticism.

The Meyer de Haan is a self-portrait by a minor artist most people have never heard of. It is worth only a fraction of what the other paintings are worth. Jop Ubbens, the general director of Christie's in Amsterdam told The Guardian that the de Haan "might have been stolen by mistake." The Guardian's art critic, Jonathan Jones, thinks "any idea that a tasteful collector commissioned this theft is undermined by the inclusion of Meyer de Haan's “Self-Portrait”. No offence, but this comparatively minor Dutch artist does not really belong in the company of the others whose works have been stolen." True. But suppose for a moment that it wasn't a mistake. Suppose that whoever masterminded this robbery actually did want the Meyer de Haan. Why? What does the painting by Meyer de Haan tell us? What might that self-portrait have to do with all the other, more famous paintings that were stolen? There is a mystery here, perhaps, that only needs the right key for unlocking, the right set of questions. And the first, most obvious question is staring us right in the face.

Who is Meyer de Haan?

Microtargeting in the Election

Data,Politics — Zac Townsend @ October 29, 2012 7:05 pm

I try to avoid sending out political stories that may appear overly partisan in nature, but having read Sahsha Issenberg's book, The Victory Lab, I know that he reports carefully on data use by both democrats and republicans (I mailed the book to our resident former Republican congressional candidate Ethan Wingfield). This is a great story on the use of random experiments in voter contact, persuasion and turnout and seeming advantage that Democrats have on this front:

In fact, when it comes to the use of voter data and analytics, the two sides appear to be as unmatched as they have ever been on a specific electioneering tactic in the modern campaign era. No party ever has ever had such a durable structural advantage over the other on polling, making television ads, or fundraising, for example. And the reason may be that the most important developments in how to analyze voter behavior has not emerged from within the political profession.

Proust Wasn’t a Neuroscientist. Neither was Jonah Lehrer.

Ideas,Science — Zac Townsend @ October 29, 2012 2:29 pm

I am not interested in the particulars of Jonah Lehrer's story; however, I am very interested in the inability of scientists to convey science to the public and for journalists to understand science (The main thesis of this article in New York Magazine). Is it that science is just too messy and complicated? What role, if any, could journalist play in presenting and drawing social implications out of science? Malcolm Gladwell writes well, and for that I respect him, but he has essentially simplified complex scientific discussion in to one-sided, absurdly broad, phenomena. Should he stop or does his popularization of science, even if wrong, help the cause?

Collective Dynamics of ‘Small-world’ Networks

Networks,Reading,Science — Zac Townsend @ October 29, 2012 11:50 am

This article explores the dynamics of a network that is somewhere between regular and random.Regular networks are those where every node has the same number of connections. On the other hand, random networks are those that are built by introducing new nodes and randomly assigning edges between the new nodes and the old nodes with some probability, p (see the Erdos-Renyi model).

This paper "interpolates" between these two models by starting with a regular network (a ring lattice to be precise) and then rewiring each edge at random with probability p; in this way the graph is "tuned" between regular (p=0) and complete disorder / randomness (p=1).

To continue, we have to understand two measures that are often used in network theory: L(p) and C(p). L(p) is the average shortest length between all pairs of nodes. That is, if you find the shortest path between all pairs of nodes and then you take the average of those shortest paths you get L(p). C(p) is the clustering coefficient and is a measure of how many links exist between nodes divided by the number of possible such links.

For friendship networks, these statistics have intuitive meanings: L is the average number of friendships in the shortest chain connecting two people; C_v reflects the extent to which friends of v are also friends of each other; and thus C measures the cliquishness of a typical friendship circle.

The p=0 case is a "highly clustered, large world where L grows linearly with n" while the p=1 case is a "poorly clustered, small world where L grows only logarithmically with n". The key insight here is that allow it appears form these end points that large C and large L (and small C and small C) would always be associated from this simple analysis, it turns out that there is a "broad interval" where things stay clustered but the average length between nodes (L(P)) drops quickly. It's a "small world" because as you move, even just a little but, from a regular network to a random one there are introduced "short cuts" between groups that decreases the length: "The important implication here is that at the local level (as reflected by C(p)), the transition to a small world is almost undetectable."

The rest of the paper (Nature articles are quite short) shows three empirical examples fit this "small world" network model--IMDB film actors, the power gift, and the neural network of a nematode worm. The paper then finishes testing the implication of the network on a simulated disease outbreak where they show that 1) the smaller the L(p) of a network the faster the infection effects the entire population, 2) That a network just needs to be a little not regular for L(p) to drop significantly and 3) If it's a small world disease spread much more quickly than previous models suggest.

We hope that our work will stimulate further studies of smallworld networks. Their distinctive combination of high clustering with short characteristic path length cannot be captured by traditional approximations such as those based on regular lattices or random graphs. Although small-world architecture has not received much attention, we suggest that it will probably turn out to be widespread in biological, social and man-made systems, often with important dynamical consequences.

General Failure

Politics,Reading — Zac Townsend @ October 29, 2012 9:58 am

On the history of firing generals, and why we should do it more, or, more specifcially, that the Army doesn't punish or reward it's general officers well. From the article:

But the Army continues to do too little to sort the average performers from the outstanding ones. That has long-term consequences for the caliber of military leaders. A recent survey by students at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government found that good young officers have left the military in large part because of frustration with military bureaucracy and the sense that the armed forces do not have a performance-oriented system for managing personnel.

Today's Idea: Bloomberg-Soros Political Fellowship

Ideas,Politics — Zac Townsend @ October 29, 2012 9:46 am

It's like a MacArthur. You get a call one day. You've been selected. You'd make a great public servant, even if you don't know it. You'd get some training, like DCCC and NRCC and when you run you get two million spent by the super-pac run by the best. They've done the analysis. They'll provide funding. They've lined up endorsers. You've never thought about politics, but they've got your back. Say what you want to say, make a difference in the world: run the campaign you don't mind losing. And if you win, make it real. For 100--150 million, Bloomberg and Soros could not just give some politicians a leg up, they could change the discourse to a more centrist, pragmatic, and socially progressive one.

What Happens in Brooklyn Moves to Vegas

Reading,Social Science — Zac Townsend @ October 28, 2012 9:27 am

On a crazy and very impressive social experiment by Tony Hsieh to save Las Vegas:

The Downtown Project is hoping to draw 10,000 “upwardly mobile, innovative professionals” to the area in the next five years. And according to Hsieh, he and his team receive requests for seed money from dozens of people every week. In return, the Downtown Project asks not just for a stake in the companies but also for these entrepreneurs to live and work in downtown Las Vegas. (They’re also expected to give back to the community and hand over contacts for future recruits.) In expectation of all these newcomers, the project has already set up at least 30 real estate companies, bought more than 15 buildings and broken ground on 16 construction projects.

For those entrepreneurs who live in other parts of the country, and most do, the question often comes down to how eager they are to relocate to a downtown area filled with liquor stores and weekly hotels. Less than a year after the project was officially established, about 15 tech start-ups have signed on. The first tech investment went to Romotive, a company developing smart-phone-controlled personal robots. Money has also gone to Local Motion, a start-up that designs networks for sharing vehicles, and Digital Royalty, a social-media company.

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