The origins of the digital universe

Just finished Turing’s Cathedral – a fine and stimulating book about the origins of the computer, the interlinked history of the first computers and nuclear bombs, the role of John von Neumann in all that, the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) in Princeton, and much more. It is a very thoroughly researched volume based on archival materials, interviews, etc. Actually, if I have one complaint it is that it is too scrupulous in presenting the background of all primary, secondary and tertiary characters in the story of the computer and in documenting the development of the various buildings at the IAS. For that reason I found the first part of the book a bit tedious. But the later chapters in which the author allows his own ideas about the digital universe to roam more freely are truly inspired and inspiring. It was also quite fascinating to learn that one of the first uses of the digital computer, apart from calculating nuclear fusion processes and trying to predict the weather, has been to run what would now be called agent-based modeling (by Nils Baricelli). Here is my favorite passage from the book:

‘Books are strings of code. But they have mysterious properties – like strings of DNA. Somehow the author captures a fragment of the universe, unravels it into a one-dimensional sequence, squeezes it through a keyhole, and hopes that a three-dimensional  vision emerges in the reader’s mind. The translation is never exact.’ (p.312)

Constructivism in the world of Dragons

Here is an analysis of Game of Thrones from a realist international relations perspective. Inevitably, here is the response from a constructivist angle. These are supposed to be fun so I approached them with a light heart and popcorn. But halfway through the second article I actually felt sick to my stomach. I am not exaggerating, and it wasn’t the popcorn – seeing the same ‘arguments’ between realists and constructivists rehearsed in this new setting, the same lame responses to the same lame points, the same ‘debate’ where nobody ever changes their mind, the same dreaded confluence of normative, theoretical, and empirical notions that plagues this never-ending exchange in the real (sorry, socially constructed) world, all that really gave me a physical pain. I felt entrapped – even in this fantasy world there was no escape from the Realist and the Constructivist. The Seven Kingdoms were infected by the triviality of our IR theories. The magic of their world was desecrated. Forever….

Nothing wrong with the particular analyses. But precisely because they manage to be good examples of the genres they imitate the bad taste in my mouth felt so real. So is it about interests or norms? Oh no. Is it real politik or the slow construction of a common moral order? Do leader disregard the common folk to their own peril? Oh, please stop. How do norms construct identities? Noooo moooore. Send the Dragons!!!

By the way, just one example of how George R.R. Martin can explain a difficult political idea better than an entire conference of realists and constructivists. Why do powerful people keep their promises? Is it ’cause their norms make them do it or because it is in their interests or whatever? Why do Lannisters always pay their debts even though they appear to be some the meanest self-centered characterless in the entire world of Game of Thrones?  We literally see the answer when Tyrion Lannister tries to escape from the sky cells, and the Lannister’s reputation for paying their debts is the only thing that saves him, the only thing he has left to pay Mord, but it is enough (see episode 1.6). Having a reputation for paying your debts is one of the greatest assets you can have in every world. And it is worth all the pennies you pay to preserve it even when you can actually get away with not honoring your commitments. It could not matter less if you call this interest-based or norm-based explanation: it just clicks, but it takes creativity and insight to convey the point, not impotent meta-theoretical disputes.

The failure of political science

Last week the American Senate supported with a clear bi-partisan majority a decision to stop funding for political science research from the National Science Foundation. Of all disciplines, only political science has been singled out for the cuts and the money will go for cancer research instead.

The decision is obviously wrong for so many reasons but my point is different. How could political scientists who are supposed to understand better than anyone else how politics works allow this to happen? What does it tell us about the state of the discipline that the academic experts in political analysis cannot prevent overt political action that hurts them directly and rather severely?

To me, this failure of American political scientists to protect their own turf in the political game is scandalous. It is as bad as Nobel-winning economists Robert Merton and Myron Scholes leading the hedge fund ‘Long Tern Capital Management‘ to bust and losing 4.6 billion dollars with the help of their Nobel-wining economic theories. As Myron & Scholes’ hedge fund story revels the true real-world value of (much) financial economics theories, so does the humiliation of political science by the Congress reveal the true real-world value of (much) political theories.

Think about it –  the world-leading academic specialists on collective action, interest representation and mobilization could not get themselves mobilized, organized and represented in Washington to protect their funding. The professors of the political process and legislative institutions could not find a way to work these same institutions to their own advantage. The experts on political preferences and incentives did not see the broad bi-partisan coalition against political science forming. That’s embarrassing

It is even more embarrassing because American political science is the most productive, innovative, and competitive in the world. There is no doubt that almost all of the best new ideas, methods, and theories in political science over the last 50 years have come from the US. (And a lot of these innovations have been made possible because of the funding received by the National Science Foundation). So it is not that individual American political scientists are not smart – of course they are, but for some reason as a collective body they have not been able to benefit from their own knowledge and insights. Or that knowledge and insights about US politics are deficient in important ways.The fact remains, political scientists were beaten in what should have been their own game. Hopefully some kind of lesson will emerge from all that…

P.S. No reason for public administration, sociology and other related disciplines to be smug about pol sci’s humiliation – they have been saved (for now) mostly by their own irrelevance. 

The evolution of EU legislation (graphed with ggplot2 and R)

During the last half century the European Union has adopted more than 100 000 pieces of legislation. In this presentation I look into the patterns of legislative adoption over time. I tried to create clear and engaging graphs that provide some insight into the evolution of law-making activity: not an easy task given the byzantine nature of policy making in the EU and the complex nomenclature of types of legal acts possible.

The main plot showing the number of adopted directives, regulations and decisions since 1967 is pasted below. There is much more in the presentation. The time series data is available here, as well as the R script used to generate the plots (using ggplot2). Some of the graphs are also available as interactive visualizations via ManyEyes here, here, and here (requires Java). Enjoy.

EU laws over time

After Google Reader

As you might have heard already, Google slashes Reader. That’s terrible news since I have based a very large part of my internet experience on Google Reader: not only following blogs, but collecting links, catching up with general news, and even keeping up to date with academic journals. For some insight into why Google dumped the Reader read here. There is a good discussion of alternatives RSS platforms here. Let’s hope a new and better feeder will soon appear to fill the gap.

Postscript: There is a petition to save Google Reader which already has close to 100 000 signatures here.

Post-postscript: And I thought I am pissed…



Interest groups and the making of legislation

How are the activities of interest groups related to the making of legislation? Does mobilization of interest groups lead to more legislation in the future? Alternatively, does the adoption of new policies motivate interest groups to get active? Together with Dave Lowery, Brendan Carroll and Joost Berkhout, we tackle these questions in the case of the European Union. What we find is that there is no discernible signal in the data indicating that the mobilization of interest groups and the volume of legislative production over time are significantly related. Of course, absence of evidence is the same as the evidence of absence, so a link might still exist, as suggested by theory, common wisdom and existing studies of the US (e.g. here). But using quite a comprehensive set of model specifications we can’t find any link in our time-series sample. The abstract of the paper is below and as always you can find at my website the data, the analysis scripts, and the pre-print full text. One a side-note – I am very pleased that we managed to publish what is essentially a negative finding. As everyone seems to agree, discovering which phenomena are not related might be as important as discovering which phenomena are. Still, there are few journals that would apply this principle in their editorial policy. So cudos for the journal of Interest Groups and Advocacy.

Different perspectives on the role of organized interests in democratic politics imply different temporal sequences in the relationship between legislative activity and the influence activities of organized interests.  Unfortunately, lack of data has greatly limited any kind of detailed examination of this temporal relationship.  We address this problem by taking advantage of the chronologically very precise data on lobbying activity provided by the door pass system of the European Parliament and data on EU legislative activity collected from EURLEX.  After reviewing the several different theoretical perspectives on the timing of lobbying and legislative activity, we present a time-series analysis of the co-evolution of legislative output and interest groups for the period 2005-2011. Our findings show that, contrary to what pluralist and neo-corporatist theories propose, interest groups neither lead nor lag bursts in legislative activity in the EU.

Timing is Everything: Organized Interests and the Timing of Legislative Activity
Dimiter Toshkov, Dave Lowery, Brendan Carroll and Joost Berkhout
Interest Groups and Advocacy (2013), vol.2, issue 1, pp.48-70