Tuesday, 19 December 2006

gender history doesn't mean women's history

"co-ed" is defined as (1) attended by members of both sexes, or (2) a female student at a coeducational college or university. This second definition illustrates a troubling feature of activism: the terminology captures precisely the inequality that is meant to be defeated. I am a student at a coeducational university, yet I am not a co-ed. Only women can be co-eds. Usage reflects history. The same goes for race and gender history and philosophy. If I say that I am studying gendered history of science, that connotes (to some) that I am studying women in the history of science. The fact is, I study mostly men in the history of science. That doesn't make gender history a less relevant approach; if anything, it makes it more necessary. Saying "gender" implies "women" for specific historical reasons: gender history arose as part of a larger movement to understand history as more than the story of elites (who were typically rich white men). In the early years of such a movement, that means a lot of topics on The Role of [a non-elite group] in the History of [whatever]. These topics are the low-hanging fruit--they aren't necessarily easy to do (elites tend to keep better records than non-elites), but they are easy to think up. What's harder to do (because of the imbalance in source materials, among other things) is to create a balanced account.

a mighty wind

I take it as a given that there can never be a complete history of anything. There's just too much out there to talk about; everything is eventually related to everything else and too many people are involved. Nevertheless, I take it the goal of history is to come to some approximation of completeness. The fundamental contribution of the past few generations was to realize that history shouldn't just be about elites. But then, what should it be about? It can't be "just" anything--not just men, not just women, not just Europeans, not just non-Europeans, not just oppressed, not just oppressors,.... Some general organizing principles have been suggested. Perhaps history is primarily about power differentials, for example.

If I were to offer my own single organizing principle for history, it might go something like this: history is about tipping points; how accretions of individual actions eventuate global change. Since I study science, it's about how various scientific modes or practices or ideas become dominant and change and get replaced. But isn't this a study of elites? Ideas that catch on, rather than ideas that get discarded? I'd like to think that an appropriate study of any given episode in the history of science contextualizes the notions that eventually dominate within the sea of ideas that don't. In other words, it tells the story of the elite, but does so by explicitly examining the nature of its elite-hood. Newton's gravitational theory is instantly credible because it comports with observational data. At the same time, it is mysterious, because it doesn't seem to explain anything, at least under the current notion of explanation. The story of science in the eighteenth century is the story of how Newton's theories grow to dominate natural philosophy. That's not the only story, of course, but if history is like a bunch of air molecules moving around separately, then Newtonianism is the gust of wind they inhabit.

Sunday, 17 December 2006

aggregation or agravation?

As an undergraduate, I first articulated the question that still drives much of my research: how does the way we think affect what we know? The transition from mytho-poeic to proto-scientific explanation in Thales still floats at the back of my mind as the paradigmatic example underlying the significance of such a change. But my interest is not historical; it's personal. How can I change my mind? If I succeed, how do I understand the difference? Can I switch back and forth? How do I communicate a novel idea to someone else? Will they understand it in the same way I do? How do new ideas catch on? I was just then becoming enthralled with chaos theory and fuzzy logic, and I was convinced that these ideas stood outside of our usual ways of thinking. Would it be possible to internalize these ideas? How would it change the way we saw the world? What problems would loom larger, and which ones would disappear into the background?

Philosophy of science has similar aims. Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions is paradigmatic (hah!) of the philosophy of science. It's about a collective venture called science, and as a result begins to sound hollow and false the more I know about any given episode in the history of science. Structure is about aggregate behavior; it describes the causes and mechanisms of scientific change. In the opening pages, Kuhn says:
[A paradigm is] sufficiently unprecedented to attract an enduring group of adherents away from competing modes of scientific activity. Simultaneously, [a paradigm is] sufficiently open-ended to leave all sorts of problems for the redefined group of practitioners to resolve.
When I was writing my undergraduate thesis, I used the word "schema" to refer to a similar notion, but I distinguished conceptual from descriptive schemas. Conceptual schemas are mental objects we use in the manner of shorthand to organize our thoughts about the world. Descriptive schemas are conceptual schemas with an additional social component. We treat descriptive schemas in much the way we treat language--they stand in for ideas about the world, and we usually assume that translation is perfect. I made the distinction out of an unarticulated discomfort at the social-mental interaction. I was trying to walk the tightrope between coming up with a notion that is true (but too complicated to state) and a notion that is simple (but false enough to collapse under scrutiny).

I wanted to be able to talk about the two roles of a schema (mental and social) separately, to distinguish how individuals can change schemas and show how science as a collective venture can do the same thing. This was the piece that was missing from my first (second-hand) introduction to Kuhn--a clear understanding of what a paradigm is for an individual scientist. It's been close to a decade since that first introduction, and my views have surely grown more sophisticated generally, yet this same tension continues to frustrate me. I'm still trying to reconcile the psychology of theory change with the sociology of theory change. I'm still trying to reconcile the specific trickles of history with a workable general idea of science.

It strikes me that this problem is exactly the problem with Bob Batterman's two different explications of breaking behavior. One is detailed, contingent, and right, the other is idealized, universal, and explanatory. How can one description be right and not be explanatory? And how can the other be explanatory without also being right?

Thursday, 14 December 2006

the more things change...

Every branch of science I’ve examined has an equilibrium principle. This is the principle that says, essentially, if nothing changes, then nothing will change. It sounds trite, but it’s essentially the claim that when things stay the same, they don’t require explanation. It’s only when things change that we need to start paying attention. Inertia is an equilibrium principle, and applied forces explain changes in inertia. Inertia itself doesn't require an explanation--it's axiomatic. This is what I mean when I say that science is the study of deviant behavior—it’s all about how things change.

Power laws as emergent behavior

Power laws describe relationships with an exponential scaling effect. The party game 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon works on the basis of this principle--some actors have been in only a few movies or co-starred with only a few other actors. Others, like Kevin Bacon, have been in a lot of movies and co-starred with a lot of other actors. There are many more people with few connections, but only a few people with many connections. In fact, the distribution by number of relationships follows a power law: y=x^k.

One intriguing feature of power laws emerge automatically from random connections. Imagine a board with N nails sticking out of it and K strands of yarn ties between various pairs of nails. We can count the number of strands tied to each nail. If the pairs of nails are selected randomly, it will just happen that some nails get selected more often than others, and in fact, the number of connections to each nail follows a power law. Suppose there are 128 nails. Then perhaps 64 have just 1 connection, 32 have 2, 16 have 3, 8 have 4, 4 have 8, 2 have 16, and 1 lucky nail has 32 connections! The point is that there's nothing magical or mysterious about power scaling; it emerges naturally. It says something genuine and interesting about the sort of phenomenon you're examining, and functions as an "explanation" of sorts, but it's an unusual explanation: it's actually an equilibrium condition, an assertion that this behavior is normal and doesn't require detailed explanation.

Devil in the Details - Robert Batterman's odd notion

Bob Batterman gave a talk a week ago, and I've been meaning to say something about it. Here's the abstract:
This paper discusses the nature and role of idealizations in mathematical models and simulations. In particular, it argues that sometimes idealizations are explanatorily essential--that without them, a full understanding of the phenomenon of interest cannot be achieved. Several examples are considered in some detail.
Bob says that the traditional philosophy behind models is that an idealization is justified when the behavior of a "complete" model (say, molecular dynamical model) converges on the idealized model. This is a natural idea; essentially, the idealization captures some pattern that does exist in the complete model but is perhaps too complicated or too subtle to notice.

As usual, things turn out to be more complicated than we philosophers would like. Some idealizations do not reflect convergence behavior in the complete model, but Bob argues that they are nevertheless genuinely explanatory. An example (one of Bob's) may help.

If we compare two models of a pole breaking under strain (one from molecular dynamics, the other with a continuum idealization), we find that breakage in the continuum model comes from a singularity. On the other hand, in the molecular models, breaks arise from the contingent details of the system's evolution. There is no convergence on singularity. In either model, the pole breaks under the increasing strain, but the continuum model wipes out precisely the detailed initial conditions on which the molecular model depends. Batterman says that the imperfections in the molecular system are explanatory of single events, but not of the class of breaking behavior. Singularities in continuum models fill that explanatory role. How can two fundamentally different kinds of explanations still count as genuine explanations?

Monday, 4 December 2006


James Lovelock, one of my favorite eccentrics, is at it again:
Lovelock's most compelling point is his critique of environmentalism as a new urban religion, composed of elitism and a misplaced longing for a simpler life mixed in with a neo-Luddite fear of technology. The greens, and he still claims to be one, proffer the "illusion that if the whole earth was farmed organically all would be well." --from Scientific American
I agree with the sentiment. Not that I’m not an adherent to this “urban religion,” minus the neo-Luddite portion. It’s just that much of my present unease with the environmental movement stems from the conflict between the overwhelming number of green choices I can make every day and the limited time and resources I have to make them. There are some sacrifices I would be quite unwilling to make to green the planet—giving up my computer, for example. It is conceivable that I will put off replacing my current model for an additional year. My five-year-old titanium PowerBook still runs great, it has more power than I need (adventures with Mathematica notwithstanding), and besides, it's quite distinctive now than no one else has one (and since I scraped all the white paint off). Unfortunately, restarting is becoming a bit nerve-wracking--it often takes several tries and several minutes. I’m starting to eye other computers these days, and even Windows laptops--particularly tablets--are looking mighty tasty. Once Leopard is out... I'm not sure I'll be able to help myself.

My point, back before visions of MacBooks began dancing in my head, was that there are some elements of my lifestyle that are likely here to stay. One of them is my addiction to rare-earth-element-containing electronics. Stipulating this, and also allowing for my tiny financial resources, I still face a large number of green tradeoffs every day. It’s great that I am made aware of a lot of them without much effort on my part, but it’s still hard to choose which ones I should focus on.

A jingle from my childhood goes, “brown eggs are local eggs, and local eggs are fresh!” I’m not sure what color has to do with locality, or whether the same holds true for a major urban area like Toronto, but I am certainly aware of the “eat local” movement. The argument is that the environmental cost of bringing apples from New Zealand is high enough that we should just give up on apples in the off-season and stick to local orchards and farmer’s markets for our apples. How can we possibly evaluate the environmental cost of an apple? It’s a massive systemic issue leaking into nearly any imaginable area. Large-scale efficiencies of agribusiness are eliminated when we rely on farmer’s markets. Local blights are magnified rather than absorbed. I might use more fossil fuels driving my car (if I had one) to the farmer’s market for my four apples and three tomatoes than is expended on all the ships and trains and trucks that bring bushels into supermarkets (I’m missing a citation, here—I know I read this somewhere, I just don’t know where). Certainly transportation is just one cost to consider. There are similar tradeoffs associated with globalized markets, monocultures, fertilizers, pesticides, recycling, public transit, and anything else you might think of. Which are really better: paper bags, plastic ones, or those fabric types that greens reuse every trip? Paper bags are biodegradable, possibly recyclable, and certainly renewable. Plastic bags stick around for thousands of years except where recyclable, and they are decidedly not renewable. Fabric bags are reusable, biodegradable, and renewable. Seems like we have a winner... but we haven’t yet considered manufacturing costs. All three require substantial amounts of water, with attendant heat pollution and trace chemical pollution. It's too much work to find out the answers for all such questions given the vast number of products I touch or consume every day.

And so, I am mistrustful of pat answers, or of absolutes of any kind. Environmentalists who favor one-issue solutions are just as guilty as their opponents of separating human beings from our environment--they just want to replace one "unnatural" system with another--one that satisfies a certain green aesthetic.

hard science is "easy" science

Language is sneaky. Words have connotations and origins of which we are unconscious. One such: “hard science.” Most people would probably assent that “hard science” means at least physics and chemistry. Most people would probably also agree that “hard science” does not include the “social sciences”—economics and sociology. Opinions vary on which other sciences to include where, and if pressed, people might press the sub-disciplines of a “single” branch of science into opposite camps (cellular biology versus population biology, say, or cognitive neuroscience versus psychoanalysis). There are reasons for the divide, I suppose. Hard science is supposed to be quantitative, while the other kind (and here the lurking connotations appear: do we really want to call population biology “soft”? Or “easy”?) is qualitative. But is it really? Actually, the Other sciences tend to be at least as highly mathematized as Hard science. Perhaps the relevant distinction is the firmness of the entities under investigation—electrons are easier to pin down than populations because electrons have definite behaviors which are essential to their electron-hood and populations have behaviors that are incidental to their being in a population. But doesn’t that make Hard science easier than Other science?

geekvision: seeing the world as information

I don’t know when it became commonplace to see the world as information. I’m sure the idea predates computers, probably by a few millennia. But I think it has only become popular—wildly popular—recently, maybe as recently as just the past few decades. Seeing the world as information is still not a majority thing, it’s a quirk reserved for the qwerty crowd: the geeks (nerds, not so much. Just the geeks). Back in the early 1800s, there was a vogue of information gathering beyond anything seen before—this was the age of the rise of the actuarial table, the science of statistics and of sociology. The scientist D’Alembert, upon entering a room on a visit abroad would whip out a pocket rule with which to gather measurements of paintings (subject and artist were apparently irrelevant). This is not the sort of “everything is information” I’m talking about, though. I mean that geeks today use the very concept of information as their primary metaphor for describing. I suspect that attempting to describe this concept of information will necessarily fail, and indeed will be misleading, because my description would be necessarily formal (I would cite Shannon, Church, Turing, and Godel), while the idea is purely intuitive and possibly not conscious. Oh, sometimes the concept floats to the surface—the study of heritable traits is about decoding DNA, finding out the information hidden in the genes. Indeed, this aspect of biology is so emphasized that most of us ignore development and morphology. But in general, I think, the information conceptual schema stays in the background.

Nevertheless, it has had a significant impact on our way of life. This is in part because of who geeks are and what they do. Geeks have had a pretty successful couple of decades lately. They’re rich and powerful even if they’re not obvious about it (though they’re getting pretty obvious now that they can replace their model space ships with real ones).

torrent morality

Morality and etiquette are not coincident. This thought occurred to me while I was thinking about seeding ratios in unofficial bittorrent clients. Unofficial clients extend the official client by adding new features or, in the case of seeding ratios, by giving users control over an otherwise hidden aspect of the transfer protocol. This is where etiquette enters the picture.

The unofficial client I use allows me to set a seeding ratio. The default was 1:1, which means that the client uploads as much as it downloads—in other words, I give as much as I get, making my net impact to the system negligible. 1:1 is the setting that was programmed into the original client, and it remains the setting that etiquette dictates. Folks who set their seeding ratio low (especially those who don’t seed at all) are known as parasites because they are a drain on the collective; they use up resources without providing their own resources as replacements.

For folks sharing home movies or public linux distributions, there’s no interesting moral problem with low seeding ratios—such individuals are unthinking, jerks, or—potentially—are managing their upload resources to favor another file for which they are a seed. Where things get really murky is in the case of illegal file sharing. Here, there is an added element of risk pooling that seeders take on but which parasites do not. Although RIAA in the US likes to go after anyone who downloads music illegally, the real evildoers are the uploaders, not the downloaders. Most laws reflect that distinction. Buying a pirated DVD, for example, is a much lesser crime (if it is a crime at all) than selling a pirated DVD. Similarly, downloading pirated music is a much lesser crime than uploading it. With seeding ratios set at 0:1, parasites are stealing music, but they’re not distributing stolen materials. The risk they share is far smaller than the honest music pirates who leave their seeding ratio at 1:1.

standing in line

Bittorrent is a good answer to a very basic problem in computer science: what is the most efficient way to deliver data from a server to some number of clients? The simplest solution is FIFO (first in, first out): simply have the N clients queue up, and the server sends the data to each in turn. Websites with only a small amount of traffic or small amounts of data can often use this model without incident, but increase the clients or the size of the package sufficiently and things can quickly get out of control.

In queuing theory, we assume that clients “arrive” in a random distribution after the original server makes a file available while service rate will nominally follow a Poisson distribution:

The real math is hard, but the math of averages is pretty easy. If λ is the average arrival rate and μ is the service rate (note λ must be < μ, which we ensure by taking a large enough time slice so that all the clients have been served), then traffic intensity is:
average line length is:
which makes the average wait time:
An example: suppose λ = 3 and μ = 4. Then ρ=3/4, LQ=3, and TQ=1. If we double μ to 8, ρ=3/8, LQ=3/5, and TQ=1/5. Add 4 again, μ = 12, ρ=1/4, LQ=1/3, and TQ=1/9. Add 4 again, μ = 16, ρ=3/16, LQ=3/13, and TQ=1/13.
Okay, enough math—we all know what it’s like to be stuck in line. In the simple FIFO model, there are many clients and just one server—kind of like the lineup at a store with just one checkout lane. Traffic varies widely, and major pileups can occur. There are obvious solutions to this problem: multiple queues, like at the supermarket, or single lane, multiple cashiers, like at a bank. Bittorrent takes this idea one step further. It takes advantage of the fact that, in the computer world, digital packages can be split up into lots of smaller packages for convenient delivery to the client (the airlines are testing out this approach with luggage, but so far travelers don’t seem to appreciate the increased efficiency). Next, the server or “seed” sends out a different piece of the file to each of the clients, along with a tracker that allows the whole community of clients to know who has what pieces. Now the pieces are spread out amongst all of the participants in the torrent (the “swarm”), and if a given client is missing a given piece, it can now be found in several locations. Thus, every participant in the swarm is a “client” just for the pieces it doesn’t yet have, and a “server” for those it does. Before long, some of the clients have complete copies and become seeds. Some toy examples can show how well this system can work. Suppose that there are 32 clients. Suppose that each client can transfer (or receive) the file in 32 minutes.

In a FIFO situation, it takes 32 x 32 = 1024 minutes to serve all of the clients—one of whom gets the whole package in 32 minutes, and another of whom gets nothing until the 993rd minute! A very unfair situation. Even in a situation with mirrors (multiple servers), whether implemented as a supermarket or bank queue, we improve matters only by a factor of 1/#mirrors—that is, the improvement is a function of the number of mirrors, not the number of clients—because the clients don’t upload.

Suppose we improve matters by asking clients to become servers after they get the whole file. Then we have 1 copy in the first 32 minutes, or 2 servers at the start of the second session. 2 more copies, or 4 servers after 64, 4 and 8 after 96, 8 and 16 after 128, and all 32 copies are done in just 160 minutes—a vast improvement—overall speed increases as 2N, making efficiency of order log N (in FIFO, order is just N). Notice, though, that the clients are still spending most of their time waiting to get started—in the first 32 minutes, only 2 computers are active, in the second just 4. It’s not until the last 32 minutes that the whole swarm is involved.

We solve this problem by cutting up the original file into 32 chunks, each of which can be transferred in just one minute. In the first minute, the server uploads one piece to one client. In the second minute, the server uploads a second piece to a second client while the first client transfers the first piece to a second client. In the third minute, a third piece comes out, 3 have the first piece, and 2 have the second. In the tenth minute, a tenth piece goes out, 10 have #1, 9 #2, 8 #3, 7 #4, and so on. In the thirty-second minute, the thirty second piece goes out, and everyone has the first piece, one client is missing the second piece, two clients are missing the third, and so on. More importantly, everyone is fully involved in the torrent. In the fortieth minute, everyone has the first through eighth pieces, one person is missing the ninth, and 24 are missing the last piece. After just the 64th minute, everyone has all the pieces.

There’s a lot of simplification in this model. I’ve neglected the processor time to work out the transfer orders and the bandwidth used up in negotiating new connections, I’ve idealized my system so that all the clients show up at the same time, the components have equivalent capabilities, and everyone plays nice, but it is nevertheless a good indication of the sort of vast improvement bittorrent is over FIFO. What’s the order of the bittorrent solution? It’s log N, just like the earlier version. But it’s a much more efficient version because by dividing up the file, the whole swarm gets in on the torrent earlier—there’s simply less wasted time inactively waiting in line.

Sunday, 19 November 2006

atheism and assholes

A few weeks ago, my listlessness started to creep me out. I've been listless for a lot longer than a couple of weeks--more like a couple of years, actually. At the same time, I've only been listless about certain things--mostly the debate over evolution and intelligent design. It's not that I stopped having opinions or stopped caring, it's that I stopped doing anything about it. In my undergraduate days, I played Huxley to the Wilberforces I encountered. As time passed I recognized that my arguments proved little, were not new, and moreover convinced no one. Similarly for the rejoinders. Soundly beaten, this horse trudged on, and I became rather disgusted with the whole affair. Soon after, we all graduated, began new activities in new places with new people, and I found that the debate would have to proceed from the beginning--another endless rehearsal of unconvincing arguments. I put on a superior air and made myself aloof to the debate, deeming it unworthy of my attention. Atheism stank of dogmatism and evangelism, and anyone who participated in the debate was wasting time.

And so I have remained for a few years, only occasionally roused to comment usually to objectively clarify, in passing, some point made by someone else. I'm not sure I stated my own position once in those years, as I was at the time afflicted by the creeping relativism that comes from moving to Canada and wanting very much not to be the hated American. I was brutally critical of simplistic argumentation, but I was at the same time dismissive of the battle itself. This must have been especially frustrating to a close friend of mine who was working for the atheist group Center For Inquiry. He is now as disillusioned an atheist as I am, but earlier on my refusal to engage in the debate must have just seemed rude--and it was. Apologia finit.

About a month ago, I read Battle of the New Atheism, which has Sam Harris saying (page 4), "at some point, there is going to be enough pressure that it is just going to be too embarrassing to believe in God." I don't think Harris is right about that, but I began to wonder who had framed the debate I was ignoring. Perhaps I had become disillusioned with the debate because it had been framed by the architects of intelligent design.

This point was driven home by Natalie Angier (thanks Cosmic Variance!), who points out the hypocrisy of scientists who
want to augment... the number of people who believe in evolution without bothering to confront a few other salient statistics that pollsters have revealed about America's religious cosmogony. Few scientists, for example, worry about the 77 percent of Americans who insist that Jesus was born to a virgin, an act of parthenogenesis that defies everything we know about mammalian genetics and reproduction. Nor do the researchers wring their hands over the 80 percent who believe in the resurrection of Jesus, the laws of thermodynamics be damned.
My initial reaction was that this is a false analogy--denying a law of nature (evolution) is a much more serious offense than making an exception to one (virgin birth). For a compatibilist, that's what makes a miracle. But Angier goes on,
Consider the very different treatments accorded two questions presented to Cornell University's "Ask an Astronomer" Web site. To the query, "Do most astronomers believe in God, based on the available evidence?" the astronomer Dave Rothstein replies that, in his opinion, "modern science leaves plenty of room for the existence of God . . . ."

How much less velveteen is the response to the reader asking whether astronomers believe in astrology. "No, astronomers do not believe in astrology," snarls Dave Kornreich. "It is considered to be a ludicrous scam."
The difference is not just the number of people involved in each activity (probably as many people read their horoscope each day as say Grace at supper), it's the number of people we offend by calling their practice a "ludicrous scam." Everyone knows horoscopes are a ludicrous scam--those who read them do so for a laugh, for inspiration, or as a kind of decision outsourcing, like the flip of a coin. On the other hand, everyone knows that religion is deadly serious, and being flip is not funny.

Saturday, 18 November 2006

framing the election

One more in my continuing series, "Avoiding Major Papers Through Rants." As usual, apologies.

How should we understand last Tuesday's election results?

Of course, there's Red State, Blue State, One State, Two State. Besides 1984, when Reagan painted the map blue (yes, the colors were reversed--Mondale turned his home state of Minnesota Democratic red), a dichotomy is the opposite of informative if you're trying to understand anything about the election. Even USA Today is more informative than the Red-Blue map. (Okay, maybe not. In fact... note to self: write editor of USA Today to suggest that, next election, they send out the paper with a large uncolored pullout map--with state names printed in full, none of those confusing abbreviations--and red and blue crayons.)

Back in January 2004, Robert David Sullivan offered an alternative to the red-blue commonplace. Instead of two colors correlating with the two parties, he has 10 colors correlating with 10 regional voting blocs of equal population. "The regions are based on voting returns from both national and state elections, demographic data from the US Census, and certain geographic features such as mountain ranges and coastlines." The added granularity alone is a big help in showing some of the relevant patterns in recent elections (in particular highlighting the deep divisions inside some states--note that Ohio, Kentucky, Florida, Texas, and California all have regions of three of these divisions within them.

What do the regions "mean"? Sullivan doesn't really explain much about the factors he weighed or how he drew the lines. Here's a synopsis of what he does say (approximately left to right across the map):

Upper Coasts - high tech, independent progressives
Sagebrush - rural libertarians
Farm Belt - white farmers with high school educations
El Norte - young and Latino
Southern Comfort - Republican heaven
Big River - always highly contested, high school educated
Great Lakes - urban industrial centers versus suburbanites
Appalachia - poor Republican dirt farmers and coal miners
Southern Lowlands - African American Democrats and white Republicans duke it out in this region every election.
Northeast Corridor - big city liberal intellectuals.

I'll come back to these divisions in a moment, but first I'd like to show that they remain somewhat useful. Take a look at this county-level map of the 2004 election (scroll down 2/3 of the entry):

I like this map a lot more than red-blue, because it has a LOT of granularity to it. It's still somewhat unrepresentative since New York City is a tiny speck even though it has the population of that whole big red region in the middle there, but at least it shows purple gradations. But other than the gestalt effect, which I like, there's really too much information on this map to be useful, and that information is encoded in a way that makes it very hard to analyze in any meaningful way (at least, in the amount of time I intend to spend on it).

Now compare Sullivan's geo-demo-elector-graphic pre-election map with the post-election county map. Some similarities should pop out.

It's obvious that Upper Coasts and El Norte are Kerry-country. Sagebrush (other than the New England portion--hooray us!) went Bush, along with Southern Comfort and Appalachia. In some sense, we can conclude that Sullivan's map is successful in identifying regional differences in voting outcomes, and in some sense this might be considered "explanatory" (i.e., an instrumental or utilitarian sense). But it is completely unsatisfying if we seek to understand the differences. At the very least, we would need to spend some time constructing Rudyard Kipling style "just so" stories to describe the relationship between the geographic, demographic, and election history factors Sullivan used in creating the map.

Some of the divisions are immediately sensible, like dividing along geographic boundaries rather than political ones. Farmers on opposite sides of a state line are still more likely to agree with one another than with industrialists in their own states. But which geographical boundaries do you choose? Which ones are relevant to elections? How is it that Sullivan decided to make a Latino region? Don't pretend you didn't notice--he called it El Norte. There's no geographic component to this other than vicinity. Sullivan isn't dividing mountains from plains here, he's noticed that regions of the country with a heavy Latino representation vote as a bloc (or at least, the regions indicated do). There's no explanation for this, though--it's just a statement that if enough people in a region check the "hispanic" box on the census, then that region will likely follow a certain voting pattern. Is this what passes for explanation? (Granted, Sullivan never claims to be explaining anything, so this shouldn't be seen as a criticism of his project.)

Perhaps the trouble here is that I'm seeking an explanation where no explanation is to be had--or where any given explanation is just as satisfactory as the next. The trite, five-second post-election "analysis" says Tuesday's vote was a referendum on the war. Maybe it was. But maybe this is the same kind of analysis that accompanies the daily financial report: "The Dow was down 24 points today on news that ACME will lay off 2,500" Really? Is that the reason? Can you show me a causal map? No, of course not. To do so would be to point out how absurd the stock market is. It's not news about ACME that's important. It's how people react to news about ACME. More precisely, it's about how traders think people are going to react to news about ACME. Actually, that's not quite it either, it's really more about how traders think other traders think people are going to react to news about ACME. What's frightening is that these imaginary reasons for doing things become real when events unfold in just the way we would predict they would if those reasons obtained. This is, unfortunately, not a simple case of ad hoc, post hoc rationalization. It's a case of reification.*

If I leak news about ACME corporation to a bunch of stock traders, and they start buying or selling ACME stock on the basis of what they think OTHER stock traders are going to do when they hear the same news, surely the news really is the cause of what happens to ACME stock.

And surely, if I say that the election was a referendum on the war, and politicians start acting like the election was a referendum on the war, then the election really was a referendum on the war. Or it may as well have been.

Do election results have anything to do with, say, environmental concerns? The minimum wage? Social security? Universal healthcare? Stem cells? Congressional pages? Inheritance taxes? No. It's all about the war.

* In this analysis, I rely on ideas from Ian Hacking's 1982 essay "Experimentation and Scientific Realism." In it, he writes, "we are completely convinced of the reality of electrons when we regularly set out to build--and often enough succeed in building--new kinds of devices that use various well understood causal properties of electrons to interfere in other more hypothetical parts of nature." Or, if you want the shorter version: "If you can spray it, it's real." I mention this to give credit where due, but also because it's probably the first time anyone has ever supported an argument about politics with evidence from the philosophy of science.


In the interest of avoiding authoring another paper on the history of astronomy, I submit the following for your distraction:

Theoretically, I suppose, we are all aware that there is a distinction to be made between the folks who create, um, actual stuff, and the folks who create ads to make people want to buy that stuff. But generally, we sort of assume that there's some kind of connection between those two groups of people. For example, one person might make a new car and another person will produce a commercial about that car. (Well, okay, they're not "one person" and "another person," they're corporations and agencies, but still.) Apparently, that's not how things work at all.

Elizabeth Merrick has been creating controversy lately in relation to her book This Is Not Chick Lit, an anthology of fiction by serious female authors who (since they are serious) don't write about shopping, high heels, or purses. Apparently, there is a raging debate in the blogosphere about this (whatever "this" is. I assume it has something to do with Sex and the City, which is feminist, because the women in it both like and have sex, and which must also be chick lit, because the women in it both like and have handbags). (So I'm informed.) Given Merrick's outspoken stance against "chick lit" and all the purses that literature implies, how can we explain this invitation to the book launch?

Is this supposed to be ironic? Look at the fine print: "During the special event, receive 20% off." Irony doesn't usually come with a rebate, does it? No, I think what happened was something like this:


So, who's the expected audience for this book of yours?

Upper middle-class socialite feminists like me.

Okay, perfect.

He (duh) hangs up the phone and dials MEL GIBSON-LIKE CHARACTER FROM WHAT WOMEN WANT.

Hey, Mel, let's prepare a launch for a bunch of rich women.

No problem, Alan Alda.

He hangs up the phone and turns thoughtfully to HIS ASSISTANT (A WOMAN).

Gee, what do rich women like? Hey, I know! Shopping.

On it boss! Ooh! Can there be purses right there in the invite?

Hee hee! The humorous possibilities are endless! Oh, the antics that will ensue! Too bad this is real life!

Sadly, this is not an isolated case. There's this website run by the "Parents Television Council," which, if you can't tell from the name, is one of those groups that makes long lists of what's wrong with television (see this). They've recently decided to turn off the search feature on their site, because sponsored links were promoting the very shows PTC criticized. For example, "a search for FX's Rescue Me would get you the headline "PTC Outraged Over Graphic Rape Scenes on FX's Rescue Me"—and a helpful link advertising: "Low Prices on Rescue Me. Qualified Orders Over $25 Ship Free." " What's a little funny is that it was PTC who decided to pull the search feature. Okay, granted, those ads are inconsistent with their message. Fine. But shouldn't it have been FX that pulled their ad from the PTC site? I mean, they're the ones being criticized. Even if "there's no such thing as bad press," isn't this a slightly different, insidious, unsettling form? A few years ago, when I was editor of my high school paper, Doug Vanderweide (an editorialist for our local paper) warned me that the job was not simply to balance positive and negative coverage of issues, but also to be aware of issue framing: the choices about which issues were being included and which excluded. That was the first time I understood the hidden power of editors, and at the same time, the role of corporate ownership and sponsorship in journalism suddenly became a bit clearer. Over the years, practical guidelines have arisen--in stories about GE, NBC discloses that GE is their "parent company", for example--but the issue has never disappeared. Maybe it has disappeared now, though, and on the internet advertisers and content editors no longer have to do the money-credibility dance. Maybe editors can be independent in their decisions about which story to publish--and what spin to give it. Maybe advertisers can just look at PageRank(TM) statistics and readership surveys to figure out where to place ads--without worrying about what relevance their ads have to the content, or the content to the ads. And that's great. Right?

Maybe what is really happening here is that all of this automates the old advertising checks versus balance-in-reporting equation. Clearly, computers make the advertising decisions. Statistically, I bet they're good at it. I bet the ads are just as cost-effective when they're splattered on pro and con reviews of their own or competitors products. That can be scary or comforting--maybe it indicates positive correlation between repeated exposure and likely purchase, regardless of positive or negative associations (scary), or maybe it indicates that people actually weigh evidence and make choices for themselves (comforting). In either case, though, issue framing is still present. If CNET never writes a story about Apple Computer, probably the computers will stop putting Apple Computer ads on the site. The editors know this, so they're probably going to continue to write stories about Apple Computer. The really scary part is that humans have been removed from the advertising side of the equation. Computers decide where to put the ads. We can intervene, but first we have to notice that there's a problem. If the Merrick and PTC stories are any indication, I'm not sure that's a job for humans or computers.

gender history

Gender history is activist history (cf. those activist judges who have the gall to interpret the constitution). Received history is about men. White men. White, land-owning men. Rich, white, land-owning men. A few centuries ago, a Whig named MacCauley wrote a history of the world. This history began in Greece, presently moved to Italy for a millennium, headed a bit north, fuddled around for another millennium, and then arrived in Britain, culminating with the recent decisive political victory of the Whig Party. History pursued in this manner is now known as Whig history. To some extent impossible to avoid (for reasons of reader interest--not to mention researcher interest), such history clearly lacks objectivity. Howard Zinn is famous for providing, if not objectivity, then a certain gestalt anti-Whig history. Gender historians have the agenda of providing the female perspective on history, often with the method of examining the social roles of men and women, with especial attention paid those women (and sometimes men) who break from those roles in various ways. Gender is the (or a) lens through which the historian peers in the endeavor to explain or describe the events of the past. Sarah, being female, socialist, and feminist, is a strong proponent of gender history, though not to exclusion; she also favors material culture as contrasted with intellectual history--things versus ideas. History of science, a relatively new field previously occupied by books written by scientists with a fascination for things past--invariably men, rarely trained in historical methodology. Their works are invariably Whiggish and invariably fascinated by genius and revolutions in science (indeed, many such works are autobiographical). The past several decades have done much to update the field; one might suggest that a revolution has occurred in the history of science (that is, if one wished to endure the academic equivalent of a schoolyard beating). Nevertheless, the actors on the stage are predominantly men. The historian with sympathy for the gender agender, er, agenda, has five possible responses to the history of science: 1) impugn the field as a fundamentally gender-biased endeavor, 2) take solace in the fact that at least some of the historians are women, 3) artificially inflate the roles of the women who are actors in the standard history (there are many, and they are important. A history of Lavoisier would be incomplete without attention to his wife, who was an assistant in his lab and served as the public relations arm of his self-described Chemical Revolution by hosting extremely popular parties, present at which were other chemists as well as the political elite. But it would be misleading to make her the key figure in the Chemical Revolution), 4) find and highlight previously neglected women in science and remain generally dissatisfied [this is, by the way, the standard approach], 5) attempt to recast the enterprise of history of science in such a way as to include the activities of women.

I suspect that Sarah would favor the first approach, and perhaps rightly so. (5) is an approach that has worked well in the history of technology, but works less well in the history of science. A study of cheese manufacture, for example, can go beyond the industrial history of the Kraft company and discuss artisanal cheese-making, an activity pursued by women in many cultures, and with many interesting ties to gender roles. Indeed, any time the gender lens gives context to the activities under investigation, it is worth employing. I fear that in the history of science, especially prior to the 18th century, women will forever appear as ancillary characters purely because those activities we presently identify as having a connection to the development of those activities we term science were pursued by men and were not pursued by women. To recast the enterprise of history of science so that it includes the activities pursued by women is to recast history of science as history general. Just as gender is a lens, the Whiggish pursuit on the trail of activities related to present-day science is a lens. What is the historian to do? Turn to philosophy. That's what I do! But I do feel compelled to use the gender lens whenever possible. It is, after all, useful in providing one more perspective to complement that fractured form of objectivity now so very fashionable.