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Five people who don't know me whom I wish I were in conversation with:

Duncan J. Watts
Sean Carroll
Nate Cohn

Er, that's only three. But I'd like this to become a meme. And if I left you out, or your gender, race, class, and musical preference, that doesn't mean I don't want to talk to you.

Funny, I barely follow Cohn (as opposed to Matt Yglesias and Josh Barro, whom I read all the time), but he once did a tweet on the "total failure of comment sections" that I want to dispute. (I only half-jokingly sometimes claim to have invented the comment thread. In any event, I think it's not only still a viable form, but one of the most essential.) Anyway, not only could my three teach me loads but there are specific thoughts of mine I want them to challenge*; also, though, I think they could use some of what my brain produces, e.g., thoughts inspired by Wittgenstein and Kuhn, things that could untangle some of their thoughts or help them express themselves to the lay people like me that they covet and court; why they shouldn't be worrying about "post-Truth" (though they should and surely do worry about American-grown fascism); what they could wonder about instead.

*I wrote about Watts here and tried to channel him here and here as to my own guesses e.g. why the Sex Pistols and Crayon Pop etc. became famous (is there a way to figure out how much was owing to luck?). I mention Carroll here, my being unable to figure out what physicists mean by "information": if information is preserved then our ability to "read" and understand it would also be preserved, right? How could the latter not be information itself? But if so, then we ourselves are preserved — hurrah! — indefinitely even into the cold dead future. Except I'm sure what I just said is wrong. I just don't know why it's wrong, and I think it would take someone real work to demonstrate that it's wrong.

(I'm assuming there's no difference in kind between "physical information" (if that's a term) and other types of information; i.e., I assume all information must in some way be "physical." Of course I don't think the word "physical" in this paragraph explains itself, and not being a physicist I don't know what I'm saying with the word much less how to explain it. (Btw, this is something I believe I can offer people: a nose for when they fall into incorrectly thinking their words are explaining themselves.))
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Stubs of ideas, some of which may turn into future posts:

(1a) A punk votes for a punk (Johnny Rotten says nice things about Trump). Okay, he's not necessarily saying that he did vote for Trump, though from what he said it's a good assumption he did; but anyway, my armchair psychosocial analysis of the Trump win already had been "Punks voted for a punk," my using the word punks in a sorta pre-punk-rock sense, meaning people who compensate for subconsciously feeling weak by scapegoating and bullying and hurting the vulnerable; but such "punks" can include normally nice people too, people who let the punk aspect of themselves do their electoral thinking.

(1b) Only "sorta pre-punk-rock" given that original garage-rock punks such as ? And The Mysterians and the Syndicate Of Sound and the Seeds were indeed punks in the old sense, weak bully-type punks (and sexists as well),† but most of the great punk rockers — I'd start "punk rock" w/ Stones and Dylan, actually, with the caveat that the true punks, the garage rockers, weren't Stones and Dylan but the garage kids who'd dumbed Stones, Dylan, and Yardbirds down into punk, which'd be a fine explanation except that no one limits "punk rock" this way; most critics etc. would also include the Velvet Underground and MC5 and Stooges and Patti Smith and Richard Hell and Rocket From The Tombs and even more would include Ramones and Sex Pistols and the Clash and the Heartbreakers and X-Ray Spex and Black Flag and Nirvana and Hole, generally self-aware nonbully types, and if you're going to do this you've got to go back and count Dylan and the Stones — ...anyway, most of the great punk rockers (as generally defined) were about punk way more than they were punk; nonetheless, being self-aware, they drew the connection between actual inner true punk impulses and the punk rock they were playing, understanding their own weakness and that bullying and scapegoating were in there lurking, sitting dangerously inside. But anyway, of all the great punk rockers, the Sex Pistols, who were maybe the greatest ("They make everyone else sound sick by comparison," said my friend Bill Routt), were the ones who were true nasty punks as much as they were about punk. They were the band that made punk safe for fag-bashers (fortunately only somewhat safe).* None of which explains why Johnny Rotten would shit his brains down the toilet and support Trump (apparently, Johnny can't tell a racist from a hole in the ground). If you want to turn to social affinity and group identification as an explanation, Johnny's loyalty is to real punks, not to punk rock. (Yes, there's no way to come up with a unitary reading of the word "punk" in this paragraph. It'd be a stupider paragraph if you could.) I doubt that many self-identified "punks" — those who embrace the music as part of their social identity — voted for Trump. These people veer left instead. If you go by social category, Trump got many of the rocks and hoods and greasers and grits and burnouts — at least, more than he should have — but few of the punks. (Among whites he got a significant amount of the jocks and middle managers, too, and their psyches are probably as much punk as the hoods' are, but that's not relevant to Johnny Rotten's social identification.) I doubt that many Trump voters had ever bothered to listen to punk rock (not counting the garage hits they heard way back); if they had, the aboutness would've stung them, and they'd have been repelled. Nonetheless, I think I can understand that what makes the Sex Pistols sound true and real to me, the screaming squalling blind attempt to stand against anything acceptable and settled that can get you by, is what makes a lying hollow pathological bully like Trump sound transgressive and therefore real and true and honest and substantial to a lot of his fans.

(1c) Of course Trump doesn't win if he gets only the punks. And my armchair analysis isn't based on any actual research of mine into "the Trump voter." As I said two sentences ago, there's more than one type of Trump voter, and individual voters are multi-faceted in their urges and ideas anyway (so a particular Trump voter can be more than one type). I'm actually doing two questionable things: (i) reading the characteristics of the voter off of the characteristics of what they voted for, rather than actually asking the voters who they are and why they like what they like; (ii) using a psychological model that can apply to an individual person to explain the behavior of a group of people (the punk types who voted for that punk Trump), as if the group were an individual writ large. Obviously I think the analysis kinda sorta works, or I wouldn't have made it. It's a strong hypothesis, punks voted for a punk, strong in my mind anyway, though maybe someone more knowledgeable could beat it down with an alternative. ("Strong" analysis? Seriously? How so? It tells you what most of you already know: (1) that I don't like Trump, (2) that I think many of his voters voted for a lot of what I don't like about him, even if they don't understand the policy implications, and (3) that he's a punk. You already knew that. He's a punk. It's maybe a correct analysis, but not strong, since it doesn't tell you anything you don't already know. Maybe it makes you think harder about punk rock, and what I write below maybe'll help you think harder about social class.)

(1di) Trump got more working-class whites than he was expected to )

(1dii) The terms hoods, greasers, grits, and burnouts as stand-ins for current social identities )

(1diii) The class systems in people's immediate experience are not an exact match for the upper-middle-working class grid )

(1div) They voted against Clinton because she's a student-council type )

(1dv) Kids who bombed out of the classroom still hurt by it )

(1e) Middle class divided )

(1f) Want to hurt people and feel good about hurting them )

(2) The failure of education )

(3a) Duncan Watts criticizes idea of 'representative agent' )

(3b) How would we measure 'punks voted for a punk'? )

(4) The principle of the inferred et cetera )

(5) Top 100 singles of 2016 )

(6) A punk votes for a brat )

(7) Etc. )
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Here's a post that I reblogged from Tom Ewing over on Tumblr, followed by the reply I gave. The article in question is "How Promotion Affects Pageviews On The New York Times Website" by Brian Abelson.*

via @bmichael on Twitter. Long, knotty, work on the extent to which promotion causes pageviews, which is obviously important to know when “pageviews” is your metric of success. There’s also a good bit at the beginning about the perils of a metric dominating your approach to your job - germane to the pageview issue but worth bearing in mind more generally.

It’s complex work, but here’s my gloss after one reading.

Say you’re an editor, and want to allocate resources, know what and who to commission, etc. Pageviews are a powerful metric for doing this, because pageviews pay the bills. Obviously promotion is going to influence pageviews to some degree, and the important question becomes: how much?

If the level of influence of promotion is relatively low, then you can reasonably suppose that the extra pageviews of that article are down to its topic, its writer, its innate brilliance, etc.

If the level of influence of promotion is relatively high, then you can reasonably suppose that writer, topic, etc. don’t make that much difference. They don’t make NO difference - partly because to some extent judgements about what works are already baked into the system, and articles about “dull” topics don’t make the front page of the New York Times. So a high level of influence wouldn’t show that, eg, you can make Lorem Ipsum text a hit with promotion. But it would show that - on the scale of pageviews of a major website - the power of promotion to drive traffic outstrips the power of anything else.

So what is the level of influence? The piece suggests it’s about 90%. 90% of the variance in pageviews can be explained by the level of promotion a piece receives.

That sounds pretty big. It probably is big. )
Tom, I think you should rethink your analysis here: nothing in the article tells us how much of the correlation between "promotion" and pageviews is caused by promotion leading to pageviews, how much by high pageviews leading to further promotion, and how much is due to other causes. Yet your endorsing the 90 percent figure means that you take the correlation to be entirely down to promotion, with nothing going the other way and no other inputs.**

That I put the word "promotion" in scare quotes doesn't mean I think it's false but rather that something like "length of time a piece is linked on the homepage" isn't quite part of the normal connotation of the word "promotion" and this difference needs to be highlighted. I also think that when Abelson uses the words "predict" and "explain" they need scare quotes even more, that they're potentially wrong. Again, all he's showing is that if he's got one set of numbers he can get within 10 percent of another one; he's not explaining the connection between the numbers. He obviously believes that promotion is the main driver here, but he certainly hasn't shown that it's the main driver or proven that it explains the pageviews (and he's not saying that it's entirely responsible for the 90 percent, though he only gives one sentence to the possibility of influence feeding back from pageviews to promotion).

My problem with the word "predicts" is the connotation of one thing leading to a later thing — whereas "how long a piece is linked on the homepage" is as after the fact as "number of pageviews," and again we can envision pageviews influencing time on the homepage as much as vice versa.

In short, I don't think the piece earns the word "affects" in its title.

The return of cumulative advantage )

Footnotes )
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The title of this post is a bait-and-switch, actually, since my fundamental motive is to get you to read my old Las Vegas Weekly piece on "cumulative advantage," which is a concept from economics and sociology that I think everyone needs to know.

To summarize in one sentence that combines two ideas: small advantages in fame, wealth, power, etc. can grow into large advantages, large advantages can grow into larger still, and there's always, ineradicably, an element of randomness, of luck, as to what gets the small advantage in the first place, and what gets to leap from one level to the next. So, all fame is viral, and we can never be certain in advance as to which viruses will catch hold and which won't.* But once something is famous, the fame is very hard to dislodge.** So my first point of the day:

(1) There's always an element of luck when anyone or anything becomes well-known. Always. This includes Darwin as well as Rihanna. From the piece:

The more people know about each other’s choices, the more likely they are to come to agreement. In retrospect, this strong agreement can make an outcome seem as if it had been inevitable: Look, all these people agree, so this must reflect the taste of the public, or the quality of the merchandise. But in fact the experiment [by Duncan Watts and crew] shows the exact opposite. The more people know about each other’s choices, the less predictable the outcome.***
(By the way, the passage would have been just as correct if I'd added "size of the promotional budget" to the phrases "taste of the public" or "quality of the merchandise.")

(2) My second point is about explanations, not about cumulative advantage. Even disregarding luck, people who claim to know the (other) reasons "Bar Bar Bar" became a hit have at least some shit in their thinking: no explanation of such a single social event is testable.**** For instance, take the idea that "Bar Bar Bar" became a hit because Crayon Pop are different from everyone else in K-pop — they have a different look, and "Bar Bar Bar" has a different sound — which seems like a good explanation to me, and is one I myself would give, despite all these caveats. The trouble is that if "Bar Bar Bar" had not hit, I could have used that very same reason to explain Crayon Pop's failure. And EXO, whose music is at least as novel as Crayon Pop's, didn't go top 10 in Korea until they hit with the relatively conventional "Growl."

(3) Putting 1 and 2 together: there's an element of luck as to which explanations themselves become common and accepted. Cumulative advantage applies to ideas as well as to people and songs.

The problem with the phrase "element of luck" is that it doesn't tell us how large the element is. In my limited reading, I've seen no way of specifying the percentage luck plays in cumulative advantage. Is luck 10 percent of the reason one song became a hit, and 80 percent of the reason another one did? How do we quantify this sort of luck? It's not like a coin flip, which we know is 50 percent, or the roll of a die, which is 16⅔ percent. [EDIT: Well, assuming the coin is balanced and the die isn't rigged, the chance of a particular result of a coin flip is 50 percent and of the roll of a die is 16⅔ percent, but the percentage attributable to luck is 100 percent for each: it's entirely chance.]

The break )
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 photo Jordan Siouxsie bench.jpg

Given that there was an element of chance in the Sex Pistols' becoming famous,* is there a way to quantify that element?

I assume that the answer is no, since I've no idea how to try; though maybe social psychologists with a strong grasp of statistics have been working on such questions.

This question was inspired by Mark's starting his Adam And The Ants stint at One Week, One Band with the question, "Do people talk about Jordan much these days? Once — for a year or three — she mattered quite a lot." And a couple of posts on, he asks, "So what exactly was I suggesting earlier today: no Jordan (—> no SEX —> no Pistols —> no Jubilee —> no Ants) —> no (UK) punk? Or else maybe, less aggressively counterfactually, I'm dubbing her the Bez of punk, maybe?"

Mark's point isn't about probability but that the story of a band is way more populated than most people realize. But to underline both my question and Mark's point, I'd never heard of Jordan or Bez until reading those names in Mark's piece yesterday.** And I'm not as sure as he is that his contention ("no (UK) punk?") is counterfactual.

I assume that if we start from 50 years ago and ask ourselves, "How likely then was it that the world has this particular configuration now?," the answer would be vanishingly small no matter what configuration we end up with (though of course some overall features of the configuration, e.g., "the world would still have an atmosphere, even after a life-ending nuclear war," are quite predictable). So to make my question comprehensible, you could say, "Given Britain the way it was in 1975, and glam and glitter and pub rock and punk rock as they already existed in scenes and subcultures in New York, London, Cleveland, L.A., Ann Arbor, etc., not to mention the pages of Creem and ______ (some British counterpart?),*** there's nonetheless huge unpredictability as to whether the Sex Pistols are going to become famous, or how famous, not to mention, once they are famous, what gets made of what they're doing, and so forth."

Remember, even here, the chance of any particular outcome, including the one we got, is vanishingly small. And my concern isn't to come up with a number, anyway. What I'm really pondering is this: back in the late '80s in my fanzine I asked and gave what I consider a good answer to the question, "Why was there a punk rock explosion in Britain in '76 but not a glitter explosion in the United States in 1973?" But my answer was entirely causal. The Dolls had these attributes and this potential audience; the Sex Pistols had those attributes and that potential audience. I wouldn't fundamentally change that answer now, even though I know that there is an element of unpredictability in what happened with the Dolls and Pistols. What I don't know is whether or how much I should mention the unpredictability, or how to work it into the story. What is there to say about unpredictability, beyond that it exists? I think that, even if the Dolls had become famous, they wouldn't have produced the explosion the Sex Pistols did. And I don't think the Sex Pistols would have become a sudden big deal**** in the U.S., even if they'd been as big here as KISS or Aerosmith. But even if I'm right about that (it's not as if I could run an experiment), I don't think even in retrospect that it was inevitable or obvious that they or anyone like them would have sparked the fire in Britain that they actually did spark.

티아라 파이팅!!! )

The butterfly effect )

A Tale Of Two Patsies )

footnotes )
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A piece I love by Steven Strogatz in yesterday's online New York Times ("Math and the City"):

if one city is 10 times as populous as another one, does it need 10 times as many gas stations? No. Bigger cities have more gas stations than smaller ones (of course), but not nearly in direct proportion to their size. The number of gas stations grows only in proportion to the 0.77 power of population. The crucial thing is that 0.77 is less than 1. This implies that the bigger a city is, the fewer gas stations it has per person...

. . .

...consider the elephant or the mouse as an intact animal, a functioning agglomeration of billions of cells. Then, on a pound for pound basis, the cells of an elephant consume far less energy than those of a mouse. The relevant law of metabolism, called Kleiber’s law, states that the metabolic needs of a mammal grow in proportion to its body weight raised to the 0.74 power.

This 0.74 power is uncannily close to the 0.77 observed for the law governing gas stations in cities. Coincidence? Maybe, but probably not. There are theoretical grounds to expect a power close to 3/4.
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William Bowers (in reference to Tinysong and Twisten.fm, "which combine to crawl Twitter for music")(Puritan Blister #43 Twisten to Yr Heart): Isn't it a tad more populist/democratic than Hype Machine even, because your users are mostly "folks," right, which is not to give bloggers too much status/esteem, but some of 'em are getting royalty-esque. Not in the sense of money-royalties, but 'tude, maybe?

My question here is, what does Bowers* mean by "populist/democratic"? Is what the populace pays attention to inherently populist/democratic simply because the populace pays attention to it? One could argue that Twisten gets rid of traditional gatekeepers, going straight to the people for its information.** But one could also then argue that the Twisten results become gatekeepers themselves. My buzzword here is "cumulative advantage," which just means that that which is somewhat popular has a huge leg up in becoming more popular, and this is merely because it's popular (above and beyond its inherent appeal), and that which is little-known remains little-known. So the more information that flows about how much people listen, the less diverse the listening will get over space and time. As the world gets more cosmopolitan, it gets less diverse, even if individually we become more aware of the diversity that does exist. - I'm not committing myself to what I just said, by the way. I'm making arguments, creating hypotheses.

Democracy doesn't just mean "majority rules," it also depends on diversity, depends on there being diverse people with diverse opinions; otherwise we wouldn't need to vote, we could just poll a single individual and let those results decide for everybody. And its rationale is that, with access to the diversity of ideas (rather than just ideas coming from the top down), the people get to debate and choose which ideas are best, and they get to experiment with new ideas. So the flow of information is critical to democracy, since it's critical that diverse ideas be heard; but also, owing to cumulative advantage, the flow of information cuts down on diversity. (Same caveat as before about not altogether committing myself to this argument.)

*If you click the link, you'll see that Bowers is actually VERY skeptical about the benefits of new media.

**And I'd hypothesize that The People chose to use gatekeepers, and chose their gatekeepers, in the first place.

h/t [livejournal.com profile] freakytigger
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A Mountain, Overlooked: How Risk Models Failed Wall St. and Washington

Piece by James G. Rickards in the Washington Post. I know nothing about financial risk models, but assumed that they failed in the current crisis because people were plugging in risk values for subprime mortgages that were based on fantasy without really knowing what the actual risk was. But this article is arguing that even if analysists had known the precise risk of the individual mortage-based securities, the models themselves were flawed and that there is no way to create a model that will accurately predict the risk to the system, except you can be sure that the overall risk is far greater than the sum of the individual risks.

The article is too short, but here are a couple of potent quotes:

Lurking behind the models, however, was a colossal conceptual error: the belief that risk is randomly distributed and that each event has no bearing on the next event in a sequence.


Beyond chaos lies complexity that truly is unpredictable and cannot be modeled with even the most powerful computers. Capital markets are an example of such complex dynamic systems.
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The defining issue of economic geography is the need to explain concentrations of population and/or economic activity - the distinction between manufacturing belt and farm belt, the existence of cities, the role of industry clusters. Broadly speaking, it is clear that all these concentrations form and survive because of some form of agglomeration economies, in which spatial concentration itself creates the favorable economic environment that supports further or continued concentration. And for some purposes - as in the urban systems literature described in Chapter 2 - it may be enough simply to posit the existence of such agglomeration economies. But the main thrust of the new geography literature has been to get inside that particular black box, and derive the self-reinforcing character of spatial concentration from more fundamental considerations. The point is not just that positing agglomeration economies seems a bit like assuming one's conclusion - as a sarcastic physicist remarked after hearing one presentation on increasing returns, "So you're telling us that agglomerations form because of agglomeration economies." The larger point is that by modeling the sources of increasing returns to spatial concentration, we are able to learn something about how and when these returns may change - and then explore how the economy's behavior will change with them.
--Masahisa Fujita, Paul Krugman, Anthony Venables, The Spatial Economy
(emphasis added)
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This week's column. Trying to construct a line out.

The Rules Of The Game #19: A Friend Of A Friend

taboos and typos )

I wrote this piece before going to my PO box and finding the bad sales report for my book, but the two reinforce each other: the need for us to find routes outward to get our messages to potential colleagues unknown. Any suggestions?

Links to my other Rules Of The Game columns )
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Latest column, in which fame is shown to create greater fame:

The Rules Of The Game #18: The Social Butterfly Effect

The point I make at the end in regard to the Dolls and the Stooges is clear to me but I'm not sure it's clear on the page - that the Dolls' and Stooges' subsequent canonization is somewhat self-perpetuating in just the way that popularity is self-perpetuating (not that the Dolls and the Stooges don't deserve it).

The imaginary shown to be real )

Teenagers scare the living shit out of me )

In any event, what use would you put to Watts et al.'s findings? One thing they underscore for me is that received ideas tend to stay received, but my guess is that this conservativism is mitigated by the fact that ideas don't always reinforce each other (e.g., the idea that Beethoven is unquestionably great is a popular idea, but so is the idea that we should question something's being called unquestionably great). And the findings also tell me that there must be other people of the quality of Shakespeare and Timbaland but who didn't make it, who didn't benefit from the cascading popularity and canonization but who nonetheless produced equally good work (though maybe not in the same quantity, if they lacked the fame to support themselves), so maybe we could go out and find them.

Links to my other Rules Of The Game columns )
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For some reason (there are glitches in the software) my column this week first went up without the final three paragraphs, making the title unintelligible. But it's fixed now.

The Rules Of The Game #16: Vaccine Protects Against New Ideas

My thoughts didn't quite coalesce this week, though as Jack Thompson once pointed out I can't do a "Hero Story" every week (or live a hero story every week, for that matter). But where my thoughts are leading to is: How do we break out into the wider world? That is, how do we - meaning you and me and the people in our corner of the livejournal galaxy - bring our ideas to the wider world, but more important how do we bring our minds to the stories the wider world could tell us, if we knew where to look and what to ask?

Links to my other Rules Of The Game columns )


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