No Friday in Samoa This Week, or, The Social Construction of Time Redux

Slow posting here over the holidays, but I had to mention this fantastic story. Dedicated readers may remember my love of the social construction of time as an example for teaching social construction: powerful, important, political in a broad sense, but not as hot button and identity-challenging as race, gender or class, I think time makes an excellent introduction to thinking about the historical, political, cultural, etc. construction of reality.*

In the most recent example of the continuing work to make time real, Samoa will not have a Friday this week. Here’s NPR:

People in Samoa (population 193,000) want to be closer time-wise to Australia, New Zealand, China and Tonga because they do so much more day-to-day business with those relatively nearby nations than with the rest of the world. And the problem until now, for example, has been that when it’s 8 a.m. Monday in Samoa it’s 8 a.m. Tuesday in Tonga. Business people in Samoa have kind of been losing a working day when it comes to dealing with their nearest neighbors.

NPR also notes the historical importance of the dateline, and how the move reflects changing patterns of trade:

Samoa has been on the eastern side of the dateline since 1892, The Australian notes, “following lobbying by merchants who did most of their business with America and Europe. … The world has changed. Australia and New Zealand provide half the country’s imports and buy 85 per cent of Samoa’s exports.”

So, in addition to fights over daylight savings time in the 20th century, and over the standardization of time zones for railroads in the 19th, let’s add the international date line as an interesting site where time must be constructed.

And, for a funny take on the dateline problem, see this West Wing clip (of many others).

*Which, as a reminder, is the story of how things become real not why they aren’t real.


On Being an Academic: Playing with Ideas, Playing with Words

My high school English teacher Mary Kay was very influential on myself and many of my classmates. She was a fiery teacher with strong opinions on topics both practical and arcane. In a class on poetry, she once advised, “Don’t become a poet because you want to express your feelings. Everyone has feelings. Become a poet because you want to play with words.”* Her point was simple: great poets aren’t great because they somehow have deeper emotions than the rest of us, they’re great because they are better at stringing words together in novel ways to express those emotions.

I was thinking about her advice this morning and I came up with a few similarly phrased thoughts on academia and blogging.

First, don’t become an academic if you want to solve problems. Everyone has problems they want to solve. Became an academic because you want to play with ideas. The principle is similar to the above for poetry: great academics aren’t great because they somehow are more concerned with important problems than other people. They are great because they invent new ideas or combine old ones in novel ways. More practically, the work of academia and the reward structures focus heavily on cleverness: idea-play rather than word-play (though there is some connection, see below). If you want to solve problems in the world but don’t want to spend all day playing with ideas, there’s almost always a better, faster, more practical way. Note that in some fields, you still might want or need to get a PhD (perhaps engineering or economics) even if you don’t want to become an academic (although sometimes you have to pretend for a bit to get through comps and keep your faculty interested, which is a separate problem). That’s great, and hopefully a PhD will be helpful for doing so. But wanting to be an academic goes best with an eagerness to play with ideas, not just a drive to solve problems.

Second, say you become an academic (hopefully because you want to play with ideas). Make sure to spend some time playing with words. As academics, we spend an awful lot of time writing and speaking. In principle, we care more about the ideas underlying our work than the manner of presentation, but everyone know that these two are connected. A great idea can get lost in a pound of jargon, and our own bad ideas are easier to spot and improve when expressed clearly. There are a lot of easy ways to play with words as an academic. You can edit your friends’ work with a focus on improving their writing (to help reflect on your own). You can read good writing, most of which is not produced by academics. I realized that my writing got better when I spent more time reading well-written novels and less time reading journal articles. You can write a blog, which has the dual-role of giving you a great place to play with little ideas not ready for primetime, but also to experiment with language and get immediate feedback as to whether or not your words are compelling or clear.

So, to summarize my totally impressionistic and data-free advice: Become an academic if you want to play with ideas. Once you do, devote some time to playing with words.

*Quote approximate, it was more than a few years ago and I didn’t take good field notes in 11th grade.

The Iraq War Tragedy, By the Numbers

Although the last base will not be handed over until December 31st, the US military announced the end of its mission in Iraq today. According to the NYT story, more than one million Americans served in Iraq over the past nine years, of whom 4,487 died and 32,226 were wounded. As is typical, the story does not enumerate Iraqi casualties, which are estimated at 100,000 to 1,000,000 depending on the survey and definition (of which only some 20,000 are estimated to have been combatants). The estimates published in the Lancet are particularly noteworthy for being peer-reviewed, and for their findings: 600,000 excess violent deaths because of the war (here meaning from the invasion through 2006). Other highly regarded estimates place the figure at a much lower 150,000 violent deaths through 2006. The population of Iraq is estimated at around 30 million, so somewhere between 1 in 300 and 1 in 30 are estimated to have died because of the war. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there are over 1.6 million Iraqi refugees living abroad and around 1.3 million internally displaced persons, for a total of about 10% of the country’s population.

The war cost the US approximately 3-4 trillion dollars, according to a Brown university estimate, including over $700 billion in direct Pentagon spending, plus interest costs, veterans benefits and health care and so on. Economist John Quiggin uses the logic of opportunity costs and cost-benefit analysis to argue that the US could have saved 1.5 million lives instead of spending the money it did on the war (and the war in Afghanistan).

I don’t know how else to end this post, except to say:
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

The Most Inspiring Thing I Saw in DC

Washington DC is chock full of inspiring things. Memorials, monuments, museums, and functioning governmental buildings of tremendous importance pop up on every corner. On this short trip, I went to just a couple of these sites (the new MLK statue, the FDR memorial, a couple museums), including the quite expensive and highly regarded Newseum, a museum devoted to the media. I recommend it, though I’d say budget at least 4 hours to see most of the exhibits as they are very well done, and otherwise the $20 ticket price seems too steep.

One of the exhibits, devoted to freedom of the press around the world, contained the most inspiring thing I saw in DC. I think we all get moved by somewhat different things. There are obviously commonalities – it’s hard not to find the Capitol building or the White House a bit impressive. But then there are the smaller bits of social life, the relics of fleeting moments. In the wake of the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March, 2011, newspapers lost power and the ability to publish. Newspaper staffers got together and produced daily hand-written bulletins to post in public places to update people on what happened. Here’s an edition published on March 12, just a day after the earthquake.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a newspaper household, and I can remember my mother working late nights whenever a major story broke, but this record of a small act of human perseverance moved me as much as anything else I saw in DC.

Occasional Link Round-Up: D.C. Edition

I’m currently finishing up a whirlwind social visit to DC, so posting has been a infrequent. There have been some excellent posts in blogosphere writ large though, so I thought it was time for another link round-up!

Best of the Econ Blogopshere

  • And now I’m forced to like retail clinics a little. The Incidental Economist documents a recent positive experience with a retail health clinic and notes:

    “For strep throat, which accounted for 15 million patient visits in 2006 alone, retail clinics seem like a pretty good idea. While I still believe in the medical home and the importance of the doctor-patient relationship and continuity of care, I’m sure there are more examples of where they work as well.”

  • Chart of the day, Morgan Stanley bailout edition. Felix Salmon shows in one chart what a lender of last resort does in a crisis.
  • The Rise and Fall of Bitcoin. A long-ish piece in Wired which is a nice summary if you haven’t been following the story of Bitcoin. Also useful for thinking about what money “really” is and how important different kinds of trusts are to money’s functioning. Perhaps useful for an undergrad econ soc class.
  • At Top Colleges, Anti-Wall St. Fervor Complicates Recruiting (NYTimes Dealbook). While the thrust of the story is that Wall St. has gotten much less popular on Ivy campuses, my takeaway was this stat:

    At Harvard, only 17 percent of last year’s class planned to go into financial services after graduation, according to a survey of graduating seniors, compared with 25 percent in 2006, before the crisis.

    So, down a fair bit but.. still 17%!

  • Best of the Soc Blogosphere: Omar 2, Everyone Else 0.

  • Three ways of talking about the variables that you don’t care about. Omar of OrgTheory posted two excellent, medium-length think pieces in the last few weeks. The first concerns “control variables” and why we usually shouldn’t use that term, with interesting thoughts about different modes of thinking about what we are actually doing when we “control” for X1..Xn. In teaching a research methods course, I struggled with this language and my students’ attempts to employ it, and this post was an excellent quick summary of my frustrations.
  • One way of specifying the agency problematic. Post #2 from Omar takes on one of the most contentious debates in the history of social theory: agency vs. structure. Omar offers an interesting new take on how to define agency (as the freedom of actors to imagine a world different from the one they inhabit) that is very interesting, and highlights some of what that debate is all about. My past forays into this field are here and here.
  • Best of the PoliSci Blogosphere

  • Partisanship in Everything: Views of Godfather’s Pizza. The Monkey Cage shows how opinions of Herman Cain’s pizza company have become partisan over the course of 2011.
  • Lamentably common misunderstanding of meritocracy. Andrew Gelman has an excellent summary of the inherent tensions in meritocracy.

    I am bothered when pundits such as Zingales set up a self-contradictory ideal which conflates accidents of birth, talent, achievement, success, riches, and power—not to mention “hard work” and “virtue.” We all know that these traits don’t always go together in the real world, but it’s also a mistake to think that they could all go together.

  • Most Shattering of My Faith in Academia

  • Annals of Interesting Peer Review Decisions. Crooked Timber reports on the efforts of two psychologists to publish a study that failed to replicate supposed ESP findings … partly on the grounds that they may have used their ESP powers to influence the results of the experiment.
  • Best of the Funnies

  • The Ryan Gosling meme has exploded. The first one I saw, which remains one of the best, was feminist Ryan Gosling. But since then we’ve had Biostatistics Ryan Gosling, Public History Ryan Gosling, Librarian Ryan Gosling, and Development Ryan Gosling, among countless others. Look for your favorite or make your own! Unfortunately, not every exemplar seems to get that the meme works best when Gosling is using jargon to say something sweet, not something pervy.
  • Tradition. xkcd plots the most popular Christmas songs by decade of release and offers this pithy theory of tradition: “An ‘American tradition’ is anything that happened to a baby boomer twice.”
  • Best Academic Advice Not Written by Fabio

  • The degree is the job: a modest proposal for the PhD. We all love Fabio’s excellent Grad School Rulz, but he’s not the only source for excellent advice on grad school. hook & eye offers this useful approach to thinking about a PhD:

    If you want to do a PhD, you should do one. But! Only under this condition: you treat it like the first job of your career.

  • Adventures in Statistical Graphics

  • 40 Years of Boxplots. Flowing Data links to an excellent, short forthcoming piece on the history of the humble boxplot, one of the few statistical graphical innovations of the last few decades to get widespread acceptance. The underlying article is recommended for at least a quick skim.
  • Correlation or Causation? A fantastic set of parody charts showing off how easy it is to make bad claims of causality with time series data. Personal favorite, “Did Avas Cause the U.S. Housing Bubble?”
  • The Internet is a Nerdy, Nerdy Place

  • Anti-Star Trek: A Theory of Posterity. Peter Frase of CUNY Sociology wrote this post a year ago, but I just saw it recently. Noting that Star Trek’s universe is a classless utopia premised on free energy and replicators, he asks, “Given the material abundance made possible by the replicator, how would it be possible to maintain a system based on money, profit, and class power?” In other words, are those conditions sufficient for eliminating capitalism? His answer is a quite convincing no. Using strong IP law, corporations could maintain a new form of capitalism. Highly recommended and relevant to contemporary debates.
  • Blog Redesign, Domain Switch

    Dear Readers,

    The blog has undergone a bit of a redesign/update. I’ve also finally purchased my own domain name, Old links and RSS feeds should still function properly, but please let me know if there are any problems. Last, I’d love feedback on the redesign and especially suggestions for a good header image.


    Don’t Blame Foucault QOTD: Sawyer on Discourse

    OrgTheory has an interesting recent thread about the frustrating task of reading and teaching Foucault. Various commenters note that Foucault’s lack of citations reflects a broader pattern of French scholarship, which uses different criteria for citations (i.e. tending not to cite living rivals). Omar suggests that Foucault’s style opens up space for a productive secondary literature that elaborates the connections between authors in useful ways, and linked to a fascinating piece:

    A Discourse on Discourse: An Archeological History of an Intellectual Concept (Cultural Studies, 2002) by Sawyer. In this article, Sawyer traces the history of the modern concept of discourse. Sawyer argues that English-language scholarship, starting in the 1980s-1990s, began to attribute the concept of discourse to Foucault, even though Foucault himself abandoned the term, and had never used it in the broad sense most cultural studies scholars employed it in. Rather, Foucault used discourse to refer narrowly to a collection of statements. Foucault distinguished in his work between discursive and non-discursive practices, and even in his earlier work rejected many broader notions of discourse (see especially his treatment of the term in Archaeology of Knowledge, described in detail by Sawyer).

    To make matters worse, Foucault actually stood against the three figures of Lacan, Althusser and Saussure (the “Triple Alliance” of French thought) who inspired British cultural studies scholars in the 1970s-1980s to begin speaking in terms of this broad concept of discourse. Sawyer theorizes that Foucault was brought into the mix to fill certain gaps, particularly the desire to add history to the concepts of the “Triple Alliance.” Later, Foucault gained a much wider readership, and thus the concept was eventually attributed to him.

    Perhaps the most useful thing Sawyer does is lay out a nice description of the broader usage of discourse prevalent in cultural studies, sociology, and so on. Sawyer argues that discourse replaced “culture,” “ideology,” and “language,” in the vocabulary of cultural studies because it solved a variety of problems:

    ‘Discourse’ uniquely satisfies these multiple requirements. ‘Discourse’ has captured the totalizing and semiotic connotations of ‘culture’, combined it with the Gramscian and Althusserian notions of ‘hegemony’ and ‘ideology’, blended it with Lacanian psychoanalytic concepts, tapped into the linguistic turn in literary theory, and then introduced Foucault’s historical perspective on power/knowledge relations. ‘Discourse’ thus retains many connotations of 1970s Marxist and Lacanian theory, but in a way that allows the incorporation of history, culture and both structuralist and post-structuralist insights. It is not surprising that such an all-encompassing term is now associated with a wide range of conflicting and confusing meanings, such as those quoted at the beginning of this article; perhaps this is simply too much weight for a theory to place on one word. (449-450)

    That sounds right to me, and helps to explain why discourse seems to mean so many things to so many people. Though not exactly intended as a definition of discourse, it works brilliantly by describing the problems that ‘discourse’ solved and continues to solve. That being said, the article ends with the reasonable argument that we might want to narrow our usage of the term, perhaps back to Foucault’s usage, in order to regain some clarity.

    I wonder though if Sawyer overly privileges rigorous terms: given the constant (re)emergence of messy concepts that blend conflicting theoretical traditions and lump together distinct modes of analysis and objects of study, it seems hard to argue that they always represent an impediment to understanding.* Perhaps we need some way of asking ourselves when a concept has grown too big, unwieldy and all-encompassing, and it becomes worthwhile to break it back apart into littler pieces.

    Returning to Foucault’s role in all of this, I have one one dissatisfaction with the article. I was hoping that this archaeological voyage into the history of “discourse” would help me understand Foucault better, would expose some misconceptions, something like that. Sawyer opens the door to such arguments by disentangling Foucault’s rich vocabulary in his early work, and his decided break with discursive arguments in his later work, from the messy concept of discourse we rely on today. But the article stops there, without telling us how, if at all, this should change our reading of Foucault. Still, fascinating grist for the theoretical mill and a really helpful jumping off point for that sort of analysis.

    * The STS literature on “boundary objects” (Star and Griesemer) and “trading zones” (Galison) seems relevant here. A precise definition used by all individuals is not the hallmark of a good “working object” of knowledge (cf. Bowker and Star), though they do require some coherency.

    Quantification of Everything: Temper Tantrums

    I’ve been having trouble finding entries for my hoped-for series of posts on the quantification of everything. Thankfully, today’s link round-ups brought in a fantastic example: the science of toddler temper tantrums (via NPR).

    Apparently, the trick to creating a science of temper tantrums, as with so many things, is getting good data. But how do you get good data from respondents who can’t always produce full sentences and don’t sit still? You mic their onesie!

    The first challenge was to collect tantrum sounds, says co-author James A. Green of the University of Connecticut.

    “We developed a onesie that toddlers can wear that has a high-quality wireless microphone sewn into it,” Green said. “Parents put this onesie on the child and press a go button.”

    The wireless microphone fed into a recorder that ran for several hours. If the toddler had a meltdown during that period, the researchers obtained a high-quality audio recording. Over time, Green and Potegal said they collected more than a hundred tantrums in high-fidelity audio.

    From this dataset of toddler tantrum noises, researchers came up with a theory of tantrums and suggestions for parents about how to respond to toddlers (see the article for details). As a non-parent, I can’t say how helpful these suggestions would be or how they accord with conventional wisdom. But I think this is a great example of the growing quantification of everything:

    “We have the most quantitative theory of tantrums that has ever been developed in the history of humankind,” said study co-author Michael Potegal of the University of Minnesota, half in jest and half seriously.

    Brad DeLong QOTD: On the Density of Models

    Today I had the pleasure of seeing an excellent job talk in Sociology in the morning, and a fascinating seminar presentation by Brad DeLong of UC Berkeley and blogging fame in the afternoon. I’d never been to an economics seminar here at Michigan before, but I get the sense that this one deviated from the norm a bit. Even so, it was a lively discussion on the topic of the efficacy of fiscal policy during a depression. DeLong and Larry Summers are apparently working on a Brookings paper on the topic, and DeLong was trying out some of his ideas on the crowd here at Michigan.

    Modern economists are often criticized for not actually knowing anything about the actual economy. I would occasionally joke with my former roommate – an econ PhD student who at the time was writing an abstract paper using the mathematics of entropy to calculate the value of “an information” – about this. Brad DeLong is perhaps the exception that proves the rule, and his working knowledge of important stylized facts, as well as in depth examples, about every element of the US economy – as well as the crisis in Europe, and so on – was just what you’d expect given his prolific blogging. During the talk, DeLong considered several alternative models to the one he (and Summers) were working on, and at one point mentioned a funny critique of modern economics that apparently comes from Andrei Shleifer:

    The set of admissible models is dense in the space of possible conclusions.*

    Ok, I admit, you have to be a pretty big econ or math nerd for this to work… but the quote basically claims that for every possible conclusion, there is some model acceptable to modern economics which supports that conclusion. In other words, we have a lot of fancy models that let us justify any claim, but not good enough rules for choosing between the models.

    All in all, an excellent day, and a fascinating talk.

    * Or possibly “policy choices.” Something like that.

    Best Accounts of the 2008 Financial Crisis and Ensuing Recession

    Dear Readers,

    I realized today that my last financial crisis bibliography post is about 3 years old. Since then, as the explosive crisis settled down into a burbling recession, I’ve not kept systematic track of good accounts of the crisis at different levels of complexity (from NYT magazine style summaries to This American Life hour-long episodes to journal articles to long books). As a favor, I’d love to know what you all have been finding most helpful. What are your favorite accounts of the crisis to come out in the past couple years? What are the best summaries? What about accounts of the move from the crisis to the recession? Anything goes in terms of media: documentaries, blog posts, academic books and papers, etc.

    Some of my favorites include Gary Gorton’s work on the shadow banking system and repo markets as an explanation of what actually happened, and Mike Konczal’s topological accounts of different theories of the recession and policy responses.