Traffic Flow
July 31, 2009

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For the last month or so I’ve been wondering about traffic flow, or specifically, the question of how to maximize its efficiency.  I’ve been trying to decide between two models, which I will dub the American model and the Chinese model. In the American model there are a bunch of rules that are broadly obeyed, such as staying within one’s lane, leaving one car length of space between you and the nearest car, and obeying traffic lights. In the Chinese model, these rules are more like guidelines, so traffic flow is much messier. You might have your own opinion (if so, I’d be happy to hear it!), but I thought about this for a while and it’s not intuitively obvious to me which model leads to more efficient traffic flow.

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What Are Your Politics?
April 30, 2009

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Reductionism is everywhere. It is one of the fundamental principles underlying modern science, so most people with scientific inclinations and/or training are pretty strong reductionists. (This includes me, although I try to resist it.) Applied to nature, reductionism has been incredibly fruitful (see: all of science), with limited exceptions such as emergent phenomena and complex adaptive systems. Reductionism is much less successful when applied to human endeavors, from economics to political science to history, sociology, anthropology, or art. This is obviously because consciousness is emergent and human societies are complex adaptive systems. Too bad for science!

However, reductionists are relentless. Or pathological. Looking at some of the myriad dimensions political scientists have invented to encapsulate the range of political thought, I’m leaning towards the latter characterization. Having said that, I’m now going to embrace my pathology and discuss some reductionist approaches to political science. The project here is to provide a simple and quantitative way to express the entire possible range of political perspectives people can have. Most thoughtful people can quickly answer whether they’re ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’, for example; this is a one-dimensional way to characterize opinion, and has been quantified in excruciating detail by the DW-NOMINATE system (-1 = very liberal, +1 = very conservative).

Hopefully, you will agree with me that this system has some gigantic shortcomings in terms of expressing political opinions: what would you call Joseph Stalin, for example, or Ron Paul? For this reason, people use a two-dimensional diagram called the Nolan chart. If you haven’t seen the chart before, I highly recommend taking the five-minute online test or the one-minute online test and finding your place in its space. The rest of this post contains some of my opinions on the chart, including lots of spoilers, so go take the test before continuing on here!

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Arrow’s Theorem
February 5, 2009

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Arrow’s theorem (named for Kenneth Arrow) is the kind of statement that will almost certainly surprise you the first time you hear it. For someone (like me) without enough experience in game theory to have developed the right intuitions, it can be really hard to understand the theory in context, so you’ll hear lots of people overreacting (“Arrow’s Theorem says that democracy is impossible”) or dismissing it as trivial (“no one thought voting was fair in the first place”). With that in mind, here’s a quick summary, adapted from the Wikipedia page and my class notes.
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Applied Complex Systems
February 3, 2009

a Prisoner's Dilemma. (c) Fox Broadcasting, image courtesy stripedwall.com

a Prisoner's Dilemma. (c) Fox Broadcasting, image courtesy stripedwall.com

I took a political science class in college taught by Scott Page, a professor in complex systems, and while I unfortunately slept through many of the lectures it was still one of my favorite classes. Three points from that class stuck with me in particular, and I want to mention and discuss them here.
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