’tis the season

Merry Christmas, people. Blogging will resume sometime after New Year’s, I guess.

In the meantime, check out some nice photos from 2008.

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Intelligence

I came across this article on the increasing consumption [1] of “high” culture in the population, citing some evidence that people, on average, are getting smarter and more discerning in their choice of culture. This is opposite what many would expect, I guess. Leaving aside the point that many magazines, and especially The Economist, love these “the world is the opposite of what you thought” pieces, there are some interesting points here.

The two main reasons for this “age of mass intelligence” are cited in the article, and I agree: Higher level of general education and The Internet [2]. However, I still wonder if this just reflects the fact that most people simply consume more of all types of culture. And also, whether this is actually a sign of intelligence, or something else…

[1] Yes yes, I used the term “consume” culture. What are you, Adorno?

[2] Some would claim otherwise

Excel in all its glory

Graphs can be nice things, presenting a lot of information in little space. However, they are frequently hideous. Excel is often to blame for this, converting tables of numbers into abominations of color and misrepresentations. Today, I tried to make a graph of average electricity use in Norwegian households over time. This is the default Excel gave me:

Ah! My eyes! My eyes!

Ah! My eyes! My eyes!

After a little work, it actually turned out a lot better:

Ah, that's better...

Ah, that's better...

Still, I think I’m getting some graph software to bypass the whole horrible mess that is Excel’s graph function…

In the mirror

Today we had another installation of our course in Technology, science and culture, where we go through the different chapters of the recent third edition of The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. Always interesting discussions going on there, with a critical eye on the texts we read.

You can only see the front here, but it's a <em>thick</em> bastard

You can only see the front here, but it's a thick bastard

During the presentations today I got to thinking about the STS field and its connection to other fields of study. We were discussing a text complaining about the lack of focus in STS on pedagogical methods and tools in the transfer of STS related knowledge to new students of the field. Since my master’s degree is in educational sociology, I feel I have some experience with both discussions of pedagogy and the problematic of interdisciplinary field identity: are they a discipline in their own right, or simply a field of study where different disciplines co-exist? Regarding the field of educational study, I would say they are definitely a field and not a discipline. There is very little independent theory and conceptual development to defend calling it a discipline in it’s own right, although this is not for lack of trying. It simply does not stick.

When it comes to STS, I’m more unsure. They certainly have a stronger claim to being a discipline than educational studies, with a mature set of theoretical concepts and methodological approaches. On the other hand, I feel I recognize a lot of the concepts from other fields, and I don’t think I’m the only one (Nora brought up the sociology of knowledge today, for example). The whole Handbook, which I’m guessing should be read as a sort of summing up of where the current debates stand and a presentation of the tools of analysis and methodology available to the student of Science and Technology, is very introvert, focusing mainly on debating how STS can become a discipline in its own right.

Reflexivity is both a sign of a mature discipline and a strategy of making it so. Several of the articles engage in what to me seems like pure conceptual imperialism, exporting STS concepts to other fields of study. This is both to show that STS concepts are robust and have application in many fields, but also to fortify positions. This can be good or bad. On the one hand, using new theoretical concepts on old themes can create new connections and new knowledge. Conceptual innovation and interdisciplinarity may not be an end in itself, but it is at least a useful tool to both examine one’s own field critically and maybe gaining increased communication. On the other hand, there is a worrying tendency where more and more disciplines are being splintered into ever more specialized fields of study, each with their own language and approach to problems that in many cases are overlapping. This makes interdisciplinarity harder, as translating between adjacent fields takes up more time and energy. We’ll have to see where this ends.

Many here at the institute and other places are currently working a lot on exactly these problems of the production of knowledge and interdisciplinarity. One recent example is the book Vitenskap som dialog, edited by people at ITK. The book is very good, accessible and interesting throughout. I’m sure there will be many interesting contributions to these debates in the time coming, although I can’t free myself from the nagging feeling that it’s a little close to staring into out own navels.

Whew, long post there. Here is some relief, a guy singing all 64 voices of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. In my next Serious Post, I’ll go all Foucault on your asses.

Operations research

As a result of my talk in Ankara a while back, I was approached by one of the cognitive researchers on maybe attending a stream on energy, environment and climate at a conference in Bonn in July. The conference is called EURO 2009, and will be dominated by researchers working within so-called Operations Research. For some reason, they have a huge picture of Beethoven on the front page:

Angry man

Angry man

I don’t know much about operations research, except that it was mentioned in the Mirowski & Nik-Khah paper I mentioned in my first formulation bank. They place it in a technocratic, almost taylorist tradition of optimization and computational theory. In fact, the authors call it the main unmentioned influence on modern ANT theory, because of its approach to social systems as machines or operational systems. The subheading for the conference is “OR creating competitive advantage”, which I think says a lot.

I haven’t decided on anything yet, but it would be interesting to go and see how things are approached in other corners of the field. Likely it would be a slightly annoying experience, but with the potential of provoking some thought. More to come on this.

Networks

Long post coming up:

One of the web pages I frequent is Edge. According to its founders, it is supposed to be a meeting place for “the third culture”. This stems from CP Snows classic “The two cultures”, where he bemoans the gulf between the social and natural sciences. Edge attempts to bridge the gap. The site is great, even if what they are championing is one culture’s invasion of the other. Just look at all the geneticists “proving” the genetical cause of all sorts of social phenomena [1].

Today, their main article is one on the dispersion of happiness in social networks. The whole article, which is published in the British Medical Journal, can be found here. Basically, it states that people are affected by others’ mood, and goes on to map out one network and quantify to what degree this is true. Supposedly, a close friend who becomes happier increases the chance of a similar development in you with 25 %. The same number for a coresident spouse is 8 %, siblings living nearby 14 % and next door neighbours 34 %, all with 95 % confidence interval.

Some thoughts and questions arise from this. First, for my own part, I realise I have to look into network analysis as method. Some of the results here seem somewhat ridiculous to me (Coresident spouse has the least effect on happiness? One fourth that of your neighbour?), and the whole idea of putting this in terms of probabilistic measures is very foreign to me. The question is how this method works, and what it is safe to use it for. I’ll ask Thomas Berker here at the institute, since he’s working on network analysis of real estate advertisement (a much safer venue, I think) [2].

Second, there is a central point in the article that I have trouble swallowing. According to the authors, happiness can be distributed by up to three degrees’ distance. That means that your happiness can be afflicted by the friends of your friends’ friends’ happiness, even if you don’t know them at all. Now, it’s obvious that this happiness effect must be distributed through the friends you actually know, but there is no discussion of this in the paper. Is there a linear distribution? Does the happiness increase disperse equally through the network? Do the causes of happiness increase matter for the dispersion? In fact, I don’t see how it is possible to measure that sort of distributed effect at all.

I’m not the only one thinking about these issues. According to this New York Times article (NYT again? That’s two in a row, mister),

A study also to be published Friday in BMJ, by Ethan Cohen-Cole, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, and Jason M. Fletcher, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Public Health, criticizes the methodology of the Christakis-Fowler team, saying that it is possible to find what look like social contagion effects with conditions like acne, headaches and height, but that those effects disappear when other factors are considered.

A more speculative method than the actually quite sober longitudinal study the authors use as main source (even if it is based on self reporting of emotional issues) is their treatment of social networking online. They want to see how internet affects the effect proximity on happiness distribution. How do they do it? By counting smiling and frowning people on Facebook. Here is a graphical representation of the network of smiling and frowning people:

neutral

Blue nodes: frowning | Green nodes: neutral | Yellow nodes: smiling

Smiles in a photo, for example while drunk at a party, as measure of general happiness? What about people who don’t like having pictures of themselves on these sites? They must be unhappy.

Anyway, I still think this is interesting. I’m looking forward to checking out this methodology, but it seems difficult to say anything of substance that isn’t riddled with problematic assumptions.

Did you make it all the way down here? Good boy/girl. Here’s your treat, a ridiculously overblown analysis of Star Wars aestethics. I love it.

[1] Bruno Latour warns us of using the term “social” as an explanatory variable for anything, and I see his point, but I’ll do it anyway. Sue me.

[2] By the way, check out Thomas’ book on Internet use. My German is a little rusty, but I’m not sure whether I would consider the Internet itself in a media analysis perspective at all. I’m sure he discusses the difference between the Internet in general and Internet media. I would have chosen a better cover, however…

Unsure-ance

According to this article in the New York Times, an insurance company has started offering insurance on the chance that your other insurance policy might fail.

As you may or may not know, the US health system is heavily based on insuring against health problems, as opposed to the comprehensive model chosen by most other Western countries, but a lot of the insurance policies people have are financed as part of their employment deal. This means that if you lose your job or have to change to one that doesn’t cover health insurance, you either lose insurance or have to pay for it yourself. Don’t have one? No treatment. So here is a new policy, designed to insure you from sudden loss of insurance. Two points:

1. I smell a recursion here. There is never enough insurance, so why not get insurance against this insurance too? This strengthens the claim that a pure contractual society is not possible. In the end, there must be some trust in order for society to function

2. How can anyone still claim that this is overall cheaper than having a comprehensive system? Looks to me like the only ones benefitting from this arrangement is the insurance sector.

On an entirely different note, and much closer to my field of research, there is a new report* out on the effects of New Public Management policies in the public sector. In summary, the system works as following: in order to ensure maximum efficiency in all public service, every operation by a public entity must be submitted to cost control and constant revision. This ensures fair competition, accountability and the right allocation of resources.

Unfortunately, there are two large (and other lesser) problems with this model. Firstly, constantly changing suppliers of public services undermines the accumulation of expertise and knowledge in the supply institutions, which is clearly not efficient. Secondly, and more seriously, the accountability measures are themselves expensive. Often, the tiny expense saved by constantly focusing on cost containment is more than offset by the increased expense of constantly checking whether people are doing as they are required. Not to mention the negative effects on morale of institutionalised distrust.

Enough politics. Here is a video on how to build an igloo.

* Full disclosure: The report is released by a political party, SV, where I happen to be a member. Anything in the report must be taken to be coloured by their views. Why link to it? First, one of the authors, Bent Sofus Tranøy is a researcher in welfare state politics in Oslo, and not a member of the party to my knowledge. Second, it does seem to be seriously referenced.