Tolstoy and Rhetorical Action

Following up on Fabrizio Gilardi’s recent excursions into world literature and in commemoration of Leo Tolstoy who passed away 100 years back on November 20th 1910, I would like to share a literary illustration of the social influence concept of shaming (i.e. the public expose of inconsistencies and illegitimate behavior). I cite from Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonnata in which during a train ride, the first-person narrator clashes with an old merchant about gender equality. The merchant: “Ja, so ist’s wenn man versäumt, den Frauen rechtzeitig die Kandare anzulegen, dann ist’s gefehlt.” “Aber Sie haben doch eben selbst erzählt, wie sich verheiratete Männer auf der Messe in Kunawino belustigen”, sagte ich; ich konnte diese Bemerkung nicht unterdrücken. “Das ist ein Ding für sich”, sagte der Kaufmann und brütete schweigend vor sich hin.

Bugs at UN Headquarters

Renovation work at UN headquarters in Geneva over the past few years has turned up a considerable amount of bugs. Now there is another bug problem at UN headquarters in New York.

Whereas the Geneva bugs were of the eavesdropping kind (biologists might call them Cimex auditorius) the bugs in New York were of an entirely different kind, namely Cimex lectularius. These bugs, commonly called bedbugs, are, according to Wikipedia, “small parasitic insects [...] that prefer to feed on human blood [...] The name ‘bedbug’ is derived from the insect’s preferred habitat of houses and especially beds or other areas where people sleep. Bedbugs, though not strictly nocturnal, are mainly active at night and are capable of feeding unnoticed on their hosts.”

I always thought that New York is a city that never sleeps. Never mind. But the bugging of UN headquarters is surely a wonderful natural experiment. Insect specialists of the world, unite! And help political scientists find out which parts of the UN administration and which UN conferences are the most bug infested ones. Controlling for other factors this will allow us to determine where in the UN the real action is – there is, supposedly, an negative correlation with bug infestation rates.

Jean Ziegler does not like political science

From a recent interview (via @polithink):

Jean Ziegler: Was haben Sie studiert?

Tages Anzeiger: Ich? Geschichte und Politologie.

Jean Ziegler: Soziologie wäre gescheiter gewesen. Da hätten Sie mehr gelernt.

I actually took a sociology course with Jean Ziegler at the University of Geneva in 1994. Here are required readings, which I still fondly keep in my office:

You actually have to give some credit to someone who titles a sociology textbook “Retournez les fusils!“, with the subtitle (not visible in the photo) “Manuel de sociologie d’opposition.”

Bonus anecdote: at the beginning of each class, before Jean Ziegler’s entrance (usually 5-10 minutes late), his African assistant carried in two huge maps, one of Africa and the other of Latin America, and proceeded to hang them at each side of the podium. Jean Ziegler never made use of them. But they certainly did create a nice scenographic effect.

The World’s Most Expensive Seating Arrangement?

Not another futuristic seating arrangement

Cray X-MP/28

I came across this futuristic seating arrangement in one of the ETH’s buildings last week. Turns out this little monster is, or better was, a supercomputer named Cray X-MP/28. It was the world’s fastest computer in the mid 1980s (64 MB RAM, two 118 MHz processors). Even the computer you use to read these lines almost surely has more computing power than that. But unlike Cray X-MP’s catalog price your machine was certainly less than ten million francs. While back in the 1980s Cray X-MP was mainly used by physicists and chemists, nowadays also political science depends heavily on the availability of computing power in both state-of-the-art theoretical and empirical research.

Political scientists working on formal models of politics, for example, use computer programs to solve complex systems of equations within a few minutes. If I could reactivate former ten million Francs supercomputer Cray X-MP/28, it would probably need hours to deliver the solutions to the same equations. Or look at empirical political research that applies advanced statistical models. Some of these models still require hours if not days to be estimated. And sometimes, even computers with processors outperforming those of our huge yellow friend by a factor of 25 or more, fail to deliver any results, because the estimations do not converge.

So even though I sometimes wish myself back in time when political science was more about sitting down in a comfortable armchair and philosphizing about how the world works and should work, our profession nowadays is not at all like that. However, the next time I’m waiting for my computer to deliver results, I can sit down on what probably is the world’s most expensive furniture arrangement and have a cup of coffee.