Category Archives: Random Notes

A distorted map

I came across this distorted election map by Mark Newman, who is a professor at our university, and liked it!

The best thing about this map is the way it reconciles ordinary people’s habit of “looking at a map” and a scientists’ urge to yell “The map is misleading because it prioritizes geographic area over population size or electoral representation!”



A follow-up: The Economist makes use of the “proportional map” in this week’s news about Catalonia independence.

Also see here for the graphic details and a discussion about different ways to represent proportionality rather than geographic area size.


Seemingly cliché thoughts about causality

Consider the following three questions:

(1) What is the effect of Event X on Outcome Y?

(2) Why do you do D1 instead of D2?

(3) Why does Event Z happen?

The first question asks the causal effect of X on Y. This is a very typical question in scientific studies. The answer could be a qualitative one, such as “positive effect”, “negative effect” or “no effect”, or a quantitative one, such as “an effect of 0.5”.

The second question can be seen as asking the purpose of a person doing D1 instead of D2. Of course, there are exceptions, for example, from a psychological point of view, a person may do D1 out of impulse instead of a well-considered purpose. But let us, for the sake of this dialogue, ignore this possibility.

The third one, however, is a question much more difficult to answer. It is almost impossible to answer, because instead of seeking the effect of a cause, it essentially asks the respondent to provide causes of an event. This does not mean that we shall not try to answer this question, but usually I do not see this type of question as a well-defined scientific question, because the plausible answers to this question are not only infinite in number, but also unknown in form.

These are cliché, but only seemingly cliché. People always forgot how difficult it is to answer the third question, and have gone to extremes by blaming the scientists for not providing a satisfactory answer.

“Perfection isn’t the goal.”

I was watching a video of Yuja Wang’s interview last night, and was impressed at one moment when the interviewer asked her which one she likes better, live concert or recording. Yuja said live concert. The reason is that for live concert, “perfection isn’t the goal.” But for recording, you have to pursue perfection.

Wow, at that moment I remind myself why I like this young pianist so much. Perfection is the goal of album recording for a musician, publication for a researcher, yet there are other, and perhaps more important excitements that make our work worth-doing. For a classical pianist, the music and performances cannot be replicated. The audience should always go to “the moment”, “the spot”, to enjoy it — because in that way you could see how the musician pushes the scores against the boundary and instills his/her blood into the scores. Yuja was criticized a lot for “wearing too sexy” during classic music performances. But I am on her side, for what’s wrong with being self-centered as an artist?


Another opinion on the geography of voting: the role of culture

A friend of mine facebooked an NYT article about the red-blue divide among American states.

The author is a psychologist, who seems to be in favor of the Nisbett-type cultural argument. See the concluding paragraph:

“If this history is right, the American political divide may have arisen not so much from different conceptions of human nature as from differences in how best to tame it. The North and coasts are extensions of Europe and continued the government-driven civilizing process that had been gathering momentum since the Middle Ages. The South and West preserved the culture of honor that emerged in the anarchic territories of the growing country, tempered by their own civilizing forces of churches, families and temperance.”

To me, this is a less cute argument compared to Rodden’s (see my previous post), but I agree that there is some important truth in the cultural argument. For sure, my personal preference of Rodden’s work over the cultural argument is a matter of taste. Yet, there is some practical reason: the cultural argument is more difficult to test.

Why geography matters for voting

Last week’s Econtalk was one of my favorite podcasts during the year. Jonathan Rodden talked about

Among many interesting points that he mentioned, in particular on the “geography of voting”, there are three things that I particularly like about his work:

(1) There is a direct linkage between his inductive finding (that denser population in a region leads to more votes for democratic party) and the deductive conclusion (that the “winner-take-all” electoral rule in America can under-represent the democratic supporters).

(2) It brings into concern the possibility that the effect of a policy or a voting procedure is sensitive to the (social and political) construction of geographic boundaries.

(3) It sheds light on the old question (since as early as Kenneth Arrow) of the possibility/impossibility of coming up with a flawless method of aggregating individual preference.


Happy 3rd birthday to R, which is released 12 years ago on Feb.29, 2000.

Mental Shortcuts

The Kahneman‘s 2011 book, the audio version of which I have been listening to excitedly,  confirms my standpoint that if there is anything that the human brain is particularly good at, it should be the quick discovery of and immediate adherence to mental shortcuts.

The human brain is a sense-making machine. We all find it tempting to rationalize events we observe using the information available within our brain. Whenever these information, put together, forms a non-contradicting account of a given event, we feel satisfied. We cannot wait to claim to ourselves that we have made sense of the observed outcome. Sense-making is anther name of what psychologists call “mental shortcuts.”

We should admit that the human brain is fragile. Mental shortcuts give our brain a sense of security, an escape from the dreadful complexity of reality. It is so tempting to take mental shortcuts because we, the human race, are “weak”, or “not sufficiently strong.”

My first graduate seminar course is causal inference. Yet since then, I have developed an obsession and now a sympathy with David Hume, who would, nevertheless, be the most doubtful character if he sits in our seminar. I appreciate Hume because I think it is better to take the courage to admit our fragility and feeling of insecurity than to deny it.

A Good Article to Start the New Semester

I usually disagree more than agree with online blogs that I read, yet for this article, I almost agree with every of his points!

Strongly Recommended (though it ruined my new year plan of going to bed before 11:00pm) !!

Luck Matters

I heard about the death of a French pianist, Alexis Weissenberg over the radio on my way back home today. I googled the news, and found his interesting life story that his music talent saved him and his mother from the WW2 concentration camp. While one could make a case of this as revealing the power of music that touched the German guard,  I would rather take it as a good case in which luck saved the human race a talented mind.

They sit together…

Oh, see how economists (e.g. Larry Katz) and sociologists (e.g. William Wilson) sit on the same panel on inequality in America!