The marvels of electricity, statistics, and the intricacies of the M.Phil

2005-11-16

in Oxford, Politics, Science

Bikes near the Manor Road building

General musings:

I really like the image of emails, web pages, instant messages, and all the rest racing through fiber optic cables laid on the floors of various oceans. It seems more than faintly incredible to me that it should be possible at all, much less possible with such awesome rapidity. When talking about such things, there is always the danger of becoming the person – a hundred years or so ago – who we now mock for saying that nothing would every move faster than a steam locomotive. At the same time, I think awe about such things is legitimate. Our modeling of the world – the way we grow to perceive and understand it – is based upon all kinds of familiar parameters with regards to how things behave. Millions of little bits of paper don’t get sorted into neat arrays faster than you can begin to explain how to do it; things don’t zip from Oxford to Vancouver in less than the time it takes to write a comma or take a breath. And yet just these sorts of things happen all the time, generally uncommented upon, and form the basis of an increasingly large part of what many of us do.

Of course, the fact that we don’t comment on it is a reflection of how we now expect devices to perform in these ways – they have been integrated into our models of how the world functions. At the same time, I think there is utility and validity at marveling at the how of it all. The fact that I can generally catch objects thrown in my direction at a reasonable speed involves incredible feats of computation and muscular coordination. The fact that it is routine shouldn’t invalidate the wonder that consideration thereof can inspire. It also makes me hopeful that some more of the limitations that seem so intuitively obvious and insurmountable can be likewise addressed. Creating firm foundations for a truly sustainable economy, capable of providing everyone with a reasonable level of prosperity, would be one such accomplishment. This is something that I hope we will live to see at least the firm beginnings of.

In the much longer term, overcoming the barriers involved in interstellar travel and communication also comes to mind. It’s embarrassing to even bring up, since it exists enormously beyond the frontier of foreseeable technology, but it seems to me that if we don’t manage to obliterate ourselves in one way or another, the only way onwards is outwards and, if it’s to mean much of anything, we will need to be able to stay in touch with the people who do it.


The M.Phil:Today’s core seminar passed fairly well, though it was less useful for my China paper than I had hoped it would be. That said, I am fairly sure it will come together readily enough. It’s absurdly obvious that foreign influences played a key role in the Chinese Civil War. It’s just a matter of naming a bunch, discussing them a little, and then pointing out that there were important domestic factors as well, for instance the particular characteristics of Mao as a leader.

I am more anxious about the paper which I’ve opted to write for the core seminar, on how the interwar years impacted the war aims of the Big Three. It strikes me now as quite a dangerous question: very broad and prone to involving a few sloppy definitions and never getting anywhere. Since I have done very little reading on the topic so far, I could switch to something else in the interwar years, such as the “Was the USA isolationist in the inter-war years? What were the main domestic influences on US foreign policy-making?” question which I gave a presentation upon. Bureaucratic and interest politics have always struck me as a useful way of looking at how states reach their foreign policy positions. Also, since it is a topic that both seminars have moved past, I should have little competition for books. Well worth considering, then.

Caution: Statistics ahead 

This evening, I spent about four and a half hours doing this week’s statistics assignment. For anyone still working on it, you should note that for the final question – the hypothesis test – there are only actually three cases of states that match the two criteria being evaluated. Among those three, the data for war deaths is missing from one: leaving you with only two observations to base your regression or hypothesis test upon. As such, whatever conclusions you seem to be able to draw from it (either through a t-test or regression) are quite meaningless. For some reason, the t-test function in STATA will give you a very low p-value, even though it is only using two data points and the confidence interval is between negative 36 million and positive 41 million. Do not be fooled! The assignment is also wrong where it says that: “No civilian government has a military executive.” According to the dummy variable they have you define, regimetype3, there are two cases where exec4=1 and regimetype3=0. Just take a look at the conditional distributions.

The question asking us to evaluate a claim based on two observations is particularly irksome. Since STATA will give people an answer, albeit a meaningless one, and since we are being trained to treat STATA as a magical black box that provides answers never to be checked against common sense, I am betting at least a few people will reject the null hypothesis at the 95% confidence level, just because the p-value is inexplicably small.

That is all

It’s exciting to think that once I finish this next paper for Dr. Hurrell, the next paper for the core seminar, and one more stats assignment, the vast majority of the actual work for this term will be complete. I look forward to using the inter-term break to:

  1. Revise the fish paper (PDF) for another shot at publication. (But where?)
  2. Go back and read some of the things from this term that were interesting, but which I did not have time for.
  3. Go ahead and read some of the materials for next term. I am hoping that a reading list for the core seminar, as well as advice on which books are best for each topic, will be published.
  4. Actually get some physical exercise of one kind of another.
  5. Do some real cooking.
  6. Finish reading Paradise Lost to myself.
  7. Shoot a few rolls of real film in Oxford.
  8. See a play.
  9. Many others, to be added later…

Anyhow, I should stop listing things and do some reading from the China books that I need to return to the SSL tomorrow. I hope everyone in Oxford is dealing well with the cold and with the minor cascade of work the end of term is bringing. I hope those in Vancouver aren’t getting too bogged down by all the rain and are finding opportunities to enjoy all the things I miss about that fine city. To those elsewhere, I offer my generalized goodwill and encouragement that you provide me with more specific information, upon the basis of which more directed good wishes can be formulated.

PS. In our stats lecture today, we learned the most fearsome word ever: heteroskedasticity. It refers to the possibility that, as the value of some independent variable changes (ie. you look at older or younger people) not only the mean of some dependent variable (like height) might change, but also the tightness with which observations are located around that mean. I’d give you a better definition from the OED, but this fearsome word is not included.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan November 15, 2005 at 11:09 pm

One additional side-note. I was tickled today to see one of my blog photos as someone’s desktop background. People should know that clicking the photos loads a 1024×768 resolution version. I also have versions at twice that resolution available by email request, should anyone want them.

Anonymous November 16, 2005 at 12:31 am

Don’t forget the other crazy word from today’s lecture: multicollinearity.

Milan November 16, 2005 at 12:45 am

@Mystery Member of the M.Phil

‘Heteroskedasticity’ is a much more fearsome word. You can almost guess what ‘multicollinearity’ means, just by thinking about the different bits.

B November 16, 2005 at 1:00 am

I thought you would find this article on a malaria vaccine encouraging.

Anonymous November 16, 2005 at 1:12 am

Heteroskedasticity may take the cake for most fearsome word, but there are far more frightening things about:

“The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!”

Ben November 16, 2005 at 1:56 am

heteroskedasticity – I’ve actually heard the word (in talks or seminars), but no idea what it means. (Afraid I’m too much of a stats dunce to be enlightened by your summary)

Hilary November 16, 2005 at 3:57 am

Heteroskedasticity seems like some sort of winged dinosaur to me. It’s probably purple, grey, red, and yellow, with pointy horns, smelly breath and a penchant for hawaiian shirts. But if you point out that it seems to wear a lot of said shirts it will attack you in a most ungentlemanly manner, ripping off bits of you with it’s long narrow beak/jaws. The many row of incredibly tiny and pointy-sharp teeth will tickle you as it starts with your ears, and devours you in golf ball sized morsels. A fearsome word indeed my friend. Take care. :)

Anonymous November 16, 2005 at 9:09 am

Once, I saw a one-eyed, four-horned, flying purple thesis eater. It was terrifying.

Mike November 16, 2005 at 2:29 pm

It seems that heteroskedacity is indeed a boojum, Milan. Don’t softly and suddenly vanish away into a statistic – we would miss your blog!

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