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May 30, 2005

Summing vectors

I started college at 14. Dropped out at 16. Tried to reënroll four years later, talked my way into being accepted into the political science department at Buffalo State College, but found I was ineligible for the financial aid I was counting on. Under the terms of my parents' divorce, Dad was supposed to pay child support on each of us kids until we reached 18. The fact that I hadn't been 18 for a couple years, and the fact that we kids never had dime one of that money spent on us, are matters for another time. The important thing is that I was listed as a dependent on Dad's tax forms, and was thus out of luck as far as receiving grants or loans went. No Political Science department for me; hello, fifteen years of manual labor at subsistence wages.

It's been a while since I spent any time regretting that missed opportunity: my intellectual life is varied and rewarding.

In fact this morning, reading this post and subsequent comments over at Crooked Timber, I found myself feeling a profound gratitude to my parents for inadvertently helping to spike my renascent academic career.

It's an interesting post. Complex systems are endlessly fascinating, and social networks are an accessible, familiar, and fractally intricate example of said complexity. A less-hidebound person might take note of the fact that some physicists find the work of some social scientists valuable enough to devote some attention to its (in this case near-literal) ramifications, and ask what this says about current thought in the complexity biz. Or one might point out that this kind of stuff is old hat, that Murray Gell-Mann helped found the complex systems program at the Santa Fe Institute for a reason, and that nonetheless the work at issue is kinda interesting.

I'm solidly in the second camp. The dot-line drawings at issue here are being claimed by some in the thread as an innovation of social scientists whose work has been tragically and offensively ignored by those damn physicists. There is, however, no mention in the thread of the long-term use of very similar heuristics in the fields of population biology, chemical and theoretical ecology, or systems analysis. I spent about a week ten years ago sitting in a room with Fritjof Capra and Sym VanDerRyn, the three of us drawing very similar graphs of ecological relationships in fields varying from wildlife biology to literary criticism to mathematical modeling - that last was amusingly recursive. So where's our goddamned cite?

You'd think someone who'd devoted their life to intellectual inquiry would find gratification in having his or her ideas taken seriously. The "how dare they think about my idea" notion always leaves me breathless. The fact that people could discuss a study of who cites whom and get pissed off that someone wasn't cited in the work studying who cites whom and not see the humor in their anger is frightening indeed. This is the only time I'll likely type the next four words: Henry Kissinger was right. To think I might have wasted even a small part of my only life on this pointless turf warfare. Thanks, Mom and Dad, for setting me on a better course.

Posted by Chris Clarke at May 30, 2005 12:36 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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*amused grin*

D. was relating this latest CT hoo-hah (because he knows that railing against rigid disciplinary boundaries is one of my hobbyhorses), and my reaction was much the same. (And one of my most favoritest professors used to cite that quote on a regular basis.) The problem with CT is that the denizens of its comment threads tend, as a group, to consist of Reasoned Men Who Are Of Course Right About Everything. When they clash, it rapidly spirals into the same sort of "sez you" you see in other flame wars, only they're hampered by their sense of self-importance and thus can't admit, even to themselves, that they are quibbling over minutiae in a pissing contest. No, it has to be cast as a Vigorous Debate about Things That Shape The World, and anyone who disagrees must be someone who has not yet seen The Light Cast By Their Dazzling Intellects.

I'm being only partly sarcastic here.

Posted by: Rana at May 30, 2005 04:13 PM
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Would that I knew what you educated folks are discussing.

Alas, my own feeble intellect dwells far below such rarefied heights. Of course, not a day goes by that I don't wish my mental "Light" was cast by a bonfire instead of a lone guttering candle throwing flickering shadows into the dim recesses of my mind.

I guess I'll just have to content myself with thinking simple thoughts and hoping that someone can explain stuff like heuristics, chemical and theoretical ecology, Fritjof Capra, recursive, and "Kissinger was right."

Posted by: tost at May 30, 2005 05:03 PM
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Kieran Healy's server seems to block attempts to follow that dot-line link (, but copying and pasting it into the browser's address box worked for me.

I suspect he's trying to block access from off-site referrers; you're probably supposed to link to a page discussing the graph, rather than the graph itself.

Posted by: Jeremy Leader at May 31, 2005 01:24 PM
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Link fixed. Thanks for the heads-up, Jeremy.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at May 31, 2005 01:33 PM
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I myself have gotten mighty upset about not getting cited by others in academic talks and papers. You think academics are in the biz for the money? Hah! How do you think academics advance from grad students to post-docs to assistant professors to associate professors to full professors to university professors to lecture-circuit stars and Nobel Prize winners? Entirely through the prestige of their NAMES. While you will get your name on every paper you publish, still if nobody names you in the papers they publish (i.e. nobody cites you), you're going nowhere. Ditto if only nobodies name you in their papers. So when a somebody presents a sexy idea that you published first as if it were their own (i.e. without attributing it to you or anybody else by name) and you are a nobody or simply a lesser somebody stretching toward the next rung on the ladder, your blood boils--especially if you know that the scholar in question knows full well they're stealing or attempting to coopt credit. People who don't laugh at workers grousing about pay shouldn't laugh at academics grousing about credit, because credit and prestige are the wages of their economy. That said, we humans can be petty about this just as we can about everything else. I haven't read the Crooked Timber thread in question. I can say though I think Frijof Capra is a deluded snake-oil salesman, and Gurdieff can kiss my behind

Posted by: murky at May 31, 2005 02:16 PM
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I think you might have misunderstood my intent a little. I understand and agree with the importance of citations. It's much the same, though less formal, in my line of work.

The issue at the CT thread as I understand it was not so much a lack of citation - though that did get brought up - but that the physicists working on the networking issue failed to show proper deference to their social scientist forebears.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at May 31, 2005 02:26 PM
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Oh. I don't recall that kind of upset from my corner of the academic universe. I guess I can remember undergraduate physics majors ridiculing how easy it seemed for chemists to get an equation named after them--ala Schroedinger. i.e. There are named equations in chemistry textbooks that you arrive at just by taking the logarithm of both sides of an equation that doesn't even merit a name in physics books. Also different disciplines know the same equations or laws or theories sometimes by different names--they credit the guy or gal closest to their own discipline, or they don't attach any person's name, because they have interest in commemorating work of some one in another field, and they name just it according to what it's for or does. These are just like football rivalries, and I bet these CT bloggers raising a fuss are grad students. Grad students do the work and know the lingo, but they're immature with respect to the culture of scholarship.

Posted by: murky at June 1, 2005 07:14 AM
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Posted by: murky at June 1, 2005 07:15 AM
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(Quick derail: Space Kitty claims to have heard you interviewed on BBC last night. Care to confirm or deny this rumor? Also, I'm pretty certain that you are, in fact, "Deep Throat" and that the whole "Mark Felt" thing is just a red herring. Again, want to comment? I'd ask Bob Woodward, but I can't really talk to him because of the whole restraining order thing.)

Posted by: the_bone at June 2, 2005 04:10 AM
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