Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Great Fire - In Our Time podcast review

In September 1666 burnt the Great Fire of London. BBC's In Our Time spoke of the fire last week and I hope you can still download the podcast, before it will be replaced today with the program made this morning.

I can be short about this issue of In Our Time. It was as good as always. The event of the Great Fire is amply made tangible and, needless to say, very clearly put in a historic perspective. The Fire not only devastated a huge part of London, but it also marked a kind of watershed in history. These connections between facts on the ground and the grand scheme of developments, are always what interest me most

What stayed with me however, were this time a few almost casually mentioned facts about London and about the Fire. For example, the fire raged on for four days and for a long time afterward, one couldn't move through the debris. First of all, because of the remaining heat - the ground was still hot for days on end. Afterward there was the great logistical problem of removing the debris. So many Londoner just left, never to return. And here is another point: who were the Londoners? Cities in those days (I remember this from Amsterdam) hardly managed to maintain their size by themselves. The death rate was enormous. The city stayed huge, on account of constant immigration. These immigrants came from everywhere, rather from far than from close by. In London there were a lot of English from remote locations and there were a lot of foreigners, French and Dutch mostly. It gives for a different perspective on the roots of the citizens.

More In Our Time:
Simon Bolivar,
The Translation Movement.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Game theory - Yale online course review

Many academic institutions in the Anglo-Saxon world are putting lectures and lecture series on line for listening or, occasionally, viewing. Most of these come as podcasts, through iTunes-U or independently, however a few are available for download without any RSS feed whatsoever. An example are all the courses that Yale offers. Those are many and of great quality.

In this review I'd like to pay attention to the course in Game Theory that is served as an economics course, but basically is a math subject and has implications beyond math and economics. The lectures can be downloaded or followed on-line as audio as well as video. (Game Theory audio and video) The course involves a reasonable amount of mathematics, but the complexity of this is very low. Professor Ben Polak makes a point of putting the lessons of Game Theory in natural language and is very effective in showing the application in practical terms with examples from economics, politics and even soccer and dating. Aside from being very clear, Professor Polak is also very entertaining.

My excitement just came to a high point during the 8th lecture when Polak showed an important implication for the social sciences, where I immediately saw it profoundly important for sociology of law - my old field of specialty.

Suppose you see in mixed societies that people generally live in segregated cities or quarters. And you also see that when given the choice where to live, they will move into the areas where the people of their own kind live. Can you conclude from this that people generally prefer to live segregated? Game Theory shows that the answer is no. If people prefer to live in mixed towns, but rather not be part of a minority, their strategic choices will result in segregation. In more broad terms this means that if you see people act according to a certain pattern, this does not necessarily imply this is their preferred pattern, but rather it could be the result of a strategic choice, aiming to optimize the result, in stead of gambling to get to a maximum.

The is especially important for social sciences that attempt to make observations about normative rules, such as the sociology of law. It is sort of generally accepted that if a rule is not abided by, it may legally be a rule, but sociologists do not consider it a social norm. With the game theory lesson in mind, this may be false. Social actors can choose to break the rule for strategic reasons, but on the normative level still accept the validity of the rule. It makes the social scientific, empirical, approach of normative fields all the more complicated.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button