Everything You Wanted to Know about Agent Based Modeling (but Were Afraid to Ask)

I’ve done a lot of verbal explaining of agent based modeling and its power and potential over the last several months. And after a very interesting and productive meeting with Dr. Tanja Srebotnjak, formerly of Ecologic Institute and now the inaugural Hixon Professor for Sustainable Environmental Design at Harvey Mudd, I decided to put together a summary of my thinking on agent based modeling combined with a list of relevant sources. I’ve discovered a lot of good work, and my own thinking has substantially evolved since my first post on the subject in July of last year.

To start at the beginning I’d like to briefly address modeling more generally in science because the word is associated with very complex exercises by very smart and technical people which spit out results that are all but incomprehensible to most of us without abundant interpretation. Climate models (which often have agent based components) are one example, as are macroeconomic and trade models, and simulations of biological and ecological systems.

We should not, however, get too intimidated. At the end of the day, a model airplane, be it made out of paper or plastic, is just as much a model as the others. It may be used as a toy, but if it is useful for answering scientific questions then it’s a scientific model. None of us have problems understanding the basic thinking behind building a physical model and placing it in a wind tunnel for various tests. The model is not the real thing, it may be of smaller scale, be built out of different materials, lack certain internal components, but as long as it captures the features of interest, it is perfectly adequate. In the case of an airplane or car in a wind tunnel, it is adequate for various scientific tests to inform an engineering process.

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End of a (personally) important year

The real discovery is the one which enables me to stop doing philosophy when I want to. The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself into question.

2013 was fun. I quit my job, road tripped across America, sailed, skied and surfed in California, spent my summer learning German, and sipping Kölsch on the Rhine, and moved to Berlin. But 2014 was a far more important year for my personal, professional, and intellectual development. It was the year that I finally got my head fully around issues of science, politics, and philosophy that I’ve been contending with since I first got into democratic politics 12 years ago.

In the past 12 years I’ve found myself torn between two worlds of practicioners, who generally have two very different ways of looking at and interacting with the world, the political and the scientific. Your academic training in political science isn’t much help for working in the business of politics, this is something I learned quickly after arriving on Capitol Hill. You’ll find people far more generous and helpful at getting you started than you would expect from reading Machiavelli or rational choice theory, and yet the idealist will be quickly disappointed as well, no one has the time to reflect on how to apply Rawlsian principles of justice. Continue reading

Coming to a harbor near you, surf!

While bushy blonde hairdos are not uncommon in Finland, there’s a reason there are no songs about surfing Hel-sin-ki. So imagine my surprise to see video of surf-able waves on Helsinki harbor. Naturally my curiosity was piqued. This Californian has spent a good portion of his life living in and visiting places with no surf. And fellow stranded surfer Atso Anderson was kind enough to show me the surf machine he had proposed to Aalto University upon returning from a week of surfing in Portugal.

Container and power plant

The container, at this “break” the pulley system is attached at the far side so surfers ride from the power plant towards the container (when the water surface isn’t frozen).

The system is built to be mobile. All the components of the surf generator fit inside a shipping container. All you need is a waterbody, a place to attach the pulley system on the far side, and an electric power source. Switch it on and the pulley system pulls two “wings” though the water at the depth of 1.5 meters. You’ve got surf!

For the exact physics of the system you’ll have to look elsewhere. My social science and more traditional surfing experiences are not good starting points for explaining how you produce a breaking wave with a pair of airplane like wings. A few master theses have been produced on the subject and a couple of professors at Aalto University are working out how to adjust the shape of the wave for optimal surf-ability.

I was interested to learn from Atso that this project has been integrated into an urban renewal and development project by the City of Helsinki, interestingly enough with a water quality component. The presence of the power plant and industrial legacy of the harbor front meant that many residents perceived the water as polluted, even though it is now flushed with sea water and the power plant filters its cooling water. The presence of the wave got people in the water immediately. Continue reading

What Would Harry Do? And What Would Herbert and Hubert Let Him Get Away With?

I’m looking into a move about the start-up scene and in doing so ran into an “innovation network” that a former Ecologic Institute researcher works with called “What Would Harry Do?” The conceit of the network is a smart one: unleash your inner “Harry,” your inner five year old who “ate too much playdough” and has been producing “fun ideas and useful stuff” since. And they’ve got a cool collection of projects that have come out of releasing “human-centered” and “design thinking.”

But some of us had a fair bit of angst and Weltschmerz from the beginning. I don’t remember what it was like to be five years old but I have no memory of any uninhibited and pure time before rationality and responsibility [1]. So we may do our best to “get” and play with the conceit, but we keep the five year old under supervision. We’re adults, we may appreciate and even envy the five year old’s spontaneity, maybe get access to a “younger” side of ourselves by observing him or her,  but we still know best. Continue reading

To Say What I am Trying to Say

“Truth to Nature” – An true drawing leaves out imperfections, an early view of objectivity according to Dr. Daston

I have two dreadful lines of thought with which I will bore poor captive souls. The first, and newest, is agent based modeling, which I discovered a little over a year ago, but which follows from work I began in grad school and which continued through my time at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and at Ecologic Institute, that is the need for improved methods in social science.

I’ve written about agent based modeling and done a couple presentations at Ecologic Institute and have made it the core method of my Humboldt work. The second line has been more evasive, however, even though I have been thinking about it far longer. As a specific project over two and a half years, but it dates back at the very least to my early days in D.C., and maybe even back to my undergraduate years. Continue reading

A (The!) Way Forward for the Social Sciences

In chemistry, at least, you get to just make things up.

Science! So often misunderstood as being cold and complicated. But actually such a human and creative enterprise. So argued Dr. Roald Hoffman in his excellent keynote at the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s 2014 Annual Meeting. Indeed, he argued, the technical jargony linguistic style of the academic article, invented to exclude natural philosophers such as Goethe from the field, now serves only to confuse and obscure. And chemistry itself may now move to far more creative heights, instead of simply realistically representing objects found in nature, it may start creating wholly abstract new chemical structures. Structures that may come in use in a new field called combinatorial chemistry. Continue reading

(Herbert) Simon Says: We do not live in a market economy, but in an organization economy.

As I’ve noted, the ongoing ardent private/public debate has more to do with ideology and the political battles of yesteryear, than with anything to be reflected among either scholars studying the water sector or any interesting debates in the economic community. Yes, markets remain indisputably important, as is their study, but before we get to discussing politics we have to discuss organizations because, as Herbert Simon notes, organizations cover far more of the earth’s surface than markets do.

As we talk about organizations either in the private or the public sector, we are talking about bureaucracies. They are imperfect creatures that attempt to minimize uncertainty through hierarchy and procedure. Yes there are fine distinctions about organizational forms that may be taken under public or private law, but the ideological debates are not based on these. For a case of how meaningless this distinction can be one need look no father than the case of water utilities in Hessen. When faced with a mandatory price reduction from the “Cartell Authority,” the utilities chose to simply change their legal form (in this case from private to public) as this would allow them to avoid the Cartell Authority’s authority and maintain their price structure.
No, rather the debates are about whether given bureaucracies should orient themselves around fiscal or social motives or, as is more likely these days, some mix of both.These debates will go on, but they should not distract us from the fact that no matter what goals are counted or valued, any bureaucracy is at some point likely to fail. And this failure may have significant and previously unforeseen effects on its internal or external stakeholders, or for society at large.

Sometimes this failure can be understood in the language of politics and economics, but more often than not, this failure must also be understood in the language of public and business administration. And it is a dull, boring, unfortunate, but vital language of human affairs. Indeed, if there is something you want to accomplish, put rhetoric in your quiver, pull science from its sheath, but boredom is your armor, if you hope to fight another day:

 “I learned that the world of men as it exists today is a bureaucracy. This is an obvious truth, of course, though it is also one the ignorance of which causes great suffering.

But moreover, I discovered, in the only way that a man ever really learns anything important, the real skill that is required to succeed in a bureaucracy. I mean really succeed: do good, make a difference, serve. I discovered the key. This key is not efficiency, or probity, or insight, or wisdom. It is not political cunning, interpersonal skills, raw IQ, loyalty, vision, or any of the qualities that the bureaucratic world calls virtues, and tests for. The key is a certain capacity that underlies all these qualities, rather the way that an ability to breathe and pump blood underlies all thought and action.

The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.

The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable.

It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”

― David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

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The Lab and the Field, and the Temptation of Rigor

“Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge.” -F.A. Hayek, 1945


As it was in 1945 it is today. There is the sense that if you can’t say something scientifically, you haven’t said it properly. And, more dangerously, there is a sense that better science requires more rigor and more formalization. The result is general confusion, and often bad science, as we attempt to talk about what cannot be said, or should not be said scientifically, in scientific (and more rigorous) terms. This sense has led to a butchery of many humanities departments, a good deal of blood-letting in the social sciences, and the emergence of weird quasi-disciplines such as “management-science” (shudder).

I too am sometimes tempted by rigor to the detriment of other considerations, and I wish to explore the twilight areas between scientific knowledge and straight-up knowledge in a series of blog posts. I am going to start with a couple of my favorite disciplines, philosophy and political science, and discuss the damage that the need to state all knowledge in scientific terms, and to go all too far down the road of rigor and formalization can cause.

With philosophy I couldn’t even start in academia. My love of the subject from high school was quickly quashed by two dreadfully comitted professors (one a very old Kantian, the other  fearfully into C.I. Lewis). It took me almost a decade to recover and rediscover the discipline. I did so outside the academic, by listening to podcasts by Hubert Dreyfus while working a dead-end job, and through the work of Robert Frodeman around interdisciplinary research.

Dreyfus is a wonderful and perceptive humanist, and have no worries, he will be well covered in further posts. Frodeman is lesser known, but also highly significant, and his term “field philosophy,” is a nice starting place for reclaiming the aforementioned, and other disciplines lost to the perils of misplaced scientific rigor. He explains the term briefly here:

Another group of philosophers, myself included, is experimenting with an approach we call “field philosophy.” Field philosophy plays on the difference between lab science and field science. Field scientists, such as geologists and anthropologists, cannot control conditions as a chemist or physicist can in the lab. Each rock outcrop or social group is radically individual in nature. Instead of making law-like generalizations, field scientists draw analogies from one site to another, with the aim of telling the geological history of a particular location or the story of a particular people.


“Getting out into the field” means leaving the book-lined study to work with scientists, engineers and decision makers on specific social challenges. Rather than going into the public square in order to collect data for understanding traditional philosophic problems like the old chestnut of “free will,” as experimental philosophers do, field philosophers start out in the world. Rather than seeking to identify general philosophic principles, they begin with the problems of non-philosophers, drawing out specific, underappreciated, philosophic dimensions of societal problems.


And there is a lesson that the political science discipline could take from the distinction between lab and field work. When I was at U.C. San Diego I was incredibly surprised by how the political science PhD students were completely unrecognizable from the feisty undergrads and Capitol Hill staffers I had previously had the pleasure to study and work with.

This new breed of political scientists to the one had a mathematical model from which they worked. And unless you wanted to talk econometrics (an interesting subject in its own right, I’ll give you) you really couldn’t engage them. A curiousity in the novel, the interesting, and what happened out there in the real world, the “field” just wasn’t there. While the previous political types I had met, scientific or not, would love to get into the specifics, or more likely a debate, about a  theory, or policy, or campaign, this breed couldn’t even be bothered to talk about what it was like to work among the Congressmen whose votes they were aggregating and analyzing.

Those of us looking for political science solutions around specific environmental problems, should also consider the significance field work. “Governance” puts a charmingly technical and abstract common term on a wide set of of problems. But just as the geological context of the problem may be “radically individual” in nature and thus only interpretable comparatively, so may the political or “governance” problem. And particularly when these political and geological (and biological and economic) problems are linked together, understanding of the problem(s) and solution(s) must start out in the field, even at the sacrifice of rigor and formalization.



Crimea: Enter the Game Theorists (Late)

“How about a nice game of chess?”

I’ve seen a couple of articles now on how we should view Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea through a game theoretic lens. The articles which appeared in the New York Times and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which suggest that unfolding events should be understood and managed as stemming from rational actors in a structured situation, need a word of caution attached to them. In the case of Russia’s actions, game theory is one possible narrative or explanation among many, and not necessarily the one best supported by the facts. And accepting game theory uncritically can be dangerous, as it means uncritically accepting concepts such as “credibility” and “deterence,” which in practice often mean laying out and following through on a sequence of increasingly aggressive actions.

I have no beef with game theory. It can be a very useful analytic and research tool for the social sciences and my current research makes use of a couple of game theoretic models. But I am also very aware of the danger of fitting my preferred policy explanations on the very complex situations I’m studying. Whether my work which hangs a lot on “trust” is falsifiable is something I am currently worrying about. And I have the advantage of studying municipal utilities, so I have thousands of potential cases which I can use to test the veracity of my work.

But here we have only one case. If a game theorist had predicted Moscow’s invasion that would be one thing, my apologies if I missed it, but even the day before predictions of invasion were scarce to be found. Furthermore we have an alternative explanation, a psychological one, that clashes with the rational one offered by the game theorists:

An examination of the seismic events that set off the most threatening East-West confrontation since the Cold War era, based on Mr. Putin’s public remarks and interviews with officials, diplomats and analysts here, suggests that the Kremlin’s strategy emerged haphazardly, even misleadingly, over a tense and momentous week, as an emotional Mr. Putin acted out of what the officials described as a deep sense of betrayal and grievance, especially toward the United States and Europe. –New York Times, March 7, 2014

This second explanation, or narrative, strikes me as closer to the facts. Which doesn’t mean that game theory should be ruled out, just that it should, in the absence of scientific verification, accept its place as a competing explanation for a complex and evolving situation. As such scientific verification is unlikely to come, it is up to Western decisionmakers to use their intuition and judgement to decide how applicable game theory is. It is up to them and their advisors to determine whether Putin is in fact behaving rationally (or more likely, when he is, and when he isn’t), and how Putin defines his interests, his allies interests, and Russia’s interest (and whether they can get him to redefine any of these).

That Dr. Cowen uses the word “lens” in the title of his article suggests that he implicitly gets this. Dr. Milinski gives us a harder line (in German), that it “looks” like Putin must have used cost benefit analysis to decide to hold the Crimea. No, it does not look that way to all observers. And one must be careful because what one sees can be determined by the lens one uses. Until evidence suggest otherwise, we need to make use of all the lenses we have.

Whacky Versus Dull (Fear Dull)

Here’s some crazy art theory that I encountered on a tour of the Lenbachhaus in Munich. It and similar ideas were central to inspiring Kandinsky and his compatriots.

“Blue is the male principle, stern and spiritual. Yellow the female principle, gentle, cheerful and sensual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy and always the colour which must be fought and vanquished by the other two.”

Franz Marc

German Expressionist Painter, 1880-1916


And look what it got us, a blue horse! Why would you think to paint a horse blue? It isn’t exactly intuitive, so as outmoded as the theory is, it did bring us something new, and something we can react to.

Here’s something boring, but far more dangerous, we were exposed to a derivative of this by the EU Commission. Don’t worry, I’m not asking you to make sense of it. Your eyes should glaze over.

“The trilemma more directly relevant to this conference theme is a financial stability trilemma put forward by Dirk Schoenmaker (2008), explaining the incompatibility within the euro zone of a stable financial system, an integrated financial system, and national financial stability policies. By far the most high profile current trilemma, as per some analysts, is the euro-zone trilemma: the seeming irreconcilability between its three wishes: a single currency, minimal fiscal contribution to bail outs, and the ECB’s commitment to low inflation.”
-Inaugural speech by Dr. Duvvuri Subbarao, Governor, Reserve Bank of India.

Confused? I hope so. If the above quote makes much sense at all you probably inhabit a rarefied and abstract world not often visited by human beings. Nevertheless this incredibly convoluted theory, meant to update previous macroeconomic theory for the financial crisis and the situation in the Euro Zone, is being used to justify a series of broad reforms which sound a lot like the reforms that economists always argue for.

We don’t need to trust or believe Marc’s theory, we have a blue horse to react to, and if we’re intrigued we can dig into the theory later. But the EU Commission’s economists, whose canvas consists of 28 member states, 24 languages, 507 million people, and $16 trillion in GDP, just ask us to trust them. Of course we cannot expect them to prove that their plan will work, but a bit of humility would be warranted, as most any theory driving human action is eventually made to look more ridiculous than a blue horse.