Best iPad Apps for Nerds

Specifically social science nerds, but anyone who likes getting their hands on new information or seeing information in more convenient ways will probably enjoy these. (Selections were chosen based on functionality rather than content–almost all of them use content that’s already available on the web.)

All of them are free or have a free version, consistent with a grad student’s budget (the iPad itself was a very generous graduation present from my parents). They’re posted roughly in order from most to least time that I’ve spent using them over the past week.

1. Flipboard 

Strengths: Hands down my favorite app so far. Allows you to put your favorite RSS feeds into a format that’s a cross between the home page and a newspaper. Some of their ready-made feeds are pretty good (News, The New Yorker).

Weaknesses: I can’t figure out how to get more than two pages (21 feeds) in the main section. Sometimes if I check it at the end of the day it seems not to have posts that I know should be there from what I’ve seen on Twitter (see below).

2. Twitter for iPad 

Strengths: Being able to open tweeted links while also scrolling through my feed has been super convenient. Also, I’ve started following a few feeds in Spanish and Arabic to brush up on my language skills, and if there’s anything I don’t understand I can just click “translate” and voila, it’s there.

Weaknesses: I don’t love the way that the feed just sits in the middle of the screen when you have it in vertical (portrait) orientation. Also if you open up a link on the side, sometimes it doesn’t want to be swiped away.

3. uPad

Strengths: My main complaint about having so many PDF’s to read in school is that you either have to print them out (gasp!) or keep your notes about them in a separate file (or have Adobe Pro, but how many grad students who aren’t design majors have that?). uPad (and another app that I’ve been shown but can remember to get from the app store) allows you to annotate PDF’s as long as they aren’t locked. You can highlight, write with your finger or a stylus, or create a text box for typing. When writing/drawing it has a feature that allows you to do it at a convenient large size on the bottom of the screen but the finished text/graphic is a smaller but readable size on the “page.”

Weaknesses: There are some functionality things that I haven’t quite found out how to do yet but I think it’s just a matter of spending time with the app (or perhaps buying the full version).

4. Stats of the Union 

Strengths: Great visualizations of US health statistics by county.

Weaknesses: There are a few kinks, such as the fact that colors representing low/high are reversed for a couple of indicators). In future versions I’d like to see the ability to overlay/cross tabulate two or more indicators and I would love–love!–if this was made more extensible so that other data could be viewed in the same way.

5. Planetary 

Strengths: A neat visualization tool that allows you to explore your iTunes library as if it were a solar system. As a song plays, it “orbits” the album that it came from. I was glad to hear that this is the first in a planned series of visualization apps.

Weaknesses: If there’s a way to sort by anything other than the usual order of Artist->Album->Song I haven’t found it.

6. WordPress for iPad

Strengths: Allows you to view and edit your blog’s comments and posts from the iPad.

Weaknesses: This app offers no additional functionality over the iPhone app. I started a post on it yesterday, but switched over to my laptop because it just wasn’t convenient to insert pictures or links into the post (using photos already online wouldn’t be to hard to insert into the html, but I’m not really eager to do this on the iPad touch screen).

Overall I would say that the iPad has so far been even more useful than I imagined, and has caused me to interact with web content in new ways. I’m following more RSS feeds in Flipboard than I would usually check online in a day. The most interesting change is that I find myself categorizing Twitter into different categories: I’ll browse through my timeline or look at photos on my phone, but if there’s a link I wait to access it on the iPad. If it’s a link with multiple pages of content or something I want to blog about I wait until I’m on the computer.

Bottom line: it’s great for accessibility and finding cool things that I wouldn’t spend time messing with on the computer, and when school is in session I’ll be a lot more likely to take my iPad to campus than my computer. I still need to find apps that allow me to actually generate new content rather than just access existing stuff, though. Comments/questions/suggestions?

[h/t to Flowing Data for recommending Stats of the Union and Planetary]

Consequences of bin Laden’s Death

Clint Watts over at Selected Wisdom conducted a voluntary (self-selected) response poll shortly after bin Laden’s death asking about likely consequences. He put up the first of the results yesterday:

Here is a graphic representation of the results.  The bottom scale represents the total number of votes for each responses.

Here’s a graphic representation of the four largest groups broken down by percentages for each choice  (Sum of the %’s of each group across all categories equals 100%).   Interesting initial findings in these results are:

  1. Government respondents chose “Status Quo” less than any other group.  Additionally, government respondents were more evenly distributed across all answer choices than any other group.
  2. Academic respondents were highly clustered around “Status Quo” and “Zawahiri takes control of AQ”
  3. Students appear strongly aware of AQAP’s rise.  This may be indicative of how they get their information (Only a hypothesis at this point).
  4. Private sector respondents chose “AQ directed plots increase” at a much higher rate than all other groups.  Private sector voters also selected “AQ fundraising will decrease” at double the rate of any other group.

Tomorrow, I’ll post additional representations of this data.

The first thing that jumped out at me is that “AQ Central plots increase” had NO votes from academics, but was one of the top three responses for the private sector. I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt here and say that private sector folks actually believe this and aren’t giving poll results along lines that will keep them employed–and maybe their beliefs on this question are why they self-selected into the private sector anyway.

When I took the poll it seemed obvious to me that Zawahiri would take control of AQ at least temporarily, since he’s their #2 (whether he can keep the group united or not is an entirely different matter). However, there was little difference in my mind between this answer and “status quo”–in fact there were a lot of answers that fit with my belief about the most probable outcome. But Clint’s a pro so I’m sure he had reasons for asking the questions the way he did–and there’s a lot more good stuff here that he will be expounding on in the coming days, so stay tuned over at his blog.

UPDATE: First saw this on BBC Arabic last night this morning and now that it’s coming from Peter Bergen, it looks like I was wrong: an Egyptian named Saif al-Adel is reportedly now leading al-Qaeda. The FBI has known about this guy for a while.

More on transportation

In the last post we looked at the basic cause of highway traffic, but it’s worth mentioning that there is a converse to this: rail transportation. We have highways all across the country because driving automobiles is popular among Americans, and roads are heavily subsidized by the federal government and thus within the ability of most states to produce. This also means that they tend to get used heavily, causing traffic, accidents, and other headaches.

On the other hand, rail transportation often suffers from a lack of demand (i.e. passengers). It would be a mistake to say (although we hear this often) that Americans have some inherent affinity for gas guzzling SUV’s and hate taking the train. See the post on revealed preferences for why this is inaccurate–without market pricing of these alternatives, we can’t say which is really preferred. What we can say is that, given current transportation infrastructure and population distribution, rail transportation is often inefficient for lots of people. Would I take rail more often if I could? Yes. But “if I could” means having rail lines to the places I like to go. As nice as this would be, rail transportation is only efficient if it goes to the places that lots of people like to go.

Which brings us to another example in Northern California. There has been hubbub for a while about extending BART train directly to the Oakland Airport instead of having to hop off and take a shuttle. While it is a bit of a hassle to make the changeover, I’m not sure that it’s worth $484 million. Nor would I be willing to pay the full price of the rail trip from the current BART stop to the airport if the full cost (over $11) were passed on to me as a consumer. The reason that this is popular with consumers is that the full cost is not passed on to them. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this arrangement–I plan on taking BART at least a few times when I’m in the Bay Area next which–but it’s important to think realistically about costs.

What I really wanted to get to with this post was not the Oakland Airport expansion, but BART’s other end, in the East Bay. This post touches on my earlier point about rail transportation having to go where lots of people want it to go: developers who support BART expansion are arguing about its proposed route. Given the agreements in place, keeping BART along its current 580 route would lead to about 2,500 more units of home construction than taking it into downtown Livermore. However, there are no real “destinations” in Livermore right on 580, so people would have to switch over to vehicles. This really wouldn’t be any different from the Dublin/Pleasanton stop but it’s worth pointing out. Taking BART into downtown Livermore would offer at least a few walkable destinations (I was told last summer that First Street is enjoying a “renaissance”) but even then there isn’t much density in the heart of Livermore. For this route to be efficient you either need more construction of homes so that this becomes a viable option for those who commute westward, or it needs to go where people currently work, which is the laboratories.

This has gotten a bit long-winded and meandering so I should stop. The basic takeaway is that rail suffers from the opposite problem as highways: low demand relative to supply. Proponents of rail point the finger at automobile/highway subsidies for this, and they may be right, but this is the current reality.

I’d welcome comments from anybody who actually pays taxes in California, knows something more about transportation policy, or has a few minutes to humor me with their thoughts.

What causes traffic?

Joe asks, via Twitter, “what causes traffic?” This is exactly the kind of general interest, political question that this blog was made to answer.  Basically, the answer is an issue of low supply and high demand. 

Roads are generally cited as an example of “public goods,” but this is a mistake. A public good is one that is both non-rivalrous (rivalrous meaning, if Joe uses it I can’t, like a burrito) and non-excludable (excludable meaning you can keep people out based on some characteristic; it could be a characteristic they have control over, like deciding to pay or not–a theme park–or one they can’t control–think Augusta golf club or a “whites only” water fountain in the 1950’s American south).

Now without getting too wrapped up in definitions and examples, it should be obvious that roads are neither non-rivalrous nor non-excludable. The 100 or so square feet that Joe’s truck takes up on the 580 can’t be occupied by any other vehicle while he is using it (thus, rivalrous) and there are many ways of excluding vehicles from using the roads, by requiring them to have registrations, inspections, etc.

What does showing that roads are private goods have to do with traffic? Well, it suggests that market-based allocation of road space would be more efficient. You may be thinking of tollways and retorting that the Bay Bridge has a toll and is often crowded. Yes but as far as I know–correct me if I’m wrong–it’s a flat rate. Joe’s question was prompted by the fact that demand for road space fluctuates over time. Market pricing would make high-traffic times more expensive, and would cause people who are unwilling to pay to use alternate routes. This is the same principle that makes evergreen trees more expensive in late November/December and roses cost more on Valentine’s day, although I wouldn’t recommend substituting daisies.

If this theory is correct, traffic would become less of a problem if it were priced according to supply and demand. Unfortunately, no one has been willing to really try it. The closest thing I’ve seen is the I-10 HOV lanes from Houston to Katy: individual drivers have the option to purchase the use of that lane at prices that increase at high traffic times–when they are most desirable. I have yet to see those lanes moving slowly.

As an aside, that other favorite example of public goods, parks, was recently shown to be excludable in London. A better example of a public good would be that joy many of us felt when bin Laden was killed.

And because I couldn’t resist, here’s Cake, “Long Line of Cars”:

Thinking Like a Scientist

One question has stuck with me recently when thinking about ideas of all sorts: How would you know if you were wrong? (I think Karl Smith posted it a while back–not to me–but I can’t find where now.) This question gets at the core of what it means to “do” science. You can’t have scientific debate with non-falsifiable claims. A falsifiable claim is one that could, in theory or reality, be untrue. A claim that is falsifiable can be tested, either in theory or in practice. Claims like “If the South had won the Civil War then WWI would not have happened.” are testable only in theory, with what we call “counterfactuals,” or thought experiments. The claim that “if you jump off that building you will die” is testable in practice, but messy. Andrew Gelman has four points about thinking like a scientist that get at this principle (and a few others):

  1. What’s your evidence?
  2. How does this fit in with what else you know?
  3. What have you found beyond what people thought before?
  4. How did all those smart people who came before get things wrong?

This comes to mind because of the research I’m doing on Mexican drug violence. Several times I’ve run into politicians or law enforcement officials saying that the increase in violence shows that they are succeeding. Now on one hand this makes sense–if the organizations feel threatened or are turning on each other, sure, violence would go up. On the other hand, though, this is a non-falsifiable claim. I want to ask them, “how would you know if you were wrong? Are you saying that if you were failing then violence would be going down?” That seems absurd and none of them would actually own up to that. But making a non-falsifiable argument means you can never be proven wrong, which is great if that’s what you’re into, but that kind of pride comes with lots of costs for our understanding of the world.

The absence (or at least comparative scarcity) of non-falsifiable claims in religion is why it often butts heads with science. Or at least they seem to butt heads, when really they’re probably talking past each other. The ultimate claim of religion, at least as far as I can tell, is for the existence of God. Now this claim may take on particular forms in certain religions that lead to testability (say, whether Jesus actually walked the earth) but on its own the question cannot be answered in this life. You have people who live as if there were no God and others who live as if there is one. The test comes after this life is over.

Addiction in “The English Opium Eater”

I finished The English Opium Eater by Robert Morrison and am ready to discuss–though not satisfactorily answer–the question I posed here. First, a little background. The book is a biography of Thomas De Quincey, the 19th century English author best known for his Confessions of an English Opium Eater. I learned quite a bit about him (such as the fact that he was a friend and admirer of my favorite poet, William Wordsworth, or that De Quincey was actually a laudanum drinker rather than an opium eater) but if you’re interested in De Quincy, Morrison’s biography is not the book I would recommend for further exploration. My expectations were probably unrealistic (I was hoping Morrison would do for opium addiction what Joshua Shenk did for depression in Lincoln’s Melancholy, another recent favorite*) but even so I dislike Morrison’s style: it’s a one-thing-after-another chronology with very little narrative arc, cluttered with far too many minor quotations from primary and secondary sources and very little effort at synthesis.

That being said, there were a handful of passages in its 400-odd pages that can shed some light on the nature of addiction. De Quincey himself asked the question thusly, “How came any reasonable being to subject himself to such a yoke of misery, voluntarily to incur a captivity so service, and knowingly fetter himself with such a seven-fold-chain?” (p. 207, emphasis added) Even De Quincey recognized that his habit was the result of a conscious choice he made, not once, but again and again. If that doesn’t convince you that there’s a behavioral element to addiction, consider the fact that De Quincey’s occasional use of laudanum went on for eight years before he exhibited signs of anything we would recognize as addiction “because he continued to allow ‘sufficient intervals between every indulgence.'” (usually about a week between doses; p. 155)

In a rare example of a passage where Morrison actually gives us some useful information rather than stringing together quotes of other sources, he says:

Opiates are now understood very differently than they were two hundred years ago. In the terminology of De Quincey’s day, he had an opium ‘habit’, not an opium ‘addiction’, for medical professionals did not begin to develop modern ideas of drug addiction until the second half of the nineteenth century. Then, it was a moral issue, a question of character. Today, the moral argument persists, but it is vigorously challenged by those who see addiction as a medical concern, a ‘disease of the brain’ rather than a ‘disease of the will’…. Indeed, so little was known about opiates that De Quincey was regarded as an ‘expert’ on the subject down the nineteenth century and beyond…. (p.162-3)

The lack of medical knowledge allowed De Quincey’s sensational account to take hold as the definitive account of the drug’s effect. Now, his works (he cultivated his public persona as an opium eater and used it to publish additional accounts of his opiate use later in life) are widely recognized as exaggerations but their indirect influence persists as drugs of all sorts are romanticized in popular culture. Many years later, De Quincey seemed to admit the sensationalized nature of his writing when he told a friend, “If… you ever look into my Autobiographical Sketches… bear in mind that I disown them.” (quoted in Morrison, p. 305) It’s just disappointing that Morrison didn’t take De Quincey’s own advice and use his opportunity as a biographer to dig a little deeper.

What does this mean for drug policy in our day? To answer that, we must contrast De Quincey’s time with our own.

“Opium is perhaps the oldest drug known to humankind…. In Britain at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was an unremarkable part of daily life. Highly prized by doctors as an analgesic, it was also used ubiquitously by people of every class and age for self-medication in much the same way as aspirin is used today. It was cheap: people who could not afford ale or spirits could afford the drug. It was legal: there was no effort to restrict its sale until the Pharmacy Act of 1868.” (p. 105-6)

I’m not suggesting that we go back to a time when powerful narcotics were cheap and available on every streetcorner (although I would argue that in some neighborhoods today, they are expensive and available on every streetcorner thanks to the war on drugs, which causes people to turn to cheaper and more dangerous substances like methamphetamines). But I do think it would be helpful if we could de-romanticize drug use so that people can see both its useful pain-alleviating properties when used properly and its dangerous side effects when abused. Portugal decriminalized drugs in 2001 and it seems that usage has actually gone down since then. Overall, my current position on this matter is that we should influence people’s attitudes and behavior with regard to drugs by educating them on the effects of various substances, that punishing actions taken while on drugs rather than use of the substance itself, and that the War on Drugs is a prescription with more harmful side effects than many would care to recognize.


For being the only song I know to mention laudanum, here’s The Decemberists, “The Legionnaire’s Lament”:

*Having gone back and reread Laura Marsh’s review, she says that Morrison’s book is not to be confused with “a work on opium.” My bad. Maybe what I’ll take up next on this question is Theodore Dalrymple’s book Romancing Opiates, a review of which got me interested in the addiction question in the first place.

Starting the Conversation on Addiction

One question that has fascinated students of behavior since well before the advent of contemporary social science concerns the nature of addiction. Is it natural (chemical/genetic) or behavioral? The answer to this question has important implications for both morality and policy, and it’s one that I will likely touch on here from time to time. It’s tangentially related to my research on drug trafficking organizations but I find it interesting for its own sake.

Lately I’ve been reading The English Opium Eater, which was reviewed in The New Republic earlier this year. (More on this to come.) This question has also come up in conversations with some social workers and pharmacists (both students and professionals) that I spend time with. If you ask me, that’s the real way that interdisciplinarity works: when people get together over food and drinks and discuss important issues. The craze of interdisciplinary research for its own sake may have payoffs, but none as good as real stimulating conversation with people whose perspective on the world is fundamentally different from your own.

Basically the positions I’ve encountered on addiction are:

  • It depends on the person (from the social worker, unsurprisingly)
  • It depends on the substance (pharmacists lean this way, again not a shocker)
  • Some combination of the above
I tend to lean toward the third one, but with a bigger dose (no pun intended) of the behavioral explanation than is typically mentioned in current drug policy in the US. 

Effects of Killing bin Laden, Pt. 3

This will be quick because I’m on my way to present my findings on the Mexico project (which I will share more about here after getting some feedback from the workshop today).

1. The Mission – The more details emerge about the mission to kill OBL, the more impressed I am with our Special Operations Forces. Apparently their helicopter wouldn’t take off at the end of the raid, so they had to destroy it and find an alternate route. I’m sure they already had a backup plan or two, but this shows just how far we’ve come in the 30-plus years since the failed raid to recover Iranian hostages. As I note in my research, the specific method of removal (eg shot from a mile away with a sniper rifle or killed up close and personal like this seems to have been) has almost no effect on future levels of violence.

2. The Body – It took almost no time for conspiracy theories to start swirling around this, and it doesn’t help that the body was buried at sea. There is a certain rationale to the whole treating his body respectfully thing, and the not giving terrorists a martyr’s shrine thing, but I think the American people deserve a little more satisfaction than this. Ultimately if jihadists want to visit a site related to bin Laden’s death, they can go to Pakistan and do so, whether his body is there or not. And I can only imagine the way that Saudi Arabia treats the bodies of criminals that it executes in the name of “Islam.” I’ll be interested to see if we do notice an uptick in violence once pictures/videos of his body actually are released.

Discuss in the comments section below.

UPDATE: Andrew Exum echoes my first point (about development of SOF since Desert One) here

Effects of Killing bin Laden, Pt. 2

Since John Sides at The Monkey Cage was so kind as to link to my blog, I thought I had better get a new post up for the anticipated influx of viewers.

To answer the question of what would happen after the removal of bin Laden, I looked at a wide ranging of groups across time and space in an effort to get a generalizable answer. The primary finding that I explore in my paper is that violence seems to decrease after the removal of Tier One leaders and increase after the removal of midlevel leaders. The possible causal mechanisms for this are explained in the paper.

As mentioned before, my prediction for the coming months is this: no significant backlash against citizens in the continental US. Domestically we may see a few lone wolves who take this as a window of opportunity to air their own grievances, and internationally our troops may see sporadic, minor upticks in violence. But no reasonable person expects this to result in another 9/11: make no mistake, killing Osama is a victory.

There is plenty in my paper that can be critiqued, and has already at various conferences. I welcome any additional criticism or remarks here. In an effort to further test my theory, I am also nearly finished with a paper that explores the same question in Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations. So far, the Tier One/Tier Two distinction holds up well.

The ultimate test of my theory will be what happens in the coming months and weeks. Stay tuned.


1. Today’s events notwithstanding, I have great appreciation and respect for the work that John and others do at The Monkey Cage. Many of my favorite political scientists have appeared there. They are in large part the inspiration for this blog. I was happy to read John’s recent article [pdf] about blogging in April’s issue of Political Science and Politics.

2. Standard disclaimer: all views and opinions on this blog and in my paper are my own. The University of Houston, Duke University, and the US Government in any of its agencies, offices, or contracts, are in no way responsible for the content, although I am deeply indebted to my colleagues and advisors for their support and guidance.