Computer science writers wanted

My apologies in advance to the computer science journalists I haven’t found yet, but…

Why is there so little good long-form computer science journalism? (Tech journalism doesn’t count.)

When there’s an interesting development in biology, Ed Yong will explain it beautifully in 4,000 words, or Richard Dawkins in 80,000. Or Carl Zimmer, Jonathan Weiner, David Quammen, etc.

Several others sciences attract plenty of writing talent as well. Physics has Sean CarrollStephen Hawking, Brian Greene, Kip Thorne, Lawrence KraussNeil deGrasse Tyson, etc. Psychology has Steven Pinker, Richard Wiseman, Oliver Sacks, V.S. Ramachandran, etc. Medical science has Atul Gawande, Ben GoldacreSiddhartha Mukherjee, etc.

Computer science has Scott Aaronson (e.g. The Limits of Quantum, The Quest for Randomness), Brian Hayes (e.g. The Invention of Genetic Code, The Easiest Hard Problem), and… who else?

Outside Aaronson and Hayes, I mostly see tech journalism, very brief CS news articles, mediocre CS writing, and occasional CS articles and books from good writers who cover a range of scientific disciplines, such as

Maybe CS is too mathematical to attract general readers? Too abstract? Too dry? Or simply not taught in high school like the other sciences? Or maybe there are problems on the supply side?

Assorted links

  • The Center for Effective Altruism reports on outcomes from their 10+ meetings with UK policymakers so far.
  • Pinker on Ivy League education (very good).
  • A profile of Martine Rothblatt: “Futurist, pharma tycoon, satellite entrepreneur, philosopher. Martine Rothblatt, the highest-paid female executive in America, was born male. But that is far from the thing that defines her. Just ask her wife. Then ask the robot version of her wife.”
  • Okay, good, so I won’t read the new Fukuyama books.

Key Lessons from Lobbying and Policy Change

Lobbying and Policy Change by Baumgartner et al. is the best book on policy change I’ve read. Hat tip to Holden Karnofsky for recommending this and also Poor Economics, the best book on global poverty reduction I’ve read.

LaPC is perhaps the most data-intensive study of “Who wins in Washington and why?” ever conducted, and the data (and many follow-up studies) are available from the UNC project website here. One review summarized the study design like this:

To start, [the researchers] sample from a comprehensive list of House and Senate lobbying disclosure reports to identify a random universe of participants. After initial interviews with their sample population, the authors assemble a list of 98 issues on which each organizational representative had worked most recently [from 1999-2002, i.e. during two Presidents of opposite parties and two Congresses]. These range from patent extension to chiropractic coverage under Medicare, some very broad and some very specific. Interviewers endeavored to determine the relevant sides of each issue and identify its key players. Separate subsequent interviews were then arranged where possible with representatives from each side of the issue…

With this starting point, the researchers followed their sample of issues for several more years to track who got what they wanted and who didn’t.

Note that their issue sampling method favors issues in which Congress was involved, so “issues relating to the judiciary and that are solely agency-related may be undercounted.”

LaPC is a difficult book to summarize, but below is one attempt. Some findings were surprising, others were not.

  1. One of the best predictors of lobbying success is simply whether one is trying to preserve the status quo, and in fact the single most common lobbying goal is to preserve the status quo.
  2. Some issues had as many as 7 sides, but most had just two.
  3. Most lobbying is targeted at a small percentage of issues.
  4. Very few neutral decision-makers are involved. Where government officials are involved, they are almost always actively lobbying for one side or another. 40% of advocates in this study were government officials; only 60% were lobbyists.
  5. Which kinds of groups were represented by the lobbyists? 26% were citizen groups, 21% were trade/business associations, 14% were corporations, 11% were professional associations, 7% were coalitions specific to an issue, 6% were unions, and 6% were think tanks.
  6. The most common lobbying issues were, in descending order: health (21%), environment (13%), transportation (8%), science and technology (7%), finance and commerce (7%), defense (7%), foreign trade (6%), energy (5%), law, crime, and family policy (5%), and education (5%).
  7. When lobbying, it’s better to be wealthy than poor, but there’s only a weak link between resources and policy-change success.
  8. Policy change tends not to be incremental except in a few areas such as the budget. For most issues, a “building tension then sudden substantial change” model predicts best.
  9. There is substantial correlation between electoral change and policy change, and advocates have increasingly focused on electoral efforts.

If you’re interested in this area, the next book to read is probably Godwin et al’s Lobbying and Policymaking, another decade-long study of policymaking that is largely framed as a reply to LaPC, and was recommended by Baumgartner.