Laying the networks bare

social network clip-art
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Unemployed as of last Friday, I find myself with a bit more time to write than usual and a need to keep my programming skills polished. Also, I crave attention. The natural result of all this is that I’ve started my own blog. This post explains the motivation behind it.

The internet, as its name indicates, is a network. So is any ecosystem, be it an entire rainforest or the little park on top of the hill a couple blocks from my apartment. The signaling pathways that produce pain when I cut my finger, the immune and coagulation systems that respond instantly when my skin is pierced, and the neurons in my brain which retain the lesson that thumbtacks are sharp — all of these are networks, too.

And politics is a network. Every individual — every voter, activist, corporation or Senator — forms connections, exchanges information, influences other members of the network. The end result may be a new law, allocation of money, a war; but these results themselves act on the individuals, feeding back into the system and changing it, for good or ill. People die or are born, corporations start up or go bankrupt, mass movements take off or dwindle into history. The whole thing’s a tangle, and it’s easy to despair of ever comprehending how it works.

We can make a start, though. László Barabási mapped out a portion of the internet in 1999 and found that, far from being a random collection of pages and links, a few websites (hubs) had oodles of links pointing to them while most had less than a handful. This scale-free topology, as he called it, turns up all over the place in society: in links between actors and movies (the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game), between your sexual partners and mine (I hope you’re using a condom), and — I’m guessing — between politicians and the companies they patronize.

I’m a relative newcomer to network theory, but like many Americans, I’ve been observing politics for a long time. Since I learn a new discipline best by applying it to a concrete example that I care deeply about, I’ve decided to study computational network theory by applying it specifically to US politics. OpenSecrets.org provides the valuable service of listing, among other things, Congressional members and their donors. I plan to start with a relatively small set — the 100 Senators — and to analyze the links between each of them and their top 20 or so donors. I’ll publish all my raw data, my programs, and my results, and I welcome any helpful criticism and suggestions.

And of course I’ll talk about myself and my opinions, providing plenty of intimate and salacious details, with pictures. This is, after all, a blog.

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