Monthly Archives: March 2015

Network Science

I am thrilled to share that I’ve been accepted into Northeastern’s Network Science Ph.D. program, and I will begin there full-time this fall.

As the website describes, this “is a new interdisciplinary program that provides the tools and concepts for understanding the structure and dynamics of networks across diverse domains, such as human behavior, socio-technical infrastructures, or biological agents.”

Networks can be seen and understood in a range of different settings. There’s the network of your Facebook friends, and the network of roads that weave through your town. Networks can be used to understand the spread of disease, the narrative of a story, the development of professional knowledge, or the process of a person’s moral reasoning.

I plan to apply Network Science specifically to political science questions. I’m interested in understanding how individuals interact through a network lens; how institutions interact; how individuals in institutions interact; how local, regional, national, and global levels interact –

I could go on.

I’ve been interested in these questions for a long time. I suppose one of the reasons I’ve pursued an interdisciplinary background – my Bachelor’s is in physics and Japanese, my Master’s in marketing – is because no single field seemed to answer all these questions. Or fully seek to address them.

Most disciplines seem to focus on just one way of looking at the world.

As an undergraduate, my Sociology 101 professor said that sociology is like trying to understand the world by looking down on a bustling street. A psychologist watches individuals, a sociologist watches the crowd.

I’m not sure whether others would agree with that assessment, but it always seemed an excellent argument for why psychologists and sociologists ought not to be siloed.

Both perspectives are crucial.

To me, network science is a step back from that level. It’s about seeking understanding both on an individual and collective level. Seeing how things fit together, how they are connected or not connected. Zooming in to a micro level and zooming out to a macro level.

One could easily argue that this approach is still too limiting. In her recent book, Forms, Caroline Levine uses the techniques of literary analysis to argue that the world can be understood through the colliding of different forms, namely: whole, rhythm, hierarchy, and network. So perhaps “networks” are but one of many forms which can help us understand the world.

But I, at least for the time being, think of all those forms in network terms and I’m eager to explore their colliding.

When you slam particles together, surprising things emerge. And when networks collide the result is no less surprising.

So this is a real thing that is happening. And I’m thrilled and humbled to have the opportunity to explore these questions.

And over the next five years, you all can come along for the ride.

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50 Years from Selma

Just over 50 years ago, a group of 600 civil rights activists were gassed and beaten during a march from Selma to Montgomery.

Where have we gone since then?

John Lewis, who co-chaired the march as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), is now a Congressman for Georgia’s 5th congressional district.

So, there’s that.

Lewis was actually my commencement speaker when I finished my Masters at Emerson college.

I’m pretty sure most people didn’t know who he was.

Some congressman or something?

Meanwhile in Oklahoma, members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity were videotaped jovially singing a shockingly racist song.

Every time I hear SAE officials fervently claim that they denounce such acts, I imagine the follow up to be, “We don’t support this behavior – students shouldn’t be videotaped expressing such things!”

After all, everyone knows you should keep your racist thoughts inside your own head. Letting them out, perhaps, only in the comfort of your own home while wearing a smoking jacket in your study.

Ever since they did away with Whites Only clubs, no public place is safe any more.

….We did do away with those clubs, didn’t we?

I sure hope so, but I wouldn’t be surprised to stumble upon one.

Not in name, of course, but in practice. An establishment with just the right price and just the right attitude to keep unfavorables away. If you know what I mean.

So that’s where we’ve come since Selma.

Someone told me this morning that in the last 40 years, college graduation rates for the lowest income bracket has gone up 2%. From 7% to 9%.

Over those same 40 years, graduation rates for the top income bracket has gone up 20%. From 20% to 40%.

So that’s where we’ve come since Selma.

I wasn’t around in 1965 so I can’t speak to what racism was like then.

I sure hope it’s gotten better.

But I do know it’s gotten more proper.

We – as white society generally – have learned that you can’t be videotaping singing about lynchings and dropping the n-word. That’s not acceptable at all.

In polite society, we just find reasons – simple, explainable, non-racist reasons why the white people are always on top and the black people are always behind.

I recently heard a white woman cut a black woman off mid-sentence. “I don’t mean to interrupt you,” she said…as she continued interrupting.

So that’s where we’ve come since Selma.

I suppose a conversation slight isn’t so bad in the grand scheme of things. I’ve been slighted all time – alas, often by men. But I wondered what was happening in each woman’s head – was I the only one wondering how race was part of the dynamic?

Our country is built on black bodies. Black bodies established our economy, and black bodies ripen our prisons.

It’s not that our society is racist – heavens no, we did away with that in Selma – its just that we don’t have good schools to educate black students, we don’t have kind words to welcome black views, we don’t have the capacity to deal with this messy knot of poverty and violence.

It’s not that we’re racist, we just shoot unarmed black men in the street.

So, that’s where we’ve come since Selma.

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History is Not Static

I had the pleasure this morning of attending the inaugural event of the “Tisch Talks in the Humanities,” an effort in the public humanities which seeks to explore areas of mutual interest to the humanities and the public sphere.

This morning’s talk, Source @Sourcing, featured the work of two Tufts faculty members: Marie-Claire Beaulieu, Assistant Professor, Department of Classics and Jennifer Eyl, Assistant Professor, Department of Religion.

While their work covers different spheres, a common theme emerged from the two talks: ancient text aren’t as static as you might think.

In someways, this is not so surprising – how many times have you heard history conveniently edited as someone earnestly insists, but marriage has always been a monogamous relationship between a man and a woman!

That’s not really true, but it feels like history anyway.

What’s interesting from a classicists perspective is that this processes of reinterpreting is constantly happening – and is constantly being framed, not as an adaptation of the past, but a simple articulation of it.

For example, Eyl, who has studied the writings of the Apostle Paul and who is launching an initiative exploring the language of the Old Testament, pointed out that the idea of “Original Sin” was an invention of Augustine. That understanding is central to how we understand Christianity today, but at the time, it was a reinterpretation of Genesis.

Similarly, in early Biblical writings you won’t find references to Christians as a group – it was only after Christianity grew that the idea of Christians as a collective whole emerged.

But translations of early texts into modern English, bring all these years of subtle understanding and reinterpretation with them.

Beaulieu, meanwhile, shared her work with Tufts’ Project Perseus Digital Library. A rich, annotated, open sources collection of texts, Perseus has many cool features – including the ability to compare the evolution of texts over time.

For example, one Latin text told the first person narrative of a monk who traveled to China. A French translation of that text – framing itself as true to the source material – shifted the story to third person, adjusted some of the details, and added some linguistical flourishes.

That’s not to say the author of the French version intentional altered the translation, but the reality is that as a text goes through translations over time, it is naturally reinterpreted over time, as new authors read through the lens of the sensibilities of the day.

But what is the point of all this?

Well, I suppose, while it’s common to remember that “history is told by the winners,” I think it is also helpful to remember that history is always told by modernity.

In a very literal sense, what happened in the past is static in the past, but in a more practical sense – history is not static. What happened in the past is constantly being reimagined, reinterpreted, and reframed.

We talk about English as a “living language.” Well, I suppose, ideas are growing too. And they constantly shift to fit the needs of the day.

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Never Slight the Stage Hands

Among the many important life lessons my father taught me was to never piss off the stage hands – or really anyone on crew. Lights. Sound. You don’t want to mess with any of that.

This is common advice in the theater, where over-privileged actors have a tendency to incite the ire of the people who actually get stuff done.

That is, some actors make the mistake of thinking the show is all about them. Confident of their right to do whatever they want, they abuse those around them – most notably those at the bottom of the totem poll. The stage hands.

My father had a whole host of stories about actors who were upstaged by slighted stage crew.

My favorite was about an actor playing Martin Luther. When his character received an edict from the Pope condemning his actions, he was supposed to defiantly post the (actually blank) scroll to his church’s door. This all went as planned until, stirred by the actor’s continual mistreatment of the crew…there began to be problems with his props.

One night, as he was about to reveal the typically blank scroll to the audience, the actor was surprised to find himself instead confronted by a simple message:

“F*** you. – The Pope.”

Well, it was written somewhat more colorfully than I’ve put it here.

The actor was able to recover with some dignity – tearing the scroll to shreds rather than revealing it to the audience. But let that be a lesson to you: Never mess with the stage hands.

Of course, the power of vindictiveness ought not to be the thing that keeps you in check.

It is true that you shouldn’t mess with the stage hands because they can mess with you better, but the real lesson was deeper than that.

Actors get all the credit. They get the fame and the glory. But the crew – they’re the ones who deserve the real respect.

They don’t get rich and they don’t get famous, but they get everything done.

No matter who you think you are, you shouldn’t disrespect that.

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Mechanics of Civic Games

After another great weekend of gaming, this time at PAX East, I, of course, have been thinking about what would go into a good civic game.

And just what is a civic game? Others might have different definitions, but I’d be inclined define that broadly as any game that increases a player’s civic skills, knowledge, or values.

And just how does any game increase someone’s skills, knowledge, or values around any topic?

Well, I suppose there are two broad elements which sets a game’s tone and thereby has the potential to impact a player: content and mechanics.

Content is what the game is actually about: are you in space? In the desert? Trying to survive the zombie apocalypse?

Mechanics is how the game actually works: Does the game rely on luck or strategy? Do you play with dice, cards, or other items? How do you interact with other players?

There is as much variety in styles of game mechanics as there is in types of game content.

It seems to me that a common failing of many education games is that they focus on content rather than mechanics – I have this information I want you to learn, and I “gamify” it with some set of game mechanics in the hopes of making learning more fun.

That’s actually kind of a backwards approach. The content of the game is interesting as a one-sentence overview: you are Little Red Riding Hood fighting zombie werewolves with a 9mm – but the mechanics of the game are what you really want to know:

How do I play?

And the mechanics of the game are absolutely critical in setting the tone and feeling of a game. The mechanics are what truly give a game its unique personality.

It’s not uncommon to hear people say, “I love that game, it’s got this really interesting mechanic…”

The mechanics are not an add-on that bring the content to life, the mechanics are the heart of the game itself.

And good mechanics, I think, are where civic games could really excel.

There is, of course, a whole genre of cooperative games – where players work together and either collectively win or collectively loose. There are semi-cooperative games, where players work in teams or form temporary alliances. These games may be inherently civic – forcing players to interact, work together, or perhaps to find mutual ground.

But, I suspect there are many more mechanics which could impart a civic lesson.

Take, for example, Penny Press. The content is simple: each player is a newspaper assigning reporters to stories and periodically going to press.

But the mechanics are great: there are different types of stories, and the public has different interest levels in those stories. If the public’s not interested in political stories, then the wise player won’t cover political stories – they’re not worth as many points.

Furthermore, public interest in a type of story is boosted by how many reporters are covering that type of story. If everybody’s writing about crime, public interest in crime will increase.

Finally, there are the mechanics of going to press itself. Stories are physically different sizes and you have to successfully lay them out within your newspaper. And you lose points if there are holes.

As a player, you find yourself thinking, “well, I don’t really want to cover sports, but…I need that story to make my layout work.” Even in this digital age, it’s not a bad approximation for the real impact of needing to manage resources.

“Newspapers” may be civic content itself, but it’s the game mechanics which really make it work.

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Switching Tracks

So, there’s this thought experiment that drives me crazy.

There’s a train plummeting towards certain doom. Luckily, there’s a track switch you can throw to save the seemingly ill-fated passengers. But just as you’re thinking about doing that, you realize – there is a sole person tied-up, unable to move, on the track you’d be switching the train to.

Saving the lives of dozens on the train means taking the life of the one on the tracks.

The purpose of this thought experiment, I suppose, is to make you think about that age-old question: do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? Is taking one life justified if it means saving more?

Well, I don’t know about anyone else, but I can never get that far in this thought experiment. When challenged with this question all I can think is:

Seriously, have you ever thrown a railroad switch?

I mean, it is hard, man.

To be fair, my experience with trains comes mostly from my childhood – when I spent a great deal of time on a historic 1880s farm – complete with horse-drawn train – thanks to my father’s enthusiasm for trains, history, and building.

I spent a lot of time with trains.

And I’ve switched a lot of track in my day.

Granted, I imagine I’d be somewhat better at it now than as a small child, but let’s be honest – switching tracks is hard work. It takes significant brute force to muscle through the intense, metal-on-rusty-metal action. The gears are always a little worn, a little jammed, a little worse for wear.

There’s no magic switch that just – boom – switches tracks.

You know, the whole drama that led to Casey Jones‘ death was essentially a track-switching problem. It’s a non-trivial issue.

And perhaps philosophy just isn’t a field to be burdened by practicalities. Perhaps the larger thought experiment is more important than the actual details of the problem.

And yet, for a field that struggles to reflect views beyond those of white men, this thought experiment strikes me as indicative of the problem –

The whole question assumes that I have a position of power.

What would I do if I saw a doomed train full of people and a safe track with one lone soul?

Hell, man, it hardly matters – if I can’t muscle the rail switch, I can’t do anything at all.

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Improving the Health of Near Highway Communities

This morning I had the opportunity to attend the release of “Improving the Health of Near-Highway Communities,” a report by the Community Assessment of Freeway Exposure and Health (CAFEH) project.

As those who are local may know, the CAFEH study is a series of community-based participatory research projects about localized pollution near highways and major roadways in the Boston area. The effort is a partnership between several Tufts schools – including Tisch College, where I work – and community organizations.

In fact, part of what’s particularly interesting about CAFEH is that it started when community members from STEP (Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership) approached a Tufts faculty member at the School of Medicine.

Since then, it has grown to a large, multidimensional effort which seeks to quantify the health effects of living near freeways and develop tangible solutions to mitigate those effect.

And if you’re wondering, living near highways is quite bad for your health. Research shows that those who are most exposed to roadway pollution have rates of heart disease and lung cancer that are 50% to 100% higher than people who don’t have that exposure. Lead exposure near McGrath Highway as led to a permanent 8-10 point drop in IQ for children along that corridor.

This is clearly an environmental issue, but it is more importantly an environmental justice issue.

Because who lives near highways?

Poor people.

People who can’t afford to live anywhere else.

And it is these people who are most exposed to ultrafine particles, neurotoxins and other pollutants which are not only an issue outside, but which can actually seep into your home.

But there is some good news in all this. CAFEH researchers as well as a few similar studies around the globe are developing a better understanding of the effect and impact of these ultrafine particles. And they are working hand in hand with policy makers, architects, urban planners, and community members to do something about it.

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Lessons from a Snowy Sidewalk

Is there anything more awkward than trying to navigate snow-narrowed sidewalks?

There probably is, but that definitely ranks in the top ten.

For those of you from more mild climes, the problem, you see, is this: a sidewalk of once predictable width, formerly capable of allowing two strangers to pass unperturbed, now forces a level of intimacy which is most unseemly in many parts of the world.

That is, the side walks are too narrow for two people to pass.

Forced with such a conundrum, the pedestrians options are this: wait, claim the right-of-way, or try to pass anyway.

Waiting might seem like the safe bet, but it is not without risks: for one thing, this approach is untenable if you are in any sort of a hurry. It will take you forever if you are always yielding the right-of-way. For another, you occasionally end up in the awkward wait-off: who will strike out upon the narrow sidewalk first?

And, of course, choosing to wait can be awkward in itself: age, race, and gender norms all come crashing into play as busy pedestrians try to gauge the best way to interact.

I imagine that in Victorian Boston gentlemen always yielded passage to the ladies.

Which, of course, always makes me want grant first passage to the men. (Though I have been known to play the occasional game of narrow side-walk chicken with self-absorbed bros who don’t strike me much as gentlemen.)

Being somewhat old-fashioned, I tend to yield to my seniors – though having heard stories of embarrassment from grandparents who’ve been offered seats on the T, I’m not sure that’s actually the best way to go.

In fact, I’m fairly certain I once caught a look of surprise and distress from a woman who I let pass – I might have well just yelled “old lady!” at her, for all that old-fashioned habit was worth.

If both parties try to pass, that some times works out. Other times…well, I hope you’re okay getting to know strangers.

In the end, I suppose, we all just do the best we can.

I try to yield some of the time, claim the right-of-way some of the time, and only try to pass on walkways that seem like they can handle the two lane traffic. But sometimes I misjudge.

And I try to be equal in the types of people I wait for and the types of people who wait for me.

Sometimes, I misjudge, but overall – it’s like the snowy, narrowed sidewalks are this great equalizer. It doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter where you going. Only one person can go at a time and we all need to treat each other with respect and patience if any of us are ever going to get anywhere.

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Resilience

This morning I ran across an intriguing opinion piece by

In it, Chadburn argues, ” …normalizing the idea that residents in low-income communities can simply bounce back in response to a lack of resources…is handicapping our ability to help those truly in need.”

She recognizes the focus on resilience as an asset-based approach, yet expresses concern that projects which promote resiliency “valorize the idea that we should remain unchanged, unmoved and unaffected by trauma.”

Resilience, she says, is an antonym for broken.

I’m not sure her definition there is accurate, but she’s right to raise concerns about praise for the unbroken – as if all it takes to recover is to pull yourself up by the bootstraps.

Perhaps resilience should be seen more like Kintsugi – the Japanese art of repairing a broken dish with gold lacquer. Perhaps the places where we are broken should not be something to hide, but rather something to cherish.

Or perhaps that, too, puts too much focus on the whole, too much focus on the way things ought to be – and doesn’t pay enough respect to the dreary way things actually are.

I’ve been told that people who make it through difficult and traumatic experiences often do so by developing certain coping mechanisms – mechanism which might serve them well in one context while being entirely socially unacceptable in the next.

Perhaps, then, we should imagine people with resilience not as whole and unscathed, but rather as world-weary warriors, deeply scarred and wounded. Broken, perhaps, but beautiful all the same.

says resilience claims: “I am not broken. I can take more.”

Perhaps we should say: “You can not break me. I’m already broken.”

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