Monthly Archives: May 2016


I recently finished reading Voyage to Kazohinia by Hungarian author Szathmári SándorIt’s a great book, and I highly recommend picking up a copy. As it turns out, the full English text is also available online. So you really should go read it.

I have a lot of reflections after reading this striking social satire and expect to be posting more about it throughout the week. But, as a simple start today, I share the concept of kazo.

Kazo is a core element of the novel and, quite frankly, one of those terms that I’m not sure how I’ve managed so long without having in my lexicon.

But, let’s back up a bit.

It is 1935 and the world is on the brink of a second great war. Our hero, whose travel diary we read, is a respectable British Naval officer. While on en route to be stationed aboard the Invincible off the coast of Japan, our intrepid traveler – Gulliver – is shipwrecked and finds himself among a strange people in a strange land.

You have no doubt grasped that this presents an indelible opportunity to satirize western culture, and Kazohinia does not disappoint.

In the land of the Hins – as its people call themselves – Gulliver marvels at the lack of police force:

Human life and freedom seemed to have no protection here, at least until then I had seen no policeman, nowhere was there anybody with pistol or bayonet. How could they sleep at night?

Our hero finds himself similarly confused by the Hins’ inability to differentiate between ‘crime’ and ‘punishment.’ While the proper Englishman tries to explain to a hapless Hins why social order demands that a crime be met with punishment, the Hin simply shakes his head and remarks:

It is not enough that you commit crimes, you even punish as well.

In a discussion about private property, one Hin explains that such a thing cannot exist – the only thing which belongs to a person is their body. Gulliver objects:

There are certain cases when citizens must sacrifice their lives for their country, so at such times the fatherland has our bodies at its disposal. But let us not stray too far from the point. Clothes are private property that other people cannot take away.

While our hero ironically misses the conflict in his statements, he does at first find the Hins to be a near perfect culture.

I may say, it was very strange to my European eyes, seeing this society whose every member was rich without having a single penny. As if the whole society had formed a single household in within which there were no financial problems, no written regulations, no prohibited areas, and no work status problems, but where the members of the family went about freely, helping each other with the housework, and helping themselves from a dish in the middle of the table. I felt a warm, friendly, and intimate atmosphere that I had never before felt among any such people.

And how is this peaceful synchronicity possible? Kazo.

As our author explains:

Kazo is somewhere between chivalry, impartiality, patience, self-respect, and justice. It connotes a general rightful intention but cannot be translated with any of these words…Kazo is a strict mathematical concept for equality of service and counterservice, similar to the principle of action and reaction in physics. If someone who does more strenuous work also eats more, that is kazoo to them. If somebody eats more because his stomach requires it, then that is also kazoo. And if an invalid who does no work wishes to have finer food, then this, too, is kazo.

…The more talented, the stronger, produce more. To us this appears to be an injustice, but to the inhabitants of this land it is as natural as to expect a bigger output with less fuel consumption in the case of a more efficient machine.

Quite simply:

Kazo is pure reason that perceives with mathematical clarity, in a straight line, when and how it must act – so that the individual, through society, reaches the greatest possible well-being and comfort.

You might wonder how such a thing is possible. How could a whole society of people possibly effortlessly coordinate their efforts in such a way?

A Hin has a perfect parable to explain this to us:

There is a species of ant, for instance. If one ant finds honey, it will take its fill. Now, if it meets a companion that has not found honey and is hungry, it will stick its mouth into the other ant’s mouth and thus the full any will transfer honey from itself until each of them is equally satisfied. How does the full any know that the other is more hungry, and how do both know when each of them is as satisfied as the other? …They know because the fuller ant gives honey to the hungrier one, and they will be equally satisfied when they part.

Kazo, then, can perhaps best be described as the natural path towards perfect equilibrium. The ants don’t need to discuss when enough honey has been shared, nor do they need to ‘know’ in our common sense exactly how much to share. They simply do what is right. Naturally. It is kazo.

It is this principle which allows Hin society to function so smoothly. Without government or economy, without wars or hunger. As we’ll see more tomorrow, our hero is impressed, but distraught, by the functionings of the Hins:

It came to light that everything took place entirely without money. Factories turned out goods but nobody received payment. Goods, on the other hand, lay in warehouses for one and all, and indeed everyone took as much as they wished. I could not imagine how maintaining order was possible in this chaos. 


Hiroshima, Apologies, and American Exceptionalism

Tomorrow, Barack Obama will become the first sitting U.S. President to visit Hiroshima since the U.S. B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped 64 kg of uranium-235 over that city, creating a blast equivalent to the detonation of 16 kilotons of TNT.

He is not expected to apologize.

Or, more specifically, he is expected not to apologize. The White House has openly said as much, instead describing how President Obama’s historic trip will “highlight his continued commitment to pursuing the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

The political calculation of not formally apologizing is hardly surprising. On the one hand, the Japanese Times is reporting that most Japanese people don’t expect or need an apology. Whereas, here at home, the resistance against such an apology is clear.  As American Legion National Commander Dale Barnett said in a statement:

We are heartened that the White House promised today that President Obama will not apologize for the bombing of Hiroshima. We share his sorrow for the many innocent civilians who were lost that day. But we temper that sorrow with the joy for the many more American, Allied and Japanese lives that were saved because the war was finally brought to an end in the short aftermath that followed. 

And thus the visit will “honor the memory of all who lost their lives” during the war.

In a news segment the other day, I heard U.S. sentiment on this matter described as a bit of American exceptionalism – we made the best calculation we could and we stand by our decision and our right to have made it.

I rather expect we will never apologize.

As I’ve been thinking about President Obama’s visit this week, I was reminded Akiyuki Nosaka brilliant short story American Hijiki.

Nosaka, whose father died during the 1945 bombing of Kobe and whose sister died of malnutrition following the war’s devastation of Japanese fields and food supplies, wrote passionately about life in post-war Japan. His work captures the shock of defeat and highlights America’s constant, ill-conceived attempts to be good.

The whole story is really worth reading, but I including a notable excerpt below:

In the summer of 1946 we were living in Omiyamachi on the outskirts of Osaka, near a farm – which may have been why our food rations were often late or never came at all. More or less appointing herself to the duty, my sister would go several times a day to look at the blackboard outside the rice store and come back crushed when she found nothing posted. Once, we turned the house upside-down but found only rock salt and baking powder. We were so desperate we dissolved them in water and drank it, but this takes bad, no matter how hungry you are. Just then the barber’s wife, her big, bovine breasts hanging out, came to tell us, “There’s been a delivery. Seven days’ rations!” This was it! I grabbed the bean-paste strainer and started out.

…We all watched as the rice man split open a carton with a big kitchen knife and came out with these little packets wrapped in dazzling red-and-green paper. As if to keep our curiosity in check, he said, “A substitute rice ration – a seven-day supply of chewing gum. That’s what these cartons are.” He pulled out something like a jewel case. This was a three-days’ supply.

I carried off nine of these little boxes, each containing fifty five-stick packs, a week’s rations for the three of us. It was a good, heavy load that had the feel of luxury. “What is it? What is it?” My sister came flying at me and screeching for joy when she heard it was gum. My mother placed a box on the crude, little altar of plain wood. The local carpenter had made it in exchange for the fancy kimono my mother had taken with her when we evacuated the city. She dedicated the gum to my father’s spirit with a ding of the prayer bell, and out joyful little evening repast was under way, each of us peeling his gum wrappers and chewing in silence. At twenty-five sticks each per meal, it would have been exhausting to chew them one at a time. We would through in a new stick whenever the sweetness began to fade. Anyone who saw our mouths working would swear they were stuffed with doughy pastry. Then my sister, holding a brown lump of chewed gum in her fingertips, said, “I guess we have to spit this out when we’re through.” The second I answered, “Sure,” I realized we had to live for seven days on this gum, this stuff that made not the slightest dent in our hunger. Anything is better than nothing, they say, but this anything was our own saliva, and when the hunger pangs attacked again, my eyes filled with tears of anger and self-pity. In the end, I sold it on the black market – which was on the verge of being closed down – an bought some corn flour to keep us from starving. So I have no reason to be bitter. One thing is sure, though: you can’t get full on chewing gum.

American exceptionalism indeed.


Semantic and Epistemic Networks

I am very interested in modeling a person’s network of ideas. What key concepts or values particularly motivate their thinking and how are those ideas connected?

I see this task as being particularly valuable in understanding and improving civil and political discourse. In this model, dialogue can be seen as an informal and iterative process through which people think about how their own ideas are connected, reason with each other about what ideas should be connected, and ultimately revise (or don’t) their way of thinking by adding or removing idea nodes or connections between them.

This concept of knowledge networks – epistemic networks – has been used by David Williamson Shaffer to measure the development of students’ professional knowledge; eg their ability to “think like an engineer” or “think like an urban planner.” More recently, Peter Levine has advanced the use of epistemic networks in “moral mapping” – modeling a person’s values and ways of thinking.

This work has made valuable progress, but a critical question remains: just what is the best way to model a person’s epistemic network? Is there an unbiased way to determine the most critical nodes? Must we rely on a given person’s active reasoning to determine the links? In the case of multi-person exchanges, what determines if two concepts are the “same”? Is semantic similarity sufficient, or must individuals actively discuss and determine that they do each indeed mean the same thing? If you make adjustments to a visualized epistemic network following a discussion, can we distinguish between genuine changes in view from corrections due to accidental omission?

Questions and challenges abound.

But these problems aren’t necessarily insurmountable.

As a starting place, it is helpful to think about semantic networks. In the 1950s, Richard H. Richens original proposed semantic networks as a tool to aid in machine translation.

“I refer now to the construction of an interlingua in which all the structural peculiarities of the base language are removed and we are left with what I shall call a ‘semantic net’ of ‘naked ideas,'” he wrote. “The elements represent things, qualities or relations…A bond points from a thing to its qualities or relations, or from a quality or relation to a further qualification.”

Thus, from its earliest days, semantic networks were seen as somewhat synonymous with epistemic networks: words presumably represent ideas, so it logically follows that a network of words is a network of ideas.

This may well be true, but I find it helpful to separate the two ideas. A semantic network is observed; an epistemic network is inferred.

That is, through any number of advanced Natural Language Processing algorithms, it is essentially possible to feed text into a computer and have it return of network of words which are connected in that text.

You can imagine some simple algorithms for accomplishing this: perhaps two words are connected if they co-occur in the same sentence or paragraph. Removing stop words prevents your retrieved network from being over connected by instances of “the” or “a.” Part-of-speech tagging – a relatively simple task thanks to huge databanks of tagged corpora – can bring an additional level of sophistication. Perhaps we want to know which subjects are connected to which objects. And there are even cooler techniques relying on probabilistic models or projections of the corpus into k-space, where k is the number of unique words.

These models typically assume some type of unobserved data – eg, we observe a list of words and use that to discover the unobserved connections – but colloquially speaking, semantic networks are observed in the sense that they can be drawn out directly from a text. They exist in some indirect but concrete way.

And while it seems fair to assume that words do indeed have meaning, it still takes a bit of a leap to take a semantic network as synonymous with an epistemic network.

Consider an example: if we were to take some great novel and cleverly reduce it to a semantic network, would the resulting network illustrate exactly what the author was intending?

The fact that it’s even worth asking that question to me indicates that the two are not intrinsically one and the same.

Arguably, this is fundementally a matter of degrees. It seems reasonable to say that, unless our algorithm was terribly off, the semantic network can tell us something interesting and worthwhile about the studied text. Yet it seems like a stretch to claim that such a simplistic representation could accurately and fully capture the depth of concepts and connections an author was seeking to convey.

If that were the case, we could study networks instead of reading books and – notably – everyone would agree on their meaning.

A semantic network, then, can be better considered as a representation of an epistemic network. It takes reason and judgement to interpret a semantic network epistemically.

Perhaps it is sufficient to be aware of the gap between these two – to know that interpreting a semantic network epistemically necessarily means introducing bias and methodological subjectivity.

But I wonder if there’s something better we can do to model this distinction – some better way to capture the complex, dynamic, and possibly conflicting essence of a more accurately epistemic network.


Nothing-ing Something

It seems reasonably accepted that a person can like something or dislike something, but is it possible in a most sincere, fundamental way, to nothing something?

To explore this question, we first must understand what it would mean to nothing something – assuming such an action were possible.

At it’s core, nothing-ing something is an active response – just as it requires at least some level of attention to like or dislike something. You can’t nothing something purely by virtue of being unaware of it; you have to observe, process, and actively elect to respond with nothingness.

Perhaps this seems like the worst kind of egoism – to declare your position nothing is to claim yourself free from bias and partiality.

But I would be inclined to take a different view – nothing-ing is rather an expression of humility. It is the act of observing, of accepting an external object as a thing which exists in the world, and of recognizing one’s own inability to sit in judgement of that thing.

In Camus’ An Absurd Reasoning, he ties the state of nothing-ing to the absurd – that distinctive existential Nirvana:

In certain situations, replying “nothing” when asked what one is thinking about may be pretense in a man. Those who are loved are well aware of this. But if that reply is sincere, if it symbolizes that odd state of the soul in which the void becomes eloquent, in which the chain of daily gestures is broken, in which the heart vainly seeks the link that will connect it again, then it is as the first sign of absurdity.

Thus the act of nothing-ing, if genuinely achieved, is a critical step towards embracing the absurd. Camus goes on to clarify what he means by the absurd:

I said that the world is absurd, but I was too hasty. This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment is it all that links them together…This is all I can discern clearly in this measureless universe where my adventure takes place.

Existentialist enlightenment, then, comes from recognizing one’s own wild longing for clarity  in an unreasonable universe – and reconciling the two by nothing-ing; by being comfortable with that absurd reality.

But perhaps it is not possible to nothing.

The Tao Te Ching argues:

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

This chapter seems to imply that nothing-ing may be a valuable route to avoid the ugly and bad – with the worthy sacrifice of the beautiful and good. Yet the seeming contradictions leave one wondering if such a state – even if desirable – is truly attainable.

Learn to act without doing anything, and the ability to nothing is yours.

While the philosophy of Lao Tzu in many ways seems similar to Camus, the above passage perhaps stands in contrast from the latter’s words in The Myth of SisyphusThere is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night.

Rather than avoiding differentiating between good and bad, Camus would have us embrace them both.

I’m not sure, however, the extent to which these ideas conflict. Embracing the absurd means accepting the good and the bad, accepting that – despite our longing otherwise – the world is not reasonable.

Lao Tzu only argues for the necessity of these opposites; that appreciating beauty is the creating of ugly, and we should therefore not be too quick to judge which opposite is good and which opposite bad.

But his words could easily be interpreted as in line with the later thinking of Camus. Perhaps nothing-ing is not the act of responding without bias, indeed it is not a neutral action at all. It is rather the act of appreciating things as they are; beautiful or ugly, good or bad. It is all of it meaningless, all of it absurd.

There is nothing left but – nothing.


On Trolls and Dissenters

Community meetings of all types and topics are frequently endangered by a common complication: that guy.

The person who speaks longer than anyone wants them to, who raises concerns that are unpopular amongst the broader public, or who unfailing uses every public platform as an opportunity to promote their pet issue, whether it is on topic or not.

Many a meeting has been derailed by this character’s irrelevant ravings, and many a community member has been silenced – fearing that if they spoke up they might appear as mad.

But there’s an interesting dilemma in this portrayal: of the many actions, motivations, and outcomes which could be lumped into this category some of them productive and some of them not.

Manin persuasively argues that debate of conflicting views is a necessary condition for successful deliberation – with groups otherwise likely to default towards prevailing norms. Diversity of views is not enough; “disagreement in face-to-face interactions generates psychic discomfort” which groups will avoid given the opportunity.

Good deliberation, then, requires disagreement and debate as a core element – not as something which may arise or not as the context decides.

How, then, can one distinguish the actions of a counter-productive troll and a valuable dissenter? Many times, the unpopular thing needs to be said.

Rachel Barney’s excellent [Aristotle], On Trolling – written, as the name implies, in the spirit of Aristotle, lends some helpful guidance to this question.”Every community of speakers holds certain goods in common, and with them the conversation [dialegesthai] as an end in itself; and the troll is one who seeks to damage it from within.”

The troll, then actively seeks to destroy a community, to set “the community apart from each other” and introduce “strife where before there was scarcely disagreement.”

Barney/Aristotle is careful to note that the troll can be distinguished from the productive dissenter which Manin imagines:

One might wonder whether there is an art of trolling and an excellence; and indeed some say that Socrates was a troll, and so that the good man also trolls. And this is in fact what the troll claims: that he is a gadfly and beneficial, and without him to ‘stir up’ the thread it would become dull and unintelligent. But this is incorrect. For Socrates was speaking frankly when he told the Athenians to care for their souls, rather than money and honors, and showed that they lacked knowledge. And this is not trolling but the contrary, exhortation and truth-telling— even if the citizens get very annoyed. For annoyance results from many kinds of speech; and the peculiarity [idion] of the troll is not annoyance or controversy in general, but confusion and strife among a community who really agree.

Thus the troll takes the guise of a productive dissenter, whom a democratic peoples would do well to embrace, while actually seeking to destroy, not improve, a community through their dissension.

This may be a meaningful epistemic distinction, yet it can be challenging to define in practice. As Manin points out, a “community who really agree” may have simply come to agree through the processes of group dynamics.

Importantly, this type of agreement is not intrinsically related to issues of power and oppression. That is, while one may argue that agreement arrived through coercion is not really agreement at all, Manin is primarily concerned with instances where a group can be genuinely said to agree. The root of this surface agreement may not be coercion at all, but rather an unfortunate result of the fact that individuals tend to be biased and, worse yet, “groups process information in a more biased way than individuals do.”

That is, without some gadfly perturbing the system, groups tend to systematically shift toward consensus, “regardless of the merits of the issue being discussed.”

If we, like Barney/Aristotle, are to take trolling as inherently bad, more productive forms of dissent, exhortation, or truth-telling must then be distinguished. Therefore, following Manin, I’d be inclined to push back on defining a troll as one who sows discord amidst a community which agrees. If agreement was achieved through systematic social processes, perhaps a little discord could be good.

One then might seek to capture trolling through a broader definition of motivation: a troll seeks to destroy while a dissenter seeks to improve.

Importantly, though, destruction is not intrinsically beyond a dissenter’s concern: indeed, a dissenter may seek to break corrupt institutions and social structures. To smash context rather than settle for reformist tinkering, as legal scholar Roberto Unger would say.

More accurately, then, a dissenter can be seen as seeking to improve the human condition, apart from the specific context of political structures, while a troll – like Eris – seeks solely to sow discord.

In his 1992 address to Wroclaw University Václav Havel argues in favor of breathing “something of the dissident experience into practical politics.”

“The politics I refer to here cannot be enshrined in or guaranteed by any law, decree, or declaration,” Havel says. “It cannot be hoped that any single, specific political act might bring it about and achieve it. Only the aim of an ideology can be achieved. The aim of this kind of politics, as I understand it, is never completely attainable because this politics is nothing more than a permanent challenge, a never-ending effort that can only in the best possible case leave behind it a certain trace of goodness.”

This permanent challenge is the noble undertaking of the dissenter, whether in the form of sweeping revolution or more mundane provocations.

In the mundane world of practical politics, then, this leaves us still with the problem: how do we distinguish the permanent challenge of the dissenter from the wanton destruction of the troll?


Social Science that Matters (?)

The social sciences, some would argue, suffer from a ‘soft’ problem.

As Laurence Smith et al. describe in a 2000 article published in the aptly-named, Social Studies of Science, “Dating back at least to the writings of Auguste Comte, it has been thought that the sciences can be arrayed in a hierarchy, with well-developed natural sciences (such as physics) at the pinnacle, the social sciences at the bottom, and the biological sciences occupying an intermediate position.”

This hierarchy indicates somehow the ‘hardness’ or ‘softness’ a discipline. The natural sciences are more purely ‘science;’ more genuinely a description of nature as it is. The social sciences, on the other hand, are ‘softer’ – less predictive, testable, rigorous, or, perhaps, simply more subjective.

It’s generally unclear just what defines the hard/soft hierarchy, but in comparing a number of different definitions, Smith continually found the same thing: physics is the hardest science, sociology is the softest. Chemistry and biology are both well in the ‘hard’ science camp, while the analytic social sciences of psychology and economics skirt the ‘soft’ boundary and approach ‘hard’ territory.

This model makes social science out to be the poor cousin of the more prestigious natural sciences.

Whether you agree with that assessment of the social sciences or not, the inferiority complex and sense of always needed to justify the existence of one’s field effects the way social science is done.

As Danish economist and urban planner Bent Flyvbjerg describes, “inspired by the relative success of the natural sciences in using mathematical and statistical modelling to explain and predict natural phenomena, many social scientists have fallen victim to the following pars pro toto fallacy: If the social sciences would use mathematical and statistical modelling like the natural sciences, then social sciences, too, would become truly scientific.”

This pushes the social sciences down a computational path – a route, Flyvbjerg argues, which leads these otherwise valuable disciplines to produce more and more amounting to less and less.

“The more ‘scientific’ academic economics attempts to become,” he writes, “the less impact academic economists have on practical affairs.”

Furthermore, the whole attempt is foolhardy. As Flyvbjerg argues in Making Social Science Matter, “social science never has been, and probably never will be, able to develop the type of explanatory and predictive theory that is the ideal and hallmark of natural science.”

In emulating the computational and analytical approaches of the ‘hard’ sciences, social science aims to be something it is not and looses itself in the process.

As an (aspiring) computational social scientist, this argument seems like something worth thinking about.

Perhaps Flyvbjerg is too quick to write off the value of statistical approaches in social science, but nonetheless I find he has a compelling point.

Rather than trying to capture the episteme of natural sciences, Flyvbjerg argues the social science would do better to embrace phronesis. As he explains:

“In Aristotle’s words phronesis is a ‘true state, reasoned, and capable of action with regard to things that are good or bad for man.’ Phronesis goes beyond both analytical, scientific knowledge (episteme) and technical knowledge or know-how (techne) and involves judgements and decisions made in the manner of a virtuoso social and political actor.”

Essentially, social scientists should not obsess with trying to measure and quantify everything, but should rather aim towards the humanist goal of seeking to understand what is good and what is bad.

Perhaps unlike Flyvbjerg, I don’t see an inherent conflict between these aims. I can imagine that amidst the realities of a bureaucratic academy and fervent publish or perish pressures, scholars might find themselves forced along a too narrow path – but I see this as a broader challenge facing academia, not a singular failing of social sciences.

There is, I think, great value in developing computational models for complex social systems; in seeking to quantify and measure numerous facets of human interaction. The failing in this episteme approach comes only when phronesis is ignored completely.

In his own work on urban development, Flyvbjerg has a great saying: power is knowledge.

“Power determines what counts as knowledge, what kind of interpretation attains authority as the dominant interpretation,” he writes in  Rationality and Power. “Power procures the knowledge which supports its purposes, while it ignores or suppresses that knowledge which does not serve it.”

These words come amidst his in-depth account of the bureaucracy and power which continually corrupts an ambitious urban development project in Aalborg. Most notably, this corruption rarely comes in the form of overt suppression, but rather a subtle, persistent distortion of information. “Power often ignores or designs knowledge at its convenience.”

This reality is in sharp contrast to the democratic ideal which “prescribes that first we must know about a problem, then we can decide about it. For example, first the civil servants in the in the administration investigate a policy problem, then they inform their minister, who informs parliament, who decides on the problem. Power is brought to bear on the problem only after we have made ourselves knowledgeable about it.”

Accepting the distorting effect of power, it’s reasonable to be skeptical of computational “knowledge.” In this sense, an episteme approach would only serve to further the interests of power – adding scientific credibility to an already distorted presentation of knowledge.

This is a valid concern, but again I find it to be a question of extremes. All methodological choices have consequences, all findings require interpretation. Understanding that dynamic has more value than walking away.

Power is knowledge isn’t an admonition that knowledge ought to be abandoned all together – rather it is a reminder: knowledge isn’t produced in a vacuum. Power shapes knowledge. Try as you might to be neutral and unbiased, this dynamic is inescapable. The computational social scientist is intrinsically a part of the system they seek to study.


The Bombing of Philadelphia

On May 13, 1985 state police dropped a bomb on 6221 Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia. Eleven people, including five children, were killed. The resulting fire spread to neighborhing houses, destroying 61 homes and leaving nearly 250 people homeless.

This was the day that Philadelphia bombed itself.

In a New York Times article which ran a few days later, area resident Steve Harmon commented ”Drop a bomb on a residential area? I never in my life heard of that. It’s like Vietnam.”

Of course, there’s a dark irony in this shock. Killing civilians? That’s what we’re supposed to do overseas, not to our own people.

The Times similarly reported that onlookers “were shocked by the devastation of an area whose residents –teachers, nurses, civil servants, factory workers — were known for their flower gardens and congenial block parties. Ronald Merriweather, whose home escaped damage, looked at the smouldering ruins of other houses and said, ‘It looks just like a war zone. The neighborhood was here and now it’s gone.’ Families that had evacuated supposedly for a day found themselves refugees…”

The bombing targeted the MOVE, a black liberation group who’d had numerous problems with police and neighbors.  In 1978, police officer James Ramp was killed in a shootout between police and MOVE members. The nine MOVE members later convicted for this murder maintained that Ramp was killed by friendly fire.

Police made the decision to drop a bomb on the residential building following a 90-minute shootout which came after “a week of growing tension between the city and the group, known as Move. Residents in the western Philadelphia neighborhood had complained about the group for years.”

The extent of the devastation came largely because once the fire broke out, officials waited 30 minutes before dispatching fire control teams to respond. They’d been hoping the fire would create an opening in the roof of the MOVE building, through which police planned to drop more tear gas.

In an NPR piece, Sociologist Robin Wagner-Pacifici argued that the bombing of Philadelphia has largely been forgotten for ideological reasons: “MOVE’s quasi-Rastafarian, anti-technology, pro-animal-rights worldview doesn’t neatly fit on any part of the political spectrum, while other militant groups she has studied had some degree of overlap. And you can’t lump MOVE in with other black power movements of the time, either; black radical groups often bristled at their tactics.”

That is, people remember incidents in Waco, Texas and Ruby Ridge, Idaho because those movements fit into a broader narrative – a sort of mainstream extremism.

Of course, the people killed there were also white.

But more broadly, it seems that we quickly forget our own trespasses – abroad and domestically. In 1894, thirty-four people were killed in Chicago when the National Guard was called in to quelled the Pullman Strike. So as appalling as it may sound, it is somehow not surprising that state police in Philadelphia decided to bomb a residential neighborhood some 100 years later.

How little we learn.


It was a very lovely spring day…

Perhaps its because I just spent several hours siting outside reading rather than doing the work I more properly ought to be doing, but all I can think of today is a particularly memorable passage from Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Stein, I feel compelled to add, was raised in my hometown of Oakland, California.

It was a very lovely spring day, Gertrude Stein had been going to the opera every night and going also to the opera in the afternoon and had been otherwise engrossed and it was the period of the final examinations, and there was the examination in William James’s course. She sat down with the examination paper before her and she just could not. She wrote at the top of her paper, Dear Professor James, I am so sorry but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy to-day, and left. 

The next day she had a postal card from William James saying, Dear Miss Stein, I understand perfectly how you feel I often feel like that myself. And underneath it he gave her work the highest mark in his course.


Is Diversity Enough?

I’ve been reading Manin’s critical Democratic Deliberation: Why We Should Promote Debate Rather Than Discussion.

At the core of his argument, Manin complains that liberal theorists traditionally conflate “diversity of views” with “conflicting views.” Holding that a necessary and sufficient condition for good deliberation is “that participants in discussion hold diverse views and articulate a variety of perspectives, reflecting the heterogeneity of their experiences and backgrounds.”

To be clear, Manin isn’t suggesting that diversity of thought isn’t critical to deliberation – rather, he argues, it is not sufficient.

“Diversity of views is not a sufficient condition for deliberation because it may fail to bring into contact opposing views,” he writes. “It is the opposition of views and reasons that is necessary for deliberation, not just their diversity.”

There are many ways in which the mere presence of diversity may not result in the articulation of divergent views. Social psychology research has well documented the challenges of confirmation bias, where people “systematically misperceive and misinterpret evidence that is counter to their preexisting belief.” Or even avoid conflicting evidence all together.

To make matters worse, Manin points to research which further finds that “groups process information in a more biased way than individuals do, preferring information that supports their prior dominant belief to an even greater extent than individual people.”

More broadly, diverse experiences and views may not always translate directly into divergent opinions or perspectives on a given topic. Manin asks us to imagine a community facing a very reasonable and rational fear: say, a serial killer is on the loose. Discussing a proposal to expand police powers at this time of crisis, “the variety of perspectives and dispersion of social knowledge among them will ensure that many arguments, each deriving from the particular perspective, experience, or background of the speaker, are heard in support of expanding the prerogatives to the police.”

That is, the diverse reasons may all support the same view.

And finally, in a large heterogenous society, diverse opinions and experience may become polarized as fragmented, separate communities. That is, “a variety of internally homogeneous communities will coexist, each ignoring the views of the others.”

And, of course, there is the deep problem of power. Divergent perspectives will often go unspoken in situations where one group or groups have been systematically oppressed and silenced. Where even explicit invitations to freely share their views are rightly perceived as hollow or out-right disingenuous. This is a dynamic which John Gaventa documents powerfully in his study of poor, white, coal miners in the Appalachian Valley.

The damaging impact of this dynamic cannot be understated, as Gaventa argues, “power serves to create power. Powerlessness serves to re-enforce powerlessness. Power relationships, once established, are self-sustaining.”

Finally, there is the simple social challenge that “encountering disagreement”, as Manin writes, “generates psychic discomfort.” People don’t really like to argue.

(Of note here, there is little cross-cultural consideration in Manin, so while mainstream America’s distaste for argumentative discourse is well documented in numerous places, I’m not sure how broad a claim this properly ought to be.)

The solution to this seems simple: argue more. Take “deliberate and affirmative measures” to ensure lively debate and critical discussion. Don’t just assume that if diverse people are present, diverse voices will be heard. Seek out divergent views and conflicting arguments. If no one else says them – argue for them yourself.

This last point, I think, is particularly critical in looking at deliberation through a power-lens. If you are a position of power you are responsible for ensuring that diverse view be heard. This can mean working to create a safe space where people genuinely feel welcomed to share their views – or it can mean saying the unpopular thing yourself, putting it out there as a valid idea, worthy of further consideration.


Summer Writing Goals

As a Ph.D. student in the summer, I have, it seems, quite a bit of freedom. I’ll be working, of course, and I have no shortage of things to learn, but I’m faced with a vast expanse of time in which there is much to accomplish but little which is due. My time is my own.

It’s a gift, really, but one which requires some discipline and forethought to accept successfully. I spent much of last week putting together week-by-week learning goals for myself; papers to read, specific topics to study.

Looking through it now, though, I am struck by just how mechanical my goals are; I want to learn specific algorithms and approaches, catch up on specific literatures and authors. These are good and important uses of my time, but it strikes me, too, that something is missing.

I started this blog three years ago in part because – as a generically over-busy employee and adult – I wanted to ensure that I took time out in my life to think. I bunt on a lot of days, to be sure, but nonetheless it seems a worthwhile goal to try to think at least one interesting thought a day.

Perhaps what’s most exciting about the summer, then, is that it’s a time that allows for stepping back to look at the big picture; to remember the broader questions which motivate my work. I have learned a great deal of valuable knowledge in my classes, but they have done little to relieve my Wittgensteinian doubt that people can’t deeply communicate or my Lippmannian skepticism that ‘the people’ aren’t ultimately up to the task of governance. I have found, on the whole, my writing drifting away from questions of justice and equality towards questions of implementation and practicality.

I have written before that my primary motivation comes from the civic studies question: what should we do?  In that sense, it seems fair to say that my attention lately has been focused primarily on the ‘what‘ and the ‘do,‘ while, perhaps, neglecting the ‘should.

This is entirely to be expected, of course – the three elements are equally important but traditionally divorced in the academy. If I were a humanities Ph.D. student I’d no doubt be finding that I focus too much on the should with an unfortunately loss of practicality.

My summer writing goal, then, is to explore this should. I will continue to use the bulk of my time to study more practical topics of implementation, but this blog will be my space to step back and think about the broader questions. That’s what I want to make time for.

I’ll also keep writing, of course, about whatever random facts or interesting historical notes come my way. I wouldn’t want to miss out on that.

Broadly, then, and entirely for my own benefit – as this blog unapologetically is – here are just a few of the questions on my mind which I plan to spend some time thinking and writing about this summer:

Power – what is the role of power in the Good Society? How does it shape interactions and experiences? Is it achievable to eliminate power dynamics? Would we want to?

Dialogue – what are the strengths and limitations of dialogue as a tool for the collective work of governance? What institutions ought to be supplemented with public dialogue and when should public dialogue be supplemented by institutions? What are the realities of power dynamics in dialogue? Can they be overcome?

Institutions of democracy – What institutions are vital to democracy? How should they function and what should they accomplish? What institutions detract from democracy?

Historicism and morality – if human institutions and ideals are constantly subject to change, how do we know what is good? What would a continually Good Society look like? How would it change and adapt without simply falling into fads of the day?

Global society – why does it seem that the whole world is going to hell and what do we do about?  What structures and institutions can support the Good Society on a global scale? What are our individual responsibilities as global and local citizens?

Pessimism and skepticism – why hope is not always required. Or warranted.

Divergent views – What does it truly mean to make space for divergent views? How do you distinguish from creating space to consider unpopular opinions and giving a platform to trolls and bigots? Can one be accomplished and the other avoided?

Phronetic and computational social science – what is the role of measurement in social sciences? What does it add? What does it detract? Is social science trying too hard to be ‘science’? What results from seeking predictive social science?