Monthly Archives: December 2015

Madness and Biotypes

There’s an interesting article in the most recent issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry. The study, Identification of Distinct Psychosis Biotypes Using Brain-Based Biomarkers, uses bio-markers to identify “three neurobiologically distinct psychosis biotypes.”

As the researchers explain, clinical diagnoses remain “the primary means for classifying psychoses despite considerable evidence that this method incompletely captures biologically meaningful differentiations.” The study aims to classify psychoses more rigorously and accurately by examining the underlying biological factors.

Researchers recruited individuals who had been diagnosed with some form of psychosis, as well as a comparative “healthy” population. They “collected a large panel of biomarkers of known relevance to psychosis and functional brain activity” and “refined a subset of the biomarker panel that differentiated people with psychosis from healthy persons.” Clustering the relevant biomarkers, researchers found three distinct biotypes (“biologically distinctive phenotypes”).

Interestingly, the three biotypes identified “did not respect clinical diagnosis boundaries.” That is: the biological expression of psychoses differed from their clinical diagnosis, highlighting the need to refine current diagnosis techniques.

However, the clusters did reveal a meaningful lens through which to view psychosis. For example, “the biotypes significantly differed in ratings on the Birchwood Social Functioning Scale, which assesses social engagement, psychosocial independence and competence, and occupational success; biotype 1 showed the most psychosocial impairment, and biotype 3 had the least impairment.”

Particularly interesting are the implications of this work:

The biotype outcome provides proof of concept that structural and functional brain biomarker measures can sort individuals with psychosis into groups that are neurobiologically
distinctive and appear biologically meaningful. These outcomes inspire specific theories that could be fruitfully investigated. First, biotypes 1 and 2 should be of greater interest in familial genetic investigations, while perhaps biotype 3 would bemore informative for explorations of environmental correlates of psychosis risk, spontaneous mutations, and/or epigenetic modifications.

This is fascinating research and certainly worthy of further study, but it also raises the haunting specter of modernity. As Gordon Finlayson describes in Habermas: A Very Short Introduction:

There is a sinister aspect to the assumption that science and rationality serve man’s underlying need to manipulate and control external nature: that domination and mastery are very close cousins of rationality. Not only science and technology, but rationality itself is implicated in domination.

James C. Scott emphasizes the difference between the dangerous ideology of “high modernism” and genuine scientific practice in his excellent book, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.

Unlike true scientific scholarship, high modernism was “a faith that borrowed, as it were, the legitimacy of science and technology. It was, accordingly, uncritical, unskeptical, and thus unscientifically optimist about the possibilities for the comprehensive planning of human settlement and production.”

In short, high modernism is the authoritarian imposition of a planned social order, designed by bureaucrats foolish enough fancy themselves as benevolent conquerors of nature.

To be clear, the study itself is not inherently high modernist. Better understanding and diagnosis of psychosis is a worthy scientific goal. But you’ll forgive me if I’m somewhat weary of the profession which considered homosexuality a mental ailment until the 1970s. Social understandings of “mental health” have long been propped up by the scientific understanding of the day – with the currently scientific research miraculously changing to validate social norms.

Michel Foucault perhaps best documents this phenomenon in Madness and Civilization, a brilliant historical account of “madness” as a social construct which shifts to fit the norms of the day.

Perhaps this seems unlikely in our modern world – surely our modern scientific understanding of biology far out shines the dark, half-science of the middle ages. Finding biological underpinnings of madness, biotypes that reveal psychosis, seems, on its face, reassuring: madness can be rationally explained.

Yet it is exactly that reassurance which ought to give us pause. Perhaps we have only found what we wanted to find – irrefutable proof that the mad are somehow different than the healthy, that there is something fundamentally, biologically, different about “them.” And, of course, it’s the implied outcome which should surely give us pause – if we can define the root of their madness, we can at last fix these poor, broken souls.

The Hollow Men

In 1925, T.S. Eliot, already an established and respected poet, published The Hollow Men.

It was a transitional time the author. Two years later, Eliot – who had been born to a prominent Missouri family and raised in the Unitarian church – would convert to Anglicanism and take British citizenship. A conversion which is reflected in his 1930 poem, Ash Wednesday.

He was in an unhappy marriage. In his sixties, Eliot confessed in a private letter, “To her, the marriage brought no happiness. To me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land.”

Eliot had composed the epic poem largely while on three months enforced bedrest following a nervous breakdown.

It was in that state of mind – post-Waste, as Eliot later described it, yet without the peace he found later in life – that Eliot wrote The Hollow Men.

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!

The poem is full of allusions to hollow men – Guy Fawkes of the infamous Gunpowder treason and plot; Colonel Kurtz, the self-professed demigod of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; Brutus, Cassius, and other men who conspire to take down Julius Caesar; and the many cursed shades who call to Dante as he travels through the afterlife in The Divine Comedy.

Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Ultimately, these hollow men, full of veracity and determination in life; worshipped, perhaps, as gods among men, are nothing. They are only the hollow men, the stuffed men.

In Purgatory, Dante finds such hollow men. “These shades never made a choice regarding their spiritual state during life (neither following nor rebelling against God) instead living solely for themselves.  Neither heaven nor hell will let them past its gates.”

They are remembered – if at all – not as lost,

Violent souls, but only 
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

There is an in-betweenness to their existence, a nothingness far worse than the tortuous circles of hell. They are shape without form; gesture without motion. They are paused, eternally, in that inhalation of oblivion.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

Perhaps we are all hollow men. Perhaps we are all doomed to that empty pause. Perhaps, we, like Fawkes, will be found – seemingly on the eve of our victory – standing guard over our greatest work not yet accomplished.

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Or, perhaps not. Perhaps, as Eliot did himself, we can find new beginnings out of our quiet darkness. As Eliot writes in Ash Wednesday:

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Reclaiming “Citizens”

Like many who work in the civic realm, I use the word “citizens” a lot. Usually with the clarification that I don’t mean the term as a legal status, but rather as a way of describing people who are part of the same community or who live in the same area.

This difference in meaning is significant. To talk about the work of improving communities as relying on the engagement of citizens (of legal status) has wholly different moral and political connotations than seeking the engagement of all citizens (who are connected to a community, regardless of legal status). .

For that reason, many civically-minded organizations have elected to drop or minimize use of the word “citizens.” In my days as a marketer I would have advised them to do so. It’s a bad enough sign if you have to explain a term to your audience, but you definitely don’t want people  to interpret something as exclusive when it is intended to be inclusive. That is not a miscommunication you want to have.

So why persist in using a term that is so widely understood to mean something different than what I mean by it?

First, there’s the poetry of it. “Citizens” is a simple word, and there is no other term that so concisely indicates “people who are part of a community.”

But more importantly, citizens have rights.

Again, this could be interpreted in the legal sense – legal citizens have legal rights – but the word has a broader civic meaning as well.

All people who are part of a community or who are affected by a decision have the right to participate in shaping that community or making that decision. Regardless of legal status, citizens have the right to participate as full members of the community.

I think of this non-legal use of the word “citizens” as a reclamation of sorts, though truth be told the word “citizens” has always been problematic.

It is a word whose function is to divide the haves from the have nots; to indicate who has power, who has the right of full participation. The precise legal and social understanding has changed – “citizens” were once only wealthy white men; our current understanding is only slightly more benevolent.

That’s why it’s so important to reclaim – or perhaps simply claim – this term. All people have rights; all people have the right and responsibility to participate in their communities as citizens.  This right is not bestowed by some legal definition; it is an intrinsic human right.

Until we recognize all our neighbors as true citizens and as equal partners in shaping our communities, we not only impinge upon this important right, we shut out important voices and energy, harming our communities through a narrowed perspective.

Civic Voice and Civic Duty

Earlier this month, the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) and the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC) released research showing that Americans’ volunteering rate remains strong. Over a quarter of U.S. adults volunteered through an organization last year, while nearly two thirds volunteered informally.

This is welcome news, but also disconcerting: recent trends point to steady volunteering rates but drops in other civic activities. A December 2014 report found that “16 of the 20 civic health indicators dropped,” with volunteering as one of the few positive outliers. Collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, civic health indicators cover topics including voting, volunteering, political expression and group membership.

Personally, I am quite concerned about indicators related to civic voice. A 2010 NCOC report found that, among Americans who are not engaged with a community group, less than 15% express their political voice in one or more ways. This number rises significantly for those who are involved in a group (about 40%) and especially for those with a leadership role within a community group (nearly 70%).

But the disparity indicated by these gaps is alarming. Under 10% of the population falls into the category of “leaders,” raising important questions about the socioeconomic and gender disparities represented in that gap.

For example, a 2012 study by my former colleagues at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) looked specifically at the civic lives of young people with no college experience – some of the most underrepresented people in our society.

When one focus group was asked whether they had a voice in their school, they all simply laughed. One young man in Little Rock argued that student voice in school was a myth: “Even when you are class president and school president you still don’t have a say, so … it’s only a show.”

Another student is quoted as saying, “even if you do voice your opinion it won’t do any good—the suits are the ones who are gonna make all the decisions.”

That is deeply problematic for civil society.

Too many people feel as though their voice does not matter, as though their perspectives don’t add to the world.

This is a fallacy. A myth perpetuated by false social standards laying claim to what types of people have value and what types of views have value.

All people have value; all voices matter.

Unfortunately, too many people have been taught that their voices don’t have value – that they would only add to the noise if they ever dared to speak up. Once this message is internalized, the civic silence is hard to break.

But that’s why it’s important to remember – speaking out is not a luxury, its not an activity you do to show off how important you are. It is a civic duty. Sharing your own voice and perspective – particularly for those whose voice and perspective is often overlooked – is critical to transforming the state of civic dialogue. Everyone’s voice needs to be heard.

There’s this great and terrible irony in the world – it’s the people who worry about being rude or incompetent or otherwise being a terrible person who are the least likely to be rude, incompetent or an otherwise terrible person.

The same can be said about civic voice – if you never speak up because you are so convinced that your own voice can’t possibly add value, then you are depriving the rest of us of your wisdom. I know it is awkward, and I know it feels self-aggrandizing, but forget about all that: we need your words and your perspective. It’s a civic duty to share your voice. Really. We can’t tackle the hard problems without you.


Gender Representation in Comic Books

For one of my classes, I have spent this semester cleaning and analyzing data from the Grand Comics Database (GCD) with an eye towards assessing gender representation in English-language superhero comics.

Starting with GCD’s records of over 1.5 million comics from around the world, I identified the 66,000 individual comic book titles that fit my criteria. For each character appearing in those comics, I hand coded the gender for those with a self-identified male or female gender.

From this, I built a bipartite network – comic books on one side and comic book characters on the other. A comic and a character are linked if a character appeared in a comic. The resulting network has around 66,000 comic titles, 10,000 characters, and a total of nearly 300,000 links between the two sides.

From the bipartite network, I examined the projections on to each type of node. For example, the below visualization contains only characters, linking two characters if they appeared in the same issue. Nodes here are colored by publisher:

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 4.05.50 PM

The character network is heavily biased towards men; nearly 75% of the characters are male. Since the dataset includes comics from the 1930s to the present, this imbalance can be better assessed over time. Using the publication year of each comic, we can look at what percentage of all characters in a given year were male or female:

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 4.16.49 PM

While comics were very gender-skewed through the 1970s, in recent years, the balance has gotten a little better, though male character still dominate. If anyone knows what spiked the number of female characters in the early 2000s, please let know. I looked at a couple of things, but couldn’t identify the driving force behind that shift. It’s possible it just represents some inaccuracies in the original data set.

If you prefer, we can also look at the various eras of comics books to see how gender representation changed over time:

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 4.32.29 PM

I was particularly interested in applying a rudimentary version of the Bechdel test to this dataset. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the data to apply the full test, which asks whether two women (i) appear in the same scene, and (ii) talk to each other about (iii) something other than a man. But I could look at raw character counts for the titles in my dataset:

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 4.07.23 PM

I then looked at additional attributes of of those titles which pass the Bechdel test. For example, when were they published? Below are two different ways of bucketing the publication years: first by accepted comic book eras and the second by uniform time blocks. Both approaches show that having two female characters in comic books started out rare but has become more common, coinciding roughly with the overall growth of female representation in comic books.

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 4.38.07 PM

Finally, I could also look at the publishers of these comic books. My own biases gave me a suspicion of what I might find, but rationally I wasn’t at all sure what to expect. But now you can see, Marvel published an overwhelming number of the “Bechdel passed” comics in my dataset.

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 4.43.56 PM

To be fair, this graphic doesn’t account for anything more general about Marvel’s publishing habits. Marvel is known for it’s ensemble casts, for example, so perhaps they have more comics with two women simply because they have more characters in their comics.

This turns out to be partly true, but not quite enough to account for Marvel’s dominance in this area. About half of all comics with more than two characters of any gender are published by Marvel, while DC contributes about a third.

The More Things Change…

When I was in 8th grade, a newly hired teacher came into our classroom after lunch one day and announced that a parent had seen a student throwing rocks at passing cars. The parent wasn’t sure who the student was, so had simply given a description when reporting the matter to the principal.

Someone was in trouble. It just wasn’t clear who.

To deal with the matter, the teacher pulled all the kids fitting the description out of class and sent them to the principal’s office. The students were to remain there until further notice.

To all of us kids, it was clear that this plan was foolish. How would detaining an essentially random group of students really help anything? How did it make any sense to hold a whole group responsible for the actions of one unknown assailant? And furthermore, it was grossly unfair – why punish innocent students for simply looking like someone who misbehaved?

As it turns out, the whole thing was an elaborate set up introducing Japanese internment in the United States.

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, fear of people of Japanese ancestry mounted. Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, head of the Western Command, testified as much to Congress in 1943, saying:

I don’t want any of them (persons of Japanese ancestry) here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty. The west coast contains too many vital installations essential to the defense of the country to allow any Japanese on this coast. … The danger of the Japanese was, and is now – if they are permitted to come back – espionage and sabotage. It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty. … But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map.’

Ultimately, between 1942 and 1946, 120,000 people were forced to relocate to U.S. internment camps “as a result of the military evacuation of the West Coast.” Some 62 percent of those detained were American citizens.

It was a dark chapter in our nation’s history. A moment whose only saving grace was the indelible stain left by these camps, pockmarked across the west. Haunting testaments to the nation we should never let ourselves become again.

I’d like to think that we have all learned something from those darker days. Learned to love our neighbors and to not let fear drive us towards hate. I’d like to think that’d we’ve learned that all people truly are created equal, and are all equally endowed with our most sacred inalienable rights; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


Reflections on a First Semester

As my first semester comes to a close, I’ve been reflecting a lot on my experiences over the past few months.

I have learned so much – though the act of trying to enumerate just what I’ve learned seems far too daunting for today. Learning is a funny thing, you know. The growth that comes from learning is far more than the accumulation of facts. It’s a subtle process that involves slowly acquiring not only facts, but ways of thinking and approaching problems.

David Williamson Shaffer of the University of Wisconsin-Madison writes about this a lot in his work on epistemic frames. Building on the concept of “communities of practices” – spaces where people within a given field share similar approaches – Shaffer describes epistemic frames as “the ways of knowing with associated with particular communities of practice. These frames have a basis in content knowledge, interest, identity, and associated practices, but epistemic frames are more than merely collections of facts, interests, affiliations, and activities…knowing where to begin looking and asking questions, knowing what constitutes appropriate evidence to consider or information to assess, knowing how to go about gathering that evidence, and knowing when to draw a conclusion and/or move on to a different issue.”

So, essentially, over this first semester, I have been learning how to see the world through a particular epistemic frame: learning what questions to ask and what tools to deploy in answering them.

There is, of course, still so much to learn, but I’m walking away from this first semester with critical thinking skills that will serve me well in the years to come.

More important than the facts I studied or the equations I learned, was the constant challenge: what does this mean?

It is not enough to know how to write a program or how to call a function that will do all the hard work for you. (Okay, I’m still learning to do that!) It is great to be able to do those things, but those skills are only valuable if you know what it means – if you understand how the calculation is done and can properly interpret the results. So, that is what I have learned this semester: I have learned to think critically, to question my own intuition as well as the equations that are put in front of me.

And, of course, I have had a ton of fun.

Proprietary Platform Challenges in Big Data Analysis

Today I had the opportunity to attend a great talk by Jürgen Pfeffer, Assistant Research Professor at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science. Pfeffer talked broadly about the methodological challenges of big data, social science research.

Increasingly, he argued, social scientists are reliant on data collected and curated by third party – often private – sources. As researchers, we are less intimately connected with our data, less aware of the biases that went into its collection and cleaning. Rather, in the era of social media and big data, we turn on some magical data source and watch the data flow in.

Take, for instance, Twitter – a platform whose prevalence and open API make it a popular source for scraping big datasets.

In a 2013 paper with Fred Morstatter, Huan Liu, and Kathleen M. Carley, Pfeffer assessed the representativeness of Twitter’s streaming API.  As the authors explain:

The “Twitter Streaming API” is a capability provided by Twitter that allows anyone to retrieve at most a 1% sample of all the data by providing some parameters…The methods that Twitter employs to sample this data is currently unknown.

Using Twitter’s “Firehose” – an expensive service that that allows for 100% access – the researchers compared the data provided by Twitter’s API to representative samples collected from the Firehose.

In news disturbing for computational social scientists everywhere, they found that “the Streaming API performs worse than randomly sampled data…in that case of top hashtag analysis, the Streaming API sometimes reveals negative correlation in the top hashtags, while the randomly sampled data exhibits very high positive correlation with the Firehose data.”

In one particular telling example, the team compared the raw counts from both the API and the Firehose of tweets about “Syria”. The API data shows high initial interest, tapering off around Christmas and seemingly starting to pick up again mid-January. You may be prepared to draw conclusions for this data: people are busy over the holidays, they are not on Twitter or not attentive to international issues at this time. It seems reasonable that there might be a lull.

But the firehouse data tell a different story: the API initially provides a good sample of the full dataset, but then as the API shows declining mentions, the Firehose shows a dramatic rise in mentions.


Rather than indicating a change in user activity, the decline in the streaming data is most likely do to a change in Twitter’s sampling methods. But since neither the methods nor announcements of changes to the methods are publicly available, it’s impossible for a researcher to properly know.

While these results are disconcerting, Pfeffer was quick to point out that all is not lost. Bias in research methods is an old problem; indeed, bias is inherent to the social science process. The real goal isn’t to eradicate all bias, but rather to be aware of its existence and influence. To, as his talk was titled, know your data and know your methods.

Civic Studies and Network Science

I had the delightful opportunity today to return to my former place of employment, Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, for a conversation about civic studies.

The “intellectual component of civic renewal, which is the movement to improve societies by engaging their citizens,” civic studies is the field that set me on this path towards a Ph.D. Civic studies puts citizens (of all legal statuses) at the fore, bringing together facts, values, and strategies to answer the question, “What should we do?

Ultimately, this is the question that I hope to help answer, as a person and as a scholar.

So, perhaps you can appreciate my former colleague’s confusion when they learned that my first semester coursework is in physics and math.

These are not, I suppose, the first fields one thinks of when looking to empower people to improve their communities. I am not convinced that bias is well founded, but irregardless, civic studies did primarily grow out of the social sciences and has its academic home closest to that realm.

So if my interest is in civic studies how did I end up in network science?

I hope to some day have a clear and compelling answer to that question – though it’s complicated by the fact that both fields are new and most people aren’t familiar with either of them.

The most obvious connection between civic studies and network science is around social networks. Civic studies is an inherently social field – as indicated by the “we” in what should we do? Questions of who is connected – and who is not – are critical.

For example, in Doug McAdam’s excellent book Freedom Summer, he documents the critical role of the strong social network of white, northern college students who participated in Freedom Summer. These students brought the problems of Mississippi to attention of the white mainstream, and these students went on to use the organizing skills they learned in the summer of 1964 to fuel the radical movements of the 1960s.

But networks also offer other insight into civic questions. Personally, I am particularly interested in network analysis of deliberation – exploring the exchange of ideas during deliberation and exploring how one’s own network of ideas influences they way draw on supporting arguments.

More broadly, networks can be seen throughout the civic world: not only are there networks of people and ideas, there are networks of institutions, networks of power, and the physical network of spaces that shape our world.

Networks and civics, I think, are closer than one might think.


In positive psychology, there is a concept called “flow” which was created by University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is a state of deep focus, known colloquially as being “in the zone.”

More precisely, Csikszentmihalyi identifies flow by asking, “Do you ever get involved in something so deeply that nothing else seems to matter and you lose track of time?”

Now, being something of a skeptic and contrarian, I’m automatically suspicious of anything that has “positive” in the title. And somewhat similarly, when I first heard about “flow” I thought it was ridiculous. I’m used to the hectic world of working life: managing more tasks than are humanly possible to complete while people constantly interrupt with questions. It’s not orderly, but it’s still possible to get a lot done and finish the day with one’s sanity intact.

I’ve been having a different experience since I started school. I certainly have plenty of work to do, but there are fewer interruptions. I come in, start my work, and don’t move again for hours. I’ve gotten out of the habit of constantly tabbing over to Facebook or email – at the end of the day, I find I have a lot of catching up with the outside world to do.

I have almost missed class or nearly forgotten to go home because I’m so focused on what I’m working on.

I guess this is flow.

Csikszentmihalyi makes the bold claim that “it is the full involvement of flow, rather than happiness, that makes for excellence in life.” I’m hardly ready to go that far, but it’s certainly an interesting state. And there’s something particularly satisfying about accomplishing a task from a state of flow.

But the state is not without it’s drawbacks. Most obvious are the possible health effects: I’ve got from a life of hectic running around to one of entirely sitting. But more fundamentally, I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with the idea of losing time. I don’t want time to simply slip passed me while I focus on my work: I’d rather be aware of each moment.