Monthly Archives: February 2016

Exit, Voice, and Presidential Elections

In spring 2003, I was living in Japan.

That’s where I was when the Unites States invaded Iraq for “Operation Iraqi Freedom” as it was colorfully named by my government.

Throughout the months I lived abroad, I tried to keep up on the news from home; daily scouring reports from the U.S., the U.K., and Japan. The flavor of news coming out of each country was markedly different – the U.S. blindly patriotic, the U.K. supportingly reserved, Japan politely disapproving.

The details and word variation between articles told remarkably different stories, and I hoped, I suppose, that by reading multiple accounts I could somehow triangulate the truth.

The news coming out of the U.S. was particularly disturbing.

It was as though the whole nation had gone mad.

Other countries reported stories of schools being bombed by U.S. troops; my country was on some tear about Freedom Fries.

This was in the infancy of the blogosphere, so apart from the few people I kept in touch with over AOL Instant Messenger, my only sense for public opinion back home came from the sycophantic mainstream media. A media which has, in fact, somewhat reformed in recent years in response to its catastrophic failure of that time.

And perhaps this is why I’m inclined to sigh whenever someone declares that they will move to Canada, or, perhaps, the moon, should someone they strongly dislike be elected President.

I heard that a lot when President George W. Bush won reelection, and I’m hearing it a lot now.

It’s hardly a solution.

I hardly mean to imply that the Iraq War would have played out differently had I not been abroad; but it seems fairly certain that such warmongering tendencies would only be worse should all progressives decide to leave.

At the very least – I have to say – let’s not leave the nuclear launch codes behind.

In Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, Albert O. Hirschman outlines the three ways in which a person might interact with an organization, community, or state. As you may have guessed, the options are: exit, voice, and loyalty.

A person might stay loyal to an organization and support it’s views and actions; a person might exit an organization, leaving its undesirable policies in search of greener pastures; or a person might exercise voice: speaking up and fighting to make the organization the way they’d like it to be.

There are, of course, many instances throughout human history where people have been forced to exit for fear of their lives and wellbeing. One report estimates that there are nearly 60 million refugees in the world today. Theirs was not an exit taken lightly.

But the situation in the United States – while disheartening – is hardly so harsh.

I know most people are joking when they speak of plans to move away, and yet – it is a troubling sign of resignation.

We may not be the unparalleled superpower we might fancy ourselves to be, but we are still a nation which wields the potential for great harm or good.

If elections don’t go the way we like, it shouldn’t be cause to flee, but rather a call to action: our voices would be needed more than ever.

The (Re)Emergence of American Hate

A certain presidential candidate, known for his racist, sexist, and otherwise outlandish rhetoric has recently won his third primary.

And if it wasn’t disturbing enough that people in KKK robes showed up to support him at the Nevada primary – an action which may or may not have been a poorly executed protest – one of the country’s most notorious white supremacist leaders unofficially endorsed this candidate today saying that anything other than voting for him was ‘treason to your heritage’.

Now, I have a general policy of not giving space to hate groups – which thrive on the attention generated by their shocking acts, but this is getting too serious to ignore.

But, here’s the thing – it’s not the idea that a particularly distasteful candidate might actually become president that I find so alarming. It’s the fact that he genuinely has so much popular support.

Donald Trump is making it acceptable to be a racist again.

Of course, racism has long been alive and well in this country. It never really died the quiet death we hoped it would. Through the activism of 60s and the “colorblindness” of the 90s, we just shoved it into the closet, hoping it would never spill out again.

In 1925, the KKK had “as many as 4 million members,” a number which shrank dramatically following the civil rights movement. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates the group at 4,000-5,000 members today.

Of course, I still think the number of members is about 4-5 thousand more than I’d hope to see in my country – but that membership become even more disturbing when you consider that there are normative social pressures likely to prevent people from expressing their believes.

That is, our country is full of closeted racists.

Racists who aren’t closeted any more.

Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that 74% of South Carolina Republican primary voters favor “temporarily barring Muslims who are not citizens from entering the United States.”

Furthermore, a recent poll by Public Policy Polling found that in addition to barring Muslims, “31% [of Trump supporters] would support a ban on homosexuals entering the United States as well, something no more than 17% of anyone else’s voters think is a good idea.”

Again, 0% would be a better figure here.

The New York Times also reports that, “Nearly 20 percent of Mr. Trump’s voters disagreed with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in the Southern states during the Civil War.”

This is profoundly disturbing.

I’d almost prefer to blame this all on Donald Trump. If we can only stop him from winning the Presidency, then all our racial problems will be solved.

But here’s the thing: Trump is the symptom, not the disease.

A significant number – a significant number – of white Americans seem ready to re-don their white robes. Americans who otherwise are not entirely unlike myself.

I find that terrifying, and I’m hardly the most at risk.

It is not enough to wave our hands, to hope that the Republican establishment comes through with blocking a Trump nomination. We have to recognize that there is a growing racist sentiment – or, perhaps, a growing willingness to express that sentiment.

My greatest concern is not that Trump will be elected – it’s that even after he is eventually defeated, this profoundly, openly racist faction of Americans will continue to grow.

Dynamics of Online Social Interactions

I had the opportunity today to hear from Chenhao Tan, a Ph.D. Candidate in Computer Science at Cornell University who is looking at the dynamics of online social interactions.

In particular, Tan has done a great deal of work around predicting retweet rates for Twitter messages. That is, given two tweets by the same author on the same topic, can you predict which one will be retweeted more?

Interestingly, such pairs of tweets naturally occur frequently on Twitter. For one 2014 study, Tan was able to identify 11,000 pairs of author and topic controlled tweets with different retweet rates.

Through a computational model comparing words used as well as a number of custom features, such as the “informativeness” of a given tweet, Tan was able to build model which could correctly identify which tweet was more popular.

He even created a fun tool that allows you to input your own tweet text to compare which is more likely to be retweeted more.

From all this Twitter data, Tan was also able to compare the language of “successful” tweets to the tweets drawn from Twitter as a whole; as well as compare how these tweets fit into a given poster’s tone.

Interestingly, Tan found that the best strategy is to “be like the community, be like yourself.” That is – the most successful tweets were not notably divergent from Twitter norms and tended to be in line with the personal style of the original poster.

Tan interpreted this as a positive finding, indicating that a user doesn’t need to do something special in order to “stand out.” But, such a result to also point to Twitter as an insular community – unable to amplify messages which don’t fit the dominant norm.

And this leads to one of Tan’s broader research questions. Studies like his work around Twitter look at micro-level data; examining words and exploring how individual’s minds are changed. But, as Tan pointed out, the work of studying online communities can also be explored from a broader, macro level: what do healthy, online environments look like and how are they maintained?

There is more work to be done on both of these questions, but Tan’s work an intriguing start.

Frontiers of Democracy 2016

Registration has just opened for Frontiers of Democracy 2016.

Hosted by my former colleagues at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, Frontiers annually brings together a diverse group of scholars and practitioners to discuss timely issues in the civic field.

This gathering, which will take place in Boston June 23 – 25, is one of the highlights of my year as people from a range of disciplines come together to share insights, questions, ideas, and advice.

(In full disclosure, I am totally biased in this view as I have done some work helping to organize this conference over the years.)

This year’s conference will focus on “the politics of discontent,” which is define broadly and view in a global perspective. The organizing team is still accepting proposals for interactive “learning exchanges,” which can be submitted online here:

Special guest speakers this year include:

  • Danielle Allen, Harvard University, author of Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (2014)
  • Laura Grattan, Wellesley College, author of Populism’s Power: Radical Grassroots Democracy in America (2016)
  • Joseph Hoereth, Director of the Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement at the University of Illinois at Chicago
  • Helen Landemore, Yale University, author of Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence, and the Rule of the Many (2012)
  • Talmon J. Smith, Tufts ’16, a Huffington Post columnist on political reform
  • Victor Yang, an organizer for the SEIU

Register here and I hope to see you in June!

Hard Work and/or Intelligence

In early 2015, a team of researchers released intriguing findings from their study on gender distributions across academic disciplines.

They were curious why there is so much variation in gender representation across academia – disparity which is far from restricted to the STEM disciplines.

Women make up “approximately half of all Ph.D.’s in molecular biology and neuroscience in the United States, but fewer than 20% of all Ph.D.’s in physics and computer science.” Furthermore, women earn more than 70% of all Ph.D.’s in art history and psychology, but fewer than 35% of all Ph.D.’s in economics and philosophy.

So the problem is not simply one of raw representation.

Trying to get at the root causes of these variations, the team surveyed faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students from 30 disciplines across the United States – asking what qualities it takes to succeed in the respondents field.

Ultimately, they found that “women are underrepresented in fields whose practitioners believe that raw, innate talent is the main requirement for success.”

There is, of course, no reason to believe that women have, on average, less raw talent then men – but rather that women fail to advance in fields where raw talent – rather than hard work – is seen as a key factor for success.

It’s beyond the scope of this study to explain why the “extent to which practitioners of a discipline believe that success depends on sheer brilliance is a strong predictor” of gender representation. Though they do offer a few potential explanations:

The practitioners of disciplines that emphasize raw aptitude may doubt that women possess this sort of aptitude and may therefore exhibit biases against them. The emphasis on raw aptitude may activate the negative stereotypes in women’s own minds, making them vulnerable to stereotype threat. If women internalize the stereotypes, they may also decide that these fields are not for them. As a result of these processes, women may be less represented in “brilliance-required” fields.

In some ways, these explanations evoke the so-called “confidence gap” – the idea that women are more likely to attribute their success to good fortune or especially hard work; not to real achievement.

As the authors of The Confidence Code write, “Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities.”

Perhaps women shy away from these “brilliance-required” disciplines because – regardless of their actual talent – they simply don’t have the confidence required to pursue them.

….Or maybe they get pushed out by overbearing, patriarchal peers.

It’s hard to say. But I’ve been thinking about this 2014 study recently because I’ve found – as a first year Ph.D. student – that I am now constantly attributing my classroom success to hard work.

I’d hardly say that I’m brilliant, but I can work hard and figure stuff out along the way. I’d generally be inclined to attribute that sentiment to my working class background, but it’s interesting to think there may be a gender component there as well.

This all comes, of course, with an important word of caution: Too often, the solution to the confidence gap is seen as somehow “fixing” women – getting them to have the same high levels of confidence as the most self-aggrandizing of their male peers.

This is hardly a solution.

So let me be clear: it is not women who are broken, it’s the academy.

Palimpsestic Time

I learned a great new term today.

I had the opportunity this morning to hear from Northeastern postdoctoral fellow Moya Bailey, who brought up the concept of Palimpsestic Time.

Used largely in the seventh to fifteenth centuries, a palimpsest is a manuscript page “from which the text has been either scraped or washed off so that the page can be reused, for another document.”

In her prose work Palimpsest, early 20th century poet H.D. adopt the term to apply to history.

As scholar Margaret M. Dunn explains in her excellent article on the “Altered Patterns and New Endings” of the works of H.D. and Gertrude Stein:

H.D. had long been fascinated with the idea of the palimpsest, literally a parchment on which earlier writing is partially visible underneath present writing. As a symbol for recurring patterns of human experience, the palimpsest is an image that occurs frequently throughout her work. 

Recurring patterns of human experience.

History isn’t as neatly linear as we might be inclined to make it. We build on the past, but never fully erase it. It’s truth and legacy are always there, bleeding through and affecting the present.

We wipe clean the palimpsest, attempting to reset past norms of gender, race, class, sexuality, identity…

But the palimpsest is a rough tool; the marks of the past always linger. The slate is not so easy to wipe clean.

Mimicking Deliberation

In 1950, pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing described an “imitation game” which has since come to be known as the Turing Test. The test is a game played between three agents: two humans and a computer. Human 1 asks a series of questions; human 2 and the computer respond.

The game: human 1 seeks to correctly identify the human respondent while human 2 and the computer both try to be identified as human.

Turing describes this test in order to answer the questioncan machines think?

The game, he argues, can empirically replace the posed philosophical question. A computer which could successfully be regularly be identified as human based on its command of language would indeed “think” in all practical meanings of the word.

Turing goes on to address the many philosophical, theological, and mathematical objections to his argument – but that is beyond the scope of what I want to write about today.

Regardless of the test’s indication for sentience, it quickly became a sort of gold standard in natural language processing – could we, in fact, build a computer clever enough to win this game?

Winning the game, of course, requires a detailed and nuanced grasp of language. What orders are properly appropriate for words? What elements of a question ought a respondent repeat? How do you introduce new topics or casually refer to past topics? How do you interact naturally, gracefully engaging with your interlocutor?

Let’s not pretend that I’ve fully mastered such social skills.

In this way, designing a Turing-successful machine can be seen as a mirror of ideal speaking. The winner of the Turing game, human or machine, will ultimately be the player who responds most properly – accepting some a nuanced definition of “proper” which incorporates human imperfection.

This makes me wonder – what would a Turing Test look like specifically in the context of political deliberation? That is, how would you program ideal dialogue?

Of course, the definition of ideal dialogue itself is much contested – should each speaker have an exactly measured amount of time? Should turn-taking be intentionally delineated or occur naturally? Must a group come to consensus and make a collective decision? Must there be an absence of conflict or is disagreement a positive signal that differing views are being justly considered?

These questions are richly considered in the deliberation literature, but it takes on a different aspect somehow in the context of the Turing Test.

Part of what makes deliberative norms so tricky is that people are, indeed, so different. A positive, safe, productive environment for one person may make another feel silenced. There are intersecting layers of power and privilege which are impossible to disambiguate.

But programming a computer to deliberate is different. A machine enters a dialogue naively – it has no history, no sense of power nor experience of oppression. It is the perfect blank slate upon which an idealized dialogue model could be placed.

This question is important because when trying to conceive of ideal dialogue run the risk of making a dangerous misstep. In the days when educated white men were the only ones allowed to participate in political dialogue, ideal dialogue was easier. People may have held different views, but they came to the conversation with generally equal levels of power and with similar experiences.

In trying to broaden the definition of ideal dialogue to incorporate the experiences of others who do not fit that mold, we run the risk of considering this “other” as a problematizing force. If we could just make women more like men; if we could make people of color “act white,” then the challenges of diverse deliberation would disappear.

No one would intentionally articulate this view, of course, but there’s a certain subversive stickiness to it which has a way of creeping in to certain models of dialogue. A quiet, underlying assumption that “white” is the norm and all else must change to accommodate that.

Setting out to program a computer changes all that. It’s a dramatic shift of context which belies all norms.

Frankly, I hardly know what an ideal dialogue machine might look like, but – it seems a question worth considering.

Remembering Scalia

When I first heard that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had died I thought I must have misread. A Supreme Court justice passing away unexpectedly on the eve of a particularly volatile Presidential election cycle?

That’s the stuff Aaron Sorkin dramas are made of. Not real life.

This election cycle would make a great Aaron Sorkin drama.

After news of his death, it didn’t take long for the political pageantry to start. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell quickly announced that the next president should appoint Justice Scalia’s replacement.

Supreme Court sessions typically run October – June, so delaying an appointment until after the start of 2017 would almost certainly mean not having a ninth Justice confirmed until the end of the next session.

Of course, President Obama was also quick to act, parrying McConnell’s announcement with his own declaration: I plan to fulfill my constitutional responsibilities to nominate a successor in due time.

If this is an Aaron Sorkin drama, perhaps we can get Edward James Olmos on the bench.

But, political posturing aside, the loss of this conservative giant has raised intriguing questions about the rule of law in a polarized nation and collegiality across political lines.

Justice Scalia had a notoriously positive friendship with liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – so much so that there’s apparently a comic opera about it.

They disagreed ardently, fervently, irrevocably, yet still they found space to genuinely get along.

Ginsburg once explained this friendship, saying, “As annoyed as you might be about his zinging dissent, he’s so utterly charming, so amusing, so sometimes outrageous, you can’t help but say, ‘I’m glad that he’s my friend or he’s my colleague.’ ”

I once has the pleasure of hearing Justice Scalia speak. I utterly disagree with nearly all his opinions, yet I was struck by – what I can only describe as intellectual charisma. He was so bombastic in his beliefs yet well-reasoned in his arguments, it was hard not to pay him some measure of respect.

At the end of his talk, he took questions from the floor. I saw student after student get up with well-prepared questions and commentary ready. Scalia handily took each and every one of them down.

Not through the artful dodging that we’ve grown familiar seeing from politicians, but with clever, sharpened responses and wit. He out-argued them all.

I imagine that arguing with him would be like arguing with Socrates: I myself might be likely to conclude simply stammering, “well, you’re wrong and your stupid,” yet the opportunity to debate might be worthy in itself.

Ginsburg certainly seemed to think so. Possessed, I imagine, with equal skills of argument and rhetoric, Ginsburg once remarked of Scalia:

“My opinion is ever so much better because of his stinging dissent.”

Gender Bias in Open Source

I was trolling for something to write about today when I ran across this article click-bitingly titled “Women are better at coding than men — if they hide their gender.”

The article reports on an interesting, recently released study of Gender Bias in Open Source which looks at “acceptance rates of contributions from men versus women” on GitHub – an online community where users share, collaborate on, and review code in a variety of programming languages.

The study found that “women’s contributions tend to be accepted more often than men’s. However, when a woman’s gender is identifiable, they are rejected more often. Our results suggest that although women on GitHub may be more competent overall, bias against them exists nonetheless.”

This is troubling.

Interestingly, the article I found the study through takes these finding as a sign that women are better at coding than men – even adding the titillating header “the future really is female.

Of course, that’s not an entirely accurate reading of the study. (To be fair, I imagine that the article’s title and quaintly 1950s header image were not selected by the author.)

As the study’s author’s themselves explain, there are many reasons why their analysis may have found women, on average, to be better coders. A key explanation may be what is known as survivorship bias: “as women continue their formal and informal education in computer science, the less competent ones may change fields or otherwise drop out. Then, only more competent women remain by the time they begin to contribute to open source. In contrast, less competent men may continue.”

That is, there’s no secret coding gene that makes women better programmers – rather, it is much harder for a woman to survive in the coding world, and therefore those who do are the best.

This explanation resonates with research done in other fields, and is underscored by a 2013 survey finding that only 11% of open source developers are female.

With that ratio, it would rather be surprising if the average woman did resemble the average man.

The ironic thing is that attention grabbing headlines declaring women better coders – while seemingly feminist in nature – have the unfortunate effect of obfuscating the real barriers to gender parity.

Women aren’t better coders; the women who are allowed to survive as coders are by necessity only the best. They are held to higher standards and constantly forced to the sidelines. In order to simply do the work they love, they are forced – in the words of one study referencing StackOverflow – to participate in a “relatively ‘unhealthy’ community.”

It’s hardly a wonder that women tend to “disengage sooner.”

Learning Styles and Physics (or: Embracing Uncertainty)

Being back in the classroom as a student has given me lots of opportunities to reflect on different learning styles. Or, perhaps, more accurately, on my own learning style.

I tend to give my undergraduate field of physics a lot of credit in developing my academic style –  though, I suppose, it’s equally possible that this happened the other way around: that my initial learning style attracted me to physics in the first place.

But, regardless of the order of these items, I find that I am deeply comfortable with a high level of uncertainty in my learning process.

You can see, perhaps, why I think I may have gotten that from physics. Physics is complex, and messy, and, of course, deeply uncertain.

Most importantly, this uncertainty isn’t a mark of incompleteness or failure. Rather, the uncertainty is an inherent, integral part of the system. There is no Truth, only collections of probabilities.

It’s a feature, not a bug.

I’ve noticed myself frequently taking this approach while learning. I’m taking a fantastic Computer Science class right now for which I would be tempted to flippantly say that I have no idea what is going on.

Like Schrödinger’s cat, that statement is both true an untrue. Until observed directly, it is caught miraculously, simultaneously, equally, in both states.

I have no idea what is going on, but I’m totally keeping up.

And I don’t think it’s simply a matter of confidence – my inability to articulate at which extreme I lie isn’t just a problem of trusting my own talent in this area. While, of course, it’s impossible to fully disambiguate the two, it honestly feels most accurate to embrace both states: I have no idea what is going on, but I am totally keeping up.

While I have only a passing familiarity with the works of pedagogical theory, I don’t recall ever hearing anyone describe education in this way. (Please send me your resources if you have!).

I used to think of learning as an incremental, deliberate process – like climbing a latter or building a staircase. Each step of knowledge brought you a little closer to understanding.

Perhaps this is just the difference of being in a Ph.D. program, but I’ve come to rather think of learning as this:

Knowledge is a hazy, uncertain cloud. The process of learning isn’t simply building “towards” something, but rather it’s the process of coalescing and clarifying that cloud. It’s about feeling around for the edges; finding the shapes and patterns hidden within.

Someone told me recently that physics can learn anything. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do think that there’s something to accepting this state of uncertainty. To be comfortable being lost in foggy haze that you can neither articulate nor truly understand…but to stand in that cloud and find the patience to slowly, incrementally, find meaning in the noise –

Like bring a picture into focus.