On the Facebook Emotion study

July 7, 2014

This is a response to a response. The article I’m responding to is here.

In short, Facebook research recently published a study about manipulating the moods of its users in an experimental setting. It is not clear how much the users were able to consent to the study. Much ink has been spilled over the study and, in particular, the author of the piece I am responding to is worried that the extreme reaction to the Facebook study will result in less openness, not more, from the industrial research community, with teams preferring to keep results internally rather than publishing them. The poster also points out other examples of experimentation, e.g. on Wikipedia, that did not raise so much outrage.

I sympathize with the poster’s point of view, but I must respectfully disagree. I will respond in reverse order. First, as to the point of the other examples: I think user consent is important in ALL situations. A questionable experiment on Wikipedia should get as much criticism as a questionable experiment on Facebook. So the existence of one most certainly does not excuse the existence of the other.

Second, as to the point about the extreme reaction — I believe it was well-warranted. Most users of Facebook, Twitter and similarly-scaled social media sites really do not understand just how much power is concentrated in these sites. As one of my colleagues says, imagine if the US Federal Government asked a sizable fraction of American adults to report their age, gender, relationship status, location, likes, and so on in a centralized repository, and to keep that information up to date. There would be widespread outrage — and yet, that collection is precisely what Facebook has access to. The poster mentions Milgram’s experiments — those, due to logistical limitations, had a sample size in the low hundreds. A social media site has access to hundreds of millions of people and, as Facebook’s study shows, can manipulate their emotions. The implications are truly serious.

In light of these implications, it is natural for companies like Facebook to retreat into the safety of internal studies and never publish any results. It is a natural reaction of a guilty party to deny anything bad happened, downplay its seriousness, and move on. However, this sort of denial does nobody any good: the users continue to be experimented upon without any knowledge; the social media service loses credibility and suffers attrition; the academic community’s reputation is tainted and social science loses research funding that it desperately needs. The way to break out of this vicious cycle is openness and, yes, making mistakes and apologizing for them and suffering the consequences of temporary suspicion. Facebook would be much better off continuing to publish its research, conforming to standards of behavioral experimentation, providing users with the ability to consent, or not, to studies that manipulate their social media experience, and suffering through the growing pains of becoming a trusted social media research institution. The alternative is, as the poster suggests, increased secrecy, lack of oversight, and inevitably, a scandal the size of AOL’s leaked data.

Industrial researchers can do better. We should be willing to expose our world-class science to the rigorous examination of the public and respond to criticism in a mature and responsible way. That is our obligation to the billions of human beings who use our services.

Isla Vista killings

May 30, 2014

I grieve for the victims of the Isla Vista killings. I can only hope that, in time, they will find closure and healing.

I am also angry about the mainstream media narrative that this was yet another killing by a lone gunman with mental health issues. I want to make it clear that I am not downplaying the killer’s mental health problems — from what I’ve read, heard, he had them. At the same time, I feel like the media narrative of this shooting as an isolated incident misses out on the fact that it’s part of a larger pattern of violence perpetrated by men in this country.

There have been some awesome and informative posts on this subject, especially here and here. For a more detailed problem of violence among men, especially young men, see here (Paul Kivel). I am not going to repeat what they say — please follow the links instead! I would like to add my voice on the subject because of my graduate training in sociology and cognitive science; however, I recognize that my voice is privileged (as I myself am a young white male) and there are many different perspectives on this issue.

Now that you’re back (or opened those stories in three other tabs, or just ignored them), here is my take. The epidemic of violent shooting sprees in the US is just one symptom of a larger problem of a culture of violence in the US. We, American citizens, won’t be able to stop or minimize these horrible events without addressing the larger problem. However, a particularly pernicious side effect of the culture of violence is that it makes it difficult to see itself as the real culprit; a necessary first step to addressing the deep issue is recognizing that it exists in the first place.

I am not here talking about conspiracy theories; the NRA, while very powerful and interested in selling guns, is not the villain in this story. Rather, the villains – the participants – are all of us, insofar as we live inside the culture of violence in the first place. Killing, attacking, hurting — especially by privileged groups (like men) over marginalized groups (like women, people of color, trans people, disabled people, etc.) — are so enmeshed in our subconscious that we can’t easily fight it. Our brains recoil from the horror of Isla Vista, but some part of them, I would wager, has become desensitized to these events; it treats them with the same level of alarm as news of a distant storm or an earthquake. Terrible, to be sure, but inevitable.

In fact, weather is a particularly interesting example to use, because, I would argue, the way we react to these killings is the way we react to extreme weather in the context of climate change. Extreme weather events are similarly horrible and violent. They, like mass shootings, are symptoms of a larger problem – a drastically changing climate due to human activity. Furthermore, just as with mass shootings, it is *impossible* to draw a causal link from climate change to a particular hurricane or mudslide. Nevertheless, no matter how good we get at building levies or early warning systems, the extreme weather events will keep taking (ever more!) lives until we deal with the larger problem. Finally, just as with mass shootings, we are so enmeshed in the changing climate – it is literally everywhere, outside – that it’s very hard for us to accept that there’s something wrong with reality most of the time, and it manifests as these occasional catastrophes. It is much easier for our brains to theorize that the real world is fine as it is – after all, we’ve spent so much time adapting to live in it – but occasionally, terrible things happen.

I could go on and on giving examples. The global financial crisis as symptom of extreme income inequality. Terrorism as symptom of imperialism and colonialism. Etc. I am sure there are many esteemed academics who have been / are / will be writing treatises on this issue. I look forward to their research. In the scope of this blog, however, I don’t want to formulate a grand scientific theory. I want to share the concept with a wider audience and hope that it will help us all, slowly, to become aware of and critical of our violent culture. Changing it is the next step, and it will not happen overnight. Only through the concerted effort of all us citizens in a wide variety of causes might the systemic problem finally begin to recede. To stop gunman violence we will have to better educate our kids about privilege. We will have to have more restrictive, and more respectful, rules on gun legislation — rules that make sure gun owners understand they are wielding a deadly weapon and keep such weapons out of the hands of those with a history of violence, drug abuse, and other issues. We will, yes, have to have a better mental health policy and an approach focused on healing and acceptance rather than on exclusion and othering for mentally ill people — but that is only part of the solution. We will also have to promote non-violent, or less-violent art and mass media, so that our movies and our books and our video games are not *mostly* about killing, stealing, and rape, but also about friendship, cooperation, and understanding. The list goes on.

The Isla Vista killer was a sick young man, and, thankfully, most of us will not follow in his path. That does not mean, however, that his actions, his attitude towards women, are not a little reflected in every one of us, especially in the privileged among us. We would do well to remember that, and to try to make a better, less violent, world together.

Update: Shakesville has a great post on misogynist culture and geek guys’ reactions to the Isla Vista killings here. I very much recommend it!

Net Neutrality

May 9, 2014

As I write this, the FCC is considering changing the rules for providing content over the Internet. If the change goes through, data streaming over the Internet will be separated into two streams – “fast lane” and everything else.

In the short term, this change may bring us faster Netflix access and more better high quality TV shows and movies and that will be wonderful. In the long term, this change would set a dangerous precedent – that, at the bits level, content is not just one, homogeneous, thing.

It would be impossible to argue that all information is the same. 2+2 is information. Poems are information. Hate speech is information. It is incumbent upon us as a society with Internet access to help us deal with it — to protect our minors from information that would hurt them (though the scope of such information has been drawn far too wide, in my opinion); to be able to react, and weigh in, and talk to each other about what we see; to support and criticize, publicly and privately, the bits that we encounter.

It is also incumbent upon us to not put locks or gates that bar the spread of information. As innocuous as a “fast lane” decision might appear, it is precisely the first step to such a lock. As soon as we introduce the notion that some information is easier to access, the power structures within our society will seek to relegate undesirable information to ever more-locked, ever more-barred conditions. Environmental websites? Too radical. Christian fundamentalist blocks? Too conservative. News organizations that disagree with the mainstream opinion? Too different, we will say, and we will put up another lock.

That way lies totalitarianism, stagnation, ossification. I sincerely hope we do not go down that path, but instead move away from it — to a world where more people can access more web pages, regardless of race, class, gender, SES, and so on. If my writing on this seems a bit dramatic, that is because this is an issue worthy of drama – information is our currency, our brain-surrogate, our social bonds. We should treat it with the utmost respect. We should nurture its freedom, not lock it away.

I hope the FCC listens to mine and others’ voices and does not go through with its decision. I hope the Net remains Neutral, and free.

PSA: Your Default Narrative Settings Are Not Apolitical

March 25, 2014

Originally posted on shattersnipe: malcontent & rainbows:

Victorian Women SmokingImage taken from tumblr.

Recently, SFF author Tansy Rayner Roberts wrote an excellent post debunking the idea that women did nothing interesting or useful throughout history, and that trying to write fictional stories based on this premise of feminine insignificance is therefore both inaccurate and offensive. To quote:

“History is not a long series of centuries in which men did all the interesting/important things and women stayed home and twiddled their thumbs in between pushing out babies, making soup and dying in childbirth.

History is actually a long series of centuries of men writing down what they thought was important and interesting, and FORGETTING TO WRITE ABOUT WOMEN. It’s also a long series of centuries of women’s work and women’s writing being actively denigrated by men. Writings were destroyed, contributions were downplayed, and women were actively oppressed against, absolutely.

But the forgetting part is vitally important. Most historians and…

View original 2,546 more words

Quick Post on Dylan Farrow

February 7, 2014

This is a short thing. Dylan Farrow recently posted a letter talking about her childhood abuse at the hands of Woody Allen. Since then, there has been no shortage of accounts in mass media questioning Dylan Farrow, rebuking Dylan Farrow, wondering why Dylan Farrow just can’t be quiet already, etc. I think that’s wrong. I stand with Dylan Farrow and I support her for writing that letter, even though I do not know her.

I realize that Woody Allen is a creative person who’s made many movies that are loved by many people. I’m not going to go out of my way to never watch any of his movies — at least not at this stage. I can recognize the influence his movies have made on world cinema without supporting him with words or money. I can praise a work of art and condemn its author for what he did in his personal life.

I believe Dylan Farrow’s words even though Woody Allen has not been convicted of a crime. Those words resonate with me, in a deeply personal way that I would rather not talk about in public space. But even if there were no personal connection, I hope that having read and watched and learned enough about the way our culture treats abusers (when they’re people of power and privilege) vs. the abused (when they’re not), I would believe Dylan Farrow. There are a thousand waves to convince, cajole, threaten, sweet-talk, bribe, persuade the victim that she or he did not suffer, and we use them daily, and it’s terrible that we do that. I believe that if we spent a little more time listening and a little less time judging we would all be better off.

Academics plagiarizing from blog posts: Not Cool!

October 27, 2013

This post is a reaction to a Gradient Lair post, specifically, to the part of the latter, where the author talks about academics plagiarizing hir blog posts.

This is deeply uncool. I have been personally guilty of an attitude that blog posts aren’t “real” academic work, even if they’re published on an academic subject. I have been inspired by ideas on blog posts and not cited them in my papers, and that’s plagiarism, and I apologize and will try to do better in the future. I have also experienced this attitude in my colleagues’ work. Blog posts are just informal exchange, they’re not peer-reviewed, so it’s not really plagiarism… well, it is, and it should stop.

I also want to be aware as I’m writing that I’m doing so from a position of privilege, as an academic. I have a Ph.D., and nobody is going to take it away for this blog post. I don’t think it’s fair that, as the author of the post I linked above writes, academics “cannot make content like mine or speak like me if they want to stay in their programs.” Academia is about freedom of expression. Often, it is about being able to stand up to power and entrenched hierarchy because (ideally, at least) you are working outside of it. So, I am sad that it is happening, and I will contribute what I can to help make it stop – mostly by using my privileged position, when I have the time and energy, to speak honestly about inequality and injustice in my area of study.

A quick note on Syria

September 13, 2013

I just got back from vacation, and am catching up on the Syria news. A piece that has particularly resonated with me is Rep. Grijalva’s, on CNN:


I especially like Rep. Grijalva’s wording that the whole framing of US interventions as precise, limited and strategic is fundamentally flawed. War, in my opinion, is not precise, limited, or strategic, no matter how much the military wants you to believe it. War is messy, and if a nation decides to get into it, it should do so with the understanding that it will be a mess and horrible.

An analogy occurs from aikido. When I see my sensei perform a move, it makes sense to me in my brain. The interaction is, in three words, precise, limited and strategic – the precise use of your opponent’s energy to disable him or her in a strategic way (e.g. getting the gun or knife out of their hands, getting them on the ground) in the most limited way possible (without injury or death). When I get on the mat and try it with my partner, the interaction is messy and confusing. Sure, a lot of that has to do with the difference in our skill levels, I have much to learn in aikido; however, I think that skill disparity doesn’t explain the experiential difference between understanding the move, and doing it. Understanding the move happens in my brain – this center-motion, this footwork, this arm-motion. But doing the move happens in the rest of my body as well as the brain, and it’s in the interaction of two bodies, small, large, wiry, curvy, confused, experienced, where the technique truly happens. The transition from brain-understanding to whole-body-understanding involves confusion, awkwardness, and not infrequently pain.

So it is with war. Planning out strikes and military actions happens in the theater of ideas, clean, precise. Actual engagement of two nations in mass murder happens in the messy, loud, chaotic space of bodies (metal and organic) clashing with bodies. The transition from the strategic space to actual combat involves confusion, hatred, pain, and death.

The messiness of warfare is by no means a new idea, and yet American foreign policy in the last few years seems to have ignored it. I hope that our leaders, present and future, will have the courage to be honest about the military conflicts they plan to engage in, rather than pretending these conflicts are intellectual exercises, with consequences left to the readers – us – to puzzle out.

The Poetry of Chaos

August 12, 2013

I was listening recently to this scene (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YxdH-1VX7VI) from Stephen Sondheim’s Company (yes, I’m linking to the version with Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Colbert; yes, I consider the version with Raul Esparza better; no, that is not the point of this post!), and reflecting on the chaotic interaction between Harry and Sarah. As the scene progresses, Harry and Sarah fight ever more bitterly about each other’s drinking and eating  in a desperate attempt to take their minds off indulging the same. Their dialogue is worthy of a Rossini opera – the husband and wife are constantly interrupting each other, completing and competing with each other’s stories as the scene rises to a half-climax, they give in and have their brandy and brownie, respectively. What struck me about this scene is how Harry and Sarah deal with their desires, their competitiveness, even, perhaps, with their marriage, by constructing such a complex narrative that their feelings disappear within.

Many relationships in Company follow the same pattern. Peter and Susan are the perfect couple, yet they’re breaking up, yet they stay together after the divorce. Marta is rarely pleasant to Robert, but she’s possibly the girlfriend who respects him most. Robert himself both loves and depends on the rest of the characters, tries to emulate them, and yet leaves them at the end of the play. These complexities are part and parcel of human relationships; in a piece like Company, however, they’re more than that – they’re the turning mechanism of the narrative, the conceit that keeps our attention on the piece while subtly revealing the deeper themes of it – friendship, partnership, the back-and-forth tug of our desire for independence and our desire for the company of others.

Watching Company reminded me of a play I saw recently, Distracted. Distracted adopts complexity and embraces chaos to deal with a different, but no less intricate, host of issues – raising children, mental health and our perception of normal behavior, the politics of race, gender and social class in a young family, the implications of using medicine to “cure” the brain. Like Company, Distracted does not shy away from confusing and often contradictory situations in life – is your child acting up, being him or herself, or suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder? Are you the one who decides? Is their doctor? Is their teacher? Instead, the play embraces these situations and emphasizes them by having a few actors play many parts, by breaking the fourth wall and by adding a frenetic, chaotic pace to the action that keeps the viewer on their toes even as it subtly constructs a meaningful narrative about raising kids and human imperfection and love.

It strikes me that a good way to describe contemporary drama and fiction is this embrace of chaos and complexity. Instead of the ancient golden triad – unity of place, unity of time, unity of theme – we get (and maybe, over time, learn to demand) more places, more times, more themes. We read fantasy novels with fifteen-ish primary characters (A Game of Thrones), twelve-ish of whom die off at unpredictable times; we watch shows and play games that defy understanding without a novel-length metatext (Lost, Neon Genesis: Evangelion). We have become obsessed with unraveling a many-dimensional web and staring at a wall of dots looking for patterns until our eyes hurt. This is neither good, nor bad – just like every other way to approach the world before us, and every way going forward, will carry no moral label. It just is. It does feel good, however, to point at the evidence foregoing and claim, aha, This Is What Has Been Going On In Works of Art Since Nineteen Eighty. Until, of course, someone finds a contradiction or a flaw in my argument, and down it goes :)

As a postscript, and because I like Modernism, I would like to draw a contrast between what I see in Company and Distracted and what I see in Modernist pieces like Joyce’s The Dead, Lawrence’s The Fox, some poetry by Ivan Bunin, and other works circa late nineteenth / early twentieth century that revel in detail and complexity. The web of social interactions Joyce writes is no less complex than the one Sondheim writes; however, I think the effect of the former is painting a specific, if massive, picture; the effect of the latter is introducing so much noise that any coherent vision remains at best a subjective interpretation, a partial view. Gabriel in The Dead has an epiphany of sorts – he feels love for his wife, he escapes for a moment the tangled woods of social engagement, he reflects upon mortality in a serene way. Robert in Company may be said to have an epiphany, but the only thing he sees, clearly, is that there is no answer to his dread of commitment (because commitment can be scary and difficult and in the end lead to loneliness and rejection), that there is no clear picture of how one Ought To Have Company (there are millions of candidates, represented by his friends, each equally flawed). One possible reading is that this lack of answer weighs on him so much that Robert kills himself; I prefer to think that Robert chooses to walk out (whether of his apartment, or his life), as a free person who knows, at last, that his fruitless quest for the right answer, the reduction of all this complexity Sondheim has been throwing at us for the last two hours, does not exist.

On the importance of breaks

June 30, 2013

Today was a good day.

I played three matches of Magic: the Gathering today. I didn’t do very well at all, but I had a lot of fun playing the different cards, messing around with combinations, compiling my first true five-color deck in draft. I was with friends and there was laughter and lots of sunlight.

In the evening, instead of doing work or worrying about not doing work, I hung out with my partner and took silly quizzes about the Big Bang Theory. Now I’m about to watch Relic pre-bed, and think about stories.

I borrowed a recent New Yorker and just skimmed. A couple of the poems caught my attention, as did the humor section. I skipped the Serious Articles about Problems Humanity Faces.

I feel refreshed, and relaxed, and more healthy than I felt last week. I feel genuinely happy. I feel creatively refreshed, and most of all, I don’t feel rushed. In my opinion, this is when I do some of my best work.

I am very grateful for the books, TV, music, films, and most of all, people who have taught me the importance of taking time to relax, and let my thoughts settle.

Now, off to watch a movie!

My Lover

February 1, 2013

I think I used to write poetry in metaphor,
Because I did not know how to say what I meant.
It’s easy to hide your feelings
Behind roses and storms,
Underneath hyperboles and references.

Now, I look at my lover and I see her eyes,
Just her eyes, and that word is enough.
I brush my hands through her hair,
I smell her smell, and the perfumes of Arabia
Pale before the simple reality of my sensual experience.

I will strive to write more plainly, now,
And maybe it will be better,
And maybe it will be worse;
But it will certainly be more honest, good and bad,
And less afraid of how I feel.


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