PSA: Your Default Narrative Settings Are Not Apolitical

March 25, 2014

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…

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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 ( 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.

Writing for Pleasure

September 29, 2012

I’ve been writing slowly, but consistently, over the last year. I don’t manage to write every night, and too often a whole week goes by when I haven’t sat down with Scrivener and put fingers to keyboard for pleasure. And yet, it has become a good habit. I sit down, I write words. I close the app and go to bed knowing that I have made some infinitesimal progress on the novel.

It started out as work. My good friend Max gave me one piece of advice when I started on my novel – write every day. Like I’ve said, I don’t exactly write every day, and yet, over the many days I have written, I think I am beginning to understand the spirit of Max’s advice. Make writing a habit.

It wasn’t pleasant at first. I would sit down, and no words would come out. I started forcing words to come out, and they were bad. I wrote things like “And then he did this and it was awesome” just as shorthand to fill in with actual prose, later. Some nights, I spent my half hour / hour deleting what I’d written the previous night. Some nights I would be tired and write complete gibberish, little bits of my subconscious brain on the edge of sleep.

It got better. I am still surprised by how, writing at the smallest scale possible, one character, one word, one sentence, one scene at a time, I started seeing bigger patterns in my novel. Plot threads that I had agonized over resolving fell into place naturally. Now, when I sit down to write, I know that I am going to make progress, even if the total word count goes down (or, alternatively, even if what I add ends up being unusable at the end of the day). Writing in pieces has led to an emergent process of understanding my novel as a whole, of seeing the world that I am building – a world not altogether different from ours, and yet fundamentally new (again, I have to cf a great post by Max, on world-building).

Today something great happened – I am sitting on a train, kinda bored, and I realize I want to write. Writing is a fun thing that I want to do, right now. I am not struck by inspiration, I am not going to madly pen down the idea for some new project – I just want to get some words on screen. I realize, now, that secretly I’ve been a little scared of writing, because I’ve been scared of failing. What if I open up Scrivener, and then I have no idea what to do? What if I look at the page and all my ideas are terrible? Well, I think I’ve come to peace with that. I will write lots of terrible things down. I will write some good things down. And then I will rewrite the terrible ones to make them better, and so on, until I have a novel-sized chunk of pieces that I am satisfied with. And then comes the next step, which is still far away, but not quite so impossible-seeming anymore 🙂

A Brief Note on Laziness

August 27, 2012

This is less of a fully-articulated post and more a note.

I am pretty sure everybody has problems with laziness. We all know the days that get “wasted” browsing random things on the Internet, wandering aimlessly around our workplace (for me, my home office), playing video games instead of eating dinner. I’ve spent my share of time a) having these days, then b) blaming myself for having these days, wasting even more time on guilt. In graduate school, this used to be a real problem. I’m happy to say I’ve gotten over it, though, with the help of three key principles:

1. Forgive. Forgive myself for having a lazy day. Know that they are normal, and happen to everyone.

2. Check in. Lazy days can happen for many reasons. Sometimes, my body (including my brain!) just needs to recharge. This happens pretty regularly for me, and I know it’s not a problem. Sometimes I’m actually sick, but don’t know it yet. In that case, it’s very important have lots of fluids, rest, eat well. A day I spend in recuperation can often ward off a much longer illness. Other times yet, I’re depressed or upset about something, and it’s eating away at me and making me not want to do anything. In that case, I try to reach out to my loved ones and ask for help.

3. Get up. Of course, one lazy day can lead to another and start a bad cycle. The best way to prevent that is to break the cycle. I dig out an old project. I do an errand. I go outside. I change my work environment. All these things help in the gray areas between Something Wrong and Just Resting.

Right now, I am getting over my lazy day by writing a blog post about not being lazy. Kind of meta, I guess 🙂 Ah well. Time to go work!

Re: O’Reilly’s Solving the Wanamaker Problem for Health Care

August 15, 2012

The O’reilly Radar has recently come out with an excellent article about big data and healthcare. The central point of the article is, simply, that we would benefit from a vastly improved health care system if we leverage big data and big data analytics developed over the last decade by large IT companies like Google.

I applaud the Radar for writing a comprehensive article that looks at many aspects of our health care system today, and the many ways that big data can help. However, the scientist in me wishes to point out a number of major inaccuracies in this article, dangerous, as most inaccuracies are, not for the specifics they get wrong, but for the larger, erroneous picture they paint.

First of all, the authors are simply wrong to say “Eventually, we’ll be able to treat 100% of the patients 100% of the time, precisely because we realize that each patient presents a unique problem.” Each patient does present a unique problem, but we do not necessarily know its solution. The compatibility between patient and treatment is determined by an immense number of variables, everything from their gene sequence to what they had for lunch today. At best, we can make probabilistic statements that treatment T will work on patient N with probability P, where P is always < 100%. I will agree that P should go up over time as we learn to profile patients more accurately, but one of the central maxims of machine learning, which the authors invoke several times in the article, is (roughly) that it is impossible to predict a system's behavior with complete certainty without describing it in its entirety. For as long as we cannot do the latter (impossible not only computationally, but also for a host of social and psychological reasons), we cannot hope to do the former.

Secondly, the authors' statement that "with enough data, we can get from correlation to causation" is a manifestation of a dangerous misunderstanding of big data. Data can never explain causation without theory. We can have excellent data about the relationship between a particular set of inputs (genotype, phenotype, environment) and a particular set of outcomes (longevity, treatment effectiveness), but that relationship always remains at the level of correlation or variance-explanation, not causation. For example, let's say we found out that all people over 5'7" benefit from a certain cancer treatment, while all those with a height of 5'7" or less do not benefit from it. An excellent statistical relationship – but it doesn't answer the fundamental question: what is it about height that is conducive to treatment effectiveness in this context? Without theory, we cannot answer that question and risk making erroneous conclusions (often based on incomplete or corrupted data). For example, it might turn out that in our dataset, height correlates perfectly with some gene that we forgot to include in our model – but that in the wider population, the correlation is far below 1.0. We release the treatment to tall people, and find out that it's only effective in 80% of patients. With theory, we can look for more likely explanations of the statistical relationship, and build models that actually explain the underlying cause of effective treatment.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly to me as a sociologist, the authors mention the word "privacy" only once in this article, all the while talking about breaking down silos and combining records. Privacy is not just about preventing scandals or avoiding horrible worst-case scenarios like misuse of information. It is about respecting all parties involved, and is a necessary human component of any good health care system. There is again a wide misconception in the world of big data analytics that privacy is just about satisfying some abstract set of requirements, a set of cryptographic algorithms and best practices that ensure The Bad People don't get access to some subset of data. Privacy is far more than that – it is about treating the patient, the doctor, the insurance agent as people with rights and agencies, not as machines or variables. My colleague Stephen Purpura and his coauthors wrote a brilliant satire of the way we easily forget about privacy in the name of abstraction when designing precisely the kinds of systems O’Reilly et al. discuss. System designers so often blissfully assume that “patients are willing” to endure living in a nightmarish big-brother-like system in the name of a 5% increase in treatment effectiveness, all the while forgetting to ask the patients themselves.

To give an illustration of the kind of world Tim O’Reilly and the other article writers push for, I would like to borrow a thought exercise from another colleague of mine, Marc Smith: imagine you’re at a cocktail party. Somebody offers you a glass of wine. You’re about to pick it up, when your phone buzzes.

“Dear patient,” it informs you in a dry text message, “the optical sensor on your glasses has just relayed information that you are 95% likely to drink another glass of wine tonight. This will be your third glass of wine this evening. We predict that the lasting damage to your liver will decrease life expectancy by 1.2 years. If you do drink this wine, we will be forced to notify your insurance company, which will raise your monthly payment by $33.56 to reflect the long-term cost of treatment for your cirrhosis five years down the road.”

Is it a more efficient world, with fewer deaths and sickness? Absolutely. Is it terrifying? I think so. To close, while I again applaud Tim O’Reilly and his colleagues for writing their piece, I urge the writers (and their readers) to consider the implications of a big-data vision for health care. Without a careful and humanist approach to the overall system of patients, physicians, and providers we risk to trade cost effectiveness and quality of care for the human element of Do No Harm.