A few words about my experience at MAPSS, UChicago

July 29, 2014 § 1 Comment

Someone approached me on Twitter a few days ago with some questions about MAPSS. We had a short email exchange recently that I thought I’d share on here in case other incoming MAPSS students are interested in learning about my experience there. This is, obviously, just one anecdote about what MAPSS is like, but hopefully readers can gather some insights to inform their decisions or expectations.

Hi [redacted], 

 
Happy to help answer questions. I’ll take them in turn, below.
 
Firstly, regarding cost: I totally agree with you. It’s an, almost prohibitively, expensive program. I was very naive at the time of application and didn’t really consider that too much. Now I’m glad I went forward with it because my life wouldn’t be the same without the training I received at MAPSS. But if I were faced with the same decision again, and I soberly assessed my probabilities of success, I don’t know if I could make the same call as a rational man. I’m glad I got lucky and fell at the tail end of that probability of success and can now afford to pay my student loans :-).
 
1. If you don’t mind being frank, when and why did you decide not to pursue a PhD? 
 
 I took a couple of the first year PhD courses along with the first year PhD students who were starting in poli sci. It was clear to me right away that these students were better theorists, writers, thinkers than me. They came to MAPSS with better training, had written better undergraduate theses and were way better read than me. I knew I would have to play a lot of catch-up to get to their level, all the while they would be getting even sharper with access to tenured advisors, reading and writing just like I was.
 
One of the first year requirements for poli sci PhDs was a course called “Data Analysis,” which was basically an intro into empirical reasoning. I found myself really enjoying discussions in that class, and we got a quick taste for statistical data analysis. I also talked a lot with my preceptor at that time about taking methods courses. My preceptor was honest about the positive experiences she had in methods courses and about how she was seeing her colleagues who were methodologists really succeed in the field. Combined with seeing what kinds of papers were making it into top journals, being a middle east studies student and not really finding [redacted] or [redacted] that impressive (Lisa Wedeen, unfortunately, was away that semester) and not really being super enthusiastic about writing about civil war and terrorism (that’s what other ME poli sci people were writing about) – I pivoted to methods work.
 
I still ended up writing my thesis about middle east topics, but with more emphasis on statistical methods I used to push forward my argument.
 
2. Did you have a significant quant background before attending MAPSS? I also come from a Poli Sci/Poli Theory background…I was wondering how abrupt and difficult the transition was to more quant-oriented courses. 
 
I had no quantitative background before coming in to MAPSS. I, like a lot of people in the social sciences, never considered myself a “math person.” I attended math camp before classes started and realized that I actually was better at remembering and applying concepts from high school than most of my peers. That was a heartening step, and boosted my confidence to take methods courses. 
 
While taking methods courses I frequented office hours (TA’s and professor’s) often. I also, almost always, completed problem sets as part of a group. I found it really frustrating to run into walls by myself and not know how to move on. But in groups, running into walls seemed less daunting. I’m certain I wouldn’t have been as successful at those problem sets or methods work in general if it wasn’t for classmate, TA and professor support.
 
I also found programing in R and Latex to be a fun exercise. It was my first time working with a low level programming language like R and the syntactical sugar of Latex was a fun challenge to work at. A few of my classmates hated coding, so they had a much harder time finishing problem sets and getting the most out of the course.
 
3. What is your experience of U Chicago’s career services and alumni network? Did you avail yourself of those connections? 
 
I tried to use career services often, especially at the beginning of my time at MAPSS. The designated MAPSS career counselor, [redacted], was helpful but quickly directed me toward the larger career center. They basically sent me off to job fairs, and directed me to job sites like Idealist. Partially my own fault for not being more clear, but I never found career services (at UChicago or my undergraduate institution) to be very helpful. I think if you have a clear idea of what you want (“I want to go to law school” or “I want to be a management consultant”), these types of services can be more useful. 
 
Since I graduated, it seems to me that MAPSS has really gone much further in this area. [Redacted] (current MAPSS career counselor) has organized a lot successful programs (including the one where you caught my talk) and seems to have a much better approach to answering these questions, from what I can gather. 
 
4. What was your time at MAPSS like? Did you involve yourself in extracurriculars at all? Did you socialize a great deal with your MAPSS Cohort?
 
My time at MAPSS was very stressful, but overall the best intellectual growth opportunity I could’ve asked for. I lived in Wicker Park, away from campus, which was hugely helpful. An hour commute separating me from the stress and tension of coursework, writing a thesis, intense classroom debate, etc was very necessary. It allowed me to carve a life outside of MAPSS, spend time with people who knew nothing about my graduate work and didn’t care about it and give my brain a break every night for a couple of hours. My peers at MAPSS, who lived in Hyde Park, all hung out with each other, all complained and gossiped about the same coursework, long hours, professors, etc. I think this had deleterious effects on their ability to perform at a high level and keep a clear mind about their goals.
 
I sang with the University choir a few nights a week, which was a nice break from course/thesis work as well. I spent many hours in the libraries, like others, but I tried to treat it like a job. I would arrive early in the morning and work as much as possible before, between and after courses, but I would wrap up and go home for dinner. I have some close friends from my MAPSS cohort, although they represent many disciplines beyond poli sci. I mostly spent time with them grabbing a drink after an evening class, or attending workshops together, or seeing a talk on campus. Oddly enough, most of the people I spent many hours in the library with, working on problem sets, I’m not close with anymore. Take that however you will, ha.
 
5. Do you have any tips or recommendations regarding the MAPSS experience that you would impart to someone beginning the program?
 
I think it’s really important to set goals for yourself and keep yourself oriented toward those goals. That’s not to say goals can’t change, or that you need to know what you’re doing on day 1, but 9-12 months is a very short time and UChicago is an immense place. Your intellectual curiosity can last you forever, but that won’t help you figure out what you want to do once the program ends. I was lucky to figure out that I didn’t want to apply to PhD programs after, so I focused on finding employment. I decided that I didn’t want to let my thesis bleed over into the summer, that I wanted to take that time to find a job, so I worked to finish my thesis by March. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I didn’t know way back in September that that was a goal for me. My preceptor, advisors and peers were able to help keep me on track because I made it clear from the onset that I wanted to meet every deadline and stay on track to finish my thesis by March. I also picked courses accordingly so the work I was doing for those courses could help me advance my thesis. Almost every chapter of my thesis came from papers I wrote for other classes. This was crucial in helping me workshop each part with a different scholar, and not double my work at the end. 
 
Although it’s very important to stay focused on your ultimate goal, you’d be remiss to miss opportunities that UChicago has to offer that are basically only available at UChicago. I saw many amazing speakers, attended lots of great workshops, spent time in office hours with great scholars and got to know a lot of peers. These are things, I believe, you can do without straying from your own goals. They enhance the experience so much more than a 80 or 90 page thesis that shows the sum total of your knowledge about one topic.  
 
Sorry if I rambled on a bit here, I mostly meant to say everything that was on my mind without filtering too much. I imagine you have lots of ideas about these things yourself, so you can take or leave as much or as little as you’d like from this.
 
All the best as you prepare for the busy year ahead! I’m sure you’ll have a great experience!
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An unsolicited thought about Soylent

July 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

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I ran across a lot of chatter about Soylent today, around the internet and with my friends. I’m curious about the stuff, but I think there is something sort of troubling about the very idea too.

Firstly, I love food a lot. So I mostly consider Soylent an affront to my personal and emotional attachment to experiencing food. I mean, I’m mostly joking, but I’m also sort of serious.

I also understand that Soylent is meant to serve as a supplement for people who find taking time out of their day to prepare, obtain and consume food annoying. The fact that Soylent was created by, is being championed by, and largely funded by the tech community is not coincidence. Tech, in my ways, infantilizes its members. There are many fantasies in tech that culminate with an engineer or coder being some sort of hyper-efficient programmer, only capable of one thing. The fact that major tech companies offer to do your laundry, feed you on site and give you a ride from home to work is not unrelated. There is some ideal at work underneath all of this that when you were young your parents took care of all these needs and now your company (your new parent) can take care of it. It might be a stretch, but a beige, tasteless substance that meets your every nutritional need is not too far from what your mother provides for you after birth.

But even all of that isn’t what bothers me about Soylent. What worries me is that Soylent was able to raise nearly $1 million on Kickstarter. What worries me is that the likes of Andreesen Horowitz are investing money in it. I think this is what takes Soylent from some project to work around a human’s need for food or aesthetic pleasure in experiencing food, to something that becomes a commodity for investment. I don’t think Andreesen Horowitz look at a product like this and glance over its potential application as a complete replacement for food not just for engineers but everyone. I can see a future when governments’ with food aid programs look to Soylent as some sort of solution to hunger and malnutrition crises. It’s not hard to imagine a rationale that flows something like — “well people are dying of hunger around the world, give them Soylent, *claps dusty hands*, my job here is done.”

But that’s not what solving the problem of malnutrition is about. It’s not that we don’t have enough food to feed the world’s hungry, it’s that we’re really bad at distributing food equitably. Even if we see a problem like malnutrition or starvation being solved by something like Soylent – then what? What will these people, who have been saved from the edge of starvation do? Will they have access to education? Will they be given a chance to find a job that pays enough of a salary to survive? Will they have the opportunity to find housing in a place of their choosing? What favor have we done them by keeping them alive with Soylent? More likely, will we walk away feeling like we’ve done our job by giving them Soylent so their basal nutritional needs are met while we could care less about needs that come after that.

I have no intention of painting this picture as the actual or even presumed intentions of the inventors of Soylent. I don’t think they or their investors see this as the problem they’re solving. I don’t have a hard time believing that the inventors of Soylent, their investors and all who are enthusiastic about the product genuinely believe it will be something office workers use as a substitute to walking out and getting an fat laden sandwich for lunch.

But I do believe, as Jacques Ellul believed, that technological progress is irreversible. With the exception of the nuclear weapon, society has never reversed the forward movement of technology. So to go blindly on the path of innovation, to try and disrupt everything, to invent for the sake of invention carries with it another responsibility. I think it is the responsibility of the inventor, of the investor, of the problem solver to consider his/her innovation in a broader social context. And I think this is what ultimately bothers me about Soylent. There is a lack of imagination on the part of the inventors to consider what the idea of food replacement actually means. Food is a huge part of culture. Once cannot simply replace its nutritional functions and walk away scot free.

Addendum: my friend Mike asked on twitter, “should one not solve problems when they exist?” I think this is an apt question and worth an answer longer than 140 characters. In my head, this is how I think about the problem. Say you have both a terrible headache and a brain tumor. The two are likely related. For someone to come in and help you with your headache, maybe even make it go away, is not the same thing as solving the problem. You still have a brain tumor to deal with.

This, crude, analogy is how I think about this larger problem of inequality in the world. Alleviating malnutrition is only part of the problem. It is certainly beyond the scope of Soylent, or any one project, to address global inequality. But my point is that thinking you’re helping by fix the headache, when in fact you probably actually caused the brain tumor, isn’t solving the problem.

Lest I seem to sure of myself, let me clarify that I have no idea what the right answer is. I don’t think it’s bad that people are trying to solve world hunger, but I do think it is bad that it often stops here.

Why I meditate and participate in endurance sports

June 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

I ran my first triathlon of the season this past weekend. It was a really fun experience with new friends I’ve made here in Brooklyn. I’ve also been meditating with coworkers and on my own, regularly, for the last 10 plus months. I find a lot in common between these experiences. And I find them instructive for dealing with anxiety about the future, of which there is plenty among my peer group.

Endurance sports like distance running, biking, swimming require a lot of mental fortitude. Completing an endurance event is as much a test of mental strength and will power as physical ability. Starting out on mile 1 of a 60 mile bike ride, or turning the corner for mile 20 of a marathon, it is easy to think about what I’ll feel like when I’m done. It’s easy to count backward from the finish line and just convince myself that I’ll keep enduring the pain until it’s over. I sometimes even think the finish line will be worth it, that how crappy I feel in the moment will be rewarded in turn when I finish. But I think that’s a mistake. I find it is much more rewarding to be present. I find much more satisfaction in focusing on how I feel right now. The ride, run or swim become much more calming when I can just focus on how I feel in the moment, enjoying the scenery, focusing on my breath or appreciating the pace I’m keeping up. If I start playing the mental game of “I only have 10 miles to go, which is 5 miles, repeated twice, which is about 30 or 35 minutes, so I should be…” I know I won’t enjoy myself as much. This falsely gives all the credit to the finish, when in fact the finish is only a small fraction of the activity.

I’ve had similar experiences with meditation. When I first started meditating, I remember having a hard time focusing on the present. My self talk during meditation sessions would primarily be about how I might feel at the end. There was no focus on being present, on learning about the moment I was in. It took me a long time and a lot of practice to understand how to focus on my breath, on how to recognize but not fixate on fleeting thoughts. It was a difficult habit to build, but something I’m glad I worked on. I still work on these habits every time I meditate, but I now understand the goal of focusing on my breath, on allowing myself to learn about my thought patterns and my proclivities through each meditation session.

I have found these habits to be very helpful in alleviating anxiety in my day to day life as well. Focusing on the future, thinking about next steps, evaluating experiences in terms of future rewards can be very anxiety provoking. I have talked with peers about these feelings too, and I imagine anxiety about the future is prevalent among many people. I have tried my best to focus on the present when moments like this arise for me. Taking pleasure in the moment you’re in, addressing facts and feelings as you know them now, trying your best not to count backward from some imagined future can go a long way in decreasing some of the anxiety caused by a hyper competitive, status minded, fatigue lauding world. There are a lot of things to be said about why we live in a world like this (from perspectives found in economics, sociology, psychology, philosophy, so on and so on), but that’s a discussion about causes. I have found that in the mean time, this tactic of focusing on the present, can be helpful in treating at least this symptom.

Douglas Hofstadter’s unrelenting quest to replicate the human mind

November 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

Douglas Hofstadter’s unrelenting quest to replicate the human mind

I was first introduced to Douglas Hofstadter by my friend Ashok who is a student of the history of science. Over dinner one night he told me that I should read Godel, Escher and Bach. I was in a period of devouring anything and everything that was recommended to me and after whetting my appetite with some journal articles and course syllabi, I dove right in. The experience I had reading GEB was very formative (others include Technological Society by Jacques Ellul and The Railway Journey by Wolfgang Schivelbusch) in my relationship to scientific thought.

GEB was one of the first times that I was formally introduced to neuroscience and artificial intelligence. It was one of the first times I felt like I had a low barrier of entry into mathematics and science, fields from which I had long felt estranged. All of this is a testament to Hofstadter’s writing and ultimately the core idea in his book. Hofstadter sets out to make a case that intelligence and consciousness are made from the seemingly disparate building blocks of cognition. He uses math, visual art, music, puzzles and fictional narrative to demonstrate some universalities in intelligence and consciousness.

So when I came across a piece about Hofstadter in the Atlantic earlier this week, my interest was piqued. I haven’t really heard or read much about him since GEB and I’ve always been curious why such a great contribution has had so little follow up. And this piece in the Atlantic makes it very clear why this is the case: Hofstadter has no interest in advancing artificial intelligence as a field in the direction it is headed in now.

To boil a long piece down to its basic idea, Hofstadter stands at one end of AI research where he and his research group are not interested in imitating how the mind works, but in understanding how the mind works. They’re not happy with replicating some cognitive process with a computer and calling it a victory. On the other end of the spectrum are people like Peter Norvig and Stuart Russell who are interested in outsourcing cognitive processes to AI with no real concern for replicating exactly how that process may or may not happen in the human brain.

Appetite: re-whetted.

Etsy Ignite: The Importance of Interdisciplinary Thinking

October 22, 2013 § 1 Comment

On October 16, 2013 I participated in an Ignite event at Etsy. 12 of my colleagues and I got 5 minutes, 20 auto-advancing slides and the attention of a room-full of our friends and colleagues to tell a story. I talked about why I think it’s important to spend time getting outside of your domain of expertise and learning new things, from the arts for example.

I really enjoyed putting words and order to my thoughts on this subject. If you’ve followed my Twitter feed at any point in time, you can tell me affinity for all different domains of knowledge. Here’s to more years of consumption, production, exploration and expansion.

PETER NORVIG RESPONDS TO CHOMSKY

October 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Peter Norvig in a response to Noam Chomsky, wrote a lengthy essay on his blog. In it he described and engaged with Chomsky’s claim that “researchers in machine learning who use purely statistical methods to produce behavior that mimics something in the world, but who don’t try to understand the meaning of that behavior.”

In so doing, Norvig provided some great examples of statistical models can and cannot do. Before he approached the ultimate question, “are models that try to approximate meaning in language using statistics useful?”, he set up a pretty great explanation of the ways in which statistical models are used. Some key passages are below.

While talking about the inferential power of statistical models, Norvig took the example of the ideal gas law (P = N k T / V). About this model Norvig says

This model ignores that complexity and summarizes our uncertainty about the location of individual molecules. Thus, even though it is statistical and probabilistic, even though it does not completely model reality, it does provide both good predictions and insight—insight that is not available from trying to understand the true movements of individual molecules. I think this is a great way to separate what models can and cannot do.

Later, Norvig makes an engineering, or performance based, case for statistical linguistic models instead of logical ones, which I thought was interesting but somewhat missed the point of what Chomsky’s original complaint was. None the less, he finishes out the blog post by approaching the scientific premise upon which Chomsky built his argument and engaging with that.

Norvig suggests that Chomsky’s argument or theory is categorical, and cannot account for gradience like a statistical model can. Even a naive Markov-chain model can be graded according to the probability or extreme-improbability of a sentence or phrase occurring. This gives far more power for insight than the type of logical model that Chomsky might embrace. Norvig says “Chomsky’s theory, being categorical, cannot make this distinction; all it can distinguish is grammatical/ungrammatical.

The final portion of this article is the most interesting to me. In it, Norvig describes and gives some of his thoughts on the two cultures of modeling: data modeling and algorithmic modeling. The section is too long to quote here, but I highly recommend it.

‘I’ve Got Nothing to Hide’ and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy

October 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

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I just came across this paper on SSRN, titled ‘I’ve got Nothing to Hide’ and other Misunderstandings of Privacy. It’s a short essay from 2007-2008 that succinctly situates one part of the privacy discussion. More than anything else, I was drawn toward reading it because it directly addresses an argument I found myself making a lot in the last few months regarding the NSA, Prizm, and other government data collection efforts that made national news.

Some key take aways from the paper that made me change my mind about making the “I don’t have anything to hide” argument are:

  • “Far too often, discussions of the NSA surveillance and data mining define the problem solely in terms of surveillance. To return to my discussion of metaphor, the problems are not just Orwellian, but Kafkaesque. The NSA programs are problematic even if no information people want to hide is uncovered. In The Trial, the problem is not inhibited behavior, but rather a suffocating powerlessness and vulnerability created by the court system’s use of personal data and its exclusion of the protagonist from having any knowledge or participation in the process.”
  • “[The privacy issue] is not about whether the information gathered is something people want to hide, but rather about the power and the structure of government.”
  • “One of the difficulties with the nothing to hide argument is that it looks for a visceral kind of injury as opposed to a structural one. “

 

My proclivities as a millennial, whose political world view was largely formed by September 11th, led me astray on this matter it seems. I found myself erring on the side of “well my personal discomfort, if any, will most likely be relegated to embarrassment at worst, and in exchange for increased national security, maybe it’s a worthwhile trade.” (or some bastardized version of that argument) But having someone lay the entire privacy question out, define privacy (a difficult endeavor in itself) and address the fact that saying “I have nothing to hide,” almost entirely misses the point was beneficial.