UChicago MAPSS alumni talk

May 31, 2013 § 1 Comment

In March of this year I was invited back by my graduate program, MAPSS, at the University of Chicago to give a short talk and sit on student panels about career development. The event ended up being a really great way to tie together some of the disparate pieces of my career trajectory thus far. I enjoyed giving the talk and especially talking to all the students I met afterward about their varied interests, my interests and all the ways in which we hope to contribute to the world, academically and professionally after obtaining our masters degrees.

Here’s the talk I gave about my, albeit short, career so far. What I’ve learned, how I got here and what I urged students to think about. As I mention at the beginning of the talk, these are things I’m still thinking about and figuring out for myself, so this talk was less prescriptive and more an opener to a conversation with students who are also thinking and figuring these things out for themselves.

Addendum: I wrote a longer post about my experience at MAPSS, you can find that here


H.L. Mencken and Pixar’s RATATOUILLE on criticism

January 27, 2013 § Leave a comment

I remember after I saw Ratatouille in 2007, I was thinking a lot about criticism and the role of critics in the art landscape. Without spoiling much, a pivotal character in the film is Anton Ego, the food critic who is known to be impressed by nothing but holds Parisian attention hostage on the matter of the best food in Paris. Ego (a moniker that deserves consideration in itself; Is he consumed by his own conception of himself? Were the writers commenting perhaps on Freudian concept of the ego, or maybe even Lacanian concepts? Who knows) is vilified throughout the entire film but ends up being the final release we get as an audience, when he falls in love with our chefs Remi and Linguini’s cooking.

At the time of viewing, I remember thinking – what in the world gave Ego (or critics at large) such power that he gets to decide what is or isn’t good art? Why isn’t art democratic? What about the hundreds of people who love the art that Remy and Linguini (or artists) create? Since then I’ve had a number of conversations with friends about the role of criticism in society. And I’ve even had periods where I’ll only read a particular film or literature critic, or swear off of criticism all together, or some combination in between.

Today, I ran across this essay by H.L. Mencken (who, in interest of full disclosure, I was first introduced to because of the ending quote on the last episode of THE WIRE). In it, he introduces a pretty compelling definition of and case for criticism. This snippet summed it up well for me:

It is [the critic’s] business to provoke the reaction between the work of art and the spectator. The spectator, untutored, stands unmoved; he sees the work of art, but it fails to make any intelligible impression on him; if he were spontaneously sensitive to it, there would be no need for criticism. But now comes the critic with his catalysis. He makes the work of art live for the spectator; he makes the spectator live for the work of art. Out of the process comes understanding, appreciation, intelligent enjoyment — and that is precisely what the artist tried to produce.

I don’t know if I’ve come across too many such critics, at least in the areas of art that I access all the time (books, films, music). However, when I do come across such critical works, they become very meaningful very quickly. I don’t know if Ego in Ratatouille ever gave us this, but perhaps the sequence of him remembering his childhood and his mother’s cooking was the closest we got.

In the controversy surrounding the Allen Ginsburg poem “Howl“, one critic on the witness stand when asked about the meaning of specific words or sentences in the poem said something like “well, that’s why poetry is poetry. It’s not prose. It can’t easily be explained in prose.” I think that’s what a good critic can sometimes do. S/he can turn poetry into prose.

Scientists — ev…

January 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

Scientists — even the hardest of scientists — fabricate data, fabricate studies, fall prey to fads, and otherwise get things wrong. But more relevantly, they just don’t know that much. We have very little idea of how the body works; the pills we take are made through the bluntest of means. We don’t know how to calculate very simple things, like the dispersion of milk in a cup of coffee. The illusion that social science is ineffective can only be sustained by ignorance of such ineffectiveness of hard science. The upside of all this is that there is hope for social science.

Many people have written and spoken much more poignant words about Aaron Swartz’s passing over the weekend. I never knew him, and was only familiar with his work in passing. But, for good reason, I found myself reading a lot about him over the weekend and I found this article from 2005 on his website particularly compelling. 

For such a short piece about the nature and state of the social sciences, Swartz really packed a punch. These are thoughts that I’ve thought and talked about many times before, but this piece is a great articulation of them. 

In an effort to not mystify Aaron’s work and contributions, I find this sort of thing to be something I can do to help. I can look through his body of work, look up to his example and do my best to find my calling in the quest to bring the social sciences, and specifically the empirical social sciences, to serve society. Rest in piece Aaron. 

Junot Diaz – as impactful when he speaks as when he writes

December 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Junot Diaz, author of the highly acclaimed Drown, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and the recently released This is How You Lose Her, is amazingly eloquent as a speaker. He carries over his intelligence, charm, wit, humor, empathy and insight from the page to the interview set quite seamlessly.

I have watched a handful of really interesting interviews with Diaz discussing his experiences as a writer, an academic, a cultural critic and all the various roles he has taken on in his life. A common thread between all of the clips is his ability to construct a thought with precision and insight that is emblematic of a highly matured thought process. He hardly fails, even in sentences that seem to be off-the-cuff or filler, to convey a cogent and considered thought. After spending a year surrounded by mainstream political rhetoric, which even at its finest can be less than evocative and often repeats familiar patterns, I am perhaps more impressed than an average viewer with Diaz’s oratory. It also doesn’t hurt that I’ve devoured his writing in the last few years and thought highly of him as a cultural icon for hyphenated-Americans.

None the less, I hope to learn from him. Learn to speak as deeply as I think. Maybe I should start by thinking deeply first.

Causality in Political Networks

November 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

A 2011 paper in American Politics Research titled “Causality in Political Networks” discusses some important concerns about assigning causality to social network analysis studies, especially when it comes to political behavior and preferences. The basic definition of causality adopted by the authors is one put forward by Henry Brady in 2008 that basically says:

causal arguments are stronger to the extent that they demonstrate  our elements: (a) “constant conjunction of causes and effects”; (b)  No effect when the cause is absent in the most similar world to where the cause is present”; (c) “An effect after a cause is manipulated”; and (d)  The identification of “Activities and processes [i.e., mechanisms] linking causes and effects” 

The authors then go on to discuss, in five short essays, how causality may be assessed through social network analysis. From survey data, field experiments, socio-centric data to measurement errors and study-design, this paper is a pretty good place to start when thinking about how you can move past descriptive analysis to something closer to causal inference in social network analysis. 

For the sake of disclosure: one of the authors of this paper is my former graduate advisor. Another was a professor during graduate school.

Citation: Causality in Political Networks. Fowler et al. American Politics Research 2011 39: 437. 

Drew Conway on the intersection of Data-Science and Social-Science

October 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Drew Conway (hacker, data-scientist, political-scientist, and pseudo-data-celebrity) gave this great talk recently at a conference that I enjoyed. He talks about the intersection of the data-sciences (hacking + statistics) and the social sciences. Drew, whose book Machine Learning for Hackers, I enjoyed a lot is a great example of someone who is bringing the tools of computer science and data-science to bear on an unrelated (at first glance) field, the social sciences.

David Foster Wallace on Kafka’s Humor

October 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

In Consider the Lobster David Foster Wallace has a short essay titled “Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness From Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed,” in which he presents his case for reading humor in Kafka and how he tried to teach his students to do this when teaching Kafka. I liked this passage at the end and wanted to share it


It’s not that students don’t “get” Kafka’s humor but that we’ve taught them to see humor as something you get – the same way we’ve taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really center Kafka joke: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.

The rest of the essays in the collection are great too. Some personal favorites include “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” “Authority and American Usage,” and “Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think.”