Emotional contagion and rational argument in philosophical texts

Last week I returned to blogging with some reflections on reading and the written word more generally. Originally, I was aiming to write a response to Roger Schank’s stance that “reading is no way to learn”, but I wandered off on too many tangents for an a single post or for a coherent argument. The tangent that I left for this post is the role of emotion and personality in philosophical texts.

In my last entry, I focused on the medium independent aspects of Schank’s argument, and identified two dimensions along which a piece of media and our engagement with it can vary: (1) passive consumption versus active participation, and (2) the level of personalization. The first continuum has a clearly better end on the side of more active engagement. If we are comparing mediums then we should prefer ones that foster more active engagement from the participants. The second dimension is more ambiguous: sometimes a more general piece of media is better than a bespoke piece. What is better becomes particularly ambiguous when being forced to adapt a general approach to your special circumstances encourages more active engagement.

In this post, I will shift focus from comparing mediums to a particular aspect of text and arguments: emotional engagement. Of course, this also shows up in other mediums, but my goal this time is not to argue across mediums.

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Passive vs. active reading and personalization

As you can probably tell, dear reader, recently I have been spending too much time reading and not enough time writing. The blog has been silent. What better way to break this silence than to write a defense of reading? Well, sort of. It would not be much of an eye-opener for you — nor a challenge for me — to simply argue for reading. Given how you are consuming this content, you probably already think that the written word is a worthwhile medium. Given how I am presenting myself, I probably think the same. But are our actions really an endorsement of reading or just the form of communication we begrudgingly resort to because of a lack of better alternatives?

Ostensibly this post will be a qualified defense against an attack on reading by Roger Schank at Education Outrage. Although it is probably best to read it as just a series of reflections on my own experience.[1]

I will focus on the medium-independent aspects of learning that I think give weight to Schank’s argument: the distinction between passive and active learning, and the level of personalization. This will be followed next week by a tangent discussion on the importance of emotional aspects of the text, and close with some reflections on the role of literary value, historic context, and fiction in philosophical arguments. This last point is prompted more by my recent readings of Plato than by Schank. In other words, much like last year, I will rely on Socrates to help get me out of a writing slump.
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A detailed update on readership for the first 200 posts

It is time — this is the 201st article on TheEGG — to get an update on readership since our 151st post and lament on why academics should blog. I apologize for this navel-gazing post, and it is probably of no interest to you unless you are really excited about blog statistics. I am writing this post largely for future reference and to celebrate this arbitrary milestone.

The of statistics in this article are largely superficial proxies — what does a view even mean? — and only notable because of how easy they are to track. These proxies should never be used to seriously judge academics but I do think they can serve as a useful self-tracking tool. Making your blog’s statistics available publicly can be a useful comparison for other bloggers to get an idea of what sort of readership and posting habits are typical. In keeping with this rough and lighthearted comparison, according to Jeromy Anglim’s order-of-magnitude rules of thumb, in the year since the last update the blog has been popular in terms of RSS subscribers and relatively popular in terms of annual page views.

As before, I’ll start with the public self-metrics of the viewership graph for the last 6 and a half months:

Columns are views per week at TheEGG blog since the end of August, 2014. The vertical lines separate months, and the black line is average views per day for each month. The scale for weeks is on the left, it is different from the scale for daily average, those are labeled at each height.

Columns are views per week at TheEGG blog since the end of August, 2014. The vertical lines separate months, and the black line is average views per day for each month. The scale for weeks is on the left, it is different from the scale for daily average, those are labeled at each height.

If you’d like to know more, dear reader, then keep reading. Otherwise, I will see you on the next post!
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A year in books: philosophy, psychology, and political economy

If you follow the Julian calendar — which I do when I need a two week extension on overdue work — then today is the first day of 2015.

Happy Old New Year!

This also means that this is my last day to be timely with a yet another year-in-review post; although I guess I could also celebrate the Lunar New Year on February 19th. Last year, I made a resolution to read one not-directly-work-related book a month, and only satisfied it in an amortized analysis; I am repeating the resolution this year. Since I only needed two posts to catalog the practical and philosophical articles on TheEGG, I will try something new with this one: a list and mini-review of the books I read last year to meet my resolution. I hope that based on this, you can suggest some books for me to read in 2015; or maybe my comments will help you choose your next book to read. I know that articles and blogs I’ve stumbled across have helped guide my selection. If you want to support TheEGG directly and help me select the books that I will read this year then consider donating something from TheEGG wishlist.

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Cataloging a year of blogging: the philosophical turn

Passion and motivation are strange and confusing facets of being. Many things about them feel paradoxical. For example, I really enjoy writing, categorizing, and — obviously, if you’ve read many of the introductory paragraphs on TheEGG — blabbing on far too long about myself. So you’d expect that I would have been extremely motivated to write up this index of posts from the last year. Yet I procrastinated — although in a mildly structured way — on it for most of last week, and beat myself up all weekend trying to force words into this textbox. A rather unpleasant experience, although it did let me catch up on some Batman cartoons from my childhood. Since you’re reading this now, I’ve succeeded and received my hit of satisfaction, but the high variance in my motivation to write baffles me.

More fundamentally, there is the paradox of agency. It feels like my motivations and passions are aspects of my character, deeply personal and defining. Yet, it is naive to assume that they are determined by my ego; if I take a step back, I can see how my friends, colleagues, and even complete strangers push and pull the passions and motivations that push and pull me. For example, I feel like TheEGG largely reflects my deep-seated personal interests, but my thoughts do not come from me alone, they are shaped by my social milieu — or more dangerously by Pavlov’s buzzer of my stats page, each view and comment and +1 conditioning my tastes. Is the heavy presence of philosophical content because I am interested in philosophy, or am I interested in philosophy because that is what people want to read? That is the tension that bothers me, but it is clear that my more philosophical posts are much more popular than the practical. If we measure in terms of views then in 2014 new cancer-related posts accounted for only 4.7% of the traffic (with 15 posts), the more abstract cstheory perspective on evolution accounted for 6.6% (with 5 posts), while the posts I discuss below accounted for 57.4% (the missing chunk of unity went to 2014 views of post from 2012 and 2013). Maybe this is part of the reason why there was 24 philosophical posts, compared to the 20 practical posts I highlighted in the first part of this catalog.

Of course, this example is a little artificial, since although readership statistics are fun distraction, they are not particularly relevant just easy to quantify. Seeing the influence of the ideas I read is much more difficult. Although I think these exercises in categorization can help uncover them. In this post, I review the more philosophical posts from last year, breaking them down less autobiographically and more thematically: interfaces and useful delusions; philosophy of the Church-Turing thesis; Limits of science and dangers of mathematics; and personal reflections on philosophy and science. Let me know if you can find some coherent set of influences.

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Cataloging a year of blogging: cancer and biology

Welcome to 111101111.

Another year has come to an end, and it is time to embrace tradition and reflect on the past twelve months. In fact, I will try to do one better and start a new tradition: cataloging a year of blogging.

Last year, I split up the 83 content heavy posts of 2013 into nine categories in three themes: established applications of evolutionary game theory (ethnocentrism and the public good; and mathematical oncology), expanding from behavior to society and mind (representations and rationality for replicators; feedback between finance & economics and ecology & evolution; and, learning, intelligence, and the social brain), and envisioning the algorithmic world (proof, automata, and physics; natural algorithms and biology; fitness landscapes and evolutionary equilibria; and, metamodeling and the (algorithmic) philosophy of science). In 2014 there was a sharp decrease in number of posts with only 44 articles of new content (and the 3 posts cataloging 2013, so 47 total) — this was due to a nearly 4 month blogging silence in the middle of the year — but a quarter increase in readership with 151,493 views compared to 2013’s 119,935 views. This time, I will need only two posts to survey the past year; this post for the practical and the next for the philosophical.

MathOncoFor me, the year was distributed between three cities, the usual suspects of Montreal and New York, and in October I moved down to Tampa, Florida to work with David Basanta and Jacob Scott in the Intergrated Mathematical Oncology department of the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute. A winter without snow is strange but wearing shorts in December makes up for it; plus the sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico are absolutely beautiful. Unsurprisingly, this move has meant that the practical aspects of my focus have shifted almost completely to biology; cancer, in particular.

This post is about the biology and oncology articles that made up about half of last year’s content. Given the autobiographical turn of this post, it will be (loosely) structured around three workshops that I attended in 2014, and the online conversations and collaborations that TheEGG was a host to.
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Helicobacter pylori and stem cells in the gastric crypt

IMO2014Group

Last Friday, the 4th Integrated Mathematical Oncology Workshop finished here at Moffitt. The event drew a variety of internal and external participants — you can see a blurry photo of many of them above — and was structured as a competition between four teams specializing in four different domains: Microbiome, Hepatitis C, Human papillomavirus, and Helicobacter pylori. The goal of each team was to build mathematical models of a specific problem in their domain that were well integrated with existing clinical and biological resources, the reward was a start-up grant to the project that seemed most promising to the team of judges. As I mentioned earlier in the week, I was on team H. Pylori — lead by Heiko Enderling with clinical insights from Domenico Coppola and Jose M. Pimiento. To get a feeling for the atmosphere of this workshop, I recommend a video summary of 2013’s workshop made by Parmvir Bahia, David Basanta, and Arturo Araujo:

I want to use this post to summarize some of the modeling that we did for the interaction of H. Pylori and gastric cancer. This is a brief outline — a reminder of sorts — and concentrates only on the parts that I was closely involved in. Unfortunately, this means that I won’t cover all the perspectives that our team offered, nor all the great work that they did. I apologize for the content I omitted. Hopefully, I can convince some other team members to blog about their experience to give a more balanced perspective.

This post also won’t cover all that you might want to know about bacteria and gastric cancer. As we saw earlier, fun questions about H. Pylori span many length and temporal scales and it was difficult to pick one to focus on. Domenico pointed us toward Houghton et al.’s (2004) work on the effect of H. Pylori on stem cell recruitment (for a recent survey, see Bessede et al., 2014), and suggested we aim our modeling at a level where we can discuss stem cells quantitatively. The hope is to use the abundance of stem cells as a new marker for disease progression. In the few days of the workshop, we ended up building and partially integrating two complimentary models; one agent-based and one based purely on ODEs. In the future, we hope to refine and parametrize these models based on patient data from Moffitt for the non-H. Pylori related gastric cancers, and from our partners in Cali, Colombia for H. Pylori related disease.
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Weapons of math destruction and the ethics of Big Data

CathyONeilI don’t know about you, dear reader, but during my formal education I was never taught ethics or social consciousness. I even remember sitting around with my engineering friends that had to take a class in ethics and laughing at the irrelevance and futility of it. To this day, I have a strained relationship with ethics as a branch of philosophy. However, despite this villainous background, I ended up spending a lot of time thinking about cooperation, empathy, and social justice. With time and experience, I started to climb out of the Dunning-Kruger hole and realize how little I understood about being a useful member of society.

One of the important lessons I’ve learnt is that models and algorithms are not neutral, and come with important ethical considerations that we as computer scientists, physics, and mathematicians are often ill-equipped to see. For exploring the consequences of this in the context of the ever-present ‘big data’, Cathy O’Neil’s blog and alter ego mathbabe has been extremely important. This morning I had the opportunity to meet Cathy for coffee near her secret lair on the edge of Lower Manhattan. From this writing lair, she is working on her new book Weapons of Math Destruction and “arguing that mathematical modeling has become a pervasive and destructive force in society—in finance, education, medicine, politics, and the workplace—and showing how current models exacerbate inequality and endanger democracy and how we might rein them in”.

I can’t wait to read it!

In case you are impatient like me, I wanted to use this post to share a selection of Cathy’s articles along with my brief summaries for your browsing enjoyment:
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A Theorist’s Apology

Gadfly of ScienceAlmost four months have snuck by in silence, a drastic change from the weekly updates earlier in the year. However, dear reader, I have not abandoned TheEGG; I have just fallen off the metaphorical horse and it has taken some time to get back on my feet. While I was in the mud, I thought about what it is that I do and how to label it. I decided the best label is “theorist”, not a critical theorist, nor theoretical cognitive scientist, nor theoretical biologist, not even a theoretical computer scientist. Just a theorist. No domain necessary.

The problem with a non-standard label is that it requires justification, hence this post. I want to use the next two thousand words to return to writing and help unify my vision for TheEGG. In the process, I will comment on the relevance of philosophy to science, and the theorist’s integration of scientific domains with mathematics and the philosophy of science. The post will be a bit more personal and ramble more than usual, and I am sorry for that. I need this moment to recall how to ride the blogging horse.
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Cataloging a year of blogging: the algorithmic world

relaxedToday is the last day of the Julian year, and tomorrow is Old New Years, so it is a great time to finish our overview of the three themes of TheEGG articles in 2013. We already looked at established applications of evolutionary game theory, and extending from behavior to society and mind; now, we will be envisioning the algorithmic world. It is fitting that we will end the Orthodox calendar with a discussion of the year’s most unorthodox articles.

Although I spend most of my time relaxing in a comfortable office in the Stewart Biology building, my official position is in the computer science department. Thus, when I can’t just call myself a theorist, but must specify a discipline, I say that I am a theoretical computer scientist. However, I am a cstheorist that dislikes computing machines, engineering, and technology, and have an unreasonable fondness for philosophy and fundamental science. Unfortunately, most of of the theoretical branches of science, if they try to be rigorous and mathematical, tend to borrow their tools form physics not the mathematics underlying theoretical computer science. In undergrad, I received enough exposure to physics to understand the limits of these tools, and in the years since have grown convinced that they are not sufficient for building the theoretical edifice of biology and psychology.
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