Read my other blog, too.

When I was a sophomore in college, math had got me down pretty bad. You see, it’s never math’s fault if you don’t get an answer. My friends and I used to joke that math was that really hot cheerleader in high school. And who did she date? Well, the star quarterback of the football team of course. She wouldn’t even look at any of us; I wasn’t good enough to be the waterboy, let alone make it onto the team of professional mathematicians. At least that’s how I felt.

Looking to crawl out of my math-induced low, I did what I thought you’re supposed to do in such a situation: I went to one of my professor’s office hours for advice and consolation. And he responded, I suppose, in the way that he thought you were supposed to respond in a such situation: he told me that I’d probably do well as a science writer, like for the New York Times. It was as if the cheerleader had spit in my face. A science writer—really? But I wanted to study quasi-Fuchsian groups or sympletic geometry or something exciting and esoteric like that. I left those office hours feeling less supported than I had when I entered.

Well, it looks like that professor knew me better than I did myself. That’s right, I’m going to start posting (hopefully regularly) for Complex Systems and Society. The idea as hatched (not by me) while I was hanging around the Santa Fe Institute, essentially the Mecca of complex systems, earlier this summer. Look there for accessible commentary from researchers on current research. I’ll probably write about evolutionary game theory, sociobiology, and other stuff I don’t have the background to write about with much authority (not that that has stopped me before, mind you). Now that doesn’t mean I won’t write here anymore—I’ve been remiss in my duties, I know—because I will. I have three entries drafted already.

My first set of posts over at Complex Systems will detail what goes on in my head as I read Foundations of Social Evolution. So far it’s been a treatise on the Price equation, which describes natural selection with a hierarchy of effects. The concept is something I’ve run into a handful of times. Each encounter left me running away without a proper understanding. Forty-four pages into this book and I still don’t have a firm purchase on it. The fledgling computer scientist in me likes that it’s recursive, though. With some persistence and a little luck, I’m sure I’ll have something useful to say before my first deadline rolls around.

Anyway, this is a note to you, faithful reader, to wish me good luck on my foray into science writing. Look for something over there by August 2.

I’ve Landed.

Today I was reverse-stalking the links pointing to my site when I discovered that Planet 02138 uses my RSS feed to fill their content. To be honest, I’m a little touched. At first I thought it might be associated with that magazine I don’t read with the same zip code. Fortunately, it’s not. If I were to guess, it’s another service offered by the kind folks at the Berkman Center.

Anyway, here’s how the Planet explains itself:

Planet 02138 is a collection of Harvard blogs. It is a sample of opinions and ramblings by Harvard students, faculty, and alumni.

From what I saw, they nailed it head-on.

You can make your own feed reader with the software from Planet Planet. Gosh, that’s fun to say.

Trolling their blogroll inspired me to update my own. Sure, my RSS reader knows what I’m currently reading—somehow my blog got left behind, though. After all, how are you going to know what I’m [likely to be] reading?

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I’ve spent part of tonight cataloguing my books. This is only the beginning. I need to differentiate among books I own, I’ve read, I’d like to own, and books I’d like to read. Also, I needed to figure out a work-around for the Library Thing blog widget since the Law School server doesn’t allow me to execute scripts. (First pass hack shown below.)

The State of Grafitti: Yuppie as Mascot

About a year ago, I was at the Park Street station on my way back to Cambridge. As I waited for the train to come, I did what I always do when I’m waiting without a book: I paced the end of the platform. Rather than slowly pass my foot over the knobs of the textured, yellow safety strip,—a favorite pastime of mine—I kept to the flat brick on a well-defined route that visits the supporting columns which dwell nearest to the tunnel’s opening.

Normally I’m not struck by public graffiti, but every once in a while something unexpected crops up. This time one of my columns read: “Kill all yuppies.”

I was very excited by this message. No, I’m not in favor of killing all the yuppies. That suggestion’d put me too close at risk. There’s a very good chance, indeed, that I’m a yuppie. So, no. Please be kind to the yuppies. But here’s what’s different. Normally the graffiti that I’ve encountered are either some sort of tag—you know, a personal statement of existence and potential ownership, “Kilroy was here” or “AlL St*R” or something along those lines—or alternatively they are some commitment of love or hate (often accompanied by a slur or two). You seen them, something like “Joe is a fag” or “I love Tiffany.” Anyway, all of these examples are personally directed. They don’t extend beyond an individual. Sometimes I’ll find one that condemns a whole group of people, like my yuppies example, scrawled on a public alleyway. But those even those are gang-related or race-related. Yuppies represent something new.

Whoever wrote it got my attention because his hatred was not race-directed. It points to a larger social movement. The new segregation, if it is really new, will be intellect. And these upwardly mobile persons are central enough to earn the distinguished role of spokesperson. But what exactly are yuppies mascots of? Well, that sort of brings me to some more recent graffiti.

The Ashmont train station is undergoing some pretty hefty repairs. Officials have suspended the Mattapan High Speed Line service for a year, and the train station is hidden from plain sight by several, several ton mounds of dirt. Like most other forms of transportation in the city, the Ashmont station is going underground. It’ll take some time before things are back in order. For now, there are lots of make-shift wooden structures to take the places of the bus depot and station entrance. And that means there’s plenty of board space for community art—I mean graffiti.

The last time I was at Ashmont I noticed some of the newer pieces as I walked by one of the wooden panels. This time a website caught my eye. I haven’t seen many hypertext tags outside of the internet, but there it was: a link to someone’s myspace page. Kilroy has entered a new age and he’s updated his message. Now the statement is “I am not here, I’m here. Come find me.” It’s a revolution. Personalization on the web is at an all-time high, and movers in the field want more of it. Collaborative filtering, social navigation, blogs! They’re all in style, and they don’t look like they’re going to go away any time soon. I can’t say I mind it, either. In fact, I want to be more a part of it.

This is not the same technological revolution that your slightly older brother talked about only decades ago. No, the paradigm is different: we can read the writing on the wall. Literally. Before technology brought with it an increased level of impersonality. The assembly-line metaphor bled into everything—it’s still around, of course. Don’t worry, the transactional framework driven by the glory of mass manipulation of raw goods to form an endless supply of identical product is still very much alive. And people are still applying manufacturing-inspired methods completely out of context. And the effect is still very isolating. But lo! the very same push to maximize profit that once aimed to cut time and kill interpersonal relationships has turned a corner. Personalization is the new rage.

But will personalization help build bridges among people; won’t it keep us even more securely glued to our seats in front of our computers? I’m afraid that it can. Technologically-backed social ventures, like AOL Instant Messenger and other chat programs, have made it easier for the quiet kids to remain quiet and alone. Chat tools give the user the appearance that they’re interacting with other people. But some researchers suggest that the analogy is only that: apparent. The real satisfaction one gains from honest-to-goodness, face-to-face conversation is so much greater than its virtual manifestation that it’s almost silly to make the comparison. So, what’s going on?

The invitational nature of MySpace is different than AIM. A person’s page is like his home. Each click to that site is really a visit. That’s why it makes the news so often. Sometimes the visits aren’t just virtual. And everyone uses it: college kids, little kids, married couples. The range of demographics represented by MySpace’s users is enormous. Unlike Friendster, which originally withheld a user’s access to a stranger’s page by default, MySpace let everyone see everyone else from the get-go. Friendster was a place for people who were already friends. MySpace, I believe, was built to get people to go to and listen to new bands in concert. The idea that you’d actually meet strangers was the founding idea. Now it’s just a place find others you’d like to bone à la Craig’s List’s personals but less so. But the idea that you might meet the person attached to the website is still very much there. Isn’t that exactly what that graffiti from Ashmont Station was all about? The internet takes all the scariness out of meeting a stranger, because you don’t physically meet, and the meeting is still completely anonymous. (There’s a trade-off, though. The relationships that form are even more tenuous than those so-called and ever important “weak bonds.” Online relationships tend to be superficial and sometimes socially damaging. Like I said before, they permit the loners to find each other and stay alone. Even those of us who aren’t loners end up as loners the longer we stay online rather than outside.)

So we’ve found a cause for our mascots. Like the term itself, today’s yuppies herald the dawn of a new form of impersonalization: isolation through personalization. Technology is poised to use what it knows about you and your preferences to make a friendlier, easier experience. In the process, you get to interact with others—real or not. The interaction is deep enough to convince you that you’ve done something meaningful. You’ve made a friend or learned a new fact. (Wikipedia is a blessing and curse.) But have you really; can you rely on your friend or apply your fact?

Your iPod list has exactly the music you want to hear. And so now, people go through life not listening to each other but to themselves, plugged into a clean, white box whose world revolves around the most important person—its only person: its master is me. Time Magazine got it wrong. The person of the year is not You; it’s me. This is the society recorded in graffiti today.

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Book Reviews

Since I started a new job and classes at just about the exact same time, I haven’t had much time to sit down and write. Because my boss took the day off, I can put a whole day’s worth of work into this thing—the problem is, though, I’m out of the blog zone and I’m not sure how to get back in. When DJ and I play tennis, the one who lost the point has to sprint around the court. At first, the loser of a single point continued to lose several points. Running made it hard to concentrate on the game. But as we played on, we got better. The interpoint sprints actually honed our mental and physical stamina. I don’t know of an analogous blogging exercise.

So, without any prepared material, I write on. Hoping that you’ll keep reading. And while I haven’t been writing lately, I have been reading. In the past week I’ve started four books. You’ll see that three of them fall into an obvious theme. Maybe you can guess it by the first’s title:

Social Learning and Cognition, by Rosenthal and Zimmerman, was written in 1978. I don’t know how much of the book is still current, but what they say seems to make sense. Like the other books I’ll mention, I haven’t made it very far: I’m only in the first chapter. To be fair, this one only has three, individually long chapters. Basically, social learning combines information processing—which came about once people began that quest for artificial intelligence—with a behavioral twist. As far as I can tell, this sort of thing has been applied mostly to criminology. What I’m reading smacks of Vygotsky, who, due to political barriers, never made it big in the West. Bandura, the guy who sort pioneered this sort of thing, applied his work most closely to violent behavior. Hence the trajectory towards criminology. However, just about anyone—folks in public service, education, corporate training, and community building at large—should know about this stuff. We learn from each other all the time.

The second book I’m reading for class. In fact, I found Social Learning only because it was near Uncommon Genius on the shelf. The author, Shekerjian, tries to figure out what creativity is through interviews with forty of MacArthur fellows: those men and women given a cool half mil from what has been popularly dubbed the “genius award.” Sadly, she didn’t interview the two MacArthur fellows I know. To be fair, Zaldarriaga, the guy who co-taught a course on cosmology I took last year, neither knows me nor had received the award before the time of this book’s publication. It’s an enjoyable read. Don’t expect any research, though. Sheekerjian warns you from the outset that her book isn’t rigorous investigation of creative thought. The anecdotes are apt and her writing is smooth. Her analysis falls into same linear model of thought as much of the research literature on creativity, though. Pick it up if you have a short flight and you’re bored.

The last book hasn’t been published yet. The Emotion Machine is Marvin Minsky’s soon to be released follow up to Society of Mind. If you can’t wait until November to read it, you can find a draft online on his personal website, though I’m not sure for how much longer. Minsky, who you can tell is a trained mathematician by his style, gives a very easy introduction into the basics of artificial intelligence, which, by the way, doesn’t preclude its telling us something about human intelligence along the way. Minsky writes in a semi-dialogue form, injecting objections and commentary by invented philosopher, student, and citizen characters. They move along the discussion in an informal way which hides its unusual directness. If you had to choose among these three, you should probably choose this one.

The fourth book, which I only started about an hour ago, is Sakurai’s Modern Quantum Mechanics. I started this one based on a recommendation of one of my college roommates, who’s gone on to do her PhD in physics. She says that everyone agrees, Sakurai’s exposition is wonderfully clear though advanced. I guess they use this in a graduate-level QM course either at Harvard or MIT. (She cross-registers a lot.) Being an undergraduate mathematician, I missed out on quantum mechanics. As a high schooler, I thought that it would be my ultimate achievement. In the meantime, my dad has started spending a lot of money on some heinous line of products based on the study of so-called biophotons. This ever-authoritative Wikipedia entry sums it up nicely:

The field of biophoton related study also appears to have recently become rife with new age, complementary and alternative medicine, and quantum mysticism claims from those wishing to exploit such clams [sic] for financial benefit. Numerous claims are even made that by “harnessing the energy of biophotons” that supposed natural cures for cancer are guaranteed. Mainstream medicine and science strongly reject these claims as outright fraud and a dangerous diversion from actual medical treatment for someone who is suffering from such disease.

I figure if I can master the basics of QM, maybe I can have my dad ask questions that will confuse his prophets—because that’s what this has become. He defends these guys as if they were his gods.—and demonstrate that they’re just out to get his money. Even if that’s not your aim, you should read Sakurai, especially if you have a strong background in linear algebra (including Fourier analysis).

For Non-Spanish Speakers

Please excuse my unannounced blog hiatus—I started a new job and moved into a new place. Hopefully it won’t compromise my safety to mention that my days off are Thursday and Friday. Expect the follow-up posts I promised then. I hadn’t planned to write but dinner has moved me in unforeseeable ways.

Tonight I strolled down the street to my favorite Mexican, cheap-eats place for some pozole and enchiladas. Each summer I try to establish myself as a regular. Ordering the soup helps me stand out from the rest of the clientele. It also means I can sit down and eat right away while the rest of my meal bakes in the oven. About half way through the bowl my ears perk up and shoulders cringe forward.

“Um, quiero un más de queso,” I heard a shrill, female voice say. In high school my French language teacher, M. Labouiere used to say that bad French made his ears bleed. Not being fluent in Spanish myself, I can only guess how the man behind the counter’s ears felt. Even still, I shuddered. She continued. Whenever asked if she wanted to include some ingredient or other in her bean and cheese burrito extra grande, she had the gall to answer “sí” or “no” in a painful accent that mimicked, I guess, what Americans must think the Spanish sounds like. Since working at my new job, I’ve let on that I might understand more Spanish than I claim to and have been challenged thus. Just today Juan tried to get me to show off my [sadly lacking] skills when I butt into a conversation he and one of the workers were having in Spanish about the World Cup. Neither knew that Korea and Togo were matched in the morning game. My boss, Stephen, who spent a year in Quito while in college, thinks it shameful that my last name is Mexican and that I don’t speak Spanish. I may stick to Latin and Old English despite my so-called heritage. I was raised Boston Irish, after all.

But this shrill female, she didn’t know when to stop. Her trouble ordering clearly couldn’t’ve been her fault, so finally she checked, “Excuse me, are you speaking Spanish or Brazilian?” By now blood ceased to flow out of ears. Instead it was boiling within. I almost spoke up. It’s Portuguese, not Brazilian. Keep your sixteenth century, Catholic super powers straight.

Five minutes later, she was happy, burrito in hand. Her boyfriend didn’t speak much. He responded a simple and slightly embarrassed “sí,” I think for solidarity. The customer next in line asked for only a little bit of cheese on his quesadilla. I wonder it was surprising to learn that the man behind the counter was not only fluent in either Spanish or Brazilian but also fully conversant in American.

Now I know what my madrileña blockmate Verena means when she says that Americans speaking Spanish are among the world’s most obnoxious people. And it struck right here, in Cambridge, USA.

The Migration.

Sorry that I’m so slow to write anything. I’ve directed my energy to categorizing all of the posts now that I can. Many of you will remember the Technocrati tags I started putting at the bottom of entries just before the Berkman Center switched their servers. This is a lot easier, and soon I’ll be done; promise. In the meantime, check out the category and search functions. Don’t let the labels fool you—I’m lumping things together in perhaps unusual ways.

Hello world!

I’ve just begun the migration from the old Manilla server to the new, expedient, and aesthetic WordPress server. [It even correctly identifies and interprets en-dashes, em-dashes, and hyphens! I could not be happier.] As a matter of good cheer—and as a bow to good karma—, I’ve kept the automated post that indicates that things are working properly.

Welcome to Weblogs at Harvard Law School. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start blogging!

You’ll notice that this post also has a comment associated with it. That was made automatically, too. Due to the increased ease provided by WordPress, perhaps you, too, dear reader, will start posting comments. I dare you; I double-dog dare you to.

An Update.

Dear reader, lately I have been remiss in my writing. Please accept my apologies sincere and deep. Of course there is much that I’d like to write to you. Each is worthy enough for its own entry, but, I do not wish to burden the reader [or the author] too much. So here’s a summary:

Tuesday through Wednesday afternoons, Stephanie and I camped out on my kitchen table, laptop beside laptop, to tackle the proofreading and last-minute writing and revision of her honors thesis, Writing: The Urban Calligraphy of New York City. If we’re lucky, she’ll let me post the final copy in PDF here. Then you’ll get to learn about the graffiti [which, by the way, is an offensive term to the Writers] and the artists who started it all back in NYC during the early ’70s, their innovations, their schools, and the rhetoric of their work. Bet you weren’t expecting to see the word “asyndeton” ever used to describe tags before.

Thursday I recovered from Tuesday and Wednesday. DJ and I drove into Cambridge to crash the free appetizers at Grafton but proceeded to Whitney’s, where we played darts with new and temporary bar friends Adam and Diddy. They appeared to be regulars, so there’s a good chance we’ll meet them if we go back. At the end of the night no one could close bulls. Scottie, the bartender, needed to close up. On his second dart he throw a double bull’s eye, proving to us that “it’s not that hard.”

Friday I was back in Cambridge to talk with Uri Treisman at the Harvard Foundation Scientist of the Year award ceremony and luncheon. Afterward, I headed back to the River — Pfoho always hosts the Foundation for some reason — to visit Paul to check in on his marathon training. Its being St. Patrick’s day, we went to Tommy O’Doyle’s for a few Guinesses. Had not been a holiday, I wouldn’t’ve touched the stuff: I usually hate nitrogenated beers. We got there at 3pm. I left around 7pm, only to journey three hundred yards away to dine with Michelle, Mary, and Mary’s cousin visiting from Arizona by way of Colgate in New York Tracy. I was asleep by 11pm. So when Patrick called at 2:29am to wish me a Happy St. Patrick’s Day, I wasn’t exactly ready for it. But Pat has a long history of waking me up, and while I was slightly out of practice, I garnered enough consciousness to hold a ten minute conversation. Still, all the reasonable celebrants start drinking at 1pm and can’t continue well passed 9pm. Paul’s wisdom is comprehensive; St. Patrick’s Day is such an “amatuers’ holiday.”

That brings us to Saturday. I had missed out on my weekly Saturday lunches with Dan, Susannah, and Henry for the past couple of weeks. So yesterday I was determined to show up. Before I left, however, I had to run to the bank to deposit $990 in cash money into my account so that I could by DJ plane tickets to LA and Mazetlan, Mexico. I also had to purchase the tickets. We bought them, and a few flights and shafts at the dart store down the street from my house, and took off to the T. I read about homogenous reductive groups on the way. My understanding of Lie groups and algebras is pretty weak in general right now, and I’m working to fix it.

After lunch Stephanie and I crashed the Holi celebration that the South Asian [Indian] student group held to welcome the coming of spring — at least that’s what they claimed. No one cared much about the change in seasons as far as I could tell. They couldn’t. Cubidi, a game that reminds me of a sort of reverse Steal the Bacon meets Red Rover combined with tackle football with a little holding your breath under water on the side kind of disaster waiting to happen, commanded the focus of the room. Truly, children’s games played by competitive adults can be very dangerous, and therefore fun to watch and cheer. The electrifying thumping in the Indian techno coming from the DJ’s table in the middle of the room completed the experience. It also prompted many of the players to taunt the other team with funny bhangra dance gesticulations and silly faces.

To end Holi, we convened outside in the Mac Quad to smear colored powder scented with rose water all over each other in a mad dash of bright color [none of which really occurs naturally but somehow signifies spring quite fittingly] and screams. The only rule: stay away from the eyes, in the beginning. Arianne and Evan found me on the street on my way to the T. I splayed for them, as if I were a work of art. [I believe I was.] On the right side of my head I wore a blood red hand print. Joining the magenta, aquamarine, yellow, and purple, the red powder spoke, as if saying, “I fought a clown. To the death. And won.”

But that’s not all. After a shower and more boiled dinner that my sister had cooked, and cooked well, it was time to meet up with my high school friends to celebrate. For the most part Liz, Nick, and I sat in the corner, silently watching and mocking Kershner, our host. Periodically, there were swells of gossip. Mark got married yesterday; his fiancee is pregnant; Jessie is getting divorced — wait, Jessie was married? We just found out from her sister. Everyone knew about the baby, she had married the father to try to keep him in the country, but he got deported to Brazil, no one knows exactly why. Jenny and Kenny were twins, not cousins, and their last names did used to coincide. An old, widowed history teacher was marrying another teacher, but wasn’t she the mistress in an extramarital affair with another history teacher when we were in the sixth grade? Yeah, Kristin’s mom came in and yelled at him, exposing the whole thing, in reading class shortly after he had carressed Kristin’s hair in the lunch room. Mostly gossip, nothing especially new, mostly fun.

But ah, ha! Heidi works with preschoolers and third graders, but she spends her one-on-one with a very cute boy with Down syndrome. She says her experience at school has taught her a lot about education and parenting that she had never thought about before. Most exciting to me was her lambast against technology and its seizure of children’s toys. “None of these kids will play with a toy unless it beeps…they want the castles to look like castles…none of them has any imagination.” And Heidi’s observations are founded in lots of experimental and researched fact. Rather than spending more time and space to rant here, look for it later.

My dad and sister and I went out for our weekly Sunday brunch. This is when we catch up and I get into a fight with my dad about family principles, education, and life, in general. We just had a heated discussion about my seventeen year old cousin and her July pregnancy and what to do with the child. It’s left me fairly exhausted, and I need to start my statement of intent. I plan to use notation like this:

I know that I promised a letter to those near-sighted state representatives a week ago. I did draft it, and an op-ed for the Globe, but I haven’t had the time to sit down and edit them properly. It’s nearly 5pm already, so I’m not sure it’ll happen today. Soon, I promise, dear reader, soon.