Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

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Vote

3 Quarks Daily is currently holding voting for a politics prize for best blog writing on politics for 2009. Among other things, the competition gives you the opportunity to vote for the inimitable Roger Gathman, for a post from his News from the Zona blog. Roger’s political writing is complex, layered, and generally requires a buildup of associative strands that span many posts and gain increasing impact over time – whether you vote or not, I’d suggest reading more than the one nominated post, to get a better sense of how the work builds. There’s been some fantastic writing at News from the Zona over the past year, and I’ve unfortunately been too busy to respond here – thought I would at least take this opportunity to post a belated pointer to all the things I wish I’d been able to write about before…

The Platypus of Doom and Other Nihilists

Platypus of Doom jacket coverI just ran across AbeBooks’ Weird Book Room, which provides the titles and cover art for:

a celebration of everything that’s bizarre, odd and downright weird in books. Crazy cookbooks, unusual animal books, how to books that will teach skills you never knew you needed, books about hilarious hobbies, and books about every strange aspect of life you could possibly imagine and a few things you can’t imagine.

Here you can learn how to Bombproof Your Horse, explore the Thermodynamics of Pizza, find out the answer to the question Nuclear War, What’s in It for You?, and prepare for How to Survive a Robot Uprising. My personal favorite, though, is the surreal Platypus of Doom – and Other Nihilists. I learn from Wikipedia that this work is part of a set of novellettes that also includes The Armadillo of Destruction, The Aardvark of Despair, and The Clam of Catastrophe. Alas I have cover art only for the first… More information on the set here – but really the titles are food enough for thought…

[*sigh* My brain does not work properly on the schedule I have this term... I ran across this as a link from another site. I opened the link in a new tab, closed the original site, and didn't get around to reading the page for some time. All of which means I have no idea who to thank for pointing me to this page. If you have referenced the Weird Book Room recently, and if you think I'm likely to read you, make yourself known, and I'll hat-tip...]

Enjoy Your Symptom!

Okay, this is officially bad science week at Rough Theory… For those who haven’t seen this yet, I wanted to link to an article at TechCrunch on healthBase, which offers “Answers automatically retrieved from millions of authoritative health sources”. HealthBase’s search field invites you to “Enter a health condition, disease or sign”, so that its semantic search algorithms can aggregate information from across its various sources, in order to present to you a contextually appropriate list of treatments, causes, complications, and pros & cons of specific treatments.

Leena Rao from TechCrunch reports that, when users began exploring the new search engine, they found some… unexpected results. Specially, she reports that healthBase lists “Jew” as one of the causes of AIDS (please check the screenshots from the original piece). It gets better:

When you click on Jew, you can see proper “Treatments” for Jews, “Drugs And Medications” for Jews and “Complications” for Jews. Apparently, “alcohol” and “coarse salt” are treatments to get rid of Jews, as is Dr. Pepper! Who knew? I’ve included the screenshots of the results below if you don’t believe me.

The answers don’t seem motivated by anti-semitism, but by content aggregation that doesn’t adequately parse how the meaning of words can change in different contexts. Thus, as Rao reports further down, you get other, less charged, but equally nonsensical, results from other searches:

If you look at the pros of AIDS (yes, it thinks here are pros to having AIDS), it comically lists the “Spanish Civil War.”

Those responsible for healthBase are working on the problem and promise rapid improvements. Meanwhile, friends to whom I’ve passed on the link keep spamming me with their own favourite results. I’ve also enjoyed the results posted at jonquil’s site, where I originally saw the link to the TechCrunch article.

Edited to add: just to give a taste of what gets generated, I’ll include the result I added to the discussion over at Wildly Parentherical:

I got “pain” as a complication of “dying”…

Treating dying has certain pros, including: “achieve commercial success”, “fine surface finish”, “pioneer hip hop music”, and, my personal favorite: “add bonus die” (which, I suppose, is one way you could look at being brought back to life, if you were so inclined…)

If you’d rather not treat dying, perhaps you would prefer to avoid its causes, the first of which is apparently “ginger”…

See further commentary at davidrothman.net.

Wearing the Juice: A Case Study in Research Implosion

[Ed. 9 September: Now that events are unfolding a bit more slowly, and people have had a chance, for the most part, to learn about the basic facts, I've moved my on-the-fly updates to the bottom of the post, so that the original text is easier to find. I will try to update all the broken links next week.]

Original Post

A couple of people have sent me the link to this debacle of two researchers attempting to study what they call the “Cognitive Neuroscience of Fan Fiction” (further historical background here and here, collated links there, and information about the original research (which somehow doesn’t get around to mentioning that the research is designed – not for academic publication – but for a popular book whose working title is Rule 34: What Netporn Teaches Us About the Brain) in the researchers’ background information).

As someone looking on from outside the fan communities directly involved in this mess, the whole thing unfolds something like a live action version of the phenomenon Justin Kruger and David Dunning discuss in their “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” (1999, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 77, No. 6., p. 1121-1134).

Kruger and Dunning are interested in whether, below a certain level basic competence, it becomes very difficult for people to improve their skills – because they are, in fact, too incompetent to be able to tell the difference between competence and incompetence in the first place. They take as their point of departure the story of hapless bank robber McArthur Wheeler who – some of you will remember from my previous post on this article – robbed two banks in broad daylight without any disguise and, when arrested almost immediately based on the bank security footage, burst out: “But I wore the juice!” Mr. Wheeler was evidently under the impression that, by rubbing lemon juice on his face, he could conceal himself from security cameras (Kruger and Dunning 1999: 1122).

Assuming this mess is not some sort of elaborate research-themed performance art, or the result of a revenge-fuelled identity theft, researchers Ogi Ogas and partner Sai Chaitanya Gaddam are trying their best to demonstrate to the world that they are something like the academic research equivalent to Wheeler. They have blundered into an online community whose members write and read, among other things, erotically-themed fan fiction, and have presented community members with a poorly-designed questionnaire (now taken down, but for a while being modified on the fly as people lined up with complaints about the research design – participants have posted screenshots and a text version of the survey after its initial modifications – note that a number of the final option responses and some other warnings and qualifications seem to have been added in response to criticisms of the survey in its original form – the modifications are often palpably different in style from the original text).

Among many other problems, the questionnaire asks respondents to provide sensitive information about sexual habits, desires and fantasies, in a setting where the questionnaire could be accessed by minors, without – as far as I can tell – having vetted the research design with their university’s IRB (the researchers are currently being hounded across several websites with demands to answer the question of whether they did, in fact, submit the project for ethics review – while answering other questions, they have steadfastly ignored this one: quick suggestion that, if the researchers don’t mean to imply the answer is ‘no’, then they should probably address this question very explicitly, very soon). [Side note: there's a nice critical discussion of the limitations of IRB's that's been sparked by this whole mess: here.]

In the ongoing discussions now sprawled across a number of sites, the authors continue to dig this initial hole deeper by using terms regarded as offensive by members of the community (and, in one case, defending this because these are the terms that are standard in the sex industry – as Marx might say: !!!), by blithely demonstrating their own participation in widely-criticised assumptions about sexuality and presuppositions about gender, by demonstrating ignorance of basic facts about the community that could be gleaned from a quick skim of community sites, and by insisting on knocking back well-reasoned and absolutely on-target critiques by arguing that they are not doing “social research” and are not actually interested in the community anyway, other than as an example of a much more general phenomenon (these last, the researchers seem to believe, get them off the hook on ethical and basic research design requirements).

I’m not going to write my own critique of this mess: the community has already done this, eloquently, thoroughly – and, given the circumstances, with admirable patience. I am always warning my students when I teach research methods that something like this can happen – that this is why I’m so harsh on their research designs. Welcome to my new case study. I’m serious. I’m thinking of assigning parts of this trainwreck when I teach research methods next term.

I’m posting on this mainly because I’m wondering why the researchers have not apologised far more abjectly for having blundered into a community so ill-prepared – and possibly having ignored basic legal requirements and professional ethical standards governing their research. I am wondering if they are simply failing to register how devastating are the critiques being made of their work – perhaps because they are assuming these critiques have arisen defensively, due to strong affective attachments and loyalties within this particular community – or perhaps because they have “othered” this community so much that they aren’t sufficiently open to how badly they are being schooled here. Sai Gaddam’s university website suggests a potential vulnerability in this regard – let me quote from the source (apologies: I owe a poster in the original discussion a hat-tip for drawing attention to this, but unfortunately I’ve lost track of the comment – if you want to make yourself known, I’ll add a link):

My research interests have evolved over the years I have spent in the Ph.D program, but my derision for my subjects remains a constant. Well, not really, but this quote does make me smile.

The individual I chose as my principal subject for the experiments … was an old toothless man, with a thin face, whose features, without being absolutely ugly, approached ordinary triviality, and whose facial expression was in perfect agreement with his inoffensive character and his restricted intelligence.

The Mechanism of Human Facial Expression — Guillaume de Boulogne

So, for what it’s worth: I don’t belong to this community, but the criticisms being made of your ill-conceived research are excellent. Listen to them. You have tried wearing the juice. They’ve seen through it. It wasn’t the disguise you hoped it might be.

Updates:

[Ed. 7 September: Still no time to update the broken links below, but wanted to point to the discussion at metafilter, for those interested. ETA: and Neuroanthropology weighs in! - Twice!]

[Ed. 4 September: If people aren't aware, Ben Goldacre from Bad Science has referenced SurveyFail on Twitter, linking here and also to Alison Macleod's fantastic overview at The Human Element. Rushing at the moment - apologies for not responding yet to comments.]

[Ed. 4 September: Another day, a few more broken links. Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam seem to have had their websites removed from Boston University - not surprising, given the report that they are not affiliated with the university for purposes of this research project. Gaddam's blog has also been made private. The links I have below off their names therefore no longer point anywhere. Again: my schedule's too hectic to fix this right now, so just noting the problem. Some limited information about Ogas is included in his Wikipedia page, as a backup link... If the old Boston University pages end up being included in any of the screencaps collections currently being collated online, I'll restore links to those once I have time.

For folks interested in legs, this post has been picked up at Josh Jasper's blog at Publisher's Weekly, as well as at Alison Macleod's the human element. Macleod's blog has a very clear overview of how the whole thing unfolded, as well, for folks new to this whole mess and trying to get a sense of what happened.

Broken link clean-ups still days in the future, I'm afraid...]

[Ed. 3 Sept: Folks, just a note that the researchers have taken down their site - after an amazingly offensive final blowup that, honestly, must be seen to be believed... This will break a lot of the links I've posted below. I'll try to clean these up later, but for the time being, there's are a number of good summaries of the whole incident - now christened SurveyFail - see especially Yonmei's post at Feministsf.net, as well as a report of a response from the IRB at their university, which has disclaimed any affiliation with the project and asked the researchers not to use their uni emails or web addresses in conjunction with this activity. (My favorite part of the linked IRB discussion was the report that, when the IRB office was contacted directly: "Their exact words 'I had a feeling it would be about that.'") Links cleanup might have to wait a couple of days - schedule is awful at the moment...]

Social Metaphysics and Artificial Ontologies

It’s the first week of the term here, my department was moved just last week into a new building, and so I’m working out of boxes there and elsewhere. All of this adds up to very little time online – with most of the time I do have, caught up in administrative issues relating to the courses I’m teaching…

So once again I’d like to point to discussions elsewhere – Benjamin Noys writes on the metaphysics of labour, the problem of agency, and how to conceptualise critique without a “positive” standpoint. Reid Kane from Planomenology responds with a different take on how to conceptualise agency without a “positive” standpoint. I’ve made some brief contributions to both discussions – unfortunately far less substantive than I would like. But the original posts are far more substantive than my drive-by interventions, and so I wanted to point readers to the ongoing conversation.

Immanence and Materialism Conference Update

So as usual in the term break, I’ve been ill, and I’ve also been buried in the usual process of pulling courses together for the upcoming term. As a result, I’ve been remiss in posting the promised update on the papers from the Immanence and Materialism conference, some of which have now made their way online at the conference website. Good discussions of the conference themes are also underway at Daily Humiliation here and here, and at Duncan’s blog. Benjamin has written a particularly generous analysis of my paper at No Useless Leniency – one which takes the time to explore some of the implications of the paper for speculative realism, which I didn’t have time to discuss at the conference itself.

At some point, I will have time to blog again properly… But for the moment, plenty of interesting stuff to read elsewhere…

Refractions

Over at Limited, Inc., roger has just written one of those lovely comments from which it’s possible to draw a large amount of energy in an otherwise gruelling period. There are moments in the process of navigating the final stages of the thesis, where everything related to the work can look so familiar and worn that it becomes blurry whether I’m talking to anyone other than myself and uncertain whether the work “communicates” – not whether it communicates some particular content that I’m trying to convey, but more whether it sparks anything in other people, whether it generates anything useful or creative for anyone other than me. It’s a wonderful gift in these periods to receive the work refracted back, fresh and with a playful spin:

go to Rough Theory, who has been writing about the Grundrisse. As always, Marx, in her hands, begins to seem like a Henry James character – if James had only created a character with his own genius, instead of the subpar strivers from the upper class who never quite live up to the authorial voice in which they are caught. RT’s Marx is a man who is hyper-aware of epistemological traps, including the trap of thinking that there are just too many epistemological traps to make broad and monumental generalizations.

That final sentence may be my new favourite characterisation of Marx.

Crisis Archive

Apologies again for the lack of posting recently – I’ll try to join the fray again very soon, and am particularly keen to pick up on elements of the discussion currently unfolding in relation to my last post: soon.

In the meantime, I just wanted to archive a few introductory reference links on the crisis. First, if folks haven’t noticed it, there is a useful collection of orientational links on the crisis being collected at a new blog titled The Money Meltdown, which is geared to non-specialist readers trying to make sense of the crisis. Lumpenprof has recently raised the question of how to discuss elements of the crisis with undergraduate students – I had suggested the Giant Pool of Money episode from This American Life was an accessible and interesting way “in” to the crisis for undergraduates – I haven’t had a chance to look at the transcript to the more recent follow-up episode, but would guess that wouldn’t be a bad bet either. Some useful historical notes on the crisis can be found in this piece by R.D. Congleton.

I’ll do something less… referential very soon. Unfortunately, since I can’t really pull myself out of thesis space right now, my comments will most likely be more abstract and non-specific to this particular situation than I would like to make them. If others have links they’d like to recommend on the crisis, please feel free to post them here – with a quick indication, if you could, of what the linked material discusses and why you would recommend it.

Many thanks…

Resolve and Resignation

Mikhail Emelianov from Perverse Egalitarianism has a new post up on New (Academic) Year Resolutions – a post which he has spun mimetically, asking for responses from a few of us who are known to lurk around those parts… Mikhail resolves to (or wishes for the ability to?) include more complex material in his courses, spend more time on research, and wear a bow tie: what more could any academic want?

Since I live in an inverted country, Mikhail’s tap actually hits me in the middle of my academic year, rather than at the start – making me uncertain whether this gives me an advantage, in that, whatever resolutions I make, I only have to keep for something like another seven weeks… Or whether, weighed down as I am from the detritus of this year and this term, it simply makes it more difficult for me to find any resolve whatsoever… I find myself wondering whether I should perhaps make resolutions about what I would like to have achieved… before the next academic year begins?

First… there is a veritable mountain (well… perhaps more an imposing molehill… but still…) of pieces I need to finalise, in order to send them off for review, where kind reviewers will no doubt shoot them back to me with quite a lot more work still pending than I would hope. I consider this a short-term resolution: something I have resolved to do during this term – during, in fact, the next few weeks… Resolution: that I will actually keep my own deadline.

Second… the current draft of the thesis needs to be completed. Notice the lack of agency in that sentence. The thesis is the actor… It needs to be completed. My resolution, evidently, is agnostic about who, specifically, needs to do the completing… Nevertheless. Completion needs to happen. Actually, technically, it doesn’t – not quite yet – I have more time. But I don’t want more time. So my resolution, I suppose, is to stick to my own deadline, rather than waiting for impending administrative doom to compel completion. So: resolution: thesis, by the end of the Australian summer.

Third… to choose something genuinely removed from my control: I would like to know, before the beginning of the next academic year, that I have a “next academic year”… My current contract ends with the proper calendar year, and so I must soon begin sorting through that overwhelming deluge of desperate job offers that immediately confronts all academics from the humanities and social sciences, as soon as they enter the job market… Right. Resolution: that someone else will resolve that I shouldn’t be summarily expelled from academic space.

So… two resolutions about keeping my own deadlines, and one… wild gesture of random hope…

Not sure whether Mikhail intends this to be passed along further… I’ll open it to the gallery – feel free to add your own resolutions here and elsewhere, if the mood strikes…

The (Updated) Gist

For those who have despaired of finding time to read my thesis drafts, perhaps a Wordle of the first chapter might convey the gist:

word cloud of the first thesis chapter

Hat tip Dead Voles.

I wonder if I can submit one of these in place of an abstract? Perhaps I should ask Wildly, who has a post up with the alarming words: “Yesterday, when I made the final change to my thesis”… Does this mean there is a new doctor in the ‘sphere? :-)

Updated to add that Carl from Dead Voles suggests a pedagogical application for Wordle:

I imagine requiring students a week before an early-semester paper is due to come to class with a wordle printout of their introductory paragraph. I would then put them in work groups and have them attempt to interpret each others’ wordles to see how close they could get to the author’s intended meaning. In the process I think they would be clarifying in their own minds what ‘extra’ is needed beyond mere words to communicate a meaning and frame an argument. The additional benefit is that this would move their procrastination window up a week.

(Perhaps I shouldn’t mention that there is a certain… resemblance between Carl’s suggestion, and one of my actual assessment tasks this term, which allows students to post extremely rough and schematic notes about course assessments to a blog – precisely with the intention, as Carl phrases it above, to move up the procrastination window… My version is significantly less attractive for students to distribute to their peers…)

Carl also suggests a group exercise for the readers of both blogs: comparing only the wordles of Carl’s dissertation chapters, and my own – what would readers suggest are the primary differences between our work? :-)

And Carl suggests a different sort of exercise – one that seems strangely topical for the dissertations of L Magee or G Gollings: how would one redesign Wordle to take into account relations, as well as frequencies, among the words?

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