Saturday, May 31, 2008

Economy and Narrative

Hot on the heels of Susan Jacoby’s paean (“The Age of American Unreason”) to some lost world where ideas were sacrosanct—or at least the uneducated had a more genteel respect for eggheadedness—comes Mark Bauerlein’s “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future... Like Jacoby, the problem is technology’s withering effect on deep processing of complex ideas.

There is nothing terrifically new here, though. Neil Postman decried television’s numbing and dumbing effect in “Amusing Ourselves to Death” in the 80s. If only kids had the time and inclination to read deeply they would be able to recall more facts about culturally importance events. If only they set down the cell phone and remote they would be able to recall the major players in World War II. If only they stopped text messaging they might grasp the compact beauty of poetry. If only…

I’m reminded of my first encounter with Goethe or Bellow or Pynchon, where the notion that writing could be more than just the transparent conveyance of a storyline first started to fixate in my youthful mind. I certainly hope that young people get to encounter the art of writing that is skillfully great, whether in prose, poetry or even information design.

I should also wave my hand over my copies of Claude Levi-Strauss, Jane Jacobs, Jung, Heinz Pagels, Chomsky, Jacob Bronowsky, Hillary Putnam, David Chalmers, Doug Hofstadter, Pinker, Dennett, and a myriad other popularizers and integrators of complex social and scientific ideas. There is equal artfulness in integrating disparate facts and ideas into a cohesive view that lends itself to the successive narration of chapter upon chapter.

But I would like to suggest that far too many of the latter are quaintly wrong or irrelevant today as science has unfolded further. They were derived from abduction over limited new facts to cover murky unknowns and were therefore largely doomed to factual attack as the murk was clarified by new experiments, observations and theory. Even their very narrative structure is subject to examination in that it forces the alignment of multiple research paradigms into a single narrative thread that always serves to reinforce the central thesis, regardless of how many other implications arise that fall outside the narrative flow.

In some ways it is the scientific research paper that serves as perhaps the best example of how ideas can be expressed with the maximum respect for the limitations of understanding because they force an exceptional economy on the narrative to avoid speculation, or at least to provide speculation without substituting narration for fully supported propositional constructs.

So there is nothing inherently dumbing about a diminished role for the long-form narrative (except perhaps in conveying the art of narrative itself). Whether a similar effect will save the text-messaging generation remains to be seen.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Assault and Ambiguity

It began with a chance encounter. I was walking through a room with a TV on and a news caption was running during a commercial break. The newscaster intoned with provocative seriousness how a woman had followed a man who had sexually assaulted her weeks earlier to his home and he had been arrested. The location was my town and it rang a bell.

Three weeks back my wife and I went to a doctor’s appointment in Lafayette and, as we returned and entered our neighborhood, we were surprised to see a half-dozen police cars in our otherwise perfectly tame patchwork of planned homes and parks. During a walk two hours later there was still a squad car on one side street. A scan of the police blotter turned up the cause: a woman walking with her toddler had been assaulted and groped by a man who ran away when struck in the groin with a sippy cup.

Weeks passed until I overheard the news of the arrest. Good for her! The next phase of datamining impressed me with the thoroughness of the picture. I was able to use the television station archives combined with Google to find the mug shots, the original sketch of the suspect done by police sketch artists, the suspect’s arrest status in the county courts system, the location of the alleged perpetrator’s house, the suspect’s father’s name and place of business, the suspect’s mother’s name and place of business, a previous citation of the suspect for a moving violation (infraction) in a neighboring city, the county records concerning the amount and type of mortgage held on the suspect’s home, and a satellite view of the home as well.

Amusingly, also, was that the reporter in the news piece actually drove by our house and coincidently filmed our various vehicles. I could likely have read the license plates if I wanted from the footage.

Overall, I had managed to scour out all the corners of ambiguity concerning when, where, who and how, leaving only the strange question of why left in fuzziness. Why was this 24-year-old still living at home, jogging at midday and preying on middle-aged women? Why was he living in this neighborhood where even a Megan’s Law offender is fairly hard to find?

But strangely, it was the suspect’s last name that was the key to developing the search picture because the last name was so unusual. Had he been “Jim Smith” or “Joe Sanchez” or “Mike White” it would have been virtually impossible to make as much headway in extinguishing ambiguity. George Miller is quoted something like “There is only one problem in Artificial Intelligence: words have more than one meaning.” (And I can’t resolve the ambiguity of the source of that quote because George Miller is too ambiguous). This problem is amplified for searching across identities of places and people, or when special identifiers are introduced as placeholders in a single document (this happens quite often in technical literature where an acronym is used locally as a technical shorthand but is ambiguous outside that document or domain). Moving to the level of folksonomies for, say, labeling pictures on the web, we see the problem exasperated by the natural telegraphic shorthand that any labeling scheme suggests to the user purely by dint of the size of the entry fields.

Clever approaches to trying to apply context to help address these limitations start with statistical co-occurrence-based disambiguation and linkage analysis, and then run all the way through to using complex ontologies to try to infer the best relabeling of the ambiguous entity or concept as a canonical identifier. None of these methods can hope to achieve any level of perfection but a basket of them can enhance the process of information discovery and disambiguation.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Race and Empathy

But back to ethics. If there is any validity to the idea that modern values have been shaped by increased exposure to images and video of other people, thus removing the barrier of unfamiliarity that allows us to treat others instrumentally, then we should see the vestiges of that unfamiliarity quotient in various social problem areas. Indeed, we do:

American Journal Psychiatry 165: 560-561, May 2008

Recognizing Each Other and the Effects of Racial Differences

Carl C. Bell, M.D.

In this issue of the Journal, Pinkham et al. report findings on own-race and other-race effects in their research on facial recognition in schizophrenia. They highlight the troubling finding in previous studies that African Americans with schizophrenia had greater impairment in recognizing and remembering emotions in faces, compared with Caucasian schizophrenia patients. The authors point out that these previous studies showed only Caucasian faces as test stimuli—a major procedural flaw that no one had anticipated. Pinkham et al. designed a better study in which test subjects—both Caucasians and African Americans with schizophrenia as well as comparison subjects of both races—were shown both Caucasian and African American faces as test stimuli. The authors found that the capacity to recognize and remember emotions in faces is no different between Caucasians and African Americans, whether they have schizophrenia or not. But memory for the faces and discrimination of emotions in them are higher when the study subject is of the same race as the person expressing the facial emotion.
Some interesting follow-on questions for investigation: Would exposure to multi-ethnic faces early enough reduce the emotion discrimination deficit? Is there a learning window? Are there differences between subgroups (more integrated communities show lower deficits)? What is the impact on eyewitness subject identification across racial lines?