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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Why your friends appear better than you

A cool insight from network theory I've learned recently: on average, your friends will have a greater number of friends than you do. They are likely to have more followers on Twitter, more "likes" on Facebook, and more viewers on their posts. And according to this research, they are likely to be wealthier and happier too. I am told this paradox holds true for 98% of the population.

But that's no reason to think you suck, only that it's the way selection works: you are more likely to connect with people who are socially connected precisely because they are socially connected. That is, you're friends are not a random sample of the population but selected from some positive characteristics. So you end up having a higher number of better connected, and perhaps wealthier and happier, friends.

It's a simple but nice observation to remember next time you observe that others always seem to be doing better than you. You're probably making a wrong generalization: your friends might be doing better, but they are a select sample of individuals from the whole population. It's also a good lesson on not generalizing based only on personal experience.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Would we have censored Rizal?

The recent debate online over free speech/hate speech in light of the Charlie Hebdo attack, with one side emphasizing the limits to free speech and the other vigorously defending this right, even when used in an offensive manner, reminds me of Jose Rizal (how could it not?) and whether we would have said the same things about his writings had we lived in his time.

After all, Rizal wrote subversively and offensively. Regard him for a moment not as the national icon as we see him today but as writer, and consider this excerpt from Noli me tangere in which he presents clergy erotica. In this scene, Padre Salvi is hiding behind the bushes, spying on women, and acting as voyeur. Rizal provides an account of what the friar sees:
Their legs were up to the knees, the wide folds of their bathing skirts outlining the gracious curves of their thighs. Their hair hung loose and their arms were bare. They wore striped gay-colored blouses... Pale and motionless, the religious Actaeon (i.e. Padre Salvi,) watched this chaste Diana (i.e. Maria Clara): his sunken eyes glistening at the sight of her beautifully molded white arms, the graceful neck ending in a suggestion of a bosom. The diminutive rosy feet playing in the water aroused strange sensations and feelings in his impoverished, starved being and made him dream of new visions in his fevered mind.
This is mild compared to the overly graphical sexual images one sees today, but as eminent scholar Ambeth Ocampo assures me, the above text reflects what would have been considered sexual in those days: bare arms, a good neck, and tiny rosy feet. Rizal lived in an older, more conservative period. I can imagine the uproar this caused to clergy and people.

So was this irresponsible use of freedom of expression? Would we have agreed to censor Rizal?

I am divided. While I agree that we should not probably sacralize the work of Charles Hebdo, I am uneasy as well of the suggestion of some (at least in my social network) that we must promote a certain type of censorship of the irreverent, subversive, blasphemous, and offensive. For in fact, Rizal, in his writings, was irreverent, subversive, blasphemous, and offensive too. It would have been a shame if we silenced him.

Monday, January 5, 2015


Although I didn't get to read as many books as I should have in 2014, my pick of the year is Adichie's Americanah. It's that book on the migration experience that I could finally relate to. It traces the story of a Nigerian immigrant in America, the sacrifices she had to face of leaving people behind, the culture shock, the reluctant adjustment to American life, and eventual return home. All that, plus you get a long distance love story.

I suspect many of those who've spent some time abroad will see themselves reflected. At least for me, it reminded me of my very first experiences in the US and some early revelations:
  1. You do not tell your life story when asked "How are you?" because people often only mean to say "Hi."
  2. You may call your boss by their first name.
  3. Bagels are amazing for breakfast and lunch (and for some days in 2009, I actually had bagels for breakfast AND lunch).
The book is an easy read but fleshes out some serious migration issues. My favorite is this back-and-forth on the "brain drain," and why the usual policy prescription raises ethical concerns.
“Speaking of which, I’ve just got involved with this fantastic charity that’s trying to stop the UK from hiring so many African health workers,” Alexa said. “There are simply no doctors and nurses left on that continent. It’s an absolute tragedy! African doctors should stay in Africa.” 
“Why shouldn’t they want to practice where there is regular electricity and regular pay?” Mark asked, his tone flat. Obinze sensed that he did not like Alexa at all. “I’m from Grimsby and I certainly don’t want to work in a district hospital there.”  
“But it isn’t quite the same thing, is it? We’re speaking of some of the world’s poorest people. The doctors have a responsibility as Africans,” Alexa said. “Life isn’t fair, really. If they have the privilege of that medical degree then it comes with a responsibility to help their people.”  
“I see. I don’t suppose any of us should have that responsibility for the blighted towns in the north of England?” Mark said.
Overall, an intelligent and entertaining novel by Adiche. See also her TED talk on the danger of a single story.