All posts by Jesse

I'm a Data Scientist and also a fine artist living in San Antonio, TX.

Aesthetic Epistemology: A Review of Erna Fiorentini’s Article “Inducing Visibilities…”

By Jesse Jinna Ruiz

Original article:Inducing visibilities: An attempt at Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s aesthetic epistemology” / Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 42 (2011) 391–394 1

Fiorentini’s study on the scientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the father of neuroscience, introduces the idea of “aesthetic epistemology” to describe the method by which Cajal studied histology. Histology is the study of the anatomy of cells and tissues of plants and animals using microscopy and hence by its very nature it is a field of study where we cannot directly observe the thing studied.

“Aesthetic epistemology” describes a form of knowledge production where visualizations are created to make something visible that was hidden to the observer and also improve the sensibility of the observer. Around 1887 Cajal improved upon a staining technique to make visible the neuronal structures of the human cerebral cortex, a part of the body so densely packed with neurons that it cannot be viewed with standard microscopic tools. By using this staining method and creating extensive detailed drawings of his findings, Cajal was able to “induce visibility” or create visualizations of test results that he then pieced together to represent deeper knowledge about them. Hence, Cajal created drawings that represented the information found in the staining technique results as posited visualizations of the actual (invisible) neurons. His aim was not to show what a neuron in the cerebral cortex looked like but also to explain the whole system and its functions.

This process of extracting and visualizing data to form knowledge is what Fiorentini terms “aesthetic epistemology”. In her own words, “Cajal’s highly sophisticated drawings do not reproduce a given three-dimensional visibility, but rather induce an advanced form of it.” (Fiorentini, p. 393) Hence, Fiorentini argues, the induction of visibility requires not only advanced visualization techniques but those visualizations are constitutive of forms of knowledge production. “Cajal’s strategy of visibility induction referred to rational and aesthetic visual sensibility likewise, and considered both to be constitutive elements of knowledge production.” (Fiorentini, p. 394) Part of this process entails an aesthetic of sorts because the artist-scientist rendered drawings by hand, teasing out knowledge through the very process of drawing.

Looking at Cajal’s drawings side by side with recent brain imaging visualizations shows the surprising accuracy by which Cajal was able to induce visualizations of the neurons in the cerebral cortex.

(1) & (2) From Erna Fiorentini’s Article “Inducing visibilities: An Attempt at Santiago Ramon y Cajal’s aesthetic epistemology”1(3) Golgi-stained neurons from somatosensory cortex in the macaque monkey. 2007.

The concept of inducing visualizations is an implicit part of data visualization within data science. Data is typically divorced from the things that they quantify, and typically data visualizations are representations of the numbers but not the subject described by those numbers. In other words, merely maps, graphs and charts. Hence, data visualization specialists typically rely on writing to create meaningful stories about data.

Cajal’s work shows the promise and possibility of using art as a form of knowledge production. It is apt for data visualization specialists to use the concept of inducing visibilities and aesthetic epistemology to incorporate aesthetics and art practices into their work whenever possible. It is also highly encouraged that artists learn to become not only data literate but experts in data science in order to pave the way for advancement in the field of data visualization.

Book Review: Embodied Cognition by Lawrence Shapiro

By Jesse Jinna Ruiz

Embodied Cognition by Lawrence Shapiro is a thorough and incredibly useful introduction to the emergent philosophical field called embodied cognition. Shapiro discusses three major schools of thought currently competing in the problem space of cognition. These schools are umbrellas for different hypotheses, which are competing against the standard cognitive science approach to cognition.

The standard cognitive science approach to cognition analyzes cognition in terms of computations. In this way, the body is a kind of receiver of information and cognition emerges from the computational processes that happen between the body and the world. The result is a focus on these computational processes and less concern with the interaction between the body and its environment.

The first school of thought competing against standard cognitive science is the conceptualization hypothesis. Instead of just receiving information from the world, computing things and so forth, the conceptualization hypothesis says that the unique constitution of the human brain and body gives us certain concepts that give rise to cognition. The body is seen as a unique interpreter of stuff through which we get cognition and every unique type of body (e.g. species of animal) has specific cognitive abilities in virtue of its body.

The second school of thought competing against standard cognitive science is the replacement hypothesis which directly aims to replace the standard cognitive science approach to cognition. The replacement theorists think its methods and theory are better because they do not see cognition as computational but instead as a dynamic and constant relation between body, world and mind. In this way, the body is a dynamic system deeply intertwined with its environment.

The third and last school of thought competing against standard cognitive science is the constitution hypothesis, which aims to show that cognition extends beyond the mind. The body is a hybrid of both its mind (internal to the body) and things outside the mind (like other parts of the body or even things outside the body). So instead of cognition as a computational model where the body receives stimuli from its environment through its body, the body is a unified whole with different components and cognition takes place within the mind but also extends beyond the brain to different component parts.

Now, these hypotheses all have their objects of study. I won’t go into the studies themselves because it gets confusing pretty fast. However, in the concluding remarks, Shapiro assesses the strengths and weaknesses of each school. The hypothesis that comes out on top is the constitution hypothesis because it can work in harmony with standard cognitive science and contribute beneficial insights to the robust and plentiful methodologies and tools of standard cognitive science. This book is a great introductory book for an academic setting or for highly motivated readers who are interested in the philosophical ramifications of cognition. However, the bulk of the material is not easy to get through if you have little to no experience with philosophy or cognitive science fields.

Book Review: All You Can Pay: How Companies Use Our Data to Empty Our Wallets

By Jesse Jinna Ruiz

All You Can Pay: How Companies Use Our Data to Empty Our Wallets explains how Big Data companies are not just emptying our wallets but changing our world. Authors Anna Bernasek and D.T. Mongan illustrate through easy to understand stories and thoughtful analysis how the use of data is changing the economy. From price discrimination to dynamic pricing and customization, Big Data is dismantling the traditional free market economy.

But what is the free market and why does it matter? The free market is a market where buyers and sellers “willingly exchange goods and services for mutual benefit.” (p.172) This supposed perfect free market is hypothetical because nothing is actually perfect. But we rely on the free market to establish a few conditions: (1) there’s a large number of buyers and sellers who have power of choice to exchange goods, (2) there’s no transaction costs, (3) there are commodity products on the market (meaning there are lots of products to choose from), and (4) everything runs on information (and hopefully, everyone has access to that information). But as we can guess, the Big Data companies breakdown all of the conditions of the free market.

In a perfect world, everyone would have access to information equally and no one would be able to take advantage of someone because of information. But this doesn’t really exist—not even in the free market—and the Big Data giants increasingly have all the power with access to our data. The Big Data companies also have the power to impose transaction costs and control other aspects of pricing. “Product customization, opaque pricing, and complex contracts are poised to expand from their natural origins in the world of services to all other sectors of the economy.” (p.177) And eventually “the macroeconomic effect of the end of the free market will be a general rise in price levels as the masters of data capture enormous profits. To the consumer, it will be something like living in an airport.” (p.179)

Bernasek and Mongan explain all the mechanisms of control and power that the Big Data companies hold with their data capabilities. The problem is that there is little government oversight and little public knowledge of this growing problem. So the first thing readers should take away from this book is that data is a property that belongs to the people. The authors call for readers to take more responsibility in fighting for the property rights associated with data. “All data is property.” (p.197) And the authors call for collective actions to take control over our data before it’s too late.

There are two tools in particular that the authors cite to achieve successful collective action: the law of property and the law of contract. “Personal data, particularly intimate, extensive, panoptic data, is a physical reality. Data is touchable and ownable. And it seems unarguable that deeply identifying personal data, the granular portraits of our lives and personalities made possible by big data, is owned by the individual it relates to. That data can be sold or rented or regulated according to personal choice. And that’s where the law of contract comes in. Individuals can contractually control the use of their data.” (p.215) All You Can Pay illuminates ethical concerns of data-driven corporations, educates on the economic impact of Big Data and recommends ways to control and alleviate the power imbalance. Read this book if you want to learn more about the economic mechanisms behind data-driven business, the ethical questions that result, and learn part of the history of how data giants became what they are today.

All the Money I Spent in NYC in 2011-12 (And Why I’ll Never Live There Again)

I first moved to NYC in 2006 to attend college at the age of 18. I was very privileged in that my parents paid for everything. After college, I set out to become an artist and the first thing I did was moved from the Upper West Side to Flatbush, Brooklyn.

I worked as a babysitter and I paid for all of my expenses. No more help from mom and dad. I had a one-bedroom apartment that I shared with a friend who lived in the living room. I also rented a studio space to paint in. I didn’t make enough money to survive so I had to rely on other (sporadic) forms of income and being extremely cheap.

My exit strategy was to go to graduate school. I spent the entire summer and fall preparing my applications to graduate schools. In the winter and spring of 2012, I was struggling financially and looking forward to moving out of Brooklyn. After getting accepted into graduate school, I finally left Brooklyn in July of 2012. I lived in Brooklyn for just over a year.

So here is the data… I recorded every single penny that I spent while I lived in Brooklyn from October 2011 – July 12, although the time I actually lived there was May ’11 – July ‘12. This data focuses only on expenses, not earnings, because I earned some of this money through very shady means, which I am not proud of, because one of my jobs was suddenly cut because of layoffs. Nevertheless, the good things that came out of this period are that I learned how to manage my own finances on a very tight budget and I learned the NYC hustle. Rent was my biggest expense at $500 a month. I shared a one-bedroom apartment with a friend. It cost $1000 total in Sunset Park, Brooklyn in 2011. I lived in the bedroom and my friend lived in the living room. We split the rent evenly because my friend was generous. But it was not the most comfortable living arrangement. The second biggest expense was food, including cost of groceries, restaurants/eating out, and snacks/food on the go. This accounted for between 10-30% of my monthly expenses. Next, a monthly unlimited metro ticket was $104 and sometimes I had to spend more if I lost it. Finally, I spent a good amount of my income on both my art studio and art supplies, sometimes up to 16% of my monthly expenses but not any more than that.

Chart of monthly expenses living in Brooklyn, NY
Chart of monthly expenses living in Brooklyn, NY

Over the course of 10 months, the two biggest anomalies occurred during Christmas holidays and during my move out of Brooklyn in July. In December, I spent extra money on a plane ticket home, gifts and mailing gifts. Similarly, in July, I spent money on an airplane ticket, mailing all of my belongings (about 30 boxes) via USPS to my new home, and hotel costs.

Plot of Total Expenses Over Time

Overall, I was able to consistently keep my monthly expenses below $1800. But there was an upward trend to spend more as I lived in Brooklyn longer excluding the month of July when I moved. This was accounted for by a change in my living situation. I got a new roommate and I elected to pay more for rent because I lived in the private bedroom. Perhaps I also got better at tracking my expenses too.

Granted, if I stayed in Brooklyn, I could have found a better job to live more securely and earn more income. But this was in 2012. Cost of living has sky rocketed since then. For a single artist with no debt, living so cheaply in NYC is possible but, let’s be honest, living in purely survival mode is no way to live.

It was beautiful to live in an artistic epicenter like Brooklyn. I learned a lot about myself and about making a living. But I would not choose to live there again because of the financial struggles. First, the cost of living is exorbitantly high. Second, the quality of life is poor—read: smelly, loud, dangerous and stressful. Third, I was far from my family. Fourth, I didn’t have reliable income. Fifth, the weather sucked. Again, I love Brooklyn but I would never live here again – not even if I were making boat loads of money. Why? Because I can live on a similar budget very comfortably in many different places. The costs of living in NYC are just too many.

Plot of expenses broken down by category over time

Women in Technology

By Jesse Jinna Ruiz

In a scholarship application for a coding boot camp, I was asked the following question and it really bugged me for a few reasons:

In a traditionally male dominated field, what benefits do you think women can bring to the class environment and technology field? What makes you the most deserving candidate for the scholarship?

Here was my response:

There are two answers to this question that address what is asked. The first answer accepts the premise there’s something inherently different between men and women. And traditionally, most people accept this premise and a response might list the inherently different and beneficial qualities of “women” to include, for example, diverse group dynamics and work styles, solid managerial qualities, strong empathetic perspectives and etc.

However, the second type of answer would not accept the premise that there is something inherently different between men and women and would even go so far as to argue, in a radical feminist fashion, that the qualities of “women” and “men” are not consistent with gender but instead social constructs that societal/cultural norms instill in artificial types (‘men’ and ‘women’).

Obviously, I side on the radical feminist perspective to answer this almost misogynistic question about what benefits women might bring to the table (if only they had shot). Women bring benefits to their work or class environment as much as any other person no matter their gender. But not categorically women qua women.

The question isn’t a bad one for a scholarship application, but it is discouraging to ask what women can contribute to the technology field. What about other gendered folx? What have women already contributed to the field? And what can men or persons in positions of power and privilege do to enable minorities to impact the field? These are the real questions that should be asked.

 So herein lies the answer to the deeper question: people learning/working in the technology field or any field should acknowledge the disparities of race, gender and sexual orientation on larger scales. And people in power should exercise their influence and authority to institutionally empower women, minorities and other gendered folx within the field and change that field and society in turn. The field can benefit itself by stripping away barriers and assumptions that have been taught through generational stereotypes/norms. This work needs to happen institutionally.

I don’t believe men and women are inherently different. I think society constructs limitations and barriers and institutions and businesses can fight and correct them. Being a gay, biracial cis-woman who just entered the technology field, I want to work with people that respect and acknowledge the need for equality and dignity for all. And I’d like to exist in any place as myself and not a gender.