Experts and empathy

I recently had a chance to interact with the healthcare system in a way other than routine preventive care or straightforward injury, and it was an interesting reminder about how people outside a system may relate to experts. I think of doctors as experts on the health system of my body, people I consult about what I need to do to stay healthy and what the best way to proceed is if I become ill or otherwise in need of care, because they’re educated in that particular system. But part of that consultation process and trust is that I expect them to be able to explain intelligibly what’s going on and why they’re making the recommendations they are.

I recently encountered a doctor who had initially given good care, but who gave me conflicting and unclear information about why he was making a particular recommendation for followup, despite the fact that I had spent time trying to carefully and kindly appreciate the information he did give and his effort made to keep me informed while also articulating my doubts and questions. He also became somewhat defensive and dismissive when I asked for more information, and I became frustrated very quickly. Being dismissed is a huge hot button for me personally, so this behavior poisoned the well very quickly and I ended up asking my regular PCP to weigh in as a second opinion on the best way to proceed.

This was an interesting experience for me, because once I was able to disengage from it a little bit emotionally, I realized that this is a very easy trap for an expert to get into, and it’s not unlike a type of unhelpful thinking I can get into in my role in technical support. When you navigate a system all the time, you know how it works, and it’s easy to be impatient when people don’t know how it works, or don’t understand the obvious-to-you value of your recommendations. But to be most effective in an expert role, you absolutely have to constantly use empathy to understand why the person consulting you wants to know something, and what they want to know, and how to communicate what they need to know in a way that’s going to be effective for them. Any time you neglect that effort, you’re likely to leave someone unsatisfied.

It doesn’t mean that answering their questions perfectly literally is always right, and it also doesn’t mean that answering the same question the same way is always right. Someone else asking this doctor the same question might have been looking for reassurance — I wasn’t. Or they might have been totally satisfied with “I just think it’s a good idea”. I wasn’t. This doctor missed an opportunity to pay attention, and notice what I might need. As experts, we miss these opportunities every day if we’re too wrapped up in ourselves and our competence and our opinions to see what the other person needs. It’s a sobering reminder that the hardest part of being an expert isn’t being an expert (although that’s plenty hard in itself) — it’s using that expertise to help others effectively.

Twitter and context collapse

Returning to a theme I’ve explored previously, I recently encountered two pieces about Twitter and context:

Justine Sacco is good at her job, and how I came to peace with her
Forced context collapse or the right to hide in plain sight

The two pieces explore different aspects of the theme, but both of them are partially about what I’ve previously called notability (see more thoughts on this in part II). Notability makes the likelihood of context collapse — things you do or say in one social context (where you might have many meaning cues) percolating out to others (where you often don’t) — much higher.

Twitter makes content produced by millions of different people both publicly-available (if not publicly-owned) and accessible (there’s that notion of accessibility again). Reporters then pick and choose from that content to create stories. Sometimes they create scandal sensations like Biddle did with Sacco. He was able to do that because he didn’t have any context for what she wrote, and without context, it could be read as being horrible. Almost all of us, from time to time, say things that can be read this way (as the author of the article later found out, when he did it). Sometimes we say them in the safety of a context that doesn’t collapse easily.

Sometimes we forget, and we say them in a medium where context collapses are easy. As Tressie’s piece points out, whether journalists have a legal or moral right to take advantage of this — either to do quality reporting, as I’m sure many of them do, or to create scandals or quick-and-easy thinkpieces or funny articles/listicles (ala Buzzfeed) is a somewhat complex question. One of the things that Tressie’s piece seems to be asking, to me, is whether journalists have the moral right to make someone notable, either at all, or because of something they did or said on Twitter. Do we have the right to hide in plain sight? We have difficulty having good conversations about this because of the slipperiness of the language around it, the issue I tried to address when writing my posts, and an issue that Tressie also raises in her tripartite division of the question: legal authority, moral authority, and economic responsibility.

Notability is an interesting part of that area of inquiry, because journalists often make people notable (although of course a lot of the time they merely write about people who are already notable). But usually in the past, you had some idea that you were about to become notable, because they wrote a story about you or about an issue you were highly involved in, interviewed you or at least asked you to review it…all those things journalists usually do when they do stories about or heavily involving people. Even so, sudden notability in the era of the Internet can have effects people don’t anticipate. But what if you have no idea you’re about to become notable? I wouldn’t be too surprised if my Twitter feed contains things I wouldn’t really want broadcast to the world, in spite of the fact that technically speaking I did broadcast them to the world. The context of people who read my Twitter feed is small (425 accounts right now, according to my widget) and it’s biased toward people I personally know, and who therefore have some idea of what I’m like, and what kinds of things I’m likely to say and think. People who can guess whether I’m being ironic.

To quote Tressie:

I sign up for Twitter assuming the ability to hide in plain sight when my amplification power is roughly equal to a few million other non-descript [sic] content producers. Media amplification changes that assumption and can do so without my express permission.

When I’m unnotable, my content being both publicly-available and easily accessible doesn’t matter. If I suddenly become notable, it does. If I make myself notable or embark on an activity likely to make me notable, that’s one thing — I have the chance to consider the possibility of context collapse before I experience it. If someone else does it for me, using their power they strip me of the chance to consider that it might not be possible anymore for me to hide in plain sight (a description I like for what it means to be unnotable). And not only journalists do this but other private citizens (Gamergate harassment being one of the hugely scary examples of this recently).

What happened here, I think, is that we all (by which I mean, anyone who publishes their thoughts on the Internet such that they’re publicly available) became published authors, at the same time as it became far easier to spread published information (and the two changes are obviously closely intertwined). Any published author has always been at risk of this type of stripping of context since their words can be taken out of their original work and quoted and spread. When becoming an author was a process, becoming notable was a known possible (and maybe often desired) quality of it. Now that it’s not much of a process, most of us just aren’t thinking of the possible consequences when we undertake it.

Even more stickily, it’s frequently legal to republish something published, under the doctrine of fair use, although it depends on what use you’re putting it to exactly. More practically, it’s very difficult to get people to stop doing that once they start, if the content generates a strong social reaction. If someone takes a tweet of mine and publishes it in a related news story, how likely am I to get it taken out? Not freaking very. This story chronicles one photographer’s attempt to get Buzzfeed to compensate him for use of a copyrighted photo. It was a lot of effort, and that’s a case where it’s much clearer that the site needs to get permission (because it’s a full reproduction of a copyrighted piece of content for commercial gain, and because licensing terms on Flickr are more clearly spelled out than they are for tweets).

We don’t have an existing legal right, that I know of, to hide in plain sight unless we consent to fame. I’m not even sure it’s possible to create one, let alone desirable, because the problem here isn’t really legal, it’s social. But considering the possible consequences, maybe we should at least be talking about it.

Some year, huh?

The only statement I can make about 2014 that I suspect most people would agree with is: that was some year, huh?

The best things that happened in 2014 for me were financial and professional:

I got a new job that came with a shit-ton of new fascinating problems to solve, a pretty nice pay jump (plus a second pay bump in December, earned by hard work and leveling up), and a boatload of really awesome coworkers. I definitely love my work and appreciate being well-compensated, but it’s my coworkers that make me, as Lew says, “look forward to my Mondays.” They’re smart, hilarious, and committed to doing great work solving problems with software. I have crazy respect for them as engineers, managers, leaders, and human beings, and they inspire me to do better work and be a better coworker.

And I bought a house. I have more mixed feelings about buying my house than I do about getting my new job, but it was definitely the right decision for me, even if injuring my ankle again the day after moving into it wasn’t the best plan. I’m more relaxed and happier having my own walls, and I’m hoping that I won’t need to move again anytime soon either, after five years in Portland and five different residences. It was great to host my parents for Christmas and have them see how the house fits me, in terms of its size, function, and location — a little outside confirmation that I wasn’t totally crazy to embark on this. Growing into homeownership is more of a process than I realized; there are a lot of responsibilities, and doing them on my own’s a decent-size thing to take on.

The worst areas of my life this year were definitely the physical and, for lack of a better term, spiritual:

My physical health was again torpedoed by my second ankle injury in two years. One thing I have learned by this time is that I’m too apt to let the whole health thing go when one aspect of it is hard — my eating goes to crap, and I don’t try to make up for the lack of foot-based exercise with other exercise. I’m reaching a point in my life where that isn’t a great idea (not that it ever was a fantastic one) because rebounding will take a lot of effort. I’m doing better than I was when I wrote my last post, in large part due to my shift in thinking around pain, but I’m still not 100%.

I also totally ran out of bandwidth for active civic engagement, and that combined with a physical injury that made getting around and therefore socializing hard meant I got somewhat isolated from friends and withdrew from hobbies and efforts that had been defining my view of myself for the last eight years — bicycling and bicycle advocacy being the biggest one. I’ve hardly ridden at all this year, except in short jaunts to my friends’ houses. I haven’t done any public advocacy since February, which was a conscious choice, and I also haven’t done anything really active within the growing movement around racial justice. I’ve been doing some quality reading and thinking about all of it, but I can’t say I’m totally pleased with my choices, or even very at peace with them.

There are a few things that I’ve already decided I want to do in 2015, as a consequence of what 2014 was like. One is regular yoga and meditation practice. Another is more house things. I’m trying to cut myself a little slack as I understand that homeownership is a process, but not too much, because I need to get less intimidated by these things, and just do them. Finally, I want to do more active, adventurous things with friends — the things I stopped doing this year because I was injured, overwhelmed, and busy with mundanities. I think my motto for the year might be ‘centered and capable’.

We’ll see how it goes.

Lost in the mobility maze

A big part of the identity crisis that I’ve been struggling with lately is feeling really uncertain about my physical capabilities. Until two years ago, being physically active was been a hugely important part of how I identified myself and spent my time. Not only are two of my favorite hobbies active (cycling and hiking), but being carfree means being active as a matter of course, something I wrote about just weeks after injuring my left ankle for the first time in July 2012.

At that time I didn’t know I was going to embark on a year-long odyssey to get healed up (something I never wrote about here, although I have an old draft discussing my aggravation/reinjury about a month later). Then a year later I injured myself again, same foot, different piece of soft tissue. Too depressing and irritating for words, really. At first I thought maybe I’d get the normal healing rate this time around, but about two months in I had a flareup, and started the whole mysterious odyssey again. It’s been just under six months now and I’m only starting to feel okay in my daily life again. Predicted recovery times for ankle injuries are six to twelve weeks.

It’s taken me a long time to realize that the hardest part, on a day to day basis, is the self-doubt. Things kept going wrong. First I saw a doctor who didn’t recognize the extent of the sprain, then I overdid it partially as a result of that misdiagnosis and basically had to start from scratch. Then I had a lot of swelling and it seemed to take me longer than expected to heal, and I didn’t get physical therapy. After I did get physical therapy, my therapist was encouraging me to be more active, and then I had a relapse into pain and swelling for no obvious reason (in an MRI taken a couple weeks after the relapse, no tissue injury was found). After more physical therapy, finally I started to feel better and was able to go hiking again. I was stable for only a year, and with some ongoing stiffness (but no activity restriction), before I injured myself again. Thrown back to square one, I tried to do everything right, and I still had a relapse with additional pain and swelling two months in. My doctor and physical therapist both kept encouraging me to try to do more because it was important to build endurance, but the relapses would just come out of nowhere. Any increase in effort, if it didn’t cause a relapse, would cause heat, pain, and often swelling. I could never do as much as they thought I should be able to. And I found it virtually impossible to successfully both do as much as I could (important to increase capacity), and not do more (important to avoid damage or increasing sensitivity). Feet are so involved in everything one does; never overdoing would require a magic portable wheelchair that I could generate out of thin air, or else carrying crutches everywhere all the time, which, are you kidding me?

Because I’ve tried to do everything right, and everything’s gone wrong, I have no confidence now in myself or my leg. The least little twinge could herald a fresh relapse, so I’m hypersensitive to pain and heat buildup, and tend to under-do and over-rely on my other foot and leg, which reinforces the negative pattern of not using the left foot and creates problems in the right foot as well. I’m constantly vigilant, which leads to greater tension, contributing to pain in the foot and exacerbating the chances of relapse or reinjury. And I don’t really know how to break the cycle. I believe I’ve gotten the best advice that my doctor and physical therapist have to give, but they don’t have a clear explanation for my tendency to pain (the doctor says the ligamentous tissue is healed) and they don’t show a lot of understanding of my uncertainty. Not that they’re unsympathetic people, but it’s easy for a practitioner to say “Well, just don’t worry about it! You’re doing fine! Keep trying!” And although I believe that there’s a good chance that some or all of my remaining pain is due to some sort of neural miswiring, overattention, etc. I’m also reluctant to trust myself to purely mental therapy, because it’s not completely clear to me that I’m not doing myself damage, or aggravating some existing damage, when I’m more active.

What I really want is someone who really understands both sides of how I feel. It would also be great if I can find someone who can help me with both empathy and skill. And while I’m asking for things, how about a unicorn and a rainbow too?

Or maybe some internet links! Also this one.

Gratitude inaccessibility

I’m having a problem with the inaccessibility of gratitude, currently. It’s a bit ironic and also funny, because gratitude is one of the few happiness/mindfulness practices you could say I’m “good at”, meaning that I practice it a lot and don’t normally find it difficult (see last year’s entry on this topic). I have so much to be grateful for, on any given day, and I’m as capable of listing those things this weekend as I am any day (just for a short list: loving family, fantastic friends, great job, sweet kitty, warm and comfy house, sunshine in California for Thanksgiving — a blessing for me if not for the state drought situation), but they don’t give me the warm feeling that I’m looking for, the little rush of comfort and joy, the sense of stability and hope.

Both the national situation and my own personal discomforts militate against the sensation of gratitude and joy right now. So many of our systems are broken, and I know so little about what to do about it. In an earlier time in my life maybe I would have imagined that I had some solution to the difficult problems of our national politics and social ills (foremost at the moment, racism). I think when I was younger, I in fact didn’t understand that some of these problems (racism, sexism) were still problems; like a lot of privileged people, I didn’t come face to face with them early, and thus didn’t come to understand that until after I was out in the working world and able to perceive them in their subtler, systemtic forms, and to listen to those for whom they were daily realities. Now I see the problems, but am not sure what to do about them. Admitting ignorance is the first step, perhaps, but admitting despair doesn’t feel like a step forward.

And in spite of my personal blessings I’ve been feeling lost lately. Maybe “identity crisis” is the right word to use; I don’t know for sure. It seems to fit; I had an idea in mind of myself, and I’ve noticed that I don’t match that idea anymore. The last two years have been physically rough on me; I’m not a fit and active person anymore. I don’t ride my bike much, I don’t do yoga, I don’t run, I can’t walk very far without pain. I’m not sure whether or how I’ll be able to go back to that. I hope that I will, but on days I can barely stagger around the house, that hope seems vain. And I don’t have a good sense of what my next step is in life, either. Someone told me, after hearing how I was feeling, “You need a project. You don’t have kids, or aging parents. So you need a project.” It’s good advice (except for the part where she subsequently suggested starting a business; I’m at least clear that that’s not my thing, though she couldn’t have known), but what project can I do when I barely have the resources to function on a day to day basis?

I’ve been reading a lot lately, which helps in that it keeps my mind off myself and on more interesting things, and comforts me that I’m not entirely changed, since I’ve always loved to read. Bless the Multnomah County Library for its huge selection and generous hold system, which not only reserves currently unavailable books, but brings available books to my local library for easy pickup. If I can’t access gratitude for very much right now, I can at least (at last) feel lucky for that.

The marvels of social media

I get annoyed when people complain about the banality of social media. There’s been a meme going around Facebook (I’ve seen it twice now, with different things):

The idea is to occupy Facebook with {THING}, to break the monotony of selfies, knominations, cat dog pics and personal videos. 

I have no idea what knominations even are (typo? game? annoying website?), but that’s not the point. The second version of the meme used different items to complain about. And it’s absolutely true that most social media shares are essentially banal — tidbits about people’s lives, whether it’s their cat, their lunch, or a picture of them with their bestie.

I don’t know about you, but I actually like that. Maybe I’m excessively sincere and easily pleased, but I absolutely love people’s vacation photos, cute pictures of their kids, cats, and dogs, and great captures of beautiful moments. When I can virtually travel back to my home state through the eyes of a semi-professional contact because of Facebook, I’m delighted. I’ve terrifically enjoyed watching my friends’ yard transform from a treasure trove of buried bricks and other oddities to a container garden and lovely patio. It’s great hearing tidbits from people’s lives that I otherwise wouldn’t be in touch with (distant high school acquaintances), getting a culinary tour of New York from a friend who relocated there, or finding out how someone’s new job is going or new baby is growing even though they’re too busy or tired or far away to come and visit.

Even the not-so-personal banal is often amusing. I know Buzzfeed is problematic, but I’ve never laughed harder in my life than at their collection of Reddit’s “first sexual experience” gifs. A friend of mine posted this imgur thread recently, which sent me on a probably hour-long laughing fit as I read all the comments (well, all the top-level ones). Life is hard sometimes; spending that much time laughing is precious. Yeah, I didn’t spend that time reading a meaningful novel or contributing to a worthy cause, but life can’t entirely be made up of serious things. (Besides, I’m not short on my quota of meaningful novels read this week.)

Besides enjoying individual posts, the experience of social media in aggregate is the experience of community. Community isn’t only made up of what’s serious and weighty; in many ways, the online social spaces that we occupy play a role in our lives that’s similar to the role the town common and other real-life social spaces formerly played (and still do, to some extent), places where we connect with family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors on a daily basis. Is it better for that role to be played by real space than virtual space? The reflexive answer is yes, but really the question is something that can be answered empirically to some extent, and the answer is likely to be multifaceted. The nature of the medium is that it’s more one-to-many than one-to-one, but comments and other conversation mechanisms reduce that tendency a little, and there’s advantages in producing a single piece of high-quality content and having it sent around to many people.

I’ve been a part of many online communities. Some were unhealthy, but most have been fundamentally enriching experiences, full of interesting conversations and surprising connections. Most of the communities I like best encourage more depth than Facebook and Twitter, but haven’t had the same advantage in connecting me with people I know in real life as well.

Finally, there’s a larger objection to the notion that Facebook and other social networks are banal, which is that while they mostly are (and that banality becomes significant only in aggregate), there’s a significant amount of substantive interaction that goes on as well — meaningful articles are shared, opinions exchanged, protests made and coordinated. Life is mostly banal; it’s not surprising that social media reflects that. But social media also carries high-quality information and interactions, if you keep looking for them. I try to cultivate my networks so that I get what for me is the right balance between the two. If you aren’t getting the right balance for you, keep looking. And keep sharing music or whatever it is you want to see more of, if that’s what floats your boat. But don’t moan about other people preferring to share their personal banality with each other, because whatever you think of it, it’s not without value.

Recommendation engines and the uniqueness of dislike

Twitter decided recently that it was going to change its fundamental paradigm and start putting content in your feed that it thinks you want to see, making it the last social site I personally use to try to guess what you want, instead of letting you tell it. It’s an obvious trend; it’s what Facebook has been doing with the News Feed for ages now. Google Plus refuses to let you hide your friends’ +1s, not to mention it’s still trying to find me more friends and teach me how to use it — which is to say, remind me about features it doesn’t think I’m using enough, like those aforementioned +1s.

What’s interesting to me is that even though this approach is so common, it’s still very hard to do well. This came up in a recent lunch conversation at work, unrelated to Twitter, about iTunes. My coworker wanted iTunes Discovery to play music that he didn’t have, but it didn’t seem to be able to do that. It either played music he already knew and liked, or music he didn’t like.

Even Amazon and Netflix, which are widely acknowledged to be relatively good recommendation engines, doing something relatively simple (recommending media), have trouble with edge cases. Another coworker shares a Netflix account with someone who enjoys “chick flick” movies, and watches them on Netflix, but the same person doesn’t like it when Netflix recommends that type of movie to her. Why not? After all, she likes them, so the recommendation engine is doing what it’s designed for. But it’s not doing what she actually wants, which is encouraging her to watch things she would like, but would otherwise have trouble finding. Chick flicks are easy to find. She wants help finding the difficult-to-find.

In the end, this is why automated recommendation systems fail: humans have preferences that are too diverse to code algorithmically, even with algorithms that learn from data. To Netflix’s recommendation system, “I watched this, and liked it” has only one meaning: show me more things like this! To a human, it can mean “I liked this, but I know it was kind of a waste of time to watch, and I’d really like to watch something more interesting next time”.

Take friend-suggestion as the simple case for social networks. Social networks are predicated on the idea that if we like Amy and Andrew, we probably also know and like their friends Bernard and Bailey. In general this is common; I do know and like many of my friends friends’, and if I haven’t met them, I’d like to, because there’s a good chance we’ll get along. But a good chance isn’t a certainty. If I like my friend Mitch because we both do linguistics, but his friend Chad likes him because they play basketball together, and I don’t like basketball, I might not like Chad that much either, even if he’s a fine guy. But social networks don’t have any way of coding that. All they know is that I like Mitch, so I might like Chad too, right? Or maybe after many meetings you just haven’t cottoned to a particular person in your larger circle. Facebook insists that you must know each other, so of course you want to be friends. Right?! But you don’t. You already assessed the situation in person, and decided that you don’t.

In the best-case situation, the social network lets you code that information in some way. On Facebook, click the X button and the suggestion is gone (forever? I’m not sure anymore). Or block the person, if you really don’t want to see anything from them. But while blocking and Xing convey some sort of information back to the system, it’s relatively coarse-grained. I just ignore Facebook’s friend suggestions at this point; like my friend and iTunes, it’s found me all it can find; the rest of its suggestions will never be useful, and I don’t care to X out all of them one by one.

Content is even harder to curate cleverly. Facebook has been trying it for years now with the News Feed, and although they’ve clearly had success in terms of engagement, it’s still an ongoing battle, the latest sally in which is reducing click-bait. Wait, didn’t we start out talking about content that people like, but don’t want to see more of? Oh, those silly humans, they just can’t stop themselves from sending mixed signals! Facebook is struggling with the same problem that my coworker’s friend finds in Netflix: a click currently can only code “I like this, it engages people, show me more of it.” Trying to make a click on clickbait not mean that, but a click on another kind of article keep its original meaning, is challenging to say the least.

I’m fascinated with learning algorithms (in case anyone reading this hasn’t noticed, I studied computational linguistics, and now work for a company that’s all about data) but if you spend much time at all working with them, you start to see their shortcomings very quickly. Humans are really remarkable creatures. Although we’re predictable in many ways, we also all have unique preferences that someone at Facebook, Netflix, or Twitter didn’t think to code in. Don’t want to see tweets from someone you love who passed away? Oops, someone at Twitter forgot to put that in as a criterion…wait, we don’t even have information on your relationship to this person or whether they’re alive? Oh crap. We forgot we aren’t Facebook. Wait, someone else does want to see that kind of tweet? Wait, what? Make up your minds!

While recommendation and curation systems are pretty darn cool as adjuncts to human judgment, intended to assist us in getting what we want, they’re not replacements for it. The data they collect is always incomplete, and their coding of it is always limited, and both of these are informed by their creators’ biases (does anyone remember Google Buzz? Yeah, those biases). Where these systems go wrong is where they assume they know better than the humans using them. There’s a big difference between adding a little box showing me people I might want to follow and insisting that I dismiss such a box before I can see my stream. There’s an even bigger difference between me getting to decide what’s in my feed and Twitter, Facebook, or Google Plus deciding at least some of it. Twitter has just crossed that line, and accordingly I expect it to become more noisy, less useful, and less pleasant to engage with over time, because however well it may think it knows me, its model of my preferences can never fully comprehend my complexity. That’s the uniqueness of dislike.

Relentlessness

I’ve written a few posts before on my experience with dysthymia and therapy, and managing my tendency to depression. I haven’t written on this topic in several years, and I was reminded by the flood of posts about Robin Williams that hearing other people speak about the difficulties they have can help.

One thing that strikes me about those older posts is their optimism. Funny thing to say about posts about depression, but both of them are about solutions. Those solutions have really helped me; the optimism is in that sense justified. I don’t usually spend extended periods of time depressed anymore, in part because of the work I’ve done in the past on the emotional side and the physical side of my mental state, and in part because longer experience with managed (versus unmanaged) depression, and a better understanding of what works for me, means I’m more likely to notice and to do the necessary work when things get out of whack.

But there is a relentlessness about the tendency to become depressed, and the need to constantly manage it and deal with it, that I find wearing in a way that I didn’t five years ago, or even two or three years ago. Based on my experiences with recurrence, dysthymia for me seems to be something that I’m nearly always resisting, and that I don’t always successfully stave off.  Getting into that mode is revisiting familiar mental territory, even if I try to make it less so.

It’s honestly scary to have recurrent thoughts that say, as one of my articulate friends put it, “that you’re a cancer on the world that must be excised.” The notion that that will never end for me, that there will never be a day when happiness can’t be capriciously stolen by my jerkbrain (thanks Captain Awkward for that term), is exhausting. I don’t know how other people who live with depression feel, but it’s not hard for me to imagine the possibility that someday that exhaustion might pile up to the point where I start to feel like I can’t do it anymore, can’t keep wrestling myself for every scrap of goodness and happiness that I can find.

To quote this lovely piece:

depression is not, in point of fact, you at all, but a malicious program that’s taken up residence in your brain that runs alongside your you-ness, and turns your brain into a zero-sum landgrab between malware and firmware. Not only does the depression chip away at your energy and focus and clarity, but what you do retain is so exhausted from the nonstop defense of its resources that at times you just want to give in, give up, sink all the way into the warm, quiet darkness.

Even though I feel like I’m far away from that point now, I don’t really have a happy ending to this part of the story, only an intention for it to someday have one; an intention to use all the mental, emotional, physical, financial, and fellow-human resources that I have to stay far away from that point, to remember that most of the time I’m pretty happy, and the effort to keep my jerkbrain from stealing the spotlight is worth it. If you, too, feel relentlessly sucked down in the mire, I hope you also believe that you deserve the spotlight, and not your jerkbrain. And that if nothing else, the notion of a dancing, singing brain in the spotlight made you chuckle.

Edit: Or, you know, I could let Erika Moen say it for me, and better.

OKCupid: as clueless as Facebook, but not as evil.

Much has been made recently of this post on the OKCupid blog. In this post, OKCupid “confesses” to experimenting on users in order to verify that their algorithm works, in such a tone as to suggest that this is an obvious thing that everyone does and what of it?

In the process, Rudder (the post’s author) fails to grasp the distinction between what Facebook did that garnered so much opprobium and what OKCupid did (which I and I think most people would join him in considering fairly routine).

What kind of experiment?

OKCupid’s experiment is manifestly related to the purpose of the site from its users’ point of view. They were trying to verify that their algorithm for matching users worked better than a placebo. This is actually both fairly decent experimental design and fairly decent behavior. The match algorithm is the purpose of OKC’s existence as far as its users are concerned — they’re there because the algorithm should be offering them better than random chance of hooking up with someone they’ll actually be compatible with. If it doesn’t work, OKC isn’t doing its job. Ergo, testing the algorithm is important, and beneficial to users. Plus, they tested it against telling people that they are a good match, which is fairly perceptive — they rightly deduced that such information would be likely to have a substantial placebo effect, and decided to check whether they could do better than just saying people are a good match and determine that they actually are.

(The actual outcome of this experiment sort of surprised me — they’re not as much better than placebo as I expected. Humans are easy to influence.)

Facebook’s experiment that got them in trouble wasn’t clearly related to the purpose of the site. You can make some arguments that it’s indirectly related, but doing an experiment (a badly designed one at that) to determine whether emotional contagion is a thing does not clearly relate to the stated purpose of Facebook. It’s not clear that Facebook has a single purpose, but let’s take “connecting with people we care about” as a vague one for its users. If Facebook wants to change the proportions of things in my News Feed to see if I spend more time on the site or share more things or comment more (I’m sure it does do all of those things), that would be kind of like what OKCupid did. Instead they deliberately changed the proportions of things in the News Feed with the goal of finding out whether it made people feel / behave more negatively. That’s not beneficial to anyone, really. It’s just experimenting for experiment’s sake, and even if they hadn’t published it in a journal I’d think it was an asshole move, as well as being bad experimental design (sentiment analysis of short texts is known to be unreliable). But it wouldn’t have been scientifically unethical.

Experiment vs Science

“Experiment” is so often used in a scientific context that I think it’s easy to forget that we all do experiments all the time — we take actions and we have hypotheses about the outcome and we compare what the outcome was with what we expected it to be. (I do it for a living, for goodness’ sake — what is troubleshooting but a set of experiments designed, ideally, to eventually fix a problem?) But doing an experiment and then trying to make it part of the body of scientific knowledge frequently requires all kinds of additional hoops to jump through — proper experimental design, valid statistical analysis, and, importantly, informed consent if you’re going to do it on human subjects.

When I originally posted about this (ironically, on Facebook itself) informed consent is the issue that I focused on, and it’s clear that Christian Rudder isn’t the only one who doesn’t understand it. There’s a good analysis of the issue at ScienceBasedMedicine.org which clearly discusses what informed consent is (and why Facebook’s TOS doesn’t meet it) as well the limits on the requirement for informed consent. It’s really quite a limited requirement; although it’s a research best practice, it’s only required for anyone at or collaborating with universities, using federal research money, and publishing in certain journals. So you can even contribute to scientific knowledge without doing it, as long as your collaborators, funders, and publishers don’t mind.

Facebook and the journal that published their research did not follow this guideline even though it’s required by the journal’s policy and their collaborators’ institutional policy. What they did is therefore unethical, as well as an asshole move. As I put it in my original post:

In an attenuated sense, informed consent is an extra bar you have to clear to be considered to have done real science that you can publish in a reputable journal — it’s a kind of trade deal…if you don’t collaborate with universities or use federal funding, you don’t have to clear the bar, and can still publish if the journal doesn’t require you to meet those standards either, but at that point you lose a lot of the brand recognition you get from publishing with academics in a well-known journal.

The history of informed consent is too long to recap here (I recommend The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, if you’re in the market for a book about it), but it’s a very important safeguard in keeping researchers from harming subjects’ without the subjects’ knowledge, or extracting benefits that only go to the researcher(s) and that the subjects don’t in turn benefit from. The purpose it serves is in making the body of scientific knowledge and the practice of science something that people can trust, particularly in the area of medical research, but also in the area of social science research. Also it keeps people from being harmed or from failing to benefit when they haven’t OK’d it (e.g. from being given a placebo but told that there is 100% chance they are getting real medicine), which I hope we all agree is a good thing.

Facebook wanted to get all the benefits of science without any of the drawbacks, that’s what made (scientists at least, or people trained in that mode) so specifically pissed off about what they did. OKCupid didn’t do that — they didn’t even publish their research until they felt like making a point with it. And I hear Rudder’s writing a book, so he doesn’t need to worry about peer review and federal funding. (Unless the book gets bad reviews, in which case he might wish he had gotten some peer review first.)

Unfortunately, his cluelessness about these two important distinctions tells me that only circumstance and luck keeps them from being equally awful. Maybe we do need to have a bigger conversation about whether social experiments on unwitting site users are ever okay, if only to improve people’s understanding of the issues involved.

Identity crisis

Part of my not doing advocacy anymore was a desire to understand why I didn’t want to do it anymore, to understand how my relationship to riding had changed from a time when advocacy felt like an essential part of my choice to ride.

I had a sudden flash of insight this week while I was thinking about how I’m both not interested in becoming a regular automobile driver and not especially interested in riding my bike more right now, even for fun. I ride my bike a fair amount, not as much as I used to, or as much as a lot of people I know (and sometimes it is fun, and sometimes I do it because it’s fun), but I’ve always been pretty multimodal and recently I’ve been injured and then lazy, so I didn’t think of that as exactly being relevant.

As I thought about how I conduct my life, though, it occurred to me that what actually happened is that I’ve become an ordinary Portlander where bikes are concerned. Lots of my friends who don’t do any transportation advocacy ride their bikes around town; some commute on them and some don’t, but they use them to go to the store, the park, friends’ houses, etc. They enjoy Sunday Parkways and Pedalpalooza. Most of them differ from me in that they own cars and drive them occasionally, but our day to day choices aren’t so different. And my friends aren’t unique in that, of course. They’re also ordinary Portlanders that way.

It works because Portland’s a pretty good place to ride a bike. Not great, not awful. And it’s a pretty frustrating city to ride transit in if you’re not going on a single direct train/bus, so when people think about traveling “not by car”, they don’t think transit unless they think “one line”. It takes 40+ minutes to get ~3 miles from SE 39th and Hawthorne to NE 15th and Broadway on Trimet at 6pm. It takes ~25 on a bike and you can go on your own schedule. So, transit’s not always convenient, you think riding a bike is fine and maybe fun and definitely cheap, but you’re no road warrior — still, oftentimes you can feel comfortable riding where you need to go.

That’s where I am, right now.

Whither advocacy? Whither Portland’s bike progress?

There’s no guaranteed path from where I am to particularly caring about whether it ever gets better to ride a bike here. It’s okay right now for me, because I’m already riding. And if you’re like me, it’s okay for you, too. Maybe you’d like to ride a bit more, wish there was a better connection somewhere, or the commute was less hairy, but is it important enough for you to devote your very precious spare time to? For most people, the answer is just straight up no, or rarely — they care maybe at the level of the old Portland Afoot: 10 minutes a month, at most. Their choice to ride is mainly about what they’re doing right now because it makes sense or is enjoyable.

For maybe a few people, you could potentially interest them in advocacy. How? Bike fun can be a path to advocacy (per anomalily) because you want to have more fun on a bike, and it shows you possibilities. So can wanting to do simple utilitarian bicycling more safely, and so can many other things, like thinking about global warming or wishing your child could ride a bike to school. So we’ve answered whence the interest.

But whence the motivation? I’d argue that in order to interest someone in action, you have to provide them with actions they can take that will be effective in returning them the benefits that they want.

Currently, if someone asked me what they should do to begin being an effective advocate for improved bicycling conditions in Portland, the best I could possibly do is a few generic pieces of advice:

  1. Join the BTA and get on their mailing list and read the stuff they send you.
  2. Read BikePortland.org and get familiar with city transportation resources like 823-SAFE .
  3. Stick with things that catch your personal interest.
  4. Start small and local, go big as you get more familiar with what’s going on already.

If someone asked “Will this make Portland a much better place to ride? Will I get convenient, direct routes to my destinations where I can ride comfortably away from auto traffic? Will I make it possible for my kids to feel comfortable riding alone outside the neighborhood? Will I get new trails for recreational riding or fast off-street commuting? Will I be able to ride in the bike lane or not, as I choose?” I wouldn’t be able to tell them yes because I honestly have no idea. That stuff doesn’t seem to be happening right now. If all they need is a small fix, I know we can do that. I’ve gotten potholes patched, lanes repainted, and signals retimed (thank you Peter!). I’ve taught people more about their bikes and helped them learn to navigate their neighborhood by bike. If all they want is some symbolic progress to point to, I think we can supply that, too: I might have helped get an unfunded plan we aren’t implementing passed (uh, great?), as well as a few maybe-useful laws in Salem (via the BTA’s efforts). The streetcar tracks suck a little less (not a lot less) thanks to AROW. And I know other people who helped me achieve some of these things and have similar achievements to count as their own.

These are all good things, but have I, have we, made a substantive difference? Can we actually move forward meaningfully by these inches? I don’t know. There are many people of good faith involved in the effort to do so, but what I see right now is not effective change: it’s progress at the speed of caterpillar, thanks to political deadlock, bureaucratic cowardice, and a complete failure of messaging. (Say what you will about PR and marketing people, they know how to stay on message about an issue, something neither PBOT nor the BTA seems to know.) If someone asked me whether they could accomplish something big by getting involved, I couldn’t really say yes, I know things you could do that would help to transform bicycling in Portland from Just OK to Actually, Great. Because I tried all the things you’re supposed to try, and it didn’t do much.

If you think I’m wrong, and there are things people who just want to invest some time and see results can do, that is awesome, please call the BTA, because I hear they want people who aren’t angry to apply some citizen pressure.

Myself, I’m just going to stay in the normal Portland zone for a while. Call me when we get serious about improving things again. I’ll be there.