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.

 

What comes out of the spaces

Sit quietly for now and cease your relentless participation. Watch what happens. The birds do not crash dead out of the sky in mid-flight, after all. The trees do not wither and die, the rivers do not run red with blood.

—Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

Space. Quiet?

Yesterday I wrote the first sentence from this quote on a yellow sticky note and put it on my mirror, to express the relationship I’ve been trying to have with advocacy for a few months now. Since it’s been a few months, I can see the results that are promised. The trees have not withered and died; people are doing much the same thing that they’ve been doing, and doing it well, without me. I’m happy about that. (Mostly. I’m a little disappointed, as control freaks are wont to be when they discover that surprise, they were never in charge.)

But my internal dialogue has failed to quiet itself, and sometimes has failed to not burst out into external dialogue, mainly in the form of being angry about the 20s Bikeway project (about which more in the second half) and in occasionally retweeting insightful things other people say, or posting one of the oh only six different things I’ve written in the past few months in a Facebook comment. Yeah, I’ve written six blog posts about advocacy topics in the last two and a half months. I always said I was going to continue writing in my blog, and mostly I’ve stuck by my resolution not to call attention to that content. If that counts as being quiet, though, it’s a very loud kind of quiet.

Still, it’s a quiet without the noise of meetings, blog posts, weekly emails, and even social events where I would normally vent my steam and debate my ideas and take inputs from other advocates. The amount of space that’s afforded should perhaps not be underrated. I’ve managed to slow down enough to learn the valuable lesson that my participation is optional for the community, and to start to shape some idea of what I can actually contribute, at this point in my life. One thing I know is that I am no longer a cheerleader and an understander and an obliger for the current system. Those people do a great service of celebrating routine institutional accomplishments, encouraging the tentative, and taking the moderate position. I did that happily for six years, and increasingly resentfully for the last year or so, but I can’t even with it anymore.

The System.

If I am nothing else I am a tireless student of systems and asker of questions. And when a system is sufficiently stacked against you, one rational response (not the only one) is to attempt change on the system itself, instead of attempting change within it. Portland’s spent many years with a huge core of its transportation advocates within the system — applying pressure to it to get the outcomes they wanted, but fundamentally working within the existing power structures to make that happen. And it’s done a ton of good. When the power structure is heading the right way, leveraging it makes sense. Some people are still outside the system being radical, but they look pretty extreme when power seems to be headed the right way anyway.

When the system stops heading the right way, as Portland’s has, the first response is questions and confusions and rumblings of frustration. I’m good at questions. “Why isn’t this happening?” “Why does this keep going sideways at the last minute?” I’ve been asking myself these questions, and though I wasn’t the first, I think maybe I have some answers now too.

You hear a lot about the city resting on its laurels. I think there’s some truth in that, but it’s not very interesting as a reason. If it were the reason, the problem would be easy to solve: demonstrate that the laurels acquired are insufficient to meet the ostensible goal (let’s pretend here that the city government accepts its goal of 25% bike modeshare by 2030) and move on. Clearly that isn’t happening, so let’s stop wasting time pretending this is the reason. This is a smokescreen for the real reason, which is political.

At present Portland city government in the transportation and planning areas (I’m not an expert on other areas), at both the political and policy levels, seems to me to be captured (in the sense of regulatory capture) by business associations, businesses, and neighborhood associations. Also, to a lesser extent, by the ire (real or projected) of residents with enough time to spend to vent their ire at politicians and show up at midday meetings to voice their opinions. Process is structured to privilege these stakeholders’ opinions above others (let’s say, people trying to get somewhere via their mode of choice), and process is also structured to be conveniently amorphous enough that if these stakeholders’ needs are threatened, the city can easily ignore whatever else might have been planned and do whatever those people want. If anyone in Portland’s city government wants to deny this, please feel free to try. I think it will be hilarious to listen to, at a minimum, and might reveal some interesting contours of the problem.

Add to that another oft-cited problem that I think is a real contributor: the current lack of low-hanging fruit. Portland is an okay place to ride a bike. It’s not a great one. I think that’s clear to anyone who’s actually spent any time riding a bike here. There’s some really nice stuff, a lot of mediocre stuff, and some downright crappy stuff (or absence of stuff). Getting from bad to okay wasn’t all that easy, and in the past there were actual people in city government who made hard decisions and did a lot of policy evangelism and political maneuvering to make some of that happen. But a lot of what was done was the easier stuff. And a lot of the harder stuff never got done. Talk to anyone about parking removal and eventually you scratch the story of Knott. One of the most lightly-traveled, lightly-parked collectors in the system, home to almost no businesses, yet parking removal was still a complete failure because of resident ire. I don’t even know what year this happened in, but it was pre-1996, since it’s mentioned in the ’96 master plan. So, the stuff to which there wasn’t much opposition got done, the stuff to which there was some opposition either had its advocates in city government, or never got done at all.

That hasn’t changed so much, but the balance of what’s available to do has shifted decisively to things that are hard, while the balance of what people in city government are willing to do has curled up into a ball of frightened roly-poly and gone to sleep. That includes intra-government negotiations (for example, negotiating with PF&R) as well as in citizen/government negotiations. Yet there are more people riding bikes, more bike parking, more bike tourism, and more competition for the title of “Least Sucky American Bicycle City” from other cities than ever. There’s been a material shift in the popular discourse about what constitutes acceptable bicycling conditions. Riders want more, advocates want more, and the city is giving less. This is a recipe for stalemate/stagnation (where we have been and are) followed by serious clashes of interests (where we’re rapidly getting to), not for the previous semi-agreeable coexistence of working in similar directions at different magnitudes.

The final factor in this situation is us (advocates): we seem to think that more of the same strategy will lead to different results (the definition of insanity). We seem to have forgotten that many of the people who’ve been working within the system recently once were cranks and radicals. The BTA, criticized these days for being too moderate, got its start suing the city for failing to live up to its commitments. When you’re willing to be a crank and a radical when you don’t get what you want, sometimes you get what you want. If you’re not willing to do that, it’s not a huge surprise that privileged stakeholders with lots of free time and lots of $$$ are outranking you on the priority list.

What has worked in the recent past will continue to limp along. Things continue to happen – the 50s Bikeway and the Williams plans were both passed, and both are decent, if not ideal. (Not passed without a lot of pain in the latter case, providing a great example of the way the stakeholder process normally privileges some over others.) And the non-controversial processes continue to hum along, which is great, and which I don’t want to dis in any way. I love me some SmartTrips and I love greenways; they’re good things and more of them is good.

But if we don’t make some serious changes, things we want to happen will keep not happening even though we keep participating in processes that are disguised as ways to make them happen. I quit the 20s Bikeway Committee because I could see this coming, and I couldn’t stand the frustration of sitting there watching it. That felt like a personal failure, but maybe it was only a failure inasmuch as it was insufficient: I should have encouraged the BTA to quit the process as well, the way that they once quit the CRC process (which was a similar procedural sham biased to produce only one outcome, and which was only eventually killed by repeated, persistent, loud, direct opposition, plus its own incompetence).

Revolution?

We may not need to have a literal revolution (except of our wheels), but we definitely need a substantive change in one or more of City Council, PBOT leadership, or city process — ideally all three, including multiple changes in city process — to change what’s happening. Unfortunately I don’t think the recent change in bureau heading (Novick/Treat) has actually made any difference, though I had initially hoped it would. The 20s Bikeway project convinced me that there’s no hope from that quarter. A city that thinks it’s a bike city and can’t get a direct bikeway placed on a route that’s explicitly designated as a through route (emergency response) and is the connection to the only freeway crossing nearby because of a tiny number of businesses that are somewhere between totally confused about the issues and totally irate about the notion of losing a tiny number of parking spaces in a plan specially designed to appease them in the first place is a city that is frankly schizophrenic on this point, because what it’s actually doing has an inverse relationship to what it claims to be doing and to what its goals say it’s supposed to be doing.

To do that, we first have to change our own approach, because we aren’t going to get those kinds of changes made with magic fairy dust. Those are changes to disempower the powerful, and you don’t get those easily. So personally, I’m done being nice, because being nice doesn’t get you anywhere in an adversarial political system when the people in power don’t want to do what you want them to do. And I’m done pretending that I think that the current process isn’t total bullshit, because it is total bullshit, and I want it to change and I’m going to be loud about how it’s crap and needs changing. If we can’t get the political muscle to get it to change, well, then, we’ll keep losing fights, but I’d like to go down fighting on the battlefield where the battle is actually taking place, not laying down my arms at a safe surrender point 10 miles off. Note to PBOT: I’d like to see you adopt the same philosophy, plzkthx.

I’ll be back when I’m ready. It might be soon.

Why it isn’t polite to stop for a stopped cyclist

I feel like I’ve ranted about this topic at length, but I can’t find any evidence, so it must have been on Twitter. The issue deserves some explication, since I think this is a point of actual confusion among decent people who are actually trying to be nice.

You should not stop when you have the right of way just because you see a person sitting on a bicycle preparing to travel across your travel path. In all interactions, please, proceed according to right-of-way laws. That does mean that the following advice does not apply to people walking, and it also doesn’t apply to people on bicycles using a crosswalk where sidewalk riding is permitted.

Caveat: always attempt to avoid any imminent or probable collision. Safe and wrong is better than sorry. Safe and correct is better than safe and wrong.

That out of the way, right now I’m talking about you, a kind Portland driver (or a kind anywhere else driver) traveling on a street, seeing a stopped or slowing-to-stop rider in the street at the intersection where the street the rider is on has a stop sign. Your street may or may not have one. In either case, proceed according to right-of-way laws. That means stop if you have a stop sign. Then, proceed in your turn (which means going first if you arrived first). If you have no stop sign, don’t stop. If you have one, don’t insist that the rider precede you if you arrived first.

Why? you say to me innocently. I’m just trying to be nice.

I know you’re trying to be nice, but it’s mostly confusing, and therefore mostly annoying, because it breaks predictability, which breaks safety and efficiency, which are virtually everyone’s first and second goals in traveling around (not necessarily in that order). There are two reasons it does this.

  1. Your car does not have the magic power to stop every other car on the road. Just because you stopped does not mean the rider can safely proceed.
  2. The rider already has predictions and plans about when it will be safe to cross. Your behavior screws up those predictions and usually creates delay.

Neither opposing traffic, nor traffic in the other lane, nor traffic behind you will necessarily stop because you have. You might even trigger a rear-end collision if the person or people behind you aren’t paying attention, since no one expects you to stop for no apparent reason.

If I’m waiting on the cross street and there’s actually traffic on the main street, I have to check that your stoppage has triggered everyone else to stop. Often this doesn’t happen (in which case you wasted everyone’s time), or takes a long time. If it takes a long time, you and I could already have both been out of here, along with everyone else, if only you had taken your turn. It could also change at any time. If I see everyone stopped and decide to cross, and suddenly one of the people behind you gets impatient and darts into the intersection, or the opposing direction of traffic changes their mind about stopping because I’m waiting too long so they think I’m not going to go but oh I am going, guess what happens? I get squished, and we don’t really know whose fault it is, so according to the police it is most likely my fault and therefore I get to pay all my medical bills and your car repair bills. No thanks! I’ll wait!

Or, if I’m waiting on the cross street and there’s not really much traffic on the main street, or it’s just you or most of the line of traffic has already passed, traffic is about to be clear if only you would get the heck out of the way, so do it. If I’ve already stopped or even put my foot down, gesturing for me to go is not doing me a favor. I already lost all my momentum. If you would just go already, you and everyone else would be out of my way and everyone would be happy and delighted and we wouldn’t be wasting this time waving at each other and getting increasingly frustrated.

In summary, there is no circumstance under which you deciding that you need to stop out of turn so that I can proceed out of turn will predictably end in happiness. It is possible that it may end in happiness, and I do take advantage of the possibility sometimes, because if everyone does stop and there really is a long line of traffic, that’s a less confusing and usually less dangerous way to resolve the situation than being annoying in turn and refusing to go so that everyone stopped for absolutely nothing.

But if I am refusing to go, there’s a reason, which is that I don’t think it’s safe or I think you’re wasting my time and probably someone else’s as well. So if I’m not going, please take your turn instead of sitting on your high horse thinking you know what I’m supposed to do. You do what you’re supposed to, and I’ll do what I’m supposed to. That’s only polite.

Not terribly impressed with The Long Tail

So far I’m not impressed with Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail. It was boring for several chapters as it banged on about things I already know. Then it was interesting for about a chapter as it described the rise of the enabling technologies and early “long tails” like Sears Roebuck (plus the founding of Amazon).

Then it degenerated into terrible metaphors about astronomy (neutrinos do not go through the earth “like bullets through tissue paper”, obviously, because they don’t shred the earth to bits) and tautologies like “what’s notable is that none of them [the amateur astronomers] do it for money”. Well, yes. Because if they did, we’d call them professionals, and put them in the other category of the “Pro-Am” partnership you’re describing. Not to mention describing a supernova seen by a telescope as being “witnessed by the naked eye” and the clunky way he describes the fact that an event that was witnessed just now from Earth but took place 168,000 light years away would have taken place 168,000 years ago.

Next comes overheated rhapsodizing about Wikipedia and Google, wherein he asserts that probabilistic systems are “simply counterintuitive to our mammalian brains” (this is true in some ways, but not in others), that Wikipedia created order out of chaos (not really a great description; it created order out of not very much, not out of a swirling vortex of disorder), and that it is “completely unbounded by space and production constraints” (which is definitely why it’s always asking us for money). Not to mention that he claims that Britannica has a line beyond which “this is not worthy” but Wikipedia doesn’t. Actually, the lines are just in different places: Wikipedia’s Notability guidelines anyone? Things get deleted from Wikipedia all the time. In this chapter he also says that The Wisdom of Crowds (which is a book I actually did enjoy about a concept that can be as easily summed up as the Long Tail) is about Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the market. Certainly that aspect of the wisdom of crowds is mentioned, but it’s far from the only or even the main thing the book is about — most of it covers modern social science research.

It doesn’t really get good again until the detailed analysis of music marketing in Chapter 7. Interesting case studies I didn’t know about! Yes!

Basically, The Long Tail gives the impression of a well-honed presentation that had much less well-honed “book material” added to it — occasionally interesting, but often not — which is disappointing. Although it may be unfair to criticize a book that’s probably the ultimate reason why I already know about its ideas for not having fresh information, the best idea books I’ve read have far more substance than their core ideas suggest (see The Wisdom of Crowds). There’s nothing wrong with the information in the book being out of date (Netflix is no longer primarily a physical goods aggregator, having gotten into the digital aggregation business, where the getting is better) but not having interesting information in there to begin with makes it difficult to trudge through, in spite of Anderson’s usually engaging, conversational style.

What can I contribute?

Asked of oneself, in the context of being able to contribute one’s non-material resources to societal endeavors, the question What can I contribute? can be taken at least two ways. One is: what resources am I able to contribute, or capable of contributing? The other is: what resources can I offer that constitute a unique and valuable contribution?

I’m lucky to have a job where I frequently have the opportunity to make a contribution to improving people’s experience with software that’s important to their business or profession. I do that alongside other people with a similar role, which is a great opportunity to see both the common contributions that we bring and the unique and valuable ones. Everyone I work with has really strong technical skills, proven ability to analyze complex problems and identify solutions, and the ability to express those problems and solutions clearly and appropriately in speech and writing. But we all have different styles of expressing ourselves, different specific technical knowledge areas, and different ways of looking at problems. I’m particularly interested in documentation, zero in on and remember details, and tend to focus on the core issue without a lot of verbal decoration. I also have a great head for correct and effective process and a related, more amorphous thing that I think of as ‘appropriateness’ — I’m unlikely to jump into a situation headlong and ask for something that was already provided or try to answer a question I’m just guessing at. That’s a pretty cool thing that I’m good at. The flip side of that skill is “get ‘er done” — jump in and move things along, even if you don’t always get it quite right. It’s also valuable, but it’s not something that I personally am best at doing. It’s great to be part of a team so that I can focus on using my skills where they’re most needed and letting others do the same.

Applying that same thinking to transportation advocacy seems fruitful. Being on the sidelines right now means I’m mostly tuned out, but I’m still friends with my friends and Twitter is still Twitter, so I have the chance to see some of what happens with me out of the game. And the answer is: mostly the same stuff happens. I’m not the axis on which that world turns (obviously), but when I was in the midst of it, it was easy to think that because I could contribute something, that meant I should, because the work I was doing was important and therefore doing as much as I could was obviously valuable.

This seems honestly kind of stupid in retrospect. Most of what I can contribute (in the first sense) in advocacy can also be contributed by other people. As in my job, I’m one of several to dozens of people with similar capabilities and inclinations. Is this kind of contribution valueless? Definitely not. At work we’ve got a certain ticket load and my base contributions are important to keeping that load manageable. And in advocacy there’s a certain amount of basic work to be done that creates value by showing interest and articulating opinions — writing letters, making requests, commentating on issues, having discussions, attending meetings. But almost anyone can do this, and I don’t do most of it remarkably better than most people, aside from being a good letter-writer. Unlike in my professional life, though, I’m not as clear on what I do in advocacy that is unique and valuable, and that’s part of what I’d like to figure out during this hiatus.

This idea has a pretty broad application — it’s worth thinking about how it applies to close relationships, general socializing, and internet/social media as well, but that’s too long for one post (and I’m too tired).

Road $$ is not cycling $$

There’s a problem with transportation funding framing. The problem is exemplified by the notion that we have enough money to build and maintain roads, but not enough money to build out bike facilities.

Frankly this doesn’t make any sense, and no one should be allowed to say it ever again without being strictly challenged on their assumptions. Building and maintaining any kind of bicycle facility is so much cheaper than building an auto-oriented facility for equivalent capacity. Furthermore, bicycle facilities require less maintenance because they suffer less wear and tear from heavy vehicles. So building a bicycle facility that will be consistently used is a great investment in the present and a great one for the future, because it is cheap and long-lasting.

If this doesn’t make any sense, why are people allowed to say it? Some of it is due to funding obligation. Transportation agencies can’t remove previously committed money from certain pots without repercussions. But I think this isn’t the real reason. The real reason is that money for bike facilities is seen as an add-on to money for roads, with the occasional exception being standalone trails, which are often funded differently. Makes sense, right? I mean, most bike facilities are currently just special parts of roads, so they pretty much are add-ons to roads. They’re not a separate system. There’s rarely much that’s separate about them!

It’s interesting to think about how this may have been affected by cycling advocacy history. In the 1970s when the Dutch were building real bike facilities, we were building pretty bad bike paths kind of off to the sides of roads, which caused all kinds of problems. The advocates of the time decided that this was terrible, and that furthermore bike paths could never be convenient or safe because these paths weren’t, and the real solution was to ride on the road. That’s the basic landscape we’ve been working with ever since. Even as bike lanes and now “separated” cycletracks have come into vogue, the basic model we have is that bikes ride on the road and act like every other vehicle, and that space where bikes ride is taken from the rest of the road and funded from the same pot as any other road money, for the most part. There are some special small pots that can be used as well, but mostly it’s just the same money as everything else. Oregon’s famous Bike Bill (which is pretty widely seen as awesome, and is, for what it was) is actually just a requirement that’s very explicitly on top of this model that says that a certain amount of this pot has to be used for bike things and that bike things are supposed to be a routine part of making and remaking roads.

If you look at it this way, it’s not a surprise that there’s a problem with framing around bike facilities, and not just for funding. Anything that “bikes” get is something that other vehicles that are not allowed in bike lanes don’t get, whether it’s money or space. So of course there’s no money for bikes, right? Because there’s hardly any money these days, and it’s supposed to be road money, vehicle money. And the majority of the population still drives, because we haven’t built very many good bike facilities, so they think that the money should be used for them, and not for bikes.

I’m not dissing “road funding” here. Roads carry the freight that brings me goods and the buses I ride and the neighborhood streets that I ride on. The point I want to make is that there’s a mistake in the framing. Proper bike facilities following major travel routes, the kind that are truly 8 to 80, are not just add-ons to roads, and the funding they require is not just an add-on, an extra, to road funding. Cycling is a different way to travel around, and outside of neighborhood streets and other extremely low-traffic or extremely low-speed areas, it requires separate facilities in order to be a safe way to travel. And there will never, ever be a majority of people riding until it’s a safe, consistent, easy way to travel. You can’t get there from where you are, framing-wise. Those facilities need their own funding stream and their own space and their own engineering system. They can’t be contingent on “road funding” because they aren’t roads. They’re places to ride bikes to get around. They need to go everywhere that roads do (so, like sidewalks, it makes a lot of sense for them to coexist in the same corridor as roads), and maybe places that roads don’t, or don’t in the same way (so they need to be separately considered as well).

Tell the truth: there is enough money for bike facilities. You just don’t want to use it for them, because you think that roads are more important.

How not to be a jerk: pay attention to signal timing

When I had a sprained ankle, I got passed a lot on the bike. And I noticed, even more than I had noticed before, that after people passed me, I frequently caught up to them. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have passed me, but it does mean that when they passed me dangerously, or when they passed me and then obstructed my start out of the intersection where I caught up to them, I really noticed how little that pass gained them, and how it sometimes inconvenienced me as well. That’s being a jerk — and not only that, it’s being a jerk to no purpose.

How do you avoid that? Well, first of all, don’t be a jerk to begin with. Whether you’re driving or riding, pass safely, leaving plenty of room, and only on the left. If you’re riding, only pass when traveling; don’t shoal at intersections. But second of all, pay attention to signal timing. Traffic signals work in systems (I think everyone knows at least that much) so if you pay attention and experiment, you can figure out when a signal is likely to turn green or red. On one-way streets in Portland, the lights usually operate in a “green wave” at a certain speed, and frequently, thanks to the awesome Peter Koonce, that speed is approximately average bike speed, or is compatible with it. Even if it’s not a full green wave, you can usually figure out which lights you’re likely to end up stopping at. I’ve spent a lot of time commuting up and down Broadway, Vancouver/Williams, and the Hawthorne/Ladd/Clinton corridor, and all of those corridors have key signals (the longer red signals at major cross streets) which you tend to depart from at certain times that make for relatively predictable timing of the rest of the experience.

Newsflash: usually, after you passed me on those corridors, somewhere on NE Broadway, along Hawthorne, in Ladd’s, or on the slope between Russell and Fremont, I caught up to you at Seven Corners, or one of the ends of the Broadway Bridge, or at Fremont or Shaver or Russell or Broadway. Whether you saw me or not, I was right behind you. Occasionally, someone’s really fast or really lucky, but most people? It makes absolutely no difference whether you blast up from the Broadway Bridge toward Williams or just go along comfortably — you’ll end up waiting at Vancouver/Winning for that long light to finish before you can move on to Broadway or Williams. Rushing through the light at Emmanuel? Don’t bother — Russell doesn’t go green that fast, and after it does, you’ll still have to wait at Vancouver and Broadway.

Some of this is bike-specific. Seeing yellow at Victoria on Broadway? Don’t rush — you won’t get the bike signal at Williams until after the LBI for Victoria anyway. That doesn’t apply for cars, for whom the timing is different, but the takeaway is the same: cool it and wait your turn; we’ll still all make it through. And next time you’re stymied, pay attention to the signal timing.