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.

 

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.