It’s been nailed: the problems with biking in Portland

I haven’t written anything about advocacy in nearly a year, because I stopped having anything very useful to say, and also I nearly stopped riding my bike.

And then I saw that Liz had nailed it, and I felt the need to let everyone know: it has been nailed. She speaketh the truth, and she speaketh it clearly and without venom but with the palpable sense of frustration that I also felt.

I’ve started to see more and more people speaking from the place that I felt I was in a little over a year ago just before I quit advocacy, and if I were still riding my bike I’d want to get those people together so we could figure out what to do next. They’ll probably get together anyway, or already have — I hope so. Liz, Brian, Carl, and Will — if you’re reading this, please go have a beer together, and figure out what kind of advocacy arises from clear seeing of the truth.

My gimpy self will thank you, if I ever get back on the bike.

I am not broken; I choose love

This piece was written originally last year in my private journal, and it’s much more personal about my love life than I usually share publicly, although details that originally referred to specific relationships have been depersonalized to maintain privacy.

I share it in hopes that it helps me continue to center on what I believe and value, and that it helps others understand me, themselves, or someone else.

The question that is always raised for me by weddings: marriage is held up culturally as the end all and be-all. Even if you aren’t getting legally married, the “I choose you and you choose me” partnership is held up in a similar way. Even in polyamory, the “primary partnership” seems to be what most people aspire to.

As I asked myself once several years ago, what if that’s not the road that I personally would be happiest on? I remember walking home one night to my apartment on 19th, thinking, “I suppose I could do that. It seems to be what I want. But what if what I want isn’t the thing that would make me the happiest? Or if there’s a way that I could be equally happy, that’s just different.”

It’s always been the case that some people didn’t marry, and for some it’s most likely that they didn’t or couldn’t find a suitable partner, but for some, it’s almost certainly because they were happier that way. In the end, it doesn’t matter really if you’re happier that way because you’re weird or emotionally immature, or just because you prefer not being partnered.

The idea that we should all aspire to a level of emotional maturity where we regard partnership as the highest and best thing you could do seems weird to me in itself, and boy is that ever in the air at weddings. Sometimes they seem to be all about how the participants have journeyed through independence and arrived at interdependence, had the courage to be vulnerable, et fucking cetera.

Which of course is delightful for them, if that’s what they want; and as I’ve understood from many people I know who’ve married, it is. And I’ve often thought that it’s what I want, and that perhaps it’s only my own emotional development that’s holding me back. But how does one know this? You can certainly assume that if you desire partnership, but don’t have it, that there is something you need to change. Or you could assume that your ideal partner hasn’t come along yet (a notion I’ve certainly entertained as well).

Or you could entertain the novel and culturally odd notion that perhaps you just prefer being single. Which I always find funny when I say it, because of course I’m not “single” in the sense that most people mean. But I do practice solo polyamory — I consider my own needs to be primary to myself. And to be honest I’m content with that right now, and maybe forever. And I simply do not want to believe, nay refuse to believe, that this makes me invalid, immature, selfish, or otherwise a terrible person — simply to want all my romantic and sustaining relationships to be relationships of choice.

I love my current partner, and past partners; my life wouldn’t be complete without those experiences. (Just this morning I was thinking of something a former partner said a long time ago, that sometimes you can love someone best by just loving them, and not telling them anything about that. That’s how I feel about past partners sometimes.) They’ve given me experiences that enrich and deepen my life, that are irreplaceable and precious. And in many ways, the preciousness of what has been given is entirely unrelated to the purported seriousness or depth of the relationship. I’ve had some absolutely wonderful experiences of being loved by long-term partners, and I am so glad I’ve had those experiences.

But I’ve also had absolutely amazing experiences with someone who was closer to a friend, even though we spent most of our time together cuddling on the couch and talking nerdy, and I know we were never in love. I cherished our relationship without having to love him, or want to marry him, or even necessarily have a conventional sexual relationship with him. I would never want to live the rest of my life without romance — that’s surely not me. And I can’t say that I’ll never want a partnership. But I’d like to live, in the meantime, with the peace, contentment, and confidence that come from saying “I’m okay with the way I’ve chosen to live, right now.” Not necessarily “I’m content with the state of my romantic relationships” but “I’m content to choose relationships of choice, and to run my relationships based on ongoing mutual joy.”

I’ve been told this by others when I didn’t want to hear it, and maybe it’s a little ironic that I’ve come around to it myself, much later. But sometimes we hear this when our relationship with someone is not the one we want with them, and therefore hearing it means the relationship is not one of mutual joy, for us, and nothing can turn it into one at that time. So ending those relationships can be the right decision; so can ending other relationships, even though I may sometimes miss the other person. That I miss what they could give is evidence that it was worth a try; that I don’t miss the rest is evidence that it was time to let it go.

I think, in such a modus operandi, one does have to be peculiarly alert for patterns that interrupt joy; that certainly is something that I’ve seen: that choices I made to protect myself from stress also inhibited joy. Those tradeoffs are worth looking at; understanding what makes me cherish relationships, what makes them tick for me, is so much more critical when I have very little in the way of an external standard to judge against. What I owe myself is not a constant assessment of my theoretical deficits in being a “full partner” to someone, but a continuing awareness of what choices make me a better partner to those I love, and what choices on their part make them better partners to me, so that I can ask if they might be willing to make those choices.

Comments are disabled. If you want to discuss this post, please reach out personally.

Experts and empathy

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

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

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

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

Twitter and context collapse

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

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

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

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

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

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

To quote Tressie:

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

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

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

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

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

Some year, huh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll see how it goes.

Lost in the mobility maze

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

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

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

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

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

Or maybe some internet links! Also this one.

Gratitude inaccessibility

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

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

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

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

The marvels of social media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommendation engines and the uniqueness of dislike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relentlessness

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

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

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

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

To quote this lovely piece:

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

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

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