Silly code exercisms

Back in August I started working on the Ruby track on I’ve had mixed success with structured code learning – I did the JS track on Codecademy two years ago, which worked fairly well, but I lose interest in “build a toy application” projects almost instantly. When I was working in Support at New Relic, I realized it’s because my interest in code isn’t as a craft or profession – my profession is solving problems, and code (like writing) is a tool I use to do that.

Codecademy and Exercism work for me because they set up well-defined small problems for me to solve with code. I’m not good enough at programming (yet) to solve a really big problem with code without guidance on how to approach it, so small problems work well.

The Exercism exercises are mostly somewhat silly artificial constructs, but I do think they’ve benefited my ability to mentally model problems, my familiarity with basic Ruby constructs, and my code style. At this point in the track (18 problems complete) I don’t always come up with a super awesome way to do something the first time, but I can often write code in such a way that my first attempt to create the algorithm works for most cases, and I’m also usually able to find the part of my code I want to tidy up later and understand why I’m having trouble with it.

Less than two weeks after I’d started, it was already helping me:

At the time I was writing a Ruby script to automate some tedious work with the Alerts Synthetics Conditions API, so I was using code to do my job, and using it better than before. Hopefully this will keep happening.

It’s Thanksgiving, so it’s a great time to write about depression!

On the face of it, Thanksgiving is a time for optimism and happiness, so maybe it’s a strange time to choose to write about depression again, but it fits pretty well for me. This is a weird time in our nation; I’m not feeling happy and grateful, per se, most of the time. What I am really grateful for, both lately and in the last six months or so, is Prozac.

I wrote two years ago about the relentlessness of dysthymia. When I injured myself again last October, and had to deal with more months of enforced inactivity, I was finding it hard to deploy the management strategies that had worked for me before, and I was feeling pretty rotten. I finally decided to give Prozac a try.

It very rapidly made a substantial difference in my emotional state, largely erasing my chronic tendency to fall down the mood ladder, and making it easier to create emotional space during stressful times or moments. I don’t seem to experience noticeable emotional blunting; I still feed sad, frustrated/angry, and happy at appropriate times (during a breakup, after the election, when I got the offer for my new job). I do experience excess fatigue, which mostly manifests as a tendency to easily move from rest to nap in the afternoon or evening if I’m not busy with something. It’s a little annoying, but far from debilitating (and sometimes kind of nice).

I’m hoping to eventually go back to managing things myself, but my experience with Better Living Through Chemistry has been extremely positive, and I’m grateful that this is an option for me, and that I decided to make use of it.

This absurdly adorable cat and I wish you a happy Thanksgiving, and hope you have something equally good to be grateful for.

Cooking vs cheffing

I’ve been watching a lot of Food Network shows lately because they just showed up on Netflix, and one of the ones I got into was Worst Cooks in America. I had to try it twice because the first episode just seemed too mean, but after a while I figured out that the chefs (Bobby Flay and Anne Burrell, in the seasons I watched) are actually really committed to trying to help these people become better at cooking. And it’s really amazing what they can do by the end – it’s routine for the final judges (chefs and restauranteurs) to joke about replacing their own line cooks with the finalists, and say their food really is restaurant quality. They char octopus, serve tuna tartare, and make their own pasta and gelato. Their loved ones, who nominated them and generally ran away from their cooking, eat their food and praise it wildly (my favorite episodes).

Still, the show kind of drives me crazy. I mean, it’s a reality competition show, so of course it has to have a ridiculously high standard and people getting eliminated, but it frustrates me because it seems like they try to teach them too many things, and they don’t give them enough time, and criticize them too harshly, and then half of them don’t really learn to cook anyway because they get eliminated almost immediately. And these are people that are so courageous, they are willing to be on television doing something they do really badly, and trying to learn to do it better. I would not do that even if I was guaranteed $10,000, let alone just for a chance at it.

Sometimes they go home and say that they were inspired and they’re going to keep working on it on their own, but often they’re just sad and conclude that there’s no way they can learn to cook. Which is crazy, because I would probably do badly in the some of the challenges that they get, but I’m a really decent home cook already.

The thing that really struck me was one of the first episodes I saw where the chefs are trying to teach the terrible cooks to make breakfast. They tell them they have to make eggs one of the ways that they demo making them, and vanilla maple syrup, and bacon or sausage. First of all that’s a lot of things, and one of them is fancy, but OK. And then halfway through the chefs tell them – actually, you have to make eggs all four ways! (Sunny side up, over easy, scrambled, and poached.) Like, come on, no one actually does that except short-order breakfast cooks. I do an over-easy egg as part of my breakfast nearly every day and about half the time, I either break the yolk or overcook it. But it just doesn’t matter that much, because I’m still happy to eat it anyway. I’m not going to waste an egg because I broke the yolk and start all over. That’s expensive (especially when you eat pasture-raised eggs). But the chefs demand perfection.

They do start them off on pretty simple stuff – in the early episodes, they tend to be making pizza, stir-fry, breakfast, pan-fried meat and mashed potatoes (sometimes with a vegetable side). And they do give them tips and demo the cooking. But it rapidly gets really crazy, and they always add a twist, and never give them enough time. Sure, when you’re cooking you need to manage your time because it sucks when dinner is at ten. But if you’re doing wild things like filleting a fish, or making a roulade with stuffing and wrapping it in caul fat (incidentally, the show taught me a lot of interesting but useless-to-me things about cooking meat), that’s fancy and unusual and it takes a while. And unless you forgot to read your recipe (a major no-no!) there shouldn’t be any surprises in the middle of a cooking session. And all this with people who literally know almost nothing at the beginning. One of them adds a cup of water to Benedict sauce instead of a tablespoon (twice). They set things on fire. They peel carrots by standing them on their ends and using a knife. One of them tried to make a grilled cheese by putting cheese on the grill (and not halloumi, but melting cheese). It’s kind of terrifying to watch.

But the real skill of the home cook is stuff like this:

6:25pm: Look in refrigerator, mentally whine about how I have no food I want to eat.
6:30pm: Stare at refrigerator some more. Notice pesto jar and small end of ready-cooked polenta loaf. Polenta. With pesto? Hey, those are both Italian, I bet that would work. Hm, are the dregs of spinach still good? Maybe. How about an egg?
6:35pm: Rescue decent spinach, slice and microwave polenta on top of spinach, fry egg.
6:48pm: Sit down to nice-looking meal of pesto polenta on a bed of spinach with a fried egg.
6:55pm: Look at empty plate. Think “Little too much pesto, but that was good!”

Home cooking isn’t about cutting potatoes into perfect cubes and making vanilla maple syrup and cooking eggs in four different ways and filleting your own fish, and then having a chef judge every little choice you made. (Anne Burrell would have wanted me to make my own polenta and pesto, and use less of the pesto. But I’m not Anne Burrell and I was happy to have ready-made items.) It’s looking at what’s in the fridge and pantry and concocting something that tastes good and doesn’t take forever to make. It’s not sending you to the grocery store for things you’ve never eaten, it’s finding recipes you are familiar with, or looking things up on the internet before you try to buy them. It’s much simpler than they make it seem, because chefs are chefs and most of us are just cooks. I know it makes better TV the way they do it, but I wish I’d get to see all these people really learn to just cook like regular humans cook.

Experts and biases

I wrote a while back about my view of doctors as experts on the health of the body who I trust to investigate it and advise me on it. I’ve been thinking about this lately because I’ve been seeing some doctors about my ankle. I’ve seen a podiatrist after each of my acute injuries, followed by a physical therapist. I quite trust the podiatrist I’ve seen to diagnose acute injuries; he was the one who identified that my original sprain wasn’t a simple ATFL sprain but rather of multiple ligaments and a tendon. But he hasn’t had any ideas as to why I had persistent pain.

In the spring I saw a new podiatrist and another physical therapist. Just lately I’ve seen two orthopods (both primarily surgeons, I believe). I’ve had three x-rays and two MRIs. So I’ve been through a lot of physical exams and imaging findings and discussions about my injuries. One of the things that I’ve been quite disappointed by in the MDs is the lack of interest in the exact nature and pattern of my symptoms. They all ask questions about the history, but they don’t seem interested in precise answers, even though I’ve written up a detailed timeline and can describe the location and quality of the symptoms clearly. They do more or less a standard exam for gross tissue injury in the ankle, look at my films, and declare that there seems to be nothing awry and they aren’t sure why I’m in such pain.

At the last doctor I finally got a reasonable enough explanation of what a diagnostic injection to my ankle joint would do and decided I’d like to have it done. They basically shoot anesthetic into the joint, and then you do things that should hurt. If it helps, the joint may have a problem. If it doesn’t, then it’s probably a soft tissue problem. So they did, and I did, and my foot still hurt, but there was something interestingly different about the quality of the pain. A tenderness that I’m accustomed to was less prominent; the pain was less focused, and less intense, probably about 3/4 as intense.

After the injection I was thinking about what exactly hurt less, and why it might hurt less. I remembered something that my most recent physical therapist mentioned a few times: the cuboid bone. He said that mine was in the wrong place, and he was trying to put it back. The cuboid bone is below the fourth and fifth metatarsals, and abuts the calcaneus (heel bone). So it’s near the main (talar) ankle joint, but not exactly in it. Hmmm. It sounds like something that might have been remitted by a local anesthetic in the joint, but not entirely eliminated by it. I started searching for problems with the cuboid, and sure enough, there’s a thing called cuboid syndrome that almost exactly matches my symptoms.

Holy cripes, people. I might have a thing that there’s a name for! And specific treatment for. And yet, I’ve had it on and off for literally three years, and no one except my PT has ever said the word cuboid to me! I want to call all the doctors I’ve seen and say “Why didn’t you mention this thing?!?!” I can see from the literature that cuboid syndrome is mostly a diagnosis of elimination and it’s not a very well-defined phenomenon, but fuck. What else were we doing with the X-rays and MRIs besides eliminating things and what were we doing with office visits besides discussing my symptoms and their possible explanations?

Technically I haven’t heard back from the newest doctor yet since I reported my results, so I probably should give him a chance to actually come up with this idea. But regardless of whether he does, what I’ve been thinking about is the way that even as a expert in an area, it’s so easy to stay inside the little box of your well-worn standard tests, and not know about, or not think about, other possibilities. I see this happen not infrequently at work, and I know that I also occasionally fall into it myself. The first thought on seeing a thing that is anomalous and isn’t explained by common problems is “That can’t really be possible.”

And a lot of times, especially in tech support, it’s true. It is more likely that someone messed up something subtle in their firewall configuration than that our system (which is otherwise functioning normally) is not functioning correctly just for them. It is more common that you didn’t attach that custom information to your data, or didn’t do so correctly, than that it’s not being processed because of a bug. But it’s also intensely frustrating to be on the other end and deeply know that you must somehow have the information that is needed and just can’t convey it to the person on the other end. It’s a reminder to all experts to be humble, curious, and open; to search for details in the data and entertain new ideas about what might explain them. If you listen carefully, you might get just the information you need to help someone.

What are markets, really?

I just finished a book called Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities Are Changing the WorldIt’s an interesting book; I learned a lot from it, although I don’t agree with everything that he says (he has both a weirdly rosy view of certain cities, and a weirdly pessimistic view of the broader situation). The section of the book that I ultimately found most thought-provoking is part of a short preface to the section about Chicago where he introduces what he thinks a market is. I’m going to quote that five-paragraph section (pp. 254-255) almost in its entirety here because of how much it interested me.

It’s best to be clear about what we mean when we talk about a market. A market can be simply understood as a regular, patterned set of transactions between a group of buyers and sellers, which results in the predictable exchange of some mutually recognized value. That’s how we normally think about markets. This makes markets seem like generic exchange mechanisms but markets are anything but [sic].

The different markets within a city — whether for fish, houses, parking spaces, or engineering contracts — are defined by local and regional customs, laws, conventions, infrastructure, and spatial relationships. Many different forces in the city, not just its buyers and sellers, shape how each market works. In turn, each market determines which business models can thrive in a city. By constraining the types of business models that succeed in a city, a market also shapes the way the city itself develops….At their most mature stage of development, different local markets cluster activities together to create unique efficiencies and synergies in the physical form of a citysystem.

To explore the local character of markets, take the example of housing in a residential neighborhood. Theoretically, the housing market involves a generic product unit, a square foot of living space. The price for that unit is determined by supply, demand, and the cost of its production….But in reality, the nature of the product, its value on the market, and how the transaction is managed are all determined by dozens of local cultural, political, legal, and institutional factors. The cultural or social background of neighbors determines whether a home in this neighborhood secures a premium price. It also determines the allowable activities and income that can be derived from the building, such as whether an owner can operate a home business or rent units. Political and legal factors determine whether and how the building can be expanded on its lot and how much it will cost to do so….Institutional factors determine the availability and cost of finance, or whether owners have to look after their own water and sanitation services. These factors are part and parcel of the residential housing market. They greatly determine its prices and the nature of the building, its ownership structure, liquidity, and sales transactions. These local factors are not separable from the market. They define and govern it as much as the market governs the moments and ways that a city can pursue transformational change. To the extent that a city can shape its markets, it can also shape its own development.

Local markets are also socially regulated, even in free market economies. There are vast differences between the forms that a particular market takes in different cities….Each distinct market uses different buildings, supports different activities, and produces different externalities, such as waste streams and noise. These condition arise from historical compromises between different ethnic and economic groups and from political accommodations to religious, mercantile, labor, and government institutions. Conceiving a market that is void of culture, historical conventions, and institutions is a truly academic or ideological exercise.

To the extent that we manage national economies and multinational companies without reference to the diverse, evolving urban markets on which they stand, we welcome a world of economic surprise.

As with some of the other writing, this gets a bit incoherent in parts, but the basic notion here that even a free market is necessarily governed by its cultural, social, and institutional context is interesting to me. I generally tend to be a bit more of a free marketeer than a lot of people who are otherwise politically similar to me, and I often start my thinking about an economic issue from the basic idea that the cost of something is largely governed by supply and demand. When supply is low, and demand is high (see: Portland real estate right now) the price rises, and interfering in that process (by introducing rent control, for example) may have undesirable results by creating strange economic distortions. Brugmann’s contention, if I understand his argument here, is that a citysystem is necessarily an active participant in creating the conditions of a market, and reacting to them (as Portland City Council is currently being asked to do) is only changing the way that they are influencing them, rather than introducing a previously absent influence, and may be quite desirable from the standpoint of the wider well-being and economic dynamism of the city.

The concept Brugmann is illustrating of course has much wider applicability than Portland’s current housing crisis or even than real estate, but it’s a convenient example of why I was struck by this passage and wanted to pull it out for later, deeper consideration. My current conception of “free market” seems to be lazy and imprecise, and I’d like to think about how revising it would improve my understanding of the economic systems in cities, and especially the role of government, citizens, and culture in driving them.

Short hair, clear self?

Yesterday I decided to buzz my hair. Everyone was getting a haircut, and I’ve always wanted to buzz my hair just to see what it would be like, but I never had because, like Cognitive Behave Yourself, I have a high forehead (and large ears), and in general I have a small head and larger body so I thought it might look strange. But when is a better time than now to find out? So I threw caution to the wind and let my friend buzz it all short.

Before - on the beach

Before – on the beach. Hair was already driving me crazy three weeks out from a cut.

After - at home

After – at home. So short! So easy!

Looking at myself in the mirror last night, I looked sort of like an oddly round-cheeked Vulcan, and sort of like a friend of a friend. I always have an expressive face and the absence of hair exaggerates it. My ears aren’t really that big (I think…).

Mostly, I keep forgetting that I have shorter hair at all, since my normal cut is low-maintenance, so looking in the mirror is surprising (as is attempting to ruffle my hair, something I do when I’m tired or thinking). I learned that my hair doesn’t stand up when it’s short, but just falls down.

I got a lot less reaction at work than I expected; mostly positive. That was nice. Then I was walking home today and I saw some guys coming the other way. I wondered what they might think of me, and realized that I didn’t care. It seemed okay, for a moment, to be myself without any pretense. To be just a regular working person going home to her cat, carrying toilet cleaner in a water bottle pocket in a backpack. Just one different ordinary person among many different ordinary people.

I guess I’ll find out as things go along whether a little doing something that you’ve always been afraid to do because of what people might think may result in greater clarity about how much it matters what people think. I’m still going to grow my hair back out, though.


Aphasic perception

I have these moments sometimes of incomprehension. They feel like what I imagine a hunter-gatherer, or someone from a very different culture, might experience if dropped into the middle of this one; or perhaps more like aphasia in an adult, a sudden inability to decode symbols that once were meaningful. They happen perhaps when I’m depressed, or when I’ve had a few drinks and I’m tired. All of a sudden, nothing makes sense. Why are there roads? How can there be all these plants in tidy organization? Who takes care of them? Why do people live in houses? I have a house? Why do I have a house, surely I can’t possibly need one? How am I allowed to have all these things when other people don’t have them? What is other people’s experience like? How could I possibly know? How can I imagine that I know anything at all? What was I doing at work today, acting like I knew things? Why does it matter what my opinion of anything is?

My thoughts remind me of the kind sometimes reported by people meditating deeply, or otherwise having a profound spiritual experience, except that they lack the sense of connection that those same people report, a sense of everything in the universe being one. It’s possible that this is what is happening, neurologically. The temporal lobes control that sense of oneness; I’m not sure anyone knows exactly what part of the brain controls the belief that your life experience is perfectly normal and your cultural benchmarks have value.

You’d think these episodes would be useful, but they aren’t. Perhaps universal lessons are best served with a side of oneness.

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.