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.

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 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.

Car2Go website continues to be horrible

I still haven’t used Car2Go, in part because of its horrible web interface, and in part because it never seems to be more convenient than biking or TriMet — there were a few times recently when I would have liked to use it, but I would have needed to walk farther than I could at the time.

I was trying to again this morning, though, because I have to be someplace weird (out of my normal travel pattern) today, at a particular time, and I can’t bike right now (my foot is still injured), and it’s not that easy to get there by TriMet, so Car2Go seems to make sense as a way to do it — I don’t need to keep the car, I just need to get there, so it’s a classic case of when Car2Go would be better than Zipcar financially. But because I have to be there at a particular time and it’s an important appointment, I’d like to do it in advance, and not just rely on the availability of a car at the time.

In order to try to do this, I went through the following hassles:

1) Searching for Car2Go or just going to their homepage doesn’t take you to a page with a login button. You have to either have it bookmarked, know the URL (which is not, or or search for “portland car2go log in”, which I always forget. I’ve now bookmarked this page, so I should be able to skip this in the future, but this is the 21st century and your top search result page SHOULD HAVE A LOGIN LINK IF YOU ARE A MEMBERSHIP BASED SITE. Dear god, how is this not obvious?

2) Once I eventually found the login page and got logged in, I still had to find the page where you can click to make a reservation. You first have to click on My Car2Go (I think this is what you’re supposed to do) or on the map, if you want to make a reservation via the map (but as I mentioned previously, this is fairly painful), but I didn’t because I wanted an advance reservation. And this isn’t made obvious at all — the My Car2Go link is just one of many sidebar links, some of which do take you to a page with the submenu for reservations, some of which don’t.

3) Then I had to cope with their strange way of choosing a time to start a reservation, with a slider that does minutes in the selected hour, or hours, and switches between the two in a somewhat confusing way. (There’s a reason most websites or apps with time selectors use text entry, dropdown, or [on the iPhone] wheels.)

4) After that I had to enter a start location for the reservation. I tried entering my address, which worked, but added an extra step of “confirm you really meant this address with more details like city and zip”. After I said yes, it returned “We were not able to find a vehicle to match your information.” Hm. There are usually some cars nearby, why didn’t this work? Tried the major intersection nearby, which returned “Unknown address. Please try again.”. Seriously, your address thing can’t cope with intersections? I think this is pretty much expected functionality at this point in the life of address-location on the Internet. Okay, I tried the address of one of the buildings in the shopping center at that intersection (this time I added the city and zip, which made it fail at first — even though otherwise it adds them itself). Nope, back to not being able to find a vehicle. WTF? Maybe none of them are close enough — try another address that I know always has a car nearby because it’s right by the Car2Go office. Nope. Can’t find anything.

5) Okay, I’ll see if maybe my question is answered somewhere. Nope. Their FAQ just says “You can reserve a car in advance”. No instructions on how to make that happen. No troubleshooting section.

At this point I gave up. I’m sorry, Car2Go, but if you’re going to make it this hard to use your service to reserve a car in advance, so I can feel comfortable getting to an important appointment, I’m just going to use Zipcar, even though it costs more. Because I know that when I visit their website, I can immediately log in, select my home location, see available cars, reserve one, and be done, and more than anything, what I like about carsharing is having a car available when I want one, and not having to hassle with it otherwise.

Car2Go website is just horrible

Inconspicuous login button, disappearing links, ridiculous password requirements, a map interface that would make the Baby Jesus cry…
I could detail all the ways it’s totally wrong, but I normally get paid to design and build web applications, and they didn’t ask for my advice, so.

It seems really tragic, actually. I think Car2Go is a great idea, but dear god the website makes me want to shoot myself in the head instead of renting a car, and there’s no reason why it has to be that way; there are lots of competent web designers and coders out there (both in Portland and not). And it’s not like they didn’t have Zipcar as a model to make the website not suck. I don’t love Zipcar’s website, but it’s pretty friendly and straightforward and it works fine most of the time.

I guess I’ll just rent my Cars2Go spontaneously for the time being…

Comcast update and nifty bank technology

The final item in the Comcast saga is that I overpaid them by $5.42 and they issued me a check for it, which of course they directed to my old address so it took a while to arrive. But at least dealing with them is over for now. Thank you, neighbor with open wireless.

Yesterday I took the check to the bank, along with another one, to deposit them. Usually I make deposits in my credit union account, but these were low-denomination checks so I decided to deposit them through Bank of America. This is the first time I’ve used one of their new ATMs that can scan your checks, determine their amount, and issue you a receipt with the check image on it. It’s pretty cool. You don’t need a deposit slip or envelope and you don’t even have to enter the amount if the check can be OCRed properly. One of my checks was, but the Comcast one wasn’t. It showed an image (zoomable!) anyway so I was easily able to enter the amount based on the image, even though the check was no longer in my hand. The receipt printed both checks with small but recognizable images (this is optional if you don’t want it, but I thought it was cool).

Big businesses can be annoying to work with, and Bank of America demonstrated this recently when I wanted to change my address. They offer the ability to do that online — sensibly enough, since you can do pretty much everything else with your account online — so after I moved, I did. However, for some reason that I still don’t understand, they refused to complete the online address change, claiming that I had changed my address too recently. That’s utter nonsense, since I lived in the same place for three years and only updated my address once to correct the spelling (yes, I spelled my own address wrong — the street name has two variants that are both common and I chose the wrong one).

It took quite a bit of back-and-forth to correct this, including a visit to the branch where they informed me that since it’s a California account, they can’t change it on the Oregon computer system (WTF? Really?) and it only ended when I described my address change history (or rather, lack thereof) in detail and threatened to move on if they continued to be clueless. Finally I got someone responding to my emails that seemed to realize there was no actual problem, so she changed it for me.

But they do have cool tech.

Comcast Fail, let me count the ways

I’ve written before about my struggles with Comcast — they lose payments, they bill incorrectly, and until recently, calling their general customer service from my cell phone was an exercise in frustration because they would redirect me to New Mexico Comcast based on my area code.

When closing my account with them, I had another struggle: they told me they would send me a final bill, but they didn’t issue the bill before the due date on my previous bill or before the account was closed. When I talked to them, they seemed not to be aware that I had ever been promised such a thing, and maybe not even aware that I had called to cancel my account (even though my account should have shown that I had canceled as well as returning my modem — another poor experience, since it took 30+ minutes while everyone in the place moved at molasses-speed).

Eventually I had to sit on hold on their online chat for a while and request that they tell me the final balance. One representative claimed I should just pay the full amount due and they would refund the balance, but I’ve heard that song and dance before and I didn’t fall for it. To quote myself from March 2008, “Like hell. At this point, they don’t get my money until they prove that they’re supposed to.”

Even after he agreed, he claimed all they could give me was an estimate because they couldn’t calculate the taxes. (Really? How do you do it every month then?)

Today I got a notice in my email that my bill was ready online, so I guess they finally prepared it. I tried to log in to look at it (because the email doesn’t give the amount) and — surprise! — I can’t log in because the account number associated with my login profile has been canceled and is invalid. No, really.

Let’s hope I estimated an amount close to the correct amount when I paid them online. Otherwise I’ll have to wait for my mail to be forwarded to sort this out. (…and I only even get paper statements because they can’t be trusted to send out an email every month.)

When you say “as in”

” ‘With any luck we will be able to ftp some suitable software and get it running on the Tera.’
‘The Terror?’
‘Tera. As in Teraflops.’
‘That does me no good at all. When you say “as in” you are supposed to give me something more familiar to relate it to.’ “

I got a Portland Water Bureau Drinking Water Quality Report in my mailbox today. There’s a section where they list contaminants, including Radium, which is measured in picocuries per liter. There’s also a “Definitions” section which defines picocuries per liter, among other things. The definition is:
“Picocurie is a measurement of radioactivity. One picocurie is a trillion times smaller than one curie.”

Note to the PWB: please see the above Cryptonomicon excerpt for my reaction to this definition.

USPS Fail — again!

I was at home today when the postal carrier came by, which turned out to be a good thing, not because he had a package for me, but because he apparently thought I had already moved.

I don’t understand, because I filed a change-of-address that had a start date of 6/27/09 (the day I’m moving). I did get a notice that said that it went through, which is great, but it doesn’t actually confirm the start date, so now I don’t know if the start date is correct but my postal carrier is clueless, or they didn’t add the start date. Either way, fail.

The postal carrier kept trying to convince me that I should leave him a note on the day that I moved so they could start forwarding my mail. I thought that’s what a change of address form was for! I shouldn’t need to leave a note in my mailbox for my postal carrier to get an official change of address put into effect properly. Should I?

Do LG/Verizon hate commas? or: Weird interface things with the LG Dare

A while back I bought an LG Dare. Mostly I like it fairly well, but it has a couple of problems — even leaving aside the fact that it’s now restarted spontaneously four times since I bought it.

One is that it’s hard for it to distinguish between scrolling and selecting. Oddly, the browser and the other functions seem to have different prejudices. The browser tends to scroll when I’m trying to select, and the phonebook and menus tend to select when I’m trying to scroll. You get better at it, but it’s still not perfect.

The other is that it hates commas. And apostrophes, in some cases.

I use a lot of commas when I write email, and even when I write texts or notes. I like commas. Unfortunately, the comma is not on the main QWERTY soft keyboard, nor is it the second option on the T9 punctuation softkey like it used to be. Instead, they prefer @. I understand that @ is used in email addresses, but I honestly do not type email addresses very often unless I’m in an address field (which is less common than being in a text field) and I don’t think I’m very unusual in this regard. Certainly not in text messages, and rarely in the browser. And while I like having the .com key occasionally, I’d really rather have a comma.

The extra keys available on the regular QWERTY change depending on context, but the one I really want, the [, ‘] option, is never available. In the text messager, it’s [@’] (so I have to shift for ‘) and [.?] (logical). In the browser, it’s [.com], [.] and [/], so neither , nor ‘ is available in QWERTY and I have to switch into symbols for either and press shift to get to the ‘. Argh. I don’t often need to type a URL when I’m in an input field in the browser, only if I’m in the address bar, which is a totally different thing. Why give me those keys? I need my complex clauses and contractions! With apostrophes. No “its cold outside” for this linguist.

The issue of accessing the symbols keyboard brings me to my second major keyboard complaint. Like the iPhone, the QWERTY soft keyboard on the Dare has a switcher-key that turns it to numbers and symbols. However, unlike the iPhone, it has two keys: one for QWERTY and one for symbols. This is less than ideal. The iPhone guys thought this through and realized: if you’re in symbols already, you don’t need the symbol key. Ditto QWERTY. So they gave just one key, which toggles back and forth.

Unfortunately, LG was not that clever, so there are two keys. The ‘reason’, I think is, that in the browser the QWERTY key can also be used to access accented letters, but there’s gotta be a more clever way of doing that than always taking up precious screen real-estate (the Dare has a smaller screen than the iPhone, although a larger keyboard because the QWERTY goes across the long side) with two keys.

All this makes typing on the Dare a much longer and more complex process than it should be, diminishing the practical usefulness of being able to type faster on the QWERTY.

Give me punctuation or give me a red pen!

And: tax cuts? are you kidding?

Say what you like about the original bailout bill, it did not get better with the addition of tax cuts (yes, tax cuts at a time the government is proposing to give away $700B it doesn’t have anyway) and unrelated items. Write or call and urge your rep to vote against it. Strangely, those of you with Republican reps might have better luck for once. The Democrats so far have been annoyingly eager to save Wall Street from itself in the guise of saving us from them.