Start. Start again. Start anew every day (or year)

There’s something about the WordPress New Post window that shuts my brain down. Actually, most typed text composition options do this to my brain. I quite like writing with pen & paper but I think I need to find my sweet spot, tool-wise, that will let me get the words out without having to re-enter them – I describe my handwriting as a great example of a write-only storage system. Part of why I like writing by hand is that it slows the words down just enough that I end up being more thoughtful and deliberate – there are fewer superfluous words and I end up questioning what I’m thinking more.

See? That’s 103 words of nattering right there (ok, the WP edit window helps with that 🙂 ) and I haven’t even started on what the point of this post was.

It’s New Year’s Day, 2018 and That Year is over. It was a Bad Year in a LOT of ways but it was actually a pretty positive year for me personally, so I’m feeling guilty about that. But maybe that’s one of the #2018Liberations ideas (h/t Cate Huston) that I should be trying out – not feeling bad about my own successes while there is so much pain in the world. Not gloating about them, not being successful at the expense of others, but learning to be happy for myself.

In early December, I started what might just be my dream job. I’m an Engineering Manager at Buffer, a company that I set my sights on a couple of years ago when I started really thinking about what I value in life and what I want to contribute my few hours on the planet towards. One of Buffer’s values is “Show Gratitude” and wow do the people I work with live that value. It’s a bit of an awkward one for me because I get quite shy when people thank me for things or praise me and I have that impulse common to a lot of people (more so women? I’m not sure) to deflect praise and positive attention. But I think I need to work on that. Not just for myself, but also for others – both people who I can act as a role model for, showing that it’s ok to hear positive things about yourself and accept that gracefully, and for the people offering that praise. It’s not a great feeling to have tried to show gratitude to someone and to feel like that’s not appreciated, so I think I might need to get over my discomfort there 🙂

I am not much of a goal-setter. Some people are really motivated by setting goals but I tend to end up demotivated by them because as soon as I ‘fail’ to complete exactly whatever the plan I came up with for myself, I give up. Jean Hsu’s description of

being mostly effortlessly high-achieving through high school and college, and never really developing a great deal of grit and persistence.

resonates a LOT with me (not high school, because I was completely disinterested and didn’t even try then, but in university). I don’t think I have grit. I tend to give up easily. ESPECIALLY after I’ve failed to meet some arbitrarily strict standard I set for myself.

So that’s my goal for this year – to keep getting back on the horse. To work on building habits – to keep re-starting when I stop or don’t think I ‘measured up’. The habits I want to work on are:

  • moving more – I’m intrigued by the “217 in 2017” that the folks over at Fit Is A Feminist Issue blog did last year. I particularly appreciate the definition of what ‘counts’ as a workout that they provide – anything outside of their normal day. Bill and I have started going swimming midday on Tuesdays and Thursdays (thanks for the flexibility, Future of Work!) and that would cover a good number of a potential 218 in 2018 🙂
  •  writing more – This is a first start, but I’d like to ‘ship’ a post per week. Hopefully some of the other habits I’m working on can help provide inspiration for some of the things to write about, but I’d also like to write some fiction.
  • reading more – one of the amazing perks that Buffer offers employees is free e-books. Like, for real, you say “Hey, I’d like this book” and they give it to you. Unfortunately, the first one I picked is a bit of a slog so far and I’m really not enjoying the author’s tone, but at the same time, that’s a good lesson for me on the writing side – if your audience feels insulted or lessened by what you are writing, they’re going to put your work down sooner than they otherwise might. I do actually have a goal here – I want to finish one book a week. I know that some of them (like the current one) will take more than a week to get through so I expect to supplement completions with fiction/humour (too bad I devoured the whole “The Broken Earth” series in one week in September. Credit for three books in a week! (see what I mean about goals being a problem for me? 🙂 )) I mean, technically, I finished John Hodgman’s “VacationLand” today, which could count as finishing this week, but since it was a re-read, I don’t know if that’s cheating.
  • serving more – I want to find ways to help make the world a better place that involve more than just giving money (although I want to do more of that, too) but involve me actually doing things that have an immediate positive impact on people.

And more self-compassion. I’m going to fall down on these goals. That’s ok.  The real habit I’m trying to build is starting again after I ‘fail’.

Giving people the chance to say goodbye

I am thinking today (as so many Canadians are) about the final Tragically Hip concert that will start in  a little over an hour. One of the articles I read mentioned how unusual it seems for the very private Downie to publicize his diagnosis and contrasted that with how David Bowie handled his.

I found myself feeling very grateful for the opportunity to celebrate, thank, and grieve the forthcoming loss of this person who has contributed so much to the culture of our country. And I thought about some of the ‘farewell parties’ I’ve lately been hearing about – people who have terminal diagnoses participating in the celebration of their lives with their loved ones. There was even one portrayed on “Grace & Frankie.”

Death is hard for us to accept. We don’t like it and we prefer to not think about it or talk about it. But it is coming, for each of us, and despite what we imagine and hope and plan for the future, we don’t know when. By being open with his diagnosis of terminal brain cancer, Gord Downie has created space for us to talk about this most fundamentally shared human experience, and has in some ways held our hands as we look at it – frightened, angry, and sad. In some ways, it feels like another brilliant song he’s written to help us feel things that we couldn’t find our way to on our own.

I’m grateful for the example of a well-lived life. Thank you, Mr. Downie, for inviting us to your goodbye party and giving us the chance to say goodbye.

On Machine Learning and the Ethics of Computation

I was reading a recent post on machine learning from one of my favourite technical writers (Julia Evans) and was inspired enough to comment that I signed up for Disqus under my own name for a change 🙂
However, it turns out that the post was closed for comments, so I thought that I’d write up my thoughts here.  I’m pretty busy today so I’m just going to paste it as a quote rather than edit it into a more ‘first-person’ writing style.

This is a pretty interesting topic overall – I have largely avoided machine learning b/c of a lot of concerns about how it’s used (and its results assumed to be ‘normal’ or ‘correct’) but recently decided that that’s the wrong approach. Instead, I’m going to learn more about it so I’m in a better position to critique how it’s used and point out implicit assumptions and biases. To that end, I’ve signed up for the Stanford course that just started.

Even in the first lesson in that course, I saw some interesting examples that made my skin crawl. I think the biggest issue I have with it is (and I am JUST starting to learn) is that there’s an implicit assumption that all relevant information is externally observable and that conclusions drawn from objectively measurable data/behaviour will be correct. I’m fine with that when it involves some kinds of events, but I get very uncomfortable when we’re applying it to humans. So much of human motivation is invisible/intuitive that leaning so heavily on machine learning (which necessarily relies on events that are can be observed by others & fed into algorithms) leads to things like, as you say, the Target pregnancy issue. There are many other ‘positive feedback’ effects of assuming that reinforcing/strengthening conclusions based on visibly available data that are detrimental – gender-segregated toys is a primary one. “65% of people buying for girls bought X, so when someone is shopping for a girl, we’ll suggest X. Look! Now 75% of people shopping for girls bought X – we were right! MOAR X for the girls!” [eventually, the ‘for girls’ section is nothing but X in various sizes, shapes, and colours (all colours a variant shade of pink)]

Another ML issue that came up for discussion when I was working at Amazon was: some people consider LGBTQ topics to be inappropriate for some readers, so even if someone had actively searched for LGBTQ fiction, the recommendation engine was instructed to NOT suggest those titles. That has the effect of erasing representation for marginalized people and increasing isolation among those who are already isolated. In fact, one could argue that one of the things that ML does best is erase the margins (obviously, depending on how it’s implemented, but in the rush to solve all problems with it, these types of questions seem to be ignored a lot).

I mentioned positive feedback loops before. The analogy I have in my head is: ML type algorithms (unless you build in randomness & jitter) amplify differences until you end up with a square wave – flat and of two polar opposite values. Negative feedback loops lead to dynamic yet stable equilibriums.

I mean, it’s obviously here to stay, and it clearly has some very significant beneficial use cases. But there are a lot of ethical questions that aren’t getting a lot of attention and I’d love to see more focus on that over the technical ones. Thank you for mentioning them 🙂

The more time I spend in this industry, the more I believe that the one Computational Ethics course I took back in my CS degree wasn’t nearly enough, and that we could really use a much broader conversation in that area. [To that end, I’ve also signed up for some philosophy courses to go with the ML one ;)]

Site move – lost media

Hello all! I moved my site to new hosting and didn’t know that the export wouldn’t bring the media with it. So there are a lot of broken link images. I’ll working on restoring them quickly, but your patience is appreciated (especially where screenshots are involved).

Have a great day!

Is it obvious?

I was in San Francisco yesterday, interviewing for a job with my ideal company. In the first interview, which was a more technically focused one, I noticed that I often prefaced what I was saying with “well, obviously” or just “obviously”. When I noticed that, I commented on it out loud: “hunh, I’m not sure why I’m saying that – I don’t know what’s obvious to other people – it’s all based on individual experience and familiarity with things.”

The fact that I thought “why am I saying that” led me to re-read Nick’s post “Why am I saying this?” and to really reflect on what the word ‘obviously’ means when I say it and what it might mean to others hearing it. When I was saying it, I wasn’t really meaning that what came next was necessarily obvious to anyone – myself included. It’s a verbal tic that I developed at some point along the way, and probably an inherently defensive/self-protective one. I don’t feel like delving into all the subtle biases and one-upmanship that often happens in tech, and how people who don’t look like what everyone thinks of when they think of someone in tech learn coping habits, but I suspect that’s where my ‘obviously’ comes from.

So let’s walk through what it means to me and what it might mean to others.

What is going through my head when I say ‘obviously’ at the beginning of a sentence?

  • “Oh, shoot, I wasn’t thinking – I know the answer but still needed a cue to pick up on it. Dammit, they probably think I’m an idiot now!”
  • “This feels like a trick question…” [the answer to this question can’t possibly be the obvious one (to me), so saying ‘obviously’ is a way to prompt them to provide more hints/details]
  • “…” (i.e. nothing at all) – the word can be just a linguistic space-filler or habit. I have a few of those & I’m trying to identify and remove them (‘definitely’ is definitely top of that list)

What goes through my head when I hear ‘obviously’ at the beginning of a sentence? (putting myself in the listener’s place)

  • If I didn’t know what was being said: “Oh shit, I’m the only person here who didn’t already know that. I should have known that. I’m horribly under qualified to be here!” [Depending on how they said it, I might also think they were a bit of a jerk who wasn’t supportive of people with different experience and knowledge.]
  • If I did know: That depends on how they said it. If it was neutral/verbal tic, I might not even notice the word. That’s the best case. In the worst case, I’d probably think they were a bit of a jerk who wasn’t supportive of people with different experience and knowledge.

So where’s the upside in using ‘obviously’ word to introduce a statement? The only value seems to be protecting my own identity/ego. And since I’m working on not doing things to protect my identity/ego because that protection leads to lack of real communication and connection between people, any upside to me is heavily outweighed by the potential downside to others. Allowing myself to be vulnerable, and to be wrong, and to be seen being wrong is an important growth goal for me.

In fact, there seem to be a lot more obnoxious ways to use the word ‘obviously’ than helpful ones and I’m going to work on purging it from my spoken usage *. Even if something does seem obvious to me, what value in stating that? How does that help anyone with anything?

* I was trying to think of genuinely inoffensive ways to use the word and the best example I could come up with is play/stage direction notes and narrative:

  • “Kara was obviously moved by the story she heard”
  • “Michel was obviously upset with the situation”

But for first-person usage? I’m not sure it’s ever a good idea. [Maybe in cases where defensiveness is actually warranted (Barty Crouch has just accused you, Harry Potter, of casting the Dark Mark, I guess?)]