Month: March 2020

ProductivityRemote Work

Reflections on working remotely while Black

By now, you’ve probably seen a lot of posts and tweets about how to effectively work from home. Especially if you’re among the thousands of folk whose workplace or school has moved to work from home in response to the coronavirus crisis.

I can’t add much to what’s already been said about how to set up your home office, or which headphones or app to use, or how to sanely put together your day. I have worked at a distributed company (everyone works away from the office) for the last four years. My colleague Lori McLeese offers a lot of helpful advice on remote working, Automattic’s CEO Matt Mullenweg has insights, and a good friend and fellow data scientist Boris Gorelik offers lots of sage advice.

I’ll speak from my perspective. I am Black and living in the U.S. I have worked in some capacity in machine learning, data science, big data, artificial intelligence — whatever the buzzword you choose — for twenty plus years. I have worked remotely in some capacity for at least ten.

In those years I’ve encountered micro- macro- and off-the-chain aggressions courtesy of the standard work-in-the-office culture. Here’s a sampling…

Hey, I think you’re in the wrong place…

2000’s

If I’m sitting in a cubicle in the R&D group wing, why wouldn’t you think I’m in the R&D group? I’m sitting in a chair, writing a paper, with a stack of machine learning papers on my desk?

We should get all the <N_WORDS> out of here

Late 1980’s

I was silent for a few days…

We should send all the Africans back…Ebola is too dangerous to tolerate those…

2014-ish

Whew…deep breaths and a long walk.

These comments and ensuing actions are from years of work, but I keep hearing the same things from students and other folk much younger than I who’ve had to put their minds back together from this shtuff. The point is that there’s a deep psychological, psychic impact that broken and persistent workplace cultures have on employees that come from the margins. Black folk, like LatinX people, women, transgender folk, people who are autistic. The exceptional and everyday people that make companies and institutions work. The office can be so hostile, violent, and spirt murdering (to quote Dr Bettina Love) that any benefits to in-person interaction are lost, nullified.

For me, and many others, working remotely has allowed the ability, the autonomy to carve out a truly safe and sane working environment. The autonomy to work on our own terms and in places where we are cherished, supported, nurtured.

One critique of remote work is that “it stifles creativity”. But the ability to go on walks without fear, to connect with colleagues from around the world, to think deeply while looking out the window, to talk out loud a problem to my daughter (quizzically looks are ok), to have a Black young man in a coffee shop just stroll up an ask about linear algebra — all these spur creativity and a self worth that is incalculable.

Does Automattic (or any other remote workplace) have room for growth — of course! There are issues around the assumptions of resource privilege that go along with even applying — does everyone have access to the computing, network, and other resources to successfully make an application? To the social networks needed to know about such positions? There are racial disparities in the ability to work remotely. These issues and questions have to be thought through deeply — inclusion and equity have new implications.

But the benefit of the kind of listening and reflection that comes in various modes of communication that foster thought and respect is undeniable. And that may provide enough space for us to work through some things.

The research on remote work and impact is still getting started. You might read The Good, the Bad, and the Unknown About Telecommuting: Meta-Analysis of Psychological Mediators and Individual Consequences or https://open.buffer.com/remote-work-loneliness/. These links were suggested by Kristen Thomas, a graduate student at University of Texas Austin who is studying remote work.

And, if you’re a data engineer or data scientist interested in making the move to remote work, please consider applying to Automattic!

anti-racismBooksSocial Justice

Antiracism, the remix has dropped

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You is an important and engaging un-telling of racism. If you find yourself home with young readers over the coming days, giving it a family read would be time well spent. Here’s why.

A year and a half ago, I was gifted Ibram X. Kendi‘s masterful history of racism in America (it is impossible to separate the two) Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. This masterpiece of history, like any critical work, keeps drawing me back. Like The Roots Things Fall Apart, or Stevie’s Songs in the Key of Life there is something eternal about its truths. It hasn’t left our family desk since we got it; it is often read, often sampled (in the sense of those musical works) into the fabric of how we parse the world.

Kendi and Jason Reynolds have resampled Stamped from the Beginning, and have brought forth genius in Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You.

History as Remix

Kendi and Reynolds say that this is not a history book

This is NOT a history book.

This is a book about the here and now.

A book to help us better understand why we are where we are.

A book about race.

I didn’t really understand that until now, even after a cursory read. The point is that the musical form remix gives you the context of the old — Killing Me Softly sampled by A Tribe Called Quest, sampled by the Fugees, sampled by… — but folds it into the reality of the here and now. In Stamped, the racist tropes of the past are sampled in and placed into the present. Jonathan Jackson is killed liberating while Black in 1971, like Tamir Rice is killed playing while Black in 2014, like Angela Davis is jailed thinking while Black in 1971…

Angela arrested thinking while Black

But just like the Fugees live on re-sampled, the uncompromising feminism and anti-racism of Angela Davis is still fresh now. She’s still working actively to end a racialized injustice system. And so the strategies, analyses, actions can be re-sampled for generations to come.

Weaving an intricate story from Cotton Mather (racist) to Angela Davis (anti-racist)

History is dead, the remix is life.

Jason’s Voice

There is deep magic at work in the pairing of Reynolds and Kendi. I’ve seen Reynolds speak at book fairs a couple of times and each time witnessed his amazing capacity to engage with youth — 5 year olds, 12 year olds, 20 somethings — in a way that respects their intellect and their capacity take on important and difficult subjects. There is no mystery why he is The U.S.’s National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature. That respect and faith shines in award winning books like Ghost, As Brave As You, and The Boy in the Black Suit.

I know there are a lot — A LOT — of young people who hate reading. I know that many of these book haters are boys. I know that many of these book-hating boys, don’t actually hate books, they hate boredom. If you are reading this, and you happen to be one of these boys, first of all, you’re reading this so my master plan is already working (muahahahahahaha) and second of all, know that I feel you. I REALLY do. Because even though I’m a writer, I hate reading boring books too.

Jason Reynolds

The voice of the book is that of a couple of older brothers or friends laying out the shape of how we got here. The voice is authentic, and even as a parent it called me back to the “old school” brothers who would share stories of their days in the movement, offering life advice for the here and now. It conjures up a call just the other day with my aunt who’s in her 80’s, weaving in stories of how her grandmother shielded her from the Klan with what has to be done now. Remix.

This commitment that both authors have to the educate, to make plain and to engage delivers a book that speaks on many levels and across audiences. They say that this is a Young Adult book, but it is probably the most accessible “made plain” text on racism in the United States that I have encountered.

Haters, Cowards, and Antiracists

In Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Kendi develops a quick categorization of attitudes or stances on racism that is kind of understandable by non-academics. Segregationists uphold the racial hierarchy, Assimilationists include a lot of us who go along to get along and remain silent and complicit; while Antiracists work to actively put in place a world of equality and justice. Antiracism for Kendi is a process, we all have a lot of baggage to work through. But still even this is deep for a literate, thinking, feeling adult to process.

In something on the order of 200 pages, they make this plain to all ages

Haters, cowards, antiracists

Courage is the power of the mind to overcome fear.

Martin Luther King

Another thing made plain? intersectionality.

Here’s a link to an interview which aired last week.

Start reading.

AlgorithmsSocial Justice

Rediet Abebe: towards an algorithmic justice

The opposite of poverty is justice

Bryan Stevenson, Equal Justice Initiative founder

On February 27th, Dr. Rediet Abebe gave a prescient talk at Georgia Tech. During her talk, entitled “Designing Algorithms for Social Good”, she gave highlights from a research career that has already produced remarkable results at the intersection of algorithms, optimization, and social computing.

The surreal portion of the talk came at the beginning, where she detailed algorithms for the distribution of social benefits that could be optimized to improve the chances that people on the margins survive and thrive in the face of shocks. Shocks like wars, recessions, or viral pandemics.

How do we design policies of support when we know the crises will come? Dr Abebe has an algorithm for that.

The slide above — “A Model of Welfare” — is taken from her paper Subsidy Allocations in the Presence of Income Shocks and speaks so directly to the plight of the millions of gig economy workers, restaurant staff, undocumented, underemployed and others whose very ability to find adequate food and shelter are endangered as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic compounds. In short, a humane and just welfare system has to account for the events that are likely to drive people on the margins — and millions who may consider themselves to be far from the margins — into poverty. With the increase income inequality and the looming impact of climate change and other threats, the reactive and piecemeal approaches to social welfare are clearly not up to the challenge.

The words of Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative resonate: “The opposite of poverty is justice”. It would be an amazing world where the tools of computing were bent toward justice and equity. I hope that you’ll read Dr Abebe’s work, and ask your elected officials for justice. I hope that you contribute whatever you can to ease the burden of those around you.

Here’s a recent talk of Dr Abebe’s for inspiration

BooksHabitsProductivity

Are tiny habits useful?

I spent some time reading through BJ Fogg’s “Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything”.

I think it’s a quick read, its format makes for an easy and effective skim. I didn’t have to work too hard to pull out useful nuggets. I think that a book has worth when you can get something useful from just a judicious browse. Check it out from your library, or you can check out some of Fogg’s Ted talks.

Habits?

I’m sure that you have encountered the “habits” literature. There is a popular book Atomic Habits by James Clear, and there is blog by Leo Babauta named Zen Habits. The gist of the “habit formation” movement is that instead of trying to tackle some goal head on in one go – say getting healthy – you form a habit. You choose habits that are very easy to start and keep up. Something that incrementally moves you toward that goal. So a habit to get you to better health might be eating a vegetarian low calorie dinner every Friday night. Fogg has his own plan for habit formation and you can probably benefit without investing a lot of money in courses and such.

I don’t think there’s anything shockingly new here. My father would often say “Always from good habits”. He struggled with nicotine addiction and succumbed to cancer early. Knowing the importance of good habits is one thing, getting them going is another. There is something to getting your habits together.

What about tiny habits?

So here are a few reflections on Fogg’s book (I checked it out of the library) in no particular order.

I was first thrown off when I noticed it did not have a traditional index. I wanted to know if he had anything to say about procrastination: what tactics did he have to deal with getting into those tasks or projects that you aspire to ( a savings goal, reading a book, learning a language) but have a hard time getting to a first step. He actually talks about this in a chapter on Behavior Design – you have to make the behavior so easy to do that the factors separating you from doing it are removed.

Tackling the difficult step involves figuring out the why, what makes it difficult. He talks about a difficulty chain, but really you can just take some time to think through what makes a routine activity hard: cost? emotional effort? physical effort? Once you have an idea about what makes the behavior hard, you think through how to make it easier from that perspective. You can adjust the behavior to one that’s more in line with your current skills, read up on how to make it easier, or just reduce the complexity of the task (scale it back, find a simpler task to start with).

In lieu of an index, the book has a wealth of appendices. Flow charts in the appendix layout some of his processes for creating and sustaining habits. The “Tiny Habits for…” is nice – a collection of kinds of habits that might be good for particular aspirations (e.g. health). These aren’t earth shattering, but probably will give you some thoughts on get some of your difficult to-dos going.

I liked some of his habit formation suggestions – behavioral hacks lets call them.

  • While Waiting: Find those parts of your day while you are waiting around for stuff (he cites the example of deciding to floss while waiting for the shower to warm up).
  • His general method of looking for Prompts to cue some behavior is a good way of rethinking time and action.
  • The Behavior = Motivation Ability Prompt is a nice way of thinking through behavioral change.

How did I use it?

  • I now have figured that a can do 10 minutes of push ups or planks in the morning after or before a shower.
  • I learned that the time while the kids take their showers is a good time to get some work done on side projects – doing some more exploration of Haskell or deepening on abstractive summarization.

It’s easy to build routines around routines. If you eat dinner or go to bed at a set time, or go to work at a set time, it’s then easier to stick in a helpful routine before or after.

The other thing that seemed to address the “it’s insurmountable” feeling is finding Golden Behaviors. These are behaviors that:

  • Move you toward some aspiration or outcome.
  • Are things that you feel like doing
  • Things that you can do.

He talks through the exercise of listing behaviors that have high impact and are easy to do. Finding those behaviors that are easy to do or at least ones you can get enthusiastic about doing. This graphic captures it. The dimensions are degree of difficulty (x) and impact (y)

Try to find those actions that feel like they’re in the upper right hand — impactful and aren’t insurmountable. I guess you just experiment and tinker until you feel that you’re moving in some acceptable direction.

So I found Tiny Habits a quick and useful read. Check it out from your library, scan the appendix, do some reading around within it. Maybe there will be few points that you can make use of. Or maybe just view his Ted talk

AlgorithmsBooksData Science

Surveillance Capitalism and the working data scientist

Shoshana Zuboff’s 2019 book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a powerful critique of the interplay between capitalism and Big Data. In about 700 pages pages, she makes a convincing argument that the very existence of human autonomy is under threat. In short, Dr. Zuboff is concerned that large companies have perfected a profit loop in which they collect immense amounts of data on consumer behavior, devise models that accurately predict behavior using that data, and then use those models to manipulate consumer behavior to drive profit. It is an intriguing and important read.

It defines several ways of thinking about the data collection and machine learning technologies at the core of this new surveillance capitalism. I think the book falls short in articulating a path forward, especially for people who work in the data industry.

If you’re a data scientist, analyst, or work in any of the myriad jobs behind this phenomenon, you might have concerns about how your 9-to-5 contributes to this mess. If so, you’ve probably asked yourself what to do – how to respond as an ethical, responsible, perhaps moral human being. I’ve put down some thoughts below, chime in if you’d like!

We need to name these things!

My partner always emphasizes that to address an issue, we need to be able to name it as precisely as possible. The devil hides in the details. To those of us with academic training particularly, we have the obligation to identify these names and make them accessible to our people – to make it plain as my grandmothers would say.

In that spirit, there are a few terms that I pulled from The Age of Surveillance Capitalism that helped me view commercial Big Data in a new light.

Rendition

Rendition is the activity that we (or our ETL flows) engage in when we reduce the features and signals about some human activity or human to some set of observable features and use those features to completely describe the person or activity. We render their engagement with our landing page to the act of clicking, the number of milliseconds from rendering of the page to first clicks, the time spent scrolling, etc.

We render emotion using the straw of a signal that we get from our browser API. She talks about rendition of emotions, rendition of personal experience, rendition of social relations, and rendition of the self: all operations that reduce very rich and complex human activities to numbers.

Behavioral Surplus

Behavioral surplus refers to data collected which exceeds the amount required for the application or platform to complete the task at hand. You have an app that provides secure communication. A user happens to talk about a certain brand of sneakers a lot when they’re using your app. Capturing information about their shoe habits doesn’t have much to do with secure instant messaging, but you capture these interactions and share them with a data aggregator who in turn shares them with a shoe retailer. The behavioral surplus is the “sneaker interest”. Your app user who was counting on privacy and security knows that their trust was an illusion when ads for the exact shoes show up everywhere they look online. Maybe that user is undocumented. Maybe ICE shows up at the Foot Locker they shop at.

Instrumentarianism

Instrumentarianism refers to a form of behavioral control, based on Behaviorist models of activity modification, enabled by large cross platform logging of online behavior, combined with predictive machine learning, combined with the capacity to conduct online behavioral experiments. The Instrumentarian regime knows enough about a given population, so that with some certainty C, when an action A is presented to this group, they will perform some behavior B. The regime can thus control this group with a given certainty. Because of the economies of scale, the Instrumentarian need only guarantee a small percentage of response to this stimuli to reap enormous profit.

Sanctuary

The right to sanctuary is the human right to some place (real or virtual) that can be walled off from inspection. Surveillance capitalism, through always on devices, potentially removes all sense of sanctuary. Every conceivable space is monitored through “smart” bathroom scales, “smart” televisions, “smart” smoke alarms, robot vacuum cleaners. In this theory, any device is loaded with surplus sensing that reports on and records personal and social interaction far beyond the purpose of the device. That is, your Echo records you even though you might have just purchased it to play your favorite music. For the surveillance capitalist, the device more than pays for itself by providing precious behavioral insights that might have otherwise been hidden in “sanctuary”.

Holes in Zuboff’s analysis

As I was reading, I noticed three glaring oversights in Zuboff’s analysis.

Instrumentarianism is explicitly violent

Zuboff makes the claim that Instrumentarianism does not require violence for control. But I still leave her book with a concern about the potential for violence that Instrumentarianism and Surveillance Capitalism empowers. To quote from the announcement for the upcoming Data for Black Lives Conference

Our work is grounded in a clear call to action – to Abolish Big Data means to dismantle the structures that concentrate the power of data into the hands of a few. These structures are political, financial, and they are increasingly violent.

increasingly violent. We just have to reflect on the way in whic digital manipulation and capitalist interest have coalesced in state supported violence in support of India’s Citizenship Amendment Act The 2019 El Paso shooting or the complex interplay of anti-Black policing with surveillance technologies and corporate interests in tools like Amazon Rekognition illustrate the complex ways in which violence has and could play out in surveillance capitalism.

Impact upon the marginalized is profound

Zuboff does not discuss the ways in which surveillance capitalism is especially exploitative of marginalized populations. Absent was a discussion of how companies like Palantir and private prisons exploit the incarcerated, including asylum seekers. Absent was the discussion of how Instrumentarianism is particularly pernicious and violent with respect to marginalized populations including the homeless, the undocumented, communities of color, the poor, and LGBTQ communities. There are important voices that are startlingly absent in Zuboff’s analysis.

Data sharing can be empowering

Zuboff doesn’t like the idea of the “hive mind” — mass collection of patterns of activity. When people of a group commit to a collective model, it can be a source of empowerment. Many of the policing abuses were identified because everyday people were able to pool knowledge and data – shared spreadsheets documenting the high incidence of stop and frisk, shared cell phone videos of police shootings if innocent citizens. Class action lawsuits against workplace discrimination and the willingness of people to participate in studies to identify housing discrimination are two activities that come to mind in which a “hive mind” (the group discovery of adverse behavior on the grand scale) is able to benefit the individual and the community. I think that she is arguing for transparency – what are the power relationships that the technology is reinforcing – as opposed to the technology itself.

A plan for action

Articulating the answer to “where do we go from here” is where the book falls short. Zuboff claims (convincingly) that nothing less than human agency is at stake. As far as I could tell, Zuboff’s only suggestion is to trust that the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) would come to our rescue. I think that’s too precious a right to trust just the GDPR.

So what to do?

Here are a few thoughts. Got more? Please chime in!

Unite and act

Ruha Benjamin in a recent talk cited an example of how students in a high school refused have their education mediated by a Facebook instructional platform. They demanded face to face instruction with human teachers and they refused to have all of their learning activity be rendered into the Facebook cloud. They lead a successful campaign for real instruction from real teachers and won. According to Benjamin, the most successful campaigns against surveillance capitalism require collective effort – the technology is too ubiquitous for the single individual to have much impact. A protest staged today at a dozen colleges against the use of facial recognition on campus emphasizes the power of collective action.

So you’re never too old or young or too math or technology challenged to act and make a difference. I think the most powerful “next step” is to think through what to do with your family, friends, neighbors, classmates, community. Start locally.

Educate yourself

There are a host of recent books, articles, posts, and classes that provide a more complete view and history of how to deal with surveillance capitalism. A sampling includes:

Find or create community

There are professional and community organizations that are thinking through ways to rethink data science and other technologies ethically:

Advocate to center ethics in computing education

Computing is becoming more common in primary school, but in depth education on ethics and computing is still rare. It should be a central component of computing instruction. I’ve come across just a handful of classes on ethical design of data platforms. The topics usually appear in advanced classes or as the final lecture in course on machine learning or data science. Given the immense impact that even the simplest social app can have, we should advocate ethics having a central role in computer science and related fields. Talk to your friends in academia, the high schools and grade schools in your neighborhood. Or just…

Teach

A lot of the technology at the core of surveillance capitalism is available to everyday people in spreadsheet packages and cloud environments. The same tools and algorithms at the core of the surveillance regime can be “flipped” to identify and counter manipulative pricing, discriminatory and racist patterns. The groundbreaking work of Rediet Abebe demonstrates the potential of the good that can happen when the tools of data science are used by every day people to improve their lives.

Advocate for transparency and ethical deployment of software systems

Even inside Google, employees were able to advocate for model cards that explain to cloud service users how machine learning models are trained, how they might be biased. Google employees also raised questions about many of the company’s instrumentarianist practices. Certainly, advocating for transparency is one move that can insure that users are provided basic protections. There is still little in the way of openness and ethical training that is provided to users of online experimentation platforms like Optimizely

Build an inclusive workplace

People continue to argue that if we include the perspectives of the marginalized in the development of these platforms, we may be less prone to rush to deploy them in profoundly abusive ways. The presence of marginalized voices in the large surveillance companies remains at unrepresentative levels. Beyond hiring practices, we’ve yet to see wide-scale development of community governance structures implemented. As a data professional advocate for equity and inclusion.

Understand the humanity of your customers

It can be easy sometimes for the data professionals to think of “customers” as a probability distribution, a score, or a click. To use Zuboff’s terminology, our view of our social relationship with the people that use our systems have been subject to a kind of rendition as well. The data that you’re looking at makes it hard to associate a human being with those numbers, much less connect with one. Further, even if you are directly connected with a front end product (for example, making suggestions of videos to watch), you’re more often that not playing a game of aggregates – you’re looking at an abstraction of the actions of millions of people.

Final words

Surveillance Capitalism is a worthwhile read despite it’s flaws. We live in a critical time for data science and ultimately it will be up to all of us to determine what direction it takes.