All posts by charlescearl

Data scientist at Automattic.com.

FamilyGriefHistory

The Color Purple

Joyce Earl, my mother, left this world in her purple room at home surrounded by the people and things that she’d spent a lifetime building. Ultimately that is what we each aspire to — at the end of it all, a reminder of what our lives have meant.

The Color Purple was the last movie that I remember seeing on “the big screen” with her. I was reminded of that a few days ago as my family sat looking at reruns of Fresh Off the Boat. The music brought back memories — fuzzy at first and then like the opening scene of a movie, the memory went from an impressionist canvas to sharp focus.

I have been thinking of how the medical system treats Black women — no I have been enraged at how the medical system in the U.S. kills its most valuable, precious, dear, treasure — the Black women who have held the people of this land to account since their arrival. Calling out that crime demands its own essay, but the important thing here is that in The Color Purple, Alice Walker gives the main character, Celie these words

I curse you. Until you do right by me everything you think about is gonna crumble!

It took me until now to understand who Alice Walker was speaking to. It took me until now to put together as I saw the indifference my mother received from white doctors, nurses against the love and recognition that she received from Black nurses. The Color Purple, among other things is an indictment of a viciously corrupt system.

I was obsessed during those last days that she hold a flower. I brought her a purple orchid. My how she was able to make orchids bloom year to year.

Computer ScienceHistorically Black CollegesHumorPhysics

Mickens family laughter

I sometimes run into Dr Ron Mickens at one of my favorite Atlanta bakeries. Dr Mickens is a physicist who teaches at Clark Atlanta University (the featured image is a mural that hang in the entrance to the old CAU library). A few months ago he dropped some insights on how physicists allow their minds to explore the universe starting from simple, quirky, thought experiments. His musings always come with laughter and the earnest smile of a pure soul enjoying each moment on earth as if it were his first.

Today, I was a bit somber. We had laid our mother to rest just a few days ago. My soul ached. Sleep had evaded me last night. I stopped in the backers to pick up a treat for my brother. I was hoping Dr Mickens was there — I was hoping to pass on a call for papers to him.

He was there and was delighted to share stories of his son, who’d just recently gotten tenure at Harvard. Like father, like son, Dr James Mickens tenure post brought me some much needed chuckles today. As did this piece Slow Winter

You might enjoy this talk also

Nothing like cheerful Black excellence to raise the spirits!

History

Gender and Racial Bias in Cloud NLP Sentiment APIs

Here’s analysis I recently did of gender and racial bias in cloud sentiment analysis APIs. The takeaway: test before you leap.

Data for Breakfast

At Automattic, I work in a group that frequently uses natural language processing (NLP) — a kind of artificial intelligence (AI) — that tries to understand text. We have used NLP for suggesting domain names, to tag some support interactions, and to understand the different verticals that our customers build sites for.

In the course of building these tools, we have often encountered and have had to work around gender and racial bias that gets baked into the machine learning models that we use for text analysis. This is an acknowledged problem confronting NLP and the solutions are not simple. Building fair and non-toxic NLP systems requires constant vigilance, and we are continuously auditing new platforms and models to make sure that the users of our systems are not adversely impacted.

In the course of these audits, I’ve found evidence of gender and racial bias in the sentiment analysis

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Social Justice

Because Peace Requires Bravery

The picture and words are from the The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. It is a memorial to the 4,400 and some victims of racial terror — mostly African Americans were murdered between the years 1877 and 1950.

Last weekend as I tried to wrap my mind around the tragedy, my mind wandered back 18 years to a peaceful summer Sunday when my partner and I drove to the Gilroy garlic festival. Fresh garlic cloves, garlic fries, garlic bread, garlic ice cream. I remember the tastes and aromas yes, but more than that the sounds of ordinary joy on a sunlit day. Families. Children. Peace. Acceptance.

When we visited the museum in Montgomery last year, it had struck me that in 1898 — the year that my grandmother was born — over 100 Black people had been lynched — many for the crime of being the first Black person seen by the mob. According to FBI records, 2019 is on track to surpass the racial brutality of 1898.

The victims of racial violence in El Paso and Dayton — like those a hundred years ago — had committed no act other than being born Brown or Black, speaking Spanish to a loved one or friend, or being in the same crowd as their Black neighbor.

Tonight I did not have much more to offer than sitting with my children, embracing them, and offering prayers. Remembering. Tonight, quoting a line from the memorial “We will remember, with hope because hopelessness is the enemy of justice.”

The quote “Because Peace Requires Bravery” sticks with me. I meditate on Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the brave mothers of the disappeared in Argentina who steadfastly refused to be silent, refused to stop calling their country to account. Persistence. “With persistence because justice is a constant struggle.”

Persistence, action, bravery.

BooksinclusionSocial Justice

Aspiring towards anti-racism

The Atlantic magazine posted an a day ago article “We’re All Tired of Being Called Racists”. The article presented views of some supporters of the current (as of August 1, 2019) U.S. president at a recent rally. Many were perplexed at being labeled “racist”.

One of those interviewed in the piece insisted that they couldn’t be racist because their children were of mixed race. Yet Strom Thurmond — one of the U.S.’s most virulent segregationists of the 20th century — had an African American daughter Essie Mae Washington-Williams. Eduard Bloch was a Jewish Austrian doctor protected from anti-Semitic terror for a number of years during the 1930’s — a lone act of compassion during the anschluss. There are many cruel contradictions in this landscape.

Strict definitions of what racism is and isn’t aren’t fluid enough deal with the capacities that we each have for compassion and prejudice. Showing compassion for a daughter when enacting so many repressive laws doesn’t seem an acceptable bar. Yet, don’t we all deserve a path to redemption.

It seems so much easier and just to think in terms of allow all of us to escape binary traps, to aspire to, and ultimately attain some better version of ourselves and our society.

I think that this quote from Dr. Ibram X. Kendi is spot on when he writes:

No one becomes ‘not racist,’ despite a tendency by Americans to identify themselves that way. We can only strive to be antiracist on a daily basis, to continually rededicate ourselves to the lifelong task of overcoming our country’s racist heritage. We need to read books that force us to confront our self-serving beliefs and make us aware that ‘I’m not racist’ is a slogan of denial.

We can each actively aspire to be the anti-racist. Some first steps could include:

If all else fails, think in terms of how the children of one hundred years from now will judge you, and then work backwards.

AIConferencesinclusion

Black In AI paper submission deadline extended

The Black in AI is a workshop that centers the work of Black AI researchers and practitioners from across the globe. The paper submission deadline for the 2019 workshop has been extended to August 7. This is it’s third year.

I’d encourage submission even (especially!!) if your research and ideas are still coming together. There are a limited number of travel grants available which you can apply for here. You don’t have to have an accepted paper to apply for the travel grant.

A/B testingAlgorithmsData Science

Christo Wilson Discusses the Ethics of Online Behavioral Experiments

If your company runs A/B tests involving it’s user community, this talk is a must see. Christo Wilson at Northeastern University discusses an analysis his lab ran on how companies use the Optimizely platform to conduct online experiments. Although these experiments tend to mostly be innocuous, there’s a tremendous need for transparency and mechanisms for accountability. How is your company addressing this?

Data for Breakfast

On May 1 of 2019, Dr. Christo Wilson gave a talk on his investigation into online behavioral experiments. The talk was based on a piper entitled Who’s the Guinea Pig? Investigating Online A/B/n Tests in-the-Wild, which he and his students gave at the 2019 ACM Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency in Atlanta, Georgia.

Online behavioral experiments (OBEs) are studies (aka A/B/n tests) that people conduct on websites to gain insight into their users’ preferences. Users typically aren’t asked for consent and these studies are typically benign. Typically an OBE will explore questions such as whether changing the background color influences how the user interacts with the site or whether the user is more likely to read an article if the font is slightly larger.

Sometimes, these studies cross ethical boundaries. For example, Facebook conducted an ethically problematic experiment designed to manipulate the emotional state of its users

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