All posts by charlescearl

Data scientist at Automattic.com.

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.

Black History MonthGeorgiaHistory

Why are y’all still protecting racist monuments?

What strikes you about this scene?

On the first morning of Black History Month, 2020, an infant’s stroller faces a towering obelisk erected a century ago by white supremacists. Over a hundred years ago in 1908, confederate army veterans had constructed this object to venerate the Confederate States of America and mark the ascendence of white supremacist state governments throughout the South.

Off to the side of the image, the child’s parents discuss a historic marker that explains the racist history of the statue. The statue dwarfs the marker. I heard the child’s mother explaining (perhaps to friends or parents) the point of the smaller counter marker off to the side. The child’s parents are white as are the group of their friends gathered around the marker.

I took the photo during a morning run two weeks ago. I’ve been struggling to come to terms with what this image says for two weeks.

Are you as shook by this image as I am?

Why does Georgia, the South, the US still feel the need to pollute its public spaces in this way?

Some context, in case you need it

Over a hundred years ago, the hard won freedoms of Black people across the U.S. lay in shambles. A Civil War had been fought, over half a million soldiers had died, the Confederate States economy based upon human trafficking and forced labor (i.e. slavery) had ended. In a brief period of no more than 20 years after the Civil War, African Americans had tasted self determination and been allowed a partial sample of democracy. Yet starting in the mid-1870’s, their former unapologetic enslavers had again regained control of government, and consolidated a hold on national political power in the U.S. that would be unchecked for another century. These reactionaries led campaigns of terror on African American communities with the approval of the U.S. government, denying Black folk access to basic human rights. This was the world into which by great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents had been born into. I sometimes think of my grandfather’s grandfather, a Black Civil War veteran who had witnessed this arc of terror: from enslavement, a struggle against tyranny, to freedom; only to end his life little more than a slave.

In an act of brazen self-affirmation, one of these terrorist organizations, a group of Confederate Veterans formed by Clement A Evans erected a monument to the lost cause (perhaps then not so lost) of a racial state. My mother used to speak of how the Klan would hold rallies near this artifact, on their way to rallies at Georgia’s Stone Mountain (site of another racist edifice).

Confederate veterans, Klan supporters, and other friends of white supremacy erected this “monument” in 1908…
…meanwhile on the “other side” of Atlanta, formerly enslaved Black folk were building institutions to counter white supremacy. The photo is from an exhibit at the Atlanta History Center.

Over the last ten years, there have been renewed efforts to remove the monuments to the white supremacy state, reinvigorated by the need to respond to the tragedies of the Charleston Church Massacre the Charlottesville Rally. Memorials like the National Memorial for Peace and Justice provide examples of what a reconciliation process would look like. But these efforts in the state of Georgia have hit a roadblock — state law prohibits the removal of Lost Cause monuments. The NAACP, the Atlanta History Center, and other organizations of conscience have responded with efforts to contextualize these structures.

The marker that is next to the obelisk is one of the first attempts by Black people in Georgia to contextualize the Civil War monuments so pervasive in the South.

Marker erected in 2019 to explain the “lost cause” obelisk. What to do about a government that protects fascist monuments?

What’s wrong with keeping confederate monuments — they’re history?

I struggle to understand why anyone would want to preserve a monument to white supremacy in a public space with significant Black population.

What do you think?

I’ve heard it said (even by Black folk) that these markers are “history”, and that removing them amounts to “erasing history”.

If you think about it, this monument and others like it are not markers that identify significant events in the Civil War, or regional history: there are markers around Atlanta that described the Civil War battles, markers where Black churches were burned, markers where student lead sit-ins de-segregated restaurants. Rather this one and others like it, venerate The Lost Cause — no not the prospect of the Falcons winning a Superbowl — but the notion that there was a redeeming value in the Confederate States of America, a government created for the express purpose of maintaining a racist economic system built upon the mass enslavement, exploitation, and dehumanization of African Americans. The Lost Cause formed the ideological basis for the Klu Klux Klan and other terrorist organizations as well as of the governments that ruled the South. If you think about it, this “monument” and others like amount to a huge dis-information campaign. It is not history, it is anti-history.

This marker and it’s protection feels like a cause for concern on several levels: it was created by early 20th century racists to venerate the racist government of the 19th century; and it continues to be protected by a 21st century state government, thus reifying the support of a racial power hierarchy. It is a monument to the persistence of the racial state.

A photograph in Atlanta’s Freedom Parkway honors the Civil Rights Movement. Do we give equal value to slavery as to civil rights? Is there anything associated with white supremacy that is worth honoring?

But what does it mean today?

But Georgia is different now that it was 100 years ago.

The U.S. representative for this area is Black, the city council of Decatur is diverse. My aunt, who moved to Decatur in the 1970’s remarks on how amazing it is that the space is now truly multiracial, almost overwhelmed with joy that the confederate vestiges are now being challenged. Most of the police officers I encounter any given day near the monument are Black. How would the confederate generals react knowing that episodes of the HBO series The Watchmen — whose lead is a Black woman and whose plot references a white supremacist terror attack in Oklahoma — is filmed feet from the site of the statue? As I drop by son off to the school near the state capital complex, I see staff and legislators that are a diverse representation of a state in which Black and Brown people comprise 40% of the population. Atlanta ranks as the third in the U.S. in terms of population that self-identify as LGBTQ. Georgia is sixth in terms of undocumented people. It is a diverse state, and further a state in which people of color have a say in government — Stacy Abrams, a Black woman, lost the most recent governors race by 1%
of the vote.

In March, a memorial inspired by the National Memorial for Peace and Justice will be opened in Decatur. It will be a remembrance to Dekalb County’s Black victims of racial violence. Decatur will be only the second government entity in Georgia to do so.

So, things are changing. Is it enough simply to let “things take their course”?

Imagining a space for truth and healing

The dialog that took place between the child’s parent and friends is critical to building a livable future. I wish that I had stopped and asked her:

As a white person looking at this, how do you feel? Do you feel outrage, shame, indifference? What should be done?

It is dialog that makes “memorials” like this pertinent, relevant. We need ways to address the pain inherited from the past; naming the problems that we face today; and a starting point for calling the future we want into being.

What other ways are there to move forward?

In public spaces like this, once dominated by racism and centering oppression, a few ideas have come to mind.

  • What if the guides giving tours of the city were taught how to reframe and refocus away from the white settler oriented perspective currently given?
  • What if the city provided a Land Acknowledgement template for conferences and conventions that paid homage to the Indigenous guardians and first people of the land?
  • What if we made possible barcodes that allowed visitors to understand how the labor of the enslaved had contributed to the building of the city?
My daughter and I came across this clipping at the Atlanta Historical Society. A multiracial (somewhat) group of women activists gathering in 1931 to call for an end to racial terrorism. The Georgia Interracial Commission was one of the participating organizatiions.

That there are so many spaces in the South that are beginning to peel back the layers of pain and silence is encouraging. A space to hear the stories of the still living elders that experienced terror first hand, a space to talk and come to terms with a path forward. It will require imagination and courage.

Imagining a future for our children

It’s easy to imagine that the child sitting in the carriage will witness the removal of the Lost Cause monument and others like it. It’s easy to imagine a future in which this same child is taught history in grade school that centers the stories of the Indigenous, LatinX, and Black people that are so central to the history and future of this county.

This outcome is not inevitable. Countries come to terms with their past inequity through engagement with it — we cannot wish a world into existence, maintaining it once we have it will be difficult. The past is still present for Black people in persistent health, education, and economic disparities. The past is present in persistent anti-Black policing. The past is present not that far from my doorstep. We have fully not excised these ghosts in white sheets.

I want to gift build a world for that child in which they would hold the racially just society as fundamental as air; in which that child would understand the crimes of the past and see as fundamental to their humanity to guard against it. Georgia and the other states in the South could be a birthing ground for a generation for which anti-racism is life. This world will not come from silence.

Update 6/14/2020

As an update, a judge ruled that the “monument” is a public nuisance and should be removed. A deadline has not been set for the conference. There are still confederate monuments and other tributes to the white supremacy based Confederacy. There are streets in Decatur, GA named after enslavers. Most importantly, the structural elements of white supremacy remain. Bringing about a just egalitarian society is a long, brick-by-brick undertaking.

human rightsSocial Justice

They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds

On this past Sunday, we marched in Decatur, GA in unity with millions others in India and across the world in opposition to India’s Citizen Amendment Act. To quote the Wikipedia article

The act was the first instance of religion being overtly used as a criterion for citizenship under Indian nationality law.

There are many complexities to the law. In summary, it means that Muslims freeing persecution are not eligible for refugee status. Most immediately, the bill would mean the exclusion of the 40,000 Rohingya Muslims who are fleeing genocide in Myanmar. It also impacts the perhaps tens of millions of Muslims who came to India in the years since the partition of 1947. Families that have lived in India for generations lack the documentation to substantiate their citizenship status (if you had to pack up and leave in an instant with the clothes on your back, documentation might be the least of your worries).

But it to say that combined with other recent legislation, it has the potential to make 100 million Muslims and other ethnic and religious minorities stateless. This is an unprecedented human tragedy in the making.

It’s immediate impact has been the increase in violence against Muslims and those of all faiths and castes who support a state based upon tolerance and a respect for all humanity.

The most poignant protests have been the women-led non-violent demonstrations in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh neighborhood.

Understandably, the bill has been condemned by the international community for example by Human Rights Watch, there is stunning overlap with the Nazi government’s 1935 Reich Citizenship Law.

It was a blessing and gift for us to stand on the right side of history in support of human rights.

During the march there were a few tense moments. Our daughter was concerned about arrest. Thanks to the tremendous service of the de-escalation professionals on hand, our interactions with the police were constructive.

I reminded our daughter that right to assemble, even to drink Boba Tea when and where she chooses was earned by the sacrifices of children like her who had marched in Atlanta, Montgomery, Chicago, and other countless places. The following day was the “official” Martin Luther King holiday. We enjoyed tea and took a moment in John Lewis Plaza in Freedom Park to reflect.

The Bridge is a monument in Freedom Park memorializing the Civil Rights movement

Photograph of an Atlanta Civil Rights activist in Freedom Park
AIConferencesinclusion

Notes from the Black In AI 2019 Workshop

In early December, I attended the Black In AI workshop (BAI), part of the NeurIPS AI conference held in Vancouver.

Timnet Gebru and Rediet Abebe founded BAI three years ago to address the near complete lack of Black and African voices at NeurIPS and other AI conferences.

Over that period, the organization has had a tremendous impact: participation has grown to several hundred attendees, it has spawned affiliated conferences like Deep Learning Indaba , it was instrumental in bringing the Eighth International Conference on Learning Representations to Ethiopia in 2020, and it has initiated a range of mentoring and training efforts across the African diaspora.

I spent few hours this year participating as an organizer (some coordination of remote presenters and travel grants). The talks were streamed and recorded here.

There is a lot that I learned by participating and it was an honor to work with the brilliant people who made the conference happen — I wanted to share some of what I’ve been able to think through in hopes that there might be some nuggets of value.

The interesting stuff happens at the margins

When I first started in AI, it was an area that existed on the margin of computer science. Neural networks were on the margin of that margin. I think that there is a lot of freedom and creativity that comes when one is open to just think and experiment — there is also the pressure of proving the viability of your position. You can find real innovation being birthed if you look carefully. When you hear talks put all your assumptions into question, then you know that you’ve probably arrived at the right place.

What I found then at Black In AI was a lot of work questioning basic assumptions of a field which has moved from the margin to the spotlight (literally half of the commercial booths at the NeurIPS were hedge funds).

There are three talks (among many ) that stood out for me in this respect.

Abeba Birhane: Rethinking the Ethical Foundations of AI

I had the privilege of hearing Abeba Birhane who was deservedly awarded the Best Paper.

There is a lot of work on bias in machine learning models — for example Assessing Social and Intersectional Biases in Contextualized Word Representations was presented a few days after Birhane’s talk. A lot of the “solutions” in the fairness literature focus on de-biasing of the training and inference process. But Birhane’s talk called into question the point of de biasing algorithms, probing the intent of these algorithms. Is the point to present decision processes that are unfair as fair? Is the point really to reify structural oppression — to put lipstick on a pig (to borrow the title of one paper) ? She is searching for the voices of the marginalized in artificial intelligence and machine learning.

To take a concrete example, many companies are using the text.io app to rewrite job descriptions to have less gender bias. But maybe identifying the bias is really more an indicator of internal structural patterns of oppression? But how do you get companies to address the internal gender issues that give rise to these biased job descriptions to begin with?

abeba

Her talks are recorded. Relational Ethics, starts at 20:30 into the presentation. Her talk at ML for the Developing World: Challenges and Risks starts 38:00 in. There is an accompanying blog post .

Matthew Kinney — Defending Black Twitter from Deepfakes

There was Matthew Kinney’s talk “Creative Red Teaming: Approaches to Addressing Bias and Misuse in Machine Learning” — an approach using deep learning to safeguard internet platforms from misinformation campaigns.

Kinney began looking at the Internet Research Agency‘s disinformation effort when it became apparent that Black Twitter was being targeted as part of voter suppression efforts. Since BAI, we’ve seen similar campaigns launched in support of India’s Citizen Amendment Act and other repressive efforts — these campaigns are likely to be a constant this year, making Kinney’s work all the more critical.

Less you think that the disinformation campaigns are just about the use of video manipulation, Kinney makes the point that misinformation based upon text generators like Open AI’s GPT-2 can be more harmful.

matthew

Sara Menker: Data Science for Agriculture

One of the other impactful talks was by Sarah Menker, CEO of Gro Intelligence — a company that does agricultural analytics. I was interested in how the data science team in particular manages rapid response to develop models in response to rapidly changing weather and farming conditions and also how they deal with a team that is split across Kenya and New York.

Sarah Menker’s talk starts 1:48 into the video.

Prominent themes

There were a number oral presentations at BAI are around speech and language processing — particularly the development of technology to support support Amharic, Tigre, Yoruba, and other African languages. I spoke with the founder of a small startup Latan who is working on Tigre translation. Healthcare and agriculture applications featured prominently.

malaria

Remote Presentations

A number of presenters were not able to make it, mostly due to visa issues (details of this below). The diversity of their talks are indicative of the richness of the research community. Here’s a recording of Simba Nyatsanga’s talk on automatic video captioning

You can access the Black In AI 2019 Youtube channel to view the others.

Visa Privilege

One of the many issues that Black In AI has tackled was transportation exclusion. Many researchers from from Africa, South America, and the Caribbean lack either the institutional or personal resources that would enable a trip to Canada (or other destinations where computing conferences are frequently held). A large part of BAI’s fund raising effort is about putting the resources together to bridge that gap — travel grants for presenters and other attendees also provide airfare and lodging. This makes BAI one of the most economically inclusive workshops.

All that said, an on-going challenge down to the last minute was getting presenters to the conference.

We had nearly 40 presenters denied visas right off. Most of these were reversed once senior IRCC officials reviewed the applications, but for many, it came too late, in some cases the day that the conference was to start. In large part, denials and subsequent reversals seemed to hinge on a political calculus. Senior officials only became involved after pressure from Wired and BBC articles and members of the House of Commons, and various high profile AI researchers.

My analysis is that Canada wants itself perceived as an inclusive country with a progressive visa policy and is planning on building AI as a growth industry. Although these values may not be shared by individual in-consular staff, or maybe even the AI programs used for visa screening. This isn’t much the case in the U.S., where policies are in open opposition to fair visa access to persons from Africa, Islamic countries, and other locations outside of Europe, the U.S, Canada, and Australia.

Despite the reversals, there were other unexpected visa conundrums. Several participants flying through South Africa had to be provided with alternate tickets to deal with not having transit visas for Hong Kong. Several Nigerian presenters were price gouged by Turkish Airlines when trying to get on their flights. That is, they were presented with additional substantial visa fees at the gate. The complaints of stemming from these policies resulted in last week’s suspension of Turkish Airlines in Nigeria. Conference organizers had to scramble to find alternate flights home for those who flew on Turkish Airlines. I give these anecdotes only to highlight the immense privileges that those of us in the U.S., EU, and Canada enjoy in having relatively open and worry free travel.

Planning Distributed conferences

Pulling off the Black in AI workshop itself was the epitome of a distributed team in action. As we began dealing with the problem of managing visa rejections in Brazil and Nigeria, or just managing hotel payments and livestreams highlighted the need for coordination and process. There is a lot of process knowledge that I feel is unique to making such a trans-national, inclusive (language, gender identity, diverging racial categorizations) work. I wondered about the best ways to capture and curate knowledge.

On Having Allies

I was encouraged to see individuals come together in sincere, and supportive ways to bring about a wider view of what global collaboration could be. The coordinated effort by people in Women In AI and LatinX in AI was amazing. The tireless, round the clock efforts by those both famous and invisible, the commitments to encouraging and supporting the emergence of new scholars, developers, artists, thinkers was uplifting in spite of so many other causes for concern. I don’t doubt that there is an AI bubble, or that in a few years the generative networks and transformers will be pedestrian as rice cookers or smoke alarms — less AI than just another kind of device or program. What I think is that getting people together from across the globe, really from across the globe — from across the economic and gender and racial divides — is really how important and unimagined change happens.

Black Women's HealthHealthcare Inequality

Centering the health of Black women

It has been three months since my mother died. Through the deep feeling of loss, I am learning that the process of grieving is a continuous reflection: a meditation to pull meaning, hope, joy, wisdom out of memories that are still sharp and vivid.

More than anything, I am left with a profound sense of gratitude. That she shared, loved, and praised so generously. That she rejoiced in giving, embodying her birth name Joyce. I feel gratitude that she lived a full and glorious 88 years, educating scores of children as a middle school teacher, enjoining her many friends to “Keep hope alive and keep your spirits up”, encouraging her neighbors, church members, and relatives with gestures large and small of love and acceptance. I feel immense gratitude that she left to this world friends, nieces, cousins, children who still continue to support each other and strive to carry on the essence of her soul. She never forgot a birthday — celebrating each with elegantly crafted cards adorned with exquisite calligraphy and thoughtful words. Her retirement was spent as a prayer to life: gardening, traveling, and loving three grandchildren. For these gifts, I am thankful.

She indeed gifted us many lessons. The way in which she died — to be specific her last few weeks in the hospital — is one among many; a kind of charge, a parting story to be unfolded by us the living to survey, understand, and learn from in order to improve and uplift the lives of the next generations. This particular lesson is on how health is provided and not provided to women of color; it is about how a system fails to understand and value the lives of Black women; it is about how to destruct and then rebuild a racialized hierarchy of who lives and who dies.

This life life lesson from Joyce is to figure out how to center the health and well being of Black women.

Let me explain. My mother had to be taken to the emergency room after dealing with stomach pain that had gone on for weeks. Like many Black women of that age, she had feared going to doctors — news is often bad, and for Black women born in the 1930’s the remembrance of Tuskegee experiments, segregated hospitals, visits to doctors who could not be bothered to appreciated and respect Black women’s bodies play into the oft-quoted “anywhere but the doctor” sentiment. There is a podcast How the bad blood started, that sets this in historical context.

When my mother arrived at the hospital, I don’t doubt that the immediate emergency surgery — removing a section of her intestine — was performed well. American excels at emergency and trauma response and has probably mastered what to do with Black bodies in physical trauma. You see this approach to care in the policies that govern many communities of color.

The tripartite system of the IHS, tribally operated clinics, and urban Indian clinics represent a unique ecology within which American Indians seek help for physical, mental, alcohol, and drug problems. This is particularly relevant when discussing health care challenges for American Indian elderly since the emphasis of the IHS system is on acute rather than chronic health problems

From Understanding Racial and Ethnic Differences in Health in Late Life: A Research Agenda. National Research Council (US) at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK24693/

In the days that followed — as my mother tried to recover from the stomach surgery — I began to notice a pattern. The Black nurses seemed to spend more time, ask more questions. One of the Black nurses braided her hair, spent the time to turn her gently, administer the massages to keep her muscles moving, southed her mouth with water to keep the dryness in check. They took the time to perceive and understand their patient, to build the bonds of knowing and trust that would facilitate care. They took the time to recognize her humanity and enter into the process of healing. The White nurses seemed indifferent at best. I noted in my journal trying to disbelieve my eyes.

The surgeons — they were all white — offered curt responses to our questions. When my brother and I asked why duplicate tests had been run, why we were not consulted about a procedure, we were met with defensiveness. You can’t imagine the the restraint required of a data scientist not to resort to physical violence when they dismissed and told not to ask questions, when their mother’s health is at question.

Along with one of the Black nurses, we — her children — figured out that she had likely had a stroke; that sometime on the Tuesday of her second week in the hospital she had lost a lot of the functioning on her left side. As she began to fade, we only got partial answers from the doctors. What was a minor stroke one day, was significant the next. She developed a throat infection, she began to fade. Again, it was the Black caregivers at a hospice center that insured that her final hours at home were calm, prayerful.

Three months after my mother’s passing, we are still consulting with Medicare and the insurer on procedures that may or may not have been necessary or duplicative.

Everyone will acknowledge that the U.S. medical system is in crisis. It assumes that cases will be resolved through litigation — so stories of mothers falling through the cracks of overworked providers are common. Billboards of malpractice attorneys feature prominently in Atlanta — they are on buses, on the radio, and their ads will track you on the internet. Yes, I get that, but there are other factors at work.

In this Longreads piece, Danielle Jackson talks about the mortality crisis facing Black mothers. Lest you think this is just about poverty and access to adequate health — it certainly is a factor — please remember how Serena Williams nearly lost her life in childbirth. Don’t take my word or those of my mother’s — physicians do not see Black women, they are not trained to see Black women.

It goes much, much further. Georgia’s governor proposed this year to cut funding for research aimed at improving maternal health for Black women. A study came out after my mother’s funeral which highlighted how algorithms used in hospitals to allocate care showed bias against Black patients. We are apparently just not worth saving. Further, if you are a Black scientist interested in doing research on how to improve the health of Black people, it will be harder for you to obtain research funding and obtain tenure.

The figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control tell bittersweet stories.

Thankfully, the racial disparities in mortality have decreased — from a five year gap in life expectancy between Black and White women in 1999 to a 3 year gap in 2013. But despite that drop, the gap seems to have been been constant over the first part of the 2010s. Further, disparities in the number of deaths around childbirth and Alzheimer’s disease have increased.

The day after my mother’s passing I learned that my oldest son and his companion were expecting a child. It brought joy to our family in a dark time, but there yet we have to go forward in the knowledge that his partner, and their child are at higher risk giving birth in the U.S. than in the Caribbean. They live in Illinois, where the Black infant mortality rate is 12.8 — higher than that of the Virgin Islands, Barbados, Granada, Saint Lucia, Antigua, and the Bahamas. In London, the infant mortality rate among mothers of Caribbean descent is 8% — although this is twice that of the general population it still gives children born to Black mothers better odds than Chicago or Atlanta. In other words, in nearby places with Black populations of 90% or greater, infants are faring better. There is nothing inherent about Black children that predisposes them to die like this.

As I contemplate the seriousness of these trends, I recall my grandmother who was lost to Alzheimer’s. As we sat planning the funeral, we received a visit from one of Mom’s college friends who was going through the early stages of the disease. She had been brought to our home by a friend who had explained that they were trying to participate in a clinical trial to address the low participation of Black women in experimental Alzheimer’s therapies.

But there is something more in these figures as I think about it. Does the United States preserve this hierarchy of healthcare because it would undo axioms of existence? As the Center for American Progress stated in this 2018 report

That is, the social and economic forces of institutional racism set African American and non-Hispanic white women on distinct life tracks, with long-term consequences for their health and the health of their future children. The experience of systematic racial bias—not race itself—compromises health.

Exploring African Americans’ High Maternal and Infant Death Rates,  Cristina Novoa and Jamila Taylor

The racist hierarchy of how health in the United States is done is apparent in so many ways.

Even with ACA, people of color — for Indigenous, African American, and Latinx citizens most acutely — continue to be mis-treated under the U.S. healthcare system. From Key Facts on Health and Health Care by Race and Ethnicity | The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation

Among the Indigenous peoples of the United States, 30% have no access to health insurance, among African Americans, the uninsured rate is 12%. What are the lessons to be learned from the relative resilience of LatinX citizens? Are the racial categories of the 19th and 20th century, constructed out of a context white supremacy appropriate for the challenges that are faced in the 21st century? What are the objective ways in which these disparities can be effectively addressed?

There are people that are wrestling with these questions. Healers like Brittany Kellman are trying to create health centers that actively engage with the unique health situation of Black women. But the barriers of access, physician engagement, perception, and systemic pressures are huge.

Ultimately, radical change in healthcare options depend upon the willingness of government and systems to address disparity. The access to health and being should not be left to the luck of the draw — where you live, who your parents were.

In my desire to be an optimist, ideas and thoughts on addressing the problem:

Mural near my grandmother’s childhood home
  • If you’re African American, talk to your friends and loved ones about health. Discuss what’s worked, what hasn’t. The challenges you’ve faced. Document your interactions with the healthcare system. Knowledge is power, sharing is love.
  • Find the healers, providers, institutions in your community that care and are invested in improving the health of Black people generally and Black women in particular.
  • Encourage your mothers, aunts, daughters, partners to get care from the providers that care. Work with each other to take ownership of care, health and healing.
  • If you’re a healthcare professional, it’s time to demand a rethinking of how nurses and doctors are trained to interact with their patients. You cannot save our lives if you cannot appreciate our humanity.
  • Regardless of your political affiliation, you can work to ensure that everyone in the U.S. has access to healthcare that keeps them alive and well. Ask yourself if the county you live in ever worried about the cost of endless wars or drone terrorism.

No, I have not solved this gem of a puzzle that Joyce bequeathed. It is one of the many meditations of grief.

human rightsPhysicsSocial Justice

The stateless quantum mechanics of Abdus Salam

A month back I watched a documentary on Abdus Salam, the first physicist from Pakistan to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. During his lifetime, he made significant contributions to quantum mechanics and was awarded the Nobel for his development of theory of the electroweak interaction.

You can watch it on Netflix, here is a trailer

He was from Punjab, the region of my partner’s ancestors. Lately my partner and I have been talking through this sense of statelessness as a way of being. When the partition of India occurred in 1947, her grandparents had to flee Lahore — her grandmother and perhaps millions of others did not survive. My partner has survived “migration under duress” from Tanzania to Botswana and living in the U.S. as a permanent resident under an “evolving/devolving” immigration regime. Traveling on an African passport has brought me new insights on what exclusion and racism mean.

All that said, I have a deep lived compassion and empathy for the Abdus Salaam’s of the world. Salaam was a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. Pakistan refuses to recognize it as a legitimate branch of Islam.

According to the just passed Indian Citizenship Act, there are no Muslims in Pakistan who face religious persecution. So the defacement of Abdus Salam’s grave would, according to the act, constitute fake news. You can watch the Netflix documentary if you like and view a photo of the headstone. It is hard to square the fake news proclamation with 150 years of documented persecution.

The world seems in the process of canceling the right of refugees to basic claims on humanity. At this point, I don’t know what to do, other than proclaim, affirm and support the right of all humans to a country, to a place to call home, to the right to exist. Please remember Abdus Salam and the millions of people — mothers, aunts, children, scientists, cooks, farmers, hawkers and all — who today struggle to find a home.