Talk Nerdy to Me

whatsthepointlogoQuick note to tell you about a podcast I’ve been listening to lately: fivethirtyeight’s What’s the Point.

It’s about how people use data and algorithms in different domains, and what the consequences are to the rest of us. I’m really enjoying it, especially (of course) when they get into ethics. I recommend the most recent episode, “The Gap Between What you Like and What You Say You Like.” Super interesting, accessible, and relatable.

I love podcasts. They are an easy and interesting way too keep up on and learn more about things I am curious about, and they keep me from being bored while I clean and commute. I’ll do a future post on my podcast addiction, but suffice it to say, if I’m not actively reading or writing, you can bet I’m listening to a podcast.

And this one’s got about a year’s worth of back episodes to listen to :) Gotta love that offline listening <3

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I hesitate to write this, but I think it’s important. When I was an undergraduate at a large, state campus, I didn’t fully register how different my experience was than my male classmates’, nor how that scaled and effected the subjective experience and opportunity of women at college or in the world in general. As a more aware, 29 year-old graduate student, I’m in a new position to write about some parts of the college experience as a woman with a bit more life experience.

Today, I wrote this tweet about flipping off a catcaller.

My Twitter account is apparently attached to my Facebook account, and the post generated some great conversation there about why people catcall and how to respond.

In fact, it wasn’t just the guy in the parking lot who decided to tell me what he thought of my body today. While I was walking to and waiting for the bus, 6 different guys honked at me or shouted out their car windows loud enough for me to notice over my podcast (most of them were work vehicles, surprisingly).

I mean, I did take the long way today, but still. 6. That even one guy thought I was there for his visual appreciation and that it was OK to go out of his way to express that idea is pretty frustrating, but 6?

So, my enlightened readers know that I was not walking in this parking lot wondering what this random man in a windowless van thinks of my body. Instead, I was walking to the shuttle to get to work, where I think original thoughts, feel feelings, contribute, and otherwise operate just like an autonomous human being. But guess what about that shuttle?

The University offers this free shuttle to help students, faculty, and staff live in more affordable areas and commute to school. I love the shuttle– it’s key to my being able to live without a car! That said, the moment I show my ID to the driver and turn to take a seat, there are three people I look for.

Stare-y McStareson. Stare-y is easy to notice, because he sits in the seats at the front of the bus that face the center, rather than the front, and stares. He is an equal opportunity starer at first– his gaze follows men and women as they get on the bus. If there’s no one actively getting on the shuttle, he takes turns staring at the women he can see from his seat. If Stare-y McStareson is on the shuttle, I want to try to sit in the back– ideally with several people between me and him. I get the sense that he is just surprisingly un-self-aware, but it is quite unsettling. He would be no problem at all if it weren’t for…

J. J tends to sit in the back of the bus. He takes the shuttle at night on his way home from work with a restaurant on campus around 9 when I get out of class, and gets off at the same stop as I do. I know his first initial because he first time we got off the bus together, he was friendly and we had a nice chat as we walked back to our neighborhood. He was the first person I’d met in my neighborhood, so when he handed me his phone to put my number in, I decided against feeling rude and handing it back, even though I got a bit of a vibe from him. When I did this, I figured I’d mention my boyfriend at the first opportunity and he’d get the hint, and maybe we could be friends. I didn’t realize at the time that he went way out of his way to walk me to my apartment. I also didn’t expect him to be so persistent. This is the last part of our email exchange, after I fully registered that there was no hope of simple friendship.

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The “Hey not being funny. . . ” text is in response to an IRL moment, in which I saw him on the shuttle, he asked why I wasn’t responding to his text messages, and I told him he was making me uncomfortable.

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s 4 times (not including the very first text response, in which I said I had a boyfriend I was very happy with and was not looking for dates) that I tried to get him to back off, very directly. Can you imagine how a young woman who has been socialized to be polite and accommodating would feel and respond to this guy? Even I, Feminist Shrew, felt guilty and mean and scared the first two times, until I got pissed.

Wild Card. The last guy on the shuttle I look for we’ll call Wild Card. I met him a few weeks ago, I was waiting for lunch, listening to a podcast on headphones. I noticed someone waiting to order was looking right at me. Startled, I didn’t register the words he was mouthing at me.

“What?” I asked.

“I know you.” He said. I didn’t recognize him. Alarmed, I took out my headphones.

“What?” I asked again.

He proceeded to tell me where I work and the number of the shuttle route I take to get there. Then he asked me where I live.

Now, I have no proof, or honestly even a reason to believe that this man was anything other than a shockingly unempathetic, immature guy who had no idea how he was coming off. But the risk that his ignorance extends to perceived entitlement to women’s time, affection, or even bodies is non-zero.  And frankly the fact that he can make it to his age without thinking about what it might be like to be a woman is telling and infuriating.

And that’s why I think it’s important to talk about these non-incident incidents. If we don’t talk about what it’s like to constantly assess threats, try to balance being assertive and feeling safe, strategically choosing a seat on the bus, and weighing a long walk home in the dark from the city bus stop against getting off the shuttle with the guy who will not leave you alone, people who don’t have to deal with it will not be able to empathize, even if they may want to.

The privilege of not being female may protect you from this experience, but so may living in a safe neighborhood, or living with a male partner– I’ve lived here for 8 months and I have never experienced this level of street harassment or inappropriate come-ons in any city I’ve lived in the past. But if you haven’t had this experience or it’s a rare nuisance, please consider not dismissing the women who complain about it as paranoid or sensitive. The probability of their being in physical danger may indeed be small, but potential cost of letting her guard down is astronomical, and the emotional experience of being treated like a powerless object is a real, damaging thing.

If you have kids of either gender, talk to them about this stuff. If they empathize, they won’t do it, and they won’t stand for their friends doing it. And when they go off to college or move out to develop their career, your daughters will be prepared to resist the pressure to be polite when others are being rude and creepy. There’s very little risk that your daughter will be so flattered by a cat-caller that she runs away with him, but she could internalize the ideas of men who see and treat her as an object of value for her physical appearance, and that endangers her mental health, her potential, and to a diluted degree, the potential of women everywhere.

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I Would Totally Go on a Second Date with Bruno Latour

If I’d met him a few years ago (and in an alternate universe), I would totally go on a second date with Bruno Latour. I would enjoy listening to him talk: I think he has really fascinating ideas that I almost understand, but there’s enough that I haven’t quite grasped to keep me wanting more, you know?

I get the sense that he’s really passionate about the co-evolution of society and technology– he uses a lot of exclamation points–and his insistence on bringing ideas of power and dominance into conversations about the proliferation of camera technology is confusing, but in that kind of intriguing/sexy way.

Plus, I am really curious how “syntagm” is pronounced, and there’s a chance that I can get him to say it out loud.

So yeah, I would agree to a second date, because I would want to believe that there was something between us. I think I could fool myself into thinking he could respect me intellectually, at least until the waiter brought the dessert menu. (And by then, I mean, hell, you might as well try the flourless chocolate cake, right?)

He probably won’t have heard a word I said all night (he definitely wouldn’t have been listening to my anecdote about the Kodak case study I read in business school, which I at first thought was relevant, and then thought I could spin as amusing, but really by the end of it, even I realized that I had missed the point) so I won’t feel too bad if he insists on paying.

What I would really want to do is set him up with a friend of mine. That way, I wouldn’t have to date a man who would throw out the word “actant” right away, and then blaze ahead until I was too embarrassed to ask what it meant, and then define it 45 minutes later so I have to simultaneously:

1) parse the definition: “a list of answers to trials– a list which, once stabilized, is hooked to a name of a thing and to a substance.”

2) try to understand the last 45 minutes in light of this information.

3) wonder if he only defined it now because he could sense that I had no idea what he was talking about, and is he starting to think I’m an idiot?

4) wonder if he is actually trying to test out an extension of this theory in which “actant” is an actant, which is part of a program in which he (the literal enunciator?) is using vocabulary to try to get women to leave him alone (?).

5) confuse myself, and try desperately to figure out what he’s talking about now that I’ve been distracted for, let’s be honest, kind of a long time.

6) wait– did he just slam stamp collecting??

You see, I wouldn’t want to seriously date a guy who would do that, or who honestly sounds kind of high when he explains things that you are pretty sure are smart (? but, again, he could just be messing with you). Like, I was pretty sure I knew what “translations” were until he started talking, so either he’s brilliant, or so charismatic that he has me rethinking the word “substitutes” just to prove he can.

I would want to be that guy’s buddy. You know, me and Bruno getting some beers and theorizing, and arguing, and trying on ontological hats until we close down the bar? I go home feeling intellectually inferior, but in a challenged and excited way? And his girlfriend (who is grateful to me for introducing her to such a Mysterious Genius) could deal with him.

Oh my gosh, can you imagine what it would be like if, you know, down the road a few years when you’re living with him? And whatever spark you’d mustered is kind of gone, but you’re comfortable, and you have your own lives, but he keeps forgetting to do the laundry, so you leave him a note on the fridge? And then he dissects your note and your sighs and your conspicuous placement of the laundry basket and tells you all about how “unreal” your program is, and explains, in a sort of exhausted tone, how he’s going to continue to create anti-programs until you truly innovate? And how he explains this in tiny little words, which he defines right away, because that’s the only way he thinks you can understand by now?

Yeah, no thanks. A second date, but that’s it.

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Art, Science, and Audience

This week we are reading about and discussing “the Public Intellectual.” We read short stories by scientists, browsed scholar’s websites, and watched a TED talk by one of our professors. I wrote the following blog post for an assignment in reaction to these examples and ideas: 

I’ve always been a big hobby-sampler– I do a little bit of a lot of things– and the things I really care about don’t get the time investment it takes to make them great. When I moved out here, the constraints of leaving behind my social network and bringing only what I could fit in within the 50lb checked-bag limit brought me a great opportunity, and I selected a single hobby.

I decided to pursue art in my free time. I minored in art in college, but had mostly done Really Fancy Crafts since I graduated.

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The distinction I am drawing between art and crafts isn’t an evaluation of merit, by the way, and I only use it to classify my own work, not others’, but for reference, here’s what I mean. Both art and crafts can be decorative, functional, meaningful, and therapeutic to create, but the design of crafts are informed primarily by another design or a process, where the design of art is informed by my subjective translation of some idea.

Here’s an example of a craft I did.


The photo on the right is of my commissioner with his dad on an old Harley. It’s meaningful and beautiful, but not suited for display because of its size and condition. He wanted to be able to enjoy the image, and I was able to use the photo, a google image search for the name of the bike, and a surprisingly small amount of human judgement to create the painting on the left. The subject, medium, composition, and style reflect only necessity, my aesthetic preferences, and the desires of the guy who paid me :)

Here’s an example of art I made.

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It was physically simpler to make, but the subject, form, media, and style all carry meaning. Here’s a section of the document I used to imagine, refine, and embody an idea into that piece.


You can see that I started with a big, abstract idea (“happiness”) and created a mind map around that idea to settle on a more specific idea I was interested in (“harmony”). At the risk of “explaining the joke,” I’ll explain more of the process to give you an example of how art (as I see it) differs from craft, and perhaps give you a sense of why I find producing art to be rewarding.

I had recently joined a singing group when I made this piece, and was thinking about the human diversity in the group and how it served to build a more complete and beautiful whole in the same way that our musical harmony did. It also took me far out of my comfort zone. So I did some thinking about different dimensions on which humans or ideas can vary. I decided on a matrix design for the concept (I wanted 4 parts, much like we had tenor, lead, baritone, and bass singers), which led me to select two visual dimensions on which the piece could vary. In homage to the abandonment of my habits for new adventures, I forwent my usual style (2 dimensional, monochromatic, representational work) for something I’d never done (3D, full color, abstraction). I designed a bridge shape for the form, to represent the way in which diversity itself can form a link between very different people and how the meeting of each with the others elevates all. The result is 4 sections which start out flat and get taller in the center, where they meet. Diversity is abstracted and visually represented on two dimensions: complexity of structure and breadth of color range.

Now did I expect the audience at that show to look at that and go, “oh! she must belong to an a cappella group?” Of course not :). I want to take my experience and perspective, bring it into a form that evokes these ideas and feelings in me, and allow others to see what they want in it, from their perspectives and experience. That way, as long as I take responsibility to make it maximally true of me, there’s a chance that someone else can see it and think or feel something true of them, and in that moment is the connection I am looking for.

All of that to say, although I enjoy the process and respect the skills required for crafts, I missed the creative thought, iterative meaning-making, and attempt to connect that is part of art.  When I moved, I committed to making that my hobby. Because my thoughts and experiences and perspectives now are so thoroughly informed by and immersed in the thought and science of graduate school, I am making art that responds to and reflects on that experience. Here’s my current work in progress: a 7-foot tall, nontraditional embroidery piece with the working title “Grasp.”

My hope, which I admit is lofty and far out of reach at the moment, is for the art I am making now to be a part of my public scholar profile, to be another avenue to communicate my findings, and to be a jumping off point to discuss the subjective experience of doing science.

Scientists do their best to expand human knowledge and share what they learn, but have to accept the likelihood of an overwhelming majority misunderstanding or not caring about that knowledge much of the time. Artists and scientists, in that way, are very similar and, I think, brave.

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Why Privacy Matters

I don’t care much about my own privacy. My facebook profile (under my first, middle, and last name) is mostly public, I gave my banking password, and I don’t cover my webcam with a sticker. You could say that I don’t feel I have much to hide, which is true. However, I do think the right to privacy is a crucial element of a free society and that it’s important for all of us, even those who don’t have anything to hide, to fight to protect that right.

It’s trendy to see privacy as a currency we trade to make cool things, or to stay safe, or to make some other tradeoff that we care about. Although I do compromise some of my own sensitive information for my own convenience, treating others privacy like a commodity is a serious problem.

This blog post is coming out of a class discussion in which one of my classmates asserted that archived data, even data that includes sensitive or personally identifiable information, should be made public online. I’m going to try to convince you that, even if you personally don’t care about privacy, privacy is important and is worth protecting for others, here and abroad, now and in the future.

I think it’s easy and natural to form political or other society-wide opinions based on your beliefs, your circumstances, and how it would effect you. I also think, however, that it is our responsibility as voters, as scholars who work with data about others, and even as humans who could open their mouths within earshot of other humans to consider how those ideas, if implemented, would effect other people in different communities, legal environments, and circumstances.

But you wouldn’t look at other political issues this way, would you? How just would it be for me to say, “I don’t use welfare, so let’s get rid of it,” or, “I don’t have kids who use public education, so we should eliminate it.”

Here’s the bottom line. If you believe that records should be open, or that privacy doesn’t matter, or that “I don’t care; I don’t have anything to hide,” you believe one of two things:

  1. Every human society, now and in the future has norms and laws are basically fair and all communities’ reactions or legal punishments will be just
  2. People who violate the unjust norms of their community or laws of their country should be required to live a fundamentally less free life

For example, I am a highly educated, white, heterosexual American who lives in a liberal state, works at a university, and I have no stigmatized disabilities or illnesses. Pretty lucky, right? But even I have made some life choices and hold controversial political opinions that I wisely keep to myself in some contexts. There could be real consequences that do meaningful harm to me in my in my religious community or workplace if it were public knowledge that I’d visited Planned Parenthood, for example, or voted to legalize marijuana.

The argument there could be, well, Karen– find a more liberal place to work, or a more accepting religious community. But imagine if that solution is implemented across the board, including for people with much bigger secrets than a UTI and a bleeding heart political philosophy. You’d be requiring people who are already facing huge barriers to normal life because of how they were born, where they were born, or even circumstances outside their control to live even less free lives than they are already able to.  For example, people who want access to birth control, gay people, and women who have been raped who live in conservative communities, states, or countries could face dire social and legal consequences– in some places they could even (legally!) be killed.

It would be nice if we lived in a world where the playing field was level and every one could be trusted to be basically reasonable, or adjust their worldview given new information. (My classmate’s argument as I understood it was that if all this sensitive data were to be released, society would be forced to “get over it.”) We do not live in that world: even in the US in 2015 people are being shot for being black, fired for being gay, arrested for legal protests, and publicly shamed and losing their jobs for violating unjust social norms or making a misunderstood joke. Risking lives and livelihoods by betting that all people throughout the world will suddenly see reason is cruelly irresponsible.

And what about the tradeoff? Increasing human knowledge is, of course, important– so important to me that I moved across the country to a place that is cold to live on a graduate student’s stipend for the chance to pursue that end. But the trade off is not open data or no data. The trade off is that only trained people who jumped through some hoops with an IRB can see and use it.

We cannot let the our enthusiasm for the Cool Stuff we can do obscure our view of potential consequences of our actions. I can see that there is an additional benefit to crowdsourcing, citizen science, and collective intelligence, but I do not believe that that additional benefit is worth the risk when the people who the data describes did not have the opportunity to give their informed consent to its release. It may also be true that the wisdom of the crowd could help us better understand contagious diseases, chemical weapons, or military strategy, but the risk that some will misuse or misunderstand it prevents us from opening our labs, materials, and plans to the public.

I am very curious about your thoughts about privacy and open data. Please leave me a note in the comments!

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