Category Archives: reflections & rants

Joyfully Geeking Out

2020 US Census: Everybody counts!

In 2015, I was invited to join the Commerce Department’s Data Advisory Council. Truth be told, I was kinda oblivious to what this was all about. I didn’t know much about how the government functioned. I didn’t know what a “FACA” was. (Turns out that the “Federal Advisory Committee Act” is a formal government thing.) Heck, I only had the most cursory of understanding about the various agencies and bureaus associated with the Commerce Department. But I did understand one thing: the federal government has some of the most important data infrastructure out there. Long before discussions about our current tech industry, government agencies have been trying to wrangle data to help both the public and industry. The Weather Channel wouldn’t be able to do its work without NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration). Standards would go haywire without NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology). And we wouldn’t be able to apportion our representatives without Census. 

Over the last few years, I have fallen madly in love with the data puzzles that underpin the census. Thanks to Margo Anderson’s “The American Census,” I learned that the history of the census is far far far messier than I ever could’ve imagined.  An amazing network of people dedicated to helping ensure that people are represented have given me a crash course into the longstanding battle over collecting the best data possible. As the contours of the 2020 census became more visible, it also became clear that it would be the perfect networked fieldsite for trying to understand two questions that have been tickling my brain: 

  1. What makes data legitimate?
  2. What does it take to secure data infrastructure? 

(For any STS scholar reading this, add scare-quotes to all of the words that make you want to scream.)

Over the last two years, I’ve been learning as much as I could possibly learn about the census. I’ve also been dipping my toe into archival work and trying to strengthen my theoretical toolkit to handle the study of organizations and large scale operations. And now we’re a matter of days away from when everyone in the country will receive their invitation to participate in the census, and so I’m throwing myself into what is bound to be a whirlwind in order to fully understand how an operation of this magnitude unfolds.  

While I have produced a living document to explain how differential privacy is part of the 2020 census, I’ve mostly not been writing much about the research I’m doing. To be honest, I’m relishing taking the time to deeply understand something and to do the deep reflection I haven’t had the privilege of doing in almost a decade. 

If I’ve learned anything from the world of census junkies, this decadal process is raw insanity and full of unexpected twists and turns. Yet, what I can say is that it’s also filled with some of the most civic-minded people that I’ve ever encountered. There are so many different stakeholders trying to ensure that we get a good count in order to guarantee that everyone in this country is counted, represented, and acknowledged. This is important, not just for Congressional apportionment and redistricting, but also to make sure that funding is properly allocated, that social science research can inform important decision-making processes, and that laws designed to combat discrimination are enforced.

I’m sharing this now, not because I have new thinking to offer, but because I want folks to understand why I might be rather unresponsive to non-census-obsessives over the next few months. I want to dive head-first into this research and relish the opportunity to be surrounded by geeks engaged in a phenomenal civic effort. For those who aren’t thinking full-time about the census, please understand that I’m going to turn down requests for my time this spring and my email response time may also falter. 

Of course.. if you want to make me smile, send me photographs of cool census stuff happening in your community! Or interesting census content that comes through your feeds! And if you want to go hog wild, get involved. Census is hiring. Or you could make census-related content to encourage others to participate. Or at the very least, tell everyone you know to participate; they’ll get their official invitation starting March 12. 

The US census has been taking place every 10 years since 1790. It is our democracy’s data infrastructure. And it is “big data” before there was big data. It’s also the cornerstone of countless advances in statistics and social scientific knowledge. Understanding the complexity of the census is part-and-parcel with understanding where our data-driven world is headed. When this is all over, I hope that I’ll have a lot more to contribute to that conversation. In the meantime, forgive me for relishing my obsessive focus. 

I want my cyborg life

For the last few years, I’ve been spoiled. I’ve been surrounded by people who, when asked a question, immediately bring out a digital device and look it up. The conferences that I’ve attended have backchannels as a given. Tweeting, blogging, Wikipedia-ing… these are all just what we do. It’s not all there – it’s still broken. My cohort is still always in search of a power plug and there’s a lag between the time a question is asked and the point at which the iPhone’s slow browser is loaded, the query is entered, and the answer is given. Still, we’re getting there. Or so I thought.

In Italy two weeks ago, I attended Modernity 2.0 (in the lovely Urbino hosted by the fantastic Fabio Giglietto). There were two audiences in attendance – a young cohort of “internet scholars” and an older cohort deeply invested in sociocybernetics. At one point, after a talk, one of the sociocybernetics scholars (actually, the former President of the sociocybernetics organization… I know… I looked him up) began his question by highlight that, unlike most of the audience who seemed more invested in the internet than scholarly conversations, HE had been paying attention. He was sitting next to me. He looked at me as he said this.

It’s not very often that I feel like I’ve been publicly bitchslapped but boy did that sting. And then I felt pissy, like a resentful stubborn child bent on proving him wrong. Somehow, as I grew my hair out and became an adult, I also became less spiteful because boy was I determined to bite back. Of course, I haven’t become that much of an adult because here I am blogging the details of said encounter.

There’s no doubt that I barely understood what the speaker was talking about. But during the talk, I had looked up six different concepts he had introduced (thank you Wikipedia), scanned two of the speakers’ papers to try to grok what on earth he was talking about, and used Babelfish to translate the Italian conversations taking place on Twitter and FriendFeed in attempt to understand what was being said. Of course, I had also looked up half the people in the room (including the condescending man next to me) and posted a tweet of my own.

But, of course, the attack was not actually about the reality of my internet habits but the perception of them. There’s no doubt that, when given a laptop in a lecture setting, most people surf the web, check email, or play video games. Their attention is lost and they’ve checked out. Of course, there’s an assumption that technology is to blame. The only thing that I really blame said technology for is limiting doodling practice for the potential future artist (and for those of us who still can’t sketch to save our lives). Y’see – I don’t think that people were paying that much attention before. Daydreaming and sketching (aka “taking notes”) are not particularly new practices. Now the daydreamer might just be blogging instead.

My frustration at the anti-computer attitude goes beyond the generational gap of an academic conference. I’ve found that this same attitude tends to be present in many workplace environments. Blackberries and laptops are often frowned upon as distraction devices. As a result, few of my colleagues are in the habit of creating backchannels in business meetings. This drives me absolutely bonkers, especially when we’re talking about conference calls. I desperately, desperately want my colleagues to be on IM or IRC or some channel of real-time conversation during meetings. While I will fully admit that there are times when the only thing I have to contribute to such dialogue is snark, there are many more times when I really want clarifications, a quick question answered, or the ability to ask someone in the room to put the mic closer to the speaker without interrupting the speaker in the process.

I have become a “bad student.” I can no longer wander an art museum without asking a bazillion questions that the docent doesn’t know or won’t answer or desperately wanting access to information that goes beyond what’s on the brochure (like did you know that Rafael died from having too much sex!?!?!). I can’t pay attention in a lecture without looking up relevant content. And, in my world, every meeting and talk is enhanced through a backchannel of communication.

This isn’t simply a generational issue. In some ways, it’s a matter of approach. Every Wednesday, MSR New England has a guest speaker (if you wanna be notified of the talks, drop me an email). None of my colleagues brings a laptop. I do. And occasionally my interns do (although they often feel like they’re misbehaving when they do so they often don’t… I’m more stubborn than they are). My colleagues interrupt the talk with questions. (One admits that he asks questions because he’s more interested in talking to the speaker than listening… he also asks questions to stay awake.) I find the interruptions to the speaker to be weirdly inappropriate. I much much prefer to ask questions to Twitter, Wikipedia, and IRC/IM. Let the speaker do her/his thing… let me talk with the audience who is present and those who are not but might have thoughtful feedback. When I’m inspired, I ask questions. When I’m not, I zone out, computer or not.

My colleagues aren’t that much older than me but they come from a different set of traditions. They aren’t used to speaking to a room full of blue-glow faces. And they think it’s utterly fascinating that I poll my twitterverse about constructs of fairness while hearing a speaker talk about game theory. Am I learning what the speaker wants me to learn? Perhaps not. But I am learning and thinking and engaging.

I’m 31 years old. I’ve been online since I was a teen. I’ve grown up with this medium and I embrace each new device that brings me closer to being a cyborg. I want information at my fingertips now and always. There’s no doubt that I’m not mainstream. But I also feel really badly for the info-driven teens and college students out there being told that learning can only happen when they pay attention to an audio-driven lecture in a classroom setting. I read books during my classroom (blatantly not paying attention). Imagine what would’ve happened had I been welcome to let my mind run wild on the topic at hand?

What will it take for us to see technology as a tool for information enhancement? At the very least, how can we embrace those who learn best when they have an outlet for their questions and thoughts? How I long for being connected to be an acceptable part of engagement.

United, my trip from hell, and karmic retribution

When I learned of how United’s stock plummeted after an information mishap this week, I have to admit that I laughed out lot. It wasn’t a LOL, but full-on hysterics. I couldn’t help but think: karma, bites you in the ass every time. Y’see, whenever I think of United, I think of my trip from hell this summer and the atrocious ways in which the company handled it. I shudder when I hear their name and when travel agents try to put me on a United flight, my emotional response is pure panic.

United managed to dehumanize me at an unprecedented level this summer. United’s attitudes were worse than AT&T and Blue Cross… combined. I felt used, abused, and taken for a ride. I missed the wedding of two dear friends and was practically laughed at by United when I voiced my dissent. I have never spent so much money to be treated so terribly. And I’m so bitter about it that I do everything possible to dissuade those that I know and love from getting on one of their aircrafts. (So for those of you booking flights, think twice before going with United.)

Earlier this summer, I went to China. I got there via American, did my speaking thing, and then went to leave. By that time, my lungs were a mess and I was anxious to leave. Plus, two of my dear friends were about to get married and I was to leave Beijing to join them for their rehearsal dinner. I had booked the United flight because it was the only direct to Dulles. I was wary of United and so I had checked multiple other routes and felt confident that I should be able to get to DC one way or another, especially since I was booking an expensive business class seat (almost $10K). I should’ve known. Here’s the abbreviated story:

As we were about to board, they reported mechanical issues. We were to wait around. Delay after delay and eventually I went to the Lounge, hoping to find a United rep to tell me what was going on. All of the other business folks were there too, irate. Much to my horror, there were no United reps there because it was a partner lounge. Worse, the Air China employees were downright hostile and unhelpful. I asked to get onto alternate flights, but the Air China people told me they couldn’t help me and, more irritatingly, wouldn’t. They told me I had to speak to United. I asked where I could find a United rep and I was told (rudely) that I would have to go back out through security/customs to the front desk. My visa wouldn’t allow this. I asked if I could call United from there and they told me no. Everyone around me was calling back to the States to get information. There was no WiFi and only 5 Internet data ports so there was no way to go that route.

Things got worse as the night progressed. It became clear that the flight was to be cancelled, but they wouldn’t cancel it which prohibited any of us from being moved to other flights. Finally, late into the evening, United reps came around to hand out vouchers to a hotel. No clear instructions were given and it was utter mayhem. From the time they gave us the vouchers to the time that they got us to the hotel (sans luggage) took three hours. The United reps called twice in the middle of the night to wake us and tell us that we would be leaving earlier.

At 9AM, I met the United reps downstairs and they hurried us onto shuttles. We got to the airport (having collectively bonded) and when we were given our boarding passes, they had vastly different board times on them: 11.45, 12:15, 14:15. Much confusion, every rep said something different. It also became clear that there was no plane and that we wouldn’t be leaving.

Y’see… we learned later that they didn’t have a mechanic. They didn’t bring one in the night before and they didn’t have one in the morning. We sat around the lounge all morning, getting more and more angry as no information was provided and the China Air folks continued to be hostile to our presence. Many flights came and went but we weren’t allowed on those other ones. At noon, a representative showed up with little to no information and was bombarded by pissed off people with questions that she couldn’t answer. She told us that she’d return again at 1PM. It took us a few more hours to get out of there and we boarded a plane with barely working A/C and a worn-out but gracious flight staff.

Not only did I miss the rehearsal dinner, I missed the whole wedding. I was exhausted, miserable, and emotionally drained. The only people who were remotely polite were the United reps who were too junior to have any information whatsoever and just kept apologizing in broken English and the very exhausted flight attendants. Everyone else was as rude and horrid as possible, along with completely unhelpful, unresponsive, and unaccommodating. Even though there were a bazillion alternatives (who weren’t even flying full), United did nothing to help. It wasn’t even that I wasn’t high enough on the totem poll – they were universally assholes to everyone. I asked a few of the Business Class passengers why they flew United and their reason was depressing: “because my company makes me.” A few of them told me that when they flew personal, they flew anything but United.

At the end, we were given a “friendship kit” to submit to United. I did, along with a four page letter detailing what happened when. The response? A generic apology letter and a $150 discount for future flights. As an apology for a mangled $10K flight. Fuck you too United.

My partner always makes fun of me for being an overly loyal customer. It runs both ways though. I’m loyal to those companies who I feel treat me with respect and I hold long grudges against those that appear to enjoy screwing me. Grudges that I’m happy to share with others and incite mini-boycotts. And, at the end of the day, when I watch such ungracious, condescending, cruel, and greedy companies get fucked over by an act of fate or information accident or however you’d like to explain how that old article about their earlier bankruptcy ended up getting treated as contemporary, well, I just have to laugh. Karma… it bites you in the ass every time.

delectable brain floss?

Last night, I took a break from dissertation writing and went to the bookstore. At midnight. I wasn’t alone. Dozens of teen and early-20s girls took their wrist bands and lined up to buy Breaking Dawn, the fourth and final book in the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer. It was relatively calm, especially compared to the Harry Potter extravaganza that I witnessed in Harvard Square when Book 7 was released. Still, I was quite happy to see folks standing on line for a book. Go dork pride!

The Twilight series is what my friend Irina calls brain floss (a.k.a. brain candy). It’s the kind of yummy tasty book that makes you want to stay up all night and whip through it. All 700 pages of it. But that ruins its power as brain floss. Brain candy books must be used sparingly to be brain floss (or else you’d have to call it procrastination). So I’m only allowed to read 50 pages a day. Irina’s convinced that brain floss is necessary for dissertation reprieve. It gives your mind a break from the intense social theory reading that it must do while writing. The focus is on the storyline and character development. It’s easy to consume and takes absolutely no thinking whatsoever. Crunch crunch crunch… tasty.

Personally, I lurve YA brain floss. I mostly have little patience for the images of money, fame, power, and love presented in most adult brain floss. Of course, when I’m feeling the need to humor myself with Hollywood’s absurdity, I will sometimes grab a Jackie Collins. But that can’t be admitted to out loud so shhh.

I’m about to finish the Twilight series, so I have a question. What good brain floss do y’all recommend? Think the guilty pleasure book reading you do at the beach that is pure junk brain candy. Feel free to comment anonymously if you’re embarrassed. But bring on the trash!

a penny for your brain fodder

My blog is boring these days. Most of my writing energy is being spent on my dissertation. And I promise, none of you want to hear details of how I fine-tune my methodology chapter. I can’t even keep you entertained with outrageous tales of sordid trysts because, well, there aren’t any. Hell, I barely leave the house. The most exciting moments in my life occur when my cat snarls at the neighbor cat who tries to steal her food. And, well, that minutia is better left for Twitter. I could blog the dreams I’ve been having that involve Marx and Engels yelling at each other, but those make me look psychotic. So I’d rather not. That pretty much leaves grocery lists, health rants, and detailed discussions of the variability in Los Angeles weather.

Part of the problem is that I’ve been pretty disengaged with everything but my dissertation. I don’t keep up with blogs or gossip and I have been dreadful at making it to events that would normally stimulate me to comment on events out in the world. Most likely, you’re more engaged with social media these days than I am. Or you’re here accidentally. And really bored. Presumably, if you keep coming back, you’re waiting for me to say something interesting. Or maybe you’re just sick and twisted.

So how about we make a deal… Why don’t you help me find fodder to ramble and I’ll try to be provocative in return? (Or at least more entertaining than I am now.)

If you’ve got something you want me to comment on, leave a comment. Write questions, share links, whatever. I can’t promise that I’ll get to everything nor can I promise that I’ll want to comment on everything, but at least that’ll give me a sense of what you might find interesting and it’ll give me something other than my dissertation to think about. Being a hermit makes it hard to determine what is interesting. Anyhow, let’s just give this a try… Perhaps it’ll be an abysmal failure but perhaps it’ll be an interesting experiment.

So what’s on YOUR mind these days?

Andy van Dam dancing the cha-cha

Michael Carter just sent me an email with a link to a YouTube video entitled Andy van Dam in “Dancing with the Professors.” Andy was my undergraduate advisor, my mentor, and is a dear friend. I was one of his TAs and absolutely loved seeing him do goofy things in class. That said, I’ve never seen this side of him and I’m completely beside myself in giggles.

This makes me wonder…. where are all of the other avd videos? I found one of Andy losing in ping pong. But there has to be more embarrassing footage… I mean, as a CS15 TA, we did quite a few skits involving Andy. Hell, how many times did he play Darth Vader alone? Many of these had to have been videotaped. Who has these videos? Why aren’t they on YouTube?

Calling all Brown CS alumni … please upload any embarrassing footage that you have, pretty please?

limited email March 16-25

I’m headed to Hong Kong with my partner for Eastover (what happens when Passover needs to be celebrated during Easter because that’s when people have vacation). I will be checking my email sporadically, but don’t expect much in the way of communication – In addition to family time, I’m also using this time to focus on some writing without the internet nearby. ::smoooch::