Unfollowing on Twitter

In February of this year I started getting off Twitter.

For a while, I was really good at this! I was totally off Twitter, and I was really happy with that. I decided I wasn’t coming back.

Over the last four or five months though, I’ve found myself… edging back toward Twitter. The thing is, there are a lot of people I loved following on twitter, and I missed their stuff. I found myself slowly getting pulled back in.

To try to prevent this, I have started unfollowing people on Twitter, pretty much every time I find myself there. Eventually I’ll probably get to the point where I only follow people who never post… or I’ll bite the bullet and go through the remainder and unfollow everyone.

It’s not a judgement on anyone, more a sanity-preserving measure for myself.

I’ll keep blogging, and keep my auto-poster to Twitter running, as I know people are using it.

Who know. Maybe one day I’ll be able to go back. Or perhaps not: Enagement driving machines scare me more and more over time. Somehow I don’t see Twitter not getting worse.

Two Weekend Reads

Here are two things I think might be worth your time to read (next?) weekend.

Delete Your Account Now: A Conversation with Jaron Lanier

Harper Simon talks to Jaron Lanier about his book “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now”. I particularly found his discussion of social media and social justice near the end particularly fascinating

So can we talk a little bit about the social justice or activism aspects of social media? Aside from taking selfies, self-promotion, and communicating with friends, the main justification people have for being on social media is that it enables so much community activism and social justice.

Yeah. A lot of people have felt that using social media is a way to organize for mutual betterment, whether it’s a social justice movement or other things. You’re absolutely correct: in the immediate sense their experience of that is authentic. I think they’re reporting on real events. The problem, however, is that behind the scenes there are these manipulation, behavior modification, and addiction algorithms that are running. And these addiction algorithms are blind. They’re just dumb algorithms. What they want to do is take whatever input people put into the system and find a way to turn it into the most engagement possible. And the most engagement comes from the startle emotions, like fear and anger and jealousy, because they tend to rise the fastest and then subside the slowest in people, and the algorithms are measuring people very rapidly, so they tend to pick up and amplify startle emotions over slower emotions like the building of trust or affection.

And so you tend to have the algorithms trying to take whatever has been put into the system and find some way to get a startle emotion out of it in order to maximize its use for addiction. What we call engagement should be called addiction and then behavior modification. And so you tend to have this phenomenon where there will be, let’s say, a social justice movement of some kind; it’s initially successful, but then the same data is instead optimized to find whoever is irritated by that social justice movement. Those irritated people are introduced to each other and put into this amplifying cycle where they’re more and more agitated until they become horrible. So, you start with the Arab Spring, but then you get ISIS getting even more mileage from the same tools. Or you start with Black Lives Matter and you come up with this resurgent bizarre racist movement that had been dormant for years. And this just keeps on happening.

So the problem is that when people say, “Oh, we use social media for social justice,” they’re typically correct. And yet in the longer story they’re really vulnerable to a far greater backlash than they would have gotten if they used another technique. At the end of the day, it’s hard to say whether they really benefited or not.

There are flourishing communities of marginalized people on social media, who say very clearly that they find comfort, solace, and companionship in these social media communities. I think there’s a good argument to be made that there are people who absolutely have benefit hugely from social media.

Yet, Lanier’s point about the callous amorality of engagement driven algorithms, and how they foment conflict feels like an accurate description of own experience on Twitter. I feel the siren song of these engagement driven algorithms regularly; perhaps the one that I wonder most about is Pocket, just due to the nearness of my work (Pocket is owned by Mozilla, my employer).

I have tried to reduce my own use of social media. Yet, I will ultimately post this blog post to my social media accounts; This is because I know so many people for whom social media is the only way they know things happen. Most of my friends won’t have my blog in an RSS reader; I’d be lucky if they would occasionally drop in. What does this mean? I don’t know. I’m a slave to the machine?

Another Technological Tragedy

A couple of months ago a neighbourhood in Massachusetts exploded, seemingly out of nowhere. I remember reading some of the original coverage on it, but neglected to ever return to the subject to discover the root cause. In the linked piece, Brian Hayes writes a fascinating mini-history of gas, and discusses the cause from the NTSB report.

Bruno Latour on Science

I really appreciated this article in the New York Times about Bruno Latour. I’d never heard of him before today, much to my chagrin, as I find the description of him and his work in this article fascinating.

It had long been taken for granted, for example, that scientific facts and entities, like cells and quarks and prions, existed “out there” in the world before they were discovered by scientists. Latour turned this notion on its head. In a series of controversial books in the 1970s and 1980s, he argued that scientific facts should instead be seen as a product of scientific inquiry. Facts, Latour said, were “networked”; they stood or fell not on the strength of their inherent veracity but on the strength of the institutions and practices that produced them and made them intelligible. If this network broke down, the facts would go with them.
— Bruno Latour, the Post-Truth Philosopher, Mounts a Defense of Science

The notion of networks-not-truth I think is reflected really strongly in software, in many modes: Operating system ecosystems, tool and language ecosystems lik, etc. It’s interesting to see that sort of analysis applied to Science in general.

Latour’s thoughts around climate science and how we produce knowledge seem fascinating:

Latour believes that if scientists were transparent about how science really functions — as a process in which people, politics, institutions, peer review and so forth all play their parts — they would be in a stronger position to convince people of their claims. Climatologists, he says, must recognize that, as nature’s designated representatives, they have always been political actors, and that they are now combatants in a war whose outcome will have planetary ramifications. We would be in a much better situation, he has told scientists, if they stopped pretending that “the others” — the climate-change deniers — “are the ones engaged in politics and that you are engaged ‘only in science.’ ”

A great read, worth your time!

Conversations About Working at Mozilla

I have been meaning to write a blog post about my now-not-quite-so new job for months, and have been procrastinating for months. Nevertheless, I keep describing to friends one on one. So, I’ll make it easy on myself by harvesting from those conversations.

Mozilla

I’m really loving working at Mozilla to be honest. We moved to Ottawa last year to allow us to buy a house, and since there’s no Mozilla office in Ottawa, I work from home now. It turns out to be really lovely; I’m able to have lunch with my wife every day which is a pretty amazing.
Mozilla felt enormous, compared to IBM for me. It was the difference between working on a small team that made a big product, to going to a small team that makes a component in a (number of users sense) huge project.
It’s an interesting place to work because it’s very mission driven, and the small size of the company means you can feel the contribution you make to the company.
A part of that is learning how to nibble on the firehose. If you wanted to, you could absolutely drown yourself in the goings-on around the company. This is the working-in-the-open aspect on a team of 700. However, I think it is a sensible and worthwhile thing to figure out the ways to get bits and pieces of the firehose to keep yourself informed, and to understand the plate tectonics inside Mozilla.

For me, this was slowly ramping up on what kind of email subscriptions I would make, figuring out how to keep an eye on Slack, IRC, and make that happen in a sustainable fashion.

Working Remotely

My experience is that it starts good, gets worse for a little while as your natural rhythms get out of wack, then eventually you lean into and accept the freedom that comes with it, and it gets much better.
Initially I had a really good sense of discipline; I kept to pretty much exactly the same 40 hour, 9-5 workweek I had at IBM.

I ensured I went for a walk every morning, and made sure to walk away from the laptop and leave it downstairs at 5.

Over time though, I started sleeping in, which then cut into the time for walks. So I’d skip walks some days. Then I’d keep working until it was time to start dinner (6:30). When I decided to start going to the gym, I started to get really stressed out about how I created an 8-hour day, and generally was really grumpy.

After a while though, I realized increasingly, it’s not the hours. I’ve tried really hard to stop paying attention to hours, and instead to focus on what I do. So some days I end up only working 6 hours effectively. Other days, I’ll work 10 hours because I’m in a good groove (especially when I count morning bugmail as work time, which I need to get better about).

Overall though, I’m comfortable with my productivity, no one is complaining about me not being where I need to be, and I’m much happier starting to lean into the flexibility.

I still walk most days — but if it’s pouring rain, I don’t go, and I don’t get itchy about breaking routine
I am sinking into the working from home thing quite excellently at this point. There’s absolutely something to be said for working outside on the patio when one can.
I am still working on keeping my stress levels low from working remotely. Certainly I am getting better, but it is easy to get lost in your own head, and stress out about your productivity when you don’t have coffee with coworkers regularly.

An Unproven Hypothesis about Kitchen Clocks

Six tornadoes hit the Ottawa-Gatineau region on Friday, the most powerful being an EF-3. As a result power was lost for 180,000 homes in the Ottawa region, and even as I write this Tuesday evening Hydro Ottawa reports there are still homes out of power. One of the major problems was the impact of damage to the Merivale transformer station, one of two major stations taking power from the provincial grid, and connecting it to the city grid.

Anyhow. That was a long intro to a short story about our kitchen clocks.

So we got our power back early Saturday (an outage of only about 14 hours). Andrea set the clocks in the kitchen to her cellphone at that point. This afternoon, I was making some lunch, and I noticed that weirdly my kitchen clocks (microwave and stove) were both running ten minutes slow.

I think I have a hypothesis as to why. I have no evidence for this! I just think it’s a cool hypothesis.

It’s based on some stuff I learned about a power grid dispute in Europe between Serbia and Kosovo. From what I understand of that situation (and my limited understanding of power grids), demand applied to an AC power grid acts sort of like resistance on a bicycle wheel. So long as you have enough power being applied to the wheel, you can keep it spinning at the same pace, but if you don’t have enough power the wheel slows down.

In the case of a power grid, the ‘speed’ of the wheel is the frequency of the grid (50hz in Europe, and 60hz in North America).

When Serbian power plants were not balancing the demand from Kosovo, this caused the frequency of the entire grid in Europe to drop, enough to cause noticeable skew to clocks that use the grid frequency to keep time.

My thinking is that what was happening in Ottawa over the weekend is that we got power back, but there wasn’t enough power in the grid to maintain a full 60hz AC signal. Here’s some back-of-the-envelope math: If we lost 10 minutes over three days lets say (Saturday noon to Tuesday noon), then that would be be a loss of only 10 x 60 x 60 (36,000) cycles out of the expected 3 x 24 x 60 x 60 x 60 (15,552,000) cycles, a skew of only 0.02%, which I think would be within the allowable range (there are cutoff frequencies where things will be disconnected from the grid to prevent damage).

And that was my random speculation about clocks for the day.

Edit: I think maybe if we could find historical frequency data for Hydro Ottawa, similar to what Swiss Grid provides here, but over the period of time from the storm, we could prove my hypothesis.

A Random Music Post

I’ve been all weird about blogging lately, because i have a bunch of posts ideas that have been blocking me. Posts too difficult to write because I’m not able to articulate my feelings on the topics sufficiently (ugh, one of them is Twitter, of course 😒).

Anyhow: Let’s just make this a music post, to unbreak the log jam. Here’s some stuff I’ve been listening to and loving.

Gabriel Garzón-Montano

I have been loving Gabriel’s output for a few months now. Golden Wings was a huge hit for me for a couple of straight weeks, and his album Jardín is also full of great stuff. The play counts on these youtube videos are criminally low.

Pan Amsterdam

What a fascinating old-school rap style. Great album.

Devon Lamarr Organ Trio

I have watched this live performance multiple times, along with another from The True Loves. What a fun band (and the albums are great too)

Tenderlonious

I feel like you don’t hear so much jazz flute these days, so Tenderlonious’s whole album The Shakedown is worth listening to.

Jeremy Dutcher

Jeremy Dutcher’s album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa recently won the Polaris prize. My understanding is that he learned songs of his ancestors recorded on wax cylinders, and added music. The result is incredible. It’s worth listening to over and over again.

On Burnout

I really did enjoy getting my Master's degree. It was an opportunity I still cherish, two years to dig into a problem, and try to understand it with as much depth as I could.

Unfortunately within that enjoyment, I did a poor job of taking care of myself, and by the end, I was suffering from burnout. My case of burnout was very shallow compared to some cases you'll read about. I recently read a post from someone (which, I alas, cannot find), where they said their burnout got so bad they felt physically ill every time they sat down at a computer.

For me, my symptoms of burnout were pretty simple: My interest in my field began to wane. I found it harder and harder to work on my projects, even as I put more and more hours in. Focus didn't come which made deep work hard. I found no interest in learning new things in computers, and I was emotionally very weak. I couldn't handle drama of any sort. Funny enough, for me, this mostly came out in media selection. I didn't watch any drama of any sort for almost two years. I couldn't hack it emotionally -- I lacked the energy to deal with emotionally challenging media. I totally quit on House of Cards, and have still, never gone back. Those two years I watched and read almost exclusively junky comfort media, comedies I knew would be unchallenging, or that I had read/watched before.

At this point, I am four years out from my encounter with burnout. The recovery process was slow. I knew I was burnt out, and so starting my new job, I set down some rules for myself to help me recover. These things were absolutely key:

  • Work 9-5, Monday through Friday, and take at least 45 minutes for lunch: This meant that I had a regular schedule, but most importantly, it meant I had time outside of work. The lunch thing didn't start as a rule, but I quickly realized it was hugely helpful for team bonding.
  • Laptop stays at work: For almost the entire first year, I was nearly religious about this, and it helped immensely. I intentionally made sure that I wasn't able to work outside of my work hours.
  • No Work on my Phone: This was another step at ensuring work stayed at work, and home stayed home.
  • No tech news: I have always had a problem with the firehose of tech news out there. It was really important for a good while to try to help enforce the work/home separation by trying to turn off technology at home. This meant no tech news. I set up content blockers on all my devices to keep me away from them, as my muscle memory would thwart self control.

While not rules, I found my mind naturally wanted to help heal itself: I found the idea of working on a computer at home outside of office hours pretty repulsive, so I spent relatively little time on the computer at home. Instead, I read quite a bit. Eventually, I started playing guitar

Over time, I found I could manage taking the computer home every once and a while. Eventually I could deal with more challenging media. But it took time. At this point, I feel mostly recovered. I would say it took two years for most of the work aspects to clear up, but it still took another year before I felt emotionally strong enough to watch/read more emotionally challenging media.

Despite my mostly recovered state, I have had a couple of run-ins with incipient burnout again. When stressed out, the instinct is to work more: Start working 50-60 hours a week. I have absolutely done this, and it's so ineffective in my experience. Rapidly you start to make mistakes. Those mistakes turn out to eat every extra hour put in, and more.

No, learning the lessons I did from burnout, when I get stressed, I try to remind myself to work less. Play guitar more. It's counter-intuitive especially when you are stressed, but that is absolutely the time to schedule a vacation, take advantage of the health benefits and get a massage. Slow things down, so that the brain works again. Working from home, like I do now, I have to be extra vigilant, as my old strategies of "leave the laptop at work" don't have the same power that they did when I had an office to go to.

Last time I felt burnout inching towards me, I finally sat down and started to think about how I organize my work. I got and dug into Things, and started trying hard to get things out of my brain. I read (most) of David Allen's Getting Things Done. I think it's keeping in the theme, that when burnout starts to happen, staying the course is absolutely the wrong thing to do.

I like what I do, and I'd like to keep doing it for a long as I can, and this means taking care of my whole self, physical and mental.