2048: Exponential Growth Edition

I made a thing:

(Click to go to the game.)

My first impulse upon seeing there was a “make-your-own 2048″ site was to use images of an exponentially growing bacteria colony, but sadly I couldn’t find a source of 11 evenly spaced images.  So I went with 11 different kinds of exponential growth (including negative growth, ie exponential decay) which turned out to be more fun and way more educational.

Credit for images as well as links to explanation of the various phenomena can be found here.

The Spherical Elephant In The Room

There’s a joke you probably know:

A dairy farmer wants to increase the production of milk from her cows. To do this, she hires three consultants – an engineer, a psychologist, and a physicist.

After a week, the engineer comes back with a report. He says: “If you want to increase milk production, you need to get bigger milk pumps and bigger tubes to suck the milk through.”

Next comes the psychologist. He says: “One way to get the cows to produce more milk is to make them calm and happy. Paint the milking stalls green. This will make the cows think of grass and happy fields.”

Finally, the physicist comes to present her ideas. She says: “Assume the cow is a sphere….”

(adapted from)

The point of the joke is pretty straightforward: over-simplifying can lead to irrelevant models. Cows aren’t spheres: they are complicated, messy creatures.

So are humans.

I like to debate. It’s one of my favorite ways to learn. I find myself engaging in discussions, especially online, every day. But it can be incredibly frustrating to see people enter a conversation with a spherical cow mindset: as though the discussion exists in a perfect vacuum, undisturbed by the particular histories of the individuals debating, by their personalities, by the medium of the debate, by the tones adopted and the power dynamics involved in who is framing the debate and who is speaking and when.

I call this the spherical elephant in the room, because these factors have a vast yet unacknowledged influence on the outcome of a discussion. They’re in play in any debate, regardless of topic or participants, but they’re especially critical when talking about oppression or with members of an oppressed group.

I have seen conversations where one discussant turns the lived experiences of another into “interesting hypotheticals” as though it’s trivially easy to be unemotional about memories of abuse, harassment and discrimination. I have seen people demand that the person they’re debating explain a concept to them without respecting that oppressed people are frequently asked the same questions over and over and that it is often trivially easy for one to educate oneself. I have seen people use silencing and derailing techniques without even realizing they’re doing so.

If your goal is understand or to persuade, rather than to “win”, it behooves you to recognize the subtle complexity of any given discussion. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to make sure you’re not ignoring the spherical elephant in the room:

  • How does the topic we’re discussing affect individuals lives? Could my discussion partner have experienced those effects? Could their loves ones or community members have experienced them?
  • Is this a conversation my partner has had before? (If you don’t know, you can ask!) Have I educated myself on the topic before engaging?
  • Am I controlling the flow of conversation? Am I asking most of the questions? Am I interrupting their responses? Is one of us speaking more than the other?
  • What medium are we using? If it’s a public or recorded medium, does my partner face professional consequences or the potential of attacks from trolls? If audience members are known to my partner, might that influence or limit what they feel comfortable talking about?
  • What tone am I using when debating? Am I coming across as aggressive, condescending, or angry? Is my discussion partner likely to have been socialized to be less assertive?

This is not an exhaustive list – and yet it sounds exhausting, doesn’t it? But with practice, these questions become second nature. And by asking them, you cultivate two important traits – important for debaters, and for people, generally: good will and empathy towards those you interact with, and respect for the messiness of life.

On Solutionism and Lolcats

Spending as much time as I do teaching, writing and thinking about technology, I come across solutionism a lot.  (From the link: Morozov defines solutionism as “a pervasive and dangerous ideology… that recognizes problems as problems based on just one criterion: whether they are ‘solvable’ with a nice and clean technological solution”.)

Talking about this topic can be a bit of a balancing act.  I don’t want to deny the transformative power of technology, either.  But every once in a while I’m talking to someone who’s just so enthusiastic about how tech will “change the world” that I can’t help asking: if that’s true, why can’t the internet save cats?

The argument makes itself.  Clearly the internet loves cats: a google search for “cats” turns up half a billion results. You can’t go a few hours online without stumbling across a picture of a cat in a sink or a top hat or studying physics.

(No seriously. Click that last one.)

But for all the love we lavish on pictures of cats, we do very little to help cats themselves, and so millions are euthanized each year. If I had a dollar for every cat picture on the internet – and if I donated all of that that money to spay and release programs – it might lower populations enough that euthanasia wouldn’t be necessary.

picture of a lolcat in a cage with text

Original image by bfishadow, CC BY 2.0.

What is the technological solution to this?  An app that recognizes cat pictures and donates $0.25 every time you view one?  A non-profit cat-picture-hosting site where all proceeds go to spay and release programs?  A bot that replies to mentions of cats or links to cat pictures with euthanasia statistics?

This isn’t just a technical question: it’s a psychological and sociological one.  We are, as a species, pretty bad at translating our good intentions into effective actions.  We are, as a culture, pretty bad at working together to protect the collective good – even when the collective good is millions of adorable kitties.

The lesson I take from all this?  Technological solutions that ignore what psychology, history, sociology and cultural studies have to teach us are, to put it simply, neutered.

100 beautiful things

A while back, when I was still volunteering for Samaritans, I had a particularly rough evening. I don’t remember why: might have had a long conversation with a desperate caller, or a run of calls from harassers. (Yes, that’s a thing. A really unfortunate thing.) Or perhaps I was in a bad mood from something else entirely, some other aspect of my day. In any case, I decided to immerse myself in things that made me simply, inescapably happy. So I started this tumblr.

I’ve added to it on and off ever since, whenever I come across something that makes me deeply happy to be alive. Like frost flowers:

And cloud chambers:

And lava flows:

When I updated it the other night, I got an email from tumblr congratulating me on 100 posts. That’s 100 things that make me happy. Maybe they’ll make you happy too.

Slides from the Southern California Anything Linux Expo*

* A friend asked what SCaLE stood for, and I got everything but the ‘a’. He laughed and said, “It could mean literally anything!” For the record, it’s the a in California.

I was waiting to post my SCaLE slides until I had video, too, but I’ve no idea when that’s coming. So: here is my talk on doing open source outreach. I couldn’t find a side which lets you display your notes next to the relevant slides, without which I find most talks incoherent. Suggestions for a better storage site are very welcome.

I also, for SCaLE, made some postcards to advertise the event series I coordinate. I’m pretty pleased with how they came out given (a) my lack of design experience and (b) the circumstances under which I made them.

postcard to advertise OSCTC