2016 in Review

This has been a hell of a year.  On a personal level, a lot went right for me.  I went to Italy, London and Amsterdam for my honeymoon.  I started a new job teaching at Dev Bootcamp, which I love.  I started a partnership with my longtime friend Fred Metterhausen (over at Map Developers) which represents my first real foray into entrepreneurship.  On a larger scale, societally and culturally, things were a lot worse.  We lost a lot of cultural icons this year.  And of course, a fascist game show host rode a wave of bigotry into the White House.  So it hasn’t been all sunshine and stardust.

I don’t have a lot to talk about this year.  The systems I’ve put in place over the last couple of years have been working fairly well, though I’ve had a hard time getting my inboxes empty (going on a long honeymoon and coming back to a new job really threw my routines off).

This year, despite the double whammy of honeymoon-career change that my routine is still recovering from, I was able to get a couple of projects off the ground.  The first was a small Halloween site that came out of a jokey conversation with my coworkers at a team lunch.  It asks the hard holiday question “do you like candy corn?”  In some ways it’s an extension of my past experiments with static sites using CSS tricks.  The source is on GitHub, if you want to take a peek.

The second is a partially unfinished experiment with Twitter bots.  I was playing around with the API for the Digital Public Library of America’s image collection and some ideas around magic and technology.  It currently searches for an image using the query “magic” and posts a random one at midnight.  It’s @MagicPictureBot on Twitter and you can peep the source if you’re interested.

The last project I was able to work on was one that is truly meaningful to me.  Message from 2016 is the brainchild of my good friend Matt Baker and was a collaboration between Matt, my wife Deana and myself (as well as a handful of students). It was a response to Trump’s election. There was a palpable sense of anger and loss in our communities and we wanted to help people capture that energy in a productive way by giving them a chance to write a letter to their future selves.  Please, if you have a few quiet moments to reflect on how his election made you feel, it would mean a lot to me if you went there and wrote yourself a letter.

New repos: 2
Commits: 111 (includes commits in DBC’s private GitHub repos)
Repos contributed to: 1

Articles: 3 (down from 13 last year)
Total word count: 1188 words, 4.75 pages* (down significantly from last year’s ~5700 words, 22.776 pages)
Views: 279 (down from last year’s 769)
*250 words is roughly one page, hand written
**As of 12/30/16

I did quite a bit less writing here than I did last year.  A lot of my routines that helped make last year more productive last year were disrupted by leaving town and coming back to a new job.  I’ve recovered slowly, but am picking up steam.  I have several draft articles that I’ve been slowly working on and a couple more in the germination stage, so I’m hopeful and excited about what’s coming next year.


Books Read in October

These “books read” posts may be on the light side for a while. I’m in the middle of rereading the Wheel of Time series and I’ve decided to do a review of the entire series once I’ve finished rather than one for each book.

Shadoweyes: Volume One (12) – Written and illustrated by Sophie Campbell, this webcomic’s first print edition was published by Iron Circus Comics through KickStarter. I backed it. It’s the story of a young black woman living in what feels like a 90’s dystopian mega-city version of Detroit. She gains the ability to turn into a super strong blue skinned creature after getting knocked out on her first night as a vigilante. Soon she discovers that she can’t turn back. As she turns to fighting crime full time she discovers that what she is and what she does is polarizing, changing friendships and relationships along the way. I enjoyed the story, especially the super-cutesy faux My Little Pony loving friend Sparkle, though the pacing isn’t entirely smooth. It’s one of the few ways that you can feel the webcomic origins peaking through this (beautifully printed) volume. And it is a beautiful book — the paper is heavy and feels wonderful, the foil highlights on the cover look great and the whole thing feels really good in your hands — heavy and high quality. Volume one ends with a pretty serious cliffhanger and I’m eager to see what volume two holds.

The Sleep of Reason (31) – Another Iron Circus publication, this horror comic anthology was a perfect Halloween read. Over 25 creepy stories ranging from as few as 6 pages to the mid 20s. The art and stories cover a range of styles, from cutesy to realistic and campfire ghost stories to downright disturbing.

Books Read in September

The Letter Killers ClubSigizmund Krzhizhanovsky‘s 1920’s exploration of the paradox of ideas and stories living as “pure conceptions”, entities in their own right, and their perversion when they are put to pen. Like pinned butterflies, beautiful but static. Dead. The frame for this exploration is the eponymous Club, writers gathering in secret to share stories plucked from the empty bookshelves that surround them. The thread of narrative weaves around the stories told at the club, themes and characters bleeding from one to the next as the storytellers jockey for position. I highly recommend reading the introduction as it provided quite a bit of context I would have missed otherwise.

Baggywrinkles – I helped Kickstart this comic back in 2015. It’s a mixture of autobiography, nautical history and treatise on sailcraft. And it is extremely adorable. You’ll learn the difference between a stay and a line, how to set up a plank (don’t), and all about the history of scurvy.

Shadoweyes: Volume One
Another comic project I backed on Kickstarter, Shadoweyes was written and illustrated by Sophie Campbell  This is the webcomic’s first print edition and was published by Iron Circus Comics.  It’s the story of a young black woman living in what feels like a 90’s dystopian mega-city version of Detroit.  She gains the ability to turn into a super strong blue skinned creature after getting knocked out her first night out as a vigilante.  Soon she discovers that she can’t turn back.  As she turns to fighting crime full time she discovers that what she is and what she does is polarizing, changing friendships and relationships along the way.  I enjoyed the story, especially the super-cutesy faux My Little Pony loving friend Sparkle, though the pacing isn’t entirely smooth.  It’s one of the few ways that you can feel the webcomic origins peaking through this (beautifully printed) volume.  And it is a beautiful book — the paper feels great, the foil highlights on the cover make it stand out and the whole thing just feels really good in your hands — heavy and high quality.  Volume one ends with a pretty serious cliffhanger and I’m eager to see what’s waiting in volume two.

2015 in Review

2015!  What a year.  In May my long time girlfriend and roommate Deana and I got married. It was… It was amazing. So many of our friends and family were able to join us to celebrate and we were just blown away by the love. Thank you to everyone that helped make that day the kickass event that it was.  There were also some fairly low parts, some losses and scary trips to the hospital for close family members.  A mixed year, in many ways, but I wouldn’t give it up for anything.  I made moderate progress on almost all of my goals from last year and I’m feeling pretty upbeat about 2016 too.

Not a whole lot has changed here since last year.  I’m still using Beeminder, IFTTT, Zapier and Trello to automate goal tracking.  It’s working fairly well for me.  I’ve spent a bit of time looking into Huginn, which I think would be an excellent addition but I haven’t found the killer use yet that has made me feel I need to set it up immediately.  I’ve also had a server migration pending for a while now that has put any additions like that on hold.

I’m going to include my GitHub stats here for continuity’s sake, but the truth is that my focus this year has been on projects that don’t (or at least didn’t) yield blog posts or need repositories.  As I said in the opening, I got married in May. Understandably that distracted me a tad from other projects, including this blog and especially crypto pals (which never really recovered).

New repos: 1
Commits: 6
Repos contributed to: 1
Pull Requests accepted: 0

Articles: 13 (up from 8 last year)
Total word count: 5694 words, 22.776 pages* (up quite a bit from last year’s ~2300 words/~9 pages)
Views: 769 (up from last year’s 602)
*250 words is roughly one page, hand written

I accomplished both of the goals I set for myself in last year’s review.  Writing (somewhat) monthly book reviews helped me break the blog post per month barrier.  Not a big accomplishment but it makes it seem a bit more lively around here and is a milestone nonetheless.  They don’t seem super popular but I think they’ve been good for both my reading and writing habits so I’m planning to keep them around for 2016.  I also wanted to do more writing that stood on its own.  In November I wrote about my depression publicly for the first time in Algorithms Without Empathy, my first essay on this site. I was very nervous about it but I got really great feedback and started some really good conversations here, on Facebook and in person. I’m really happy I hit the publish button and I hope to produce more essays like that this year.

Other than the essay and the reviews, not a whole lot happened on this blog.  It’s been mostly personal project documentation and this year my main project was getting married.  As awesome as that was (and it was really awesome), I didn’t get a whole lot of blog material out of it.

Books read in November and December

Injection Volume 1 (11/8) – The first trade paperback for Warren Ellis’ new series. It’s grim and weird and I’m excited to see where he takes it. The art is really good for the most part, though there were a couple sections that were hard for me to follow what was happening.

Elektrograd (11/18) – The latest short in Warren Ellis’ Summon Books series is a retro future noir story based in an experimental city inspired by real life experimental architecture. It reads like a graphic novel (and the afterword confirms that it was originally written with that in mind).

@liketocontinue (12/7) – Matt Webb’s robot poem was great fun to read. It comes in 36 Tweets and the only way to get the next one is to hit the like button. It’s got word play, experimentation with form, cleverness. Robots and emotions. Robot mediated poetry at it’s finest.

Speak (12/8) – Absolutely wonderful.  Looping, self referential at multiple levels, poignant and, at times, heartbreaking.  The most human take on advanced AI I’ve come across.

Virtually Human (12/14) – This is a book of philosophy. If you approach it expecting something more technical, as I did, you will be disappointed. It took me a couple of chapters to realign my expectations but once I did I was well rewarded. The main thrust of the book is this: conscious artificial intelligences are coming and with them a host of philosophical, legal and moral quandaries. She focuses primarily on a type of artificial consciousness she thinks will be most prevalent, which she terms “mindclones.” A mindclone is a cyber consciousness made from the digital exhaust of a biological one. Creating a mindclone, in her view, will not create a new person, but merely extend the consciousness of the biological original to a new substrate. She argues that they will be the same person and legally and culturally recognized as such.

Unfortunately she seems to have trouble coming down on what mindclones and other AIs will be able to consent to. While much of the philosophical and moral arguments are inclusive of these new consciousnesses in humanity, the more technical sections seem to waffle between treating them as consenting adults and as efficiency improving tools whose owners can tweak them at will.  Nevertheless I found many of the philosophical arguments intriguing, and it’s a pleasant surprise that someone is thinking these things already.

Suicide by Jaguar (12/17) – David Landsberger‘s first book of poetry is short and sweet. The overwhelming majority of my family’s American contingent is based in Miami, giving me just enough familiarity with the city to recognize it in these poems. Unsurprisingly my favorites were those for and about Chicago including the sweet summer capsule of Chicago Haiku 1 and Chicago Elegy, a bittersweet homage to urban wildlife.  All the poems are translated into Spanish which is appropriate for both Chicago and Miami.  One day I hope to speak Spanish well enough to comment on the quality of the translations, but for now I’ll just say it makes me happy that they’re there.

Submergence (12/26) – The language in this sparse and introspective novel is often lyrical, though the narrative meanders and is ultimately unsatisfying.  I found myself really enjoying certain passages of this book but never really understanding where it was going.  I’m not sure if those are issues with the book or the reader, but I have a hard time recommending it.

Algorithms Without Empathy

I’m depressed.  I know this because there are days where it take all my energy just to get out of the house.  I know this by the way everything can feel so distant, like it’s happening to someone else.  And I know this because my phone is telling me so.  Not because I have a fancy mood tracking app. A couple weeks ago my phone autocompleted the entire phrase “I’m not doing so well,” which, for someone like me who struggles with talking about depression, translates to something between “I’m having a really bad day” and “I’m about to fall apart.” It was not a good feeling.

Part of having depression (for me, anyway) is having a little voice in the back of your head that hijacks your internal monologue in a way that distorts reality.  There’s a story that’s a bit of an Internet Classic which explains the inherent tradeoffs involved in living with physical disability by way of an analogy: you start the day with a certain number of spoons and everything you do (getting dressed, going to the doctor, work, having fun, etc.) has a “cost” in spoons.  In order to do everything you need to do (and maybe some things you just want to do) you have to plan your day around the number of spoons you have left.  I’ve found it to be an apt analogy for living with depression as well.  I strongly encourage you to read it, but if you haven’t, trust me when I say that dealing with depression is often a give and take between short and long term self care.  Case in point: I am absolutely convinced that talking about my depression is important for my long term mental health, but very often I make the decision not to talk about it.  Sometimes for better reasons than others, but almost always at least in part because I think it’s the best way to take care of myself — at least in the short term.  Watching my phone autocomplete that phrase was just the opening that voice needed to let me know how bad of a job I’m doing, not just at taking care of myself, but at pretty much everything else as well.  Being outed as a liar, no, a self-destructive liar, no, no, a lying failure by my phone is a peculiarity of two algorithms: the machine learning algorithms in the autocorrect software and the biochemical one running in my messed up head.

I’m sure the programmers and machine learning experts that made my autocorrect software never intended to ruin my day. Just as they never intended to enable the creation of those surreal artistic pieces that are autocorrect poems. As a species we’ve yet to find a tool we couldn’t abuse in some way its creators never expected.   (I guess that’s the flipside to the old saying “when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”)

I don’t know what those programmers could have done to prevent a situation like mine.  I don’t know if they even should have. I do know that it hurt to see those words repeated back to me. It kicked off another wave of depression that engulfed me for the rest of the day. It also made me realize how bad I am at talking about my depression, even to myself. I’m sure that’s not something they ever intended. I get notifications regularly congratulating me on saving another ten thousand keystrokes — not once have I gotten one for speaking honestly. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that good intentions aren’t enough.  Take, for instance, this story from the end of 2014.  The designers and engineers of Facebook’s new “year-in-review” feature blithely assumed that people only share happy things on Facebook, and that the only kind of year one can have is a good one.  Instead of respecting Eric Meyer’s choice not to make a year-in-review, Facebook pushed a picture of his dead daughter surrounded by partying cartoon figures exhorting him to share his wonderful year with others.  In an example slightly closer to home, my mother-in-law, who died in 2013, still appears in my wife’s feed no matter how what settings she selects on her mom’s account.  These algorithms aren’t just cute pieces of code that make our lives easier. They have real effects on real people’s lives.  They are pieces of ourselves distributed across platforms and devices and it’s time that we as engineers and designers take that responsibility seriously.

These algorithms are becoming increasingly complex and sophisticated in anticipating our desires — in emulating us. As we walk down this road with our algorithmic simulacra, it is urgently important that we consider empathy in their design. For better or worse we are slowly, painstakingly creating software in our own image.  In doing so, it would be a terrible shame to let a belief that these algorithms are somehow neutral to guide us towards removing our own humanity.

Thanks to Deana Rutherford and Peter Raleigh for reading drafts of this essay.

Books Read in September and October

The Peripheral (9/8) – William Gibson’s latest sci-fi novel was a total blast.  Like many Gibson novels it includes mind bending new ideas and well-crafted characters.  I had trouble putting it down.  The ending was a bit abrupt and neatly tied off in a way I didn’t really expect from him, but it’s definitely worth reading.

Dead Pig Collector (9/10) – This wonderful little short story is about love and hit men. Fun and quite weird.

Storm Warning, Storm Rising, Storm Breaking (10/17, 10/21, 10/29) – When I’m feeling stressed or depressed I lean on the collection of sci-fi and fantasy I’ve had since childhood. Some of these books I’ve read five or ten times (I didn’t get new books very often as a child so I did a lot of rereading). The books in this series are like that. Call it escapism if you want, I call it comfort food.  I read the last one on my Kindle since I managed to lose my paper copy somehow.  Reading it in a different format robbed it of some of it’s nostalgia value but it still felt good to revisit these old friends.

Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from Data (10/31) – It’s been a while since I took a statistics class and since it’s become an important part of my job it seemed a good idea to brush up on it.  Before diving into something rigorous and math-heavy I figured I would benefit from something aimed at a more general audience that might help improve my statistical numeracy before I get bogged down in something more textbook-like.  This book delivered.  The voice is friendly, if a bit too self-deprecating for my tastes, and the examples are easy to reason about.  A significant amount of time, and rightly so, is spent pointing out common flaws and abuses of statistics.  A good read for anyone who doesn’t use stats on a daily basis already.



July 2018
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