Moral Support & Technical Leadership

I was fortunate enough to grow up with four parents — while most divorce stories in the late-70’s/early-80’s were full of the (very real, very ugly) drama of how divorce could be, for me, I netted a couple of extra parents and double presents on holidays and my birthday. Sure, when I screwed up I had twice as many people on my case, and they got along (at least in my youth) so it meant grounding at house A was continued at house B, but for the most part this was a good deal for me.

My step-mom (heretofore to also be referred to as mom, because she is; this is not the same mom that recently passed) did a lot of the raising (period) but especially at my dad’s house. My dad, who is awesome, was a Corporate Dad and had to travel a lot and stay late at the office and is probably the reason why I don’t really let work go (and why it’s important to me that work be good enough to not let go of). He would joke sometimes about providing moral support and technical leadership when it came to parenting, but to be honest he did exactly that and it was, for me, exactly what I needed. Sure, it took until I was about 27 to “grow up” but hey, better late than never.

I myself became a parent at 29 (very much planned, very much awesome) and then became a single parent at 32 (very much not planned, very much not awesome — at the time). As such, there I was, at 32, with a Real Big Person Corporate Job of my Own and an *almost* three year old, a mortgage, and a dog.

The three year old, who is now nearly 18, was a handful. In his early teens he was loathe to hear about his exploits but now we can all look back on them and smile; let’s just say my kid was *that* kid and the principal at his elementary school and I were on a first-name basis. I became intimately aware of how school administration functioned and how things got documented. Someday I’ll write up all about that — when I’m not on the PTA or affiliated with the district anymore. This is all to say that I got a call from the school, on some thing or other, at least every other day until he was five, at least twice a week until he was seven, and about once a week to two weeks until he was 9. He was a fireball of energy and had a low BS tolerance (as remains so), is intelligent and a big fan of the minimum effort for maximum return (which, as we all know, can get radically problematic if the initial effort is misjudged). Imagine having this parenting challenge while trying to work.

I owe *a lot* to two managers I had during this period, both of them men, for the trust and flexibility they extended to me. The work got done, absolutely, but I had the benefit of managers who understood if I had to leave *right now* because I just got a call, or if I needed to work from home here or there (before it was common or, as now, required). I was able to keep my job, and my *career*, because these folks understood that I would get the work done somehow (even if it was in the middle of the night while the kiddo slept) but just not right here or right now.

The fact of the matter is that while the calls came and when I’d have to go and get the boy from school, for the most part he was *in* school and so, as a single mom, I had the benefit of that “childcare” (the primary function of school is not child care — but I had the benefit of knowing my kid was in a safe place while I worked, and that safe place happened to be school). That plus this flexibility on the part of my management meant I was able to continue my career and find myself (as I have been these last few years) in what I would call a really good place.

Slightly over two million women in the United States have had to leave the workforce since COVID slammed onto these shores. Just under one million of those left in *September alone*. It’s not that these women didn’t also have super cool understanding bosses, it’s that trying to work from home and moderate your kids’ online learning — something *I never had to do* — is pretty much impossible. You can’t pay attention in the team meeting or edit your queries or write your spec if you are also on deck to make sure the kid isn’t also playing CoolMathGames on his computer (true story, my kid did this *in school* when he was in elementary school — and if you’re a parent of a kid between 5 and 15, chances are yours did too) and that she’s listening to the teacher and that they are using all the tools correctly and hey how’s that bandwidth going for you? The reality that in a dual-income household it’s typically the mom who takes on the rearing duties — either because of economics (dad makes more) or social placement (that’s the way it is in some families), women are facing a choice and the choice isn’t pretty.

For those whose initial response is “who cares, people have to do what is important for them, this doesn’t impact me because I’m not a woman/not a mom”, we should all care. We should all care, because:

  1. We (in the US) are likely to see a $1 trillion loss in GDP by 2030 because of this brain drain — for those fretting on the money we’re “spending” on battling the economic effects of COVID, understand this is money we’re “losing”, despite existing expenditures.
  2. Workplace diversity will reduce, which in turn has negative effects on productivity, financial targets, and employee engagement.
  3. Female-dominated industries, such as education, healthcare, services, and hospitality, impact not just women — a reduction in healthcare professionals for example means your elderly grandpa’s assisted living facility may have trouble hanging on to CNA’s (or nurses or doctors).
  4. This disproportionately impacts black women and further hinders racial equality and justice which further impacts everyone.

Those are just the dollars-and-cents/what’s-in-it-for-me reasons, ignoring those that center around “let’s not be assholes” and “life has enough drama already, let’s not add on to that”.

There’s two things we need here, then: firstly (and most obviously) we need a coherent pandemic response strategy that is comprehensive (addressing both the fiscal impacts of the pandemic but also the structural impacts), *and* we need better support structures and systems for working parents. Paid parental leave (as most countries have — this is not just a socialist country thing), federal support for child care costs (for those who ask “who pays for it?” — the answer is we already are *losing* that money (and possibly more) by the workforce drain) are two good first starts. (Childcare.gov already exists to help in this area, it just needs to be better-funded and expanded).

With the elections “over” (I put that in scarequotes because elections are a constant thing — your state will have more elections next year on all kinds of local issues, so don’t fall into the trap of thinking elections on even years are the only ones that matter ) the temptation is to say “well the incoming administration will just take care of it”. I mean sure, yes, let’s be optimistic but let’s also put some realism in our optimism. Here’s how one can be informed and move things along:

  1. Check out how your state uses the CARES act funding for child care. (You can see how much they got and how it is distributed). (You can get a review of the CARES act funding, en-toto, here (handy pdf on the site)).
  2. Check out how your state is approaching child care funding and distribution outside of the CARES act (Washington state example here)
  3. Write to your STATE and FEDERAL legislators.
    1. ALL POLITICS ARE LOCAL. I cannot emphasize this enough. Your state legislature is more agile than the federal one.
    2. You can find your state government websites here, which you can then look up your state legislators on. For Washington State, it’s here: House Senate
    3. You can find your federal legislators here: House Senate
    4. You can find a great guide on how to write to these folks here.
    5. You can ask your federal legislators what they are doing in addition to funding efforts such as this.
    6. You can ask your federal and state legislators what you can do as a citizen to help (guess what? You can start a dialogue with these folks. After all, they work for you, not the other way around).
  4. See what your workplace is doing. I am super-fortunate to work for a big company that is doing many productive things in this area, but engagement and reinforcement socially in the workplace is important.
  5. In preparation for the next election, pay attention to the stances (and voting records) of the people you are voting for. Don’t vote straight ticket.
    1. You read that right. Voting for a person simply because they are the party you tend to affinitize to does YOU a disservice. When you do that, you are making the assumption because their well-shared opinion on Topic X matches yours, that their not-so-well-shared-opinion on Topic Y matches yours. It may not.
    2. You can check out your federal legislator’s voting history here: House Senate. You may find it illuminating.

You may not be a mom, or a woman, or a parent; but we are all capable of moral support and technical leadership.

Assisted Living, Part II

(This is a continuation of a previous post, Assisted Living Part I).

If your parent is going IN to assisted living right now/today/really really soon

  1. Take a copy of your parents living will and any instruction they gave you about how they want things to be. Take your power of attorney with you. You’re going to need it. let the facility scan it, or make a copy of it, but keep the original.
  2. You’re going to sit down with an intake nurse and probably another specialist – one for the business end, and one for the medical end. Watch what they write like a hawk. Remember that “no feeding tubes” story? Yeah that’s a thing.
  3. Be super-clear on expectations:
    1. If they’re doing your parents laundry, make sure everything is labeled, and inventoried.
    2. If you’re doing it, make sure it is clear where dirty laundry goes (it helps to provide the hamper if you can) and how often you’ll be coming to get it, as well as where the clean laundry goes.
    3. If your parent has instructions that they only want to eat dessert if that’s what they ask for, make sure the nurse (and the kitchen) is clear on that. (Mom pretty much ate just egg salad sandwiches and then just dessert and then opted out.)
    4. If your parent has instructions that if they don’t want to do PT they don’t have to, make sure that the nurse (and the PT) is clear on that.
    5. If your parent has instructions that hygiene is important to them, make sure that the nurse (and the bather) is clear on that.
  4. If your parent has any cajoling tricks you can use with them if they are reticent, like TV time, or getting to use their own conditioner, etc. etc. , let the right folks know! The “right folks” are the head nurse, the person who cleans the rooms, the person who delivers the food, the person who bathes your parent, etc. — in short, *everybody*.
  5. If folks with long hair have specific rules (e.g., please use lots of de-tangler/conditioner, please braid, do not use elastics) let those folks know and make sure it’s written down.
  6. Bring lots of familiar stuff:
    1. Their own toiletries (including any electric conveniences like shavers, toothbrushes, etc. that the home will let you).
    2. Their own blankets, clothing, linens, etc.
    3. Paintings, pictures, albums, alarm clocks (if they’re the punctual type), puzzles, craft/hobby things
    4. Knitting needles and sewing scissors may get taken away from folks if they’re in memory care.
    5. If they are technologically savvy, a e-reader or an tablet is a great thing, too. You can load it up with books, pics, etc., and you can facetime.
      1. Most places are really good about security, but I’d also get it labeled.
    6. Some places will let them bring their credit cards and ID, but maybe quietly cancel them – or replace with a dollar-affixed debit card or pre-paid card if those are actually usable in the facility (e.g., vending machines).
    7. My mom’s window had birdfeeders outside it, so whenever I visited I filled them with birdseed.
  7. Ask if you can bring outside food – bringing in a special treat on admitting day can help relieve all the newness.
  8. Re-define/nail down the visiting hours, when you get to meet with the doctor, and what the next few days look like. Use the whiteboard or posting board in the room to write down the date and time you plan to visit next if you know that.

When your parent is in assisted living

  1. When you visit, sneak in Starbucks gift cards for the folks who do the heavy lifting – bathers, laundry folks, food deliveries – they aren’t supposed to accept them but they will and your parent will benefit. YES, they’ll be awesome to your parent even if you don’t or they don’t accept them – but the gesture goes a long way. And you’re going to feel helpless so that can help you feel like you’re doing something. Alternatively, bring in a bakery tray or something for the nurse’s station. Or a box of candy.
  2. Bring food, if your parent is eating, that they like – treats, chocolates, snacks, soda.
  3. Bring things to read (if they are readers, magazines are good because new content) and share news (focus on the positive if you can). Unless they’re the type that loves good drama in which case, share the drama. 😃
  4. Eyeball their care—is their bathroom clean? If they are incontinent does it smell like they need to be changed or does their room smell fresh? Ask what they got to have for dinner last night/breakfast that day, and if they liked it.
  5. If your parent has doctors appointments outside of the care facility, the care facility usually sets up all of the transportation to/from the appointment, as well as the appointment itself – so if mom or dad has an optometrist, or an oncologist, or a cardiologist, etc., make sure they all know where mom or dad is going/has gone, and that they can coordinate with the care facility.


If your parent is having any major medical procedures as part of this process (surgeries)

  1. Many assisted living facilities do NOT have staff on hand to support things like wound care (which you need if you’re recovering from surgery). So your parent may have to go to a different facility to recuperate. That will be one of the more expensive ones, but good news! Medicare covers 20 days of the recuperation part (including room and board) for 100% (or near enough), and then the next 80 days at 80% (near enough).
  2. You should know that the medical community wants to make everyone better, either because they are that way by nature or because most medical care is for-profit by nature. But telling your parents’ doctor to knock it off, that mom or dad doesn’t need another surgery when they’re already going downhill, is hard. You need to evaluate if the thing the doctors want to do will prolong the life and what kind of life it will prolong. If your parent has written any decisions about THAT in their living will, take heed of that.
  3. My mom was on hospice – which is what happens when you have six months or left to live, and offers all kinds of palliative care benefits (that are covered by Medicare, by the way) – and her doctors were insisting that with just one more surgery they could Do a Thing. We had to tell them it didn’t make sense to put her through that risk, and that pain, for dubious benefit. We asked them to honor her hospice care and keep her as comfortable as possible. “Hospice” is not a specific facility, but rather a layer of care on wherever the patient is (even if the patient is at home).

Last but not least – this whole process will be frustrating, abstruse, process-laden, and generally a pain in the ass.  Find a friend who has bandwidth and use them to vent, do NOT vent at the healthcare professionals as it won’t help you (or them). 

Assisted Living, Part I

I’ve thought about writing this blog post off and on, for about the last six months; the only thing that prevented it is that it’s going to be long. There’s too much to encapsulate in a few paragraphs, so this is part 1 of 2. Know that while this entire thread is using “parent”, this could hold for a sibling, aunt, uncle, grandparent, etc. We’re all going to need some kind of help at some point.

If you want to skip to the part about “what you need to do now” without the backstory, skip down to “What you should do right now“.

I’m part of Generation X, and our parents are elder boomers (for the most part). Aside from the political and socioeconomic differences (particularly heightened recently what with the elections and COVID) between our generations, I also find a difference in willingness to ask for help, and to talk about health issues. My mother was the perfect case in point: she’d announce she visited the doctor and then just as quickly announce that it was no one’s business what the doctor said. (Or she’d lie and say “everything’s fine.”)

It comes to us (the kids) to try to have these conversations with our parents about preparations and planning and wants and preferences for when they (and we) need help; what that help looks like, who administers it, and what happens when it’s not enough. I would love to say that for all four of my immediate parents — and six parental units total — we had these conversations with grace and aplomb. Unfortunately, we lulled ourselves into a sense of security because “dad says it’s all taken care of” or “mom has a will and living will and healthcare power of attorney and gave us copies”. The basic checklists that I found online, after the passing of my father in law (vowing to have the conversation with all of my parents to make sure this sort of cockamamie bullshit didn’t happen again), didn’t cover what I should’ve been looking for. I found this out just about a year ago, the day after Thanksgiving 2019, with my mom.

My mother was a drinker from at least the time I was 7 — and drank more heavily as she aged. For me it was noticeable as “more than just mom’s generation of drinkers” when, after she retired and became incredibly sedentary, she’d start drinking at noon every day and her glass would drain and refill until 10pm (every day). I later discovered she would drink up to the equivalent of 3 bottles of wine a day. A lot of erratic behavior (including falls, repeating herself, etc.) would get swept away under “mom had too much again”, and despite multiple attempts to reason with her she would not stop. There were other signs I did not get to see and that were not shared (to spare me), things like hallucinations and incontinence, and on Pearl Harbor Day 2019 Mom was admitted to the hospital with hallucinations and, it turned out, a need for near-immediate surgery due to complications from her drinking. She was discharged to a recovery facility shortly after Christmas, diagnosed as not-really-recoverable shortly after New Years’, and lived four more months in the facility as vascular dementia, successive mini-strokes, and a general disinclination to cooperate with anything or anyone accelerated. COVID struck during this period and we weren’t allowed to visit for about six weeks, by the time they granted us a special exception we knew why.

This process was a lot more painful than it had to be, because there were things I didn’t know and questions I didn’t know to ask; and so as with most things legal and health care in this country there were added hoops to jump through when I was already dealing with complicated things. Which is what brings me to write this all down, so hopefully if and when someone else needs it, they don’t have this added layer of administratea (or are better equipped than I was).

What you should do RIGHT NOW (regardless of stage)

  1. Get a healthcare power of attorney.  Most attorneys have this as boilerplate with a bunch of questions you answer to get it done, but the thing is you have to have this.  No one will talk to you about your parent, or not really, without it.  And no doctor or nurse will listen to you unless you do. (If your parent wants the other parent to have this, fine. Make sure they do. And then make sure there’s one for that parent. And make sure there’s a backup).
    1. True story – mom had specifically written DO NOT USE FEEDING TUBES in her living will. The nurse checked the box for using feeding tubes if needed (right in front of me, her having read that NO FEEDING TUBES directive in moms living will, and having had me point it out) in front of me anyway.  I made her re-do it. Her explanation was that she “always checks that box”. If I hadn’t had power of attorney, I could not have spoken for my mother in that situation.
  2. If your parent still has their marbles:
    1. Have them write a living will about what happens while they’re still ALIVE but otherwise incapacitated (mentally and/or physically)
      1. Do they want to be resuscitated?
      2. Do they want to use feeding tubes if they can’t (or won’t, because they’re “not hungry” for days on end) eat? (This is common!)
      3. Do they want to just eat junk food if that’s what they’re asking for?
      4. Is hygiene important to them? Do they want their hair washed regularly and their nails kept trim, even if, in their crazy-state, they say they don’t want it?
    2. Have them write a will about what happens when they’re not still alive:
      1. Do they want a funeral? An obit? Cremation? Spread ashes somewhere?
        1. Believe it or not, a lot of people specify cremation but not “what next”. 
      2. Walk through all the steps.
        1. It helps to use a story (real or fake) about someone else’s experience about a parent who didn’t have one or more of these things and then how the family didn’t know what to do and gosh isn’t *that* awful?
        2. Feel free to use mine. My mom *had* a will and a living will; but she didn’t say what to do with her ashes when she went, she didn’t say what to do if she refused to have her nails trimmed or bathing, she didn’t say if she refused anything but dessert that that should be okay, she didn’t say what to do if she refused physical therapy. We spent months “guessing” what mom wanted because we couldn’t decipher between genuine obstinance, dementia, and what was best.

If your parent clearly needs help and you’re running out of the ability to provide it for them

  1. First, *objectively* assess your parent:
    1. When faced with authority – specifically, medical authority like doctors, nurses, pharmacists, therapists – are they compliant? Friendly? Acquiescent? Combative? Do they shine it on and do whatever they want anyway?
      1. This is important to address realistically, because any prospective healthcare environment (read: assisted living, etc.) will evaluate your parent – usually a nurse practitioner or therapist (or sometimes both) will both interview your parent *and talk to existing caregivers*.  And they take notes.
      2. If you have the combative/argumentative type, do they have an easy “key” – e.g., they can be bribed with food, or TV, or such?
    2. Do they have substance abuse issues? You must be clear about those, because it can impact medications and can complicate transitions.  A beer or glass of wine here or there is not really a problem.  A bottle of wine every day is a problem.  Most care centers do not allow alcohol at all.
    3. Do they get along with others?
      1. This will help you determine if, going to a facility, they need one that has lots of “community” events, or ones with lots of alone time or “anti social social events” (e.g., TV room).
      2. It will also impact how likely they are to receive the idea of having a roommate.
  2. What kind of care do you think they need?
    1. If they need someone to check on them once or twice a day, to make sure they took their meds, ate, bathed, etc., then you can probably use home health care – someone who visits (usually a team).  Sometimes they do Physical Therapy as well.  This may be more cost effective than a home, and can help out folks who are already living with mom or dad but just can’t do it all themselves.
    2. If they need more regular care – they have incontinence they can’t self-manage, they are a fall risk, they are in later stages of dementia, or a couple of visits a day just won’t cut it – consider Assisted Living. There’s a lot of varieties of these:
      1. Ones where the parent gets what looks like an “apartment” of their own, with some furnishings but can bring some from home, and they get “visitors” to check up on them. (Some of these facilities have in-house doctors, others have docs that visit but in-house nursing). They get to go to a cafeteria for food (restaurant style), there’s group TV and crafts and  posted schedule of things, there’s field trips, etc.
      2. Ones where the parent gets their own *room*, but it’s more in a corridor situation, with a private bath.  In this case they get a specialized bed (usually), nurses visit daily and take vital signs, they are on a special diet, etc. etc.
      3. Ones where they share a room (usually a function of cost of #2 above)
      4. Ones where they are in effect in “lockdown”, aka memory care; they have their own room but they have a monitoring wristband or such that means they can only move in certain areas of the facility, and people check up on them more often.  This is for the later stages of dementia.
        1. You might start with home health and branch slowly into assisted living, depending on what’s better for mom or dad, or what’s more cost effective.
      5. A doctor may recommend one or the other based on medical condition (do they need physical therapy? Are they hooked up to an IV? Do they have post-op healthcare they need to heal up from?) and the ability of the person living with mom/dad to physically lift them in an emergency (for example, my stepdad could not lift my mom, so she could not come home, because if she fell – and she had a history of doing that – there was no way to get her up).
  3. How much do you/they have to spend?
    1. Medicare does NOT COVER ASSISTED LIVING (or home health care)
      1. Medicare will cover specific physical therapy and post-operative recuperation stays at a rehabilitation clinic, for a max of N days (I think it’s 100), and only the first 20 are covered 100%
      2. And, if Medicare declines things that should be covered, you get to fight them (a lot) by using an appeals system (like described here).
      3. Most insurances do not cover assisted living (or home health care)
    2. Medicaid covers assisted living, but you usually have to blow through half (or more) of your cash assets FIRST.  Some elderly couples have divorces of convenience so the wife can keep the house so the husband can go to the assisted living place.  Medicaid’s coverage varies by state.
    3. Assisted living costs vary wildly, depending on what the facility offers and (frankly) how well-trained their staff are.  We wanted to get my mom into a really nice place, but they didn’t have wound care (she was post op and because of her vascular disease wouldn’t ever really heal). The really nice place was about $5500/month.  Where she ended up staying was about $11k/month, because they had wound care (e.g., the right kind of nurses available). 
    4. Home health care visits vary wildly as well, but it’s basically an hourly rate for two people and can range from $60-100 per visit, depending on what they do per visit.  That sounds like a lot, but as compared to $300/day, it may not be.

Next post: when it happens NOW.

When in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.

I have voted in every election (and I mean every election, even the weird February local initiative ones where you’re wondering why they saw fit to bring this up *now*), since 2000. I read the book that comes out, I do fact checks, and I vote.

There are some things I wish I could wave a magic wand and just have go away:

  1. Opinion Journalism. How you say what you say matters, and you can take a statement of fact and either amplify the parts of the statement that suit your need to sway an audience and/or de-amplify the ones that don’t suit you. We have forums for editorial journalism — they’re in the Editorials section, cleverly enough — and they should stay there. Since the dawn of “alternative facts” this has become more and more sketchy, and it feeds the hysteria.
  2. Speaking of hysteria – can we have a round of applause for the Hysteria Machine? No? Good. Because the Hysteria Machine is exhausting. Yes, I know s/he said the thing. It’s on tape, I saw it. I do not need you to reinforce to me how awful the thing is. All I need is the fact that s/he said the thing (or did the thing). Let me have my own disgust, or anger, or sadness, without imparting a healthy layer of *yours* on top of it. (By the by, I’m referring to articles, blog posts, radio, podcasts, etc. If you are my friend and we talk socially and you want to commiserate over the whatever — or even *healthily debate with facts and reasoning over differences of opinion* — then that’s cool.) I just don’t want a national news syndicate telling me where my outrage should come from. It’s insulting (it implies I don’t understand things and so wants to dumb it down to an emotional reaction) and it’s exhausting.
  3. Armchair data science. I love data. I love data science. I love everything about data including tracking it from where and how and under what rigors it is collected to the pipelines in which it runs to the output in which it is consumed. I love data even — and perhaps especially — when it disproves an assumption or bias I have, because learning is hard and sometimes un-fun and that means you are exercising your brain. Go brains! Armchair data science is none of these. Armchair data science is like this:

Let’s play a game.  What’s wrong with this poll?

Firstly, it sits in a very popular media entry site, sandwiched between international news and Latest Video (of… stuff, I guess), below an article about free pastries at McDonalds and above local news (predominantly about COVID). The context is negligible or confusing at best. In what context am I being asked how I feel about polls? Apparently one in which I am also interested in a McDonalds Apple Pie while self-isolating and reading about how things are going far away from me.

Secondly, look at the nature of the question: “Do you like taking polls?”  The question can be answered 3 different ways:

  1. Yes, I like taking polls.
  2. No, I do not like taking polls.
  3. No, I do not like taking polls, but I do anyway, because I can’t help myself.

The first one is easy – yep, like taking polls, so I’m going to check that box.

The second one has got to be facetious – if I do not like taking polls, I’m not going to take your poll. The results you get with this poll will not reflect the actual population that likes or does not like taking polls, and will skew heavily towards those that like taking polls.  You’re not going to get the volume of “No’s” that reflect reality, because your poll does not have ESP and can’t read my mind as I register what it is asking me, reflect that I don’t like polls, and therefore do not engage. (The fact that I’m engaging this much on my blog and yet still won’t click your damn button illustrates this).

The third one is even better — I do not like taking polls, but I am unable to stop myself from grasping my mouse and clicking that button (or taking my finger and poking at it). What is being measured here is the impetus of the user to click a button because they like the little dopamine rush they get when they click a button; and likely has nothing to do with polls per-se.  

The results of this poll will be useless — they will be heavily skewed towards the first and third answers, and, if the respondents who would represent the second one actually behave in the manner the poll suggests they behave, they would not be represented at all. What’s wrong with a useless poll?

This useless poll will probably drive someone’s decision, somewhere.  It will either drive a marketing choice (have more polls! people love taking them!), an editorial choice (we should make polls on the front page every day!), or a behavioral choice (people love clicking things, let’s add more clickable content!).  Which then will drive other behaviors and choices, and what you end up with are ad-filled, click-bait-filled pages of no material use for those of us who just wanted the facts.

This is just an innocuous, stupid little poll about polling.  What happens when it looks like it’s a legit poll about how people feel about COVID? Or the economy? Or healthcare? Or personal freedoms?  The output of that drives more of the hysteria machine, of course, because now we know how to cater to our clickers– they care about the economy so let’s tell them what is happening with it, but not objectively — let’s not share specific data points with a holistic view; let’s instead concentrate on the Stock Market. Or on the jobs data — but not all the jobs data, just the ones we think will drive the most clicks. 

Ironically this means that those of us who would like all the data, so we can make informed choices, absent of editorial sway and anxiety exacerbation, have to click *more* … to dig it all out.

 

That’s How it’s Done

I use Flipgrid to consolidate inbound tech and economics news; along with a few podcasts and my weekly Economist that represents the bulk of my news media intake.  This time of year it’s a particular minefield, of course, with politics. But for the most part it’s my regular vegetables of tech and economics that get me what I want to know.

I was reading an article about how Amazon is launching an Alexa service for property management — e.g., the property manager pays for/owns the Alexa that lives in the residence with the renters, using it as a de-facto localized presence to control smart home things and, essentially, as an “added service/feature” of renting the place. (So much as you’d look to see if there was that extra half-bathroom or if there was a walk-in closet, you’d see if they included Alexa, too).

For the record, I read articles, because a pet peeve is when you get the poster who forwards an article that they clearly haven’t read (e.g., using the article to make a point that the article actually counterpoints). This is a case of me reading two separate articles, coming to a conclusion, and that conclusion was wrong.  It’s a better case of a colleague gently educating me.

Firstly, to the other article.  Granted, this NYT article is about a year old but we all remember the news that made the rounds about how Alexa is always listening. It’s true, she is: she *has* to.  Obviously she can’t start your timer or add your biodegradable pet waste bags to your Amazon cart if she can’t hear you.  In the NYT article, it’s about what she has done, and where that data goes, once she hears you. There is a sentence from that article, however, that did not stick in my brain from last year, so when I read the TechCrunch article, I made a comment on Twitter/Linked In.

My comment, quoted, is here:

“Two things: 1. interesting way to make IoT accessible to a broader base and 2. I would not at all be reassured the data is truly deleted (and isn’t, say, shipped off in snippets for “logs”/“troubleshooting”, for example). Also, the hand waving over who’s data it is needs to stop. Alexa has to listen to everything in the first place to trigger on her name.”

For the record, I still think #1 is true, and most of #2 is still an open question for me. I’m not at all clear on what happens to the data (yes, deleted at the end of the day, but… is it? What part of it is deleted? Is it every command, every call; or for example is there a record still in the smart thermostat (or a downstream reporting service) of all the changes I made, for example? And so forth.) Or who owns it (e.g., if something happens in the home, and the home belongs to the property manager, and the Alexa belongs to the property manager, but I’m the one renting the home, is that day’s data mine or the property managers?)  However, this post is to talk about someone who reached out to address the last point:  “Alexa has to listen to everything in the first place to trigger on her name.”

Now, it’s true that she does have to listen. However, a generous colleague reached out — privately, via LinkedIn messenger — to reassure me that Alexa does listen in for her name, but that listening happens only on the device… she doesn’t “trigger” until she hears her name, so no data leaves her until she does.  Or put the way they put it (bold is mine):

“Wake word detection is done on device in a closed loop, that is no audio sent to Alexa (aka. the cloud). Only when the on-device model detects the wake word with a high confidence, the audio of the wake-word it sent to the cloud for additional verification (besides false-positives this handles for example “Alexa” being said in ads).  No audio is ever sent to Alexa without a visual cue (the blue light).”

(Incidentally, the NYT article has this in a sentence that didn’t stick in my brain at all (bold is mine):

“…it’s true that the device can hear everything you say within range of its far-field microphones, it is listening for its wake word before it actually starts recording anything (“Alexa” is the default, but you can change it to “Echo,” “Amazon,” or “computer”). Once it hears that, everything in the following few seconds is perceived to be a command or a request, and it’s sent up to Amazon’s cloud computers…”)

I wanted to share my colleague’s message because *this is exactly how it is done, folks*.  While I would’ve been just fine with them pointing this out as a comment to my LinkedIn post, they’re being polite and careful, because not everyone would be and frankly, they and I had one lunch at one time and that’s about all we know of each other.

My larger point — because I know that not everyone is in to public correction and many could find it disconcerting — is that we need to be better at private correction, at accepting new data, and at assimilating it or at least making the sincere attempt.  You will read articles and they will be carefully constructed on the part of the author — either attempting to be scrupulously fair or attempting to sway you one way or another — but what you don’t get to see is what was omitted, either via editorial jurisprudence or a required word count or assumed common knowledge.  What you don’t get to realize is what your brain has omitted, either via convenience, or simply the wear of time.

So thank you. I happily sit corrected :).

Stolen Identity and Next Steps

Well, it’s finally happened. Some enterprising twat has used my identity to do something naughty and it’s causing no small amount of consternation.

Like many in Washington, my information was used to file a false unemployment claim.  Some pseudo-human got hold of my social security number and my email, went to the ESD, and said they were me and that I was unemployed and “I can haz money now?”  I heard about this from my employer, who wanted to know if I really had filed for unemployment, while still employed.

  • Of course I couldn’t concentrate on anything after reading that email.
  • Of course I went and put a credit freeze with all three bureaus.
  • Of course I changed all my passwords.
  • Of course I filed this as a fraudulent claim with the ESD.

There’s a couple more things I didn’t realize I should do (that I have since done):

  • I have filed a police report (this can be done online!).
  • I’ve documented it with the FTC.

Going through all of this is a hassle of course, and on top of other things right now it’s quite unwelcome. Here’s the thing: I have resources, and time, and a really great employer who identified it and let me know it was happening, along with specific guidance on what to do next.  Given the size of this fraud (there’s thousands of fraudulent claims for state of WA right now) there are literally thousands of people dealing with this, and not all have time to deal with it or guidance to deal with it. So, if you or someone you know has discovered some sort of identity fraud, here’s some links and things to do:

  1. Put a credit freeze (free to do, and can be done online) on your credit with Equifax(yes, that Equifax), Experian, and TransUnion.
  2. File a fraudulent claim with the entity that was defrauded (in my case, it was the Washington state employment office– and it was filed online)
  3. File a police report (also online, non-emergency).
  4. Document it (online!) with the FTC.
  5. Call (or email, or go online) your banks and let them know, so they can guard on their end.
  6. Change all your passwords and/or your password algorithm.

Will this make you bulletproof to future fraud? No — shit can still happen. (Murphy’s Law is a law for a reason). No sense in making it easier for the assholes that do this.

Virtual

I am looking at a medal for the Tenacious Ten event for 2020, sitting in a plastic wrapper on my desk.  I did not participate in this event.

I was going to, and then the current pandemic shut it down.  It also shut down the Mercer Island Half (at which I was going to run just a 10k), and the Vancouver BC Half Marathon (the date for which was this weekend).

It’s interesting how the different events chose to address the situation.  They all pivoted/cancelled around the same time; the Tenacious Ten (at which I was going to run 10 miles, on April 11th) has sent me a medal and a shirt, and basically said “go run this virtually and send us pics!”  The Vancouver Half not only pivoted to virtual but offered to just send you your shirt if you couldn’t run and/or left it to you if you wanted your medal.  I’m still waiting to hear from Mercer Island — the one that would have been first, incidentally, back in March — as to what they are doing.

For someone who is very, very good at getting things done, I am not good at getting things done virtually.  I sign up for races as a forcing function, much as I work with a personal trainer as a forcing function.  Since my gym closed I have done one (1) round of push ups and that’s about it.  The thing that keeps me running and doing any kind of aerobic exercise, apart from the fear of gaining back the thirty-plus pounds I have lost, is my health tracker telling me that I have to do N minutes or Y activities. But it only cares if I do so much, and none of that adds up to a 10k (or 10mi or 1/2 marathon), and my longest running distance since the Great Stay Home Project has been about five miles.

Accountability for me is a mixed bag.  I put all sorts of accountability on myself for work — working from home has actually made me *more* productive, and current circumstances personally — I lost my mother to complications from vascular dementia about ten days ago — mean I am pouring myself into productivity; the house is very clean, the garden is very tidy, the backlog is very organized.  I risk irritating my coworkers with this enhanced level of checking boxes but I have asked them to be frank and let me know.  They are either cutting me slack (entirely possible) or, awash in their own productivity gains (and losses) they’re too busy to care.

I can’t seem to drive that same accountability into physical exercise; I leverage external drivers like fitness apps and “points” — I’m a sucker for points-for-points-sake — and events.  But “virtual events” do nothing for me — I need to know that some brisk, cold and possibly rainy morning I will find myself out somewhere in a series of shut-off streets, watching people stretch in ridiculous ways while a loudspeaker blares incongruently happy music while I ask myself why I do these things, and a chipper emcee counts down the corrals until it’s my turn to run through the start line and pound away at the pavement, occasionally taking time to walk it out or grab watered-down Gatorade in a small  flimsy paper cup.

Yet since receiving this medal (yesterday) that I did not earn, it bothers me.  It’s a reminder that there is a thing I signed up for and have not done, have not completed.  And maybe this irritation will drive the accountability I need to get going again. Not right now, though. It’s raining too hard.

Back to Facebook

Well, I made it 2 years. Almost to the day.

I left Facebook in March of 2018, upset that they were collecting and selling/abusing my data and in general disgusted with the midterm election specious articles and micro-targeting. I was mostly happy with my choice at the time; I didn’t need Facebook and could make plans with friends to see them in person.

Now, with social distancing, “Stay Home/Stay Safe” or whatever form of “don’t go out into public and everything except the bare necessities are locked down” you want to call it, I am giving in.  I miss my friends, and we can’t get together for dinners or coffees or walks or runs; I can’t see my friends at the gym and I can’t see my breakfast club.

Not to say there weren’t problems with having left Facebook before this. I’m on the PTA (yes, still/again), and a lot of information is disseminated on Facebook that is referenced from our primary email communications.  It’s much harder for me to keep track of friends in London and Sydney and Georgia and such. If I want to find out more about special upcoming things (Peloton classes, gardening groups, etc.) I have to go pull method (go to the site and/or dig for it) vs. push method (just have it show up in a centralized location). I guess I have to trade my data to Facebook to get that convenience.

And with that data, Facebook will do two things: they will market things to me that I may or may not want (fine – I have FB Purity and Ghostery Chrome extensions), and they will show my friends different targeted ads than the one(s) they target to me.  As such, I may end up seeing that junk, because I don’t know the limits of FB Purity, and so I need to set some very specific settings and configurations and rules on Facebook as I go back.

Speaking of rules, here’s the thing: I’ll only be adding people I hang out with outside of work.  If we hang at work, but nowhere/when else, then LinkedIn is how we should interact; it’s professionally-based and I’m happy to write an endorsement on how we work together or promote your hiring-or-seeking posts and if you have board positions open we can talk (or if you want a recommendation of a board to join, etc.).   But if we don’t hang out outside of work then you probably don’t want to see my latest kvetch on the deer eating my tulips, or the inadequacy of social provisioning in our economy, or how my experiment with paperless paper towels is going.  You’ll roll your eyes at my latest pair of knit baby booties and question my sanity after finishing a thousand-piece antique map of the world puzzle because I was having an anxiety fit.

It’s going to be an experiment, I’m going to learn as I go (again), and yes in the meantime Facebook has probably kept a large and extensive ghost profile on me based off of the cookies it has dropped here and there (although I try to maintain cookie hygiene).  It’s just that I, a very very very introverted person, and missing my friends.

A person should know their limitations.

Eat Your Vegetables

Let’s take a moment and talk about Podcasts, shall we?

(Author’s note: I had to do a check to make sure I hadn’t posted about this before, because I had thought about posting this a bazillion times. Clearly never did.)

I rely on podcasts for the bulk of my audio entertainment. I probably spend 2-3 hours a day listening to them: the morning run/workout, the commute to work, the commute from work; then there’s weekends driving 75 miles each way to/from my son’s father’s house.

I have three tranches of Podcasts:

  • Podcast Vegetables
  • Podcast Main Course
  • Podcast Dessert

The largest group, of course, being Podcast Vegetables.

Podcast Vegetables

Understand that I like Vegetables.  As a kid, not so much, but as an adult, I recognize them as a tasty low-calorie low-fat low-carb way to fill my stomach.  My absolute favorite are roasted broccoli, followed by roasted carrots and then pretty much roasted every other vegetable you can name.  Don’t give me your sauteed stuff.  Gimme your charred-end-bits, slightly-salted, roasted-in-the-oven veggies. They’re good for you, they take up (relatively) little attention, and did I mention they’re good for you?

In the podcast world, I give you:

  • Up First With NPR News: 10-12 minutes of encapsulated news, alive and in your feed by 5am (yes I checked), personable.  Few interviews so Steve Inskeep doesn’t interrupt so many people.
  • Marketplace Tech with Molly Wood: 5-7 minutes, up to 10 if you include the “Related Links” section (my fave), of tech-related news.
  • Marketplace Morning Report: You get three (3)! of these, one or two from London (BBC partnership) and one from New York (usually with David Brancaccio), each is 7-15 minutes long and spans from the morning markets to the news of the day.
  • Marketplace with Kai Rysdaal: 20-30 minutes each afternoon, a good mix of what happened and what to think about. Also: listen for the market song (“We’re in the Money” for a good day, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (if it Ain’t Got That Swing)” for a mixed day, and “Stormy Weather” for when it’s down.  One thing I really appreciate is Kai interviews folks on the ground who really have to deal with the brunt of economic choices. And he’s unfailingly polite.
  • The Indicator by Planet Money: a daily 5-7 minute podcast revolving around some statistic, indicator, or other numeric thing in marketplaces and/or economics and an exploration therein.
  • Planet Money: a weekly (ish?) 15-30 minute podcast that started right around the 2007 crash; super useful to understand why some things work the way they do (or don’t) in economics, trade, and monetary policy.

Main Course Podcasts

But Bobbie! I hear you saying.  Bobbie, I need some real deep-dish, filling, main course!

I give you:

  • Hidden Brain with Shankar Vidantham: 30-45 minutes, roughly weekly, of why we act the way we do, with studies and experts.
  • The 538 Politics Podcast: 30-70 minutes of what the F happened in politics from a data scientist’s view (and or political analyst’s view).  Incredibly un-partisan, hyper-logical, almost infuriatingly so.  Claire Malone is my fave.
  • Freakonomics by Stephen Dubner and Steven Leavitt: although it’s more Dubner these days. The authors of the book series (Freakonomics, SuperFreakonomics, etc.) have a podcast about… economics.
  • Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell: Not just accepting what your history teacher taught you, Malcolm Gladwell looks at what we thought happened and what probably happened.  Example: the great Toyota acceleration problem, or why LA has a lot of golf courses and very few parks.
  • Make Me Smart with Kai and Molly: The Host of Marketplace and the Hostess of Marketplace Tech spend about 10-20 minutes with an expert in the field on a current event (or movement) and then discuss.
  • This American Life with Ira Glass: 60 ish minutes weekly (drops Saturdays or Sundays). Usually features stories with a common theme, broken up as “acts” (e.g. Act 1, Act 2, etc.)

Something Sweet?

Of course, there are the ones I save for the long slog to go and get my kid (and return).  Often an aggregate four hours in the car, I reserve these for my Sunday dessert.

  • Factually with Adam Conover (NEW): 60 minutes of Adam Ruins everything crossed with interviewing  an expert on the thing he’s ruining.
  • Radiolab with Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwitch: Science for ears.
  • Every Little Thing from Gimlet Media: How did Cheerleading start? Why are flamingos badass? Why do we reserve blue for boys and pink for girls?
  • Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me: 45 ish minutes weekly, dropping Saturdays, of a news quiz with 3 guests (usually comedians).
  • No Such Thing as a Fish (the QI Podcast): 45-50 minutes on Fridays of four brits talking about facts unearthed for the QI show and riffing off of each other’s discoveries.
  • Science VS. from Gimlet Media: Common debates of the day (is alcohol good for you? what about colonics? what about juice cleanses or intermittent fasting or keto diets?) on a roughly weekly basis for about 40 minutes. Hosted by Wendy Zuckerman.
  • The Nocturnists: I have to admit I only listen to the first part, which is about ten minutes, where the doctor in question is relating a pivotal story from their practice.  After that the host interviews the doctor but I find that less interesting.
  • Reply All from Gimlet Media: a 45 minute fortnightly delve into the latest internet meme, concern, or drama.
  • Invisibilia: All the things that surround you that are intangible but you have to deal with.  Like differing opinions, psychosomatic pain, and how we perceive things. But it’s fun.
  • More Perfect: Jad Abumrad investigates different stories of the Supreme Court.  It’s a lot better than that sounds.

Some Ephemeral Notables:

 

Accounting on a Monday in May

Imagine a filled bubblegum dispenser, a big glass globe replete with colorful gumballs crowding the edges and filling to the top.  Imagine each of these represent at thing to do. Imagine that you are holding the great glass globe in your outstretched hands.

Now imagine the glass disappears and gravity does its thing. That’s a bit how I feel right now; I’ve decided May is the month of mania. Work is hectic, school is hectic, life is hectic. Enter a 3-day weekend, to give some respite.

As very little gets done on the home front during the week, all of the home front to-do’s get crammed into the weekend.  Usually there’s some spillover into Monday, kicking off an already frenetic week with additional to-do’s.  So it’s nice to have the catch up Monday.

At a cost.

Memorial Day is the day we reserve for those who went into uniform and never got out of it; the men and women who went to war and never came home (or at least not alive). (Veteran’s Day is for those who are remembered at Memorial Day *and* those who got to come home, in whole or in part).

Did you know that at 3pm local time you’re supposed to take a moment and remember those who died?  I knew the whole day was reserved, and that there are parades and postings. I knew about visiting graveyards (which is something I like to do anyway) and the pinning of poppies; I didn’t know there was a special time.

I do know a lot of people died*:

  • 620,000 soldiers died in the US Civil War (Memorial Day was started shortly after as Decoration Day)
  • 10.8 million soldiers in World War I (add in another 8 million or so civilians)
  • 21 to 25 million soldiers in World War II (estimates vary) (with up to 28 million civilians)
  • 600 thousand in Korea (another 600 thousand civilians)
  • 1.8 million in Vietnam (note: not including civilian deaths, which pushes it up to 2.5 million)

In more recent wars (the Gulf War, the Afghanistan War (still going!), the Iraq War (still going!), the tallies seem to muddle.  Accounts and numbers vary depending on the resource.  It’s notable that the more “sophisticated” we are and the more precise we’ve become, the less specific and discrete we get in how we count the dead.

As we see the increased attention to Iran and the “will we/won’t we” hype machine spin up, and as we review the meaning of this day, it would be as well to get clear about our accounting, and the very real ways we all pay.

Speaking of currency, if you’re interested in donating to a worthwhile charity, the Veterans of Foreign Wars Foundation is highly ranked on Charity Navigator and supports veterans and their families in active duty and beyond.

 

 

*Yep, I know this is US-Centric.  Mainly it covers what our kids are taught in our schools, such as that is.  I graduated in 1991 and my World and US history books only had a paragraph about the Vietnam War, which had ended when I was born in ’73.