Algorithm

“It’s all just/an the algorithm.” We hear it a lot: bandied about in media coverage of, well, the media; used as an explainer for why Facebook knows you like teacups with dragons on them and why Amazon suggests you purchase tissues and why you see those ads in your Gmail about bulbs or deer or survivalist stuff. (All true, btw). I think there’s a decent size of the population that has a context-specific definition for algorithm (e.g., I know that this means a black box in which things are magically done and then Instagram *just knows* that I like fitness videos) but not an *actual* one, which means when I hear that “the algorithm knows” I have no problem with GMO’s but do prefer organics and less-processed foodstuffs, I think that it “just knows” without really understanding what that means.

So here’s a primer of algorithms, because this is what goes through my overcaffeinated brain of a Sunday morning. If you’d like to understand more about them, or if you’d like to explain them to someone you think should understand them more, this one’s for you.

Super-Basic Basics

The first thing to know about algorithms is they are not smart. They have no intelligence whatsoever. They’re basically an equation, a formula, a set of rules by which one or more pieces of data (“Bobbie likes pie”, “Bobbie tracks her food on MyFitnessPal”) gets “looked at” and then somewhere checked against a list of criteria (“People who like pie like junk food”, “Women who track their food are on a diet”) and then a “logical” conclusion is spat out. You actually can use algorithms in your day to day; you probably already are. Just like the algorithms in your brains, algorithms in computers are built by humans.

Example

For example: up until 2020, I drove about 20,000 miles per year. For those non-drivers in the world or those who are based metric, that’s more than average. Most dealerships will assume, for their “bring you in for maintenance purposes”, that you’re driving about 12-15,000 miles per year. Because I had a relatively new car up until 2020, and because it was covered for maintenance through some package deal I bought, I was bringing my car in every 5,000 miles. However, the dealer had an algorithm for every 5,000 miles based on what they considered “typical use”. This means that they’d always want to schedule my next maintenance 4 or 5 months from my current one; and I’d frequently have to bump it sooner, because at 20,000 miles/year, I’m driving 5,000 miles every 3 months. I know this and because it was nice simple round numbers, I didn’t have to have a spreadsheet on it. My driving mileage has been pretty consistent for 15 or so years. So the *algorithm* we’re looking at here, to predict when my next appointment is, is Number of Miles Per Year Expected / 5,000 = How many Times Per Year my car gets serviced. Then it’s How Many Months Per Year / How many Times Per Year my car gets serviced, to how many months between each service. If I wanted to be fancy, I could write that as (Months Per Year)/(Miles Per Year Expected/5000). The reason the dealer and I get different numbers is that while we both agree on how many months there are in a year, they are working with a different Miles Per Year Expected. The *algorithm* isn’t wrong, because it isn’t *right*, either. It’s all dependent on what goes in, to determine what comes out.

What Happens When Things Change

Now that we are in COVID restriction, I still drive quite a bit to go visit immediate family every 2 weeks, but aside from that I’m working from home and I’m working out at home and so I don’t drive nearly as much. The *algorithm* still hasn’t changed — but the Miles Per Year Expected has. So now, my number looks a lot more like the dealer’s number — I’m driving about 12k miles/year, and so I would come in every 4 or 5 months. If the *dealer* changes their expectations, though, thinking “oh wow people aren’t driving with COVID we should bump that down to like 5k/year”, then our output of the algorithm will once again differ.

Slightly More Sophisticated Stuff

Simple algorithms are like the one above, it’s got one or more inputs (expected miles per year) and at least one output (Bobbie needs to get her car serviced in June). You can add more inputs, though, and some “checking stations”. These can be what are called “if” statements (If Bobbie likes strawberry pie then assume excess calorie consumption from April to July; if Bobbie likes blueberry pie then assume excess calorie consumption from July to August) which in turn can be on other “if” statements (If strawberries then In Season = April, May, June; If blueberries then In Season = July, August). You can take these “if” statements, or conditions, and sprinkle them in all of the parts of the algorithm: at the beginning, middle, and even with the ending to determine the ending.

Again, you probably do this all the time. Say you’re at Costco. I don’t know about you but I like to limit my Costco trips because crowds are not my thing; also because I like to limit my trips in general (I’m the sort of person who has a categorized grocery list). Most folks have a grocery list, and most folks have a Costco list. You’re at Costco, and they have special pallet stacks of stuff on sale (the pricing usually indicates how much off). And you’re in front of the toilet paper, which was not originally on your list. This is a more sophisticated algorithm you’re running in your head:

Inputs:

  1. Toilet Paper is On Sale
  2. Toilet Paper is 36 rolls
  3. Sale is only good for about 1 week
  4. I am not coming back to Costco for at least 3 weeks.
  5. How much toilet paper do you have at home

Evaluation: Here you need your algo to check a few things:

  1. Do you have the money in your planned budget for the extra toilet paper that was not on your list? – this is an evaluation that you can do with only one of the inputs – the Sale Price
  2. Do you need toilet paper between now and the time you *think* it will next be on sale? – this evaluation is done with the input of the volume of toilet paper you have at home, plus the amount of time between now and when you think it could be next on sale. (You know the next time you’re coming to Costco, in at least 3 weeks. But it may not be on sale then.)
  3. Do you have the storage capacity for the extra 36 rolls? – this evaluation is done independently of 1 and 2 — straight up can you stock 36 rolls or not?

As you evaluate each of these, you spit out the “result” of your algorithm, perhaps as these steps (remember, these assume you didn’t need toilet paper right now, and that this was just something to evaluate on top of your regular list):

  1. If I have money for this, then go to step 2. Otherwise, keep rolling my cart.
  2. If I think toilet paper will be on sale the next time I am here,
    1. *AND* I can last that long until I need toilet paper, then keep rolling my cart, else
    2. *AND* I cannot last that long until I need toilet paper, go to step 5
    3. If I think it will not be on sale next time, then go to step 3
  3. If it is worth it to me to delay purchasing the toilet paper for next time at the expense of the sale price (e.g., is 3 weeks wait better than $4 off?), then keep rolling my cart, else go to step 4
  4. If I can store the toilet paper, go to step 5. Else, keep rolling my cart.
  5. Buy toilet paper.

Here’s the thing: this evaluation happens in the space of a minute or two in your brain, standing at the endcap of toilet paper in Costco while trying to avoid getting sideswiped by carts and small children running to get the free food. You probably spent more time reading through that list than you would actually doing the evaluation in your head, at Costco. You’ve just run an algorithm, because you could easily have replaced “toilet paper” in this decision, with say, “steaks” or “beer” or “high-end whey protein shake mix” or “kale” or “salmon” or “bread” or any of a number of consumable goods. You could replace the windows of your visits to Costco with different figures (I know folks who go every week, every two weeks, only when needed, etc.). You could replace the amount of the sale price in the evaluation (e.g., $4 trade off for your visit window may be enough. But is $2? Or would $10 be a good trade off of convenience for a 2-month window? etc.). The *steps* are the same, the kinds of things that you are checking in the steps are the same, but the specifics differ from situation to situation.

Algorithms In the World

When we say “Facebook runs an algorithm and so they know you like Argyle Socks”, we mean that Facebook has a HUGE volume of inputs (ones you give it and ones it infers and ones it purchases) and a HUGE volume of conditions it evaluates.

It can for example extrapolate from the data you give it (say, photos, comments on friends’ posts, clicks you do *on Facebook*, etc.) that you like socks.

It can infer from things your friends post, or from cookies it drops (think: little text tracker that sits in the background of your computer that, when you leave Facebook.com, gets “looked for” by other websites that Facebook has deals with. That rando website checks to say “hey computer you got a Facebook cookie?” and your computer says “yup I got a Facebook cookie, it’s cookie number bla-bla” and that website says “cool beans thanks I’ll make a note of it”. Because Facebook *made* the cookie, it knows that bla-bla belongs to you. And because there’s millions of sites that Facebook agrees to check for cookies with, that sites that Facebook does not own or operate, Facebook can know that you went on Target, for example, and shopped for argyle socks.).

Facebook also straight up purchases data. “Hey argyle sock company, let me know the typical demographic by zip code of people who buy your socks!” When the argyle sock company comes back and says “ok so like in 98074 the typical argyle sock purchaser is female (we infer this because they bought women’s argyle socks) and over 30 (we infer this because she didn’t use pay pal or apple pay she used like an old school credit card)”, Facebook can marry that up with marketing data that says the average 98074 female over 30 also is also married with an income bracket of XYZ and likely owns and doesn’t rent.

Facebook can then take all of *that* data and run it through *another* set of checking stations and say ok so if she likes argyle socks then with this other data we have about her *what else* can we market to her? Maybe there’s a high correlation of female argyle sock wearing disposable income homeowner to coffee consumption. Let’s try that. Oh, did she click it? Our checking stations were *right*, let’s use them more. Oh, did she not? More data for the checking stations.

This is just one (very tortured) example: nearly every site you interact with (not just Facebook or its properties), every company that you purchase goods or services from (e.g., banks, insurance companies, etc.), and most especially every company you work with that gives you something “for free” (e.g., Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, etc.) collects this information, and has their own special list of algorithms they chug through and spit out ideas as to what you like or don’t like, what you do or do not want. Sometimes they sell these ideas, sometimes they purchase other’s ideas and marry them up with *their* ideas to get super-specific ideas about you. The more inputs they can get, the more outputs they can test, and the more testing they do, the more accurate they can get. This isn’t just about argyle socks either: they can suggest or infer political preference, disposable income, sexual preference, charitable leanings, religious leanings, and so forth. They can then market to you based on what they think you want to hear, or want to read, or want to buy.

All just an algorithm.

Art and Artifice, Requirement and Request

This time last year, my brother, my son, and I were in Disneyland. It was the first time the three of us had been together, the first time we had been as adults (well, I had taken the kiddo but he hadn’t really been an adult until this time), and it was all the things I appreciate about Disneyland: a predictable experience, people on their best behavior, cleanliness, and a sincere acknowledgement that the world doesn’t actually work that way but wouldn’t it be lovely if it did? I love Disneyland. Yes, it is artifice and yes, it is not real. As active escapism goes, for me, it’s right up there in my top three. (Books are and forever shall be the top one.)

When I was a kid, I lived in California, and so a Disney trip was something that happened once a year with camp, and once a year with my family. As such, I would reliably get physically ill the night before – waves of nausea, I couldn’t eat, I was a jumble of nerves and had fitful sleep. As an adult this happens to me still; plus all of the associated accoutrements of generalized anxiety disorder: I am, as my husband puts it, constantly anvil-spotting. Imagine a videogame where you know you’ve entered the boss fight space by a change in the music — now imagine you hear that change in music but there is no boss fight to happen. You’re picking up the mail. You’re filling birdfeeders. You’ve just finished a day of meetings. It’s like your brain decides, “hey, everything’s going fine, let’s panic now: ok heart rate you go up, lungs? I want you to pretend like you can’t get air. Stomach — do that Disney thing. And then let’s just shut it off after about 10 minutes of googling panic attack symptoms. Sound good?”

I wasn’t formally diagnosed until two years ago, and before that I had already started to take this into my own hands as a project. If I would anvil spot, I would anvil spot my anvil-spotting. I talked to a therapist about the attacks (only long enough to talk about the physical bits, let’s just ignore the mind racy bits) and she suggested breathing exercises. I have a friend who is an amazing music teacher and specifically vocal coach (I have seen her in opera, I will go to anything she is in, ever) and had her teach me how to breathe. (She, being the smart cookie she is, also had me learn music theory, because she knows I like math). With the ability to reactively control an attack, things got better. When I actually got cognitive behavioral therapy, the proactive side of things got better.

To be clear: I’ve also learned to use this as a power: where I used to get caffeinated and reorganize friends’ garages or clean kitchens or such; now I am in a space to professionally execute in job whose whole purpose is to identify all of the things that can go wrong and come up with contingency plans.

Yes, I’m still fun at parties.

We are one year into the US general acknowledgement of the pandemic, about two weeks away from the anniversary of when it got real for most of us — we got sent home to work and ten million people got sent home to not work. (I am dripping with privilege, folks: I “get” to work from home, I still have my job; my kid is actually doing *better* in online schooling than in-person schooling, my expenses have gone down, etc. etc. It’s not fair. I know it’s not fair. I am trying to do things to help.) Our political system and the people in it very courteously (/s) displayed possibly the most effective and thorough civics lesson we had encountered in our generation: I would wager a majority of folks had no idea that the electoral college worked the way it did, or what the electors did, or when they met, or when and how the Senate and House met to vote and ratify, or all of the different deadlines with that, until 2020. Our financial and employment systems very courteously (/s) displayed the most effective and thorough economics lesson we had encountered in our generation (well that whole Great Recession should have learnt us but this was a step beyond): the stock market is not the economy and the job market is not the stock market. We learned that our most critical workforce is the least paid and provided for; we learned that nearly 40% of all landlords are mom-and-pop mortgagees that are left unsupported and whilst renters are randomly assisted (or not — moratoria or not, some landlords are engaging in good faith and some are not; some renters are engaging in good faith and some are not) no mortgage relief for these small-shop landlords exists. For all of you thinking landlords are large corporations, consider that friend of yours who elected to rent out their house while they moved to the Bay Area or Texas and rent an apartment — they are a landlord now.

Everywhere you look there is work to do, and/or opportunity: yes, there is value in framing these things with a silver lining (as in, identifying the things that are going well and recognizing them) but let’s not let that get in the way of the remaining work to be done.

As individuals, and as US Citizens, there is the temptation to indicate “well we voted and that’s that”; e.g., by voting I have exercised my voice and therefore I participated in the process and therefore I have done what can be done (protest aside). (When I say protest, I mean peaceful march, not breaking-and-entering, not threatening people with bodily harm, but instead I have snacks and a water bottle and I am using my voice and this sign to bring awareness to my cause). In addition to my consistent reminder that there are more elections than just the Presidential and MidTerm ones — for example Washingtonians our next one is in April — there are other ways you can influence the system. I’ve written before about how all politics are local and it’s still true. You may not like the person who was elected to represent you but they work for you and you get to tell them what your thoughts are and how you’d like them to proceed.

If you’ve tried that route and it’s still not working for you then you can get involved in the nonprofit space — there’s a lot of them out there and they’re probably doing a thing you’d like to support, either monetarily or with time (they may use your brawn, they may use your brains, they may use both).

If you’re not really into that sort of thing then see about local organizations of which you are already involved — maybe your local church, PTA, school, kids care center, etc. has something you can help with.

And if you are one of the millions of people who need this help I’m telling the other millions of people (well I know not millions of people will read this but let’s just pretend, shall we?) then know that there is help — albeit difficult to find. Start with your local library, believe it or not. King County Library System for example offers a whole lot more than books and periodicals – printing services, resume-writing classes, even help on filing your taxes. The King County Library System Foundation also offers literacy programs, and digital literacy and internet services for folks. Hopelink can help you with food, housing, financial services, employment help, transportation, and a whole lot more.

I do not suffer the illusion that some day we will all get to live in a cleanly-designed, hyper-efficient land of wonder and magic, where people are a shade nicer and things are a shade rosier (and with churros!). We will not get to live in Disneyland. We can, however, work to make it better.

Conservative

(NB: this isn’t actually political, although there are some strong parallels in parts.)

I work in the “tech industry”, for a large company, in the Seattle area. I’ve been an “engineer” (the profession includes program management, software/hardware development, and analytics, among other things) for a little over sixteen years. And I am conservative.

Believe me when I tell you I am trying really hard to see both sides.  I’ve taken steps to educate myself, even though I don’t identify with some of these new ideas. I can “speak” the language, but I don’t want to have to.  I just don’t want things to change; I don’t think that makes me a bad person but I’m watching things progress and I have to somehow keep up with it all. Why can’t I just keep querying my databases using SQL?

(Was that introduction meant to be double-entendre? Yes.  Did it get you all shocked and thinking that perhaps neither side of an equation is necessarily the extreme? Hopefully.  Does that mean there are no extremes in the world? Of course not; the phrase “extreme”, by its very definition, means it is atypical. Finally, yes, learning and growing as human beings is a hard but necessary thing.)

I went back to school in the early millennium to learn about computer programming and database theory, having resisted “going into computers” as the family trend. I fell in love with database theory (and practice) and at that time the name of the game was SQL (Structured Query Language). (For understanding, the name of that particular game *had been SQL* for at least a double decade already).  I am, very much, a creature of structure and definition and I found SQL intuitive and easy.  I spent the next decade working with it, refining my skill, getting it to do some perhaps unnatural things, and generally enjoying that this was a language I could speak.

Fast forward another ten years or so and I’m in a different role (and have been in different roles; my LinkedIn job history looks like it was plotted by an inebriated kitten) and the call for writing queries is much diminished. In the intervening ten years another popular query language has arisen, courtesy of my very own company, and it’s driving me nuts.  KQL, the Kusto Query Language, is the “no SQL” language used to query Azure Data Explorer clusters, and it’s *just enough* like SQL to trick you with its wily ways and not at all enough like SQL to behave in polite society.

For the uninitiated: SQL follows a prescribed list of things you MUST do (you must SELECT something, otherwise nothing happens, you must state where that something is FROM, you must identify what the something(s) are). There are things you MAY do, but you can only do them in some places: you SELECT first, you then indicate WHAT you selected, then WHERE it is from, you may then GROUP, indicate if it is HAVING a condition, and/or ORDER your results.  Barring some fancy stuff you can do like linking up Data Source A to Data Source B in certain ways, and some rules about what you can do with the stuff you’ve selected, that’s it.  Simple, refined, elegant, transactional, neat, orderly. If SQL were a desk there would be nothing on it, and all of the papers are filed in neatly-labeled folders, and all of the pencils are in the correct drawer and sharpened and facing the same way.

KQL is your stoned college roommate’s nightstand which serves as a desk (nightstand, dinner table, etc.), piled with papers in any which way, but *somehow* they are able to retrieve *exactly* the term paper they need to turn in, right now, because they “just know”. There is *barely* any structure – you start by simply naming the first data source you’re pulling from (no Select, no indicator that that’s what you’re doing, you just say your TableName). Then each subsequent thing you want to do is marked by a pipe |; which I guess is fine.  From there on out, though, the rules are pretty wishy-washy: do you want to filter out things first? Sure, put a “where” to start.  Oh, do you want to now go pick what you want to see? OK you don’t “select” them, you “project” them — unless you’re creating calculations in which case you “extend” them, unless you intend to group them in which case you “summarize” them.  And you can do those in any order, multiple times, throughout your whole query.  I mean, you can literally have a query that STARTS with a where statement and ENDS with a select, with five other where statements and a whole splattering of calculations in between. Where is the elegance? Where is the neatness? Where is the order and preservation, I ask you?

Proponents of KQL will be quick to point out that this flexibility offers you the ability to pre-filter a ginormous data set in advance of the things you want to select and calculate, meaning the machine has to do less work (it only has to calculate the things you want it to and not necessarily all the things in the data sets you’re extracting from). Hogwash! When it was my day we calculated all the things or we created subqueries and it worked just fine! Besides, if your query is so cumbersome you’re probably not using indexes properly and should optimize your queries.  Why should *we* have to be punished into using some newfangled query language because *you* want cheap data?

I could, as I believe you understand now, rant and rave about this for hours. One of my very favorite work friends had to listen to me mention how much I do not like this language repeatedly, to the point that it’s a snicker from him when I say it in meetings (I still feel like sending it to him in instant messages on occasion). I won’t give it more space here, because I’ve said it and it’s out there.

I recently (well, about four months ago) took about six hours and studied KQL.  Armed with a “conversion” doc and five or six real, pragmatic queries I needed to write, I drilled through until I got the hang of it.  I can query in KQL, it is the preferred language for the majority of datasets I care about these days. I can speak this language enough to make my way about the country and transact business; it is not my native language and I still do not “think” in it. The point though is things do move on, and as uncomfortable as it is, I needed to learn this new thing. I don’t have to like it, but I do need to be able to understand it. And I can.

Even if it drives me nuts.

(Post-publish edit: This was originally written on 14 December 2020.  On 6 January a whole passel of people went to the capital and what started as some form of protest turned into something much, much worse, and people died. I’m leaving the post as-is, because I do not believe all conservative-leaning political folks are spoken for by those who were at the capital that day. Note that politically, if it’s important to you to understand my motivation or writing, I lean left.)

After Life

(Note: This is the last one of these I’m going to write for a while. Not because they’re particularly depressing for me, but they can be a bit of a downer for others. Still, I’ve had a couple of people ask about “what happens next”, so without further ado, here’s what happens next.)

(Also note: this isn’t about the spiritual afterlife — the one that happens to your spirit when it leaves the body, if that is your belief. This is about what happens to others who are still in this life, when that happens, in a practical tactics sort of way.)

I once had a break of a whole week between two jobs — a real break, I had left company A and was moving to company B. In preparation for that I started a checklist of all the things I was going to do during that week — various house stuff, crafting projects, probably catching up on filing, reorganizing the pantry — and it grew. The checklist started about four weeks before the break, and about one week before the break, it was complete.

I had done all the things on the checklist.

It has taken me years to allow things to sit on a list for their appointed time, because my instinct is to do the thing if it can be done. This has historically resulted in manic cleaning fits, late-night papers, insomniac email, and associated unhealthy behaviors; I’m working on it. Still, I typically craft my resolutions for the New Year around Thanksgiving and start addressing them around mid-December.

I’ve had a will, and the standard, boilerplate living will/healthcare directive since I had my son. I felt like I had done all that needed to be done, things were addressed, and so if something were to happen to me, the “work” left to my estate would be trivial. My mom also had a will, a healthcare directive and healthcare power of attorney (that specifically named me). It took seven months from the time of her passing to the last bit of paperwork/administrative work to be complete.

(NOTE: I AM NOT A LEGAL PROFESSIONAL AND YOU SHOULD TOTALLY GO TALK TO ONE). In the interest of preventing others from going through this same hassle (inasmuch as it can be avoided), I’m going to share some specific experiences and some guidance for you as you think about your own paperwork or guide a family member through theirs.

When my mom got put on hospice, the hospice team suggested reaching out to make pre-arrangements with a funeral home. We did do that, a local place that was hugely sympathetic and understanding (I had to do it virtually thanks to the viral outbreak), and walked me through the process. They had a lot of questions that were not answered in mom’s documents: did she want an obituary? Did she want a full or partial viewing? What kind of container did she want her remains in? Did she want them interred in a cemetery or to come home? And so forth. Learning: go talk to the local funeral home/investigate their site and look at their intake forms. It will give you an idea of the questions you should either have answered in your will or separate letter to whomever you want taking care of that.

When it happened, the home walked us through the initial administrative process, and we notified mom’s lawyer that she had passed. Both the home and the lawyer walked us through next steps, which included such things as “let us know” (the home) “how many death certificates you need”, and “get me a death certificate and the most recent bank and title statements of the joint properties listed in the community property agreement” (a thing my parents had in addition to their will, that was supposed to streamline the process and avoid a lengthy probate). Learning: each financial or legal institution you will deal with will want a *certified* death certificate. So each life insurance, bank, etc. Start with five if you can, or if things are super-tight, start with the one and then ask each office to send it back. (In Washington State, death certificates are about $20 each, and your funeral home can get them for you as part of their service).

About a month or so in to going through mom’s papers, we discovered not one but two ancient life insurance policies – one opened up as a “savings account” for her by her father when she was born (the kind you pay each year and then cash out at 21, except she didn’t) and one she opened when she was still married to my dad, her first husband.

The savings account one wanted not only a death certificate but receipts from the process, and when they made a copy error (I am not making this up) and copied the receipts over the death certificate they held up progress for FOUR MONTHS while they sent me form letters saying they hadn’t heard from me. (I’d call and they’d tell me the form letter wasn’t as specific as it could be and that they wanted a new death certificate. When I pointed out they already had one and that their copy error shouldn’t be my problem, they agreed and said they’d handle it. The next month I’d get another form letter saying they hadn’t heard from me. Repeat.) Learning: the Insurance companies aren’t just going to let you file a claim and receive the paperwork and have it be all fine, be prepared to spend some phone time and (in my case) know who the OIC (Office of the Insurance Commissioner) is in your state, the state the life insurance contract was opened in, and the state the insurance company operates in. (In my case, I ended up opening a complaint in California, Pennsylvania, and with the BBB).

For the one opened in her first marriage, the insurance company did NOT care that there was a will, that my mom had divorced my dad, and that my mom had remarried. The beneficiary in this policy was my dad, and so to my dad the payment would go. (Dad mailed the payment to my StepDad because my dads are cool). Learning: Check your beneficiaries, especially if you have had a life change. Those can override any sentiments in your will.

Additionally, with Life Insurance, the appreciation you get on it (e.g., if the policy matured N years ago and therefore has been collecting X interest since then) is taxable. Learning: Talk to an accountant/estate planner about how that works and/or talk to yours if you are on the receiving end about the tax implications so you’re ready. (Also, not every insurance company withholds anything from this payment. I have a letter from the “savings” insurance company saying they did. The actual check stub and accounting does not show this. I’m not saying that insurance company sucks, but I won’t be voluntarily doing business with an insurance company whose name rhymes with Detrimental).

(Incidentally, the local banks and mortgage company, the department of licensing and the social security office all went easy as pie.)

Dollars and cents aside, there’s then the physical artifacts: what do you want to become of your stuff? I’m not talking about the stuff you name-check in your will — the family opal ring or the signed print or such — I’m talking about your *stuff*. Your clothes, shoes, etc. mainly. In my mom’s case, she had a lot of nice, barely worn things from a stretch of cruising. The nice things got donated to a local women’s shelter, as did unopened extras of toiletries and such. There were also some not-nice things, and those went into the trash. (I don’t think my mom ever considered it but I think she would have agreed with a women’s shelter and would’ve disagreed on the “not nice” label). Learning: if you have a preference, spell out where you want your stuff to go. If you don’t, spell out that it’s up to the person executing the estate.

It probably comes as no surprise that I processed this grief the way I process most everything — there was an Excel spreadsheet, a detailed One Note; there was lots of productive activity, there was lots of avoidance of the icky, emotional deluge (which didn’t turn out to be much because, as I sorted out with my therapist, I’d been grieving since she got admitted to the hospital)– but I hope that the learnings from this will help you and/or yours in how you approach your preparations, perhaps as a New Years’ resolution.

Giving Tuesday

It’s Giving Tuesday, and while this is but one of many opportunities to donate to the charities that have meaning for you, it’s the one that’s here right now, nestled between Thanksgiving and the end of the year.

A couple of weeks ago I reached out to family and friends to find their favorite charities. It’s not that I don’t have an idea of where my money can go, it’s more that I usually see these folks during the course of the year across a banquet table with elaborate, biddable centerpieces and carefully-folded linen napkins and dubiously fresh rolls and frozen butter. If your thirties are spent at soccer matches and theater practice, your forties (at least mine) are spent at fundraiser breakfasts, lunches, and dinners; at auctions and pop-up shops and cookie drives and popcorn sales.

I don’t get to see my friends much these days, we’re all disinclined to collect a new health concern (being in our forties we save discussion for “what’s the latest part of my body to go south” until after dessert). There’s no dessert lately, because we’re all staying home; so there’s no emotional guest-speaker, no witty and quick-moving emcee, no carefully (or not) placed nametag over the ubiquitous scarf-of-the-season.

So I reached out to my friends and asked them about their local charities, the ones they like, the ones for which I should’ve got an email invite to a downtown hotel that would make me mentally calculate my parking options, except that there are no said events. I got replies, some expected, some not, and in case you’re looking for some places to give, I hereby give you the List. It is a working list, I’ll keep adding to it, but here’s the list, this Giving Tuesday.

If these aren’t for you, I encourage you to reach out and find the one(s) that are, and see what you can do; COVID has hit not only the predictable health, homeless, and food security spots, but also there are downstream education and childcare impacts, disenfranchisement, etc. You can also reach out to me if you’d like to add to the List.

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 :).