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 :).

Goodbye, Facebook

I’ve been on Facebook for the better part of 11 years. In that time it has afforded me the opportunity to keep in touch with friends, old and new; to see the immediate impacts of world events through a local lens; to ensure my family knows I haven’t fallen into a puddle of stress. In return, Facebook sold my data to various marketing endeavors, so I’d get served up “relevant” ads for Stitch Fix, Starbucks and You Need a Budget. I was fine with this arrangement.

I am not fine with them selling my data to a firm that will target ads to me in order to change my voting behaviors or my social views. I’m fully cognizant that they already have my data, and my deletion of my content on Facebook the site – which I’ve mostly done thanks to a script referenced in this article – is an academic exercise for those wishing to mine it from Facebook. The deals are done, the data is out. (Note it’s not technically a data breach, because Facebook gave the data freely away.) This is me, voting with my keyboard: they don’t get any future data.

Not directly, anyway.

Facebook still creates ghost profiles, still uses cookie drops through scores of sites on the internet, leverages publicly available data and sells the cooked product. It will still sell the cooked product. I will not help them do it, though. I am deleting my Facebook entirely March 30th. I have already deleted WhatsApp and Instagram (two Facebook properties). I am retaining Twitter (for now) and LinkedIn.

Things I Recommend:

  • If you remain on Facebook, I recommend using FB Purity.
  • If you want to delete your content (after downloading) I recommend Social Book Post Manager.
  • If you want to keep the cookies at bay, I recommend Ghostery.
  • If you want to listen to some great podcasts about the latest Facebook data sharing issues (because this has happened before), I recommend this and this.
  • If you are more of an article-reading person, read this and this and this.

Keep in Touch:
If you have my email, or we’re linked on LinkedIn or Twitter, that works. If you have my phone number we can totally text. My friend K has set up a private photo sharing process in his family that I will be pinging him shortly on how to do the same, to make sure my son’s grandparents get the latest photo evidence that he’s still growing and healthy and making bland sartorial choices. And if a more responsible photo-and-update sharing platform arrives on the scene, I’ll have a look.

Fight Enough

One of my favorite movies this time of year, for sheer shlock and Americana, is Holiday Inn.  Holiday Inn is a Bing Crosby/Fred Astaire vehicle, full of musical numbers (the premise is a musical act that moves to rural Connecticut and opens a dinner theater that is only open on holidays), and that 1940’s vibe of “wow, things were so much simpler.”

Things were not, in fact, simpler then. Objectively: technology was ruder, and there was that whole World War II thing: families back home were just as invested in the war as the soldiers abroad — meatless, sweetless, and wheatless days, for example. Nevertheless, Bing kept singing and Fred kept dancing, and all in glorious black and white.

My very favorite routine of the whole movie is Thanksgiving. Because Thanksgiving is when our hero (Crosby) has been “cheated” of his girl (by Astaire) (and no he hasn’t been cheated, he was a dick and she caught him at it), and so he’s alone on Thanksgiving listening to his own recording of his musical number, “I’ve Got Plenty to be Thankful For”.  During the number he savagely cuts into his dinner, clapping back at his recorded signing self, and has to get told by his “Mamie” (an African American housekeeper. So much can be said here but you know it already: not how it should have been, not how it should be, caricature, racist, etc.). “Mamie” tells him off and tells him to go “get his woman” because otherwise he doesn’t “have fight enough to keep her”.

Well.

I like Mamie and all but the reason I like this piece has to do with before she enters stage left (oh I like that she tells him off, too.) It’s the two Bings: Bing one is sitting and eating dinner, all pissy and whiny about his circumstance, and Bing two is looking at the bigger picture (gee, I have food and health and I’m not busy fighting a war on two or three fronts that we don’t know when it’s going to end.)

The two Bings remind me that I have two Bings too: I can choose to focus on the negative (and like most privileged people I can manifest a series of bullshit reasons my life is so hard: yet I have food on the table and a roof over my head, etc.) or I can choose to focus on the positive. So when I look at the bevy of things I can be upset or disenchanted about, I can either mope or I can figure out what I can do to address it.  I’ve got a slew of things to address: work stuff, home stuff, “political” stuff.

Well. I’ve “fight enough”, as it were.  And  I think we all do. So if I can give y’all a belated Thanksgiving message: don’t let the Turkeys get you down :).

 

*edited to update the name to Mamie instead of Mammy.  Thanks Stan :).

 

Eat Your Frogs

“Eat a live frog first thing every morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” – Mark Twain

The relative cholesterol of frogs notwithstanding* this has been my mantra for the past several days. As part of the seasonal reorganization of things here at my company, I have a new boss and new coworkers (sorta) and so there’s a bit of an administrative tax associated with that: the PowerPoint that describes your products. The weekly update email on how those products are doing. The monthly update PowerPoint on how those products are doing. The one-off PowerPoint to discuss the ProblemChild in your product, and the one-page Word docs to describe the individual projects of your Product. Then of course there’s the emails about each of these items.  It was a rough three weeks getting all of that in order, but now I think we’re there and it’s time to eat another frog.

America needs to eat a frog. Actually, your average American citizen needs to eat a *lot* of frogs, because it is Election season. Whatever their opinions are about the candidates for the Top Office are, and how much they do or do not like said candidates, that is (frankly) the least of the frogs Americans need to eat.

*All* of the 435 House of Representative seats are up for reelection this year. Thirty five of the 100 Senate seats are, too. One hundred and sixty three ballot measures are up in 35 states, and 72 citizen initiatives. In my home state we have some pretty big decisions to make, including the possibility of a carbon tax (the Economist covered it last week). There are initiatives about pot, about gun control, about taxes, and about minimum wage; I guarantee the average American has an opinion about some or all of those. I equally guarantee there are no simple choices.

Let’s take my home state: Washington. We have the aforementioned carbon emission tax on the ballot, which economists love but I guarantee you local businesses will not. Ditto the Minimum Wage initiative (actually economists are split on that one, depending on who you talk to regarding artificial price floors, etc.). Firearms make another appearance, this time around risk protection orders. Another initiative asks you to weigh privacy risks against proper compensation for home health care workers. There’s also not one, but two advisory votes (where we get to let the State House/Senate know how we feel about taxes they approved without subjecting them to vote). You may think we have a lot in our state but it turns out California and Alabama voters will have a much thicker pamphlet to read through.

All of these frogs to eat and yet, while the states are doing their best to saute them in butter and garlic (or is that braise them in red wine and tomato sauce?) our election year coverage seems largely devoted to the biggest frogs who, depending on the status of the Congress they are rewarded with, may be stuck in the mud anyway and unable to do much other than croak for the next two years.

Because of the howling cacophony over those “biggest frogs”, it’s rare you find an intelligent, balanced conversation over the little frogs (and possibly tadpoles) we need to consume. It’s almost like the sheer dread of that first big frog negates the fact that once we’re done chewing that one and swallowing it, we have to eat another fifteen, or twenty, or thirty frogs.  Unlike college, there isn’t going to be some sort of machismo pride on the line for chugging your frogs; there’s not going to be a team of your brothers and/or sisters cheering you on as you eat your frogs.  This is probably because they’ll be busy with their own frogs. Stopping to discuss the balance of flavors in the small frogs, or cooking method, seems ridiculous.

It is, however, the platefuls of small frogs that await us are what we’ll have to subsist on for the next two years (at least — remember Senate terms, for example, are six years), and they are not getting the attention they deserve. I’d argue the biggest frogs are over seasoned and will be cooked to a crisp, leaving little taste on the palette and not otherwise making any long-term impressions. It’s those carefully prepared, home-grown frogs we need to fill up on. On voting day,  you get to pick your frogs.

*50mg per 100g of frog meat, in case you were wondering, vs 88 for chicken. There may be a missed opportunity here.

Give

Today, I was an adult. I got up early (even for me). I wore professional business wear (not jeans). I wore heels for more than 9 hours. I paid for parking, in downtown. I held meetings. I followed up.

And I spoke in front of 250-odd people on the reason why I work with Team Read.

Here is the text of my speech. I flubbed it in a couple of spots, but the sentiment is there. If you can, give: http://www.teamread.org.

Good morning. Thank you all for coming to our Annual Fundraising Breakfast. I know it takes some effort to get up and presentable and into downtown at 7:30am, so well done all of us.

Being, as I am, a technologically minded person, and surrounded, as I am often, with technologically minded people, who all agree on the importance of STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math – in education, it may have been a surprise to some of my friends and family that I chose to invest in, and support, Team Read. After all, this is about reading, right?

Right. Step one, in a long list of steps to a robust and complete education. Without reading, and specifically without quick and thorough reading comprehension, no student will survive that hallmark of third grade math: the word problem. We all remember – a train leaves Chicago going 40 miles per hour, and so forth? Only now they’re multi-step problems in third grade, like this one:

Ashley is 61 inches tall. Adam is five feet four inches tall. How many inches taller is Adam?

So we help students improve their reading fluency and comprehension, paving the way to use reading as a tool for all and any disciplines they need to pursue through the course of their educational careers.

That is only half of the story though, and only half of why I support Team Read.

About two breakfasts ago – I measure these things in food – Kiarra Thomas, a Team Read tutor, spoke here about her experience being a tutor. She talked about how she learned very real job skills – dealing with her charge, budgeting time, being responsible for this student. She spoke about how these skills and this experience helped form her educational and career path, and how it helped her get other jobs. Too often we are given to looking at our teenagers as “just teenagers” – oh, those kids – whereas Team Read provides, to qualified and eager teenagers, a real job, with real experience, and real impact. These teenagers are equal to the task.

And that’s why I am here today. And that’s why you are here today, too.

Team Read relies on the support of volunteers and donors, and I want to thank you for being here this morning, and learning about the good work of Team Read, and sharing your enthusiasm for this organization with others.

So thank you.

Freedom

It’s that time of year again, where kids are out of school and we all forget about the responsibilities and management associated with education. School’s out for the summer!

Here in Washington State our legislators have come up with a budget (after two special sessions, for which, may I remind you dear voter, our congresspersons get paid). It got signed in, but doesn’t include the funding for the recent education bill that got passed, which totals slightly over $2 billion. Out of $38 billion, that means we’re missing about 5% or so of our budget. As much as I want to look at that and still give us an “A”, I’m a pretty harsh grader.

This little rounding error is for reduced class sizes, voted in by the constituency. The reason why there’s no funding for it is the measure didn’t include a funding resource, which is like saying “Do you want to have free groceries?” as a voting item. Of course you want free groceries, or reduced class sizes. When we don’t address how it’s going to get paid for, however, we end up with extended sessions and bickering and our very own elected officials trying to delay a measure we elected to have.  A funding measure wasn’t included, though, because as soon as you mention the possibility of raising taxes — of any sort: real estate, business, sales, or (eek!) instantiating an income tax — people lose their collective shit.

Here’s the thing: we can get mobilized around *some* social progress. We have gay marriage and subsidized healthcare and it only took Donald Trump one speech to ignite and unify the Latino vote (hi, I’m one of ’em, Donald) and get NBC, Macy’s, etc. to drop him like a hot potato. We are a country moving towards better social freedoms, recognition of our needs as a society, and intolerance of intolerance.

“We” (and by “we” I mean our dear, elected officials) do this because of one very simple reason: those movements represent votes. They get the Latino vote. Or the gay vote. Or the elderly vote. Or the African-American vote. Or the women’s vote. They love those voters! Those voters will help them *win*. It will be great.

As long as those voters aren’t educated.

We live in a country that is 14th in the world for education — and a state that is 20th in the US. Those figures are dropping with each year.  You don’t have to be smart to vote, and when you have your Legislative Branch playing games with numbers to “pass a budget” that doesn’t include all of the things that it is required to pay for, it’s better if the voters aren’t smart.

I live in a good school district. Our kids get issued laptops.  One of the more common rejoinders to this is: if the school district can furnish laptops, why can’t it pay its teachers (or reduce class sizes)? Great question.

Local school districts augment federal and state money (because it’s not enough) by levies and bonds. Here in our county it’s not uncommon to see an education bond measure every two years — for this district or the one down the road — to cover a given thing. Technology levies are separate from operating levies are separate from capital bonds (the latter used for building new schools). So if the tech levy passes but the operating levy doesn’t, you get computers but no one to administrate them.

Let’s take a look, then, at the operational cost of a teacher — that’s really what it comes down to, right? The teacher is who your child interacts with on a daily basis, they’re the ones that “take all summer off” and “Only work like 6 hours a day and get multiple in-service days and spring break and such”. Let’s look at a “Schedule C” teacher, who has either a BA and 90 credits or a Master’s Degree. We will take one who is 5 years in. That teacher makes $43,607/year. (Note to those who go look up those hourly rates — those are based on in-class hours. They are not based on hours worked).

Let’s further say the teacher doesn’t work at all during the 10 weeks of summer (they actually go in a week early, but it makes the math easy), or spring break (1 week), winter break (2 weeks), and holidays (Veteran’s day, Day after Thanksgiving, Presidents Day, Mid-winter break adds up to a week). I exclude Thanksgiving and Memorial day because they are typically off for everyone.

OK so 52 weeks/year, minus 10 for summer, 3 for regular breaks, and another for miscellaneous days == 52-14=38 weeks. That translates to $1147/week, before taxes, or an hourly rate of $28.67. Woo hoo! Riches behold!

Well, wait. Do they really work 40 hours?

My son’s school starts at 7:4oam and gets out at 2:10pm. Teachers are expected on-campus by 7:10am. So let’s assume they hightail it out of there with the kids and do not stay late to cover detentions (they do), test retakes (ditto), clubs (which they do and it’s usually on their own time, but it’s a choice so we will ignore that). That’s 7 hours. Oh, they get lunch, for 40 minutes. That means 1 hour, 40 minutes short of an 8 hour workday.

Except there is no room in there for lesson planning, grading, etc. Six classes at 30 kids/class is 180 kids worth of papers to grade, tests to grade, and lesson plans. Fine. Let’s be super-generous and say that is used up with that 1 hour and 40 minutes. (Note: my kid averaged 3 hours of homework per night in 6th grade. Each class had one graded item per night, roughly, not including major projects and papers. Translation: go through roughly 180 pieces of math homework and check the answers and they showed their work correctly. At one minute per paper you have used up all of your 100 minutes and then some).

Great! We’re done.

No, we’re not. These days, your dear teachers are expected to answer email from students and parents. This averages 30-50 per day (I am not exaggerating, I asked a bunch of different teachers — and I know I contributed to that count more than a few times). Call it 30 per day at 1 minute to read and 1 minute to respond– that’s another hour. Then add in IEP meetings (teachers with a student in their class in an IEP attend one or two of these a year — and there’s about 2 per class, so 12 per teacher) and those add up to another 15 minutes a week. Then add in staff meetings, call it another 15 minutes per week.

With me? Your 40-hour per week teacher is now at roughly 48 hours/week. Let’s go back and do that math again: $24/hour. Looks great! Except remember we removed all those weeks off the teacher gets — we assumed s/he didn’t get paid for that period.

Now lets look at how much “life” costs.

  • Take off 20% for taxes.
  • The cheapest 2 bedroom apartment I could find within a 20 minute drive (because there is a gas/transportation trade off here) is $1200 ($14,400/year).
  • $300/mo for food
  • $100/mo for transportation — bus and/or gas money/insurance
  •  $150/mo electric/gas
  • 10% for retirement

That’s $2294-(20%*2294)-1200-300-100-150-(10%*2294)=2294-458-1200-300-100-150-229=and guess what we’re in negative numbers. Because after I take out electricity/gas we have only $86, and that’s what the teacher can put to retirement.

As long as they don’t have kids. Or pets. Or hobbies. Or unforeseen medical expenses. Or mandatory union dues. Or chipping in for the kid who can’t afford school supplies. Or student loans, because our higher education system is horrifically messed up, too.

Today we celebrate our independence from a government that wanted to give us taxation without representation. We need to look at our government today and understand our responsibilities, and theirs. We pay the taxes. We may need to pay more. In turn, we need our legislators to represent: not just because they “let” us have the freedoms we were already granted (my 12 year old was shocked to find out gay people couldn’t get married already) in our constitution, but because we put the legislators where they are today.

If they don’t represent what we need, then we need to put others in there who do. That is the ultimate freedom we have as Americans, and we need to remember it, and use it.

Pantry Packed

I was at the monthly PTA meeting for the district and someone mentioned the local high school didn’t have a “Pantry Pack” coordinator. I’m pretty big on the idea of food so I figured I’d volunteer. Essentially, “Pantry Packs” are bags of groceries (single bag per student) that is discretely provided to a student on Friday afternoons, to provide them with food to last through the weekend. These are students who are typically on the free breakfast/free lunch program, and even with that struggle to get enough calories. Single parents working 3 jobs, homeless (with or without family), etc.

(Fun fact: Sammamish has its own homeless encampment. And we have kids going hungry in our schools. Trying to juxtapose this with new $850k homes going up down the street with 4″ backyards is making my brain bleed.)

At any rate, I showed up at the HopeLink in Kirkland to help pack the packs. While I cannot divulge the quantities, let’s say my local school was not a big contender when it came to the volume of packs needed. There were schools there that needed upward of 180 packs (packs are done for one month at an assumed 4 weeks per month, so if you are getting 180 packs then you are serving 45 students). Parents and kids volunteered and went down the row of food, grocery bag in hand (also fun fact: disposable grocery bag… what happens when those go away for programs like these?), following the mantra:

1 Chilli, 1 Mac, 2 Soups, 3 granola bars, 1 Saltines Pack, 2 Popcorn, 2 Oatmeal, 1 Cocoa.

Now, whatever your feelings are or aren’t about societal support, charity, food stamps, etc., I invite you to look at that. That is one can of chilli, one (regular box) of macaroni and cheese, 2 ramen noodle soup packs, 3 granola bars (the kind slightly larger than your middle finger), 1 pack of saltines (not one box), 2 microwave popcorn packets, 2 of those single-serve instant oatmeal packets, and 1 packet (as in, makes 1 cup) of cocoa.

I want you to remember, while reading this, that this is for a high school student. And I want you to remember how you ate in high school. Or how hungry you felt. And now I want you to remember that this list is designed to support a person, nutritionally, from about 5pm on a Friday through Sunday night inclusive. So, 3 dinners, 2 lunches, and 2 breakfasts.

Those oatmeal packets are about 120 calories apiece.

When I came home with the packs, the male person and the young man helped me unload the car (Pantry Pack volunteers store the food at their house for the month, and dole it out weekly to the school) and were amazed at how much there was. Then I had them do the math, dividing it by 4 (for weeks) and X (for students). The young man’s jaw dropped –“I’d eat all of that in a day! I’m not even in high school!”. “I know”, I replied. “I’m worried.”

I still haven’t figured out what happens during school breaks. When I sit down to Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or Hanukkah dinner, I don’t know what these kids have — and I don’t know what they do for a two-week break.

I am one of these people who just always assumed there were “services” that “took care of this”. That there are food stamps and churches and charities and pantry packs, and for some reason I thought it was more. But I realized when packing up and working with Jennifer — the coordinator there, who is grateful for help but always worries that there’s not enough food — that it’s often not enough, but it’s “something”.

Again, you can look at it from the framework that the parents ought to do more for their kids, they should go get a job at McDonalds, etc., and work their way up. I am absolutely a proponent of doing your best and especially doing your best for your kids. But I don’t see how, if we are approaching this that the “parents are failing them”, how it benefits to not help the kids. We as a society are paying for their education through high school, and we are throwing our money away if they are so hungry they can’t study. If the benefit of public education is to ensure a well-informed, productive society, we are robbing ourselves and setting ourselves up for failure.

We are entering the season of food drives, and of “adopting a family”; the food will hopefully flow and these kids will hopefully get a decent meal and be able to cram for their Physics final like we all did at one point. I’m just saying that we need to not assume the volume of food or services they *are* getting, and to remember to reach into our pantries, if possible, when Santa’s not looming.

On the Naming of Me

My name is pretty unusual, in and of that I’ve been challenged by telemarketers, customer service people, and baristas alike that “That can’t be your name” or “What’s your real name?” (As if the sort of person who gives out a fake name would abruptly turn around and provide a real one). My name is in fact Bobbie, although legally it is Roberta; the only people who call me Roberta are telemarketers, teachers, and attorneys.

Per Wolfram Alpha, fewer than 200 people each year are given the name Bobbie (as a given female name – and yes it does say it assumes Bobbie is female). Less than 1 in 3331 people have the name, and the most common age for a person with the name Bobbie is 76 years. (Roberta clocks in at much the same, with 1 in 1823 people having the name and the common age is 57 years).

So it’s safe to say “Bobbie” is an unusual name, and that is that.

Over the years my name has been mangled quite a bit, from the masculine “Bobby” to the alternative female “Bobbi”. I also oftentimes get the email typo of one more o, one less b; for the most part I choose to ignore these and hope the sender goes away. That said, I wasn’t really particularly particular about how people spelled my name (with the exception of that last) until I read Freakonomics.

Freakonomics has a pretty good chapter on Correlation vs. Causality, particularly around naming conventions. The main anecdote is about a man who named his sons Winner and Loser, and the indication that the son named Loser had an extremely successful life, whilst the son named Winner had an extremely unsuccessful one. There is no causality in naming. However it also had a second anecdote, and a study, around names given to female children. Specifically, names that one would associate with strippers.

The idea was thus: if I name my daughter, say, “Bambi” or “Sugar” or something like that, am I dooming her to life on the pole? The short answer is no, you are not. By virtue of naming your daughter anything like that (there is a third indication of a daughter named Temptress who indeed had a pretty name-similar life) you are not going to ensure she ends up with a job whose uniform consists of two ounces of elastic and slightly more than that of glitter. But there’s still a good chance it will happen. Why? Because the parent who names their kid something like that is also probably not going to make sure she gets home in time for a curfew, or is getting her homework done. It’s the correlation – the fact that a parent who names their kid something like that isn’t likely to be hammering on the grades – rather than the causality that drives the preponderance of “Crystals” and the like to the pasties.

As part of this chapter in Freakonomics, there is a list of the top 10 names found amongst strippers at time of publication. The name “Bobbi” – with an “I” – is on that list. The name “Bobbi” with an “I” has a common age of 39. That means those Bobbi’s were born in 1975 or thereabouts, and Freakonomics was published in 2005, with data from studies probably the year previous, and so I think it’s entirely reasonable that their stripper population was about 29 at the time.

Since reading that I’ve made it a point to educate people on the value of the “e”. I don’t look good in glitter.

That Sinking Feeling

Today’s economic topic will be the Sunk Cost Fallacy. A sunk cost is something you’ve spent money (or other investiture) on and you cannot recover said money (or investiture). The $4.50 you spent on a latte this morning is a sunk cost.  So is the $90 you spent on shoes last month. And, oddly enough, so is the “free” doughnut you ate this morning, because even though it was monetarily free, it wasn’t calorically free – you “paid” in terms of calories for the day and, assuming you weren’t near-bulimic afterwards, you cannot retrieve those calories.  (And even if you did attempt to purge, you are still dealing with a sunk cost).

Generally speaking, it doesn’t make sense to take into account sunk costs when making a decision for future investiture – e.g., whether or not you spent $4.50 on a latte should not impact your decision as to if you will be buying a latte later today. You’ve already spent the money and can’t recoup it, so factoring in the presence it *would have* made in your budget is specious, you need to look at where your budget stands now. But humans don’t tend to work this way due to loss aversion.  They tend to frame an overall project to include what has been spent as well as what will be spent (time, effort, etc.) and look at it on the whole rather than what is left. One of the oddest presentations of this I am most guilty of, as are, I suspect, many of my friends: the Sunk Cost Doughnut.

I seem to be focusing on doughnuts, and this is because I had one today.  I am supposed to be watching my weight (I’m currently watching it nudge up) and today someone (Ms. Krieant, to be exact) brought in Top Pot Doughnuts, which may in fact be my favorites.  I have a workout buddy who insists that you can eat whatever you want as long as you work out enough and he is right, but he is also 25 and has been through OCS and it’s not enough for him to do pull-ups, he has to do them with a 50lb-weight strapped to his stomach. His and my mileages tend to vary.

sprinkles
mmmm doughnuts

At any rate, today I ate one (1) Chocolate with Rainbow Sprinkles doughnut, at a caloric cost of 510 calories. That would be 1/3 of my supposed day’s calories, and so it is really, really hard not to take into account my sunk cost (doughnut/510 calories) and say “well, I’ve screwed up the diet today, so I will just start again tomorrow”. On the whole this is NOT logical because in theory I can pay attention to my caloric budget and be “good” for the remainder of the day, and only come  in a “little” over budget.  If I frame my caloric choices in light of the Sunk Cost Doughnut, though, and eat whatever I want,  I would come in drastically over budget.

A suggested method by economists is to evaluate future costs and avoidable future costs to establish the true prospective cost for the day (E.g., I must have some form of dinner (future cost), it probably shouldn’t include bread or fat (avoidable future cost)).  And so, as I use my “MyFitnessPal” app and truthfully admit to my 510 calorie digression, I sit here re-evaluating my planned caloric expenditures for the day.

They’re serving birthday cake down the hall.

Beyoncé and Lean In

I was listening to NPR the other day (this seems to be the thirty/forty-something ubiquitous intro to a story) about Beyoncé’s new album, and how Twitter trended when it dropped, and there as an awful lot about how She Is A Feminist and This Album Is A Tribute To Feminism. Naturally, it being NPR, the second person they interviewed pooh-pooh’d this, pointing out that in her videos apparently Beyoncé is gyrating in such a way that she is gyrating for men, and therefore it isn’t any different than any other oppressed-female gyrations. This is all very normal and to be expected anytime someone declares something “feminist” or “the new feminist”, women will gather on either side and debate earnestly. None of this really irked me until this lady (Tanya Steele, which is a fantastically appropriate name) pointed out that when women were telling her about how they feel Beyoncé’s gyrations/music/etc. made them feel empowered, and/or they felt it was a good example of feministic power, she had to “walk them back” and “explain it to them”.

It took a while for me to sort through why this irritated me. I don’t normally engage in discussions on feminism or women’s issues, it wasn’t part of my educational background and it just really doesn’t come up. I’m more likely to get into an economics debate. (NB: I have not taken a single women’s studies class. I do however own a vagina, and have friends who own vaginas, so I think I’m somewhat qualified to discuss the condition of having a vagina and the thinking that may or may not go along with vagina ownership.)

Merriam-Webster defines Feminism as: “The belief that men and women should have equal opportunities”. (It also defines it as an “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests”).

Beyoncé and Steele

As best as I can tell, Ms. Steele’s contention is that when women view Beyoncé’s new album, and more specifically her videos in which she “gyrates” (I have not seen them nor is it really necessary to do so to illustrate this particular point), as “feminist”, they are incorrect. Her reasoning is Beyoncé is gyrating sexually, as to appeal to and/or entice men, and therefore is acting like someone who has to sublimate their own needs/desires in order to attract someone else, and therefore that isn’t beneficial in any particular way to her gender representation.

This reasoning is highly subjective. First, it assumes a knowledge of what is in Beyoncé’s head as she’s gyrating on the screen. I am willing to wager as she was gyrating, under a myriad of hot lights, multiple takes, makeup touches, reminders on choreography, adjustments to the mic, etc. that what was in her head was,  “I am working, I am working, I am working, I can’t wait for a hot bath and a glass of wine, but I am working.” Beyoncé’s reputation in the industry, even for one who doesn’t follow it altogether much, is one of extreme professionalism and hard work. Her personal wealth is such that she never, ever has to work again, independent of that of her husband. Beyoncé works if she wants to work, she busts her butt because she wants to, and she gyrates because she wants to.  Second, it assumes that Beyoncé’s gyrations were intended for the sole or at least primary benefit of a male and/or lesbian observer (and/or customer. Remember kids, she’s selling a brand.) The assumption is she is gyrating sexually, she is therefore objectifying herself sexually for a sexually interested party. Demographics aren’t readily available for her album but I’d be willing to put the $20 down to say it trends female more than male. And they are not all lesbians. Third, Beyoncé has gone on record, on multiple occasions, for “loving being a woman” and “enjoying her curves” and “dressing sexily”.  It would be a little disingenuous then to expect her to stand in a full-length evening gown when singing songs about seducing her lover.

The fact of the matter is, some women like to exhibit and some do not. Because Ms. Steele does not see value in exhibition she would like others to not see value in it as well. This is human nature, but it is unreasonable to then have to explain to someone why something they like, that you don’t, that doesn’t cause you any personal harm, is “wrong”. If a male person sees Beyoncé gyrating and from that infers all women should gyrate, then it is NOT Beyonce’s gyrations that are to blame. It is his rationale that “female person gyrating on TV = all women gyrate for me” that is wrong. To assume that Beyoncé’s gyrations set feminism back in any way is tantamount to saying that “because a woman dresses XYZ way she is asking for it”. You can’t have it both ways: either the observer is responsible for their own behaviors or they are not.  I prefer to think that men, and women, are rational human beings capable of using their brains and if they are NOT, it is not the fault of society or other folks. Your brain, and your actions, are your own to manage.

Lean In

The larger discussion, though, is how women are perceived in society and, in terms of Lean In, how we perceive ourselves (vs. how we “should” perceive ourselves, as best as I can decipher it).  While the “Beyoncé is/isn’t a Feminist” debate is exciting mostly because it can be and mostly because of the method in which she chose to drop her album, the “Lean In” concept is trickier and, I think, longer lasting. The basic takeaway I had from reading Lean In is that women don’t get opportunities as much as men do because either a. we would if we spoke up but we don’t speak up, or b. we need to speak up more so men get used to it and therefore will “see” us in the roles we want.

Here I think I need to step aside and explain something in my own, personal world that means my subjective take on this is going to be just that — very subjective. I am 5’10” tall. I have never been of slight build. Physically, I do not appear meek or weak or shy. Further, I am the daughter of two strong-minded, outspoken women, and two male engineers. I don’t think I’ve ever had a problem asking for something if I wanted it, and/or providing a rationale on why I should have it. (True story: when I first moved to San Diego 15 years ago, I worked for a company that believed you should get personality tested before you got a position within the company, so everyone knew how to work with you. The sociologist who reviewed my results said that I was a bit like an elephant: when I entered a room everyone would know it, and if my foot fell it would be a resounding stomp, whether or not I intended it to.) A casual reading of my employment reviews would validate this: the best term I think that has ever been applied to my attitude is that I was “highly apolitical”. Time has allowed me to learn how to say “No”, for example, in sixteen different and appropriate ways, but the long and the short of it is if I want something I will ask for it, and if I am told No and I don’t understand why I will press.

Which I guess makes me rather “mannish” in the workforce.

So when Sheryl Sandberg talks about not even thinking about asking for something until it became a really big issue (e.g., preferential parking for expectant mothers) I must confess I don’t understand. When one of the most intelligent, driven women I know in my social circle tells me that until she read this book she would have thought twice, or not at all, pursued a particular project because she wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing so, I am aghast. This book wasn’t particularly instructive to me. It was however, revelatory.

Leaning In Objectively

There is an old joke that PMS is “when women act like men do all the time”. I don’t really think this is accurate and in any event because of better things and better living through chemistry it doesn’t apply to me. However I do think that women can be raised, or conditioned, to not ask for things they want.  It is kind of bittersweet that a Pantene commercial illustrates the deltas in how some women perceive themselves (as well as how they perceive society perceives them, etc.)  It’s entirely possible I am perceived as a bitch, that I’m bossy, or that I’m self-promoting. The question becomes though: what is the end result of my efforts? If I get the promotion, or the project, or the job, or the budget, have I failed still because I ruffled a feather or two? If the tenet is that “men do it all the time” do feathers get equally ruffled? We are told that men “ball-bust” each other and the sting doesn’t last; why must I assume it does if I engage in it as well (abiding thoroughly by the rule that if you dish it, you need to take it).

Bottom line: if I earn what I was after, does it matter if I’m “liked” as much as if I had stayed put? And does it matter, to me, to be liked by someone who would  rather I had stayed put? Like blaming Beyoncé for the perceptions that men may have of other women because of her gyrations, I don’t know that you can blame the woman who gets the project, or the raise, or the bonus, and possibly irks someone, because she asked for and earned it. If there’s anyone who needs to own that, it’s the one who is irked.