Monday, November 28, 2011

Why Google's algorithms are sexist and FAIL

I was sick and tired of getting the same ad from the same wealthy "I'm going to try to buy the CT SEN election again" politician on EVERY. SINGLE. WEBSITE I visit, so I clicked on the Google Adsense button to see if there was some way I could opt out of receiving it. And boy, did I learn some interesting things about myself and Google's algorithm from that experience.

Here's what Google thinks about me:

Yep - apparently, based on my searches, I am a male between the ages of 55-64. On what would Google possibly be making that assumption, I wonder? Because I'm searching Finance? News and Politics? Science?  C'mon Google... I've got some "womanly things" like "Books and Literature" and "Arts and Entertainment". What would it take for me to convince you that I'm a female, Google Geeks? Searching for the Kardashians? Justin Bieber? Breast implants? Shoes? 

This makes me furious - because it's so inherently sexist. Why does a keen interest in politics automatically make me male? Women often bear the brunt of the political policies wrought by men for ideological reasons - be it cutting social services, defunding Planned Parenthood, or...well, I could go on. We need to be politically aware and active to protect ourselves and our children's futures. 

As for finance - well, look what a smashing job the Old Boys Network has done with our financial infrastructure. Is it any wonder that I take an interest in what's going on when the future financial stability of the country has been in the hands of people who are so grossly dishonest, greedy and incompetent, presided over by an enabling Congress? 

If that makes me a man, well, send me my Man Card. And while you're at it Google Geeks, how about you guys do the dishes and cook and do the grocery shopping and laundry and all many things I do as well as my "manly" interests, while working my freelance jobs and raising two children with better values than any of these so called "men" appear to have. 

And PS Google Ad Geeks:  - I'd really like to not see that ad again.  Even if it is from a woman.

Innovation, creativity, and humanity - what I learned from reading Isaacson's Steve Jobs

Last night, just as my daughter was coming in to say goodnight to me,  I turned the final page on Walter Isaacson's fascinating biography on the late Steve Jobs. My daughter, who is, like me, a big Apple fan, asked me, "So did it change your opinion of him?"

The answer is complex, as it must be for a very complicated man.

There are  many things I admire about Jobs, both as a creative person, and someone who studied business administration  (I hope this becomes required reading for MBA courses).

The first, and perhaps the most important is that Jobs had a fervent belief of the importance of the liberal arts and humanities - as exemplified by the slide at the end of his product presentations showing the intersection of Liberal Arts Street and Technology Street.

"It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough. We believe that it's technology married with the humanities that yields us the result that makes our heart sing...We think we have the right architecture not just in silicon, but in our organization, to build these kinds of products."
Compare this thinking with that of Tea Party politicians like Florida Governor Rick Scott, who wants to drastically cut funding for higher education in the liberal arts in favor of the "STEM" disciplines. Scott should read Isaacson's book, pronto, in hopes that he might gain some understanding why his approach is moving us back to the past rather than preparing us for the future.

Steve Jobs was a great example of the term "Synthesis" - he drew ideas from different, disperate sources, many outside the field of technology and from them was able to originate a new way of looking at an issue.

Isn't that what we need more of in our society, in business, education, and government? There's so much pressure on kids to focus, focus, focus, so they can get into the "best college" (but is it the "best one for them?) and then get out there and make money. But we need more polymaths -people who can see beyond the balance sheet and profit and loss. People who can draw inspiration from other cultures instead of fearing them, because like it or not, we are a global society and there's no way to turn back the clock, no matter how much some people appear to wish to do so.

One of the most fascinating things for me from a business management perspective was Jobs' unique understanding of how the very culture of a business is shaped by the design of its' headquarters. (p.430-431).

"Despite being a denizen of the digital world, or maybe because he knew all too well its isolating potential, Jobs was a strong believer in face-to-face meetings. 'There's a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat,' he said. 'That's crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they're doing, you say 'Wow', and soon you're cooking up all sorts of ideas.'"

The Pixar building, therefore, was designed around one central atrium in order to promote just those kind of serendipitous encounters. The front doors, main stairs, and corridors all led to the atrium, the company cafe and mailboxes were there. It was the hub around which Pixar gravitated. And it worked.

"Steve's theory worked from day one" [John] Lasseter recalled. "I kept running into people I hadn't seen for months. I've never seen a building that promoted collaboration and creativity as well as this one."

But like many geniuses I've read about, Jobs was not an easy man to be around.  He clearly had disordered eating, if not an actual eating disorder. He appeared to exhibit many symptoms of  narcissistic personality disorder. Perhaps the best example of this comes late in the book (p.543). Isaacson is talking about Jobs' "complicated but always loyal" relationship with his wife Laurene Powell, who, early in their marriage, cofounded and launched College Track, an organization that helps disadvantaged kids graduate high school and get into college.

While Jobs paid lipservice to her work: " What she's done with College Track really impresses me," he never actually visited her after school centers.

So here's the woman who has supported him, loved him, looked after him, raised his kids - yet he couldn't even put himself out to visit the centers that are important to her? Sorry, that's husband fail on a grand scale. One of the most poignant parts of the book was an interview Isaacson had with Jobs' middle daughter, Erin, in which she made excuses for her father's inattention to her:

"He does his best to be a father and the CEO of Apple, and he juggles those pretty well...Sometimes I wish I had more of his attention, but I know the work he's doing is very important and I think it's really cool, so I'm fine. I don't really need more attention."
 Erin...for the record - I just want to say that I think YOU are really cool and I think you are very important. I bet you'll do some pretty cool stuff yourself someday.

So in answer to my daughter's question about if reading the book changed my opinion of Jobs - I think it made me respect his ideas and genius more, but him as a person less. Could he have been one without the other?

Isaacson's conclusion is that Jobs could have controlled himself if he wanted to. "When he hurt people, it was not because he was lacking in emotional awareness. Quite the contrary: He could size people up, understand their inner thoughts, and know how to relate to them, cajole them, or hurt them at will."

But on the other hand - even the people who he bullied acknowledge that he pushed them to do things they never thought possible.

My final line to my daughter: " He was a genius and a brilliant businessman, but I wouldn't want him as my husband or my father."

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Universe. And Car Talk

I've been feeling pretty down about human nature recently, what with the happenings at Penn State and idiotic conservatives making awful "jokes" like these in defense of Herman Cain.

Hardly surprising that the Wall Street Journal columnist would make insensitive sexist jokes. When I worked on Wall Street it was a cesspit of sexism and harrassment.

But sometimes, just when you're ready to hole up on your sofa in a Snuggie with a huge supply of chocolate and avoid the rest of the human race until it runs out,  G-d , the Universe, Fate, or whatever you want to call it, sends you a much needed reminder that there are really good people out there. 

So Friday afternoon, I got in the MomMobile, a dented, scratched, but regularly serviced SUV with 130K plus miles on the clock, and set off for Lititz, Pennsylvania, home to the amazing Aaron's Books

Unfortunately, in order to do this, I had to brave what Son and I refer to as The First Circle of Hell, otherwise known as the New Jersey Turnpike. (It used to be the Second Circle of Hell, but because of what I'm about to relate, it has been promoted to First.)

I'd just pulled off the Turnpike onto I-78 when, upon checking my rear view mirror*, I noticed white smoke emitting from my exhaust pipe. As a big fan of NPR's Car Talk, I knew that this was not a good sign. I went to get off at the next exit. As I went down the exit ramp, my power steering went. Then I noticed my brakes weren't so well either. At this point, you didn't have to be a Car Talk fan to know that things were seriously FUBAR. But as if I needed any more clues, white smoke started pouring out from under the bonnet. This car was smoking.

I managed to pull the car into a gas station forecourt across from the end of the exit ramp. Turned it off because I was afraid it was about to blow up. I asked the attendant if he could help me. He was more pissed off that my car was leaking some kind of fluid on his property. But then this wonderful man came out from the convenience store where he'd been buying a snack. His wife had seen me in trouble and she told him he had to help me. His name is George Gibson and he owns Gibson Auto Repair, right around the corner from where I rolled up in my smoking MomMobile with no brakes or steering. 

Mr Gibson could be on Car Talk himself because he REALLY knows car repairs. He stuck his finger into the liquid and immediately ascertained it was transmission fluid. He figured it was a hose that had snapped. But then he got worried because there was also green/blue fluid, which looked like a different problem, maybe the radiator.

 Meanwhile, the gas station guy is still freaking out that my car is leaking on to his forecourt, so Mr Gibson helped me back the car off the forecourt onto the street - by this point so much transmission fluid had leaked out that the car wouldn't move forward in drive, only in reverse. Then he and his employee Marvin towed me around the corner to his garage. 

At this point I'm totally panicking, because I have this crazy weekend schedule that involves much driving - book festival, visiting Son at college, then Philadelphia for Awesome Boyfriend's big family birthday celebration on Sunday afternoon. And now my car is kaput. To the rescue comes Mrs. Gibson, who drove me, the bagels I'd bought for Aaron's Books, the presents for Awesome Boyfriend's family, the 2 dozen chocolate chip cookies I'd baked for Son, my laptop bag, my weekend bag, and my presentation stuff (I wasn't exactly traveling light because I thought - "hey, I'll just THROW IT IN THE CAR") to Newark Airport so I could get a rental. 

Mr and Mrs Gibson and Marvin didn't know me from Adam. I was just some random author in distress who rolled in (literally) in a smoking (and I don't mean that in the OMG wish I owned one sense) car. But they couldn't have been kinder to me at a time when I was panicked and stressed and after a week when I hadn't been sleeping well because off all the stuff triggered by Penn State. I also have to mention the guy at Hertz,Newark,  who saw me schlepping all the aforementioned stuff trying to locate my rental car and asked me if he wanted him to go and get it. He also helped me load it all in the car, and when I tried to tip him he refused, and just told me he hoped my day got better. 
I was so touched by the kindness of these people I didn't even know, and it helped heal some of the scabs that have been torn open by the PSU stuff. 

And then this morning at breakfast I was blessed to met Sharon Robinson. Hearing her speak so passionately about her deeply personal connection with winners of the Breaking Barriers in Sports and Life Essay contest made me so profoundly grateful that we were brought together at this particular time. Because I needed reminding that for every Mike McQueary, Joe Paterno, Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, there's a Sharon Robinson, a Mr and Mrs Gibson, and a Marvin. 

There's hope for us yet.

*My fellow Americans, particularly those who stick in the left lane holding up traffic: I urge you to do this on a regular basis. Far more regularly than you apparently do. It could save your transmission.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Albus Dumbledore on Joe Paterno

 I've not been sleeping well this week. When you've been sexually abused as a child, you can do years of therapy and think "okay, I've dealt with that and I'm 'cured'" but then when you least expect it, something will happen that triggers this reaction from your reptilian brain, the one where the trauma was imprinted when you were young and scared and voiceless. I wrote about that here

So ever since I heard about the Penn State sexual abuse scandal, it's been one massive trigger after another. I wrote this initially, but watching the PSU students riot in support of Coach Joe Paterno was incredibly disturbing.

And then I read this piece by Joe Posnanski, Paterno's biographer.

Here's the part that really got me:

 Joe Paterno has lived a whole life. He has improved the lives of countless people. I know — I’ve talked to hundreds of them. Almost every day I walk by the library that he and his wife, Sue, built. I walk by the religious center that tries to bring people together, and his name is on the list of major donors. I hear the stories, the countless stories, of the kindnesses that came naturally to him, of the way he stuck with people in their worst moments, of the belief he had that everybody could do a little bit better — as a football player, as a student, as a human being. I’m not going to tell you these stories now, because you can’t hear them. Nobody can hear them in the howling.
But I will say that I am sickened, absolutely sickened, that some of those people whose lives were fundamentally inspired and galvanized by Joe Paterno have not stepped forward to stand up for him this week, have stood back and allowed him to be painted as an inhuman monster who was only interested in his legacy, even at the cost of the most heinous crimes against children imaginable.

I've been thinking about this a lot, and although I realize my perspective is colored by my experience, I still disagree with Posnanski and here's why. I'll let Dumbledore explain, because he is so much wiser than I am:

"It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."
         Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets  JK Rowling

When I teach writing workshops, I always start with character, because to me exploring the human character is the most interesting part of writing a novel. When we talk about plot, I explain the need to throw create tension by throwing stumbling blocks in the way of our character, because that forces the character to make choices, and it's through choices that the character experiences growth - or, conversely, exhibits the fatal flaw that leads to his or her downfall.

When I think about Joe Paterno, I think about the decent, good man that Posnanski sees, who had superlative abilities and indeed helped many young people. But who nonetheless had a tragic flaw.

Why did he make the choice he did? Is it because he was concerned about his legacy? Was it out of loyalty to a colleague whom he'd worked for years? We don't know the truth yet. But what we do know is that he made a despicable choice, for as yet to be ascertained reasons. And no matter what Joe Posnanski says, despite everything that has gone before, Joe Paterno deserves a tarnished legacy. Because our choices DO show what we truly are.