Lost in Data

I like data. I tend to put a lot of stock in it. For scientists, data* is a key part of our lives and work. Data is how we learn, which enables us to progress.

But we have to acknowledge something very important about data. Data does not materialize out of vacuum. It doesn’t just appear on a computer drive somewhere. It’s gathered, processed, and analyzed.

Even when elements are automated, along the way humans designed the automation. They made decisions about which things to measure, how and when and where to measure them, which data points and metadata to record or retain, how to categorize or cluster data or deal with outliers…

These are human activities, meaning there are opportunities for our biases and agendas to influence the processes. Many strive to minimize the effects of bias, applying methods and strategies to design the questions, data collection processes, and analyses to get to an accurate answer in an appropriate and ethical way. They acknowledge the limitations of their approaches and data too. It can take great awareness and care to avoid biasing data.

But decisions about data collection and analysis can be driven by partisanship and chauvinism**. You don’t have to change data to manipulate it. You can modify it in the way you collect and analyze it.

The easiest is that to just stop collecting the data—or never collect it in the first place. You can’t report what you don’t measure. It can make for an incredibly useful stall tactic. We need data to know if an issue is persistent and widespread, “worthy” of investing precious time and dollars. Of course getting that data will take time and dollars.

A perhaps more sly way is to have a system in place but make the data difficult to report. You can to point to “data” and proclaim, See, no problem here! But the absence of reporting, especially for large organizations, doesn’t translate to the absence of incident.

Another approach is to change how you collect, categorize, or analyze the data. You influence who’s represented and in what way. You shift how a subset of data from one grouping to another. You modify the algorithm.

Without calling attention, you make changes (relative to how predecessors did it) to “close” the pesky gaps that groups have rallied around and worked to change. Look at the progress! Nothing more to worry about. Those groups still saying it’s an issue—well, they’re obsessed, fanatics. 

I’ve been reading Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Womenwhich looks at the backlash against women’s gains and feminism through the 1980s. I’ve been struck in the latter half of the book (which focuses on backlash as seen in politics, popular psychology, women at work, and reproductive rights) by how data was used to pushback against (legitimate) claims of persisting disparities. Much of this was driven by federal offices under the control of Reagan appointees, combined with budget cuts, reducing the data collected, failing to process cases/claims (which can become points of data), or changing the way data was categorized or analyzed. I can’t help but wonder how much of this is happening now.

Today, as a society, we’ve become more engrossed in data. We collect more data perhaps than ever before. Too often I see the sentiment that data is somehow “pure”, untouched by human dispositions. Critical information and trends can be lost in the data, and we may be none the wiser if we don’t engage critically with the data, processes, and agendas that generated it.

* Yes, technically data is plural (unless talking about Data, the android). I’m intentionally using singular verbs as I’m referring to data as a single concept, not a collection of data points here.

** Chauvinism used here in its broader meaning of “undue partiality or attachment to a group or place to which one belongs or has belonged.”

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#januwordy: Authentic

Authentic. It’s a word that permeates the public life of social media. Newbies are advised to “be authentic.” Some established account holders talk about the imperative to be their “authentic selves.” But what does that mean?

Authenticity generally implies a certain level of openness and transparency. It’s the feeling that you have a good sense about the person from the words and actions that you see. To borrow another cliche, it’s “being true to yourself.”

But what does that look like in a world where put parts of our lives on display for acquaintances and strangers around the world? In spheres where engagement is measured in clicks and likes? There’s an underlying suggestion that authenticity will bring followers and connections, perhaps even attention and opportunities, maybe even financial gain one day.

Here I stumble. Do we really want authenticity? Or do we want performances of “authenticity”? #humble #blessed 

I can’t help but wonder about the many factors that contribute to our interpretations of authenticity.

How much of our expectations are driven by gendered, racial, ethnic, age, religious, and other stereotypes? She cares too much about money and power. He poses too hard as a feminist. She doesn’t post about this topic enough. They talk about that thing too much.

How much of our read of authenticity is about seeing trauma or pain? Certainly talking about struggles can be valuable, letting other people know they’re not alone and creating an opening for support from a virtual community. But there are pieces that many of us keep to small private circles, maybe even just to ourselves, at least for a while. That was true before the internet and remains true now. Failing to broadcast our anguish doesn’t make a person/a any less authentic, and may in fact be more so for a given individual.

True authenticity takes many forms, no matter which ‘verse we’re moving in. Some forms will resonate with us, as individuals, more clearly than others. And perhaps it’s worth a few moments of self-reflection to examine the ones that do and don’t.

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Furloughed Forgotten

We’ve hit Day 28 of the partial Federal shutdown.

The moment the shutdown began, the media started talking about the 800,000 Federal employees who would be affected—either required to work or not allowed to work, both anticipating their next paychecks wouldn’t arrive on time (and they didn’t).

But in addition to those Federal employees whose lives have been disrupted, contractors are getting hit by the furlough as well. They garner an occasional mention in the news stories about government shutdowns.

But broadly there’s a limited awareness of the roles of contractors and how their affected by the the shutdown. You see this in comments such in the vein of, It sucks that feds aren’t getting paid right now, but they’ll get paid later.

Yes, Congress has already passed the bill to guarantee federal employees backpay. That does little to alleviate the financial and emotional tolls of today.

But that bill also does nothing for those who are contractors. In shutdowns past, many contractors have just had to take a loss. Their employers don’t get paid for the time, so often neither do the individual contractors. (In some locales, their employers can mandate use of PTO to cover compensation, but it depends on state and local laws—and that of course has other consequences.) This week Senator Tina Smith introduced a bill to get contractors backpay (at least for low-wage workers arguably hit hardest by the shutdown).

A lot of folks who aren’t US citizens or permanent residents work for the federal government—generally as contractors due to requirements for federal employment. They face another stressor in times of shutdown—visa status. Some employers continue paying their foreign workers in the US to continue fulfilling the visa requirements, money the firm hasn’t in the past been able to recoup. If the firm can’t afford/won’t cover the wages and the shutdown drags on another month, then many contractors’ visas will be out of status (unless they find employment elsewhere).

Federal contractors include a wide range of positions. Many of them are low-wage workers. The shutdown is devastating a lot of people’s lives. All because of a presidential tantrum and a submissive/cooperative GOP leadership.

Some thoughts on the short shutdown in 2018 remain largely relevant today:

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#januwordy: Thrive

Just a few weeks ago, goal setting was the topic everyone was talking about. It’s inevitable as the changing of the year approaches. Over where I co-blog about running and related things, I wrote about setting SMART/smart goals. The latter brought me back to a concept I picked up last year of selecting a theme or mantra for the year.

As I considered my running goals, I thought about a theme that would fit, not just for fitness but for life more broadly.

It started with a single word: thrive.

The word carries particular connotations for me. It prompts an image of a healthy, growing plant, or even a lush, active ecosystem filled with flora and fauna. It communicates to me both growth and calm. There’s a sense of freedom to thriving. There’s still plenty of activity and change, even work and effort involved, but not in a way that translates to exertion and exhaustion. (Maybe this just reads like, “work but not work.” An image is worth a thousand words, and maybe I’m not finding the best ones to communicate the image in my head.)

I set building as my theme for 2018. There were enormous changes in my life last year. As I reflected on 2018 a few weeks ago, another word came to mind: striving. 

Like thrive, strive has certain undertones in my mind—exertion, trying. There’s a sense of push, even struggle. It prompts me to think of high intensity intervals, workouts when I, for instance, sprint hard for a quarter mile, even up to a mile. At the end of that interval, I’m gasping for air, my legs are burning, and I feel like I don’t have one more step. Then the recovery period begins, a walk or a slow jog to catch my breath and my legs before going again.

Striving is a good thing. “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you,” a gym instructor would say in the midst of a challenging interval. But high intensity intervals, while incredibly beneficial, are just one element of training. Variety is the spice of life, and if your ultimate goal is to go a long distance, you have to put in long, easy miles. And if you want to do it for some time to come, then every effort can’t be a slog. If it is, that’s a recipe for burnout.

In 2018, I had an injury that forced me to stop running a few weeks and derailed delayed a major goal. There were some bumps (to be expected) in moving into full-time residence with my partner, but eventually we settled in. My new job brought some challenges too.

Transitions—new place, new responsibilities—are always stressful. But my supervisor normally would have contributed heavily to my training and development but wasn’t able to at the time time. He provided guidance as needed, and my co-workers were very helpful in bringing me up to speed, not just on structure and approach but also on vision and culture. I forged ahead and figured things out, but I felt tentative, beyond the typical new job jitters. And then my supervisor died. Oddly, after the initial period of shock and grief, I’ve started to move a couple of projects forward, slowly, even as we search for a new director.

As I reflected on the year behind and the year to come, I found that I felt I’d been in the strive space and wanted to find the thrive space. There is still a place for reaching and pushing in the latter, but I’m looking to find my stride—the point where I’m moving with purpose and pace but a certain level of comfort and confidence.

When I described my 2019 mantra at Boundary Conditions, though, I set it as “progress from striving to thriving.” I wanted to acknowledge that, even if I find that “thrive space”, it’s not going to be easy or flawless or constant. There will ever be times and places to strive, when struggling is part of the process. I wanted to frame my theme as progress over perfection.

As I’ve spent more time meditating on this mantra, I’ve realized that this little token perhaps captures what I’m looking for.

Flat gold ring with an imprint: "FIND FLOW"

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#januwordy: Magic formula

Over the years, a few fantasy stories relying on magic (Harry Potter, The Green Rider) have captured my interest. The crux of the stories is often formulaic.

Generally there is some hereditary component. In some cases, certain species wield magic while others cannot. In other stories, children whose parents were adept at magic typically have some power, even if they were not raised by their parents. Of course, as with many genetic traits, magic sometimes “skips” an individual or generation.

Occasionally you also find individuals from “non-magic” lineages. Perhaps if you trace back family history, you might find an ancestor with magical abilities. Or maybe it’s just a random mutation.

Whether inherited or not, though, a character has to start with an innate ability. A kid with no magic power doesn’t develop it just by trying really hard. (Magic clearly provides a basis for exploring genetics, and the world does not disappoint. It’s part of a lesson in the National Library of Medicine exhibition Renaissance Science, Medicine, and Magic in Harry Potter’s World.) Perhaps on occasion, magic is “bestowed” upon an individual but usually at a price.

A core tenet of magic stories is that those who do have an ability have to practice. They can use their power without training or practice, but typically there are limitations. The results of “raw talent” are sporadic or uncontrolled or exhausting. They need instruction and guidance to harness their potential. On the flip side, someone with average magical talent can excel by spending a lot of time practicing, doing a task over and over again until mastered. (We hear similar true stories of individuals with incredible aptitude for sport, music, chess, and other activities.)

Another central theme is light versus darkness. Inevitably there is someone with great magical power to fight. (Let’s face it: They’d be pretty dull stories otherwise.) Often they have a similar origin story as the protagonist or another “good” character in the story. In fact, it’s not uncommon that they were trained by the protagonist’s mentor but became corrupted in some way. This is the ages old story of power and the effect it has on people.

The antagonist typically has greater power and a mighty force behind them. They may draw in those at the fringes of society, sometimes those who have suffered from or been left behind in the progress of the dominant “good” society from which our protagonist hails. Sometimes they create their armies, from the dead or by transforming captives or bending creatures to their will. The recruitment approach can prompt us to examine what the cost of “progress” and how “good” societies are built. The creation strategy is effective from a storytelling standpoint, because it clearly communicates to the reader that the antagonist has no boundaries.

The end comes down to a showdown. The odds are stacked against our protagonist. There’s no way they should be able to win. They struggle valiantly. They come to the verge of defeat. Then, just as all hope is lost, a solution appears—sometimes magically. Our protagonist overcomes. It is the antagonist who falls, shocked by their demise at the hands of this underdeveloped upstart.

Despite the formula, these stories of magic can still be fun to read.

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