10 Things I Learned In 2016

1) NARP: Nonathletic Regular Person. From this conversation between Jason Kottke and his niece about her usage of Snapchat.

2) Nae-nae: ‘a hip-hop dance that involves planting one’s feet, swaying with shoulder movement, placing one hand in the air and one hand down, and incorporating personal creativity’ (Wikipedia). From Sophia DeJesus’ college gymnast routine, as described by Time.

3) LIGO: Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. From this New Yorker story about how scientists finally found gravitational waves. Also, the ‘interferometer’. What a brilliant word!

4) Zero-day exploits: ‘an undisclosed computer-software vulnerability that hackers can exploit to adversely affect computer programs, data, additional computers or a network. It is known as a “zero-day” because it is not publicly reported or announced before becoming active, leaving the software’s author with zero days in which to create patches or advise workarounds to mitigate its actions’ (Wikipedia). From this blog post by Ben Thompson discussing the dispute between Apple and the FBI over hacking an iPhone earlier this year.

5) Mario and Luigi: the names of the two robots created by the MIT Senseable City Lab to crawl underground sewers in Cambridge, MA and collect virus samples. From this Forbes article explaining the project.

6) This Noah Chomsky quote, which can be applied to 2016 in general, from this Medium post by Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab on why she left the University of Wisconsin-Madison for Temple University.

“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.”

7) The cellphone reception area between DC and Baltimore was called the ‘dogbone’ because it represents the shape of the area served by the same tower. From Sarah Koenig’s day 3 update to Serial Season 1. 

8) The longest artist name recorded on Songkick is The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die (61 characters). From this Songkick post on designing with data. 

9) Prosopagnosia: Face blindness (Wikipedia). From this TED talk by Nancy Kanwisher, ‘A Neural Portrait of the Human Mind.

10) Qualia: The way things seem to us. Read this PDF for more. First spotted in this Aeon article about how AI can shed new light on literary texts.

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Highlighted passages from ‘Between the World and Me’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This book is almost quotable in its entirety. It can be distilled into one hashtag: #blacklivesmatter. Still, here are a few passages that I pulled out.

Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made. That is a philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket. It was only after you that I understood this love, that I understood the grip of my mother’s hand. She knew that the galaxy itself could kill me, that all of me could be shattered and all of her legacy spilled upon the curb like bum wine. And no one would be brought to account for this destruction, because my death would not be the fault of any human but the fault of some unfortunate but immutable fact of “race”, imposed upon an innocent country by the inscrutable judgment of invisible gods. The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed. The typhoon will not bend under indictment. They sent the killer of Prince Jones back to his work, because he was no killer at all. He was a force of nature, the helpless agent of our world’s physical laws.

All my life I’d heard people tell the black boys and black girls to “be twice as good”, which is to say “accept half as much”. These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile. No one told those little white children, with their tricycles, to be twice as good. I imagined their parents telling them to take twice as much. It seemed to me that our own rules redoubled plunder. It struck me that perhaps the defining feature of being drafted into the black race was the inescapable robbery of our time, because the moments we spent readying the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much, could not be recovered. The robbery of time is not measured in lifespans but moments. It is the last bottle of wine that you have just uncorked but do not have time to drink. It is the kiss that you do not have time to share, before she walks out of your life. It is the raft of second chances for them, and twenty-three hour days for us.

But like at least one third of all the students who came to Howard, Prince was tired of having to represent other people. These Howard students were not like me. They were the children of the Jackie Robinson elite, whose parents rose up out of the ghettos, and the sharecropping fields, and went out into the suburbs, only to find that they carried the mark with them and could not escape. Even when they succeeded, as so many of them did, they were singled out, made examples of, transfigured into parables of diversity. They were symbols and markers, never children or young adults. And so they come to Howard to be normal – and even more, to see how broad the black normal really is.

 

Highlighted passages from ‘Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl: A Memoir’ by Carrie Brownstein

I know this is the end of the year, but ‘Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A Memoir‘ was one of the first books I read this year. I’m just putting these down for posterity, passages that stood out for me, that I thought resonated with me or were otherwise just lyrical. And they teach me so much in themselves; about memories, music, elitism, fandom – and just being human.

Nostalgia is so certain: the sense of familiarity it instills makes us feel like we know ourselves, like we’ve lived. To get a sense that we have already journeyed through something – survived it, experienced it – is often so much easier and less messy than the task of currently living through something.

There was a stillness about the past, a clarity, the way it has been somewhat defined and dissected, in the rearview mirror; it was there for the taking, for the mining.

I don’t know much theory, I play by instinct and feel, I could probably get schooled by an eight-year-old on tonics and inversions. But back then, the word ‘musician’ had a professional characteristic to it that would have made it more alienating and anathema. Back then, I was still just a fan of music. And to be a fan of music also meant to be a fan of cities, of places. Regionalism – and the creative scenes therein – played an important role in the identification and contextualization of a sound or aesthetic. Music felt married to place, and the notion of “somewhere” predated the Internet’s seeming invention of “everywhere” (which often ends up feeling like “nowhere”).

To this day, because I know no other way of being or feeling, I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman in a band – I have nothing else to compare it to. But I will say that I doubt in the history of rock journalism and writing any man has been asked “Why are you in an all-male band?”

Though I had no reservations about touring with Pearl Jam, elitism was a stubborn habit to kick. A small part of my brain retreated to my younger self, reminding me that in certain circles Nirvana had been considered the cooler, more authentic band. Nirvana’s music dragged you across the floor, you felt every crack, every speck of dirt. Their songs helped you locate the places where you ached, and in that awareness of your hurting you suddenly knew that the bleakness was collective, not merely your own. In other words, it’s okay to feel like a freak. And in high school, and for much of my adult life, maybe even now, I had, I do.

I love being a new onlooker, a convert. To become a fan of something, to open and change, is a move of deliberate optimism, curiosity, and enthusiasm.

 

Support the Ada’s List crowdfunding campaign!

 

Hello to whoever’s still out there reading this! This last year has been a whirlwind, but I’m out of blog hibernation to announce an important project for Ada’s List, the global community for women in technology I co-founded 3 years ago. We’re an online community where women who work in tech:

  • Talk off the record about professional, tech and science-related topics
  • Find amazing women to speak on panels and talented ladies to write about
  • Find support if you’re a co-founder, entrepreneur, freelancer, corporate innovator
  • Get mentoring, and so much more.

Whatever we’ve achieved so far has happened on a shoestring with the blood, sweat and tears of volunteers who care about making the tech sector a better place for us all.

That’s why we’re launching a crowdfunding campaign. With concrete resources to support us, imagine what more we could achieve.

We know that in an ideal world Ada’s List wouldn’t exist, because there would be no need to fight for gender equality in STEM. But, the truth is the sector is dominated by men. There are not enough women in STEM positions, or on boards of companies. This all adds up to creating a macho-culture which not only impacts what women can sometimes achieve but also influences the end-product built by a company – and things are better when they’re created by a diverse group of people.

A quick summary of some of the things we’ve done:

  • Launched our agenda, committing ourselves to increasing diversity and promoting women into leadership across the tech sector
  • We are growing at 5-10% every month
  • Our UK General Election survey last year was covered in the mainstream press, and we were featured in publications like Fortune and the London Evening Standard.
  • We’ve established a strong management team supported by committed volunteers and an advisory board.
  • But we are even more proud of how active our membership has become. It’s not just a talking shop – members are supporting each other daily, by mentoring, sharing jobs and organising or participating in regular meetups and events keeping women in tech engaged in the industry. 

How can you help?

Today, we’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign. We want to raise £25,000 so that in 2017 we can expand Ada’s List.

Anything you can donate will help us kick off a successful fundraiser – thank you!

Thoughts on the importance of the vote in light of #drumpf & #brexit

Yesterday I was angry, and very disappointed in the world. It’s exactly what I felt on 23rd June, when the UK voted to leave the EU. The dust has settled a bit in the last 24 hours and I have been thinking a few things I wanted to write down.

As a liberal and someone who wants positive change in this world (go Ada’s List), those feelings of depression, anger and frustration are unsurprising. The vast majority of people I know felt just as I did on both occasions.

The thing is, that’s the problem. This election has woken me up to the fact that it is not OK that the people I know are largely, like me, educated, comfortable in their surroundings, privileged and middle class. And that some of them do not feel strongly enough about things that affect all of us.

Of Trump’s victory, the reasons put forth are varied and complex. Maybe the media is to blame, but so are we – they feed off clicks, so if stories about Trump’s sexual misdemeanours make them more money than his views on education (hardly covered) then that’s where they’ll go. Maybe technology is to blame – Facebook has admitted they have a problem, and during this election they probably have been a ‘sewer of misinformation’. Perhaps the American electoral system, in yesterday’s case, is also to blame – Trump won the Electoral College but he did not win the popular vote. The incredibly negative campaigns run by both parties probably contributed to voter apathy, resulting in many people not turning up at all. And we cannot ignore race and gender as reasons for Clinton not making it – white men voted overwhelmingly for Trump, and so did most 45+ white women, especially Conservatives – the CNN’s Jill Filipovic explains this phenomenon.

But all that makes it easy to place the blame on others, not on myself, or, as is being theorised now, the neoliberals (not that I am part of the Davos set – far from it, but hopefully you get what I mean).

There are many complicated reasons why Clinton lost, but the one that I want to dwell on is voter turnout, which is currently reported to be 56.5%, lower than the turnout at the last election (remarkably, in the case of Brexit, voter turnout was actually much higher than expected – 72.2%, though of course with a much smaller population than the US overall).

Very simply, not enough people turned up to vote in America, and not enough Remain supporters turned up for the Brexit vote, despite the better-than-average turnout in the latter.

Voter turnout is not the whole reason Clinton lost (see above, and yes, I truly do believe that many American people were just not ready for a female President, even though countries in Africa and Asia have had them for ages), but it’s ‘an important subplot’ as Vox says:

Clinton garnered 129,000 fewer votes in heavily Democratic Detroit than Obama did four years ago — and lost the state by around 61,000 total votes.

She also got 95,000 fewer votes in heavily Democratic Milwaukee than Obama did — and lost the state by 73,000 total votes.

This is why I’ve been bothered. With Brexit, I actually know people who simply did not turn up to vote – laziness or sheer apathy is all I can attribute it to. And I’m ashamed that I did not stand up and shout. I did not make my opinion known and chastise them. When everyone sat down at the pub to discuss politics, I did not make my thoughts on the importance of the vote clear, especially when, as a woman, we did not have it till a few decades ago. And that’s what results in an ‘extinction-level event’ that puts women and ethnic minorities at risk.  

I will be quiet no longer.

If you do not vote, you do not have a voice. You, by default, are then leaving it to those who can be bothered, because they are angry or frustrated enough by the lack of economic opportunity and what they see as ‘outsiders’ taking what they think should be theirs – and what resonates with them sometimes, as we have now seen, is racist, sexist rhetoric.

The penalty will need to be paid by the minorities.

The people I know who do not vote, some of whom, as I said earlier, are comfortable, undeterred by high taxes because they can afford it, are part of the problem. I will treat them as such going forward.

At least I will have a clearer conscience.

Summary of Ada’s List event: Talent + Gender + Ethnicity – where are the women of colour in tech?

Last week, during London Technology Week, Ada’s List was proud to organise a panel discussion on a topic close to our hearts: how to increase the number of people of colour (especially women) in the technology industry. We state our ambition on this matter very clearly in our Agenda: the technology industry needs diversity of people and thought to make the products and services that emerge as successful as possible.

Over the last few years, there has been a significant increase in the number of groups and individuals talking about gender diversity. We decided it was time to focus on diversity of background in addition to this. We assembled a very talented (and yes, diverse) panel: Ade Adewunmi (Head of Data Infrastructure at Government Digital Service), Ade Oshineye (Developer Advocate at Google) and Arfah Farooq (co-founder of the Muslamic Makers meetup and Head of Marketing at Makers Academy), moderated by Ada’s List’s Kajal Odedra (Senior Campaigns Advisor at change.org).

Being a person of colour in tech

The panel started by discussing their experiences of being a person of colour in tech. On the positive side, it is easy for people to remember them because they are such a rarity. On the negative, there’s a lack of role models because there aren’t enough people of colour in the first place. Also sometimes, finding a safe space to be yourself at work is hard; for example, if you’re a practicing Muslim then you need a space to pray during the day. As a person of colour who uniquely experiences certain issues, they often have to decide whether to make a big deal of something or let it pass; as one of the panelists said, that is often exhausting.

On tokenism

With many companies committing to diversity in hiring these days, it is not unusual to think of ‘diverse’ hires as token hires, made simply to fill that quota. On the one hand, no one wants to be seen as a token hire, but on the other, that may be the only way to enter that company in the first place, from where you are in a position to change the status quo and get more people of colour on board. There is an assumption that the status quo is absolutely fair and there is no need for quotas, as one of our panelists said, but that is not the case – so quotas are not a bad thing. As she eloquently put it:

‘when you’ve never had to share, equity feels like oppression’.

On diversity in large vs. smaller companies

Lack of diversity is very often a structural problem – i.e a cultural problem, not a pipeline one. Humans have only so much empathy and sometimes they cannot see why a specific issue is a problem, especially if as a white male you’ve never experienced them. However, being a structural problem, structural solutions need to be put in place to tackle it as a matter of importance – otherwise no one does anything about it in a concerted manner. No doubt, for larger organisations it’s often easier to care because they have the resources to throw at the problem – also in today’s world they have to (witness how Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter all got called out when their diversity statistics were discovered recently). For smaller organisations, the key is in the founding team: if they are not empathetic, then cultural problems will pervade no matter what you do. It is important to remember, however, that having a diverse founding team does not automatically guarantee diversity of workforce: sometimes diverse founders are not very inclusive at all (and this is often seen in the media when senior people from different ethnicities in the tech industry say they believe in ‘hiring only on talent’ – whoever said that hiring a diverse workforce would mean you need to compromise on that?!).

One of the panelists made an interesting point on spreading awareness of your culture even if you are the only person of colour in your organization: though it is often tiring to have that burden, if you don’t do it no one will, and people often appreciate learning about new cultures. Another of our panelists added to that, and warned that if you get a reputation for being difficult, or worse, get fired, then you have no way of helping others in any way – that knowledge of how much to assert your point of view regarding diversity is a very delicate balance that you only learn to achieve with experience. It is also crucial to challenge senior people in companies who have clear prejudices, or make wrong comments. Sometimes the bias is unconscious, but it still needs to be called out, and again you can only have those conversations if you are at that senior level yourself and share a relationship with people at that level that will not put your career in jeopardy if you speak to them about these subjects.

Tactics to get a skilled diverse workforce

Go for structural solutions: for example, Thoughtworks sponsors free coding scholarships for women at Makers Academy, where they ensure candidates are from diverse backgrounds. These candidates then get the chance to be hired by ThoughtWorks. In a similar move, a few years ago Etsy sponsored female students at Hacker School in New York and increased the number of women on the team by 500%.

Give unconscious bias training to all employees: People usually think of themselves as good people who are not biased. Making this training compulsory might help people see that they aren’t bad individuals, but they need to be aware of their inherent bias so they can tackle it. This is particularly important for managers who are in a hiring position. Facebook and Google both offer this training, and Facebook’s Managing Bias training course is available for free online.

Managers, push back on shortlists that are not 50-50 male-female: I am increasingly hearing positive stories of enlightened, informed managers in the tech industry who are pushing back at recruitment and HR teams if they are given candidate shortlists that are not equally split in male/female representation. Managers are in a very strong position to make a difference, and pushing back that bit can really help the diversity of teams and companies in the long run – even if you have to keep a position open for a little while longer than you’d like when your own manager is asking questions.

Get diverse experts in to talk to your teams: A lot of companies organise events for their employees or the wider industry. Instead of inviting white men to take the stage repeatedly, make sure you get people of colour and women on a regular basis so that becomes normal, not unusual. This will of course be difficult but it’s important to send the signal because, as one of our panelists experienced, there are men who sometimes do not see women as experts in coding (for example) because they have never known or worked with a senior female developer in the industry before, and are not used to taking instructions or lessons from them.

All in all, an important set of questions and very interesting answers that I personally was proud to be a part of on behalf of Ada’s List. Thanks to all our panellists for a great evening.

Random thoughts on media

We’re at an interesting crossroads in media right now, in terms of the multiplicity of formats and platforms available to publish stories on. That much I think everybody will agree with. Chat bots, virtual reality, augmented reality, live 360 degree streaming, podcast binging – you’d almost be forgiven for thinking text and video were done. OK, I jest. Text certainly isn’t done – it’s why this print ad above by Tate Britain seemed so engaging to me yesterday when I saw it in the local newspaper.

 

They’ve *described* a painting. It’s rather evocative. There are lots of Instagrammers whose best posts are actually text too, despite the fact that Instagram is, prima facie, a visual medium. People will hack things to do what they want it to, as long as it isn’t too complicated.

But before we get to users of a platform, we need to address the creators of the content (why Instagram isn’t tweaking features to incorporate some of these hacks is beyond me – no wait, it’s because their main focus now is making money; thanks Facebook). This is where what Jessica Brillhart, principal VR filmmaker at Google, said in this Motherboard piece makes a lot of sense:

If a VR film is trying to get people to look where they’re supposed to, it’s already asking the wrong question.

“It’s more, how do we craft an entirety of a world to be able to harness the agency of the viewer being able to look wherever they want to look,” Brillhart said. “To see it as world-building, instead of trying to put things in a box.”

And so we’re talking about the immense power that content creators now have (they have always had power; it is why publishing houses are so powerful) but technology makes this anyone’s game, and there is a real need for more diverse stories to be told at this emerging stage of this technology. It’s part of why Minecraft is so brilliant, and why No Man’s Sky is so anticipated – the power to create and explore is distributed, not concentrated.

From a creator’s perspective, one can either get bogged down by this, or we can focus on the future. As Joshua Topolsky says,

….if you want to make something really great, you can’t think about making it great for everyone. You have to make it great for someone.

So as with VR and the potential to forge a new world, content creators today can choose to get sucked in by the need for distribution (I’m not taking this lightly, but I tend towards leaving it to the professionals like Medium who seem to be on fire lately, or if you have tens of thousands or a few millions to spare, then the sky is your limit) or focus on telling stories that matter to people who want to listen.