Projects and observations

Speaking up: Corporate edition

I am really impressed and proud of Lyft this morning. A private company, one that has potentially much to lose under a Trump administration, has sent and email to (all?) customers denouncing the ethically bankrupt actions of Trump with his recent immediate ban on refugees. It’s a deplorable move, and one that embarrasses me as an American. I really think we need many, many more companies to start stepping up and denouncing these actions. After all, corporations are people too, and it seems the only ones the administration will listen to. (The email came with announcement of a generous donation to the ACLU too!)

[Text reads:

Defending Our Values

Hi William,

We created Lyft to be a model for the type of community we want our world to be: diverse, inclusive, and safe.

This weekend, Trump closed the country’s borders to refugees, immigrants, and even documented residents from around the world based on their country of origin. Banning people of a particular faith or creed, race or identity, sexuality or ethnicity, from entering the U.S. is antithetical to both Lyft’s and our nation’s core values. We stand firmly against these actions, and will not be silent on issues that threaten the values of our community.

We know this directly impacts many of our community members, their families, and friends. We stand with you, and are donating $1,000,000 over the next four years to the ACLU to defend our constitution. We ask that you continue to be there for each other – and together, continue proving the power of community.

John & Logan
Lyft Co-Founders]


Nicely done, Lyft. I hope you inspire others.

[UPDATE: Apple too:]

Gamification of Ideological Exposure

Much is being written about ideological echo chambers. In particular, I’m enjoying Ethan Zukerman’s REWIRE, published in 2013, in advance of this seemingly sudden revelation after the 2016 US presidential election. Zukerman perfectly predicts (maybe it’s more accurate to say he observed) the phenomenon years ago. The idea that the great wondrous world of the internet has actually shrunk the points of view and differing ideals many of us are exposed to is counterintuitive, frustrating, and initially seems shocking. But it also makes perfect sense. We know that, left to our own devices, most of us seek out comfort, not challenge. We choose familiar ideas instead of ones that run contrary to our own. In short, we choose the easy path, not the hard one.

This is not unique to the media we consume, the people we follow on social media, or the neighborhoods we choose to live in. It also occurs when we look at the efforts put into political engagement (low), actions to mitigate climate change (low), and, perhaps most personally, the work most of us put into our own health and fitness. That latter category has had a great amount R&D devoted to it by researchers – mostly employed by, corporations who felt there was a way to make money by addressing this need. Weight-loss and fitness have been perennial money makers for generations, after all. When companies realized there was a way to add expensive tech to an established business model, the marketing campaigns practically wrote themselves.
Fitness trackers have boomed over the last few years. At their core, they serve as an easier way to quantify and visualize our physical activity over a given amount of time. Certainly they have helped me to better realize some of my bad habits, and to keep me more honest about the patterns in my exercise routine. This quantification is, most often, presented as a goal to reach each day/week/month and the awarding of virtual prizes and praise is nearly ubiquitous in these models. This is, clearly, the gamification of fitness. While the long-term effects are unclear, it is undeniable that some have benefited from this model.

I wonder what will happen if we apply this concept of gamifying a behavior that we generally dislike to encourage exposure to media that presents ideologies that we may not subscribe to ourselves?
The general idea behind a lot of gamification is to make an unpleasant activity fun, or at least to provide motivation for performing the activity. There are a great number of ways that rewards and motivations can present, but they are obviously effective for some. Getting in our step goal for the day, for instance, can result in a flashy animation and message of congratulations from our fitness apps, and even virtual medals for specific achievements. Even if the activity never becomes fun, if we can be motivated by these progress trackers, we can make progress towards our goals.
When it comes to exposure to dissimilar ideologies, goals are not nearly so clear or easy to quantify as for fitness. While I think that echo chambers are bad for everyone, I think it’s unlikely for most people to move too far beyond, say, a “reverb room” of ideological exposure very quickly. However, even that much of a move on the part of even a moderate portion of the population could have profound effects on our civic society. So, if our goals cannot be specific, how do we gamify exposure to ideologies? I think that measuring activity against a set of anti-goals may be useful. While it’s hard to say that “50% of your weekly reading should be outside your reverb room” it’s easier to say “less than 100% of your reading should come from within it.” It’s the extreme of the echo chamber that we need to avoid, not necessarily a perfect balance in all exposure.
But how do we even measure such things? That’s tough, to be sure. We have a general idea that some news sources lean one way or another (if you want to use the simplistic liberal/conservative spectrum for a measure) and we could, simply, categorize all stories from a specific outlet to be some percentage left or right of center. (see here and here) We could also use crowdsourcing to evaluate articles, provided enough people participating rate a specific story to avoid mischief. We could even use machine learning systems, trained on pre-scored corpora of material to evaluate individual news stories. (Seethe work of Marek Rei. I’m frustrated trying to find another researcher who trained a machine learning system to evaluate conservative vs liberal sources. I’ll update when I eventually find her again!)
If we have a reasonable way to score arbitrary content between the (again, much simplified but still useful) conservative and liberal extremes, then, much like counting steps and calories burned, we can tabulate an average for any set of stories. This could certainly be implemented in the form of a browser plugin, and could likely take other forms as well. For a responsible citizen of the US, making sure their browser bar contains, say, a purple dot, rather than a blue or red one, could become a personal goal.
We know that, for most of us, it is human nature to avoid hard things, especially when it seems we are the only ones to suffer from that avoidance. But accountability is an extremely important motivator, as are rewards. An automated system that tracks what we read, and gives us a reasonable estimate of its diversity, could assist a great many people in opening up their echo chambers, even if it is just a simple first step.

Common Sense Frustrates Me

Courtesy Ethan Lofton, Flickr

I have recently completed a psychology course at a local college. This survey-level course was required by a lot of various majors, and suggested widely to undecided students. Because of this, the majority of the students would never again set foot in a psychology classroom. The instructor, a seasoned pro at this class, understood this well and structured the class to provide a very practical education in the field, one that students could take away and apply, immediately, to their lives. I am a big fan of this approach as it did no harm to those of us who (at the time) planned on a continued education in the field, but provided much more to those who didn’t. However, there was a common appeal that surfaced again and again in class: most of this is just common sense.

I have been distrustful of this phrase and concept for ages, but it became very clear in the course of this class just how problematic (and nearly useless) this concept has become in our age. I think there are three very specific reasons (among others, for sure) that inform my feelings on this.

First, “common sense” is anything but common. The ways that culture, media exposure, specific upbringing, social class, etc. plays into our lives, no one has enough of a common background for the assumptions and “obvious” answers they may formulate to an issue to be so similar as to call theym common. I may have learned, growing up, that small transgressions of rule are best handled with an iron fist. You may have learned that the same situations are best handled with forgiveness and education. When confronted with a situation that calls on us to handle a transgression of rule, you and I will have very different “common sense” ways of dealing with it.

Additionally, “common sense” is not particularly sensible. We could substitute a varitey of phrases for “common sense” such as “gut feeling” or “intuition.” The gist is that we somehow know, deep down, the right answer to a problem making careful, detailed analysis unnecessary to render a verdict in a situation. However, we know that this is simply not the case. Common sense would mean that insignificant numbers of people would smoke, that the economy would be an open book, and that other complex systems would be laid bare if we just dug deep enough within ourselves.

That brings me to the third reason that reliance on common sense frustrates me. Our world is far too complex to suss out with a feeling. Now, I’m not denying that experts in a field develop an innate ability to evaluate a situation fairly accurately without the same analysis as others may need, but this situation is outside the realm of “common” as we usually use it. (Experts, for instance, usually know what does need specific analysis and, rather than evaluating an entire problem using their guts, they usually use their narrow version of common sense to understand how to better tackle the problem) For most of us, the systems we try to judge through our common sense are simply far too complex, with far more hidden variables and repercussions than we can be aware of. Yet I think it’s human nature to simplify to the point that we do think we can make a judgement about a situation. By discarding and collapsing complexity, we shape a situation into one that seems familiar to us and that we can easily formulate a “solution” to. This is innate in us, and a very useful trait, but one that seems to get us in trouble all the time.

I would like us to stop treating complex issues as ones that can be solved with common sense. I think there is a place for it, as flawed as it is, but it’s at a specific scale. For instance, if we use common sense in the application of core principles to laws, we may write better laws. (flawed, still, but better.) If we use common sense to evaluate small aspects of complex systems, it can help us build up a better idea of the whole. (still flawed, but useful) If we use common sense to evaluate our own actions as they relate to others, we may act better towards people. (maybe I’m dreaming.) But in all these cases, common sense can only be used as a small part of a full systematic evaluation, not as a simple way to pass judgement or make decisions.

I really wish we would learn that things are too complex for simple evaluations.

Changing Minds

One of the things I am most interested in is how we change minds. By this, I mean lasting, long-term change in attitude, not just a short-term, temporary persuasion. I think that there may be some overlap in technique, but my intuition tells me that these are vastly different activities with similarly different (and diverse) methods that must be brought to bear.

I have an enthusiastic hobbiest’s fascination with marketing and advertising which, I think, focuses much more on short-term change than what I am really interested in. However, I suspect that there is something to be learned by traditional marketing techniques, and newer techniques in particular. (Repetition, for instance, likely plays a role in both kinds of influence.) Since we are really just beginning to understand the psychology behind marketing techniques, there could be a wealth of knowledge around the corner. (That assumes that what we are learning ends up passing muster down the road, a substantial problem in the psychology field today.)

I have a lot of thoughts on the issue of changing minds in the long term, and I’ll mention them as they come up and my ideas on this matter refine. For now, I’ll just mention a few of the simpler ones.

Length and Depth of Engagement: I think that the amount of time and the depth of exposure to a potentially mind-changing point of view almost certainly influences its success. I imagine that a particularly traumatic experience may form lasting change, but outside of those unfortunate situations, regular, repeated exposure to an attitude, and more than a superficial understanding of that attitude is likely to be necessary for lasting change.

Willingness to Engage: This is really hard. I think it will forever be hard to change a mind that does not want to be changed. Or, put a different way, a completely closed mind is a static mind and a static mind, by definition, cannot be changed. I’m not much for absolutes, and that goes here as well, but “cannot be changed” and “exceedingly difficult to change” are nearly synonymous at this stage of our understanding of this topic.

Rewards for Engagement: Note that I say rewards for engagement here, not for actually changing of one’s mind which, if it happens, is probably it’s own reward in a way. (A more accurate/congruent sense of one’s beliefs, for instance, could be considered the reward.) I think that when looking at strategies for long-term changing of attitudes, rewarding the effort is likely to be at least somewhat important. I’m not sure exactly how this may play out, but instinctually, this feels like it has a place in the discussion.

I note that all three of the initial thoughts I mention above center around engagement with a new attitude. This is encouraging in a way because it means that there is some cohesiveness to my thoughts at this point. It is, however, discouraging because it’s the willingness to engage that I think is most lacking in our US society at present. I think I shall spend some time thinking about ways to prompt that engagement (and incorporating rewards for it, as mentioned above). A post is sure to follow.


Where my rights end

I have a basic philosophy that comes up in conversation quite a bit. I find it very useful to understand how rights in a civil society could be balanced using a simple refrain. It goes like this:

My rights end where yours begin.

This statement, if applied universally to all, leads to much clearer boundaries between people in society. I like to imagine the sphere of rights afforded each of us as small bubbles, pressed together like an n-dimensional foam. We all butt up against others, and others us, but none of us intrudes upon one another.

So, while I have the right to believe that a golden monkey rules existence, I don’t have the right to force your belief (or appearance of belief) in the same.

I sometimes extend this further.

You have the right to believe in murder as a fun thing to do. You even have the right to commit murder, I suppose. But others have a right not be be murdered. Since exercising your desired right to murder would infringe other’s right not to be murdered, you aren’t allowed to kill people. You are allowed to believe it’s OK to do so, but you don’t get to actually do it. (This does lend a different moral perspective to the occasional, and usually sensational stories of willing victims of murder.)

So then things get complicated.

Which right is to be protected more, the right to murder or the right to live? The right to believe in a deity or the right to live without such encumbrances? The right to a basic, living wage or the right to vast sums of wealth?

It seems there is no answer to this without a sense of just what we consider basic human rights, enumerations of which have been plentiful over existence, but meaningful application in society always seems to fall short.

But if we can come to consensus on what protected rights should be, I think my concept is useful for better understanding the limits of an individual’s rights.


The night of the latest US election was tumultuous for many of us. For me, it meant getting only a small amount of fitful sleep. My mind was racing about what I could do. (Which is telling, I suppose, as at that point I was barely concerned with how things happened, just that they had and that I needed to do something to help.)

Within that mental turmoil, I seized on an image of an inverted capital T – an anti-Trump symbol in my mind. The next morning I spent some time playing around with some designs. It was therapeutic as it kept my hands, eyes and brain engaged in something that, while small, was at least productive.

During that exploration I checked – as I try always to do – on alternate meanings of the inverted T. It never does to introduce a symbol to mean one thing only to find that it means something vulgar, silly, or even opposite in intent in another culture, language, etc. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that ⊥ is also used to convey “contradiction” or “unconditionally false” in mathematics. (And, also, “perpendicular to” in geometry.) So I found I had a symbol that directly referenced an inverse of Trump’s policies that already had very similar connotations in existing usage.

That feels powerful to me.

I released some graphics, made some jewelry, ordered some buttons and bumper stickers, and officially released the design to the public.

A silver metal inverted T charm suspended from a silver chain on a blue background with white stars reminiscent of the US flag.

It turns out this is my most popular jewelry design to date and the buttons and stickers are proving popular too. To be clear, I’m not trying to capitalize on the events in our country (though that would seem to be the most modernly American thing to do) and so I’ve priced everything well below what I would for purely aesthetic designs. My costs are covered and just enough extra is added to let me expand the line, but I’m not making bank on this.

If it means something to you, please use and share.

You can access high-resolution and vector images here:

By the way, the “Up Tack” character (⊥) is U+22A5 and the similar “Perpendicular” character (⟂) is U+27C2.

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