Our love affair with big data

Twenty years ago this summer, I was writing up my PhD thesis, about how to interpret and visualise big data from bridges, except we didn’t call it that back then. We just called it large data sets which really isn’t as sexy by half. Telling someone that you work in big data or should that be BIG DATA? To me, it feels like you are telling everyone how important it is Harry Enfield style: loadsadata like I’m the one with the big swinging data.

Funny because when data mining was all the rage, no one said it in the same way that they do BIG DATA. It sounded more like the ploughing that furrow approach that doing a PhD requires and we are all underground mining away with applications like Tesco’s clubcard, coming up with new ways to entice people to buy more things. Now, we are putting AI and BIG DATA together, well that has to be more meaningful, and more important right? We must be at least explaining the mysteries of the universe.

Or, are we?

Err no. We cannot discover brand new information using the information we have. We can make links and combine the information we capture, and eventually rethink what we are capturing with our new insights. By linking data together we see where we should monitor new things, rather like the time John Snow plotted outbreaks of cholera on a map and saw that they were near the same water pumps and then, a long time after that everyone realised that it wasn’t the fog killing people. But, it cannot tell you something brand spanking new, off the chain, never heard of before theories, if you are still matching your new data to old stories.

My PhD used models, i.e., different algorithms, which interpreted data in various ways to get the best fit to the data. Simply put, one of my users would be watching the measurements come in and then depending on what the data looked like would choose the most likely explanation. By changing various constraints the user could explore a small set of other but similar potential explanations. Nonetheless, we were mapping likely explanations onto the data before us. Unless the data was completely strange looking and then it was either ditched, or the odd outlier was deleted and then the set was interpreted to fit. Tailored, nipped and tucked.

And, that is how it works. I’ve said before that we are always trying to understand how the world works and our place in it. I’ve talked about how we reason and how we choose our stories. Nothing really changes.

It can be summed up perfectly by the time I was doing English Literature ‘A’ level. We were doing Beckett Waiting for Godot and I remember saying something that was just not what you say about Beckett, you have to say stuff about existentialist angst and the futility of it all and trot out the accepted interpretations of the play to pass the exam. Basically, you have to be a parrot. I think the teacher must have gotten frustrated and said that if someone says something different they are either a genius or an idiot and either way, it’s just unacceptable. I can’t help but think that is the way we run society. It takes ages to convince people of a new way of doing things unless someone gets rich quick and then everyone wants to know and have a go.

When I lectured AI I would start with the idea of readily transferable knowledge. I would point out the idea that it takes years to raise and educate a human until they are fully functional in the workplace, 16 years old at least and then years more to get the experience they need until they are wise and expert. Imagine if you could replicate that in an instant. Then, I would pause and the students would say: Ahhhhh.

Older and wiser now I am not so sure that instant knowledge is a good thing. It depends on who coded it up.

I listen to my girls in awe as they view the world so interestingly and refreshingly and I know that they are human and are able to reason universally unlike a machine. Sometimes they say the most inspiring things. Things I’ve forgotten I used to think naturally which bring me back to myself and how I used to be, before I was told how things are supposed to be.

They also talk sometimes a lot of nonsense as they don’t have the necessary information, or wisdom, or constraints. And, often when I explain that something can’t be done and they ask why not, alas, I am like my Eng Lit teacher saying: That’s just not a thing. It takes a few days before I will come back with a new answer of, yes, it could be a thing, we could do this. And, I can’t help but think that’s how we feel about big data.

We think that with enough data and enough tech we will discover something new and inspiring or fabulous and it will fulfil our yearnings and longings and bring us back to ourselves, the selves we already know, but have forgotten because we are conditioned by society.

I said to my husband that big data is our attempt to use technology to come back to ourselves and he said that he would definitely run that past the Machine Learning Department at work. But it’s true even there, all that searching is to find out a new USP or a competitive edge to make us stand out, to feel special, to win, but within reason as it has to fit within how things already work. And, here’s the rub: Any bit of AI has to have specific instructions to know what it is looking for in its big data. It won’t just randomly discover some brand new thing. Remember genius or idiot? It doesn’t have a universal reasoning system like my girls. It is just not possible in a computer. And, won’t be for a long time, if ever.

So perhaps big data is like having an affair.

Esther Perez’s book on infidelity says that most people don’t have an affair to have sex. They have an affair to rediscover themselves. They are seen through new eyes and appreciated once more in what feels like new and interesting ways. When we get that yearning for feeling that we matter, that we are important, that we mean something, we are sexy and alive, we often look for the answers outside ourselves and people who have affairs do so by looking to other people. Other people who look at us with love, like we are hot and the centre of the whole universe. Like the sun which everything revolves around.

However, unless someone is very self-unaware and even then, in the throws of a most exciting affair, most people wouldn’t discover something previously completely unheard of about themselves. What happens is that something the person takes for granted, or indeed may be taken for granted at home, may have a spotlight shone on it by their new love and then they appreciate themselves better and feel all loved up. They feel love. The love they’ve always had within them. The love within their love.

So, the question is: Is big data the spouse or your new love? Will you take it on home afterwards? Or, will you keep collecting data? And, most importantly, is it telling your whole story? The right story of you. The answer depends on who coded it. If it is a white middle class male, and/or a nerd, then unless you are one of those, you may be searching forever, ‘cos that is not where your story lies. Your story may not be in the model selection. It may not have even be collected in the data. You might not fit at all. You could have been deleted as an outlier.

My PhD data had to follow the laws of physics about how bridges stay up, so that is a big constraint. So there wasn’t a great deal of quantum physics mystical room for interpretation and lovin’ and collective unconsciousness. But, even without strict physical constraints, a lot of the time we hash out the same old stories because they fit in the same old world, same old society, same old ways of how we operate even though it is not based on the laws of physics. It’s based on economics.

Take web design, when we all first came online everyone was super creative because no one had any expectations of how a website should look. Nowadays, all sites look the same as they are designed by grid, yawn, ‘cos we are managing expectations and herding people through our site to do the things we want them to do, we are desperate not to lose them. Desperate for their money.

And then we have intuition. AI can’t tell if your data or indeed your interpretation is useful, only a human can intuit that, unless you get AI checking your AI but then you still need a human somewhere to tell all the AI what to do.

Like my blog, according to Jetpack I was having on average six people a day visiting and yet, I am often offered money to link to other sites, and so if I don’t get visitors why would people want to give me money to buy my links? Peculiar.

In the how to make a shed load of money online circles you have to build community and work really hard and share data of a specific size and shape and content. I didn’t do any of that, because I just want to write nice things which interest me. I am not selling anything, including my links. I guess this site is my big data, about me, and I do the interpreting and the love affairs and the linking to me, me, me.

Eventually, I deleted Jetpack because it was making my site grind really slowly and I couldn’t write my blogs without it timing out. So, following Jetpack’s lead as they themselves use Google analytics, I installed that instead, but I really couldn’t be bothered with the work it would take to configure it. Why make the UI so hard to understand and use? It assumes so much prior knowledge and not about how web stats should work, but about how it’s own system works without making that obvious in hte design. So, a couple of months ago I went back to the raw data on my cpanel to really see. Guess what? As you can see from above, I get 1.2 million hits and nearly 300,000 visitors a year. I am just amazed and thrilled and I feel love. I figured no one cared what I had to say, because that is a story I’ve long believed and been told, and I didn’t bother writing a new story or even checking my facts. Whoah!

Afterwards I wondered, who are these 300,000 people reading my site? My husband reckons nerdy people like him. And, then he added: Like you. I sat there for ages going I’m not a nerd. I am a woman, which honestly is a whole blog series right there. My husband said that I am sexist. He could be right. I’ll have to check the data first.

That said, if I have a lot of hits and not much community then that sounds right doesn’t? Nerds like reading not talking, and that’s what I do too. I rarely comment on someone’s site. I guess I am a nerd, but I don’t feel that I fit the nerd model. The one I was sold all those years ago. And, as much as we all like to resist labels that’s how we interpret the world – our social identities, how we categorise others, how we try to understand patterns. Sometimes, and this is sooo telling, when people can’t put me in a box, they will ask me what my husband does (rude!). And, moreover that is how AI interprets its big data. Oh yes! It cannot work any other way.

The best bit about looking at my data with fresh eyes was the key search terms, as Google when it did the personalisation thing (you know serving up what you’ve already seen or very similar pages based on what you’ve seen), also did away with search terms, but other browsers still collect it. Obviously Google hasn’t stopped collecting, it has just stopped sharing it, as my guess it wants to keep it for itself as information is power. But as The Stonekeeper says in Smallfoot: What are you going to do with that power?

Here are my top three search terms non-Googlified:

  1. Sex positions to lose weight
  2. Full human parts of a man in dialog
  3. Semiotics and storytelling

I hope these people found the things they were looking for, and I hope they read my take on semiotics and storytelling. However, say I was googling sex positions to lose weight, would I leave a comment? No! I mean I don’t leave a comment when I am googling recipes or anything. Imagine: hi, yes that reverse cowgirl position really did it for me. I lost four lbs in a week.

And, it is right up there with our top motivation of being seen and heard, often we are told by society that we are too fat, too slutty, too loud, too experienced, too inexperienced, too, too, too. So, again we must bend ourselves out of shape to get into the shape we think we will get loved for. We must fit the story, the model, the expectations.

So, who wouldn’t want big data to come along and tell us what is fabulous and the best thing about us? Alas, it cannot and will not do that until we learn to do that for ourselves. We need to light our own fires.

When I think of data, I love the story Sims creator Will Wright, told on Masterclass, I have lost all my notes and the classnotes so there are no links. Gah. Anyway, he said how he used all the data that someone collected in the 1960’s to understand and map out daily timetables for people’s Sims, as people had access to building whole worlds, but very few people wanted to do that, most people just wanted to replicate the world they live in. Imagine, you have the power to create worlds and you just want to make what you already know and see, you want to make a world in which you go to work and hate your job, just like your real world, you don’t want to make something new.

Technology is an extension of us, it reflects our concerns and motivations, and until we have new ones, and new stories, technology can only propagate what already exists, just on a much bigger scale. Is that what we want?

Personally speaking, I want technology to reflect all the love we can possibly feel and then some. At the very least, that’s where I would start.

The accidental techie (5): Shadowing

 [ 1) the accidental techie, 2) the uninvited, 3) transference california, 4) flow, 5) shadowing, 6) going inside 7) lost and found, 8) 20/20]

The other night, our youngest had a friend over for a sleepover. It so reminded me of shadowing, known in AI as knowledge elicitation and in software design as requirements engineering. Whatever you call it, it remains my favourite time in any project because it satisfies all my nosy urges. I love to go in and see who people are, what they do, and how they use technology in their environment: A stalker by any other name.

Our young friend was obviously seeing us in our natural habitat, but in conversation I got to hear all about her life too, which is quite different yet similar to ours. I was fascinated. Even so, with my new knowledge, I still feel very disconnected these days, and like most people fundamentally, want to know: What do other people do in their own homes? Especially raising children. Am I doing it right? My children’s lives are so different from my life as a child. It all seems a bit rigid to me and a bit too nuclear-family based, these days, but a friend said to me just recently that her life was exactly like that, no people just dropping in whenever, and that was normal to her, so you know, perhaps it’s not time, it’s geography.

That said, I struggle with the idea that there’s a rigid schedule and no random event or visitors. At my mum’s funeral, some of my cousins were reminiscing about how they’d often come down to breakfast to find one of our uncles sitting in the kitchen, even though he lived four doors down. And, when I was young, I would get the bus (9p for 2 miles) to my auntie’s house and stay for days, no one had to be somewhere you couldn’t go with them, unless it was the pub, and if the house was full, then you’d wake up in the morning with more people in bed with you than before you went to sleep.

It is different in the workplace, I am not having a sleepover (my niece: Auntie Ruth, you look so cute in your sleeping mask when you are asleep) or brushing my teeth with the people I shadow, but, I am their silent witness as they go about their business, and we all spend a lot of time at work. So, it is not surprising the stories people want me to know about them often include their personal lives. People are so much more than the jobs they are doing.

I had forgotten how excited I used to get about shadowing until last Saturday night. I was at a party and had such a laugh talking about computing and tarot. And then, I rode my bicycle home, under a very cool, late-midnight sky, past people in the park drinking beer, sitting in the remnants of a very hot summer’s day. Freewheeling it took me way back, to Lausanne, to those dark cycle paths and a midnight skinny dip in lac leman during my PhD days at EPFL.

For two years I was working on a project with exhibition planners at the Palais de Beaulieu, Lausanne. It was a really nice project though slightly tangential to my PhD so I would need to stay late on Thursday nights to prepare for the next day. I would normally peddle home around 2am feeling a lovely breeze after hours of programming, long after everyone had left.

But I didn’t mind, I used to like programming alone late at night. I would sit in my bra – the offices were hot – and lean out of the window for a slinky cigarette. Not that I really smoked, but a gauloise in a lacy bra out the window of the engineering department after a boiling hot day was sometimes just what that girl felt like she needed, on occasion, when things were compiling.

Those long nights were worth it, though. I loved going round the exhibition centre on Fridays to shadow the head draughtsman and see how he went about putting together an exhibition. On exhibition days we would walk about and he tell me exactly about the things you can’t model in a computer, but we’d try anyway. We’d try to model who didn’t want to be next to whom, following the classic AI problems of the travelling salesman and the eight queens, which don’t really work in the real world. He was an amazing teacher, always truthful with a charming diplomacy. I’d follow along making notes, sampling cheese and drinking vin blanc during the quatre heures. (I still do the quatre heures #friyays) there is nothing better than sitting down at 4pm for a little glass of vino and an amuse-bouche.

The one time I had an ethnographer do shadowing for me which I wrote about over on A List Apart, I so felt like I was missing out, even though I repeated him, saying that it was tedious, even though it never was to me. I thought I had to say it, to be one of the lads. Yeah, I know, I am not one of the lads and to top it all, with him doing the shadowing, I just felt like I was getting all the information second hand. But, I did get to spend a day watching the steel roll out in massive slabs in the mills at Corus, Teesside. Wow! That was a sight.

There were some sights at ICI too, not just when I was with me auld fellas, but in places like the Caustic Soda plant – it had a big pile of salt outside – and someone once said to me: Don’t even touch the door handles when you are in there. Hilarious. I went round various places mainly to fix computers with my screwdrivers and earth bracelet but most of the shadowing I did to figure out what software someone needed to support them in their job, was drumroll, in the accounts department.

The plus side of this was that I found that in an office, it is easier to look professional, out onsite with so many unknown variables sometimes it would be hard to look sensible. If I hadn’t dressed right and got my skirt stuck on some piping, or the time I couldn’t park the site car properly then I didn’t look like I knew what I was doing at all and that could be detrimental to me being taken seriously.

I got the job onsite because I had a driving licence. But, my driving wasn’t very good. I’d never had a car, my parents never had a car, in fact the only experience of driving I had had up until that point was the 25 lessons to pass my test and one go in my big brother’s car which had left-hand drive so it made everything even more confusing. However, tenacious as ever, I didn’t let my lack of experience hold me back.

One time, I was trying to park the car back into it’s spot. It was a smallish parking space and it was on a hill, and there was a skip and a lorry, and another car not properly parked and if I had had more experience, I might have thought it was too small a space. As it was I just squeezed the car into the space by parking it up on the rim of another big car, and as the car was tilted really high, on top of, what I think was, a Bentley, I realised I couldn’t leave it like that. But no matter what I did, grinding the gears and what have you, I couldn’t get it back off the rim, it was just scraping along the side. I was there for ages, but then the blokes on the building site opposite came over and lifted my car off the Bentley and said that that it was the site boss’s car and he might not have been impressed with my parking. Luckily, there was no harm done and we laughed and laughed as they said that I was the luckiest person ever as neither of the cars had a scratch on them.

I don’t think I have really learnt my lesson, as I still squeeze my car into tiny spaces. Recently, I was parking in my street when an auld gadgie came over and told me that I had balls for parking in such a small space. And, I would know, he said and went on to explain that he had been a long distance lorry driver and in the army, and had driven many types of vehicles but he had in all his years never seen driving like mine. I may not be one of the lads but I have balls people, balls.

He might have changed his mind if he’d seen me the day I was driving round ICI whilst lying down. Such a bad idea, but the speed limit was low so it was ok. Eventually I picked up another student, who was shadowing me this time as I was soon to return back to my degree and he was taking over my job, and it was only after a while, he asked me why I was driving looking like a woman of ill repute. I explained that I couldn’t shift the seat up and it was the only way to reach the pedals. Between us we managed to move the an inch or two until I gave up and let him drive as he had longer legs and I was the one who got sit in the passenger seat and say ridiculous things.

Though the one time I did let a colleague drive the van it was a terrible idea. We had been monitoring the Pont sur la Versoix outside of Geneva airport. She was collecting data. I was shadowing so that I could write nice software to support my colleagues and demonstrate the thesis of my thesis. And, then on our way back, I said: Turn right here (actually I said: Tourne a droit ici) and dippy chick that she was, she drove straight into the wall (Me: Frein, frein, frein) and then turned into a nervous wreck so I had to deal with the police and then drive the bloody wrecked car back to the lab. Honestly. She was so bad at driving.

Another time, against my better judgement, we let her drive again and she ploughed into a Swiss-German couple when we were on our way to Lugano to see how the fibre optic cabling we used to monitor bridges was made. To be fair it was a bit of a windy Alpine road going up the hill. The Swiss-German couple didn’t think so, they’d driven on those roads for 30 years without having dippy chicks drive into them. Luckily, I was in the back and one of the two guys we were travelling with was Swiss-German so he sorted out the mess. That night we went to a nightclub called Desperados and went a bit bonkers, glad to still be all in one piece and with jobs after damaging yet another car.

I think that is why I liked the Zurich architects project I worked on. I got the train there and back nice and had breakfast on the way there in the lovely restaurant car and then a quatre heures apero on the way back. Sometimes I’d leap off the train at Berne and meet a friend for dinner before catching the last train back to Lausanne.

The project was again a constraints solver but this time using case-based reasoning to design apartment layout. And, every week I used to go to Zurich and talk to the architects there, and shadow them sometimes when they went round offices or on building sites. They designed very carefully following the building regulations hence the idea to use a constraint solver, and endless fascinating conversations about what is easy and hard to model in a computer. I spent many a happy hour up there listening to my main contact, a lovely woman with a passion for design, who said at the end of our time together, that she thought of me more as a friend than a shadow. It was completely mutual. I loved her. She was inspirational.

Not everyone felt the love though, the day I told everyone at ICI in the main office that I had been diagnosed with low blood pressure, my boss had a very unlikely outburst and said: Low blood pressure. That’s because you go around raising everyone elses’s. I thought up until that point that I blended in. But apparently not, I was told by another colleague when they were checking if a job had been done that the answer on the phone came, Oh yes that woman in the checked trousers sorted it. Imagine a woman in (checked – what can I say? It was the ’90s) trousers coming round fixing things. Though, I’d learnt my lesson, I wore trousers now, I was sick of showing my knickers after getting stuck on a pipe somewhere on site.

My ICI boss said to me on my leaving review that when they had been choosing where to put that year’s students, everyone else slotted into a role somewhere apart from me. I didn’t fit anywhere. But honestly, why would anyone slot anywhere? It’s a peculiar idea, which is why shadowing is so important. Everyone is different, and unique, and people carry out their jobs in their own ways, so why wouldn’t we all take time out to get to know people instead of forcing them to work in a certain way.

Not everyone agrees though, as my PhD supervisor said one time: I hate her, she comes in here with her own ideas and thoughts. I was a bit baffled as I thought that was the point of research, but you know, we are all different, and it seems I baffled him as much as he did me. Once, he asked me, as I was shaking a printer cartridge over my head and I may have gotten a teensy bit of ink on his face as he came back from the bin over which he’d been carefully shaking the other cartridges: How have you gotten through life like this? I honestly wonder how you are still alive.

Freewheeling, baby, that’s how, I didn’t say that to him, as he was already far too red in the face for any more of my unique insights that day.

See, I listen very carefully. I hear you, I see you. I know everything about you, and let me tell you, you are important and unique and contribute to this world, and it’s not just part of my job to tell you that. It’s who I am. Now go on, keep making lovely things and if I can help with some software, or to shake things up a bit, invite me round, but let me just grab my sleeping mask as I may be staying a while.

[ part 6 ]

The accidental techie (4): Flow

Information flow diagram from serveit.com

  [ 1) the accidental techie, 2) the uninvited, 3) transference california, 4) flow, 5) shadowing 6) going inside 7) lost and found, 8) 20/20 ]

I love systems analysis. Anyone who knows me can tell you that I love to analyse how to share information, how things link together, what people say and do, and why, how information and conversation flows. I also love the mystical aspects of being in flow, at one with the universe, the union of yoga, following your bliss, and all that jazz. It’s magic.

This morning, in Bikram, it was hot and sweaty, and I was in the flow, loving it. Then the teacher put on a soundtrack to celebrate Glastonbury and Simply Red came on and in that moment I was transported back to the time I was invited to a Simply Red concert in Paris when I was working as a support/systems analyst during my industrial placement at ICI, Runcorn.

There was a few of us from the degree course and whilst they all ended up at HQ in the lovely offices, I was the one who was given a pair of rubber shoes, a gasmask and, my office was a prefab outside the main office block of the Castner Kellner Chemical site which I shared with two older blokes and another industrial (male) student, my age, who was painfully shy but a really lovely person.

One of the older blokes hoarded all the equipment and wasn’t great at sharing anything. He did IT security, apparently, and communicated on a need-to-know basis, but was actually quite nice if you made an immense effort to get beyond his gruff manner.

The other guy, well, we just loved each other. He was basically sitting about the prefab waiting to retire. He was supposed to man the IT help desk, but used to chat on the phone for hours and invite all his pals into our prefab for coffee. If anyone including me had a problem, he would unplug the IT help desk phone so we could talk about it at length. They would take me with them to the pub at lunch time and after the time I mentioned my dad retired early from ICI after 33 years service, they would regularly gather round when they were feeling down and say: Tell us again, Ruth, about your dad, now tell everyone how old he was, he was 53, go on tell them, Ruth.

I gave them hope that they too could retire soon and not have to retrain and do IT when they were quite happy doing what they used to do and hadn’t asked to have IT foisted on them. It was kind of like having a load of uncles in the office who didn’t really understand what you did, or indeed what they did, but admired and nodded in encouragement as you went about your business. It’s unimaginable nowadays, but back then, big companies like ICI were your employer and they looked after you for life, and your family after your death, as long as you didn’t quit, you and yours would be looked after forever.

Getting paid was fantastic, I think I was on about £10k which made me feel like I was so rich, and being 20 years old with no courseworks, deadlines and loads of cash meant that basically, I used to go out every night with people from the course or my house. I shared a house with four girls and three other blokes, it was a massive place and really cool. I went with the flow.

One night, we were out at the Cavern Club and on the dance floor, I saw someone who had been in my big brother’s year at school, he was a really popular boy that everyone loved, even though my bro and him had left before I’d even gotten to secondary school. I hadn’t seen him for years and here he was 200 miles away from our home town but he recognised me, all grown up as he later put it. We got chatting and all of the rest it. He worked as a roadie, and was on tour with Simply Red.

We kept in touch, he would ring and write to me and a few weeks later, I went to work and my men were there drinking coffee, and I told them that I was off to Paris, to watch Simply Red in concert with roadie man. I remember them not saying much at all, just the odd raised eyebrow.

Then a first class aeroplane ticket to Paris arrived in the post and for the first time, I realised what the raised eyebrow was all about. I mean, roadie man was a very nice man, but I barely knew him and the last time I had had a conversation with him before this time I had been 11 years old with a crush. I wandered into work that day and me auld fellas were there drinking coffee and I said that I wasn’t going to go to Paris. Why not, Ruth? I said that I didn’t know this bloke and what did it mean to get a ticket to Paris? Where was I supposed to be sleeping? I couldn’t go.

Now I am older, getting closer to the ages of my auld fellas, I too would unplug the IT phone and sit down but my advice to younger me would be to ask him, ask roadie man: What’s the deal with this ticket? What are you expecting to happen? As, it was, me auld fellas didn’t say that, they just slurped on their coffee and said: You are a nice girl, Ruth, a good girl.

Even at that time, it infuriated me, the patriarchal bollocks. Say, I had gone, shagged him, half of Simply Red, and all of the roadies, I would still be a nice girl, a good girl, one with healthy appetites and a lust for life. If the roles had been reversed, and they were all female and I was male, it would not have been mentioned, and there it is, the things not said, the things assumed, the patterns which are culturally inherent in our world, which I guess is why I like computing, you cannot have an ambiguous conversation with a computer. It can only do what I have asked it to do, and if I have coded it up then I know exactly what assumptions it is making, which I would have documented for everyone to see, and if they were old-fashioned assumptions we could test them and change them for the better.

Roadie man rang me up two days before I was due to go on the phone which was on the wall in the hallway in the big house in which I lived. Standing in the hallway with everyone listening in, I said I couldn’t go. I couldn’t even say why, and he didn’t try to help me out. He was cross, went on about the price of the ticket and hung up. I never heard from him ever again.

I didn’t have the skills to talk about it and neither did he which in and of itself isn’t terrible. We all like a bit of the unknown, the frisson of anything could happen, the anticipation and the things left unsaid because we feel a connection, it makes us feel alive, it makes us feel sexy. But then, I guess I didn’t really want to go and I didn’t really feel that magic in this situation. I didn’t feel the flow. Instead I felt completely out of my depth. I had been so distracted by the idea of going to Paris that I hadn’t really thought through why and how it was going to work. Had I bought my own ticket and booked my own hotel room, it would have been very different, I would have had an internal locus of control as psychologists and us HCI peeps call it.

And, I can’t help but feel this is the way a lot of people use technology nowadays, people put systems in place to make things easier and save money apparently. But, they haven’t had a conversation about what is suitable for the people these systems are supposed to be supporting. No one has designed the information flow. There is no flow and the users don’t feel like they have any control over anything. Like me auld fellas, it’s just been foisted on them, and the only thing they can do is unplug, or not turn up, I am sorry, I just can’t come to Paris.

If an analyst sits down to analyse flow, the analyst will ask what information needs to go where and sometimes, you don’t need a system, you just need to work on clearer communication skills. You may have the technology to contact me all day long but if your message is not clear, and if it doesn’t make my life easier nor does it make you or me feel better then there is absolutely no point getting in touch. None whatsoever. If you are contacting me to tell me half the facts, it is going to make me feel uneasy and I will not comply. So please, get your flow right. Get into flow.

My undergraduate degree was really really fabulous and way better than a lot of degree courses I have since taught on. It was a polytechnic degree and it was thorough. I was taught super great programming and I still manage to amaze my husband with my ideas for problem solving when we talk about software, and he codes all day long. I was grilled in software design, software reuse, legacy systems, good information flow, data in and data out – if you put garbage in garbage will come out. I was taught how and when to use the right piece of kit, and even how to put it together. How to upgrade the motherboard, add in an extra hard disk or more memory. Really I was taught how to make it flow.

After I went back to finish my degree, my office mate retired, and he invited me to his leaving do. The train was late so I guess he thought I wasn’t coming, so was thrilled when I came through the door. All the auld fellas were there and we had a good catchup and then partway through the evening, my office mate said to me that he’d never had a daughter but if he had had one, he would have wanted her to be me. Best message ever.

After his do, we went for a curry, and all the auld fellas wanted us to do a runner, to relive their youth, thankfully we didn’t. I missed the train back to Liverpool, so me pal said: Come stay with us, if you don’t trust us Ruth, you’ll never trust a man in your life, but I did trust them, I knew them all, well, we’d spent a whole year in a prefab together. So, we all went back to someone’s house, stayed up half the night drinking gin and listening to Johnny Mathis. Good times.

Years later, thinking about that night still makes me laugh and lifts my heart. That’s what life is all about, connecting with good people and having good times. When you are in the flow there’s nothing better. Technology is supposed to make that flow easier. It is supposed to be an improvement, so if it isn’t, if it’s denting your ‘do, then analyst that I am, I recommend that you unplug the phone, invite your mates round to your prefab, and tell stories to pick everyone up. The IT can wait. Meanwhile, wake up to what’s important, smell the coffee and enjoy the flow.

[ part 5 ]

The accidental techie (3): Transference California

Transfer effects, The Design of Everyday Things

   [ 1) the accidental techie, 2) the uninvited, 3) transference california, 4) flow, 5) shadowing, 6) going inside 7) lost and found, 8) 20/20 ]

In the ’90s I went to my first international conference to present some research. It was very exciting. I stayed in a hotel near Stanford University and got to walk about across the huge campus everyday.

At the drinkies on the first night, I ended up at the wrong ones. I seemed to be at a 20-year reunion which took me a while to realise as I was there thinking: I don’t remember all these people from today. They were very nice about it and we laughed as I squeezed through the hedge to the AI crowd. It turned out that my really nice wine glass stood out amongst everyone else’s plastic cups and it made for a nice ice-breaker.

At the drinks, I met two PhD students from Cambridge University who had planned a road trip when the conference was over and asked what I was going to do. Of course, I hadn’t planned anything, but I didn’t have to fly back out from L.A. for another seven days. So, they invited me to go along with them which I did and had a fabulous time. We saw everything San Francisco, Yosemite, Berkeley, Las Vegas, The Grand Canyon, Death Valley. California, baby! It was great fun and I was sad to say goodbye when they dropped me off at the airport.

I can’t really imagine doing that now. I have been a married sensible woman and mother for so long that the idea of jumping into the back of a car to drive all round California with two men I’ve just met is just so alien to me now, set as I am in my small life in it’s routine (yawn), that I can hardly remember how it seemed so easy and so natural. I wonder what happened to them, did they finish their PhDs? Did they get jobs? Stay in academia? I can’t even remember their surnames to google them. Although, I did have a bit of a crush on one of them (the nice one), I’ll be honest I used to google – well search online, was it Yahoo? – for him a bit afterwards.

But, on the last day of the conference when they offered to take me with them, I remember getting my things together whilst feeling really stressed. What if they went without me? What if they changed their minds? What if they thought it was a terrible idea?

As it was they turned up early and helped negotiate my hotel bill, I remember the louder one of them saying: Her going I am going to charge you an extra day for no reason, is that ok? is like: I am going to punch in the face, is that ok? And I was so grateful for his loudness. He told her that no she couldn’t charge me for an extra day for no reason, and no, it was not ok.

Several days later as we were standing in Death Valley, he wanted us to run about on the sandy earth barefoot to see how it felt. I didn’t want to, but he set up a series of stepping stones, like a towel and a book and stuff, and he was like: Go on try. And, I again I didn’t really want to but since he and his mate had already, I did too. I was part way through when he removed everything and took my shoes so that I had no choice but to run all the way back to the car over the boiling hot sand, but when I got there, he drove off, and there I was left in the middle of Death Valley. It felt like an eternity and I had that ground falling away feeling and a sickness in my stomach. They drove back round and were laughing. I got into the car and asked for my shoes, I was too choked up to speak.

I grew up right at the foot of the Cleveland Hills, you could see them from my bedroom, not too far from the part known as California as the local Iron Ore Rush was a bit like the Californian Gold Rush, so the story goes. On Sundays, my dad would tell everyone to get ready for a walk up the hills. But so many times, my brothers and my dad would set off without me. I would come downstairs all ready and excited to go and they would have already gone leaving me with that ground falling away and sick feeling. My mum would say: Oh but they looked everywhere for you. Yeah, like there was anywhere to hide in the two-up two-down on the council estate we all called Cardboard City.

Years later they told me that they would say: Shhh let’s sneak off before Ruth gets downstairs, and when I said that it was cruel, my dad said: Oh but you were such a whinger, and he didn’t want to have to carry me home when I got tired. I remember everyone laughing and making it clear in no uncertain terms that my feelings and opinions didn’t matter, I was to shut up and stop crying. In fact my mother’s favourite line was: You’ll never get through life if you cry like that, Ruth.

I cannot think who I am more disappointed in: My mum for going along with it, or my dad for being so feeble as to not hold an honest conversation with his only daughter. I am amazed I trust anyone at all, or perhaps that it’s, perhaps I don’t trust anyone, really, whether I’ve known you all my life or for the last five minutes, you may still lie to me and sneak off, or pretend to leave me stranded in a place where I would die, as a joke, how funny, and then laugh at my tears.

Psychologists call it transference when you transfer a past experience to a present one. I am sitting here all a bit trembly as I think about it, about how abandoned I felt at the bottom of Death Valley, which was really just a revisiting of being left behind whilst everyone was up the hills. And, I am so sorry for baby Ruth and how her parents thought it was a good idea to make the whole family complicit in a lie whilst encouraging their baby girl to believe that it was her own fault and that she just wasn’t enough. Wow!

Not long after I started my first lecturing position, the only other woman in the department came in and asked me if she could lecture my course instead of me: But what am I supposed to do and why was I hired if you can teach my courses? It baffles me even now. She certainly didn’t go around asking the men of the department whether she could do their jobs for them. She probably thought she couldn’t, but that she could do mine, ‘cos how hard could it be, right? I remember her calling meetings and forgetting to invite me, and criticising me for the most random of things. I don’t even remember asking her why she was so focused on me? I was just so used to that feeling of being uncertain and wrong footed around other women, that it felt familiar. Like the men go about the world doing things and don’t have to explain anything to me, I don’t count, I am uninvited, and the women are in their own sub-culture not quite telling the truth, fighting over a limited amount of resources, the crumbs left over from the men, with the unsaid message: This is the way it is. I think again, my transference.

In my 2nd year undergraduate, I shared a house with three girls. One night, we went to the pub in the car. On the way home, they all went out to get the car whilst I was still in the pub looking for my umbrella. Of course, when I went to outside to get into the car, yep, you’ve guessed it, they’d left without me. That wasn’t the first time I felt wrong-footed when I lived with them but it was the last.

I moved out shortly afterwards, and another female asked me if I would get a place with her. I said that I would, glad that I had a plan. We went home for the holidays and she wrote to me several times to remind me of the plan. When I went back to Liverpool, she was unreachable. I learnt a couple of days later that she had moved into my old room. Dearie me. What is wrong with an honest conversation? The friend who was driving the car never forgave me for moving out, and told me when she bumped into me not long after that I would never have any friends, that I would be lonely and alone: You know that’s your worst fear. I didn’t know that it was my worst fear, and sitting here today, I am wondering how much did I contribute to these upsets with my transference. Ssssh let’s sneak off before Ruth gets here.

Interestingly, the woman who wanted my job wrote to me some years later to apologise for her behaviour, and wanted to meet for lunch. And, then not long after that another woman with whom I had done some consultancy wrote a similar email, I wasn’t very nice to you, she wrote, Let’s meet for lunch. I hadn’t really gotten that upset about that one, I just thought she was a bit weird, a bit frosty. I guess I was so used to that funny feeling of shifting sands around women, who are not telling you the truth but you can’t quite put your finger on it. It’s such a familiar feeling, that I guess it feels like home. My auntie who died recently, used to regularly phone me up and tell me that my mother didn’t like me, which I think she thought would help me.

I still get transference, why wouldn’t I? I am trying these days to be, as they say, the sacred witness to myself. I take a breath to get beyond that sinking feeling and ask for clarification. If someone has done me wrong or been unprofessional and it has a negative impact on me, I will speak up. Often I do it as an experiment because I am still grappling with that idiotic voice inside myself which tells me that my feelings and opinions don’t matter, and I am not enough. And, also I have a very firm rule: If someone laughs when I cry then they are not very nice. No flex on that one.

I wonder then, if that is why I went into tech. Is that why I find technology so comforting? You see, when I am sitting in front of a computer, it doesn’t press all my buttons, and when I press its buttons, even the wrong ones, it really doesn’t mind, we can reboot and start again, it doesn’t make me wrong about who I am, it doesn’t want my stuff, or my job, or my boyfriend, it doesn’t criticise me, or tell me not to be me, it doesn’t sneak off when I leave the room, and it definitely doesn’t lie to me.

Oh my, how I love computers.

[ part 4 ]

The accidental techie (2) : The uninvited

Rider Waite Tarot Ten of Swords

 [ 1) the accidental techie, 2) the uninvited, 3) transference california, 4) flow, 5) shadowing 6) going inside, 7) lost and found, 8) 20/20 ]

The reason I wrote the last blog, aside from to entertain myself, was to ask: What makes a woman choose STEM?

I couldn’t answer this question even after reading the research, so I thought that I would start with me. After all, I am a woman, I didn’t want to go into tech, but have had a lovely time.

I already envisaged doing an overview about my undergraduate degree and the lovely men with whom I studied. In fact two of those men read the first blog soon after I pressed publish, shared it and then shared their experiences of Liverpool. I was joyful and glad they had reached out and joyful that I knew these friends, my male friends. I have always thought that I was an exception to the conclusions I came to during my Women series blogs. Lucky me!

So imagine my surprise on Saturday night when another man who was, at times during our four years in Liverpool, my best friend, posted a picture of these lovely male friends of mine on Facebook, out in the pub in Liverpool, enjoying a reunion to which I hadn’t known anything about. I was the uninvited.

I studied the photograph to see that there he was with eleven other men including the two men who had been so keen to let me know how they felt about my blog, but hadn’t been keen at all to tell me how they were all meeting up in two days time at a reunion for my course. That’s the kicker – they called it a reunion – the thoughtless, thoughtless men. And, then there was the bloke that everyone thinks is a dickhead, even he got an invite!

Today, I got an message from another man on the picture, trying to make light of it: It was just an oversight, we feel collectively guilty, you are a main member of the group, next time, smiley emoji, jokey-joke, I’m a great guy who treats everyone equally, don’t turn it into a feminist issue, thus really adding insult to injury.

It was the word collective which really triggered me. I have blogged about male group think in the workplace – women are not even seen, let alone considered – and silly woman I am, I blogged all that, all the while thinking how lucky I was to have a nice group of male colleagues with whom I studied and who were respectful and did see me. Little did I know, I was the uninvited, and not only that, I was then subjected to a #mansplaining message for me to not take on so, not overreact, don’t be that hysterical woman. Oh God, Ruth’s moaning again.

My best friend got it, or at least did a good impression of someone who got it last night, before the Ruth’s upset message he circulated which encouraged the other bloke to patronise me. He agreed that they are all thoughtless, thoughtless men, because a similar thing had happened to his son a couple of months ago and he is now one angry dad. I am sorry about his son too because a similar thing is happening to my youngest too at school.

She has a group of boys as friends who already practice social exclusion based on gender. Her best friend won’t invite her round on a playdate because he is worried that the other boys will make fun at him. I only got this information because I asked the boy’s mother directly and now I am angry too.

This mother hasn’t got the gumption to step in and parent her boy into being a respectful empathetic human being. Instead she and all the other boys’ parents are teaching them that it is fine to exclude girls, hurt their feelings and behave however the hell they like, one of the little charmers is forever calling my girl stupid and dumb. She had her birthday recently and she didn’t want him there, and yet he still turned up but had the good sense to get back into his car and get driven home. I don’t know which of his parents thought that was a good idea, but it broke my heart to see him put in that position, although there was no way he was coming in.

The irony is that the mothers of these boys would all describe themselves as feminists. Three of them have told me stories on the playground about the way they have suffered because of male groupthink, being passed over for promotion, and ousted out of jobs without any discussion because the discussion took place amongst the men probably in the pub when the women were not invited.

They have let my daughter down in an enormous way and by not teaching their boys how to respect girls, they are letting their sons down in an enormous way too. I am so disappointed in them.

We all have to take a collective hand in order to stop propagating the patriarchal patterns of females being the uninvited. It seems to be that these mothers have not even made the connection between their jobs and their sons and that one day these boys will be men who will treat them with no respect too. Feminism starts at home.

I tell my little girl through her tears that there is nothing wrong with her, she didn’t do anything wrong, nor should she try harder. The wrong lies with these parents who are teaching their boys that it is fine to take no responsibility for the impact they have on anyone around. They are socialising their boys to disrespect their female friends. Shame on them.

And all I can say, uninvited woman that I am, is that if my daughter is consistently and systematically shown by these little boys that her feelings are not important, then she has to take herself elsewhere and entrust her feelings to friends who will show respect and consideration for them. Otherwise she will end up like me crushed by a picture on Facebook.

Like the beautiful TEN OF SWORDS above, I am face down in the mud, but I will recover, the sun is already rising, and I will get up, it’s just that when I do, I will be scarred forever by the thoughtless, thoughtless men I thought were my friends but in fact were not thinking of me, at all.

[ part 3 ]