Monday, May 27, 2013

Casual -ism doesn't make you evil. But still.

An -ism is a bias against someone based on their membership in a group they didn't choose to belong to. Sexism is a bias against someone because of their sex (because of the way our society developed, the majority of sexism is bias against females). Racism is a bias against someone because of their race. Classism is a bias against someone because of the socio-economic class they were born into (or were put into due to circumstances outside their control). And so on.

There is, sadly, still some pretty horrible and deliberate -ism in our society. The KKK still exists. There are people who think women shouldn't be allowed to work outside the home. There are people who think if you're gay you should be killed.

Fortunately, though, we've mostly moved beyond such overt bigotry. What largely remains are two things -- systemic or structural -isms, and casual -isms.

Systemic or structural -isms are biases that were long ago "built into" how certain components of our society works. In most cases, they aren't deliberately being perpetuated; rather, change is hard and slow and requires significant effort by people who care strongly about equality. By way of example, there are drastically fewer women in technology fields, not because there are a large number of people trying to keep them out, but because our social and educational systems tend to be built in a way that discourages girls and women from developing and pursuing the interest. And a host of other reasons, too.

For another example, there still are fewer people of color graduating from college than you'd expect based on the proportion of the general population that are people of color. A big part of this is that people of color are far more likely not to have access to the resources that encourage them to attend and prepare them to be successful in college, in part because the 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement isn't long enough to fix the historical disadvantages (e.g. people of color are more likely to be poor, because the most common way to be wealthy is to inherit some significant portion of your wealth -- it's a vicious circle).

These kinds of -isms are typically vestiges of more overt bigotry in the past, that haven't yet been eliminated. That doesn't make them "ok" or "not a big deal"; being on the short end of systemic -isms sucks. But part of why such -isms take so long to dismantle is the other kind of subtle -ism.

Casual -isms are unconscious biases, often fed by the structural and systemic -isms that still exist in our society. (This sort of feedback loop, where systemic bias feeds casual bias feeds systemic bias, is why both are so difficult to solve.) Most people will perpetuate some casual -ism at some point; it doesn't make you a bad person, it isn't deliberate.  But it's still hurtful.

For example, when a company lists an engineering position and says of the qualified applicant "he will be able to think on his feet", the author and approvers of that language reveal an unconscious belief that engineering candidates -- at least the good ones -- will be male. Now, if you ask the author, he or she will almost certainly say "no, that's not what I meant at all! Of course a woman can be a good engineer, and we would hire a qualified woman if she was the best candidate."  And he or she will really believe that! They aren't a bad person at all!

But it's still sexism. It reveals that there is a bias. Whoever wrote that tends to think that engineers are men. Given our social history, it's not an unreasonable bias. It doesn't make you a bad person if your default mental image of an engineer is a man.  But it does make you an unwitting accomplice to the very systemic sexism that gave you that casual bias in the first place.

And of course, other -isms operate on similar principles.

So while letting slip a casual -ism doesn't make you a bad person, it's still something you did that was harmful in some small way. It's still something you did to contribute to the problem, in much the same way accidentally dropping a candy wrapper and not realizing it contributes to a litter problem. But I'd hope that you take steps to try to avoid dropping wrappers. And I'd certainly expect that if someone calls your attention to it your reaction would be "whoops, sorry about that!" rather than outrage.

And that's really all I'm asking of people who get called out on casual -isms -- acknowledge that you made a mistake, and work to correct it.

Monday, May 20, 2013

What using a Chromebook has taught me

I bought a lovely Samsung ARM-based Chromebook about a month ago, and I've been using it every chance I get.  Here's a few things using it extensively has taught me:

"Disposability" is amazingly freeing. This thing is $250, which isn't cheap enough to not care about it, but cheap enough that loss or permanent damage is more of an annoyance than a serious problem. This combined with knowing that everything I do on it is pretty much instantly synced online means that I just don't stress much about losing or breaking it. That's caused me to bring my Chromebook along in a lot of circumstances where I'd have worried about bringing a valuable object -- and that's meant that I write and "work" more. I like that.

Real keyboards are nice. I used to carry a Bluetooth keyboard with me when I thought I might want to take notes or write on my iPhone or iPad. But they technically don't allow those on planes, and it's annoyingly difficult to use the keyboard+mobile-device combo without a solid surface. And let's face it, the iOS keyboard is just really not great for anything long-form (crazy outliers like Patrick Rhone notwithstanding).  Having a "real computer" of sorts that I can comfortably balance on a knee while I type is surprisingly enjoyable.

Most of the time, I need less computer than I think I do. Web apps have gotten amazingly good; but that doesn't help much when you're disconnected. Or if you need to do "serious" work.

If you do any serious computing, a Chromebook doesn't replace a traditional computer. There are some things that there just aren't good web apps for -- and so I found myself using SSH and some form of Remote Desktop or other on a fairly regular basis. In some ways, this was great: working on high-end machines using the Chromebook as a sort of "window" to my real computing resources was the best of both worlds. Until the WiFi got sketchy. Or there was any sort of connectivity problem.

It's amazing how many places have free or cheap WiFi.

But the major thing I've learned from using a Chromebook as much as possible is that tools can spoil you. 

I wrote several pieces of analysis software for my current client using my Chromebook. There are not good development environments on the web yet (though Koding is both interesting and promising), so I did this via SSH. Which means I used vim and tmux to write and debug on a remote machine. And you know what? After an intial "this is weird" adjustment period, I got a lot more done.

Sure, the first pass went a little more slowly without the neat IDE features... but I was closer to my code. I knew it better. I had fewer distractions in the full-screen terminal session (which was required thanks to the tiny monitor). I read docs using command-line tools, which meant I was less likely to get side-tracked by some interesting add or notification.  I got more done.

I didn't have any games locally installed. Sure, there are plenty of time-wasters on the web, but somehow they're not as appealing as a handy shooter. If I wanted to play anything more than a casual game, I had to switch contexts -- I had to pull out my phone or my Vita. And with that, I was more aware. Hey, I'm not working right now. The games were more relaxing, and less of a distraction.

When network connectivity got poor or disappeared entirely, I didn't have a lot of options. I could write, thanks to Google Docs' offline support. And without anything on the machine to provide easy distraction, I wrote. I wrote more. I wrote more clearly.

The end result of this, though, was not to give up my tools -- and certainly not to give up my beloved MacBook Pro. Rather, it was to much more carefully consider what having a tool (or a toy) will actually do for me. To install only things which will meaningfully improve my ability to do those things I want to do -- to get work done (even if "work" means hobby-work).

And so I rebuilt my MacBook Pro today with these lessons in mind. And whereas I'd previously been frustrated at trying to keep my 128GB SSD free of anything that didn't need to be fast, and make sure I carefully managed my 500GB pack of spinning rust so it wouldn't run out of space... now my entire footprint is less than 20GB.

Monday, May 13, 2013

PowerPoint (and friends) for the novice presenter

Don't. Just.... put down the mouse. People are there to hear you and your ideas. They aren't coming to look at your slides. For the vast majority of presentations, you'll be much better off not producing any at all, and just being prepared to talk to people.

If there's detailed data for your audience to see and digest, make a handout. You'll convey more information, do it more accurately and completely, and save yourself a ton of distraction.

Advanced use

Visual aids, used wisely, can enhance a presentation. Some things are easier to show than to tell. When there's a specific concept or idea that people need to see, then using a PowerPoint or similar "slide" can be useful.  Learning to do this well takes a long time, and I can't teach you in a blog post.

But here are some rules of thumb:
  1. Slides are not your presentation. They are only a tiny part of it.
  2. Slides should add to, never repeat what you're saying or distract from it
  3. If you use a bullet, you're probably doing it wrong
  4. A data-presentation slide is, at best, an overview of the data. Details belong in handouts, not on a screen
  5. If you only had a whiteboard, would you draw this during your presentation? If not, don't put it on a slide either
  6. If your presentation involves moving from slide to slide, you probably are using way too many slides. Spend most of your time with the projector "blacked out", and bring up relevant slides only when necessary
  7. If you're not sure whether a slide is needed, it probably isn't
Think of more? Tell me on Twitter @DarrenPMeyer.