Monday, February 12, 2018

Book summary: The Hacking of the American Mind, by Robert Lustig

Five years ago, UCSF pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Robert H. Lustig came out swinging with Fat Chance, a well-argued if polemical exposé of how the processed sugar industry has come to dominate food production (and consumption) with disastrous effects—not simply obesity, but metabolic syndrome, which affects circulatory health, mental health, sleep patterns, anxiety levels, overall longevity, various risk levels for cancer, and much more. (I only recently learned that while preparing the book, this career physician in his 60s obtained a law degree in order to better understand both the regulatory framework around the food industry and the kinds of fights he'd be up against by publishing such a muckraking book.)

Now he's back with the even more compelling The Hacking of the American Mind. Like Fat Chance, his fundamental arguments are embedded in endocrinology—the study of developmental and behavioral activities of metabolism and growth as reflected by the endocrine/hormone system. Endocrinology impinges on sleep habits, eating habits, physical and psychological health, reproduction, movement, digestion, sensory perception, and mental acuity—it is by its nature broad-ranging, as is this book.

Lustig's thesis is that not one but several industries consciously develop products designed to foment addictive behavior, showing convincingly (from an endocrinological basis) that the brain signaling pathways implicated in substance addictions (drugs, alcohol) are the same as those implicated in behavioral addictions (addiction to social media, for example). He lays out in plain language how the dopamine stimulus mechanism works, how it can be abused to the point of permanent damage (i.e. an addiction that is essentially unrecoverable, from which you can never return to steady state), how the serotonin production system mediates these reactions, and how some of the very same addictive behaviors actually thwart the behaviors that would promote serotonin production and a healthy balance between the two.

His wide-ranging assault affects processed food, substance abuse, and most significantly for modern audiences who "aren't addicted to anything," the profound new role of "attention addiction"—being unable to tear your attention away from social media, craving ever-more-frequent little hits of dopamine when someone "Likes" your post or retweets your tweet, and digging yourself into a cycle whose chemical effects on your body, and short- and long-term effects on your mood, mental health, and physical well-being, are no different from those resulting from substance addictions.

As in Fat Chance, Lustig writes in an informal, direct, highly-readable, no-BS voice that makes it sound like he is in your classroom addressing a small group of students. At the same time, the evidence he musters—and his ability to bring such a diverse array of topics within a clearly-laid-out organizing framework—is worthy of a MacArthur for the same kinds of reasons that Jared Diamond deserved one for the work leading up to Guns, Germs & Steel. 

I know far too many people—of all ages—about whom it's not too much of a stretch to say that if this book isn't behavior-changing for them, it will be all downhill from here. If you don't want to be one of them, it behooves you to read this book.


Saturday, January 6, 2018

Course evaluations and the Jedi

Philip Stark, chairman of UC Berkeley's Department of Statistics, has persuasively argued that student course evaluations often inversely correlate with teaching effectiveness and are distorted by gender bias. Nonetheless, my faculty colleagues and I read the evaluations for ideas on how we might improve. And indeed, this semester I received some specific comments related to course organization problems and bumpiness of one of the midterms, which used a brand-new format; those comments are fair, valuable, and actionable.

But I am not accustomed to (anonymous) comments such as the following, quoted unredacted from the evaluations for the software engineering course I just wrapped up:
  • "Armando gives his students and their time little respect"
  • "the horrible experience I had with this specific professor ruined the entire curriculum for me"
  • "Where is my tuition going to?! What is the school paying him to do? Faculty like this should be removed. It is not okay for a school like Berkeley to have a 'professor' like Armando."
  • "Armando, you ruined this semester for me and a lot of other students. I hope you take a good chunk of time to review all these evaluations and think carefully about what it means to be a professor. If you want to do your 'research' then I suggest you go do industrial research or somewhere where you do not jeopardize the learning of hundreds of students. Berkeley CS has a name to uphold and this is the worst course I have seen in my 4 years at Berkeley. Don't waste anyone's time anymore, please. If your time is valuable to you, my time is valuable to me. If you do end up returning to teach again, please show your students some respect."
If you want more, or want to make sure you're reading them in context, I've posted the full unredacted evaluations. Bear in mind that only 38/124 bothered to respond, only 10/124 wrote any freeform comments, and of those 10, six of them apparently coordinated their efforts to write bad evaluations (as evidenced by the comment "Everyone on my team [of 6] is submitting a negative evaluation"). Still, despite 17 years of teaching during which I frequently have thought about what it means to be a professor and even received numerous citations for good teaching, it is hard to completely depersonalize such comments.

The reason such comments sap one's inspiration and motivation is that they are ad hominem. Nothing in the above comments is specific or actionable; they serve only to antagonize. (Read them again and find one actionable suggestion or specific grievance.) Indeed, if a student made these comments to another student, it might well be labeled as bullying.

Of course, the above students did not identify themselves. The abdication of accountability fueled by anonymity is a toxic element of Internet culture and the reason I avoid most social media. I held office hours during all but two of the 15 weeks of the semester, and I accommodated many students' requests for private appointments outside scheduled office hours. I will bet my lunch that none of the above students came.

Having just seen the most recent Star Wars installment, I can't help but wonder how a Jedi Master would react if an apprentice behaved this way. (In fact, the one Jedi apprentice who dissed his mentors is Anakin Skywalker, and we know what happened to him.) First the Jedi Master would use the Force to figure out which anonymous apprentice made such vitriolic comments. And then the Master would…

…dangle the apprentice threateningly over a Dagobah swamp? No. Revenge paves the path to the Dark Side.

…eject the apprentice from the Jedi Temple? Might as well drive them right into the arms of the Sith.

…conclude "This one, I cannot teach"? Maybe. But probably the Master would at least try to find a teachable moment in this situation.

How might that work? One method used with great success by my own Jedi mentor, David Patterson, is to semi-humorously offer bad advice, making it clear that success requires doing the opposite.

To that end, I might well say: "Students, when you go into the workforce, here is a poor way to write a critical evaluation of your supervisor (or your advisor, if you go to grad school). Your supervisor/advisor will appreciate your telling them to 'think carefully' about their career, as they may never have done so before your insightful suggestion. Don't hold back with your criticisms—since it's anonymously written, they'll know you're not pulling any punches. Your supervisor/advisor will quickly realize that rather than questioning how you have contributed to the organization and your peers, they should be focusing on how they are failing your needs and expectations. Also, if something else is bothering you, even if it's not totally related to the review, this is a great opportunity to get all that poison out of your system, because it's anonymous."

Except, of course, that in workplaces (and grad school) such interactions are usually not anonymous, and I have no doubt that comments such as the above would be long remembered.

When I compose any professional communication—even anonymously—I ask myself, "Would I stand behind my words if I were identified as the author? How will this post reflect upon me as an individual? Will it send the message to my colleagues that I'm a valuable contributor who is sincerely interested in improving the organization? Are my remarks worthy of a professional engineer and Cal alumnus?"

I should count my blessings: at least these students stopped short of calling forth a plague of locusts upon me, or placing a curse on my spouse and family. And the anonymous commenter who demands that I "show some respect" might consider that the integrity to stand behind one's words, as I am doing by putting my name to this post, is one way to do so.

But the bigger risk is that if students use course evaluations as a way to vent anonymously rather than as a constructive channel for feedback, the evaluations will lose credibility—and faculty who would otherwise earnestly mine them for ideas on how to improve their teaching will simply stop doing so, because who wants to be trolled?

And that way, surely, lies the Dark Side.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Holiday reading 2017

Every time I teach my software engineering class, I try to offer the students some more general life perspective in addition to just straight-ahead software skills. One way I do this is to recommend books that have been particularly life-changing or behavior-changing, or that I've found to be profoundly important, for school, work, life, or all three. For those possibly interested in reading any of them, here is the December 2017 list, with Amazon links to each. As I mentioned, my reviews and recommendations are strongly opinionated, but if you expose yourself to lots of different and contrasting opinions, you will maximize the depth of your own learning and understanding. Read and enjoy. After all, as Mark Twain said, “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.”
Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreamsby UCB Prof. Matthew Walker, one of the world's leading sleep scientists.  Getting the right amount and right type of sleep can improve your learning and retention, your happiness, your health and longevity, and your overall performance. Dr. Walker explains the science behind these startling findings, and the do's and don'ts of getting good sleep. I found this to be a life-changing, behavior-changing book. 
Representative extended quote: [U]nable to maintain focus and attention, deficient learning, behaviorally difficult, with mental health instability…these symptoms are nearly identical to those caused by a lack of sleep. … [T]here are people sitting in prison cells [for] selling amphetamines to minors on the street, [yet] pharmaceutical companies broadcast prime-time commercials highlighting ADHD and promoting the sale of amphetamine-based drugs (Adderall, Ritalin)…We estimate that more than 50 percent of all children with an ADHD diagnosis actually have a sleep disorder.”

Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future? by Harry Lewis, Ph.D., longtime Harvard Dean of Students. Lewis reflects on what college is supposed to be for students, and how professors, administrators, and students themselves are thwarting these very goals and impoverishing the student experience. His framework accommodates such wide-ranging topics as cheating, sexual harassment on campus, grade inflation, and more. If you ever expect to work with college students in any capacity, you can't afford not to read this. [My review on Amazon]
Representative extended quote: “A [student with a disability] who turned in a plagiarized paper … [argued that his] typist must have typed up his notes rather than his actual paper, and he turned in what the typist gave him without checking it. His family assured us that they would take the College to court … if he were found guilty of plagiarism. It was not his fault that the paper […] was the work of others. … His family … may have taught him how to make the system work for him, but did they teach him anything about character? [T]he College is expected to coddle students when they should be learning about life by trial and error.”

The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail,  by Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School. If you insist on using the word "disrupt", you should understand what it means. Disruption is profound, unexpected, and has happened in a wide range of major industries outside technology, long before bloggers and pundits misappropriated the term. Reading this won't prevent disruptive tsunamis but it may help you see them coming.

Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life by Adam Greenfield. Have you thought deeply about the technology you are creating and the social and economic structures in which it's embedded? No? After reading this, you won't be able to not think about it. If you work at the cutting edge of CS and you don't read this, you leave yourself morally liable. [My review on Amazon]
Representative extended quote: Watch what happens when a pedestrian first becomes conscious of receiving a call or a text message …what does our immersion in the interface do to our sense of being in public, that state of being copresent with and available to others that teaches us how to live together? … [T]here is a very real risk that those who are able to do so will prefer retreat behind a wall of mediation to the difficult work of being fully present in public… The internet of things in all of its manifestations so often seems like an attempt to paper over the voids between us, or slap a quick technical patch on all the places where capital has left us unable to care for one another.”

The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant. This team of historians wrote the definitive ~20-volume "Story of Civilization" in the 60s, then stepped back and wrote this condensed 100-page "design patterns of history" book. This is like getting a preview of everything that has happened in the 20th century or will likely happen in the 21st, based on what has happened in the past.  As Santayana said, “Those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it.”  Don‘t be that guy.
Representative quote:  If our economy of freedom fails to distribute wealth as ably as it has created it, the road to dictatorship will be open to any man who can persuasively promise security for all; and a martial government, under whatever charming phrases, will engulf the democratic world.”

Program or Be Programmed by Douglas Rushkoff. Bing! you got a text. Bing! someone liked a Facebook post you made. Bing! someone you're following just tweeted. Bing! Bing! Bing! Ever wonder about the effects of being in "constant standby" and interrupt-driven on your work habits, your ability to concentrate over extended time intervals and absorb new material, your social capital? Neither Rushkoff nor I are arguing for a technology-free lifestyle, but your actions and choices should be informed. This book can help.  
Representative extended quote: [W]e sacrifice the thoughtfulness and deliberateness our digital media once offered for the false goal of immediacy—as if we really can exist in a state of perpetual standby. We mistake the rapid-fire stimulus of our networks for immediacy …This in turn encourages us to value the recent over the relevant. We can watch a live feed of oil from an oil well leaking into the ocean, or a cell phone video of an activist getting murdered…But with little more to do about it than blog from the safety of our bedrooms, such imagery tends to disconnect and desensitize us rather than engage us. Meanwhile, what is happening outside our window is devalued.”

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Vanishing GenX

[Note: this post was originally called Vanishing Americana but it makes more sense to call it Vanishing GenX, hence the weird permalink.] I guess one gets nostalgic as one approaches middle age. Or maybe, as a professed progressive liberal, I'm nostalgic for the Bush Jr years—what we now call "the good old days". For whatever reason, I thought I'd transcribe a list of things that most fellow GenX'ers will recognize as fixtures from their formative years but that most millennials (the group I mostly teach as undergrads at Berkeley) may not even recognize the names of. Email me if you want something added to the list.

In no particular order, and inspired by the book Going, Going, Gone: Vanishing Americana (which is itself inspired by the original Vanishing Americana: Pictures of the American Past), here is my list of newly-vanishing Americana…


  1. Microfiche at the library. Remember how one had to look up old newspaper articles before the web?
  2. Projectors in classrooms; the AV club. There was always the one kid who could set up the 16mm projector to watch “educational” films. The kid was often part of a mysterious coven called the AV club. Now it’s all on YouTube. By the way, the film projector is itself a small marvel of engineering.
  3. X-acto knives in publication layout. If you were a school newspaper editor, yearbook photographer, etc., paste-up sheets and X-acto knives were tools of the trade. Now it’s done using desktop publishing.
  4. Having to plan ahead when meeting up with friends, because there are no cell phones. It used to be that getting a group of friends together required significant advance planning, especially if you were going to meet in a crowded place, like New York City or Disneyland, since once you left the house there was no way to reach your friends. 
  5. Going to the video store. Video rental stores weren't just about renting the video—the act of going to the store became a cultural fixture itself. (The intriguing book From Betamax to Blockbuster chronicles this social history and its effect on the moviegoing consumer, and the documentary Rewind This! chronicles its effects on the entertainment industry, both of which are more profound than most of us realize.)
  6. Phone books. It’s hard to explain this concept given that voice calls are barely a thing anymore and that phone numbers are exchanged via SMS. It’s particularly hard to explain the Yellow Pages.
  7. Dialing 411. Ditto. (I wonder how many of my students have heard but not understood the expression “Here’s the 4-1-1…”)
  8. Physical special effects and "trick photography". Movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars featured groundbreaking special effects long before digital video was possible; they had to do it the hard way. 
  9. Fotomat and other 1-hour photo booths. Time was when a 1-hour turnaround before you could actually see a photo was considered miraculous. And of course you’d pay the incremental extra fee to get two copies of each photo—how else could you share them?
  10. Metered long distance and outside-exchange calls. Imagine always being in voice roaming mode. If you had an SO who lived outside your telephone exchange (itself a complicated concept to explain, in an age of mobile phones)—or if you were a geek like me who liked to spend time on BBSs—it mattered whether the phone number was inside or outside your exchange, otherwise the calls could be metered and quite expensive. Now that area codes are roughly irrelevant and unlimited long distance calls are features of most plans (assuming you still use the phone system and not Skype or WhatsApp for voice calls…), metering is basically a thing of the past—except when you’re roaming.
  11. Typing your term papers, using carbon paper and Wite-Out. (Thanks to Steve Hand.) I was an early adopter of word processors, but up until 1981 I was still typing. In fact I wish I'd saved the typewriter, I have kind of a nostalgia for one now.
  12. Getting off the couch to change the TV channel, even though only about 6 channels of VHF were available in the days before cable. Hard to know where to even begin to explain this one to millennials. (Thanks to Allison Jaynes.)
Things that are on the way out but haven’t made the list yet (younger readers might at least recognize these as “things their parents are familiar with”):

  1. Navigation using maps 
  2. TV Guide
  3. Passing (paper) notes in class
  4. Fast-food restaurant birthday parties
  5. Mix tapes
  6. Clocks you have to set periodically
Send me a note if you have other suggestions…


Saturday, October 21, 2017

Book summary: Radical Technologies

Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, by Adam Greenfield.

I first met Adam Greenfield when he accepted an invitation to deliver a
guest talk at a computer systems conference I co-organized in 2009.  His
talk on what would later become known as "smart cities" was ahead of its
time and (in my mind) firmly placed him as a modern urbanist, well
within the tradition of Jane Jacobs but with a deep technology
sensibility, as his later book "Against the Smart City" revealed.  In
his latest book he emerges as a true humanist, again with a deep
understanding of the role of technology.  The questions he poses to the
reader here go well beyond urbanism, to an existential examination of
the friction between what we think we are here for and the precipitous
acceleration towards a 100% technology-mediated lifestyle.

The basic message of the book is that mediation by extremely complex
technology stacks has (at least) four pernicious effects.  It erases the
"wetware" versions of quotidian activities such as hailing a cab or
clustering around a TV, which, though mundane, build social capital.  It
further divides haves from have-nots.  It litters the socio-technical
landscape with technological ingredients (in the form of code libraries,
e.g.) whose functions may be benign or even banal when they first
appear, but can rapidly and almost invisibly be put to use to subvert
our individual or societal goals, and indeed to move those goalposts.

And it eliminates the assumption of an underlying shared reality, in a
dark, Gibsonian-dystopia sort of way. You and I see different features
on Google Maps, receive different pricing and suggestions from Amazon,
are shown different news headlines, and although we may be occupying the
same space at the same time, we're each simultaneously in two different
"somewhere elses".  Yet we generally don't know whose values or reasons
underlie the differences between the choices presented to you and those
presented to me.

Socioeconomically, this means (for example) that Google Home defaults to
using OpenTable for making restaurant reservations, which diverts money
from the restaurant to the service but appears frictionless to the
consumer; Google Maps presents Uber as a frictionless transportation
option alongside driving or transit, to the exclusion of other choices;
and so on, to show how attention, culture, and dollars are subtly
steered in specific directions, for ends usually opaque to the very
users they claim to serve.

Politically, one could not hand an authoritarian government a better
tool to divide and control its subjects.

In short, we have invited companies, standards bodies, and potentially
malicious hackers to intervene in the "innermost precincts of our
lives", perilous precisely because those activities are so banal we're
not prone to worrying about who is observing or intermediating them.
Indeed the "smart cities" and "Internet of things" credo seems to be
that there is "one and only one universal and transcendently correct
solution to each identified individual or collective human need; that
this solution can be arrived at algorithmically, via the operations of a
technical system furnished with the proper inputs; and that this
solution is something which can be encoded in public policy, again
without distortion."  Yet data is hardly without biases, starting with
the decision of what data to collect and how to taxonomize it, and even
in the best-intentioned cases, can be misused after the fact, as
occurred when occupying German forces "weaponized" Dutch identity-card
data to hunt down those of "undesirable" ethnicities and races (and the
Trump administration aims to do with DACA registrations).

Rapidly-adopted and soon-to-be-ubiquitous technologies seem to fall into
two categories: those that are ostensibly well-intentioned but whose use
in practice falls ludicrously short of their original aims, and those
that are banal but potentially dangerous if "weaponized" by immoral
actors (with which history is replete).  And so digital fabrication,
once conceived as a way to end scarcity, becomes a narrow channel for
people to obtain things the market cannot provide, because they are
either bespoke or illegal.  Cryptocurrencies, or more specifically
"smart contracts" and their derivatives Distributed Autonomous
Organizations (essentially virtual corporations run entirely by
algorithm), obscure rather than clarify their networks of ownership and
power and exist in a vacuum oblivious to human foibles.  Robotics are
being developed apace in Japan not to assist humans, but to replace them
in such human-centric roles as care assistants for the aged.  Machine
learning algorithms that could help predict where and by whom crimes
might be committed are instead being deployed in China to encumber
citizens with a "karma points" system that will determine access to
virtually all social goods and services--eerily similar to the
fictitious one in "Nosedive", Season 3 Episode 1 of "Black Mirror".  In
all, Greenfield asks, did the creators of these technologies really
think through the risks associated with developing and deploying them?
And if so, did they really conclude that a future embodying those risks
was one worth pursuing?

The lament of the book is that it doesn't have to be this way.
"Sensitive technical deployments" of technology are more than possible,
such as an app that uses facial recognition and Internet search to
gently remind those of us with bad memories of a colleague's name at a
social function, smoothing out social friction rather than creating
social isolation.  Yet the patterns of smartphone use (to name just the
most obvious technological manifestation of Greenfield's concerns) are
just the opposite: receiving the notification of a message or a call
tends to cause an immediate social disruption, and the concept of shared
public life suffers as a result.  (It is in these lines of argument that
Greenfield's intellectual heritage as an urbanist comes through most
clearly.)  And too often when technologists attempt to deploy technology
to serve rather than supplant social interaction, it has the effect of
using technology to "paper over" social inequities and friction rather
than attempting to eliminate them.

Greenfield wraps up with a warning and a call to action.  The warning is
that we should evaluate a technology not on the basis of what it was
intended to do, however noble, but only on the basis of what it is
observed to do in practice, and how rapidly it is rechanneled to
entrench existing power structures to the detriment of you and me.  (Or
in the words of cyberneticist Stafford Beer, "[the] purpose of a system
is what it does.")  The call to action takes the form of presenting four
visions of possible technology-mediated futures, the extremes of which
are not too dissimilar from those sketched in the unrelated novella
"Manna", as a call to action to the reader: "...people with left
politics of any stripe absolutely cannot allow their eyes to glaze over
when the topic of conversation turns to technology, or in any way cede
this terrain to its existing inhabitants, for to do so is to surrender
the commanding heights of the contemporary situation."

Although once in a while the author's voice crosses over into the
overtly polemical, the book as a whole is an informed tour de force that
should be required reading not only for anyone working at the
technological frontier, but for anyone who wants to understand the
opportunities we are potentially leaving on the table by allowing the
social infiltration of those technologies to develop untrammeled.

And for an excellent right-brain companion to the book, watch the British TV
series "Black Mirror".

Friday, August 25, 2017

How to unfuck Mac OS X Calendar

I sync my OS X Calendar and my iPhone calendar to Google Calendar—that is, Google Calendar is the truth and the backup storage. Theoretically, via CalDAV any changes made to any of the three should eventually propagate to the others. This mostly works, but for some reason recently it hasn't worked reliably with Calendar—it's as if some update events from Google Calendar don't get downloaded properly, although changes I make in Calendar do seem to propagate reliably to Google.

Here is a script I wrote that I run periodically to fix this, based on a fix I found somewhere for when Calendar doesn't sync/import Google Calendar changes correctly even after forcing a refresh. I've saved this script as ~/bin/unfuck-ical (since iCal is the old name of the Calendar app). I'm considering it just running as a cron job, since this fuckage occurs pretty frequently now. Hope this helps someone else.


Book summary: The Hacking of the American Mind, by Robert Lustig

Five years ago, UCSF pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Robert H. Lustig came out swinging with Fat Chance, a well-argued if polemical exposé of...