FeelingElephants

Here's the story behind my blog's title.

I use the power of the internet to take human trafficking offline for my day job, but what I say here is mine, all mine.

“I felt the relief of being known”

I’ve been reading Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore for a work book club. It’s the first novel I’ve read in a while that showed people like me. It’s based at a bookstore in San Francisco and involves programmers, VCs, graphic designers, website managers, and the future of human immortality.

A few weeks before starting Mr. Penumbra’s I was thinking about the novels I’d read and heard about recently and thought: I don’t work the kind of job people write novels about.

I don’t read and see people working for the internet, people working for brave-little-nonprofits, people mixing a graphics and graphs and being shown as heroes for doing it. Usually, we’re punchlines–that geek there, that nerd there, that “techie.” We get repped in books by Neal Stephenson and Terry Pratchett, and arguably that’s a category Robin Sloan could skate into, but every once in a while I want people like me to star in something apart from always-friendly and always-sidelined genre fiction. To be seen in the mainstream.

In Mr. Penumbra’s I feel recognized in a novel. I feel seen. I feel like I have discovered shared language to describe my experience to people who do not do exactly my job (“What do you do?” “Have you read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore?”). I’ve found fellowship with the other people who work for the internet, who help to build the content and protect the laws and the people and engage in the great work of talking on the internet for money. But some of my better friends who work outside of my space have no idea the dance I spin between intellectual property laws, creativity, social justice, technology, representation and deadlines that makes up the kind of work that people like me, and the main character in Mr. Penumbra’s do. Reading it makes me feel seen.

That “relief of being known” came through clearly in Syreeta McFadden’s “Teaching The Camera To See My Skin: Navigating photography’s inherited bias against dark skin” on Buzzfeed. The issues of representation she brings up are never far from my work or my heart.

I usually assume this is one of those social justice issues that I can care deeply about for moral, theoretical reasons but with little gripping immediacy to my experience. In many ways this is true. As a white woman, there are lots of me in film, in ads, on TV shows, in books. Even digging deeper, looking to issues of size and passivity, of sexualization and segmentation, I still have a better than even bet of finding people who share my demographics in the media I consume.

But even sharing demographics I don’t feel a relief of being known when I look at Scarlett Johansen. I do when I see Meg Allen’s portraits of butch women in San Francisco, also showcased on Buzzfeed. I don’t when I watch Clara try Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl the Doctor out of his post-Amy funk. I do when I watch Michonne use to katana to clear a path around the people she vowed to keep safe.

In a social justice exercise last fall, I had to answer questions about privilege, one of which was:

Do you see relationships like yours depicted in the media?

My first thoughts were this was meant to tease out the difficulties of being in an interracial couple, or a same-gender one, not to dig into this space of micro-representation.

I still wrote “No.” I don’t see successful long-distance relationships, egalitarian relationships, or early-and-well-married relationships in my media. I don’t see couples that look like Matthew and I in mainstream media, and so I write my own representations, as part of that great work of helping to build-out the internet. If it is so hard to find movies with two women who speak about something other than men, what’s the hope of finding one that also shows my admittedly non-standard relationship.

And this question gets to what representation could mean in a world where millions, not dozens, of people choose who is represented and how. As Syreeta McFadden and Robin Sloan show, the choice is between learning enough to show people’s true faces, and just defaulting to the flawed portraits and settings others gave you.

This is why books like Mr. Penumbra’s are so important to me. They are examples of someone seeking to build a world, and then instead of filling it with Manic Pixie Dream Girls and Rescue Romances, filling it with people.

Some of whom read just like me.

Inspirational Quote:

“Walking the stacks in a library, dragging your fingers across the spines — it’s hard not to feel the presence of sleeping spirits.” ― Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Can I use the power law distribution predict where an egg came from?

One of the core questions I need to answer before I build my Source app is whether tracing source-countries rather than supply chains is an accurate way to guess where a given object came from. 

This is a novel approach. Most of the other folks working on global supply chains focus on corporate transparency (see CA SB-657-mandated’s KnowTheChain.com), because those supply chains are hella opaque. But given that they are currently so opaque, I wondered if I could use source country as a proxy.

The idea came from Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody where he dedicate serious page-time to the concept that social media content production is guided by the power law. This means that on a given social network, the top 10% of users will produce the 90% of content. That’s the spike in the power law graph. The second and just-as-important piece is the long-tail–that 90% of users only produce 10% of content.

I wondered if globalization might make countries the same way, that the top 10% countries producing a given commodity would represent 90% of the production of that commodity. If that were true, then for coding the Source app, when someone searched for where an egg came from, I could design the system to respond with the top 6 egg-producing countries and have a certain level of confidence that the user’s egg came from one of those countries.

Today I got started seeing if that was true, roughly. There are always going to be exigencies–high tariffs might make it so some countries only eat eggs laid domestically or Free Trade Agreements mean all people in one country only eat eggs from another–but right now I’m interested in averages.

Below is a video explaining my research using the UN Food and Agricultural Organization’s commodity data:

The take away is that for the dozen-or-so commodities I tried out before and after making this video, the power law fit pretty well. There were fascinating outliers–most Arab countries produce dates and nearly no one but the U.S. and Canada produce cranberries–but most of the commodities I explored reflected the power law distribution.

This makes sense. Globalization is about consolidating markets, letting countries specialize (sometimes to the point of endangering their national interests). Most markets tend to grow a few sky-scrapers and then miles of suburbia around them. And that trend could help support using this model in the Source app.

I have more playing to do. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service shares some mouth-watering datasets that I can use to fact-check the UN rankings, and I’ve not even gotten into industrial materials like steel or coltan.

But it was a good evening snorkeling in global economic datasets.

Inspirational Quote:

“We live in such a service-based, globalised economy where very few people actually make anything and the people who do make stuff… it’s all part of a massive global supply chain. So what if all those chains were suddenly cut, how would you make something? How would you keep people alive? And that was something I wanted to explore.”–Max Brooks

An origin story for Source

I let everyone know that I’m building my first app, called Source, in the next few months, to help surface existing global relationships. I mentioned that the idea came from a technical aside in paper I wrote for Dr Jay Aronson’s Global Justice class at Carnegie Mellon in Fall 2009. Below is the first iteration of the idea for Source, from a paper titled “Making the Invisible Visible” (October 11, 2009) on philosopher Peter Singer’s challenging “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”. I’ve left in Jay’s comments because they’re great:

A Technical Aside [JDA1] 

Imagine if a credit card could show its owner this utility in concrete terms. Swiping for a latte, it would inform me that $3.95 could pay for three mosquito nets in the Central African Republic. Charging for a hardback copy of Dreams from My Father, I would see that $15.95 could buy a woman in East Palo Alto, CA a interviewing suit. Then it would display an option for me to contribute to others rather than buying for myself. This would allow for the realization of Singer’s formula.

On the resource side, perhaps this same smart credit card would display the countries which contributed materials to a given product—say Dreams from My Father—originated (paper: Brazilian rain-forest; ink: India; binding: Canadian old-growth). Each country would have two ratings next to its name: one to five trees for its environmental record and one to five hearts for its human rights record. This would allow consumers to choose what kinds of countries they support with their money. This would allow realization of Pogge’s negative duty.

These could also be iPhone [JDA2] apps which used the barcodes of items to get their information.


 [JDA1] I doubt credit card companies would go for this, but I LOVE idea!!!  Kind of like nutritional labeling for money!

[JDA2] There is a website that lists the costs of all parts of the iphone and I think where they come from…

Singer’s argument is that people should contribute to ending global inequality until they themselves are at the same level of misery as the people to whom they are giving. He formulated this argument during massive flooding and tragedy in East Bengal, India in November 1971:

I and everyone else in similar circumstances ought to give as much as possible, that is, at least up to the point at which by giving more one would begin to cause serious suffering for one and one’s dependents—perhaps even beyond this point to the point of marginal utility, at which by giving more one would cause oneself and one’s dependents as much suffering as one would prevent in Bengal. (Singer 390)

I disagree fundamentally with the extremes to which Singer took his argument, but like many undergraduates studying global philosophy I found it to be a mind worm I couldn’t get out. And in trying to find a practical way to implement it, I proposed the app I’m now working to build.

Inspirational Quote:

“As I write this, in November 1971, people are dying in East Bengal from lack of food, shelter, and medical care. The suffering and death that are occurring there now are not inevitable, not unavoidable in any fatalistic sense of the term. Constant poverty, a cyclone, and a civil war have turned at least nine million people into destitute refugees; nevertheless, it is not beyond the capacity of the richer nations to give enough assistance to reduce any further suffering to very small proportions. The decisions and actions of human beings can prevent this kind of suffering.”–Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality