Category Archives: People

Living with Social Anxiety

I’ve been thinking about writing this for a long time. Probably a few years by now. I think it’s probably about time to out myself.

I’ve mentioned in the past that I’ve dealt with mental illness. But I’ve never gone in depth about it. There are a lot of reasons for that, but the biggest one is just that it’s really frightening to reveal that kind of personal information.

I’ve had trouble with two related things. I’ve written before about the fact that I’m being treated for depression. What I haven’t talked about is the fact that I’ve got very severe social anxiety.

To me, the depression isn’t such a big deal. I’m not saying that depression isn’t serious. I’m not even saying that in my case, my depression wasn’t/isn’t serious. But for me, depression is easily treated. I’m one of the lucky people who respond really well to medication.

Back when I first realized that something was wrong, and I realized that what I was feeling (or, more accurately, what I was not feeling) was depression, I went to see a doctor. On my first visit with him, he wrote me a prescription for Zoloft. Two weeks later, I started feeling better; between 5 and 6 weeks after starting to take the medication, I was pretty much recovered from that episode of depression.

I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever totally recovered. There’s always a lingering residue of depression, which I’m constantly struggling against. It doesn’t go away, but it’s manageable. As long as I’m aware of it, it doesn’t have a huge impact on my life.

On the other hand, social anxiety. For me, that’s a really big deal. That’s the thing that shapes (and warps) my entire life. And as hard as it is to talk about something like depression, talking about SA is much harder.

As bad as people react to depression, the reaction to social anxiety is worse. Depression is commonly viewed as more weakness than illness. But social anxiety is treated as a joke.

It’s no joke. For those of us who deal with it, it’s a huge source of pain. It’s had a huge effect on my life. But I’ve always been afraid to talk about it. The thing is, I think that things like this are important to talk about. Our society has a huge stigma against mental illness. I really believe that needs to change. And the only way that it will change is when we stop treating it as something to be ashamed of, or something that needs to stay hidden. And that means that I’ve got to be willing to talk about it.

Social anxiety is part of who I am, and I can’t escape that. But I can talk about what it is. And I can, publicly, say to kids who are in the same situation that I was in 30 years ago: Yes, being like this sucks. But despite in, you can live a good life. You can find friends who’ll care about you, find a partner who’ll love you, build a successful career, and thrive. Even if your SA never goes away, even if there’s always some pain because of it, it doesn’t have to rule your life. You can still be happy.

The first thing I need to do is to explain just what SA is. But I need to be very clear here: like anything else that involves peoples’ inner perceptions, I can only talk about what it’s like for me. Different people experience things differently, so what it’s like for me might be totally different from what it’s like for someone else. I don’t mean to in any way cast any shade on anyone else: their feelings and perceptions may be different from mine, but they’re just as valid. This is just my experience.

So. What is social anxiety?

It’s very difficult to explain. The best I can do is to say that it’s the absolute knowledge that I’m freak, combined with a terror of what will happen when anyone finds out. I know, on a deep physical level that if people figure out who/what I am, that they’ll hate me – and worse, that they’ll actively turn on me, attack me, harm me.

It’s not true. I know perfectly well that it’s not true. I can feel like this even with my closest friends – people who I know will always support me, who would never do anything to hurt me. But deep down, on a level below conscious thought, I know it. It doesn’t matter that intellectually I’m aware that it’s not true, because my physical reaction in social situations is based on what my subconscious knows.

So every time I walk into a room full of people, every time I walk into a store, every time I pick up the phone, every time I walk over to a coworker to ask a question, that’s what I’m feeling. That fear, that need to escape, that certainty that I’m going to mess up, and that when I do, I’m going to be ostracized or worse.

What makes it worse is the fact that the way I behave because of the social anxiety increases the odds that other people will think I’m strange – and when people see me that way, it increases the stress that I feel. When you’re putting a substantial part of your effort and concentration into squashing down the feeling of panic, you’re not paying full attention to the people you’re interacting with. At best, you come off as distant, inattentive, and rude. At worst, you’re seen reacting in odd ways, because you’ve missed some important social cue.

It’s not a small thing. Humans are social creatures. We need contact with other people. We can’t live without it. But my interactions are always colored by this fear. I have to fight against it every day, in everything I do. It colors every interaction I have with every person I encounter. It’s there, all the time.

When people talk about social anxiety, they mostly talk about it as being something like excessive shyness. I hope that this descriptions helps make it clear that that’s not what it’s really about.

Where’d this craziness come from?

For me, it’s really a kind of PTSD, or so a doctor who specializes in SA told me. I feel really guilty saying that, because to me, PTSD is something serious, and I have a hard time putting myself into the same basket as people who’ve gone through real trauma. But in medical terms, that’s what’s happening.

I’ve written about my past a little bit before. I had a rough childhood. Most of the time when you hear that, you think of family trouble, which couldn’t be farther from the truth for me. I had a really wonderful family. My parents and my siblings were/are great. But in school, I was the victim of abuse. I was a very small kid. I’m fairly tall now (around 5’11”) when I started high school, I wasn’t quite 5 feet tall. At the beginning of my junior year, I was still just 5’1″. So, I was short, skinny, hyperactive geeky kid. That’s pretty much the formula for getting picked on.

But I didn’t just get picked on. I got beaten up an a regular basis. I don’t say that lightly. I’m not talking about small stuff. The small abuses would have been bad enough, but that’s not what happened to me. This was serious physical abuse. To give one example, in gym class one day during my senior year, I had someone tackle me to the ground; then grab my little finger, say “I wonder what it would feel like if I broke this?”, and then snap it.

That was, pretty much, my life every day from 5th grade until I graduated high school. Everything I did became a reason to abuse me. If I answered a teachers question in class? That was a reason to beat me: I’m making them look bad. If I didn’t answer a question in class, that was a reason to beat me: I should be satisfying the teacher so that they don’t have to.

It wasn’t limited to school. My house was vandalized. The gas lines on our grill were cut. A swastika was burned into the street in front of my house. We had so many mailboxes destroyed that we literally build a detachable mount for the mailbox, and brought it in to the house every night. Then in retribution for depriving the assholes of the privilege of smashing our mailbox, they set the wooden mailbox post on fire.

Hearing this, you’d probably ask “Where was the principal/administration when all of this was going on?”. The answer? They didn’t really give a damn. The principal was an ex-nun, who believed that you shouldn’t punish children. If one children hits another, you shouldn’t tell them that hitting is wrong. You should sit them down and talk to them about “safe hands”, and what you need to do for your hands to be safe.

After the finger-breaking incident, my parents really freaked out, and went in to see the principal and assistant principal. Their reaction was to be furious at my parents. The AP literally shouted at my father, saying “What do you want, a god-damned armed guard to follow your kid around?”. (To which, I think, the response should have been “Fuck yeah. If you’re doing such a shit job protecting your students that the only way to stop them from having their bones broken for fun is to hire armed guards to follow them around, then you should damn well do that.”) Unfortunately, my parents didn’t believe in lawsuits; they wouldn’t sue the school, and they just didn’t have the money to move me to a private school. So I got to suffer.

(Even now, I would dearly love to find that principal… I’d really like to explain to her exactly what a god-damned idiot she is, and how ashamed she should be of the horrible job she did. A principal’s number one job is making sure that the school is a safe place for children to learn. She failed, horribly, at that – and, as far as I could tell, never felt the slightest bit of guilt over all of the things she allowed to happen in her school.)

So now, it’s literally 30 years since I got out of high school. But it’s very hard to get past the things that were pounded into you during your childhood. The eight years of daily abuse – from the time I was 10 years old until I turned 18 – basically rewired my personality.

The effects of that are what made me the way I am.

How does social anxiety really affect my daily life?

Socially, it’s almost crippling. I don’t have much of a social life. I’ve got a small group of very close friends who I don’t get to see nearly enough of, and I have a very hard time meeting new people. Even with people that I’ve known for a long time, I’m just not comfortable. Sometimes I really need social contact, but most of the time, I’d rather be alone in some quiet place, where I don’t need to worry about what other people think. I’d really like to be able to socialize more – in particular, there are a lot of people that I’ve met through this blog that I think of as friends, who I’d love to meet in person, but I never do. Even when I have the change, I usually manage to muck it up. (Because I always believe that people are looking for some reason to reject me, I see rejection in places where it doesn’t exist.)

Professionally, it’s been up and down. It definitely has held me back somewhat. In any job where you need to promote yourself, someone with SA is in deep trouble.

At one point, I even lost a job because of it. I didn’t get fired, but that’s only because I quit when it became obvious that that’s what was coming, and there was no point sticking around waiting for it. My manager at the time found out I was getting treated for SA. From the moment he found out, he stopped trusting anything I said about anything. To make matters worse, at the time, he was in trouble for a project that was literally 2 years overdue, and he needed a scapegoat. The “crazy” guy was the obvious target.

As an example of what I mean: one of the times he accused me of incompetence involved actors, which is a programming model that I used in my PhD dissertation. Actors are a model of concurrent computation in which everything is asynchronous. There are no visible locks – just a collection of active objects which can asynchronously send and receive messages. (I wrote a post about actors, with my own implementation of a really silly actor-based programming language here.)

We were working on a scheduling problem for our system. Our team had a meeting to discuss how to implement a particular component of that. After a lot of discussion, we agreed that we should implement it as an actor system. So I wrote a lightweight actors framework on top of our thread library, and implement the whole thing in actors. My coworkers reviewed the code, and accepted it with a lot of enthusiasm. My manager scheduled a private meeting where he accused my mental illness of impairing my judgement, because what kind of idiot would write something like that to be totally asynchronous?

So I left that company. Fortunately, skilled software engineers are in high demand in the NYC area, so finding a new job wasn’t a problem. I’ve had several different jobs since then. SA really hasn’t been a huge problem at any of them, thank goodness. It’s always a bit of a problem because my natural tendency is to try to disappear into the background, so it’s easy for people to not notice the work I’m doing. But I’ve mostly learned how to overcome that. It’s not easy, but I’ve managed.

When job-hunting, after that terrible experience, I learned to be careful to learn a bit about what the work culture of a company is like before I go to work there. I’ve tried to work something into conversations with people at the company after I have an offer, but before I accept it. It gives me a chance to see how they react to it. If I don’t like their reaction, if it seems like there’s a good chance that it’ll cause trouble, I’ll just take a different job someplace where it won’t be a problem. Like I said before, it’s a good time to be a software engineer in NYC – I can afford to turn down offers from companies that I don’t like.

So, yeah. I’m kind of crazy. Writing this is both difficult and terrifying. Posting it is going to be even worse. But I think it’s important to get stuff like this out there.

Despite all of this, I’ve wound up in a good place. I’m married to a lovely woman. I’ve got two smart, happy kids. I’ve got a great job, working with people that I really, genuinely like and enjoy working with, and they seem to like me back. It’s been a long, hard road to get here, but I’m pretty happy where I am.

This has gotten to be quite long, and I’ve been working on it on and off for a couple of months. I think that I’ve got to just let go, and post it as is. Feel free to ask questions about anything that I can clarify, and feel free to share your own stories in the comments. If you want to post something anonymously, feel free to email it to me (markcc@gmail.com), and I’ll post it for you so that theres nothing on the blog that could identify you.

Also note that I’m going to tightly moderate replies to this post. I’m not interested in having my blog turn into a place where jerks can abuse people sharing painful personal stories.

Depression and Arrogant Assholes

This is somewhat off-topic for the blog, but pretty damned on-topic for my life.

I’ve talked about this before, but it’s the kind of thing that just keeps coming up.

I’ve got a bunch of different medical conditions.

I’m a post-surgical GERD sufferer – for all intents and purposes, I was born without a sphincter at the top of my stomach. That means that acid could easily get out of my stomach, into my esophagus, my vocal chords, and my lungs. Without surgery, I would probably be dead of esophageal cancer as a result. Since the surgery, I’ve had lingering problems with my swallowing reflex being fouled up, being unable to burp or vomit, and suffering from pretty severe chest pain from muscle spasms. I take a variety of medication as a result, to keep it all under control. For over ten years, I took benzodiazapenes every day as part of the treatment regimen for that: benzos are an addictive drug.

I’ve also got some of the worst allergies of anyone I know. When I first got tested for allergies, based on my symptoms, the allergist selected a set of 45 possible allergens to test me with. Most people with bad allergies would show a significant reaction to 15 or so. I came up positive for 42. I needed to get allergy shots for 25 years, and I continue to take antihistamines and inhaled steroids on a daily basis to treat it.

I also have clinical depression, and very severe social anxiety. I take an SSRI every day for the depression, but I’ve yet to find anything that works for the social anxiety.

No one ever gives me any grief about my stomach troubles. I mean, what could I do? The muscle at the top of my stomach didn’t work. There was a huge amount of acid getting into my throat and even my lungs every day! Of course I had to do something about it!

And allergies? Man, that sucks. Everyone feels bad when they see me sniffling, or when I have to pull out an inhaler because I can’t breathe. But you know, luck of the draw, some people get stuck with allergies. No fun, but it’s manageable with medication, right?

But depression? Whoa, baby. Whole different story. Instead of the benign sympathy or indifference that I get from people who hear about my other troubles, I get shit like this:

To be clear, that wasn’t directed at me in particular. No, it was directed at everyone who’s suffering with depression. See, depression isn’t a real illness. People who are living with depression aren’t suffering from a real illness. No, we’re worshipping our depression. All we need to do is stop being such pathetic assholes, and get up and “make strides to improve our life”.

Before I started taking my SSRIs, I didn’t worship my depression. I didn’t even realize that I was depressed. I just felt like the world had gone flat. It’s hard to describe it better than that. I didn’t really feel much of anything. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t anything. The world was all grays, no colors. Good things happened, and I couldn’t feel good. Bad things happened, and I couldn’t feel bad. My wife was pregnant with our second child, and I wasn’t happy, I wasn’t nervous, I wasn’t anything. I was just flat.

When I finally realized that there was something wrong with me, I got a referral from my doctor, and I saw a psychiatrist, who prescribed medication for me. About two weeks later, I realized that stuff was different, because I was noticing colors. I never stopped seeing them, but they stopped registering – they didn’t mean anything. I literally felt as if I weighed less – like someone had laid an invisible lead blanket on me, and now it had been removed. Something bad happened at work – the project that I’d been working on for the previous two years had not gotten its funding – and I was upset about it!

It was an amazing thing, a total change of the world. The pills didn’t make me happy. With the stuff at work, and the stress of a new child coming, I was probably more unhappy than I was before I started taking them. But the unhappiness was real, it was mine, and I felt it.

After about a year of taking the pills, on the advice of my doctor, I tried stopping it. For people with symptoms like mine, he said that about 40% would relapse pretty quickly, but 60% would be fine without any medication. After about three months without it, the world went back to that flat drab nothingness – I was part of that 40%. So I restarted the medication, and I haven’t stopped since.

I won’t even get into the social anxiety stuff here. That’s even worse that the depression. Depression is commonly viewed more as a personal weakness than an illness; but SA isn’t even seen as that: it’s just a joke.

Contrary to what the assholes out there say, depression isn’t a personal weakness. It’s not the pathetic obsession of weak-souled losers who just need to get off their couch and stop being such a schlub. It’s a real illness. It’s difficult, and it’s painful.

My depression is just as real as my GERD was, or as my allergies and asthma are. It needed to be treated just as seriously as they did. Getting stomach surgery probably saved my life. Getting treated for depression probably did too.

The assholes who try to portray depression as weakness, who mock people for suffering from depression, who make cracks about being nice to our moms and getting off of our butts: they’re not helping. But really, they don’t want to help. They want to feel smug and superior. But they’re doing worse than just not helping. They’re actively making things worse. By reinforcing the stigma against mental illness, they’re making it less likely that people who desperately need help will be able to get it.

So, as I responded to the tweet I quoted above:

It's easy to not harass women

For many of us in the science blogging scene, yesterday was a pretty lousy day. We learned that a guy who many of us had known for a long time, who we’d trusted, who we considered a friend, had been using his job to sexually harass women with sleezy propositions.

This led to a lot of discussion and debate in twitter. I spoke up to say that what bothered me about the whole thing was that it’s easy to not harass people.

This has led to rather a lot of hate mail. But it’s also led to some genuine questions and discussions. Since it can be hard to have detailed discussions on twitter, I thought that I’d take a moment here, expand on what I meant, and answer some of the questions.

To start: it really is extremely easy to not be a harasser. Really. The key thing to consider is: when is it appropriate to discuss sex? In general, it’s downright trivial: if you’re not in a not in private with a person with whom you’re in a sexual relationship, then don’t. But in particular, here are a couple of specific examples of this principle:

  • Is there any way in which you are part of a supervisor/supervisee or mentor/mentee relationship? Then do not discuss or engage in sexual behaviors of any kind.
  • In a social situation, are you explicitly on a date or other romantic encounter? Do both people agree that it’s a romantic thing? If not, then do not discuss or engage in sexual behaviors.
  • In a mutually understood romantic situation, has your partner expressed any discomfort? If so, then immediately stop discussing or engaging in sexual behaviors.
  • In any social situation, if a participant expresses discomfort, stop engaging in what is causing the discomfort.

Like I said: this is not hard.

To touch on specifics of various recent incidents:

  • You do not meet with someone to discuss work, and tell them about your sex drive.
  • You do not touch a students ass.
  • You do not talk to coworkers about your dick.
  • You don’t proposition your coworkers.
  • You don’t try to sneak a glance down your coworkers shirt.
  • You don’t comment on how hot your officemate looks in that sweater.
  • You do not tell your students that you thought about them while you were masturbating.

Seriously! Is any of this difficult? Should this require any explanation to anyone with two brain cells to rub together?

But, many of my correspondants asked, what about grey areas?

I don’t believe that there are significant grey areas here. If you’re not in an explicit sexual relationship with someone, then don’t talk to them about sex. In fact, if you’re in any work related situation at all, no matter who you’re with, it’s not appropriate to discuss sex.

But what about cases where you didn’t mean anything sexual, like when you complimented your coworker on her outfit, and she accused you of harassing her?

This scenario is, largely, a fraud.

Lots of people legitimately worry about it, because they’ve heard so much about this in the media, in politics, in news. The thing is, the reason that you hear all of this is because of people who are deliberately promoting it as part of a socio-political agenda. People who want to excuse or normalize this kind of behavior want to create the illusion of blurred lines.

In reality, harassers know that they’re harassing. They know that they’re making inappropriate sexual gestures. But they don’t want to pay the consequences. So they pretend that they didn’t know that what they were doing wrong. And they try to convince other folks that you’re at risk too! You don’t actually have to be doing anything wrong, and you could have your life wrecked by some crazy bitch!.

Consider for a moment, a few examples of how a scenario could play out.

Scenario one: woman officemate comes to work, dressed much fancier than usual. Male coworker says “Nice outfit, why are you all dressed up today?”. Anyone really think that this is going to get the male coworker into trouble?

Scenario two: woman worker wears a nice outfit to work. Male coworker says “Nice outfit”. Woman looks uncomfortable. Man sees this, and either apologizes, or makes note not to do this again, because it made her uncomfortable. Does anyone really honestly believe that this, occurring once, will lead to a formal accusation of harassment with consequences?

Scenario three: woman officemate comes to work dressed fancier than usual. Male coworker says nice outfit. Woman acts uncomfortable. Man keeps commenting on her clothes. Woman asks him to stop. Next day, woman comes to work, man comments that she’s not dressed so hot today. Anyone think that it’s not clear that the guy is behaving inappropriately?

Scenario four woman worker wears a nice outfit to work. Male coworker says “Nice outfit, wrowr”, makes motions like he’s pawing at her. Anyone really think that there’s anything ambiguous here, or is it clear that the guy is harassing her? And does anyone really, honestly believe that if the woman complains, this harasser will not say “But I just complimented her outfit, she’s being oversensitive!”?

Here’s the hard truths about the reality of sexual harassment:

  • Do you know a professional woman? If so, she’s been sexually harassed at one time or another. Probably way more than once.
  • The guy(s) who harassed her knew that he was harassing her.
  • The guy(s) who harassed her doesn’t think that he really did anything wrong.
  • There are a lot of people out there who believe that men are entitled to behave this way.
  • In order to avoid consequences for their behavior, many men will go to amazing lengths to deny responsibility.

The reality is: this isn’t hard. There’s nothing difficult about not harassing people. Men who harass women know that they’re harassing women. The only hard part of any of this is that the rest of us – especially the men who don’t harass women – need to acknowledge this, stop ignoring it, stop making excuses for the harassers, and stand up and speak up when we see it happening. That’s the only way that things will ever change.

We can’t make exceptions for our friends. I’m really upset about the trouble that my friend is in. I feel bad for him. I feel bad for his family. I’m sad that he’s probably going to lose his job over this. But the fact is, he did something reprehensible, and he needs to face the consequences for that. The fact that I’ve known him for a long time, liked him, considered him a friend? That just makes it more important that I be willing to stand up, and say: This was wrong. This was inexcusable. This cannot stand without consequences..

A White Boy's Observations of Sexism and the Adria Richards Fiasco

I’ve been watching the whole Adria Richards fiasco with a sense of horror and disgust. I’m finally going to say something, but for the most part, it’s going to be indirect.

See, I’m a white guy, born as a member of an upper middle class white family. That means that I’m awfully lucky. I’m part of the group that is, effectively, treated as the normal, default person in most settings. I’m also a guy who’s married to a chinese woman, and who’s learned a bit about how utterly clueless I am.

Here’s the fundamental issue that underlies all of this, and many similar stories: our society is deeply sexist and racist. We are all raised in an environment in which mens voices are more important than womens. It’s so deeply ingrained in us that we don’t even notice it.

What this means is that we are all to some degree, sexist, and racist. When I point this out, people get angry. We also have learned that sexism is a bad thing. So when I say to someone that you are sexist, it’s really easy to interpret that as me saying that you’re a bad person: sexism is bad, if I’m sexist, them I’m bad.

But we really can’t get away from this reality. We are sexists. For many of us, we’re not deliberately sexist, we’re not consciously sexist. But we are sexist.

Here’s a really interesting experiment to try, if you have the opportunity. Visit an elementary school classroom. First, just watch the teacher interact with the students while they’re teaching. Don’t try to count interactions. Just watch. See if you think that any group of kids is getting more attention than any other. Most of the time, you probably will get a feeling that they’re paying roughly equal attention to the boys and the girls, or to the white students and the black students. Then, come back on a different day, and count the number of times that they call on boys versus calling on girls. I’ve done this, after having the idea suggested by a friend. The result was amazing. I really, honestly believed that the teacher was treating her students (the teacher I did this with was a woman) equally. But when I counted?She was calling on boys twice as often as girls.

This isn’t an unusual outcome. Do some looking online for studies of classroom gender dynamics, and you’ll find lots of structured observations that come to the same conclusion.

My own awakening about these kinds of things came from my time working at IBM. I’ve told this first story before, but it’s really worth repeating.

One year, I managed the summer intership programs for my department. The previous summer, IBM research had wound up with an intership class consisting of 99% men. (That’s not an estimate: that’s a real number. That year, IBM research hired 198 summer interns, of whom 2 were women.) For a company like IBM, numbers like that are scary. Ignoring all of the social issues of excluding potentially great candidates, numbers like that can open the company up to gender discrimination lawsuits!

So my year, they decided to encourage the hiring of more diverse candidates. The way that they did that was by allocating each department a budget for summer interns. They could only hire up to their budgeted number of interns. Only women and minority candidates didn’t count against the budget.

When the summer program hiring opened, my department was allocated a budget of six students. All six slots were gone within the first day. Every single one of them went to a white, american, male student.

The second day, the guy across the hall from me came with a resume for a student he wanted to hire. This was a guy who I really liked, and really respected greatly. He was not, by any reasonable measure, a bad guy – he was a really good person. Anyway, he had this resume, for yet another guy. I told him the budget was gone, but if he could find a good candidate who was either a woman or minority, that we could hire them. He exploded, ranting about how we were being sexist, discriminating against men. He just wanted to hire the best candidate for the job! We were demanding that he couldn’t hire the best candidate, he had to hire someone less qualified, in order to satisfy some politically correct bureaucrat! There was nothing I could do, so eventually he stormed out.

Three days later, he came back to my office with another resume. He was practically bouncing off the walls he was so happy. “I found another student to hire. She’s even better than the guy I originally came to you with! She’s absolutely perfect for the job!”. We hired her.

I asked him why he didn’t find her before. He had no answer – he didn’t know why he didn’t find her resume of his first search.

This was a pattern that I observed multiple times that year. Looking through a stack of resumes, without deliberately excluding women, somehow, all of the candidates with female names wound up back in the slushpile. I don’t think that anyone was deliberately saying “Hmm, Jane, that’s a woman’s name, I don’t want to hire a woman”. But I do think that in the process of looking through a file containing 5000 resumes, trying to select which ones to look at, on an unconscious level, they were more likely to look carefully at a candidate with a male name, because we all learn, from a young age, that men are smarter than women, men are more serious than women, men are better workers than women, men are more likely to be technically skilled than women. Those attitudes may not be part of our conscious thought, but they are part of the cultural background that gets drummed into us by school, by books, by movies, by television, by commercials.

As I said, that was a real awakening for me.

I was talking about this with my next-door office neighbor, who happened to be one of the only two women in my department (about 60 people) at the time. She was shocked that I hadn’t noticed this before. So she pointed out to me that in meetings, she could say things, and everyone would ignore it, but if a guy said the same thing, they’d get listened to. We’d been in many meetings together, and I’d never noticed this!

So I started paying attention, and she was absolutely right.

What happened next is my second big awakening.

I started watching this in meetings, and when people brushed over something she’d said, I’d raise my voice and say “X just suggested blah, which I think is a really good idea. What about it?”. I wanted to help get her voice listened to.

She was furious at me. This just blew my mind. I was really upset at her at first. Dammit, I was trying to help, and this asshole was yelling at me for it! She’d complained about how people didn’t listen to her, and now when I was trying to help get her listened to, she was complaining again!

What I realized after I calmed down and listened to her was that I was wrong. I hadn’t spoken to her about doing it. I didn’t understand what it meant. But the problem was, people didn’t take her seriously because she was a woman. People might listen to me, because I’m also a white guy. But when I spoke for her, I wasn’t helping. When a man speaks on behalf of a woman, we’re reinforcing the idea that a woman’s voice isn’t supposed to be heard. I was substituting my man’s voice for her woman’s, and by doing that, I was not just not helping her, but I was actively hurting, because the social interpretation of my action was that “X can’t speak for herself”. And more, I learned that by taking offense at her, for pointing out that I had screwed up, I was definitely in the wrong – that I had an instinct for reacting wrong.

What I learned, gradually, from watching things like this, from becoming more sensitive and aware, and by listening to what women said, was that this kind of thing is that I was completely clueless.

The fact is, I constantly benefit from a very strong social preference. I don’t notice that. Unless I’m really trying hard to pay attention, I’m not aware of all of the benefits that I get from that. I don’t notice all of the times when I’m getting a benefit. Worse, I don’t notice all of the times when my behavior is asserting that social preference as my right.

It’s very easy for a member of an empowered majority to just take things for granted. We see the way that we are treated as a default, and assume that everyone is treated the same way. We don’t perceive that we are being treated preferentially. We don’t notice that the things that offend us are absolutely off limits to everyone, but that things that we do to offend others are accepted as part of normal behavior. Most importantly, we don’t notice when our behavior is harmful to people who aren’t part of our empowered group. And when we do offend someone who isn’t part of the empowered majority, we take offense at the fact that they’re offended. Because they’re saying that we did something bad, and we know that we aren’t bad people!

The way that this comes back to the whole Adria Richards fiasco is very simple. Many people have looked at what happened at PyCon, and said something like “She shouldn’t have tweeted their picture”, or “She shouldn’t have been offended, they didn’t do anything wrong”, or “She should have just politely spoken to them”.

I don’t know whether what she did was right or not. I wasn’t there. I didn’t hear the joke that the guys in question allegedly told. What I do know is that for a member of the minority out-group, there is frequently no action that will be accepted as “right” if it includes the assertion that the majority did something offensive.

I’ve seen this phenomena very directly myself, not in the context of sexism, but in terms of antisemitism. There’s an expression that I’ve heard multiple times in the northeast US, to talk about bartering a price for a car: “jewing the salesman down”. I absolutely find that extremely offensive. And I’ve called people out on it. There is no response that’s actually acceptable.

If I politely say “You know, that’s relying on a stereotype of me and my ancestors that’s really hurtful”, the response is: “Oh, come on, it’s just harmless. I’m not talking about you, it’s just a word. You’re being oversensitive”. If I get angry, the response is “You Jews are so strident”. If I go to an authority figure in the setting, “You Jews are so passive aggressive, why couldn’t you just talk to me?”. No matter what I do, I’m wrong. Women deal with this every day, only they’re in a situation where the power dynamic is even less in their favor.

That’s the situation that women – particularly women in tech – find themselves in every day. We are sexist. We do mistreat women in tech every day, without even knowing that we’re doing it. And we’re very likely to take offense if they mention that we did something wrong. Because we know that we’re good people, and since we aren’t deliberately doing something bad, they must be wrong.

For someone in Adria Richards’ situation at PyCon, there is no course of action that can’t be taken wrong. As a woman hearing the joke in question, she certainly knew whether or not it was offensive to her. But once she’d heard something offensive, there was nothing she could do that someone couldn’t turn into a controversy.

Was the joke offensive? We don’t know what, specifically, he said. The only fact that we’re certain of is that in her judgement, it was offensive; that the authorities at PyCon agreed, and asked the gentleman in question to apologize.

Did the guy who made the joke deserve to be fired? I don’t know. If this stupid joke were the first time he’d ever done something wrong, then he didn’t deserve to be fired. But we don’t know what his history is like. I know how hard it is to hire skilled engineers, so I’m very skeptical that any company would fire someone over one minor offense. It’s possible that his company has a crazy hair-trigger HR department. But it’s also possible that there’s background that we don’t know about. That he’s done stuff before, and been warned. If that’s the case, then his company could have decided that this was the last straw.

Did Adria Richards deserve to be fired? Almost certainly not. We know more about her case than we do about the guy who told the joke. We know that her company fired her over this specific incident, because in their announcement of her firing, they told us the reason. They didn’t cite any past behavior – they just specifically cited this incident and its aftermath as the reason for firing her. It’s possible that there’s a history here that we don’t know about, that she’d soured relations with customers of her company in incidents other than this, and that this was a last straw. But it doesn’t seem likely, based on the facts that we’re aware of.

Did either of them deserve to be threatened? Absolutely not.

Depression and Geeks

Since this weekend, when the news of Aaron Swartz’s suicide, there’s been a lot of discussion of the goverments ridiculous pursuit of him, and of the fact that he suffered from depression. I can’t contribute anything new about his prosecution. It was despicable, ridiculous, and sadly, all too typical of how our government works.

But on the topic of depression, I want to chime in. A good friend of mine wrote a post on his own blog about depression in the tech/geek community., which I feel like I have to respond to.

Benjy, who wrote the post, is a great guy who I have a lot of respect for. I don’t intend this to be an attack on him. But I’ve seen a lot of similar comments, and I think that they’re built on a very serious mistake.

Benjy argues that the mathematical/scientific/logical mindset of a geek (my word, not his) makes us more prone to depression:

Someone whose toolkit for dealing with the world consists of logic and reason, ideals and abstractions, may have particularly weak defenses against this trickster disease.

You realize that it’s lying to you, that there are treatments, that that things aren’t objectively as bad as they feel. But you know, on some level deeper than logic, that there is no point, no hope and no future. And to encounter, maybe for the first time, the hard limits of rationality, to realize that there’s a part of your mind that can override the logical world view that is the core of your identity, may leave you feeling particularly helpless and hopeless.

You can’t rationalize depression away, a fact that people who’ve never suffered from it find hard to comprehend. But if someone you care about is struggling with it, and it’s likely that someone is, you can help them find a new way to access their mind.

Tell them that you care about them and appreciate them and are glad to have them in your life. Show them that you enjoy being around them and that you love them. And above all, spend time with them. Give them glimpses of an alternate future, one in which they are secure, happy and loved, tear away the lies that depression needs in order to survive, and in that sunlight it will wither.

Most of what Benjy wrote, I agree with completely. The problem that I have with it is that I think that parts of it are built on the assumption that our conscious reasoning is a part of the cause of depression. If geeks are more prone to suffering from depression because the way that our minds work, that means that the way that we make decisions and interpret the world is a part of why we suffer from this disease. The implication that too many people will draw from that is that we just need to decide to make different decisions, and the disease will go away. But it won’t – because depression isn’t a choice.

The thing that you always need to remember about depression – and which Benjy mentions – is that depression is not something which you can reason with. Depression isn’t a feeling. It’s not a way of thinking, or a way of viewing the world. It’s not something that you can choose not to suffer from. It’s a part of how your brain works.

The thing that anyone who suffers from depression needs to know is that it’s a disease, and that it’s treatable. It doesn’t matter if your friends are nice to you. It doesn’t matter if you know that they love you. That kind of thinking – that kind of reasoning about depression – is part of the fundamental trap of depression.

Depression is a disease of the brain, and it affects your mind – it affects your self in a terrible way. No amount of support from your friends and family, no amount of positive reinforcement can change that. Believing that emotional support can help a depressed person is part of the problem, because it’s tied to the all-too-common stigma of mental illness: that you’re only suffering because you’re too weak or too helpless to get over it.

You don’t just get over a mental illness like depression, any more than you get over diabetes. As a friend or loved one of a person with diabetes, being kind, showing your love for them doesn’t help unless you get them to get treatment.

I’m speakaing from experience. I’ve been there. I spent years being miserable. It nearly wrecked my marriage. My wife was as supportive and loving as anyone could dream of. But I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see anything.

The experience of depression in different for different people. But for me, it was like the world had gone flat. I wasn’t sad – I was just dead inside. Nothing could have any impact on me. It’s a hard thing to explain, but looking back, it’s like the world had gone two-dimensional and black-and-white. Eventually, I was reading something in some magazine about depression, and it talked about that flat feeling, and I realized that maybe, maybe that was what was wrong with me.

When I started taking antidepressants, it was almost frightening, because it changed the world so much. ANtidepressants didn’t make me happy. In fact, for a while, they made me very sad, because I was realizing how awful I’d been treating my wife and daughter. But they made me feel things again. A few weeks after I started taking them, I realized that I was noticing colors. I hadn’t done that for years. It wasn’t that I couldn’t see colors when I was depressed, but they didn’t mean anything.

Antidepressants aren’t a panacaea. They don’t work for everyone. But there are treatments that can help. The way to defeat depression is to do something that changes the way the brain is functioning. For some people, the exercise of therapy can do that. For others, it’s medication. For still others, exercise. The key is to get to someone who understands the disease, and who can help you find what will work for your brain.

My point here is that when we’re talking about depression, we need to realize that most of the time, no one is at fault. People don’t suffer from depression because they did something wrong, or because they’re weak, or because they’re flawed. People don’t suffer from depression because their friends and family are inadequate. Depression is a disease – a treatable, chronic disease. It needs to be recognized, and it needs to be treated.

In my case, my depression wasn’t caused by my wife and daughter. It wasn’t their fault, and it wasn’t my fault. No amount of support, love, and appreciation could have helped, because the nature of my depression meant that I couldn’t see those things. The only thing that anyone could have done for me is recognized that I was suffering from depression, and pushed me to get treatment sooner.

If someone you know is suffering from depression, then they need help. But the help they need isn’t any amount of love or appreciation. It isn’t instilling any kind of hope, because depression kills hope in your brain. The thing that you can do to help is to help them get the treatment that they need.

Audiophiles and the Need to be Special

I love laughing at audiophiles.

If you’re not familiar with the term, audiophiles are people who are really into top-end audio equipment. In itself, that’s fine. But there’s a very active and vocal subset of the audiophile community that’s built up their self-image around the idea that they’re special. They don’t just have better audio equipment than you do, but they have better appreciation of sound quality than you do. In fact, their hearing is better than yours. They can hear nuances in sound quality that you can’t, because they’re so very, very special. They’ve developed this ability, you see, because they care more about music than you do.

It’s a very human thing. We all really want to be special. And when there’s something that’s really important to us – like music is for many people – there’s a very natural desire to want to be able to appreciate it on a deep level, a special level reserved only for people who really value it. But what happens when you take that desire, and convince yourself that it’s not just a desire? You wind up turning into a sucker who’s easy to fleece for huge quantities of money on useless equipment that can’t possibly work.

I first learned about these people from my old friend John Vlissides. John died of brain cancer about 5 years ago, which was incredibly sad. But back in the day, when we both worked at IBM Research, he and I were part of a group that ate lunch together every day. John was a reformed audiophile, and used to love talking about the crazy stuff he used to do.

Audiophiles get really nutty about things like cables. For example, John used to have the cables linking his speakers to his amp suspended from the ceiling using non-conductive cord. The idea behind that is that electrical signals are carried, primarily, on the outer surface of the wire. If the cable was sitting on the ground, it would deform slighly, and that would degrade the signal. Now, of course, there’s no perceptible difference, but a dedicated audiophile can convince themselves that they can hear it. In fact, this is what convinced John that it was all craziness: he was trained as an electrical engineer, and he sat down and worked out how much the signal should change as a result of the deformation of the copper wire-core, and seeing the real numbers, realized that there was no way in hell that he was actually hearing that tiny difference. Right there, that’s an example of the math aspect of this silliness: when you actually do the math, and see what’s going on, even when there’s a plausible explanation, the real magnitude of the supposed effect is so small that there’s absolutely no way that it’s perceptible. In the case of wire deformation, the magnitude of the effect on the sound produced by the signal carried by the wire is so small that it’s essentially zero – we’re talking about something smaller than the deformation of the sound waves caused by the motion of a mosquito’s wings somewhere in the room.

John’s epiphany was something like 20 years ago. But the crazy part of the audiophile community hasn’t changed. I encountered two instances of it this week that reminded me of this silliness and inspired me to write this post. One was purely accidental: I just noticed it while going about my business. The other, I noticed on boing-boing because the first example was already in my mind.

First, I was looking for an HDMI video cable for my TV. At the moment, we’ve got both an AppleTV and a cable box hooked up to our TV set. We recently found out that under our cable contract, we could get a free upgrade of the cable box, and the new box has HDMI output – so we’d need a new cable to use it.

HDMI is a relatively new standard video cable for carrying digital signals. Instead of old-fashioned analog signals that emulate the signal recieved by a good-old TV antenna like we used to use, HDMI uses a digital stream for both audio and video. Compared to old-fashioned analog, the quality of both audio and video on a TV using HDMI is dramatically improved. Analog signals were designed way, way back in the ’50s and ’60s for the televisions that they were producing then – they’re very low fidelity signals, which are designed to produce images on old TVs, which had exceedingly low resolution by modern standards.

The other really great thing about a digital system like HDMI is that digital signals don’t degrade. A digital system takes a signal, and reduces it to a series of bits – signals that can be interpreted as 1s and 0s. That series of bits is divided into bundles called packets. Each packet is transmitted with a checksum – an additional number that allows the receiver to check that it received the packet correctly. So for a given packet of information, you’ve either received it correctly, or you didn’t. If you didn’t, you request the sender to re-send it. So you either got it, or you didn’t. There’s no in-between. In terms of video quality, what that means is that the cable really doesn’t matter very much. It’s either getting the signal there, or it isn’t. If the cable is really terrible, then it just won’t work – you’ll get gaps in the signal where the bad packets dropped out – which will produce a gap in the audio or video.

In analog systems, you can have a lot of fuzz. The amplitude of the signal at any time is the signal – so noise effects that change the amplitude are changing the signal. There’s a very real possibility that interference will create real changes in the signal, and that those changes will produce a perceptible result when the signal is turned into sound or video. For example, if you listen to AM radio during a thunderstorm, you’ll hear a burst of noise whenever there’s a bolt of lightning nearby.

But digital systems like HDMI don’t have varying degrees of degradation. Because the signal is reduced to 1s and 0s – if you change the amplitude of a 1, it’s still pretty much going to look like a one. And if the noise is severe enough to make a 1 look like a 0, the error will be detected because the checksum will be wrong. There’s no gradual degradation.

But audiophiles… ah, audiophiles.

I was looking at these cables. A basic six-foot-long HDMI cable sells for between 15 and 25 dollars. But on the best-buy website, there’s a clearance cable for just $12. Great! And right next to it, there’s another cable. Also six feet long. For $240 dollars! 20-times higher, for a friggin’ digital cable! I’ve heard, on various websites, the rants about these crazies, but I hadn’t actually paid any attention. But now, I got to see it for myself, and I just about fell out of my chair laughing.

To prolong the entertainment, I went and looked at the reviews of this oh-so-amazing cable.

People who say there is NO difference between HDMI cables are just trying to justify to themselves to go cheap. Now it does depend on what you are connecting the cable between. If you put this Carbon HDMI on a Cable or Satellite box, you probably won’t see that much of a difference compared to some middle grade cables.

I connected this cable from my PS3 to my Samsung to first test it, then to my receiver. It was a nice upgrade from my previous Cinnamon cable, which is already a great cable in it’s own right. The picture’s motion was a bit smoother with gaming and faster action, but I still want to check the link to the guide about gaming monitors my fried sent me. I also noticed that film grain looked a little cleaner, not sure why though.

The biggest upgrade was with my audio though. Everything sounded a little crisper with more detail. I also noticed that the sound fields were more distinct. Again not sure exactly why, but I will take the upgrade.

All and all if you want the best quality, go Audio Quest and specifically a Carbon HDMI. You never have to upgrade your HDMI again with one of these guys. Downfall though is that it is a little pricey.

What’s great about it: Smooth motion and a little more definition in the picture

What’s not so great: Price

It’s a digital cable. The signal that it delivers to your TV and stereo is not the slightest bit different from the signal delivered by the $12 clearance cable. It’s been reduced by the signal producing system to a string of 1s and 0s – the identical string of 1s and 0s on both cables – and that string of bits is getting interpreted by exactly the same equipment on the receiver, producing exactly the same audio and video. There’s no difference. It has nothing to do with how good your ears are, or how perceptive you are. There is no difference.

But that’s nothing. The same brand sells a $700 cable. From the reviews:

I really just bought 3 of these. So if you would like an honest review, here it is. Compared to other Audio Quest cables, like the Vodka, you do not see a difference unless you know what to look for and have the equipment that can actually show the difference. Everyone can see the difference in a standard HDMI to an HDMI with Silver in it if you compare, but the difference between higher level cables is more subtle. Audio is the night and day difference with these cables. My bluray has 2 HDMI outs and I put one directly to the TV and one to my processor. My cable box also goes directly to my TV and I use Optical out of the TV because broadcast audio is aweful. The DBS systems keeps the cable ready for anything and I can tell that my audio is clean instantly and my picture is always flawless. They are not cheap cables, they are 100% needed if you want the best quality. I am considering stepping up to Diamond cables for my theater room when I update it. Hope this helps!

And they even have a “professional quality” HDMI cable that sells for well over $1000. And the audiophiles are all going crazy, swearing that it really makes a difference.

Around the time I started writing this, I also saw a post on BoingBoing about another audiophile fraud. See, when you’re dealing with this breed of twit who’s so convinced of their own great superiority, you can sell them almost anything if you can cobble together a pseudoscientific explanation for why it will make things sound better.

This post talks about a very similar shtick to the superexpensive cable: it’s a magic box which… well, let’s let the manufacturer explain.

The Blackbody ambient field conditioner enhances audio playback quality by modifying the interaction of your gear’s circuitry with the ambient electromagnetic field. The Blackbody eliminates sonic smearing of high frequencies and lowers the noise floor, thus clarifying the stereo image.

This thing is particularly fascinating because it doesn’t even pretend to hook in to your audio system. You just position it close to your system, and it magically knows what equipment it’s close to and “harmonizes” everything. It’s just… magic! But if you’re really special, you’ll be able to tell that it works!

Sad News: John Backus has died.

I just heard that John Backus died last saturday.

John Backus was one of the most influential people in the development of what we now know as software engineering. In the early days of his career, there was no such thing as a programming language: there was just the raw machine language of the hardware. Backus was the first person
to come up with the idea of designing a different language, one which was easier for
humans to read and write than machine code, and having the machine do the translation.

Continue reading Sad News: John Backus has died.