Monthly Archives: January 2013

Kicking butts

It’s hard to say what happened in my brain the past month. Yesterday marked one month of me quitting smoking. I feel much more balanced, which was disconcerting at first but now I rather like it.

The first week I quit I stressed out so severely that I broke out in shingles across my back. It was blindingly painful, like how a fresh tattoo feels when the endorphiny numbness wears away. It wasn’t just the smoking cessation that caused it, it was a combination of that, the way I reacted to getting ditched and gaslighted by someone I loved, and trying so hard to taper and contain my stress so that I didn’t upset him further or my family I was visiting for the holidays. The way I allowed myself to bottle up and absorb all those self-injurious emotions drove me to the depths of my depressive capabilities, and all the while I was sitting there in blistering hell I couldn’t help but feel accomplished that I had conducted something like my own version of telekinesis. Like I mentally willed so much death into my being that it actually affected changes to my immune system on a microcosmic level and allowed a latent virus to flourish in my nervous system after being dormant for 22 years.

My academic adviser in college always used to comment about me being a scorpio. He’d say, “you scorpios, when you’re not stinging someone else, you’re stinging yourselves.” He was the only person I ever allowed to speak to me about astrology without starting an argument or walking away because the person was so full of crap. He was a philosopher, but he was well aware of science and used astrology as a way to reroute my frantic complaints. Like I would walk into his office fuming or crying over some unfair situation and pour everything out to him for 15 minutes, and at the end he would just say, “Well yeah you’re a scorpio,” and look at me as if to say ‘DUH’ and move on to the practical solutions. Chalmers Knight forever. But yeah, I do tend to sting myself if there’s no one else to sting, or to sting me.

I’ve always been a night owl for as long as I can remember, at times even keeping completely inverted hours, and I’ve always had wildly oscillating emotions. Lately though, I’ve been able to focus much more, though I don’t know whether it’s a product of my smoking cessation or the fact that I’m working on an article I really like. My mood has been pleasantly stable, though I don’t know whether that’s a product of my smoking cessation or excising a person who, in his unintentional though selfish immaturity, grabbed hold of my neuroses and pulled, stretching my patience to its limits. In any event, I feel pretty energized, and as an individual of scientific principles I think I can safely conclude that at least some of the overall changes in my health and affect can likely be attributed to smoking cessation.

The incurables

I’m working on the most interesting article ever right now. There’s nothing that gets me going like digging into a sector of really specialized science.

I was 19 when I decided that I wanted to be a science journalist. I’d been told by a guidance counselor my freshman year of high school that as a woman with a high aptitude for math and science, I would make more money than any of my peers if I went into engineering. But I’ve always been a writer and, when I got to engineering school, was quickly disgusted with the way writing was used. We were told to “forget everything you ever knew about writing, because you’re only going to write technical papers now.” And I thought, What? Science is already hard enough for people to digest as is, now they want us to use language to obfuscate it even more form public understanding?

After two years in the biomedical engineering program, I transferred to the Literature Science & Arts college and ended up majoring in psychology because I’d already had a ton of credits from taking those classes for fun. I joined the student newspaper the summer before my junior year. They’d just scrapped their weekly science section because nobody wanted to write about science. So I single-handedly covered all the science I could in this massive research university.

In my run at the Michigan Daily, I tried other kinds of journalism too—political, academic, cultural. I hated all of it, and I suspect the editors used to give me dull assignments like covering the student government’s meetings in retaliation because they would get frustrated trying to edit me on science. They would always try to change my language to make things more sensational or dumb stuff down, but often times it would change the meaning and make a statement inaccurate so I would insist they change it back. I did, however, take in interest in legal and political journalism, and got quite involved in covering a multimillion dollar lawsuit the University was facing for attempting to violate the American’s With Disabilities act to renovate The Big House, the football stadium. I enjoy debating, and the University’s plot was rich with semantical holes and numbers that didn’t quite add up, which I just dug into. I made quite a few enemies, one spectacular one who told me I should be a lawyer. I’m still considering this advice.

What I eventually concluded though is that science journalism is my calling. I never get bored. I never run out of ideas. I rarely get stressed because I can’t find a route to understanding some concept that I must then find a way to explain. And the best part is the scientists. While most people journalists need to interview spend a tremendous amount of effort figuring out how to side skirt questions and hide the truth, the truths that scientists have is already hidden. They are hidden in concrete basement laboratories, behind the wild eyes and bizarre mannerisms of people who care so deeply about one tiny sliver of the physical world that they sometimes find themselves locked away from the rest of humanity behind the same communication walls I saw myself approaching and decided to James Bond it around the ledge instead. Scientists are thrilled when someone has a genuine interest in unearthing their secrets. They are my favorite.

Blog block

Someone I respect told me they subscribed to my blog today. Imminent blog block. It’s so much easier to be anonymous, to write for no one.

Just spent an hour writing a post about TSA, now I don’t feel like publishing it. I have pages of handwritten notes from Aaron Swartz’s memorial service that I wanted to turn into a blog last night, especially because everyone kept talking about how important it is to do things, to act, to change things through your actions, to never rest. Sometimes for me it’s like the more important something is, the less able I am to complete it. Ever since my mom let me quit ballet a week before the recital when I was 6, I’ve been a chronic unfinisher.

Quitting smoking has made me so freakishly tired at night. I’ve always been a night owl, always. This new pattern makes me feel old. I want to quit quitting smoking. I’m not convinced that any health benefits outweigh the benefits of smoking.

“The canary in the cole mine for today’s teenagers”

friendfluenceThat’s how Carlin Flora described me in her new book, Friendfluence, with respect to my immersive online life, which I detailed for her in an interview last fall.

I met Carlin when I was an intern at Psychology Today and she was an editor, so it was kind of a cool time-warpy thing to become her interview subject. I’m super excited for her new book, which combines the latest psychological research on friendships with personal anecdotes.

Here is the excerpt about me:

Anyone over thirty can likely divide life into the pre- and post-Internet eras. They made friends before online socializing proliferated, and now they maintain those friends (and sometimes make new ones) online. But what is it like for younger people who have no “before” and “after,” whose friends have always existed in person and on screens? Arikia Millikan, now twenty-five, got her first e-mail account when she was eight years old, after her mom got her a Hewlett-Packard personal computer. In high school, she started wandering into online chat rooms. “I was drawn to the kind of disjointed interaction it offered—where you could walk away from the computer and come back and resume the conversation later.”

Near the end of Arikia’s freshman year of high school in Gainesville, Florida, when she was fourteen, her mother found an e-mail to her from a boy in her class. “It was sexual, but it was jokey—just innocent kid stuff. But my mom completely freaked out. She ended our Internet subscription. So all through high school I had to walk to the public library to get online.” She could IM there at the library but felt very distant from her peers who had constant access. “There was this whole conversation I was missing out on, and relationships I couldn’t forge. Knowing that I was missing out probably drove the tech obsession I later developed.”

Before going off to college at the University of Michigan in 2004, Arikia got a new laptop. It happened to be the year that Facebook first became accessible to colleges other than Harvard. “You would meet someone in a class or something, and then you would immediately look them up on Facebook,” she says. “You would have way more information about that person than was ever possible before.”

Reading Facebook profiles entailed more than just checking out someone’s favorite bands or movies, Arikia says. It was an intuitive process that yielded an overall impression of someone. “Throughout college I became really good friends with people who were really different from me, opposite in their political views, for instance. Facebook just framed the conversation going forward. You had access to things that person hadn’t told you, but that were fair game information to discuss.”

I wondered if maintaining her own Facebook page was a stressful game of image maintenance, given how crucial these profiles were to social life. “I was always pretty authentic,” she says. “But you want to have your best face forward, so there’s the process of deleting unflattering pictures, and crafting your updates to reflect the best parts of your personality. I was probably less self-conscious than other people about photos that were potentially incriminating, like of me drinking at a party.” Students were warned by administrators, in fact, not to post comments or photos that they wouldn’t want a future employer to see. “I was very quick to take the position that if a future employer was going to hold something silly I did in college against me, that wasn’t the kind of employer that I’d want to work for.” Spoken like a stereotypical millennial!

Yet it was a prophetic notion: Arikia is now an online editor at Wired, the tech and science magazine. Her natural passion for online socializing turned into a job offer when a Wired editor started following her tweets and gave her a few freelance projects to work on. Still close with many of her college friends, she believes she has personally influenced several of them to move to New York, where she headed right after graduation. “I think some of my friends were drawn to come here, based on my portrayal of my experiences in the city on social media.”

“I’m always online,” Arikia says. “I never disconnect, except when I sleep. I probably go to about four events a week; most are media or science related—it’s an opportunity for people to get together and see friends from the Internet and meet new people.” In an ironic twist, Arikia met her roommate—whom she considers to be her best friend—the old-fashioned way, at a bar. But their first conversation was about none other than Facebook. “We were thrilled to find another person who understood social media as much as the other.”

“Social media has made such a big difference on my well-being that I like to show other people that it can be a really enjoyable part of life,” Arikia says. “For me it’s really been the vessel to solidify friendships that I can’t imagine would have formed, or would have formed so quickly, if it wasn’t for the availability of the communication media.”

As for those who say people of her generation are empathy-less narcissists without real friends, Arikia says, “Anyone who would say that has obviously not experienced the full benefits of the Internet or even given it a chance. I feel sorry for them.”

The software patent system is broken, long live the software patent system

Tonight I went to a panel discussion, one of my favorite closet nerd things to do on a Thursday night in NYC. It was at Hack Manhattan, aptly titled “Software Patents Debate – FREE alcoholic and non-alcoholic refreshments.” Sold out, obviously. The panel was hosted by America’s Future Foundation and featured Nilay Patel of The Verge, Chris Mims of Quartz, Reihan Salam of National Review, and patent lawyers Christina Mulligan, Alan Tenenbaum, and Greg Maskel, moderated by Chris Gaun of Gartner.

The purpose of the panel was to debate whether or not software should be patentable, if the current system is broken, and if it encourages innovation. All the panelists agreed that it was not optimally functional, mainly because of the legal aspects. The main example they kept coming back to was of a 15 year old kid in Wichita who makes iPhone game apps in between homework assignments. The kid could get sent a letter from a company claiming he’d infringed on their patent. The letter may or may not be valid, but that doesn’t matter—even attempting to defend his app could require up to $30,000 in legal fees and a whole lot of time. And it’s not like he knew about the patent in the first place because there’s no effective way to search the system and see if what you’re working on falls under another patent, he’d just have to build the thing and wait to see if he got a letter. As Christina put it, “when you’re in the position of making a product, it’s mathematically impossible to know what patents you might be infringing.” This is in-part because of the rate of growth of the software industry, in which there are about 700,000 patents currently pending, and millions of others in existence. Understandably, if I had the skills to invent something new, I would feel really discouraged from sharing it with anyone.

Furthermore, it’s difficult to define who the patent trolls are and thus impossible to impose regulations preventing such trolling. They are usually companies who bought up a bunch of patents but aren’t contributing any innovation to the marketplace, and will sometimes send letters in the hundreds or thousands to people who could possibly be infringing seeking royalties, which many inventors are inclined to pay even if they didn’t knowingly infringe on the patent because paying the royalty fees is cheaper than the legal costs. So the trolls can just sit back racking in the dough they’re bullying out of anyone brave enough to attempt to innovate. It’s clear they must be stopped via a reform in the legal system, but the reason they’re able to do that is because the ability to claim royalties exists to protect inventors from getting their ideas ripped off by intentional copycats. SO we need to find a way to differentiate between innovators and leeches. Shouldn’t be hard in theory, but what metrics do you use in practice?

It’s a stifling atmosphere that makes a lot of true innovators throw up their hands and say “to hell with the system, I won’t use it.” This is often the case with proponents of the open source movement, who are clearly the ideological heroes. But in refusing to seek patents on the principle that they won’t engage with a corrupt system, they are choosing to be poor. As Nilay put it, “the people who need [the patent system] the most are the people who don’t believe in it.”

Then there’s the case of companies trying to discourage competition by trying to patent things like rounded corners. Obviously no one company invented rounded corners, and certainly not Apple, but they still won. So the system is clearly still having some problems establishing whether an invention is “new” or if the company is exploiting the shit out of it.

The lawyers were very lawyery. One of my favorite exchanges was when Christina pointed out that the vast majority of patents are never litigated but one could still never know if he was in the wrong. Then Alan chimed in and said it didn’t matter, “go forward with your product and if you become successful then you become a target.” So if you don’t get successful, don’t worry about it. Except… what’s successful? Selling 100,000 apps at a dollar each and having to spend half that on legal fees? A million?

Then someone said maybe software shouldn’t be patentable at all, because it’s this thing that’s way different from a steam engine or light bulb or whatever was being invented when the patent laws were made with a 20 year expiration date that doesn’t really make sense in the context of today’s rapidly changing software landscape.

Ultimately, we want as much innovation as possible in our society. But as usual, the dudes on the golf course smoking cigars are keeping the nerds from saving the world. One thing’s clear about this royal mess though: Something’s gotta give.

Gizmodo microfame

Tuesday marked the third and fourth time my picture has graced Gizmodo.com, each reason more ridiculous than the rest. Forgive my self indulgent trip down memory lane while I recap the times I’ve been unknowingly blogged by my favorite tech frathouse on the internet.

1) When Molly Oswaks and I were setting up the new Internet Garage after hours and decided to take pictures of ourselves wrapped in ethernet cables in the busted old photo booth in the Bedford Mini Mall hallway only to find a request for a floppy disk.

Giz_IG

2) When I posted a picture to the facebook of the first time I used a computer when I was eight.

Giz_Comp

3) When Sam Biddle demonstrated how the new facebook graph search can let you find your single female friends:

Giz_BiddleInfamy

4) When Kyle Wagner authored a one-word post that got more page views than anything I have ever blogged on here.

Giz_No

Impressive. Forge on, Gizzers.

Self-esteem tax hike

There’s nothing that will ruin your day like getting street harassed walking both to and from the subway. I try to always wear headphones when I walk around during the day to shield myself from the intrusive comments of ill-mannered men. I wish I could wear them at night, but I’d rather get catcalled than mugged.

I had my recorder in my pocket. Every time it happens, I tell myself that next time I’ll take the recorder out and ask them to explain what they hope to gain from catcalling, both for article fodder and to put them on the spot and diminish some of the power that they get from doing that. But every time I just keep walking.

So many of my guy friends have asked me why it pisses me off, because don’t I like getting compliments? I tell them these things aren’t said to make me feel good, they’re said to make me feel like a snack food.

Catcalling obviously is not an effective mating strategy, but I know why they do it. I know they don’t have any real power in their lives, that objectifying women walking down the sidewalk alone is their attempt to compensate by making us feel powerless. I try to keep a straight face, to not be compelled by the men who lurk on the stoops of my street to crack a polite smile or even whip back a “fuck off”. Sometimes though, like this morning, they get right next to you and tell you directly in your ear how much they love “girls like you”, then wait to catch your surprised expression. If women were slot machines, my horrified reaction was a jackpot for him I’m sure.

It’s like there’s a self-esteem tax that only women have to pay.