Monday, April 19, 2021

I Get By With a Little Help From My Coworkers

No one has  ever described me as the strong, silent type.  For a baby boomer male, I’m rather quick to share my feelings.  But it would probably surprise some people to know that, having been raised amidst cultural expectations of male stoicism, I still suppress quite a bit.  When things were tough, I have more often than not simply said, “Fine thanks, how are you?” – especially at work, in the name of professionalism.

But then came 2020.

There was the pandemic, of course, and the consequent economic and racial inequities, and the terrible incivility of a toxic election.  And while my wife Trina and I own an Airbnb that was hard hit, all of that was just a sideshow for us.

To summarize quickly: In February we went to Chicago to help care for our granddaughters (8-11) while our daughter Lea had esophageal surgery.  During her recovery, her husband Mike had a recurrence of his brain cancer, so we stayed for another surgery.  Then COVID hit and we became a "pod" with our daughter Miriam and her family, all camping out at Lea's house for nearly ten months.  Then our daughter Shana died suddenly.  Then we spent the rest of the year caring for the girls and nursing Mike through two surgeries until his ultimate slow demise January 10.  Along the way I had heart surgery.  Lea had several minor surgeries.  Miriam miscarried. Several other close relatives battled life-threatening illnesses.  And through all this, Trina was delaying much-needed back surgery to care for others despite tremendous pain.  She finally had successful surgery in March, which we hope will prove to be the final echo of a horrendous year. 

I decided, fairly early on, that “Fine, thanks” was not going to cut it for me in 2020.  When anyone asked, I tried to answer succinctly but factually, to the predictable horror of a friendly coworker, or even stranger.  I was surprised to  find that speaking about these horrors, even to people I barely knew, was helpful, simply because I no longer had to work to hold it all inside.  I was most hesitant about unburdening myself at work, but that’s where I got the biggest surprise.

I’m fortunate to work for a company, Mimecast, whose CEO has established from the top a culture of caring for one another.  With this encouragement, my colleagues faced no inhibitions to their natural empathy.  They didn’t just put up with the difficulties my personal life was causing, but went out of the way to offer help and comfort.

When I missed all or part of a meeting because I was needed to help Mike, or to help with the grandchildren’s virtual schooling – I was de facto tech support for the household – my co-workers didn’t just put up with me.  They urged me not to worry about it, briefed me on what I missed or met with me separately, or even offered to cover some of my work.  

As the year went on, it felt like nearly every meeting of my work group began with questions about how I and my family were doing, and whether there was anything anyone in the company could do to help.  And on the few occasions there were, it was forthcoming in an instant. My memory of the first dark weeks after my daughter died is a blur, and I honestly have no idea how many of my work duties I might have missed, because no one troubled me with it.  My manager stepped in and covered for some of my most urgent tasks, and throughout the year my colleagues picked up the pieces I was struggling with, small and large.

None of the many kindnesses, of course, could make a real dent in the overwhelming sorrow that was my life in 2020.  But the help and, yes, the love of my coworkers minimized my sense of guilt at work, made me more effective with the time I had, and reminded me of the world of goodness and joy that seemed temporarily out of reach.

I know that Mimecast is special in this regard.  I don’t know of any other companies whose CEO responded to the pandemic by starting a weekly podcast he called his “Shower of Love,” in which he dealt with the concerns of the company and the needs of the employees as equally important parts of our mission.  But I suspect that even in the most toxic of workplaces, employees sincerely care about each other, if not the corporate mission.

During the pandemic, many of us worked from home and experienced profound isolation from our colleagues and the world.  When we said we missed going to work, it was usually our coworkers we were missing, not the coffee machine.  The idea that at work we are cogs in a corporate machine began to break down, to reveal the underlying truth that we, as human beings, are shaped by our relationships with others.  Our satisfaction at work has far less to do with the code or spreadsheets we produce than with the way the person at the front desk smiles when we walk in the door, or the moment the person in the next cubicle invites us to share a coffee break.

None of this was a great secret, but I had nonetheless underestimated the importance of my work relationships.  In 2020 I came to realize that many of the people I might have described as “cordial coworkers” were in fact real friends who played by an unwritten code of emotional restraint.   There’s nothing that will bring this home quite like having a room (in this case virtual) full of people delay the “real purpose” of a meeting to find out how you’re doing this week.

Not all companies are so supportive, but they should be.  Far from paying a price for encouraging us to care for one another, Mimecast has prospered through the pandemic and the transition to working from home.  And if the people I know are any indication, our dedication to seeing the company succeed has only deepened with the outpouring of caring that went, not just to me, but to everyone in the company, in a time where one could safely assume that nearly everyone was struggling.

Many years ago, I lived at a great distance from the headquarters of a company I co-founded, and flew in every month or so.  As a founder I was permitted to meddle in just about anything.   So when I heard, one visit, that a new director-level hire wasn’t working out, and was viewed as a cold fish, unwilling to make friends with anyone, I decided to pay her a visit.  As I talked with her, I gently pried out of her the fact that, in between her hiring and her first day of work, her fiance had been killed in a motorcycle accident.  Her desire to act professonal led her to mask the raw new wounds of her grief, which was what made her seem cold.  I persuaded her that this had been a mistake, and that it would be better for all if she didn’t have to hide her tragedy.  She changed her approach, and quickly became a valued, respected, and cared-for member of the team.

For too long, too many of us have divided our lives between work and “real life” – as if we check our humanity at the office door.  That has been a recipe for preoccupied workers struggling to hide their personal troubles, with an inevitable productivity cost.  I’ve come to believe that a company is more likely to prosper, particularly against strong headwinds, if the workers feel that they and the company all have each other’s backs, and care about each other as human beings.

Toxic masculinity, in particular, has played too large a role in shaping what we think of as professional work attitudes for both men and women.  There’s no reason we should all try to be “tough guys” at work.  The ideal should be a team of people who support each other while they strive towards a common goal.  Everyone needs to think about how much of a company's success is caused by the desire of their workers to continue as a team that cares for one another.

John Lennon wrote that he got by "with a little help from my friends.”  But surely those friends included his co-workers Paul, George, and Ringo.  Work demands professionalism, but professionalism doesn't require that we suppress our humanity.  Given how many hours we spend working, we need to start acknowledging that our "work friends" are among the most important ones we have.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Section 230 Lessons from Pornhub's Retreat

Under pressure from Visa and MasterCard, pornhub, the world's largest porn empire, has abruptly taken the majority of its videos offline, under pressure because its unvetted user-supplied videos included depictions of terrible crimes.

It's long overdue for porn sites to take responsibility for user-uploaded atrocities.  But pressuring Pornhub on this issue is only feasible due to the near-universal condemnation of the content, the relatively clear-cut criteria for banning content, and the reality that Visa and MasterCard are the global porn police. 

Most other content disputes, however, can’t so easily reach consensus on questions of clarity, morality, and practicality.  That’s why we have section 230.  Without section 230, almost any content provider (particularly social media) would be vulnerable to legal challenges not just over explicit and clearly illegal depictions of rape and child pornography, but over nearly any kind of content dispute, initiated by nearly anyone, in nearly any venue, and nearly always without recourse to an all-powerful enforcement authority.

Content providers would inevitably become more lawsuit-averse.  One might imagine that the legal burdens of a 230-free world might tend to drive out extremes and nudge our discourse back to a happier centrism. But unfortunately, in the legal arena it's likely that the "center" would be defined largely by wealth and power, among other things.  The most marginalized voices would have the least room even to express their views in public.

What kinds of content might dwindle in a world without section 230?

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

My Br@ther's Dementia and Bad UX Design

In the middle of the day, the networked Brother printer stopped working.  Although I was hundreds of miles from my Ph.D. hood, I remembered the sacred incantation:  reboot everything.  Nowadays this is almost a cure-all, but not so this time.  I rebooted the printer, network, and client.  No Joy.

I checked the printer’s configuration.  In a sudden fit of dementia, it had completely forgotten the wireless network.  So I configured it anew, and… it told me I had the wrong wifi access code.

Now, this is a password that is easy to mistype, so I tried again.   Then I questioned my memory and tried a variant a few times.   Then I went to my son-in-law and confirmed my original memory of the password.  With renewed certainty, I tried again.  Several times.  Nope.  Adding insult to injury, my helpful Brother printed an error page every time the authentication failed, so every password attempt killed a bit of a tree.

And that’s when I happened to notice something squirrelly about the Brother keyboard.  Throwing caution to the wind, I will reveal that the access code I was typing contained an “@“ sign.  

The Brother printer helpfully provides an @ on the primary keyboard — prioritizing it over even the comma, as if one types email addresses into the printer all that often — and that’s what I had been using -- lower right, above the friendly "OK": 

But then, by chance, I noticed something odd:  the tertiary keyboard is all symbols, and it ALSO has an @ -- at far right, center:

I tried one more time, now using the @ from the third screen rather than the first.  Worked perfectly.  

It's an old printer, but you'd have to be older than me for this to be an acceptable design flaw.  A novel entry in the User Interface Hall of Shame.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Eight Years Without Net Neutrality

My whimsical contribution to the day of action for net neutrality can be found at:

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Judith Glasser, 1936-2015

For decades, comics in search of easy laughs have fallen back on the mother-in-law joke.  Apparently enough people have difficult relationships with their mothers-in-law that they're a reliable way to get a few laughs out of even the toughest crowds.

For over 40 years, however, my response to such jokes has been to thank my lucky stars.  My mother-in-law, Judith Glasser, was one of the finest people I've ever known.  Her compassion, her patience, and her willingness to do whatever it takes to help those around her have been an inspiration to me and to almost everyone lucky enough to known her.

The Talmud teaches that some of our moral obligations are absolute, but others are more contingent:  if you are walking through the woods and find a baby bird that has fallen out of its nest, you have a responsibility to try to help it if you can, but you have no responsibility to comb the woods in search of distressed birds.  In other words, as a finite being in a specific time and place, you can't do everything, and you have the greatest and deepest responsibility to those nearest you.  A refugee on the other side of the planet deserves what support and assistance you can provide, but a troubled person in your own community demands your time and attention.

Judith's patience and compassion seemed infinite to me.  Wherever she lived, she attracted people who needed her, and she would spend long hours talking through their problems, encouraging them, and often assisting them in more concrete ways.  Often these were difficult people with difficult problems, for whom few others had the patience, but Judith always did.  She never brokered a peace deal across an ocean, or otherwise drew the attention of the wider world.  She simply transformed the lives, one at a time, of the baby birds she found in her path.  And by both words and example she encouraged everyone around her to make better choices, to do the right thing, to be better people.

In recent years, Judith and Larry spent their winters in Spain, where  Judith saw something special in a shy Spanish high school girl,  beyond the constrained brightness permitted by the Spanish school system, and spent three winters tutoring and encouraging her.  This very month, she is applying to go to university in America, another life changed by Judith, this time across a gulf of culture and sixty years of age.

Alas, she was the last baby bird.  Last month Judith died suddenly, while she and Larry were in Valladolid, distant from all their relatives.  Having lost both my parents, I thought myself somwhat hardened, but have been surprised at the depth of my grief.  The world without Judith seems a harsher, less caring place.  It seems to me that the only appropriate tribute is for those of us who loved her to find a way to ourselves be more caring, compassionate, and patient.  I doubt that I can live up to her example, but in her memory I will try to come a bit closer.

[Donations in honor of Judith Glasser may be made to: Planned Parenthood, 160 Stone St., Watertown, NY 13601-3250, or to the local animal shelter in Potsdam - 17 Madrid Ave, Potsdam, NY 13676.]

Monday, January 26, 2015

Never Take Color for Granted

Chris is seeing blue & yellow in art for the first time.  At the aquarium, he saw fish and coral where he'd previously seen blurs.

It would be difficult to overstate how much my life has changed since, about 4 months ago, I took a big step away from color blindness.

People close to me have have noted changes in my personality -- they say I'm more patient, relaxed, or happy.  I suspect it's all true.

But after four months of color, today was another notable day.  For the first time in four months, I took color for granted.

I hope I never do it again.

In my defense I can say that I had just spent a grueling but exciting weekend in Chicago, filming other color blind people seeing colors for the first time, using the new AmplifEye prototype digital technology for bringing color to the color blind.

I got home from Chicago after midnight Sunday, intending to go straight to sleep, but made the fatal mistake of "peeking" at the 63 gigabytes of video from the weekend. The video shows unmistakable success in bringing color to the color blind.   I fell asleep at 5, woke up in a daze at 9, and was passably lucid in the afternoon, when I drove into town to buy groceries.

As I was getting into the car, I realized I had left my color-correcting glasses inside.  They're usually around my neck, but in my mental fog I had left them on my dresser.  I was cold, and decided that  I could do without color for a run to the grocery store.  I took color for granted.

I didn't miss color on the drive to the grocery -- pretty much everything is white this time of year.  Entering the store, I came face to face with the produce.

For 57 color blind years, I had I bought produce without much trouble.  The only real problem for me was determining whether bananas were ripe.  In my previous life, I would have stopped a friendly looking person, explained that I was color blind, and asked which bananas to buy.

I couldn't do it.  My color blindness never used to feel like a handicap, but now it did.   Rather than beg a stranger for banana help, I bought a pomegranate.

The bananas didn't matter.  What mattered was... everything else.  Surrounded by fruits and vegetables, I was perfectly qualified to transact the commercial business of buying non-banana groceries.  But I have taken a bite of the color apple, and I am no longer innocent of the knowledge of what I'm missing.  Looking at the produce was the antimatter equivalent of a "wow" moment.  In a word, it was sad.

To date we've tested 3 other color blind people using the AmplifEye technology.  Every "wow" -- and there are plenty of them -- has a tinge of regret for years lost without color.  Even 17 year old Chris spoke of the time he had lost.

I've turned my own 57-year tinge of regret into a new mission.  I want to give the gift of color to every color blind child, at the earliest age possible.  The earlier kids get treatment, the more colors they will learn to see, and the less they will ever need to regret.

As a few of you know, I'm working my way up to a crowdfunding effort to turn the AmplifEye prototype into a reality. Whether that's news to you or not, I invite your comments on this draft explanation of what we want to do:

Life is worth living without color. The color blind don't need to be pitied.  As far as handicaps go, color blindness is a pretty small one.  But everyone deserves color in their life.  In a few weeks, I'll be asking for your help spreading the word about the crowdfunding.  But in the meantime, consider this:  1 out of 12 males (and 1 in 200 women) is color blind, with half of them considered moderate to severe.  How many of the people you care about are colorblind?  Who are they?  And what would you do if you knew you could bring color into their lives?

John, seeing green in Van Gogh for the first time.   Pictures of forests also astonished him.  I, on the other hand, was gobsmacked by the red in sunsets.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Discovering Color at Age 57

I've been seeing these sunsets for 35 years... but not really.
Severely color-blind from birth, in the last few weeks I have gained the ability to see more (by no means all) colors.  I can't imagine that my writing skills are up to this task, but I feel the need to try to explain what it has been like.

I've always been interested in the possibility of treating my color-blindness, and had tried a half-dozen technologies before.  Some, like the high-tech Enchroma lenses, simply didn't do very much for me, probably because my color blindness is too severe.  Others, using tinted glassses, only worked a little bit, and only on the brightest of sunny days; I coudn't wear them in low light.  And some required contact lenses, to which I could never adjust.  In any case, all such technologies must be used nearly full time for several weeks before the brain rewires itself, and I never got that far.

Recently, however, the good folks at Harrisville Eye Care set me up with a pair of glasses that used a much lighter tint, which is apparently what I needed.  I can wear them indoors in relatively low light, which means I was finally able to wear them long enough to start to see a major effect.

That effect was just beginning to kick in, the week before last, when my wife and I went on a road trip, starting in Chicago, where my granddaughters live.  They quickly sat me down to watch The Wizard of Oz with them.  Now, I'm only red-green color-blind; I can see blues and yellows just fine.  So I knew to expect colors when Dorothy opened the door after arriving in Oz.  But really, I didn't know.  Munchkinland was a riot of unexpected beauty.  I managed to cry quietly, without (I think) the girls noticing.

I've always enjoyed movies, but now I want to rewatch any that are noted for their use of color.

Emboldened by that experience, we took a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago.  I have largely avoided art museums all my life, because they tend to be very frustrating.  Many impressionist paintings were simply incomprehensible blurs to me.  But this time was different.  Some of them were still inscrutable, but others were a revelation.  I stood for fifteen minutes just staring at Seurat's "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte."  My artist daughter gleefully guided me around, explaining colors to me, while the other three grandparents took the children to exhibits like the Thorne Rooms.

After 57 years on this planet, I suddenly like art museums.

From Chicago we drove to northern New York, where Trina's parents live.  On the drive there, Trina pointed out the trees changing color, but I was able to see only a bit of difference there.  I figured it was too subtle, and that I was still too color blind to appreciate autumn.

Trina's parents live in a cabin on a hill with a view westward over Trout Lake.  It's famous for its sunsets, of which I have seen hundreds over the years.  I've always loved sunsets, and I was eager to see what my new glasses might add.  Well before the sun began to set, I settled in on the couch, where I could simply look to the right to see the show.

Of course, I got wrapped up in working on my computer, and lost track of time as the sunset got under way.   I didn't look up until my father-in-law casually said, to no one in particular, "nice sunset."  I turned my head to the right, and my entire world changed.

I beheld a fiery sky, not just with more colors than I'd seen before, but extending far further in every direction than I'd ever imagined.  I immediately gasped so loudly that everyone in the house wanted to know what was wrong.  My jaw dropped and my hand clamped over my face, but I wasn't actually thinking anything.  The usual constant chatter of consciousness was simply gone, and for perhaps a few seconds, as the tears poured down my face, I was nothing but pure sensation, swimming in a sea of unfathomable beauty.

After seeing thousands of sunsets, I had finally seen a sunset.

Most surprising, though, was what happened after that.  My first conscious thought, emerging from that sea of bliss, was completely unexpected:  "Perhaps there really is a God."

If you know me, and my long history with religion, you know that this wasn't a casual thought.  In high school I stepped beyond my Jewish background and immersed myself in other religions -- a fundamentalist Christian prayer group, a Nichiren Buddhist sect, and the Bahai faith, for starters.  Then in college, I majored in comparative religions, with a particular interest in Zen Buddhism.  I was almost the textbook definition of an agnostic.  But over the years, cynicism and rationalism took over, and by the time Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush began demonstrating their competing visions of God's will, I was calling myself an atheist.  But in that one instant of beauty, I again became an agnostic.  I don't think I ever truly understood the concept of gratuitous beauty as evidence for the existence of God.

A few days later, we drove to Pittsburgh.  My color vision was clearly continuing to improve, because now I could see more colors in the trees.  I was beginning to learn to let go and simply experience the colors, rather than constantly trying to name them and test the limits of my perception.  I found I was much better at enjoying the colors than analyzing them, and I spent less time naming them and more time appreciating them.

In Pittsburgh, we went with our friends Tom and Cheryl to the Phipps Conservatory, where every flower with any shade of red in it was a revelation to me.  They seemed to bask in the reflected wonder as I saw things in flowers I had never seen before -- at least once being startled enough to gasp aloud once again.  Tom said he'd never seen someone so literally following his bliss.

After years of disinterest, I found myself thinking I might enjoy gardening.

I was in Pittsburgh for a celebration of the 25th anniversary of CMU's School of Computer Science, and it was there that I went next.  Even as I listened to the (very interesting) professional talks, I was aware of a growing sense of pervasive beauty all around me.  Even a pile of garbage was more interesting with my newfound color sense, but people in particular were visual miracles.

I found myself staring at people's lips.  They were vivid and defining in a way they never had been before, even without makeup.  Women wearing lipstick drew my eyes irresistably.  For that matter, I was also seeing blush and most other kinds of makeup for the first time.  (With my natural vision, I can't see much more than blue eye shadow.)  It took a concerted effort not to stare like a creep.

After years of fascination, I found women more beautiful than I had ever imagined.

And red hair!  In college, at one point, I was talking with my best friend of the last two years, and the topic of nicknames came up.  "Well, people have always called me Red, of course," he said.  "Why?" I asked.  He looked at me strangely and said, "because I have flaming red hair."  "You do?"  I asked.  But now I could identify many people as redheads, all by myself, and some of them stood out like lightbulbs from across the room.

I expected the drive home from Pittsburgh to be anticlimactic, but it wasn't.  My color vision had improved to the point where the fall colors were visible enough for me to stare at them, smiling, for hours.

I don't want to overstate what has happened to me.  I'm still very color blind, just not as bad as before.  (To be technical:  I see 11 more of the Ishahara images.)  And there are negatives, too:  the glasses only work well at a certain distance -- too close or too far and the effect is sometimes lost.  Most alarmingly, the glasses play havoc with my depth perception.  Staircases have become a real hazard, and I managed to smash myself in the face with a car door because I misread its position.  I'm not complaining, not by a long shot, simply warning anyone else who might go down this road.

Most important to me, however, is a newfound motivation.  If I, at 57, can experience this much change in my color perception, how much good could it do a color-blind preschooler?  And how might we build on glasses such as these to give an even greater boost to color perception, perhaps even for those with normal color vision?  I am determined to answer these questions if I possibly can.  But not while the sun is setting.