Saturday, February 28, 2015

'Twitter DMs Can Be the Hand on the Knee,' a Destructive and Ridiculous Remark

Direct messages from a man to a woman on Twitter are the social media equivalent of a hand on the knee. That's the statement that had me worked up in anger for a week.

Let me back up.

Vivek Wadhwa is a researcher and professor, and some of his research and writing relates to women in technology. He was the subject of a huge controversy with a podcast called TLDR put out by On The Media, a fantastic radio program produced at WNYC in New York. The podcast, I've decided, is not so fantastic. I listened to several episodes, not just the controversial one, and I can clearly state that it is not for me. The show doesn't put out content that makes me smarter or more introspective. 

Without regurgitating the whole hullabaloo, allow me to summarize.

What Happened
TLDR released a podcast in which a reporter and a critic of Wadhwa's named Amelia Greenhall trash talked him. They clearly did not fact check most of the material, nor did they even reach out to Wadhwa for comment or to get his side of the story. The show even had moments of snickering. Some of the points raised could have been valid, but I for one dismissed almost all of it because it reeked of back-biting and one-sided opinions. Wadhwa came under attack on social media thereafter, mostly Twitter, where he has long been an active participant in all kinds of discussions. Wadhwa then published an op-ed on Venture Beat in response, and TLDR (or On the Media; I'm not sure who made the call) pulled the original episode, even though you can still find it easily online. It was correct to pull the episode because it was filled with slander that wasn't even fact-checked. TLDR then aired a follow-up episode in which the host, Meredith Haggerty interviewed Wadhwa to get his side of the story. Wadhwa comes off as overly defensive, as well as someone who is not media-trained.

The Twitter DM Can Be the Hand on the Knee
I have an opinion about nearly all the twists and turns of this whole debacle, but I'd rather focus on just one destructive comment made by Haggerty and Greenhall in the first episode that kicked off the issue:
GREENHALL: It's really creepy when a man you don't know goes into your DMs. It's really kind of this consensual, "Let's go over here where people can't see you criticizing me and then maybe I can talk to you there." Wadhwa has done this to several women.
HAGGERTY: It really feels like the Twitter DM can be, like, the hand on the knee of, like, social communication. 
What? What? What are you crazy people talking about? It's one of the most ridiculous things I've heard on an NPR-affiliated podcast, and it's destructive because it's spreading a fear-based message that simply isn't true.

Here are a few facts you need to know about Twitter. DM stands for direct message. It's when someone sends you a private message, which is still limited to 140 characters, on the social network. Only the specified recipients can see it. To receive or send a DM, however, each party must be following one another. Therefore, by following someone on Twitter, you are consenting to DMs. 

In fact, as my work as a writer, it happens all the time. A PR representative or source for a story will find me on Twitter and message me publicly to ask: "Who you mind following me so I can DM you some information?" If Greenhall or any of these other women didn't want to converse privately with Wadhwa, all they would have to do is click the unfollow button by his name. DMs are consensual! 

Additionally, this business of "when a man you don't know goes into your DMs." What? No one "goes into" anyone else's DMs. Getting a DM is the equivalent of getting an email. If you receive an email, the sender did not "go into" your inbox. 

The beauty of DMs and email for that matter is you can simply ignore them. Block the sender if you like. You are totally in control.

Wadhwa has in fact sent me a direct message or two. I asked him a question, and he answered me directly rather than publicly. I'm glad for it. I'm thankful he had the sense to think about where his reply would be most appropriate. And it made me feel like he was answering me and actually paying attention to my question, rather than using Twitter as a megaphone.

When a man emails me, I do not feel creeped out or violated in any way. I usually assume that this person has something to protect or is afraid, and that's why they want to move the conversation to a private area. Often 140 characters get misconstrued. If you tweet one thing and realize too late that it came out the wrong way, it's often safer to explain yourself in private to the people who got the wrong message than it is to try and fight fires publicly. I think it's everyone's responsibility to have an ounce of humanity and decency when another person sends you a private message to say, "I think I messed up. I feel like things are getting out of hand. Can we talk about this one-on-one so I can explain myself to you?"

Limited Room
Another comment sent up a huge red flag for me in regards to whether I would take Greenhall's criticism seriously:
"[H]e's taking up space and, like, sucking all the air out of the room from this conversation about sexism in tech and gender issues in tech that is a really big deal. And somebody who actually has experience and has something useful to say isn't getting quoted."
I don't think this woman understand how the Internet works. There is unlimited space and air for voices. No one is taking anyone else's place. We need more voices, not a limited number!

Second, she's just wrong. In Wadhwa's retort, he specifically mentions that when he's speaking to journalists who plan to quote him, he encourages them to cite women on the subject matter instead, or at least in addition. But he's an expert source, and just because he's male doesn't make him any less so.

Women in technology need allies right now. We need all the voices and backing by researchers, scholars, pundits, activists, and so forth, that we can get. I'm really sad that Wadhwa was attacked so viciously that he's now announced bowing out of the debate about women in technology. While I don't know if he means he'll no longer conduct research or write books on the topic, either way, it seems like self-defeating outcome for women in technology.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

U.S. Foreign Service Life: First Steps

Flag of Washington, D.C.
I'm getting ready to go live anywhere in the world. 

My partner recently was accepted into the U.S. Foreign Service. It's a job with the State Department. He's in the political "cone" or track. A lot of people have been asking me questions about it, so I'm going to give an overview here.

Note: While I will blog about life abroad, I will not use this site to write in detail about life in the Foreign Service or the very lengthy process of getting into the Foreign Service. There are many great blogs already covering that topic, and it's not something I wish to repeat. For friends and family and curious onlookers who want to know more about our Foreign Service lives, such as our next steps and key dates, sign up for my TinyLetter newsletter. You'll receive an email every so often with more detail that you ever wanted.

The gist of it is that he's going to be a diplomat, although "foreign service officer" seems to be the preferred term. First, we'll move to Washington D.C. for his initial training, which lasts about six weeks. During that time, we'll live in temporary (furnished, sponsored) housing. But the overall lifestyle is that we will be posted to a different country every two years where we'll live and work. I'll continue to write while he works in one of the embassies.

Early in his training, we'll find out where in the world there are open positions that are appropriate for his entry-level status. We can review those possibilities and even rank them to a degree according to our preferences for region, language, and other factors, but the assignment doesn't necessary take our preferences into consideration. If it does, we'll count ourselves very lucky.

Toward the end of those six weeks, we'll find out his assignment during a ceremony called Flag Day.

It's unlikely we would move to that first post right away. Likely, we'll be in Washington, D.C. for a few more weeks at least, and possibly a whole year, so he can receive additional training specific to his post as well as language training. Bonus for me: I'm eligible to go to the language classes, too.

From time to time, we will return to New York and California to visit friends and family, and we will have occasional posts that are in the U.S., likely in D.C.

Right now, that's about all we know. It's exciting and terrifying, but we're well equipped for the challenge. The hard things in life are usually the ones worth doing, right?

Saturday, February 21, 2015

How Walking Promotes Clarity and Creativity

Image by Jenn Vargas, CC.
Any time I am stuck, mentally, I walk.

I walk every day. On days when the weather makes it impossible to walk, I still get outside and walk even a little bit, just a few blocks and back in the rain or the freezing cold. Walking is a necessity.

The New Yorker published an article in September 2014 called Why Walking Helps Us Think, by Ferris Jabr. It explores how walking actually affects our physical and mental being. Jabr wrote:
"When we stroll, the pace of our feet naturally vacillates with our moods and the cadence of our inner speech; at the same time, we can actively change the pace of our thoughts by deliberately walking more briskly or by slowing down. 
"Because we don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, our attention is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre. This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight."
Walking can help us make sense of the world and process information, too. It happened this week to me. I started when I felt overwhelmed because I had just learned that my life and work were about to take a few turns that seemed very much out of my control. The need to walk was unstoppable.

What happened is my partner and I learned recently that we'll be moving to Washington D.C. very soon, and after that, we will move somewhere else in the world, though we don't know where yet. At first, I had hoped to keep my writing job full-time from Washington, but the management team didn't quite agree that an arrangement of that sort would work. The organization needs someone in-house to replace me for the on-camera work I do. Plus, the lifestyle I'm about to lead isn't reliable enough to promise 40-hours a week of work during New York business hours. The result is that I'll still be writing for the same publication as a contributing editor, but in a freelance or contract position

Having someone else make this decision and tell me it is what is happening felt like a ton of bricks hitting me face-on. Face-to-face, I am very well composed, and I know none of that emotion showed. But inside, my stomach sank, and I felt a sense of rejection, like I was being pushed underwater. 

After I talked with my editor, I walked. And I walked. And the situation very quickly made more sense and felt less bleak. I processed what had happened and swallowed the fact that going freelance is what I wanted to happen. The initial reaction and emotion I had been feeling was tied to the fact that I wasn't in control. Feeling not in control has been a central problem and theme all my life. And walking unquestionably helps.


Friday, February 20, 2015

A Nudge

I'm getting a nudge in life that I have always wanted, yet secretly fear.
“What we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do." -Tim Ferris, The 4-Hour Workweek
I fear instability.

I fear poverty, or at more precisely living with the habits and psychology of someone who is insecure about money.

I fear not having enough routine and discipline.

Those fears are real, but they are tied to a bigger fear, the thing I need to do. I need to write for myself.

Writing independently, without the safety net of a full-time job and healthcare and an 8:30-to-5:00 routine, is something I have longed to do. I've literally daydreamed about it. My creativity is there. My work ethic is there. My heart is there. But it's scary.

And now, I'm getting a nudge.

My partner just got a job with the U.S. State Department, working in the Foreign Service. He's about to become a diplomat. We move to Washington, D.C. in a few days. In a few weeks, we'll find out whether we are destined to stay in the capital for a while, or where else in the world we will be sent to live for the following two years. The nature of the job is that we will move every two years to a new country, with occasional posts to Washington D.C., maybe.

For the last four years, I've been so lucky to have a full-time job as a writer. Previously, I've been an editor and part time writer, dividing my time 80/20 if I planned my weeks well enough to even get that much time to write. Writing is what I do and what I love, whether it's product reviews (a large chunk of what I write now), feature articles, or scripts that I'll end up speaking in front of a camera.

Writing full-time has been an absolute pleasure because I get to do the thing I love and still have all the securities that keep fear at bay: a regular work week, insurance, paid time off, co-workers, and an office. It's been good. But it needs to end. And it's time to do the freelance thing.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

What's Wrong With Wearable Fitness Trackers

I test a lot of fitness trackers, everything from runner's watches to Fitbit smart pedometers. And I spend a lot of time picking apart what makes them great and what makes them duds. Here are a few ideas for how they can be better:

1. Touchscreens
Touchscreens are ubiquitous among smartphones. Several activity trackers use them, too, such as Samsung Gear Fit (shown), Microsoft Band, Basis Peak, and Fitbit Surge. The problem with touchscreens is they require a steady hand. When you're outdoors, running or riding a bicycle, and when your heart rate is elevated, it can be very difficult to navigate a device by touch with any grace. Touchscreens don't work well when the user is active, and so they don't work well for activity trackers.

I favor fitness trackers with buttons that you can press and feel. They are much better when you're moving around and wearing gloves.

2. They're Missing the Right Heart Rate Indicators
I love all the new wearable tech that use built-in optical heart rate monitors: Basis Peak, Wellograph, Mio Fuse, Fitbit Surge, and the forthcoming Apple Watch. These devices take your pulse through the skin of the wrist, so you can wear something that looks like a watch or a bracelet and have it work like a chest strap heart rate monitor. The problem is very few give heart rate feedback in a way that's smart and easily accessible during a workout.

My favorite device for heart rate monitoring during activity (as opposed to heart rate at rest) is Mio Fuse for one simple reason: It tells you your heart rate in more than one way. Mio Fuse flashes an LED light in different colors to indicator your heart rate zone. For example, you might want to workout in your green zone. If you're doing interval training, you want to push to your red zone, and then try to quickly bring your heart rate back down to purple. The Mio Fuse also vibrates and occasionally flashes the actual number of your heart's beats per minute. In short, it tells you your heart rate in a number of different ways, and all those ways are extremely convenient if you are huffing and puffing.

3. Wrist Space
The most common reason I look at my activity trackers is to tell the time. Those that don't double as a watch and have a time readout on them are just taking up valuable real estate on the wrist.

4. Static Form Factor
Clip-on fitness-tracking devices just didn't catch on they way Fitbit seemed to think they would when it created the Fitbit Ultra (the company's first commercial device), Fitbit One, and Fitbit Zip. But clip-ons tend to be more accurate than wrist bands for counting steps and estimating distance traveled. Additionally, women can wear them tucked onto the front of their bras, which is great if you're going out and want to continue tracking your activity (an evening of dancing, anyone?) but don't want to wear a sporty silicone bangle.



The only big-name clip-ons still on the market are made by Misfit Wearables (the Shine, shown, Flash, and some newer models in the Swarovski-co-branded lined) and Jawbone with its Jawbone UP Move. What makes these devices extra smart is they aren't just clip-on devices but also come with a wristband, letting you choose how and where to wear it. Being able to change form factor from a clip-on to a wristband is so much better than having a static form factor.