Life Update

I’ve just started a job as a data scientist at Recursion Pharmaceuticals.  I’m using machine learning to find new drug compounds.

The basic model is:

  • take some rare diseases that are caused by single genes;
  • simulate these diseases cheaply and at scale with siRNA knockdowns;
  • detect (here’s the machine learning part) how images of sick cells look different from healthy cells
  • observe (machine learning again) which drugs make sick cells look like healthy cells
  • send the promising drugs on to in-vitro and in-vivo screens

This is basically my dream job.  I’ve been torn between math and biology since I was maybe 9; now I get to do both.  And I get to work towards precisely the problems I care about: curing diseases, getting as much purchase as possible out of computational methods in practical applications, reversing Eroom’s Law, etc.  I’m thrilled to be working at Recursion.

Due to company policy, I won’t be able to continue doing freelance lit review any more, at least not for paid projects; I expect to keep doing the occasional free project here and there.

I’ve also made a few updates in my views recently that I thought I’d share here.

  • The boost in my productivity and overall well-being from having a meaningful job, working with people I trust and respect on problems I care about, is enormous. Much more than I’d have expected. I am now much more sympathetic to messages like “too many people are trapped in bullshit jobs”, “pointless busywork in school is harmful”, “it’s bad to be alienated from one’s labor”, etc. I’m more bullish on things like self-employment, unschooling, quitting your job to pursue your passion, and so on; stagnation is a real cost to your soul.
    • I’m reminded of the theories of people like Gabriel Kolko, who said that the bigness of “big business” is an artifact of regulatory capture, in which large businesses are subsidized by the state. In this model, the “natural”, undistorted size of businesses would be smaller, and fewer things would be done that had no real purpose besides checking an officially-required box.  Pointless activity, under this model, is not “natural”; it’s usually forced.
    • I’m sort of playing with the idea of a philosophy of “makerism”, in which the good guys are simply the people who do self-evidently useful things. Building a house or preparing a meal is obviously Useful Work. As is discovering a drug or inventing a tool. In makerism, if you’d have trouble explaining to a precocious twelve-year-old why you’re doing a useful thing, there’s a chance that what you’re doing is bullshit. I’ve sort of poked at the idea of measures of awesomeness and the ecosystem of industry before.  The thing I’m trying to grope towards is productiveness. Not productivity, as in number of hours worked per day, or number of widgets produced per worker, but reaching towards usefulnessvalue, fruitfulnesssubstantialness, good-for-humans-ness.
  • My main update from job searching this time around (in mostly Silicon-Valley-based data science jobs) is that there is a thing called “fit” — how close the applicant’s background and skills are to what the employer is looking for — and the jobs you are an exact fit for will love you, and the ones you’re an imperfect fit for will reject you. For instance, it’s basically not worth it for me to even apply for jobs as a “data engineer”, because I’m not one. “Oh, it’s close to what I know and I can learn it on the job”? Nope. The right job is the one that’s dead center in the middle of your skillset.
    • Also, I had significantly better results applying to companies in the biomedical industry, I assume because I’ve done biomedical stuff in the past (systems-biology research in grad school, a personalized-medicine startup).  The takeaway here is that I expect you have the best shot in jobs that correspond well to your entire background, including things that you might classify as a “side interest”.  If you have a unique combination of skills, look for places that actively want that.
  •  Bay Area software companies seem mostly pretty sane, in that they do not hire the flagrantly unqualified. Don’t expect to bluff your way in.
  • Because there are so many people sharing stories about the opposite experience, I think it behooves me to share mine; I didn’t experience anything that I’d classify as sexism during my job search, even though nearly all my interviewers were male, and so were nearly all the data scientists at the companies where I applied. The closest thing was being told that I was too “nervous” by one interviewer, which is sort of gendered in a statistical sense, but is also legitimately true of me, and not true of all women.
  • I have noticed that a fair number of companies are “segregated”, in that all the engineers are Asian (and foreign-born) while all the managers are white. It seems to correlate really well with, for lack of a better word, “lameness” — companies that are stagnant, hierarchical, complacent, don’t have a strong engineering culture, etc.  I now consider racial glass ceilings to be a red flag.
  • Skills I wish I’d had: better memory for SQL syntax (yes, really), deep learning, computer vision, ETL pipelines
  • Skills I was glad I had: Spark, familiarity with the Python scientific computing & ML libraries, basic ML skills at the level of Hastie & Tibshirani, basic algorithms & data structures.
  • In technical interviews, a lot comes down to “fluency” or “execution” — can you solve simple math and programming problems correctly and quickly? are you checking for small errors? It’s very g-loaded, but I think there’s a skill of “turning your g on”, getting into “performance mode”, which I learned from years of being a math contest kid, and felt myself relearning as I went through the job search process. If you know what I’m talking about, focus on cultivating that, through repetitive practice of fairly-easy things with a high bar for accuracy, rather than studying super-advanced topics.

What’s Your Type: Identity and its Discontents

the-sea-lion-photo-u1

My type is Lisa Frank Sea Lion.

When I was a teenager, I had the intuition that third-wave feminism was a genre of feminine content.  A lot of the feminist books and magazines I came across had pink covers. A lot of them were about sex and relationships and clothes and pop culture — the same sorts of things I looked for in Seventeen magazine. I liked those topics; they gave me a deliciously wicked frisson; and I liked the kind of pop-feminist writing that was about Expressing Yourself; but I was obviously not a predominantly pink-flavored person. I was a serious person.

I am embarrassed to say that I never really appreciated the achievements of Rosalind Franklin until I was much older. I had grown up hearing about her as a “women in STEM” sermon.   I was a woman and I was a scientist, but I had decided that “women in STEM” was not my genre, or at least not so much that I would be in danger of being typecast.  The story of Watson and Crick was about DNA, but the story of Rosalind Franklin was about politics and unfairness and the HR-office side of a scientific career.  Obviously, DNA was more exciting to me at the time. It was only later that it clicked — if she independently discovered the double-helix structure, then she’s as much of a genius and pioneer as they were, arguably more so.  Her discovery belongs in the story of scientific progress, not on the shelf of books with pink covers.

In a liberal paradigm, things like feminism or anti-racism or LGBT rights or religious freedom are about liberating people.  You want to get rid of irrational prejudice and oppression so that people of any origin or creed can be free to do human stuff as they choose. The operative word is people. Sexual harassment, for instance, is wrong because it is an unjust harm to people.  None of this has anything to do with being pink-flavored or rainbow-flavored; you can be a middle-aged man with a dark suit and sober habits and speak out against injustice because it harms people, and you care about people, full stop.

The idea that feminism could be a flavor or a subculture or a genre is bizarre, if you look at it from the liberal paradigm.

But there’s also a market segmentation paradigm in which to think about this.

Market segmentation is a technique that marketers use to target products to certain demographics — and “products” include “content”, that is, books and articles and TV shows and so on.  And, with the rise of the internet and the abundance of consumer data, marketers have become very good at it.

Market segmentation involves identifying you with a type of person. A subculture, a demographic, a style, a flavor, a personality type. Cambridge Analytica, the internet marketing firm behind Trump’s success and the Brexit vote, categorizes people by their personality type in order to target political advertising at them. Marketers write profiles of a “typical” buyer of a product — a simplified bio of what kind of person they’re targeting.

“Red state” vs. “Blue state” is market segmentation. Personality types are market segmentation.  Exaggerated gender dimorphism — all women’s products are pink, all men’s products are black — is market segmentation. Subcultures (“nerd”, “goth”, “hipster”) are market segmentation.  Generations (Boomer, Gen X, Millennial) are market segmentation.

Statistical differences between groups of people obviously exist in the real world, but “identifying as” a category, exaggerating how much you match the category’s flavor and style, choosing a “type” to belong to, is a form of actively playing along with market segmentation, over and above whatever statistical differences exist.  One doesn’t “identify as” being born in 1988, but one does “identify as” a Millennial.

What flavor are you? What’s your type? What product is right for you?

There’s something irresistible about a personality quiz.  Tell me what type I belong to!  Tell me about myself!  It gratifies my vanity, and it helps me feel like I know my place in the world.

(I’m an INTP and a Gryffindor, natch.)

It took me a long time, and Dreyfus’ excellent commentary, to realize this, but Heidegger’s concept of Dasein, which literally translates to Being, is really better understood as the behavior of “identifying as.”

Dasein is what you do when you assert what it means to be human, what it means to be you, what it means to be a member of your community.  Dasein is self-definition.  And, in particular, self-definition with respect to a social context. Where do I fit in society? Who is my tribe? Who am I relative to other people? What’s my type?

“Identifying as” always includes an element of misdirection. Merely describing yourself factually (“I was born in 1988”) is not Dasein. Placing an emphasis, exaggerating, cartoonifying, declaring yourself for a team, is Dasein.  But when you identify as, you say “I am such-and-such”, as though you were merely describing. You’re aligning yourself with your flavor of choice, while at the same time declaring vehemently that you’re only describing the way things are.

Your identity, no matter what it is, is always sort of bullshit or arbitrary or performative.  It’s role-playing. It’s kind of like wearing a mask.

And, for people who like it, there’s a delight in “identifying-as”, of putting yourself in a category, of knowing your type.  It makes you feel simple, well-defined, and important.

I knew a psychologist once who worked with businesses, and loved giving his clients the Myers-Briggs personality test. He told me that the main reason he used it was not the particular personality breakdown, but the simple fact that it divided people into 16 types. People would get into workplace disputes that were basically dominance hierarchies, arguments over who’s right or who’s best or who’s in charge. And he would resolve those disputes by helping people understand that Alice is one Myers-Briggs type and Bob is another; not better, not worse, just different.  “There are 16 kinds of people in the world” allows everyone to feel special (“A type! Just for me!”) and defuses hierarchical tussles, because no one type is on top.

But, of course, there are problems with “identifying-as.”

Paul Graham’s essay “Keep Your Identity Small” observes that the very feature that my psychologist acquaintance liked about personality types — that no type is better than any other — as a problem that makes it impossible to assess merit when identities are in play.

For example, the question of the relative merits of programming languages often degenerates into a religious war, because so many programmers identify as X programmers or Y programmers. This sometimes leads people to conclude the question must be unanswerable—that all languages are equally good. Obviously that’s false: anything else people make can be well or badly designed; why should this be uniquely impossible for programming languages? And indeed, you can have a fruitful discussion about the relative merits of programming languages, so long as you exclude people who respond from identity.

Sometimes there are objective things that can be said about topics that people have chosen to build identities out of. Sometimes a programming language has strengths or weaknesses. Sometimes a government policy has benefits or harms. You might, in some circumstances, care about those objective, on-the-merits evaluations; maybe you want to achieve some goal and want to choose the best programming language for the job. You’re not going to be able to do that if the discussion gets taken over by identity; what people are doing when they’re identifying-as is self-expression or self-definition or self-assertion, which is lovely when you want it, but doesn’t answer any of your practical questions.  Unfortunately, people often do self-expression in the guise of answering your practical questions, and you may not know, or your interlocutor may not even know himself, that he’s really saying “I am a Lisp programmer!!” and not describing anything about the properties of Lisp.  One of the qualities of Dasein is that it’s very very stealthy, and it wants everything to be about Dasein, so it winds up muddying the waters, even when you don’t intend it to.

Coming back to the issue of politics, Dasein can mess up the attempt to solve social problems. If, when you say “sexual harassment”, people hear “feminist shibboleth”, then if they don’t identify as feminists, they may not actually notice the possibility that sexual harassment is a big problem that hurts a lot of human beings and that they might want to take seriously.  Sexual harassment gets perceived as a flag for pink-flavored people to wave, and if you’re not pink-flavored, you’re not the target market, so you don’t take it seriously.

If something matters generally, or is true objectively, regardless of subcultures, personality types, and tribes, then the identity mindset will be inadequate to deal with it.

Identity is obviously a really big part of the human experience. Heidegger thinks it’s essential and cannot be excised, and people who think they’ve achieved objectivity are fooling themselves. Without making that strong an absolute claim, I think it’s fair to say that identity is pervasive, and if you think it’s not an issue for you and have never considered it before, you should probably take a closer look and see how much it affects your life.

It’s also worth noting that Heidegger was a member of the Nazi Party, and that Nazism (as described in Mein Kampf) is all about how objectivity is terrible and how strong feelings of identity, specifically national and racial identity, are the best thing ever.  So there are some reasons to be suspicious of putting identity first at the expense of all other considerations.

Identity is always vivid, personal, flavorful.  It’s not “mere” fact, it’s alive with emphasis and exaggeration.  It’s never bland or dry.  I think that’s part of its appeal.  It makes you special, it makes you valid, it makes you distinctive.  It adds vim and verve to your self-image. It’s like all-caps and italics for your soul.

It may be dull in terms of information content (what it says is, always and forever, “I AM!!!”) but it’s never lacking in personal flair.

Most people I know who think about “identity” are rather like Paul Graham; they don’t have that strong a craving for it, and they’re frequently getting annoyed that other people are caught up in it. Or, they seek very specialized and cordoned-off ways to provide it for themselves: think of secular atheists who create rituals or highly independent introverts who contemplate the human need for community. I come at this from the opposite direction: I am a person who likes things hot-pink and in all caps, who always craves a higher emotional temperature, and who has been learning about how to navigate the fact that this is sometimes damaging and worth avoiding.

So, coming from that perspective, I’m genuinely unsure: do we want to channel identifying-as into safe, satisfying forms of pretend-play, or do we want to just have less of it?  To what extent is it even possible to channel or reduce it?