Playing with Negative Space

Liz rides the subway on June 7, 2016

Liz rides the subway is a series containing thoughts I have on the subway. On the way to work, thinking about the Democratic National Convention, Bernie Sanders, and superdelegates:

"Now, as I understand it, the House Cup here needs awarding, and the points stand thus: In fourth place, Gryffindor, with three hundred and twelve points; in third, Hufflepuff, with three hundred and fifty-two; Ravenclaw has four hundred and twenty-six and Slytherin, four hundred and seventy-two."

A storm of cheering and stamping broke out from the Slytherin table. Harry could see Draco Malfoy banging his goblet on the table. It was a sickening sight.

"Yes, yes, well done, Slytherin," said Dumbledore. "However, recent events must be taken into account. [...] I have a few last-minute points to dish out. Let me see. Yes...

"First [...] I award Gryffindor House fifty points. [...] Second [...] I award Gryffindor House fifty points. [...] Third [...] I award Gryffindor House sixty points. [...] I therefore award ten points to [some Gryffindor]. [...]

"Which means," Dumbledore called over the storm of applause, for even Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff were celebrating the downfall of Slytherin, "we need a little change of decoration."

He clapped his hands. In an instant, the green hangings became scarlet and the silver became gold; the huge Slytherin serpent vanished and a towering Gryffindor lion took its place.

— J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone


Liz rides the subway on May 31, 2016

Liz rides the subway is a series containing thoughts I have on the subway, mostly as an experiment to get me to write more. The ride home after yet another day hearing someone famous has been abusing a woman in his life:

Content warning: abuse, rape

Johnny Depp has allegedly been abusing Amber Heard, and a judge granted Amber Heard's restraining order against him on Friday in light of her claims of repeated physical and verbal abuse. Of course, an army (of mostly men) has been saying (very loudly) that we don't know that he abused her and that we have to give him the benefit of the doubt since obviously he's innocent until proven guilty.

"Innocent until proven guilty" is an insidious phrase people toss around to give cover to abusers all the time. We dodge the possibility that a celebrity harmed a woman by blaming it on the legal system. But as Kate Harding writes in response to the accusations against Jian Ghomeshi of sexual violence, "innocent until proven guilty" has a very specific legal meaning that has nothing to do with this:

I shouldn't need to say this, but I will: Taking reports of sexual violence seriously doesn't mean denying anyone due process or chasing the accused down with pitchforks. I'm not talking about punishing people at all right now; I'm talking about forming educated opinions, by weighing up what evidence we've been allowed to see and deciding what we think of it all. We do this every day when we take in the news, except when the news is about rape, in which case we act like "innocent until proven guilty" means no one - preferably not even investigators and prosecutors - may legally suspect that the guy might actually have done it.

Let me tell you a wonderful secret about the U.S. and Canada: If you're not on a jury, you are allowed to hold any opinion you like of an accused criminal's guilt or innocence, regardless of whether he's been prosecuted and/or what the prosecution can prove! You are not required to wait until some vague future date when "all the evidence" has come in, nor to withhold judgment until a jury has decided the matter, nor even to accept that a jury verdict is necessarily correct! So far, there are no actual thought police - isn't that terrific news?

That is terrific news!

Now, if we could also use our newly acquired abilities to evaluate the evidence of abusers and rapists within our own social circles - the evidence that is right in front of us - we could make life a whole lot better for the survivors we know, too.


Liz rides the subway on May 23, 2016

Liz rides the subway is a series containing thoughts I have on the subway, mostly as an experiment to get me to write more. Today was the first time I was street harassed on my commute since moving in November... memories relived on the following train ride:


I was walking through the last aisles of the grocery store to find the last item on my list, almond butter. Since I rarely buy anything but produce and dairy at Brooklyn Fare, I forgot exactly which aisle the almond butter was in and ended up going down the wrong one.

I turned the corner to the next one when a man called out to me, "Damn, looking good today, honey." I ignored the "compliment" and kept walking.

But he didn't leave me alone. He turned around to follow me and asked, "Why are you being so rude to me? I just wanted to talk to you, need to get your number."

"I'm not interested." I upped my pace, stared at the floor in front of me as I moved, and decided to forget about the almond butter - I was no more than thirty feet from the tail of the checkout line where other people would be around.

He followed, raised his voice, "You're such a prude bitch." as I was just near the end of the line. People stared. At first it looked like it was at both him and me, but in a few seconds, everyone was looking at me. No one said a word - were they waiting for me to? I stood mortified at the end of the line, hoping it would move faster than putting all my groceries back would, forgetting that dropping my basket and just leaving could be an option, hoping everyone would forget what just happened, hoping to disappear. My head hung down, and the man went the other way, presumably back to whatever grocery shopping he was doing.


I exited the 2 train through the doors closest to the eastern exit at Hoyt St, walked out the turnstile before anyone else, and started up the stairs to Elm and the south side of Fulton. There are two stories of stairs - the lower story is twice as wide as the top, so during rush hour, it's a massive bottleneck.

I wasn't looking too far in front of me, just far enough to know I wouldn't run into someone. When I was two steps from the middle, right where bottlenecks would happen, a man blocked my path - one hand on the rail to my left in the middle of these stairs, the other on the rail to my right on the wall.

I clicked my headphones to pause the music I was listening to, "Yes Anastasia" by Tori Amos. "Excuse me," I spoke sternly.

He didn't move. "Hey baby," he said. He might have said more. I wouldn't know because I clicked my headphones to restart my music while hurrying down the stairs. I swiped back into the station and walked quickly down the platform to get to the other exit.


I'm just outside my building on my way to the F train. The light is in my favor, there aren't any cars still in the intersection, so I begin to cross Livingston St. About half a block down, a white SUV rolls down the road.

I'm about 150 feet directly in front of the car, and it starts honking. Somehow my instinct is to turn left at it instead of scurrying the rest of the way across the light.

"The fuck are you doing? I have the light!"

The car's pretty close now. I can see the driver. It's definitely slowing down.

"Mmm, lookin' good, lady! Can I take you out sometime?" He knew I had the right of way all along, just he thought scaring the crap out of a pedestrian headed across the street was a risk worth taking for a date.

"No, asshole." Realizing I didn't have brain enough to bite my tongue, I finally get that jolt to run the rest of the way across the intersection.


invalid arch-dependent ELF magic

An elf stands on an arch, attempts to cast a spell, and freaks out when he is unable to cast it, or...

An elf stands on an arch, attempts to cast a spell, and freaks out when he is unable to cast it.


Inbox by Gmail’s accidentally abusive algorithm

The modern world really loves to use little algorithms here and there to help us speed things up. Inbox by Gmail is no exception.

Inbox has a concept of "speed dial" - an algorithmically determined set of "frequent" contacts that appears when hovering over the compose button:
Speel dial shows up on the right when hovering over the button for composing a message

In theory, this is great. It was really handy when it picked my fiancé, my mom, and a close friend. At some point, my own email replaced my close friend's because there were a lot of times when it was easier to email myself a bunch of notes than create line item reminders out of them. Still immensely convenient.

Later, Inbox decided to switch my mom out for someone else. This someone else had been emailing me a lot, though I think my mom had still been emailing me more. Occasionally, I'd reply when I was obliged to, but I was definitely sending more emails to my mother. Whatever the specifics, the algorithm replaced my mom with him.

What Inbox didn't know was that this person had been harassing me.

No amount of additional emails to my mom would put her back in speed dial and kick him out. I poked around in settings, hoping to find a way to pick my own speed dial contacts or a reset button, but I found none. An obscure post from 2014 on the Gmail Help Forum told me I could delete my contact to remove him from speed dial, but this only worked for the web version. It didn't remove him from Inbox on my iPhone, and I could only get him out there by uninstalling and reinstalling the Inbox app.

These aren't good solutions. Fortunately, his email address easily identifies him so I didn't mind deleting the contact info that tied his name to it, but had he had something more reminiscent of early 2000s AOL addresses, I might have needed to rely on that contact information. The energy it took to find these roundabout solutions and time I continued to have him in speed dial before finding those solutions kept reminding me of how he didn't respect my boundaries. The speed dial algorithm was hurting me instead of helping me out.

I don't think we should eliminate handy tools like this; most of the time, I'm a big fan. But I do wish that there were always easy to find manual overrides - or at least an easy to find kill switch - for algorithmically generated content so that we can minimize their inadvertent accidental cruelty (content warning: loss of a loved one).