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MC#014: Our Spreadsheet Overlords

⏱ 1. How 60 minutes could change your life + 2. 🧮 Spreadsheets Rule the World + 3. 👨‍👩‍👧‍👦 Feeling Kinship in the Era of Technocapitalism

Jason Shen
Jason Shen
5 min read
MC#014: Our Spreadsheet Overlords

Howdy folks,

Happy Saturday! This is the 14th edition of Making Connections, where we take a random (illustrated) walk down tech, fitness, product thinking, org design, nerd culture, persuasion, and behavior change.

In early May, I launched the first edition of this newsletter. While that seems like ages ago, it’s literally only been a single quarter. It’s been lovely to write to you all each week. I love hearing from you and appreciate those who are sharing it, because every week new people I’ve never met sign up and that’s pretty cool. So thanks and keep on keeping on

⏱ 1. How 60 minutes could change your life

There’s a term in psychology known as a “wise intervention". These interventions often try to alter a particular part of a person's psychology in a positive way and have been shown to have lasting effects on a person's life outcomes.

In a 2011 study published in Science, researchers Greg Walton et al at Stanford delivered a program to college freshman which conveyed the message that fitting in at college is hard at first, but eventually they’d find close friends and feel at home. The researchers hypothesized that this message would provide particular benefit to the Black students in the cohort, who are have been shown by prior research to experience greater social setbacks and isolation in school.

They were right. Three years later, the Black students in the experimental group had significantly higher GPA’s, better self-reported health and well-being versus control, and had closed 80% of the minority achievement gap with White students. This one-time, 60 minute psychological intervention showed that shifting your thinking can truly transform your life!

Of course Walton was mentored in the same psychology dept as Carol Dweck, whose work on “mindset” is now legendary and has also been called into question as part of the broader replicability crisis plaguing the social sciences. Replications of her mindset studies using short, online interventions with 12,000 students have found significant, if smaller effects, effects on the GPA’s of lower performing high schoolers.

2. 🧮 Spreadsheets Rule the World

Exhibit 1: Scientists literally have to rename a gene (MAR-1 aka Membrane Associated Ring-CH-Type Finger 1) because it kept getting autoformatted into a date → March 1st in Microsoft Excel. A 2016 study found as many as 1/5 of all scientific papers with genetic data had Excel errors

Help has arrived, though, in the form of the scientific body in charge of standardizing the names of genes, the HUGO Gene Nomenclature Committee, or HGNC. This week, the HGNC published new guidelines for gene naming, including for “symbols that affect data handling and retrieval.” From now on, they say, human genes and the proteins they expressed will be named with one eye on Excel’s auto-formatting. That means the symbol MARCH1 has now become MARCHF1, while SEPT1 has become SEPTIN1, and so on. A record of old symbols and names will be stored by HGNC to avoid confusion in the future. (The Verge)

I think it’s honesty kind of sad that scientist had to rename these genes, but on the other hand, they weren’t the greatest names either so 🤷🏻‍♂️ However, the more I work in technology, the more I see how we start off creating tools that conform to our life, and eventually we create lives that conform to our tools.

Example 2: There are apps that let you turn your Google Sheet into a website (sheet2site) and Airtable into a full-on app (Stacker)

Tho technically Airtable is a real database and not just a spreadsheet but the interface looks largely like a spreadsheet. If it looks like a duck...

Stacker is a better interface for your Airtable. If you think of Airtable as your database then Stacker is the application layer that sits on top of it. We add permissions, a user interface and a business logic layer. The user interface includes forms, buttons, lists and fully customizable record pages.

I played around with Stacker and it actually lets you use a spreadsheet to define users (Name + email) and allows them to register for your "app" and then you can give them permissions to do things. Wild.

3. 👨‍👩‍👧‍👦 Feeling Kinship in the Era of Technocapitalism

My friend K is taking a class on Personal Finance and Racial Justice by an IP laywer and Quaker schoolteacher who retired at 42. We had an interesting back and forth which started from a class reading:

Excerpt from the essay: We no longer feel enmeshed in a web of intimate, mutual relationships, no longer participate in life around us. We now belong, in our separate cages surrounded by our own possessions, to capitalism. What does it mean to describe “our” possessions as “belongings”?



The Lakota don’t have possessive pronouns. Inherent in their language is the inability to own things. “The knife beside me” instead of “my knife.” What would it mean to not use “possessive” pronouns for a week? My car. My money. My house.”

K’s response: I love the idea that the root problem is the idea that we’re wholly separate from others, that “we need to stop talking about redistributing wealth to sharing it”, that we need to “believe that we belong to each other.”

Jason’s response: Ultimately I think that there are two ways that things change in our society and it’s both the stories we tell ourselves, the grand narratives. These are ideas like capitalism, liberalism, Christianity, the Paleo diet, etc. And then the technology that we use. Agriculture is a technology. Fiat backed currency is a technology. Selling shares in a corporate entity that trades on the stock market are all technologies.

And I think my point is really that it’s a lot easier to feel kinship when you literally can’t eat if you don’t cooperate with the people who are near you. And that if you hoard food you will be kicked out of your tribe and most likely die or at least struggle very hard to live.

This is why many people feel that humanity will never unite unless we really do face a visible immediate common threat. Like an astroid hitting the earth or an alien invasion. Even this pandemic is a little bit too slow moving and finger-pointing for us to really see how dependent we are on each other.

K’s response to Jason: I used to think that a lot (specifically the alien invasion scenario) but now I kind of feel like if hostile aliens invaded tomorrow it would be politicized and Americans wouldn't band together -- basically that unified leadership makes a big difference even for external threats

That last comment definitely left me shook because, he’s probably not wrong.

What do you think would actually happen if aliens invaded our polarized world?


Hookay. That wraps it up for this week. Hope you enjoy yourself this weekend and we’ll talk again soon. As always, open to your thoughts and suggestions.

Jason

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Jason Shen

Human(e) technologist on a mission to help build resilient teams and organizations. Former NCAA gymnast and three-time startup founder.