01:13 – Pamela Podcasting, Since…well, FOREVER!
02:19 – Pamela’s Superpower: Solving Random Problems with Software
05:19 – Becoming a “Reluctant Coder” i.e. Coding Out of Necessity
10:58 – Battlestar Galactica => Greek Mythology => Space => Astrophysics
14:52 – Doing What You Have To Do vs Doing What You Love To Do
20:27 – The Goal of Podcasting and Target Audience
23:57 – Understanding and Knowing Everything: Good? Bad?
26:03 – Outsourcing Work as a Personal Loss and The Internet’s Graveyard of Abandoned Projects
32:06 – Open Sourcing Work Yourself for the Benefit of Others
36:58 – Writing Software to Engage People
44:22 – Crowdsourcing Requires Trust but Garners Better Results
48:02 – The Motivation of Citizen Scientists
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Jessica: The layers of people in software and people in software and how we’re all learning. It gets hard to separate the people from the technology.
Also, having goals you DON’T want to achieve.
Coraline: Seeing crowdsourcing being successful.
Jamey: Curiosity isn’t necessarily about finding out the answer. It’s the pursuit of the magic.
The tenuous path we all take in life, and what decisions cause us to be on the right path to the right here, right now.
Pamela: If we collaborate with the technology, maybe we won’t get silenced.
JESSICA: Good morning and welcome to Episode 59 of Greater Than Code. I am happy to be here today with my fellow panelist, Coraline Ada Ehmke.
CORALINE: Hello everybody, and I’m happy to be here with Jamey Hampton.
JAMEY: Thanks, Coraline. And I’m honored to introduce our guest for the show, Pamela Gay. Thank you for coming on the show. Pamela Gay is an astronomer, writer, and podcaster focused on using new media to engage people in science and technology. Through CosmoQuest.org, she works to engage people in both learning and doing science. She’s the Director of Technology and Citizen Science at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. And we’re really happy to have her on the show today. So, welcome.
PAMELA: Well, I’m super happy to be here. It is awesome to be surrounded by other humans that are dedicated in code, but for more than just code’s sake. And other women who code, yay!
JESSICA: Yeah. Pamela, how long have you been podcasting?
PAMELA: So, the first time I started podcasting was actually…
JESSICA: Since before podcast was a word?
PAMELA: Yeah, yeah. I started back in February of 2005, back when no one knew what this RSS thing was and it was back in the days of Adam Curry being out there as our advocate and shining star, helping light the way for podcasting.
JESSICA: Who’s Adam Curry?
PAMELA: Oh, man! So, Adam Curry was an MTV VJ turned podcaster who turned podcaster to start podcasting as this way that people could talk about their lives. And he’d record himself walking around his house doing his dishes and sharing out all the things he’d learned on the internet and just building a community. It was kind of awesome. So, it was back in the day. I think he kind of faded into oblivion now that there’s more than 12 podcasts out there.
CORALINE: So Pamela, we like to start every episode by uncovering what our guest’s superpower is. So, if you could explain what your superpower is and when you developed or discovered that superpower.
PAMELA: [Laughs] I’m told that my superpower is public speaking and getting other people totally engaged in science, which is kind of what podcasting is all about. But beyond that, my beloved superpower, the one I like to invoke, is solving random problems with software instead of spending hours and hours and hours trying to do things the hard, manual way, which…
PAMELA: Yeah. I think it’s kind of near and dear to this show.
PAMELA: Well, not just automation but crowdsourcing and getting other people involved. So, I think the best example was back in, oh man, it was probably 2009 or so, I was at a meeting with the Astronomical Society of the Pacific before I worked for them, many, many years before I worked for them. And I met this scientists, Stuart Robbins. And this poor guy while working on his dissertation had drawn over three million circles on the surface of Mars. Not like literally on the surface. That would have been cool. But rather, on images taken of Mars. He sat there with his tablet, getting callouses from his Wacom stylus, and traced craters three million times. And I’m like, “Dear god. There must be a better way.”
And the answer is write software that allows anyone who has five minutes to go in and help. Because Mars is cool. People like to draw things on Mars. People like to help us figure out, where is it safe to land a spacecraft? Where is the cool science? And they will help. And so, it wasn’t just automation. It was writing software to allow anyone how had spare time to help and to make his life easier with software, to get other people engaged in doing science through software, and to lighten the load and increase the good for all of us.
CORALINE: Maybe this is a good time for me to confess that I’m the person who put the face on Mars.
PAMELA: [Laughs] Well, you did a mighty good job of it.
CORALINE: Yeah. I just wanted to throw people off a little bit, stir up some controversy. I didn’t use software though. I did it the old fashioned way.
PAMELA: So, you were out there with a shovel and…
PAMELA: Getting buried in perchlorates as you did it?
CORALINE: Shovel and pail. Thank you very much.
JAMEY: I’m learning so much about you, Coraline.
PAMELA: [Laughs] That was a lot of digging. You certainly gave the Egyptians and the Mississippian people a run for their money.
CORALINE: I try.
CORALINE: I set my goals pretty high.
PAMELA: [Laughs] We all need to have high goals. You can’t get anywhere without goals.
CORALINE: So, when you recognize this problem that the researcher was having, did you already know how to code and did you already have the inkling of how to help solve that problem? Or is that when you said, “There must be a better way,” and you taught yourself? I’m interested in how you got started.
PAMELA: I am what is perhaps best defined as a reluctant coder. My dad’s a professional programmer. And so, I grew up hearing the pounding of his mechanical keyboard and having to get out of bed and close his home office door so I could sleep at night, because mechanical keyboard. And now I love my mechanical keyboard. The tables have totally turned. And I was like, “I shall not be a coder,” but then I wanted to make a Battlestar Galactica fan fiction video in middle school and needed to do my own early version of CGI which was actually Logo. And so, I wrote code to make a viper and then figured out how to turn the turtle into the viper so the viper could fly around by doing turtle with ‘pen up’ command. I was a weird middle-schooler.
And then in high school I learned Pascal. And when I started university, for a while I thought about getting a dual-degree Computer Science and Astrophysics. But the prof who taught all my algorithms courses, every homework assignment was hockey. And when I found out he’d be teaching Assembly, I was like, “I can’t do it. I don’t want to know how Assembly and hockey will be related.” And so, I didn’t get…
PAMELA: The CS degree. But at that point I was like, I know how to teach myself code. I know how to read resources. I hate hockey, except if I’m playing it. That was what I learned in my CS classes. I hate hockey unless I’m playing it. And so, I set out to learn how to learn and have been fixing problems ever since. I was a variable star astronomer as an undergrad, so I had to write software to find, how long does it take for this star to go from its brightest point to its faintest and back up to its brightest point? And I had to write code to sort out how different stars change over time.
And then in grad school I was dealing with thousands of galaxies as one does. And I had to figure out how to write software to go through catalogs of data of the entire sky looking for these points where there were overdensities. And so, it’s one of these things where I keep facing problems of, “Well, I could do this by hand. I could do this in Excel. I’m not going to do it in Excel. I’m going to figure out how to linked list the bajeezus out of this,” in the early days.
PAMELA: And now I figure out how to MySQL the bajeezus out of stuff. And life is better with code.
CORALINE: I’ve often said that every Excel spreadsheet is an application waiting to be born.
JAMEY: I like the idea of code out of necessity or at least code out of doing a better way of what you’re trying to do. I actually even like this all the way back to the Battlestar Galactica example.
JAMEY: Because it’s like, it’s a different kind of necessity but I’m sure when you were in middle school that seemed like something that just had to be.
PAMELA: It was the most important thing ever. I needed to have my vipers.
JAMEY: I have to be honest. I learned my first piece of code that I ever wrote, was for, I had an X-Files fan page on Geocities, which obviously you don’t need to write code for Geocities but I was like, “I have to have a personality test.”
JAMEY: [Laughs] I’d like to still think of myself as a high sorcerer now. [Inaudible]
PAMELA: Well, and there’s always those days when you’re staring at your code and either saying, “I don’t know why this works,” or saying, “Why doesn’t this work?” And I swear, there have been times I’ve deleted a line of code and typed the exact same thing back in and suddenly things are bouncing across my screen the way they’re supposed to.
JAMEY: I find “Why does this work?” much more frustrating than “Why doesn’t this work?”
PAMELA: Yes, yes. We were actually having this discussion yesterday in the office where we’re currently working on a project that will allow anyone with anyone with a camera that they can point at the sky to figure out, first of all, what it is they pointed their camera at, and second of all, if they take more than one image, to look for things that move and vary in brightness and do all the cool things that lead to science. And writing software to handle all this variety of data is an interesting challenge. And we’re trying to do all of this completely open source, building on existing libraries from the NIH. And the NIH wrote their libraries to deal with medical x-rays and MRIs and all sorts of image data than we have off of our telescopes. And so, there’s a whole lot of, “And now I shall hack this to do something it was never designed to do,” which is the fun of open source. And there has been a great deal of, “Why didn’t that work? Why didn’t that work,” random erasing of code, “Oh crap, why did that work?” And this was the discussion of yesterday.
CORALINE: There’s no code like no code.
CORALINE: Pamela, you expressed your early interest in Battlestar Galactica. Obviously, you have a deep love of space. Are those two things related?
PAMELA: Yes. I hate to admit this, but I actually got into space probably in part due to Battlestar Galactica. It all goes back to Battlestar Galactica. So, I am of the age that, I was like four or five when the show originally came out. And so, I grew up watching it in infinite re-runs and I remember arguing with my mother over whether she could use the television to watch Fame or I could use the television to watch yet again an episode of Battlestar Galactica I had memorized. And I noticed when I was little that all the characters had names that were out of Greek mythology, because I had a book on Greek mythology from the used bookstore. And then I discovered that all the constellations were named after the Greek mythology. And then I went down the rabbit hole of outer space. So it went from Battlestar Galactica to Greek gods to all of outer space in this crazy pre-Wikipedia rabbit hole of, well at the time it would have been the library.
CORALINE: So, it probably wasn’t a hard decision for you to go into astrophysics when you got to college?
PAMELA: Well, it was because growing up, when you’re a girl in science, there’s always that person who’s like, “Well, you can’t do that. You’re not good about this.” There’s all that bias that comes down on you. So, my high school physics teacher at one point said he was giving me a C to keep me out of getting into a good college for physics because it…
CORALINE: Oh my god.
PAMELA: Would only lead to disappointment. And you hear all these things over and over again and you get patted on the head as the cute little girl doing science over and over again. And I actually started college thinking I was going to go into Science Policy. So, I started out dual-degree because I had way too many AP credits and it was like, “I shall get two degrees, because AP credits.” It started out dual-degree International Relations and Astrophysics. And by the end of my first year, I was like, “Oh dear, all of these international relations people are capable of dressing up business casual for 9am classes.” And I then learned macroeconomics and discovered I hate capitalism as something I have to understand. It hurts my brain to understand economic theory. And I didn’t want to study that for three more years.
So I was like, okay, I’ll do dual-degree in Computer Science and work on software for astrophysics. And I kept plugging at the astronomy in the background and loving it and loving every part of it. And a lot of my lowest grades in college were in my high-level physics courses because it was a struggle and I enjoyed the struggle. And in the end, I dropped the International Relations degree when I learned that it is economically better to kill someone than maim someone. I dropped my Computer Science secondary degree because I hated hockey, which is a very strange reason to do something.
But I kept going with the astrophysics and then I got into graduate school and I kept going with the astrophysics. And it turns out that I am totally capable of doing this. And I’ve used all those other classes I took because astrophysics is an international topic. And it is something that requires programming. And I love living in this interdisciplinary world where I get to travel our planet while exploring others with my software and the images taken by various spacecraft.
JAMEY: That’s beautiful. I love that.
CORALINE: Beautiful is exactly the word that I was thinking of too, Jamey. I think it’s really wonderful when you have the privilege of working on something that is fascinating to you and that you have skills capable of exploring in depth. A lot of people don’t have that. A lot of people, like I think of my father who just, he was good at electronics and he worked as an electrical engineer and that killed his love of electronics.
CORALINE: And I think a lot of people face that and a lot of people get into coding for economic reasons and they get into the job and they find that they hate it. So, I feel very fortunate I love programming, because it is creative and I’m happiest when I’m creating and I don’t care what it is that I’m creating, whether it’s words on a page or pixels on a screen or music in someone’s headphones. But just having that creative outlet is really good for me. So, I definitely feel blessed to find that same satisfaction from creating code.
PAMELA: And one of the things that I find is there are those days that you do something because you have to. For me, those are usually the days I work on budgets which I hate doing. But we all have parts of our job that we have to do in order to do the things we love. And when I get to solve random problems, and sometimes it’s truly random… one of the researchers I work with yesterday was getting extraordinarily frustrated because she wanted to do a pie chart that could then be exploded out to show finer granularity, like DaisyDisk does when you do an audit of your hard drive and it shows you, this is how many files you have that are in your personal documents folder, and then it explodes it out into your photos and your podcasts and everything. She wanted to do that with some research we’re doing into our Twitter audience and couldn’t.
And I’m like, this is a problem I can solve with processing, because it’s just a quick, simple bit of code. And everyone in my team is like, “Yes, but you’re the PI. Why would you sit down and do that crazy stupid little bit of code?” And I’m like, “Because it’s fun and I want to.” And I hate doing budgets, so I’m going to write this software. And finding that ability to solve someone’s problem, because she was getting angry at Excel, and solve it with something that’s colorful and fun and quick and dirty, because that’s what processing is sometimes, yeah I live for those moments.
JAMEY: You told a couple of stories of very specific moments when you were like, “This isn’t for me,” in school…
JAMEY: With the hockey and with the people in business casual. And I can tell that you really love what you do with astrophysics and stuff. Was there an opposite moment? Like, maybe you when you were in school or when you were first starting out where you were like, “Yes! This is it. This is the best.”
PAMELA: I think the way it worked was I discovered one day it was possible to get paid to do things that make me giggle. And that’s not the kind of thing that any guidance counselor tells you is possible. And it all came about from becoming an accidental podcaster. It wasn’t like, I have to admit, I didn’t originate the idea to become a podcaster. I had a colleague come up to me at a conference and he’s like, “Hey, I read this article in Parade magazine about this new thing called podcasting. You have a great voice. We should do this together.” And I was like, “Yes. I like doing things with my voice. It is fun. We shall do this thing.” And I wrote the website and I actually did that while watching the new version of Battlestar Galactica, because it always comes back to Battlestar Galactica. And so, Friday nights would be getting the new posts up, updating the RSS, updating the website.
And then I started applying for grants and putting out PayPal links and saying, “Hey, will people support us doing this?” And the answer was yes. And then we started looking to see, “Can we use this for astronomy to help promote education and get paid to do that?” And then we find ourselves going to science fiction conventions. And it just kept snowballing where I kept finding people are willing to pay me to do things I love to do. Why would I do anything else?
And back in 2011 I basically did a cleaning and kind of shook off all the parts of what I was doing that I hated and made a promise to myself that other than having to do things like budgets, I would never apply for funding to do something that would make me miserable the entire time I was doing it ever again. And I would never apply for a job doing something just for the money. And I’ve been lucky. Not everyone can do that. There’s been times where I’m really grateful that I have a significant other who can keep a house over our head when I’ve had gaps in my funding because congress doesn’t always support science. But I made a conscientious choice that life is short and right now I’m in a position where I have that ability to do things that benefit science, that make other people happy, and except when I’m doing budgets, make me giggle while I’m doing them.
JESSICA: It helps to have a weird sense of humor.
PAMELA: It does. It does. If you can’t be sarcastic at your code, it will win.
CORALINE: So, with your podcasting, what was the goal that you set out to do? Do you feel like you’re close to accomplishing that goal?
PAMELA: Well, if we were close to accomplishing the goal, we’d be close to ending the show. So, I hope we never get there. So, with our first podcast, Slacker Astronomy, our goal was to basically be the daily show of astronomy where we took on astronomy news items and produced them from a really weird and out there sense of humor, not always rated PG. It turns out there is a star that it’s abbreviated name is actually Tau Boo B. And if you say that quickly, it is worth giggling at.
PAMELA: And it has a planet. And talking about that planet was way too much fun. And so, we embraced the silly and that’s how we got the start. But sometimes you grow up and get jobs that don’t appreciate you doing off-color science. And we all kind of grew up. And as we moved away from doing that, I started doing Astronomy Cast with Fraser Cane who’s the publisher of Universe Today. And the two of us settled into this format where each week we take on a different topic and try and explain not just what we know, like the cover on all the news articles out there, but how did we figure this stuff out? How do we know general relativity is true? How do we know what color that asteroid from another star system that just whipped through our solar system is? How do we know it actually came from another star system? And because we do science to keep learning new things, if our show runs out of content, it means that we understand the entirety of the universe and that will be a very sad day. And I don’t think we’re actually going to get there.
CORALINE: That could take at least a couple of years, couldn’t it?
PAMELA: Well, we’re now in year 11. So yeah, science is making progress. We’ve had to update some of our episodes. But we’re not quite there yet on running out of content.
CORALINE: And who’s your target audience? Is it other scientists or is it amateurs who are enthusiastic about astronomy?
PAMELA: We try and target our episodes at anyone who has an interest in science and is capable of thinking things through. So, some of the episodes are at a pretty introductory level where we take people through all the baby steps necessary to understand something. And then we’ll do a follow-up episode later. We’ve done this on relativity in particular where we do a deep dive into a particular concept. So, if you go back and listen to past episodes, someone coming in who is utterly non-interested in science and is getting dragged in by their child who’s like, “We’ve got to listen to this,” they’ll be able to follow along and catch up and learn. But someone who’s coming in with a deep passion for the subject already will also find new and interesting things to challenge their brain. We’re here for nerds and people who don’t know that they’re a nerd and are about to become a nerd.
JAMEY: Awesome . I love that. I also love something you said a little bit ago that I wanted to go back to. Because you mentioned that the day that we understand everything about the universe is a very sad day. And that’s interesting to me, because I totally understand it once you say it, but when I think about science and curiosity, we want to understand. We want to understand everything. And how that intersects with the idea of, “But if we actually understood everything, maybe it would be kind of disappointing.” I don’t know. Do you have more thoughts on that? Because I’m just so interested in that.
PAMELA: It’s sort of like as a young nerdling, I often had people like, “You think you’re such a know-it-all.” And I remember in middle school I thought it was the best retort ever. I was like, “I don’t know everything. But I want to know everything.” And it’s just like, what sort of retort is that? But it was true. It was a bad response but it was true. As a scientist, we don’t know everything and that’s why we science it so that we can discover the things we don’t know. It’s so that we can fill in the gaps and we can figure out the things we don’t understand. And it’s that curiosity that drives us.
So, sometimes you’ll be working on trying to figure out something and solve a problem and you tear apart electronics. You start knitting a new object. Whatever it is, you get halfway through it and realize you’ve figured it out. And it’s no longer interesting because you’ve figured it out. And so, it sits there undone because all the magic went away once it was fully understood. And with a lot of different things, it’s that pursuit of the magic. It’s that pursuit of this thing you don’t understand that drives the action. How do I do this? How does this work? What is the underlying stuff and things that make this go? And once it’s figured out, it just gets pushed aside and never completed because, boring.
CORALINE: I’m curious. I have an ongoing artificial intelligence project called Sophia that I’ve been working on for a long time. And for a long time, I was focusing on natural language processing. And I think I reached a point where it was similar to what you were saying where I recognized, “Oh, there are mechanical ways of doing this and I’m not interested in this anymore.” So, I ended up outsourcing the NLP portion of the project to Google’s NLP API because I was like, “This isn’t the problem that I’m interested in.” Do you run into that? You mentioned that you use libraries developed by the NIH. Did you find that you were in a similar position where you were excited about inventing and then realized that someone had already come up with a solution that was maybe better or more sophisticated than what you would have done on your own and said, “Oh okay, I’ll just use this library,” and was there a sense of loss that went along with that?
PAMELA: So, it didn’t happen with this particular project because it turns out, I had never had the desire to write my own libraries to read in images, because cameras like to do things in so many different ways that it’s just like, “I don’t want to be responsible for keeping up with Canon.” And if NIH is going to do that, more power to the NIH. Not an interesting problem. The place where I ran into that level of sadness was back in the early days of podcasting and website development and starting to develop frameworks. In the days before WordPress, because those days actually existed, I worked really hard to build my own content management system and I was so proud of it. It had a frontend. It had a backend. It had an admin account. It was glorious and it was mine and I used it for my website.
And then WordPress came out with way more functionality. And the things that I was working on, on my own for my own purposes, I realized I don’t need to do all of this on my own. I can hack WordPress. And so, I took to hacking WordPress. And then I was happy and I was customizing WordPress and life was good. And then they launched the ability to have plugins and all of the things that I had hacked into WordPress, I updated and they broke. And there were plugins. And it’s like, “Okay, we have reached a stage in life where I need to search for other people’s code before I try and do anything in WordPress.” Because there is someone out there who has more free time than I do and will have thus done a better job than be. And that makes me sad, because it brought me joy to sit on my sofa and hack WordPress. And now the joy is gone.
CORALINE: I think every developer goes through that phase of…
CORALINE: Rewriting WordPress and coming up with a CMS. And it’s like, “How difficult could it be?” And of course the devil’s in the details.
PAMELA: Yes. I at least wrote my first CMS before WordPress was a thing. I just decided to recreate the WordPress plugin independently multiple times. Don’t do that. Don’t do that.
JESSICA: I feel fortunate to be old enough to have been into programming early enough to have the opportunity to solve some of these classic problems.
PAMELA: It’s true. I remember when a table was a big and exciting new thing to be able to do in HTML. And to have been along for the journey, to evolve past Flash to having HTML Canvas and figuring out the new things that you can do with Canvas. And there was one day we actually found a bug in HTML5’s implementation. And that was an exciting day because it’s like, we found a bug in how to do something that causes a memory overload because we’re doing something they didn’t think of. I love taking these new tools and pushing them to see just how far we can go and how much we can push them and break them in the process. And it’s been a great time to evolve as a web developer who is also working on big data problems behind the scenes, because it’s also been the advent of crowdsourcing and crowd engagement. And I’ve loved getting to weave all these things together from essentially day zero.
JESSICA: I think it’s also made it easier for me to learn than it is for people just coming into the industry now.
PAMELA: That’s true. We didn’t have libraries when we started. We had to write our own libraries and it was uphill in both directions.
JESSICA: Ah, ah. [Chuckles] Okay, this is a personal soapbox.
JESSICA: It is actually downhill invention, uphill analysis. Creating them is easier than understanding the ones that are out there.
PAMELA: Oh, that’s true so often. Yes, yes.
JESSICA: Which is good news. If you don’t want to ever understand everything, don’t worry. We’ll just create more software and then we can say, “I have no idea how this works.”
PAMELA: [Laughs] And that leads to the whole problem of some developer out there got bored with the library they created and then left it for dead as a zombie project on GitHub and your language of choice updates and your library of choice no longer functions. And then what do you do? I think the true skill set nowadays is figuring out how to pull that repo down and make it work when the developer abandoned it and you need it. And that ability to participate and contribute and be the person who’s capable of understanding somebody else’s code is a truly needed superpower today.
JAMEY: I like this image of this graveyard on the web of abandoned projects. I think about this sometimes too when I’m trying to fix a bug and I find a Stack Overflow post or something of someone who had the same bug as me. And either there’s no answers or the absolute worst is when someone’s like, “Oh, I figured it out,” and then they don’t post what they did. And I’m like, “No!”
JAMEY: Someone I’ve never met abandoned this and they could have helped me in the future. [Chuckles]
PAMELA: It’s true. It sometimes feels like there almost needs to be a plugin for GitHub or an extension or I don’t know what you would call it, but this ability to turn on a red alert banner of, “This code has not been updated in N days, months, years. Use at your own risk. This developer has not even logged on for this period of time,” just so you don’t go down the rabbit hole of, “I tried the plugin that was recommended on the Stack Overflow post that I didn’t notice was written three years ago and the universe has moved on.”
JAMEY: I totally agree. Because if I see something and I’m like, “I’m not going to use this because it’s old,” then it doesn’t feel like a personal attack.
JAMEY: But if I’ve already gone down that rabbit hole like, “Oh, someone abandoned this project,” like I don’t know them and they bailed on this project, whatever happened, but I’ve already gone down the rabbit hole and I need it, I feel like they’ve abandoned me.
PAMELA: Yes, it’s true.
CORALINE: GitHub did just introduce a feature where an open source maintainer can archive a project. And that makes it so that you can’t open any issues on it. But the problem is, if the developer has abandoned the project, what motivation do they have to go in and archive the project? Because they’ve probably forgotten about it.
PAMELA: Yeah. This is where you just need some sort of an auto feature that you can turn on and off to, as I said, that “Warning. Warning, Will Robinson. Use at your own peril.”
JESSICA: Or what if you had a browser plugin that recognized you were on a GitHub page and it noticed the commit history and how long it had been and the engagement level and the number of committers and changed the background of the page to get increasingly spooky as it was older?
JESSICA: And maybe played some scary music?
PAMELA: That is amazing and I want that to be a thing. And I don’t think I quite have the skill set to do that, because music. I’ve never figured out how to play music. But I could. I could.
CORALINE: Jessica, making it spooky would only make it all the more attractive to me.
CORALINE: So, I think that would have the opposite effect.
PAMELA: It goes to pastel. Would that turn you away? It would turn me away.
CORALINE: Yes. That would definitely turn me away. So, I’m curious. Have you ever taken code that you’ve written and looked at it and said, “This solves a general purpose problem that I think other people would have,” and turned around and open sourced it yourself?
So, all of my code is available if you ask. Some of my code is available just hanging out on GitHub. I have code for if you’re interested in not paying someone to tell you who follows you on Twitter. I have written code to solve this problem. I do a lot of data mining of Twitter to figure out if we’re all actually talking to the same 12 people. And that’s all just hanging out because I’m working on that alone and not worried about the keys getting published. I hate internet security. I’m bad at it. I admit this freely.
JESSICA: Pamela, one of the things you talked about really early was writing software to engage people. So, it’s like people writing software that can bring in a lot more people as opposed to a lot more computers doing the work. Talk more about that?
PAMELA: So, it turns out that as good as computer vision is getting, it’s not perfect. One of my favorite ever computer vision flaws was Google Image Search mistaking me for Natalie Portman.
PAMELA: And you know, I’m good with that. She might not be. And computer vision is hard. And it’s getting far better. We’re getting better with biomechanics. And one of my favorite things I ever saw come up was c
[Catherine Havasi] when she was working on computer vision problems back in the early 2000s, late 90s maybe even. No, it was early 2000s. Her algorithm decided that any triangles that appeared in an image with a lizard must be sailboats. So occasionally, computer vision software just loses its little brain. Because it’s still learning. And with spacecraft we can’t afford mistakes.
And one of the things that is really important is to figure out how to map out other worlds so that we can direct spacecraft to go do interesting things, go pick a rock up off of the asteroid Bennu is one of the problems we’re looking at right now. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is on its way to the asteroid Bennu. When it gets there it’s going to do a touch and go where it essentially zooms in, grabs a rock, and bounces back off taking the rock with it. And we can’t trust computer vision to go, “This is a field of boulders. Let’s go pick one up.” So right now, we have to instead say, “Humans. Humans. We need all of you humans. We have 2 weeks to map out this asteroid and find the place that has the rock we’re going to pick up,” because if the algorithm screwed up that would be a waste of a spacecraft, which is bad. We’re not going to do that.
But at the same time, there are so many rocks. There are so many craters. There are so many fault lines. That we don’t want to spend the rest of human experience asking people to do what Stuart Robbins did and draw millions of circles on these different worlds tracing out craters. And so, what we’re trying to do with CosmoQuest is find that sweet point where we know the algorithms aren’t perfect, but let’s try and train them to do better. Let’s try an get our crowdsourced group of people to mark out the craters in the light-colored soil. Let’s get our humans to mark out the craters in the dark colored soils. Let’s do it with the sun at all different angles in the sky. Let’s do all these different kinds of surfaces and see just how many things do we have to measure in order to get the software to be 99% accurate so that we can trust it whereas currently it’s more like 75% accurate and we absolutely cannot trust it.
So, with what we’re doing, we have this weird suite of interplaying algorithms where we start out by trying to build that user experience that trains the random bored person on their sofa who is looking for something to do that maybe has a little bit of meaning, how do we train them to do the job of a PhD geophysicist and mark out and map out accurately another planet? So we figured out more or less how to do that. And our volunteers are getting the same accuracy as our professional scientists. So, that’s problem one.
Problem two is how do we then take all of these things that they’re marking out on the surface and use that to train our neural net to each year as we get more, hundreds of thousands more, millions of markings, how do we use that data to train our software to do better? And at what point do we get to the stage where we can just go in and correct what the algorithm did and that’s faster than going in and doing it ourselves? When we first started this, we pitched the algorithm versus the humans and it actually took longer to fix what the algorithm did than to just do it from scratch. And my goal is to change that. My goal is to get to the point that we are correcting our robot overlords as they mark other worlds for us and not having to mark three million craters. But at least right now, we’re spreading work out over hundreds of thousands of people. So, it’s a little bit easier.
JESSICA: This is cool. So, we have people who write software that trains people to do the job of a geophysicist in order to teach software algorithms how to identify the rocks in order to teach the spacecraft to grab a rock so that it can bring it back to us so that we can learn about asteroids.
PAMELA: Yes. What’s cool is we’re learning from the robots that are learning from us. And it’s software and humans layered all the way down.
JAMEY: That’s so interesting. It’s so integrated. I like how integrated this technology is becoming with us, because in a way it’s hard… you hit a point where it’s hard to separate the technology from us as the people who put it together, I think.
PAMELA: And what is amazing to me is we’re reaching the point with our technology where it’s starting to free us from the difficult tasks but it hasn’t got there yet. And so, there’s this rich interplay where we still have to use our brains. We still have to keep trying and poking and it requires creativity. It’s not that Star Trek future where we are all mindless slaves to our food replicator, as on one of the alien worlds they once visited they found, where people lost their intellectual drive because their technology took care of them. We’re to the point where it’s us and the computer working cooperatively to figure things out. And what I’m loving is it’s getting to the point where we can have conversations with our computer. No Siri, no. that’s not what I meant. Stop. And she ignores most of those words except for stop. And over time, the AIs are learning. Over time, we’re learning. And it’s a relationship. And it’s a relationship we’re learning as we map worlds and we’re learning as we figure out how to successfully turn the lights on in our house.
CORALINE: It strikes me Pamela that crowdsourcing requires a great deal of trust. And that trust goes in both directions. You have to trust the hundreds of thousands of people who are doing the work. You have to trust that they’re doing a good job of it. And they have to trust that the work that they’re contributing to is ethical, which in the case of astrophysics I imagine is not a very difficult question to answer. But a lot of other crowdsourcing does have that or can have that ethical dilemma as part of it. So, how do you feel about the relationship between the science you’re doing and the trust that you’re placing in the crowdsource?
PAMELA: It’s definitely a two-way relationship. And I have to admit, that’s part of why I love doing this, is our community of citizen scientists, it’s truly a collaboration and a community where we hang out on Slack together some. And just like a student can pop in my office for a question, they can pop in my DMs with a question. And everyone makes mistakes. So, what we found with our first really in-depth statistical analysis was that if you take 8 professionals and you ask them, “Map out all the craters in this part of the moon,” they’re going to hit a point where they’re tired. They’re going to hit a point of, “I am done marking all the little tiny craters. I am done. I am not marking all of them.” And it’s at a subconscious level that they make these mistakes. But when you look at all the results together, you get an aggregate result where maybe only five of the eight marked this one particular crater, but those five when you combine them tells you what’s there and what isn’t.
We then looked at, let’s get a groups of volunteers. Here we got 15, just increased the group size a little bit. And with those 15 you find actually a different set of mistakes. It turns out the volunteers were less likely to make the big craters and more likely to watch where the small ones were, which was an interesting difference between the pros and the volunteers. But when you looked at the aggregate results of getting 15 people who were randomly selected from all over the world to mark an image, versus those 8 pros, it was a one-to-one correlation. There was a greater error between any two pros than there was between the aggregate of the pros and the aggregate of the volunteers.
Now, we don’t have funding to ever get other than for this one statistical case, eight different people who are professionals to spend their professional day mapping the surface of a world. We can get one. We can’t get eight. So, this means we actually get better science by having 15 different volunteers each look at this piece of the moon, this piece of the asteroid Vesta and mapping out these different surfaces than we could ever get with the funding we have by relying on that one professional we could afford. So, we know we get better results. And it’s my job to make sure that those efforts are never wasted. It’s my job to make sure there’s someone out there who’s going to help transform all of these efforts into published new understandings. And all I can do is hope that I don’t disappoint our population who is doing so much to help us out in advancing the science.
CORALINE: What do you think the motivation is of the citizen scientist?
PAMELA: We’ve actually asked that, because to me at a certain level having taught undergrads, it’s like I can’t make undergrads do this for their homework. Why do people do this in their spare time? And I love that people are often honest when you ask this question. And we’ve gotten responses from, “I’m retired. This gives my days meaning.” “I’m on permanent disability and this is something that fills my days with purpose.” And those are those deep, sincere answers that force you to get out of bed in the morning and keep doing what you’re doing. But we also have all of the people who are like, “I always just wanted to be a scientist but I didn’t want to take all that course work. And this lets me say that I’m a scientist. This lets me say I helped with this cool awesome thing with NASA stamped all over it.” And people just want to help and volunteer at the end of the day. While, there’s a lot of people out there that you might want to sweep off the edge of our planet if it was flat but it’s not, it’s a sphere so we can’t sweep them off the edge… while there’s a lot of…
PAMELA: [Laughs] While there’s a lot of people you might want to sweep off at least your Twitter list, people in general are good. People in general will help. And this is the one thing I have learned from podcasting, from citizen science, from the open source community, is if you have a need and you ask… it’s the art of asking like Amanda Palmer the musician wrote about. If you ask, people will say, “I will try and help. Let me try and help.” And we can all lighten the load for everyone just by saying, “Yes, I’m here. I have a few extra cycles. What can I do?”
JESSICA: Wow. So, we have to ask. If our listeners want to help with citizen science, what can they do?
PAMELA: Go to CosmoQuest.org. And we have a variety of citizen science sites that you can explore the earth, moon, Mars, Mercury. Click on the planet of your choice and you will be off and able to help us map that world. We have a Twitch account that we go on and I solve random software problems coding live on Twitch, which means you sometimes get to see me make fascinating bugs which I did last night. But you also get to see just how we go through and code what we code, if you want to do that. Once of our postdocs, Matt Richardson, goes on and will math various science problems. So, join us on Twitch. And we talk about everything we do on Twitter. CosmoQuestX is our username on everything because it turns out CosmoQuest was already taken by the time we launched our site. So, look for CosmoQuestX on all the various social medias, new medias, medias of all kinds, and visit CosmoQuest.org.
JAMEY: I’m sold.
JAMEY: I want to be a citizen scientist now.
PAMELA: Yay. I love hearing that. And I hope to see all of you out there listening in our community helping us science, science all the things. All the things.
CORALINE: I think the quote is, “We’re going to science the fuck out of that.”
PAMELA: Yes. I didn’t know if you guys were PG or not, so I didn’t go there. Yes, we’re going to science the fuck out of that.
CORALINE: We like to end each show with reflections on the conversation and highlight things that stood out to us. Jessica, I’m going to put you on the spot. Do you want to go first?
JESSICA: Yes. I’m definitely fascinated by the layers of people and software and people and software and how we’re all learning. And like Jamey pointed out, it gets hard to separate the people from the technology. That’s so true, both in what we work on and in the people who use what we build. I also am really interested in the part about we have goals that we don’t want to achieve because if we achieved them, then our organization or whatever it is we’re building would cease to exist, or cease to be useful. And I think that kind of goal is highly underrated. I don’t even like to use the word ‘goal’ because that implies you’re supposed to achieve it. So, I usually call them a quest. The unreachable star that we aim for because aiming for it gets us somewhere useful. So, I think that’s beautiful.
CORALINE: I’m really interested in crowdsourcing and seeing crowdsourcing be successful. My initial impression of crowdsourcing was pretty negative with what Google did for the gamification of image identification where they had people put in tags. They would show people an image and put in tags and aggregate that data. And it seemed to me like that was a race toward the lowest common denominator because you were rewarded for coming up with a tag that someone else had already come up with. So, it seemed to me that from a game theory perspective, it made the mode sense to produce the simplest possible tag as opposed to anything nuanced. So, I’ve always had kind of a negative opinion of crowdsourcing. But I think you’ve changed my mind about that. And I am definitely thinking about how I could crowdsource certain aspects of my AI project involving classification of concepts. So, that’s something I’m going to be thinking about and might send [inaudible] to follow up on.
JAMEY: The first thing that I’m thinking about is kind of related to what Jess said about the quest that you aren’t actually trying to achieve. And I think that my thought on it is the way that curiosity makes you think differently about things. Because I guess I’ve always kind of thought of curiosity as, “Yes, we want to find out. We want to know the answer.” And so, this idea that curiosity isn’t necessarily about finding out the answer, the fact that it is more about, I believe the phrase you used Pamela was ‘the pursuit of the magic’ of not knowing something is a very different way of looking at that, that I really like. And I also noticed, when you were talking about creating a bug in HTML you were like, “Oh, so exciting!” And my first instinct was like, “Creating a bug isn’t exciting. It’s the worst.” But actually no, I get it. It is exciting. It’s exciting because you’re doing something new and you’re pushing the boundaries and that means breaking something. But I think that’s related again to curiosity making you feel differently about things.
And then there’s one other thing I wanted to mention, which was I’ve been thinking a lot in general lately in my life about the tenuous path that we all take. Like, how did I end up here right where I am now? And what decisions in my life caused me to be on the correct path to be where I am right now? Because I feel like a lot of those decisions are at the time, they’re flippant or whatever. And it means that this path that I’ve taken to my current life was kind of tenuous in some ways. And I’ve been thinking about that a lot and I was thinking about it very strongly while you were talking about your background.
Because you mentioned that you didn’t get your CS degree because you didn’t want to do homework about hockey. And I feel like that’s one of those moments that I’ve been thinking about that’s like, “Well, if this had been a little bit different, everything could have gone in a different direction and it would be totally different.” And we talked too about loving Battlestar Galactica and getting interested in space. And it’s these little things that seem flippant or seem maybe inconsequential at the time are big things on the path of your life and how you end up at the destination that you end up. And so, I guess I don’t even necessarily have a thought about that. But it was playing into something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, so thanks.
PAMELA: Well, in having this conversation, one of the things that keeps being brought home to me is the importance of not being in isolation. The importance of talking to other people, bouncing ideas around, of coding within an environment, of recognizing GitHub and staying engaged and staying active and not having zombie code. The importance of recognizing I can’t do everything with my software. I need to reach out whether it be to get help with my software or to crowdsource the thing the algorithm can’t do. It’s all about collaboration with people. It’s about collaboration with the technology. And to go back to Battlestar Galactica because everything goes back to Battlestar Galactica, if we collaborate with the technology maybe we won’t get Cylons.
CORALINE: Our podcast is all about what you just said. It’s all about the combination of people and technology and technology as an extension of who we are as people. So, I think that’s a very fitting end to our conversation. I want to thank you so much, Pamela. This has been absolutely wonderful and very eye-opening. So, thank you so much for coming on the show.
PAMELA: It’s really been a pleasure. Thank you so much.
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