Cogito, Ergo Sumana

picture of Sumana's head

Sumana Harihareswara's journal

(0) : What Is To Be Done?: When I worked at I got to work with Scott Rosenberg. I never reported to him and barely got to collaborate with him directly, more's the pity, but I did get to witness him in meetings. He would listen for most of the meeting, then speak up, insightfully and concisely summarize others' viewpoints, and then say what he thought and why. (He was also the first person at Salon to predict that Schwarzenegger would win the governorship.) And he wrote Dreaming in Code, a book I frequently recommend to help non-programmers understand the infelicities and headiness of software engineering.

These days Scott is targeting his insight into our industry, long-term perspective, experience as theater critic and tech manager, and delightful prose at the issue of "being ourselves in a post-social world" -- or, life after Facebook. I love how he's working on it and I look forward to watching his work. And hey, I am still not on Facebook, so maybe I already live in Scott Rosenberg's future! I AM A TIME TRAVELER. WHOOOO. SPOOKY NOISES.

Anyway. Thinking about Scott's influence on me makes me think about management. I'm taking a break from formal management at my job right now, but I'm still on the board of directors of the Ada Initiative, and besides that there's my interest in influencing my communities informally. As Frances Hocutt put it,

when I talk about leadership and influence I am not talking about coercion or manipulation. I define influence as the ability to connect with others, and discover that their goals are also your goals.

(Hocutt and Rosenberg are also both saying interesting things about authenticity and leadership, by the way, in case you want to go read about that on their sites.)

A few years ago, I read the Project Gutenberg text of Florence Nightingale's On Nursing, and I thoroughly recommend it. Nightingale focuses on executive energy, attention, and putting the proper processes into place such that patients (employees) have the resources and quiet they need to get better (do their work). Once you get to a certain administrative level, instead of solving problems ad hoc you have to think strategically. As she puts it, a manager's question is, "How can I provide for this right thing to be always done?" You know, scaling.

One of the best thinkers on that particular question as it applies to the software industry is Camille Fournier, whom I hope to work with someday. She writes interestingly about autonomy, mastery, and introspection, making it easy for people to do the right thing, choosing to ignore easy problems, becoming the boss, and growing new engineering leaders. You can also watch or read her !!Con talk "How To Stay In Love With Programming" on the !!Con site.

And in case you want to play a game, try the manual text adventure "Choose Your Own Troika Program For Greece" (author's note) by Daniel Davies.

One of the motivations for the post was a discussion I had with @PabloK on twitter about the Greek negotiations, in which he said, rather succinctly, that the purpose of protest was to change the space of what was politically possible. I think this is a crucial point; although it is important to make a good faith attempt to understand the constraints that people work under (which is why I wrote the post), it is equally important not to regard those constraints as necessarily being imposed by Ultimate Reality.

(As long as I'm mentioning wacky takes on European financial crises I have to link to John Finnemore's analogy monologue.)

I am being super digressive today, thinking about the fact that I'm grateful for the chorus of thinkers and activists who sing so I can go take a breath, thinking about my choice to manage and lead adults and to probably not bear or raise children, thinking about how it gets tiringly abstract sometimes to always be setting up leveragable scalable systems, and thinking about the joy of mentoring future leaders. If I had to try to tie all of this together, I would say that the power of leadership is the power to change the constraints that people work under. And that I see a lot of my friends not-very-willingly constrained by Facebook, and I'm looking forward to seeing that go away.

(3) : The Art Of Writing In The Dark:

Wordsworth tells us that his greatest inspirations had a way of coming to him in the night, and that he had to teach himself to write in the dark that he might not lose them. We, too, had better learn this art of writing in the dark. For it were indeed tragic to bear the pain, yet lose what it was sent to teach us.
-Arthur Gossip in "How Others Gained Their Courage", p. 7 of The Hero In Thy Soul (Scribners, 1936), quoted on p. 172 of The Art of Illustrating Sermons by Dawson C. Bryan (Cokesbury Press, 1938), which was in my father's library. He died in late July 2010.

He had a crowded office full of books, which I described in "Method of Loci", and he was enthusiastic about sharing his knowledge, as I mentioned in my eulogy for him. If you didn't know me four years ago and weren't reading my blog, go take a look; they're worth a read. (Most of Cogito, Ergo Sumana for the second half of 2010 is pretty raw and emotional, a lot of the writing-in-the-dark that Wordsworth described.) I'm a lot like my dad. The first copyediting I ever did was for the prayer ritual guides my father wrote, which, of course, had footnotes. I am so glad he was writing for Usenet and the web at the end of his life, getting to enjoy hypertext and linking. One of the last books he wrote was a set of essays about sparrows in literature and the word "sparrow." I think I grok the joy of that more now than I did in 2010.

And I'll repeat the anecdote I heard from a guy who came to offer his condolences after my dad's death, and who told me something about my dad's scholarship. Dad had been tapped to update a Sanskrit reference text, and the publisher told Dad he only had to check sources for the entries he was adding or updating, the diff from the previous edition. Dad didn't think this was good enough, and meticulously checked or found original sources for every entry in the book. This fairly thankless task will help numberless future scholars. Most won't know. We joke about "citation needed" but my dad stepped up and did something about it. You can tell how proud I am, right?

On my insecure days I am terrified that I am not making a difference. It calms, heartens, and sustains me to see other people move on different vectors because of my influence - billiard balls on new trajectories because I was on the baize too - or even completely new endeavors springing up from seeds I scattered. And the chain of attribution is what grounds me. I honor those whose work I reuse, and I am honored when others credit me. Accurate citations make a constellation connecting the filaments of light we lit to dispel the darkness. Accurate citations are an act of love.

I am a sentimental person and I wear my heart on my sleeve. I think it would clutter up the edit summaries on Wikipedia if I included a "<3" in each one, every time I added a citation. But you should imagine they're there anyway.

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(0) : A Voice For The Voiceless: So I talk to inanimate objects sometimes. You know, say, shopping malls. Or hotel rooms, when I check out. Or rocks or trees that have been exceptionally helpful while I've climbed or descended a hill. And Leonard, if he is nearby, usually performs the voice of the object. Sometimes other people do not do this. Feel free!

(0) : Celebrating the Tenth Anniversary of Spamusement!: The spam-comedy group blog I lead, Spam As Folk Art, does still post every few months. Today, I posted there a tribute to the ten-year anniversary of the Spamusement! webcomic, with links to some favorite strips.

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(1) : Exuberantly Metatextual Historical Comedy: So, I am about the zillionth person to think about how we use history in popular culture. For instance, my sister-in-law Rachel Richardson (who just finished her Ph.D. and got married - congrats on an epic 2014, Rachel!) is a historian who works for a publisher and thus a much bigger expert than I on this stuff.

The thing that just struck me is the trend of silly, earthy, exuberant, sentimental, loving, infernokrusher and literally fantastic retellings of our history, especially retellings that give us wish-fulfillment. I never saw or read Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, but it seems to be all of a piece with Drunk History and "Hark! A Vagrant".

Like so many people in my demographic cohort, I cherish sincere earnestness, emotional vulnerability, and intense enthusiasm. Drunk History uses alcohol to bring out these characteristics in its narrators, and I love it.

In a recent Drunk History episode, the cops dragging hard-done-by civil rights pioneer Claudette Colvin off the bus say to her: "It's 1955, and we don't have to do [bleep]." (She frustratedly responds, [bleep] [bleep] 1955.") Later, narrator Amber Ruffin drunkenly mispronounces "Birmingham" as "Burning Man", causing Colvin to say "You know what, [bleep] this, I'm moving to Burning Man." The dramatization obediently surrounds Colvin, standing on a sidewalk in Montgomery, Alabama, with dirt-smeared dancers bopping to techno beats. This is sublime. Claudette Colvin had a really hard time! I want her to have fun! I want 1950s-era Colvin to be able to say "screw it, I'm going to Burning Man" and leave behind racist oppression! This wish does not make sense and we know it's nonsense; it is so hyperbolically impossible that the image works as wish fulfillment without implying that anyone could have cured racism in this way. If you watch all the way to the credits, you see that Colvin laughs as one of the dancers drapes a garland around her neck. It's like the future coming back in time to bless her.

Kate Beaton, like the Drunk History narrators, has historical characters speak their subtext (examples: Ida B. Wells, various explorers, Perry and Henson, Juarez and Maximilian, Kosciuszko, World War I generals). Many of these narratives -- Beaton's comics and Drunk History both -- share this bathetic anachronistic conversational style, and the figures we view today as heroes tend to see the dramatic irony that the villains can't. For a longer, more explicitly wishful treatment of this, see Ada Palmer's wish that Machiavelli could participate in an all-stars philosophical salon. (It occurs to me that this wish, or the wish that Colvin could escape to Burning Man, is like the wish that God had Raptured someone into heaven.)

Leonard pointed out to me that, while we have always applied our values to the people and situations of the past, this trope gives us a conscious way to do it. It also occurs to me: history is, in the popular imagination, set in stone. Comedy depends on surprises. Comedy founded in historical fact can do meta-surprises; a new frontier!

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(6) : Why Job Titles Matter To Me: A friend asked for help in thinking about job titles and job descriptions, and said she was specifically interested in how to think about them and whether they matter at all. I gave her some thoughts, from my experience, and thought I might share them here.

I think job titles *do* matter, in a few different dimensions. Here are the three major ones.

  1. giving correct expectations about you (your skills, your expertise, your influence within your org, your seniority, your independence as a decision-maker) to people outside your company/org, who use that metadata as a hint to treat you appropriately (invite you to give talks, recruit you, ask you suitable questions when they meet you, introduce you to other resources, ask for introductions, offer to sell things to your org or buy things from your org or otherwise partner with your org, praise or criticize your org)
    (A subset of these goals: demonstrating for future recruiters/employers a particular career progression on your résumé.)

  2. giving correct expectations about you to people inside your org who don't already know you, e.g., new hires and Human Resources, so they treat you appropriately (assume you know/don't know certain skills and domains, take your advice seriously, invite you to the right brownbags and hackdays, put you on certain career ladders, ask whether you'd be interested in taking on a new project)

  3. hint to yourself about what you should focus on or what you/your org values (e.g., "senior" implies mentorship/stewardship, "reliability" or "performance" or "happiness" tells you what goal to focus on, "researcher" or "manager" or "analyst" or "nurturer" tells you what methods/skillsets you should be employing) -- this should be Part Of A Complete Breakfast, I mean, Job Description

Some people find that job titles do not matter to them. I posit that those people believe, or act as though they believe, that it is unimportant to provide additional easily-graspable metadata about their own work-selves to strangers or colleagues (I could imagine lots of reasons that this would feel unimportant) -- or that they already know what they need to be working on and do not need additional guidance-reminders.

In the current US software industry, sometimes you run across deliberately informal titles - God/Guru/Ninja/Wizard/Grunt/Thing-doer/Goddess/Mistress/etc. I don't quite feel up to the task of laying out the particular signals one THINKS one is sending, and the signals one actually IS sending, with those job titles. This feels like Kate Losse territory. Here, as with so many other human relationships, you might run into the very natural desire to make a joke out of it to elide all the tension and status play. And I understand that. When I got married, Leonard and I had a HARD TIME getting used to the words "husband" and "wife"! To ease into them, we mispronounced them or banged them together with other words, so, e.g., he was a "funband" and I was a "funwife". I feel like new formal job titles can be like that too, uncomfortable, like "one size fits all" clothes.

Sometimes silly job titles signal to others, "we value whimsy/insider cliquishness more than we value clear communication about tasks and roles with people outside our internal culture."

So if someone dismissively says that job titles don't matter, I suggest you tack on a silent "to them right now" when you interpret their statement.

: If You Log In To Wikipedia You Can Customize A Bunch Of Stuff: I bet most people reading this often read Wikipedia articles but don't log in. That's fine. I love that you don't have to register to read or edit. But here are a few reasons you should try logging in:

  1. Read how you want. You can fiddle with a bunch of preferences you didn't even realize you wanted. Suppress display of the fundraiser banner. Disable the suggestions dropdown list for the search box. Choose a different skin (page style) that emphasizes information density. Remove images and background while printing.

  2. Beta features. If you log in, you can try out new improvements early. Right now, on English Wikipedia, the beta features include "hovercards" (when you hover over a page link, a little summary pops up) and better search.

  3. Language and font settings. If you're multilingual, note that you can change what language you want all the framing text to be in, on any Wikimedia site. For instance, I can go to Russian Wikipedia and change my preferences to English. All the articles are still in Russian, but stuff like the Random Page link is labelled in English, so I can navigate easier.

  4. Mobile stuff. If you read Wikipedia via your phone's or tablet's browser, you can look for Settings in the site menu and tap to turn on Beta. That'll give you a preview of upcoming improvements.

  5. The VisualEditor. For most Wikipedia editing, the new what-you-see-is-what-you-get interface is more intuitive than messing around with wikitext. So if you rarely hit Edit, it'll be way easier for you if you use VisualEditor. On English Wikipedia, if you log in, you can turn on VisualEditor by checking its checkbox in your Beta features.

  6. Better privacy. If you improve a Wikipedia page while you're logged in, the site associates that edit with your username. If you do it without logging in, the edit is associated with your IP address. And people can tell a lot more from an IP address than they can from a username.

  7. Better trust. If you end up editing, using your username means other people will have an easier time thanking you, suggesting ways to improve your work, cutting you slack when you make a mistake, and scheming with you to improve particular articles or topics. You can build a reputation when you log in.

So try logging in!

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(2) : A Brief Foray Into Amateur Litcrit: Some things I like in fiction:

  • closely observed characters going through uncomfortable changes in life and identity (China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh is great at this; also see "Tomorrow Is Waiting" by Holli Mintzer)
  • regular people living their lives, taking courses, changing jobs, dating, moving, feeling cold, talking to friends (especially against the backdrop of giant world-change) (McHugh again, and My Real Children by Jo Walton, "Sundowning" by Joanne Merriam, and "Daisy" by Andrew Willett)
  • graphical descriptions that infuse character, point of view, theme, mood, plot, or some other charge beyond "here are some pixels to render" (that awesome description of the run-down casino in Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice)
  • detective stories (Columbo, "The Ambassador's Staff" by Sherry D. Ramsey) and procedurals in general (Michael Crichton, the shoe manufacturing bits of A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth)
  • real (nonfictional) social milieus I don't ordinarily see or know about (Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, "The Blind Geometer" by Kim Stanley Robinson)
  • people who remind me of me ("Immersion" by Aliette de Bodard, "In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns" by Elizabeth Bear, "Jump Space" by Mary Anne Mohanraj, The Red Carpet: Bangalore Stories by Lavanya Sankaran)
  • words I don't know (a habit of Thomas Pynchon's)
  • insurance fraud (Double Indemnity and the Society of Actuaries' annual speculative fiction contest)
  • point-of-view character outwitting or outworking a terrifying antagonist ("The Blind Geometer", "The Second Conquest of Earth" by L. J. Daly)
  • Quakers (am currently reading The Dazzle of Day by Molly Gloss and enjoying it)
  • empathy with the Other, especially if we get to see the struggle it takes to get it (The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, the "Demons" and "Terra Prime" episodes of Star Trek Enterprise)
  • utter silly farce (P.G. Wodehouse, The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo by Zen Cho, Arrested Development)
  • recognizing and even celebrating the work of underappreciated people (Expendable by James Alan Gardner, the Mrs Mahesh Kapoor chapter of A Suitable Boy, Lifelode by Jo Walton)
  • big grand speeches (By Blood by Ellen Ullman, Hamlet by William Shakespeare, the unpublished novella Vanilla by Leonard Richardson)

Some things I don't like in fiction:

  • narration or plot implying that the author thinks I'm a chump, scornworthy, especially because of my gender, ethnicity, or work ethic/style. There are authors whose writings imply that people like me exist to be NPCs, non-player characters. (I'm particularly thinking of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Paul Graham here.)
  • abuse presented as though the reader's supposed to root for the abuser (as in the film M*A*S*H), or simply a lack of anyone particularly sympathetic (Camp Concentration by Thomas Disch)
  • incurious or incompetent harried people who realistically ought to take a moment to think and investigate, or perhaps delegate to someone else (Connie Willis makes a trope of this; also why I gave up on The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry) (perhaps this is a symptom of failed farce)
  • various peeves listed in Slush Pile Tips, Part I and Part II
  • describing women but not men in terms of their physical attractiveness (Star Trek: The Next Generation: Cold Equations: Silent Weapons by David Mack)
  • giving men but not women agency (The Night Manager by John Le Carré)
  • long repetitive speeches (Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand)
  • premises that just do not make sense (Neal Shusterman's Unwind)
  • paragraphs of graphical description that merely tell me what pixels I should be rendering in my head (the Tower of London prose blueprint in The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson)
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: Workplace Silliness: I'm on the Systers mailing list for women in tech, and sometimes I post there. It is especially valuable for technical women who don't otherwise get to talk with other technical women. I suggest people apply to Hacker School, I share info about jobs and internships, and I publicize calls for talks for conferences (and talk reviewers). It's a good place to share data about one's past experiences, e.g., "Last year I submitted three proposals and one was accepted."

And sometimes I say things like: definitely sounds like your boss is, if I may, an anti-mentor. A rotnem.

Or, several years ago, on being one of the few women in an office and offering coffee to visitors:

At my office we have the same sort of coffee rule by default; the one developer who drinks it makes it. Our office manager (a woman) has naught to do with it except ordering coffee beans.

The other developers drink soda, and the rule there is that if you finish off the last Diet Coke in the fridge then you must move more Diet Cokes from the closet to the fridge. The office manager enfridgens a bit of each week's soda shipment as it arrives - that's all.

I agree with other Systers in saying that hospitality is great and dignified as long as everyone in your office treats it as an equal obligation. Whenever an interview candidate comes in to our office, s/he has about ten people saying, "can I get you some water?" over the day. It gets sitcom-funny.

Side note: Somehow "would you like some coffee?" can be made to sound more suggestive than "would you like some water?" "can I offer you a Diet Coke?" or "we have Emergen'C if you'd like it." However, there's really no good way to offer someone a serving of Yoo-Hoo. More research is required.

This was not actually the best message to send, because Systers is an international list but Yoo-Hoo is not an international drink, and thus follow-up messages were necessary to inform (and disgust) my correspondents. Ah well.
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: You Can (Sometimes) Negotiate When Being Laid Off: Some of the details escape me now, but people may still find use in the tale of how I succeeded in negotiating a counterproposal when I got laid off several years ago.

Once upon a time, I was working as a project manager. The owners of the firm laid off some people, and then laid off more. The next time that I saw them sitting in the conference room looking unhappy for an entire Friday, I knew what would probably happen next.

One of them came out to ask for me. I came in and sat down. One of them started off with a sentence very much like, "So you know that we haven't been doing so well lately."

"Am I being laid off?" I asked.

They said yes.

"I have a counterproposal," I said.

They were surprised.

I explained that I was at that moment managing projects that would -- if managed properly -- have three billable deliverables finished within the next six weeks. If they laid me off immediately, they would not have nearly enough management bandwidth to ensure on-time completion. They needed the cash, so they really wanted to hit those deadlines.

So I offered to work at half my salary for the next six weeks and do my damndest to hit those deadlines.

They had to think about it, so I went back to my desk and started packing up my stuff. Slowly. My colleagues consoled me. More colleagues went into that room and came out and started putting their personal misc into boxes.

And then they left, and one of the owners took me aside and basically said yes, so I started unpacking.

On Tuesday, I think, I sat down with one of the owners briefly to talk him through the numbers. I showed him how much it would cost to pay out my vacation as a lump sum versus keeping me on for those several days, and one other variation I don't remember. I believe they chose the lumpsum option for some accounting reason.

I got two of the three projects done on time. I got a little more time and money and healthcare coverage before I had to figure out the next thing. And I got some experience negotiating, not just at the start of a job, but at the end of it.

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(1) : My Talks: I've put together an incomplete but still good list of the talks and presentations I've given, and of media outlets that have interviewed me. I imagine its size will be strictly increasing over time.

(2) : A Passel of Feelings And Thoughts Upon Returning: A little over five years ago, I went to my first WisCon. I've now returned home from AdaCamp combined with another Open Source Bridge, a.k.a. the WisCon of open source. Every time I go to one of these, I see someone (example) rearranging their conceptual map to accommodate the knowledge that this thing is possible. Now I have the teacher's privilege of seeing new participants glow with new joy, finding these places. And though the "this is so amazing I can't even" feelings and thoughts no longer shoot off faster than I can track, I still make connections and hear or think things that I need to process.

Some things I thought about, and you know it's my blog because they're in a big unstructured list:

  • My talks: A Few Python Tips (notes) and The Outreach Program for Women: what works & what's next (notes). And I led two unconference sessions, on classism in open source and tech and the future of OPW-like programs. I didn't propose any AdaCamp sessions, but facilitated one on GitHub alternatives.
  • My intern, Frances Hocutt, gave the final keynote at OSB, on leadership (description). I found it moving and thought-provoking, and feel pride.
  • Open Source Bridge featured twelve talks on Wikimedia/wiki-related topics. I am trying to work out what effect this has. I want to know how much our presentations and presence help OSB attendees and the open stuff community as a whole, and how much wisdom and inspiration OSB gives to Wikimedians. I've been speaking at Bridge for five years and each year Wikimedian participation has grown. Next year I may change it up, perhaps by letting other people represent Wikimedia at OSB, and going to the Allied Media Conference instead (it's often in June, close enough to OSB that I can't go to both and be happy).
  • I showed some folks the newish Draft Articles feature on English Wikipedia and they loved it. I filed a Draft-related bug that the product manager has already responded to.
  • I met a stranger who reads my blog. Hi!
  • I now take alcohol wipes with me on air travel and use them to sanitize the hard bits of airplane seats (armrests, tray tables) when I sit down. So their ephemeral smell is now part of my travel ritual.
  • "Do you have your laptop with you? I can show [thing] to you right now" feels like magic to say.
  • Now that I've been working for Wikimedia Foundation for more than three years, my stories of Cody's Books, Salon, Fog Creek, Behavior, and Collabora feel so distant. I was literally telling some of those stories around a fireplace a few nights ago, and listening to an explanation of the begats of Helix and Ximian and Novell; it's so primal, doing that. There is so much lore. Perhaps the most urgency I feel is the urgency of distilling down what I learned through anxious years and conveying it to the new arrivals, making sure they know what is possible, how the rivalries started, how to get things done, whom to trust, our jokes, our pain.
  • I continue to betray my stewardship of this planet and my responsibility to my fellow beings. I flew to and from the West Coast, I ate a lot of non-vegan food probably grown under exploitative labor practices, I took a bunch of cabs when with a little more planning I could have taken public transit, I used proprietary software like Twitter on probably sweatshop hardware, and it just keeps going, complicity and complicity piled upon complicity within complicity inside complicity, more and different and same. And then there are all the directly interpersonal betrayals, forgetting to set up one meeting, forgetting to attend another, not spending enough work time with my mentee, being an even worse email and SMS correspondent than usual. And it does not really reassure me that I am practically a Jain compared to some people, or that even thinking about these failings implies that I at least have some integrity to start with. I know that "voluntarily-chosen constraints are the source of creativity" - that is kind of how marriage works, for instance. But what about the constraints we didn't choose? Orwell had to process that whininess too: "I wasn't born for an age like this". I used to only admire the hacks that seemed arty and harmless, like "making a game" of tedious work to soak up cognitive surplus. Then I lived longer, and found I could understand people who dropped out, cheated, hustled, broke the law, fought back, broke out the guillotine (thanks to Skud for showing me that video). Sometimes they were right. How do you know if you're Huck Finn and you should rip up the letter and decide to go to hell? Or even what that letter is, in your life? I was never Yudhisthira, though I thought I was. My chariot never floated a handspan above the ground. I was always complicit. It turns out you don't have to sign up for any particular club in order to be capable of betrayal. It's a cold comfort that my regret -- my grief, really, over the delusion that I Am Good -- says that at least I'm trying to do right. It's a cold comfort knowing that one actually can go on looking at one's face in the mirror, that it looks the same, that everyone else is navigating the same muck and mire that I am, that ....
  • Okay, while writing that, I looked up Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts" and came across an attempting-to-be-chummy analysis (excerpt: "Aw, Auden. You're such a rebel!"). Now I am laughing and everything's better. Despite everything, it remains possible for me to incandesce with joy at a good knock-knock joke, or at the Quaker Cop mythos Leonard and I are developing ("You have the right to remain silent .... in meeting!"), or at Matthew's reinterpretation of the Yaksha Prashna as a Silicon Valley job interview (why did the other four brothers die? "Poor cultural fit."). Incidentally, from my comic book memory of the Mahabharata, I always remembered the riddle as "What's heavier than a mountain? Debt" but online sources say "One's mother is heavier than the earth; one's father is higher than the mountains" which just seems like a centuries-old Yo Mama joke and less ringingly true besides.
  • This year at AdaCamp I attempted to be "laid-back" and tried out what it's like to not propose sessions specific to my interests. Now I know that such a course of action will lead to me feeling less engaged, and I'll be my usual pushy self at future unconferences.
  • People really appreciated "Entry Level", the zine/reader on class issues, and the opportunity to talk about how class and classism have affected them.
  • I groaned and laughed and shouted and generally talked more in those eight days than I usually do over eight days and now my throat is sore.
  • Talked with Skud about how the difference between self-care and slacking off is intentionality. But then, intentionality requires a decision, which causes decision fatigue? Noooooooo
  • It was so nice to pair program with Coral and do a small manageable technical task.
  • I can read body language now better than I ever could before, and it's often depressing. Because now I can tell better when people are uncomfortable or bored. Breaking news: it turns out that obliviousness helps build confidence (yet another point in the "everything is a skill and thus learnable yet subject to Dunning-Kruger" constellation).
  • I think the most rewarding thing about these conferences, for me, is some mix of the I've-been-there-too commiserating and solution-sketching, making people laugh, laughing at new inside jokes, literally seeing things in a new light, deepening my relationships with people important to me, and passing on the stuff I've learned. I am drawn to people with curiosity, a work ethic, compassion, and integrity (well, as much as anyone can have in this fallen world), and it nourishes me to see those characteristics in the little decisions they make in front of me.
Future Sumana, I hope you can make something out of this jumble. The light is clear outside and I can hear a bird calling. I am loved and cherished, and I hope you are too.

: Different Views: I just realized that reading blogs about stuff I don't understand -- looking over the shoulders of practitioners as they talk shop -- is a path to legitimate peripheral participation, and maybe that's one reason why I like it. Also I just like (consensually!) eavesdropping on other people's lives.


  1. a bike mechanic
  2. a pharma chemist
  3. a scholar and mother

I'm very grateful that the Internet lets me see the perspectives of people who have very different lives from mine.

: Inventions, and "Snake Oil" vs "Once Upon A Time":

Yesterday some pals and I played "Snake Oil", the game where you make up fake things to sell each other. I failed to sell a senior citizen a "Truth Photo" which shows you your loved ones AND hisses if someone in the room is lying (basically stole that feature from Lying Cat in Saga), and I successfully sold a cowboy some "Story Fluid" which makes others' repetitive campfire tales more interesting.

Leonard: Isn't that just alcohol?
Sumana: It's not just alcohol.

If you've played "The Big Idea", "Snake Oil" is similar, but improves the game by giving you customers to target and removing the venture capital logistics. (You might also recall The Colbert Report's recurring segment parodying health news and pharma shilling: "Cheating Death". In each "Cheating Death", Colbert explains why a news story has caused his sponsors to introduce a horrible new medical product.) And, similarly, as you play, you learn your friends' approaches and persuasive styles. I have learned, for instance, that both Leonard and I use the template: "As a [member of class foo], you have two problems! [problem 1] [problem 2] To solve both of them at once, we introduce: [terrible idea]" And some players, while playing the role of the customer, say nearly nothing, while some fully inhabit the role. Acquaintance David did an especially creditable job of improvising as pro wrestler Nut Crusher ("please, call me Nut").

At the party yesterday, we later broke out "Once Upon A Time" and I quickly saw its disadvantages in comparison to "Snake Oil". It takes a little longer to teach new folks, and it gets harder to play in groups larger than four, and it takes longer to play an individual round, and it doesn't reliably let every participant show off and have fun. In contrast, "Snake Oil" scales better to 5-8 people, each round is shorter and more reliably funny, it's easier to learn, and it generally has fewer pitfalls around boredom and path dependency. So although I will still love to play "Once Upon a Time" with small groups of friends, I think "Snake Oil" is a better go-to party game.

(Subtext of this post: look at me, I can talk about game experiences and game mechanics just as though I didn't still have trust and anxiety and insecurity issues around board/tabletop games, failure, learning, "being a good sport", and valuing play and leisure! Hold on, I'm not sure whether I'm using the proper microformat to place this subtext in the metadata rather than the body of the post.....)

(2) : Writing Between The Lines: I'm trying to think of public speeches where the orator clearly does not believe what s/he is saying, and subverts literal or ostensible statements with tone, cadence, asides, body language, etc. I'm specifically interested in speakers going as off-script as they dare in situations where it's socially unacceptable to truly speak their minds. This came to mind because I just watched Tom Hanks introducing a Sony product at CES 2009 and making a deliberate hash of his lines. (Link via MetaFilter.) It was hilarious. None of the examples I can remember feel quite right:

Promising veins for this hue of sarcasm include various kinds of shilling, financial and political. I'd especially love non-US examples if you have any.

(1) : In Conversation: From yesterday:

  • Frances Hocutt, my intern for this summer, finished her New York City visit and went home to Seattle. But not until we had schemed about writing documentation and improving client libraries for the MediaWiki web API to enable feminist analytics. With existing tools, folks made RENDER and some data visualization projects; what could they do if it were easier?

  • Over its run, cookie-cutter sitcom Family Matters gradually became a speculative fiction soap opera starring a black scientist, and I think this is amazing and ought to be more widely recognized. Also, the series finale has the same plot as Gravity. In conversation with Leonard, I thus proposed several reboots of or sequels to Family Matters. Example: "Mad About You meets The X-Files and everyone's black." Leonard considered many of them derivative but promising.

  • Leonard cut my hair. I now sport a buzzcut.

  • Lyndsey and I talked about the reflex to diminish one's own past or current work. I dated myself by saying "Honey, I Shrunk The Accomplishment". We also noted that it's now easier than it's ever been to constantly compare your own work to that of the best people in your field. Lyndsey: "'Oh look, this person made 36% more commits than you did last month.' The problem isn't Quantified Self, it's Quantified Other People's Selves."

  • Skud pointed me to "How We Organize the AMC Zine Vol. 1" which is an amazing conference organizing guide from the makers of Allied Media Conference.

    Its contents offer theoretical vision, practical tips, and best practices that we hope will make the AMC organizing process as smooth and effective as possible, and will hopefully inspire other similar gatherings.

    I suspect this, the OpenHatch Event Handbook, Hack Day Manifesto, and Community Event Planning (from the Stumptown Syndicate) overlap a bit, but are all valuable!

Filed under:

: Choosing Older Or Younger Open Source Projects To Work On: Larger, older open source projects have more people, more getting-started resources for new contributors, more name recognition, and sometimes more money to spend. (Examples: the Linux kernel, MediaWiki (the software behind Wikipedia, part of Wikimedia), Mozilla (the makers of Firefox), WordPress.)

Younger ones, with smaller contributor populations and smaller codebases, sometimes give new contributors more responsibility and power quickly, change faster in response to new ideas, and have more malleable culture -- and you can become one of the few World Experts in that technology more easily. (Examples: Tornado, ClojureScript, MetricsGrimoire, ThinkUp.)

So, while Mozilla, GNOME, Wikimedia, etc. have bigger budgets and more formal programs, and often have a larger worldwide impact, it could be that smaller and younger projects will give you more relative expertise faster. It's worth considering.

(You can use Ohloh to find open source projects on a particular topic, and see how many contributors they already have, and to compare projects. Take the statistics with a grain of salt, though; sometimes they're off.)

: Collared: I am more interested in actual vests than in stock options that vest. I presume I am but one of many dapper-aspirational women who eschew dominant startup culture in this way. (Also, Christie Koehler is my fashion icon.)

: Citations and Links for My WCUSA Keynote: In a few hours, I'm giving the opening keynote address at Wiki Conference USA. Here are some links and citations for sources I'll be referring to.

I'll link to video, transcript, and so on after they're up.

Edited 31 May to add: I borrowed my introductory acknowledgment of place from N.K. Jemisin and very slightly modified it.

Edited 5 June to add: The transcript and an audio recording are now up - thank you to Jeremy Baron for helping me get the audio. I paid Katherine Nehring for the transcription and I recommend her to you as well.

Retroactive talk title: "Hospitality, Jerks, and What I Learned".

Edited again on June 5th to add: Now the video is up!

Filed under:

: My Real Children: A few months ago I got to read an advance copy of My Real Children, the new book by Jo Walton. It goes on sale today in North America, and if your reading tastes mirror mine, get it.

My Real Children pulls you along; it's a compulsively readable book. I adored its tempo and thoroughly wanted to know what protagonist Patricia would do next and what would happen to her. (This is quite a feat given the narrative structure of the book, as you'll see if you try it out.) Keep some tissues ready; I wept with joy and grief, prayed for someone's health, and shivered with fear. Throughout, Patricia's steadfast strength inspired me.

I feel as though I've gotten to read another book about Taveth from Jo Walton's Lifelode, in a way, in how thoroughly I see that Patricia's housekeeping and parenting and teaching and writing and peace work are all of a piece -- all her work is love made visible. Walton pays attention to the concrete domestic details of real people's lives. There's a moment where Patricia and her partner have to buy another pillow the first time they have an overnight houseguest. This is science fiction written by a host, someone who reflexively practices hospitality both in her social life and in her fiction. (I got to meet Walton in Montreal in April and therefore can say this authoritatively.)

You can read the first two chapters online now. After you've read it, you might be in the mood to read or reread Bury the Chains by Adam Hochschild, or Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale.

Filed under:

: Bad Startup Ideas:

  • Fleeing As A Service: hook up a FitBit to Uber so that, if the user becomes stressed enough that her physiology reflects it, a cab shows up to "nope" her out of there
  •'s Digest/RightSignature/SlideShare mashup to help do-gooders write grant proposals
  • A device that performs a Shazam-like service on the muffled vibrations coming through neighbors' walls and hooks it up with the user's account to figure out whether said neighbors are listening to music the user likes and thus whether she should try to make friends with them (e.g., Rockapella is an automatic yes)
Filed under:

(3) : Dipping My Toes Into PHP: This week, alumni like me get to spend time at Hacker School. Since I work on MediaWiki-related documentation and I've never programmed in PHP before, I decided to start understanding just enough PHP to be able to read it better. Jordan Orelli from Etsy, a fellow alumnus, was kind enough to give me several pointers, and to especially help me understand how a PHP programmer's experience differs from my experience as a Python programmer.

I have learned, for instance:

  • The PHP REPL (command-line interpreter/environment) is not as verbose/helpful as, say, the Ruby and Python ones. You get to it by doing php -a at the command line.

  • For people like me who want a reasonably recent PHP and are on Ubuntu, apt-get install php5 is a good way to install PHP.

  • PHP is a templating language that - in its design - kind of always implicitly assumes that it's in the context of an HTML page. For instance, by default, it autoescapes HTML characters such that output from a bit of PHP will be suitable for including in an HTML page. And within an HTML page, serverside, you might have something like
    <p><?php echo "I am leet!"; ?></p>
    which the server will execute, thanks to something like Apache's mod_php plugin, and then send to the browser as the HTML
    <p>I am leet!</p>

  • What I as a Python programmer would call a dictionary, PHP folks call an associative array.

  • PHP is completely single-threaded. This is why you never have race conditions in PHP! Every time you execute PHP within mod_php, you execute it within a sandbox just for that HTTP request! And that means that "the global namespace" really means "the global namespace for the current HTTP request" so "global" sort of has a different meaning, and thus I understand better why people are more okay with using "global" variables and the "argh, global data is bad" aversion is weaker in the world of PHP programming.

    But you also cannot share state this way! So you should use caches & the database & job queues & other persistence layers.

  • A lot of the time, you want a pretty URL for the user to see, like , but the work is being done by app logic in, say, index.php plus query parameters, e.g. . So, if you're using Apache, mod_rewrite uses the .htaccess &/or .htdocs files (need to double-check this), which contain just a giant list of "if this then that" regexes, to rewrite the URLs of HTTP request headers.

  • Many things in PHP are inconsistent or unintuitive, and it's not your fault if you don't get it. For instance, some method names have underscores and some don't, and the pattern isn't intuitive.
Much thanks, Jordan! This is all oversimplified for clarity, etc., etc. I think next up I am going to try to understand a bit of PHP syntax, and the role of PEAR.

(2) : What Will Success Feel Like To You?: Disequilibrium -- surprises, failures, jokes, and disorientations -- will always happen, and we learn from it. We learn about the world, and we learn about ourselves.

I first felt like a New Yorker when I noticed my impatience with people who blocked my way on escalators and stairways in subway stations.

I first felt like a "real software developer" when I couldn't bear to leave a half-unfixed bug.

It's hard to notice as you slowly absorb the new values and habits of a new identity, of a new community of practice. But our brains are primed to notice mismatches and surprises, so it's easiest to notice the change when, for instance, you find mixed tabs and spaces annoying for the first time, or get an in-joke.

But sometimes there does exist some ritual or marker to indicate your change. I remember when I got my first set of Wikimedia Foundation business cards, as Volunteer Development Coordinator, with my name on one side, and the Wikimedia mission on the other.

Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That's our commitment.
I felt such a deep burst of pride and love -- is that what parents feel when they look at baby pictures of their children?

Ada Initiative logo (Ada Lovelace portrait) Yesterday, the Ada Initiative announced that I have joined its board of directors. I am now one of the seven people responsible for the management of the Ada Initiative, which supports women in open technology and culture.

When Valerie Aurora told me that the board wanted to invite me to join them, I felt a new kind of disequilibrium. It's one thing to get a one-time surprise compliment like "we'd love for you to give the keynote address to this conference." At another level is "we'd appreciate your continuing advice on this topic," as I'd heard in 2011 when I was invited to join the Ada Initiative's Advisory Board (on which I still serve.) But a board of directors is responsible in a different way. Not only had this high-powered group thought highly of me in general, and of my skills and judgment in open source and in feminism, they decided I was trustworthy, that my vote should count. They decided I could be one of them. This is what a certain kind of success feels like.

It's an honor. I shall endeavor to use it well. And, less urgently, to get used to it.

(1) : Better Q&A Sessions: If you were designing an interactive experience where people got to ask an expert questions about what she'd just taught them, what would you aim to achieve? How would you structure it? I imagine you would curate that conversation in some way, and try to maximize the benefit for all the participants, not just those who could come up with a question or comment fastest, or who wanted help with their very specific problem.

MicrofoonRight now, when speakers give talks at tech conferences, we mostly muff this part. Even really good presentations dissolve into poor question-and-answer sessions, where we waste time with nitpicking, rants, homework help, thoughtlessness, and all the predictable outcomes of an untrammeled glibocracy. I myself have been guilty of this.

But we can fix this.

A good Q&A requires work from the audience, the speaker, and the moderator. Yes, you should have a moderator. The speaker's concentrating on answering the questions in front of her; don't try to add time assessment and question flow management to that job as well. As is so often the case,* WisCon has already written up best practices for a moderator, including a script for responding to "This is more of a comment than a question". And yes, you are authorized and have permission to moderate discussions. Everyone else will be grateful.

Mary Robinette Kowal offers seven useful tips for speakers on structuring their talks and Q&A sessions to maximize interest and usefulness. I especially endorse her suggestions on signposting, transitions, planting question-seeds, and answering with specificity.

And the audience - well, that's all of us, including me. I can try to think of good questions, and refrain from asking bad questions.

Some bad questions demean the speaker, perhaps by asking "have you tried this super obvious thing" or, worse, recommending the obvious thing (happened throughout that Q&A); or by implying the speaker stole your code (video). Some bad questions disrespect the audience, by hogging the Q&A time to get an answer only relevant to one person, or by grandstanding.

Good questions and comments are like good fanfic; they delightfully expand the conversation with ideas that initially surprise everyone else, but immediately make sense given our shared context. I might ask for more detail on a speaker's process or future plans, make relevant, nonobvious critiques, or recommend relevant, nonobvious resources. I also sometimes make a note of a question to ask the speaker later, in conversation, or of a link to send her.

A bad Q&A, like conference calls or driving in city traffic, is the opposite of meditation. It sucks the energy out of the room, taking dozens of people's time without returning on that investment. Let's get better.

* WisCon has a member assistance fund, very participatory programming creation and signup, a newsletter that helps attendees prep and see how to volunteer, and amazing universal access, including a Quiet Room and ingredient lists on food. And they run a "how to moderate a panel" metapanel early in the conference to help new mods, and a set of first-timer icebreaker dinners the first night. Basically, if you're running a conference, WisCon has best practices you can learn from.

Thanks to Julie Pagano for a conversation that led to me writing this!

: Cool Open Source Bridge Proposals: I have submitted a couple of talks to Open Source Bridge 2014: "The Outreach Program for Women: what works & what's next", with Liz Henry, and "A Few Python Tips", a solo effort and the most programming-centric conference talk I've ever proposed.

I'm Submitting a Talk to Open Source Bridge - June 24–27, 2014 - Portland, OR

When I look at the proposals page I just grin so wide when I see so many proposals, on a zillion different topics, a ton of them from women and genderqueer folks! "You can be a kernel hacker"! Apprenticeships! "Power Tuning Linux: A Case Study"! "Replacing 'import' with 'accio': Compiling Pythons with Custom Grammar for the sake of a joke" and presenting as technical and stylishly female and "Making language selection smarter in Wikipedia" and dataviz and OpenStreetMap and mobile design and usability in privacy software and lessons from the Drupal Ladder initiative and Project Ascend and type systems and "Confessions of a DBA: worst and best things I've done in production"! And way more. What a set!

I last counted 189 proposals, 72 of them including as a speaker someone other than a cis man. That's about 38 percent. I hereby applaud the OSBridge organizers for making an inclusive all-genders tech conference where I'm never the only woman in the room.

I plan on going to OSBridge this year for the fifth year in a row (Portland, Oregon in June), and this week I'll find out whether the organizers are accepting either of my talks. But I wanted to share this great feeling: I'm only one of many.

about Sumana Harihareswara


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