Cogito, Ergo Sumana

picture of Sumana's head

Sumana Harihareswara's journal

(0) : Some Short Reading: American Scientist is the good stuff. Accessible prose but not condescending, and covering a variety of biological, mathematical, physical, and social sciences. "Programming Your Quantum Computer", "The Toxicity of Recreational Drugs", and "Empirical Software Engineering" brought me much pleasure, as did Henry Petroski's engineering history column. In the March/April 2014 issue, Petroski goes on a tear regarding inaccurate graphical depictions of quadrupeds and sharpened pencils. For four angry pages. Whatever, it's Petroski, even his nerd rage is fun.

"Scalable Web Architecture and Distributed Systems" by Kate Matsudaira gives a general overview of web architecture; I found it helpful in understanding the context of "service-oriented architectures" and the challenges of big-scale web architecture in general. MediaWiki currently does NOT have a service-oriented architecture as Matsudaira describes it, but engineers are working on changing MediaWiki from a giant spaghetti ball into a more logical, convenient, and maintainable set of interfaces/services. (The overview also has a bit of humor; I especially laughed at Figure 1.6.)

"Little Ambushes" by Joanne Merriam portrays the thing I always want out of science fiction: making a real connection with the Other. Her "Harvest" and "Sundowning" tear my heart out, too. Her work reminds me of things I've loved in the work of Maureen McHugh, Nancy Kress, and Connie Willis.

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(0) : Points of View: I'm noodling around, thinking about vision, perspectives, and leadership.

In a 2012 interview with MIT Technology Review (in their compilation Twelve Tomorrows), Neal Stephenson spoke about science fiction's role in innovation (pp. 5-6):

... a less obvious utility, that science fiction can provide a coherent picture of an alternate reality in which some innovation happened. Not just the technical innovation itself, but the social context and the economic context that causes that innovation to make sense. It can be sort of like an invisible magnetic field that gets iron filings to line up. In big engineering organizations, you've got all these people working on small pieces of a bigger problem, and there's an enormous amount of communication that has to take place to keep them all working in a coordinated fashion. That communication is tedious and expensive, but if everybody's got the same picture in their heads, maybe you don't have to communicate as much.

Worldviews and ideologies sure are powerful things, and nearly all of Stephenson's fiction and nonfiction has focused on the effects of people's diverse perspectives. (See some of my previous thoughts on Stephenson.) I used to say that he and Le Guin were my favorite authors, and they have this in common. You see the arbitrage possibilities of a new, subversive perspective, and you see how much power you unleash by converting a whole community to a new worldview.

In the late nineties, Simon Stow introduced me to the idea that the social sciences provide many useful lenses. I still remember him in that ground-floor Kroeber classroom, miming an optometrist, checking whether A or B made things clearer, then B or C.

A few years later, a pal of mine said something about the difficulty of explaining scientific concepts to people who did not already have sufficient bootloaded prerequisites:

That one sort of floored me, because radiation is one of my "basis concepts" that I use to explain other things. (Yes, I think of my scientific knowledge as being spanned by a basis set of conceptual eigenvectors. The basis set idea is also one of my "basis concepts". Yes, I also know that I'm weird.)
Eight years after that, I led a Foo Camp session called "Models We Use To Understand The World". We run into a lot of different situations, and pre-loading our 'scopes with different lenses provides requisite variety so we have a fighting chance to understand them. "Metaphors We Live By", right? Feel free to replicate that session at your next unconference, by the way.

For each of us, certain clichés are as foundational as the G, A, T, and C in DNA. I ought to really catalogue mine someday, but here's a start. I tell people about the career Venn diagram, or my version of exit, voice, and loyalty, or my rhetorical triangle. We cargo cult, or expand the Overton window, or arbitrage, or decide it's an efficient market. We decide that at least we'll earn some XP, or satisfice or do cognitive load-balancing, or concentrate on our core competence, or try to fix the kyriarchy. I think about that law of user interface, that if you make something 10% easier then twice as many people will do it. I remember the three skills of adulthood. Recently I started noticing the activist-organizer split in my work and in others'.

Wouldn't it be great if job interviews helped you check the other person's basis concepts? (Or if matchmaking sites offered that, come to think of it.)

You have to have lots of lenses if you're going to be a leader, because you'll get ambiguous and inadequate information about situations and you want to pattern-match to see what fits your plan and what doesn't. You need to develop a clear, robust vision, persuade others it's what they should want too, and negotiate with them.

And even if you don't aim for formal leadership positions, it's probably worthwhile to catalogue the lenses you tend to use. Blog it if you want.

(0) : Yes, It Sucks And Is Not Your Fault: Last night I was talking with some folks at Subcontinental Drift (open mic for South Asian-ish folks) who are paratechnical but find learning to program frightening or intimidating. It's not their fault; we (technologists and educators) basically suck at helping people understand that

  1. this is indeed hard; it's not your fault if you have trouble
  2. but we have a lot of different approaches that work for different learning styles; finding the learning styles that work for you is pretty useful
  3. and if you try, and try a different approach when you get stuck, you WILL make progress
  4. and none of it is magic
  5. and none of it was God-given to the elite who currently act like it's easy

Nothing here is particularly new. But we gotta say it, because there are so many people saying or implying the opposite.

(0) : An April 1st Linux Tip: It turns out you can go into your init.cfg file and change the usability flag from 0 to 1, and that improves user experience tremendously. I wonder why distributions ship it turned off by default?

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(0) : UX Is A Social Justice Issue: On March 25th, I had the honour of addressing the Code4Lib conference as their opening keynote speaker. My topic: "User Experience Is A Social Justice Issue".

....Maybe another way of thinking about it is, when we're building services for people, we often have a lot more practice seeing from the computer's point of view than seeing from another person's point of view. In tech I think we understand how to build arteries better than we understand how to build capillaries....

They liked it! You can enjoy it too. After a very short introduction, my speech goes up to 30:45 in the YouTube video (embedded below). It'll be on the Internet Archive & Wikimedia Commons as well.

You can read the script I read from, annotated with citations, links to resources, and links to tweets and blog posts about the talk. (I aim to get a true transcript sometime soon and update that wiki page accordingly.)

Thanks to the Code4Lib community for inviting me, and to those who helped me with my talk: Coral Sheldon-Hess, Mel Chua, Andromeda Yelton, Bess Sadler, Emma Molls, Leonard Richardson, Jared Zimmerman, and Sky Croeser.

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: The Good Kind Of Disorientation: I stepped off the train at Penn Station last night and emerged into Manhattan again new and gently buoyant and muted. I'd spent the last week at the code4lib conference, helping out with and soaking in another substream of the great conversation, a different one than I usually dip into.

"True voyage is return." - The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin.

I'm noodling around with various feelings and thoughts about abundance, play, and self-care. (One reason I feel pretty good right now is that I practiced self-care at the conference, taking naps or skipping big social gatherings when I needed to.) I'll post more about my talk and other conference bits later, but right now: a moment of peace and balance, where I can look back content.

(1) : Why I'm Excited About !!Con: Some get-togethers turn into dominance displays -- participants see each other as someone to defeat. We often see this pattern in technical spaces, such as conferences, mailing lists, programming classes, and code review. Skud's 2009 piece "The community spectrum: caring to combative" mentions a few groups who created caring technical subcommunities in response to a competitive or combative culture. Since 2009 we've seen more such efforts -- more and more tidepools where I feel welcome, where I gather strength between trips into the ocean.

Hacker School recognizes that dominance displays discourage learning. For years, Hacker Schoolers have worked to "remove the ego and fear of embarrassment that so frequently get in the way of education", to replace constant self-consciousness with a spirit of play. (Apply now for summer or fall!) During my batch, my peers and I balanced plain old webdev/mobile/etc. projects with obscure languages, magnificently silly jokey toys, and pure beauty. We made fun in our work instead of making fun of each other.

No one "wins" Hacker School. There is no leaderboard. Whenever possible, Hacker School culture assumes abundance rather than scarcity; attempts to rank projects or people would defile our ecology.

And now we have a conference, !!Con, with that same philosophy. It's by Hacker Schoolers but open to anyone* and encouraging talks by everyone.

I love that the !!Con organizers are designing this conference to inclusively celebrate what excites us about programming. If we learn and enjoy ourselves by writing implausible or derivative or useless or gaudy code, and by sharing it with others, the proper response is to celebrate. By focusing on sharing our personal experiences of joy, we let go of dominance-style objective ranking (which is impossible anyway), and instead celebrate a diverse subjectivity. The organizers' choices (including thorough code of conduct, welcoming call for proposals, and anonymous submission review) reinforce this.

I think about this stuff as a geek with many fandoms: programming, scifi, tax history, feminism, open source, comedy, and more. In the best fannish traditions, we see the Other as someone whose fandom we don't know yet but may soon join. We would rather encourage vulnerability, enthusiasm and play than disrespect anyone; we take very seriously the sin of harshing someone else's squee.

This is the fun we make. Not booth babes, not out-nitpicking each other, but wonder.

So, I'm submitting talks to !!Con, and I'm going to be there, May 17-18, soaking in this new warm mossy tidepool of love that's appeared right here in New York City. Join me?

* !!Con will be free to attend, but space will, sadly, be limited, as will the number of talks.

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: Loop: I just reread Lee Iacocca's autobiography, in which he mentioned the loop apprenticeship he did when he first got to Ford. Fog Creek's SMTP and the vaunted Procter & Gamble apprenticeships are a bit like this.

Mel wrote:

Reading about cognitive apprenticeships brings up all sorts of fun moments. For instance, the ideal way to design an apprenticeship experience is to have students do global tasks early on, then local tasks later. Do something that lets them see the big picture (assemble a whole dress) first before focusing on detailed parts (cut out a piece for a dress)....

* teach release engineering first, instead of programming

What would a real open source software apprenticeship flow look like? May First/People Link has an idea, around systems administration. Anyway, I know Mel probably has a zillion thoughts on this and I look forward to reading her thesis, but it's just on my mind and I thought I'd note it down so I can get to sleep.

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(1) : Skillshare: I've been thinking recently about the line "A week in the lab will save you an hour in the library," in the context of how programmers keep reinventing the wheel over and over instead of reviewing each others' code or learning from CS or software engineering research. Part of why lots of programmers don't reflexively ask themselves, who's already solved this problem? is a lack of discoverability. StackOverflow is much better at sharing useful code snippets than it is at shifting searchers' paradigms. So much relevant research is locked up behind paywalls, and even when it's publicly available, naive web searches for my problem won't necessarily match the jargon academics use. And another reason is that programmers need a certain amount of initial cognitive and behavioral training even to recognize what classes of problems we have and notice when we could use help. We don't teach these thought processes in most accredited programming education.

Greg Wilson says that, on average, a Software Carpentry bootcamp saves a participant one day per week for the rest of their working life. That's how valuable those skills are, and how under-taught they are in the general curriculum.

I want practitioners, in general, to effectively learn from each other. As Leonard wrote:

When you design the fifty-eighth microblogging API you're limiting your audience and wasting your users' time.

This is a really huge problem and we won't solve it with a book. But we can point out that it's a problem and take the first step towards mitigation.

We can't afford to waste time; there are real unsolved problems that need our efforts. Reinventing the wheel is spinning our wheels.

Which means, among other things, that we need to be able to teach developers to review code effectively. It's been done before and I'd love for someone to say they've replicated that process, or a similar one, in an open source community.

(1) : On Having a Decade-Old Blog: I've been posting to "Cogito, Ergo Sumana" since late 2000. Sometimes I think about the really old, embarrassing entries from college, and I wince. Today I happened across a post celebrating a blogger's ten-year anniversary that provided a welcome perspective:

I'm not the same person I was. In many, many ways I am ashamed of that person, and I wish I could just go back and erase many of those early entries, because I was terrible and wrong, and I no longer believe those things. But I let them stand, because I don't think we should edit our histories to include only the parts where we spoke and behaved well. I am a little proud of that person, because she did survive, and became me, and so she couldn't have been all bad. I am kinder than I was, although I am harder, too, and often so tired.

: Open Source Jobs (We're Hiring): The Wikimedia Foundation, which employs me, is hiring, a lot. We need your help to:

    Wikimedia Foundation 2013 All Hands Offsite - Day 1 - Photo 23, by Fabrice Florin, for the Wikimedia Foundation (Wikimedia Foundation) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
  1. write code to try new ways to encourage people to edit Wikipedia (Growth engineer)
  2. keep our users' data safe (operations security engineer)
  3. make sure our designers and multimedia engineers build the right things (multimedia product manager)
  4. help other Wikimedians figure out how to design their outreach and mentoring initiatives better and evaluate them for effectiveness, so we learn what works (program evaluation community coordinator)
  5. automate more of the systems that help developers test new code to find bugs early (Test Infrastructure Engineer)
  6. like 14 other jobs, seriously, we're hiring a lot

And of course everything you make at the Wikimedia Foundation is freely licensed, so you can suggest your buddies use it to solve their problems, write public blog posts about it, talk about it at parties and conferences, and link to it on your résumé. Isn't open source rockin'?

(Many WMF workers, including me, telecommute. You might also like our Pluralism, internationalism, and diversity policy.)

Some other places that make open source software or free culture and are hiring: Linaro, MongoDB, Participatory Culture Foundation, CollectionSpace, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Mozilla, Kaltura, Boundless, Acquia, OpenStack-using companies, Varnish Software, Red Hat, InkTank, wikiHow, the libraries and similar institutions seeking Wikimedians/Wikipedians in Residence, Canonical, Collabora, the Linux Foundation, Eucalyptus, New York Public Library Labs, Pro Publica, Nebula, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Open Knowledge Foundation.

That's just a fraction of who's hiring. You can check the FSF jobs board, OPW's list and the liberationtech-jobs mailing list for more.

If you're looking specifically for internships, the OpenHatch list, Google Summer of Code, and Outreach Program for Women should help you.

This is a followup to a similar post I made in late 2012. Erik Moeller and Sumana Harihareswara at Hackathon Mumbai 2011 -18, by Victorgrigas (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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(5) : Tender: I love my spouse. I love the joyous, wondrous expression on programmers' faces when I tell them he wrote Beautiful Soup. I love his published scifi, and his seven-word pulp scifi story ("a scrap of paper on which you'd written in pencil 'MAN HAVE SPACEGUN. explode!! NOW IS SAVE'"). I love the silly dances he does, the astounding puns he makes, and all the rest of his playfulness. I love how supportive he's been of my career -- moving to New York on a month's notice for my job change in 2006 being just one example. And more, of course.

The stats on my blog say I've mentioned Leonard's name 870 times -- 871, once I hit Publish -- and more frequently than "because" or "going" or "every", which feels right. But no number could be sufficient.

It's not our anniversary or his birthday or anything like that. I just wanted to make explicit note that my closeness with my spouse is one of the great facts of my life, a rhythm and melody underlying everything else.

: My Parents, My Cousins: Sometimes I forget that I am a person of color and that the United States has Issues with that. Then I remember, say, the Sacramento Bee saying, "The decision of the United States Supreme Court, that Hindus are not eligible to American citizenship, is most welcome to California." (1923, United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind.) Or I remember September 11, 2001, when my mom and dad frantically searched all of Stockton for a US flag to hang outside our house as protection; since all the stores were sold out, Dad printed something out on our printer and taped it to our doorway.

And I live here.

"Now I prefer cloudy days when the drones don't fly. When the sky brightens and becomes blue, the drones return and so does the fear. Children don't play so often now, and have stopped going to school. Education isn't possible as long as the drones circle overhead."

"[P]retend that you don't see the aircraft".

But I can't.

(1) : Cat, Dog, and Badger Each Own A Bookstore. They Are Friends.: In San Francisco last month, I found out about the bookstore trio of Dog Eared Books, Alley Cat Books, and Badger Books. Immediately I wished for a children's book about the weekly chats of a cat, a dog, and a badger who run companionate bookshops.

So I got illustrations from artists at a Double Union zine workshop, and some materiel and free photocopies from Foolscap to make a zine. This directory holds the 2.7 megabyte scan of the whole page that you could print out and cut and fold into an 8-page booklet, and lower-resolution close-ups of the individual sections, which I display below.

Cat, Dog, and Badger each own a bookstore.
They are friends.

Cat organises large book orders. They club together to get volume discounts.
"If we get a hundred copies of Hyperbole and a Half, the wholesale cost goes down."

Dog sorts out book clubs, special orders, and referrals.
"Sarah Vowell is actually speaking at Badger's on the 19th..."

Badger warns them of bad books. Badger wants to like the books. But...
"REAMDE comes out next week!"
"I wanted Anathem II, not Michael Crichton."

Every Saturday, they have tea together, and reconcile finances.

by Sumana Harihareswara with Sailor Hg, Rose!, Sarah Peters, & Lizzard Amazon
27 Jan 2014, Double Union, San Francisco
2 Feb 2014, Foolscap, Seattle

Foolscap auctioned the original of my zine, gathering about twenty dollars for charity.

I am playing with a followup about a bookstore-owning hedgehog, in honor of my local.

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(1) : License Switch: My ha-ha-only-kidding joke: Everyone thinks they're chaotic good when they're actually lawful neutral.

What rules do I unthinkingly follow? I don't want to reassess my rules every single time I use them; that's paralyzing. And I want the momentum that comes from consistency, and some rules I follow because I am committed to the values beneath them. As "Red Family, Blue Family: Making sense of the values issue" (via Making Light) puts it, "We believe that a life without commitments is superficial and empty." But we choose those commitments; it's not just a default. It means something that I obey laws, because I could choose not to. And every once in a while I should check what conveniences have turned into habits have turned into laws.

Anyway, this is a longwinded way of saying that I finally added a bit more chaos to my life: I switched licenses for this blog. It used to be noncommercial/no derivatives. Now:

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Please copy and paste my advice into IRC chats with volunteers. Please translate things. Please make silly and inspiring things I couldn't have imagined. And please credit the raw material back to me.

(1) : Some Help for New Open Source People: Berlin Hackathon 2012-40 Wikimedia is participating in this year's Google Summer of Code internships and Outreach Program for Women. This week we are seeing a bunch of new folks try to learn how to navigate the world of open source, and I have some advice for you. Some of this ought to go into the Google Summer of Code student manual and the Open Advice collection.

"Doubt": Lots of GSoC candidates are from South Asia. Indians often say "Can you help resolve my doubts?" where US speakers would say "Can you help answer my questions?" "Doubt" and "question" are synonyms here; the Indians aren't implying suspicion.

Wikimedia Hackathon 2013, Amsterdam - Flickr - Sebastiaan ter Burg (10) How we talk: We talk in different places when we want to have different kinds of conversations. Each open source community has "a mailing list, a wiki, and an IRC channel.... a platform for discussion, storage for documentation and real-time communication." (I borrowed this explanation from the hackerspaces wiki.) An IRC channel is a constant waterfall of conversation and you aren't expected to be there all the time or catch everything. A mailing list is more like a slow-moving river, and a wiki changes slower, like a marsh.

AmsterdamHackathon-20130524-2602 Some people prefer for their IRC conversations to be more like mailing lists -- a long, publicly archived conversation where people can see what happened before and take part. Some people prefer for IRC chat to be more like Snapchat -- ephemeral, temporary, so it's easier to be vulnerable. No one agrees on what all of IRC should be. So the community within each channel has a certain culture and each channel can be different. Some channels allow or encourage public logging (example) so anyone can see what happened in the channel. Others don't. This difference is normal.

Wikimedia Hackathon 2013 - Day 3 - Flickr - Sebastiaan ter Burg (32) The rhythm of help: When you are learning how to contribute in open source, you're going to find that people give you links to pages that answer your questions. Here's how that usually goes:

  1. you ask a question
  2. someone directs you to a document
  3. you go read that document, try to use it to answer your question
  4. you find you are confused about a new thing
  5. you ask another question
  6. now that you have shown that you have the ability to read, think, and learn new things, someone has a longer talk with you to answer your new specific question
  7. you and the other person collaborate to improve the document that you read in step 3 :-)
This helps us make a balance between person-to-person discussion and documentation that everyone can read, so we save time answering common questions but also get everyone the personal help they need.

Wikimania 2013 by Ringo Chan 181 What's this project like?: Figuring out whether something's a good project for you is a skill and new folks don't have that skill yet. My friend Mel wrote a guide to how she checks out an open source project -- how she takes five minutes to look on their website for certain things, to see what kind of project it is. It's fine for you to look for projects where you already have friends, or where they have already set up easy tasks for beginners. We hope that in a year you'll be one of the people coming up with new ideas, organizing those easy tasks, and helping the beginners.

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: Robin, Global Forest Watch, and An Implicit Note About Careers: I took several history classes at UC Berkeley. In one of them I met Robin Kraft. He graduated with a BA in history the same year I got my BA in political science. He and I kept in touch a bit after graduation, and in 2009 he mentioned that he'd gotten into Python and gone back to school "to learn GIS wizardry." His project:

we're doing automated mapping of deforestation across the world. Fun!
I gave him tips on source control and open sourceishness, suggested conferences, and so on. He learned Hadoop, R, Clojure, and more.

Today his project launched (see coverage from The Guardian). Robin's Lead Data Architect, Data Lab at the World Resources Institute. And he's one reason we now have a global forest monitoring and alert system.

I'm glad I could help the tiny bit I did. And I'm terrifically glad for multidisciplinary thinkers like Robin.

: A Berkeley Memory: Something like 13 years ago, I agreed to go on a day hike with my then-boyfriend and his group of friends. They all played a lot of games together -- tabletop campaigns, video games I think, the occasional LARP, I don't remember them all. That's approximately all they talked about, and I wasn't interested, so I didn't hang out with them much, which is one reason Dan and I started drifting apart. It was the same way in the van on the way to the hike. I could sing along to a bit of the Weird Al CD, but all the rest of the chat was game game game.

One of his friends, though -- not one of his neighbors in his apartment complex, so not one I saw all the time, but a fellow gamer -- saw that the conversation wasn't engaging me. So he said, hey, can we talk about something everyone's interested in? or something like that. I think he said it more than once, to keep the conversation from leaving me out.

He didn't know me well, and I think he was busy driving the van. I still remember that act of hospitality; it's the thing I remember clearest about that day. I barely remember anyone else from that social circle, who all went with Dan after the breakup anyway. But I remember him. I remember his name, his wallet name, and I remember that he hated it, and I remember his nickname. Thank you, T. I wonder if you remember that day at all.

(2) : Open Source Careers: Yesterday I spoke at an OpenHatch Open Source Comes to Campus event on the other side of the country. The organizers set up a video conference and asked me, and two other people who work in open source, to talk about our careers. (If you are running an event like this, or teach a class or something, I'd probably be happy to do this for you as well.) Some things we mentioned:

  • The three of us get paid pretty darn well. Have I mentioned that I just took a three-month sabbatical? And that I support my spouse, who writes scifi?
  • Companies that make proprietary software often frustratingly limit what their employees can do. I can blog, speak at conferences, swap useful information, and so on without asking lawyers for every little thing. If you haven't dealt with the chilling effects of onerous nondisclosure agreements before, you may underestimate how annoying they are.
  • Many processes we reflexively follow in open source are just good ideas regardless. If you're making software with other people, you'll want to systematically keep track of your shared TODO list (with a bug tracker), track who made what changes to the code and have easy rollback (source control), and talk in one central place with other people to make and document decisions (mailing list or similar). Some closed-source firms don't follow these best practices, and that boggles me and often lands them in The Daily WTF. But open source orgs generally get this right.
  • Do not underestimate the value of meeting people face-to-face. The LWN calendar, Lanyrd, and Meetup can help you find these events. And there's often funding available if you need help getting to conferences, either formally (e.g., WisCon, PyCon, and Wikimania), or informally; try asking.
  • If you are doing anything even remotely related to Python, try to get to PyCon, because the people are friendly and the sprints are invaluable. [This of course said by someone other than me, as this year will be my first PyCon!]

By the way, I should also link to this one-hour video on the realities of open source careers. Cynical in some ways, and I particularly disagree with the speaker on the matter of references; you should not assume that the hiring manager isn't going to directly call the references you provide, and ask them interesting questions. And the emphasis on unpaid work can go awry, and I started rolling my eyes at the oversimplifications halfway through (e.g., the idea that an employment contract means literally nothing). But the talk also has some truths that students don't hear often enough.

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(3) : Hasty Reviews of Recent Books: I have been reading a lot of books lately and not blogging about them. This reign of non-terror must end! I am trying to note what I've read over the past, like, five or six months, so I will be super inconsistent in detail, and I bet I'm missing stuff.

Justine Larbalestier's Liar. Interesting! I believe Naamen at Borderlands noted, when I bought this, that it had a relatively non-annoying unreliable narrator. That seems very likely, but I still itch at unreliable narrators. At least this text foregrounds a woman's experience!

Ellen Ullman's By Blood. The narrator is not unreliable, but he does have bad ... whatever the emotional equivalent of metacognition is. As always with Ullman, you get closely observed characters going through uncomfortable changes in life and identity, and mildly Dick/Kafka-y paranoia (more Dick-esque because it's in California). There is also a super dramatic monologue about Europe and the Jewish experience that I read aloud to Leonard.

Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang. AMAZING. Read it read it read it. I should have listened to Brendan years ago. The ending makes me tear up when I think about it, but in a good, inspiring way. McHugh takes a kind-of dystopia and shows you regular people living their lives, taking courses, changing jobs, dating, moving, feeling cold, talking to friends. Including some on Mars. It's inspiring the way Quinn Norton talks about Hitchhiker's Guide being inspiring, in her essay in She's Such a Geek; the book starts with the end of the world but after that people are still living and doing stuff. (And there's fanfic.) Did you know Patrick Nielsen Hayden of Tor found this in the slush pile (of unsolicited novel manuscripts)? I'm sorry, I am incoherent about this book, read it. It is what science fiction can be.

Octavia Butler's Bloodchild & Other Stories. The title story sticks in my mind, as does "Speech Sounds". Worth reading, but pretty short. Reminds me that I want to go read the novels of hers I haven't read yet.

Jacob Shapiro's The Terrorist's Dilemma (previously). I was telling people anecdotes from this for months. The poor copyediting bothered me, but I loved the schadenfreude, the thought-provoking insights, and the bibliography. I do think there are some management tips in there as well.

Lauren Beukes's Zoo City. If you liked Moxyland but wanted a touch more fantasy, you'll like this. I like detective stories and I like seeing social milieus I don't ordinarily see, and I think Beukes does well on both.

Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice. As I said, it blew my head off, in a great way. Ancillary Justice's viewpoint character used to be a starship and hasn't quite gotten used to being a woman. (Have any of us?) I think this book integrated fist-punching-related adventure with flashbacks and thinky conversations and interstellar intrigue and music really well. You can read the first chapter now. Ancillary Justice stands alone as a book, but I am looking forward to the next book almost as much as I am looking forward to Vikram Seth's A Suitable Girl.

Thomas Disch's Camp Concentration. Kind of like By Blood in that our narrator, though super erudite, has a snobbish outlook that makes my skin crawl a bit. At least Camp Concentration's poet/conscientious objector/diarist has a witty side. A hasty web search reveals that no one has yet compiled a list of the super-obscure words Disch uses on every page, e.g., hypogeal, daedal, epalpibrate. You could probably put something together with word frequency stats and an ebook, if you felt like it! Also Camp Concentration has a multipage syphilitic rant that I skimmed; hallucinations tend to lose me. (At least it wasn't as boring as that giant radio speech in the middle of Atlas Shrugged!) Still, I'm glad I've now read one Disch. It's memorable, and more accessible than I feared.

Jo Walton's My Real Children, as an Advance Reader's Copy (it comes out in May). I gobbled this up like nobody's business; it's compulsively readable, and inspiring. Walton pays attention to the concrete domestic details of real people's lives (as in Lifelode), she demonstrates the different ways we show our love through work (love made visible), and she foregrounds women's experiences -- especially around some aspects I don't see described enough. Read the first chapter online. Pick it up when it comes out.

Adam Hochschild's Bury the Chains. I reread most of this as comfort reading. Great footnotes and anecdotes, as always.

John Scalzi's Redshirts. I resisted for ages; it just felt like Scalzi was pandering to me, an intelligent Star Trek fan inclined to meta. Then the Hugo. Then one or two people I knew saying they liked it. Finally yesterday came the news of the TV series. So I bought it today and read it. Verdict: it is exactly as popcorn, as once-in-a-while tearjerky, as fast-paced, as clearly written, as everyone-sounds-alike, and as controlled as you thought it was going to be. It's like Agent to the Stars, down to the well-timed Mexican-food-induced toilet break. If you want an interesting take on Redshirts's subject matter, with more interiority and a less well-trodden adventure story, check out Expendable by James Alan Gardner (whose main character, by the way, is a woman of color).

E.B. White's Trumpet of the Swan. I reread this for comfort while ill, I think. It stands up. I love all of White's little touches, like the guy who gets so agitated at a little kid's irresponsible BB-gun firing that he goes home and writes a letter to the editor supporting gun control. Also, have you noticed how Trumpet and Charlotte's Web both implicitly praise kids who can keep still and watch animals quietly, and show you brief sketches of less admirable boys yucking it up?

Yael Kohen's We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy. I think I haven't quite finished this yet. Whenever you're doing oral history of an entire industry you'll run into sad gaps where specific people won't speak on the record. We Killed suffers from that a little. But gosh how interesting it is! Reading this reminds me of the diversity of women in US comedy the way that Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, or Hacker School, remind me of the diversity of women in programming. I like learning about our different approaches -- to the content and to our careers in general. Back in November of 2002 a now-friend saw me perform for the first time and thought I reminded him of a young Margaret Cho. Knowing what I know now, I think I'm more like Paula Poundstone or Ellen Degeneres. (If I could split myself into several Sumanas, one would travel around in a techmobile teaching random North Americans digital literacy, one would research best practices in missiology/Communism/Amway/terrorism/etc. so we could use them in FLOSS, one would go to a different tech conference every few days doing corporate comedy, one would do an entry level coding job, and and and and.)

Allie Brosh's Hyperbole and a Half. Exactly what you're used to from the site but more of it. The last few pieces, on identity, gave me pause; Brosh turns from catch-my-breath funny to Dostoyevsky-level observant and I hope she keeps it up.

Brian K. Vaughan's Saga graphic novels. Love it, just like Mary Anne.

Baratunde Thurston's How To Be Black. I read aloud great swaths of this to Leonard because Thurston's so incisive and funny. I like how Thurston uses the experiences of his acquaintances to get different perspectives on the issues he covers; if you liked the "wait, how many sons did Dasharatha have?" arguments in Sita Sings the Blues, you'll enjoy Thurston's Council. And Thurston tore several "ohhh wow" bitter laugh/groans from me, the most I can recall since reading America: The Book. Very worthwhile.

Several chapters from The Architecture of Open Source Applications (yay case studies! They helped me wrap my head around other big codebases) and from The Practice of Programming (reassuring in that we-all-have-problems way, but I'll return and reread once I know Java or C and can read the examples).

Lizz Winstead's Lizz Free or Die. I admire Lizz Winstead for making a career out of political comedy and for achieving so much. But I found Lizz Free or Die sort of disappointing; I wanted more Daily Show details, and of course you're gonna compare this book to Bossypants and it just isn't as witty and memorable.

I'm partway through Thomas Pynchon's Bleeding Edge, and gosh it's disorienting to have Pynchon's random obscure references be things I know, e.g., the "CSS IS AWESOME" mug, rather than seventies hippie stuff. I love the prose like I always do, and the zany adventures, and a complicated and sympathetic view of the (female) protagonist's sexual life. I will probably have to just start this book over at some point to load all the backstory and minor characters into my head, and then report in full here after I'm done.

Just started: Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. I think this is pandering to me as much as Redshirts but I don't really mind. I'm loving it the same way I loved Gawande's Better.

Tracy Kidder's Strength in What Remains. (Read an excerpt.) What kind of person lives through atrocities, has to flee his country, and then comes back to try to do good? Who helps him? It's all that, and it's by Tracy Kidder, so you know it's good. The way he works on the school-building, in the end, and the stance he takes towards community help, is making me think about how I try to make change.

Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions. This short, sharp book helped me see what 1960s Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) felt like to a gifted black girl, and vividly details how people interact with each other -- and how sometimes they hurt when they're just trying to help. I'm glad Bluestockings stocks it.

And speaking of bookstores: I have bought a lot more books now that I have an independent bookstore within walking distance of my flat. Astoria Bookshop sells a fine selection and does special orders cheerfully. Yay!

Filed under:

(1) : Doldrums: I've been sick for something like the last six weeks, so Leonard booked an appointment for me and I finally saw a doctor. It's such a nasty trick that illness leeches away the energy one needs to fight illness properly; I'm so lucky to have a partner who's willing to manage those details and take care of me. He made an extra trip, tromping through the slush in his boots, to get my meds at the pharmacy.

In recent years I'd gotten better at not confusing momentary physical fatigue or mood weather with persistent problems that need fixing, but it gets harder to distinguish when the ought-to-be-ephemeral things last for so long. Various boxes with lots of fine print now surround me and soup is in the offing. I hope they help.

Once, Leonard and I had to have a difficult conversation. As I gulped breath and tried to get up the gumption to go into the living room and talk with him about this thing, I did a bit of math. There are maybe 350 million people in the US, which means tens of millions of couples - maybe even a hundred million couples, just in my country. Some tiny fraction of those couples had the same problem, so, maybe twenty thousand? And it might take years for the couples to talk about it, and there are three hundred and sixty-five days in a year, but even so, I thought, there must be at least a few other couples having this same hard talk tonight, maybe five. I imagined them as points of light, with bright lines crisscrossing the continent to connect us.

Just the hypothetical existence of this community calmed me. We are not alone, we can't be. We talked and came out the other side together. This illness will pass. Spring is coming.

Filed under:

: Foolscap Followup: I'm currently at Foolscap, a hospitable and thoroughly delightful scifi/fantasy convention in the Seattle area. Leonard is a Guest of Honor and I get to be his consort. This year Foolscap takes place in Redmond, which means I am exactly "as lonesome as a Linux user in Redmond," but it turns out that doesn't have to be too lonesome!

Some links and whatnot I've meant to give people:

(This is probably incomplete. It's been a fun con and it's not over yet!)

Filed under:

: Plunge: It is easier for me to write a confrontational email in which I will disappoint someone than for me to open up a coding problem that I fear I will fail at. With the former, I know the territory; I know the rhythms of anxiety and release, I know viscerally that this practice will never stop and that I'll just get asymptotically better. With the latter I still obscurely fear some definitive NO telling me I'm no good at this, and I don't quite have enough experience of quietly positive outcomes to salve the scars away.

I draw upon my memories of Hacker School and I remember that growth is change, and I start up the video game music and a task in Project Hamster, and I switch to Emacs.

: Interesting-Looking Talks at PyCon 2014: PyCon 2014 This year I'm going to visit PyCon! In fact, I'm presenting a poster: "What Hacker School Taught Me About Community Mentoring". You should register soon if you're coming, especially to take advantage of heavily subsidized childcare or to register for one of the tutorials.

Someone on one of my mailing lists asked what sessions people are particularly looking forward to. I tend to follow Skud's conference tips, which mean skipping sessions when I need to do self-care. But with such great-sounding talks, I may not be able to pull myself away!

  • Allison Kaptur's "Import-ant decisions". Kaptur is a facilitator at Hacker School and I enjoy her thinking process, areas of interest, and speaking style. I know I'll learn more about package management in general, and about Python specifically, from this talk.

  • Jessica McKellar's "Building & breaking a Python Sandbox". McKellar did a residency in my Hacker School batch during which I got to see a preview of this talk, so I may not go again, but I found it thought-provoking; it helped me understand how Python works in a new way.

  • Erik Rose's "Designing Poetic APIs". I met Erik Rose at a Google Summer of Code Mentor Summit and thought he was a really smart and fun guy. I've never designed an API before (thus I also want to go to the novice-focused "So You Want to Build an API?" by Megan Speir), and I like that his discussion will include anthroplogy, psychology, and history.

  • Nathan Yergler's "In Depth PDB". I am one of the programmers the speaker sadly mentions; I rarely use it, if at all, even though it would be great to help me see when and why things are breaking!

  • A localisation talk, maybe this one, because I think the Python application I'm working with right now just has hardcoded strings (aiee, bad).

  • One of the SQLAlchemy talks, maybe this one, because I don't grok how to use SQLAlchemy yet. However I have registered for the SQLAlchemy in-depth tutorial so one may duplicate the other.

  • Julia Evans's "Diving into Open Data with IPython Notebook & Pandas". I enjoy Julia Evans's investigation process and her speaking and writing style. (See my post "Why Julia Evans's Blog Is So Great".) I have never used IPython Notebook nor matplotlib, numpy, pandas, or any of the other awesome science/data-related Python tools, and keep meaning to; this talk should help me with that.

  • Greg Wilson's "Software Carpetry: Lessons Learned". I am a tremendous fan of Wilson's work - Software Carpentry, the books he's edited, etc. The SC crowd has collected a lot of data (e.g. surveys of learners at their bootcamps) and I will probably want to soak in their lessons learned and shout about them to every other teach-y group I'm in.

  • Naomi Ceder's "Farewell and Welcome Home: Python in Two Genders". I want to learn more about the experiences of trans women in my open source communities.

  • Kate Heddleston, Nicole Zuckerman, presenting "Technical on-boarding, training, and mentoring". I do this task in my open source communities so I want to learn more best practices.

I'm thoroughly looking forward to my first PyCon. (I stopped by one for like an hour in 2003 and helped at the registration desk; I guess it took me eleven years to get to the other side of the desk!)

(1) : Cleaning My Virtual Room: In late December 2013, my personal email inbox got to over six thousand emails. Many of them had been there for years. I was using nearly no filtering, and so there was important stuff in there that I just forgot about. It caused me a lot of anxiety. I knew the kinds of tips Val suggests, like setting up filters and avoiding abusing "unread" markers, but I had just not kept up this hygiene, and it was getting to me. I have been a bad correspondent for years, and my overwhelming inbox is part of why.

Therefore, the last days of 2013, I rapidly went through big swaths of them -- Twitter notifications, a few less relevant mailing lists, and so on. By the minute 2014 started, I was down to two thousand. I started using Beeminder to track my goal: down to 10 messages in my inbox by the end of January 18th.

Today's the 18th. I'm at 160 messages. And this is the hard stuff, now. Here I find the heartfelt notes I saved for reading later, then didn't read for months, then felt embarrassed about. Here lie the year-old "here's my address since you promised to send me something!" notes. Here I see stories I promised to give feedback on, guest posts for Geek Feminism I started arranging, invitations to my cousins' weddings in India, followups from friendly people I met at PICC 2011 or Open Source Bridge 2012.

(155 now.)

I am in a comfortable apartment, in reasonably good health, in no physical danger. And yet my body reacts to looking at these letters. It's absurdly hard work.



Doing this requires confronting my past negligence and remembering that I may have hurt people by that negligence. And thinking about tasks I've put off.


I'm reminded of Paul Ford's "Cleaning My Room", in which Ford talks about his years of slovenliness and then a sudden urge "to face down the beast of disorder".

Now I've reached 143, that old pager code for "I love you," and am reminded of that old saw, "Work is love made visible."

about Sumana Harihareswara


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