Cogito, Ergo Sumana

picture of Sumana's head

Sumana Harihareswara's journal


: Love Wins: I took the train west to Open Source Bridge and AlterConf, crossing in and out of states that supported or prohibited same-sex marriage. And then, a week ago, the Supreme Court's ruling changed that landscape. I crossed a freer country, on my way back home.

Nine years ago I wrote a now-obsolete newspaper column asking how long the waiting period would have to be. I am so glad that period is over. Consider reading the full opinion, and the dissents.


: Apology: Earlier today, during my stand-up comedy act at AlterConf Portland, I failed at living up to the AlterConf code of conduct and to my act's title, "Stand-Up Comedy that Doesn't Hurt". I made a joke that hurt members of the audience. The joke was in a section about attempts to be perceived as a cis ally:

I try to be intersectional in the media I consume, and sometimes that leads to carbon credit-style bargaining, like, "How many memoirs by trans women of color do I have to read before I go see 'Avengers: Age of Ultron'"? [laughter] And then sometimes there's cheating on that diet, like, "Does 'Mrs. Doubtfire' count?"

In this joke, it is not clear enough that the cis ally narrator is completely wrong to categorize "Mrs. Doubtfire" as having anything to do with the goal of reading and supporting trans narratives. I won't make it again and I'm sorry that I made a joke that hurt.

For this act I practiced in front of audiences that included trans people, and I asked them for feedback, but I was not thorough enough about checking beyond that for offensive material. In the future I'll be more thorough.

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: HTTP Can Do That?! and Comedy: I'm speaking at Open Source Bridge - June 23-26, 2015 - Portland, OR On Wednesday of next week (June 24th) I'm presenting "HTTP Can Do That?!" at Open Source Bridge in Portland, Oregon.

I have explored weird corners of HTTP -- malformed requests that try to trick a site admin into clicking spam links in 404 logs, an API that responds to POST but not GET, and more. In this talk I'll walk you through those (using Python, netcat, and other tools you might have lying around the house).

I practiced this talk Tuesday night at the Recurse Center and it went well; people learned a lot about headers, verbs, status codes, and odd HTTP loopholes, and gave me constructive criticism so next week's version will be clearer.

I have also suggested a Birds of a Feather evening session called "Nothing Is Totally Incomprehensible If We Try Together" but don't yet know whether or when it will happen.

Then, at AlterConf Portland on Saturday, June 27th, I'll be performing some stand-up comedy for hippie nerds. I thought about trying to cram 100 punchlines into my 45-minute HTTP talk, but I don't think I'll be able to achieve that -- people need to understand something before they can understand a joke about it -- so it'll be nice to get 4 or 5 laughs per minute during the stand-up on Saturday.


: On Wednesday Eve Was Not In Nyack: Yesterday evening Leonard and I watched a couple of Mathnet stories, including "The Case Of the Unkidnapping" (hence the post title), and including one I don't remember seeing before, "The Problem of the Dirty Money." The latter includes a Mr. Roark who runs a construction company called Roark, Atlas & Shrugged. Sadly no other Rand jokes are in the offing.

Watching as an adult, I appreciate George's particularly wacky attitude, the way Frankly and Monday thoroughly prepare a young viewer to enjoy Mulder and Scully, and the meta-message -- sometimes explicitly voiced -- that if you're going to solve a problem, you have to try a lot of approaches, and some of them won't work, and that's okay, and you keep trying.


: New Vid: Pipeline: I've made a new fanvid: "Pipeline". It's a little over 3 minutes long and cuts together about 50 different sources (documentaries, movies, TV, comics, coding bootcamp ads, and more) over Taylor Swift's song "Blank Space". My launch blog post on Dreamwidth goes into more detail and includes links to download it. You can stream it at Critical Commons (choose View High Quality for best experience) and I embed the video below:

It's CC BY-SA; please feel free to redistribute, link, remix, and so on, as long as you attribute me as the vidder and distribute your changes under the same license. Comments are welcome, though moderated.


: Missing Women in FLOSS Philosophy, and Borrowing Models from Fandom: I've arrived in Madison for WisCon! And just in time for WisCon:

I have a blog post up (in two parts) focusing on the frameworks that we free software/open source folks often take for granted, what might have been erased from our FLOSS intellectual heritage due to sexism, what FLOSS might look like under a different approach, and what practices and perspectives we might borrow from the fan fiction/fanvidding realm of speculative fiction and media fandom.

Part 1 is up at Crooked Timber as the guest post "Where are the women in the history of open source?" Part 2 is up at Geek Feminism as "What if free and open source software were more like fandom?"

Please feel free to comment at CT or GF.


(1) : WisCon Schedule: I'll be at WisCon starting tomorrow and leaving on Tuesday. I am scheduled to participate in these sessions:

  1. Imaginary Book Club, Fri, 4:00-5:15 pm in Conference 2. Five panelists discuss books that don't exist, improvising critiques and responses. I proposed this panel a few years ago (you can see video of its debut) and it has continued, which is cool!
  2. Lighthearted Shorthand Sans Fail, Sat, 8:30-9:45 am in Capitol A. What are your go-to phrasings to avoid sexism, ableism, etc. while getting your point across in casual conversation? I hope to walk out of this with some new vocabulary to replace bad habits.
  3. Vid Party, Saturday night 9:00 pm-Sun, 3:00 am in room 629. I am premiering a fanvid. Once it's premiered, I'll hit Post on blog posts to announce it publicly as well.
  4. Call Out Culture II: Follow-up to the Discussion Held at WisCon 38, Sun, 10:00-11:15 am in Senate A. Meta-discussion around discourse in social justice movements. I predict this session will be pretty intense.
  5. Vid Party Discussion, Sun, 1:00-2:15 pm in Assembly. We will discuss some of the vids shown at the vid party, and fan vids in general. This will be the first time I've engaged in public realtime conversation about fanvids. Before this panel I hope to publish some notes about what I learned from watching several vids that drew from multiple sources (including stills), made a political point, or were otherwise particularly ambitious. I'll probably reference those lessons during the panel.

I also proposed "What Does Feminist Tech Education Look Like?", "Impostor Syndrome Training Exercise", and "Entry Level Discussion Group", but am not a panelist or presenter for those sessions; I bet they'll be interesting, though, and you could do worse than to check them out. You can read Entry Level ahead of time for free online.

I look like the photo to the left. I am often bad with names, and will remember 5 minutes into our conversation that we had an awesome deep conversation three years prior. I apologize in advance.

If you are good at clothes, consider joining me at the Clothing Swap portion of the Gathering on Friday afternoon to help me find pieces that suit me. I'm introducing two old pals to WisCon and spending a lot of time with them (we live in different cities), and they're both white, so I might not be able to come to the People of Color dinner on Friday night. And sadly, The Floomp dance party on Saturday happens during the Vid Party so I probably can't attend that. I did buy a ticket for the Dessert Salon and will attend the Guest of Honor and Tiptree Award speeches on Sunday, and maybe you will be at my table!

One of my pals who's coming to WisCon is Beth Lerman, an artist who will be displaying and selling her work in the art show. Check it out!

Also I am open to doing a small room performance of my half-hour geeky stand-up comedy routine if several people ask for it. I don't know when or where it would be; Monday night would be easiest. Speak up in comments or some other medium if you'd be interested.


: Recompiler, Passionate Voices, Book Club, A Soviet Spy, and More: A few announcements:

We have three days left to fund The Recompiler, a new technology magazine that will combine tutorials and technical articles with personal narratives and art. My household has now funded this campaign and I hope to attend the launch party in Portland next month. I particularly loved seeing (via the video on Indiegogo) that 2600 is one of the inspirations for The Recompiler. 2600 has many virtues, but it pays people in a free t-shirt or a year's worth of issues of the magazine. I am looking forward to seeing The Recompiler pay people to write "you can totally do this, here's how" high-quality technical articles.

My old boss Erik is running a new video interview series called "Passionate Voices" and kicked it off by interviewing me (72 minutes); if you are interested in my work on inclusive communities, my thoughts on codes of conduct, and my reflections on the Recurse Center, you might want to watch this.

In about ten days, I'll be leading a Geek Feminism book club on Courtney Milan's Trade Me -- read the first chapter free online, get hooked, and snarfle down the rest by May 28th so you can participate in the comment thread.

Also on Geek Feminism, I posted a quick note about the word "girl" in the name of superhero Supergirl.

Finally: I met some pretty interesting people via the Columbia master's program I did. And for several years, I've known Jack Barsky as a mentor, a tech executive, and a friend. He's now the subject of a profile by 60 Minutes because, no joke, he used to be a Soviet spy. This guy who gave me important advice, who always got to the heart of the matter and had super emotionally honest conversations with me, has a past that sounds beyond melodramatic. I was not aware until this month of all the twists and turns within his story, and I am honestly still processing it. Give it a look.


: My Thoughts on Two Ken MacLeod Works: Crooked Timber invited me and other writers to discuss the work of science fiction author Ken MacLeod. Thus, I have a new post up at CT: "Games, simulation, difference and insignificance in The Restoration Game & The Human Front". Henry Farrell, Farah Mendlesohn, Cosma Shalizi and Jo Walton have joined me in writing about various aspects of MacLeod's work, and after their posts go live, CT will also be publishing a response by MacLeod.

My post includes a joke about Trotsky's death and a note about what the year 1947 means to me (not Roswell), and starts:

I had, frankly, been afraid of trying to read Ken MacLeod, because I wasn't sure I had the prerequisite domain knowledge. I studied Russian and majored in Political Science at UC Berkeley, and wasn't sure that this had given me enough expertise on the history of Communism to jump into his work. Now that I've overcome this fear, I should check whether there's a market for a MOOC, "Remedial Ken MacLeod Prerequisites," in which I discuss leftism in the twentieth century, MacLeod's crony and former Big Pharma dispenser Charles Stross, and the landscape of rural Scotland, or, "Reds, meds, and sheds."

Check it out! Comments are live over on Crooked Timber.

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: Geeky Standup Comedy May 8th and 12th in Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY: Sumana doing standup at the Wikimedia Foundation in 2011 Have you ever thought, "I wish Sumana Harihareswara would do further standup comedy about project management, Linux, relationships, Agile, public transit, science fiction, and These Kids Today"?

Here you go. I'm giving at least two performances this month.

This Friday May 8th, 8:30pm-9pm, I'll be doing about a half-hour set at 257 12th St. in Brooklyn. Admission is free.

Then, Tuesday May 12th, I'm the opener for sketch comedy group Think Pound, also at 257 12th St. in Brooklyn. My performance is 8-8:30pm. Admission is free. I will perform nearly the exact same material, but I may additionally be leading some Powerpoint Karaoke.

The venue's in Park Slope, Brooklyn, near the 9th Street R stop and the 4th Avenue F/G stop.

Both of these performances will help me prepare for my gig at AlterConf Sessions in Portland, Oregon on June 27th. Please come, and feel free to invite friends!

Sumana performing stand-up comedy in Berkeley a decade ago
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: A Hiking Trip: In February I got an email from my pal Jane:

Subject: Long shot: Hiking in TN at end of April?

moss and log in sunlight This led to a fun hiking trip last week in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I took Amtrak south and Jane picked me up in Raleigh. The long drive west gave us a chance to begin catching up. We walked to the Alum Cave Bluffs and to Rainbow Falls, and we did the Bud Ogle nature walk near a falling-apart sluice mill, all accompanied by the very helpful Falcon guide Hiking Great Smoky Mountains National Park by Kevin Adams. Our timing evidently helped us get a lot of the trails to ourselves, as we missed both the wildflower-loving spring crowd and the family-vacation summer crowd, and forecasts had predicted more rain than actually occurred. Few hikers were around to mind our duets of "Union Maid" or "Goodnight Ladies/Peck A Little, Talk A Little" or "Women and Men".

After my Coast-to-Coast walks through England, during which I developed wayfinding hygiene approaching paranoia, I found the trails in the Smokies super well-marked. (Right after Rainbow Falls we did overshoot, but I blame that on our inadequately attentive reading of the guidebook.) Also we saw a deer, and a weasel, right on the trails! And we saw a mama bear with her three cubs, safely across a valley from us, but still! Wild black bears!

these rocks jutting out of a hillside remind me of frogsAnd then I got to spend May Day in Asheville, North Carolina with my friend David. I caught "Loving After Lifetimes of All This" at The Center for Craft, Creativity, and Design, and thus discovered the amazing art/zine partnership Temporary Services; I particularly appreciated their Group Work: A Compilation of Quotes About Collaboration from a Variety of Sources and Practices (PDF link), and now that I've glimpsed a neat-looking booklet about Madison in their exhibit, I'm planning to seek it when I go to WisCon in a few weeks. We filled the evening with a May Day rally, a whomping performance of A Streetcar Named Desire, and the end of a Beltane celebration. I read a lot during my Saturday bus ride eastwards through North Carolina, and then Saturday evening I saw live roots rock near Raleigh. And during the train northwards, I did a good six hours of work on my fanvid.

Spring came back to New York City while I was away. I'm thinking about spring cleaning, and about what I want to make room for. Making things, yes, code and art. More live music, live theater, hiking, and long chats with friends I rarely see, who live very different lives. Changing and allowing myself to be changed.


(1) : Technothriller Book Review Partially In The Form Of A Python Exercise:

cover of 'Hackster'

I am glad I read Hackster: The Revolution Begins..., a technothriller by Sankalp Kohli and Paritosh Yadav taking place in modern-day India. It's plotty and passionate and tense, and it's about Indians to whom India is the center of the universe. But it's also got major problems. Here are some quotes:

It was now time to attain answers. And he had found his answers in SNAGROM -- a device conceptualized by his father, but built and made operational by him with a few modifications to avenge the death of his patriotic father who had sacrificed his whole life for the progress of beloved country, India, only to be publicly humiliated and pronounced a terrorist with links to Pakistan's ISI by the ruling party of India, The Democratic Alliance Party. [p. 23]


Mr. Bedi, Vikram's father, was a scientist. He had the unique ability to solve problems by using concepts of one domain, into an altogether different one - something which most academicians couldn't do. His papers and theories on early meta-systems had brought a fresh perspective and direction into the scientific community. In his papers, he reduced the bigger problems into simple ones. He put it very simply, a meta-system is a system based on other systems. [p. 35]


Arjun could feel this guy getting to him.... he was not a person who took even the smaller defeats sportingly. For him defeat was accompanied by a splurge of vengeance. [p. 68]


"It seems like he had conceptualized a system that replicated the modern day concept of Big Data trackers and used it to come out with trends which were closer to reality." Vikram whispered to himself. [p. 78]


But, was it all because of one man? How could a single man cause so much havoc? It must have been 'the system'. [p. 111]


For ten years, he had used his peculiar ability to suppress all sorts of mutiny within the alliance with an ease that always surprised everyone around him. Nobody had ever seen him running across the country to meet the influential people in times of crisis. He would simply make a private phone call and follow up the next day. The matter would be resolved. [p. 152]

So I didn't love the prose or the characterization. And one plot thread in Hackster disproportionately bothered me.

In the scene below, two guys are investigating a break-in by Vikram, a super-elite hacker. Vikram broke into the Srinagar police department's "criminal database" to remove his friend Ashfaq's name from "the list of arms dealer with a pending investigation" (sic). Initially, police investigators had overlooked the incursion: "They termed it a routine hack failure." [p. 17-18] But this new anti-cybercrime unit digs deeper. For context, both authors of Hackster have MBAs, one "in the field of telecom technology," and in the Acknowledgement they thank someone for cybersecurity advice.

"He deleted one entry and then used a jumbler on all the others."

"So?"

"After deleting the entry, he covered his track by jumbling up the names of all the people in the list. I tried running a point to point match between the shuffled copy of this list with an older correct copy, but none of the names matched. In short the whole list is corrupted, and we will not be able to make anything out of it easily. It is a long list. It has too many names. This guy is a genius." [p. 51-52]

But then Aarti, a top-shelf cybersecurity expert, succeeds at extracting the name "Ashfaq Ahmed Karim":

"He didn't know that entire data of servers of police department gets automatically stored in tape drives at the end of each month. These tape drives are detached from the servers and are stored in a secret location. I took out an older version of Illegal Arms Dealer List from the backup tape drives and then wrote a program to match each word of the older list with the newer one and rearranged the new list accordingly."

Sumit and Rao watched her with awe as she continued further, "Even the most advanced computer of ours took two days to complete this activity and give us this one name. This one lead should help us to take a step closer to our target." [p. 82]

My suspension of disbelief at this point broke so hard that it sent shards into nearby brick walls, where they remain, softly vibrating. I'm willing to set aside, for the sake of fiction, how badly guarded this data is, and why does Aarti have to go to the tape drive if there's an older version of the list more readily available, and why are they acting like this is a giant string rather than a set of rows in a table in a relational database and thus amenable to additional forensic techniques. Even so: this kind of puzzle is practically a junior programmer's intro-to-Python exercise. You could do this in bash; you could do it in Excel. And unless the Srinagar police department is tracking pending investigation against literally millions of arms dealers, a bog-standard developer's laptop could run that script in, mmm, 20 minutes.

findmissingname.py is 31 lines including commentsHmmmmmmmm, how long would it actually take? I decided to try to replicate this, without even trying very hard and while listening to a Taylor Swift album on repeat. I took the 417 names from the Nielsen Haydens' old blogroll, put them into a file separated by newlines (bloggers-archive.txt), and then removed one name, and saved the new file as bloggers.txt. Ah but now I want to obfuscate it! So I pulled all the names apart into their component words and shuffled them randomly and then wrote that back to a file (code: obfuscate.py). The new, jumbled list looks suitably forbidding:

Cox
MacLeod
Tami
Laura
Political
Scratchings
David
American
Boing
Farah

My findmissingname.py script does not bother to "rearrange the new list accordingly" because what Aarti really wants is the missing name. findmissingname.py spits out the two words in the missing name, and it takes 0.04 seconds to do so on a ThinkPad. And I'm bone certain I could optimize performance further.

This points to an asymmetry I had not previously noticed regarding what will and will not break my suspension of disbelief. When I'm reading scifi or technothrillers, I am reasonably fine with magic zoom-enhance, encryption, robotics, and other implausible advances. I can deal with it if you have way cooler toys than exist in my world, if you tell me something hard for me is easy for you. But if you try to tell me that something easy for intermediate-skilled me is hard for hella competent world-class experts with best-of-breed gadgets, I laugh, because you're ridiculous.

I am married to a programmer whose code has literally been used to catch an illegal arms dealer. I highly doubt this repository is going to have a similar impact. But hey, I learned something new about my genre reading conventions and I practiced my Python 3.

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: How Knowledge Workers Can Learn More About Open Source Tools They Use: Yesterday I spent an hour teaching a woman whose nonprofit wants improvements to their current Drupal setup, especially around content approval workflow and localization. She wanted to understand more about how Drupal works so that she can understand the potential problems and solutions better, and be a better partner to her technical colleagues.

I talked with her a little about those specific questions, but most of what I taught her would be appropriate to any knowledge worker who wants to learn more about an open source web application. I pointed her to some resources and figured they were worth mentioning here as well.

Since she may end up with a test server so she can play with Drupal modules and configuration, I also talked with her a bit about what it means to ssh into a server, the fact that she will probably have to install new software (a console or terminal application) on her Windows computer in order to do that, and the basics of how public key infrastructure and SSH keypairs work, and why they're more secure than just using a username and password. I did this without notes or links, so I don't have any to offer here; perhaps you have a favorite explanation you'll share in the comments?

Overall in these kinds of conversations I refrain from saying "do this" or "do that", but I did share these two bits of wisdom:

  1. When you generate a keypair, the .pub file is the one to give other people, and the other one you keep to yourself.
  2. Make an effort to remember that passphrase. Otherwise you will be unable to use your key, and you have to have a slightly embarrassing conversation where you say "here's the new .pub because I forgot my passphrase for the old one," and it delays whatever you were going to do. But I showed her my ~/.ssh directory with all those old keys I can no longer access, and told her that if she does end up needing to make a new keypair, she is in good company, and basically everyone with an SSH key has gone through this at least once.

We talked about getting her a community of practice so she could have more people to learn from. She now knows of the local Drupal group and of some get-togethers of technologists in her professional community. And she has some starting points so she can ask more productive questions of the technologists within her org.

And this stuff is frustrating, and if you feel that way, that's okay; lots of other people feel that way too, and maybe it just means you need to try a new approach.


: Marconi Plays The Mamba, Listen To The Radio: screen capture of 'Another Sunday'When Leonard and I lived in the Bay Area and drove south to Bakersfield to see his mom every few months, he got a satellite radio subscription. I'd navigate the music channels and look at the device to see the name of the artist and ask him to guess. When he couldn't tell, he often guessed "REM" (for loud stuff) or "Belle & Sebastian" (for quiet stuff).

Right now I'm working on an ambitious fanvidding project and am thus watching a bunch of other ambitious fanvids (e.g., chaila's "Watershed", danegen's "Around the Bend", counteragent's "Coin Operated Boy") to take notes on technique (e.g., exactly how many 100%-dark frames serve as a good stutter in frightening montages, versus how many blank frames help reset the eye and prepare it for a new sequence). Just now I was watching "Another Sunday" by Jescaflowne, set to "We Built This City" by Jefferson Starship. I checked the timecode scrubber. "Hey Leonard," I said facetiously. "Did you know that rock songs used to be four and a half minutes long?"

He looked at my screen as we made up Freakonomics-worthy nonsensical explanations of why this used to be the case. "What show is that?"

"Stargate Atlantis."

At this, Leonard developed a hypothesis that Stargate Atlantis and Supernatural are like REM and Belle & Sebastian, viz., if he can't tell what fandom a vid is, and there are spaceships and lots of guns, it's SGA, and if there are no spaceships and nearly no guns, it's Supernatural.

As a data point, I've watched zero SGA and one ep of SPN ("Fan Fiction"), but have spent happy hours enjoying fic and vids about both, particularly the critical readings -- if you're waiting for Ann Leckie's next Ancillaryverse installment, you could do worse than reading "Second Verse (Same as the First)" by Friendshipper/Sholio. I wonder whether the same thing will happen to me with Teen Wolf.

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(1) : La Con De Python: I spent a good chunk of this month at PyCon in Montréal, watching talks, seeing people I rarely get to see, and working on Mailman. My stay in Montréal felt homey thanks to Jo Walton and Emmet O'Brien, who put me up in their place for the duration. Much thanks, Emmet and Jo!

It was wonderful getting to sprint with the rest of the Mailman team, some of whom I'd never met before. I'm grateful to the Python Software Foundation and the PyCon sponsors for arranging the venue and food; one can attend the sprints at no registration cost, and I thoroughly appreciate that. I wrote a few patches, told other attendees about the upcoming release and got them to come test the install, and did a great deal of testing and bug-reporting myself, and generally a bunch of release management. I had the privilege of discovering a funny bug, although I wish the bug didn't exist since it prevented us from meeting our goal and shipping 3.0 by Thursday. (A 3.0rc1 release is imminent!)

On the last day of the sprints, I started a keysigning. I think every keysigning I've ever participated in has included philosophical and engineering questions about the usefulness of keysigning parties, why we bootstrap an anarchistic web of trust using government-issued documentation to authenticate people, the difference between "I control this key" and "I am the person whose passport this is," and the anti-mnemonic powers of gpg command-line flags. I feel as though there ought to be, and perhaps is, a haggadah for this ritual that incorporates these questions. I can't exactly remember this exemplary exchange from Thursday, but it went something like:

Me: I wonder what I would learn if I tried setting up my own keyserver.

Debian guy: You would learn that the system is utterly ripe for abuse and that we're just lucky no one has seriously tried it yet. It's an append-only distributed database, after all.

Me: (Pause.) I think I had already learned that particular social lesson and I was thinking more of the technical lessons.

Debian guy: Ah! Yes, there are some interesting backend protocols involved....

This was the longest stretch I've ever spent someplace Francophone, and I felt my high school French coming back to me day by day; towards the end I was able to put together "J'ai perdu un chapeau bleu" or "Je voudrais acheter cette chose" with tolerable facility. (I did indeed lose a blue hat that I bought in Washington, DC in 2001 just before I left for my trip to Russia; we had a good run together and I hope it ends up with someone else who likes it.) I have never played Flappy Bird, but I understand that a single error ends the round; similarly, bad French in Montréal is a sudden death game for me, in which a single mistake or even a tilted head while parsing a response can cause the interlocutor to switch to English. Like many people with one dominant language fluency and a lot of language smatterings, I find the wrong language's vocabulary springs to mind at inopportune moments. A caterer was serving me food; I couldn't remember the polite French for "that's enough" and my mouth wanted to say "ಸಾಕು" instead. Similarly, "mais" and "et" no longer come as naturally to me as do "но" and "и". But I have it easy -- evidently this is even less convenient when one of the languages is ASL!

The next PyCon North America will be May 28 - June 5 2016 in Portland, Oregon; this overlaps with the Memorial Day weekend in the US (May 28-30) which means it will probably conflict with WisCon's 40th anniversary, and I already have plans to hit WisCon 40. I hope to finagle schedules so as to attend WisCon in Madison and then fly to Portland to participate in post-PyCon sprints. But that might be too much spring travel, because what if Leonard and I want to do something special in April to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary? What I am saying is that adulthood sure does have a lot of logistics involving calendars.


: New Takes On My Published Writing: My Crooked Timber guest post on codes of conduct, freedom, governance, contracts, and copyleft software licenses has attracted over 200 comments. Many of them are thoughtful and interesting, and worth at least a skim if you found anything useful in the original post. For instance, can we compare mindshare to other forms of property? And what do we do to legitimately obtain the enthusiastic consent of the governed? Some of them have old or new perspectives on Adria Richards or Linus Torvalds. And about five percent of the comments are gross, hurtful, or laugh-out-loud wrong on multiple axes, e.g., "The FOSS world is not asking for codes of conduct, she is seeking to thrust them upon it." I shall be mining those for use in my stand-up comedy routine at AlterConf in Portland, Oregon in June.

Also, the code4lib Journal asked for me to turn my code4lib keynote from 2014 into an essay, "User Experience is a Social Justice Issue", for their special issue on diversity in library technology. The new article includes some contextual introduction and a retrospective with links to related work by others in the past year. You can comment there.


: Crooked Timber Guest Post on FLOSS Licenses and Codes of Conduct: The social sciences group blog Crooked Timber has published my guest post, "Codes of conduct and the trade-offs of copyleft".

A lot of open stuff -- such as the Wikimedia/Wikipedia and Linux projects -- are discussing or adopting codes of conduct, or expanding their existing policies. I'll reveal my biases at the start and say I think this is a good thing; for more, read my speech "Hospitality, Jerks, and What I Learned". But in this piece, I want to talk about the similarities and differences between codes of conduct and a set of agreements that some of these communities are more used to: "copyleft" or other restrictive software licenses. And I'd like to draw out some ways that the kinds of acts and artifacts that these policies cover reveal different attitudes towards contracts and governance.

Also I make silly references to Antitrust and Ducktales while oversimplifying free software licenses and political theory. So check it out.

Much thanks to Skud for an initial conversation about face-to-face versus online codes of conduct; my article, in the end, barely addresses that, but it was a seed for this piece. Thanks to Henry Farrell of CT for editing and publishing my guest post. And thanks to Naomi Ceder, Paul Tagliamonte, Leonard Richardson, and several other people who talked about this topic with me or beta read bits or drafts of the piece -- of course, all errors are mine.

Feel free to comment over at Crooked Timber!


: PyCon 2015: Today I am heading off to PyCon North America 2015 and am looking forward to sprinting on Mailman! You can now read my LWN piece on what'll be new in the 3.0 release as it's out from behind the paywall.

Many fellow Recurse Center-affiliated folks are giving talks at this year's PyCon, in case that's something you seek!

If you're going to be in Montréal as well, perhaps we'll pair program on something together! That could be fun.


: Book Reviews With Idiosyncratically Selected Book Covers: More book reviews from the past year or so! I believe this catches me up!

'Government Brahmana' coverGovernment Brahmana by Aravind Malagatti. I am a Brahmin, which is to say, I have high-caste privilege. I have a lot of work to do understanding where this situates me as an Indian-American, and how to be a better ally to South Asians and desis who do not share this privilege. As part of this work I read Malagatti's memoir of growing up Dalit in Karnataka, the Indian province my family comes from. And guess what, my caste has done incredibly shitty things to perpetuate its privilege! You know that experience when you learn a specific horrifying detail, and you consider the strong likelihood that one of your blood ancestors is on the wrong side of history here, and that you personally have benefited from their complicity or abuse? Anyway, you don't have to be a high-caste Hindu to find Government Brahmana edifying (but it helps!). Malagatti does describe an angsty passionate romance where (in my eyes) he didn't act admirably, but for me that fell into "use every man after his desert, and who shall 'scape whipping?" territory.

Courtney Milan: the Turner Series, the Brother Sinister series, many novellas, and so on, but not quite her entire published oeuvre. After I read Trade Me, I went on to consume maybe a dozen more of Milan's romances. They're funny and loving and moving and smart. I like how she sets up and calls back to other books within series, I love that The Heiress Effect included an Indian guy, I love seeing queer characters and characters with disabilities, and -- with the exception of the rushed tempo in her novella Talk Sweetly To Me -- I find her romances believable. I'm reading her work on a Kobo, and I find her ebooks nicely typeset and easier to read than some ebooks from self-publishers or small presses. And it excites me that her upcoming books will explore more geographies and depict even more diverse characters.

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal. I sallied into historical romance territory via Milan's back catalogue, and decided to try some other authors in the genre as well. I'd previously enjoyed Kowal's short pieces and her fannish writing and leadership within speculative fiction, so I picked up Shades of Milk and Honey, the first in her Glamourist series. Blurbs say it's like Austen with magic and recommend it to Austen fans, but I haven't yet read any Jane Austen, and I bought it one afternoon and stayed up till 1:30am that night to finish it. Yay, the protagonist and her eventual beau are good people who don't do creepy or irresponsible things! And, as Jo Walton did in Ha'Penny, Kowal does something interesting with the complicated bonds between sisters with very different interior lives. I've already ordered several more Glamourist books and look forward to seeing adventures, magical innovation, and characters of different ethnicities.

The King's Name by Jo Walton (probably accompanied by a reread of The King's Peace, which sits before it in the trilogy). I do not know the details of the Arthuriana that Walton is messing with in this series but I nonetheless enjoy as I always do Walton's depiction of competent people trying to do the right thing in unprecedented circumstances.

'The Just City' coverThe Just City by Jo Walton. It's no surprise that I liked yet another Jo Walton book! It's an immersive and fascinating story, and since I have participated in a massive androgogical experiment recently (the Recurse Center) I particularly love reading thought experiments around pedagogy! As I write this I am wearing an Action Philosophers shirt featuring wrestler Plato shouting "Plato smash!" I richly enjoyed the Action Philosophers edutainment comics, super thinky and super fun. If you enjoyed Action Philosophers you will probably also like the combination of adventures and arguments in The Just City. Or: I once retweeted the message "RT if you're still angry about the Library of Alexandria." If you have related feelings you may find this book particularly interesting.

My Real Children by Jo Walton (reread). Or should I say the Tiptree Award-winning My Real Children? It's about work, parenting, love made visible; I continue to appreciate it.

Strength In What Remains by Tracy Kidder. Competent people trying to do the right thing in unprecedented circumstances. But nonfiction! And I still have yet to read a Kidder I don't like.

The Entry Level: Approaches to getting used to the idea of talking about class zine by several contributors and edited by Chris W. (reread). I reread this as part of my effort to spark discussion of classism at Open Source Bridge 2014; thanks especially to Lukas Blakk for making more copies of the zine to share, and to Chris W. for making the PDF available and coming to the conference for one of the discussions. Entry Level continues to serve its purpose ably, and I found it helpful as a jumping-off point for the OSBridge session. Distributing well-made physical artifacts often helps engage discussion participants on more levels than a voice-only meeting. And Entry Level provides frameworks and vocabulary to help us talk about our own experiences, and about the changes we might need to instigate.

Indigo by Beverly Jenkins (did not and will not finish). I wanted to love this romance between two black characters in 1859 America. The heroine is a conductor on the Underground Railroad! But the exposition started bothering me -- hella infodumps about, e.g., the effects of the Fugitive Slave Act. I loved learning this stuff, but the segues from "Hester experiencing her life" to "Hester's POV is suddenly indistinguishable from that of an encyclopedia" did not work, on a character and a prose level. And then the guy's behavior started bothering me and didn't stop. SPOILERS AHEAD. He's creepy -- he trespasses, he lies, he breaks promises, and he doesn't respect "no." She tells him to stop giving her gifts, and he keeps giving her luxury goods. After the dubcon sex scene I started skimming, faster and faster, until I was finally reading it entirely for the infodumps about the nineteenth-century black experience. We find out he comes from the black aristocracy of New Orleans. And then he tricks her into marrying him, and she gets dubcon pampered by servants who won't even let her say no to the salts they're adding to her bath water, and I realized: Oh! This is a billionaire romance! (1850s, so, thousandaire, but still.) My discomfort with Galen's behavior is (probably) not unconscious racist bias; it's an aversion to the tropes of billionaire romance novels. I stopped reading Indigo, and in its stead I welcome recommendations of your favorite fictional or nonfictional texts on free black communities in the antebellum North.

'Rat Queens' coverRat Queens Volume 1: Sass & Sorcery by Kurtis J. Wiebe, Laura Tavishati, Roc Upchurch, and Ed Brisson. This comic grew on me over the course of the trade paperback. Snappy banter, heists, easy-to-follow fight scenes, hella women whom the story treats as first-class citizens, various kinds of diversity. If you like Firefly or Alexandra Erin's Tales of MU, check this out.

[Tentatively titled in-progress novel] by Leonard Richardson, interim drafts. Oh oh oh oh when you all get to read this and see how he subverts redacted and parodies redacted and the Indian stuff and oh no what happens to redacted and redacted and redacted! This novel is going to be to redacted what Constellation Games was to redacted.

Torn Shapes of Desire by Mary Anne Mohanraj (partway). This is an erotica collection. It is good and I like it, and it rewards a piecemeal reading style. (Fun fact: when I first read Cryptonomicon I did not read it linearly. I picked it up at arbitrary pages and read completely out of order, and then eventually opened to page one and began a traditional-style readthrough. I think I used to do this a lot with short story collections, but I have no recollection of why I did this with a novel, or what caused me to stop sampling and go linear.)

Saga, Volume 4, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. Come to think of it, I like Saga for many of the same reasons I liked Rat Queens. Also Saga includes metafiction that I find less portentous and more "wheee!" than the metafiction in The Unwritten, which I read for a while.

The Middleman, Volume 5: The Pan-Universal Parental Reconciliation, by Javier Grillo-Marxauch, Armando Zanker, and Les McClaine. Did someone mention metafiction?! Fun and spirited. I now want to actually read volumes 1-4 and then reread this one, to appreciate it better.

'RESTful Web APIs' coverRESTful Web APIs by Leonard Richardson and Mike Amundsen. I read this as Wikimedia engineers discussed whether and how to revamp the MediaWiki API, and referred to it during my fall 2014 stint at the Recurse Center. I thoroughly appreciate its thorough coverage of HTTP and hypermedia, the authors' attention to the user experience of APIs for the developers of clients, and the opinionated appendix of HTTP status codes. I started to use the suggested API design procedure while working on the static analyzer, then realized my functionality was so simple and limited that I didn't need the multistep HOWTO. But I intend to use that design procedure when I work on APIs in the future, and I recommend it to your attention as well.

Secure Beneath The Watchful Eyes by GroteskBurlesque. Fanfiction, based on The Thick Of It, features competent people trying to do the right thing in unprecedented circumstances. With lots and lots of canon-appropriate swearing. I am not particularly interested in shipping Malcolm Tucker with anyone, but this author made me believe Malcolm/Jamie enough to enjoy the rest of the tale. It was tremendous to see Malcolm and the rest of the crew in a situation where their utter gruff cynical bastardry was actually called for. Malcolm Tucker considers very little sacred, and this story shows what and why, and shows us something redeeming about Ollie, and shows us Nicola coming into her own. It's touching.

Moonshine by Alaya Dawn Johnson. I love reading fiction about energetic women fighting evil, be that evil structural kyriarchy or bitey monsters. And I love reading about competent people trying to do the right thing in unprecedented circumstances. I am a little befogged with confusion in terms of self-assessing my reaction to this book. You see, years ago, I read an passage of fiction, an excerpt of a novel by a black woman about a vampire-beset woman in an alternate 1920s New York City. And I loved it! And then I forgot who wrote it, and asked Astoria Bookshop for help, and got Moonshine, but I am still unconvinced that this is the book I was seeking. Perhaps forty-five years from now I will come across the book I sought. Will I read it? Via what medium, and in what language? Will I remember that I wanted to read it? Will this blog still exist so I can link back to this post? Anyway, I don't want to blame Moonshine for being itself rather than whatever other fantasy I fantasized. It's good.

Update a few hours after writing this paragraph, and probably 6 months after reading Moonshine: I have just looked at Johnson's site and found an excerpt from Wicked City, the sequel to Moonshine. I think this is the excerpt I liked. It is not 2060 A.D. I am still blogging and I will read Wicked City in English and on paper or a Kobo. Oh past Sumana, you worried your imagination couldn't stretch far enough to encompass the truth, but lo! The twist! Your imagination couldn't stretch NEAR enough!

'This Place Has No Atmosphere' coverThis Place Has No Atmosphere by Paula Danziger (reread). This is a short 1986 scifi novel aimed at, um, young adults? middle grades? you know, whippersnappers. I read it in my youth and still love it. The different levels of sex ed videodiscs! Not being able to play hooky because every adult in your tiny moon colony would know you ought to be in school! Putting on a production of Our Town as a means of engaging with your new moon life! This remains the best story I've ever read about reconciling yourself to leaving behind your Earth friends and getting used to your new life as an adolescent extraterrestrial. (Zen Cho's "The Four Generations of Chang E" comes really close though!) In retrospect, This Place Has No Atmosphere particularly spoke to me because my family moved around dozens of times during my childhood. In case you have ever wondered why I am less well-adjusted than that other Indian-American woman you know, this is like 80% of the reason why.

The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. It's a classic, it's as good as everyone says it is, it has fun illustrations.

Black Science, Volume 1, by Rick Remender and Matteo Scalera. It's a scifi comic and I bought a trade paperback collecting the first few issues. I don't think I finished it. Superviolent, not enough interesting women characters, art didn't speak to me.

cover of 'Hackster' Hackster: The Revolution Begins by Sankalp Kohli and Paritosh Yadav. Oh goodness what do I even say about Hackster. So, when I was visiting India in November, I bought a few books by desi authors. Three looked great: Complications by Atul Gawande, The Hope Factory by Lavanya Sankaran, and Government Brahmana by Aravind Malagatti. And indeed they were good. And then I saw the cover of Hackster, which features a black helicopter, the Mumbai skyline, and an exceedingly wide-stanced person in a black hoodie. And the back of the hoodie has code-y looking green text, like /usr/src/. And above the title: "FROM THE BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF 'Because Every Raindrop is a Hope' and 'When I Found You : I Found Myself'".

You know what, I am going to save my comments on Hackster for another time when I haven't just spouted 2400 words on other books. OK, so I am not entirely caught up. Think of my Hackster review as the sourdough starter for my next roundup.

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(1) : My Gender (Spoiler: I'm Cis): My acquaintance Danielle Sucher asked:

Friends! What's your gender? & cis folks especially, how did you figure it out?

I'm a cisgender woman, or at least I think so. I can't properly prove it to myself. A few years ago, when a few friends came out to me as trans men (I had previously perceived these friends as very butch women), I introspected a bit, to check. I also checked in with myself a few weeks ago when a trans friend told me she'd thought I was genderqueer. And both times I've concluded that this sis is cis, but oh god, what is gender anyway.

I have always found it hard to make a positive case for my own self-assessment without getting cissexist or gender essentialist. I gather that many trans men and nonbinary people don't feel any particular need to change the secondary sexual characteristics of their bodies, for instance. And I don't feel any particular discomfort when someone calls me "she" -- but a lot of nonbinary people are also fine with that. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as the saying goes.

As I think a lot of readers would agree without me having to go into too many details, gender is a pretty incoherent set of categories and rules and expectations. As I navigate those, I notice a lot of traditional rules around gender expression (especially in bodies and behavior) that don't feel right to me, e.g., women should have long hair and let men interrupt us all the time, men should by default run things and should not cry. But I have always thought of those annoying constraints as general societal problems (no one should feel restricted by them). I want access to any male privilege men currently keep to themselves, and I want the ability to perform any bits of femininity or masculinity I choose, but I want those things for everyone, and phrases like "I am a man" or "I have/am/perform both genders" have never rung true to me. The traditional femininity racket chafed me once I started noticing it, but that did not trigger within me a realization that my gender did not match my assigned-at-birth body; instead, I found a gender expression that's pretty comfortable for me ("lazy butch," let's say).

In my teens, I read John Varley's 1976 science fiction story "The Phantom of Kansas," in which people can switch into different bodies very easily (compare to a routine and painless elective surgery), including trying out female and male bodies. I still remember sitting on a little staircase at someone's house, escaping from the Indian-American hubbub, reading that and other stories in The World Treasury of Science Fiction and feeling my mind blown. At this point I had never had any kind of interpersonal sex, but I suspected it would be spectacularly cool to sometimes have it using one set of genitals and sometimes using another! But that sort of erotic thought experiment is as far as my bodyswap interests ever went. And I think that if I were trans or genderfluid or genderqueer or otherwise not cis, it's super unlikely I would have finished that story without a deeper thrum of yearning. And similarly, online or in brief customer service interactions, when strangers read me as male, it feels to me like inaccurate misgendering with a mildly pleasing genderfuck quality; in the alternate universes where I'm not cis, I figure those experiences feel quite different.

For political reasons, I like using gender-neutral terms when possible. For instance, I say "y'all" instead of "you guys" as a second person plural, and as a matter of allyship with same-sex couples, I often refer to Leonard as my partner or my spouse. So if you're using "they" or a similar nongendered pronoun for everyone, then sure, call me "they" instead of "she". But "wife" and "she" don't bother me.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Yet when I try to imagine myself as anything other than cis, all my thought experiments turn science fictional. We would have to throw out all this monolithic gender-binary legacy code, this untested ball of spaghetti, or refactor it into a microservices architecture. We'd have to be a very different civilization -- one with new vocabulary entirely -- before I'd find a gender self-description that feels more accurate than "I'm a cisgender woman."


: More Things I've Made Recently: In addition to Randomized Dystopia, I've made some additional things recently that I don't think I linked to here.

Last year, with Alex Bayley, I co-wrote an article for opensource.com about Growstuff and how open food can change how we approach technology.

In late March, my friend Elisa inspired me to write Captain America fanfic in the form of a sort of sonnet -- I called it "Spangled". It's 142 words, in case you're looking for a short read.

Today, I made my first fanvid, a 30-second Sisko study called "In the pale dublight". Thanks to Critical Commons for hosting transformative works! Thanks to the open source software community and especially the makers of VLC, Handbrake, and kdenlive for the software. Thanks to synecdochic, Skud, and the wiscon_vidparty vidding workshop for guidance, and thanks to Syun Nakano for the CC-BY music.

And it's behind a paywall right now, but I wrote my first LWN piece, on the upcoming release of Mailman 3.0. I think it's a pretty reasonable roundup of what's new in one of the most popular FLOSS mailing list managers and what that implies for the open source community as a whole. Thanks to Jake Edge, my editor, and to the Mailman dev team for making this piece better!


: Parties and Gifts: To what extent do you think of your open stuff contributions as gifts? Does this match up with your sense of your communities on the caring-to-combative spectrum?

several papercraft pieces I made, and gave awayTo you, what are the manners surrounding giving and receiving gifts?

In transactions without money changing hands, how do we demonstrate what we value?

Does it motivate you to think of your fanfic, your bug reports, your wiki edits, your patches, your teaching as gifts for a specific person? Or for a community?

Do the community leaders in your open stuff communities treat those artifacts as gifts? What about other participants?

What would a "Secret Santa"-style gift exchange along the lines of Yuletide Treasure or Festivids look like in the world of English Wikisource? Or Django? Or wherever you contribute bits?


(2) : More Books I've Read Recently: More book reviews from the past year or so! I am still catching up and am not done catching up.

Up Against It by MJ Locke. You can read the first 5 chapters free online. I read this fast-paced space mystery during the 2014 summer vacation I shared with Julia and Moss, and enjoyed it as a mystery/procedural, as solid hard scifi, and as a character study of the protagonist. The first time we see Jane Navio, head of the Resource Commission, she makes a tough call. She is the kind of creative, tough leader who can abandon a few likely-to-die people in order to save resources the space colony's going to need in three weeks' time. Later we see that she's a cunning, passionate, thoughtful, and empathetic leader as well -- once you've read it, talk with me about a monologue she delivers in the last few pages of the book, about work and the public eye, because when I read it (as I was thinking about the job I then had at Wikimedia Foundation) it struck me as though I were a gong. And you get space surveillance, posthuman subsocieties, and some teen drama as well, but basically I am all about super leader Jane. Incidentally, MJ Locke is an open pseudonym for Laura J. Mixon, whose work Leonard has really liked. I should pick up more Mixon.

Life Class and Toby's Room by Pat Barker. I thank yatima for bringing my attention to Barker's Regeneration trilogy, which is super great. And thanks to Sam Read Book Shop in Grasmere, where Julia, Moss, and I stopped during our walk. I saw and picked up Perfecting Sound Forever, then got to talking with the store clerk, found out Pat Barker had new World War I fiction out, and bought it. I read both of these books in spare moments while continuing the Coast-To-Coast walk, which meant I had a sort of double vision of England, seeing it in front of my face in 2014, and seeing it in my head a hundred years previous. During my Coast-to-Coast walk in 2012 with Mel, I'd basked in the hospitality of rural northern England. And I enjoyed it again when I came back last year, but I also saw it through wartime eyes -- participant and observer at once. The cosy bits of life -- board games, pub trivia nghts, jokes over breakfast -- felt like civilization, like something to protect, like "what we're fighting for." Life Class -- in comparison to Regeneration -- feels like Young Adult, perhaps because we see the journey these youngish adults take because of the war. Toby's Room has a lot to recommend it but there is a sex-related content warning that I'll put in the comments as it's a spoiler.

The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo by Zen Cho (reread). So fun and funny and heartwarming and incisive. "I used to be a good girl and that was uncomplicated, but I thought complicated would be more interesting than safe." If you liked Jade Yeo, check out this interview with Cho about fluff for postcolonial booknerds, the fantasy of communicating easily with your ancestors and heritage, and her writing in general. I particularly love the bomb she drops nonchalantly: "I've always loved stories that examine the dynamics within small communities with their own rules and conventions -- Jane Austen's two inches of ivory, Enid Blyton's school stories, L. M. Montgomery's Canadian villages, Star Trek's starships." YES. Just add that last one on there. Ooof.

your blue-eyed boys by Feather (lalaietha). Via a recommendation from yatima. I read this both before and after I watched a bunch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and it makes more sense afterwards (me during the first read: "who's this Sam guy?"). It's the longest piece of MCU fic I've read, but you might also like my Archive of our Own recommendations and Pinboard bookmarks.

American Taxation, American Slavery by Robin Einhorn (2006, University of Chicago Press) (partial reread). This history remains brainbending and full of astonishing anecdotes. Dr. Einhorn's particularly great in describing the importance of institutional competence in government agencies and in refuting "taxation=slavery" rhetoric. Check out this example of her amazingness.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X (reread) and Iacocca: An Autobigraphy (reread). I wrote about these at the time but I did not really talk about why I read Iacocca. I was about eight, and visiting India with family, and I read voraciously. I remember reading many issues of Reader's Digest (the Indian edition, which was different from the US edition). And a relative of mine had a copy of Iacocca and I read it with tremendous interest. I had never read such a detailed narrative about grown-up work before! He used the f-word and I was SCANDALIZED. Cars, these things that I utterly took for granted, did not just emerge ab nihilo; someone had to think them up and design them and compromise and whatnot. And I think I also liked reading Iacocca -- as I liked watching and reading Andy Rooney -- because they used plain language and owned up to their frailties.

So I monologued, a lot, the way kids do, but about Lee Iacocca and Chrysler and the K-car and the Mustang and various other topics, and these Indian aunts and uncles of mine smiled and nodded and perhaps presumed I would be an automotive engineer when I grew up. And then my parents held a sort of family reunion party (the hook being "Sumana's and Nandini's birthday (Observed)"), and my uncle Ashwin gave me one of the most memorable gifts I've ever received: Iacocca's new book of essays, Talking Straight. I don't think I even knew it existed before I had it in my hands! I was SO EXCITED. I probably forgot the minimal socialization my parents had painstakingly attempted to instill in me and went off to a corner to start in on it right away. I am still laughing about this.

Incidentally, the hunger for reading material also affected me eight years later, on another trip to India, as I was preparing to return to the States. Airplanes had no seatback entertainment; you brought twenty-two hours' worth of self-entertainment resources to get you all the way to San Francisco or you explored new depths in boredom. The day before my flight, Mom took me to an English-language bookstore. I'd heard The Lord of the Rings was good, and long. The store didn't have it. But they did have this other super long book. And that's how I read Atlas Shrugged.

(Even so, somewhere above the Pacific I started skimming that Galt radio speech. It is so repetitive you could programmatically transform it into a musical score suitable for Koyaanisqatsi!)

An inflight shopping magazine that helped me discover my roller derby name ("Asian Competence").

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: Director's Commentary on "Randomized Dystopia": Now that I'm not all arrrrgh I just want to launch this thing I'll talk a little more about why I made Randomized Dystopia: to help us think about how dystopian fiction (and real repression) works, and to remind everybody of rights that don't get enough airtime, like variety in breakfast

wait, no, I mean:

Freedom of association

In January, I read Courtney Milan's Trade Me, in which protagonist Tina Chen mentions how hard it is for many Americans to wrap their heads around the oppression of Falun Gong practitioners. A stripped-down excerpt, from page 9 of my edition:

I hate trying to explain Falun Gong to Westerners. Sometimes, I wish my parents had been caught up in something comprehensible, like tax reform or Tiananmen Square....

No, it's not a freedom of speech issue. No, it's not a religion, not like you understand it. It's never going to make sense to you ... It's like free exercise of ... exercise...

Milan goes into more detail on this point in an interview about Trade Me. Again, a snipped-up excerpt:

...the communist regime is very, very jealous of concentrations of power in anyone but the Communist Party. And so near the end of the '90s, there were probably millions of people who were practicing Falun Gong, and they would get together in the park and they would practice and, you know, all of this stuff, and they, the Communist Party started getting a little worried about it, because they didn’t like the idea that there were these people.... he had followers, and they don't like, they didn't like the idea of somebody having followers, so they banned the practice. And to their amazement, people protested it, and they didn't know the protest was coming. So, like, 10,000 people showed up to protest in Beijing, and they were like, the fuck did these people come from?

And that, it scared the shit out of them, basically. You know, like, all these people care, and this is just sort of like what happened with, like, almost no organizing over a weekend? This is scary. So they cracked down on it, and they cracked down on it really, really hard.

One way to understand the Falun Gong crackdown is as a denial of freedom of association (articulated as "the right of the people peaceably to assemble" in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, to oversimplify). A totalitarian state only allows relationships that the state can surveil or break. We need not only privacy in the metadata of our group membership, but respect for our underlying freedom of association, the freedom to belong to a despised group.

But when I hear people talking about rights, including when we explore dystopias where someone's denying us those rights, I don't usually hear us explicitly mention freedom of association. We talk often about privacy, freedom of speech, reproductive and sexual freedom, fair and free elections, and judicial due process.

And so I'd also like to raise awareness (especially in the US) of more comprehensive lists of rights. In "Randomized Dystopia" I draw from The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The Convention on the Rights of the Child, and The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Too often in the US I hear people talk as though the first ten amendments to the US Constitution comprise all the rights we ought to honor, and humanity has done some more thinking on those topics in the intervening centuries.

Upon using Randomized Dystopia, several commenters noticed how the US falls short regarding many of the rights in the UDHR, CEDAW, and CRC. Yup.

How dystopias work

And then, in mid-March, I was talking with Sabrina Banes about current dystopian fiction, especially novels in English for the Young Adult market. She sketched out their basic themes and trajectory (and Sabrina I'd love for you to write more about your thoughts on what aspects cluster around Evil Villain Governments versus around Plucky Young Protagonists). And I realized how essential it is, as a plot mechanic, that cookie-cutter YA dystopias deny freedom of association.

Chapter 1. My parents, friends, and government tell me I can't ever go talk to Those People Over There. They're bad and wrong and subject to arbitrary arrest or execution. But sometimes I don't particularly want to be a WheelCog. But what else is there?

......

Chapter 5. So I talked to Those People Over There and hoo boy, I was spectacularly underinformed about the nature of my world, political system, and socially constructed values! [If freedom of association is limited, the author can more plausibly dribble out exposition to the reader -- it's easier to play keep-away with the MacGuffin -- and it gets easier for authorities to enforce limits on speech.]

.....

Chapter 10. Oh wow, I am one of Those People Over There. In fact maybe quite a lot of us don't fit as WheelCogs, down underneath! [If you hang out with someone, it's a lot harder to treat them as a category, an object. And once you can talk freely with an ostracized group, you might see how you are like them; your perception of your own identity might change. I believe the standard YA dystopia character development arc depends on struggles around freedom of association.]

...

Chapter 12. However this is causing certain problems with, well, every other part of my life. Time to overthrow things!

What other rights have interesting properties as plot mechanics within dystopian fiction? I hope writers find "Randomized Dystopia" interesting as a writing prompt, and I'd be interested to hear others' thoughts on the interaction of rights and dystopian narrative.

Technical details

See the README in the code repository (go ahead and reuse the code and the idea -- the code is GPL). If you've never written a web application before, this kind of toy -- massage some text into structured-data form and use random.choice or random.sample to display a few selections to the reader -- is a fun starter project.

Takeaways

  1. Yeah the US is not doing so hot (and many other countries are not, either); there's a lot to be done
  2. Please write science fiction about Article 30 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and Article 14, Section 2, Clause E of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (or, failing that, please write about insurance fraud and/or Quakers in space, so I can read it)
  3. I launched a project making fun of the tropes of dystopian science fiction just before Taco Bell did, which means I'm an influencer and available for consulting at exorbitant rates
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: Randomized Dystopia: Are you tired of the same old dystopias? Why not write about tyrannies that deny different rights?

Try Randomized Dystopia!

I see a lot of repetitive dystopian fiction about denying people (often teenagers) the right to free speech or freedom of movement. But did you know that The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The Convention on the Rights of the Child, and The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women discuss several more ways that governments sometimes stomp on our liberties?

The next time you're writing a futuristic dystopia, hit the Assorted Abrogations page to see three underappreciated freedoms a government could quash -- until your rebellious heroes stop them! Or hit the Custom Terribleness page to make yours a specifically sexist or ageist dystopia!

Made on a lark by Sumana Harihareswara using Flask, partially based on bev-a-tron's tutorial and inspired by a conversation with Sabrina Banes and elements of Courtney Milan's book Trade Me. Thanks to Leonard Richardson for aid with deployment. Harihareswara does not endorse the sexist language of the UDHR, which was ratified in 1948, the gender binary implied by the CEDAW, or the otherwise less-than-inclusive language of these documents.

Seriously, it would rock if someone used this as a jumping-off point for a scifi short story where, say, rural women were denied equal access to artificial intelligence training.

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