Cogito, Ergo Sumana

picture of Sumana's head

Sumana Harihareswara's journal


: If I Did It: As we passed a closed-up storefront, Leonard informed me of the type of restaurant it's turning into, and I allowed as to how that was fine, but I'd rather one of the transforming storefronts in our neighborhood turned into a feminist makerspace.

Leonard pointed out that what I really want is an Ethiopian restaurant. I do. MenuPages knows of no Ethiopian or Eritrean restaurants in Astoria.

But I immediately hit a snag with my fantasy: an Ethiopian restaurant in my neighborhood would potentially propel further gentrification. "How could I make it so that the Ethiopian restaurant is good and all, but doesn't attract even more yuppies like us to live here? How can I make it less appealing to people like us, but in a way that doesn't bother me?"

"How about an Only Sumanas sign?" Leonard suggested.

"But I don't want something de jure, just offputting de facto," I said.

"It's just a sign! It's decorative! It's historical."

"And it's heritage? Leonard are you doing a Confederate flag argument?"

"I kind of went in that direction, yeah."

We discussed some more tactics that would not work, and then Leonard gently suggested that I just accept that sometimes other people like the same things we like.

"But this is just a hypothetical fantasy restaurant! Can't I try to imagine a way that it wouldn't attract even more ..."

"Sumana, you're redlining the imaginary restaurant."

(And it was at this point that I asked for permission to blog.)

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: Travel Tips: A few things I do.

  • Never put anything in a seat-back pocket unless you're willing to walk away from it. For me, this means magazines, snacks, and miscellaneous rubbish go in the seat-back pocket on airplanes, buses, and trains, but books, electronics, and durable water bottles don't.
  • To fall asleep on a flight: red wine, pasta, melatonin, sleep deprivation for the previous day, eye mask, hoodie with the hood up, and a sleep playlist that I only ever listen to while going to sleep.
  • Plug and chug: Carrying a two-foot CAT-5 (Ethernet) cable in my electronics zip-top bag comes in handy more often than it would if all Wi-Fi were reliable.


(0) : Pretentious And/Or Portentous: Ramble ramble ramble, in rather an autumnal tradition.

Leonard and I bought a new wall clock Saturday. The thing about living in a super walkable but not absolutely gentrified neighborhood (that is to say, our corner of Astoria) is that we don't have a Williams-Sonoma or something like that within walking distance, so we satisficed pretty quick. For $2.18 (including tax) we got a thing that is nearly certainly made under terrible labour conditions, which now sits above me and sweeps past the seconds.

Later we watched the "In the Cards" episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (Leonard's favourite) and a couple episodes of the 1990s animated Superman TV series. It's so much less interesting than the contemporaneous Batman, which I loved and can still enjoy! I've always preferred Batman to Superman, in that I find stories about extraordinary humans more interesting than stories about gods. More suspense, better balance of power, and more wit. I think Batman:Superman::Yudhisthira or Arjuna:Rama, in that no one in the Mahabharata is as perfect, as much of an idol as is Rama in the Ramayana. But a few years ago I came across some litcrit suggesting that the big interesting question the Ramayana addresses is: how do you reconcile conflicting obligations? And at its best, Superman does that too, e.g., Red Son which shows the urge to utopia leading to tyranny.

I want to describe my internal state, which is a generally optimistic one, but find the words don't come easily. I don't usually think in images but I consistently come back to this imaginary scene, of a grimy encrusted clump breaking up to allow for an unobstructed flow. I've taken to attending a meditation class regularly, and at one session I confessed that I find meditation scary -- what if I let myself change and I do? What if some bit of me that constituted an important part of my identity slips away, because I let it go, or because I looked at it too hard?

And one of the other fellas in the class, who practices meditation to deal with his anger, responded (and I'm paraphrasing): but isn't that the goal of meditation, traditionally? to let go of the illusion of self, to get rid of the ostensible divisions distinguishing us from the other? I took his point, on an intellectual level at least, and then he said, "The less you carry, the further you can walk."

Yes.

In 2012 my colleague said, offhand, "You're an everything person, you just don't know it yet." Which is to say that it's okay to say yes and try something new, that I don't have to run a TSA-style inspection on every new experience or feeling or idea that wants to come inside me. Then, this year, Christie Koehler's advice (in podcast form as well!) about leaving old commitments so as to make room for new ones spoke to me; I left some mailing lists, I changed my job, I left the Geek Feminism bloggers, I limited how much time I'd put into the Outreach Program for Women career advising, and so on. And then a couple of months ago I heard, "The less you carry, the further you can walk," just a little bit before I really did experience that, again, walking (for instance) thirteen hours in a single day, away from the internet, "taking away the usual stimuli so I can hear the susurrations of the self beneath".

And I decided to leave my job, the best job I've ever had, working on the infrastructure of one of the world's most important intellectual resources. My last day there is the 30th and when I go to Wikipedia I can't believe that in just a few days I won't be able to say "we" the way I do right now.

The Hacker School sabbatical last year, the meditation, the practice at letting go of projects and expectations, the Coast-to-Coast walk, all of it contributed to this ongoing disintegration of the anxious mental and emotional hoarding I've been doing since I was a little kid. I am dropping a great deal, really, carrying less and less, and I don't have an Ordnance Survey map to highlight tomorrow's route on each night at dinner. I have skimmed some guidebooks but I think there are things they aren't telling me, elisions and oversights I want to rectify for myself.

How do you reconcile conflicting obligations? To yourself, to the great work, to your household, to those who admire your work and ask your advice? How do you use your power, and your time?

The old clock just had an hours hand and a minutes hand. This new clock we bought has a red seconds hand that sweeps smoothly past the seconds. I counted along with it, one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand, four-one-thousand, five-one-thousand, because that red needle seemed to be pivoting just a bit fast. But everything seems to be in order. I am in my mid-thirties now. I have perhaps 40+ years to go. At the moment that I write these words I feel closer than I have for many years to a rapprochement with the fact of mortality; I'll do my bit and then pass on, the choir will take over, and that's okay. Practically speaking, it'll have to be, as none of us get much of a choice.

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(0) : Five Things Make A Post: (The LiveJournal/Dreamwidth user community use this title & format a lot; am borrowing from them.)

  1. Freddie Mercury's video for "The Great Pretender" doesn't just use clips from previous Queen videos; it visually quotes them by recreating/reusing the sets and costumes and showing Mercury singing "The Great Pretender" lyrics in those contexts. I spent a few hours this morning looking up, for instance, thoughts on Mercury's desi origins and legacy. Like a lot of Indian-American folks, I grew up idly hearing Queen songs in the background of my life, not knowing his parents were Gujarati. I think back to my life as a disaffected teen, when I was listening to Weird Al Yankovic and the Capitol Steps, unaware of any Indian pop culture figures outside of India, and using HoTMaiL, founded by an Indian, Sabeer Bhatia -- what a different life it might have been if I'd noticed Mercury as a diaspora South Asian role model. (Although he was dead by then.)
  2. Dozens of people have written to the Wikimedia developers' mailing list to say they're sad I'm leaving Wikimedia Foundation. It is nice to know I will be missed.
  3. Leonard and I have richly enjoyed a few episodes of Just One More Thing: A Podcast About Columbo. The "Etude in Black" episode features Mallory Ortberg because of her fantastic essay on Columbo. I've also started enjoying Kumail Nanjiani's The X-Files Files but haven't recently watched nearly as much of the source material and am thus waiting before really diving in. We really live in an amazing era, historically speaking; with a bit of money, I can easily access Columbo, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Queen, Prime Suspect, and so much other rewarding entertainment!
  4. Leonard and I have also gotten a bit into doing crossword puzzles from the American Values Club. Witty and recommended.
  5. An artist has made a Twitter bot that is making a new Anatomy of Melancholy by retweeting tweets that include the word "melancholy".


(0) : The Continuing Adventures (Transitioning From Intern To Volunteer): 2014 WikiConference USA (Group F) 25 By now dozens of women have stepped into open source via Outreach Program for Women, a paid internship program administered by the GNOME Foundation. I recently asked several of them whether they had been able to transition from intern to volunteer.*

Are you succeeding at continuing to volunteer in your open source project? Or are you running into trouble? I'd love to know how people are doing and whether y'all need help.

When you were an OPW intern, you had a mentor and you had committed to a specific project for three months. Volunteering is freer -- you can change your focus every week if you want -- but the training wheels are gone and you have to steer yourself.

(I bet Google Summer of Code alumni have similar experiences.)

I got several answers, and in them I saw some common problems to which I suggest solutions.

  1. Problem: seems as though there are no more specific tasks to do within your project. Solutions: ask your old mentor what they might like you to do next. If they don't respond within 3 days, repeat your question to the mailing list for your open source project. Or switch to another open source project, maybe one your friends are working on!

  2. OPW mentors and interns at Wiki Conference USA 2014 Problem: finding the time. Solutions: set aside a weekly appointment, just as you might with a therapist or an exercise class. Pair up with someone else from the OPW alum list and set yourself a task to complete during a one-hour online sprint! Or if you know your time is being eaten up by your new job, set yourself a reminder for 3 months from now to check whether you have more free time in December.

  3. Problem: loneliness. Solutions: talk more in the #opw chat channel on GNOME's IRC (irc.gnome.org). Use http://www.pairprogramwith.me/ and http://lanyrd.com/ and https://lwn.net/Calendar/ to find get-togethers in your area, or launch one using http://hackdaymanifesto.com/ and http://meetup.com/.

  4. Karen Sandler, GNOME and OPW advocate. Problem: motivation. Solutions: consider the effects you're having in the world. Or focus on the bits of work you enjoy for their own sake, whatever those are. Or teach others the things you know, and see the light spark in their eyes.

These are tips for the graduating interns themselves; it would be good for someone, maybe me, to also write a list of tips for the organizers and mentors to nurture continued participation.


* OPW also provides a list of paid opportunities for alumni.

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(0) : On Status: From Susan McCarthy, specifically from her great book Becoming a Tiger: How Baby Animals Learn to Live in the Wild.

Animals learn about individuals through play. If little coyotes cheat, the other pups won't play with them. On the other hand, the dingo Hercules was raised by humans, an only child, and didn't get to play with other puppies. Dingo puppies learn through play fighting with other puppies when to back down. Hercules had a full repertoire of aggressive behaviors but no submissive behaviors. When he was three months old, researchers released Hercules into the wild, where he could play with a litter of five wild dingoes of the same age. The wild pups were baffled by Hercules and his apparent belief that he was invincible. No matter how badly he was losing, he persisted in aggression. "After two days, Hercules displayed no submissive behaviour (essentially because he did not know how to), and became the leader of the group; the wild pups followed his movements and usually submitted passively whenever they made direct contact." - p.54

Becoming a Tiger is charming and warm and informative, and I recommend it.

Also, if you liked that particular quote, you may also be interested in On the Psychology of Military Incompetence by Norman Dixon (my thoughts), Elliot Aronson's The Social Animal, China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh, and How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston.

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: Miscellaneous Links, Nothing To See Here: Things that have crossed my screen recently and I find worth sharing. Hum de dum.

Mel Chua on a single microcosm of the experience of being deaf. Sarah Sharp, very sensibly, suggesting we speed up code review by breaking it up into a few logical phases.

Oh what's this? An introduction, by Leonard and me, in Strange Horizons, to a reprint of Kim Stanley Robinson's head-rockin' short story "The Lucky Strike"? WHY YES IT IS. We're grateful to Strange Horizons for asking us to choose a story to reprint. We chose "The Lucky Strike" for a few reasons. It's gripping and memorable, sure. And Robinson finds a new take on the alt-history WWII story. But "The Lucky Strike" is also one of the best stories we've ever read about complicity, and that's because of how it gets you into the protagonist's head, and what it does to you once you're there. I hope you'll check it out (and, if you can, also find and read the author's associated essay, "A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions").

Well, certainly there won't be anything else my household had a particular hand in. Just more links, a potpourri, you know.

On depression: On understanding high-functioning depression. "Let's talk." How terrible it feels to feel useless. Another person's experience. You can get a mental health speaker at your event, such as Ed Finkler. (Edited 25 September to add: an explanation of the Beck Depression Inventory and what kinds of questions you say "yes" or "no" to if you are or are not depressed.)

Mallory Ortberg's "two monks inventing things" series makes me laugh very hard but also makes me saw "awww" at how the monks teach each other (wrong) things. This Grantland article about a swimmer celebrates human awesomeness in a pretty infernokrusher way, and in case you're into that level of exuberance, you might also run into it in music criticism by or linked to by Matthew Perpetua, and in this old John Darnielle blog post.

I'm thinking a lot about change-making, about how it's worked at Wikimedia in the past and what we need to do in the future, and about leadership and the people who are going in the direction opposite me (that is, I'm going from management to individual contribution, and others are moving the other way). I'm thinking about the responsibility mentors have to interns, about which learning styles the tech industry and open source specifically accommodate more than others, and how that fits in to the learning environments we make, and which of those biases are essential versus inessential weirdnesses.

(Will anyone notice that a few of those are links to my own work? Very few. I move on, furtively, an attention cat burglar.)

In the world of sexism: "So this is the face of harassment. The faces of the men you know, and the faces of the men you respect. How do we create space to talk about that?" What happens when the content at a conference is great but the conduct pushes you away. And the uneven distribution of fun.

And here is a punch-the-air-good Wonder Woman fanvid, and I'm not even a WW fan, or wasn't before I saw this.


(1) : The Ada Initiative, Fanvids I Love, and How I Restarted Ken Liu's Career:

It might be good for the world, though temporarily stressful for one's marriage, to edit an anthology together, as Leonard and I discovered when we created and published our speculative fiction anthology Thoughtcrime Experiments together in 2009.* Despite the risks, maybe you should become an editor. "Reader" and "writer" and "editor" are tags, not categories. If you love a subject, and you have some money and some time, you can haul under-appreciated work into wider discourse, curate it, and help it sing.

Thoughtcrime Experiments cover You can do this with lots of subjects,** of course, but doesn't it especially suit science fiction and fantasy? We love thought experiments. We love imagining how things could be different, with different constraints. I love enlarging the scope of the possible, and both the content and the production of Thoughtcrime Experiments did that. Neither of us had professionally edited science fiction before, we released it under a Creative Commons license,*** and we wrote a "How to Do This and Why" appendix encouraging more people to follow in our footsteps.

Every story needs an editor to champion it. One thing we conclude from this experiment is that there aren't enough editors. We were able to temporarily become editors and scoop a lot of great stories out of the slush pile....

It's well known that there's an oversupply of stories relative to readers. That's why rates are so low. Our experiment shows that there's an oversupply of stories relative to editors. By picking up this anthology you've done what you can to change the balance of readers to stories. I wrote this appendix to show that you've also got the power to change the balance of editors to stories.

Another way to enlarge the scope of the possible is to seek out, publish, and publicize the work of diverse authors.***** But if you don't explicitly say you're looking for diverse content and diverse authors, and make the effort to seek them out, you will fall into the defaults. I ran into this; I did not try hard enough to solicit demographically diverse submissions, and as a result, got far more submissions from whites and men than from nonwhites and nonmen. However our final table of contents was gender-balanced, and at least two of the nine authors were people of color.

And if you do not explicitly mark characters as being in marginalized demographics, the reader will read them as the unmarked state. Here I think we did a bit better. And our selections caused at least one conversation about colonialism, and really what more can you ask?

Mary Anne Mohanraj and Sumana Harihareswara at WisCon in 2009(To the right: E. J. Fischer's photo of me with Mary Anne Mohanraj at WisCon in 2009.) It turns out that Thoughtcrime Experiments made a lot more things possible. For example, we published "Jump Space" by Mary Anne Mohanraj, a story that stars a South Asian diaspora woman. I remember sitting in my brown overstuffed chair in my apartment, reading Mohanraj's submission, completely immersed in the story. As I emerged at the end, I had two simultaneous thoughts and feelings:

  1. This is the first time in a whole life of reading scifi that the protagonist has looked like me. This feels like a first breath after a lifetime in vacuum.
  2. Why is this the first time?
Mohanraj, encouraged by the response to "Jump Space", wrote a book in that universe, and may write more. The summary starts: "On a South Asian-settled university planet" and already my heart is expanding.

And then there's Ken Liu.

It turns out Thoughtcrime Experiments restarted Ken Liu's career. Yes, Ken Liu, the prolific author and translator whose "The Paper Menagerie" was the first piece of fiction to win the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award, and who's been doing incredible work bridging the Anglophone and Chinese-speaking scifi worlds. You have us to thank for him. As he told Strange Horizons last year:

I wrote this one story that I really loved, but no one would buy it. Instead of writing more stories and subbing them, as those wiser than I was would have told me, I obsessively revised it and sent it back out, over and over, until I eventually gave up, concluding that I was never going to be published again.

And then, in 2009, Sumana Harihareswara and Leonard Richardson bought that story, "Single-Bit Error," for their anthology, Thoughtcrime Experiments (http://thoughtcrime.crummy.com/2009/). The premise of the anthology was, in the editors' words, "to find mind-breakingly good science fiction/fantasy stories that other editors had rejected, and release them into the commons for readers to enjoy."

I can't tell you how much that sale meant to me. The fact that someone liked that story after years of rejections made me realize that I just had to find the one editor, the one reader who got my story, and it was enough. Instead of trying to divine what some mythical ur-editor or "the market" wanted, I felt free, after that experience, to just try to tell stories that I wanted to see told and not worry so much about selling or not selling. I got back into writing -- and amazingly, my stories began to sell.

There is no ur-editor. It's us.

And there is no ur-geek, no ur-fan. No one gets to tell you you're not a fan, or to stop writing fanwork because it's not to their taste, or that you need to disregard that a work is insulting you when you judge its merits.*****

The Ada Initiative's work in creating and publicizing codes of conduct for conventions, in creating and running Ally Skills and Impostor Syndrome workshops, and in generally fighting -isms in open culture, helps more people participate in speculative fiction. TAI's work is even more openly licensed than Thoughtcrime Experiments was, so you can easily translate it, record it, and reuse it to make our world more like the world we want. For everyone. Please donate now, joining me, N.K. Jemisin, Mary Robinette Kowal, Annalee Flower Horne, Leonard Richardson, and many more. You can help us change the constraints -- help us edit the world.

I'm gonna close out with one of my favorite fanvids, an ode to fandom. This is a different kind of love song / dedicated to everyone.

Donate now


* Some couples can basically collaborate on anything together. Leonard and I, it turns out, can get grumpy with each other when our tastes conflict. Just last night he pointed out that the multi-square-feet poster I presented at PyCon (mentorship lessons I learned from Hacker School) barely fits on the wall in our flat, anywhere, and will be the largest single item of decor we have. My "it would fit on the ceiling" well-actually gained me no ground. I pointed out that it would easily fit over the head of our bed, and mentioned that after all, some couples do put religious iconography there. I backpedaled off this in the face of his utter unconvincedness, and suggested that we *try* it above the TV. It now watches over us, slightly overwhelming. He might be right.

** Maybe you heard about The Aims Vid Album, encouraging and gathering fanvids to the tune of Vienna Teng's Aims? Which is FANTASTIC AND AMAZING and omg have you seen raven's "Landsailor" vid?? I have all the feels about that vid.

*** Although not as free a license as we sort of wished. In retrospect I wish we'd gone for an opendefinition.org license so we didn't have niggling questions about whether our sales counted as commerce, etc.

**** Strange Horizons is seeking out submissions from new reviewers, and a Media Reviews Editor. Why not you?

***** I particularly like Patrick Nielsen Hayden's formulation:

I think it's fine to ignore and not read something because the author has called for harm to you or to people you care about. Art and politics can't ever be completely separated. As a general rule of thumb, when we think our approach to something is politics-free, that generally means the politics are so normative as to be invisible.


: On Troubleshooting:

Nothing is built on stone; All is built on sand, but we must build as if the sand were stone.

-- Jorge Luis Borges


Goddammit why won't this work

OK, fine, screw the venv, I'll do this in my main environment
OR
I guess I have to just do this as a global variable
OR
really, chmod 777? FINE

-- a plaintive chorus of programmers

We don't need a Sherlock Holmes; we need our infrastructure to not be a precarious wobbling Jenga tower.

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: Podcasts - Including Me: I've been listening to podcasts recently. The ones that come to mind:


: The next Tor, role models, and criticism: the future I want:

Donate now I'm writing these words while I ride the New York City subway. I love the subway because my fellow riders look like the world. I'm rarely the only woman and I'm never the only nonwhite person in the car. We're young and old, all genders, all nationalities, temporarily able and not (although our stations fail at accessibility a lot), and speaking dozens of languages.

We'll know we've won when open source looks like this.

It doesn't yet. But we need it to. It is because I know how much potential technology has to shape our world that I know it is essential that the people who shape that technology represent that world, represent the best that world has to offer. What will it look like when open source reflects diversity of talent?

New tools we make -- the next git, the next WordPress, the next Tor -- will make inclusive assumptions from the start. They'll allow users to change their names and identify outside the gender binary. They'll help users block harassers from contacting them. Their FAQs will use nongendered examples.

When a junior programmer looks around for a way to make her mark, she'll see people who look like her doing lots of cool stuff in open source -- starting projects, leading them, arguing over architectural decisions, joking about absurdly bad ideas, showing off their accomplishments at conferences, teaching and learning, and generally having a good time. She'll dip her toe into online discussions, and the hackers already in the group will use her preferred pronoun, correctly, or ignore her gender if it isn't relevant to the discussion. She will see so easily how this community could include her that she will only notice in retrospect the moment she fell in.

As a gag, people who have been doing open stuff for decades will send their less senior friends links to the Timeline of Incidents, anticipating their "they did WHAT?!" replies. A new generation of activists will look back at the Ada Initiative and keenly observe what we missed, what we got wrong, where we were too complicit in the intersecting oppressions endemic to our society, too much of our time.

I want this future so much. I may not ever get to see it. But I can see us getting closer. I'm on the board of directors of the Ada Initiative, and I've been an advisor since 2011. In that time I've seen the Ada Initiative's unique work changing the conversation, building the infrastructure of inclusion, and moving us closer to -- well, to a world that doesn't need us any more.

Please help: donate now.

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(9) : I'm Leaving My Job At The Wikimedia Foundation: (Music for this entry: "You Can't Be Too Careful" by Moxy Früvous; "Level Up" by Vienna Teng; "Do It Anyway" by Ben Folds Five; "Teenagers, Kick Our Butts" by Dar Williams.)

I've regretfully decided to leave the Wikimedia Foundation, and my last day will be September 30th.

I've worked at WMF since February 2011, so I've seen the Foundation grow from 70 to 214 people. It's the best job I've ever had and I've grown a lot. And my team and my bosses are tremendously supportive. In April I summarized my work achievements from the past four years and I remain proud of them. Most recently, I'm proud of co-mentoring Frances Hocutt, who's about to turn her energies to Growstuff API development (with help from your donations).

But I want to redefine myself and grow in new directions, as a maker and activist. Wikimedia has 13 years of legacy code and thousands of vocal stakeholders, and WMF has one office, in San Francisco. I'm a junior-level developer (I'm a much better software engineer than I am a coder) but don't want to move to San Francisco, where we (understandably) prefer to have junior devs onsite. And I'd like to try out what it's like to get better at making software, to have more of a blank slate and perhaps less of a public spotlight, to work face-to-face with a team here in New York City, and to exclude destructive communication from my life (yes, there's some amount of burnout on toxic people and entitlement). One of the things I admire about Wikimedia's best institutions is our willingness to reflect and reinvent when things are not working. I need to emulate that.

I remain on the board of directors of the Ada Initiative, which aims to close the gender gap in Wikimedia and other open culture/source projects. (Please donate.) And I don't see any way I could stop being a Wikimedian and pursuing the mission. You'll see me as User:Sumanah out on the wikis.

After I wrap things up at Wikimedia Foundation, I'll be privileged to spend six weeks at Hacker School, concentrating on learning how to crank out websites and fiddling with web security, and then in late November I'll be meeting other South Asian geek feminist women at AdaCamp Bangalore. Aside from that I'm open to new opportunities, especially in empowering marginalized groups via open technology.

"Level Up" by Vienna Teng. ("If you are afraid, come out.") And heck, why not, a Kira Nerys fanvid I love, set to "Shake It Out" by Florence + The Machine. ("So tonight I'm gonna cut out and then restart.")

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: Excerpt From Another Conversation: I moved around way too much as a kid and I often couldn't figure out What Was Going On, and was oblivious, and missed opportunities. Thus discoverability is a Big Deal to me. And you don't get discoverability from free-form groups with a bunch of implicit knowledge accidentally hoarded by whoever got there first, if they eschew "bureaucracy" and "titles" and "documentation".


: Back Home: A few days ago I came back from walking across northern England again. I went with my friends Julia and Moss, who kept a detailed blog.

I'm glad I took such a long and unusual summer vacation. I learned the same lessons as last time, again. I'm trying to track the various conditions of disorientation I'm experiencing now that I'm back: the changes I tried out and how I now react to normalcy. I have fascinatingly distinct tan lines (shirtsleeves, rings, wristwatch, bridge of eyeglasses) which will fade, but I don't want my perspective shift to fade as easily.

Hiking for about 15 days and using walking poles a lot builds upper body strength. "Hey, these bags are lighter than when I packed them originally, and this window is easier to open."

I left my laptop at home and used a mobile phone. "Laptops are huge and their screens are like giant fields of stuff. It takes whole seconds for my eyes to traverse them."

I generally walked 7-14 miles each day of hiking, and thus ate massive meals as fuel. Then I stopped. "This lunch special is huge; how can anyone eat all of this?"

UK currency bills come in different sizes and colours. "Wait, how much money do I have?"

In at least the north of England, hikers tend to avoid bringing up their own day jobs or asking about yours. "Oh right, I'm back in NYC where it's the second question someone asks upon meeting me."

I travelled with about a week's worth of clothing. "I own a tremendous number of clothes."

An incomplete list.


: One Way Confidence Will Look: The personal narrative in this NYT piece reminded me that we often socialize men to think that the absence of a NO implies a YES*, and that we often socialize women to think that the absence of a YES implies a NO.

We install different defaults. One entitled, the other deferential.

Generally, then, the errors that one makes will more consistently be, for some people, errors of overconfidence, or, for other people, errors of overreticence. (I'm talking more about professional life than about personal relationships, although I imagine there's some overlap.)

Which do you want to encourage? "Go for it" or "don't do anything bold"? "File bug reports" or "assume no one wants to hear your point of view"?

Therefore, when you see a woman erring in the right direction, don't slap her wrist. In your workplace, in your school, or when you read about an entrepreneur or an artist or an activist who's taking a risk, don't call women pushy or bitchy or naggy or arrogant or know-it-all or bossy or "difficult" for erring in the direction we want women to err!

If she has to yell to be heard when she's the only one who sees trouble ahead, the answer is to make sure she gets heard in the future without having to yell, rather than punishing her for yelling.

Don't punish her for assuming people need to hear her perspective, for defaulting to yes, for reading the absence of a no to be a yes.

I know this feels like it might end up unfair, subjective, messy. But it's already that way. I used to worship logic and I had no patience with nuance, tact, or drawing-out. In particular it took me quite a long time to work out that socially constructed things are real too. "So I think it's when you're committed to rules being fair and playing by them to the point you go hunting around for new rules, the SECRET RULES, rather than admit the world is an unfair and chaotic place." As one Bitcoin enthusiast writes:

The average problem with the average libertarian though (and by this I mean someone who comes to such ideals not via a critical intellectual process, but because they like the sound of it), is that they're hypersensitive towards recognising overt forms of power - like the bouncer standing at the nightclub door - but have muted ability (or desire) to recognise implicit forms of power, the subtle structures of exclusion that actually do most of the work in maintaining a status quo.

They assume that in the absence of the bouncer there's a level playing field. ....

Indeed, in the context of a non-level playing field, not making an overt effort to include is just a subtle (albeit non-deliberate) form of exclusion.

I am trying to encourage you to make a world where it's safe for women to stop protectively apologizing to deflect criticism, to stop apologizing unless we've actually done something wrong. I have my own internalized sexism so it's something I work on, too -- I notice my own reaction, my tone policing reflex, and (try to) stop myself from saying anything harmful aloud. And as Harriet suggests, I reflect on my prejudice, sit with my discomfort, and try to do better next time.

Please join me.


* I particularly direct your attention to the dissection that starts "Another pattern of the privileged: not keeping track of the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior." Further reading: in sexual consent, "Mythcommunication: It’s Not That They Don’t Understand, They Just Don’t Like The Answer", and in professional life, "this is a thing that happens."


(2) : Choosing to Leave, Stay, or Listen: I've recently been thinking about the power not to care -- the power to dismiss, to decide that someone else's opinion doesn't matter to you, and act accordingly, to act entitled. I've been thinking about where I've run into advice about choosing when not to care.

Around age twelve I read "Self-Reliance" by Emerson, and read it to mean that, since you can't please everyone, you may as well just try to please yourself.

Also around that age I obtained a super simplistic understanding of Buddhism: attachment and desire lead to suffering, and if you just stop wanting things, then you won't get hurt if you don't get them.

A few years later a philosophy professor had us read a bit of Nietzsche and mentioned in lecture, lightly, that Nietzsche didn't particularly care about being rational. His opponents would say "but that's irrational!" and he could say "So?"

At some point around here I read Atlas Shrugged, and basically got out of it with "the social contract is not a suicide pact" as a lesson. I probably also caught a little of, as Teresa Nielsen Hayden summarizes, "continual self-sacrifice will leave you with nothing of your own" and "if there are people out there who are like Ayn Rand's characters, they don't need Ayn Rand's books to tell them so."

Early in college, I audited an intro sociology class because its lecturer, Andrew L. Creighton, just blew my mind in every class. I hadn't made it off the waitlist but I just showed up to every lecture anyway (at UC Berkeley in the late nineties this was fine for huge lecture classes and we called it auditing). I remember Professor Creighton talking about groups and norms and power, and saying, as an aside, that this is why he was a wild card in academic departments -- he didn't particularly want what they were offering.

In 2008, I ran across a wiki page about status play, meant for improv performers, and realized what dismissiveness looks in the small, in individual conversational transactions.

In 2009, I read N.K. Jemisin's "Cold-Blooded Necessity". "I think the shift from extrinsic to intrinsic valuation -- from caring about what others think to caring about yourself -- is a fundamental part of the transition from amateur to professional..."

A few years later, in Tina Fey's Bossypants, I read about Amy Poehler not caring whether you like it.

A little while after that, after reading How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran, I wrote "The Kind Of Feminist I Am" about the intersection of privilege and mobility with this particular power. "I love the means by which people can get away from their old selves and the people who thought they knew them.... Forking. For adults, the most fundamental freedom is the freedom to leave, to vote with your feet."

And then this year, in Gabourey Sidibe's speech at the Ms. Foundation Gala, I read about her deciding to be an "asshole":

I wanted that party! And what I want trumps what 28 people want me to do, especially when what they want me to do is leave. I had a great time. I did. And if I somehow ruined my classmates' good time, then that's on them.

Sidibe's comment of course could be misread as "people should take over parties where they aren't wanted," but in context that's an utter misreading. The really interesting transgressive thing Sidibe is saying is that, when you are systematically oppressed, pursuing your own pleasure will feel rude and selfish.

In retrospect, I see the variations in this theme. You get to choose whether to stay or leave, whatever They want. You get to decide not to want others' definition of success, and to listen to your own judgment.

(And related to this: the audacity to make plans, and the audacity to decide when not to listen to yourself (for instance, when ignoring internal emotional weather and just pushing forward anyway).)

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: On Insecurity: I was catching up on Tales of MU, and I read a passage that particularly caught me. For context: A working group needs help making some objects look appealing, and three women are the ones with the necessary expertise.

"Of course it's the girls," Micah said.

"It's so typically defensive to make a remark that devalues a skill that you lack right at the moment when it proves valuable," Wisdom said.

Oh that's a bit familiar.


(1) : Case Study of a Good Internship: I'm currently a mentor for Frances Hocutt's internship in which she evaluates, documents, and improves client libraries for the MediaWiki web API. She'll be finishing up this month.

I wanted to share some things we've done right. This is the most successful I've ever been at putting my intern management philosophy into practice.

  • A team of mentors. I gathered a co-mentor and two technical advisors: engineers who have different strengths and who all promised to respond to questions within two business days. Frances is reading and writing code in four different languages, and is able to get guidance in all of them. The other guys also have very different perspectives. Tollef has worked in several open source contexts but approaches MediaWiki's API with learner's mind. Brad has hacked on the API itself and maintains a popular Wikipedia bot that uses it. And Merlijn is a maintainer of an existing client library that lots of Wikimedians use. I bring deep knowledge of our technical community, our social norms, and project management. And I'm in charge of the daily "are you blocked?" communication so we avoid deadlocks.

  • Frequent communication. Any time Frances needs substantial guidance, she can ping one of her mentors in IRC, or send us a group email. She also updates a progress report page and tells our community what she's up to via a public mailing list. We have settled into a routine where she checks in with me every weekday at a set time. We videochat three times a week via appear.in (its audio lags so we use our cell phones for audio), and use a public IRC channel the other two weekdays. We also frequently talk informally via IRC or email. She and I have each other's phone numbers in case anything is really urgent.

  • Strong relationship. I met Frances before we ever thought about doing OPW together. I was able to structure the project partly to suit her strengths. We've worked together in person a few times since her project started, which gave us the chance to tell each other stories and give each other context. I've encouraged her to submit talks to relevant conferences, and given her feedback as she prepared them. Frances knows she can come to us with problems and we'll support her and figure out how to solve them. And our daily checkins aren't just about the work -- we also talk about books or silliness or food or travel or feminism or self-care tips. There's a healthy boundary there, of course, since I need to be her boss. But our rapport makes it easier for me to praise or criticize her in the way she can absorb best.

  • Frances is great. I encouraged her as an applicant; from her past work and from our conversations, I inferred that she was resourceful, diligent, well-spoken, analytical, determined, helpful, and the kind of leader who values both consensus and execution. I know that many such people are currently languishing, underemployed, underappreciated. A structured apprenticeship program can work really well to help reflective learners shine.

    I got to know Frances because we went to the same sci-fi convention and she gave me a tour of the makerspace she cofounded. Remember that just next to the open source community, in adjacent spaces like fandom, activism, and education, are thousands of amazing, skilled and underemployed people who are one apprenticeship away from being your next Most Valuable Player.


  • Scope small & cuttable. Frances didn't plan to make one big monolithic thing; we planned for her to make a bunch of individual things, only one of which (the "gold standard" by which we judge API client libraries) needed to happen before the others. This came in very handy. We hadn't budgeted time for Frances to attend three conferences during the summer, and of course some programming bits took longer than we'd expected. When we needed to adjust the schedule, we decided it was okay for her to evaluate eight libraries in four languages, rather than eleven in five languages. The feature she's writing may spill a few days over past the formal end of her internship and we're staying aware of that.

  • Metacognition. As Jefferson said, "If men were angels, we would have no need of government." But we're flawed, and so we have to keep up the discipline of metacognition, of figuring out what we are bad at and how to get better. I asked Frances to self-assess her learning styles and have used that information to give her resources and tasks that will suit her. Early in the internship I messed up and suggested a very broad, ill-defined miniproject as a way to learn more about the MediaWiki API; since then I've learned better what to suggest as an initial discovery approach. Halfway into the internship we realized we weren't meeting enough, so we started the daily videochat-or-IRC appointment. I have let Frances know that I can be a bad correspondent so it's fine to nag me, to remind me that she's blocked on something, to ask other mentors for help. And so on. We've learned along the way, about each other and about ourselves. My mom says, "teaching is learning twice," and she's right.

Setting up an internship on a strong foundation makes it a smoother, less stressful, and more joyous experience for everyone. I've heard lots of mentors' stories of bad internships, but I don't think we talk enough about what makes a good internship. Here's what we are doing that works. You?


(P.S. Oh and by the way you can totally hire Frances starting in September!)

Edited 2 October to add: Frances listed "[s]ome particularly useful approaches and skills" that made her internship work.


: A Failure In Fluff Recommendation: A friend mentioned that she's particularly interested in reading fluffy fiction novels authored by people who are not white men -- comfort fic, and (in her case in particular) preferably not mystery or romance. (And I believe she reads only in English.) I told her I would blog a list of books like that, and was certain I'd have a few.

I started trying to come up with recommendations and realized that I find this quite difficult! The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo by Zen Cho (review) is a romance, albeit a very unconventional one that satirizes usual romance tropes. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth has comfortfic bits in it but lots of wrenching passages too. I personally found The Red Carpet: Bangalore Stories by Lavanya Sankaran comforting, but if you are not Karnatakan you might not, and it's short stories rather than a novel. R.K. Narayan's My Dateless Diary is nonfiction. A lot of people like Naomi Novik's Temeraire novels and Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamourist novels, but there sure is death and gore in Novik's work, and I haven't read the Kowal yet. Most of these recommended books are by white men. Jean Merrill's The Pushcart War, Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter, Tamora Pierce's Tortall books, and Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber all have really quite high stakes, now that I think about it. I can reassure you that everything is basically going to come out all right, but is that good enough to make it fluffy comfort fic?

Why is this so hard?!

In the afterword to Jade Yeo, Cho described it as "fluff for postcolonial booknerds" (more on that here), and at least one commenter discussed how difficult it can be to feel safe and comfortable reading about marginalized people who are currently happy: "I guess what haunted me through every interaction was the precariousness of Jade and Ravi's position...". And yeah. I worry! I can get pretty invested in a protagonist's happiness. Some of these books only serve as comfort fiction on a second read, when I already know what is going to happen. (One nice thing about certain genre boundaries, such as standard romance and mystery, is that I can reasonably expect the protagonist will not die, be enslaved, etc.) So I think my actual answer is: keep my eyes open.

I promised my friend a list of recommendations and am failing her. Apologies! I think I will ask you more questions about what you find comforting in fiction so I can recommend things better.

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(1) : Resources For Starting Your Own Thing: I've had two different conversations recently with feminist women who want to start their own tech startups. Even though I have never done that, it turns out that I had things to tell them that they did not already know! NON-ORDERED LIST TIME!

I'm sure this is as incomplete as "Here Are Some Grants You Could Apply For" was. Also, as I mentioned, I totally have not done this and websearching around for startup advice from founders will get you a zillion interesting results, and if they contradict me then you should probably believe them instead.


(7) : Inessential Weirdnesses in Open Source: Class Matters features an essay by Betsy Leondar-Wright on activist culture and what we do that accidentally alienates new people, and includes the very useful phrase "inessential weirdness(es)." Please go read it so you'll understand what I am suggesting in the lists below.

Some friends and I started listing the inessential weirdnesses in open source and open culture, some of which shade into missing stairs. We came up with:

  • git (not all version control systems; specifically git because of its UI/horrible learning curve)
  • "+1" jargon
  • dismissiveness towards Windows/Internet Explorer
  • assumption of atheism
  • widespread scorn of team sports, Top 40 music, patriotism
  • how MANY licenses there are
  • all the Monty Python and scifi references/analogies
  • dismissiveness towards email addresses from certain domains, such as Hotmail, AOL, etc. (And the hierarchy beyond that as well! A few years ago, my boss's boss emailed a bunch of people, and I was on the To list, and she used my backup GMail address instead of my usual Panix address, so now I looked like just another GMail user in front of all these hoity-toity people whose emails end in @[prestigious-company].com or @[prestigious-university].edu or @[self-hosted-domain].net. I was embarrassed, because that's how email domain name status works in our community.)

Mary Gardiner added more observations (mostly her wording):

  • Use of email lists rather than web forums
  • Use of plain text rather than HTML email (or even knowing that these are things)
  • Use of IRC
  • Really context-dependent naming: Almost universal use of wallet names in email and almost universal use of pseudonyms on IRC for example
  • Our (very white?) use of standard English, with a mainstream minority using Latin plurals and into older styles of prescriptivist grammar
  • All the mathematics and CS terminology: "transitive", "orthogonal", etc.
  • Conferences themselves. They come with assumptions of a certain amount of wealth (for travel), and they focus on skills (abstract writing, public speaking) that don't closely correspond to the skills a lot of open stuff workers have developed in the course of their work. In addition, they go with a very common phobia (public speaking). They require spoken fluency in (usually) English (which is really hard on many good CS research students). They're also totalising: you conference from the time you wake up to the time you sleep. Even without travel, and even though childcare is a partial solution, they're therefore very tailored to people without dependents or regular home responsibilities.

Leondar-Wright's essay also gave me language for thinking about defaulting to unconference formats. As I said in my 2012 post "Sometimes an unconference is the wrong choice":

If you are planning an event for people who already know and trust each other, and are good at public speaking and collaboration, and are experts in the field, then an unconference might work! But for newbies who are learning not just a new skill, but a new way of thinking? Give them a more familiar structure.

I am happy with how we are doing AdaCamp, which I think is a modified unconference in the right ways, e.g., with lots of orientation and structured-for-newbies intro sessions in the first few slots.

Camille Acey added the nuance that it's important to distinguish between making a space more accessible to newbies and "dumbing down" ideas. While it's important to avoid needless erudition when teaching new learners, it can be condescending, presumptuous, and paternalistic to reflexively avoid complex topics and nuance. Acey believes we need to build safe spaces with agreed-upon rules to help everyone feel comfortable saying "I don't understand," that we must regularly revisit and revise those rules, and that we should, while teaching new learners, call things by their proper names while also collaborating among people with different perspectives to build a common language -- and a common movement.

I agree with Acey that, while getting rid of unnecessary barriers, we need to watch out for disrespectful oversimplification. Making safe places where people can admit ignorance and teach each other respectfully is key; this implies long-term commitment and relationship-building, I think, and is yet another reason why one-off events are less effective (for example, see the importance of followup in Wikipedia editing workshops and edit-a-thons). Perhaps one way to balance improving the learner's experience and avoiding condescension is for teachers to consciously remember simplifications as placeholders, and commit to exploring the topics' richness with those learners in a later session.

One way to think of essential versus inessential weirdnesses is to think in terms of dependency management. How many packages are you asking your user to install in order to use your project? Are they all really necessary? Won't that take a lot of time and disk space? Can you reduce the amount of time they spend waiting for a progress bar to inch forward, so they can dive in and start getting things done?


: A Debugging Afternoon: Yesterday I helped a friend debug her Python code. I had never seen it before.

She was nearly finished with a huge project refactoring a code base new to her, and had gotten all but one of the ~200 tests to pass. And the test behaved differently whether it ran by itself or in the suite.

I reminded her that pdb lets you make breakpoints and use c to continue between them, so you don't have to step through every single line (see "A few things to try while debugging" in my presentation "A Few Python Tips"); wondered with her about whether we were facing a failure of idempotence; brainstormed with her about possible timing problems and race conditions; suggested she use a sort of binary search to track down the specific interaction between the failing test and the other tests in the suite; asked her whether she could replicate this behavior in a fresh virtual environment with freshly installed dependencies; gently nudged her to systematically keep track of the hypotheses she was testing.

I tossed out hypotheses to check (maybe the test's tearDown() step is not actually removing everything from the collection; maybe it is not flushing the overflow queue; maybe there is a significant difference between the tearDown() for this test and for others).

She fixed it, and we celebrated. She should feel proud of tracking down and fixing a gnarly bug. I feel proud that I substantially helped a professional engineer debug a hard problem. Sometimes I said "This is just based on intuition and pattern-matching, but what if..." and I was right. My gut is worth listening to. That's good to know.


: Ways To Be: I just reread Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle, the classic lesbian coming-of-age novel that screams from page 1 and never forgets the intersections of class, gender, and sexuality. I just reread the bit where Molly asks Leroy if it's true that he's flunking school.

"School's stupid. There's nothing they can teach me. I want to go make money and buy me a Bonneville Triumph like Craig's."

"Me too, and I'd paint mine candy apple red."

"You can't have one. Girls can't have motorcycles."

"Fuck you, Leroy. I'll buy an army tank if I want to and run over anyone who tells me I can't have it."

Leroy cocked his slicked head and looked at me. "You know, I think you're a queer."

"So what if I am, except I'm not real sure what you mean by that."

"I mean you ain't natural, that's what I mean. It's time you started worrying about your hair and doing those things that girls are supposed to do."

"Since when are you telling me what to do....[snip]....How come you're all of a sudden so interested in my being a lady?"

"I dunno. I like you the way you are, but then I get confused. If you're doing what you please, out there riding around on motorcycles, then what am I supposed to do? I mean how do I know how to act if you act the same way?"

"What goddamn difference does it make to you what I do? You do what you want and I do what I want."

"Maybe I don't know what I want," his voice wavered. "Besides, I'm a chicken and you're not. You really would go around on a candy apple red Triumph and give people the finger when they stared at you. I don't want people down on me." Leroy started to cry. I pulled him close to me, and we sat on the bank of the canal that was stinking in the noon sun.

p. 62-63, Bantam paperback.

People talk like this in Rubyfruit Jungle, speaking their subtext, very on-the-nose, and it doesn't make for velvety-smooth subtle mimetic literature, but that's fine. Here I am grateful to see Brown lay bare Leroy's plaintive need for belonging and direction.

One of the most valuable things, to me, about having a big diverse variety of friends, acquaintances, and colleagues is that I see many ways it's possible to be, and can say "that looks cool, I'll try that."

(If Leroy's lament - how do I know who to be and what to do if we don't have set roles? - strikes a specifically geeky chord with you and you start thinking about nerds and gatekeeping, you might want to read "On geekitude, hierarchy, and being a snob" and "What is geek".)

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(1) : Five Books For: John: I recently got to catch up with my brother-in-law-in-law John and we talked about books a bit, and I started thinking about books I would recommend to him. John, my apologies if you've already read any of these!

  1. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher, William L. Ury, and Bruce Patton. John, you and I were talking about how we want to behave when we are in authority, how we want to respectfully and calmly negotiate with and teach others. This book helped me see how to do that, with principles and practical examples. Like, you know when you talked about using the Socratic method in a non-jerky way? I feel like that's in here.
  2. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Switch has a lot of good ideas and case studies about how to change institutions, companies, families, and yourself. It was so accessible and smooth that I was a little suspicious and envious, as a writer. I bet you'll find ideas in here that will help you in your everyday work and community.
  3. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. I babbled about this to you -- I think this book integrated adventure with thinky conversations and interstellar intrigue and music and illustrations of empire and power and gender really well. I think you might especially like how the characters wrestle with the question of how to be loyal and obedient to imperfect institutions. You can read the first chapter for free online.
  4. My Real Children by Jo Walton. This is the story of how the little things a woman does, as a good parent and in her local community, end up having ripple effects far beyond what she might have imagined. And it's also about caring for aging parents, and becoming an aging parent who needs care. So I think you'll find it strikes close to your heart in a lot of ways. You can read the first two chapters online for free.
  5. Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress. This is a story about a woman with a messed-up birth family and gifts that estrange her from them - so in that I think it resembles that memoir you liked. And it illustrates the hate that comes from envy and ignorance, and how, if you've been feeling isolated and lonely, finding a community of people like you at first seems scarily amazing and then gets more complicated. It asks: what responsibility do we have to those who are less gifted, who seem to only leech off our resources? The answer the protagonist comes up with has stuck with me for more than a decade, and has helped me think about this.

As non-John readers may have been able to infer, John's a guy who cares a lot about taking care of his family, being faithful, and helping his colleagues and clients get better at what they do. So if you're like that, then you might like these books, too.

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: Misc: A few miscellaneous links:

On the magic of land registration.

Darwin's lament.

The wonder of Wonder Woman. (Watch that vid, by the way, even if you have never been a WW fan.)

On statistics and danger.

How hazing rituals work.


about Sumana Harihareswara

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