Cogito, Ergo Sumana

picture of Sumana's head

Sumana Harihareswara's journal

: 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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(0) : 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.

: 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 (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!)

: 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.

: Younger Sumana As Media Consumer: A few memories.


One morning in May 2001, I looked through my apartment, gathered together a bunch of items into plastic bags, and walked a few blocks to a man's apartment. I broke up with him and gave him back his stuff -- all the stuff of his that he'd left at my place over time (although of course I missed a few things and had to arrange a handoff or two over the next several months). As he processed that I was dumping him, I looked around his room for my stuff so I could take it back. A few things caused me hesitation. I specifically remember thinking that I had given him Waiting by Ha Jin, which I'd already read, and that he would never read it. I took it back, I think.

Today I bought a book of short stories by Ha Jin. I hope I like it.


In the fall of 1998 I took a history class with Robin Einhorn. Her use of economic data fascinated me. I learned that she specialized in tax law. I started getting interested in it too (see my blog posts filed under "Taxes") and, after I got my bachelor's, asked her to coffee so I could learn more about whether I should pursue a graduate degree in tax history. She gave me a short reading list. I started it, and enjoyed what I was learning, but didn't feel the "I want to pursue this as a career" itch. I could tell that it was only going to be a hobby for me, not something I wanted to spend several years researching full-time.

It still fascinates me. Approximately everyone pays taxes, approximately every government collects taxes, and the creation of every tax statute -- even in non-democratic societies -- causes and/or is caused by a special interest group. There's a lens that sees every government as, at its core, a taxation structure, and I still see every clause in a tax code as a fossil hinting at immense struggles.


One birthday, I was on an airplane on my way to a bee (I am trying to remember whether it was a vocabulary bee or a spelling bee). My mother flew with me. She got out my birthday gift from under the seat: the Star Trek Encyclopedia. Oh how I pored over that thing.

A few years later, I was like 14 or 15, and still an intense Star Trek fan, and my parents -- and I don't know how they did this -- found out that Naren Shankar, a Trek screenwriter, would be at some Indian-related event, and arranged for him to have a meal with us. I am pretty sure I asked just the most pedantic fannish questions, like "so I heard in this new Voyager Kes is from a species that only lives for seven years, how can that even work?!" and was generally an ass. I'm sorry, Naren Shankar! I'm really glad I got to meet you and feel that connection every time I saw your name in the credits! It was so cool to know that an Indian like me was working on the show!

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(4) : Here Are Some Grants You Could Apply For: When I tell people about grants they could get to help them work on open source/open culture stuff, sometimes they are surprised because they didn't know such grants existed. Here are some of them!

Grants with deadlines:

  • Urgent: August 1st is the deadline for the Knight Prototype grant which "helps media makers, technologists and tinkerers take ideas from concept to demo. With grants of $35,000, innovators are given six months to research, test core assumptions and iterate before building out an entire project."
  • Also coming up fast: August 4th is your deadline to apply for the Open Society Fellowship, which gives you about USD$80,000-100,000 to work on a project for a year.
  • September 30th is the deadline for Individual Engagement Grants applications. IEG projects "support Wikimedians to complete projects that benefit the Wikimedia movement. Our focus is on experimentation for online impact. We fund individuals or small teams to organize, build, create, research or facilitate something that enhances the work of Wikimedia's volunteers." The maximum grant request is USD$30,000.
  • If you're a woman working on a tech project that will benefit girls and women in tech, check out The Anita Borg Systers Pass-It-On (PIO) Awards, which range from USD$500-$1000. The next round opens for applications on August 6th.
  • It looks like November 2014 is the deadline to apply for the Drupal Community Cultivation Grants: "to support current and future organizers and leaders of DrupalCamps, Drupal Meetups, Drupal Sprints, Drupal coalitions, and other creative projects that are spreading information within the Drupal community and educating individuals outside the community about Drupal... Grant awards will range from several hundred to several thousand dollars per project".
Grants that you can apply for anytime:

This partially overlaps with the list that OpenHatch maintains on its wiki (and which I or someone else ought to update), and I have not even scratched the surface really. So anyway, yes, if you need some financial help to do better or more work in open stuff, take a look!

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(2) : I Was So Excited To Elect A Constitutional Law Professor: Today, July 27th, is the ten-year anniversary of Barack Obama's super cool 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. That one. Remember that? Remember how good it was?

That we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door.

John Kerry believes in the constitutional freedoms that have made our country the envy of the world, and he will never sacrifice our basic liberties nor use faith as a wedge to divide us.

If there's an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.

We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States.

I am deeply sad that I can only quote these lines in a spirit of bitter irony and disappointment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So try logging in!

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

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

Some things I don't like in fiction:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Am I being laid off?" I asked.

They said yes.

"I have a counterproposal," I said.

They were surprised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

about Sumana Harihareswara


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