Cogito, Ergo Sumana

picture of Sumana's head

Sumana Harihareswara's journal


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

wait, no, I mean:

Freedom of association

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How dystopias work

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

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

......

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

.....

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

...

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

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

Technical details

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

Takeaways

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

Try Randomized Dystopia!

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

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

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

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

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(1) : I Love You, Sweetie: I have the best spouse.

I spent basically the entire afternoon and evening waylaid by an inexplicable short-term illness (I would blame food poisoning except I can't work out the causality). Leonard's super solicitousness extended not just to preparing and giving me exactly the right amounts of whatever foods and fluids and analgesics I thought might help, but also to reading aloud to me from my current book (Courtney Milan's The Suffragette Scandal) when I wanted my comfort reading but couldn't bear to take it in visually. He also noted that Edward's early self-presentation to Free is rather like how Q talks to Picard, which is SO TRUE.

This is in addition to his help and reassurance last night on a programming project of mine. Deployment is terrible. I had successfully SSH'd into that machine before! I know I had! He has heard me grumble "all is vanity" in a stompy way many times, and he always gently supports me so I can change my mind. Not all is vanity. And it will be fun to launch this thing, this week I hope. I think you'll like it.

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(0) : I Invite First-Timers To WisCon: I have been to WisCon three times (2009, 2010, 2011) and I am going again this year, yay! If you enjoy my writing, you might like WisCon, and -- especially if you've never tried it before -- you should consider joining me in Madison, Wisconsin, USA, May 22-25 (Memorial Day weekend).

Smart, funny conversations. Mary Anne Mohanraj and me at a past WisCon, photo by E. J. FischerSome of my best WisCon memories are of really funny panels (I enjoyed serving on the "Must Pleasures Be Guilty?" and "Imaginary Book Club" panels, and watching "Not Another Race Panel"). Some are of friendly semistructured interaction like the clothing swap at the Gathering on Friday afternoon. And some some are of formal and informal discussions where incisive people tossed around ideas that gave me new thoughts for the rest of the year. I expect to get all of that this year, and if you decide to come, I'll happily tell you which panels/panelists/parties/workshops/etc. look promising to me!

Relevant sessions. You can create a free account to look at programming signups and indicate your interest in attending -- the deadline is March 29. The programming committee does take those numbers (how many people demonstrate interest in attending something) into account when rejecting or scheduling specific sessions. And there's an Overflow/Spontaneous Programming (a.k.a. unconference) room throughout the convention -- for topics people want to discuss that aren't on the schedule -- where we can hold impromptu sessions about vidding, open source, self-directed learning....

Accessibility lane at WisCon, photo by sasha_feather, CC BY-NC-SAGreat accessibility. I especially love the Quiet Space to regroup, the free-flowing traffic lanes marked in the hall with blue tape, and the rule that speakers use microphones so the audience can hear better. They all help me enjoy the con more, and they help other attendees, which means I can enjoy their company. And overall, I find WisCon participants care about being intersectionally feminist and inclusive (example: discussion and renaming in the Floomp dance party). Sometimes folks make mistakes, as we all do, but we apologize, and fix it, and (although I know other people have had different experiences*) I trust in WisCon in the long term and am happy to recommend it to others, including people who have never been to a scifi con before. It was my first!

First-timers welcome. The site gives you detailed directions to the venue. There's usually a first-timers' dinner (small group expeditions to local restaurants, I think), and orientation sessions, early in the con, to help first-time attendees and first-time panelists (tips) and first-time moderators (tips). If you feel better showing up someplace for the first time if you're being useful, check the checkbox to volunteer, e.g., for a couple of hours in the con suite stocking free food for everybody. And I would be happy to help you meet folks (my credentials from a shy previous WisCon first-timer).

Another world is possible. I cannot overstate how much it has influenced me to participate in WisCon, which asks everyone to influence programming, provides accessibility and childcare and a comprehensive program guide, and nurtures and amplifies feminist voices. And WisCon communicates thoroughly with its community via blog, Twitter, Facebook, an email newsletter and printed, mailed progress reports, and more. This includes talking about really difficult stuff like owning up to past mistakes in handling harassment reports and disinviting a Guest of Honor (if you've never been to a scifi convention, think "keynote speaker").

A gateway to more. I've made friends, started watching or reading new stuff, and joined Dreamwidth to keep in the feminist fannish conversation year-round.

I skipped WisCon for years basically because I had other travel commitments for work, and this year I'm so glad to be coming back. Feminists of all genders who enjoy science fiction, think about coming to Madison in May.


* Kameron Hurley posted "Burn it All Down: Wiscon’s Failure of Feminism" before the WisCon con committee permabanned a particular harasser. As this year's cochair said in criticizing the previous decision for a temporary ban, "WisCon bills itself as a feminist sci-fi con. And compared to some others that I have attended, it is definitely better at paying lip service to being feminist than any of them."


: No Longer With The Ada Initiative: As you may have seen if you follow the Ada Initiative's blog, I've left the TAI's advisory board (which I joined in 2011). I've also left its board of directors, which I joined a little under a year ago. (A reason that I was a useful addition to the board of directors was that Sue Gardner, who left the board due to time constraints, was taking with her a tremendous amount of Wikimedia expertise. Now that she has returned to the board, my Wikimedian expertise is not as critical.) This also means that I'm no longer working on the search for the new executive director, and am a well-wisher from afar for the committee -- and indeed the org.

Some past posts I've made about TAI:

Incidentally, this means I now have zero formal affiliations with any organization, and I am trying to get used to the idea that if I say something super controversial about, say, open source culture, Google Summer of Code, or Yuletide Treasure, the only fallout will be on me. I haven't really had this particular unattachedness since early 2011, and it's rather a change.


: Words About Words About Words: I'm most of the way through Beloved by Toni Morrison -- my thanks to Debbie Notkin for causing me to take a deep breath and open it again.

Reading it now, I'm grateful for all the skills and context I've learned over my life as a reader, because Beloved rewards close reading, and because I could imagine being a more confused reader if I were less versed in the history of slavery in the US.

Spoilers ahead!

I am only partway through Beloved, but I can already venture a guess that a strong theme here is: the often racist inadequacy and deceptiveness of the written word. Sethe would have had "Dearly Beloved" written on the gravestone, not just "Beloved", but didn't think to ask for both words until too late. Paul D can't read, but he knows that "there was no way in hell a black face could appear in a newspaper if the story was about something anybody wanted to hear." Baby Suggs didn't need to read aloud from a Bible to preach The Word, and "Jenny Whitlow" was written on her sales ticket but that doesn't make it her name. Beloved, speaking/thinking of past experiences, expresses sentence fragments and allusions, including "how can I say things that are pictures". And the schoolteacher measured Sethe and the Sweet Home men, and wrote down their particulars, and instructed his pupils to run data analysis on the two columns of Sethe's "human" and "animal" characteristics ("And don't forget to line them up.").

This book is a fantasy, that is, it has something magical/supernatural in it, and I want to find out how that resolves and read all the other work it's in conversation with, inside and outside of whatever genres.

End of spoilers.

Morrison's also discussing intimacy and bodies and homes and permission, and detoxing from belonging to someone else, and healthy and poisonous desires, and a bunch of other topics of course. The story has enough atrocities that I can't comfortably read it while eating, so, giant trigger warning for terrible things that happened to black people in the US in the nineteenth century. But if you haven't read it, I hope you will read it, so we can talk about it.

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: The Triumph Of Outreachy:

Right now, y'all can apply to the Free and Open Source Software Outreachy internships, formerly OPW -- the deadline is March 24th. Copy the flyer below to spread the word! And March 24th is also the deadline for your organization to sponsor internships -- if your employer has deep pockets, use this template to ask them for some cash.

Outreachy publicity flyer


As of last month, Outreach Program for Women is now Outreachy, and Outreachy will move from the GNOME Foundation to being a member project of Software Freedom Conservancy on May 1. This step makes sense, as Outreachy serves the entire FLOSS community and SFC is specifically set up to provide financial, legal, and administrative support to member projects, whereas GNOME Foundation's core goal is to advance GNOME. I'm grateful to the GNOME Foundation for launching and supporting OPW as it grew!

Celebrating in detail

Outreachy has now taken several pretty wow steps over the course of its 9-year history (see the original announcement and a 2009 retrospective). This is not complete, but:

  • from one-time to repeating, and then to consistently running twice a year
  • from only mentoring GNOME projects to mentoring GNOME + Twisted, and then to mentoring for dozens of FLOSS projects (and Sarah Sharp, the original Linux org admin, handing off that responsibility and coming to co-administer Outreachy as a whole)
  • from 6 participants in the first round to 44 in the round that's ending in a few days
  • from Hanna Wallach and Chris Ball volunteering to run it, to Marina Zhurakhinskaya running it as a volunteer, to Outreachy being part of Zhurakhinskaya's job, so candidates, interns, mentors, and admins get more consistent support and leadership
  • from GNOME oversight/administration to the Software Freedom Conservancy
  • adding a travel fund, explicitly documenting it and encouraging participants to use it
  • adding a career development advisor (me at first, then delegated to someone with more career advising experience)
  • from language of "women/females only" that was potentially trans-exclusive to more inclusive language ("anyone who was assigned female at birth and anyone who identifies as a woman, genderqueer, genderfluid, or genderfree regardless of gender presentation or assigned sex at birth")
  • from "Women's Summer Outreach Program" through various name permutations :)
  • from fighting only sexism to fighting other oppressions as well, by partnering with Ascend
  • from zillions-of-emails application processes to a unified web app
  • weathering a trumped-up controversy about a temporary GNOME finances problem
  • adding the full variety of software engineering tasks as potential projects, e.g., design, release management, translation, etc., not just coding
  • adding a mentored first contribution as an application step (other open source internship programs are copying this)

Empowering everyone involved

old OPW logoWhen I saw, in mid-2012, that OPW had included a non-GNOME project, and that OPW had succeeded in getting the percentage of women at GNOME's yearly conference from ~4% (2009) to ~17% (2012), I decided I wanted Wikimedia Foundation to participate. I sought Zhurakhinskaya out at that year's Google Summer of Code Mentor Summit, my boss in tow. Zhurakhinskaya was already looking for me. We instantly agreed that WMF should participate. My boss, Rob Lanphier, trusted my judgement and gave me the budget to fund multiple interns. Zhurakhinskaya helped us decide to expand our contribution.

In the end, we got six interns for that round, thanks to WMF's contribution and to money Zhurakhinskaya and Karen Sandler got from Google's Open Source Programs Office. Wikimedia has kept on mentoring via OPW/Outreachy, several have stuck around as volunteers, and WMF has hired at least four alumnae as contractors or employees. Outreachy works to help recruit and retain technical contributors, who have more diverse perspectives, more than the event-based or publicity-only initiatives we'd tried before.

OPW helps oppressed people do things they didn't think they could do -- and thank you Outreachy for helping WMF do something we didn't know we could do. :)

Congratulations! And here's video of "The Outreach Program for Women: what works & what's next", a talk that Liz Henry and I gave last year at Open Source Bridge.

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(3) : Some Books I've Read In The Last Year: I have read many, many books since I last rounded them up. I may start using LibraryThing or similar to track and recommend things since I demonstrably don't blog about the books often enough to keep up. Future Sumana and others, have some fragmentary, tardy reviews, with more to come.

Zen Cho, Spirits Abroad (short story anthology). Deeply engaging, funny, loving, and heartstring-tugging (I'm reasonably sure that midway through the first story, I burst into tears and called my mom). I appreciate how Cho talks about things I don't understand, uses words I don't know, and helps me keep going even when I'm missing bits that (for instance) Malaysians would grok. She does not do this by explaining or glossing every phrase, in case you (like me) dislike that approach.

Greg Milner, Perfecting Sound Forever: The History of Recorded Music. I picked this up because of Scott Rosenberg's recommendation and give it two thumbs way up. I never took a college-level physics class and I suspect know less than the median US-born person my age about pop music of the 20th century. Milner's exposition gave me the background I needed to understand the ways recording and playback technology affected music, and vice versa, without being condescending. I learned even more about Edison's vengefulness, and I now understand a lot more about the influence of World War II on the music tech industry, about racism in the folk music preservation scene, about how we choose codecs for compression, about the loudness wars and dynamic range, about why we revere or despise particular practices or musicians, about the sexist culture of audiophilia, and about how to (or how not to) get people to switch workflows.

Joanna Russ, The Adventures of Alyx. I don't see as much fiction as I'd like about super-competent women managers. I especially do not see enough fiction about competent women managing incompetent men and causing them to realize, empirically, that she is right and they are wrong. This is the best thing about The Adventures of Alyx.

Molly Gloss, The Dazzle of Day. The very first thing I want to get across is that this is not comfort reading; it includes realistic depictions of sexual assault and its aftermath. I am very glad I read this heartbreaking, nuanced tale of Quakers in space -- Jo Walton gets at the way Gloss depicts people and situations I rarely see in scifi, and as Sue Gardner has mentioned, understanding Quakers helps me understand Wikimedian consensus better -- but it is not gentle.

Rita Mae Brown, Rubyfruit Jungle (reread). I more thoroughly noticed the "make my own stories/films about Us" theme this time. Maybe that's because Leonard and I have been watching so many films, via the Museum of the Moving Image, from decades past. As bad and simplistic and inaccurate as media representation of QUILTBAG people is now, it's better than it was.

Ha Jin, A Good Fall (short story collection). I had previously read his novel Waiting, and in both his short stories and his novels, Ha Jin does a painfully good job of delicately splaying open the interiority of ordinary people navigating modernity. He sets much of A Good Fall in Flushing, in my own county, and many of his characters are Asian or Asian-American, so I got that added touch of familiarity. If I recall correctly, Ha Jin can make me feel empathy for a character who is making bad decisions, which not every author can do!

Lavanya Sankaran, The Hope Factory. I'd previously read Sankaran's short story collection The Red Carpet, which I do recommend. I loved The Hope Factory -- what a Bangalore story, getting the texture of class, gender, and location so right. (I wonder whether the flashback chapter about one protagonist's day laborer past would work as a standalone story; it sure has a Crowning Moment of Awesome that I will remember for a long time.) I honestly do not know whether I should recommend this book to non-Indians or even desis who are not Karnatakan or Kannadiga, whether it will sparkle quite as bright to people who have never been to that particular dosa restaurant, who don't think "wait I think I have relatives in that square mile of Mysore." But if you're looking for an English-language novel set in modern-day Bangalore, spanning rich and poor, family and business and politics, check this out.

Toni Morrison, Beloved -- haven't finished this yet. I picked this up at a moment when I wasn't ready for how deeply sexy it gets, so I paused; I'll be picking it up again sometime.

Kate Griffin, A Madness of Angels. I cannot remember whether I finished this book. I heard about it because people said the protagonist uses an Oyster card as a component in a magical ward. (People on Dreamwidth find this charming and I am no exception!) But A Madness of Angels is about 1% that kind of awesome Terms-Of-Service-based magic, and about 99% moody swirling coats and "I thought I was dead, how did I get resurrected?" and men in fog and GET BACK TO THE END USER LICENSE AGREEMENTS ALREADY! I am much more interested in urban fantasy if someone is committing magical fraud or magically suing someone than if someone is committing magical murder.

Jean M. Converse and Howard Schuman, Conversations at Random: Survey Research as Interviewers See It (reread). I love this super-obscure book, which I picked up used many years ago. It includes many anecdotes about surprises that door-to-door survey-takers have run into. I like these stories for the same reason I end up rereading the case studies and blockquotes from Carol Gilligan's In A Different Voice or Irving Yalom's Love's Executioner.

Ken MacLeod, The Human Front and The Restoration Game. I read these for an upcoming online book club-type event, and am currently reading MacLeod's Newton's Wake for that same project. I enjoyed the two that I've finished: brisk reads, relatable protagonists, Big Reveals, reasonable exposition so you don't have to come into the book already knowing all the Trotsky-related feuds in twentieth-century communism. Either of these would be a reasonable first MacLeod. (I attempted to read his Fall Revolution series by starting with The Star Fraction and bounced off, at least for now, on the "ugh why do I care about these people, giant dream sequence, I do not know enough about communism to grok this" barriers. I have since been advised to try again with a different Fall Revolution book later!)

Atul Gawande, Complications. I liked this and read aloud bits of it to people, especially the bits about teaching and risk, but it does suffer a bit from comparison to Better, which has a throughline. Still good enough to make me daydream about finding myself on some kind of Indian-American Powerhouses panel with Gawande!

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (reread). I last read this about 15 years ago, for a class, and I'm grateful that I've grown as a reader since then. This time through, I could appreciate Neale Hurston's lush descriptive prose more thoroughly, because now I see what other authors are trying to do when they expend verbiage on hot humid Southern garden scenes. There's an exemplary early passage that connects our protagonist's blossoming sexuality with her new awareness of the sensual world around her and mixes observation of her interior life with trees, flowers, etc. Also, I'd love to talk about class, gender, and sexuality in Their Eyes Were Watching God with other people who have read it recently.

Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy. I believe I've never read this book before. Just as other adults have said, this book holds up -- when you read as an adult, you see and understand the drawing-room conflicts that Harriet sees but doesn't understand. And yeah, if you are obsessed with discovering everyone else's secrets, other people might hate that and might decide you are not awesome. Hear that, NSA? Perhaps if more people had read Harriet the Spy as kids, we wouldn't have the massive intelligence overreach problems we have now. Neither you nor I have any way of disproving that!

Janet Mock, Redefining Realness. Like many US people, I picked up Redefining Realness because I heard about it, heard it was good, and realized I had not yet read a memoir by a trans person of color. And now I continue this chain of recommendations. Redefining Realness, interestingly, succeeds both as a public service announcement about transphobia and intersectionality and as a memoir about one woman's coming-of-age. I appreciated how Mock interwove her story with statistics and other context.

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Sword. I enjoyed this. The previous book, Ancillary Justice, I enjoyed quite a lot as I was reading it. Ancillary Sword I did not enjoy as much as I was reading it, and then enjoyed a great deal more afterwards, thanks to a great conversation with Jed. Intriguing ideas include: Breq as unreliable narrator, especially regarding other people's emotions, genders, and sexualities. The shift in settings, from spaceship to space station to planet to station to ship, which helps us compare societies that are functional, dysfunctional, and broken. Leckie compare othering, oppression, and possibilities for resistance across urban and plantation settings. The Ancillaryverse as scifi that argues with other scifi; Radchaai as Borg (ancillaries), or as Federation (per the "root beer" and Eddington/Maquis critiques from Deep Space Nine). Justice of Toren as literally the ship who sang (see the comments in Leckie's post here, around the novels' feminist lineage). Danny O'Brien's take on Radchaai beauty standards. What bits of the Radch feel Hindu to me.

Peter Falk, Just One More Thing (reread). I originally read Falk's autobiography before I had gotten into Columbo, and enjoyed taking another look. Fun, funny, wise, a nice collection of heartwarming and offbeat stories, exactly what I wanted as a Columbo fan.

Julie Phillips, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice Sheldon. I'd been putting this off until I could handle the anguish of it, and I'm glad I did. Julie Phillips's comprehensively heartbreaking biography made me weep and yearn hopelessly for an alternate universe or two. I remember standing in the Shakespeare & Co. south of the UC Berkeley campus, reading "The Screwfly Solution" in an anthology -- maybe I've never gotten over that disturbance. And, like a memento mori, in the spinner rack in my living room, within arm's reach of the sofa, I've placed a copy of Warm Worlds and Otherwise by James Tiptree, Jr., an edition that includes that Silverberg intro where he calls her prose "ineluctably masculine." "So when the human male describes his world he maps its distances from his unspoken natural center of reference, himself," Tiptree wrote. My own experience of being othered, misread, being thought too emotional or too unfeminine or too weak by some man's standards, are far fewer than hers were. But it does bother me that I frequently get misgendered in open source communities. It would be really lovely if I never again needed to say, "I'm a woman; please don't assume everyone you meet in IRC is a man." If I felt like pretending, I would not have to call myself James or Arjun; an abstract avatar, the amount of ASCII swagger I already exhibit, and others' assumptions would do the job for me -- our assumptions, I should say, as I also wonder how many women I am currently misgendering as men.

Billy Fawcett (?), Captain Billy's Whiz-Bang. Leonard or I picked this up basically because it shows up in The Music Man. My favorite joke: "How do you like the Volstead Act?" "Oh, I never did care for vaudeville." Has a tremendous number of sexist or otherwise wince-inducing jokes, some of which depend on stereotypes I don't even know and are thus inexplicable.

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(1) : Deleted Scenes: A few deleted sentences from a piece I'm drafting:

One way to understand suspense is that it's the state of having multiple conflicting valid causal models, or not having enough information to even form a single satisfying prediction.

Each protagonist gets impressive moments of awesome competence and agency. But, like levelling up in a game, it's still constrained by the sandbox (which is of course more realistic than the Matrix solution).

The big science fictional twist is that you are far less significant than you had imagined.

But they require less genre expertise than, say, "Four Kinds of Cargo" or the trope review at the start of Anathem.


(1) : Revisiting "Dave Barry In Cyberspace" (1996): I have been rereading Dave Barry's Dave Barry In Cyberspace (published in 1996), which has held up about as well as Neal Stephenson's In The Beginning Was The Command Line (1999).

On the software you'll need for your personal computer:

First off, you need an operating system, which is the "Godfather" program that operates behind the scenes, telling all the other programs what to do, making sure they cooperate, and if necessary leaving the heads of horses in their beds. The most popular operating system in world history as of 10:30 A.M. today is Windows 95, but there are many other options, including Windows 3.1, Windows 3.11, Windows 3.111, Windows for Workgroups, Windows for Groups That Mainly Just Screw Around, Windows for Repeat Offenders, Lo-Fat Windows, and The Artist Formerly Known as Windows. There is also the old "MS-DOS" operating system, which is actually written on parchment and is rarely used on computers manufactured after the French and Indian War. And there is "OS/2," which was developed at enormous expense by IBM and marketed as a Windows alternative, and which has won a loyal following of thousands of people, an estimated three of whom do not work for IBM. And of course there is the Apple operating system, or "Apple operating system," for your hippie beatnik weirdo loner narcotics-ingesting communistic types of Apple-owning individuals who are frankly too wussy to handle the challenge of hand-to-hand combat with computer systems specifically designed to thwart them.

On the internet:

... I had managed to send this hideously embarrassing message to everybody in the world except the person who was supposed to read it.

Yes, thanks to the awesome communications capabilities of the Internet, I was able to make an intergalactic fool of myself, and there's no reason why you can't do the same.

Prefiguring Clay Shirky's cognitive surplus arguments:

So go ahead! Get on the Web! In my opinion, it's WAY more fun than television, and what harm can it do?

OK, it can kill brain cells by the billions. But you don't need brain cells. You have a computer.

The origin of Bill Gates's wealth: "versions."

How much should your new computer cost? "About $350 less than you will actually pay."

Also, I am gonna avoid G7e rage and not quote the entire section, but check out the Comdex chapter for Barry's thoughts on the limited range of stories and game mechanics available in games written by and for men in 1996, and his speculation on what more diversity would look like.

The fiction short story that appears in two parts at the end of the book causes disproportionate feels in me, because it's about falling in love with a stranger via America OnLine chat, and I read it around the same time I fell in love with a guy I met on Usenet, via a Dave Barry fan group. Oh dear I just looked him up and he has a freaking beard. I don't know why that detail gets to me, but I was not prepared for that. At this moment I am under a blanket on my couch in New York City with midmorning light bouncing off brick and fire escapes outside, but I am also in hand-me-down tee shirt and shorts in front of a 486, easily remembering how to turn the audible modem volume all the way down so Mom and Dad don't hear me dialing in, the mousepad the only clear area on my dad's desk that's cluttered with printouts and Post-Its and boxes of 5-and-a-quarter floppies, navigating to HoTMaiL, California night outside the blinds. And now I'm remembering all those other local maxima and minima of my teenage life, and how intense things felt. He sent me a photo and I printed it out in black and white and took it into my AP US History test. That printout is probably still in a box somewhere. He dumped me, and we never met, and I wonder whether either of us still has a copy of that email.

And now the only Dave Barry book I own is Dave Barry in Cyberspace. It's still funny and it still has a barb in it. I am genuinely curious whether people ten years younger than me would enjoy it, since clearly part of what I'm getting out of it is nostalgia. And now I'm thinking about setting a reminder to myself to read current tech humor by Rose Ames and James Mickens in 2035.

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: New Loves And New Joys: Two papercraft pieces I madeOver the last several years I've started getting into hobbies, skills, or activities that I had assumed I would not like or wouldn't get, or that I had dismissed due to initial impressions, such as romance novels, functional programming, watching sports on television, sewing, hiking, pop music, makeup, clothing, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and console-type video games. I've also deepened my general cinephilia and started regularly attending a guided mindfulness meditation group. Many of these communities or artifacts are pretty bad at some things I care about, but they are also pretty good at other things that my pre-existing milieu* doesn't excel at, and thus provide me with a richer variety of kinds of experiences. I want to look at what those things are; this is an incomplete start.

Certainly I can more easily achieve rapport with a wider variety of people if I can make conversation about, for instance, good NYC-area hikes you can get to without a car. And on my English Coast-to-Coast walks, I consistently found other hikers were sociable and supportive and friendly, taking time out of their rambles to help me and my companions wayfind, learn to use our tools, and swap stories.

In pop music, romance, makeup, clothing, sewing, hiking, film and Marvel fandom, I find a willingness to emphasize the sensual and the aesthetic experience. And we can talk about being overwhelmed emotionally by experience, which is also something appealing about sports fandom, that if we talk about our stomachs lurching with fear or happiness, or we ALLCAPS about how yes, breakups are super emotional so songs about them might be too, other people allcaps with us. We unapologetically get at the numinous. No one needs to write essays reminding us that people who read romance novels have emotions and that it's undesirable and impossible to eradicate those emotions.

In functional programming, film, clothing, and music, I've found new abstractions, new perspectives on things that already exist, that make me clutch my head as my brain changes configuration. I do already get that sometimes from my pre-existing milieu, but diversity of perspectives means I get it more if I am in more and more different kinds of communities.

Several papercraft pieces I madeAnd most of the communities I'm getting into have more gender diversity and far greater ethnic diversity than most of the communities I was previously paying attention to. (Please do pay attention to my disclaimers there instead of going #notallfans or similar.) I see and interact with people of more widely varying demographics, and I see the work of diverse people praised and discussed. And this is clearly something I need to improve in my life, because, for example, here I am in a world where Beyoncé Knowles is a global superstar, a critically important black artist and one of the most prominent feminists in the world, and I have barely been hearing or hearing about her work. I heard about a French gender-switch satirical film (Majorité Opprimée) just after it came out, but it's taken me six years to hear about Beyoncé's "If I Were A Boy" (via Arthur Chu's piece on white mediocrity and black excellence). I hear about all that Dove beauty stuff all the time, but only today did I watch Beyoncé's "Pretty Hurts" video. Clearly I need to up my game.

I've added a couple of photos in this post, pictures of some bits of papercraft I made. In December, I raised some money for Wikimedia by wrapping gifts at Astoria Bookshop; gift-wrapping was free, but if customers wanted to give a tip, the volunteer doing gift-wrapping could choose a charity where that tip went. During the slow periods, I cut up the leftover scraps of wrapping paper to make little decorative snowflakes and whatnot, and then I tied them to the ribbons when I finished wrapping up a book. They were pretty, and they didn't scale, and I tried out lots of different variations, and I gave them away, and I liked it. Maybe one more thing I see more in my new communities than in my old ones is the idea that it's okay to enjoy an experience without really understanding it. I'm gonna try that.


* One tip that fundraising consultants give you is that you should think of your communities, past and present, so you can further list people you know through those communities whom you could ask to give money to your cause. I started a list for that exercise, and now see that since about 2002 my communities have included: my blood family, Leonard's family, Wikimedia, Open Source Bridge/Stumptown Syndicate, the MS in Tech Management cohort from Columbia University, the University of California at Berkeley, GNOME, Maemo/MeeGo, AltLaw, the Participatory Culture Foundation, Hacker School, New York City tech in general, Geek Feminism, the Ada Initiative/AdaCamp, WisCon, Foolscap, Making Light, MetaFilter, ImpactHub NYC, the Acetarium, OpenHatch, Growstuff, Collabora, Fog Creek Software, Behavior, Salon.com, Cody's Books, Yuletide Treasure, the Coast-to-Coast walk, Strange Horizons, Slightly Known People fandom, Breaking Bad fandom, Mike Daisey fandom, Star Trek fandom, The Colbert Report fandom, Midtown Comics, the Outer Alliance, Python, Software Carpentry, Mozilla, MetaFilter, LWN, Crooked Timber, Systers, OpenITP/TechnoActivism Third Monday, my Twitter followees/followers, my Identi.ca circle, REI, Dreamwidth, code4lib and #libtechwomen/#libtechgender, Hackers on Planet Earth, the Professional IT Community Conference/LOPSA, Women in Free Software India, the New York Tech Meetup, Subdrift NYC, a few now-defunct private email lists, Google Summer of Code, Outreachy, Foo Campers, Empowermentors, the Unitarian Universalist church, Debian-NYC, Metrics-grimoire, Mailman, NYC storyreading, the Museum of the Moving Image, my local meditation class, and probably more stuff. That wasn't in any real order, in case you couldn't tell, and I claim zero consistency in my participation level. Patterns include: lots of geekiness and lots of online interaction.


: Internet Things I Am Appreciating: Here are a bunch of interesting links.

My pal Brendan wrote an appreciation of my old MC Masala newspaper column and I am totally still basking in it. Yes Brendan you totally were and are the Kentuckian I know best! Also this satirical pastiche about moving from San Francisco to New York City still makes me laugh.

A hypothesis on why so many scifi fans/authors are libertarians. This reminds me that I should read Paulina Borsook's 2000 book Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech.

Related: Kate Losse on Silicon Valley and cults -- incisive, on the other side of the "identity management method" (Joel Spolsky, 2006).

The sign of successful recruiting becomes finding people who feel so matched to the startup's culture that they will happily allow their identities to be subsumed it, to the point of happily wearing the startup's uniform of branded t-shirts and other swag. 'The startup uniform encapsulates a simple but essential principle: Everyone at your company should be different in the same way--a tribe of like-minded people fiercely devoted to the company's mission.' In Thiel's vision, then, the best kind of 'different' is difference that scales--individuality is just a property of people who haven’t found the right startup to work at yet (or alternately, who have not been found by the right startup).

Christina Xu on Blowhard Syndrome which I have absolutely seen.

The constant bagging on Chetan Bhagat in this post makes me laugh pretty hard.

From Rivka in 2003: "I have a Thing about shoes." I particularly find helpful the comment that starts: "I think that everybody has the thing that reminds them of all the issues that they thought they'd completely gotten over in their life, and the thing is often some small, seemingly trivial detail." I'm currently reading a bunch of Courtney Milan novels and she basically always hits this note, by the way.

I appreciate this "TMI" self-description by blogger Aiffe, particularly the paragraph in which they discuss their non-binary gender identity. I particularly recommend it to other cis people like me to see an example of how someone feels different about being included in "women" as opposed to being referred to as "a woman."

Sabrina wrote me a list of book recommendations; if you believe you often like books I like, you should check out her post!

A short parable on art and imperfection.

I found that the bit about personal integrity and promises in this post about procrastination spoke to me.

Leonard and I have been watching a lot of Batman: The Animated Series, and I liked this piece on "Beware the Gray Ghost". Also check out this fun, thought-provoking post on queerness in Batman, especially in the 1960s live-action series.

I found the last two paragraphs of this Belle Waring piece particularly thought-provoking. I genuinely do want nuance in social justice discussions and I care about building bridges with people who don't yet agree with me on every particular and who don't yet know bits of etiquette and jargon that I know. I also don't want for strangers to perceive that good faith as a boundless well of sweetness, time and energy to which they are entitled. Not every conversation is a Dialogue And Deliberation process. It's a tough balance and no one has it down, in my opinion. I'm curious about Aspiration's work on social scripts and whether it'll provide some improved approaches to thinking about this. I'm also rereading Aria Stewart's "Creating just online social spaces" (the "that #couldhavegonebetter" re-routing tactic looks like a good script that I may copy).

Related: "white supremacy culture" by Tema Okun. "This is a list of characteristics of white supremacy culture that show up in our organizations." I'm finding a lot to think about in this.

Mel Chua writes a sarcastic poem: "How to succeed in engineering as a disabled person".

Martin Fowler writes, "In recent years we've made increasing our [gender] diversity a high priority at ThoughtWorks." He's heard arguments against some diversity initiatives, e.g., if everyone followed suit, the industry would run out of qualified women to hire. He responds: "We'll know this is something to be worried about when women are paid significantly more than men for the same work."

I have been chewing on a bunch of other posts: abi's thoughts on intellectual provincialism and the profile of assertions in conversations where people learn things, Ned Batchelder's "Engineers are people", sky croeser's "Our collaborative feminist organisations should be critical of capitalism or they will probably be bullshit", Aphyr's "this guide is for you" (via Dan Abramov), and Ben Rosenbaum on numinous magic and playfulness and on compassion, love, and demanding hard things.

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: But He Doesn't Know (That The Map Is Not) The Territory!: OK, so, Leonard and I were talking about The Music Man -- I grandly pronounced "it's about delusion, as every musical should be" -- and I asked for his take on one salesman's outraged wail, at the end of the opening number, "But he doesn't know the territory!" (Leonard, at a young age, memorized that particular choral spoken-word piece, "Rock Island," and can still recite great chunks of it.)

Leonard said: the other salesman has learned how to sell his goods via a system, and cannot stand that Hill does not follow that system. In order to serve a legitimate market that already exists, you have to know facts; the reality-based community assumes you have to be able to, say, assess how many buttonhooks the region will need. Hill, on the other hand, is creating a need.

While the soundtrack to The Music Man provides a listener with tremendous lyrical density (thus it's on heavy rotation for me when my favorite podcasts haven't updated), the songs do not actually cover the whole of the plot. Leonard reminded me that Hill swindles the townsfolk not by taking fraudulent orders for instruments and uniforms without delivering, but by promising that his amazing system can teach your kids to play music (spoiler: it can't).

Which caused me to realize that we are due for a Music Man parody in which "Professor" Hill brings a code school to town. "And instead of the romance with Marian, there's some other obstacle that keeps Hill in town, like, they genuinely start to care about local social justice issues," I mused.

"I can always tell when a plot becomes a Sumana Special Edition," Leonard said aloud.

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: Zines, Twister, & Distinctions: Zines: If you liked my zine about the animals who own bookstores and help each other out, I predict you will also like "Quill & Scroll", a zine that Brendan Adkins and I made together late last year. It focuses on a hedgehog who runs an all-night bookstore, and is a tribute to the Astoria Bookshop. I loved making it with Brendan; I encourage you to download and print it.

You may also be interested in Julia Evans's upcoming zine on strace.

Twister: This year's Festivids include two vids focusing on the 1996 movie Twister. I saw Twister on a date, as can now be told -- it was a date that I was keeping secret from my parents, with the guy who provided my first ever kiss. (I am tempted to go back and watch, now, movies that I originally saw on those handful of teenage dates, which would include Twister and Six Days, Seven Nights.) (And now I am trying to remember who in the world would have gone with me to Wag the Dog, Bulworth, and/or Primary Colors, or whether I saw them myself. Titanic I saw with Angel and my mom. I know I saw Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet by myself. I'm remembering seeing Air Force One in the theater with my parents and sister, and I'm trying to remember whether that's the last movie we all saw together in the theater, or whether my sister joined us for Life Is Beautiful in 1997.)

Anyway! Twister. I mainly remember two things about Twister. One is noticing that the opening title used the same typeface as Friends did. And the second is that for a few seconds, somewhere in the middle of the movie, a woman runs into the storm-chasers' workroom and yells something, and I sat astonished because she looked like me. I caught a glimpse of an Indian-American woman with short hair and a weird face and big eyeglasses, someone I had never seen before on the big or the small screen. I've looked at the cast and I can't find her. I wonder what I saw.

Polite, nice, kind, and good: wired discusses the distinctions, and metaphortunate discusses the role of practice. Recently Crystal Beasley said, "At the beginning of 2014 I resolved not to be nice. Helpful, loving, kind -- yes, but not nice for nice's sake." I realize now that "nice" goes into the bucket with "smart", "real", "normal", and a few other words I'm avoiding when talking with other people, because of all the assumptions they subsume. (My pal Sarah is doing similarly with "authentic.")


: Obedience, Akrasia, Hypocrisy, Resistance: So, let's say you have some dominant ethical norm, or law. For instance: copyright law, as it currently exists in the US and Europe.

Some people demonstrate obedience. They mean to follow this rule, and they do. This takes some diligence. Sometimes they find loopholes or hacks (such as the GNU Public License), but they obey.

Some people demonstrate akrasia. They mean to follow the rule, as they understand it, but they don't exercise enough diligence to obey well. I think a lot of folk copyright practice has an element of akrasia to it (people think it would be good to go through The Proper Channels but that feels too hard).

Some people demonstrate hypocrisy. They still think that, in general, people ought to follow that rule, but they've decided that they won't. Sony, a vocal anti-piracy company, allegedly infringed on copyright in software they shipped; this would be hypocrisy.

Some people demonstrate resistance. They articulate and obey an alternative ethical system, contradicting the dominant community norm. The Pirate Party and copyright abolitionists come to mind. Sometimes resisters don't find it safe to challenge these norms publicly or under their own names; perhaps you privately think copyright is bullshit and we should abolish the current system, and you refuse to feel guilty about infringing, but you don't dare say so publicly, and you hope you'll never be put into a situation where you're asked to participate in punishing someone else for infringing.

I know I haven't covered everything; as the saying goes, all models are wrong and some are useful. But if I notice someone breaking a rule, it's sometimes useful to me to understand whether they are experiencing akrasia, hypocrisy, or resistance. And I ought to remember that, from the outside, obedience and hypocrisy look the same.


(1) : Many Dreams Are More Elliptical: The other night I had a dream that ended with -- among other things -- a StairMaster upon whose steps sat gray blocks cast from the shape of Ayn Rand's legs, because Ayn Rand, while living, had taken the advice of her analyst and had forms of her legs taken. So you could slip your legs into the blocks and then work out.

I told a few friends about this and we realized that "Ayn Rand as fitness instructor" feels terrifyingly plausible. In my Atlas Shrugged AU, Dagny Taggart gets frustrated working at a 24-Hour Fitness and leaves for a Crossfit.


(1) : On Fear vs. Anxiety, Self-Determination, the Command Line, and Interlocutors and DX: At Hacker School we work on becoming better programmers, help each other become better programmers, and talk about that process. Here are some of the things I've said in that context.

On a Julia Evans post, "Fear Makes You A Worse Programmer":

Back to fear - this piece by Skud includes a bit of a horror story -- bad or missing code review led to a bad deploy which led a volunteer to drop out entirely, partly due to fear of messing up again. And here's a story where paranoia by management led to the firm going out of business.

....So the distinction de Becker makes [in The Gift of Fear] is that fear is your subconscious telling you about a genuine threat, because your intuition has put together the facts faster than your conscious self has -- whereas anxiety comes from the messages on the 10 o'clock news, racism, etc. Fear is a friend and anxiety is an interloper. If I were to use that framing, I would say that one characteristic of a mature programmer would be: she has a healthy sense of fear, and the reflex to mitigate scary risks ("we need to put this into version control NOW"), but she has control over anxiety ("people say C is hard to learn, maybe I'm not smart enough").

On choosing your own learning path:

I think you might like this reflective post by Ben Rosenbaum on "the moment in which I actually started to determine my education." (And a few current thoughts, by Indian students speaking to other Indians, that by implication say a lot about breaking expectations.) I try to be conscious of how others explicitly and implicitly guided me into certain achievement paths and avoid doing that with others, avoid making assumptions (so, for instance, I have retrained myself to avoid asking, "where did you go to college?").

On Philip Guo's post about "command line bullshittery" as a barrier to research:

I agree with Philip Guo so thoroughly, especially about the demoralizing effect of the gulf of execution, and that a leader should reduce the incidental complexity that slows down the people she's serving.

....As a card-carrying fan of Neal Stephenson's "How to Win Friends and Influence People^H^H^H^H^H^H^H In The Beginning Was The Command Line", and of [readings] on the usage and philosophy of Unix concentrating on the command line, I do not consider the command line bullshit. But Philip's right to consider the specifics of *getting research software installed and set up* as incidental complexity in the context of his students' substantive work. And that process takes place on the command line. It's like me calling the process of getting across town in Manhattan "L train bullshit"; it is good that the L train exists but arrrrgh.

On better ways to ask and answer code-related questions online (and the concept of a "yak trace," understanding the series of steps a person has taken to make something or debug a problem):

basically I think a yak trace emerges most easily in conversation with a generous interlocutor, whereas many fora online where people ask for help would prefer that help-requesters' initial speech act be delivered with the concision and throughput of a paramedic running alongside a gurney

....In my experience *building even the faintest of relationships* with the asker/user makes it a million times easier to ask the question. In IRC, for example, I've had tremendous success by *starting off saying* (roughly) "Hi [person's nickname]! I'm Sumana, [thing I do] and I live in NYC. Good to meet you, although sorry for the circumstances :/" [wait for reciprocation; most people will reciprocate by giving their name at least] "That problem sounds frustrating. Do you mind if I ask a couple diagnostic questions?" Now we are people together and not just Supplicant and Expert, and I can ask about the environment, and I can say something like "the approach you're using is sort of unusual so I want to check whether you're accidentally making it harder for yourself and there's an easier way to get the functionality you want :) " (although I can't remember the last time I had to literally explicitly say that; usually by this point they are open to talking about their process, their macro goal, etc.).

IMO the affordances of a lot of online tech-help-seeking spaces discourage this kind of necessary trust-building conversation.

In longer-term dev scenarios, understanding the user's underlying goals is a task that product managers and user experience designers have a lot of tools to do. Qualitative interviews. Ethnography. Market research. Looking at traffic stats and discovering/making funnels. IMO Val's insight about what the application developers really wanted was a user experience insight (some folks call it DX, Developer Experience, for stuff like this).

The API usability chapter in Greg Wilson's and Andy Oram's Making Software influenced my thinking thoroughly on this stuff.

Words, other than proper nouns and HTML, in this post that my in-browser spellchecker dislikes: bullshittery, arrrrgh, gurney, IRC, etc., IMO, affordances, tech-help-seeking, dev, stats, DX, API.


: It's On My Mind: So a few years ago, a friend of mine was at a party, and one of the people at that party was a laconic fella, a new boyfriend who hadn't met this group before. Eventually someone got around to asking him what he did for a living. He said something a bit general, about government service, yes, at the federal level, until someone said, "you're a G-man? With the FBI?"

"That's right," he said, briefly, with a small nod.

Someone speculated as to whether he was in New York City because he was concerned with things like the security of the Indian Point nuclear power facility.

"It's on my mind," he replied.

And someone else told a story of a cop or a federal agent, losing their gun while on the job.

"That's frowned upon," he noted.

Ever since then, Leonard and I have found this triad of answers endlessly entertaining. These are polite yet distant ways of giving answers in the affirmative, the negative, and the noncommital.

That said, here are some links that are on my mind (whether I think they're right or frowned upon will be your guess to make!):

Transparency about money: a fiction author, a public speaker, and a publisher are sharing real dollar amounts so you know what you might be getting into. You might also enjoy a similar HOWTO that Leonard and I wrote, about making a one-off anthology.

Disagreeing well: This distinction between task-focused and relationship-focused people (which may be very similar to Rands's organics and mechanics model or my engineer and mother leadership models) will stick with me.

Transformative work and the origins of abuse: In an interview about Jo Walton's new book The Just City, check out Walton's response to the interviewer's question, "Why have Apollo learn about 'equal significance and volition'?"

Catwoman: chaila and beccatoria are telling me to read Genevieve Valentine's run writing Catwoman and I may well listen to them.

"Everything is a bit orange for some reason": I can't decide whether Holly Gramazio's hilarious analysis of games in fiction (e.g., the futuristic sports in dystopia movies) has more insights or jokes, but there are plenty of both.

Impostor syndrome tips: Concrete steps you can take to stop automatically assuming you can't do stuff.

What are you willing to consider?: Danny linked to this piece which I think stands alone (seeing as I haven't read the Chait piece it's responding to (and every time I see Chait's name I think of "TBWA Chiat/Day" and the old Apple ads)). This controversy touches on trust, courage, groupthink, the purposes of different environments and different kinds of environments, how quantity can have a quality all its own, the attention economy, and a zillion other things. Put this in the "on my mind" bucket.

Techish things: Hound is a new competitor to DXR. You should enable automatic updates on your servers. A Python developer is offering code review in exchange for donations to Doctors Without Borders. Learning to sit with discomfort: part of yoga, part of life. Changing history (advanced Git). The Mailman project wants to switch translation platforms. A gentle primer on reverse engineering.

The dream factory, the sausage factory: A television writing room feels a bit like the opening of Anathem (Socratic questioning about scifi/fantasy tropes).

Popular: I'm using Dreamwidth as my RSS reader. Check out the popular feeds, ranked by how many DW users subscribe. The top 10 feeds include the Organization for Transformative Works, Cake Wrecks, & PhD Comics. Also, as a data point, at current writing, the feed for this very blog has more subscribers than Paul Krugman's feed has.

Finally, because I have my immature moments like anyone else: A Project Gutenberg find by Leonard: "Diary of Richard Cocks, Cape-Merchant in the English Factory in Japan, 1615-1622" pub. 1882. (It's legitimately historically interesting .... but that's not what caught my attention at first.)

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: Four Reasons To Apply (Soon) To Run The Ada Initiative: I'm the chair of the Ada Initiative Executive Director search committee, which means it's my name on the announcement we posted about six weeks ago: "The Ada Initiative is growing! Announcing our search for a new Executive Director".

Ada Lovelace We've received applications and expect to receive more, and it's not too late to apply, although we have already started processing our first "batch" of applicants. I thought it would be nice to dash off a quick note about some reasons to apply that you might not have thought of.

The board of directors is pretty great. I'm on it! Very thoughtful people with tons of experience and different perspectives are on it. We would help you make decisions.

The advisors: also great! Again, the quality and quantity of insight available to advise the ED is impressive. I've been on the Advisory Board for years and we have amazing conversations.

You're coming into something that's already working. Check out what TAI did in 2014, and look at the over-the-top success of the 2014 fundraising drive (over 1100 donors gave over $206,000, passing the original goal of $150,000). This ain't no glass cliff or turnaround job; you would be coming in already set up to succeed.

Sustainability includes making sure the ED doesn't burn out. Scroll down to the details in the job post. The hours: 40 hours per week, and we really mean that. Look at the leave (time off) provisions. Your board and your employees and contractors all know that you need rest and relaxation in order to be at the top of your game, and we've built that into the organization at a structural level.

If you're going to apply, please apply soon so the search committee can see how awesome you are even sooner! Thanks!


(2) : "Trade Me" and Courtney Milan: Today I snarfled up Trade Me, a new contemporary romance novel by Courtney Milan. It stars a Chinese-American woman studying computer science at UC Berkeley. It's about class and classism, deconstructing the Prince Charming/billionaire trope in romantic fiction, Bay Area tech, ally fails, how to deal with cops, authenticity and adaptation, safety and freedom, trust, parents, and work. And one of the main secondary characters is trans, and all the physicality in the relationship is super consensual, and there is a kind-of reference to Cake Wrecks, and (maybe only I see it) to Randall Munroe's "What If?" blog. I link it thematically to Jo Walton's The Just City, Ellen Ullman's The Bug, and the good parts of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. It's pretty great. (ROT13'd trigger warnings that are spoilers: qvfbeqrerq rngvat naq gur arne-qrngu bs n cnerag.)

I'd heard a bit about Milan before via metaphortunate and rachelmanija and enjoyed the Ask A Man blog, but hadn't gotten around to reading a novel by her yet. Then I heard that Trade Me would star someone who sounds far more like me than a lot of protagonists do, and decided it was time to try out this whole ebook-reading thing. Glad I did!

I know more and more romance authors are writing books with protagonists like me these days, not just Milan, and I should check them out. (Milan, like me, likes Zen Cho, and she further recommends another lawyer romance author, Julie James. According to Milan, James "writes ladies who unapologetically have careers and who care about those careers and don't have to sacrifice them in a fit of self-immolating pain at the end of the book." Hurray!) But I'm going to dwell a moment on how fascinating I find Milan in particular.

First off is the software thing. She wrote and wants people to reuse a chunk of GPL'd software to autogenerate links to a particular book at multiple bookstores. Also she used to use Gentoo. Of course she gives her readers permission to strip DRM from their copies of her books. Basically I would not be surprised if there is super flirty pair programming or a double entendre in a bash script in a future Milan book.

Her FAQ goes into more detail on what she does and why. She's neurodiverse, she encourages fanfic, and she has interesting ideas about the romance genre, diversity, and pay.

She brings an analytical approach to all aspects of her work (informed by her past as a chemist, programmer, and lawyer), and is willing to frankly and transparently talk about circumlocutions and the ways powerful systems, organizations and people -- deliberately or inadvertently -- suppress free speech. As a woman of color ("half-Chinese" in her words) she's also especially aware of the importance of writing fictional representations of women of color in STEM, and of fixing broken standards that lead to unequal representation.

If you are into legal minutiae you might enjoy her post on impotence and annulment; even if you aren't, you might like to see her hypothesize a bit about Regency vase cartels. I totally want to attend the workshop she did providing "a very broad overview of how people thought about property throughout history. When she writes historical romance, she writes people who could have existed as outliers; "I import modern morals into my historical romances. In my mind, that's a feature, not a bug."

Since a great "Must Pleasures Be Guilty?" WisCon panel I did in 2010, I've been particularly interested in new perspectives on the stigmatizing of intentionally pleasurable entertainment, and Milan's "The stigma of happy (a rant)" provides! Milan respects pleasure as a good and, in her work, aims to illustrate the work it takes to get to happy. She can snark about the "shame" of reading something pleasurable (and her fake book covers are spot-on), but she can also go deeper and show that another world is possible, one where we can have healthy, respectful conversations about women's sexual desires.

Milan and I are both geeky feminist Asian-American women who went to Cal and are interested in law, writing, and programming. Trade Me cost USD$3.99 (ebook); I can't put a price on what it feels like to read fiction meant for me, by someone who's only a few alternate universes away from me.

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: Programmers Who Then Do Something Really Different: I recently learned that Courtney Milan, a romance author who's worked as a lawyer and programmer (much like sci-fi author Ken Liu), has also written some ecommerce-related PHP code and released it under the GPL, which makes my day.

I try to keep a mental list of people who have done substantial programming or computer science work and then taken their expertise to a very different field of endeavor, such as music, activism, electoral politics, or fiction writing. We're used to hearing about programmers moving into tech management (including founding startups or managing open source communities) or teaching engineering, but I like to remember that programmers also run for Congress and write TV shows.

The list goes on and on (and I am oversimplifying labels here and leaving a zillion people out -- this is just some people I have heard of):

  • Randall Munroe, cartoonist
  • Vienna Teng, musician
  • Jonathan Coulton, musician
  • Ken Liu, fiction author
  • Charles Stross, fiction author
  • Darcy Burner, Congressional candidate & activist
  • Seth Schoen, activist
  • Vernor Vinge, fiction author
  • Ellen Ullman, fiction author
  • Ryan North, cartoonist
  • Neal Stephenson, fiction author
  • John O'Neill, fiction editor
  • Naomi Novik, fiction author
  • Kristofer Straub, cartoonist
  • Leonard Richardson, fiction author
  • probably Jerry McNerney, Congressional Representative
  • Jane Espenson, screenwriter
  • Courtney Milan, fiction author
  • Ken MacLeod, fiction author
  • Zoe Keating, musician
  • Kathy Sierra, horse trainer & interdisciplinary educator
  • Mel Chua, education researcher
  • James Vasile, lawyer
  • Valerie Aurora, activist
  • Mary Gardiner, activist
  • Danny O'Brien, activist
  • Aaron Swartz, activist
  • Diana Gabaldon, fiction author
  • Luis Villa, lawyer
  • Jamie Zawinski, nightclub owner
  • Fureigh, musician
  • Danni (friend of mine), bike mechanic
....

This is trivia, and I am temperamentally suited to accumulating trivia. But I also like remembering that everyone I meet may have skills I don't immediately see. This bartender, that full-time parent, the candidate for city council whose junk mail I just got -- this might be the second or third or fourth career for any of them, and if we got to talking, maybe we'd all get super animated as we told stories about hilarious bugs.


: Catching Yourself: Friday night, on a date with my husband, when it came up in a conversation about class and geography and family, I tried to remember his ex's name and couldn't.

Earlier today, talking with a friend about the layers of MediaWiki's infrastructure, I momentarily forgot the term "Gadgets."

Nothing else quite like that moment, realizing that when you weren't looking, your mental neighborhood changed, and you changed with it.


: Unlocking The Funhouse (Mirror): In technology (as in many communities), capitalism makes it hard for us to understand what we're good at. A few source texts, and then a sketch of some contours.

  1. The "No true Scotsman" fallacy.
  2. Shweta Narayan on category structure, cognition, and side effects.

    We tend to have this idea that categories, like "bird" or "food" (or like "human" or "white", which is what this is all really about) are like solid boxes. Entities are either in them or out of them, with a clear and unchanging boundary, and everything inside is an unsorted & equal jumble, and everything outside ditto.

    This notion gets strongly underscored by our cultures, so it can be hard to ... er... unpack. But the fact is, cognitive categories aren't actually like boxes. They have internal structure, and fuzzy boundaries (which people can draw in different places, and move depending on context), and these things matter hugely in how we think about and deal with oppression....

    we need to be aware of category-centrality as well as membership....


  3. Huckleberry Finn, specifically:

    "All right, then, I'll GO to hell"--and tore it up.

    The nuance I still ponder is: Huck doesn't say his way is right. He decides he's wrong but he's going to do it anyway. He decides to be a hypocrite. He does not see himself as articulating a new consistent ethical framework under which he is morally right; he is accepting the status and the consequences of his actions in the religious framework everyone's taught him, but he decides not to let that get in the way of what he feels compelled to do. It's a different kind of resistance.

    I heard an echo of this moment in "The Rundown Job" (Leverage, S05E09), when a government official tries to get Eliot, who used to do wetwork, to leave the Robin Hood-type vigilante outfit he's with now:

    Colonel Vance: The world can always use more good guys.
    Eliot: Yeah, well, too bad we're the bad guys.

  4. "Why Job Titles Matter To Me", a piece I wrote last year.
  5. Deb Chachra on discomfort with the identity "maker" and the primacy of "making".

    I educate. I analyse. I characterize. I critique. Almost everything I do these days is about communicating with others. To characterize what I do as 'making' is either to mistake the methods -- the editorials, the workshops, the courses, even the materials science zine I made -- for the purpose. Or, worse, to describe what I do as 'making' other people, diminishing their own agency and role in sensemaking, as if their learning is something I impose on them.

  6. "MDN MozFest outcomes: self-teaching", a summary by Jeremie Patonnier that said one of the tools that self-directed learners most want is "Tools to measure/evaluate one's level of knowledge."

You may not be able to tell from this blog that I, like many people in tech, do experience self-assessment vertigo. Software engineering includes a zillion skills (it's clearly not just computer science) and no one knows all of them. We're so bad at assessing who's good at what that we end up pronouncing that the only way to tell whether someone is "good" is to work with them, or we use "culture fit", personal recommendations, and other easier-to-grasp handles as lossy proxies. The bizarre informational distortion of the job market makes it even harder to get a clear picture of one's own skills, "objectively" and relative to others. Even if, like me, you are not currently looking for a job as a programmer!

Outside of academia and Hacker School, the primary way I hear people talk about technical skill assessment is in relation to the job market or job titles. (And even in academia it's early days yet in teaching software engineering.) In open source we sometimes make one-time assessments as to whether individual people are ready to become maintainers, but other than that, the discourse I hear is about matching candidates with paid employment, and so we assess ourselves and each other in terms of potential job titles.

Just as there is no inherent genre to books (the "genre" of a book is a way to market it to the readers who would like it) there is no inherent category "backend engineer" or "business analyst" etc. That's just a convenient name that we have socially constructed to kind of correspond to a set of skills. (And so the goalposts move so easily it's as though they're on casters freshly sprayed with WD-40 by someone shouting "But no true hacker...")

Within individual organizations, there's some consistency in what a particular job title means. But the job descriptions the public sees are often wishlists that don't distinguish between "desired" and "required" qualifications for a particular title. And a "hey you're interesting for position x" email from a recruiter gives us a data point, even if it's super wrong, and maybe even so wrong that it is demoralizing to candidates! ("Shit, the only recruiters who reach out to me are so dumb and desperate that they don't count" or "Crap, I still look like a foo instead of a bar".) We get a lot of noise mixed in with the data.

My particular set of skills does not correspond to any particular well-known bucket, and I should not let that make me feel bad.

Buuut of course socially constructed things are real too! And it is useful to know whether I am correctly performing the role of "fullstack developer" or "devops expert" or "community manager", to know whether I can attract the particular kind of attention I want! And it's useful to know when I should say, "yes, according to the tech industry's dominant hierarchy, the work I enjoy and think is most important marks me as low-status, unintelligent, and ignorable. So what."

Even if I can get away from looking at myself as a good little worker bee, impostor syndrome and Dunning-Kruger both affect self-assessment. While I believe I am fighting both, it may be unavoidable that the only way to get better at self-assessing a skill is to get better at the skill in question, reflecting all along the way. Thus: a code review group. (Check out how I briefly describe my programming skill level in that post, by referring to what I can and can't do.) Thus: my Mailman work. Thus: blogging. Sketching out where I am so I can see where I've been. These points of data make a beautiful line.


(2) : My Mailman Adventure Continues: I have now submitted two merge proposals to Postorius, the administrative web UI that Mailman users will use to manage their list subscriptions and moderate messages. I've also submitted two pull requests to HyperKitty, the "archiver" web UI that Mailman users will use to browse list archives. (Launchpad calls my submissions "merge proposals", GitHub calls them "pull requests", old-school hackers call them "patches", and I call them "yay".)

I'm a lot more comfortable with Launchpad and Bazaar now. "Team branches" section of the Launchpad help, "Bazaar for Web Devs", and the test Launchpad site helped me get into the swing of things. I also got to use git cherry-pick and git rebase -i in the course of my work, which put a bit of swagger in my figurative stride.

At Wikimedia I deeply absorbed the lesson of internationalization and localization (i18n/l10n) -- you never hardcode strings in a user interface! Instead you call a messages store so you can present the translation of that string in the user's preferred language. So it came easily to me to make those kinds of improvements to Postorius and HyperKitty: going through the HTML templates, and marking phrases like "Previous email" with special syntax denoting them as messages to be translated.

I started off trying to use a regex to change or at least find all the user-visible strings, but that got super tiresome (edge cases, syntax, etc.), and I also ended up making a few grammar-type improvments along the way. So I got a lot of quality time in with emacs these past few days. I hadn't anticipated that systematically reviewing all the templates would give me such a thorough overview of HyperKitty and Postorius, but that was a nice side benefit as well. As I went, I noted the line numbers of some particularly confusing bits, so I can ask questions in IRC later.

I've done some wiki gardening and am thinking about what to do next. I'd like to be fixing some of HyperKitty's outstanding bugs, since HyperKitty's on the critical path for the 3.0 release, but I'm not sure which of them are still reproducible; many of the bugs were reported years ago. So it would make sense for me to triage those bugs, but to do that I'd need a working HyperKitty installation. There's an incompatibility between the latest HyperKitty code and the latest Mailman core code, so I'd have a bit of trouble setting up a test install. (That's also why the demo site is running an RPM based on the last git tagged version, which is not the most recent commit. I am glad that this helped me learn about tagging in Git!)

Since I haven't yet heard a similar "the master branch of Postorius doesn't install/run/integrate with Mailman master" pronouncement, and Postorius is also a web app whose readiness is a dependency for the Mailman 3 release, I'll try concentrating on that. My current plan is to set up an installation, pick another open bug no one else is working on, and try to fix it.


: Ruthanna Emrys, A Writer I Like: Are you reading the fantasy or science fiction of Ruthanna Emrys? I recommend it.

I found out via Ada Palmer's glowing review about "The Litany of Earth". This is your way into Emrys's work if you want stories about secrets, furtive faith, government mistakes, and the silenced Other from a well-known narrative. "The Litany of Earth" hits about two thirds of my "some things I like in fiction" list, especially "recognizing and even celebrating the work of underappreciated people."

Sometime later in 2014 I wandered across "Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land", which is a good place to start with Emrys if you like stories about religious communities, hospitality, fighting illness and drought, girls, women, and making friendships across boundaries. People familiar with fables or Judaism will get something extra out of the allusions. Among other things I like in fiction: "point-of-view character outwitting or outworking a terrifying antagonist."

Then yesterday I read "Exposure Therapy" (Part I, Part II). If you like fast-moving prose, Harry Potter/Global Frequency-style "you have been selected for a special secret mission" plots, good-faith cooperation, scientists, and phobia, check it out. It has "closely observed characters going through uncomfortable changes in life and identity," which I like, but the reason I particularly recommend it is that it hits with a whanging great mallet another of my favorite tropes: the (eventually triumphant) struggle to empathize with the Other.

All three of these stories are, in some way, about one of the most important themes in speculative fiction: empathy with the Other, especially if we get to see the struggle it takes to get it. (The power of that trope, by the way, is a big reason why the Star Trek: The Next Generation fable "Darmok" and Deep Space 9's "Duet" make us cry, and why Orson Scott Card's Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus is genuinely readable.) The personal is political here; temperamentally and ideologically I want to treat others as I wish to be treated, respectfully, assuming good faith until counter-evidence arises, reciprocating with mutual aid, and inviting to join in common causes.

If her fiction is any guide, Ruthanna Emrys gets that. (Also, at a recent WisCon, she enjoyed the "Imaginary Book Club" panel that my friend and I originally conceived, so clearly she has good taste.) I look forward to reading more of her work!

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