Cogito, Ergo Sumana
Sumana oscillates between logic and love

(0) : Four Quartets: Four sets of four:

  1. Leah Steinberg's Hacker School diary, in illustrated form: 1, 2, 3, 4.

  2. "Four Search Requests, Presented In Descending Order Of Politeness."

  3. Surprises, failures, jokes, and disorientations.

  4. New York, Montreal, San Francisco, New York. (I've been away from home, presenting at PyCon and getting information from colleagues at the Wikimedia Foundation -- then home to work with the new skills I've absorbed. Perhaps I have finally found a rhythm for my life.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014 April

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