Cogito, Ergo Sumana
Sumana oscillates between focus and opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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