Cogito, Ergo Sumana
Sumana oscillates between focus and opportunity

: Parties and Gifts: To what extent do you think of your open stuff contributions as gifts? Does this match up with your sense of your communities on the caring-to-combative spectrum?

several papercraft pieces I made, and gave awayTo you, what are the manners surrounding giving and receiving gifts?

In transactions without money changing hands, how do we demonstrate what we value?

Does it motivate you to think of your fanfic, your bug reports, your wiki edits, your patches, your teaching as gifts for a specific person? Or for a community?

Do the community leaders in your open stuff communities treat those artifacts as gifts? What about other participants?

What would a "Secret Santa"-style gift exchange along the lines of Yuletide Treasure or Festivids look like in the world of English Wikisource? Or Django? Or wherever you contribute bits?


(1) : More Books I've Read Recently: More book reviews from the past year or so! I am still catching up and am not done catching up.

Up Against It by MJ Locke. You can read the first 5 chapters free online. I read this fast-paced space mystery during the 2014 summer vacation I shared with Julia and Moss, and enjoyed it as a mystery/procedural, as solid hard scifi, and as a character study of the protagonist. The first time we see Jane Navio, head of the Resource Commission, she makes a tough call. She is the kind of creative, tough leader who can abandon a few likely-to-die people in order to save resources the space colony's going to need in three weeks' time. Later we see that she's a cunning, passionate, thoughtful, and empathetic leader as well -- once you've read it, talk with me about a monologue she delivers in the last few pages of the book, about work and the public eye, because when I read it (as I was thinking about the job I then had at Wikimedia Foundation) it struck me as though I were a gong. And you get space surveillance, posthuman subsocieties, and some teen drama as well, but basically I am all about super leader Jane. Incidentally, MJ Locke is an open pseudonym for Laura J. Mixon, whose work Leonard has really liked. I should pick up more Mixon.

Life Class and Toby's Room by Pat Barker. I thank yatima for bringing my attention to Barker's Regeneration trilogy, which is super great. And thanks to Sam Read Book Shop in Grasmere, where Julia, Moss, and I stopped during our walk. I saw and picked up Perfecting Sound Forever, then got to talking with the store clerk, found out Pat Barker had new World War I fiction out, and bought it. I read both of these books in spare moments while continuing the Coast-To-Coast walk, which meant I had a sort of double vision of England, seeing it in front of my face in 2014, and seeing it in my head a hundred years previous. During my Coast-to-Coast walk in 2012 with Mel, I'd basked in the hospitality of rural northern England. And I enjoyed it again when I came back last year, but I also saw it through wartime eyes -- participant and observer at once. The cosy bits of life -- board games, pub trivia nghts, jokes over breakfast -- felt like civilization, like something to protect, like "what we're fighting for." Life Class -- in comparison to Regeneration -- feels like Young Adult, perhaps because we see the journey these youngish adults take because of the war. Toby's Room has a lot to recommend it but there is a sex-related content warning that I'll put in the comments as it's a spoiler.

The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo by Zen Cho (reread). So fun and funny and heartwarming and incisive. "I used to be a good girl and that was uncomplicated, but I thought complicated would be more interesting than safe." If you liked Jade Yeo, check out this interview with Cho about fluff for postcolonial booknerds, the fantasy of communicating easily with your ancestors and heritage, and her writing in general. I particularly love the bomb she drops nonchalantly: "I've always loved stories that examine the dynamics within small communities with their own rules and conventions -- Jane Austen's two inches of ivory, Enid Blyton's school stories, L. M. Montgomery's Canadian villages, Star Trek's starships." YES. Just add that last one on there. Ooof.

your blue-eyed boys by Feather (lalaietha). Via a recommendation from yatima. I read this both before and after I watched a bunch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and it makes more sense afterwards (me during the first read: "who's this Sam guy?"). It's the longest piece of MCU fic I've read, but you might also like my Archive of our Own recommendations and Pinboard bookmarks.

American Taxation, American Slavery by Robin Einhorn (2006, University of Chicago Press) (partial reread). This history remains brainbending and full of astonishing anecdotes. Dr. Einhorn's particularly great in describing the importance of institutional competence in government agencies and in refuting "taxation=slavery" rhetoric. Check out this example of her amazingness.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X (reread) and Iacocca: An Autobigraphy (reread). I wrote about these at the time but I did not really talk about why I read Iacocca. I was about eight, and visiting India with family, and I read voraciously. I remember reading many issues of Reader's Digest (the Indian edition, which was different from the US edition). And a relative of mine had a copy of Iacocca and I read it with tremendous interest. I had never read such a detailed narrative about grown-up work before! He used the f-word and I was SCANDALIZED. Cars, these things that I utterly took for granted, did not just emerge ab nihilo; someone had to think them up and design them and compromise and whatnot. And I think I also liked reading Iacocca -- as I liked watching and reading Andy Rooney -- because they used plain language and owned up to their frailties.

So I monologued, a lot, the way kids do, but about Lee Iacocca and Chrysler and the K-car and the Mustang and various other topics, and these Indian aunts and uncles of mine smiled and nodded and perhaps presumed I would be an automotive engineer when I grew up. And then my parents held a sort of family reunion party (the hook being "Sumana's and Nandini's birthday (Observed)"), and my uncle Ashwin gave me one of the most memorable gifts I've ever received: Iacocca's new book of essays, Talking Straight. I don't think I even knew it existed before I had it in my hands! I was SO EXCITED. I probably forgot the minimal socialization my parents had painstakingly attempted to instill in me and went off to a corner to start in on it right away. I am still laughing about this.

Incidentally, the hunger for reading material also affected me eight years later, on another trip to India, as I was preparing to return to the States. Airplanes had no seatback entertainment; you brought twenty-two hours' worth of self-entertainment resources to get you all the way to San Francisco or you explored new depths in boredom. The day before my flight, Mom took me to an English-language bookstore. I'd heard The Lord of the Rings was good, and long. The store didn't have it. But they did have this other super long book. And that's how I read Atlas Shrugged.

(Even so, somewhere above the Pacific I started skimming that Galt radio speech. It is so repetitive you could programmatically transform it into a musical score suitable for Koyaanisqatsi!)

An inflight shopping magazine that helped me discover my roller derby name ("Asian Competence").

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(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.


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