# (4) 01 Aug 2010, 11:56PM: My & My Sister's Eulogies For Our Father:
At yesterday's service, several people spoke. My eulogy follows, then my sister Nandini's.
I am Sumana Harihareswara. I am S.K. Harihareswara's younger daughter.
I learned so much from my father and I'm only realizing some of it now, as people tell stories about him. He taught me, by example, how to get completely obsessed with a topic. He was enthusiastic and he started things and made things happen. He wanted to teach everyone everything he knew, about theology and literature and Kannada and editing and history and even engineering, if you asked, or even if you didn't.
And I'm like him in so many ways -- I've been remembering his quirks, and seeing myself in a new light. He'd get so focused on a project that he forgot to eat, until Mom called him. He loved meeting new people. He liked good signage and clear directions. He liked impressing people.
He collected papers and books and started so many projects that he couldn't possibly finish them all. But they all tied into each other -- it was as though he was working on a grand unified theory of everything, his endlessly creative mind using a hundred perspectives to make sense of the universe. He got mad at things that didn't make sense, but then he'd go to sleep grumpy and wake up completely fresh.
He always wanted to be doing more.
The best way to remember my father is to outdo him. I urge all of us, including myself, to cherish his memory by practicing his virtues: his intellect, generosity, and hard work. Let yourself be carried away with joy and love. He lived a full life, and if we carry on his work, it will overflow into ours.
Dad always wanted me to write. He was always begging me to publish
this long fiction story I wrote in the 7th grade. I remember it was a
murder mystery set in Jamaica (I'd never been there) and I wrote it on
this old-school Apple computer we had in our basement. Dad stayed with
me on this project and helped me write it and edit it, late into the
night before it was due.
It is hard to believe he is gone.
One of the best things I've ever done was in 2003. I took a year off
from work and school to live with my parents in India. In that time,
my father and I became friends. Our relationship changed from one of
parent and child to friends that would ask each other for advice and
discuss philosophy and edit each other's works. He was more relaxed,
and I was more relaxed. I understood him, and why he would get mad and
why he'd become happy. And he began to understand me.
We would sit at the dining room table and argue and discuss the
various points of philosophy. Sometimes he would tell me stories, of
every day things like how nosy people are at the bus stop. He would
tell me how some guy started talking to him and asked what he did, how
much money he made, how many children he had, were they married? If
not, why not? What to do with the girl that was unmarried, etc. And
still he enjoyed it. He loved living in India, in Mysore.
I came to Mysore to laugh. My father was hilarious. He would make fun
of people, situations, and best of all my, mother. He, slowly, as the
years went by, would also laugh at himself. I would make fun of his
books, and ask him "who will read a Kannada book about sparrows?" And
he'd laugh good-naturedly.
So much of who I am comes from my father. He was a philanthropist. He
was a philosopher. He was a comedian. He was deeply spiritual. He
was a writer.
Because of all of this, because we were friends, because he was happy
with his life, because he died painlessly, I can live on. He taught me
that there is so much to live for, so much to do. So many people to
help, so many things to celebrate. In his death, I will continue to
follow my father’s footsteps and continue writing, making friends, and
improving the world.
# (1) 05 Aug 2010, 11:01PM: Blandishments:
I need to post at more length about the people and things that have kept me sane these past few weeks. The familiar, the distracting, the intellectual and olfactory hits direct to the pleasure centers of my brain. A few days ago I was at a low ebb, then ate Pizza Hut pizza and drank 7-Up: the first non-Indian dinner in weeks. This is the point of easy, cheap Western franchise food. Like the scene in Dear Mr. Henshaw where mom & son cry, then go out for buckets of fried chicken and eat it in the car watching the ocean. They roll the windows down to hear the rain and surf, and the fast food place forgot forks so they scoop mashed potatoes with chicken bones.
[I (think I) last ate McDonald's french fries years ago, in Tokyo, when I badly needed to be Home.]
Franchise food serves this purpose... when home-cooked food itself is fraught, franchise and microwave-from-frozen food promises autonomy, familiarity, control, solace.
# (3) 06 Aug 2010, 01:27AM: This Time For Sure:
I know what'll make everything better: self-loathing!
# (1) 06 Aug 2010, 06:21AM: Getting Personal:
I went to sleep at a reasonable hour, for once. My mother and I slept in the same bed -- the one in my room, since her bedroom seems to provoke my allergies. She isn't
used to sleeping in a bed alone.
Then, around two, we both awoke, hearing a sound like a toilet running or water pouring. It didn't stop. We checked around the house and didn't see any plumbing fails,
and my mom concluded that someone was refilling a water tank. I decided to believe her. Sure, that echoey bit could imply that liquid's being poured into a vessel, not
onto a flat splashy inadvertent swamp.
Then some dogs started barking. Intermittently, of course -- nothing I could block out. I tried listening to some Michael Masley (remember the cymbalom guy from the
streets of Berkeley?) via headphones, but only succeeded in a bunch of calm thinking. So, up and to the living room with a borrowed computer, Foo Camp water bottle, and
Ubuntu tote bag that happened to have some American snacks.
Oh the snacks Leonard packed for me! They help keep me sane. Dried apple rings, dark chocolate, cookies, fruit leather, licorice, trail mix. Nearly all the food I've
had here in India is tasty, but my relationship with Indian food carries heavy emotional baggage. These foods, the snacks, I've only ever chosen.
People used to ask why I'd majored in political science. I told them it was because polisci is the study of power, and growing up I'd felt like I had none. As I said to
a friend recently: glib, but a species of true. Or, as I said to Leonard ten years ago: Idiotic, yet resonant.
It's so important to me to feel like I've chosen my burdens, like I knew ahead of time what I was signing up for. Or at least it has been, historically. My mom, a recent
widow and as busy as she's ever been, is understandably not that great at telling me a day in advance that the housepainters will be going in and out of my room, or that
such-and-so will stop by. I want plans, I want advance notice, I hate being in the dark when it's avoidable, when I feel like the other party could be giving me
information but negligence or tight-lippedness is keeping me from feeling informed. If I can't have control, I'd at least like a dashboard display.
So I clutch even harder to the few familiar certainties I have. My music, my food, my tee shirts to wear to bed. I ask Mom a hundred questions about the next day (Are
you expecting anyone? Are the painters coming? Is anyone else coming, like a plumber or electrician? Are we doing community service? Do you have any appointments
outside the house, like at the bank? Do we need to go anywhere? Has anyone invited us anywhere?), interrogating her as I'd ask ultra-specific questions of a client,
trying to draw out her mental map so I can copy it down, getting all waterfall. I cannot go with an unknown flow, not here. Agile, after all, works with explicit introspection and negotiation, with clear schedules and disciplined use of an explicit process to constantly change those schedules (Moss, fix my simplifications in comments?). It works when we trust the process and each other, and I barely even trust myself.
There are so many strange annoying stimuli here, and -- since my defense mechanisms are intellectualizing and humor -- I have been stepping back and analyzing why some
bother me and some don't. The Hindu rituals don't, perhaps because I have a great deal of practice in spacing out through them as one does through dentist visits. People
tell me what to do, I do it, my mind wanders, sometimes I make mistakes but they're always fixable, and it makes my mom happy. I can appreciate the beauty in an abstract
way, or if I look at the flowers and incense from the perspective of one of my non-Hindu friends, imagining a travel writer's or photographer's eye.
And then there is the communication stuff. There is lots of shouting and interrupting that doesn't mean anger or scorn. People repeat redundant instructions and I get
irked at the implied lack of trust....except that it doesn't mean lack of trust here, it means care. If I tell you information and then leave you alone, or remain
emotionally detached, that is scorn! The preferred Indian behavior seems to break two of the
Gricean maxims, to my ear. It grates.
Relatedly: like a backend programmer hearing complaints about UI, I get peculiarly angry when I hear someone telling me to be in good spirits, not to freak out, not to
stress out, to smile more and relax.
And then there's food. But I've talked about food enough already. And I'm sure I'll do so more, again, soon.
This is messy and loose-threaded and lit by the early early streaks of dawn. Most of the above I wrote around six in the morning. Now, after lunch, my mother naps; she
couldn't even finish her rice and stew, her head was nodding so hard. I go in to check on her every once in a while, watching her for a moment, standing very still so I
can watch a fold of fabric on her chest rise a few millimeters, and fall.
# (3) 07 Aug 2010, 01:29AM: The Great American Songbook:
I am not very good at making small talk with my mom. So much of it brushes against my switchboard of buttons dusty and bright: how I should have tried out for Jeopardy! or what to eat next or hey, I should be publishing more or God makes everything happen for a reason! Even when the conflict or trigger is two moves away, unspoken, never brought up, I get antsy in case the conversation ripples thataway.
Last night she was tired and down. I read aloud a few great passages from A Writer's Nightmare by R.K. Narayan. (An amazing fiction author, Indian, who turned into a more fanciful Andy Rooney for his weekly newspaper column. I need to quote him extensively on umbrellas and wisdom and tourists' interest in the caste system and coffee.) She perked a bit, then sagged again. I didn't know what else to do. So, as I took my plate to the kitchen, I started singing Union Maid.
There once was a union maid
I finished with the old sexist verse about marrying union men, then the chorus. She loved it and asked for more. I sang Down by the Riverside.
Who never was afraid
of goons and ginks and company finks
and the deputy sheriffs who made the raid...
I'm gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
I'm gonna lay down my sword and shield
And study war no more
You have such a sweet voice, she said. I sang what I remembered of Banks of Marble.
I've traveled round this country
I sang what I've memorized from Dar Williams's What Do You Hear In These Sounds.
From shore to shining shore
It really makes me wonder
The things I heard and saw
For the banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the miners sweated for
and I ask myself what state I'm in
And I say well I'm lucky, 'cause I am like East Berlin
I had this wall and what I knew of the free world
Was that I could see their fireworks
And I could hear their radio
And I thought that if we met, I would only start confessing
And they'd know that I was scared
And they'd would know that I was guessing
But the wall came down and there they stood before me
With their stumbling and their mumbling
And their calling out just like me and
Oh, the stories that nobody hears
Oh, I collect these sounds in my ears
That's what I hear in these sounds
The stories that nobody hears, I collect these sounds in my ears. Beautiful, she said. One more, she asked. And I sang the start of New York City, which I know from the They Might Be Giants cover.
You called me last night
On the telephone
And I was glad to hear from you
'Cause I was all alone
You said, "It's snowing, it's snowing; God I hate this weather;
Now I walk through blizzards just to get us back together."
We met in the springtime at a rock 'n' roll show
It was on the Bowery. When it was time to go
We kissed on the subway in the middle of the night
I held your hand
You held mine
It was the best night of my life
'Cause everyone's your friend
In New York City
And everything is beautiful when you're young and pretty
The streets are paved with diamonds and there's just so much to see
But the best thing about New York City is
You and me.
You should sing that to Leonard, she said.
Today: a bit of Birdhouse in Your Soul. I should memorize more songs, so I can sing them to my mom, and more poetry to recite. But first: downstairs again, to keep her company.
# (6) 10 Aug 2010, 12:09PM: Blogging, Historical & Logistical Notes:
Today in history: ten years ago Leonard asked a Star Trek trivia question. I tried to answer it via email. This was before I'd ever met Leonard in person, and it was one of the first times I ever wrote to him. This was back when I'd duck into the computing labs in Dwinelle or Evans between classes and kill time with SFGate, Slashdot, and the blog of this guy I'd never met.
Also today I told Leonard how strange it is to find myself changing in response to novel stimuli, and how I'm trying to use science analogies to understand my disorientation. It is as though I were a mature company, selling a stable product line, and I'd forgotten to shut down R&D and suddenly they had this new awesome strange innovation that was knocking all my assumptions and salesfolk off kilter. "There's been this skunkworks project in my heart the whole time!" I exclaimed.
"So it's more like Big Science [analogies]," Leonard offered.
Perhaps the third or fifth email I ever sent Leonard mentioned a book of cartoons, Big Science by Nick Downes, that was on the remaindered table at Cody's Books in Berkeley. I had bought a copy for myself, and told him he'd like it, and that he should come over from San Francisco to buy a copy. "But it's all the way across the Baaaaaaay! ;-)" he said, I approximate. He asked if he could PayPal me the money and have me buy one for him. I said I didn't have a PayPal account. He asked how he was supposed to reap the positive network effects of having joined PayPal if people like me didn't. "Your chicken, your egg, your problem," I replied.
This was back when I was fluffing my plumage, trying to impress this new impossibly smart, funny, accomplished guy, not even realizing yet that I had met someone who would be important to me. We clicked effortlessly and got drunk on it. The emails were fantastic. And then the years went by, and we eventually moved in together and got married, and we can usually laugh and ruminate and say "I love you" face to face. Which is of course wonderful.
(I laughed when Leonard reminded me of Big Science on the phone today, and teased him that instead of buying the book himself, he just got me to fall in love with him. "It was easier," he teased back. And hey, I still don't have a PayPal account.)
But I miss the letters.
One of the worst things about long-term relationships is the temptation to let oneself go -- not physically, necessarily, but in terms of taking care to grow and show one's best self.
(Huh, what's the name of the fallacy that says that if you name the fallacy then it has no power over you?)
Anyway. I'm still in Mysore, coming back next week, and I'd vaguely thought that at least that distance and the timezone difference would give me reason to bring back the epistolary depth -- there's a form of lasting solace I only get by exchanging long, thoughtful, caring letters. But VoIP phone calls plus instant messaging plus effort put into other reading and writing reduce the energy and thought I put into emails to Leonard, which is my shame and one I aim to rectify. So if I'm not blogging or writing to you much, know that my emotional roller coaster continues but I'm basically okay, and that I'm just trying to reduce, by one, one of the many, many ways in which I am a fool.
I do not know what I would do without him.
# 11 Aug 2010, 03:07PM: Some Preliminary Thoughts On My Adoration Of The Week:
Mysore is a few hours' train, car, or bus travel from Bangalore. Conventional wisdom says Mysore is a small, quiet city, with colleges and parks and long afternoons sipping coffee with friends and relatives.
But a few days ago, with welders fixing a gate on our street, I couldn't get away from the noise, it's been louder and more annoying than anything I have to put up with in Astoria. Which makes Mysore noisier than New York City.
Also, I hit myself in the face while waving away a fly or mosquito.
From some incoherent early morning notes a few days ago:
Electrical current is out upstairs. Sound of water pouring into tank (I hope). Dogs barking intermittently; make me that rat.
Geckos, not feeling all aggravated at ants, eating off banana leaves 3 times in a week, tea tea tea, the idea of too many cooks in the kitchen is hella alien.
"Make me that rat"? I think I was remembering how intermittent, unpredictable rewards and punishments drive lab rats crazy. It sounds like a prayer, though. Batter my heart. Make me that rat.
A few days later:
It's the perfect temperature, and breakfast is long over and lunch is thankfully at least an hour away, but dust from old papers stuffs my nose and the workers' noise turns my energy and creative attention to mush. All I want to do right now is grab you -- yes, you, reader, whoever you are -- by the lapel and read to you large extracts of R.K. Narayan.
I have written all the following essays because I had to. I had to
write to meet a deadline every Thursday in order to fill half a column
for the Sunday issue....I had not the ghost of an idea what I was going
to do. As [my editor] had left me to do anything I wanted within my
column I started writing, trusting to luck; somehow I managed to fill
the column for nearly twenty years without a break.
Anyone who's ever written a weekly column sees, at this moment, straight into Narayan's heart. Somehow, from all the frantic tuggings and scribblings, you end up with a body of work, and there are some gems in there, and how did that happen?
-p.8, A Writer's Nightmare: Selected Essays 1958-1988
Narayan died two days after Douglas Adams did. He'd been honored by lots of governments and academies, and nominated to the Rajya Sabha (India's upper house of parliament). One of the most touching columns in the collection is a remembrance of Indira Gandhi, who made time to talk with him about books, the environment, and urban development. Then there's the obligatory "how they ruined the movie version of my book" story, and Thurber-y stuff about losing an umbrella or how the morning newspaper gets snatched up and torn to pieces by every relative or neighbor except the subscriber.
He'd lived in Mysore and spent lots of time in Berkeley and New York, both of which he loved. For comfort, the last few weeks, I have been writing and emailing and instant-messaging and phone chatting with friends in NYC and the Bay Area, so when I read Narayan getting nostalgic about 14th Street and the Campanile, Washington Square and Telegraph and Sather Gate, I felt that enchanted expat camaraderie wash over me like a pleasant alien bath. It means even more coming from someone who articulated Karnataka so particularly well:
Even adjoining cities, such as Mysore and Bangalore, to take an immediate
example, have antagonistic temperaments although they come under the same
State administration and partake of the same culture, separated only by an
85-mile concrete road, which you can cover in two hours; and yet what a
difference! Strangers who have passed through, inadvertently say, "I was in
Mysore," when they mean Bangalore! This sort of slip distresses a true
Mysorean and a Bangalorean equally. For the shades of prejudice between the
two cities are not mere gradations in a chromatic scale but well-defined
conflicting colours. In the shops of Mysore if any commodity is unfairly
priced, and you ask for an explanation, pat comes the answer, "It is all due
to Bangalore, where they have put up the prices." The Bangalorean thinks,
"God, nothing will prosper in Mysore. People are too sleepy and impossible.
Once, when I was in Mysore, I tried to get a plumber to fix the tap in my
bathroom and for fifteen days no one turned up. In Bangalore...."
As with Lavanya
Sankaran, I find here an enchanting and rare specificity. I can always
find English-language writers showing off their familiarity with Berkeley and
Manhattan, but then it's no longer an in-joke, just sophistication. Narayan as South South Asian:
Bangalore hotels, taxis, water supply, and the colour and composition of
masala dosai are categorically disapproved of by Mysoreans. "Mysore is
dull" is balanced by "Bangalore is getting so congested that it will choke
itself one of these days". If a Mysorean admits certain deficiencies in
Mysore, he'll always trace them to the fact that it has no spokesmen either in
Delhi or in Bangalore, most of the Ministers (at least till recently) being
men of other districts, which is the reason why Mysore is without a train
connection to the South through Chamarajnagar-Satyamangalam (a distance of
only 45 miles through an oft-observed track), an airport, a broadcasting
station, and a broad-gauge track. No one in authority has any feeling for
Mysore. There is also a comforting view adopted sometimes that Bangalore is a
sort of filter keeping out undesirable industrial elements, leaving Mysore to
live in its pristine glory.
-p. 148, from "Pride of Place"
It is childish to imagine that by sending us Hindi forms you are making us
more Hindi-conscious. Shall we supply your post offices with forms and
stationery printed in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada? That would at
least give this whole business a sportive and reciprocal touch.
-p.28, "To a Hindi Enthusiast"
Go read it, whether you want to grok South India because it's your home, or because it's not.
# (1) 11 Aug 2010, 03:37PM: From "I Have A Tambourine" to "LOL Warmongers" (Really Just Listen To The Talk):
After making some absurd, thrice-removed-from-original-text inside joke with Leonard, like "I never Medipren I didn't like," I told him about Biella Coleman's & Finn Brunton's talk at HOPE about pleasure in political spectacle, lulzy media, Anonymous vs. Scientology, etc.
"I was reminded of our injokes when they talked about exploitables. BUT NOT ENOUGH! I shall hold them hostage and force them to give their talk again, with more discussion of exploitables! Bright lights in their faces, rivulets of sweat --"
"Or you could just talk to them," Leonard broke in.
"They won't even know they've been captured," I mused diabolically.
Anyway, Biella and I were already acquainted before the talk (via Seth), and now Finn and I are pals, which is why they greet me during the Q&A around 58:30. I can recommend Finn's talk on spam and metagaming
and his essay "Why I did not kill myself in January of 2010" along with the rest of his writing, and Biella's 1998 FLOSS memories, Precor ethnography, and full lulz talk (more work than I can summarize). And the HOPE talk.
# (2) 13 Aug 2010, 07:29AM: An Ecstatic Patron of Recurrent Light:
I first read The Great Gatsby in eleventh grade, Mr. Hatch's American Literature class. Every few years I reread it. I read it a few years ago, after moving to Astoria, and got a richer sense of place out of all the geographical references and touches. I'm rereading bits of it now.
Wow, those party scenes are much more informative, funny, and tragic when you've had friends, and been to parties you enjoyed, and not been the most awkward person in the room. In fact, all the interpersonal stuff is. I'm kind of wondering how it was that I loved this book so much for its aesthetics and psychological insight when I was so completely undeveloped on those fronts. And it's not like Anjana Appachana (Incantations and Other Stories), where I liked the work half a lifetime ago and now it seems obvious. I loved Gatsby then and I love it now, but I can't easily reach back to what I saw in it then, because every page feels fresh now.
I was rereading the end of Chapter 6 ("He broke off and began to walk up and down a desolate path of fruit rinds and discarded favors and crushed flowers....") and remembered Mr. Hatch -- I could call him Sam now? -- reading it aloud to us. "Can't repeat the past?" he cried incredulously. "Why of course you can!" I remember his greying hair, his two desks stuffed with essays and handouts, the green chalkboard, the classroom's chairdesks in two sets facing each other. (And him, and how he influenced me, but that's several thoughts too many for this was-supposed-to-be-short post.) For his class I wrote an essay about Gatsby, comparing him to Karna from the Mahabharata. It was perhaps the high-water mark of my overachieving high school nerdery, being way longer than the minimum and including a six-page appendix summarizing the Mahabharata with special emphasis on Karna's origin, trials and fate. Cue knowing mockery from classmates. Perhaps they meant it as friendly, mostly.
My parents showed it off to their Indian visitors; their daughter wasn't into bharatnatyam dance or the sitar or classical singing and her Kannada sucked, but at least she was oddly interested in the mythology. I wonder how many printouts they made. "Just like her father," I bet the aunties and uncles said.
I came across that essay last week, while sorting through some boxes. Maybe I'll ask Leonard to read it, to tell me whether it'll make me wince to see what I thought of Fitzgerald and Vyasa before I was even really sentient as a critical thinker. I can barely bear to read my ten-year-old blog entries!
I know what I see in Gatsby now; I saw something else, something valuable and beautiful, ten-plus years ago, and I expect I'll see yet a different face in the next decade. That's a classic for you, one that rewards new orbits with fresh discovery. I now see it through layers of history: Long Island in the 1920s, Tokay High School in the nineties, Queens from the 2000s. Can't repeat the past? ...borne back ceaselessly...
# (3) 14 Aug 2010, 04:53AM: A New Brother-In-Law(-To-Be), and A New Joy:
My sister has just gotten engaged! Nineteen-second video by me, story by her. Her fella, Girish, is highly neat. He is kind, amiable, generous, funny, and industrious, and he reduces the net crazy of any situation he's in.
That's useful for many reasons, and one of them is that I am a big old weirdo. In any milieu, really. But here especially. My mother's house, my blood family, Mysore, Karnataka, India. I know that I feel alien, and my behavior and preferences rub roughly against the expectations, the assumptions of everyone around me (except, kinda, Indian-American teenagers who happen to stop by and need entertaining while their parents talk to my mom).*
But somehow it was only a few days ago, when we were all eating lunch together, that I really saw how they all fit. The joviality, the talking over each other, the casual touches, the food culture. Girish, Nandini, Mom, Nagaratna the housekeeper, every visitor and worker. It is all mundane to them. I'm the strange one, the one who can't stand having food lovingly pushed on her plate, the one who doesn't speak Kannada, the one who can't seem to make conversation about clothes or food or travel or remedies. I've always known I was alien, but it was as though I was seeing for the first time the good that I am alien to.
But Girish, in his matter-of-fact way, puts me at ease. He's laid-back in the best sense: not inattentive, not lazy, but calm and tolerant, as in an implementation of Postel's Law.
I am that annoying contrarian, often, like a cat running under the couch. Tell me a rule and I'll look for an exception. Tell me how to be, order me to change to emulate and work with you, and I'll radicalize and entrench my difference from you.
But Girish sidesteps that old minefield. He helps me feel accepted enough to take a fresh look at the traditions and community I'd so ignorantly rejected. It's funny how calm, not-trying, the ceasing of struggle, opens up such possibilities for change. When once I've been lulled to sleep, I can awake to life and freedom.
* Only as I write this do I realize that I've been retreating into English-language literature and erudition as a refuge, because I feel so inadequate swimming in Kannada. Hamlet, Narayan, Fitzgerald, Cather, and letting my diction loose:
Nandini, complaining about some fake flowers Mom plans to put in the puja room: "These don't even look real!"
Sumana: "Well, artifice is always going to involve an imperfect mimesis."
Nandini: [stare, laugh] "That was like, 'SAT word is always another SAT word!'"
Sumana: "GRE word, please. 'Artifice' is SAT, but 'mimesis' steps it up."
# 16 Aug 2010, 11:31PM: Home:
Back in NYC. Thanks to Leonard & Mirabai for greeting me at JFK with a GODOT sign! More tomorrow, I hope.
# (1) 17 Aug 2010, 12:36PM: Fortune:
There are tools and applications and widgets and whatnot that are meant to be fed a text file full of quotations so they can show you one every time you log into a website, or onto your computer, or put one randomly in every email signature. The old-school name for the file full of quotations is "fortune" or some variant. The idea is that it's like opening a fortune cookie. Right now I'm benefiting from the wisdom some friends have shared with me. A selection:
But hey, if it were easy, it wouldn't need doing, right?
...on embarking on something completely beyond what I normally encounter in life, I've started thinking and/or saying, "Well, what the hell, at least I'll earn some XP."
Part of the pleasure of starting again is feeling the years and years of riding behind me -- the teenage bolting around like a lunatic and learning how to land on my feet, the years in my twenties when David drummed cadence into me -- coming up and helping, like a whale surfacing under a struggling swimmer. As if those years weren't wasted after all; as if all is not lost.
...sometimes it's easier to cry about smaller things.
-via Jed Hartman
If the people you're with notice you're eating your pasta wrong, you're with the wrong people.
-Nandini Harihareswara (circa 1996)
I don't understand why we, as a society, always want to put intensely complex arrays of emotionally significant things into tight boxes. The world does not work that way.
And one less personal insight, but one that speaks to me powerfully whenever I find myself wearied by intra- and inter-personal growth: Captain Jonathan Archer (yes, from Star Trek: Enterprise), inspiring the fractious diplomats and keeping them from scuttling the interplanetary equivalent of the League of Nations:
Up until about a hundred years ago, there was one question that burned in every human, that made us study the stars and dream of traveling to them. Are we alone? Our generation is privileged to know the answer to that question. We are all explorers driven to know what's over the horizon, what's beyond our own shores.
And yet the more I've experienced, the more I've learned that no matter how far we travel, or how fast we get there, the most profound discoveries are not necessarily beyond that next star. They're within us, woven into the threads that bind us, all of us, to each other.
A final frontier begins in this hall. Let's explore it together.
# 18 Aug 2010, 03:47PM: No Good Reason:
From conversation with Leonard: Q as Will Shortz in the NPR Sunday puzzle.
Picard: "I don't have time for your games, Q!"
Q: "This 7-letter word explains why humanity should not be obliterated. Backwards, it's a common Moroccan dessert. What is it."
# (1) 19 Aug 2010, 01:33PM: Sorry, Yet Not, For The Length:
I closed the lid of my iBook G4 at some point this summer, maybe in June, and didn't open it again till I came back from India, with my Linux laptop unavailable. I'd been timesinking (otherwise known as keeping up with RSS feeds) via NetNewsWire on that 5-year-old Mac, and I suppose I accidentally experimented with simply dropping that part of my life, for a time. Some friends' or writers' blogs, I followed manually, and some I just forgot about; Identi.ca, Twitter, LiveJournal and Dreamwidth fed my pipeline steadily enough; I just stopped trying to follow a lot of the stream.
I supposed I vaguely thought it would build up, the backlog. I'm usually a completist. I get anxious about reading every word, seeing every episode, rewinding if the phone rings and I miss five seconds of dialogue. (I'm an asshole about no talking when we're watching something together. The pause button gets employed a lot.) But today I started up NetNewsWire and there weren't ten thousand new items, there were like 1400. Quirks of settings and configuration, of RSS feeds simply no longer carrying such long-past items, so my reader had never retrieved them -- I have missed a big stripe of the stream.
And that's fine. There is no complete. Some of that stuff I will never know about. Some I'll hear about in other ways. Some might have changed my life. Some might have just amped up my anxiety, added yet more I Shoulds to my dark cloud. I was living a different full life instead, meeting new friends at conferences, whiling away long afternoons in the living room in Mysore while my mom slept, reading poetry aloud into a recorder for a friend on the other side of the globe, frittering away precious irrevocable moments in other ways. Maybe not better, but different, and different is its own kind of better.
Edinburgh for me was always the randomizer, the place I hitched to every year, camped out in, and came out in some other country, six weeks later, with hungover and overdrawn, with a new skill or passion or someone sadder or more famous or just more fuddled and dumber than ever.
I feel like I started traveling this year in April, or January, and never stopped. Traveling, and writing harder, and meeting new people who knock me to pieces, and trying and failing to volunteer better and make things socially. (Try again, fail better, when I have a moment to breathe, in November.)
This post started as a letter to one of those people, so I could talk about how looking at these RSS feeds now, I have a different pruning hand. I'm more prone to cut the Must Keep Up! politics and tech firehoses. And my eye has changed. I catch my breath when I see a gem of prose or thought, especially a phrase of love or anger that punches through. I get overwhelmed with happiness when someone articulates something just so, or when a precise, vivid illustration-in-words works its magic on my mind's eye. Insight and beauty -- did I get inured to them, mixed in with the sod and dross, or was I not noticing them? How much have I changed, my God?
I could hear the lilt and awe in Scott Rosenberg's voice when I read him saying
"There's so much that's fun and unexpected in Perfecting Sound Forever:..." and it made me want to collect the pretty marbles as I read instead of just letting them fall to the floor. A stream, caught for once, another form of completism, but maybe less neurotic and more about joyous sharing.
...your books do not love you. They are objects, and not morally superior to any other object in your house. Again, books are not morally superior to any other objects. They are just heavier.
...like all good hells, the eating down the pantry hell is all the worse because it is a hell of your unique making.
The study has its limits, of course; we are strongly multivariate bags of chemicals, after all.
The tie from this book to my own interests should be clear, but if not, I should make them explicit: free and open source software often thinks of itself as being sui generis, but in fact it is part of a history (in this country) of retreat from established economic structures with the intent of creating parallel systems that would eventually compete with or replace those established structures with something simultaneously individually empowering and socially just.
(A laugh-out-loud The Big Caption.)
The argument I have always seen against dropping the use of such words always boils down to "But I'm a word nerd, and I think I should be able to use any word I want. Not using that word cuts a hole in my lexicon, and demonizes it, besides. Also, I like that word."
That's not word-nerdery. That's laziness. That's favoring metaphor over precision, generality over specificity. A real word-nerd would keep searching until they came up with a more correct, more fitting descriptor. If the situation you're involved in actually resembles a death-march? Then by all means, go ahead and use that word. If not? Head back to the well and drop the bucket. Surely you can come up with something better than that.
Finally I suggested that Alex design her own coin. Her first reaction: "But it's against the law!" No, I explained, it's only against the law to make copies of real coins trying to fool people. I drew the circles for her and helped with some of the spelling. Here you have the results: the Alex 1000 dollar coin.
i have been meaning to write an article about the whole experience
for some time now
maybe pitch it to some of those magazines
that run personal-narrative articles
you know the kind of article i'm talking about
they begin in medias personal res
and then gently flesh out a few details
and toward they end they circle some greater truth
like a dog who's worried there's a trap somewhere near the food dish.
I thought about how it is with this kind of high joy, that there has to be a kind of recklessness, a forgetting, in order to fly like that.
On all sides of the political spectrum of homeschoolers, I tend to see an unrealistically rosy view of families. Parents care more about their kids than anyone else ever could, and parents know what’s best for their kids’ education. Yeah. I know too many parents who use crack to buy into this one; disillusionment about the awesomeness of families is an occupational hazard for me. There will always be parents who are disengaged and/or incompetent and/or malevolent. We will always need a default educational system that is not dependent on parents knowing or caring about what is best for their children, and it needs to be as good as we can make it because those kids are already starting out with two and a half strikes against them, and they deserve a chance.
I was terrified. It may have all been about anticipating the roaches that I suspected were all over our new apartment. It may have been the foreign sturdiness of the word, "wife."
My own guess is that a rule like this breaks one of the important criteria for a rule of justice that are there in some versions of Rawls - that the social decision rule has to be justifiable to everyone in society on their own terms, otherwise it's not really a society. If you have an overarching rule about priorities, it's going to create what Kenneth Arrow calls "positional dictators" - ie people whose position in the current allocation of resources gives them a status such that the social utility function is wholly determined by theirs. More importantly, there are going to be loads of people whose priorities are nowhere near the social priorities and who therefore have no chance whatsoever of seeing their particular hobbyhorse being funded. People like that are eventually going to get pig sick of making their contribution, because they're going to believe (correctly) that the society they're in isn't working for them.
"In this town everyone's rich. So when everyone's equal serendipity becomes a status symbol." ... Maybe telling them "no" trashed their delusion that life should just be one series of effortless moments after another.
"Yeah, they never show you at home what they can do."
We're both fans of public transit, something we discovered the first time we met; we talked about our favorite AC Transit bus line (the 51) the first time we had dinner, and celebrated a subway-accessible wedding a year and a half later.
Subjectivity Isn’t Sustainable... Sometimes it takes extra time and effort to describe and document situations that appear obvious or hard to describe. We should at least try. Failing to do so keeps all the power and decision making with the people who know.
Then, to our utmost surprise, the captain stepped down from the platform and continued: "My wife and I struggled for a long while, and we just adopted a child last year. It is life's greatest gift. And so, it is my pleasure to do this for you. Won't you please give me your hands so that I can fingerprint them?"
I recently told a reader that if forced to choose, I would sacrifice every video game in existence for the works of Shakespeare and not give it a moment's thought. Such mental experiments are folly. It's likely that if we ever do lose the works of Shakespeare it will be at the same instant we lose all the video games and everything else.
I like universal health care not for any moral reason but because it encourages job mobility, enterpreneurship, takes the burden off our manufacturing industries, and leads to cheaper health care costs. I like to spend money on education because it makes our workers competitive in the international market. I want cap and trade because reliable humans tell me that the long-term costs of climate shift will be worse than doing nothing. I want solar power so people with thousand-year-old grudges in countries half a world away stop yanking us around. I want to cut defense spending so we can move it to border control and humint resources. I favor separation of church and state because, like Thomas Jefferson, I don't want people of faith to have other faiths shoved on them by the power of the government.
I'm a goddam 1972 Republican.
As I read these, copy and paste these, sitting for hours on my nice couch in my American apartment -- Philip Glass, Ray Lynch -- all my tactile senses drift away, I live in my mind, and you can tell, because the quotes get less and less sensual and beautiful, more and more cerebral and clever. That former, pain and breathtaking joy, that's what I got some of this summer, by leaving things I knew and breaking my heart open more and losing my mind a little. I don't want to just have had a vacation from this straitlaced intellectual life, one that doesn't stick.
Perhaps this should have been a letter after all, personal and quiet, about sun and grass and ants constantly getting onto my skin, about enthusiasm and the hope in knowing time will pass, I don't know. More like this.
I want my writing to be good enough for you. I want my living to be good enough. I don't know what I'm losing in this change, I just have to do what I can't not do.
The first day we met he informed me that the essence of our work was learning to get out of our own fucking way. I am learning that out here--how to get out of my own fucking way--and really listen to what I care about, what I truly ache to say.
It is almost 11. There is nothing out there but the terrible night.
I scramble around for words to shape and convey how I'm feeling and all I have is what already exists. It is a little late in life for me to decide to invent a new language to love the world with -- isn't that sort of conlang pursuit more suited to the 18-25 demographic, or poets? Isn't this sort of rather embarrassing love letter to discovery and change more suited to Dreamwidth?
Screw it. Jim Blandy said, musing to me and Amber Case at the Mozilla table at Open Source Bridge, "every good thing I've ever done has been unauthorized." Post.
# (15) 23 Aug 2010, 08:26AM: Science Fiction That Argues Back:
Julia and I were talking yesterday about Maureen McHugh and her excellent, searing novella The Cost To Be Wise came up. The Cost To Be Wise is in part a critique of Star Trek's Prime Directive and noninterference policies like it. This reminded me of how Nancy Kress's great Beggars in Spain novella is nearly explicitly a response to Ayn Rand, specifically Atlas Shrugged (I wouldn't say the expanded book and Beggars trilogy are). Several characters in Beggars in Spain follow Yagaiism, which reads clearly as this universe's Objectivism.
This got me thinking: what scifi interestingly critiques previous scifi? Cory Doctorow has a series that explicitly does this:
In spring 2004, in the wake of Ray Bradbury pitching a tantrum over Michael Moore appropriating the title of Fahrenheit 451 to make Fahrenheit 9/11, I conceived of a plan to write a series of stories with the same titles as famous sf shorts, which would pick apart the totalitarian assumptions underpinning some of sf's classic narratives.
A few other examples: Leonard makes the case that the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Measure of a Man" responds to the original series's "Court Martial"; it "puts one of the underlying themes of TOS on trial and shows that it hasn't held up well." ("on trial" - zing!) And lots of fanfic does this, like "Second Verse (Same As the First" by Friendshipper/Sholio. "The power disparity between the 'Lanteans and the other peoples in Pegasus is something I think about occasionally, but it's never addressed on the show."
It's all a shared discourse, sure. We talk about themes we've read and play with them. "Another End of the Empire" by Tim Pratt, for example, is responding to a common fantasy trope. But I'm interested in hearing about science fiction and fantasy that says, "In this specific work, there is a specific ideological failing that I will now use, or refute, and that idea will be a primary premise for my story." Do you have a favorite bit of speculative fiction that's like that?
# (7) 23 Aug 2010, 09:45PM: Two Tips On Convincing Managers & Executives To Invest In Your Technology Projects:
From a years-old job-advice email to a friend. The sort of knowledge that Rachel Chalmers or Karl Fogel finds obvious but that some of us still haven't quite integrated into our day-to-day communications and long-term strategies:
You need to be able to express your suggestions to your boss in terms of financial incentives and losses.
A few things I've picked up during a recent class in "Technology in the Business Environment" (when I was doing the master's in tech management at Columbia):
I) Management focuses on the things that drive the organization (directly making money), and tends to ignore things that support the organization's drivers. If you're directly making money, lowering the cost of producing the product/service, increasing management's control, increasing product quality, increasing the knowledge available to an important decisonmaker, or improving customer service, you can describe your work as a driver. Can you find a way to describe your high-level TODOs in one of those ways?
II) Here's a model of management's priorities for technology investment. The higher up this list you can get, the more attention you can grab from management.
- Revenue. Guaranteeing a financial return. Not just cutting costs, but actually MAKING money from customers.
- Increasing scarce productivity. If the demand for a product exceeds the supply, then this is attractive. [1 and 2 indicate that the company is growing, and interested in the future. A good sign!]
- Cutting costs. More popular in a struggling company.
- Competitive advantage -- this means the company is already behind its competitors and has lost first-mover advantage.
- Tech for the sake of tech -- pizzazz and leadership.
So can you explain "creating system-monitoring scripts, streamlining processes, and installing and configuring new programs on the server" so that they're way up on that list?
Let's say a system-monitoring script would take your service from 95% uptime to 99.9% uptime. That's #2. Maybe one of the high-level tasks you do will make it possible for your company to serve twenty units instead of fifteen (#2) or even start a whole new line of products (#1). But "It's more elegant/technically correct" is #5.
I welcome comments, tips, examples, disagreement, and cake.
# (5) 25 Aug 2010, 02:35AM: How To Get And Deal With A Lawyer:
At least one friend of mine was generally unsure how one finds and works with a lawyer to get help with, say, government paperwork, or employment contract review. The "How to get a lawyer" entry on the MetaFilter wiki clearly and comprehensively explains how to find, interview, choose, and work with lawyers, but I felt like adding to the chorus with my personal experience. I'm a US resident and have only ever chosen a lawyer in the US.
When I needed a contract reviewed, I found my lawyer, Danielle Sucher, via a referral from my friend Riana. Your personal and professional network can probably recommend a lawyer. Searching the Ask MetaFilter recommendations is also useful.
It is perfectly fine to email or call up a lawyer and say, for example, "Do you do immigration law? I am handling a student visa matter, could you help us with that within [timescale]?" The lawyer may ask you for a quick summary of the issue and what you need, so she can do just enough specification to decide whether you need help in her specialty. Like any consultant, she's trying to figure out what you actually need, and she has more domain experience than you, so she might ask questions that initially seem irrelevant, or ask for information you don't have at hand. It's okay to ask what she needs to know and then get back to her. This initial consultation is free of charge unless she specifically says otherwise.
It feels a little easier if you can say in that first communication that "such-and-so referred me to you," as it is with accountants/CPAs, plumbers, tutors, and any kind of service providers. I am sure I stumbled in my initial contact with Danielle: "uh, I don't know what to do or how much things cost." She led me through it. I believe independent general practitioners are especially used to people for whom this is their first lawyer.
If it's clear that the lawyer practices in the sub-field that you need, then you ask about her rates. Some rates are hourly and some are per-task (say, a set charge to review a contract and discuss it with you). If you're okay with those prices, then you arrange how to give her information and communicate about the work. You could do it over email, in person, and/or by phone. When I work with Danielle, I email her a request to review a document, she says yes, I email her the document, and she tells me when she'll finish looking at it. On or before that deadline, she replies and tells me her issues, or calls and we talk about it over the phone. (We haven't met.) And then the Richardson-Harihareswara household sends her a check, gladly, because the risk mitigation and the reassurance is worth it.
I probably know people who would be happier if they had a lawyer in their lives, someone to consult about once a year when signing big scary contracts, but who haven't quite gotten one because they perceive that step as scary or hard. They might think that all lawyers suck, or that it's far too hard to find a good one, or that lawyer fees are unaffordable, or that seeing one will be inconvenient. Those are not true in my experience, and I hope they don't stop you from finding and using a lawyer. I find a particular comfort in having My Lawyer's phone number in my cell phone's speed dial.
# (2) 26 Aug 2010, 08:23AM: Melbourne, 30 August-14 September:
My first World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon) and my first trip to the Southern Hemisphere! I plan to be in Melbourne, Australia from August 30th till September 14th for AussieCon 4. The WorldCon is September 2-6, so I'm there for some extra time before and after for decompression, hanging with Danielle and her friends, tourism, and maybe meeting you, if you're there!
I don't have any particular plans during WorldCon and my schedule is fairly free after as well. So please drop me a line or comment with suggestions. I love meeting open source geeks, using and seeing public transit, looking at beautiful bits of nature, seeing unique theatrical cultural events, eating vegetarian food, and walking around walkable neighborhoods.
# (1) 30 Aug 2010, 09:56AM: Arriving A Few Days Before AussieCon:
Earlyish this morning I arrived in Melbourne, Australia. For once I was aware and intent on the window as the plane nosed down through the cloud cover, then past it. Jewel green hilly checkerboard; I wanted to caress it, feel the moist fuzz of the moss under my fingers.
Danielle was kind enough to pick me up from the airport about sixteen hours ago. It's now 11:55pm and I haven't napped yet today, so I may yet beat jet lag on this trip! Factors: at least two prior weeks of uneven and inadequate sleep (I slept nearly the entire first, 5-hour flight), alcohol and melatonin (for something like 8 hours of sleep on the second flight), and caffeine (a "short flat white" coffee thingy around 10am).
Also today: ate a great "vego brekky" (vegetarian full-English-style breakfast) and some nice Thai curry, met Steph, bought a Lebara SIM card so I have an Australian mobile number, and tried to veg out and catch up on internetting while sitting in a warm living room, looking out at a wide winter sky. Pale blue shaded into bright, ridiculously fluffy clouds moving to and fro when I wasn't looking, over rooftops and brick.
It sounds so simple once I say it, that paying intense attention to external sensory stimuli (light, sound, wind, touch, colors, hush) opens me up so I can hear my internal sensations too, physical and emotional, raw. It aligns me. But how did I not know this till this summer? Or how did I forget?
Tomorrow I aim to hang with Danielle & her pals, and walk around the city a bit on my own. Wednesday, a pre-Worldcon pub crawl in the evening is my only plan. A few things a day, no hurry. I aim to circumvent the Fear of Missing Out, Fear of Missing Something. My bigger fear is missing the experience I'm having by skimming along it, hydroplaning in haste. No control, direction by default, and seeing only my own reflection along a surface.
# (1) 31 Aug 2010, 10:36PM: "Going once / Going twice / Won't these gentlemen suffice?":
Something like a full day on airplanes, and I skipped getting sick. But then I caught my host's cold, so instead of exploring Melbourne on the last day before WorldCon starts, I'm yawning out from the living room at a sky smeared with indifferent shades of grey, like used paintbrush-cup water drying on newsprint. I sit crosslegged on a couch, under four thin blankets, consuming lemongrass ginger tea, toast with peanut butter and banana (Australia has peanut butter! despite Leonard's declaration that it's the American marmite), and comfort media. I'm listening to Tally Hall's Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum (post title from "The Bidding") and reading Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice. Fortunately I've already read the prerequisite Stephenson, Owen Hill, and Nathanael West, and seen The Big Lebowski, so I can keep up and laugh as Pynchon riffs on "a hippie walks into a noir." And then there are Worldcon-related tweets and the AussieCon 4 LiveJournal community, and Finn's old winter thoughts, which match my physical climate.
More "responsibly," I'm pondering things to do in Melbourne. I'm especially interested in the immigration museum and hot-air balloon rides, the tramcar restaurant, and visiting Puffing Billy. Watching Three Thousand for more idiosyncratic, local, and one-time events happening between 7 and 13 September, and welcoming suggestions.
Yesterday was great, till I got sick. Danni led me onto train and tram to Fitzroy, which seems to be like San Francisco's Mission District. I bought a few cards and a button at Incube8r, and mooned over some jewelry from Limerence: very simple excerpts from working watches, the first steampunk I've ever seen that made me Get It. The name's enchanting and accurate. We visited a Friends of the Earth (acronymises to FOE) shop where an "It's Time." shirt indirectly caused Danni to explain Gough Whitlam to me. The shop allows people to stick small housing-related ads onto the window, facing out. I looked to my left and saw a short set of sentence fragments that I couldn't instantly read, set (to the reader) left-justified and ragged-right, and flashed back to the Pegasus bookstore at Shattuck and Durant in Berkeley, poems all over its windows -- where I first read Adam Zagajewski's "Try To Praise The Mutilated World," right after the 2001 terror attacks.
Drinks with Danni, Steph, and their friends at Polly's (recommended for service, ambiance, and selection), where I acted tourist and asked for AUTHENTIC Australian or Melburnian liquors or cocktails. Liquors: not so much (another bit of indigenous culture that got wiped out?). Evidently 1806 serves a "Japanese Slipper" cocktail, invented in Melbourne a whole twenty-six years ago. "[C]an be ordered safely in most countries where Midori is available." In other countries: peel it, it's the feds!
A fine faux lamb bolognese at Vegie Bar (recommended for food, veg friendliness, and buzz) (warning: it is a restaurant and thus the site is all in Flash or some other obstructive doesn'tworkalike). We talked about Askers vs. Guessers, the Melburnian ex-Perth crowd, neighborhoods, travel, computers, clients, footnotes and punctuation, booze, &c. I found myself asking "what?" a lot, sometimes because Australians speak very quickly, or because of crowd noise, and sometimes because I did not know whether I had heard a proper name, a bit of slang, a mistake, or a standard English word I would recognize were it written down. After India, it's a relief to be in a foreign country where nearly everyone speaks a variant of English, but I do feel loud, overbearing, obvious, a quarter-beat off. I'm five feet one, yet socially, I lumber, stumbling into things, an SUV among bikes.
Tram to train home. The Parliament train station played music over the public address system, random 80s stuff. Now I'm listening to the Mountain Goats, Tallahassee: more comfort music. Time to forage for lunch. No pub crawl for me tonight, I suspect. Pynchon, email gardening, the indoor life, intoxicated only by pseudoephedrine, if I can convince a nearby chemist I'm not looking for meth precursors.
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