Cogito, Ergo Sumana

picture of Sumana's head

Sumana Harihareswara's journal


: Libraries.io and the Infrastructure of Hospitality: So many times in my life in open source tools and platforms, I've run into the following problem:

We want to make a breaking change/prioritize work/get feedback.
Let's check with our downstreams.
How do we find and communicate with them?
Uhhhh.

We have stopgaps inside the application (like in-app and in-API messaging, Wikipedia banners) and outside (like creating users and announce mailing lists, publicizing social media broadcast venues, searching the web/GitHub for projects and people that mention/import our tool and pinging them personally).

screenshot of libraries.io page on usage stats for Twine, displaying bar chart of versions used by downstream packages and repositories, listing projects, and offering requirement kind and version range filtersNow, Libraries.io makes it way easier to be hospitable to my downstreams.

I co-maintain Twine, a utility that many developers use to upload packages to PyPI. We released 1.11.0 in March. The Libraries.io page about Twine shows me who's using it (see the screenshot on the left), and I can dive deeper to check who's pinned to an old version so I can ping them to check what's up. (Sometimes that conversation tells me about a problem in our upstream dependencies that I didn't know about.) If I want to survey some users to find out whether a particular breaking change would hurt them, this makes it way easier to find some representative users to ask, not just the power users and enthusiasts who take the initiative to reach out to me.

Libraries.io has an API so I could even automate some of this. And libraries.io covers npm, CRAN, PyPI, RubyGems, Maven, and a bunch more package managers across different languages and frameworks, so I'll see downstreams that aren't just in Python.

And the code is open source in case I want to understand how they rank projects in search results or add tox.ini support in their dependency checker.

I started drafting this post in March, and in the interim, I did a little paid work for Tidelift, the company that stewards libraries.io. So, disclaimer, I'm a bit biased now. But I thought libraries.io was supercool before Tidelift and I ever thought of working together. I'm glad the Ford and Sloan Foundations funded the initial version of this tool and I'm glad Tidelift is funding and using it now; it's already very useful, and I see it as part of the infrastructure that lets maintainers and users understand each other's needs.


: Fear And Motion: The other day I went on a little bike ride in my neighborhood, for exercise and to check mail at my post office box. I walked part of the way because sometimes I just didn't feel safe biking on the road, especially when construction blocks the bike lane and forces bicyclists to merge into the main traffic lane.

Some thoughts I had along the way:

  • It just doesn't feel safe to share the road with cars. I wish it were legal for adults to ride on the sidewalk when it's safe to do so (when it won't cause danger to pedestrians, or to cars coming in and out of driveways).*
  • Just as we Americans, when travelling abroad, plaintively wish that others would distinguish between America-the-government and Americans-the-people (as in, I myself am not representative of what my government does and please don't paint us all with the same broad brush), I imagine a bunch of Russians in the US right now deserve better than they're getting. I myself have said "Russians" or "the Russians" when I mean "the government of Russia" and should stop doing that.
  • It's bitterly funny how I carry proof of my US citizenship with me when I leave my apartment, as though it were an amulet of protection, as though I will be able to force racists to honor my store coupon.

Today I feel better. I biked again today and tried a different street -- usually it's a busier thoroughfare, but today it had fewer cars, and (at my current stage of biking skill) I prefer the clarity of stoplights to the uncertainty of two-way-stop intersections. And - joy! - I biked home in the shade, which made me feel safer, because the sun in a motorist's eyes makes it harder for them to see me (the one time a car hit my bike, the sun was in the driver's eyes). I was able to bike the whole way to my destination and back.

After I came home, I reread a little more of Pat Barker's Regeneration, my current comfort reading. A main character, an anthropologist and psychologist, is counseling British veterans of trench warfare during World War I. He sees how their helplessness and immobility in the face of constant onslaught traumatizes them. I remembered a thing Mel Chua has taught in her "educational psychology for free-range learners" talk, about the factors affecting self-efficacy -- when you feel stuck and helpless while trying to learn something, it can help to get up, to stretch, to walk around, to remind yourself that you are in control of your own body. And I thought about what activities I genuinely find rejuvenating, taking me out of my worries and into the sensations and experience of the present moment and changing my experience of time. pidge once wrote, about motorcycling:

I ride because it makes me sane. It clears my head. It allows me to feel a sense of freedom. It's my 900cc therapy. When you are heading down I-5 at a speed that certainly isn’t legal, all of the bullshit that is in your head, all of your distractions, it gets the hell out or you turn into a wet smear on the asphalt. You are focused on nothing but the next quarter mile that will pass you buy at 9 seconds or so.

Over and over I find inertia drawing me to a sedentary life, and then over and over I inhabit my body and surprise myself with how much I love strenuously using it, how nourishing and joyful it is to power new journeys with my muscles. I hope I remember a little better this time.


* I looked up New York State traffic rules and New York City traffic rules to confirm; yup, as an adult, I am not allowed to ride my bike on the sidewalk. Side note: both the NYS Vehicle and Traffic laws and New York City Department of Transportation traffic rules have specific rules pertaining to horses, but neither of them defines "horse". In one case the NYC traffic rules refer to a "horse or other beast of burden" in case you want to use that while obscurely complaining to your housemate about carrying groceries.

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(0) : Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges: Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy by Tressie McMillan Cottom (2017, The New Press) is simply excellent. Here's an excerpt, here's Dr. McMillan Cottom's page about the book, here's her Twitter.

It's a book that makes scholarship accessible to a non-academic reader. It's a book that uses the author's experiences -- as a student, as an admissions sales rep, as a teacher, as a researcher, as a black woman, as a friend and daughter -- to vividly illustrate and bring the reader into theoretical understandings of systems, policy, and economic forces. It's sociology, it's investigative journalism, it's memoir, it's a lens on something I see every day (those subway/bus ads for education). It's witty and no-nonsense.

I thought I already knew that a lot of for-profit colleges were pretty bad. McMillan Cottom shows why they exist, why they are as they are, and what it'd take to change those forces. I understand the labor market better and I am now even more against mandatory degree requirements for job candidates. I understand the US student debt crisis better and understand why it's connected to the same forces that are making healthcare and retirement worse and worse in the US. Just to quote from the first few chapters (I captured many quotes because she makes so many great points):

As it turns out, there is such a thing as "bad" education. It is an educational option that, by design, cannot increase students' odds of beating the circumstances of their birth....

...the way we work shapes what kind of credentials we produce. If we have a shitty credentialing system, in the case of for-profit colleges, then it is likely because we have a shitty labor market. To be more precise, we have a labor market where the social contract between workers and the work on which college has previously relied has fundamentally changed and makes workers vulnerable.

While there is a lot of academic debate about the extent of that change and whether it signals progress or decline, there is substantial evidence that suggests all of those changes shift new risks to workers....

Whether you are a kindergarten teacher, an admissions counselor, or a college professor, working in education is a lot like being a priest. You shepherd people's collective faith in themselves and their trust in social institutions....

Despite our shift to understanding higher education as a personal good, we have held on to the narrative of all education being inherently good and moral. Economists E. Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson call this the education gospel: our faith in education as moral, personally edifying, collectively beneficial, and a worthwhile investment no matter the cost, either individual or societal....The contradiction is that we don't like to talk about higher education in terms of jobs, but rather in terms of citizenship and the public good, even when that isn't the basis of our faith....

I particularly want to recommend this book to people starting, running, working for, or affiliated with for-profit educational institutions, and yes, beyond code schools and programming bootcamps, I include the Recurse Center and other similar experiments. You may not think of yourself as an educational institution, and you may even try really hard to brand yourself without the word "educate" or any of its derivatives showing up in what you say about yourself. But you ought to know the landscape you're in, and the reasons for the credentialism you may pooh-pooh, and how your choices around accreditation, tuition, participant debt, credentialing, and vocational focus may differently affect participants of different classes and races.

I read this book in February and it's still on track to be the best book I read this year.

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: Open Source Bridge: I'll be at the last Open Source Bridge today (in fact, Changeset Consulting is a sponsor), in case you want to wave hi.


: Songs And Books That Have Helped Me Get Through News Despair: When I feel despondent about my country and my world, a few things that help or have helped:

  • Rebecca Solnit's nonfiction book Hope in the Dark (which I still have not finished) which makes the point that YOU JUST DON'T KNOW. You don't. You plant seeds and you may never get to see them sprout.
  • Cory Doctorow's novel Walkaway, Annalee Newitz's novel Autonomous, and Margaret Killjoy's novella The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion, which have people like my friends and me as creative and loving and disappointed and brave and effective protagonists
  • Elvis Costello's song "Tramp the Dirt Down" (even if you feel no hope, transmute your rage into stubbornness)
  • Josh Millard's song "Everything is Fucked (Keep on Going)" and Pete Seeger's song "Tomorrow is a Highway", on persistence and promise and the future


: Tentative Taxonomy of Tech Talk Narratives: Several months ago, as I was talking with Michael Rehse (my actor programmer friend who initially advised me on the code review play), we talked about the intersection of theater and technical talks, and taxonomized tech presentations. He and I came up with some:

the MacGyver
I did this ridiculous thing and it worked!
the Stephen King
I underwent horrors!* (Perhaps in retrospect the better trope namer here is "hell house" because these talks often end "beware and avoid my fate!" in the same way as certain scare-you-into-acting-morally Halloween hell houses.)
the Amazing Grace
I once was lost but now am found! (On this theme in Julia Evans's early blogging.)
the Bob Ross
Here's how you do foo with bar! (Perhaps that's appropriate for hands-on workshops and This Old House is a better trope namer here for lecture-style presentations.)
the Mr. Rogers factory tour
Here's how foo turns into bar! A soothing exploration of a complicated machine, following input as it turns into output. Variant: Macaulay-style "The Way Things Work" exploded diagram.

I wonder what other large categories there are for this.

Separately from that "what kind of story is this" categorization, a tech talk can have varying amounts of Reading Rainbow/!!Con-style emphasis on the discovery of joy that I discussed in "Toward a !!Con Aesthetic".

* I would genuinely love to go to a talk where the speaker started: "I could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, / Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres, / Thy knotted and combined locks to part, / And each particular hair to stand on end / Like quills upon the fretful porpentine." And then talked about, like, a database migration.

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: On Online Advice: I'll be speaking on a panel, "Social Media in Theory and Praxis: What is at Stake Now?" at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, in New York, NY, on Wednesday, April 18, 2018 (next week). It's partly about how "[u]se of digital platforms and tools like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Google has altered cultural production, political processes, economic activity, and individual habits." And recently I've been thinking about advice, and how blogging and other social media affect this very fundamental interpersonal act.

I am a giant weirdo. What works for me might not work for you, and vice versa. Advice is like a diet plan. Our gut biomes are so varied and poorly understood that very strange-sounding diets inevitably work for some fraction of the population, and commonplace diet advice inevitably snarls up some people's digestive tracts. Similarly, your career, your household, your everything exists in a unique ecosystem, and advice you find condescending or hurtful may work for someone else, or even you ten years ago or ten years from now.

Sometimes I don't explicitly-enough distinguish between things that work prescriptively for myself and things that make sense to prescribe for All Of Humanity, and between prescriptive truths and descriptive truths.

Sometimes things I write down, even publicly, are aspirational and prescriptive self-motivational slogans. Many years ago, reading Steve Pavlina's wacky blog, I learned the concept of "lies of success": statements that are descriptively false -- or at least nonprovable -- but prescriptively true, like, "if I work hard and try new approaches when I get stuck, I will learn this". No one can promise that "will", so, it's not 100% accurate descriptively. But you may as well choose your unprovable and nonfalsifiable beliefs to serve your growth.

In every social context, there are topics that are apt to cause discord if we so much as name them -- sometimes the very word stops some people from thinking, like "abortion" or "cybersecurity". And when I write publicly, especially online, I do not control what social context my words are read in. So, some of these topics we can talk about in terms of our own values if we are super careful to be subjective and descriptive rather than prescriptive, but sometimes I find it hard to frame the conversation productively.

It's salutary for me to remember the ways in which I am an unextrapolatable weirdo. I'm grateful to all y'all for reminding me, pushing back when I act like my gut biome is the world.


: My LWN Story Summarizing PyPI's Overhaul: Python Package Index logoThis coming Monday, April 16th, we plan to flip the switch on the new PyPI and redirect https://pypi.python.org web browser requests and pip install requests so the codebase serving them is Warehouse (which is in beta right now at https://pypi.org). I'm proud of our team's work and hope you find it useful.

I haven't blogged here in a while, but I've been writing a lot, mostly announcements and explanations listed on, or a few hyperlinks away from, the onwiki index to my PyPI work. When I can't give people choices (and, unless your organization sets up a private package index/repository, PyPI can feel like the only game in town), I want to give them a lot of lead time to test, file bug reports, and migrate, and I want to provide backstory.

So: today LWN publishes a new article by me, "A new package index for Python". In it, I discuss security, policy, UX and developer experience changes in the 15+ years since PyPI's founding, new features (and deprecated old features) in Warehouse, and future plans. Plus: screenshots!

This summary should help occasional Python programmers understand why a new PyPI codebase is necessary, what's new, what features are going away, and what to expect in the near future.

If you aren't already a subscriber, you can use this subscriber link for the next week to read the article despite the LWN paywall. Thanks to LWN for the venue and the subscriber links, and thanks to Jake Edge in particular for thorough editing. Thanks to my Warehouse team for fact-checking me.


: Request: Donate To the Tiptree Award Auction: The James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award encourages the exploration & expansion of gender, and holds a fundraising auction at WisCon each year. I'm the auctioneer, which is a pretty fun form of community service, and serve on the Tiptree Motherboard. We're seeking donations of objects to be auctioned -- handcrafts, books, memorabilia, games, and art, especially with scifi/fantasy or feminist elements, are welcome.

I would personally love to get some donations this year of types I haven't yet seen:

  1. Games of all sorts -- board games, card games, indie games, video games (we could auction off a Steam code or a USB stick)
  2. Handmade blank books
  3. Art commissions, e.g., "I will draw a portrait of you"
  4. DVDs or CDs of feminist media, e.g., a The Middleman box set
  5. Your secret recipe for a dish you consider wowzers

Some items I'll auction live from the stage. Some, people will buy directly from a cashier, at the Gathering on Friday afternoon or from the Direct Sale table at the auction. Some, folks will bid on via a silent auction throughout the con. And a few, we'll auction online. I wrote last year about what an award does, and the reflections I've seen from winners of the Tiptree Awards and Fellowships tell me those honors are doing the job -- encouraging creators and fans to expand how we imagine gender -- and by donating to the auction, you're supporting that.

The auction will be Saturday night, May 26th, and will be about 90 minutes long. If you want to come and you're local to Madison, you can buy a day pass at the door (just to attend WisCon on Saturday) for about $25. And it's totally fine to come to the auction just to enjoy the show, and not to buy anything.

Please feel free to signal-boost this, and if you're donating please fill out the form by May 15th. Thank you.


: Recent Debugging And Confidence: I am proud of myself for some recent debugging I've done on and with codebases and tools that I hadn't worked on before.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting next to a friend who co-maintains a web app and hadn't looked at it for a while. The styling was screwy. I asked whether some CSS or JS he depended on had upgraded, like jQuery or something. He said no, his site hosted all its dependencies. I opened up the site and checked the Network tab in Firefox Developer Tools and saw that it pulled in Bootstrap from a CDN. Ah, one of the other maintainers had added that! And updates to Bootstrap had screwed up the page's styling.

That same day, as a freshly minted co-maintainer of twine (a utility to upload packages to PyPI), I investigated a problem with our CHANGELOG. Twine's changelog, as represented on Read The Docs (example) and when I built the docs locally, only displayed version number 1.4.0 (2014-12-12) and two associated GitHub issues. This was inaccurate since the source file changelog.rst had 70+ items and ran up to version 1.9.1 (2017-05-27). I figured out that this was happening because changelog.rst is meant to be formatted so the Sphinx extension releases (which I hadn't used before) can parse it, and the current file wasn't syntactically (or semantically) adhering to releases's conventions. (Since then, with advice and help from some folks, I've released Twine 1.10.0 and started a new maintainer checklist.)

And then, a couple days later, I fixed my friends' blog. Their front page had reverted to a ten-year-old index page. I had never touched Movable Type before and hadn't used their particular managed hosting web GUI before, but I poked around (and checked for backups before changing anything) and managed to figure it out: during a May 2008 outage, someone had hand-made an index.shtml page, which was now overriding the index.html page in the server config. I figured it out and found and fixed it.

My mom says that when I was a kid, I took apart alarm clocks and spare hose attachments and so on, and put them back together just fine. She once came upon me taking something apart, and when she drew breath to admonish me, I said, "Amma, if I don't take it apart, how do I know what is inside? Don't worry, amma, I'm just looking at it, I'll put it back together when I'm done," and I did. She told me that I took apart a mechanical alarm clock, carefully spreading all the parts out on some newspaper, and put it back together, and it didn't quite work properly, so I took it apart again and then put it back together, and it worked, and I jumped for joy and said "I fixed it!" (I still feel that way when I fix something.)

At some point along the way I feel like I lost that calm confidence in my abilities, that "things are made of stuff" and what one person made another can fix. But I have it again, now, at least for some bits of software, and some purely mechanical stuff (yesterday, helping friends move, deciding to break down a big empty cardboard box, responding to "but it's so big, it won't fit on the stack" with "we have knives"). It doesn't feel courageous at the time, just sensible, but then I look back and feel like a badass.

If I had to point to the single biggest cause of this regained confidence, I'd point to the Recurse Center, where I got way more comfortable with bravery and failure in programming.


: Not Teetotal, But Teemostly: Here's something I'm really embarrassed to write, but want to mark, and maybe it'll help someone.

I've cut way down on drinking alcohol and am very glad I have done so.

Quick context: when I was growing up, I thought alcohol was Wrong. My parents did not drink alcohol at all and I believed what they told me in DARE and promised I would never smoke, drink, or take any other drugs.

For most of my time in college I did not drink alcohol at all, and held booze-free parties. While in college I visited Russia, where I was over the legal drinking age, and cautiously tried booze, taking notes the first time to check how my perception and judgment were affected. In my twenties I tried it more and it became a normal part of my life into my thirties.

I never perceived myself to have a problem with alcohol. Maybe once every twelve to eighteen months I'd misjudge my capacity and get to the vomiting and hungover stages, and a few times I said something really embarrassing or got hurt while drunk, but overall I thought I was fine, especially after I made a personal rule to only have a single drink per night when at a work-related event. Every once in a while I would find that the frequency had gone up from once or twice a week to nearly a drink every evening, and would cut back to zero or near zero for a while.

Then, last year, I had two bad experiences just a few months from each other, where I misjudged and drank enough to upset my stomach. What's worse, the second of those times was just after a great hiking trip and made the bus trip back home super awful, and made me completely cancel my plans (with a friend I rarely see) for the next day. I decided I absolutely needed to switch to other stress relief/conviviality choices, and went teetotal.

A month later, one afternoon, I was coworking with some colleagues in a shared coworking space, and heard a group of men I didn't know making some mocking and disturbing misogynistic jokes. I asked them to stop (I think they did; at least I stopped hearing them) but decided to get a drink with my colleagues, after work, to deal with the leftover nerves. As I did so I realized it had been a month since my last drink. It was the ninth of October.

I decided to try keep going like that, and only drink alcohol on the ninth of the month. That's what I've done since then (I make exceptions to, e.g., have a few sips of champagne to toast at my friends' wedding, but nothing like an actual serving of alcohol).

It's going well. I do not get drunk on the ninth of the month; I have a drink with a meal with a friend, then maybe a second a few hours later with Leonard. All my friends and colleagues are cool with it (I have the kinds of colleagues who put together surveys of what nonalcoholic drinks conference attendees want). It doesn't bother me to see other people drinking in moderation. It feels weird enough to be an enjoyable meta-habit (playfulness being a good way for me to trick myself into doing something that might otherwise feel tedious). I'm able to exert my best judgment while socializing. I listened the other day to the "Say Why to Drugs" episode on "Dry January" and yeah, like a lot of drinkers who experiment with taking a month off from all alcohol, I also incidentally spend a bit less money and sleep a bit better. And US politics is still super awful, and sometimes I still feel overwhelmed at my TODO list, but I hear that little "a drink would be nice" voice and then I go drink some water or do something else.

A lot of people I admire and like don't drink at all, and a lot of people I admire and like drink in moderation way more frequently than I now do. I am just talking about my own experience (and am trying to be concise and bring myself to overcome my embarrassment enough to actually hit Publish).

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: The Ambition Taboo As Dark Matter: PyCon just rejected my talk submission,* so I'll try to finish and post this draft that I've been tapping at for ages.

My current half-baked theory is that programmers who want any public recognition from our peers, recognition that meaningfully validates our personal mastery, basically have to do that through one of a few fora that therefore accrue less-spoken emotional freight. And two of those places are code review in open source projects** and proposal review in tech conference talk submissions, and the fact that we don't talk enough about the role of ambition when talking about these processes leads to unnecessary hurt feelings.

For context: We give talks for varied reasons. To teach, to make reusable documentation, to show off things we've made or things we know, to burnish our credentials and thus advance our careers, to serve our corporate brands' goals, to provide role models for underindexed folks from our demographics, to give a human face to a project and make it more approachable, it goes on.

A conference talk is a tool in a toolbox that has a lot of other tools in it. (The Recompiler, Linux Journal and LWN pay for articles, for instance.)

And conferences are more than lecture halls, of course -- they're networking opportunities, communities of practice, parties, vacations, sprints, and so on.

But when we talk about the particular pain or joy of having a talk accepted or rejected from a conference, there's an emotional valence here that isn't just about the usefulness of a talk or the community of a conference. We're talking about acceptance as a species of public professional recognition.

I've found it pretty useful to think about public professional recognition in the context of Dr. Anna Fels's book Necessary Dreams. She points out that the childhood or adolescent desire for fame is often a precursor to a more nuanced ambition, combining the urge to master some domain or skill with the desire for the recognition of one's peers or community. This influences how I think about awards, about job titles, and about encouraging technologists in the public interest, and about the job market's role in skill assessment.

So how can a programmer pursue public mastery validation? Here's what I see:***

  1. contributing to open source software (mastery validation: maintainers merging commits and thanking/crediting contributor for work)
  2. presenting at conferences (mastery validation: program committee accepting talk)
  3. posting comments to gamified platforms like Reddit, Hacker News, and Stack Overflow (mastery validation: upvotes and replies)
  4. publishing academic research (mastery validation: journal accepting paper, peers reviewing paper positively)
  5. writing books (mastery validation: publisher accepting & publishing book)
  6. starting and architecting technically challenging projects (mastery validation: skilled technologists cofounding with or working for you, or relying on or praising your work)

So, this stuff is fraught; let's not pretend it's not. And we get rejected sometimes by conferences and talk about it, try to take the perspective that we're collecting "no's", we remind others that even successful and frequent speakers get rejected a lot and you can choose not to give up. And we give each other tips on how to get better at proposing talks. And that's all useful. But there's also another level of advice I want to give, to repeat something I said last year:

I try not to say "don't get discouraged," because to me that sounds like telling someone not to cry or telling someone to calm down. It's a way of saying "stop feeling what you're feeling." Instead, I try to acknowledge that something is discouraging but also -- if the other person's ready to hear it -- that we can come back from that: your feelings are legitimate, and here are some ways to work with them.

Some advice I hear about bouncing back from a conference talk rejection involves formalizing, creating systems to use to get better at writing proposals (my own tips mostly fall into this category) -- after all, in programming, you can learn to make better and better things without directly interacting with or getting feedback from individuals. The code compiles, the unit tests pass. And that can be soothing, because you can get the feedback quickly and it's likely to be a flavor of fair. (But that computer rarely initiates the celebration, never empathizes with you about the specific hard thing you're doing or have just done, and rarely autocredentials you to do something else that has a real impact on others.)

To formalize and abstract something makes it in some ways safer; it's safer to say "I'm working to pass the [test]" or "I'm building a [hard thing] implementation" or "I'm submitting a talk to [conference]" than to say "I am working to gain the professional respect of my profession". But that is one motivation for people to submit talks to tech conferences and to feel good or bad about the talks they give.

So part of my advice to you is: go ahead and be honest with yourself about how you feel. Rejection can be hard, working to get an unaccountable gatekeeper's acceptance**** and failing to get public professional recognition in your chosen field is a cause of anxiety, and so on. Be honest about how discouraging that can feel, and why, and what you wanted that you didn't get.

And another part of my advice is that I will ask, like the annoying programmer I am: what problem are you trying to solve? Because there are probably a lot of ways there that don't involve this particular gatekeeper.

And the most annoyingly empowering part of my advice is: Humans created and run PyCon and TED and Foo Camp and all the other shiny prestigious things; you're a human and you could do so too. Especially if you acknowledge not just your own but others' ambition, and leverage it.



* Maybe we'll do it in an open space anyhow.

** Another blog post for another time!

*** I've left some things out here.

We have some awards, e.g., ACM Distinguished Member, that you might get if you work really hard for decades in certain fields. That feels too far away for the kind of thing I'm thinking about.

I've left out the possibility of being promoted at your job, because many technologists perceive engineering job promotions as not particularly correlating with the quality of one's work as a programmer, which means a promotion doesn't send a strong signal, understood by peers outside one's organization, of validation of programming mastery. Then again, if your organization is old enough or big enough, maybe the career ladder there does constitute a useful proxy for the mental models of the peers whose judgment you care about.

I've left out various certifications, diplomas and badges because I don't know of any that meaningfully signal validation of one's mastery as a programmer industry-wide. And there's a lot of stuff to parse out that I feel undecided about, e.g., I find it hard to distinguish the status symbol aspect of admission from the signal that the final credential sends. And: A lot of people in this industry find it impressive when someone has been admitted to certain postsecondary engineering programs, regardless of whether the person graduates. And: In my opinion, the Recurse Center is an experience that has an unfortunate and unintended reputation for gatekeeping on the basis of programming skill, such that a big subset of people who apply and are rejected experience this as an authoritative organization telling them that they are not good enough as programmers (and Google Summer of Code and Outreachy have a related problem).

Of course, go ahead, write your own blog post where you talk about how wrong I am about what I list or exclude, especially because I come from a particular corner of the tech industry and I'm sure there's stuff I don't perceive.

**** Some conferences' gatekeepers are more unaccountable than others'; regardless, the feeling from the rejectee's point of view is, I bet, mostly the same. And you can start your own conference or join the program committee of an existing conference to see what it's like from the other side of the desk and wield a bit of the power yourself.


: Preserving Threading In Google Group or Mailman Mailing List Replies with Thunderbird: Have you ever wanted to reply to a mailing list post that wasn't in your inbox? I had that problem yesterday; here's how I fixed it.

Context: I'm the project manager for Warehouse, the software behind the new Python Package Index (PyPI) which -- thanks to funding from Mozilla and support from the Python Software Foundation -- is on its way to launching and replacing the old PyPI. I've been in the Python community for years, but -- just as when I went from "casual Wikipedian" to "Wikimedia Foundation staffer" -- I'm learning about lots of pockets of the Python community that I didn't yet know about. Specifically, Python packaging has a lot of different repositories and mailing lists. One of them is the Google Group pypa-dev, a mailing list for developers within the Python Packaging Authority.

I joined pypa-dev recently -- and, in skimming the archives, I found a months-old message I wanted to reply to while preserving threading (so that future folks and longtime subscribers would see the update in context). So I clicked on the dropdown menu in the upper right corner for that post and clicked "Show original", which got me the Message-ID header. But how could I get Thunderbird to let me write a reply with the appropriate In-Reply-To header? Preferably without having to install some extension to munge my headers?

This reply to a StackExchange answer got me most of the way there; the basic approach is the same whether you're working with a Google Group or a Mailman list. (If it's a Google Group or a Mailman 3 list, you can of course reply via the web interface, but maybe you want to cc someone or have the history in your Sent folder, or you just prefer composing in Thunderbird.)

  1. First, you need to get the raw text, so you can get the Message-ID.

    If you're looking at a Google Group message (example), click on the dropdown menu in the upper right corner for that post and choose "Show original" (example), then click the "Show only message" button to get a raw text page like this.

    If you're looking at a Mailman 2 message (example), then navigate to the monthly archive. You can get there by clicking on the "More information about the [name] list" link at the bottom of the page, which takes you to a list info page (example), and from there, the "Visit the [name] Archives." link (example). Here on the archives-by-month page, download the archive for the month that has the message (using the "[ Gzip'd Text [filesize] ]" link in the "Downloadable version" column). And now you can, for instance, gunzip 2018-January.txt.gz in your terminal to get 2018-January.txt which you can search to find the post you want to reply to.

    If you're looking at a Mailman 3 message (example), look at the bottom of the left navbar for a "Download" button (hover text: "this thread in gzipped mbox format"). If you gunzip that you'll get a plain-text .mbox file which you can search to find the post you want to reply to.

  2. Now, no matter what mailing list software you had to wrangle, save the raw message as a temporary file with a .eml extension, e.g., /tmp/post.eml, to smooth the way for Thunderbird and your OS to think of this as a saved email message. If you're looking at a Mailman archive, this is where you select just that one message (headers and body) from the .txt or .mbox file and cut-and-paste it into a standalone .eml file.
  3. Open that file in Thunderbird: File menu, select Open, select Saved message, and navigate to /tmp/post.eml and open it.
  4. If all's gone well, the message pops open in its own window, complete with Reply and Reply All buttons! Go ahead and use those. Note that the From: and To: lines have been obfuscated or partially truncated to protect against spammers, so you'll probably need to fix those by hand, e.g., replacing at with @ and fixing any ellipses (...).
  5. Hit Send with the glow of thread-preservation satisfaction. Watch for your post to show up, properly threaded, in the list archives (example).


: My Fun Cleveland Vacation: In October I visited Cleveland, Ohio for a long weekend and had a really lovely time. I'm looking forward to visiting Cleveland again for PyCon North America 2018, or even before that. I have talked to a few people who ordinarily like going to PyCon NA but have assumed Cleveland's not a fun place to visit. Early bird tickets for PyCon are nearly gone so now's a good time for me to tell you about the great time I had, even though I have been quite lax on photo taking, sorting, processing, and posting.

Cleveland Hostel room I came into town on Amtrak (which arrives way early in the morning) and took a cab to my lodging. I stayed at the Cleveland Hostel and stayed in a giant room (with a loveseat and a desk!) in a walkable restaurant district for pretty cheap. All the common areas, including the bathrooms, were clean and had what I needed. I had some deadlines to hit so I spent a bunch of that first day in my room on the wifi.

Cleveland skyline at nightMy friend Mike Pirnat swung by that night and we ate at a Burmese place, I think, in the Ohio City neighborhood near the hostel. We got some ice cream, watched an in-progress glassblowing workshop, and walked around a little, then he drove me around so I could see the city by night, and taught me a bit of the geography. Mike is a far better photographer than I am and someday you will see his photos from this weekend and I will sort of noiselessly point there and move my head in some complicated fashion indicating that you should look at his superior photos, not my snapshots.

Cleveland Arcade skylight and upper floors

The next day was super packed -- Ernest W. Durbin III was my guide. He took me to Johnny Mango for breakfast, then we went on a walking tour of the downtown. Oh wow. The Cleveland Arcade, the grocery store that used to be a bank (where we ate lunch in the deli and marveled at its atrium), so much beautiful architecture and interesting history! I think this is also where I noticed Cleveland has a bikeshare, quite a bit of cool public art, and of course, to my New York City ears, ridiculously low prices for food and lodging. (I believe the walking tour guide mentioned luxury condos right in the heart of the city that go for as much as $1,500 a month, then rushed to say that they do come with various concierge-type perks. I was reminded of where I was.)

Reddy Kilowatt at Midwest Railway Preservation SocietyErnest drove us to an open house and tour at the Midwest Railway Preservation Society where Ernest, Mike, and I got to see a ton of old trains and ride for a bit in a vintage railcar. (For a few hundred bucks, at MRPS, you can get trained and spend an hour running a diesel locomotive. I am interested in figuring out how to do this when I return to Cleveland in the spring.) We met up with Ernest's spouse Kaitlin and went to an art exhibit I had thought sounded interesting. It turned out to be pretty small but the curator was happy to show us the art warehouse in the back where they store pieces not currently on display and pieces being restored! So that was neat.

An Internet acquaintance of mine, Catherine Kehl, met up with us, and a subset of us went to eat pastries nearby, then to eat and drink at the Fairmount since it had been recommended by strangers on MetaFilter. I enjoyed my soft pretzel and beer cheese. Catherine gave some of us an impromptu tour of a science lab she runs at Case Western Reserve University (home of the Michelson-Morley experiment!), and I realized I was wiped and called it a night instead of heading to a folk concert.

Steps-near-blue-henThe next morning, Mike picked me up bright and early so we could head to ride a local scenic railway. We got there a little early and walked around the canalway at a local park a bit, then boarded the vintage train and got to ride around a bit. The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad runs a bunch of different trains through the national park -- if you really wanted your PyCon corporate party to be lavish and memorable you could rent a private railcar which, goals.

Then, after a tasty lunch at The Oak Barrel, we went hiking and saw a couple of waterfalls: Blue Hen and Brandywine. Gorgeous scenery and pleasant exercise -- lots of rock-hopping across streams, which I love.

Brandywine Falls closeup

Cleveland and Lake ErieMike, his family, and I saw a bit of the sunset over Lake Erie at a lakefront park, and then he joined my friend Catherine at dinner with me at an Indian place near Case Western. And then the next morning I took the local bus to the Greyhound station and the Greyhound to Pittsburgh and saw some other friends.

A few more photos I enjoy as reminders of the trip:

Heils Block Ohio City

Interior of the Cleveland Arcade

Ohio pride flag

Approximately all of my photos of myself or my friends came out horrible so I am not inflicting those pictures on you or on us. Thanks to my Cleveland friends and acquaintances for showing me a good time, to acquaintances who gave me tips, and to the contributors to the Wikivoyage guide to Cleveland for useful tips.

And you can buy your ticket to attend PyCon in Cleveland right now and I believe the early bird rate is still available: Corporate for $550 USD, Individual for $350 USD, and Student for $100 USD.

Filed under:


: Software Freedom Conservancy Fundraiser:

Become a Conservancy Supporter!

I am a supporter of the Software Freedom Conservancy, a nonprofit that helps free and open source software projects. They help programmers give away their work for free. I wrote a quick neighbor-friendly introduction to what they do (video version) a few years ago, and everything in it still applies.

In case you don't want to watch/read that: Conservancy is a nonprofit umbrella (a fiscal sponsor), helping projects like Git, homebrew, Wine, Selenium, and others by taking care of legal and financial paperwork on their behalf. They're also the institutional home of Outreachy, which gives underindexed people in tech paid apprenticeship-style internships to help them start their open source software careers. And they make sure big companies actually follow the rules, legally, so everyone can benefit the same from the openness of open source.

Right now, they have a challenge match going: "All donations up to [USD] $75,000 will be matched dollar for dollar until January 15." And they're about $5,500 from reaching that goal -- we can push it over the top! Conservancy's part of the unsung infrastructure of inclusivity and fairness in open source and in the larger tech industry, and I hope those of you who can will chip in a bit.


: 2017 Sumana In Review: Four years ago, during my first batch at the Recurse Center, every day I'd write in a little notebook on the subway on my way home, jotting down a few bullet points about what I had learned that day. I found it helped in a variety of ways, and the keenest was that on bad days, reviewing my notes reminded me that I was in fact progressing and learning things.

On any given day in 2017 I often did not feel very happy with my progress and achievements and how I was using my time. I fell ill a lot and I was heartsick at the national political scene and current events. It is genuinely surprising to me to look back and take stock of how it all added up.

Adventures:

I went hiking in Staten Island and in the Hudson Valley. I got back on my bike and had some long rides, including on a canal towpath in New Jersey and over the Queensboro bridge. (And had my first accident -- a car in my neighborhood rear-ending me at a traffic light -- and thankfully escaped without damage or injury.) I learned how to bake bread. I got to meet Ellen Ullman OMG. And I tried to travel less than I had in previous years, but I still had some fine times in other places -- notably, I had a great time in Cleveland, I witnessed the total solar eclipse in Nashville, and I visited Charlotte, North Carolina (where, among other things, I visited the NASCAR Hall of Fame).

Community service:

I did some of the same kinds of volunteering and activism that I'd done in previous years. For instance, I continued to co-organize MergeSort, participated in a fundraising telethon for The Recompiler telethon, signal-boosted a friend's research project to get more participants, and helped revitalize a book review community focusing on writers of color. Also, I served again as the auctioneer for the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award fundraising auction at WisCon, which is a particularly fun form of community service. The Tiptree Award encourages the exploration & expansion of gender. I wrote this year about what an award does, and the reflections I've seen from winners of the Tiptree Awards and Fellowships tell me those honors are doing the job -- encouraging creators and fans to expand how we imagine gender. This year I also deepened my commitment to the Tiptree Award by accepting the organization's invitation to join the Tiptree Motherboard; I am pleased to have helped the award through a donation matching campaign.

But the big change in my community service this year was that I tried to prioritize in-person political work. I called, emailed, and wrote postcards to various government officials. I participated in my local Democratic Club, including going door-to-door petitioning to get my local city councilmember onto the ballot for reelection.

And I found that I could usefully bring my technologist perspective to bear on the city and state levels, especially regarding transparency in government software. I spoke to my local councilmember about my concern regarding public access defibrillator data (the topic that led me to file my first-ever Freedom of Information Law requests, for government health department records) and this inspired him to sponsor a bill on that topic. (Which is now filed as end-of-session partly because of the limbo in potentially getting PAD data from NYC's open data portal -- I need to send an email or two.) I was invited to speak to a joint committee of the New York State Assembly on the software side of our forensics labs, and got particularly interested in this aspect of due process in our criminal justice system, publicizing the issue in my MetaFilter posts "'maybe we should throw an exception here??'" and "California v. Johnson". I testified before the Committee on Technology of the New York City Council on amendments to our open data law (I didn't prep my public comment, so this text is reconstructed from memory; video), and then spoke before the same committee on an algorithmic accountability measure (and publicized the bill, especially keeping the Recurse Center community apprised as best I could). And I did research and outreach to help ensure that a state legislature hearing on protecting the integrity of our elections included a few researchers and activists it wouldn't have otherwise.

In 2018 I want to continue on this path. I think I'm, if not making a difference, making headway towards a future where I can make a difference.

Work:

This was by far Changeset Consulting's busiest year.

I had a mix of big projects and smaller engagements. First, some of the latter: I advised PokitDok on developer engagement, with help from Heidi Waterhouse. For Open Tech Strategies, I wrote an installation audit for StreetCRM. And, working with CourageIT, I came in as a part-time project manager on a government health IT open source project so the lead developer could focus more on architecture, code, and product management.

Some larger and longer projects:

Following a sprint with OpenNews in December 2016 to help write a guide to newsrooms who want to open source their code, I worked with Frances Hocutt to create a language-agnostic, general-purpose linter tool to accompany that guide. "The Open Project Linter is an automated checklist that new (or experienced but forgetful) open source maintainers can use to make sure that they're using good practices in their documentation, code, and project resources."

I spent much of the first half of 2017 contracting with Kandra Labs to grow the Zulip community, helping plan and run the PyCon sprint and co-staffing our PyCon and OSCON booths, running English tutoring sessions alongside Google Summer of Code application prep, and mentoring an Outreachy intern, along with the usual bug triage, documentation updates, and so on. We wrapped up my work as Zulip's now such a thriving community that my help isn't as needed!

From late 2016 into 2017, I've continued to improve infrastructure and documentation for a Provider Screening Module that US states will be able to use to administer Medicaid better (the project which spurred this post about learning to get around in Java).

And just in the last few months I started working on two exciting projects with organizations close to my heart. I'm thrilled to be improving HTTPS Everywhere's project workflow for developers & maintainers over the next few months, working with Kate Chapman via Cascadia Technical Mentorship (mailing list announcement). And, thanks to funding by Mozilla's open source grants program and via the Python Software Foundation, the Python Package Index -- basic Python community infrastructure -- is getting a long-awaited overhaul. I'm the lead project manager on that effort, and Laura Hampton is assisting me. (Python milestone: my first time commenting on a PEP!)

Along the way, I've gotten a little or a lot better at a lot of things: git, bash, LaTeX, Python (including packaging), Sphinx, Read the Docs, Pandoc, regular expressions, CSS, the Java ecosystem (especially Gradle, Javadocs, Drools), the Go ecosystem, Travis CI, GitHub Pages, Postgres, sed, npm Linux system administration accessibility standards, IRC bots, and invoicing.

Talks And Other Conferences:

This year, in retrospect, instead of doing technical talks and expository lectures of the type I'm already good at, I played with form.

At LibrePlanet 2017 I gave the closing keynote address, "Lessons, Myths, and Lenses: What I Wish I'd Known in 1998" (schedule, video, in-progress transcript). I tried something aleatoric and it worked pretty well.

At Penguicon 2017 I was one of several Guests of Honor, and spoke in several sessions including "Things I Wish I'd Known About Open Source in 1998" (which was different from the LibrePlanet version, as intended) and "What If Free and Open Source Software Were More Like Fandom?" (further links).

Then, at PyGotham, Jason Owen and I co-wrote and co-starred in a play about management and code review: "Code Review, Forwards and Back" (video on YouTube, video on PyVideo, commentary).

I also attended Maintainerati and led a session, attended !!Con, worked a booth for Zulip at OSCON, attended PyCon and helped run Zulip's sprint there, and co-sponsored a post-PyGotham dinner.

Other Interesting Things I Wrote:

I did not write this year for magazines; my writing went into this blog, MetaFilter, Dreamwidth, microblogging, and client projects, mostly. I also wrote an entry for a local business competition (I didn't make it very far but I'm glad I did it, especially the finance bits) and started two book proposals I would like to return to in 2018.

I've mentioned already some of the posts I'm happy about. Some others:

"On Noticing That Your Project Is Draining Your Soul" (every once in a while someone emails me and mentions that this has helped them, which means a lot)

"How to Teach & Include Volunteers who Write Poor Patches" (12 things you can do)

"Inclusive-Or: Hospitality in Bug Tracking", a response to Jillian C. York and Lindsey Kuper.

I turned part of "Some posts from the last year on inclusion" into "Distinguishing character assassination from accountability", a post about pile-on culture and callout culture where I pulled out quotes from 11 writers on how we take/charge each other with responsibility/power within communities.

I loved Jon Bois's 17776 and discussed it with other fans on MetaFilter, and then, to try to understand its amazingness better, wrote "Boisebration", collecting links to fiction and nonfiction by Bois about class, feminism, aging, sports, politics, wonder, education, & art (and 17776 precursors/callbacks).

I found out about Robert E. Kelly, like so many did, when his kids crashed his BBC interview, then collected some links in a MetaFilter post about his writing on Korea, US foreign policy, international relations, and academia.

I wrote up a bit about "1967's most annoying question for women in Catholic ministry" on MetaFilter to signal-boost another Recurser's cool project.

I enjoyed the learning and the plot twist in "The programmer experience: redundancy edition", in which I discovered a useful resource for Form 990 filings and learned to use the Arrow library for Python date-time manipulation. And was grateful to Pro Publica.

And I made a few jokes on social media I particularly liked:

yesterday, was trying to explain virtual environments/containers/VMs to a friend and said "they range from Inception-style fake computers to putting a blanket on the floor and pretending it's lava"

and

today a friend and I explained leftpad & Left Shark to someone and I began sketching out a hypothetical HuffPo piece connecting them
We habitually crowdsource infrastructure from, expect unsupportedly high levels of performance from unsuspecting participants -> popcorn.gif

Public notice I received:

I got some public attention in 2017 -- even beyond the Guest of Honor and keynote speaker honors and my amazing clients -- that I would like to list, as long as I'm taking an inventory of 2017.

I rode the first revenue ride of the new Q train extension in Manhattan and really loved the art at the new 72nd Street MTA stop. A journalist interviewed me about that on video and my experience got into the New York Times story about the opening.

Presenters at the code4lib conference said their project was specifically motivated by my code4lib 2014 keynote "User Experience is a Social Justice Issue" (written version, video). I was honored and humbled.

And -- this is out of place but I need to record it -- as someone who knew Aaron Swartz, I consented to be interviewed by artists working on a play about him, and so someone briefly portrayed me (as in, pretended to be me and repeated my words aloud) in that play, Building a Real Boy.

Finally, Hari Kondabolu looked at the English Wikipedia page about him, much of which I contributed, and was amazed at how thorough it was. So that was awesome and I was proud.

Habits:

I got on Mastodon as part of my effort to improve how I use social media. I started using a new task tracker. I got back on my bike, and got somewhat into a habit of using it for some exercise and intra-city travel. A new friend got me into taking more frequent photos and noticing the world I'm in. Two new friends caused me to look for more opportunities to see musicians I love perform live.

Watched/listened:

I consumed a fair bit of media this year; didn't get into new music but enjoyed music podcasts "I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats" and "Our Debut Album". I did some book and reading reviews and will catch up to other 2017 reading sometime vaguely soon.

Leonard's film roundups & TV spotlights are a good way to see or remember most of what I saw in the last few years. TV highlights for me for 2017 are The Good Place, Jane the Virgin, The Great British Baking Show (which led me to write a tiny Asimov fanfic), Steven Universe, and Better Call Saul; I also saw Comrade Detective and Yuri!!! On Ice. Films I'm really glad I saw: The Big Sick, Schindler's List, Get Out (I fanned in MetaFilter Fanfare), In Transit, A Man For All Seasons, Hidden Figures, and Lemonade -- and a rewatch of Antitrust.

Social:

I made a few new friends this year, most notably Jason Owen and Mike Pirnat. My friends Emily and Kris got married and I got to hold up part of the chuppah for them. I took care of some friends at hard times, like accompanying them to doctor's visits. I got to see some friends I rarely see, like Mel Chua and Zed Lopez and Zack Weinberg, and kept up some old friendships by phone. My marriage is better than ever.

This year I shall iterate forward, as we all do.


: Some Things I Recommend Frequently: Some of these I ought to write up for Cool Tools someday! These are some recommendations I make somewhat often because, in my circles, I run into people who don't yet know about them. A non-comprehensive list.

Radio comedy: The sketch comedy show John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme.

Clothing: Shock Absorber's Ultimate Run Bra which has a clip at the top of the racerback and adjustable vertical straps.

Political and systems analysis essayists: siderea, Alexandra Erin, Alexandra Petri.

Music: Regina Spektor, the Mountain Goats, and Vienna Teng.

Books: Greg Milner, Perfecting Sound Forever: The History of Recorded Music. Emily Nagoski, Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life. Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. Andy Oram and Greg Wilson, Making Software: What Works and Why We Believe It. Ellen Ullman, The Bug. Maureen McHugh, China Mountain Zhang.

Status play: this old improv wiki page.

Software: The goal-tracking service Beeminder, the distraction-avoidance browser add-on LeechBlock, the journaling community and open source project Dreamwidth, the doctor-finding and -booking service ZocDoc, Nelson Elhage and Anders Kaseorg's "Understanding Git" slide presentation, the regular expression sandbox/testing site RegExr, the email and calendar provider Fastmail, the library e-reader app SimplyE, the Monterey Bay Aquarium's sustainability checker Seafood Watch, and the Python debugging/prototyping tools python -i and bpython.

New York City ID: IDNYC, a New York City ID card that works for many purposes and gets you museum discounts, and that's available regardless of immigration status of the applicant, and the License Express DMV office in midtown Manhattan for state ID renewals. [Incidentally, if you are a US citizen in New York State, consider an Enhanced Driver's License which will also let you cross the land border into Canada.]


: What We Confirm: Unlike this nominee for a US District Court judgeship, apparently, I can at least give a one-sentence definition of the Daubert standard because of the hobby I accidentally picked up this year. Which is telling enough. But that clip and its implications also poked at some old memories for me.

As a child and as an adolescent, I generally wanted to act not just well, but defensibly well. The specific scenario that I envisioned was that I would have to answer for myself someday at a confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate (although that was not a particularly fun way to live). Flashbulbs and microphones and wood panelling superimposed themselves on my bedroom wall.

As it turns out, I will probably never actually have that particular challenge. I took the Law School Admissions Test because my family suggested I do it to keep my options open, and got a 165, which was pretty good, but decided not to go to law school unless there was a specific thing I wanted to do that would be a lot easier if I had a law degree. Instead, I worked at a bookstore for a while, and then did customer service at Salon.com for a bit. And while there I followed the news about Hurricane Katrina, and wrote:

What we are now learning about the devastation in the Gulf combines with a growing desire, borne of my working life, to become a manager, a good one.
I reflected a few years later:

I looked at Katrina and said, "For God's sake, we have to do better than that. And I could do better!" I wanted, and still want, to reduce the net amount of mismanagement in the world. We owe ourselves competence.*

By then I was on my way in this new career. And as a non-lawyer who is only ever considered poised and diplomatic by comparison with other programmers, I find it unlikely anyone will ever nominate me for the kind of high-up government gig that would require confirmation hearings.** But I know some more things now about stewardship. I feel a special disgust and horror when I see someone else abuse a power or neglect a responsibility that I share. And the more I know, the more I can do, the more awful the sinking feeling in my chest when I see someone with less capability than me given an important task. I'm looking back at some notes from about a year ago, just after the election:

I am predicting a future where I will ask myself innumerable times "who's minding the store?!", and seek clues as to whether a particular folly is due more to the Scylla of incompetence or the Charybdis of intentional wickedness.
and:
[Laurie] Penny wrote that the President-Elect "has really messed with my life plan. This is far and away not the worst thing he has done, but it makes it a bit more personal." Yup. Dark humor is not usually my speed but I have found myself gasp-laughing a lot in the last couple of weeks and foresee using a lot of it in my near-future stand-up comedy. Like: of all the negative feelings I have about the election, one is the simple irritation I might feel if I were waiting at a restaurant to share dinner with a friend and they texted me, 20 minutes after they were supposed to arrive, and told me they were flaking out. It is the "but we had plans" resentment.

To that I can add another petty response I've felt a lot this year -- like Hermione Granger, bitterly asking the clearly rhetorical question, did no one else do the required reading?

Ben Franklin, in his Autobiography, recounts discovering one General Loudoun's astonishing indecision. Loudoun's procrastination slows down the entire economy of the Colonies and keeps mail boats from carrying urgent information back to England. Franklin says:

On the whole I then wondered much how such a man came to be entrusted with so important a business as the conduct of a great army, but having since seen more of the great world, and its means of obtaining and motives for giving places, my wonder is diminished.

Leonard and I sometimes now use "my wonder is diminished" with each other as shorthand for this kind of disillusionment. But I suppose I retain some capacity to be shocked-but-not-surprised, and sometimes I need to spend a little time grieving before I breathe a big sigh and put my shoulder back to the wheel -- or figure out that this means I oughta switch wheels.


* A little while after that, I read John Rogers's coining? of the term "competence porn", and have since then appreciated the "Damn, Fandom Is Good At What You Do" fanwork fest especially for this Harry Potter alternate-universe fic about property law.

** If it actually ever does happen and someone dredges up this blog post during the proceedings, I hope I have the sense of humor to laugh about it.


(2) : Blockchain and Bitcoin, Dar Williams, And So On: Sipping my soda water at the saloon across the street before the Untitled Kondabolu Brothers Project show Wednesday night, I struck up a conversation with a guy who works in an art gallery, and with his friend who works in publishing.

We talked about the Kondabolus, about current events in India, about their artistic endeavors, about the business of business books and the current interest in Bitcoin and the blockchain. And the guy said he kept hearing about those things and did not understand what they were. I gave him a simplified explanation (grateful to Scott Rosenberg's explanation which I'd enjoyed previously), and decided to record it here.

I explained that the blockchain and Bitcoin are different, and that he can expect that the blockchain is gonna stay around even if Bitcoin isn't what it's used for, like magnetic tape stayed around even though Betamax didn't take off and VHS did.

I asked him to think of a ledger, where we write down financial accounts -- money going in, money going out. Now think of one that's got two columns, one for you and one for me. With that ledger, you can track the money you exchange with me, because on the left is you and on the right is me. So it's not just about $300 in or $20 out, now, individual pluses and minuses. Now, every row matches up and you know where everything came from or went. Yup, he could conceive of that, a shared accounting record like that.

Now, I said, imagine a lot of people could do that together, so the ledger had records for the money moving around among all of us. And imagine that we could trust that record because it wasn't written in pencil, it was written in ink, so we could trust its provenance -- new stuff will only be added at the end, and the old stuff won't be changed.

That's the blockchain, I said. And that's why it would actually be useful as a shared notebook where lots of different people have to look at a record together and add notes for the future, for stuff like electronic medical records and real estate records. When did the patient get that diagnosis? Oh, it was between this surgery and that surgery.

So that's the blockchain, I explained. That's a basic technology. When people talk about a distributed, append-only ledger, that's blockchain -- "distributed" because lots of people can do it together even if they don't know each other, and "append-only" because you can only add to the end, not change stuff that's in the earlier records.

And Bitcoin is an implementation of that technology to do money, to agree about who has what money.

I asked him: Think of a Monopoly game. The box comes with, I don't know, a thousand bucks of Monopoly money. OK, so everyone in the game can trade it around. But what if you want to get a lot more people in the game and people want to do stuff and we need more money in the system, more of these tokens that people can exchange? How do you get more money into the system, add new tokens at a reasonable rate, and have everyone trust it -- trust its provenance?

Remember SETI@home? I asked. He did. I reminded him of how it had worked -- back before there was a "cloud" you could buy time on (the cloud is just other people's computers, after all, as the saying goes), the researchers said, please install this software on your computer. And then when your computer's not busy, at night, we'll give your computer a chunk of work, some data that a space telescope collected, and then your computer can use its spare time to crunch those numbers and check, hey, are there any weird patterns in that data? Do we think there are there aliens here?

And so if you've heard of Bitcoin "mining", it's kinda like that. What the people behind Bitcoin decided on is: the way you make more tokens is by having your computer solve the kind of really hard math problems that we basically need computers to do. It's just in the nature of this kind of math problem that it takes a computer a long time, crunching data, to solve the problem, but once it comes up with a solution, it's easy to check whether that solution is right. And so if your computer crunches out the next solution, then that makes a new token, and by default, you own it, because you, your computer did the work of solving that problem. He got that.

But that means people who want to make Bitcoin are like, okay, I'll get a huge row of computers to do it! And that uses a bunch of electricity which is awful for climate change! Yeah, he'd heard about that.

And so that's another reason, in late 2017, why personal computer security is more important than ever. There's the Trump Administration and its invasion of people's privacy, and surveillance, and so on. But also, when someone tries to trick you with spam or a virus these days, it's not just because they want to get your bank account password or your other private personal information. That hacker is now trying to install malware on your computer so they can use it like an evil SETI@home, evil crowdsourcing, so they can make your computer crunch those numbers to make new tokens (Bitcoins) for them. Your computer crunches the numbers but when you "mine" the Bitcoins they go to the hacker's account.

Also: So once you have this distributed trusted ledger, you don't really need people's names. So that means it's really useful for people who want to do sketchy things, and so from the beginning, the kinds of people who are interested in Bitcoin and other "cryptocurrencies" ("cryptography" meaning the study of how you make things secret + "currency") and want to use it include many of the kinds of people who give libertarians a bad name. He had heard of "the Dark Web" and made the connection here.

Around this point I started explaining what is and is not fiat currency, but it was time to line up to get a good seat at the show, so I left him and his friend to catch up and I crossed the street. As I stood in line, a (drunk?) woman who'd overheard me at the bar came up to me and tried to start a chat -- she said she works from home and feels isolated from what is going on in the world more generally. I sympathized with her; I work from home, a lot, too, and isolation can be hard. Her friend apologized for her, gently drew her away and started walking her to the subway stop; I lost sight of them.

I got a front-row seat at the show and had a lovely time. I'm currently reading Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott, and it strikes me that Ashok Kondabolu's relentlessly contrarian and cheerful self-revelatory style is a bit like Lamott's, especially vivid when they discuss addiction or antisocial reflexes. During audience Q&A, I mentioned that I am the single person who's contributed the most to the English Wikipedia page about Hari Kondabolu and asked whether there were any major inaccuracies, on any of the Wikipedias, about either Hari or Ashok. Looks like there aren't! Hari Kondabolu looked through that article live on stage and said with wide eyes, this is everything I've ever done. I was incredibly proud.

Last night I went to a Dar Williams show. I snagged a front-row seat but the seat next to me remained empty, and I eventually realized it wasn't visible to the people standing at the back. So I went to look for people who might want it; next time I do this, I need to start my sentence with "there's a spare seat up front" and not start by asking if someone's there alone. I was not hitting on you, two women I came up to!

A guy overheard me and was glad to come up front; he's a teacher with a bad back. We talked about where we'd lived, and about what coworking spaces do that coffeeshops don't, and what Meetup does that Facebook doesn't. He asked what I do (I explained a project manager's job as coordinative communication), and what kind of software I specialize in -- I briefly described the several different worlds of software development, like embedded stuff and games and websites and developer tools and so on, and said I mostly specialize in stuff for websites and in developer tools.

And within that, I said, I have a further specialty, which is not about those worlds, but about the approach to making software. There's a more open, collaborative approach, and a more closed one, and I specialize in the collaborative one. "Is that anything like open source?" Aha! But he didn't know what that meant, and asked questions, so I talked about open source a while. I talked about the four freedoms and about licensing. He asked whether more software is proprietary or open source, and so I talked about how the default for making software is simply to leave it under US copyright and how therefore, because of inertia if nothing else, most software people write is probably proprietary. And I told him about how most of the time when you interact with websites you're interacting with JavaScript that is unfree. And I was in the middle of explaining the difference between source code and binary when Anaïs Mitchell came on, and then I explained some more things during intermission, and then Dar Williams came on.

I don't know when I have cried more than at that show last night. I started listening to Dar Williams because Seth Schoen introduced me to her music, nearly twenty years ago, probably just a few months after he introduced me to free and open source software. So many of us sang along to "The Babysitter's Here" and "As Cool As I Am" (she paused her own guitar and voice to gesture to us and we all sang "I am the others" together; I feel like I never realized how anthemic that song is before) and "The Christians And The Pagans" and "When I Was A Boy" and "Iowa" (which always makes me think of this great West Wing fanfic) and "Road Buddy", and I hear a lot more in "After All" than I did before. She read aloud from her book. She does this show in Brooklyn the last week of every year, and I'm going to try to go now that I know that. 2018, 2019, 2020 -- something to look forward to in every year. I could use that.

When you're in love, sometimes you feel like every love song applies to you. When I'm trying to change, to improve myself, I find fresh news in trite old platitudes, even in inspirational quotes people share on social media, as shocking and embarrassing as some part of me thinks that is, and in songs I've known for years. I'm in a bit of my life where I'm listening to Vienna Teng and Dar Williams and the Mountain Goats to give me different lenses for my melancholy, some thoughtful and loving answers to the "what's the point? all is vanity" that pops up. This year I saw the Mountain Goats and Dar Williams and Regina Spektor live and yeah, I'm one of those people crying and singing along at the show, I'm one of the people these shows are for. Sign me up. I'll go in the cold, I'll go alone, I'll pay ridiculous service surcharges for tickets. I'm very hesitant to say I need things, but gosh it turns out that without this particular vitamin I will start developing emotional scurvy.

It turns out that when I started listening to Dar Williams she was not that much younger than I am now.

Keep going.


: Bill 1696 and Learning Old Systems: A very amended version of Councilmember Vacca's algorithmic transparency bill has now passed the City Council and is headed for the Mayor's desk to sign.*

This follows the October 16th hearing (which was moved to a larger hearing room at City Hall due to huge attendance) -- the video recording is available now and is a little over two hours long, as are PDFs for Hearing Testimony (pre-written) and the hearing transcript. One attendee live-tweeted practically the whole hearing (sometimes the threading broke a bit) and another shared rough notes as a GitHub gist. Several people spoke for a few minutes each from, e.g., the New York Civil Liberties Union, The Brennan Center for Justice, Legal Aid Society, BetaNYC, Brooklyn Defender Services, Princeton's Center for Information Technology Policy, and various other institutions, and some spoke just as individuals. I testified for a few minutes, starting at about 1:53 in the video, and got quoted in Civicist.

The amended bill, approved by the Council's Technology Committee and then by the City Council earlier this month, is a compromise. It creates a task force, and they'll have 18 months to write up a report with recommendations, and that report will be made public. The bill specifically says that "Nothing herein shall require compliance with the task force's recommendations". Who appoints the members of the task force? "Such task force and the chair thereof shall be appointed by the mayor or a designee thereof" with no particular mandate that, say, the Council has a voice in who's placed on the task force. The bill says nothing about whether the task force will perform any of its hearings in public.

So those of us who want to keep momentum going on this issue will have to note who's been appointed, submit testimony when the opportunity arises, and find a way to sustainably pay attention to it.

The Mayor could allow the bill to lapse into law without signing it, could sign it into law, or could veto it (and then probably have the Council override his veto with a two-thirds majority). What I hear is that it'll almost certainly be the first or the second of those three. Legistar says there'll be a hearing tomorrow, Monday the 18th, but what I've heard is that this will be kind of a formality in which 20+ bills are being "heard" but no substantive discussion is expected.

So I tried to find out when on Monday this hearing will be. I looked around the Mayor's chunk of nyc.gov and found nothing. My Council contact told me that the daily Sked in the daily First Read in City & State and Gotham Gazette's Week Ahead sections would tell me these kinds of schedule details -- once Monday rolled around.** Ahhh. New York City is a very old system, like sewing or software packaging,*** and way before there existed a municipal website, there was a rich ecosystem that depended on knowing this information, and so niche publications emerged. Right.

And today, while writing this, I found the City Record Online (every day the City Record puts out notices of city hearings, court notices, etc. and you can look at recent daily editions as PDFs or search electronically), and figured out: 4:30 pm, in the Blue Room at City Hall, as announced on December 13th.

So I'll probably be there, even though it probably isn't substantively important, as I learn this system, as I learn how to pay attention. Maybe I'll see you there too.


* Legistar, the application that NYC uses to track bills as they move through the City Council, has email and RSS notification, but the email alerts have not been functioning for me, and the RSS option is pretty uninformative and (I think) slow to update. Councilmatic is an open source alternative that had to use screen scraping to get bill and event data (the comments in the bills scraper elucidate some stuff I'd been unsure about). I'm glad to hear that, thanks to NYC open data advocates, there's now a proper Legistar API available for civic developers like us.

** Indeed, the First Read now includes a sked for Monday that mentions a Mayoral hearing and bill signing -- but doesn't specify or link to the list of bills.

*** I'm improving various skills and learning multiple systems right now. In rough order of how old our systems/skills are, as humans, here are some of them:

  1. Time management (regular)
  2. Sewing
  3. New York City governance
  4. Bicycling
  5. Sewing (electric)
  6. Time management (with mass media)
  7. Bicycling (in car-heavy urban environments)
  8. Time management (with email)
  9. Python packaging
  10. Time management (in attention-casino electronic environment)


: Boisebration!: I deeply enjoy the work of writer and artist Jon Bois, so I compiled a big MetaFilter list of fiction and nonfiction he's created about class, feminism, aging, sports, politics, wonder, education, and art (not including his better-known series, Pretty Good and Chart Party). The post also collects several 17776 influences, references, precursors, and callbacks, so heads-up in case you loved 17776.

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: A Theme in Newitz, Sugar, Wells, & Leckie: I'm starting Annalee Newitz's Autonomous (enjoying so far; the science-sex-and-slaves narrative makes me also want to reread Nicola Griffith's Slow River). I'm fuzzily thinking about thematic echoes in Rebecca Sugar's Steven Universe, Martha Wells's All Systems Red, and Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy (Ancillary Justice and its sequels). I'm noodling around thinking about how all of them tell stories of networked identity and body violation. What is it actually like to have unaccountable masters who can alter your mind? How similar is that to being misinformed and betrayed, in normal human ways, by people and organizations who have power over you? These are all stories that ... take cyberpunk for granted, you know? Of course we are all always plugged in, or could be, and freedom depends on being able to unplug, and to freely choose fusion, conversation, association, intimacy.

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: The Programmer Experience: Redundancy Edition: Sunday morning, one thought led to another, and I realized I'd like to read a US nonprofit's Form 990 (annual report on assets, revenue, etc.). I started looking for 990s, and stumbled upon a big set of machine-readable 990s from 2011 through sometime in 2016. Is the one I seek in there? How recently was the dataset updated?

So I broke out bpython, the json module, and wget and started figuring it out.

Some things I learned/realized/remembered along the way:

  • json.load() does pretty much exactly what I hoped it would even though I had forgotten the exact wording -- yay.
  • Gar -- why can't datetime Just Do The Right Thing regarding turning very datestamp-looking strings into datetime objects? Aha, Arrow is my answer (Arrow : datetime :: requests : urllib2).
  • Hey, if I've started up a virtualenv (being careful to create one whose Python is my installation of Python 3), how come I can't invoke bpython? Ohhhh, I have to pip install bpython inside the venv (or -- just to be safe -- I used pip3 install bpython which worked).
  • I am fine with iteratively searching through a huge dataset in an incredibly unoptimized and cut-and-paste way at first, and if I get irritated by waiting then I can fix things up with refactoring and optimization and so on.
  • According to the index of available filings, the most recent update reflected in those filings is from January 11, 2017.
  • I'm one step closer to reflexively doing this kind of stuff in a Jupyter notebook and publishing it but I'm not there yet, despite encouragement from Julia Evans and how much easier the infrastructure's gotten. Next time, I think.
  • I remembered that Bradley Kuhn would like for far more people to pay attention to 990 filings, and has co-maintained a repository of FLOSS foundations' filings for some time. I started searching around in case there was a more recent version of the repo* -- and found, via an actually relevant textual ad served by a search engine, ProPublica's Nonprofit Explorer.

    Use this database to view summaries of 3 million tax returns from tax-exempt organizations and see financial details such as their executive compensation and revenue and expenses. You can browse IRS data released since 2013 and access over 9.6 million tax filing documents going back as far as 2001.

    For example, attractively presented data, and full 990s, for the Organization for Transformative Works.

So, uh, turns out I didn't need to actually get all "make a new GitLab repo! how does Arrow work? gotta refactor this!" and so on, but ah well. Now I will have a fresh new project to use for testing as I delve into Python packaging and test Warehouse, the new Python Package Index.


* Update: Mike Linksvayer, on Identi.ca, edifies: "The archived gitorious floss-foundations filings repo is now actively maintained by Martin Michlmayr at https://gitlab.com/floss-foundations/npo-public-filings".

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: Video of Our PyGotham Play: You can now watch the 22-minute video of the play I discussed last month. "Code Review, Forwards and Back", co-written by and co-starring Jason Owen and me, directed by Jonathan Galvez.

Thanks to:

  • Kenneth Durril for running sound
  • David Beazley for running lights (on a few hours' notice and with no rehearsal)
  • A. Jesse Jiryu Davis for a cameo as a junior engineer, and for introducing the play
  • Jonathan Galvez for directing (if you're in NYC and looking to hire a director for a thing like this, ask me for his email address)
  • Michael Rehse for a ton of useful advice
  • Laura Hampton for serving as a dramaturg during late rehearsals
  • The PyGotham organizers for accepting the talk and advising us on logistics and tone
  • Our audience, especially attendees who told us they'd liked it

We were happy to hear people say things like I'm new to the industry, and this helped me learn things to watch out for or I used to be that reviewer and I'm trying not to be anymore or My name is Randall and I never hear my name in fiction and it was nice to hear you say my name or I don't code at all but this is a marvelous management parable. Indeed, code review is just a particularly visible moment where you can see the effects of an organization's culture and processes. Too execution-focused (the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing)? Too alignment-focused (we're taking so much time deliberating and gaining consensus that we can't make forward progress on the mission)? Too lax, or too superficial, in enforcing rules? Our play can't dive into every scenario but it's a start. And -- the most frequent comment we got from happy attendees -- it was a change of pace (no slides!).

We're revising the play and submitting this a few other places; once it's run its course, we'll be posting the text of the script online.


(1) : Happy Halloween: Today in the US we have the 1st of the crowded season of holidays taking us into the spring: Halloween, Thanksgiving, ["the holidays"], New Year's, Valentine's Day.

Fear/horror, gratitude, tradition/family, hope, romantic love.

Halloween and Valentine's Day bookend this season; they are candy holidays of gesture, with eros and thanatos a hairswidth apart.

My best wishes to you all today; may your inner demons find a safe way to frolic.

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