Cogito, Ergo Sumana

picture of Sumana's head

Sumana Harihareswara's journal

: Streamable For A Limited Time: A couple of stories about black women's lives. One fictional but based on fact, and one nonfiction.

Right now, till 7pm British time on Thursday June 25th, you can watch the drama Small Island on YouTube, thanks to the UK's National Theatre.

It's about Jamaica and the UK, about a particular historical set of migrants who moved from Jamaica to England starting in 1948 (are you "immigrating" if you are a British citizen, moving from a Crown colony to the empire's headquarters? what does that say about "immigrant" as a legal or social label?), about pride and discrimination and how you keep going in bad circumstances. I absolutely loved Hortense, one of the main characters, and the staging is cool. And here's the learning resource guide with two fascinating essays and a helpful timeline. One of the essays is by Andrea Levy, who wrote the book that the play's based on, and who based Hortense on her own mom.

BBFC rating is 15 due to some strong language, discriminatory behaviour, occasional sexual references and mild violence. Please note that, as part of depicting the experience of Jamaican immigrants to Britain after the Second World War, some characters in the play use racially offensive terms.

I started a conversation with my mom based on some experiences I saw in Small Island and that conversation's not over and I'm learning new things about my parents' experience.

Also (via Kottke): till 14 July, in the US, you can watch Recorder: The Marian Stokes Project online via PBS's Independent Lens. Leonard and I were lucky enough to see this on the big screen last year; here's his review. As he notes:

Content warning: this film includes harrowing recorded-live TV footage of 9/11, which is how I ended up seeing the second plane hit the tower after 18 years of successfully not seeing that footage.

Marion Stokes was an amazing, visionary activist, super-difficult to be around, eloquent, and driven, and her story was astonishing to learn. If you haven't seen this, I recommend it. Absorbing and moving.

: Quick Book Recommendations: A few timely book recommendations.

  • To repeat my 2013 review of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson: SO GOOD. READ THIS. Ta-Nehisi Coates agrees with me. Want to understand the US in the twentieth century? Want to think in real terms about exit, voice, and loyalty? Read Wilkerson's narrative history of black people who decided to stop putting up with Jim Crow and escaped from the US South (sometimes in the face of local sheriffs ripping up train tickets). Riveting, thought-provoking, and disquieting in the best way. My only nit to pick: I think if her editor had cut repetitions of things she's already told the reader, she coulda cut about 15 of the 500+ pages. But that's really minor, and as a scifi reader I'm accustomed to absorbing world-building at perhaps a higher clip than expected.
  • To quote from my 2018 review of Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy by Tressie McMillan Cottom (2017, The New Press): it 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.

  • And: I recommend Robin Einhorn's 2006 book American Taxation, American Slavery (University of Chicago Press) on the effect of slaveowners' tax avoidance on the structure of the US Constitution and government. It's brainbending and dense and academic and full of astonishing anecdotes. Einhorn discusses how:
    • the Southern colonies had much less competent tax-collection infrastructure than the Northern colonies did, partly because going into someone's home to count and assess their slaves was seen as much more invasive than walking on or near someone's property to assess their real estate
    • damaging "taxation=slavery" rhetoric (which continues through today) was projection by slaveowners
    • the negotiations around protections for white supremacy affected national policy from the late 1700s through the early 1900s
    I took a great class with the author, Robin Einhorn, when I was in undergrad, and I think not nearly enough people know of her work. Here's an special essay by Dr. Einhorn, "Tax Aversion and the Legacy of Slavery". This book also gave me more preparation to get a lot out of Adam Hochschild's Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves.

Wilkerson and McMillan Cottom are black; Einhorn is white.

Dreamwidth's "Writers of Color 50 Books Challenge" community crowdsources reviews of books by people of color, in case you want to diversify your reading along that dimension.

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: Gonna Be Vulnerable For A Sec: I saw this tweet by Julia Evans, advertising the newest in her questions to help people learn things series:

questions about git branches

and I was able to notice that my heart briefly sank. I bounced back, and clicked, and learned things, but let's go into why I had that momentary reaction. What the voice of "oh no" was saying, if I listened.

  • Oh no, a thing to do. A thing I am expected to do, another task, I have so much I need to do. But I should do this too. Because I want to learn everything and knowing that there are things I don't know hurts. Especially about a complicated tool like git that I use every day and that I need to be able to help other people use, that I could use better, which would be so useful.
  • Oh no, another list of things to memorize, of ways I will feel bad when I don't know things that I should know already.
  • Dammit, Julia's put out ANOTHER great thing, she's pulling ahead, I have been so delayed in the things I want to make and publish, I am jealous.

It is so easy for me to call these counterproductive feelings, or to say "ok well I will sit with those for a microsecond and then Go Learn To Be Better and have More Useful reactions I will replace those with instead!!" but right now I actually just want to acknowledge this glimpse into the muck in my own head. (And I know Julia well enough to trust that she won't make my spurt of jealousy her own problem. It's on me and she and I both know that.)

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: Hosted Alternatives To Proprietary Monopolistic Services:


Currently I use a mix of Jitsi, Whereby, Uberconference, Google Meet, Zoom, Signal, and probably something else I am forgetting. I aim to move as many of those as possible toward free services and away from proprietary ones.

Document editing and sharing:

I wrote to the tech-coop list talking about what I need in a Google Docs replacement, thus kicking off a thread where a few people recommended various NextCloud arrangements. I found out that a Dutch host named The Good Cloud is offering "its services, including the privacy-friendly Nextcloud Talk, free for 3 months for all companies, organizations, government institutions), schools and organizations." Currently I use a mix of Etherpad, GitHub, Google Docs, GitLab, Dropbox Paper, HackMD, and probably three other things I'm forgetting. Again, I aim to move as many of those as possible toward free services and away from proprietary ones. At some point soon I should probably get a Nextcloud instance, either paying someone else (preferred) or doing it myself, and see how it does for this sort of thing.

(Followup to a related post in March.)

Edited the same day to add:

Oh yeah, another few things I had in my open tabs:

Sourcehut: "Git and Mercurial hosting, mailing lists, bug tracking, continuous integration, and more".

Several projects at

Collective Tools is one of the co-ops offering Nextcloud hosting and support -- as well as Rocket.Chat and Deck (a kanban board application).

: Proposed New York City Budget: This blog entry is time-sensitive and is meant for people who live in New York City and want to learn more about the city's budget, and maybe suggest changes. It's kind of quick - you'll be following some links if you're interested.

When I want to dig into NYC government info, I try to remember: these are old systems and there exist finding aids, news sources, etc. surrounding them. Gotham Gazette has a tag for news about the city budget; also check out City and State NY, The City, and City Limits (I use RSS feeds to subscribe).

The Mayor's Office of Management and Budget has a Frequently Asked Questions page. It's worth reading. Also dig around their publications page and read a description of what each publication is.

Every year, the mayor proposes a budget (here's this year's announcement), and the City Council negotiates with the mayor and then votes on it. They're supposed to get it all settled by June 5th because the new Fiscal Year starts on July 1st. Here's the 19-page slide check summarizing the proposed Fiscal Year 2021 budget. On June 7th, the mayor announced that there will be budget changes to shift funding from the NYPD to social services programs. As far as I can tell, that is not yet reflected in any concrete changes in the budget proposal; on June 12th, Gotham Gazette reported:

With three weeks to go before the budget for the next fiscal year is due, the City Council is putting pressure on Mayor Bill de Blasio to spell out planned cuts to city agencies to fill a $9 billion projected budget gap. But the administration missed a Monday deadline set by the Council to propose new cuts, balancing the budget in a way that reprioritizes social services and investment in youth and education.

Here is the OMB page listing all the detailed documents for "April 2020 Executive Budget, Fiscal Year 2021" (the budget proposal we're talking about). If you want to know more about the NYPD, the Budget Function Analysis Agency Summary and the Expense, Revenue, Contract Budget have mode details. You can also use the open data visualization tools to fairly quickly get some pie charts of agency spending.

I called my councilmember and a staffer called me back. One question I had: how come the Budget Function Analysis Agency Summary and the Expense, Revenue, Contract Budget seem to say the NYPD budget is in the $5.3-$5.9 billion range, but the numbers I see in the press say it's over $6 billion? Might be because pension obligations are accounted separately. Those pension obligations, as I understand it, are set in the negotiations with the police unions, and yearly budgets can't change them.* I haven't followed up on this yet.

If you want to share your thoughts on where your tax money goes in the next fiscal year, find your councilmember and call them or email them with a quick message. Tell them you're a constituent of theirs, tell them your name and ZIP code, and whether you support the proposed budget or you think it should be changed. If you agree with them, tell them that so they know they have support. The more distinct constituent voices they hear, the more they can operate accordingly.

* Police union contracts are a whole other matter and have a huge impact on policing. I searched around and looked at government employee union contracts in New York and couldn't find the current Police Benevolent Association contract -- because NYC's contract with PBA expired in August 2017 and they're currently in contract arbitration. Or they would be, except the pandemic has put arbitration hearings on hold. ("PBA President Patrick J. Lynch ... is opting for arbitration for the fifth time in seven contract rounds since he was first elected 21 years ago," notes The Chief-Leader, which is "a New York City-based weekly newspaper focused on municipal government and civil servants, as well as issues affecting New York State and Federal employees." Like I said, New York City is a big and old system; whatever you just got interested in, there's probably already a fairly established communications hub for it.)

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: "That was not supposed to happen.": In December 2016 Lightspeed published "The Venus Effect" by Violet Allen. I wish I did not think of it so often; it is an amazing story but I think of it every time I learn that an African-American has died of police brutality. It horrifies me to see what is playing out, again, in my country. The institution of policing is badly broken; as Alexandra Erin points out,

We give the police extraordinary powers of life and death and then rather than saddle them with any additional responsibility, we just give them even more power. They must be allowed to operate with impunity "because they put their life on the line"... but then we grant them even more impunity because "you can't expect them to put their life on the line." They are the noble servant and protector of the community and upholder of the law when they plead for more powers, but when held accountable, they plead that they cannot be expected to serve, must not be expected to protect, and need not have any knowledge of or respect for the law to do their job.

So what is their job?

They say, and the courts affirm, they need not serve. They need not protect. They need not uphold the law.

If we have the words of the courts and the police themselves that police cannot be compelled to serve, to protect, or to uphold the law, then what is their job? For what reason do they exist?

You can read those last questions as "therefore, abolish" (which seems to rhyme with the author's intent) but they also work as a really important and genuine question for anyone who wants laws enforced fairly and accountably, and wants our tax dollars spent sensibly. And they are a reason to follow up on this to-do list, compiled by T. Greg Doucette, for police accountability (such as: require officers to carry malpractice insurance). Because, otherwise, as Frank Wilhoit put it, "There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect."

I have also appreciated the roundup Jason Kottke put together, "Listening to Black Voices Amid Murder, Violence, Protest, and Pandemic".

But if you just can't take any more news, but you want to reflect on this current tragedy using art, do read "The Venus Effect". And if you want to increase racial and ethnic diversity in the production of and audience for speculative fiction, you can support the Carl Brandon Society. (On a much lighter note, but again with a touch of pastiche, the fanfic "Matchmaker of Mars" by Edonohana has the summary "John W. Campbell accidentally matchmakes T'Pring and Uhura.")

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: Trailer and Registration for Otherwise Auction:

You have till 8pm ET tonight -- so, about 6.3 hours from me publishing this -- to register for this year's WisCon if you want to attend the auction I'm hosting on Saturday night (watching via YouTube livestream). You can register for USD$0 if affordability matters to you.

The auction is a comedy show where you don't need to spend any money, but you can donate to support some worthy causes.

This Otherwise blog post about the auction includes a one-minute video trailer/preview, and a list of auction items.

I'll also speak on Sunday within a panel on the recent renaming of the Otherwise Award (blog post).

: WisCon and Otherwise Auction, May 22-25: I'm hosting the Otherwise Auction (formerly the Tiptree Auction) at WisCon the night of Saturday, May 23rd. It'll be a virtual auction within WisCon, and mostly, Earth currency will not be involved. You can register for this year's WisCon now to make sure you'll be able to watch via YouTube and participate/bid via the private Discord chat server. I'm not 100% sure yet what time the auction will be, but it will probably be 7:30-8:30 pm Central Time.

This morning I was talking to my mother about some prerecorded material I am working on for the show. I told her how nice it is to get to work with my friends on a small fun project, and to edit together these videos with their faces all next to each other. Mom understood and said: it's like tying flowers in a garland. And my face broke into a goofy grin. It so is.

: Underused Headline:

In all the reporting about Internet infrastructure, bandwidth usage during the pandemic, spectrum controversies, etc., I have not yet seen this particular punny headline.

In the 1934 film It Happened One Night, one character tries to extort $5,000 from another by threatening to snitch on him: "Five Gs, or I crab the works!"

Therefore: if you see an article entitled "5G Or I Crab The Works," please let me know.

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: "Yes, Minister", Chesterton's Fence, And Wasteful Caution: Just now I was in a pretty grumpy mood and it threatened to spiral further. I decided to give myself a break, got a snack and the rest of my morning tea, set a timer, hit Play on the BBC Introducing Mixtape podcast, sat facing the window and away from my laptop, and picked up The Complete Yes Minister by Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay. And within probably ten minutes I was grinning with joy.

Jim Hacker: Humphrey, do you think it is a good idea to issue a statement?
Humphrey Appleby: Well, Minister, in practical terms we have the usual six options. One: do nothing. Two: issue a statement deploring the speech. Three: lodge an official protest. Four: cut off aid. Five: break off diplomatic relations. And six: declare war.
Hacker: Which should be it?
Appleby: Well, if we do nothing, that means we implicitly agree with the speech. If we issue a statement, we'll just look foolish. If we lodge a protest, it'll be ignored. We can't cut off aid, because we don't give them any. If we break off diplomatic relations, then we can't negotiate the oil rig contracts. And if we declare war, it might just look as though we were over-reacting.

When I was a child I saw Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister on public television. What a joy. And what a clinic in getting involved with complicated systems, full of moving parts and others' motivations.

I was thinking just now about how the viewer's allegiance is caught; Jim Hacker has some good instincts about fighting for the people, but he's not as clever as he thinks he is, and he's vain and a bit lazy. And Humphrey Appleby knows how to prevent some kinds of disasters, but cannot conceive of fundamental change or the need for it. Over and over in my life in software engineering, or watching politics, or working with any collaborative group, I've seen this dynamic, though it plays out in different ways. I'm glad I got both perspectives early on, Hacker and Appleby both, to inoculate me against being purely either. I hope.

A while back I went and read about Enoch Powell, because it's always enriching to understand the previous generation's version of today's arguments and standard-bearers, even if they're horrifying. He articulated something about the same tension you find in Yes, Minister: "The right finds it easy to explain what is and to justify what is, but not to account for change. The left finds it easy to justify change, but not to account for what is, and what is accepted."

As Fred Clark says, though, in criticizing the adage of Chesterton's Fence ("If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away...when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it"), what Powell describes as "what is, and what is accepted" can be a bit of a mirage. Nearly no shared piece of infrastructure simply sits in stasis, requiring no upkeep:

Fences have to be maintained, mended, and constantly rebuilt. Fences just don't work as a metaphor for traditions, laws, and institutions handed down immutable, inviolate, and inviolable from ancient times. There's no such thing as a multi-generational fence. You don't build a fence so much as you adopt a perpetual budget for perpetual fence-building. Would-be "reformers" don't need to propose "destroying" an existing fence, they only ever need to propose that the fence-builders stop rebuilding it.

And, in practice, as Clark notes,

no matter how thoroughly we are able to come back and tell our conservative friends that we do fully understand and appreciate the original reasons for the construction of the fence, they remain unwilling to "allow" us to remove it. (The word "allow" there is worth pondering. The presumption there about who is, by definition, always a supplicant, and who holds the authority to permit or to prohibit is telling. "Allow" is, in this instance, very much a fence-builder's word.)
I also recommend Clark's followup which includes such great articulations as "fear is not the same as taking care".

Amandine Lee, discussing failure scenario generation, safety, and verification, notes:

we often push to a small percentage of real traffic, do bug-bashes and conduct pre-mortems where we imagine different types of failures and what would have caused them. We're trying to smoke out the unknown unknowns that cause issues. It's a type of thinking I am actively learning how to lean into. As an optimist, someone who tends to seek out nuance, and a person who has a strong bias towards action, I tend to chafe against risk-aversion without a clear threat model. The term "Cover Your Ass" gets thrown around to describe extreme end of this - wasteful carefulness.

...People's intuitions and risk-friendliness also vary based on personality, and how they’ve seen things fail in the past. A lot of growing as an engineer is fine-tuning that initial response to design decisions.

Sometimes have that knee-jerk caution -- I feel a reflex that leads to, as Lee calls it, "wasteful carefulness". And sometimes I am the less patient person on my team, asking others why we can't try out the idea at least in some limited way.

And now I am thinking about the symbiosis of Jim Hacker and Humphrey Appleby, how they need each other, anchor and sail. And I'm less grumpy, which was the point of the exercise anyway.

: What We Subsume: Still here.

I've gotten a lot better at sewing pleats on face masks, and have found that -- if I cut the material ahead of time -- I can usually finish a mask, or nearly finish it, while watching a one-hour lecture, or while on the kind of conference call where I say very little.

I sometimes remember to do the things that will help set me up for a better day.

Sometimes I notice someone saying, about telecommuting and distributed/remote/virtual conferences and paperwork moving online because of the pandemic: So we could have been doing this all along?! And I notice the "all along" because it's subsuming or blurring a more specific claim about how long we've been wastefully delaying. If you joined your institution in January and they said no to remote work, and now they're allowing it, then yeah, they could have said yes all along, because "all along" means "since January" and there have been very few advances/innovations in bandwidth and installed connections, hardware, software platforms (such as operating systems and servers), relevant software applications, relevant professional skills, etc. since January. But at least in the US, I think that even five years ago, and certainly ten or twenty years ago, there were lots of kinds of infrastructure that would not have been up to the task of moving work online. Of course, we should have been properly investing in those things, at all levels, so really I'm just quibbling and "well-actually"ing with some wording in a way that might not look great. I will be turning off comments on this one.

Irritability. Fluffy fanfic. Peanut butter on celery or apples. A hollow ache inside my torso. The whirr of the sewing machine. Other people's faces via videocalls -- oh how great a solace that is, for I love my spouse but I need some variety in the faces I see. Light through the window, always through the window. Endless emails from every organization that has ever heard of me, earnestly telling me what they are doing, or importuning me to do something, because the sky is falling and we all need to hold it up. Using a video game to pretend I am outside, to pretend I can visit a friend or stand on a rocky shore. Trying to be there for my friends, my family -- Leonard suggested we compile a list of funny YouTube clips to send to our sick friend and so we did and maybe it will be a tiny comfort to her. Watching the National Theatre plays and Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals and concerts and music livestreams and being overcome with gratitude for the artists.

Yesterday was the 29th, which means it was one of the days of the month that I would let myself drink alcohol (days with a 9 in them, so, the 9th, 19th, and 29th) and I just realized today that -- as the wording in my head popped out -- I forgot to drink yesterday. I briefly thought about making up for that day, but I think the fact that my reflexive phrasing made it sound like an obligation rather than an option reinforces the stricter part of myself, which says, no, wait till the next window comes round again.

I've made some good work and volunteer progress in the last few weeks! I've had some great laughs with my spouse and my friends, and I'm glad I'm getting better at sewing, and not all is gloom. Especially when I have a chance to help someone else. But at this very moment, this afternoon on this Thursday, oh readers and oh future self, Sumana is hearing and feeling the gears grind as she bears up under the load.

Sometimes we talk about that impossibly distant past, The Before Times. Back in the Before Times, I thought I would .... we signed up for .... we had just started.... it seemed like ..... Fewer of us use the corresponding phrase for the future: The After Times. Perhaps judiciously and perhaps superstitiously and perhaps exhaustedly, we decline to make predictions and plans. But right now is The During Times. Right? That feels right. Duration, during, endure, endurance. We are enduring. I hope you are too.

: Remote Sprint Tips: Every year, many developers of Python (the language itself, not just stuff written in Python) get together for a sprint. This year it will probably be virtual. How should that work? I offered to share my experiences and tips, the folks in the core development group asked me to do so, and I listed some tips. My approach is less "top-down schedule" and more "here's how to adapt to and support the emergent ways people will act".

: Persisting: Today is our wedding anniversary. Instead of going out for a nice dinner, we'll .... do something at home. Maybe we'll remember a bunch of nice memories from the last fourteen years. Maybe we'll go through the Anniversary Gifts bot output and see if there's something we can make at home.

I've now sewn three fabric facemasks. For fabric I used old tech company tee shirts. For ties: elastic from free airline eyemasks, shoelace-like handles from fancy shopping bags, and the hemmed bits of the tee shirts. All of them are serviceable. I'll be trying to improve and, if I can get better, give some away.

We used this approach to gather and grow yeast using raisins, sugar, and water in a jar on a windowsill. Today Leonard's using it to make bread. We have some powdered dried yeast but are trying to save it. And we've been growing green onions in some jars of water on another windowsill. Their stalks keep pushing out new green growth. The most successful watercolor painting I've done so far is a portrayal of one of those bunches.

The pip 20.1b1 beta release is out. And Python 2.7.18 is out marking the very last, final, release of Python 2.7 and the end of the 2.x era. My household contributed to both of these things. Here's Leonard's pull request that adds an informational banner to the 2.7 docs. When I can concentrate on work or exercise or media it's better. The news is awful. I try to only listen to or look at it a few minutes per day.

There is light through the windows, along with the rain and lightning, and I see the tree branches in the wind, falling and rising, falling and rising. Every night at 7pm I know it's 7 because people start clapping and ringing bells from our windows and balconies, a gesture of support for the health care workers and all the other essential workers who are trying to keep us all going. I do it too. The other night I got out a little temple bell and started using that. Someone has a tambourine. A few nights ago someone started chanting "USA! USA!" and I recoiled; as I joked to a few friends, better to chant "South! Korea!" or "Germany!" since they're actually doing it right. And someone else has, a few times, played a recording of "The Star-Spangled Banner". As I mentioned to friends: well, the thing that works about that song now is that it's a question. Does that banner still wave? We don't know!

I also have joked: And is this the land of the brave and the home of the free, or the land of the scared and the home of the at home? But it's all those things, of course. And the rhetoric of that joke, as though you cannot be both at home and free, plays into the hands of foolish, even malicious shouters who prefer to swan around shedding and catching viruses, and to mob streets while braying about government restrictions, and refuse to love their neighbors.

I'm glad of the rain. It feels natural to be inside when it's raining.

: And Still Here: Still here, still okay. Hoping you are too.

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: Still Here: Still here. Still okay.

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: "Again, novelty novelty novelty breaks up the day.": I bring your attention again to this Twitter thread by Connie Rourke:

I'm starting a thread of every coping mechanism I've used in the last 20 years as an immunocompromised person who lives like a(n almost-completely) shut-in.

and this Dreamwidth post by alias-sqbr:

A bunch of you are dealing with being stuck in your houses, which is something I have a lot of experience with, if not in quite the same way. So I thought I might as well give what advice I have to give.

It's amazing how much novelty is helping me. I played a fun in-browser computer game -- for those 90 minutes I was immersed in another world. I found a teensy super-old packet of decaf coffee and now a scent I don't usually smell at home wafts from a warm mug nearby. A face mask (edited later to explain: the goopy kind that you spread on your skin and peel off later), a pair of socks on feet that usually go bare, different scented lotions....

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: We're Still Fine: We haven't been outside since ... Saturday?

The CDC says all households "can "practice routine cleaning of frequently touched surfaces"; the New York Times (see "Clean your home") has an animated GIF saying "Clean high-touch surfaces in your home every day." So I'm improving how frequently I use an alcohol wipe (especially on my phone) or some bleachy spray cleaner on the refrigerator handle, doorknobs, light switches, and so on. Last night my hands smelled like bleach when I went to bed. I wonder if I will learn to associate that smell with dread.

It's such a pretty, sunny day outside. I have the window open and the sunlight warms my elbow.

I've gotten better this week at concentrating on work. I sometimes use a timer to limit myself to 10 minutes of what I saw someone call "doomsurfing."

A friend's best friend has COVID-19, went to the hospital this week, and, as of yesterday, is on a ventilator. I talked with my friend this morning, listened, gave her a bit of welcome distraction, like how funny the governor's interview with his brother was.

Yesterday I teared up at how generous so many artists have been this month -- giving away new albums, films, books, for free, online, to help everyone cope. Ken Burns's Baseball, for instance.

Most of my writing is in email, chat, or GitHub. I added an item or two to a crowdsourced list of free and open source video or audio conferencing platforms. Cool Tools ran my review of a great sports bra (with a stock photo of a model who is not me, by the way). I finished and published a blog entry about my team's pip work and helped a colleague move a lot further toward a new pipenv release. I collaborated with Leonard on starting a shopping list for the day, weeks from now, when our desire for eggs and onions is strong enough to make us reset our isolation clock.

PyCon North America is cancelled; it would have been in Pittsburgh, PA, USA, in April. Title of Conf would have been on May 7th in Detroit, and WisCon was going to be in Madison in late May. All of them (at least the in-person bits) are cancelled. I am figuring out whether and how to present the Otherwise Auction online anyway, just as I would have at WisCon, and how my team working on pip can still form relationships and swap tips and experiences in small group calls to partially replace what we wanted out of PyCon.

This morning my mom called, worried. New York City is now the place in the US where COVID-19 has infected the most people. I reassured her: we're staying inside, we're taking all the precautions.

The fundamental and inherent subtext of every diary entry and every blog post is today closer to the surface. I'm still here, I still exist, I'm still here.

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: Some Useful Tools, Art, And Tips: Making note here of various threads and posts that have come to my attention recently:

: Responsibility And Blame: Humans have a really hard time dealing with problems that are partly under our control and partly not (and where we can't tell how much of it is inside or outside our locus of control).

A comment that helped me remember this, by philip-random on MetaFilter:

I'm currently taking care of an older parent with help from another family member. A week or so back when everything started getting VERY SERIOUS, we had a brief but essential discussion. Whatever happens, we concluded, we're not going to lay blame on anyone who may have erred and spread the virus -- family or friend or random stranger. There's just no winning that way. The wartime analogy is the best. It's London WW2, the Blitz. The bomb either lands on your block or it doesn't.

If you want to blame anybody, go after the bastards behind the Treat of Versailles twenty years previous whose failed politicking guaranteed this would happen.

I'm practicing prevention to avoid catching or transmitting COVID-19. So is my spouse and so are all my friends and colleagues. It might not be enough to keep us safe from this disease. So I want to prescriptively take responsibility, but descriptively avoid blaming myself or my loved ones in case we get sick anyway. This is difficult.

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: Another Burble: From a recent conference call:

"... if [our project] even matters anymore."

"Oh I'd argue that our project is MORE RELEVANT THAN EVER!! I'm about to write a Medium post saying so!"

[peals of laughter]

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: Extremely Limited-Value Insight: The 20-second songs-to-wash-your-hands-by releases are to 2020 what ringtones were to, say, 2006.

Filed under:

: Liminal Thoughts At An Inflection Point For The Pandemic: In January a writer I read started telling her readers to prepare for the pandemic. I am glad of the ways in which I followed her advice and I regret the ways in which I did not. Siderea noted that, during a pandemic, when big news starts happening, things start happening very fast, and we have arrived at that stage here in New York City. This week the schools close and the restaurants go to delivery/takeout-only.

So the "ring theory" of grief says: when dealing with grief, listen to and comfort the people closer to the center of the problem, those most deeply affected, and then complain or grieve outwards, so people less affected can comfort you. But it's pretty hard to work out who's least affected by COVID-19. Even if you are youngish, healthy, have very few risky health conditions, and don't particularly care about anyone who isn't in that category, you are probably affected by some of the ripple effects that come faster and faster each day: travel restrictions, event cancellations, the closing of schools and gathering places, work-from-home shifts, some supplies becoming far less available. There is no one I can vent to who is significantly less concerned than I am -- unless they have not yet worked out that they need to be concerned.

Leonard and I have some unavoidable errands we need to do this week that involve leaving the home and/or interacting with other people. I am looking forward to later this week when we can really hunker down and isolate. This experience has many items that are pretty similar to mine.

Not since the passage of the GDPR have I been reminded of how many websites/institutions have some kind of (sometimes tenuous) "relationship" with me. Every day I get many emails telling me about what they're doing.

Every day New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio holds a press conference and the government provides a transcript and I find it informative and soothing to read it. My city is trying to do the right things to take care of me -- I need to write to them about doing better regarding reducing criminal justice interactions, but overall, I think the city is doing the right things -- and I'm reassured.

Several days ago I realized: if individuals and institutions actually step up and do social distancing, cancel large gatherings, etc., and reduce the scale of the catastrophe, then there will be people in the future who say "this was an overreaction". (Just as they did with Y2K.) I later found out this is called "the paradox of prevention."

Some things I am grateful for right now:

  • It's possible to do a lot of stuff online that used to require visiting someplace.
  • We stocked up somewhat in February and aren't in as bad a situation as we could be.
  • We are well-off enough that some unexpected expenses are easy for us to bear.
  • I have friends who have caught up with me over the phone in the last few days -- and a couple of neighborhood friends who, last night, came over to our place. We stood outside on the sidewalk and spoke to each other across a six-foot distance. It was really nice.
  • Leonard and I can both work from home -- and in fact have 10+ years experience, each, in doing so.
  • We have both made moderate improvements in our health in the last few years so we are better placed than we might be to deal with illness, heavy lifting, and stress.
  • Right now, I am ok and my family is ok.

Finally: on MetaFilter, lesbiassparrow wrote:

I just don't understand how in Canada every Canadian around me doesn't think it will really hit them and they don't personally need to worry

There is this moment in the Mahabharata called the yaksha-prashna* -- a riddle contest with a disguised god. Yudhisthira has to answer a bunch of questions to rescue his brothers from death. Stuff like:

What is heavier than a mountain?
What is faster than the wind?
What is bigger/heavier than the earth?
Mother [in that she is greater in her effects on our lives, in how much we love her, etc.].

And the final riddle is:

What is the most amazing thing in the universe?


Every day, we all see people around us fall ill, wither away, and die. And yet each of us, to ourselves, thinks: "I will live forever." That is the most amazing thing in the universe.

(He answers all the riddles successfully and saves his brothers -- and it turns out that the crane is actually his father, Yama, the god of duty and death, whom he is meeting for the first time.)

I read this in an Amar Chitra Katha comic book when I was a child and it has always stuck with me.... and it reverberates so powerfully now.

* In case I misremember any of this --- uh, oral tradition! Right, folklore, always changing....

Filed under:

: Videocall, Group Chat, and Information Tools: As large groups rapidly adapt to online learning/working from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zoom/Google Meet and Slack are turning into unexamined defaults. I recommend these useful alternative online collaboration tools for groups:

  • Indie groupchat (special cheap/free hosted plans available for open source projects, nonprofits, groups of friends, & other noncommercial entities): Zulip. [Disclaimer: I have worked (paid) for Kandra Labs on Zulip.]
  • Indie-ish videocalling (works in the browser, no need to install new software, guests don't need a login): Whereby.
  • Not-the-big-companies-as-far-as-I-know phone/web conference calling: Uberconference (not related to the ridehailing company Uber).

Also: right now, I am appreciating the women who wrote and maintain:

  1. "Flatten the Curve", a go-to resource on why and how we need to slow down the epidemic, by Dr. Julie McMurry (Twitter, GitHub), an academic researcher/technologist (who works on genetics analysis software and wrote about identifiers in life science data)
  2. A list of events/competitions/conferences being cancelled/postponed, maintained by Sarah Evans, a public relations consultant
  3. A list of academic conferences being cancelled/postponed, maintained by Anne Marie Gruber, an academic librarian

: Help Tell People About Outreachy: I'd like for you to consider doing something for me.

Think about the people in your circles. Your cousins, your neighbors, your friends' kids. Do you know anyone who is trying to figure out how to get ahead in their career, or how to get a foot in the door in the tech industry?

Outreachy logo Then check whether any of those folks are eligible for Outreachy, a paid, mentored telecommuting internship program to help people get started in the open source industry. And "Anyone who faces under-representation, systemic bias, or discrimination in the technology industry of their country is invited to apply."

You can send them a link to the Outreachy applicant guide. Applications for the May to August 2020 round are due February 25.

And even if you don't know anyone who should consider applying, you can put a poster up at a local coffee shop, laundromat, or community college.

I love Outreachy. It's a curated, mentored, paid first step to help grow people's careers and capabilities, and it steadily introduces more diversity -- on many dimensions -- into our teams. Help more people discover it?

: Recompiler is Hiring: The beloved indie feminist print and online magazine The Recompiler is back! New issues are up, and the mag is hiring for help with editing, design (print and ebook), and research. All positions are remote paid contracts, and flexible regarding timing.

about Sumana Harihareswara

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