Cogito, Ergo Sumana

picture of Sumana's head

Sumana Harihareswara's journal

(2) : Transparency And Accountability In Government Forensic Science: Sumana Harihareswara next to public hearing noticeIn February, I learned that the New York State Assembly was planning a public hearing on government oversight of forensic science laboratories, and then was invited to offer ten minutes of testimony and then answer legislators' questions. This was a hearing held jointly by the Assembly Standing Committees on Codes, on Judiciary, and on Oversight, Analysis and Investigation and it was my first time speaking in this sort of capacity. I spoke on the importance of auditability and transparency in software used in devices the government uses in laboratories and field tests, and open source as an approach to improve these. And I testified to the efficiency, cost savings, security, and quality gains available by using open source software and by reusing and sharing open source software with other state governments. Here's a PDF of my testimony as written, and video and audio recordings are available as is a transcript that includes answers to the legislators' questions. It is a thrilling feeling to see my own words in a government hearing transcript, in that typeface and with those line numbers!

As I was researching my testimony, I got a lot of help from friends who introduced me to people who work in forensics or in this corner of the law. And I found an article by lawyer Rebecca Wexler on the danger of closed-source, unauditable code used in forensic science in the criminal justice system, and got the committee to also invite her to testify. Her testimony's also available in the recordings and transcript I link to above. And today she has a New York Times piece, "How Computers Are Harming Criminal Justice", which includes specific prescriptions:

Defense advocacy is a keystone of due process, not a business competition. And defense attorneys are officers of the court, not would-be thieves. In civil cases, trade secrets are often disclosed to opposing parties subject to a protective order. The same solution should work for those defending life or liberty.

The Supreme Court is currently considering hearing a case, Wisconsin v. Loomis, that raises similar issues. If it hears the case, the court will have the opportunity to rule on whether it violates due process to sentence someone based on a risk-assessment instrument whose workings are protected as a trade secret. If the court declines the case or rules that this is constitutional, legislatures should step in and pass laws limiting trade-secret safeguards in criminal proceedings to a protective order and nothing more.

I'll add here something I said during the questions-and-answers with the legislators:

And talking about the need for source code review here, I'm going to speak here as a programmer and a manager. Every piece of software that's ever been written that's longer than just a couple of lines long, that actually does anything substantive, has bugs. It has defects. And if you want to write code that doesn't have defects or if you want to at least have an understanding of what the defects are so that you can manage them, so that you can oversight them (the same way that we have a system of democracy, right, of course there's going to be problems, but we have mechanisms of oversight) -- If in a system that's going to have defects, if we don't have any oversight, if we have no transparency into what those instructions are doing and to what the recipe is, not only are we guaranteed to have bugs; we're guaranteed to have bugs that are harder to track down. And given what we've heard earlier about the fact that it's very likely that in some of these cases there will be discriminatory impacts, I think it's even more important; this isn't just going to be random.

I'll give you an example. HP, the computer manufacturer, they made a web camera, a camera built into a computer or a laptop that was supposed to automatically detect when there was a face. It didn't see black people's faces because they hadn't been tested on people with darker skin tones. Now at least that was somewhat easy to detect once it actually got out into the marketplace and HP had to absorb some laughter. But nobody's life was at stake, right?

When you're doing forensic work, of course in a state the size of New York State, edge cases, things that'll only happen under this combination of combination of conditions are going to happen every Tuesday, aren't they? And the way that the new generation of probabilistic DNA genotyping and other more complex bits of software work, it's not just: Okay, now much of fluid X is in sample Y? It's running a zillion different simulations based on different ideas of how the world could be. Maybe you've heard like the butterfly effect? If one little thing is off, you know, we might get a hurricane.

(1) : Trashing, Pile-ons, Accountability ... and AEDs: I've written a new MetaFilter post, "Distinguishing character assassination from accountability", pulling out quotes from eleven writers from the past 40 years on how we take and charge each other with responsibility and power within communities, and in particular how we do accountability in progressive groups -- from Jo Freeman and Joanna Russ discussing "trashing" in the US feminist movement to people in the last few years and weeks talking about times to get on the phone, making trusting relationships for accountability, and lessons from Occupy. Perhaps the most immediately useful link in there is this "pod" discussion and mapping worksheet.

Speaking of MetaFilter: after the US election in November, I decided to take some concrete steps to be a better neighbor, so I took a CPR and first aid class. In it I learned about how amazing and underappreciated automated external defibrillators are. I did a bunch of reading and wrote up this MetaFilter post:

If someone had a heart attack right next to you, could you get to your nearest automated external defibrillator, grab it, and use it within 3-5 minutes of their collapse? More and more, the answer is yes, because of Public Access Defibrillation (PAD) programs (that statement is from 1995; 2015 update to AHA guidelines).

On average, when a person in the US calls 911 because someone's suffered cardiac arrest, emergency medical responders get to the scene in 8-12 minutes (Red Cross) -- but for people suffering cardiac arrest, for every minute defibrillation is delayed, the chance of survival goes down about 7-10% (American Heart Association, PDF). Bystanders (even untrained ones) who use AEDs on victims can save lives; "Application of an AED in communities is associated with nearly a doubling of survival after out-of-hospital cardiac arrest."

But where's your nearest AED?...

In that post, I commented about how difficult it can be to get PAD data, in New York at least. I ended up sending in a document request to the New York State Department of Health, and need to review what they sent back to me. Also I happened to mention my amateur AED research while talking to my city councilmember at a local Democratic Club meeting, so he might be introducing a bill soon to make the PAD data for NYC more accessible? So that's cool.

: Resilience: Fifteen years ago, in my last semester of college, I was planning to set up my own desktop support business while supporting myself as a substitute teacher. I took and passed the California Basic Educational Skills Test, making me eligible to work as a substitute teacher. Then, in late May, just after I thought I had graduated, I found out that I'd made a mistake and I hadn't quite graduated, and to get my bachelor's I'd have to take another class. I took a six-week summer school class that met 4-6pm on weekdays. I started running out of money. I couldn't find temp work that would be fine with me leaving at 3:30pm to make it to class, and I didn't want to ask my parents or Leonard for more money. I started looking for jobs. I felt restless and embarrassed. In early July, I finished the summer school class, and on July 15th, I accepted a customer service job at a bookstore. I stayed there for about a year and then went to work for, and I never got back to the teaching and desktop support plans.


Monday and yesterday, I was riding back home from WisCon with my friend Julia, and I was telling her this, and I was looking back and asking: why? Once I finished the summer school class, why didn't I go back to the plan that I had cared so much about and crafted with such ambition? Right now I'm fairly happy with where I am, but why did I give up on the thing I'd wanted to do?

I look back and I see that my mental health is better now than it was then, and I see that my parents -- though I think they wanted to be supportive -- didn't nudge and remind me, "hey, you can get back to your old plan now" -- Mom wanted me to find a way to regular employment, particularly with a government. And I so wanted to be independent of my parents and my boyfriend that a regular paycheck was so enticing -- and I didn't even consider using unemployment assistance or a credit card to give me more financial leeway. But more than all that, I just wasn't good at the skill of resilience when it came to big life plans and projects. I didn't feel like I was particularly in control of my own life, I think, and so when a big unexpected obstacle popped up, I just defaulted back to taking the opportunities that were in front of me instead of working to make my own.

This morning, catching up on friends' blogs, I see Mary Anne Mohanraj (whom I met eight years ago at WisCon):

...she thought the main difference between me and a lot of other people, is that when I want something, I tend to just try to do it, whereas she, and lots of other folks, would waste a lot of time dithering.

I think that's probably accurate. And I could try to unpack why that is, why I don't tend to hesitate, though I'm not sure I know. Some of it is base personality, some of it, I suspect, is cultural and class background -- being raised in a comfortable economic situation with parents who trained me to work hard, but also expected that I would succeed at whatever I put my hand to.

That gives me a baseline confidence that makes it relatively easy for me to try things, and even when I fail (I flunked calculus, I failed my driving test the first time, I have messed up far more sewing projects than I've succeeded at, I have plants die all the time because I forget to water them, etc. and so on), it mostly doesn't get to me. I can shake it off and either try again, or just move on to something else.

All this reflection is bouncing around in my head, jarring loose thoughts on adaptability, confidence, entrepreneurship, Ramsey Nasser on failure, saying no, danah boyd on the culture of fear in parenting, Jessica McKellar on why she teaches people to program, the big and increasing emphasis Recurse Center puts on self-direction in learning, etc. Love and strength and fear. You know, the little stuff. ;-) Onwards.

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: She's Out:

Tomorrow is a highway broad and fair,
And we are the many who'll travel there.
Tomorrow is a highway broad and fair,
And we are the workers who'll build it there;
And we will build it there.

Come, let us build a way for all mankind,
A way to leave this evil year behind,
To travel onward to a better year
Where love is, and there will be no fear,
Where love is and no fear.

Now is the shadowed year when evil men,
When men of evil thunder war again.
Shall tyrants once again be free to tread,
Above our most brave and honored dead?
Our brave and honored dead.

O, comrades, come and travel on with me,
We'll go to our new year of liberty.
Come, walk upright, along the people's way,
From darkness, unto the people's day.
From dark, to sunlit day.

Tomorrow is a highway broad and fair
And hate and greed shall never travel there
But only they who've learned the peaceful way
Of brotherhood, to greet the coming day.
We hail the coming day.

("Tomorrow Is A Highway" -- words by Lee Hays, music by Pete Seeger)

We didn't know how it was going to turn out. We thought she'd be in prison for decades more. And then, even after President Obama commuted her sentence, I remained privately worried that something would happen, some snag or tragedy. Yesterday she got to have a hot slice of pizza -- so a few people gathered at my apartment and shared pizza and toasted her release. It was so good to have something to celebrate with friends.

I've been listening over and over to "Tomorrow Is A Highway". It's got some lovely stark lines, like "leave this evil year behind." Time and space have unified ; it doesn't say that we'll walk into the future, but rather, that the future is this journey, and there are only two time durations in this song, days and years -- tomorrow is a highway upon which we'll travel to a better year. And it's sort of a mix of prescriptive and descriptive, prophetically defining us as the people who are making this tomorrow. This song does not explicitly say "this might happen" or "we should hope for this to happen"; instead it combines "this will happen" and "let's make it happen". It's less a song of hope, and more a song of faith and promise and invitation.

It can be hard to let go of hope, and it can be hard to let go of dread. I can stop holding my breath now. She's out. We've moved from promise to fact.

I can't seem to find my copy of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed at the moment -- did I lend it to you? In it, Shevek thinks a few times about how our conception of time and promises and intentions work together -- a coherent future doesn't just happen, it's intentional human actions that make a "road" and breaking promises denies and breaks that "road" connecting past, present, and future.

I have been feeling as though nothing is solid under my feet. And part of that is that I couldn't trust that she'd really get to be free. But now she is. And for the sake of my own forward motion I shall work as though the next stretch of the road exists too -- perhaps every step is in some measure a leap of faith.

: PyCon & WisCon: I just updated my "Talks" page -- I'll be at PyCon May 19-25, to represent Zulip at a booth and then to help run the Zulip development sprint. I will likely also have a new zine to share!

And then I'll fly straight from there to Madison for WisCon. I am not on any panels at WisCon this year but I'm the auctioneer for the auction benefiting the Tiptree Award. This year's auction includes a signed first edition hardcover of Octavia Butler's novel Wild Seed, an "Elect Alison Hendrix" pin from Orphan Black, an art print of "Aswang, at Night" by M Sereno, and a bunch more.

(As much as I love Open Source Bridge, I won't be there this year, and I won't be at Worldcon 75 (Helsinki) either, in case you're wondering.)

: OSCON, For a Single Day: I'm going to be at OSCON in Austin, Texas to represent Zulip in the Open Source Alley tomorrow (Thursday) 10am-4:30pm. Please consider coming by and getting a demo, or just talking with us about Python 3, mypy, and how we help new contributors (especially those who have a hard time setting up development environments on their own machines).

: Timesaving Negativism or Masculine Calumnies?:

"Do your lairstone relations HAVE to come over?" she snooted.

"Look, my uncles are almost done repairing their peatship, so happiest case, this is the last time for a long while."

"After all day patching up that thing, I suppose they'll need a nightcap."

"'Just a teardrop,'" he parroted.

"And then they'll intoxicate themselves into such a state of excitation --"

"I promise you, I understand your exasperation, but if my zombie uncles forget their precautions and catch another xenoparasite, this time it's on them to dig it up."

"Fine -- but you serve this time, I'm not a starwise waitress."

(This tiny short story inspired by Mark Dominus's list of awesome English anagrams and his !!Con talk on this topic.)

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: Penguicon, Orwell, ETAOINSHRDLU, and Being Important: When I was eight or nine years old, I think my parents went through a chunk of "how do we support this weird kid?" planning and work. Around this time I remember coming across a book my parents had acquired, something like How To Deal With Your Gifted Child, the kind of book that has 70 pages of large-print line art-illustrated stories to read to your kid and discuss with them, followed by 40 pages of smaller-print nonfiction prose meant just for the adults. I read the whole thing, of course. Pretty hard to prevent a kid who loves reading from reading the whole book and finding use and joy where she can.

Another one of the paperbacks that made its way into our house around this time was about word puzzles, trivia about English, neologisms, and so on -- it had something to do with Mensa, I think. This is how I learned that the twelve most common letters in the English language are, in order, ETAOINSHRDLU.

Also I remember being given a collection of modern British short fiction and essays, for use in a supplemental tutorial or something -- this is how I read my first George Orwell, his essay "Shooting an Elephant", and my first D.H. Lawrence, his short story "The Rocking-Horse Winner", and my first taste of how truly dark Roald Dahl could get, "The Great Automatic Grammatisator".

The advice on dealing with myself, as a gifted child, helped some -- I got it into my head that an aversion to doing things that I wasn't already good at would be harmful, for instance, even if I couldn't prevent acquiring a bit of it anyway. Everyone who comes out of childhood has scorch and stretch marks. I'm glad I got an early start on Dahl, Lawrence, and Orwell, warning me about technology's effect on art, obsession's effect on childhood, and imperalism's effect on the oppressor, respectively. And though ETAOINSHRDLU caused me to regard "Wheel of Fortune" the way many programmers feel about Sudoku -- that it presents problems to humans that properly ought to be solved by computers -- and thus be a bit of a funless jerk for a while about a TV show that provides pleasure to many people, it's has proven useful in countless games of Hangman, and in an inadvertent audience participation moment during a play I saw in Manchester in 2014.

There's a bit in Sherlock Holmes: A Working Hypothesis where a lecturer, solving a Hangman-style puzzle and mocking the audience for our wrong answers, says something about the likelihood of the next letter. I blurted out something like "E, then T, then A, because the twelve most common letters in the corpus of English-language writing, in order, are ETAOINSHRDLU". The speaker teased me occasionally for the rest of the act, and I later learned that several other audience members inferred that I must be a castmember, a plant.

More and more frequently I find that other people in my communities treat me as though I must be one of the cast, not one of the audience. As though I am important. One way of looking at impostor syndrome is that it looks at two people with the same characteristics and pasts and treats one as less important, always the audience and never the cast, solely because it's the self. The How to Deal book had stories about kids who got swelled heads, and stories about kids who never believed they were good enough. "Shooting an Elephant" said: once you're in the cast, you have to follow the script or there'll be hell to pay. And ETAOINSHRDLU has long represented to me the power of double-checking whether something really is random, and finding patterns, and sharing them with others, empowering us. Which can break a kind of fourth wall between watching and acting.

In a little over a week, I'm a guest of honor at Penguicon, and one of my sessions will be a reprise of my LibrePlanet 2017 keynote, "Lessons, Myths, and Lenses: What I Wish I'd Known in 1998" (description, video, in-progress transcript). I'll give the audience a menu of topics and they'll select the ones I talk about, and the order. It'll be massively different from the LibrePlanet version because the audience will choose different topics or a different order, barring deliberate collusion. One reason I'm doing my Guest Of Honor talk this way is because there is too much to say, and this way each story or insight has a fighting chance to get said. But another is that I have given written-in-advance keynote speeches enough times before that it's in danger of becoming a habit, a local maximum. And -- perhaps this does not speak well of me -- I think this particular audience participation method also provides a release valve for the pressure of being the Important one in the room. Instead of performing as a cast of one, I turn everyone into a plant.

To close out, my favorite chunk of Orwell, the ending of "Some Thoughts on the Common Toad":

At any rate, spring is here, even in London N.1, and they can't stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can't. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, Spring is still Spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.

(2) : Alternate Questions: Is it still in vogue for US tech companies to ask quantitative estimation/implausible-problem questions like "how many phone booths/piano tuners are there in Manhattan?" in hiring interviews, particularly for programming-related jobs? Fog Creek asked me one of those in 2005. There was even a book, How Would You Move Mount Fuji?: Microsoft's Cult of the Puzzle -- How the World's Smartest Companies Select the Most Creative Thinkers.* How many companies are still into that?**

I ask because I came up with a couple you could use, maybe for a digital humanities kind of position:

  1. How many people, throughout history, have actually been named "Flee-From-Sin"? I feel like you see this as a jokey Puritan first name in books like Good Omens or the Baroque Cycle, but was it a name that some non-negligible number of people actually had?
  2. Out of all the people currently within New York City limits, have more of them written a sonnet or a dating profile? What's the ratio?

* That's right, two subtitles. That's how you know you're getting a lot for your $16.00 MSRP.

** It's hard to tell these things sometimes even if you listen to lots of people discuss hiring and recruiting. "Five Worlds" and its decade-later ramifications apply to work culture, not just software development methodology. Stripe's engineering interview aims to "simulate the engineering work you'd do day-to-day" (link via Julia Evans) so I think you can expect your interviewer won't show up wearing a question-mark costume and screeching, "Riddle me this, Batman!" This software engineer, who's just been through scads of hiring interviews, doesn't mention puzzle questions. This level of detail ain't exactly on the "How to Become a Computer Programmer" page in the Occupational Outlook Handbook from the US Department of Labor -- but then again we already knew that the assessment vacuum in software engineering skills is a huge problem.

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(1) : Inclusive-Or: Hospitality in Bug Tracking:

Lindsey Kuper asked:

I’m interested in hearing about [open source software] projects that have successfully adopted an "only insiders use the issue tracker" approach. For instance, a project might have a mailing list where users discuss bugs in an unstructured way, and project insiders distill those discussions into bug reports to be entered into the issue tracker. Where does this approach succeed, and where does it fail? How can projects that operate this way effectively communicate their expectations to non-insider users, especially those users who might be more accustomed to using issue trackers directly?
More recently, Jillian C. York wrote:

...sick of "just file a bug with us through github!" You realize that's offputting to your average users, right?

If you want actual, average users to submit bugs, you know what you have to do: You have to use email. Sorry, but it's true.

Oh, and that goes especially for high-risk users. Give them easy ways to talk to you. You know who you are, devs.

Both Kuper and York get at: How do we open source maintainers get the bug reports we need, in a way that works for us and for our users?

My short answer is that open source projects should have centralized bug trackers that are as easy as possible to work in as an expert user, and that they should find automated ways to accept bug reports from less structured and less expert sources. I'll discuss some examples and then some general principles.

Dreamwidth logo Dreamwidth: Dreamwidth takes support questions via a customer support interface. The volunteers and paid staff answering those questions sometimes find that a support request reveals a bug, and then file it in GitHub on the customer's behalf, then tell her when it's fixed. (Each support request has a private section that only Support can see, which makes it easier to track the connection between Support requests and GitHub issues, and Support regulars tend to have enough ambient awareness of both Support and GitHub traffic to speak up when relevant issues crop up or get closed.) Dreamwidth users and developers who are comfortable using the GitHub issue tracker are welcomed if they want to file bugs there directly instead.

Dreamwidth also has a non-GitHub interface for feature suggestions: the suggestions form is the preferred interface for people to suggest new features for Dreamwidth. Users post their suggestions into a queue and a maintainer chooses whether to turn that suggestion into a post for open discussion in the dw-suggestions community, or whether to bounce it straight into GitHub (e.g., for an uncontroversial request to whitelist a new site for media embedding or add a new site for easy cross-site user linking, or at the maintainer's prerogative). Once a maintainer has turned a suggestion into a post, other users use an interface familiar to them (Dreamwidth itself) to discuss whether they want the feature. Then, if they and the maintainer come to consensus and approve it, the maintainer adds a ticket for it to GitHub. That moderation step has been a bottleneck in the past, and the process of moving a suggestion into GitHub also hasn't yet been automated.

Since discussion about site changes needs to include users who aren't developers, Dreamwidth maintainers prefer that people use the suggestions form; experienced developers sometimes start conversations in GitHub, but the norm (at least the official norm) is to use dw-suggestions; I think the occasional GitHub comment suffices for redirecting these discussions.

Zulip logo Zulip: We use GitHub issues. The Zulip installations hosted by Kandra Labs (the for-profit company that stewards the open source project) also have a "Send feedback" button in one of the upper corners of the Zulip web user interface. Clicking this opens a private message conversation with, which users used more heavily when the product was younger. (We also used to have a nice setup where we could actually send you replies in-Zulip, and may bring that back in the future.)

I often see Tim Abbott and other maintainers noticing problems that new users/customers are having and, while helping them (via the zulip-devel mailing list, via the Zuliping-about-Zulip chat at, or in person), opening GitHub issues about the issue, as the next step towards a long-term fix. But -- as with the Dreamwidth example -- it is also fine for people who are used to filing bug reports or feature requests directly to go ahead and file them in GitHub. And if Tim et alia know that the person they're helping has that skill and probably has the time to write up a quick issue, then the maintainers will likely say, "hey would you mind filing that in GitHub?"

We sometimes hold live office hours at At yesterday's office hour, Tim set up a discussion topic named "warts" and said,

I think another good topic is to just have folks list the things that feel like they're some of our uglier/messier parts of the UI that should be getting attention. We can use this topic to collect them :).

Several people spoke up about little irritations, and we ended up filing and fixing multiple issues. One of Zulip's lead developers, Steve Howell, reflected: "As many bug reports as we get normally, asking for 'warts' seems to empower customers to report stuff that might not be considered bugs, or just empower them to speak up more." I'd also point out that some people feel more comfortable responding to an invitation in a synchronous conversation than initiating an asynchronous one -- plus, there's the power of personal invitation to consider.

As user uptake goes up, I hope we'll also have more of a presence on Twitter, IRC, and Stack Overflow in order to engage people who are asking questions there and help them there, and get proto-bug reports from those platforms to transform into GitHub issues. We already use our Twitter integration to help -- if someone mentions Zulip in a public Tweet, a bot tells us about it in our developers' livechat, so we can log into our Twitter account and reply to them.

MediaWiki logo 1MediaWiki and Wikimedia: Wikipedia editors and other contributors have a lot of places they communicate about the sites themselves, such as the technical-issues subforum of English Wikipedia's "Village Pump", and similar community-conversation pages within other Wikipedias, Wikivoyages, etc. Under my leadership, the team within Wikimedia Foundation's engineering department that liaised with the larger Wikimedia community grew more systematic about working with those Wikimedia spaces where users were saying things that were proto-bug reports. We got more systematic about listening for those complaints, filing them as bugs in the public bug tracker, and keeping in touch with those reporters as bugs progressed -- and building a kind of ambassador community to further that kind of information dissemination. (I don't know how well that worked out; I think we built a better social infrastructure for people who were already doing that kind of volunteer work ad hoc, but I don't know whether we succeeded in recruiting more people to do it, and I haven't kept a close eye on how that's gone in the years since I left.)

We also worked to make it easy for people to report bugs into the main bug tracker. The Bugzilla installation we had for most of the time that I was at Wikimedia had two bug reporting forms: a "simple" submission form that we pointed most people to, with far fewer fields, and an "advanced" form that Wikimedia-experienced developers used. They've moved to Phabricator now, and I don't know whether they've replicated that kind of two-lane approach.

A closed-source example: FogBugz. When I was at Fog Creek Software doing sales and customer support, we used FogBugz as our internal bug tracker (to manage TODOs for our products,* and as our customer relationship manager). Emails into the relevant email addresses landed in FogBugz, so it was easy for me to reply directly to help requests that I could fix myself, and easy for me to note "this customer support request demonstrates a bug we need to fix" and turn it into a bug report, or open a related issue for that bug report. If I recall correctly, I could even set the visibility of the issue so the customer could see it and its progress (unusual, since almost all our issue-tracking was private and visible only within the company).

Debian logo An interface example: Debian. Debian lets you report bugs via email and via the command-line reportbug program. As the "how to use BTS" guide says,

some spam messages managed to send mails to -done addresses. Those are usually easily caught, and given that everything can get reverted easily it's not that troublesome. The package maintainers usually notice those and react to them, as do the BTS admins regularly.

The BTS admins also have the possibility to block some senders from working on the bug tracking system in case they deliberately do malicious things.

But being open and inviting everyone to work on bugs totally outweighs the troubles that sometimes pop up because of misuse of the control bot.

And that leads us to:

General guidelines: Dreamwidth, Zulip, MediaWiki, and Debian don't discourage people from filing bug reports in the official central bug tracker. Even someone quite new to a particular codebase/project can file a very helpful and clear bug report, after all, as long as they know the general skill of filing a good bug report. Rather, I think the philosophy is what you might find in hospitable activism in general: meet people where they are, and provide a means for them to conveniently start the conversation in a time, place, and manner that's more comfortable for them. For a lot of people, that means email, or the product itself.

Failure modes can include:

  • a disconnect among the different "places" such that the central bug tracker is a black hole and nothing gets reported back to the more accessible place or the original reporter
  • a feeling of elitism where only special important people are allowed to even comment in the main bug tracker
  • bottlenecks such that it seems like there's a non-bug-tracker way to report a question or suggestion but that process has creaked to a halt and is silently blocking momentum
  • bottlenecks in bug triage
  • brusque reaction at the stage where the bug report gets to the central bug tracker (e.g., "oh that's a duplicate; CLOSE" without explanation or thanks), which jars the user (who's expecting more explicit friendliness) and which the user perceives as hostile

Whether or not you choose to increase the number of interfaces you enable for bug reporting, it's worth improving the user experience for people reporting bugs into your main bug tracker. Tedious, lots-of-fields issue tracker templates and UIs decrease throughput, even for skilled bug reporters who simply aren't used to the particular codebase/project they're currently trying to file an issue about. So we should make that easier. You can provide an easy web form, as Wikimedia did via the simplified Bugzilla form, or an email or in-application route, as Debian does.

And FLOSS projects oughta do what the Accumulo folks did for Kuper, too, saying, "I can file that bug for you." We can be inclusive-or rather than exclusive-or about it, you know? That's how I figure it.

* Those products were CityDesk, Copilot, and FogBugz -- this was before Kiln, Stack Overflow, Trello, and Glitch.

Thanks to Lindsey Kuper and Jillian C. York for sparking this post, and thanks to azurelunatic for making sure I got Dreamwidth details right.

(2) : Changing How I Deal With Those Humiliating Teenage Memories: When I was in high school in Lodi, California, I worked on the school newspaper. It came out every two weeks; we gave it to the printer on Tuesday night or early Wednesday, I think, and we received and distributed it on Friday. So there was a deadline night every other Tuesday. For dinner, our tradition was to order calzones from a particular Italian place in Lodi; they didn't deliver, so one of the students who could drive would drive their car to go get the food.

One night I was the one who collected people's orders and made the call. But I lived in Stockton, some distance from Lodi. When finding the restaurant's phone number in the phone book, I absentmindedly chose the Stockton location and placed our order with the wrong restaurant. Catie* drove to the Lodi restaurant came back from her drive very unhappy and empty-handed; there wasn't time to go all the way to Stockton back and still hit the deadline for the printer, so we didn't get dinner that night.

Later that week, maybe the next day in the journalism room during lunchtime, I was about to go to the cafeteria, maybe to get my own lunch, but definitely also to get Catie's as well (she paid for her own lunch, it wasn't completely feudal). I think someone else said they could do it, but I still remember Catie snapping: "Hari can get me a burrito."

(Everyone at my high school newspaper called me by a shortened version of my last name, pronounced "Hairy". My journalism teacher called everyone by their last names, and had a devil of a time with mine, so on the third or fifth day of class my freshman year, I offered this solution. I have lost track of everyone I knew through that paper but I bet most of them would still think of me as Hari. I feel as though I ought to be embarrassed by this, or as though I should have been, but this is one of the ways social obliviousness protected me, for which I'm grateful.)

This happened twenty years ago and I still remember it. I especially remember it when I am taking care to order food from the restaurant location I intend, as I did last night.

The memory still has the power to wash chagrin over me. I can see why it does. I wasn't diligent about checking a detail, and so some of my team went hungry for a night,** and at least one of them was still irritated with me the next day. I feel a lot more embarrassed about that than I do about a nickname that didn't hurt anyone but me.

Several years ago, when I thought about this or similar past mistakes, I'd flush with feeling, humiliation coursing through me. I would subvocalize my self-loathing. Stupid.

Then I matured a bit, and my response changed. When I felt that rush of humiliation, I'd try to actively say, I love you, Sumana, and send myself some compassion. It helped me avoid going into a complete spiral of self-loathing, but it didn't stop the memories from coming back, unbidden, every so often.

Then I got enough distance to look back and see patterns. I grew to be different enough from teenage Sumana that I could see what she needed to learn -- like asking for help, resourcefulness, organization, resilience, dealing with failure. I'm better at those things than she was. And I can see ways that the people around me could have made better choices, too. I tried to make little moral lessons out of those still-piercing memories. As the saying goes, good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.

But all of these approaches assume the pain of the memory is a problem to be solved. Today I'm going to try to lay that aside. What if I just accept and experience that pain? This is what I'm feeling right now. And then this too shall pass; I always do move on to thinking about something else, empirically. Maybe I will just keep on occasionally remembering this and feeling bad about it, maybe on the last day of my life I will remember this thing and feel bad, and that's okay.

* Not her real name.
** You know what, actually, we probably could have figured out a way to get some food that night anyway if we'd thought about it, call someone's parents or something.

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: The Rumpelstiltskin Fallacy: I sometimes sum up the lesson of a liberal arts education as: socially constructed things are real, too. And you are not immune from their effects, no matter how smart you are or whether you've noticed that something's a social construction. It's not like Rumpelstiltskin, where once you've named the thing it has no power over you. In fact, approximately zero problems are like that; saying "well this looks like a ____ situation" is insufficient to fix it.

And consequently, socially constructed things are worth studying and working on and using and fixing and spending energy on.

(1) : How to Teach And Include Volunteers who Write Poor Patches: You help run an open source software community, and you've successfully signalled that you're open to new contributors, including people who aren't professional software engineers. And you've already got an easy developer setup process and great test coverage so it's easy for new people to get up and running fast. Great!

Some of the volunteers who join you are less-skilled programmers, and they're submitting pull requests/patches that need a lot of review and reworking before you can merge them.

How do you improve these volunteers' work, help them do productive things for the project, and encourage and include them?

My suggestions for you fall into three categories: helping them improve their code, dealing with the poor-quality pull requests themselves, and redirecting their energies to improve the project in other ways.

Teaching them to improve their code

Dealing with poor patches themselves

Using their knowledge and curiosity to improve the project in other ways

  • Ask these developers to write "discovery reports". They're already user-testing your developer onboarding process; ask them for their experiences, so you can find and fix pain points.
  • Ask them to run through some manual testing (example manual testing guide from Zulip), and to tell you how long certain kinds of tests took, so you can get bug reports and improve the docs.
  • Ask them to teach about your project in their communities -- to develop learning and presentation materials and speak at meetups. You may have just found your most enthusiastic marketer.
This list is absolutely not the be-all and end-all for this topic; I'd like to know what approaches others use.

Thanks to Noah Swartz for starting a conversation at Maintainerati that spurred me to write this post.

: A Small Language Note: 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.

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(2) : Scifi Takes on Coen Brothers Movies: Leonard writes scifi novels, and one of them (that a publisher is currently considering) has the working title Situation Normal, a followup to the previous working title, Explosion of Honor. It's witty military scifi -- like Star Trek as directed by the Coen brothers, as I told some folks at MergeSort. A few of them didn't care for the title Situation Normal and didn't get a "this has humor" vibe from it, so I told Leonard.

"OK, here's a title suggestion. 'Bargo," I said. "It's, like, short for 'embargo' but it'll remind people of Fargo."

"I got some bad news for you. It did not remind me of Fargo. Also there is no embargo in the book."

"Oh there isn't?"

However we did start thinking of more scifi takes on Coen brothers movie titles:

  • Green Blood Simple
  • Intolerable Cruelty To Robots
  • The Man Who Wasn't There Because He Got Teleported
  • True Grid
  • A Serious Spaceman [or, A Sirius Man]
  • O Brother Where Art Thou? Venus
  • Hail, God-Emperor!
  • The Hudsucker Epoxy
  • The Amazing Colossal Lebowski
  • No Planet For Old Men
  • Inside Llewyn Davis [unchanged]
  • @bartonfink
  • Literally Raising Arizona
  • Burn After Scanning
  • The Ladyreanimators
(If you liked this, consider skimming "Tonight's Episode".)
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: What Does An Award Do?: I posted on MetaFilter about the new Disobedience Award that MIT Media Lab is starting (nomination deadline: May 1st). And in the comments there, I stumbled into talking about why one might found an award, and thought it was worth expanding a bit here.

I think anyone who thinks for a second about awards -- assuming the judgment is carried out in good faith -- says, well, it's to reward excellence. Yup! But what are the particular ways an award rewards excellence, and when might an award be a useful tool to wield?

Let's say you are an organization and you genuinely want to celebrate and encourage some activity or principle, because you think it's important and there's not enough of it, particularly because there are so many norms and logistical disincentives pushing to reduce it. For example, you might want to encourage altruistic resistance. Let's say your organization already has a bunch of ongoing processes, like teaching or making products or processing information, and maybe you make some changes in those processes to increase how likely it is that you're encouraging altrustic resistance, but that isn't really apparent to the world outside your doors in the near term, and the effects take a while to percolate out.

So maybe you could set up an award. An award can:

  • get publicity for the idea that altruistic resistance is a thing to celebrate
  • help one specific person or group who's currently practicing altruistic resistance keep going, with money and attention, and make a big difference to their stamina and effectiveness
  • maybe bring attention to a list of finalists and help their work get more coverage
  • ensure the award administrators (and any judging committee involved) and, to a lesser extent, the reporters covering the award, will spend time thinking about the importance of altruistic resistance
  • cause a bunch of people to think "hmm, whom should I nominate?" and write a couple paragraphs about why their work is good and award-worthy (and, by causing that writing, also solidify the nominators' commitment to respecting and rewarding altruistic resistance)
  • demonstrate your institutional commitment to altruistic resistance, potentially sending a hard-to-ignore message to your future self to guide future decisions

And if an award keeps going and catches on, then people start using it as a shorthand for a goal. New practitioners can dream of winning the acclamation that a Pulitzer, a Nobel, a Presidential Medal of Freedom carries. If there's an award for a particular kind of excellence, and the community keeps records of who wins that award, then in hard moments, it can be easier for a practitioner to think of that roll call of heroes and say to herself in hard moments, "keep on going". We put people on pedestals not for them, but for us, so it's easier for us to see them and model ourselves after them.

So, all awards are simplistic summative judgments, but if the problem is that we need to balance the scales a bit, maybe it'll help anyway.

Nalo Hopkinson is doing it via the Lemonade Award for kindness in the speculative fiction community. The Tiptree Award does it for the expansion & exploration of gender. Open Source Bridge does it for community-making in open source with the Open Source Citizenship Award for "someone who has put in extra effort to share knowledge and make the open source world a better place."* It's worth considering: in your community, do people lack a way to find and celebrate a particular sort of excellence? You have a lot of tools you could wield, and awards are one of them.

* I realized today that I don't think the list of past Open Source Citizenship Award recipients is in one place anywhere! Each of these people was honored with a "Truly Outstanding Open Source Citizen" medal or plaque by the Open Source Bridge conference to celebrate our engagement "in the practice of an interlocking set of rights and responsibilities."

: Upcoming Talks: I happened upon the New York state Assembly's website last week,* and noticed an upcoming hearing about "Government oversight of forensic science laboratories" (PDF), hearing oral testimony by invitation only. I wondered: Who's on the list of witnesses? And will any of them talk about the danger of closed-source, unauditable code used in forensic science in the criminal justice system?

I followed up, and we got me, plus Rebecca Wexler, the author of that piece, invited to speak. We're testifying tomorrow, Wednesday, February 8th, in New York City. In preparation, I'm conferring with Karen Sandler of Software Freedom Conservancy (who was slotted to speak but now can't) and with acquaintances who work in government forensic labs.

I did speech and debate in high school so in some sense I have been preparing for this for twenty years.

A little further off:

Next week, I will participate in the WONTFIX Cabal (Maintainerati) unconference for open source maintainers on February 15, 2017, in San Francisco, California, USA.

I will give the closing keynote address at LibrePlanet, a free software conference, March 25-26, 2017, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. Tentative title: "Lessons, Myths, and Lenses: What I Wish I'd Known in 1998."

I will be one of the Guests of Honor at Penguicon, an open source and science fiction convention, April 28-30 2017, in Southfield, Michigan, USA.

* via Lauren Sperber's blog post about "the New York State Reproductive Health Act to get abortion removed from New York State's Penal Code"

: On LiveJournal: I've posted to MetaFilter about some recent goings-on at LiveJournal; if you have an LJ account you should probably take a look.

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: Yuletide 2016 Recommendations: Every year the Yuletide fanfic exchange delivers a bounty of fun transformative works concerning books, movies, songs, games, news stories, and other parts of our media landscape. I myself have, as they say, committed fanfic a few times, but right now I'm much more a reader and cheerleader than a fiction-writer. I have only started on this year's harvest but I already have some favorites to recommend:

A hopeful story, using "Expert judgment on markers to deter inadvertent human intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant" (you know, "Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.") to tell a ghost map story. (If you want more hope about far future human civilizations, try the fanvid "Dance Apocalyptic" which cheered me this year. And here's more fic about those waste markers.)

This fairy tale, about children and destiny, stands alone so you can read it even if you've never looked at the illustrations that inspire it.

There was once a land, long before and far away from these troubled times, where every child was born with a desire and a destination marked upon them, so that they might know what dwelt in their future. Upon their left hand, a symbol to represent what would give them the greatest happiness in their life. And upon their right hand, a compass that would lead them in the direction of where their desire might be found.

If you liked Hail, Caesar!, perhaps you wanted to revel in the loveliness of Hobie Doyle, who is an understated instance of the Captain Carrot/Middleman/Captain America/Agent Dale Cooper archetype.

The Ghostbusters get a call to a theater built in 1925, and Patty Tolan really shines.

"The War of the Worlds and All That" is a Jeeves and Wooster story that has aliens and mentions Gussie Fink-Nottle and the scripture knowledge prize Bertie won in school, and it's a bunch of fun. And if you're missing the sartorial scheming, enjoy "Jeeves and the Christmas Socks". (I grew up on Wodehouse and on the Fry and Laurie adaptations -- relatedly, here's a sweet story about Tony and Control.)

It's been a while since I read Jurassic Park but "A Strange Attractor in a Stable System" gets Ian Malcolm's voice so right.

If you enjoyed the 1941 movie Ball of Fire (particularly relevant to Wikipedians, incidentally), how about a crossover story that includes The Middleman? And, speaking of The Middleman, "The Extraterrestrial Elf Emergency" includes a paragraph I adore:

"We don't have Christmas on my planet," they said plaintively, through a translator box at the base of their throat. "All our holidays are about military victories and death. Christmas seemed fun."

This Mulan story makes the Disney movie make more sense in ways I had not even thought before.

If you enjoyed Good Omens then perhaps you will like one or more of the three different stories in which those characters enact their own version of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia".

I've never seen the 1944 film Gaslight but this story, set after the film, is about bravery and recovery and resilience and I drank it deep and felt nourished.

No, she thought. I must stop being afraid and bear this until it is done and then, then I'll consider what to do next.

I also enjoyed stories transforming Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Fresh Off The Boat, Arrested Development, Arrival, Baby-Sitters Club, and the Mahabharata. And I haven't finished this year's Yuletide yet. Thank you, authors and organizers!

: Answering the Phone: In one of my earliest internships, I volunteered in the local district office of my state Senator (that is, the guy who represented my area in the upper chamber of California's state legislature). I reordered and rearranged informational brochures for our waiting area, I filed, I took phone messages, I think eventually I graduated to writing drafts of replies to constituents for the staffers to revise and send. I volunteered there for a summer, which means that my time there overlapped with the Senate's recess, so I remember a lot more constituent service calls than policy calls -- and the district offices probably got fewer of those calls than the Sacramento office did, anyway.

One day, someone called and said something like, "I'm calling about the Senator's ethics violation." I had never heard anything about this and said "I'm sorry, which ethics violation is that?" to which the caller said "You mean there's more than one?!" I sputtered and put them on hold and took a message or transferred them to a staffer, which I clearly should have done as soon as I heard the tone of their voice and their general topic of inquiry, but hey, inexperience.

Within a few days, there was a letter to the editor in the local newspaper that mentioned this call and named me (I'm pretty sure misspelling my name) while excoriating the Senator and our office. My boss and colleagues sympathized and told me these things happen, and basically reassured me that this was not a black mark on my Permanent Record.

Decades later, I'm calling my local city councilmember, my Senators and my Representative who represent me in Congress, and related offices, spurred by emails from NGOs, aggregators like "We're His Problem Now" or Wall of Us, and local meetings. And sometimes I stumble over my words, not sure whether they want my name first or my message. But when the intern on the other end of the line says "I don't know what her position is on that; could you call back in 15 minutes? All the staffers who would know are in a meeting right now," I can smile and say "Yes, I can, and I know how it is, I've been on the other end of this call, it's fine." And at least I know I'm not utterly blindsidingly frustrating to deal with. I know, empirically, that I am not as bad as it gets.

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: Clover: On Sundays I make omelets. Today's omelets included three diced cloves of garlic.

"I wish to make you aware that we are basically in a garlic ratchet. I will be increasing the number of cloves of garlic involved in our Sunday omlets basically ad infinitum. In sort of a manigarlic destiny approach. So if at some point you find it's going too far, well, file a complaint with your local consulate."

"Well, since I am the one who buys the garlic, I think I can pretty effectively --"

"Oh, that's where the executive orders come in. You think you control appropriations?"

"Are you going to draw from the Strategic Garlic Reserve?"

"There's a slush fund."

(I see that I sort of went from early US President to ... emperor? ... to modern US President over the course of this flight of fancy.)

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: Podcast Recommendations: Podcasts I've been enjoying listening to recently include the following (I have not made my way through the back catalog of all of these, by the way):

: Election Day: Sumana in a chair, smiling, wearing an 'I Voted' stickerI voted today.

Starting Saturday, and for a bunch of Sunday and Monday, I phone-banked and text-banked for the Clinton/Kaine campaign. I also caught up with a few aunts and uncles of mine to remind them to vote, and to ask them to vote for Hillary Clinton.

One aunt of mine has stage IV cancer. It's inoperable. She has trouble getting around but her son will drive them both to the polls tomorrow. If she can't get out of the car, poll officials will come to her and bring her a ballot.

Today I put on a pantsuit and went to our pollsite to cast my ballot. We got there maybe fifteen minutes after the polls opened. Already a long, quiet line curved around the block, under early light in a clear sky.

In New York State: watch out for the so-called "Women's Equality Party".

In New York City: The official government poll site locator site will also tell you your electoral and assembly district, which might help you bypass the first queue when you get to your polling place.

Everywhere in the United States (and for US citizens abroad): helps you confirm where you'll vote and learn voting requirements (such as whether your state requires you to bring ID).

Several US states have same-day voter registration so you can register and vote today.

If you're having trouble voting, you can call the Election Protection Hotline.

  • 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683) -- English language hotline
  • 888-VE-Y-VOTA (888-839-8682) -- Spanish language hotline
  • 888-API-VOTE (888-274-8683) -- Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Tagalog
  • 1-844-418-1682 -- Arabic language hotline

Spanish speakers in the US can also text VOTA to 47246 for voting help.

Now: more phone-banking.

: Book Catch-up: I need to catch up with my book reviews or at least log some of the books I've read and liked. I have some notes going back more than a year -- I'll do a very uneven and incomplete recounting just to start catching up.

In mid-2015, for instance, I read and enjoyed several stories in the Kaleidoscope anthology, Andrea Phillips's Revision, Jennie Crusie's Bet Me and Welcome to Temptation, a big chunk of Thomas Merton's New Seeds of Contemplation, about a third of Charles Platt's interview collection Dream makers: the uncommon people who write science fiction, and more. And I reread Losing Joe's Place by Gordon Korman. I remember the first time I ever read Losing Joe's Place, in a childhood bedroom in Stockton, to calm and entertain myself after a scary episode of Unsolved Mysteries. It still holds up as comfort reading.

This year I reread Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy). I'd read them as they came out but this was the first time I read them all in a row. As I mentioned in a Making Light comment which is a longer review of the third book (but I softened my view upon rereading), I thought the shape of the books' narratives was interesting -- the first book is like an arrow, and the second is like a V, going from spaceship (and functional community) to space station to planet and back again. What's the third one like? Another commenter, TexAnne, said: an orbit. Yes. These are books about power-over versus power-with, about an unreliable narrator, about the Borg as protagonist, about complicity, and -- Ancillary Sword especially -- trying to give up privilege when it's superglued to your hand and won't come off (Of Noble Family by Mary Robinette Kowal takes on that same issue and it's a reason I'm fond of them both). The most resounding and heartbreaking bit of Ancillary Sword is Queter saying that she can make you look at it. Zeiat's demonstration of cakes and counters -- how we socially construct differences & sameness -- has an enthusiastic explication by JJ Hunter. I'm reminded of the comparison in Emily Nagoski's book Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life of us and constellations -- the effect of having the same parts, but arranged differently, can be tremendous. (And there's now a fan trailer for the Imperial Radch books!)

More as logging than as reviewing: I haven't yet blogged here about reading Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer, Known Associates by thingswithwings, Hold Me and other recent works by Courtney Milan, Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, Making Conversation by Teresa Nielsen Hayden, the Hamilton book, Zen Cho's The Terracotta Bride, Ken Liu's The Grace of Kings, Jeannie Lin's The Lotus Palace, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl written by Ryan North, Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, part of Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana, and probably other books. And I want to note that in the last year I've reread, or reread most of, Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon, Travels by Michael Crichton, Zodiac by Neal Stephenson, American Taxation, American Slavery by Robin Einhorn, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin, How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, Getting to Yes by Fisher and Ury, A Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag by Gordon Korman, and Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary -- plus probably other stuff I'm not remembering off the top of my head. I read Octavia Butler's Parable of the Talents and Parable of the Sower, one of which I'd read before and one of which I hadn't. Bracing, and inspiring the way that memoirs of successful activists can be inspiring.

Right now I'm making my way through Elinor Ostrom's Nobel Prize lecture, "Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems", and Thomas Pynchon's Bleeding Edge.

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(2) : Political Memories: I've been reminiscing about past US elections and administrations.* I've been paying attention to US federal politics since the early nineties, which means I remember a lot of details that many younger politics enthusiasts don't. I decided to dredge some of them up:

I imagine some of my readers will be utterly uninterested in this litany, and some will be a little curious, and some will say "AGGGGH" and remember a bunch of things they thought they had forgot in a partially pleasing and partially disorienting experience. I will admit that this entry is mostly aimed at that last group.

* I misheard Leonard or something and we came up with the phrase "Munchin' Accomplished" which he immediately realized ought to be the name of a George W. Bush-administration-themed food cart. It would serve:

  • Freedom fries
  • Pretzels
  • "Condoleezza" rice (her name is Italian, so, risotto maybe?)
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