Cogito, Ergo Sumana

picture of Sumana's head

Sumana Harihareswara's journal


: Design, and Friction Preventing Design Improvement, in Open Tech: This month a Recurser I know, Pepijn de Vos, observed a concentration of high-quality open source software in the developer tools category, to the exclusion of other categories. With a few exceptions.

I understood where he's coming from, though my assessment differs. I started reflecting on those exceptions. Do they "prove the rule" in the colloquial sense that "every rule has exceptions," or do they "prove the rule" in the older sense, in that they give us an opportunity to test the rule? A few years ago I learned about this technique called "appreciative inquiry" which says: look at the unusual examples of things that are working well, and try to figure out how they've gotten where they are, so we can try to replicate it. So I think it's worth thinking a bit more about those exceptional FLOSS projects that aren't developer tools and that are pretty high-quality, in user experience design and robust functionality. And it's worth discussing problems and approaches in product management and user experience design in open source, and pointing to people already working on it.

FLOSS with good design and robust functionality: My list would include Firefox, Chromium, NetHack, Android, Audacity, Inkscape, VLC, the Archive Of Our Own, Written? Kitten!, Signal, Zulip, Thunderbird, and many of the built-in applications on the Linux desktop. I don't have much experience with Blender or Krita, but I believe they belong here too. (Another category worth thinking about: FLOSS software that has no commercial competitor, or whose commercial competitors are much worse, because for-profit companies would be far warier of liability or other legal issues surrounding the project. Examples: youtube-dl, Firefox Send, VLC again, and probably some security/privacy stuff I don't know much about.)

And as I start thinking about what helped these projects get where they are, I reach for the archetypes at play. I'll ask James and Karl to check my homework, but as I understand it:

Mass Market: NetHack, VLC, Firefox, Audacity, Inkscape, Thunderbird, youtube-dl
Controlled Ecosystem: Zulip, Archive Of Our Own
Business-to-business open source: Android, Chromium
Rocket Ship To Mars: Signal
Bathwater? Wide Open? Trusted Vendor? not sure: Written? Kitten!

The only "Wide Open" example that easily comes to mind for me is robotfindskitten, a game which -- like Written? Kitten! -- does one reasonably simple thing and does it well. Leonard reflected on reasons for its success at Roguelike Celebration 2017 (video). But I'd be open to correction, especially by people who are familiar with NetHack, VLC, Audacity, Inkscape, or youtube-dl development processes.

Design: Part of de Vos's point is about cost and quality in general. But I believe part of what he's getting at is design. Which FLOSS outside of developer tooling has good design?

In my own history as an open source contributor and leader, I've worked some on developer tools like PyPI and a linter for OpenNews, but quite a lot more on tools for other audiences, like MediaWiki, HTTPS Everywhere, Mailman, Zulip, bits of GNOME, AltLaw, and the WisCon app. The first open source project I ever contributed to, twelve years ago, was Miro, a video player and podcatcher. And these projects had all sorts of governance/funding structures: completely volunteer-run with and without any formal home, nonprofit with and without grants, academic, for-profit within consultancies and product companies.

So I know some of the dynamics that affect user experience in FLOSS for general audiences (often negatively), and discussed some of them in my code4lib keynote "User Experience is a Social Justice Issue" a few years ago. I'm certainly not alone; Simply Secure, Open Source Design, Cris Beasley, The Land, Clar, and Risker are just a few of the thinkers and practitioners who have shared useful thoughts on these problems.

In 2014, I wrote a few things about this issue, mostly in public, like the code4lib keynote and this April Fool's joke:

It turns out you can go into your init.cfg file and change the usability flag from 0 to 1, and that improves user experience tremendously. I wonder why distributions ship it turned off by default?
Wikimedia and pushback: But I also wrote a private email that year that I'll reproduce below. I wrote it about design change friction in Wikimedia communities, so it shorthands some references to, for instance, a proposed opt-in Wikimedia feature to help users hide some controversial images. But I hope it still provides some use even if you don't know that history.

I wanted to quickly summarize some thoughts and expand on the conversation you and I had several days ago, on reasons Wikimedia community members have a tough time with even opt-in or opt-out design changes like the image filter or VisualEditor or Media Viewer.

  • ideology of a free market of ideas -- the cure for bad speech is more speech, if you can't take the heat then you should not be here, aversion to American prudishness etc., etc. (more relevant for image filter)

    • relatedly "if you can't deal with the way things are then you are too stupid to be here" (more applicable to design simplifications like Media Viewer and VisualEditor)

  • people are bad at seeing that the situation that has incrementally changed around them is now a bad one (frog in pot of boiling water); see checkbox proliferation and baroque wikitext/template metastasis

  • most non-designers are bad at design thinking (at assessing a design, imagining it as a changeable prototype, thinking beyond their initial personal and aesthetic reaction, sussing out workflows and needs and assessing whether a proposed design would suit them, thinking from other people's points of view, thinking from the POV of a newcomer, etc.)

    • relatedly, we do not share a design vocabulary of concepts, nor principles that we aim to uphold or judge our work against (in contrast see our vocabulary of concepts and principles for Wikipedia content, e.g. NPOV, deletionism/inclusionism)

      • so people can only speak from their own personal aesthetics and initial reactions, which are often negative because in general people are averse to surprise novelty in environments they consider home, and the discourse can't rise beyond "I don't like it, therefore it sucks"

  • past history of difficult conversations, sometimes badly managed (e.g. image filter) and too-early rollout of buggy feature as a default (e.g. VisualEditor), causes once-burned-twice-shy wariness about new WMF features

    • Wikimedians' core ethos: "It's a wiki" (if you see a problem, e.g. an error in a Wikipedia article, try to fix it); everyone is responsible for maintaining and improving the project, preventing harm

      • ergo people who feel responsible for the quality of the project are like William F. Buckley's "National Review" in terms of their conservatism, standing athwart history yelling "stop"

I haven't answered some questions: what are the common patterns in our success stories (governance, funding, community size, maintainership history, etc.)? How do we address or prevent problems like the ones I mentioned seeing within Wikimedia? But it's great to see progress on those questions from organizations like Wikimedia and Simply Secure and Open Tech Strategies (disclosure: I often do work with the latter), and I do see hope for plausible ways forward.


: Recurse Center, What Really Works And How We Know: I participated in Recurse Center (formerly Hacker School) in 2013 and in 2014, and emerged a better programmer, a calmer and kinder person, and a more confident learner. Gender diversity was part of the quality of that experience:

When part of the joy of a place is that gender doesn't matter, it's hard to write about that joy, because calling attention to gender is the opposite of that....

But, as Nick Bergson-Shilcock says in "What we've learned from seven years of working to make RC 50% women, trans, and non-binary", "We focus on diversity so Recursers can focus on programming.":

In April of 2012, we announced our goal to make RC 50% women. Seven years later, we are close to reaching an improved version of this goal: 48% of new Recursers in 2019 so far identify as women, trans, or non-binary. This post is a summary of what we’ve tried, learned, and accomplished over the past seven years, as well as our overall strategy and why we choose to prioritize this work.

Bergson-Shilcock's case study shares stats, what didn't work, and what they don't know yet -- the people who run RC are consistently like this, and this writeup exemplifies their judgment, integrity, and foresight. Even when I've disagreed with RC's faculty, I have always come away from the disagreement with my trust in them intact or increased. How many institutions could I describe in that way? Not many.

One last thing -- I've recently been trying to avoid saying "community" when I really mean group, set, school, industry, project, or workplace, and Bergson-Shilcock's articulation is gonna help me do that and to value substantive communities:

Having a genuine community requires that people know the other people around them, and that everyone shares some fundamental values and purpose.


: PyCon NA, !!Con, and WisCon: I'm back in New York City, and preparing to travel a bit; May is my big conference month this year.

I'll start the month at PyCon North America in Cleveland, Ohio, practically the whole conference, 1-9 May. I'm co-organizing The Art of Python, an arts festival -- several short plays, plus a fanvid and live music -- the night of Friday, May 3rd. And during the sprints, 6-9 May, I'll be concentrating on the world of Python packaging and distribution, e.g., PyPI.

I'll go home to New York City, then go to !!Con 11-12 May, where I am not organizing or speaking or suchlike.

And then I'll be at WisCon in Madison, Wisconsin, for the whole convention, 24-27 May plus a little extra on either side. I will once again be the comedy auctioneer for the auction on Saturday night that benefits the Tiptree Award -- if you have something to donate to the auction, please let us know by 15 May. I may not make it to the Floomp or the vid party. I will probably be on a few panels; several panels are still seeking volunteer panellists (sign up by 19 April). I do plan to be at the Gathering and the Dessert Salon (heads-up, changes to Dessert Salon entry flow).

If you're going to be at any of these events, perhaps we can share a beverage! If you want to make sure that we do that, let's actually set up at least a tentative appointment soon, so I can put it in my calendar.

I will be more responsive to emails and text messages than to social media while at these conferences, and in particular, I may see mentions and direct messages on Mastodon but I probably won't see mentions or direct messages on Twitter. Also, I am pretty forgiving about being called mispronunciations of my name, but here's a recording in case you want help -- I also respond to "Vikki" which is the fake name I use with strangers at restaurants. And I will probably not hug you unless we know each other well.


: Availability Update for April: I'm going to be off social media a lot between now and about April 14th. Please email if you want to reach me - https://www.harihareswara.net/ & https://changeset.nyc/#contact have my address - but I will probably be slow & terse in response.


: Expectations, Toil and Sludge, Discovery, And A Lot of Handwaving: I have an inchoate tangle of thoughts I'll spill out into this sandbox for thinking -- sometimes on this blog you get well-organized how-to guides and analyses, and sometimes you get "what constellation do these points make?".

My cri de coeur on the unnecessary fiddly and risky labor of everyday life got quite a lot of people saying yes, THAT to me. A friend pointed me to Cass Sunstein's recent piece calling this sort of thing sludge, but only today did I remember a Jon Carroll piece I love that includes:

I wrote radio advertisements for the Mercury News that were read at the halftimes of San Jose State football games. I ran a kind of Keno-like circulation promotion game; I had to check thousands of entries a week to see if the numbers matched the ones I had previously drawn.

As I did, I repeated a sentence that had stuck in my head from some political science class. I thought it was from Marx: "Man shall be saved from repetitive labor." Maybe Marx did say it; silly man.

And that reminded me that, in DevOps, they call that kind of work "toil". Work that we need a human's judgment to do is fine; work that could be automated away is toil, and we should minimize and automate it. And sometimes the powers that be aren't willing to prioritize that work, perhaps because they don't care enough about the problem or about the burden of addressing it, which helps you understand Liz Fong-Jones saying: "I'm focusing my EDII work on making tech a *safe* place to work with adequate career advancement opportunities before I'd recommend it. I'm done with pipeline work and diversity toil."

So far, so clear, but this is where everything gets tangly, for me. I want to liberate myself from toil and sludge, and there are ways to dissolve the sludge in money or cleverness, like by hiring a virtual assistant, or negotiating a car purchase via email without having to quarrel with a sales rep in person or on the phone. And where there is unavoidable toil and disappointment I need to accept it and move on. A change of expectations can be its own kind of liberation. But I need to not just liberate myself! The classic serenity prayer asks for the serenity to accept the things one cannot change, the courage to change that which can be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference. But it's dynamic, not static, right? One also needs the discipline to make sure to check again later, to possibly un-accept a thing that turns out to be changeable, or the reverse....

Maturity seems to be a discovery of the things I can't do that I thought I could, and the surprising things I can do. There are core parts of me that will not change, like a tendency to want to feel helpful that can get in the way of actually making a dent in things. And then there are the things I find myself telling my friends (while being careful about advice): did you know this is a thing you can do? You can submit multiple talk proposals, not just one, to most tech conferences. You can submit a play, even if they haven't said specifically that they want plays. Sometimes you can negotiate a layoff. You can tell your professional network that you'd like to serve on a nonprofit board, in case anyone's looking to fill a seat. You can move, you can leave, you can, you can.

And some toil you can skip! And within that: some toil you can just skip, and it's fine. And then there's toil that, if you skip it, someone else has to pick up after you.

This is big and complicated and political and philosophical and whatnot. I should eat dinner.

Filed under:


: It's Not Just You: Malka Older writes:

here's the thing about "adulting": so much of it is entirely unnecessary. I have spent so many hours on health insurance and I only know because I lived in another country that health insurance can function perfectly well without that tax on my time.

Or take tax returns, which we spend time and money doing, even though they could be vastly simplified because the govt already has most of that data. Like the forms they make you fill out at the border even though most of that info is already in your passport (no forms in EU)

all of these tasks that we are taught are inevitable parts of being adult in an advanced society exist either because our society is not as advanced as it pretends or because it has advanced in the direction of making things easier for capital and harder for labor (or both)

Older's point, echoed in Anne Helen Petersen's January piece "How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation", reverberates in my life today: a ton of fiddly expensive-if-you-make-a-mistake labor has emerged or shifted onto the middle class's shoulders, without commensurate logistical, psychological, or financial support for that shift.

This came to mind today because some of us were talking about the anxiety of booking travel. Well -- Back In The Past we paid travel agents to do this sort of thing, learning all the complicated routes and fare trends and quality standards! (And even further in the past, people rarely travelled and we assumed that, of course, travelling to another city would take at least days if not weeks or months of preparation!)

Expectations around planning, decision speed and responsibility, and focus that used to only apply to executives with secretaries now apply to all knowledge workers. And I am struck by how many skills we are expected to have, as adults in 2019 middle-class America, that NO ONE HAS EVER HAD BEFORE, basically.

Here, manage e-mail, a.k.a. this endless TODO list that grows without your input.

Here, resist the best gambling temptation ever invented, which is on the same device you are expected to carry at all times. (When I talk to nonprogrammers these days, I take the opportunity to apologize on behalf of my industry. Email management, calendar management, and internet harassment - all of them are so much more of a burden than they have to be, because we have not done well enough.)

Here, make plans based on the most volatile future anyone has ever had. (And Do Your Bit regarding the greatest collective action problem there is, fighting global warming (which means: decide what Your Bit is, and feel good enough about that decision that the emotional miasma doesn't taint all the rest of your hours.))

Be as decisive as a 19th century tycoon, as nurturing to your family as a TV mom, and love your body as you are (but surely you could fix xyz).

You can't do it all; no one can.

I mean, heck. The other day I saw an ad for a Wells Fargo app feature called "Control Tower" where the use case is, specifically, "you pay monthly subscription fees for things you don't use - this feature helps you find those things so you can go cancel them". Wells Fargo specifically developed/tested/deployed this feature and made an expensive polished TV ad and paid for it to be broadcast (or in this case used as a web ad between acts of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), because it's going to be that profitable a product differentiator, because millions of people get confused/misled into recurring fees, because "deceiving us has become an industrial process."

I don't have a solution. But at least I can try to keep this in mind, when the overwhelm starts to get to me. It's All Too Much not because I am inadequate, but because standards for my class's behavior have risen faster than we've built the infrastructure and prosthetics we'd need to meet them, and because of an unequal distribution of the benefits of the information revolution.

Filed under:


(2) : Steerswoman Series: If you have never read Rosemary Kirstein's "Steerswoman" book series I envy you because I just read them and it was such a thrill ride. Here's the first chapter of the first book as a free online read; you can buy the existing quartet as paper or ebook via her sidebar.

I need to concentrate on client work and Art Of Python prep and backlog-grinding right now, and yet I heard about these books and started and finished all of them within two weeks -- it was that immersive kind of reading that took me back to being a teenager, grabbing 5 spare minutes to get through a few more pages while walking from the subway to my destination. I was living this Nathan W. Pyle comic.

To quote the blurb/marketing copy for the first book:

If you ask, she must answer. A steerswoman's knowledge is shared with any who request it; no steerswoman may refuse a question, and no steerswoman may answer with anything but the truth.

And if she asks, you must answer. It is the other side of tradition's contract -- and if you refuse the question, or lie, no steerswoman will ever again answer even your most casual question.

And so, the steerswomen -- always seeking, always investigating -- have gathered more and more knowledge about the world they traveled, and they share that knowledge freely.

Until the day that the steerswoman Rowan begins asking innocent questions about one small, lovely, inexplicable object...

Her discoveries grow stranger and deeper, and more dangerous, until suddenly she finds she must flee or fight for her life. Or worse -- lie.

Because one kind of knowledge has always been denied to the steerswomen:

Magic.

Friendship, adventure, science, kind people finding stuff out, wonder, humor, dramatic irony, close observation that feeds into the protagonist's mystery-solving, skill-sharing, road trips, conversations about problem-solving and "what the heck is going on here" that feel like rooms I've been in.... it's wonderful and I in particular want to call your attention to this series if you fit any of the following criteria:

  • You like The Good Place
  • You enjoyed Andreas Eschbach's The Carpet Makers
  • You gave up on Stross's Merchant Princes series because you didn't care about what would happen next
  • You are a technologist or scientist (here's an essay she wrote about the series, noting that we are all discoverers)
  • You enjoy stories about women's friendships
  • You enjoy stories where people of all genders and races intermingle without their genders or races getting in the way of what people think they can do or be
  • You enjoy stories where some characters have physical disabilities and are portrayed realistically and respectfully
  • You find that a lot of scene descriptions in fiction, especially fantasy, feel unmotivated and slow the story down (most of Kirstein's scene descriptions serve character and plot!)
  • You think of yourself as someone who has historically preferred science fiction to fantasy
  • You've vaguely heard about these books but thought they were out of print (recently Kirstein got the rights back and reissued them!)
  • You're hungry for a story where the protagonist has the analytical and observational skills of a scientist-detective and is not a misanthrope

If you have not read these books, AVOID SPOILERS AND READ THE BOOKS IN ORDER, starting with The Steerswoman. Avoid also the paperback covers from the original print run as they contain spoilers!

If you've already read these books, I offer these links for your delectation:

Huge thanks to Zack Weinberg for recommending these as excellent fluff.

Filed under:


: Testing, Testing: Billboard-style ad for Vimeo: 'Turn soul-crushing feedback into organized soul-crushing feedback.'When I was in high school, a zillion years ago, I got reallllly good scores on the SAT I* and the PSAT (which played the Silver Surfer to the SAT's Galactus). I was good at taking standardized tests. I was the kind of completionist perfectionist who was disappointed at getting, like, a 1570 out of 1600 when I took the SAT. I believe it was Mateo who told me**: the upper reaches of SAT scores, between about 1450 and 1600, are essentially a matter of luck, volatile variation that it's practically impossible for the test-taker to control.

I was catching up with an old colleague last month and mentioned that I've been thinking a lot, in the last few years, about assessments, about how we assess our own and each other's skill and knowledge. And he was curious about what's prompted that. I talked a bit about how we form ambition -- to learn something and to have that mastery validated by people whose judgment we trust -- and how we don't have good ways to check our own skill levels in programming, so the job market ends up fulfilling that role (badly). And about summative and formative assessment, and how it can be hard to really make a space for truly formative assessment. And I didn't get around to talking about the function of public awards in these systems but that's connected too. And we got to talking about performance evaluation cycles at workplaces, and how working with superlative colleagues can mean always feeling behind.

Candlemaking items on countertop: three cylindrical metal molds filled with hot reddish wax, a wax-encrusted tray and spoon, and molten wax in pots atop a burner.And I meant to joke about Quantified Self-Loathing, about how it's now easier than it's ever been to constantly compare your own work to that of the best people in your field. Lyndsey once joked with me: "'Oh look, this person made 36% more commits than you did last month.' The problem isn't Quantified Self, it's Quantified Other People's Selves."

But -- I realize, looking back -- of course I want to dig into how we test. Because the particular kind of scaling-up of human interaction our civilization has chosen demands constant pseudo-objective assessments: star ratings, application processes, credit scores, engagement metrics. Precarity and austerity and the gig economy factor in; one's not told that one could not possibly get what one wants, but that one failed a test that others passed. And panopticon-style surveillance adds the layer of other unaccountable assessors, whose criteria and even whose identities are opaque. And, by living my ordinarily life, I am complicit in becoming endless statistics; my own actions get added to this soup and used to judge others.

Candlemaking items on countertop: pots on a burner, molds in tray, and an orange candle on a napkin, wick still tied to stabilization stick.To be at home, to be at ease, is to be in a place where -- ideally -- no one is assessing you, judging you. Second-best is to be in a place where they're judging you, but fairly, by rules you know and can follow.

The word I haven't used yet here is "anxiety".

I visited the Bay Area late last year and caught up with some old friends. It turns out a few of them are rich now. I mean, not "my escape plan for the coming climate refugee crisis involves an island" rich as far as I know, but "worked at the right place at the right time and acquired the right stocks" rich. And then there are some folks, just as talented, who did not. There's a reason they call it "winning the startup lottery."

I only bought a few tickets to the startup lottery, and I did not win, and I stopped playing. Financially I am better off than a LOT of people. But I feel that same multidimensional vertigo that probably a lot of my readers feel:

  • class mobility disorientation stemming from the dissonance between childhood and now
  • class consciousness stemming from the delta in financial stability between me, now, and most of the people I pass on the sidewalk every day
  • class consciousness stemming from the delta in financial security between me, now, and the rich people I run into via work and my social circles
  • existential uncertainty about the future of all of humanity, making all "investing for the long term" financial decisions suspect***

White man holding matchbox in one hand and using a match to light a candle in the other.The disorientation of travel can actually be a relief sometimes, when it matches an inner antsiness. This past weekend Leonard and I went on a tiny vacation to see a few friends -- Mike in Cleveland, then the Zack-and-Pam household in Pittsburgh. We've known Zack Weinberg (now Doctor Zachary Weinberg!) for ages, starting back when we all lived in the Bay Area. Sunday afternoon it was super cold out, so we got out Zack's candlemaking supplies and I learned a bit about how the whole process works -- I'd seen the implements and read his candlemaking tribulation blog posts back in the early 2000s but this was the first time I'd helped with the whole process, start to finish.

Zack showed me how to measure and cut wicks, thread them into the molds, and secure them. The bit that seems like the top at first, where you pour the wax, ends up being the bottom of the finished candle. We melted a block of whitish/clear paraffin in a bain Marie. We had bits of dye we could put in -- red, yellow, green, and blue, I think. What color did we want to make? Orange, I suggested. So we put in bits of yellow and red dye. The hot, molten wax is translucent, practically transparent; to test the color you have to spoon a bit out and drip it onto a surface, and let it cool. And then, to replicate a bit of the thickness of a real candle, you drip a bit more on and let it cool, so the light has to refract through more of the solid wax. The pinkish hue was fine for a pretty sunset or a dessert, but it wasn't quite the orange we wanted, so we added more yellow, and more, and saw the test drips iterate through shades of salmon. OK, we figured, orangey orange wasn't going to happen, we'd have some nice rosy candles.

Two of the three molds leaked and leaked and leaked -- the hole for the wick loves to let hot wax out, especially when a first-timer like me pours the wax in a bunch of stutters instead of one fluid motion. Repour, watch, see a leak, pour/scrape the wax back into the pot, repeat. It turned out we didn't quite have enough wax for the three forms, so we stirred in a few handfuls of crumbled uncolored soy wax. Finally we made an icewater bath in a tray and set the tray of cooling molds in there, which slowed the leaks down so the wax had time to harden before it could escape.

Close-up of a hand lighting an orange candle.And then when we slid the cooled candles out of their molds -- orange after all! You have to wait to find out what you'll get.

We briefly lit the small one, the one Pam and Zack gave Leonard and me to take with us. We joked that we were obeying the "Plea from the Author" of the candlemaking book Zack had on his shelf, which I'd skimmed during the melting-waits and cooling-waits. In The Candlemaker's Companion: A complete guide to rolling, pouring, dipping, and decorating your own candles, Betty Oppenheimer writes:

Please, please, please, burn candles! Too many people save them, look at them, fondle them, keep them wrapped up in a drawer or forever in the same centerpiece holder, never to be burned.

It breaks my heart....

On a practical level, you will need to burn your candles to test the compatibility of your wax and wick. The more you burn, the less painful it will be to see your work go up in flames, and the more you will appreciate the fruits of your labor....

...Lead by example, and burn your work!

We lit the candle to test it, to check the ratio of the molten wax pool to the diameter of the pillar, but also just because a candle is meant to be inflamed. And because it's a rich warm quiet moment, to silently watch the flame on a candle you made with friends you've known since before you were quite you.


* "However, in 1997, the College Board announced that the SAT could not properly be called the Scholastic Assessment Test, and that the letters SAT did not stand for anything." Whenever I hear about an initialism giving up the words it used to be based on I remember that old saying: if you don't stand for anything you'll fall for everything!

** In the editing room in IA7, probably, loading edited stories onto the big Mac to flow into Quark XPress. He and I co-edited the high school paper's opinion page together and talked about X-Files. Now we're both in the tech industry and we're both Recurse Center alumni. I still marvel that we ran into each other again.

*** And of course that last one is on a whole other level. Everything else, I at least theoretically know how to deal with: meditation, activism, keeping a varied friend group, and so on. Climate change grief -- "This civilisation is finished: So what is to be done?" -- pervades, and "Its severity and urgency and the sheer evil of how we are sliding into it demand that we tear our lives up to try to stop or at least slow it down." And I am a coward about this, and this footnote is part of me trying to talk about it so I become a bit less of a coward.

Filed under:


: GSoC/Outreachy Mentoring Orgs: Consider Giving Applicants English Tutoring: Google Summer of Code just announced the 207 mentoring organizations (open source projects seeking participants) for this year's round, and Outreachy's 9 mentoring orgs also announced open internship projects.

This blog post is directed at org admins and mentors for those projects.

Many of your applicants are not fluent English writers. You have probably already experienced this, but stats back me up: Last year, GSoC had 5,199 applicants from 101 countries, many of which are not countries where English is a major medium of instruction. And nearly all the schools in the top ten were engineering schools in India, and Indian engineering schools do not teach students how to write in English at what the open source world considers a professional level. That lack of communication skills hurts your applicants as engineers, and as potential open source contributors in the long run.

I was an org admin for several years and saw, over and over, how many of our applicants had a hard time getting help and getting their ideas across because of poor writing skills. Mentors reviewed code and helped them become better coders, but weren't giving the same kind of systematic feedback about emails, bug reports, and so on, so applicants' writing skills stagnated.

In 2017, to address this, I ran English tutoring sessions for Zulip contributors. You can do this too.

Here's the call for volunteer tutors I used. Note that I explained my request in terms of global diversity and inclusion, reassured them that I'd set them up in the chatroom and be available to backchannel with them, and said "It's fine if you've never done this before and it's fine if you're not a programmer and don't know programming jargon." I circulated this request in scifi fandom, in particular in the fanfic community, which has tens of thousands of people who enjoy volunteering to proofread each other's written work and chatting online. A big source of volunteers was the Radio Free Monday weekly fandom newsletter (6 March 2017). I got 30 volunteers and was able to schedule 15 of them to tutor, and several of those volunteers were willing to do multiple 90-minute sessions.

Here's the announcement email I sent to our GSoC applicant mailing list.

We ran the tutoring sessions in the "learning" channel of our Zulip chat so it was easy to paste in links, explain proper formatting, and put side conversations in another thread. Here's the Dropbox Paper shared signup sheet where I kept the schedule and instructions for learners and tutors (basically: learners show up with a short written sample and with some thoughts about how they want to improve, and tutors take 30 minutes to critique each sample). The signup sheet format was, for example:

​​​Date & time: Sunday, March 19th, 1:00-2:30 PM ET (10:30 PM-12 AM in India) ​​
Host: Teresa
​​Cohost: Sumana
​​Channel: https://chat.zulip.org/#narrow/stream/learning/topic/English.20tutoring
​​Learners:
  1. Ayush
  2. Hari
  3. Italo

If only one person signed up for a session, that person got help for 45-60 minutes. Or, sometimes, we got drop-ins as other contributors got curious and realized they could ask for help on their blog posts or GSoC applications as well. After I got each tutor settled in I didn't have to pay attention for the whole 90 minutes, so I could do other Zulip work and check in occasionally -- and eventually other Zulip contributors helped out by "cohosting" so sessions could happen without me.

We ran about 20 sessions, and about 40 contributors got tutoring. They wrote better internship applications, blog posts, bug reports, code comments, pull requests, and mailing list posts because of what they learned in these sessions -- and they were so grateful for even 30 minutes of in-depth advice, because some of them had never gotten friendly, personal critique of their written English from a fluent speaker before.

So please copy me! And if several people tell me their projects are doing this, I'll help publicize your efforts together. There are a lot of fluent English writers with free time and an internet connection who would love to help the open source community in this way. Like Wikipedia, we can turn "Someone is WRONG on the Internet" into a good thing. :-)


: API Copyrightability Law Brings (Many of) Us Together: 'You Wouldn't Reimplement An API' in grungy typeface So you know that moment partway through a movie where heroes team up and stride toward the camera in slow motion while epic music plays?

The Python Software Foundation's counsel, Van Lindberg, writes: @ThePSF and @tidelift just filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to grant cert in Oracle v. Google. This case is central to the future of free and open source software. http://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/18/18-956/89548/20190225155816527_18-956%20Amici%20Brief%20Python.pdf

Tidelift cofounder Luis Villa notes: More on this tomorrow, but very excited to join @ThePSF in this. At @tidelift we believe in growing the pie, not fighting over the scraps, and the ability to reuse and reimplement APIs is part of how the software industry has grown (and hopefully will continue to grow!)

(Amicus/amici curiae briefs always remind me of a cartoon Seth Schoen drew.)

From the brief:

The Federal Circuit's decisions are so destabilizing because they upset the settled expectations of thousands of software developers -- and particularly open source software licensees -- across all aspects of the economy.

Yup -- one reason the docket has so many other amici briefs. As far as I can tell, all of them are in favor of the Court granting certiorari.


: Interesting University Press Ebooks via NYPL: Hey New York Public Library patrons!

Today I looked at NYPL's "E-Book Central" and discovered University Press Scholarship Online. Click "Connect to database" and enter your NYPL barcode number and PIN, and you can read a bunch of books from university presses for free in your browser (or, if you accept certain additional terms, download PDFs chapter-by-chapter)!

Most of the university press books I looked for weren't in there, but I definitely saw some interesting titles, such as:

  • MIT Press: Obfuscation: A User's Guide for Privacy and Protest by Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum, about "the production of noise modeled on an existing signal in order to make a collection of data more ambiguous, confusing, harder to exploit, more difficult to act on, and therefore less valuable" -- and the chapter "Closer to the Metal" by Finn Brunton and Gabriella Coleman, in Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society (I met Finn a zillion years ago and always find his writing interesting)
  • again MIT Press: The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise by Nathan L. Ensmenger
  • University Press of Mississippi: Time in Television Narrative: Exploring Temporality in Twenty-First-Century Programming, edited by Melissa Ames, about how a bunch of shows "rely upon temporal and narrative experimentation" (The Wire, Damages, Lost, Arrested Development, it goes on and on)
  • Oxford University Press: Bipolar Identity: Region, Nation and the Kannada Language Film by M.K. Raghavendra
  • Princeton University Press: The Golden Ticket: P, NP, and the Search for the Impossible by Lance Fortnow
  • MIT Press: Venture Labor: Work and the Burden of Risk in Innovative Industries by Gina Neff
  • Edinburgh University Press: Masculinity and Popular Television by Rebecca Feasey
  • From University of Chicago Press, two books I noticed because Harry Brighouse (author at Crooked Timber) coedited or coauthored them: The Aims of Higher Education: Problems of Morality and Justice and Educational Goods: Values, Evidence, and Decision-Making
  • Oxford University Press: Echoes of Mutiny: Race, Surveillance, and Indian Anticolonialism in North America by Seema Sohi, which I first heard about when reading about the history of anti-Asian racism in the US and South Africa and British surveillance of South Asians in the United States who advocated Indian independence in SAADA.

(You may be eligible for an NYPL card even if you don't know it yet: "Any person who lives, works, attends school or pays property taxes in New York State is eligible to receive a New York Public Library card free of charge.")

Filed under:


: Tropes, and Missing Stories, in Art about Programming: two snowflakes made out of gold paper"The Art of Python", the one-night arts festival about your experience of programming, is still open for proposals, till February 28th.

What experiences do we want to explore? We want variety -- because there are so many experiences we don't usually see! I hope we get a range of tones -- humor, awe, melancholy, anger, joy, and so on. And I'm curious about ones we often don't discuss factually in public, because they're embarrassing or because we have non-disclosure agreements.

But also: there are so many missing stories -- even when movies, shows, books, plays, songs, etc. include programmers/programming, I so rarely find that they speak to the joys and sorrows of our experiences.

I listed, as inspirations, some of the ones that get it right, and asked for prior art. But -- admitting that I'm nearly entirely limited to English-language media -- I'm taking a moment here to reflect more deeply on what we usually get, and don't, in mass-media art about programming.

Movies and TV shows: There are a ton of movies that get the Internet hilariously wrong, and movies/shows "about programmers" are often much more about spies or tycoons. We tell a lot of dramatic stories about penetrative hacking and hockey-stick startups, and then a few workplace comedies like Dweebs, The IT Crowd, and Silicon Valley. I never saw Code Monkeys, which may have resonated more.

Halt and Catch Fire, which I enjoyed, is the only TV show I know of that is realistic about programming and its social and economic context. An important relationship starts, and is repaired, when people help each other recover from data loss. People who think that just making good hardware/code is enough for a good career find that, unless you pay attention to intrapersonal, interpersonal, organizational, economic, and social issues, you might still be able to make a living, but your work is far more likely to go into the trashbin where no one will ever use it. And: so many office/work shows are basically about people who do the same jobs for a super long time. Halt and Catch Fire reflects the reality of how you run into the same people over and over in different companies and jobs and configurations, teammate, boss, investor, competitor, family, conference co-panellist, and you bring your past to it but you can also grow, especially thanks to the healing power of making stuff together.

several snowflakes made out of gold paperWritten fiction: I know of no novel-about-programming as magnificent as Ellen Ullman's amazing 2003 debugging detective novel The Bug. One of its point-of-view characters is already a programmer when the story starts, and The Bug helps us understand Ethan's bug-hunting fugues, obsession, anxiety, and volatile bounces between certainty and insecurity:

Step, step, step.

Some part of him knew that he should get away from the debugger. He should get away from the machine, stop and think on a yellow pad, a whiteboard. He wasn't making headway like this. He kept beating against the same certainties--here, else here, else here. Writing and sketching might break his thinking patterns, force him into other channels. But there was something seductive about the debugger: the way it answered him, tirelessly, consistently. Such a tight loop: Step, he said. Line of code, it answered. Step, line of code; step, line of code. It was like the compulsion of playing solitaire: simple, repetitive, working toward a goal that was sure to be attained in just one more hand, just one more, and then one more again.

And so the paradox: The more the debugger remained the tireless binary companion it was designed to be--answering, answering, answering without hesitation or effort late into the night--the more exhausted and hesitant the human, Ethan Levin, found himself to be. He was sinking to the debugger's level. Thinking like it. Asking only the questions it could answer. All the while he suffered what the debugger did not have to endure: the pains of the body, the tingling wrists and fingers, the stiffness in the neck, the aching back, the numb legs. And worse, the messy wet chemistry of the emotions, the waves of anxiety that washed across him, and then, without warning, the sudden electric spikes of panic.

The other is Berta, an academic-turned-tester-turned-programmer who looks back on the mystery -- and on her journey towards greater engineering skill -- with the wisdom of decades in the industry.

There might have been a hundred better ways to talk to a computer, but Ethan Levin had copied the Mac, which had copied the Xerox Star, which was later copied by Microsoft Windows. Who knew our mistakes would prove so durable? ....

And that was it: a tester found a bug, a programmer ignored a tester, a bug report went to the top of a pile on a programmer's messy desk -- nothing could have been more normal than what had just happened.

The Bug is Ullman's attempt to write "a historical, technical, Gothic mystery" about the debugging process, and I think it's terrific, and not nearly enough people in our industry have read it, and I urge you to do your bit to change that.

Music: MC Frontalot and Dilbert and Jonathan Coulton used to mean a lot to me. I am literally in the documentary about Frontalot. On reflection, a lot of Dilbert is generally about corporate office work, and a bit of it (such as "I'm gonna write me a new minivan!") is particularly tech-specific. Frontalot and Coulton sing a lot about being nerds, but somewhat less about being nerds who make technology. (Some of Coulton's work that's applicable: "Code Monkey" of course, and "A Laptop Like You", "Robots.txt", and "The Future Soon" -- often ruefully discussing alienation and the way we sublimate our anxieties into our making.)

And Barcelona still holds up in depicting the way that computers can feel like friends, how we make software that feels like a companion, how we make friends across networks and then use those same networks to get back at them ("I Have The Password To Your Shell Account"), how dreary the troubleshooting treadmill feels ("Bugs Bugs Bugs"). Paul Morris talked with me about how some of Radiohead's work gets at the narrowing-field-of-vision experience of being deep in a debugging session, with the long droney periods punctuated by surprises.

Comics: And there's a whole huge conversation I probably need to find about programmer narratives as told in webcomics over the past 20 years. Randall Munroe's tagline for xkcd is "A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language." and that attention to emotion ("romance") is part of the secret of its success. Ryan North's progression from Dinosaur Comics to Marvel's The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl -- which is partially about studying CS and using programming to solve problems -- succeeds at illuminating programmer experiences in ways that literature researchers have probably studied!

Stand-up comedy: I think the only major stand-up comic who ever talks about anything close to programming is Brian Malow, who jokes much more about physical and biological sciences.

several snowflakes made out of gold paper, plus some scrap gold paper, plus a purple ribbonWhat I want: We put several ideas in this part of the play creation guide. But also, I'd love art about, for instance:

I asked Siderea, a programmer-turned-psychotherapist whose essays I enjoy, what stories art about programming often misses, and what experiences she'd like to see reflected in art:

I would like to see art about programmers dealing with the things that can suck about being a programmer:
  • Programmers dealing with unreasonable, deceitful, and manipulative management, in the ways which are specific to "overtime exempt" programmers (i.e. if you are not willing to work 120-hour weeks, you aren't really a team player)
  • Programmers who are minorities dealing with broism
  • Programmers realizing that what they're working on is immoral or illegal, and deciding what to do about it; programmers not realizing the moral/legal implications of what they're working on until too late
  • Programmers dealing with difficulties without help because non-programmers don't even understand what the programmer is trying to say
  • Programmers dealing with the stresses of writing life-impacting code (e.g. embedded systems in vehicles, medication administration systems, etc.), especially in the situation of being without managerial support for adequate QA.
  • I would add something about work assignments and junior or unpopular people getting tasked to do awful or impossible tasks. Coding equivalents of Augean Stables. "Oh, we don't really have a role for you any more, so, uh, why don't you refactor this core business system for the web written in C with FORTRAN plug-ins by the most disgruntled employee we ever had."
  • Ooh, here's a thing: I'd like to see art about programmers not working in software development companies. In particular, about the (sometimes disturbing) things programmers learn about other industries when they take jobs, e.g. at insurance companies, in health care systems, with the government, in the space program, etc.
Sumana doing stand-up comedy in a cafe, in front of a few attendees, several years ago So please take a look at "The Art of Python", the one-night arts festival about your experience of programming, and consider proposing your art before February 28th. (And you can submit performance-style art to !!Con by March 3rd.)

And if you blog somewhere about what tropes you see in art about making technology, let me know and maybe I'll add those links to this post!


: The Fascinating Life of Dalip Singh Saund: My latest MetaFilter blog post is "At the beginning I never thought of becoming a candidate myself." Immigrant, math Ph.D., farmer, and judge Dalip Singh Saund wasn't just the first Asian American elected to the US Congress. (In 1956, 10 years after Indians could become citizens. Running against a Republican woman aviator.)

I've known part of Saund's story for years but only a few months ago learned how his farming informed his campaign for naturalization, and dove into the books he'd written.

Filed under:


: As The Saying Goes, I'm Part Of The Precipitate: Tonight, I'm gonna attend my local Community Board meeting, which will include an MTA presentation on the Astoria Boulevard ADA & Station Renewal project. (I hope that, after the meeting, I can hang out with other locals and toast to the end of the Amazon HQ2 giveaway.) I wondered aloud to Leonard: how will people at the meeting use the Astoria Boulevard station closure as a demand for more parking spots? (The members of my local community board mostly own homes and cars, and are far more interested in the alleged lack of parking in Western Queens than I am.)

The easy answer is: the MTA is closing a station for renovations, so more people will have to drive, so they'll say we'll need more parking spots. But: who should be responsible for providing that parking, and how? Some satirical answers we came up with:

  • The MTA, by magically creating more parking on Astoria Boulevard
  • Auto manufacturers -- after all, didn't they cause the problem in the first place?
  • The MTA, by letting car owners hitch their cars to the end of subway trains
  • Wesley Crusher, who does not need parking himself and should use his Traveller powers to transport people and cars around
  • The city, which should allow buildings to zone far higher into their airspace and build parking garages into the troposphere
  • The city, which should adopt a form of "congestion pricing" where if you are congested you need to pay extra to enter Manhattan -- this would also have a side benefit of reducing infectious disease. If you already live in Manhattan? You can't leave your home -- the "achoo curfew".

I do not recommend anyone do any of these things. I do recommend you joke about parking-hungry community boards.

Also if you can figure out how to make a good joke combining the Lisp function cdr and the fact that we should lengthen the G train, do make it somewhere and let me know.

Filed under:


: My Open Data Quest, Part ... 11?:

pen and ink sketches of decorative moldings in NYC Council chamberOn Tuesday night, I attended a committee meeting of the NYC council's Committee on Technology at City Hall (another view) and gave a bit of public comment (video -- my testimony is 02:05:03 till 2:09:11, then there's some back and forth between me & other folks 2:14:22-2:17:12).

Background:

Back in 2017 I was following the "algorithmic transparency" conversation in NYC and even ended up speaking before this same committee.

A friend and I thought that Tuesday's meeting would be about the Automated Decisionmaking Systems Task Force that resulted from those 2017 discussions, but turned out to be less about that and more about the Commission on Public Information and Communication and oversight of open data-y things in general.

Sumana Harihareswara speaking into a microphone at Technology Committee meeting on 12 Feb 2019So I decided to give public comment and say a few things, such as noting that it would be nice to have more info about how the ADS task force is going -- the website lets us submit comment right now electronically, but will there be any public hearings before it delivers its findings in December?

And I noted that I'd submitted a request through the open data portal in late 2017, and then it got closed with no reason, and I'd like to use the PAD dataset to find AED deserts in NYC and help prevent deaths from cardiac events.

pen and ink drawings of 'A Government of the people, by the people, for the people - Lincoln' plaque, Greek-style column, decorative wall moldings, table with nameplates and microphones, and US flag, with scribbled notes I have never escalated a bug report while sitting in front of a microphone before, but it does seem to work, and now I have a number of people's business cards, and we've spoken a bit via email and phone, and my request is progressing along again.

(The hearing was about three hours long; I did a lot of sketching while listening, and share those illustrations here. Cross-hatching is an especially good way to occupy myself while listening to people say things I already know.)

My email to them read, in part:

I would like to map AED deserts in New York City so I can help local merchants decide to buy AEDs and register with the PAD program. (I can go into more detail on that if you'd like.) The most recent public map showing AED units in the PAD program in New York City, as far as I know, is in DOHMH's 2010 Report to City Council on LL20 of 2005, page 7, section 3.3. In case you cannot find it, I host a copy on my site: https://www.harihareswara.net/foi/nyc_dohmh_pad_2010.pdf

Jason and I discussed whether this particular line was a "flex" and/or a "power move," a discussion which necessitated some definitional work. I think a "flex" in current parlance is a brag, a boast. OK, so yes, then, this is a flex. What is a "power move"? I think it's an assertive choice that draws attention from others, claims dominance or demands respect in some unexpected way, upsets an unspoken rule and runs the risk of insulting others in order to efficiently pursue one's own desires. And -- if I gather correctly -- it's not solely a dominance display, but a means to some other purpose as well. But I genuinely don't know whether it is potentially insulting to say to a New York City government staffer, "in case you, a city staffer, have a hard time finding an obscure agency report from 9 years ago, here's a copy from me, a private citizen". So, maybe?

Let's see how this goes! It would be lovely if we could get more PAD coverage across NYC. And I hope the ADS task force has some interim status reports soon!


: Puns About Domain Names Are Kinda Par For The Course Around Here: I blearily woke this morning - Leonard was already up. I wished him a happy Valentine's Day.

"I think we really match. And in some sense, because we met online,* we met in e-harmony. And when I think of you, I say: OK, cupid."

He was definitely laughing by this point.

"But even though there are plenty of fish in the sea, I'm glad that we're consumating, that we ... something, something, spark, tinder ..... OK, I can't figure out how to work in JDate."

"Isn't that where Ashley Madison works?"

"Oh, that's good... wait! No! Not that one!"

He also offered to get me a "coffee and bagel" which reminded us of someone I met who showed me how the Coffee Meets Bagel app works. I had mentioned that I'd heard of the "bagel of the day" mechanic from the New York Times "Vows" section, and she'd replied, somewhat resentfully, that "Vows" is filled with people marrying their "bagel of the day". "Oh, it's The Ladders of dating apps," Leonard compared. (I'd also asked her: ok, if you have a "bagel of the day", and they have you as a "bagel of the day", then who's the coffee??!! She and I settled on the unsatisfying conclusion, "everyone is their own coffee".) We talked about how the "bagel of the day" seems to create temporal scarcity, to push the user to be more impulsive and go ahead and say yes.

"No, you have 24 hours to make a date, not to meet them -- how would that work? Like, you use NFC or Bluetooth and tap your phone to theirs? It's a dating app, not a scavenger hunt....I'm glad we're together, that we don't have to do the dating world, go through that grinder .... Grindr's actually even less appropriate to us than Ashley Madison."

Anyhow! My sympathies and best wishes to everyone today. I literally loathed Valentine's Day so much, as a teen, that I wrote an anti-Valentine's Day editorial every year, for all four years of high school, in my school paper, including one science fiction story where future kids marvel that back in the 20th century people had this awful destructive ritual. Now I have an old, familiar "grah" about it, plus a friend who works at a greeting card company and has to attend to battle stations all day.

So, whoever you are, I hope you get some laughs today and some unexpected delight, and, if you like puns, puns. More than the ones above, I mean.


* I met my partner online the old-fashioned way, by reading his blog.

Filed under:


: Some Movies Are For Not-Me: I haven't really been keeping up with reviewing movies here. Some recent joys: I loved Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which was astounding in its artistry and the marriage of story and virtuosic presentation. The Muppet Christmas Carol, which I'd never seen before I think, made me cry buckets and is an excellent adaptation of the Dickens! Won't You Be My Neighbor?, The Peacemaker, and Infinite Football are a sort of only-in-my-mind trilogy of documentaries about men's quests to improve some corner of our world.

But also: I've seen a few films recently for which I am perhaps not the target audience! Examples follow. Most of these were with Leonard so his film reviews are longer and more interesting.

  • The Jim Carrey film Man in the Moon about Andy Kaufman. Some quick impressions:

    1. The treatment of women in this movie, or in Kaufman's actual career, does not age well.
    2. Kaufman says he's not a comedian, but the ground he explored fed into areas people who comfortably call themselves comedians explore today, so I'm fine with including him under the comedian umbrella. Relatedly: I am currently impatient with people who "don't like labels" regarding the super-well-trodden work they do. You may be super uncomfortable with the fact that you are a comedian, an engineering manager, what have you. Deal with that discomfort instead of fleeing the truth.
    3. The fact that Kaufman meditated a lot is a hint that meditation, on its own and ripped out of any ethical framework, does not actually make someone a better or more loving person. If you use meditation as a technology to better separate yourself from illusions, you may just use it to be a better trickster.
    4. I also have, within me, the self-indulgent urge to mess with the audience, to confuse them and cause stirrings of unease. But, as Harry Josephine Giles points out, "Learning how to care for your audience is actually far more aesthetically interesting and politically disruptive than working out how to shock them."
  • Lilo & Stitch. This movie has multiple jerks in it, as protagonists, and does not sufficiently provide onscreen proof for assumptions that it assumes you'll go along with (e.g., the best way to make sure the orphaned child gets sufficient care).
  • Attack the Block. I think I saw this at the wrong time -- it was fresher when it came out, and I'd already seen films it influenced before I saw Block itself -- and it means more if you're steeped in the urban British context.
  • A Serious Man. A well-made depiction of certain kinds of agony.
  • Victoria & Abdul and Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, both of which seem to think the problem with the British oppression of India is that local subjects were deprived of a wholesome, classy, righteous queen (rather than, say, that Indians were deprived of representative democracy).
  • Beauty and the Beast, yes, the 1990s Disney animated blockbuster - I'd never seen it before. Wow, there are no men in this movie whom I would trust to buy 3 apples for me at the market.

There's more, I'm sure, but I don't want to go into a depressingly long list. I am not that much of a fiction author, and when I see people acting irresponsibly in fiction, I nearly physically want to reach into the screen and get them, like, therapy and a nap -- I want things that would make their lives better even if it would make the story worse.


: Socratic Questioning, Devil's Advocacy, and Conversational Power Tools: "Devil's advocate" was a job. In order for someone to perform the role of Devil's advocate, someone else had to appoint them to that position. And the Devil's advocate performed a bounded task within an established relationship with his debate opponent, towards the shared goal of a particular decision (whether to canonize someone).

Socratic questioning is a technique that a teacher uses with a student when both of them have agreed to that relationship. It includes a commitment by the teacher to the student's intellectual growth, and a variety of techniques in reflective listening.

I hang out in a lot of communities and with a lot of friends who care a lot about seeking truth and avoiding delusion. That's an admirable thing to want.

But in acting out these values, sometimes we misuse cool-looking tools, like Socratic questioning or the Devil's advocate position, by using them when we don't yet have a trusting relationship or (in particular with the "Devil's advocate" approach) a defined question and decision framework. For instance, if you consistently say things you don't mean in arguments, the people you are arguing with will come to trust you less. My friendships, work relationships, and hobby communities usually sit in the "caring" or "collaborative" part of the caring-to-combative spectrum;* if someone starts a competitive or even combative conversational game without first taking care to establish a magic circle, that breaks trust.

In conversation, when I find that I don't agree with someone else, I assume that our shared goal is to reach a mutual understanding. Perhaps one of us will persuade the other, or maybe we'll just understand why we disagree. But I'm open to revising that assumption in response to certain signals. When the person I'm talking with starts demanding that I stop to create and defend formal definitions for any word or phrase that I use, distributing the work of creating a shared understanding unequally, or cross-examining me without putting up their own point of view for examination, there's a level of disingenuousness there that I object to (the flip side of which a 2017 XKCD illustrates):

[comic transcript]

And the phrase "I'm just playing devil's advocate" in an online discussion, when the poster has not already asked others whether that's desired, is one of a suite of linguistic markers that make seasoned readers shake their heads. Because, as Alexandra Erin points out, "The phrase has basically morphed into Internet Argument Guy for 'I can argue with you but you can't argue with me.'"

If you want to "play devil's advocate" with me, or Socratically question something I've said, ask first, and mean it. And, as you reflect on whether you actually want to do that, consider the many other conversational approaches you might use instead.


* In retrospect I wish I'd considered this spectrum when discussing the liberty-to-hospitality spectrum.


: My Recent-ish Government Transparency Efforts: I've put together a page of my past few years of Freedom of Information Law requests and the responses they've garnered. In particular, folks might be interested in the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's followup reports to 2005's Local Law 20, regarding the quantities and locations of automated external defibrillators at certain public places -- they wrote these reports and submitted them to the City Council, but I couldn't find them anywhere online till I asked DOHMH for them.

Now I have a Muckrock account, which I used to successfully get the list of ~600 DMV-licensed driving schools in New York State. Funniest names: "Accurate Drving School", the coexistence of "Evolution" and "Revolution" driving schools, "Good Luck Driving School", the coexistence of "Mistah Driver Auto School" and "Mister Driver Driving School", "Super Mario's Driving Connection", and "Totally Cool Driving".


: A Few NYC Winter Hikes: I'm better when I hike more often. It nourishes me to clamber around rough trails and navigate and be among trees.

golden light on trees in Forest Park on a winter afternoon You actually can use city transit to get to parks within NYC for a short or daylong hike.

The other day, as it warmed up in the afternoon, I took the subway to Woodhaven, then a bus to Forest Park, yes, that is its actual name. Trail guide, map. The orange-blazed route took me about an hour and a half, including a little bit of getting lost and backtracking. There are substantial chunks where I couldn't hear or see cars/streets nearby. I needed that.

Another reasonable winter hike is the Greenbelt Yellow Trail (I did it from the southwest trailhead), which:

Traverses the entire Greenbelt from its Northeast corner in the community of Todt Hill to its Southwest corner in New Springville; access Moses' Mountain at Rockland Avenue and Manor Road behind bus stop....

This moderate-to-difficult 8-mile long trail brings hikers through Reeds Basket Willow Swamp. It ascends Todt Hill, then parallels the Blue Trail. Moses’ Mountain is located off the Yellow Trail off Rockland Avenue near High Rock Park.

Depending on where you're starting in NYC, you can take a combination of subway, bus, and ferry to get to the southwest trailhead. For me it was a full day's hike. At the other end I stopped in a strip mall restaurant for dinner before taking another combination of transit home.

The NYC Parks site lets you search the parks and filter for the ones that have hiking trails. That's how I found Forest Park.

afternoon light making a halo of thin branches in a copse of trees in Forest Park


: Prior Art: On Friday, May 3rd, in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, as part of PyCon North America, I'm leading an arts festival called "The Art of Python". The call for proposals is open now, deadline 28 February. And I'd love your help not just proposing work, and helping publicize this, but helping me understand what's new and not new about this.

"The Art of Python" will focus on narrative, performance, and visual art. We intend to encourage and showcase novel art that helps us share our emotionally charged experiences of programming, particularly but not necessarily in Python. We hope that, by attending, our audience will discover new aspects of empathy and rapport, and find a different kind of delight and perspective than might otherwise be expected at a large conference. We are interested in how fictional narrative, visual and performance art, and different presentation formats can make different kinds of teaching and representation possible.

There's more about this at my co-organizer Erty Seidohl's blog post, including an invitation to also propose your "not-talks" to !!Con starting in a few days. "The Art of Python" is seeking your proposals now and the deadline for submissions is 28 February. And if you've never written a play and want guidance so you can write your first, we have a guide and sample scripts!

So why did I call this entry "Prior Art"? Because I'd like to know more about past artworks about the experience of making technology at technology conferences that have resonated with you, especially fictional narratives and live performances.*

A few of our inspirations are recent works of mine, like "Pipeline", my critique video about the tech industry, and the plays I made with Jason Owen ("Python Grab Bag: A Set of Short Plays" and "Code Review, Forwards and Back").

I must be following in footsteps I don't know. So: Who else did full-on plays at tech conferences? I wouldn't be surprised if someone did it a decade before me and I never knew. Go ahead and comment on this GitLab issue to share your comments.

Thanks to Erty and to Brendan Adkins for co-organizing "The Art of Python" with me! Thanks to PyCon's Hatchery program for new PyCon events, which makes this festival possible! Thanks to Jackie Kazil for the festival name! (My codename was "Spectacle!" which is probably misleading and less accessible.)

* A footnote here about music and webcomics and Halt and Catch Fire and whatnot grew enough that it'll be its own entry.


: Availability: I'm back from my travel (taking care of ill family) and back on a bit of social media, but catching up on my inbox and may still be terse in my responses for at least a few days.


: Availability: I'm going to be off social media a lot between now and about Jan 10th. Please email if you want to reach me - https://www.harihareswara.net/ & https://changeset.nyc/#contact have my address - but I will probably be slow & terse in response.


: I Welcome Your Point Of View On Whether I Am An Alto: I love listening to and singing a lot of labor and folk songs. Like, the highlight of my week a little while back was when a friend got out his guitar and learned to play "Union Maid" and three of us sang it and harmonized together in a living room. I have an untrained voice but I enjoy using it.

A little while later, I saw a friend mention on social media that she would be participating in The Mobile Hallelujah, organized by Make Music New York, and asking whether anyone wanted to join her.

In this participatory choral program open to all interested vocalists, producer Melissa Gerstein and conductor Douglas Anderson team up to bring George Fredric Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" -- from his Messiah oratorio, the oldest continuously performed piece of Classical music -- out of the concert hall and onto the streets of NYC.

I said sure! And then, on a bus on the way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art last night, I looked at the sheet music and listened to the guide track, and, uh, NEWS FLASH, HALLELUJAH FROM HANDEL'S MESSIAH IS WAY HARDER TO LEARN THAN YOUR AVERAGE PETE SEEGER TUNE, this surprises no one. It's a gorgeous piece because it's got a bunch of interconnected cause-and-effect stuff! It's not an eternal golden braid, but it's a very complicated four-minute Rube Goldberg machine! And it's not like I am actually good at sticking to a vocal part during a round or even a simple harmony (I'm an alto I think? I've never actually checked) if there are other people near me singing another part. I sort of gravitate to whatever I'm hearing loudest and end up chameleon-ing into that, like a panicky manager throwing their hands up and saying nobody ever got fired for buying IBM soprano.

But hey, New York City has a ton of great singers, so I figured they'd carry the thing and I would just, you know, add oomph for the bits I could figure out.

So I practiced a bit and got to the point where I could, most of the time, keep track of where I was in the sheet music. I think a bindi-wearing woman whisper-singing "Hallelujah" is in, at most, like the thirtieth percentile of weirdness achieved during that hour on New York City Transit. I arrived on the museum steps, tried and failed to find my friend, and saw people assembling -- like 8 sopranos, 20 altos, 1 bass, and an alto or two who said "I guess I'll try to sing tenor" -- and we sorted ourselves out and then the maestro gestured for us to start.

And I found out that a lot of us were muddling along! It was not like "dozens of people who know their parts very well, plus Sumana". It was .... you know how you can call food "authentic" or "rustic" to say "it was lumpy and the presentation was unpolished but I loved it because of who made it and how they made it and how I relate to them"? It was like that. We blurred a bunch of the cool counterpoints and whatnot instead of hitting them precisely, we didn't enunciate great -- whatever. We hit that last Hallelujah and I looked up from the sheet music and people on the sidewalk had gathered to listen, and they clapped! We'd done it! It was a fun thing to try, a fun challenge, and maybe I'll try to get better at singing in chorus, because that is fun!

My friend had been running late and turned up right at that last "Hallelujah". Ah well! We hung out afterwards anyway. Maybe I will see if she wants to sing some Woody Guthrie with me sometime.

I have been enjoying various bits of music recently aside from Handel's elaborate celebration of a divinity that I don't particularly believe in:


: Now It Can Be Told: The "I would ask for wall. We need wall." nonsense* reminds me:

About 11 years ago, I was at some industry networking event here in New York City, gladhanding, schmoozing, &c. At one point I spoke to a recruiter who suggested that I "send résumé." I was willing, if a bit confused by the phrasing. They gave me their card and said again: "Send résumé." I looked.

Send Resume
sendresume.com

I never did Send Résumé to them, I believe. I did come home to Leonard and we joked about how Neolithic recruiters would say "Send résumé!" and "Get in on ground floor! That being only floor." and "Work on cutting edge making cutting edges."

So that's how I hear it now.


* 2017: orb; 2018: wall. What one-syllable noun will take on new connotations in 2019? Place your bets now, diversifying your portfolio of bingo card wagers.

Filed under:


about Sumana Harihareswara

Archives by year, archives by category


RSS feed
Dreamwidth feed
Identi.ca microblog
Mastodon feed
Twitter feed
Spam As Folk Art

Changeset Consulting
weblog powered by NewsBruiser
Bloggers' Rights at EFFSupport Bloggers' Rights

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.