Cogito, Ergo Sumana

picture of Sumana's head

Sumana Harihareswara's journal


: Collection: A few deliverables!

At RubyConf Los Angeles 2018 last month, I co-presented "Code Review, Forwards and Back" with Jason Owen, and now video is up.

"Intersectional sustainable crop science, and GIFs" is my newest MetaFilter post -- it's an inventory of informative & funny Twitter threads by Dr. Sarah Taber, loosely grouped by topic (soil and ecologies, specific plants and animals, common misunderstandings about food/ag/econ, "family farms", organizing/politics and sexism, being an ex-Mormon, food safety, regulations, testing, and management systems, management skills and the economics of agriculture in the US, and oppressions therein, skill, culture, capitalism, land prices, slavery, white supremacy, and ag history in the US).

Taber explains: "My goal with this account is to beef up the "sustainable ag" info available for consumers w some science & general business mgmt info. The general public is incredibly frustrated with ag's slow rate of change. Someone should talk about the very real reasons change isn't instant....Some of the reasons won't reflect nicely on our ag institutions. Oh well. I'm not gonna tell folks it's all good, because it's not. We need to back up this "no BS" reputation by actually cutting the BS. If you feel weird about someone airing your dirty laundry, wash it." Also: "put info out there, see what kind of feedback it got, & thereby find out where the general knowledge level is at with ag these days". (Thread Reader)

When I want to read someone's old threads, I find it so difficult to dig through old tweets through the Twitter interface, so I thought this might be a useful resource to make and share.

Relatedly, I recently thought to look at some of my oldest microblog posts, and enjoyed a few from 2009:

Argued w/Leonard re Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" yesterday: if you're "going at the speed of light," can you *have* a temp? (200°, F implied)...I fear quibbling with the metaphor of an atom bomb satellite rocket ship to Mars constitutes stopping the singer now, despite express wishes

"Life's not a math textbook. The answers aren't gonna be in the back of the book." "But at least, unlike me, you're doing the problem sets."

"Indie 101, do stuff that defeats your own purpose. Reflexively, routinely." -John Darnielle -- quoting from about 3:00 to 3:15 in the "Leaving Home" track in this 2007 concert recording.


: The US Midterm Elections, One Month Later: I made phone calls and I canvassed in person for some candidates and a ballot measure.

Leonard and I gave money to some candidates and I successfully encouraged a friend to do the same.

On election night, a month ago, we avoided the news; we went to a play ("Sakina's Restaurant" which is like a documentary as far as the emotional dynamics of many Indian immigrant families), then came home and watched a bit of Forged in Fire, and then we went to bed.

And the next day I was so relieved. Retaking control of the House of Representatives, and sweeping so many state and local races, is not only a logistical win, it's a morale boost for me. I feel more supported and protected by my fellow citizens. I catalogued a few wins that feel particularly meaningful in this MetaFilter comment (including an aspect of Tim Kaine's re-election to the US Senate from Virginia that I didn't see anyone else noticing).

None of the causes I did leg/phone work for won. A few candidates we financially supported did win. And we were a part of the success -- the Blue Wave, some called it, but there's also the underlying fact that most of the United States agrees with the policy stances of the Democratic Party and, when they have a chance to push past voter suppression, expresses that. (Which is one reason that the post-election activism we need to work on includes working on voting reform in every state, particularly Florida.)

Thank you, thank you, thank you to all the people who stepped up, who started and restarted organizations, in the last two years. Swing Left and Indivisible and Run For Something and 5 Calls and other organizing groups and tools, for sure, and local DSA chapters, and independent journalists/commentators/curators as well, like The Weekly Sift, thisfinecrew, Alexandra Erin, Chrysostom, siderea, rydra wong, and so many others. I believe a big story of this election is the not-affiliated-with-the-Democratic-National-Committee community leaders who got their friends, neighbors, workplaces, fandoms, online forums, and classmates informed and activated -- and in some cases got them to run.

And then, Trump ... Rosenstein .... to quote Pervocracy (cache):

Me, 8 AM: I'm so glad the midterms are over! I can finally have a little break from worrying about politics all the time!

Me, 9 PM: crouched on my kitchen floor, checking protest locations, writing "THE PRESIDENT IS NOT A KING" on a giant piece of posterboard

The protests included people chanting RULE OF LAW! RULE OF LAW! which ... I don't disagree! I agree! I am very into the rule of law! I am just disconcerted, because I would like to get to a point where chanting that does not seem vital.

Filed under:


(1) : Non-Influencer Fashion Blogging: I've heard fleece-lined tights could be a game-changer regarding wearing skirts and dresses when it's cold. A friend recommended the Homma brand in particular, since they're footless and since (if you turn them inside out) they are machine-washable.

But the Homma brand/maker doesn't seem to exist in terms of an independent manufacturer or brand of an existing manufacturer that has its own website or catalog somewhere. It might be an Amazon-only brand. Sort of a mystery, and I've used up my Ask MetaFilter question for the week on a request to decipher a handwritten letter from 1792 and translate it from German. I'd welcome insights from Homma wearers regarding non-Amazon vendors!

So the other day I had a spare chunk of time in midtown Manhattan and went to a few shops asking about fleece-lined leggings and tights. Nothing in my size that wasn't made in China, so I'm still low-key seeking fleece-lined leggings/tights/whatever-new-jargon-emerges-in-the-next-week.

On my way home I stopped by the Grand Central holiday market and looked around. No tights, but the Carina Hildebrandt stall did have "joggers". They were very nice when I asked what that word meant (I mentioned that a problem with upward mobility is that you don't know all the right words). It turns out joggers are basically posh sweatpants.

I thought, maybe it is time for me to level up from the old black cotton sweatpants I've had for like 20 years! these are super nice! they have pockets! they're made from alpaca wool! I could take really good care of them and they would last for decades! they would be, like, investment sweatpants!

I asked how much they were, mentally preparing for, like, "$200" or something like that, thinking "well if I literally use them for the rest of my life, I could justify that." Those joggers are 535 United States dollars.

No I am not that rich! I demurred. The vendor mentioned that it was handmade, 100% alpaca wool -- I said, oh, I'm sure it's worth that much, I just can't afford it! Maybe in ten years.

I'm not about to follow the lead of Nicole Cliffe's friend who super loves Brooks Brothers (I found that thread very funny), but I've come to some kind of playful détente with the world of trying-to-look-good clothes? I guess part of that is because of Project Runway and my friendship with Elisa DeCarlo, which helped me see more of what high-end clothes are trying to do, and then knowing Lea Albaugh and seeing how she makes and reads clothes, and a whole bunch of low-stakes thrifting, conversation, and so on in between. And having more money makes it easier to try more expensive stuff, and the longer I live, the more I see how durability pays off. In retrospect this feels kind of like how I grew to enjoy wine.

photo of Sumana in long blue coat in front of a trainIt's interesting to look back on the time I spent over the past year seeking out a winter coat, especially in contrast to my approach last decade. Back in my mid-twenties when I was about to move to NYC, saying goodbye to Bay Area friends, my friend Claudia asked whether I already had a winter coat. I gestured to some kind of light cotton jacket I had on to protect against the mild late-December chill. Claudia, who had lived in Boston, went to her closet, took out a shiny puffy waist-length H&M coat, and handed it to me. And that was an excellent move and I used that for years. I wanted something longer, so at some point I hit an army surplus store and bought a long blue Canadian army surplus? coat that was a little too big for me. I gave it to a Recurse Center friend during our fall 2013 batch, depriving my spouse of the opportunity to call me Colonel Sumana.

Last winter I decided that I'd like a formal-looking (so, probably wool) warm winter coat, with a lot of leg coverage (mid-calf or so) and big pockets for my hands/gloves/phone. I bookmarked dozens of coats online and learned that the word I wanted to describe my desired length was "maxi" and that well-made maxi wool coats cost hundreds of dollars at least. I went to try things on at Nordstrom Rack, but a lot of off-the-rack stuff fit weird, in terms of shoulder and chest. I asked friends: Where in NYC do I go to find a well-made, non-slave-labor coat of this type for under, like, $200? If the answer is "what you want is not available at that price, you need to INVEST and it'll cost at least $400" then I will also accept this answer. I poked around sample sales and thrift stores opportunistically.

And then this past weekend, hanging out with a friend, I went to a vintage shop in my neighborhood and they had about 20 maxi-length coats. My friend told me what looked good, and we agreed that one of them suited me well -- I put it on and looked in the mirror and said this is it!. I got it for about $100 (it was $129 but I got a Small Business Saturday discount). It's a grey mostly-wool coat, 70% wool/15% mohair/15% nylon, and there's a union-made-in-the-USA label on it but no brand label. The owner said she thought it was from the 1980s or 1990s and might have been made by Jones Of New York. It makes me happy to put it on! Although I need to wear a scarf with it till I get a tailor to add a felt lining, because the collar scratches my neck.

A few nights ago, my spouse and I went on a little date and I dressed up a bit. I wore a red knit V-neck dress I got in a shop on Valencia in San Francisco a few years ago -- its material and shape are pretty flattering and forgiving of weight fluctuations -- and a string of pearls my mom gave me, and the new wool coat. We did a crossword puzzle and ate and talked about Steven Universe, Legend of Korra, and She-Ra.

Then we came home and watched a bit of the latest season of Great British Bake-Off. At one point, to cheer up a baker, Noel sketches a cat on their instruction sheet, then adds a speech bubble and writes the f-bomb inside the speech bubble. And the video is not blurred or otherwise redacted! I gasped, scandalized, and my hand flew to my neck in shock. Leonard asked: "Are you literally clutching your pearls?"

So I am not currently in possession of any trousers that only seem inexpensive when compared to $750 palazzo pants from the same vendor, but I am prudish about cuss words on TV and in my blog. I'm upwardly mobile financially, but in case you ever wondered what social class I'm in, I feel like that's a big clue.

Disdisclaimer: as you can probably tell, I received no payments, discounts, subsidies, or gifts from any of the companies mentioned in exchange for this post; indeed, in 2028 when I am able to afford to buy anything from Carina Hildebrandt, I may be required to recant portions of this post as a precondition of purchase. Also, Leonard hasn't seen the new She-Ra. For that part of dinner he mostly listened while I went on about it.


: The Fascination Of Municipal Taxation Software: On January 30, 2018, I attended my local city councilmember's "State of the District" speech. If one of your local officials offers such a speech, I recommend going; it's a structured way to find out what issues they think are important. And Councilmember Constantinides scheduled this one the same night as the US President's State of the Union address, which felt like a welcome alternative.

Among the plans and promises that got public notice, he mentioned a government IT project he wanted New York City to implement. In his address, Constantinides said he was introducing a:

bill that will direct the Department of Finance to create a website where anyone can view their property tax exemption status. Under this new website, property owners would be able to pay their taxes, directly submit questions to the DOF, and view their records. They'd be able to access specific information regarding their properties including applications for exemptions like the Senior Citizen Homeowners' Exemption, status of exemptions, date by which they'd need to apply to renew an exemption, or whether anything has expired in their record. If a property owner's application is rejected, they must tell you why. Property owners will also be able to set up alerts for any changes.

These are simple, common sense things that already exist on other government platforms, and the fact that the Council may have to pass legislation to create this system is very disappointing. But if we're going to ask you to pay substantial sums of your hard earned money to fund the government, the government needs to uphold its end of the bargain and give you all the tools it can to manage your payments.

The proposal caught my attention because I find it inherently interesting (and kind of amusing) when politicians give speeches about web apps. I took the photo because I couldn't remember the last time that a politician, literally giving a speech from a podium near a US flag, presented a functional spec for software he wanted, in bullet points. I'm a project manager and a programmer who has worked on multiple software projects for local governments. Some part of me, for a fraction of a second, saw that bullet list and thought, "OK, that's the scope. How many programmers do I have and what technologies will we be using?" before remembering that this was not my job.

Constantinides mentioned the bill again in a spring newsletter and I dug around a bit. Introduction 0627-2018: "Establishment of an online system to access property tax information and receive notification of changes to property tax exemptions." The Council referred it to the Committee on Finance, which hasn't held any hearings about it yet.

On the one hand, getting the local government to make a web application for property tax stuff makes obvious sense (and other localities, such as Santa Clara County, already do it). Public servants need to help the public, and so much of public service requires software. On the other hand, government IT projects have such a bad reputation. Ten years ago, Dan Davies wrote: "nearly anything new that the government does is going to require an IT element ... government projects tend to only come in one size, 'big', and to very often come in the variety 'failed'." I inhale sharply when I see someone propose a new government IT project, because I instantly foresee manifold hazards.

But we know a bit more than we did ten years ago about how to address those concerns. There's vendor lock-in, which is a big reason to prefer building or reusing open source applications. There's metadata wrangling and legacy application/infrastructure compatibility, and partnering effectively with agency staff -- 18F and the US Digital Service have grown serious capabilities in those areas. There's the challenge of serving everyone, no, seriously, everyone ("government doesn’t always appear to provide a satisfactory solution is because government has to take on the hardest problems") -- and we can incorporate "no, seriously, everyone" into our design processes....

And that last point -- about how government needs to serve everyone gets at perhaps the deepest reason this proposal caught my attention. I used to be incredibly interested in taxation, to the point where I considered following in Dr. Robin Einhorn's footsteps and going into the academy to seriously research tax history. And a big reason is that taxes affect everybody, often noticeably. A resident might be pretty oblivious to all the other ways government activities touch their life, but a ton of taxes impinge on their perception and cause notice -- income taxes, use fees, sales/value taxes, property taxes, payroll taxes, &c.

Taxes are surface areas, user interfaces, where the least-informed user unavoidably comes into contact with your system, and notices it, and (mostly) inherently resents the cost you're imposing on them, and thus finds any friction along the way particularly maddening. This reminds me of something Leonard wrote in 2003:

You can pay your San Francisco parking tickets online. This makes sense, as the general philosophy of the city of San Francisco is to make it easy for you to deal with the arbitrary aggravations they inflict upon you.

And, just like with software interfaces, tax structures have these nasty path-dependent ways of accidentally creating interest groups. Randall Munroe's xkcd #1172 ("Every change breaks someone's workflow") obscurely reminds me of Conversion and the Poll Tax in Early Islam by Daniel Dennett, Jr. -- if you use reduced taxes as an incentive for some behavior, such as conversion to Islam, and then people do that and your tax receipts go down, and then you try to make up for losses by raising taxes on the folks who now feel entitled to a tax break, the interest group you have just created will grumble or rebel.

And maybe this lens helps explain why I bang on about the governance side of maintainership, and how a bug tracker anyone can report issues to is a sign of hospitality and humility and stewardship, and and so on. Every once in a while a stranger calls me a politician. I'm not seeking elected office and I'm only as accountable to my neighbors as they are to me. But I am attuned enough to socially constructed things that I notice and try to work with them, and I try to notice where the resources come from and where they go and who ends up getting taxed, and how.


: A Raised Eyebrow and a San Francisco Election: My new MetaFilter post is about a strange edge case in the San Francisco school board election next week: what does it mean to you for a candidate to really withdraw from a race?

Josephine Zhao got heavy criticism for her past statements, and says she's withdrawn. But -- since she missed the deadline to legally withdraw -- her name's still on the ballot and her supporters are still campaigning for her. What if she wins anyway?


: Miscellany: Life is varied.

an English-language New York State voter registration form on a clipboard with a pen, near stacks of Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Bengali language voter registration forms, on a table near a US flag; By Sumanah [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0 )], from Wikimedia Commons I spend some of my spare time trying to do my bit for the election next week. I volunteered at a voter registration drive. I participated in some get-out-the-vote phone banking, and in a few days, I'll spend some of the weekend canvassing in person.

I started rereading Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt, about a middle-aged, Midwestern white guy dealing with ennui. Now that I am middle-aged and have a bunch of middle-aged friends, my reaction is less "ha ha" and more "this is so incisive that I can only read small chunks at a time." Instead I've been blowing my way through:

  1. Dan Davies's Lying for Money: How Legendary Frauds Reveal the Workings of Our World, which is as informative, funny, and wise as you'd expect from his Crooked Timber posts and personal blog (which I've been reading for more than a decade). I read the UK edition (the US edition comes out next year) because my spouse Leonard is the best and got it for me as a present. Further review forthcoming, I hope.
  2. A reread of the Mary Sue story I loved as a teen, The Prodigal Daughter by Jeffrey Archer. Thank you, SimplyE and New York Public Library, for making it easier for me to indulge in this big-money-big-politics thriller. This does not hold up well. For instance, in the most "As you know, Bob" expository howler I've seen in years, a campaign manager literally reminds a senator and a vice president that in order to win the Presidency they will have to get at least 270 electoral votes. But as a fantasy of a perceptive, hard-working woman blowing through barriers and achieving stuff, it can be fun popcorn.
  3. A reread of Erma Bombeck's If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What am I Doing in the Pits?, a 1978 collection of her humor writing. (Again, thanks NYPL & SimplyE!) She was a fantastic writer and had such a gift for the absurd detail, like "she went to a parent-teacher conference alone to be told her son .... was flunking lunch" or "people whose children are overachievers..... don't forget little Kenneth, who gets up during the night to change his own Pampers."

I keep meaning to write here about my work (for four different clients, right now) -- for now I'll merely say, there's a lot to do and I'm glad whenever I make progress.

I discovered Caveat, which seems intent on pandering to my particular demographic (New Yorkers who want funny, cerebral theatrical entertainments for a night out with friends), so if there's an upcoming event there you'd like to attend, consider letting me know and maybe we'll go together?

"I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats" recently released the live episode they recorded in May. What a loving, funny show.

The Good Place continues to thrill and surprise me, and I'm so curious what conclusion Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is intricately skate-dancing toward.

Saturday and yesterday, I helped mentor a bunch of volunteer contributors at a weekend Python packaging sprint sponsored by Bloomberg. I sure do know a lot about Python packaging and Git, compared to people who first ran into those things less than a year ago. Some resources I pointed people to:

Metal, squirrel-shaped bicycle rack on sidewalk in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, by Sumanah [CC BY-SA 4.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia CommonsOn Saturday afternoon I reached out to Jewish friends, and friends in Pittsburgh, to say: I'm thinking of you. I wish you safety.

Have you seen "Warning: Might Lead to Mixed Dancing", a fanvid by seekingferret that celebrates Jewish dancing? You can watch it on Critical Commons and on YouTube. In his commentary he discusses part of the argument he makes in this vid:

Judaism represents this incomprehensible world-wide community united by nothing except our mutual willingness to proclaim, sometimes reluctantly, that we are all Jewish. Jewish dancing occasions like weddings and Bar Mitzvahs are a time when we make that proclamation as a community, when we say that the divisions among us are less important than the bonds between us.


: In Memoriam:

Content note: murder.

Terrorism -- in particular, terrorism against people who work to bring freedom and democracy to others* -- is on my mind.

A few days ago was the 150th anniversary of James M. Hinds's death. He was a white Republican in Congress, representing a district in Arkansas, one of the people implementing Reconstruction. He advocated civil rights for formerly enslaved men. On October 22, 1868, he was assassinated, the first sitting member of Congress to be assassinated. Before he died, he identified his attackers. The man who probably killed him -- an officer in the opposing political party, and a Ku Klux Klan member -- was never prosecuted.

Rest in peace, James M. Hinds.

The enemies of democracy do not stop at targeting politicians and donors. Chris Msando was the IT manager in charge of Kenya's computerized voting system for elections in August 2017; the day he was to oversee the public testing of that system, he was found tortured and murdered.

Rest in peace, Chris Msando.

Did you already know this part of US history or this part of the history of the tech industry? I don't think I learned of Representative Hinds when we studied Reconstruction in high school. And I don't think I saw my tech news circles mourning Chris Msando last year. So I am putting a small memorial here, now.

* Technologists who work on liberating their neighbors often face repercussions from their own governments, too. In November 2015, the Syrian authorities secretly executed Syrian open source technologist Bassel Khartabil, after imprisoning him for years. Rest in peace, Bassel Khartabil. Turkey in mid-2017 arrested IT trainers who were teaching people about digital security and privacy. The threat model can get dire.


: The Concision-Nuance Tradeoff In One-To-Many Documents: It's tough to balance the need for concision with the need for spelled-out nuance in factual documents. Dating profiles, CVs, job descriptions, release announcements, grant proposals, values statements, codes of conduct, service notifications, news stories, product labels..... in one-to-many static communications, every member of the audience arrives with slightly different context and varying levels of reading comprehension and patience. And as the "Fresh Fish Sold Here" joke goes, you'll get inconsistent feedback from your critics about whether you've struck the right balance. I have faith that, in every such document category, there exist people with the skill to -- mostly -- design that user experience well. I'm curious to learn more about how to do that, in the document types I write (like emails, blog posts, and conference talks), and how to appreciate it in the documents I consume.

In this BBC News story, "We've developed this new format to try to explain the story to you better." You can select whether you want the short or the long version of an answer to a question like "Where is Xinjiang?" I like it -- not least because it means I can read the summary first, then remember that overview as I go deeper.

What can you communicate in a job description? Detail, transparency, expectations, team, mission -- but designing the reading experience so it doesn't feel overwhelming is its own feat. It's particularly disheartening to try to provide concrete examples of kinds of optional skills the employer values, to inspire a feeling of invitation, and then to find that some applicants read that as an intimidating list of must-haves or buzzwords. I'd like to get better at this and there is probably a class I could take or a framework I could adopt.

If you are a voter in New York City, here's the voting guide for the election on November 6th (you should have received a short paper version in the mail). Here's an overview of the three ballot proposals (I believe each proposal has a one-paragraph explanation that is "The official text of the question as it will appear on your ballot"). For each proposal, the title links to -- the example here is Proposal 2 -- the "plain language summary prepared by the CFB based on official abstracts provided by the CRC" (a few paragraphs) and several individuals' statements, 1-2 paragraphs each, supporting and opposing the proposal, "based on statements ... at CRC public hearings, in the press, and in submissions to the CFB." There are "abstracts" (2-5 pages each) for each proposal that go into more depth on cost, specific rules, edge cases, and so on -- this statement solicitation page links to all of them, here's the abstract for Proposal 2, and here's all of them together.

But what's the context and reasoning for these proposals? Well it comes out of the 2018 New York City Charter Revision Commission which delivered a report, 147 pages long, explaining why they're suggesting these three changes, and what other issues we should consider addressing in the future.

Is that the right balance? Is this a good set of stair-stepped documents giving citizens as much engagement as they want, at the pace they can handle? I don't know. It worked for me and the friend (we spent an hour researching voting choices together), although it was a little harder than I'd have liked to find those links.

I'm a better writer than many, but this is someplace I can improve, and so I'm noodling around thinking about it.


: NYC Comptroller Town Hall, And Reflections on Constraint: Last night I suited up and went to a local town hall held by the office of New York City's Comptroller, Scott Stringer. (I am in the fuzzy foreground of the second photo.) After very short introductions from the venue host (CUNY Law School), Stringer and his staff, we went straight to questions!

I appreciated a lot of things about the event. There was an ASL translator on the stage, and when residents wanted to ask questions in Spanish, a staffer translated between Spanish and English for them. Stringer kept the lines moving by answering folks' questions but also limiting them to one question each (or they could head to the back of the line to get another turn), and interrupted rambly rants by asking for a question he could answer. And if people spoke up with complaints, he promised: fill out a constituent intake form and give it to one of my staffers, and we will call you by noon tomorrow. And free bottled water, next to the paper copies of audit reports and outreach flyers, was a nice touch.

a filled-out constituent intake form with the question I had asked orallyI asked the first question: how can we save money in IT procurement? Perhaps by banding together in consortia with other municipalities to have better leverage with vendors, or making or using open source software? I fear I was not very clear and was misunderstood. Stringer replied by talking about the need to modernize the procurement process itself, which is evidently still paper-based and slow, and about how this depends on revising the City Charter. Wendy Garcia (the office's Chief Diversity Officer) followed up by suggesting that I myself might want to come to their office so they could help my business figure out where our services matched up with the city's contracting needs. [I spoke with her after the town hall to clarify: no, I'm not trying to get business for Changeset here, I'm just interested in the issue! (Maybe I misguided them by introducing myself as a consultant and wearing a suit. The suit was just to respect the occasion! Next time maybe I will wear a stylish dress and cardigan, which seems to be what middle-class women activists wear to these things??)]

I filled out a constituent intake form, and, sure enough, just before 10:30am today, I got a call from their office asking me to email a specific staffer with more details! Well done.

Other questions and answers included a wide variety of concerns: older guy who doesn't like streets getting named after politicians, frequent meeting questioner guy whose stuff was taken (and never returned) when he was arrested in 2015, the Major Capital Improvement rule landlords use to get around rent control, Department of Education buildings that perhaps ought to be reused instead of sold, divesting NYC's pension fund of fossil fuel, Stringer's political ambitions, an idea for stop sign speed sensors (like traffic light speed sensors), the closure of the jail on Rikers Island, helping immigrants pay the costs of applying for citizenship, sewer problems, the placements of homeless shelters, and helping residents use their on-time rent payments to count towards credit scores. My neighbors care about a lot of different things. I took a few notes and mostly sketched. There was this one power outlet mechanism embedded in the desk right in front of me and I drew it like five times and never got the angles to look right.

One interesting thing I learned: when the Comptroller's office audits a city department, it usually takes about 18 months, so they only go in and do an audit if they think it's likely they'll find something.

signs on the wall at CUNY Law School about 'Why I'm Here': 'Bend The Arc', 'Learn The Law, Use The Law, Change The Law'I went home and commented on the proposed National Park Service rule change "Special Regulations, Areas of the National Park System, National Capital Region, Special Events and Demonstrations". I commented on 4 things: making the swimming/wading rules more consistent, removing the "duplicative" criterion, the "atmosphere of contemplation" expansion, and the proposed permit application fees. And then I wrote a thing to prepare for a meeting today, while texting with a friend who's going through a rough time.

I don't know anyone who's not going through some kind of rough time. Or at least I can't think of any. If nothing else we have the awful "well, MY life is great, but the world is horrifying" awareness; it feels like we're betraying our neighbors when we enjoy our personal successes. I never know whether I'm doing enough; I have to define "enough" for myself, which feels audacious. Willow Brugh wrote about how she's implementing a concept I first heard about from Abi Sutherland in December 2016:

While I am pushing to find ways to gain (and deserve) greater influence in the world, those things which fall outside of my influence cannot be that which concerns me most. To do otherwise is a path to madness. I must trust that other capable people exist in the world, and that they are taking up their share just as I am taking up mine. As you are taking up yours.


: Recent Diversions: I went to a civic meeting the other day and sketched while listening, as I've been doing more and more lately. I had to try drawing a folding chair three times before I got the proportions and perspective mostly right. Also, it's surprising how soothing it is to draw super-repetitive shapes, like Venetian window blinds, and to indicate shadow or color with cross-hatching or fill dots.

On Sunday, Leonard and I saw a "Sam the American Eagle" compilation at the Museum of the Moving Image. Sam is amazing, as Leonard and I got to discuss in depth -- he's a minor character, but when you see 50 minutes of Sam in a row, you see interesting patterns. He's Nixon (eyebrows) and he's McCarthy ("I have here a list..."). He loves Wayne and Wanda partly because they're humanoid Muppets, not animals. He knows he's supposed to like classy old songs, education, decency, America, and Great Britain, but he has no capacity for analysis and no factual understanding of history or literature, and never enjoys a joke. He's lawful neutral; he doesn't care who gets hurt or helped, so long as everyone's deferring to authority and following rules. He's separated from his wife, and his kids don't talk to him. I watched The Colbert Report for years so I'm primed to appreciate this kind of character -- Colbert often described his character as a "well-intentioned, poorly informed high-status idiot".

(Watching a bunch of The Muppet Show also reminded me of how the Muppets influenced my basic approach to sketch comedy and acting. I am approximately a Muppet by default in most interpersonal interactions -- big facial expressions and whole-body reactions -- which was sometimes a bit of a trial for my director Aya.)

On Sunday I also got to play the game "Inhuman Conditions", which is crowdfunding on Kickstarter till this Thursday 11 October. I was first an investigator checking whether a suspect was a human or a robot. During this conversation I got to reply to a question with "I'll be the one asking the questions" which was thrilling. (Even though I lost that round - she was a robot after all, crap!) The next round, I was a suspect. How do you prove your humanity to an investigator? Try to be open about your imagination, your private life, your misapprehensions? Or is that exactly what a robot would do, to fool them??? A fun game.


: Credits and References for "Python Grab Bag: A Set of Short Plays": Today, at PyGotham 2018, Jason Owen and I presented "Python Grab Bag: A Set of Short Plays".* We predict a videorecording will be on PyVideo in the next few weeks. [Edited 26 November to add: Video is up.]

Credits

This session is the latest in my line of non-traditional tech talks. I conceived of the idea. Thanks to Jason Owen for working on it with me - thinking of play topics, editing, rehearsing! I wrote almost all of these plays and he made them better. And, as we mentioned in "The Unvarnished Truth", we spent upwards of USD$1650 out of our own pockets on this session -- paying our director and audiovisual assistant, buying props, and renting rehearsal space. Probably closer to $1850 when it all comes in.

Thanks to:

References

In from import import import,** we mention Allison Kaptur's blog post on import and PyCon 2014 talk "Import-ant Decisions", and George London's PyGotham 2017 talk, "import madness # how to implement mergesort from scratch using only import statements".

In "A Proposal for Explaining PEPs", we briefly mention PEPs 347, 385, and 481, which moved Python development from CVS to Subversion to Mercurial to Git, and PEP 8000, which is working on governance questions.

In "GNU Mailman: A Pythonic Playlist", I discuss the history of Mailman release names.

"Generators: Taste the Freshness" draws on this explanation of generators in Python.

"This Is How We Do It" draws on this history of The Zen of Python, and on Larry Wall's "Perl, the first postmodern computer language".

"If Shakespeare Wrote Incident Reports" starts with a quote from Act I, Scene 5 of Hamlet.

"Code Review: Fast Forward and Back" is a summary of "Code Review, Forwards and Back" which originally appeared at PyGotham 2017 (video).

"Be A Better Bureaucrat (The Intellectual argparse Play)" mentions James C. Scott's Seeing Like A State and David Graeber's The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy.

"The End (Of 2.7) Is Near (feat. Jason as Guido van Rossum)" starts by quoting Guido van Rossum's March 10, 2018 email to python-dev. It ends with a short clip from "Get Over It" by OK Go.

Slides & similar

"The Relief of Reuse (The Colorful argparse Play)" has a slide partway through, reading: "Jason switches to the robust, standardized, easy-to-use argparse library".

In general it's hard to see the slides on the videorecording, so here are the slide decks for "from import import import", "A Proposal for Explaining PEPs", "If Shakespeare Wrote Incident Reports", and "When The Old Was New".

In "Things We Don’t Say At The Daily Standup Meeting", the voiceover recording (kind of hard to hear on the recording) is us saying:

I don't understand what you just said.
I've done the same thing every day this week but I'm trying to find different words for it.
I can't concentrate on my work and I don't anticipate that changing till, best case, January 2021.
I feel like I got nothing done yesterday.
I am beyond stuck. I am drowning and I need help.

* Announcement, context, late-September reflections.

** For reference, in case the PyGotham 2018 site ever disappears, the play titles were:

  1. The Unvarnished Truth
  2. from import import import
  3. WHAT’S the DEAL with CLIENTS?
  4. A Play Entirely Full of Monty Python References
  5. A Proposal for Explaining PEPs
  6. GNU Mailman: A Pythonic Playlist
  7. Soup, Scrape, Sweep
  8. Generators: Taste the Freshness
  9. This Is How We Do It
  10. Cookie For Your Thoughts
  11. If Shakespeare Wrote Incident Reports
  12. Code Review: Fast Forward and Back
  13. When The Old Was New
  14. Things We Don’t Say At The Daily Standup Meeting
  15. The Relief of Reuse (The Colorful argparse Play)
  16. Be A Better Bureaucrat (The Intellectual argparse Play)
  17. Speaking Python
  18. The End (Of 2.7) Is Near (feat. Jason as Guido van Rossum)
[Edited to add on 26 November] and the play ordering was:
  1. GNU Mailman: A Pythonic Playlist (#6)
  2. Things We Don’t Say At The Daily Standup Meeting (#14)
  3. A Proposal for Explaining PEPs (#5)
  4. The End (Of 2.7) Is Near (feat. Jason as Guido van Rossum) (#18)
  5. WHAT’S the DEAL with CLIENTS? (#3)
  6. from import import import (#2)
  7. A Play Entirely Full of Monty Python References (#4)
  8. The Relief of Reuse (The Colorful argparse Play) (#15)
  9. Speaking Python (#17)
  10. Generators: Taste the Freshness (#8)
  11. When The Old Was New (#13)
  12. The Unvarnished Truth (#1)
  13. This Is How We Do It (#9)
  14. If Shakespeare Wrote Incident Reports (#11)
  15. Cookie For Your Thoughts (#10)
  16. Be A Better Bureaucrat (The Intellectual argparse Play) (#16)
  17. Soup, Scrape, Sweep (#7)
  18. Code Review: Fast Forward and Back (#12)
  19. thank-yous


: Miscellaneous Recommendations:

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: Tidelift Is Paying Maintainers And, Potentially, Fixing the Economics of an Industry: As the founder of Changeset Consulting, I keep my eye on consultancies and services in and near my niche, open source leadership, maintainership, and sustainability.* And I've known Luis Villa for years and got to work with him at Wikimedia. So yeah, I noticed when Tidelift announced its big new launch. And -- now, as a very-part-time consultant who helps Tidelift understand the Python world -- I am excited about their commitment to pay more than USD$1 million to maintainers (including "a guaranteed minimum $10,000 over the next 24 months to select projects").

Here's my take on the new Tidelift subscription model, the "lifter" role, and whom this works for.

For software businesses, this provides that missing vendor relationship, SLA, release cadence expectations, and general peace of mind for all of that unseen infrastructure you depend on. It's often easier for businesses -- of many sizes -- to pay a regular fee than to put open source project management work, dependency-updating, compliance checking, dependency security audits, or FLOSS volunteer relations on the engineering schedule.

For individual programmers and community-maintained open source projects, Tidelift is a potential source of substantial income. As a Pythonist, I hope to reach people who are currently core code contributors to open source projects in Python, especially on the Libraries.io digital infrastructure/unseen infrastructure/improve the bus factor lists. And I would like to reach projects like the ones Nathaniel Smith calls out in a recent post:

that (1) require a modest but non-trivial amount of sustained, focused attention, and (2) have an impact that is large, but broad and diffuse
and projects in the "wide open", "specialty library", and "upstream dependency" categories identified by the Open Tech Strategies report "Open Source Archetypes: A Framework For Purposeful Open Source".

For such people and projects, becoming a lifter is a promising model -- especially since the required tasks are fairly few, and are things maintainers should do anyway. I'm encouraged to see Jeff Forcier (maintainer of Fabric, Alabaster, and more) and Ned Batchelder's coverage.py getting onto the Tidelift platform.

And you can see estimated monthly income for your package right now. For some people, especially those whose healthcare doesn't depend on an employer, Tidelift payments plus some side consulting could be a sustainable, comfortable income.

Then there are folks like me whose contributions are only partially visible in commit logs (management, user support, testing, and so on), and groups that work together best as a team. Tidelift is also a potential source of income for us, but it's a little more complicated. Tidelift can send lifter payments to individuals, for-profits, and nonprofits, but: "If a package has multiple co-maintainers, you'll need to agree as a group on an approach." If you thought code of conduct conversations with your community were uncomfortable, wait till you bring up money! But, more seriously: I've been able to talk frankly with open source colleagues about thorny "who gets paid what?" questions, and if you're candid with your co-maintainers, the benefits may be pretty substantial. You can get advice on this conversation during the next live Tidelift web-based Q&A, Thursday, Oct. 11 at 2 p.m. Eastern Time (sign up at the bottom of the lifter info page).

Nonprofits, companies, and working groups that maintain projects can sign up now as lifters. Even if it's just a trickle of money right now, it might build over time and turn into enough to fund travel for an in-person sprint, contract work to improve continuous integration, an Outreachy internship, etc.

(One gap here: right now, Tidelift isn't great at supporting system-level packages and projects, like tools that get installed via apt or yum/DNF. I'm pretty sure that's something they're working on.)

What about noncommercial users or users who can't afford Tidelift subscriptions? The more lifters and subscribers sign up, the more those users benefit, too. Subscribers' funding means maintainers have time to make improvements that help everyone. And lifters agree to follow security, maintenance, and licensing best practices that also help everyone. Plus, Tidelift stewards libraries.io, a great resource for anyone who uses or develops open source (more on that). More money for Tidelift could mean libraries.io gets better too.

So I'm tooting a horn here and hoping more people sign up, because this is one of the more plausible ways open source sustainability could possibly work. Tidelift could be a real game-changer for the industry. Check it out.


* Examples: new competitors like Maintainer Mountaineer and OpenTeam, new funders like OSS Capital, and colleagues/referrals like Open Tech Strategies, VM Brasseur, Otter Tech, and Authentic Engine.


: A Reasonably Fast Way To Construct A Writing Portfolio: Someone in my network wanted guidance in building a professional (often software-related) writing portfolio for the first time -- they want to give other people a portfolio of work they've already done, so that those people can consider hiring them for paid writing gigs. This person wanted advice on what to choose, how to curate and structure and present the portfolio, and whether to keep it private or publish it somewhere public.

Here's some free advice on getting started with that. I'm sure there are better ways to do this and be more polished in the final presentation, but here's how I suggested they get started.

  1. Start by taking 1-2 hours to assemble a big rough list of what you've written, in the last 10 years or so, that you might conceivably want to share in this portfolio. Be wide and inclusive, and if this feels overwhelming, remember that this does not have to be comprehensive -- you just want samples of different categories (like "neighbor-friendly explanations of technical topics", "bug reports", "profiles of individual people", "replies to support requests", "nonfiction essays", "research papers", "public conference talks", "HOWTO tutorials", and so on).
  2. Decide whether this will be a public or private portfolio. If most of these pieces are ones you really don't want to share, online, with the public, under your wallet name, then you're going to be doing this as a private portfolio. Otherwise you'll turn this into a page or subsite of your public website, and you can mention and summarize the private pieces and say "available upon request".
  3. Select the best 1-3 examples for each category. This might involve digging because maybe now you'll remember another category or another piece.
  4. If it's a private portfolio, turn the whole thing into a giant PDF with chapter headings explaining what category each item is in. If it's public, do that, but also make a webpage -- Heidi Waterhouse's list and Betsy Haibel's list are straightforward examples you could use as patterns. If you want to be a little more explanatory and give the reader more guidance about the context for each piece, you could do something like what Lindsey Kuper does. And if you want to get really intense about it you could make something like what I've done with the Changeset Consulting "resources" page, with stock art!
  5. Every few months, review what you've written and see what you need to add to the portfolio. (I also keep a public mega-list of nonfiction and fiction, art, software, and zines I've made and a big list of my past talks, interviews, and stand-up comedy, which helps me when it's time to update the Resources page for Changeset.)

If you've been thinking of making a writing portfolio and putting it off, I hope this structure makes it more feasible.


: I Joked That We Could Call Each Of The Mini-Plays 'What Are We Even Doing': Last night I dreamed that I had to leave my home? hotel? and realized I had forgotten to don pants, and then realized I was supposed to get on a flight to Germany, and was trying to check in online within Google Docs on my phone.

Perhaps my creativity is so spent from writing and rehearsal for "Python Grab Bag" that it's really phoning it in for by-the-numbers anxiety dreams.

Yesterday was the first on-our-feet rehearsal. I'm so grateful that Jason and I hired our director, Neofuturist alumna Aya Aziz (more about her and her playwriting, acting, singing, and dancing -- as Aya Abdelaziz she also (sort of) portrayed me in a reading of the Aaron Swartz memorial play "Building A Real Boy" last year). The words are really coming to life as we speak them aloud and block the plays (decide who's moving and facing which way when) and figure out sound, light, props. Her direction is -- as I'd hoped -- making it much more likely that these will feel like theater, affect the audience both cerebrally and emotionally, not just slide away like an embarrassing middle school book report skit. (I am speaking here as someone whose only memory of Otto of the Silver Hand is that I wrote a rap about it for class.)

I fairly often feel an incredulous "what the hell are we even doing" feeling when I reflect on this weird freaking thing we're making. On one level it's the most logical thing in the world. It's a port from one venue to another; I've seen The Infinite Wrench dozens of times and we're adapting a Neofuturist theatrical approach to talk about what it's like to be a Python programmer. And I did a Neofuturist-inspired keynote at LibrePlanet last year, we did a play at PyGotham last year, and we maybe aren't even doing the most ambitious Python conference performance in recent memory -- K Lars Lohn's PyCon 2016 keynote was an intricately designed multimedia narrative of discovery and wonder. So even though the piece we are making and sharing is novel, we aren't straying THAT far from prior art.

But also, let's be real, there is a well-worn path of advice and examples to help a speaker talk about "how to do foo with bar" or "five ways to be better at managing people" or "open source is making a difference!" and if you give a kinda boring or redundant conference talk along those lines, it just slides into the rearview mirror. This weird thing we are working on will stand out. The optimal rate of criticism is not zero and I anticipate -- even if most of the audience enjoys it -- there will be at least a few people who think it's awful, a waste of time, takes a PyGotham slot that ought to have gone to a real talk, and think less of me for my bad judgment and poor skill. The chance of failure feels greater and the risk in failure feels higher.

This is part of what innovation feels like: whacking past vines with a stick, mostly but not 100% certain that this direction leads to a place worth finding, pattern-matching and guessing without a trail or a map. Risking failing. To quote Ramsey Nasser again,

When you're failing, you're exploring things that are in that grey area. That there may be interesting surprises there, or there may be things that you don't want, but you're willing... It's a sort of brave commitment to go there and to see what's out there. Failing is not wrong.

And perhaps the fact that I'm going ahead and wrestling with that fear, moving forward, instead of letting it stop me, is another reason my anxiety brain is all, "I give up. Uhhhhh, you're late for a flight and you forgot your pants. Oooooh scary! *finger-wiggles*"

Filed under:


: Now Imagine Switching The Lead Actors For Those Two Shows: I was in the midst of talking with my pal Jed about Star Trek: The Next Generation. He'd kindly checked whether I was ok hearing criticisms of this show-of-my-heart and I said dismissiveness no, criticism yes. We talked a little about Picard. I said how interesting it is that he's an introvert leader, how we don't often see that kind of person represented on TV. (And I informed him that I want him to text me immediately once he watches "Allegiance".) But he's still collaborative and listens well to his subordinates...

And Jed said: I know you've said that Picard taught you a lot about management. But what if you got into management because of watching Picard?

Me: you did not warn me you were going to be that incisive when we started this phone call.

I mean, maybe! In some ways Star Trek: The Next Generation* is to my management style as Mad About You is to my marriage style -- the formative-influence TV show that I, sometimes even consciously, modeled myself after. But maybe it goes deeper -- maybe those are also shows that made me think it would be awesome to be a leader, and to be married.


* And Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.


: Coming Back To My Senses: A few miscellaneous thoughts:

I chose a driving school and have now had a few lessons. I'm already far better at appropriate mirror and blind spot checks, turns, stop sign stops, staying in my lane, controlling my speed, and keeping a safe distance from the vehicle in front of me. Next up: practice in lane changes (at speed, instead of slowing the hell down and snarling things up) and parallel parking.

My instructor has had to remind me: if I have to brake hard to a sudden stop (e.g., at a yellow light), I should check my rearview mirror first, to see whether I'm being tailgated -- if so, it may well be safer to run the yellow light, even if the light turns red while I am in the intersection! This is bouncing around my brain a bit before thoroughly settling in. The point of the rules is to increase safety, and it is better to break a traffic rule than to cause a collision. I am distantly reminded of Mr. Hatch, my high school American Literature teacher, teaching us about levels of moral reasoning in the context of reading Huckleberry Finn -- grasping the principles behind a system of rules helps a person make better decisions than they would if they just concentrated on doing as they're told.

And it's been raining a bit in New York City, so now I've gotten some fresh experience driving in wet conditions! And I have rejoiced in the rain and the lower temperatures, breaking out a belted, water-resistant knee-length tan trenchcoat I got for free at the WisCon clothing swap. It feels so cute and fall and wearing it with black boots, dark blue jeans, and a belted V-neck kelly green knit top felt so powerful and happy! This year I dropped off 20-30 items of my own and snagged a few really awesome pieces at the Clothing Swap -- the trenchcoat, a sparkly silver tasselled 1920s-style sheath dress (which I just had tailored for 20 bucks and now it looks so good on me), and a very bodyconscious above-the-knee black dress with a faux-wrap V-neck that flatters my torso.

The experience of wearing that black dress has already transformed me. The woman who donated it saw me wearing it during the Tiptree Auction and caught me during a break to say: "Did you get that from the Clothing Swap? It used to be mine! I saw you wearing it and thought, 'She looks better in it than I did! Bitch.'" And that was an affectionate compliment and I got it and felt like I had leveled up in a kind of femininity. Teasing has always been difficult for me to give and receive -- it's a highwire act to gauge intimacy well enough to trust/convey that the intent of an insult is to bond, not to wound -- and I feel like this woman gave me not only the gift of a kicky dress that suits me, but also a gift of spirit. It is as though she led me in a merry little dance, and for once, instead of falling or tripping, I followed her moves and unlocked the fun.

I feel like my sense of visual aesthetics has never been a strong point -- it's still a little surprising to me that I can find joy in a particular outfit, or please myself with a sketch. The other week I sketched a bit to quiet my distractible mind while in a long meeting. It turns out a gridded notebook (thanks for the old OSCON freebie, O'Reilly!) massively helps me sketch human-made objects. And the first time I try, I usually realize something I'm not quite getting right, quickly finish it, and then try to sketch the same thing again, and the second try is better. I've learned something about the proportions of the chair, the many nested borders of a window. It's so validating and inspiring to make a thing with my hands that did not exist before and then immediately make a clearly better version of that thing!

I was talking a few days ago with a new friend who mentioned that working and playing with her dog has helped her pay attention to being embodied. We're all animals. But sometimes we forget. I suppose the theme emerging in these reflections is that I'm exploring -- as a mechanized cyborg, and in fabric and on paper -- how my eyes and my skin want to dance with the world. The irreducible facts of motion, light, shape, texture, warmth, wet. And I can get more graceful with attentive practice, and what joy there is to be found here!

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(1) : Code Review Play at RubyConf, and Think Tank Fiction:

Jason Owen and I will co-present "Code Review, Forwards and Back" at RubyConf in Los Angeles, November 13-15 2018. We'll update and slightly lengthen the version we performed at PyGotham last year. If you'll be at RubyConf, consider watching our one-act play:

Your team's code review practices cause ripple effects far into the future. In this play, see several ways a single code review can go, then fast-forward and rewind to see the effects -- on codebase and culture -- of different code review approaches.

The setting: an office conference room. The characters: a developer, who's written a chunk of new Ruby code, and a team lead, who's about to review it. The code is not great.

See a fast-paced montage of ways things can go. Recognize patterns from your past and present. Learn scripts for phrasing criticism constructively. And laugh.

I've been doing a lot of theater-inflected conference presentations recently. I came up with the ideas for "Code Review, Forwards and Back" and "Lessons, Myths, and Lenses: What I Wish I'd Known in 1998" and "Python Grab Bag: A Set of Short Plays" (more details on all of these on my Talks page).

In some sense this is unsurprising, as I'm a programmer and public speaker who has dabbled in the more creative performing arts my whole life. As a child I had small parts in school* and community** theater, and my sister and I wrote and performed in some number of long skits for Indian-American association get-togethers (there was a lot of No Big Deal family-based practice here, as with writing and public speaking in general). I have also been willing to sing in public really quite out of proportion to my actual singing ability for a very long time. And I got all right at stand-up comedy and at comedy auctioneering.*** So I have started to bring those skills into my conference presentations, and am interested in how spectacle, fictional narrative, and different presentation formats can make different kinds of teaching and representation possible.

Someone else thinking about the value of storytelling in conference talks is Maria Farrell, who posted at Crooked Timber about that and about "think-tank fiction" (fictional stories/scenarios, sometimes composites of real situations and sometimes future projections, reflecting on and demonstrating the effects of particular policies and trends).

I find several of Farrell's reflections resonate with me, about the "quality of atmosphere" that obtains when you start telling a story at an event where it's unusual to do so, and:

...people at all-day tech events are really, really glad to just relax and have stories told to them. News flash. And actual stories, with, hopefully, meanings heading off on different trajectories, not TED anecdotes driving to One Big Lesson...

I hope Farrell can come to !!Con or a similar event sometime, to see how it nurtures some similar experiences.

There must be a bunch of talks like this and now my cataloguing fingers are itching. As Bruce Sterling wrote in "User-Centric":

To: the Team Coordinator
From: the social anthropologist
Subject: Re: *****Private message*****

Fred, people have been telling each other stories since we were hominids around campfires in Africa. It’s a very basic human cognition thing, really.

My colleague Erik Möller did a talk like the ones Farrell mentions at Wikimania 2013, "Ghosts of Wikis Yet to Come: Three Stories of Wikimedia's Future". And I think Tom Scott's scifi shorts and story-style talks, and the "Slaughterbots" video from Ban Lethal Autonomous Weapons, are worth checking out as exemplars.

I also love related "our technology will make this future possible/likely!" narratives like AT&T's 1993 "Connections" video. (The AT&T Archives page pointed me to this collection of similar concept videos I totally want to see, made by Ameritech, Motorola, Sun, NEC, etc. Natalie Jeremijenko and Chris Woebken collaborated on a 2009 montage I haven't watched yet, and there's a 2014 followup -- looking forward to diving in.)


* Not always onstage -- the first bit of project management I ever did was stage management. I fuzzily remember running a puppet show in elementary school, and officiously checking off attendance using a clipboard (oh how important I felt!) for some middle school thing.

** Perhaps most memorably: Rudy, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer's nerdy little sister, in "The Night Before The Night Before Christmas" at a local YW/MCA. I actually had lines in this role! To demonstrate Rudy's bookishness, the script had her say aloud, apropos of nothing, "O is for oxygen," "N is for nitrogen," "C is for carbon", and so on. In retrospect this dialogue has more verismilitude than I would like to admit.

*** And of course this feels completely normal to me, because, you know, you only have your own one life, and your own life has a way of becoming the yardstick rather than the judged.

But a great swathe of programmers and other technologists don't think of writing or putting on or starring in a small play as No Big Deal. Many haven't ever memorized lines. And sometimes I forget that, if you've taken a storytelling workshop and served as a dramaturg for someone's one-woman show, and you're a programmer who gets to speak at conferences like PyCon and FOSDEM, you're unusual. Your intersection of skillsets is rare.

And one of the intuitions that's helped me develop my career is that I can provide unique value where the intersection of my skillsets is rare.


: Foreign Key: I was born and raised in the US. I speak English natively and fluently, with a US accent.

A few times, in face-to-face, oral conversation, US-born colleagues or strangers have said something that reveals they assume I am an immigrant. I always found this bewildering; can't they hear my accent? In one case, last year, someone (a white person with a US accent) heard me say I was American, and replied "But your accent" -- the first time I'd ever experienced someone just making up a perceived Indian accent in my speech.

Turns out this happens frequently. Linguists in the US published research about it as early as 1992, and replicated findings, including in the piece "Code Switch" mentions. (Thanks to The League of Nerds for the bibliography that led me to the research papers NPR was citing.) From Okim Kang & Donald Rubin's "Reverse Linguistic Stereotyping: Measuring the Effect of Listener Expectations on Speech Evaluation":

In [reverse linguistic stereotyping], the speaker's language pattern is not the trigger to stereotyping processes but rather their object. In RLS, attributions of a speaker's group membership cue distorted perceptions of that speaker's language style or proficiency. Thus, Rubin and colleagues (see review in Rubin, 2002) have repeatedly documented that when listeners mistakenly believe they are listening to a nonnative speaker of English (NNS), they report hearing highly accented speech, and their listening comprehension significantly declines.

Well, at least now I know. Probably a ton of people have made this assumption over the years and I just never knew. And it'll probably keep happening; it's not like I'm going to start waving my long-form birth certificate around at the beginning of every meeting, party, and presentation. Bleh. Yet another thing.


: New York State Licensed Driving Schools: I have a driver's license but rarely drive, and the longer I go without practice, the more I think I ought to get some lessons in before getting back on the road. I'd like to feel more comfortable driving so I can share the work on long car trips, rent a car for hiking or activist work, and so on. So I decided to get some lessons from a driving school. I saw one in my area advertises itself as registered with New York State Department of Motor Vehicles as a driving school, and thought I may as well do my due diligence and check the accuracy of that claim.

Well, New York State DMV does regulate and certify driving schools and driving instructors; a driving school needs a license to sell instruction. Hella requirements and forms.

But there's no public list of driving school licensees. The NYS DMV provides a DMV-Regulated Facilities search on its site, for car repair shops, auto dealers, etc., but that does not include licensed driving schools. And the site lists providers of the in-classroom Point and Insurance Reduction Program (PIRP), in case you seek that. But I want behind-the-wheel lessons, not PIRP.

Short-term solution which I eventually found, and am sharing for future readers: you can call the NYS DMV's Bureau of Driver Training Programs (DTP) at (518) 473-7174, and ask them about a specific driving school (name and address), and they can verify whether it's licensed, and how long it's been licensed.

Long-term solution: I filed a Freedom of Information Law request for the list of licensed driving schools and I nominated that list in a dataset for New York's Open Data portal.

(More a daydream than any kind of solution: signing up to take a New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission-authorized behind-the-wheel course meant for New York City taxi drivers!!! Why half-ass my "get more confident as a driver" journey?!)


: "Python Grab Bag: A Set of Short Plays" Accepted for PyGotham 2018: Fresh from the waitlist onto the schedule: Jason Owen and I will be performing "Python Grab Bag: A Set of Short Plays" at PyGotham in early October. If you want to come see us perform, you should probably register soon. I don't yet know whether we'll perform on Friday, Oct. 5 or Saturday, Oct. 6.

(The format will be similar to the format I used in "Lessons, Myths, and Lenses: What I Wish I'd Known in 1998" (video, partial notes), but some plays will be more elaborate and theatrical -- much more like our inspiration "The Infinite Wrench".)

To quote the session description:

A frenetic combination of educational and entertaining segments, as chosen by the audience! In between segments, audience members will shout out numbers from a menu, and we'll perform the selected segment. It may be a short monologue, it may be a play, it may be a physical demo, or it may be a tiny traditional conference talk.

Audience members should walk away with some additional understanding of the history of Python, knowledge of some tools and libraries available in the Python ecosystem, and some Python-related amusement.

So now Jason and I just have to find a director, write and memorize and rehearse and block probably 15-20 Python-related plays/songs?/dances?/presentations, acquire and set up some number of props, figure out lights and sound and visuals, possibly recruit volunteers to join us for a few bits, run some preview performances to see whether the lessons and jokes land, and perform our opening (also closing) performance. In 68 days.

(Simultaneously: I have three clients, and want to do my bit before the midterm elections, and work on a fairly major apartment-related project with Leonard, and and and and.)

Jason, thank you for the way your eyes lit up on the way back from PyCon when I mentioned this PyGotham session idea -- I think your enthusiasm will energize me when I'm feeling overwhelmed by the ambition of this project, and I predict I'll reciprocate the favor! PyGotham program committee & voters, thank you for your vote of confidence. Leonard, thanks in advance for your patience with me bouncing out of bed to write down a new idea, and probably running many painfully bad concepts past you. Future Sumana, it's gonna be ok. It will, possibly, be great. You're going to give that audience an experience they've never had before.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Some thoughts I had along the way:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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