Cogito, Ergo Sumana

picture of Sumana's head

Sumana Harihareswara's journal


: Getting My First COVID-19 Vaccine In New York City: On Saturday night I received my first vaccination dose against COVID-19. I've had minimal side effects and the appointment went very smoothly. Here's a longish post about eligibility in New York, booking the appointment, and how the process went.

You might be eligible, too

Me, wearing a mask with chemical symbols on it, near a poster saying 'Get a Free COVID-19 Vaccine Here! Appointment needed; schedule and learn more at nyc.gov/vaccinefinder 877-VAX-4NYC'If you live in New York, it is very much worth looking at the eligibility criteria in detail. The current groups eligible for vaccination include new groups added within the last couple of weeks, including people with several health conditions. The conditions include several that I think people skimming may have overlooked. For instance, moderate-to-severe asthma, type 1 and type 2 diabetes, and hypertension are on the list. "Severe obesity (body mass index of 40 kg/m2 or higher), obesity (body mass index of between 30 kg/m2 and 40 kg/m2)" is on the list; I know a strength and conditioning coach whose BMI qualifies for that, just in case you're feeling unhappy about also being in that category (BMI: an extremely flawed measure). And "Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities including Down Syndrome," too, which probably include Autism Spectrum Disorder and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, which I only realized because of folks talking about that on Twitter.*

If you have one of those health conditions: as the official guidelines on eligibility proof say:

You do not need documentation from your personal health care provider or any other proof of your condition to get a vaccine in NYC. It is only necessary for you to self-certify you have an underlying condition that makes you eligible. You will be asked to self-certify as part of the appointment scheduling process, or a vaccine provider will ask you to complete the below certification document before or at the time of your appointment.

And! As of today, eligible groups include

  • Regional food bank paid or unpaid workers
  • Food pantry paid or unpaid workers
  • Permitted home-delivered meal program paid or unpaid workers

(If I know you personally I'll share why I'm eligible.)

Getting and preparing for the appointment

Once I realized I was eligible, I used TurboVax as an easy way to see when new vaccine appointments were available. I happened to refresh again one day and saw appointments available at Brooklyn Army Terminal. I'm glad I followed the TurboVax advice on having forms filled out ahead of time; I had several rounds of clicking on a time and immediately being told it was not available, then finally nabbed one.

I read the info sheet about the Moderna vaccine and followed the electronic instructions to fill out some patient info and consent forms online. And I made a to-do list ahead of my appointment: print out the appointment info, grab proof of my eligibility, fill out and print the confirmation that I filled out the day-of-vaccine online form, bring my insurance card and government ID, bring some proof of NYC residency just in case they wanted additional confirmation beyond my ID, and - since people on Twitter had reported 3-hour waits in the past few days at the Brooklyn Army Terminal location - prep for a long wait in an outdoors queue (water and a snack, a charged phone and power brick, a few fresh podcasts downloaded). And I assumed I would need to take a cab there and back, so my list also included ensuring I had a means to pay for those cabs. But a friend who is vaccinated and who has a car volunteered to drive me there and back!

Nearly no wait

We arrived like 45 minutes early and there was NO LINE. I did have to fill out about 1 page of paperwork that felt duplicative (maybe many people do not fill out the online stuff). How it went (all people I interacted with were wearing masks -- I think they were all women, by the way):

  • Arrived and was immediately given a form and a pen; took maybe 3 min to fill it out.
  • As soon as I was done, a worker walked me to a small standalone room -- kind of reminded me of a portable classroom from when I was in high school, but much smaller -- and another worker asked me some questions, took my ID and insurance card for a moment, took the form and eligibility proof, and typed a bunch of stuff into the electronic health records system. Also, she showed me available dates and times for my second dose, I chose one, and she scheduled it. This whole bit took maybe 5-10 minutes.
  • As soon as that step was done, a worker walked me to another room elsewhere in the grid, divided in half by a curtain. A person at a computer was supposed to do one last bit of Epic stuff, I think, but seemed to be having trouble finding the right desktop icon to click. The clinician? finished with the person she was dosing on the other side of the curtain, and did the electronic health record stuff herself, and filled out the paper vaccination record card that I can take with me. And she injected me (with the Moderna vaccine), which felt about as painful as accidentally scratching my skin with my fingernail. I spent maybe 5-10 minutes in this room total.
  • One of those workers walked me to the observation tent where patients waited 15 minutes in case we had a bad reaction to the vaccine. Some people sat quietly or talked with (I assume) the person they came with; some of us chitchatted with the clipboard-wielding workers, who every once in a while called someone's name to tell us we were free to go.
  • I had been texting my friend throughout to let him know how fast things were going; once I was outside (at the well-lit and guarded entrance), I called him and he came from where he had parked and picked me up. It was now just about time for my originally scheduled appointment, and now I was already done!

On my way home I started feeling a little tingling at the injection site, and later that evening, some mild soreness. Sunday I had some more soreness in the upper arm (that felt like a muscle ache from exercise) and I went to bed a bit early and slept for about 10 hours, and Monday I had some mild soreness. Over the course of today I'd say the soreness has completely faded away. I've been able to do my usual workouts Sunday, Monday, and today without trouble.

(This is perfect, because to me the perfect level of side effects for this is "very mild, but just enough that I viscerally feel like it's working.")

I feel very happy about having gotten the first vaccine dose and it's been excellent for my mood, but talking more about that here feels like taunting the people who haven't been able to get it yet, so I won't dwell on that.

New Yorkers:

It's worth taking a fresh look at the current groups eligible for vaccination, including various health conditions, because some of those items may surprise you. And if you are eligible, it's worth taking a little look at TurboVax once in a while to see whether new appointments pop up that you could snag. Right now, TurboVax and an official state tracker say that there are first dose appointments available starting in April at Medgar Evers for Brooklyn residents.

I am so grateful for all of the infrastructure that got me/us here.


* There is no canonical list of intellectual and developmental disabilities recognized by New York State for the purpose of vaccine eligibility, as far as I can tell. I checked several pages within CDC's web content that cover developmental disabilities (including a COVID-specific page), called a New York vaccination helpline (the worker escalated and searched and got no definitive answer), and have now called one of my state-level legislators to suggest that they clarify this. Maybe they should coordinate with the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities and the Children and Youth with Special Health Care Needs Program, or maybe they should just point to the closest thing to a canonical list I found on the CDC's site -- I don't know what the answer is, but there needs to be some kind of way for people with various conditions to check whether they're eligible before turning up for the vaccination and maybe being told they're not!

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: Some Recent Reading: I have now submitted my book proposal to a few publishers and am attempting to take a little vacation (today's the last full day of it). It's not as safe as it was in September to meet friends in NYC, even outdoors, so instead I have been reading a lot.

I reread Anne McCaffrey's The Rowan for the first time in like 15 years. That I read in paper, but mostly I've been reading ebooks; thanks to SimplyE, NYPL's ebook-lending app, it's easy for me to borrow books and read them on my mobile phone. In the last few months this has helped me read a bunch of engaging genre fiction, such as some John Scalzi (The Collapsing Empire, Lock In, Head On) and a Tortall duology I hadn't read before (Tamora Pierce's Trickster's Choice and Trickster's Queen). And I had previously read maybe three of the nine Temeraire books by Naomi Novik -- over the past few days I've reread a couple and then ploughed through nearly all of the rest (today I'll probably finish League of Dragons). In terms of the four doorways of reader's advisory these are, to me, mostly books with big giant Story doorways, plus some fairly broad Setting doorways and -- except for Scalzi -- substantial Character doorways too.

None of the books I just mentioned are special to me in the way that Pat Barker's Regeneration or Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang are, but I'm grateful for the escape they all provide. Every moment that I am reading a conversation between Laurence and Temeraire is a moment that I am not brooding over COVID-19 or refreshing a social media feed.

And I know enough about the craft of fiction to know that it can be quite difficult to make "easy" entertainment, that my experience of "fluff" is the result of authors' and editors' careful skill. I'm especially grateful to read fast-moving, accessible stories that don't suddenly sideswipe me with sexism and racism. Years ago, Ann Leckie wrote an analogy that sticks with me. "Somebody gets the idea to open a restaurant where everything is exactly as delicious as the other places -- but the waiters won't punch you in the face." Relatedly, Zen Cho characterizes herself as writing "fluff for postcolonial book nerds". When I read the portrayal of a fantastic Indonesia in the Pierce books, or the many portrayals of various countries and peoples in Novik's books, I don't feel 100% "YEAH!" but I also do not feel like the author is being dismissive or contemptuous. As I mentioned a few years ago I am not a fan of narration or plot implying that the author thinks I'm a chump, scornworthy, especially because of my gender, ethnicity, or work ethic/style. And I used to run into that way more often in my pleasure reading. I'm grateful to all the fans, reviewers, activists, authors, editors, and others who have changed that.

Today I also want to finish a nonfiction book -- Beyond majority rule: voteless decisions in the Religious Society of Friends by Michael J. Sheeran -- so I can discuss it with a few folks in a reading circle. The best quote so far is from p. 86: "But to move on to other matters more conducive to measurement is to allow the limits of one's technology to control one's goals." YEAHHHH!

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: New Wikimedia Code of Conduct: Just about ten years ago, I started a gig at the Wikimedia Foundation managing its open source volunteer stuff. I broached the topic of a tech conference anti-harassment policy with the higher-ups - as I recall, the first code of conduct for any in-person Wikimedia event. And, as I recall, the Wikimedia projects, as a whole, did not have an anti-harassment policy beyond the legal Terms of Use. We put the Friendly Space Policy into place in early 2012. And the next year, a volunteer led a session at the yearly Wikimania conference to discuss a potential online Friendly Space Policy:

"Explore what elements are essential for you in such a policy and what we can do collectively to adopt such a policy for Wikipedia and other Wikimedia websites."

And more of those efforts started and continued throughout Wikimedia spaces.

I left the Wikimedia Foundation in late 2014, but the work continued; in 2015 folks started a code of conduct for Wikimedia technical spaces that applies in both virtual and physical spaces.

Today I saw WMF's announcement that -- after a lot of research and consultation -- "The Universal Code of Conduct (UCoC) aims to provide a universal baseline of acceptable behavior for the entire Wikimedia movement and all its projects." The Board of Trustees has approved the new policy and now all the islands in the Wikimedia archipelago need to talk together about how to implement and enforce it.

Sometimes it's really nice to get to see your legacy.


: Request: Advice on Working Well With Neuroatypical People in Open Source: I am writing a book about managing legacy open source software projects, and I'd like to include a chapter on supporting neuroatypical people. The goal of the chapter would be to demystify several neuroatypicalities and to provide frameworks and specific advice for working with, accommodating, and supporting neuroatypical people in FLOSS contexts.

I've been having a hard time finding resources on a few particular topics:

  • mental health-specific analysis and advice on common dynamics in open source (such as volunteer overcommitment, lack of clarity who has power over whom, and public criticism from strangers)
  • supporting a teammate with ADHD*
  • supporting an anxious teammate

(It seems somewhat easier to find resources regarding supporting depressed or autistic teammates.)

Do you have any suggested articles, books, videos, or people to consult? If you have time to give me a few links or names, I would welcome any pointers, or even just better keywords to use when searching.

(I've already taken a first look through the Open Source and Feelings playlists and Open Sourcing Mental Illness but may have missed things.)

* [footnote from Feb. 8th] I'm reasonably sure this ["an ADHD teammate"] is an accepted way to refer to a person who has Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder; lemme know if I'm wrong. [note from Feb. 25th] Discussion on Twitter, CHADD, and the National Center on Disability and Journalism style guide tell me that person-first language is preferred for this case, so I've switched the phrasing to "a teammate with ADHD". I was surprised to learn of the person-first preference, since many of the disability activists I know prefer identity-first in general and regarding their specific disabilities, so I tried to double-check in case there is a prominent ADHD advocacy organization that prefers identity-first language, but couldn't find one. Let me know if I'm wrong!


: 1990s Movies in February: This month, my spouse and I are doing a little project, and you're welcome to join us.

We like to watch movies. Not only was it fun for us to watch the 1994 action blockbuster Speed a few days ago, it was fun to then talk about it with friends who are about our age, who kind of remember it too. And the 1990s was the decade when both of us went from childhood to early adulthood, and was the last decade when we didn't know each other.

So, over the course of this month, we'll watch at least one movie from each year 1990-1999, focusing on films that were big commercial hits and/or won prestigious awards, and that we haven't yet seen. For instance, I've never seen Total Recall or Rush Hour or Green Card. It'll be interesting to fill in a bit of cultural literacy and to retrospectively look at what my culture was saying when I was a kid.

(We don't need suggestions, thanks.)

It can be fun to have a little project. Feel free to join us and run your own '90s film month! And maybe post about it!

[Edited throughout February to append titles]: Films we watched: Total Recall, Point Break, Sister Act, Sleepless in Seattle, The Shawshank Redemption, Friday, Twister, Air Force One, Pleasantville, Notting Hill, Mo' Better Blues.

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: Three Ways I Exercise In My Apartment:

My mental and physical health are much better if I can exercise, to the point of getting sweaty, for at least 20 minutes every day. The forms of exercise I most enjoy (hiking, biking for errands, helping people move belongings or build things, multiperson sports) are a lot harder to do during the pandemic. So I was very sedentary for a lot of 2020.

I started trying various approaches to in-my-apartment exercise, such as calisthenics while listening to podcasts, working out alone in my living room along with an online video such as this New York Times six-minute workout, etc. It was hard for me to make and stick to a schedule and stay consistent. I eventually came to a few approaches that, combined, work well for me. I have actually been able to exercise approximately every day using a combination of these three activities.

Here's what I'm doing, in case you've been struggling with similar problems.

Nintendo Ring Fit Adventure

Three to five days every week, I play a Nintendo game where I do specified exercises in order to travel through a fantasy landscape and fight monsters. I am told that this is a classic role-playing game (RPG) and that all the stuff about levelling up, collecting potions, choosing the right attack for a particular monster, fulfilling bystander requests, etc. is totally standard for the game genre. I am fairly unfamiliar with it and am learning everything just fine as I go, thanks to in-game instructions. Once, in about 20-30 sessions of playing, I've looked up stuff in online forums (it is hard to get the console to register when I'm doing a plank), but otherwise it's been very easy to learn. And there is immediate feedback to help me learn the proper form for each exercise, as much as the sensors allow.

It works to keep me motivated! There's novel stuff every day, so I want to discover what's next in the story and what new exercises, potions, and minigames the game has in store for me. And I like the immediate feedback. It is easier for me to get myself to do a bunch of squats if it will defeat a monster!

The bits of the game that are not exercise (like talking to characters and turning ingredients into potions) are not exercise, so there's an in-game clock that helpfully tells me how much I have actually exercised in the current session. A 30-minute exercise session might take 45 to 60 minutes of game time for me (your results may vary).

At the start, the game helps the user set a difficulty setting based on things like how often the user currently exercises. I started at "10" and have been gradually cranking it up -- I think I'm at 20 now. I think this means I have to do more exercise movements to beat any given monster.

I dislike that I am using proprietary software and hardware for this. If there were a libre alternative that had approximately all the same characteristics and was engineered to the same quality, I'd love to use that instead.

Technical details: You will need to buy the console (which includes two "Joy-Con" controllers), the game, and two special attachments: the leg strap and the Ring-Con (see "money details" below for costs). One Joy-Con goes into a pocket on the leg strap, which wraps around a thigh and attaches with Velcro, so that can measure when you're jogging or squatting and so on. The other Joy-Con slots into the Ring-Con, which is like a stiff circular resistance band that measures how hard you squeeze and pull it, and whether it's moving and in what direction (so, whether you have lifted it over your head).

You'll also need some physical space to play it -- maybe something like a 6 foot by 4 foot space, where you can also wave your arms above your head and kick your legs and so on without knocking stuff over. I use a couple of yoga mats as a light cushion and to reduce noise.

Money details: To play this, you'll need to buy:

  1. A Nintendo Switch (the console, which comes with two "Joy-Con" controllers): currently about USD$300
  2. The software (the game), which (if you buy it new) costs about $80 and comes with the two attachments listed below
  3. Two attachments, the leg strap and the "Ring-Con"; can be bought separately for like $10 and $30 respectively in case you bought the game used/standalone
Small-group video class with a trainer

Once a week I take a one-hour strength-type class led by a certified strength and conditioning coach in the Midwest. He's a brother of a friend of a friend and he has a little extra time right now. So my friend told me about this class (USD$15/session), and now once a week I get on a Zoom call with 2-4 other people and do, like, leg lifts and weightlifting and whatnot.

If you decide to do something like this, it is fine to shop around for an instructor who suits your style and whose demeanor you like! I like someone who encourages you to only do what you can handle and who tells you how to modify if, for instance, your wrist is not up to pushups today. And I like someone who is straightforward in explaining the anatomical dynamics of what you're trying to do -- this is especially helpful during a remote class since they can't physically come over and help you re-position to do a movement right.

The externally scheduled commitment helps me show up, and, once I'm there, I'm more likely to do hard exercises because a trainer has just instructed me to do so. And the peer pressure helps. I can see my classmates working, and the trainer, and my other classmates, can see through my camera as I work. Also, the professional "bend your left leg more, that's good"-type advice helps me get more out of each movement.

Technical details: I use a Snap to run the Zoom client on Debian Linux. I also use a sports-y Bluetooth headset (hooking over the ear) so I can more easily hear the instructor while multiple feet away from my laptop's speakers. And I have some light (like 2-5 pounds) hand weights that I use for some exercises, and I use a yoga mat as a light cushion.

Money details: The instructor for this charges $15 per session, payable by PayPal. I think it's totally worth it for a one-hour class that includes expert interaction.

1:1 or small group videocalls working out with a YouTube video

About 3-4 days per week, I have pre-scheduled videocalls with a few people I at least kind of know, where we work out together while simultaneously watching a YouTube exercise video.

I pick the videos we use, and generally stick to 10- or 15-minute novice-friendly exercise videos. I prefer videos where the instructor (or a demonstrator in the video) shows how to modify each activity to make it easier or harder, and where the instructor doesn't get sizeist or too imperative. I like Jessica Valant's Pilates videos and have found some reasonable cardiovascular exercise sessions on the POP Sugar Fitness channel.

Again, the pre-scheduled commitment to other people makes it more likely I will show up, and seeing each other through our cameras nudges each of us into trying to move along with the video (or doing some kind of substitute movement if the video's too hard).

I used some private online groups/chats and individual emails/texts/catchup-calls to mention the opportunity to friends and acquaintances whom I know well enough to do a sweaty plank or graceless jumping jack (in UK English: star jump) in front of. I suggested that they let me know if this was something they might like to join in, even just to try it once, and offered to make the videocall arrangements, figure out a few good times, pick videos, etc. So now I have some recurring calendar items set up. And it's a nice way to have some virtual face time with a few friends without having to make a ton of conversation!

The structure is generally:

  1. 5 minutes: Setup, getting a glass of water, talking about what we're up for (including whether anyone has parts of their body that can't take stress right now), choosing a video and length
  2. 10-20 minutes: Exercising along with the video
  3. 5 minutes: How was that -- length, intensity, movement complexity, instructor demeanor, etc.? Things to keep/change for next time?

Technical details: Whereby.com and Jitsi Meet both make it easy to start a free meeting and to watch a YouTube video together (ad-free). The YouTube audio takes over and everyone else is muted, but you can still see everyone else's camera. Meetings on Whereby's free tier are limited to 4 people; Jitsi can deal with, like, 25 people at least. Both Whereby and Jitsi work fine in the browser and invitees don't need to download a new app or plugin, or create a login account.

As with the small group class calls, I usually use a sports-type Bluetooth headset and a yoga mat. I usually choose videos that do not require that you have any hand dumbbells, because some of my friends don't have any.

A few of my friends have a tough time learning a set of complex physical movements while watching and doing those movements. So with them the session is a little longer. We watch the video once to learn what movements to do (maybe on 1.5x speed, sometimes skipping ahead 5 seconds using the right arrow key) and then close it and share it again (at 1x speed) to watch it and exercise along with it. You can do this in Jitsi or Whereby but I think there's a jumpiness glitch in Jitsi; haven't tried it in Whereby yet.

Money details: Free! Fortunately, it's free to watch videos on YouTube. And Jitsi is free to use, and I already have a Whereby account that's good for up to 4 people.

Other considerations

We have a neighbor who can hear when I exercise noisily, so I negotiated via text message to ask what times of day are reasonable windows for me to exercise without bothering them, and I try to stick to those windows.

I went a bit too hard early on and went straight from sedentary life to doing about 45 minutes of intense exercise (with not nearly enough stretching along the way) in one day. This made one of my legs cranky and I had to stay off it as much as possible, and alternate ice and warmth on it, for like two weeks. I am middle-aged now and need to treat myself somewhat gently!

I figure at some point, months from now, I will want to increase the intensity, duration, etc. of some workouts. Nintendo Ring Fit Adventure and the strength class will be able to scale up to provide more difficulty, but the videocalls with friends may struggle to do that depending on what my friends want and need. But at that point I could, for instance, play Ring Fit every day, including days when I have a short additional workout with friends. I have done this a few times already when my videocall workouts have been very light or short.

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: Gaps in Existing Guidance on Open Source & Software Management: Getting Unstuck sampler cover I'm working on a book proposal for the full-length book version of Getting Unstuck: Advice for Open Source Projects (38-page sampler available now for free download when you subscribe to Changeset Consulting's email newsletter (1-10 updates per year).)

In the process, I've developed a list of existing books and online resources on open source maintainership and on software management, and I've thought more about why general software management advice -- which usually assumes you and your colleagues all work for the same company or other organization -- doesn't address most open source maintainers' needs.

Writing a book proposal: kind of necessary, kind of a drag

In nonfiction book publishing, a book proposal is the way you say to a publisher, "I think it would be a good deal for both of us if you published this book I'm writing." For example, No Starch Press would like a summary, an outline, and descriptions of the audience, the competition, the market, and the author. All the publishers I'm considering want to know those things, and some also want to know the schedule for completion, which other books from that publisher cover related or similar topics, the authorial approach I'll use, what keywords readers would search for to find this book, and more.

I might not go with a traditional publisher; I might self-publish, either all at once or in stages, such as via my email newsletter. But writing this proposal gives me more options and makes me think through what I'm planning to do. Still, it can be a drag to spend time on persuading other people that something is a good idea instead of executing on the idea itself, and it is a specific drag for me to spend time writing something that very few people will see.

The most immediately-useful-to-others part is probably the literature review, the overview of books and similar resources that are in any way comparable. Thus:

My competition

So here's my competition. I don't mean to disrespect any of these works or their authors, just to clearly state what they do and what they don't do (and thus why there is still a need for my book).

I hired Audrey Eschright to start this and then I continued it myself -- thanks, Audrey! I know this is incomplete and I'll remember another thing three hours after I post this (I may edit to add things), but I figure it might be useful to folks looking for books and web curricula about open source, project management, maintaining legacy systems, and so on.

Open source & related

  • Book and online resource: Producing Open Source Software: How to Run a Successful Free Software Project by Karl Fogel, 9780596007591, published by O'Reilly, 2005 (web version is second edition, revised 2017)

    Audience: FLOSS newbies, programmers and managers, new project contributors and maintainers

    Covers/teaches: FLOSS culture, communication tools and techniques, project management, governance, structured collaboration

    Good: Friendly, detailed, aimed at software professionals at least as much as side-project folks

    Missing/needs (or, not designed to cover): Mostly about greenfield projects; does not cover how to come into an existing project and lead it (Fogel has thus encouraged my own project as a kind of sequel to his); limited discussion of managing problem contributors, bug triage, and planning roadmap; very little/no discussion of budgeting, grant proposals, and succession planning; somewhat out-of-date regarding discussing modern tooling

  • Book: Forge Your Future with Open Source by VM Brasseur, 9781680503012, published by Pragmatic Bookshelf, 2018

    Audience: FLOSS newbies/new contributors (professional and volunteer), programmers and other relevant skill sets

    Covers/teaches: FLOSS culture, common tools and practices, open-sourcing a personal project

    Good: Reasonable sequence; clearly written; covers major gotchas new contributors will run into

    Missing/needs (or, not designed to cover): Maintainer skills, working with a legacy project

  • Book: Working in Public: The Making and Maintenance of Open Source Software by Nadia Eghbal, 0578675862, published by Stripe Press, 2020

    Audience: Technologists, managers, and interested bystanders such as sociologists and economists

    Covers/teaches: General principles regarding FLOSS sustainability and dynamics

    Good: “An anthropological dive into the stories of real developers” with scholarly explanations of the dynamics of open source projects

    Missing/needs (or, not designed to cover): Does not provide practical advice for maintainers (such as instructions and exercises) on dealing with specific issues to rescue legacy projects

  • Online resource: Mozilla Open Leadership Training Series (online curriculum), Mozilla contributors, started in 2016 and updated since then

    Audience: “Anyone starting up or leading open projects– project leads, collaborators, or small groups of co-leaders responsible for project success and growth”

    Covers/teaches: Communication, community-building, using GitHub, mentoring, project maintenance, organizing events

    Good: Multiple kinds of content, exercises to use, explains FOSS collaboration without requiring a technical background

    Missing/needs (or, not designed to cover): Budgeting, working with a legacy project instead of starting a new project

  • [Edited 2021-02-05 to add] Online Resource: TODO Group guides (online), various authors, started in 2019

    Audience: engineering executives at large organizations

    Skills taught: participating in open source communities, building leadership in a FLOSS project and improving open source development impact, and related topics

    Covers/teaches: General overview of how to start participating in open source projects and grow into leadership; realistic and business-focused understanding that contributing to existing projects often has greater return on investment than starting new ones; specific tool recommendations

    Missing/needs (or, not designed to cover): Detailed instructions on providing coordination and maintainership; assumes incoming participants have an architectural/feature agenda (rather than just wanting more frequent releases); lack of detailed examples, exercises; assumes reader already has basic project management skills (since it is aimed at executives rather than individual contributors)

  • [Edited 2021-02-10 to add] Online Resource: The Open Source Way (online), various authors, first edition 2009, second edition 2020

    Audience: People, with varying levels of experience participating in open source projects, who want to participate in and lead them

    Skills taught: Participating in open source communities, building leadership in a FLOSS project and improving open source development impact, and related topics

    Covers/teaches: General overview of how to start participating in open source projects and improve their user and participant bases, and measure one's success; realistic advice based on experience

    Missing/needs (or, not designed to cover): Mostly about greenfield projects; does not cover how to come into an existing project and lead it; limited discussion of managing problem contributors, bug triage, and planning roadmap; very little/no discussion of budgeting, grant proposals, and succession planning

  • Online resource: Opensource.guide (online curriculum), GitHub team and other contributors, started in 2016

    Audience: GitHub users, maintainers of new projects, FLOSS newbies, people outside existing FLOSS organizations, programmers

    Covers/teaches: FOSS culture, technical management, outreach, inclusive practices, leadership skills

    Good: Overview of many important aspects of running an open source project

    Missing/needs (or, not designed to cover): How to turn around a legacy project, especially when starting as a non-maintainer contributor; non-GitHub forges (resource is entirely GitHub-specific)

  • Online resource: Google Summer of Code Mentor Guide , multiple authors, started in 2009 and updated since then

    Audience: FOSS project mentors

    Covers/teaches: Mentoring, communication, FOSS cultural knowledge, commit/patch management

    Good: Detailed guidelines for mentor/student interaction and evaluating progress

    Missing/needs (or, not designed to cover): Organization could be improved; indicates but doesn’t address the issue of project culture not being friendly to newcomers aside from how you guide the student through it; no guidance for how to run a project overall, since it concentrates on just the act of mentoring an intern.

  • Online resource: The Field Guide to Open Source in the Newsroom, OpenNews contributors (including me, Sumana Harihareswara), started in 2016 and updated since then

    Audience: Journalists and news organizations

    Covers/teaches: FOSS culture, tech skills, documentation, community management, leadership transitions, starting a new project as open source or opening the source code to an existing project

    Good: “Handoffs and Sunsets” section, good examination of the beginning and ends of projects

    Missing/needs (or, not designed to cover): Is still unfinished and lacks thorough examples. Does not cover the case of coming into and reviving an existing open source project, and has little to no advice on project management

  • Book: The Art of Community: Building the New Age of Participation, by Jono Bacon, 9781449312060, published by O'Reilly, 2012

    Audience: Novice contributors/leaders/community managers for open source software and open culture organizations (assumption that reader does not already know the basics of how open source contribution works)

    Covers/teaches: Making a mission statement and strategic plan, introducing process, marketing, governance

    Good: Specific advice on communication channels, writing skills, governance, conflict management, basic event planning, and marketing; anecdotes and lessons learned from many projects. Online component.

    Missing/needs (or, not designed to cover): Is at least eight years out of date (example: Gobby and Identi.ca recommendations); assumes you can build new processes and communities from scratch, instead of helping people who are joining midstream, quirky writing style will put off some readers

  • Book: People Powered, by Jono Bacon, 9781400214884, published by HarperCollins Leadership, 2019

    Audience: Executives at businesses

    Covers/teaches: Initiating and exploiting user groups for products and services (not specific to open source software)

    Good: Specific instructions on sequence and strategy for creating new user groups

    Missing/needs (or, not designed to cover): No discussions of joining and co-maintaining existing open source projects; aimed at existing executives who are not yet open community contributors, not current open source contributors

Software management

(There are dozens of reasonably well-regarded books on software management in general, from classics like DeMarco & Lister's Peopleware to more recent works like the Fournier I mention below; most of them are only partially suitable for my target audience for the reasons I mention in "What doesn't get covered".)

  • Book: A Civic Technologist’s Practice Guide by Cyd Harrell, 978-1735286501, self-published, 2020

    Audience: People who are doing, or want to do, civic technology -- developers, entrepreneurs, and people in related fields

    Covers/teaches: How government tech works, choosing contribution and project types, ways to avoid common gotchas to make long-term change without burning out

    Good: Distills a wealth of experience, clearly written, realistic, good sequencing

    Missing/needs (or, not designed to cover): Has only a single section within a single chapter on “Open-source teams and assumptions”; generally assumes institutional funding 

  • Book: Kill It with Fire: Manage Aging Computer Systems (and Future Proof Modern Ones) by Marianne Bellotti, 9781718501188, forthcoming to be published by No Starch Press, March 2021

    Audience: Managers within existing large organizations

    Covers/teaches: “How to evaluate existing architecture, create upgrade plans, and handle communication structures.”

    Good: Probably engagingly written based on Bellotti's other work; “team exercises and historical analyses of complex computer systems”

    Missing/needs (or, not designed to cover): Assumes that the project is housed within a single organization, and is thus mostly inapplicable to multi-stakeholder projects such as volunteer-run open source projects

  • Book: The Manager's Path: A Guide for Tech Leaders Navigating Growth and Change by Camille Fournier, 1491973897 , published by O'Reilly, 2017

    Audience: Engineering managers within companies and similar organizations

    Covers/teaches: Leadership, planning, decision-making, team culture, people management

    Good: Coverage of common dysfunctions, good sequencing and clear writing; covers both line-level and senior leadership roles

    Missing/needs (or, not designed to cover): Very little attention paid to open source dynamics; Assumes that the project is housed within a single organization, and is thus mostly inapplicable to multi-stakeholder projects such as volunteer-run open source projects

  • Book: Making Things Happen: Mastering Project Management by Scott Berkun, 9780596517717, published by O'Reilly, 2008 (formerly “The Art of Project Management”)

    Audience: Project managers at large organizations

    Covers/teaches: Leadership, planning, decision-making

    Good: Detailed, funny, includes guidance on communication methods (such as meetings and emails) as well as discussion questions

    Missing/needs (or, not designed to cover): Assumes that the project is housed within a single organization, and is thus mostly inapplicable to multi-stakeholder projects; assumes in-person collaboration and does not accommodate open source project approaches

If I've made any substantial errors in my descriptions of these books and websites, please let me know. And if you think I've missed a work, if you think the book I'm working on substantially overlaps with prior work that I have not mentioned, please tell me. I don't want to waste anyone's time and I wish to minimize duplication of effort.

What doesn't get covered

There are lots of guides to starting open source projects, but overall they do not address the needs of a new maintainer of a legacy project. As Marco Rogers recently observed regarding code-related tutorials: "there is very little content that is appropriately labeled as intermediate to advanced....A lot of content is pointed towards either newbies or people doing greenfield work."

And there are many books about managing software projects, including complex infrastructural and legacy projects. They generally assume you're making proprietary software, and so (except for works like Bacon's) they don't account for the benefits of working in the open, the possibility of getting gratis contributions from users, open source strategy for the enterprise, and so on.

But also -- more crucially for a project management book -- on the whole they assume that all contributors are paid staffers, usually of the same organization. This is a somewhat less obvious distinction so I'll discuss it at a bit more length.

The job of a project manager varies wildly depending on how much power you actually have to say no to things and change delivery deadlines, whether you have the power to hire and fire people, and whether the colleagues who work on your project are solely working on your project (or splitting their time among multiple projects). Much of the existing writing on software management assumes that you are working in a mostly-hierarchical environment bounded by a single organization, where someone has the power to hire and fire, there is a monetary budget you control or have to keep track of, and so on.

Certainly some orgs are more hierarchical than others and there exist some where you basically have to use persuasion if you want a change to happen. First, of course that dynamic privileges some people, and it's worth checking for -isms in who gets to just veto things for no reason and who doesn't. And second, even so, if you and the other people you are influencing are in the same org and are being paid by the same employer, you still have different cues and levers available to you. Here are some structural differences between managing a more cross-org or extra-institutional project and managing one where everyone is being paid by the same employer:

  • If you send an email or assign an issue, they are more likely to feel pressure to actually read and answer it; at some point, if they absolutely never listen to or respond to stuff their colleague is saying, that may lead to repercussions in the rest of their job. Ditto for if you invite them to meetings, retreats, etc.
  • It's much more possible to make systematic changes that then affect lots of projects/individual contributors through systematic incentive or environmental nudges that apply to ALL contributors, e.g., working with senior managers to make [activity] a factor in promotions, which then facilitates getting [activity] to happen in YOUR project(s).
  • If your team is remote, it's somewhat easier to arrange an in-person retreat, because it's way easier to get and figure out budget, it's easier to figure out *whom to invite*, to *schedule* it, to deal with expenses and so on. This means you can have more and better high-bandwidth meetings to build trust and make complicated decisions.
  • The existence of centralized IT that you (and individual contributors) probably don't have to run yourself, and that everyone already is accustomed to using, and forces that somewhat delay/prevent tool fragmentation, means that if you set up a project management dashboard or similar, it's easier to ensure that all your colleagues are getting reports from it, that it ties into their existing communication feeds, and so on.
  • You likely can access a list of your colleagues and (in organizations that are not giant) you can find out a fair amount about them when a new one comes onboard in a role that you will interact with, and you can be alerted or find out when one leaves the org entirely.
  • There is a more bounded, finite set of stakeholders for you to deal with (including whom you could possibly ask for more budget), and it's easier for you to know who your users are.
  • If someone really does not want to obey the Code of Conduct, it can escalate to the personnel department and they may get fired.

Thus: my book

So I am continuing to work on the full-length book version of Getting Unstuck: Advice for Open Source Projects (38-page sampler available now for free download when you subscribe to Changeset Consulting's email newsletter (1-10 updates per year).)

Once I finish this proposal.


: Outline and Links for "How To Get A Project Unstuck" LCA Talk: Here's a brief outline, and relevant links, for the talk I'm about to give at Linux.Conf.Au: "How To Get A Project Unstuck -- And Fixing The Skill Gaps That Got Us Here". I am not presenting any slides.

Introduction

My consultancy is Changeset Consulting.

Stories

  1. Gathering info and helping decisions:

    WisCon

    Mailman (What was new in GNU Mailman 3.0, announcement of the Mailman 3.0 release)

  2. Gathering funding:

    Video, transcript, and slides for my PyOhio talk on applying for grants to fund open source

    "Problems and Strategies in Financing Voluntary Free Software Projects" by Benjamin Mako Hill

    Autoconf (Case study: rejuvenating Autoconf; also see how my upcoming book is helping Autoconf's developers decide what to do next)

  3. Nudging, prioritizing, and communicating:

    Pipenv (Pipenv case study)

A case study I didn't have time to discuss in this talk: Finishing the rearchitecture and deployment of PyPI.

The credibility and change sequence

This is the outline of my forthcoming book. My sampler ebook of Getting Unstuck: Advice For Open Source Projects, available for free download once you subscribe to my 1-10 times per year newsletter, includes that full outline. The basics:

  1. Settling in (doing routine tasks that do not require much trust)
  2. Taking charge (doing things that require trust but that the group has already agreed needs to happen)
  3. Making change (modifying and adding social, digital, financial, and legal infrastructure)
  4. Passing leadership over to successors and leaving

I may also refer here to "Software in Person", my article on how to make the most of synchronous developer events.

Why maintainers usually don't have these skills

Where maintainers come from, what we value and grow, and a lack of tools and practices to help learn and teach these skills.

Let's change that

Existing initiatives or resources to improve and teach these skills:

Ideas for further tools and practices to improve skills (this is where I mention possible improvements to GitHub's "saved replies" tool).

Conclusion

Thanks for watching and listening. I look forward to hearing your thoughts, so please contact me to let me know!

Edited Feb 5th to add: video is now up! And thanks to Nick Murphy, R. Fureigh, and Keffy R. M. Kehrli for being test audiences!


: Advice From My Book Helps The Autoconf Project Assess Itself: A few weeks ago, I released a sampler from my upcoming book on rejuvenating open source projects: Getting Unstuck: Advice for Open Source Projects. It's like a lengthy trailer in text form.

Getting Unstuck sampler cover, with graphic of a flowing river

You can get this 38-page ebook for free when you subscribe to Changeset Consulting's email newsletter (1-10 updates per year).

And readers are already using what they learned in this book to help their open source projects level up. Zack Weinberg, who worked with me to start rejuvenating Autoconf, read the sampler and learned a lightweight framework for assessing a project. He immediately used it to assess the GNU Autotools:

Should development of the Autotools continue? If they are to continue, we need to find people who have the time and the inclination (and perhaps also the funding) to maintain them steadily, rather than in six-month release sprints every eight years. We also need a proper roadmap for where further development should take these projects. As a starting point for the conversation about whether the projects should continue, and what the roadmap should be, I was inspired by Sumana's book in progress on open source project management (sample chapters are available from her website) to write up a "strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats" analysis of Autotools.

This inventory can help us figure out how to build on new opportunities, using the Autotools' substantial strengths, and where to invest to guard against threats and shore up current weaknesses.

Zack sent his writeup to the Autoconf mailing list where it's spurred a productive discussion about project architecture and inter-project coordination -- see his followup message about particular tasks that, if funded, could address concerns that he raised. These concrete proposals will make it easier to seek specific grants or directed donations from funders -- companies, foundations, etc.

The sampler is a free 38-page ebook (PDF, ePub, and MOBI available) that includes:

  • Introduction (including my controversial? "Basic assumptions about open source and the tech industries")
  • Conducting a SWOT analysis (assessing a project's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, with example analysis of the pip project)
  • How to start thinking about budgets and money (including two exercises)
  • Teaching and including unskilled volunteers (with twelve specific tactics)
  • An outline of the full forthcoming book

Get the sampler for free when you subscribe to Changeset's email newsletter (1-10 updates per year).

And, in about a day and a half, I'll speak for the first time at Linux.Conf.Au, on "How To Get A Project Unstuck -- And Fixing The Skill Gaps That Got Us Here". I'll tell some stories of projects I helped get unstuck, and share more material from the forthcoming book. Ticket sales are now open for LCA (which is, of course, a virtual convention). Buy a ticket if you'd like to see my talk live and participate in questions-and-answers!


: Compassion Heist: I just devoured All the Young Men, a memoir by Ruth Coker Burks with Kevin Carr O'Leary. In just a few years, in 1980s and 1990s Hot Springs, Arkansas, a young single mother became the hub of a mutual aid network to help gay men dying of AIDS. You may have read a 2015 article in the Arkansas Times about her work.

In 1986, 26-year old Ruth visits a friend at the hospital when she notices that the door to one of the hospital rooms is painted red. She witnesses nurses drawing straws to see who would tend to the patient inside, all of them reluctant to enter the room. Out of impulse, Ruth herself enters the quarantined space and immediately begins to care for the young man who cries for his mother in the last moments of his life. Before she can even process what she's done, word spreads in the community that Ruth is the only person willing to help these young men afflicted by AIDS, and is called upon to nurse them.

That bit in the middle of Huckleberry Finn, where Huck tears up the letter. You know?

As she forges deep friendships with the men she helps, she works tirelessly to find them housing and jobs, even searching for funeral homes willing to take their bodies -- often in the middle of the night. She cooks meals for tens of people out of discarded food found in the dumpsters behind supermarkets, stores rare medications for her most urgent patients, teaches sex ed to drag queens after hours at secret bars, and becomes a beacon of hope to an otherwise spurned group of ailing gay men on the fringes of a deeply conservative state.

Throughout the years, Ruth defies local pastors and nurses to help the men she cares for: Paul and Billy, Angel, Chip, Todd and Luke.

This book is of course a moving story about love and care. But also it's -- as Leonard put it -- a compassion heist.

When her work with AIDS patients started, Burks was selling time-share vacation homes. And she brought that same persuasiveness, resourcefulness, and stubbornness to her volunteer work. No one willing to draw blood for tests? She learned to do it, and literally came through the back door into the government health department to drop it off for anonymous testing. She weaponized her straight-white-Southern-lady privilege whenever necessary and possible to get her guys treated fairly by landlords, doctors, and bureaucrats.

And after the federal government finally started funding work, Burks started getting pushed out. Agencies wouldn't hire her because she didn't have a college degree, and of course out of sexist discrimination as well.

I'm a little bit used to the story of scrappy activists raising money with drag shows and concerts and bake sales -- the exemplary depiction may be the film Pride, and if you haven't seen it, you're in for a treat. But the next act of the story, where institutional funders start to show up but bypass the folks on the ground -- if there are movies about that I'd like to know.

Most of All The Young Men isn't about that. It's about carework, love, witty retorts, raising a daughter with a found family of drag queens as her uncles, battling stigma and prejudice, and Burks calling on her huge network of neighbors and friends to get things done. Recommended.

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: New Free Ebook Sampler from "Getting Unstuck: Advice for Open Source Projects": I've written and released a sampler from my upcoming book on rejuvenating open source projects: Getting Unstuck: Advice for Open Source Projects. It's like a lengthy trailer in text form.

You can get this 38-page ebook for free when you subscribe to Changeset Consulting's email newsletter (1-10 updates per year).

Getting Unstuck sampler cover

Who this book is for and what you should get out of it:

You are about to get an open source project unstuck.

Maybe a bunch of work is piling up in the repository and users are getting worried, waiting for a release. Maybe developers have gotten bogged down, trying to finish a big rewrite while maintaining the stable release. Maybe the project's suffering for lack of infrastructure — testing, money, an institutional home.

You noticed the problem. So that means it's up to you to fix it. Or you're getting paid to fix it, even though you didn't start this thing.

A while ago I blurted out the phrase "dammit-driven leadership." Because sometimes you look around, and you realize something needs doing, and you're the only one who really gets why, so you say, "Dammit, okay, I'll do it, then."

After reading this book, you should be prepared to:

  1. Assess a legacy project to decide whether you should get involved.
  2. Settle into a legacy project and become a competent and credible contributor.
  3. Take charge of a legacy project on a project, people, and financial level.
  4. Execute transformative change in a legacy project.
  5. Make a legacy project more sustainable, and pass leadership on to someone else.

This sampler is a free 38-page ebook (PDF, ePub, and MOBI available) that includes:

  • Introduction (including my controversial? "Basic assumptions about open source and the tech industries")
  • Conducting a SWOT analysis (assessing a project's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, with example analysis of the pip project)
  • How to start thinking about budgets and money (including two exercises)
  • Teaching and including unskilled volunteers (with twelve specific tactics)
  • An outline of the full forthcoming book

Thanks to Julia Rios for paid services editing and producing this book, including the cover! Julia is a Hugo Award-winning editor as well as a writer, narrator, and podcaster, and is available for freelance work!

A special note for my blog readers: I'm keenly interested in your feedback once you read the sampler. Have you solved any of these problems in a different way? Would a different structure, for each chapter or for the book, help you better? Did any of my examples or phrasings particularly ring true? Are there things I've written that you have found useful and that you hope I will incorporate into this book? Email me with "Unstuck" in the subject line.

Next: In 2021 I'm looking forward to finishing this book and either self-publishing or working with a publisher. And I will likely bring this sampler from behind the subscribewall once I produce a new edition of it that can have a "the full book is coming on [date] from [publisher]!" line. In order to do that, I need to finish the book proposal, submit it to publishers, and get cracking on the rest of the book.

Get the sampler for free when you subscribe to Changeset's email newsletter (1-10 updates per year).


: Graduating From The I-Didn't-Graduate Dream: I used to have dreams that, oh no, I didn't actually finish high school and need to go back and finish a class or exam. I hear this is pretty common.

I thought I'd graduated from college with a bachelor's, found out I'd actually made an administrative mistake that meant I needed to take one more summer class, and took my diploma home and tacked it onto my wall near my bed. I have not had "oh no I didn't really graduate from college" dreams; I figure this is because the memory of actually going through that incident and its aftermath cemented into my head that I really do have the degree. (However, when I recently got a fundraising email with a subject line like "A Message From The Chair of the Political Science Department at UC Berkeley," my reflexive reaction was "oh no they're taking my degree back!" So I suppose I still have issues, just differently configured.)

Then I got my master's degree a few years later. By then I was an adult, and school only took up part of my time (it was a nights-and-weekends program); I figure that's why less anxiety has clung to those memories, and thus why I don't think I've ever dreamed that "oh no, I didn't actually finish and need to go back."

This is all preface. My brain still scrabbles to provide me with anxiety dreams involving having to do more school, but with a twist. Like: some time ago, I dreamed that I had made some commitment to go through high school AGAIN, for the sake of some kind of experiment or similar, and was gritting my teeth and doing it all over again. I didn't want to, and I knew I already had postsecondary credentials, but still!

Or last night, when my dream included -- all mushed up with other stuff, like losing my cell phone (one that I last used in like 2016), trying to get a membership at a zoo using a coupon that wasn't cutting the price as much as I'd been told, seeing Jay Blades from The Repair Shop in an outdoors production of Hamilton while crossing a small river on a boat that was falling apart -- me fretting over whether to complete my second bachelor's degree. Dream Sumana knew that she already had a bachelor's and a master's, yet had at some point nearly completed a second bachelor's in some other major and at some other college. But not completely! So I was trying to figure out: should I finish those last few classes to get that second bachelor's? I don't need it at all! And yet I was nearly done with it, why quit when I was nearly done?!

I woke up and talked about this one with Leonard, and with my mom when I called her. Often my dreams are ways of processing things I'm dealing with. What was this new twist on the "need to finish school" dream doing? Maybe a few things.

It's about the frustration of being "nearly done," as I am with a few work projects, and as so many of us are with the pandemic. We hope.

It's about the frustration with wasting something that I have put a lot of work into, in opposition to the danger of the sunk cost fallacy. Which is something that comes up for me fairly frequently, though I don't often articulate it.

It's about the aspects of college life I do miss: narrower concerns, a time mostly before the September 11th attacks (which happened my senior year), frequently seeing and chatting with lots of friends and acquaintances. And it's about the unrequitable desire to do those four years over again, better, with the wisdom I have now about who I am and what I need. I feel that desire especially keenly when I've been admiring people younger than me who are accomplishing great things, which is only going to happen more and more as I age. The way I can counter it, when I have my head on properly, is to be grateful for and proud of where I am now and what I've done and what I'm doing, and the people I've snagged into my life along the way.

It's about a longing for a more structured endeavor with clear, externally-set win conditions. Right now I run my own business within a new market category that I am defining, I am writing a book and I am deciding how and with whom I will publish it, and the end of 2020 is coming up soon and no one but me can define whether I have used this year well. Sure would be a relief if someone else could authoritatively tell me whether I'd succeeded. But perhaps maturity is accepting that you are the only person who gets to decide that.

And perhaps this is a transitional stage towards my brain finally taking "but you still need to do more school" out of rotation on what Leonard calls my "golden oldies" of anxiety dreams. Turn the dial to something new.

Filed under:


: Two Upcoming Sumana-Talks-At-You Events: Most urgently: You have just over 24 hours to back the Mermaids Monthly project on Kickstarter, supporting a fun, independent speculative fiction magazine for 2021. If you back at the $100 “Subscription, Pin, and Poetry” pledge level, you'll get invited to a special Zoom party where I'll perform stand-up comedy.

And: in late January, I'll speak for the first time at Linux.Conf.Au, on "How To Get A Project Unstuck -- And Fixing The Skill Gaps That Got Us Here". You'll come away from this talk with steps you can take, in the short term and in the long run, to address this for projects you care about. Ticket sales are now open for LCA (which will of course be a virtual convention). Buy a ticket if you'd like to see my talk live and participate in questions-and-answers!

This talk will draw from the same material as the book I'm writing on getting open source projects unstuck. I aim to teach the skills open source software maintainers need, aimed at working scientists and other contributors who have never managed public-facing projects before. And I hope to have more news about that project soon!


: On Realizing There Was Still Some American Exceptionalism Lurking In My Brain: One of the most valuable things I treasure about the Internet is that I can have a glimpse into the lives of people who live a very different life from mine. I regularly read the blogs/journals of people who live in Israel, Singapore, India, the UK, Australia, Malaysia, and more, not to mention other parts of my own country. The people whose lives I follow include clergy, therapists, parents, medical workers, students, lawyers, and more. I attempt to read at least a little by people I disagree with, or I'm not sure I agree with, or who hold jobs that in a better world might not exist; Granola Shotgun, Patrick Skinner (context), and LadyLovesTaft are thought-provoking, entertaining, edifying. And I appreciate getting geographical breadth in my feed.

Because of this mix, some of my info feed includes blogs by people who live in countries that have effectively controlled COVID-19. Reading one of their "what I did this week" posts is like reading a blog by someone who is rich, or by a man going on a long solitary hike as a fun vacation (while women get advised to never go alone). Their world and mine have diverged; the sphere of my capability is as a marble next to their planet.

We talk so much about the Constitution but our constitution was so weak.

I am a patriot but I thought I was a thoughtful one. This year has brought home to me how much American exceptionalism was still lurking in the corners of my head.

The bigotry I can notice in myself always has this fuzzy shadowy aspect -- it's in the gaps, the moments where I subconsciously think that I don't have to take [person, news, idea, work, etc.] properly seriously, the assumptions I make about what categories someone or some country's going to fit. Or, I learn individual facts -- that trains are cheaper and more frequent and more convenient in many countries I've visited, that my colleague in Norway has used easy electronic transfers to receive and pay money all his life and has never seen a paper check, that folks in Melbourne just call an ambulance for a stranger in trouble and don't worry about cost, that a bunch of people I know in Europe or Australia make their livings working part-time and don't have to figure out how to pay for health insurance -- but I have a mental block stopping me from adding up that two and two are four.

For several years, in conversation, whenever a foreigner complained about some aspect of the US, I would jump in, get ahead of them, get the crowd cracking up by reciting a litany of my country's deficiencies, apologizing for them on behalf of us all. Our utterly insufficient transit network, imperial measurements, all our paper money is the same size and shape and color, the health care disaster, the wars ... I've lost track, it's been a little while since I've given the spiel, since this sort of thing was usually something I said to tourists. But, I realize now, on some level it was always superficial and I did not take to heart how deeply my country was behind, was worse.

"We're number one!" No, we're not. To claim superiority without first assessing whether you're right, or on flimsy grounds, is arrogance. We are arrogant. I am arrogant. Wish I could say "was" but this is not the Rumpelstiltskin story and naming the problem does not make it vanish.

I am not a man and I am not white, but I think the particular bouquet of feelings I am feeling is like feelings a thoughtful white person or man might feel -- thinking that I knew that I was not the center of the world, but stumbling and noticing, in my disorientation, that clearly I had not yet decolonized my mind as thoroughly as I'd thought.

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: Reflecting on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: The other night I watched two films in a row: Knock Down The House, the documentary about four progressive candidates running to unseat Democratic incumbents in the 2018 US election, and Douglas, Hannah Gadsby's comedy special.

They're both very interesting, and afterwards I read and thought a bunch in particular about what's striking about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's political career.*

Making expectations explicit

In Douglas, Gadsby starts the show with a lengthy table of contents, telling you what she is going to do, saying that she would like for everyone to have their expectations properly set. She calls her shot.

In Knock Down the House I noticed a related thing that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did -- talking explicitly about expectations. When Crowley tried to tie her to scandalous local politician Hiram Monserrate, her retort included an explicit refutation of the de facto way that "women tend to be made responsible for the actions of every man in the room". She brings to light an implicit expectation that underlies the smear, which makes it possible for her to explicitly refuse to meet it.

In this exchange Ocasio-Cortez demonstrates one of the skills that makes her an aspirational figure, a role model for so many marginalized people: live and in the moment, she can notice an unfair or misleading criticism coming her way, refute the specific criticism, and then name and categorize what's illegitimate about the criticism so as to defuse it and get the upper hand (and point out the problem to all watching).

This is such a powerful skill. I see it in Ocasio-Cortez, in Sarah Taber, in Rep. Katie Porter, in Alexandra Erin, in Tressie McMillan Cottom, in siderea, and in some other public intellectuals and activists and politicians (often women) who are unapologetic and sharp in their fast-paced analysis of illegitimate criticism. It's like they don't just deflect the object coming their way, but they also X-ray it and show everyone the schematics so we can build our own shields too.

I don't think I have this skill. I think it really helps to have gone through the school of hard knocks, which they have way more than I have. And it helps to have a ton of practice in fast-paced live oral argument, which I've probably atrophied in recent years since so much of my work is in written conversation.

But, in organic conversation, when conflicts crop up, I think I do a tolerable job of stepping back and asking (to myself or out loud): what mismatch of expectations brought us here? Which is definitely useful.

Analytical and organizing skill

You can watch the part of Knock Down the House where Ocasio-Cortez analyzes the difference between two campaign mailers and predicts their effectiveness. This is an example of the level of skill in analysis and organizing that Ocasio-Cortez brings to her job. Which is less surprising when you remember not only that she was a promising researcher as early as high school, and that she worked as an organizer for the Sanders campaign in 2016 and got a bunch of experience in on-the-ground political work.*** The skill she demonstrates in articulating progressive arguments in compelling ways is not just a general gift of gab; it comes hand-in-hand with wonky behind-the-scenes research and thinking that brought her to those positions, and deep and specific expertise in what disengaged voters need to hear to get them to turn out at the polls.

Ocasio-Cortez's college peers remember her as brilliant and driven, often calling her "the smartest person I know" -- which reminds me of similar phrases frequently popping up in people's recollections of Hillary Rodham. The first time Elizabeth Warren met Hillary Clinton (in May 1998) she had a similar experience.

Back in October 2008 I wrote about Obama's success and noted: "people used to think the Clinton machine was the best there was. But with the right tools, investment in time, and leadership, a networked/egalitarian group will beat a linear, top-down group." Hillary Rodham went to law school instead of taking a job with Saul Alinsky's new training institute. What if she'd leaned harder into the organizing model? I think with Ocasio-Cortez you get a glimpse of what kind of independent political force she might have been.

Beauty

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is conventionally beautiful. She is not only pretty, she frequently deconstructs beauty standards, and she has choice words for haters who think she is only pretty, but, as Tressie McMillan Cottom writes, you need to acknowledge her beauty to understand some of the dynamics around her place in politics:

I believe the right’s attacks on AOC (and a few of the left’s to be honest) are a visceral reaction to their inability to control what they see is her only legitimate source of power.....

We also feel icky about pointing out that someone is attractive and that is a certain kind of power because powerful women make us squeamish. And beauty as power makes us deeply afraid for our own self-worth.

Gadsby would probably agree with something Ocasio-Cortez says in the Vogue video (hat tip to kristi for highlighting it):

Our culture is so predicated on diminishing women and preying on our self-esteem, and so it's quite a radical act - and it's almost like a mini protest - to love yourself in a society that's always telling you you're not the right weight, you're not the right color, you're not the right, you know, whatever it is ... When you stand up and say, 'You know what? You don't make that decision. I make that decision,' it's very powerful. But that doesn’t mean we can't have fun.

Trusting one's own judgment

And, to reinforce that point about figuring out what expectations of you are legitimate, and tying that to authenticity, the Vogue article continues:

Just over two years ago, after defeating a 20-year incumbent and winning what was seen as the biggest upset of the 2018 midterm election primaries, Ocasio-Cortez was thrust into the spotlight at just 28 years old. "I went from working in a restaurant to being on cable news all the time," she recalls. "I initially really struggled with that. At a certain point, I just learned that you cannot get your feelings of beauty and confidence from anyone but yourself ... If I'm going to spend an hour in the morning doing my glam, it's not going to be because I'm afraid of what some Republican photo is going to look like ... It's because I feel like it," she says with a smile. Here, she picks up Fenty Beauty's Contour Stick, which she glides lightly down her cheekbones, over her forehead, and around her jawline. "I'm not trying to change my features or shape-shift -- I'm just trying to accentuate my existing features," she says as she adds a touch of the cream-to-powder pigment to her nose. "I'm not trying to make it look bigger. I'm not trying to make it look smaller ... I'm just trying to show people what I got."

When I get past reticence to advertise my company's services, to realistically say "I am one of the world's experts on [thing]," I too am just trying to show people what I've got. I remember N.K. Jemisin's articulation, for fiction writers:

...care better. I think the shift from extrinsic to intrinsic valuation .... is a fundamental part of the transition from amateur to professional, perhaps even more than pay rates and book deals and awards and such. .... How do you know your judgment of yourself is sound? .... But for pro writers -- and I include aspiring pros along with established ones in this designation -- it's an absolutely necessary transition. Otherwise you spend all your time caring about the wrong things.

The incentives you can see, the appealing and obvious ones, will often try to make you care about the wrong things. This means that integrity comes with inherent discomfort -- but by demonstrating integrity in public you can reduce the difficulty others run into when following your path. We've only gotten to see Ocasio-Cortez's integrity in action for a few years of public service so far. I look forward to seeing who follows her path.


* I have a caveat for Knock Down The House; it seems like the filmmakers made some misleading choices in the sequence of scenes in the NY-14 primary race.

In particular: The film makes it seem like Crowley fails to show up for a candidate forum in the Bronx (instead sending Councilwoman Palma as a surrogate), and then, maybe weeks later, he calls the Ocasio-Cortez campaign and agrees to appear on a TV debate with her. The implication is that her growing popularity, and news attention to his surrogate gaffe, have possibly shamed or scared him into agreeing to a fresh debate.

But in actual fact, the TV debate was on June 15th, and the in-person debate that Crowley skipped was a few days later, on June 18th. Here's the order things happened in, as far as I can reconstruct**:

  1. [not sure when]: Crowley does not attend a debate; this is not shown or mentioned in the film, but here's a tweet about it
  2. May 17th: AOC shows up at a Crowley office to request a debate
  3. May 24th: agreement to a debate on NY1
  4. June 15th: NY1 televised debate
  5. June 18th: Crowley sends a surrogate to an in-person debate in the Bronx; we see this at some length in the film
  6. June 21st: a somewhat quickly organized additional in-person debate (which we see briefly in the film) at the Jackson Heights Jewish Community Center (since Crowley was the chair of Queens's Democratic organization, Ocasio-Cortez wrote: "Not a single local Dem club would host a primary debate (my opponent is their Chairman). These organizers took it upon themselves to host their own."
  7. June 26th: Election Day

This is particularly difficult to reconcile with a bit of audio the filmmaker uses, where Ocasio-Cortez wryly says (just after we are shown footage of a Pride event from June 17th) that Crowley didn't show up to a 100-person event, but now wants to debate her on NY1.

The way I can sort of square the circle is if the filmmakers are using audio recorded before June 15th, and the skipped debate Ocasio-Cortez is referring to is the first debate that Crowley skipped (and which the filmmakers have no footage of).

In any case, the filmmakers are compressing and reordering stuff to strongly imply a particular narrative that is not congruent with the chronological record, and once I come across a discrepancy like this I gotta wonder what else in the film I should question.


** Twitter's advanced search options are helpful here, especially daterange search. Here's a search to get all of Ocasio-Cortez's tweets between May 1st and May 31st of 2018.

As long as I'm talking about the research I ended up doing for this post: Reddit user lpetrich seems to be a solid contributor to the world of AOC fandom. Thank you for your posts, lpetrich!


*** When and how did she choose to run? There's a little confusion on this point. In college she took an interest in politics as an intern for Senator Kennedy but then, as she put it, switched to more work that would have a more direct impact. She never thought she would get back into politics or policy again. So, what's the sequence of her brother nominating her to Brand New Congress, BNC's six-month vetting process, and her deciding to take that nomination? Did she hear from BNC before her road trip, or after?


: Ashwatthama (The Elephant): I read the comic book version of the Mahabharata as a kid (thank you, Amar Chitra Katha!) and many of its stories stayed with me. As I recollected in a newspaper column in 2005:

Yudhisthira is an incredibly virtuous man, and is in fact the son of the god of dharma (righteousness and duty).

Yudhisthira has never spoken a lie. The gods so smile upon him that his chariot floats an inch above the ground, never touching the dust.

But, as the days of war drag on, he knows that he must get a psychological edge on his opponent. So Yudhisthira has an elephant bought and named Ashwattama, the name of his opponent's beloved son. Yudhisthira has the elephant killed so that he can honestly say, with his opponent listening, "Ashwattama is dead."

As planned, this breaks the other warrior's heart, and he recedes from the battle.

But because he lied, Yudhisthira's chariot falls upon the ground, never to float again.

In the comic book version (Issue 36, "The Battle At Midnight", page 29):

battle scene, text in accompanying post

So now, he replied: "Ashwatthama is dead." Adding in an inaudible aside -- "Ashwatthama the elephant." As soon as the lie was uttered Yudhisthira's chariot touched the ground.* [We see Yudhisthira standing in a chariot in the background, and Drona in the foreground, visibly overcome.]

Hearing the news from Yudhisthira, Drona fainted. Dhrishtadyumna rushed toward him. When Drona gained consciousness, he could not gain his earlier strength. Yet he killed Dhrishtadyumna's horses. [We see him take aim at some horses with his bow and arrow.]


* Because of his righteous conduct Yudhisthira's chariot was always four fingers' breadth above the ground.

It surprised me to see this, going back to the comic, because I honestly remembered the speech bubble looking like:

ASHWATTHAMA the elephant IS DEAD.

Anyway, now you know one particular reason why Four Seasons Total Landscaping reverberates inside my being like a perfect joke outside of time.

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: Getting Autoconf Unstuck: For most of this year, Zack Weinberg and I have been working on a pretty ambitious project:

  1. to make a fresh release of GNU Autoconf, a crucial free and open source build tool that hadn't had a new release since 2012
  2. to get paid for that
  3. to help put Autoconf on a more sustainable footing so it doesn't have to get rescued again a little while down the road

Autoconf 2.70 is due out this month; if you use Autoconf, check out the 2.69e beta and test it soon since Zack aims to make the release on December 8th.

If you hear "Autoconf" and think "I don't even know what that is or why it is important", you can read my LWN story about the rejuvenation & what's next.

(I am proud that a person said "That's one of the best pieces of technical writing that I've read in a long time." about my article.)

Several companies use/depend on Autoconf internally and would like for Autoconf and the entire Autotools toolchain to get back on track. There's lots of code out there already depending on autoconf. Converting it would be risky and expensive. Plus, competing build systems don't cover all the edge cases Autoconf does. If this makes you nod, check out the 2.69e beta and test it.

But also, the funding we got has run out, so we're trying to get some corporate sponsorship to make 2.71 even better (including building out a robust continuous integration system), and get the project on a sustainable footing. We'd like to:

  • test Autoconf with complicated autoconf scripts and find and fix more regressions
  • set up proper CI so we can find regressions on lots of OSes
  • get the hundreds of disorganized patches and bug reports filed, so we can prioritize and assess our backlog

Even a donation as small as USD $5,000 could help make substantial progress. If you want to directly pay Changeset to work on this, email me and let's talk. Or: the Free Software Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, collects donations on behalf of the GNU Toolchain (see their list of Working Together for Free Software Fund project areas), and your organization can make a tax-deductible donation to the FSF targeted at GNU Toolchain maintenance.


: Frances, Thanksgiving, And Potatoes: Because it's World AIDS Day, today I want to tell you a story about Thanksgiving, food, breaking and remaking tradition, and family. Caution: death because of AIDS.

Back in 2005, when my now-spouse Leonard and I lived in San Francisco, one year a bunch of Leonard's family drove north from Bakersfield for Thanksgiving. I was Leonard's girlfriend and they always tried to make me feel welcome at these things.

We were all going to have Thanksgiving at Uncle L's place in SF, hosted by Uncle L and his partner J, another man. Leonard's mom, Frances, was a Mormon, but a feminist one; the fact that her brother was gay was a complete non-issue.

J ran his kitchen and finished cooking and didn't let any of us help; L played Trivial Pursuit with us. And then we sat down to a heaping table of Thanksgiving goodies. Including a kugel J had made! But....

THERE WERE NO POTATOES.

Mashed? Scalloped? Roasted? Fried? Au gratin? Baked-from-frozen tater tots? Zip, nada, zero. No potatoes of any kind.

Of course we had asked ahead of time about what we could bring. Martinelli's apple cider, rolls, dessert maybe. There had been no mention of this fundamental lacuna, this chasm of carbs.

Someone delicately mentioned/asked about the taterlessness, and we were redirected to the kugel. The kugel was fine! But many of us shared a glance.

Frances's contemporaneous blog post does not mince words: "We had a lovely Thanksgiving, but there was no mashed potatoes and gravy, which horrified me."

And on the ride back to Leonard's place, Leonard, his sisters, his mom, and his brother-in-law began to plan the next day's meal. Which would include potatoes. It was early in a new tradition: Backup Thanksgiving.

Leonard delicately wrote (later): "In recent years I made Backup Thanksgiving because I was learning to cook, or because of the absence of certain foods from the official Thanksgiving table." (By now you know what "certain foods" means.)

I'm glad we had both those Thanksgivings with Frances in 2005. That was her last Thanksgiving. She died of AIDS in May 2006. In her last days others took over updating her blog.

Today Leonard made Backup Thanksgiving food, including some fantastic scalloped potatoes. I loved Frances and I miss her. My government's failed at containing a pandemic. So many people Thanksgave apart this year to increase the odds we can come together next year. I'm emotional.

I wish I could tell Frances that I'm writing a book, that the new pip just came out, that Leonard's book got a great review. I wish I could have had more than a few weeks of being her daughter-in-law. She was only 54.

If you broke your traditions this year to keep everyone safer, to reduce the number of people who will feel the way I do fifteen years from now, thank you so much. I hope the Backup Thanksgivings you have in mid-2021 are fantastic and joyous.

Frances saw what was important. The love is essential and the nourishment is essential. I wish you love and nourishment.

(Especially potatoes, if you love potatoes.)

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(2) : Potomac Jokes: When my spouse Leonard was young, his mother told him a joke about President Richard Nixon:

Nixon fell into the Potomac River and was in danger of drowning. A local kid jumped in to save him.

Nixon, grateful, said, "Is there anything I can do for you? A tour of the White House? An official commendation?"

The kid said: "When I die, can you make sure I get buried in Arlington National Cemetery?"

Nixon said: "I think so, but why is that on your mind? You have your whole life ahead of you!"

The kid replied: "But when my mom find out I saved you, she's gonna kill me!"

This is a great joke but it is not specific enough for my taste; it is a joke template into which you could insert the name of any particularly hated President. As a comedian I find it enticingly inadequate to my desires.

Our household owns a copy of a decades-old edition of Scholastic's 101 President Jokes For Kids. I went through it a few days ago and found perhaps 3 Potomac jokes, none of which were particularly funny or felt President-specific.

I do not have time for another project* but it would be neat to try to write a bespoke Potomac joke for each US President. Gerald Ford tripping, fallling into the Potomac, and dealing with a mermaid who's angry at him about the Nixon pardon. Millard Fillmore trying to use the Union Wagon as some sort of amphibious vehicle. I've already come up with one FDR joke and two Biden jokes. Ask me about them if we're chatting. Or share a joke in the comments. Child-friendly, please!


* but I may do it anyway

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: Situation Normal Giveaway, Preview, and Pre-order: Situation Normal book cover My spouse Leonard Richardson has written a second novel, Situation Normal! Publishing house Candlemark & Gleam will publish it on December 14th, 2020. You can preorder it now in ebook (Kobo, Nook, Chapters Indigo, Kindle) or in paperback (Bookshop, Amazon, Barnes & Noble)! And there's a worldwide giveaway right now, till December 13th, for a free ebook copy!

Leonard says:

My elevator pitch for Situation Normal is "the Coen brothers do Star Trek". It's a military SF story where no one is incompetent but everything goes wrong.
Situation Normal is a direct sequel to Leonard's short story "Four Kinds of Cargo", published in Strange Horizons eight years ago. Leonard's now posted a retconned version of "Four Kinds of Cargo" to make everything line up with the sequel. He notes:

but the crew of the smuggling starship Sour Candy is now only one thread of a plot that includes weaponized marketing, sentient parasites, horny alien teenagers, and cosplaying monks.

Kobo and Indigo have a free preview up, so you can see the content notes and start to meet Becky, Hiroko, Myrus, Churryhoof, Dwap-Jac-Dac, Arun, and the Chief.

"The Fist of Joy," said Dad. Just the name took him back to the previous war.

"Nuh-uh. An Outreach Light Combat Platform. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka."

"That's us, Jiankang," said Dad. "They're the good guys. Why are we running? This is insane."

"Who knows what they want," said the mayor in a tone that was either flat or full of adult emotions Myrus didn't understand. "They've been sending us urgent messages, but the Navy drafted our comm tech last month, so we're not that good at decrypting."

"Who made this decision?" said Dad. "Why wasn't the council consulted before we committed treason?"

Cory Doctorow likes Situation Normal even better than he liked Leonard's first novel, Constellation Games, which he called "an underappreciated masterpiece" and "one of the best political books I've ever read, an account of the poison chalice of societies based on coercion that puts great works of anarchist fiction to shame". Doctorow calls Situation Normal:

A triumph: madcap and trenchant, dancing on the precise meridian between funny and weird, with a wild, imaginative boldness that reinvents space-opera from the gravity well up.

And the American Library Association's Booklist gave Situation Normal a starred review, calling it "A fast-paced romp reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut channeled through the wild inventiveness of Charles Stross and the irreverent political attitude of Cory Doctorow" - again with the Cory comparisons.

Enter the giveaway today, or preorder in ebook (Kobo, Nook, Chapters Indigo, Kindle) or in paperback (Bookshop, Amazon, Barnes & Noble)!

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: Thank You: Today I finally fiddled with the Universal Access settings in GNOME to:

  • make the mouse cursor bigger, and add a contrasting outline, so it's easier to see where it is
  • add a visible alert every time there's a sound/audio alert
  • increase default text size everywhere
It took maybe 90 seconds total and was really easy. I went through some internalized ageism and ableism as I did this. Now I've done it and my computer is easier to use, and I am grateful to all the people who came before me and laid this path to make it easier for me to use. Thank you to everyone who has ever worked on desktop usability and accessibility.


: It Goes On One At A Time: I want to tell you a story. It's about this year's election results, and it's about hope.

Just a few days after Election Day last week, with only 58% of the vote total reported, the New York Times was already comfortable projecting that Democratic incumbent Jerry McNerney will hold his seat in California's 9th Congressional District.

I used to live in that district, in the 1990s. I spent my early teen years in Stockton, an agricultural and shipping city. And that seat was Republican, Norman Shumway holding it 1978-1992 and then Richard Pombo winning and holding it after that.

In the mid-90s I came across an ad recruiting volunteers in the local alternative newspaper. I was a young teen and I was intrigued by the ad that said even people as young as 13 could volunteer for 2 hours per week, Wednesday afternoons, to do camerawork at a local cable access TV show. That's how I started volunteering with the Peace & Justice Network of San Joaquin County.

I met folks who had gotten in serious trouble for protesting the Vietnam War, for anti-nuke actions at Livermore Lab, and for various other acts of conscience. I ran the camera, then served as tech director, as a philosophy professor-turned-carpenter interviewed activists, journalists, politicians, scientists, poets, teachers, clergy, old folks with interesting stories to tell.

Every Congressional cycle they organized to try to beat Pombo. He seemed glued to that seat.

Then, years after I left, in 2004, someone ran unopposed as a write-in candidate for the Democratic nomination, and got 39% of the vote in the general election.

Then, in the 2006 election -- which I will always associate with this witty, angry, upsetting, didactic political music video set to "Freedom! '90" (content note for images from Abu Ghraib, Hurricane Katrina, and the 9/11 attacks) -- he WON! Jerry McNerney, who literally used to run a wind energy company and has a Ph.D. in math, won against a guy who was one of the worst politicians in America on environmental issues. Didn't hurt that by now Pombo was tied to the Abramoff corruption scandals.

My friends helped. They helped elect McNerney in 2006, and I think they had helped lay the groundwork, with decades of on-the-ground organizing, huge Rolodexes, media and fundraising experience.... All those years, trying and trying again, growing their networks. It's like Marge Piercy said. And now McNerney has been re-elected over and over, as a solid Democrat, and again this year.

There are candidates who lost last year and won this year. Activists, teachers, clergy. There are seats and chambers we came close to flipping this year, laying the groundwork for future efforts. Whatever those efforts need to be, whatever tomorrow brings.

(originally posted as a comment on MetaFilter)

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: Inclines and Declinations: A while ago, a friend of mine who lives in Manhattan contacted me to say that she and her spouse would have some time off this week, and suggested that they come to visit us in Queens. We would of course be outdoors and masked and physically distant. We made plans.

And then we canceled them and did a Jitsi videocall instead. Because my friend had just spent half a day in a hospital for various tests, because they'd have to take a cab or subway trip to get here and back, because the COVID case numbers are going up. Everyone understood -- there's no shame or blame attaching to anyone here, just trying to mitigate risks.

We had a great chat about Star Trek: The Next Generation (which they just started watching several months ago), about adaptations and abridgements and what they elide, about writing and publishing and writer's block, about where we were on Saturday when jubilation erupted in response to the announcement of Biden's victory.

I will not be going anywhere for Diwali, Thanksgiving, or Christmas. I will be taking care of my friends and family by keeping them safe -- by doing my bit to keep them safe.

Maybe you have friends or family in pandemic-affected areas who don't really listen to legitimate statistics and are inclined to (disastrously) follow their own intuitions and personal anecdotes when deciding that they're fine with unmasked, indoor get-togethers. People who don't listen to your reasoned arguments.

I once learned -- of course via disabled folks swapping tips on social media -- that doctors often look askance at a patient saying "I did some research and these peer-reviewed papers suggest [x] diagnosis/treatment might be applicable" but are very open to a patient saying "a friend of mine had these problems and [x] helped -- could we check that?" There's something there, I suppose, about how the dominant person in the room is willing to humor you, as a parent does a child, as long as you aren't stepping onto their turf, challenging their expertise. You're acting like a normal, social person, more familiar with your friends' worries than with how your own body works, grasping for the concrete rather than abstractly reasoning.

So I wonder whether a similar approach might work this year, with some of the folks to whom "but it's Christmas" and "don't you want to see your family?" are imperviable rejoinders. Say that your friend is really worried about what'll happen if you go (I can serve as your friend for this purpose). Tell them about your friend-of-a-friend who caught COVID six months ago and still hasn't recovered (I have at least one friend in this category).

And, readers in countries where the pandemic is under control and you can live a reasonably standard life: I'm glad y'all have been sensible. Someday we'll join you. I hope.


: Stand-Up Comedy Today: I'll perform 20 minutes of stand-up comedy about open source software today (Friday), 3:30-3:50pm PT, 6:30-6:50pm ET, at SeaGL [as I did at GUADEC].

Watch for free, no registration.


: Plain Language Choices: Pro Publica published a story in a few translations, including plain language, for accessibility reasons. It's interesting to read the default and plain language English versions of the stories, and to reflect on my own sometimes-negative immediate reactions when reading a plain-language piece: are they condescending to me? What are they hiding from me? but also how refreshing it is to see writers explicitly call things "bad".

I tried to write the Sunsetting Python 2 FAQ in very accessible English, because some audiences don't read English very well, or are executives who get scared off by programmer jargon. I saw some reactions that applauded this choice, and some that found that the effect was condescending, scolding, or otherwise offputting. Then, this year, I scripted the video we made about the changes coming to pip, using a somewhat similar plain-language approach -- but it's a video, with smiling people telling you these things, and it's far more about a change than about an ending (specifically "you should give up this thing you are used to"), so it affects the viewer differently.

And of course -- who are the audiences? What should we assume and what should we try to find out first? This connects back to the concision-nuance tradeoff in one-to-many documents which is, like so many other contested spectra, a ground churned over with centuries of thought and argument.

(Pro Publica news via Jason Kottke)


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