Categories: sumana | Introspection
Reflecting on myself
# 21 Mar 2019, 10:42AM: It's Not Just You:
Malka Older writes:
here's the thing about "adulting": so much of it is entirely unnecessary. I have spent so many hours on health insurance and I only know because I lived in another country that health insurance can function perfectly well without that tax on my time.
Or take tax returns, which we spend time and money doing, even though they could be vastly simplified because the govt already has most of that data. Like the forms they make you fill out at the border even though most of that info is already in your passport (no forms in EU)
all of these tasks that we are taught are inevitable parts of being adult in an advanced society exist either because our society is not as advanced as it pretends or because it has advanced in the direction of making things easier for capital and harder for labor (or both)
Older's point, echoed in Anne Helen Petersen's January piece "How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation", reverberates in my life today: a ton of fiddly expensive-if-you-make-a-mistake labor has emerged or shifted onto the middle class's shoulders, without commensurate logistical, psychological, or financial support for that shift.
This came to mind today because some of us were talking about the anxiety of booking travel. Well -- Back In The Past we paid travel agents to do this sort of thing, learning all the complicated routes and fare trends and quality standards! (And even further in the past, people rarely travelled and we assumed that, of course, travelling to another city would take at least days if not weeks or months of preparation!)
Expectations around planning, decision speed and responsibility, and focus that used to only apply to executives with secretaries now apply to all knowledge workers. And I am struck by how many skills we are expected to have, as adults in 2019 middle-class America, that NO ONE HAS EVER HAD BEFORE, basically.
Here, manage e-mail, a.k.a. this endless TODO list that grows without your input.
Here, resist the best gambling temptation ever invented, which is on the same device you are expected to carry at all times. (When I talk to nonprogrammers these days, I take the opportunity to apologize on behalf of my industry. Email management, calendar management, and internet harassment - all of them are so much more of a burden than they have to be, because we have not done well enough.)
Here, make plans based on the most volatile future anyone has ever had. (And Do Your Bit regarding the greatest collective action problem there is, fighting global warming (which means: decide what Your Bit is, and feel good enough about that decision that the emotional miasma doesn't taint all the rest of your hours.))
Be as decisive as a 19th century tycoon, as nurturing to your family as a TV mom, and love your body as you are (but surely you could fix xyz).
You can't do it all; no one can.
I mean, heck. The other day I saw an ad for a Wells Fargo app feature called "Control Tower" where the use case is, specifically, "you pay monthly subscription fees for things you don't use - this feature helps you find those things so you can go cancel them". Wells Fargo specifically developed/tested/deployed this feature and made an expensive polished TV ad and paid for it to be broadcast (or in this case used as a web ad between acts of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), because it's going to be that profitable a product differentiator, because millions of people get confused/misled into recurring fees, because "deceiving us has become an industrial process."
I don't have a solution. But at least I can try to keep this in mind, when the overwhelm starts to get to me. It's All Too Much not because I am inadequate, but because standards for my class's behavior have risen faster than we've built the infrastructure and prosthetics we'd need to meet them, and because of an unequal distribution of the benefits of the information revolution.
# 08 Mar 2019, 01:15PM: Testing, Testing:
When I was in high school, a zillion years ago, I got reallllly good scores on the SAT I* and the PSAT (which played the Silver Surfer to the SAT's Galactus). I was good at taking standardized tests. I was the kind of completionist perfectionist who was disappointed at getting, like, a 1570 out of 1600 when I took the SAT. I believe it was Mateo who told me**: the upper reaches of SAT scores, between about 1450 and 1600, are essentially a matter of luck, volatile variation that it's practically impossible for the test-taker to control.
I was catching up with an old colleague last month and mentioned that I've been thinking a lot, in the last few years, about assessments, about how we assess our own and each other's skill and knowledge. And he was curious about what's prompted that. I talked a bit about how we form ambition -- to learn something and to have that mastery validated by people whose judgment we trust -- and how we don't have good ways to check our own skill levels in programming, so the job market ends up fulfilling that role (badly). And about summative and formative assessment, and how it can be hard to really make a space for truly formative assessment. And I didn't get around to talking about the function of public awards in these systems but that's connected too. And we got to talking about performance evaluation cycles at workplaces, and how working with superlative colleagues can mean always feeling behind.
And I meant to joke about Quantified Self-Loathing, about how it's now easier than it's ever been to constantly compare your own work to that of the best people in your field. Lyndsey once joked with me: "'Oh look, this person made 36% more commits than you did last month.' The problem isn't Quantified Self, it's Quantified Other People's Selves."
But -- I realize, looking back -- of course I want to dig into how we test. Because the particular kind of scaling-up of human interaction our civilization has chosen demands constant pseudo-objective assessments: star ratings, application processes, credit scores, engagement metrics. Precarity and austerity and the gig economy factor in; one's not told that one could not possibly get what one wants, but that one failed a test that others passed. And panopticon-style surveillance adds the layer of other unaccountable assessors, whose criteria and even whose identities are opaque. And, by living my ordinarily life, I am complicit in becoming endless statistics; my own actions get added to this soup and used to judge others.
To be at home, to be at ease, is to be in a place where -- ideally -- no one is assessing you, judging you. Second-best is to be in a place where they're judging you, but fairly, by rules you know and can follow.
The word I haven't used yet here is "anxiety".
I visited the Bay Area late last year and caught up with some old friends. It turns out a few of them are rich now. I mean, not "my escape plan for the coming climate refugee crisis involves an island" rich as far as I know, but "worked at the right place at the right time and acquired the right stocks" rich. And then there are some folks, just as talented, who did not. There's a reason they call it "winning the startup lottery."
I only bought a few tickets to the startup lottery, and I did not win, and I stopped playing. Financially I am better off than a LOT of people. But I feel that same multidimensional vertigo that probably a lot of my readers feel:
- class mobility disorientation stemming from the dissonance between childhood and now
- class consciousness stemming from the delta in financial stability between me, now, and most of the people I pass on the sidewalk every day
- class consciousness stemming from the delta in financial security between me, now, and the rich people I run into via work and my social circles
- existential uncertainty about the future of all of humanity, making all "investing for the long term" financial decisions suspect***
The disorientation of travel can actually be a relief sometimes, when it matches an inner antsiness. This past weekend Leonard and I went on a tiny vacation to see a few friends -- Mike in Cleveland, then the Zack-and-Pam household in Pittsburgh. We've known Zack Weinberg (now Doctor Zachary Weinberg!) for ages, starting back when we all lived in the Bay Area. Sunday afternoon it was super cold out, so we got out Zack's candlemaking supplies and I learned a bit about how the whole process works -- I'd seen the implements and read his candlemaking tribulation blog posts back in the early 2000s but this was the first time I'd helped with the whole process, start to finish.
Zack showed me how to measure and cut wicks, thread them into the molds, and secure them. The bit that seems like the top at first, where you pour the wax, ends up being the bottom of the finished candle. We melted a block of whitish/clear paraffin in a bain Marie. We had bits of dye we could put in -- red, yellow, green, and blue, I think. What color did we want to make? Orange, I suggested. So we put in bits of yellow and red dye. The hot, molten wax is translucent, practically transparent; to test the color you have to spoon a bit out and drip it onto a surface, and let it cool. And then, to replicate a bit of the thickness of a real candle, you drip a bit more on and let it cool, so the light has to refract through more of the solid wax. The pinkish hue was fine for a pretty sunset or a dessert, but it wasn't quite the orange we wanted, so we added more yellow, and more, and saw the test drips iterate through shades of salmon. OK, we figured, orangey orange wasn't going to happen, we'd have some nice rosy candles.
Two of the three molds leaked and leaked and leaked -- the hole for the wick loves to let hot wax out, especially when a first-timer like me pours the wax in a bunch of stutters instead of one fluid motion. Repour, watch, see a leak, pour/scrape the wax back into the pot, repeat. It turned out we didn't quite have enough wax for the three forms, so we stirred in a few handfuls of crumbled uncolored soy wax. Finally we made an icewater bath in a tray and set the tray of cooling molds in there, which slowed the leaks down so the wax had time to harden before it could escape.
And then when we slid the cooled candles out of their molds -- orange after all! You have to wait to find out what you'll get.
We briefly lit the small one, the one Pam and Zack gave Leonard and me to take with us. We joked that we were obeying the "Plea from the Author" of the candlemaking book Zack had on his shelf, which I'd skimmed during the melting-waits and cooling-waits. In
The Candlemaker's Companion: A complete guide to rolling, pouring, dipping, and decorating your own candles, Betty Oppenheimer writes:
Please, please, please, burn candles! Too many people save them, look at them, fondle them, keep them wrapped up in a drawer or forever in the same centerpiece holder, never to be burned.
It breaks my heart....
On a practical level, you will need to burn your candles to test the compatibility of your wax and wick. The more you burn, the less painful it will be to see your work go up in flames, and the more you will appreciate the fruits of your labor....
...Lead by example, and burn your work!
We lit the candle to test it, to check the ratio of the molten wax pool to the diameter of the pillar, but also just because a candle is meant to be inflamed. And because it's a rich warm quiet moment, to silently watch the flame on a candle you made with friends you've known since before you were quite you.
* "However, in 1997, the College Board announced that the SAT could not properly be called the Scholastic Assessment Test, and that the letters SAT did not stand for anything." Whenever I hear about an initialism giving up the words it used to be based on I remember that old saying: if you don't stand for anything you'll fall for everything!
** In the editing room in IA7, probably, loading edited stories onto the big Mac to flow into Quark XPress. He and I co-edited the high school paper's opinion page together and talked about X-Files. Now we're both in the tech industry and we're both Recurse Center alumni. I still marvel that we ran into each other again.
*** And of course that last one is on a whole other level. Everything else, I at least theoretically know how to deal with: meditation, activism, keeping a varied friend group, and so on. Climate change grief -- "This civilisation is finished: So what is to be done?" -- pervades, and "Its severity and urgency and the sheer evil of how we are sliding into it demand that we tear our lives up to try to stop or at least slow it down." And I am a coward about this, and this footnote is part of me trying to talk about it so I become a bit less of a coward.
# (1) 30 Nov 2018, 02:28PM: Non-Influencer Fashion Blogging:
I've heard fleece-lined tights could be a game-changer regarding wearing skirts and dresses when it's cold. A friend recommended the Homma brand in particular, since they're footless and since (if you turn them inside out) they are machine-washable.
But the Homma brand/maker doesn't seem to exist in terms of an independent manufacturer or brand of an existing manufacturer that has its own website or catalog somewhere. It might be an Amazon-only brand. Sort of a mystery, and I've used up my Ask MetaFilter question for the week on a request to decipher a handwritten letter from 1792 and translate it from German. I'd welcome insights from Homma wearers regarding non-Amazon vendors!
So the other day I had a spare chunk of time in midtown Manhattan and went to a few shops asking about fleece-lined leggings and tights. Nothing in my size that wasn't made in China, so I'm still low-key seeking fleece-lined leggings/tights/whatever-new-jargon-emerges-in-the-next-week.
On my way home I stopped by the Grand Central holiday market and looked around. No tights, but the Carina Hildebrandt stall did have "joggers". They were very nice when I asked what that word meant (I mentioned that a problem with upward mobility is that you don't know all the right words). It turns out joggers are basically posh sweatpants.
I thought, maybe it is time for me to level up from the old black cotton sweatpants I've had for like 20 years! these are super nice! they have pockets! they're made from alpaca wool! I could take really good care of them and they would last for decades! they would be, like, investment sweatpants!
I asked how much they were, mentally preparing for, like, "$200" or something like that, thinking "well if I literally use them for the rest of my life, I could justify that." Those joggers are 535 United States dollars.
No I am not that rich! I demurred. The vendor mentioned that it was handmade, 100% alpaca wool -- I said, oh, I'm sure it's worth that much, I just can't afford it! Maybe in ten years.
I'm not about to follow the lead of Nicole Cliffe's friend who super loves Brooks Brothers (I found that thread very funny), but I've come to some kind of playful détente with the world of trying-to-look-good clothes? I guess part of that is because of Project Runway and my friendship with Elisa DeCarlo, which helped me see more of what high-end clothes are trying to do, and then knowing Lea Albaugh and seeing how she makes and reads clothes, and a whole bunch of low-stakes thrifting, conversation, and so on in between. And having more money makes it easier to try more expensive stuff, and the longer I live, the more I see how durability pays off. In retrospect this feels kind of like how I grew to enjoy wine.
It's interesting to look back on the time I spent over the past year seeking out a winter coat, especially in contrast to my approach last decade. Back in my mid-twenties when I was about to move to NYC, saying goodbye to Bay Area friends, my friend Claudia asked whether I already had a winter coat. I gestured to some kind of light cotton jacket I had on to protect against the mild late-December chill. Claudia, who had lived in Boston, went to her closet, took out a shiny puffy waist-length H&M coat, and handed it to me. And that was an excellent move and I used that for years. I wanted something longer, so at some point I hit an army surplus store and bought a long blue Canadian army surplus? coat that was a little too big for me. I gave it to a Recurse Center friend during our fall 2013 batch, depriving my spouse of the opportunity to call me Colonel Sumana.
Last winter I decided that I'd like a formal-looking (so, probably wool) warm winter coat, with a lot of leg coverage (mid-calf or so) and big pockets for my hands/gloves/phone. I bookmarked dozens of coats online and learned that the word I wanted to describe my desired length was "maxi" and that well-made maxi wool coats cost hundreds of dollars at least. I went to try things on at Nordstrom Rack, but a lot of off-the-rack stuff fit weird, in terms of shoulder and chest. I asked friends: Where in NYC do I go to find a well-made, non-slave-labor coat of this type for under, like, $200? If the answer is "what you want is not available at that price, you need to INVEST and it'll cost at least $400" then I will also accept this answer. I poked around sample sales and thrift stores opportunistically.
And then this past weekend, hanging out with a friend, I went to a vintage shop in my neighborhood and they had about 20 maxi-length coats. My friend told me what looked good, and we agreed that one of them suited me well -- I put it on and looked in the mirror and said this is it!. I got it for about $100 (it was $129 but I got a Small Business Saturday discount). It's a grey mostly-wool coat, 70% wool/15% mohair/15% nylon, and there's a union-made-in-the-USA label on it but no brand label. The owner said she thought it was from the 1980s or 1990s and might have been made by Jones Of New York. It makes me happy to put it on! Although I need to wear a scarf with it till I get a tailor to add a felt lining, because the collar scratches my neck.
A few nights ago, my spouse and I went on a little date and I dressed up a bit. I wore a red knit V-neck dress I got in a shop on Valencia in San Francisco a few years ago -- its material and shape are pretty flattering and forgiving of weight fluctuations -- and a string of pearls my mom gave me, and the new wool coat. We did a crossword puzzle and ate and talked about Steven Universe, Legend of Korra, and She-Ra.
Then we came home and watched a bit of the latest season of Great British Bake-Off. At one point, to cheer up a baker, Noel sketches a cat on their instruction sheet, then adds a speech bubble and writes the f-bomb inside the speech bubble. And the video is not blurred or otherwise redacted! I gasped, scandalized, and my hand flew to my neck in shock. Leonard asked: "Are you literally clutching your pearls?"
So I am not currently in possession of any trousers that only seem inexpensive when compared to $750 palazzo pants from the same vendor, but I am prudish about cuss words on TV and in my blog. I'm upwardly mobile financially, but in case you ever wondered what social class I'm in, I feel like that's a big clue.
Disdisclaimer: as you can probably tell, I received no payments, discounts, subsidies, or gifts from any of the companies mentioned in exchange for this post; indeed, in 2028 when I am able to afford to buy anything from Carina Hildebrandt, I may be required to recant portions of this post as a precondition of purchase. Also, Leonard hasn't seen the new She-Ra. For that part of dinner he mostly listened while I went on about it.
# 19 Nov 2018, 08:23PM: The Fascination Of Municipal Taxation Software:
On January 30, 2018, I attended my local city councilmember's "State of the District" speech. If one of your local officials offers such a speech, I recommend going; it's a structured way to find out what issues they think are important. And Councilmember Constantinides scheduled this one the same night as the US President's State of the Union address, which felt like a welcome alternative.
Among the plans and promises that got public notice, he mentioned a government IT project he wanted New York City to implement. In his address, Constantinides said he was introducing a:
bill that will direct the Department of Finance to create a website where anyone can view their property tax exemption status. Under this new website, property owners would be able to pay their taxes, directly submit questions to the DOF, and view their records. They'd be able to access specific information regarding their properties including applications for exemptions like the Senior Citizen Homeowners' Exemption, status of exemptions, date by which they'd need to apply to renew an exemption, or whether anything has expired in their record. If a property owner's application is rejected, they must tell you why. Property owners will also be able to set up alerts for any changes.
These are simple, common sense things that already exist on other government platforms, and the fact that the Council may have to pass legislation to create this system is very disappointing. But if we're going to ask you to pay substantial sums of your hard earned money to fund the government, the government needs to uphold its end of the bargain and give you all the tools it can to manage your payments.
The proposal caught my attention because I find it inherently interesting (and kind of amusing) when politicians give speeches about web apps. I took the photo because I couldn't remember the last time that a politician, literally giving a speech from a podium near a US flag, presented a functional spec for software he wanted, in bullet points. I'm a project manager and a programmer who has worked on multiple software projects for local governments. Some part of me, for a fraction of a second, saw that bullet list and thought, "OK, that's the scope. How many programmers do I have and what technologies will we be using?" before remembering that this was not my job.
Constantinides mentioned the bill again in a spring newsletter and I dug around a bit. Introduction 0627-2018: "Establishment of an online system to access property tax information and receive notification of changes to property tax exemptions." The Council referred it to the Committee on Finance, which hasn't held any hearings about it yet.
On the one hand, getting the local government to make a web application for property tax stuff makes obvious sense (and other localities, such as Santa Clara County, already do it). Public servants need to help the public, and so much of public service requires software. On the other hand, government IT projects have such a bad reputation. Ten years ago, Dan Davies wrote: "nearly anything new that the government does is going to require an IT element ... government projects tend to only come in one size, 'big', and to very often come in the variety 'failed'." I inhale sharply when I see someone propose a new government IT project, because I instantly foresee manifold hazards.
But we know a bit more than we did ten years ago about how to address those concerns. There's vendor lock-in, which is a big reason to prefer building or reusing open source applications. There's metadata wrangling and legacy application/infrastructure compatibility, and partnering effectively with agency staff -- 18F and the US Digital Service have grown serious capabilities in those areas. There's the challenge of serving everyone, no, seriously, everyone ("government doesn’t always appear to provide a satisfactory solution is because government has to take on the hardest problems") -- and we can incorporate "no, seriously, everyone" into our design processes....
And that last point -- about how government needs to serve everyone gets at perhaps the deepest reason this proposal caught my attention. I used to be incredibly interested in taxation, to the point where I considered following in Dr. Robin Einhorn's footsteps and going into the academy to seriously research tax history. And a big reason is that taxes affect everybody, often noticeably. A resident might be pretty oblivious to all the other ways government activities touch their life, but a ton of taxes impinge on their perception and cause notice -- income taxes, use fees, sales/value taxes, property taxes, payroll taxes, &c.
Taxes are surface areas, user interfaces, where the least-informed user unavoidably comes into contact with your system, and notices it, and (mostly) inherently resents the cost you're imposing on them, and thus finds any friction along the way particularly maddening. This reminds me of something Leonard wrote in 2003:
You can pay your San Francisco parking tickets online. This makes sense, as the general philosophy of the city of San Francisco is to make it easy for you to deal with the arbitrary aggravations they inflict upon you.
And, just like with software interfaces, tax structures have these nasty path-dependent ways of accidentally creating interest groups. Randall Munroe's xkcd #1172 ("Every change breaks someone's workflow") obscurely reminds me of Conversion and the Poll Tax in Early Islam by Daniel Dennett, Jr. -- if you use reduced taxes as an incentive for some behavior, such as conversion to Islam, and then people do that and your tax receipts go down, and then you try to make up for losses by raising taxes on the folks who now feel entitled to a tax break, the interest group you have just created will grumble or rebel.
And maybe this lens helps explain why I bang on about the governance side of maintainership, and how a bug tracker anyone can report issues to is a sign of hospitality and humility and stewardship, and and so on. Every once in a while a stranger calls me a politician. I'm not seeking elected office and I'm only as accountable to my neighbors as they are to me. But I am attuned enough to socially constructed things that I notice and try to work with them, and I try to notice where the resources come from and where they go and who ends up getting taxed, and how.
# 16 Oct 2018, 11:22AM: NYC Comptroller Town Hall, And Reflections on Constraint:
Last night I suited up and went to a local town hall held by the office of New York City's Comptroller, Scott Stringer. (I am in the fuzzy foreground of the second photo.) After very short introductions from the venue host (CUNY Law School), Stringer and his staff, we went straight to questions!
I appreciated a lot of things about the event. There was an ASL translator on the stage, and when residents wanted to ask questions in Spanish, a staffer translated between Spanish and English for them. Stringer kept the lines moving by answering folks' questions but also limiting them to one question each (or they could head to the back of the line to get another turn), and interrupted rambly rants by asking for a question he could answer. And if people spoke up with complaints, he promised: fill out a constituent intake form and give it to one of my staffers, and we will call you by noon tomorrow. And free bottled water, next to the paper copies of audit reports and outreach flyers, was a nice touch.
I asked the first question: how can we save money in IT procurement? Perhaps by banding together in consortia with other municipalities to have better leverage with vendors, or making or using open source software? I fear I was not very clear and was misunderstood. Stringer replied by talking about the need to modernize the procurement process itself, which is evidently still paper-based and slow, and about how this depends on revising the City Charter. Wendy Garcia (the office's Chief Diversity Officer) followed up by suggesting that I myself might want to come to their office so they could help my business figure out where our services matched up with the city's contracting needs. [I spoke with her after the town hall to clarify: no, I'm not trying to get business for Changeset here, I'm just interested in the issue! (Maybe I misguided them by introducing myself as a consultant and wearing a suit. The suit was just to respect the occasion! Next time maybe I will wear a stylish dress and cardigan, which seems to be what middle-class women activists wear to these things??)]
I filled out a constituent intake form, and, sure enough, just before 10:30am today, I got a call from their office asking me to email a specific staffer with more details! Well done.
Other questions and answers included a wide variety of concerns: older guy who doesn't like streets getting named after politicians, frequent meeting questioner guy whose stuff was taken (and never returned) when he was arrested in 2015, the Major Capital Improvement rule landlords use to get around rent control, Department of Education buildings that perhaps ought to be reused instead of sold, divesting NYC's pension fund of fossil fuel, Stringer's political ambitions, an idea for stop sign speed sensors (like traffic light speed sensors), the closure of the jail on Rikers Island, helping immigrants pay the costs of applying for citizenship, sewer problems, the placements of homeless shelters, and helping residents use their on-time rent payments to count towards credit scores. My neighbors care about a lot of different things. I took a few notes and mostly sketched. There was this one power outlet mechanism embedded in the desk right in front of me and I drew it like five times and never got the angles to look right.
One interesting thing I learned: when the Comptroller's office audits a city department, it usually takes about 18 months, so they only go in and do an audit if they think it's likely they'll find something.
I went home and commented on the proposed National Park Service rule change "Special Regulations, Areas of the National Park System, National Capital Region, Special Events and Demonstrations". I commented on 4 things: making the swimming/wading rules more consistent, removing the "duplicative" criterion, the "atmosphere of contemplation" expansion, and the proposed permit application fees. And then I wrote a thing to prepare for a meeting today, while texting with a friend who's going through a rough time.
I don't know anyone who's not going through some kind of rough time. Or at least I can't think of any. If nothing else we have the awful "well, MY life is great, but the world is horrifying" awareness; it feels like we're betraying our neighbors when we enjoy our personal successes. I never know whether I'm doing enough; I have to define "enough" for myself, which feels audacious. Willow Brugh wrote about how she's implementing a concept I first heard about from Abi Sutherland in December 2016:
While I am pushing to find ways to gain (and deserve) greater influence in the world, those things which fall outside of my influence cannot be that which concerns me most. To do otherwise is a path to madness. I must trust that other capable people exist in the world, and that they are taking up their share just as I am taking up mine. As you are taking up yours.
# 20 Sep 2018, 11:18AM: I Joked That We Could Call Each Of The Mini-Plays 'What Are We Even Doing':
Last night I dreamed that I had to leave my home? hotel? and realized I had forgotten to don pants, and then realized I was supposed to get on a flight to Germany, and was trying to check in online within Google Docs on my phone.
Perhaps my creativity is so spent from writing and rehearsal for "Python Grab Bag" that it's really phoning it in for by-the-numbers anxiety dreams.
Yesterday was the first on-our-feet rehearsal. I'm so grateful that Jason and I hired our director, Neofuturist alumna Aya Aziz (more about her and her playwriting, acting, singing, and dancing -- as Aya Abdelaziz she also (sort of) portrayed me in a reading of the Aaron Swartz memorial play "Building A Real Boy" last year). The words are really coming to life as we speak them aloud and block the plays (decide who's moving and facing which way when) and figure out sound, light, props. Her direction is -- as I'd hoped -- making it much more likely that these will feel like theater, affect the audience both cerebrally and emotionally, not just slide away like an embarrassing middle school book report skit. (I am speaking here as someone whose only memory of Otto of the Silver Hand is that I wrote a rap about it for class.)
I fairly often feel an incredulous "what the hell are we even doing" feeling when I reflect on this weird freaking thing we're making. On one level it's the most logical thing in the world. It's a port from one venue to another; I've seen The Infinite Wrench dozens of times and we're adapting a Neofuturist theatrical approach to talk about what it's like to be a Python programmer. And I did a Neofuturist-inspired keynote at LibrePlanet last year, we did a play at PyGotham last year, and we maybe aren't even doing the most ambitious Python conference performance in recent memory -- K Lars Lohn's PyCon 2016 keynote was an intricately designed multimedia narrative of discovery and wonder. So even though the piece we are making and sharing is novel, we aren't straying THAT far from prior art.
But also, let's be real, there is a well-worn path of advice and examples to help a speaker talk about "how to do foo with bar" or "five ways to be better at managing people" or "open source is making a difference!" and if you give a kinda boring or redundant conference talk along those lines, it just slides into the rearview mirror. This weird thing we are working on will stand out. The optimal rate of criticism is not zero and I anticipate -- even if most of the audience enjoys it -- there will be at least a few people who think it's awful, a waste of time, takes a PyGotham slot that ought to have gone to a real talk, and think less of me for my bad judgment and poor skill. The chance of failure feels greater and the risk in failure feels higher.
This is part of what innovation feels like: whacking past vines with a stick, mostly but not 100% certain that this direction leads to a place worth finding, pattern-matching and guessing without a trail or a map. Risking failing. To quote Ramsey Nasser again,
When you're failing, you're exploring things that are in that grey area. That there may be interesting surprises there, or there may be things that you don't want, but you're willing... It's a sort of brave commitment to go there and to see what's out there. Failing is not wrong.
And perhaps the fact that I'm going ahead and wrestling with that fear, moving forward, instead of letting it stop me, is another reason my anxiety brain is all, "I give up. Uhhhhh, you're late for a flight and you forgot your pants. Oooooh scary! *finger-wiggles*"
# 11 Sep 2018, 08:55AM: Now Imagine Switching The Lead Actors For Those Two Shows:
I was in the midst of talking with my pal Jed about Star Trek: The Next Generation. He'd kindly checked whether I was ok hearing criticisms of this show-of-my-heart and I said dismissiveness no, criticism yes. We talked a little about Picard. I said how interesting it is that he's an introvert leader, how we don't often see that kind of person represented on TV. (And I informed him that I want him to text me immediately once he watches "Allegiance".) But he's still collaborative and listens well to his subordinates...
And Jed said: I know you've said that Picard taught you a lot about management. But what if you got into management because of watching Picard?
Me: you did not warn me you were going to be that incisive when we started this phone call.
I mean, maybe! In some ways Star Trek: The Next Generation* is to my management style as Mad About You is to my marriage style -- the formative-influence TV show that I, sometimes even consciously, modeled myself after. But maybe it goes deeper -- maybe those are also shows that made me think it would be awesome to be a leader, and to be married.
* And Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.
# 10 Sep 2018, 01:31PM: Coming Back To My Senses:
A few miscellaneous thoughts:
I chose a driving school and have now had a few lessons. I'm already far better at appropriate mirror and blind spot checks, turns, stop sign stops, staying in my lane, controlling my speed, and keeping a safe distance from the vehicle in front of me. Next up: practice in lane changes (at speed, instead of slowing the hell down and snarling things up) and parallel parking.
My instructor has had to remind me: if I have to brake hard to a sudden stop (e.g., at a yellow light), I should check my rearview mirror first, to see whether I'm being tailgated -- if so, it may well be safer to run the yellow light, even if the light turns red while I am in the intersection! This is bouncing around my brain a bit before thoroughly settling in. The point of the rules is to increase safety, and it is better to break a traffic rule than to cause a collision. I am distantly reminded of Mr. Hatch, my high school American Literature teacher, teaching us about levels of moral reasoning in the context of reading Huckleberry Finn -- grasping the principles behind a system of rules helps a person make better decisions than they would if they just concentrated on doing as they're told.
And it's been raining a bit in New York City, so now I've gotten some fresh experience driving in wet conditions! And I have rejoiced in the rain and the lower temperatures, breaking out a belted, water-resistant knee-length tan trenchcoat I got for free at the WisCon clothing swap. It feels so cute and fall and wearing it with black boots, dark blue jeans, and a belted V-neck kelly green knit top felt so powerful and happy! This year I dropped off 20-30 items of my own and snagged a few really awesome pieces at the Clothing Swap -- the trenchcoat, a sparkly silver tasselled 1920s-style sheath dress (which I just had tailored for 20 bucks and now it looks so good on me), and a very bodyconscious above-the-knee black dress with a faux-wrap V-neck that flatters my torso.
The experience of wearing that black dress has already transformed me. The woman who donated it saw me wearing it during the Tiptree Auction and caught me during a break to say: "Did you get that from the Clothing Swap? It used to be mine! I saw you wearing it and thought, 'She looks better in it than I did! Bitch.'" And that was an affectionate compliment and I got it and felt like I had leveled up in a kind of femininity. Teasing has always been difficult for me to give and receive -- it's a highwire act to gauge intimacy well enough to trust/convey that the intent of an insult is to bond, not to wound -- and I feel like this woman gave me not only the gift of a kicky dress that suits me, but also a gift of spirit. It is as though she led me in a merry little dance, and for once, instead of falling or tripping, I followed her moves and unlocked the fun.
I feel like my sense of visual aesthetics has never been a strong point -- it's still a little surprising to me that I can find joy in a particular outfit, or please myself with a sketch. The other week I sketched a bit to quiet my distractible mind while in a long meeting. It turns out a gridded notebook (thanks for the old OSCON freebie, O'Reilly!) massively helps me sketch human-made objects. And the first time I try, I usually realize something I'm not quite getting right, quickly finish it, and then try to sketch the same thing again, and the second try is better. I've learned something about the proportions of the chair, the many nested borders of a window. It's so validating and inspiring to make a thing with my hands that did not exist before and then immediately make a clearly better version of that thing!
I was talking a few days ago with a new friend who mentioned that working and playing with her dog has helped her pay attention to being embodied. We're all animals. But sometimes we forget. I suppose the theme emerging in these reflections is that I'm exploring -- as a mechanized cyborg, and in fabric and on paper -- how my eyes and my skin want to dance with the world. The irreducible facts of motion, light, shape, texture, warmth, wet. And I can get more graceful with attentive practice, and what joy there is to be found here!
# 11 Mar 2018, 10:42AM: Recent Debugging And Confidence:
I am proud of myself for some recent debugging I've done on and with codebases and tools that I hadn't worked on before.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting next to a friend who co-maintains a web app and hadn't looked at it for a while. The styling was screwy. I asked whether some CSS or JS he depended on had upgraded, like jQuery or something. He said no, his site hosted all its dependencies. I opened up the site and checked the Network tab in Firefox Developer Tools and saw that it pulled in Bootstrap from a CDN. Ah, one of the other maintainers had added that! And updates to Bootstrap had screwed up the page's styling.
That same day, as a freshly minted co-maintainer of twine (a utility to upload packages to PyPI), I investigated a problem with our CHANGELOG. Twine's changelog, as represented on Read The Docs (example) and when I built the docs locally, only displayed version number 1.4.0 (2014-12-12) and two associated GitHub issues. This was inaccurate since the source file changelog.rst had 70+ items and ran up to version 1.9.1 (2017-05-27). I figured out that this was happening because changelog.rst is meant to be formatted so the Sphinx extension releases (which I hadn't used before) can parse it, and the current file wasn't syntactically (or semantically) adhering to releases's conventions. (Since then, with advice and help from some folks, I've released Twine 1.10.0 and started a new maintainer checklist.)
And then, a couple days later, I fixed my friends' blog. Their front page had reverted to a ten-year-old index page. I had never touched Movable Type before and hadn't used their particular managed hosting web GUI before, but I poked around (and checked for backups before changing anything) and managed to figure it out: during a May 2008 outage, someone had hand-made an index.shtml page, which was now overriding the index.html page in the server config. I figured it out and found and fixed it.
My mom says that when I was a kid, I took apart alarm clocks and spare hose attachments and so on, and put them back together just fine. She once came upon me taking something apart, and when she drew breath to admonish me, I said, "Amma, if I don't take it apart, how do I know what is inside? Don't worry, amma, I'm just looking at it, I'll put it back together when I'm done," and I did. She told me that I took apart a mechanical alarm clock, carefully spreading all the parts out on some newspaper, and put it back together, and it didn't quite work properly, so I took it apart again and then put it back together, and it worked, and I jumped for joy and said "I fixed it!" (I still feel that way when I fix something.)
At some point along the way I feel like I lost that calm confidence in my abilities, that "things are made of stuff" and what one person made another can fix. But I have it again, now, at least for some bits of software, and some purely mechanical stuff (yesterday, helping friends move, deciding to break down a big empty cardboard box, responding to "but it's so big, it won't fit on the stack" with "we have knives"). It doesn't feel courageous at the time, just sensible, but then I look back and feel like a badass.
If I had to point to the single biggest cause of this regained confidence, I'd point to the Recurse Center, where I got way more comfortable with bravery and failure in programming.
# 11 Mar 2018, 10:14AM: Not Teetotal, But Teemostly:
Here's something I'm really embarrassed to write, but want to mark, and maybe it'll help someone.
I've cut way down on drinking alcohol and am very glad I have done so.
Quick context: when I was growing up, I thought alcohol was Wrong. My parents did not drink alcohol at all and I believed what they told me in DARE and promised I would never smoke, drink, or take any other drugs.
For most of my time in college I did not drink alcohol at all, and held booze-free parties. While in college I visited Russia, where I was over the legal drinking age, and cautiously tried booze, taking notes the first time to check how my perception and judgment were affected. In my twenties I tried it more and it became a normal part of my life into my thirties.
I never perceived myself to have a problem with alcohol. Maybe once every twelve to eighteen months I'd misjudge my capacity and get to the vomiting and hungover stages, and a few times I said something really embarrassing or got hurt while drunk, but overall I thought I was fine, especially after I made a personal rule to only have a single drink per night when at a work-related event. Every once in a while I would find that the frequency had gone up from once or twice a week to nearly a drink every evening, and would cut back to zero or near zero for a while.
Then, last year, I had two bad experiences just a few months from each other, where I misjudged and drank enough to upset my stomach. What's worse, the second of those times was just after a great hiking trip and made the bus trip back home super awful, and made me completely cancel my plans (with a friend I rarely see) for the next day. I decided I absolutely needed to switch to other stress relief/conviviality choices, and went teetotal.
A month later, one afternoon, I was coworking with some colleagues in a shared coworking space, and heard a group of men I didn't know making some mocking and disturbing misogynistic jokes. I asked them to stop (I think they did; at least I stopped hearing them) but decided to get a drink with my colleagues, after work, to deal with the leftover nerves. As I did so I realized it had been a month since my last drink. It was the ninth of October.
I decided to try keep going like that, and only drink alcohol on the ninth of the month. That's what I've done since then (I make exceptions to, e.g., have a few sips of champagne to toast at my friends' wedding, but nothing like an actual serving of alcohol).
It's going well. I do not get drunk on the ninth of the month; I have a drink with a meal with a friend, then maybe a second a few hours later with Leonard. All my friends and colleagues are cool with it (I have the kinds of colleagues who put together surveys of what nonalcoholic drinks conference attendees want). It doesn't bother me to see other people drinking in moderation. It feels weird enough to be an enjoyable meta-habit (playfulness being a good way for me to trick myself into doing something that might otherwise feel tedious). I'm able to exert my best judgment while socializing. I listened the other day to the "Say Why to Drugs" episode on "Dry January" and yeah, like a lot of drinkers who experiment with taking a month off from all alcohol, I also incidentally spend a bit less money and sleep a bit better. And US politics is still super awful, and sometimes I still feel overwhelmed at my TODO list, but I hear that little "a drink would be nice" voice and then I go drink some water or do something else.
A lot of people I admire and like don't drink at all, and a lot of people I admire and like drink in moderation way more frequently than I now do. I am just talking about my own experience (and am trying to be concise and bring myself to overcome my embarrassment enough to actually hit Publish).
# 06 Feb 2018, 09:48AM: The Ambition Taboo As Dark Matter:
PyCon just rejected my talk submission,* so I'll try to finish and post this draft that I've been tapping at for ages.
My current half-baked theory is that programmers who want any public recognition from our peers, recognition that meaningfully validates our personal mastery, basically have to do that through one of a few fora that therefore accrue less-spoken emotional freight. And two of those places are code review in open source projects** and proposal review in tech conference talk submissions, and the fact that we don't talk enough about the role of ambition when talking about these processes leads to unnecessary hurt feelings.
For context: We give talks for varied reasons. To teach, to make reusable documentation, to show off things we've made or things we know, to burnish our credentials and thus advance our careers, to serve our corporate brands' goals, to provide role models for underindexed folks from our demographics, to give a human face to a project and make it more approachable, it goes on.
A conference talk is a tool in a toolbox that has a lot of other tools in it. (The Recompiler, Linux Journal and LWN pay for articles, for instance.)
And conferences are more than lecture halls, of course -- they're networking opportunities, communities of practice, parties, vacations, sprints, and so on.
But when we talk about the particular pain or joy of having a talk accepted or rejected from a conference, there's an emotional valence here that isn't just about the usefulness of a talk or the community of a conference. We're talking about acceptance as a species of public professional recognition.
I've found it pretty useful to think about public professional recognition in the context of Dr. Anna Fels's book Necessary Dreams. She points out that the childhood or adolescent desire for fame is often a precursor to a more nuanced ambition, combining the urge to master some domain or skill with the desire for the recognition of one's peers or community. This influences how I think about awards, about job titles, and about encouraging technologists in the public interest, and about the job market's role in skill assessment.
So how can a programmer pursue public mastery validation? Here's what I see:***
- contributing to open source software (mastery validation: maintainers merging commits and thanking/crediting contributor for work)
- presenting at conferences (mastery validation: program committee accepting talk)
- posting comments to gamified platforms like Reddit, Hacker News, and Stack Overflow (mastery validation: upvotes and replies)
- publishing academic research (mastery validation: journal accepting paper, peers reviewing paper positively)
- writing books (mastery validation: publisher accepting & publishing book)
- starting and architecting technically challenging projects (mastery validation: skilled technologists cofounding with or working for you, or relying on or praising your work)
So, this stuff is fraught; let's not pretend it's not. And we get rejected sometimes by conferences and talk about it, try to take the perspective that we're collecting "no's", we remind others that even successful and frequent speakers get rejected a lot and you can choose not to give up. And we give each other tips on how to get better at proposing talks. And that's all useful. But there's also another level of advice I want to give, to repeat something I said last year:
I try not to say "don't get discouraged," because to me that sounds like telling someone not to cry or telling someone to calm down. It's a way of saying "stop feeling what you're feeling." Instead, I try to acknowledge that something is discouraging but also -- if the other person's ready to hear it -- that we can come back from that: your feelings are legitimate, and here are some ways to work with them.
Some advice I hear about bouncing back from a conference talk rejection involves formalizing, creating systems to use to get better at writing proposals (my own tips mostly fall into this category) -- after all, in programming, you can learn to make better and better things without directly interacting with or getting feedback from individuals. The code compiles, the unit tests pass. And that can be soothing, because you can get the feedback quickly and it's likely to be a flavor of fair. (But that computer rarely initiates the celebration, never empathizes with you about the specific hard thing you're doing or have just done, and rarely autocredentials you to do something else that has a real impact on others.)
To formalize and abstract something makes it in some ways safer; it's safer to say "I'm working to pass the [test]" or "I'm building a [hard thing] implementation" or "I'm submitting a talk to [conference]" than to say "I am working to gain the professional respect of my profession". But that is one motivation for people to submit talks to tech conferences and to feel good or bad about the talks they give.
So part of my advice to you is: go ahead and be honest with yourself about how you feel. Rejection can be hard, working to get an unaccountable gatekeeper's acceptance**** and failing to get public professional recognition in your chosen field is a cause of anxiety, and so on. Be honest about how discouraging that can feel, and why, and what you wanted that you didn't get.
And another part of my advice is that I will ask, like the annoying programmer I am: what problem are you trying to solve? Because there are probably a lot of ways there that don't involve this particular gatekeeper.
And the most annoyingly empowering part of my advice is: Humans created and run PyCon and TED and Foo Camp and all the other shiny prestigious things; you're a human and you could do so too. Especially if you acknowledge not just your own but others' ambition, and leverage it.
* Maybe we'll do it in an open space anyhow.
** Another blog post for another time!
*** I've left some things out here.
We have some awards, e.g., ACM Distinguished Member, that you might get if you work really hard for decades in certain fields. That feels too far away for the kind of thing I'm thinking about.
I've left out the possibility of being promoted at your job, because many technologists perceive engineering job promotions as not particularly correlating with the quality of one's work as a programmer, which means a promotion doesn't send a strong signal, understood by peers outside one's organization, of validation of programming mastery. Then again, if your organization is old enough or big enough, maybe the career ladder there does constitute a useful proxy for the mental models of the peers whose judgment you care about.
I've left out various certifications, diplomas and badges because I don't know of any that meaningfully signal validation of one's mastery as a programmer industry-wide. And there's a lot of stuff to parse out that I feel undecided about, e.g., I find it hard to distinguish the status symbol aspect of admission from the signal that the final credential sends. And: A lot of people in this industry find it impressive when someone has been admitted to certain postsecondary engineering programs, regardless of whether the person graduates. And: In my opinion, the Recurse Center is an experience that has an unfortunate and unintended reputation for gatekeeping on the basis of programming skill, such that a big subset of people who apply and are rejected experience this as an authoritative organization telling them that they are not good enough as programmers (and Google Summer of Code and Outreachy have a related problem).
Of course, go ahead, write your own blog post where you talk about how wrong I am about what I list or exclude, especially because I come from a particular corner of the tech industry and I'm sure there's stuff I don't perceive.
**** Some conferences' gatekeepers are more unaccountable than others'; regardless, the feeling from the rejectee's point of view is, I bet, mostly the same. And you can start your own conference or join the program committee of an existing conference to see what it's like from the other side of the desk and wield a bit of the power yourself.
# 02 Jan 2018, 10:46AM: 2017 Sumana In Review:
Four years ago, during my first batch at the Recurse Center, every day I'd write in a little notebook on the subway on my way home, jotting down a few bullet points about what I had learned that day. I found it helped in a variety of ways, and the keenest was that on bad days, reviewing my notes reminded me that I was in fact progressing and learning things.
On any given day in 2017 I often did not feel very happy with my progress and achievements and how I was using my time. I fell ill a lot and I was heartsick at the national political scene and current events. It is genuinely surprising to me to look back and take stock of how it all added up.
I went hiking in Staten Island and in the Hudson Valley. I got back on my bike and had some long rides, including on a canal towpath in New Jersey and over the Queensboro bridge. (And had my first accident -- a car in my neighborhood rear-ending me at a traffic light -- and thankfully escaped without damage or injury.) I learned how to bake bread. I got to meet Ellen Ullman OMG. And I tried to travel less than I had in previous years, but I still had some fine times in other places -- notably, I had a great time in Cleveland, I witnessed the total solar eclipse in Nashville, and I visited Charlotte, North Carolina (where, among other things, I visited the NASCAR Hall of Fame).
I did some of the same kinds of volunteering and activism that I'd done in previous years. For instance, I continued to co-organize MergeSort, participated in a fundraising telethon for The Recompiler telethon, signal-boosted a friend's research project to get more participants, and helped revitalize a book review community focusing on writers of color. Also, I served again as the auctioneer for the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award fundraising auction at WisCon, which is a particularly fun form of community service. The Tiptree Award encourages the exploration & expansion of gender. I wrote this year about what an award does, and the reflections I've seen from winners of the Tiptree Awards and Fellowships tell me those honors are doing the job -- encouraging creators and fans to expand how we imagine gender. This year I also deepened my commitment to the Tiptree Award by accepting the organization's invitation to join the Tiptree Motherboard; I am pleased to have helped the award through a donation matching campaign.
But the big change in my community service this year was that I tried to prioritize in-person political work. I called, emailed, and wrote postcards to various government officials. I participated in my local Democratic Club, including going door-to-door petitioning to get my local city councilmember onto the ballot for reelection.
And I found that I could usefully bring my technologist perspective to bear on the city and state levels, especially regarding transparency in government software. I spoke to my local councilmember about my concern regarding public access defibrillator data (the topic that led me to file my first-ever Freedom of Information Law requests, for government health department records) and this inspired him to sponsor a bill on that topic. (Which is now filed as end-of-session partly because of the limbo in potentially getting PAD data from NYC's open data portal -- I need to send an email or two.) I was invited to speak to a joint committee of the New York State Assembly on the software side of our forensics labs, and got particularly interested in this aspect of due process in our criminal justice system, publicizing the issue in my MetaFilter posts "'maybe we should throw an exception here??'" and "California v. Johnson". I testified before the Committee on Technology of the New York City Council on amendments to our open data law (I didn't prep my public comment, so this text is reconstructed from memory; video), and then spoke before the same committee on an algorithmic accountability measure (and publicized the bill, especially keeping the Recurse Center community apprised as best I could). And I did research and outreach to help ensure that a state legislature hearing on protecting the integrity of our elections included a few researchers and activists it wouldn't have otherwise.
In 2018 I want to continue on this path. I think I'm, if not making a difference, making headway towards a future where I can make a difference.
This was by far Changeset Consulting's busiest year.
I had a mix of big projects and smaller engagements. First, some of the latter: I advised PokitDok on developer engagement, with help from Heidi Waterhouse. For Open Tech Strategies, I wrote an installation audit for StreetCRM. And, working with CourageIT, I came in as a part-time project manager on a government health IT open source project so the lead developer could focus more on architecture, code, and product management.
Some larger and longer projects:
Following a sprint with OpenNews in December 2016 to help write a guide to newsrooms who want to open source their code, I worked with Frances Hocutt to create a language-agnostic, general-purpose linter tool to accompany that guide. "The Open Project Linter is an automated checklist that new (or experienced but forgetful) open source maintainers can use to make sure that they're using good practices in their documentation, code, and project resources."
I spent much of the first half of 2017 contracting with Kandra Labs to grow the Zulip community, helping plan and run the PyCon sprint and co-staffing our PyCon and OSCON booths, running English tutoring sessions alongside Google Summer of Code application prep, and mentoring an Outreachy intern, along with the usual bug triage, documentation updates, and so on. We wrapped up my work as Zulip's now such a thriving community that my help isn't as needed!
From late 2016 into 2017, I've continued to improve infrastructure and documentation for a Provider Screening Module that US states will be able to use to administer Medicaid better (the project which spurred this post about learning to get around in Java).
And just in the last few months I started working on two exciting projects with organizations close to my heart. I'm thrilled to be improving HTTPS Everywhere's project workflow for developers & maintainers over the next few months, working with Kate Chapman via Cascadia Technical Mentorship (mailing list announcement). And, thanks to funding by Mozilla's open source grants program and via the Python Software Foundation, the Python Package Index -- basic Python community infrastructure -- is getting a long-awaited overhaul. I'm the lead project manager on that effort, and Laura Hampton is assisting me. (Python milestone: my first time commenting on a PEP!)
Along the way, I've gotten a little or a lot better at a lot of things: git, bash, LaTeX, Python (including packaging), Sphinx, Read the Docs, Pandoc, regular expressions, CSS, the Java ecosystem (especially Gradle, Javadocs, Drools), the Go ecosystem, Travis CI, GitHub Pages, Postgres, sed, npm Linux system administration accessibility standards, IRC bots, and invoicing.
Talks And Other Conferences:
This year, in retrospect, instead of doing technical talks and expository lectures of the type I'm already good at, I played with form.
At LibrePlanet 2017 I gave the closing keynote address, "Lessons, Myths, and Lenses: What I Wish I'd Known in 1998" (schedule, video, in-progress transcript). I tried something aleatoric and it worked pretty well.
At Penguicon 2017 I was one of several Guests of Honor, and spoke in several sessions including "Things I Wish I'd Known About Open Source in 1998" (which was different from the LibrePlanet version, as intended) and "What If Free and Open Source Software Were More Like Fandom?" (further links).
Then, at PyGotham, Jason Owen and I co-wrote and co-starred in a play about management and code review: "Code Review, Forwards and Back" (video on YouTube, video on PyVideo, commentary).
I also attended Maintainerati and led a session, attended !!Con, worked a booth for Zulip at OSCON, attended PyCon and helped run Zulip's sprint there, and co-sponsored a post-PyGotham dinner.
Other Interesting Things I Wrote:
I did not write this year for magazines; my writing went into this blog, MetaFilter, Dreamwidth, microblogging, and client projects, mostly. I also wrote an entry for a local business competition (I didn't make it very far but I'm glad I did it, especially the finance bits) and started two book proposals I would like to return to in 2018.
I've mentioned already some of the posts I'm happy about. Some others:
"On Noticing That Your Project Is Draining Your Soul" (every once in a while someone emails me and mentions that this has helped them, which means a lot)
"How to Teach & Include Volunteers who Write Poor Patches" (12 things you can do)
"Inclusive-Or: Hospitality in Bug Tracking", a response to Jillian C. York and Lindsey Kuper.
I turned part of "Some posts from the last year on inclusion" into "Distinguishing character assassination from accountability", a post about pile-on culture and callout culture where I pulled out quotes from 11 writers on how we take/charge each other with responsibility/power within communities.
I loved Jon Bois's 17776 and discussed it with other fans on MetaFilter, and then, to try to understand its amazingness better, wrote "Boisebration", collecting links to fiction and nonfiction by Bois about class, feminism, aging, sports, politics, wonder, education, & art (and 17776 precursors/callbacks).
I found out about Robert E. Kelly, like so many did, when his kids crashed his BBC interview, then collected some links in a MetaFilter post about his writing on Korea, US foreign policy, international relations, and academia.
I wrote up a bit about "1967's most annoying question for women in Catholic ministry" on MetaFilter to signal-boost another Recurser's cool project.
I enjoyed the learning and the plot twist in "The programmer experience: redundancy edition", in which I discovered a useful resource for Form 990 filings and learned to use the Arrow library for Python date-time manipulation. And was grateful to Pro Publica.
And I made a few jokes on social media I particularly liked:
yesterday, was trying to explain virtual environments/containers/VMs to a friend and said "they range from Inception-style fake computers to putting a blanket on the floor and pretending it's lava"
today a friend and I explained leftpad & Left Shark to someone and I began sketching out a hypothetical HuffPo piece connecting them
We habitually crowdsource infrastructure from, expect unsupportedly high levels of performance from unsuspecting participants -> popcorn.gif
Public notice I received:
I got some public attention in 2017 -- even beyond the Guest of Honor and keynote speaker honors and my amazing clients -- that I would like to list, as long as I'm taking an inventory of 2017.
I rode the first revenue ride of the new Q train extension in Manhattan and really loved the art at the new 72nd Street MTA stop. A journalist interviewed me about that on video and my experience got into the New York Times story about the opening.
Presenters at the code4lib conference said their project was specifically motivated by my code4lib 2014 keynote "User Experience is a
Social Justice Issue" (written version, video). I was honored and humbled.
And -- this is out of place but I need to record it -- as someone who knew Aaron Swartz, I consented to be interviewed by artists working on a play about him, and so someone briefly portrayed me (as in, pretended to be me and repeated my words aloud) in that play, Building a Real Boy.
Finally, Hari Kondabolu looked at the English Wikipedia page about him, much of which I contributed, and was amazed at how thorough it was. So that was awesome and I was proud.
I got on Mastodon as part of my effort to improve how I use social media. I started using a new task tracker. I got back on my bike, and got somewhat into a habit of using it for some exercise and intra-city travel. A new friend got me into taking more frequent photos and noticing the world I'm in. Two new friends caused me to look for more opportunities to see musicians I love perform live.
I consumed a fair bit of media this year; didn't get into new music but enjoyed music podcasts "I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats" and "Our Debut Album". I did some book and reading reviews and will catch up to other 2017 reading sometime vaguely soon.
Leonard's film roundups & TV spotlights are a good way to see or remember most of what I saw in the last few years. TV highlights for me for 2017 are The Good Place, Jane the Virgin, The Great British Baking Show (which led me to write a tiny Asimov fanfic), Steven Universe, and Better Call Saul; I also saw Comrade Detective and Yuri!!! On Ice. Films I'm really glad I saw: The Big Sick, Schindler's List, Get Out (I fanned in MetaFilter Fanfare), In Transit, A Man For All Seasons, Hidden Figures, and Lemonade -- and a rewatch of Antitrust.
I made a few new friends this year, most notably Jason Owen and Mike Pirnat. My friends Emily and Kris got married and I got to hold up part of the chuppah for them. I took care of some friends at hard times, like accompanying them to doctor's visits. I got to see some friends I rarely see, like Mel Chua and Zed Lopez and Zack Weinberg, and kept up some old friendships by phone. My marriage is better than ever.
This year I shall iterate forward, as we all do.
# 30 Dec 2017, 06:12PM: What We Confirm:
Unlike this nominee for a US District Court judgeship, apparently, I can at least give a one-sentence definition of the Daubert standard because of the hobby I accidentally picked up this year. Which is telling enough. But that clip and its implications also poked at some old memories for me.
As a child and as an adolescent, I generally wanted to act not just well, but defensibly well. The specific scenario that I envisioned was that I would have to answer for myself someday at a confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate (although that was not a particularly fun way to live). Flashbulbs and microphones and wood panelling superimposed themselves on my bedroom wall.
As it turns out, I will probably never actually have that particular challenge. I took the Law School Admissions Test because my family suggested I do it to keep my options open, and got a 165, which was pretty good, but decided not to go to law school unless there was a specific thing I wanted to do that would be a lot easier if I had a law degree. Instead, I worked at a bookstore for a while, and then did customer service at Salon.com for a bit. And while there I followed the news about Hurricane Katrina, and wrote:
What we are now learning about the devastation in the Gulf combines with a growing desire, borne of my working life, to become a manager, a good one.
I reflected a few years later:
I looked at Katrina and said, "For God's sake, we have to do better than that. And I could do better!" I wanted, and still want, to reduce the net amount of mismanagement in the world. We owe ourselves competence.*
By then I was on my way in this new career. And as a non-lawyer who is only ever considered poised and diplomatic by comparison with other programmers, I find it unlikely anyone will ever nominate me for the kind of high-up government gig that would require confirmation hearings.** But I know some more things now about stewardship. I feel a special disgust and horror when I see someone else abuse a power or neglect a responsibility that I share. And the more I know, the more I can do, the more awful the sinking feeling in my chest when I see someone with less capability than me given an important task.
I'm looking back at some notes from about a year ago, just after the election:
I am predicting a future where I will ask myself innumerable times "who's minding the store?!", and seek clues as to whether a particular folly is due more to the Scylla of incompetence or the Charybdis of intentional wickedness.
[Laurie] Penny wrote that the President-Elect "has really messed with my life plan. This is far and away not the worst thing he has done, but it makes it a bit more personal." Yup. Dark humor is not usually my speed but I have found myself gasp-laughing a lot in the last couple of weeks and foresee using a lot of it in my near-future stand-up comedy. Like: of all the negative feelings I have about the election, one is the simple irritation I might feel if I were waiting at a restaurant to share dinner with a friend and they texted me, 20 minutes after they were supposed to arrive, and told me they were flaking out. It is the "but we had plans" resentment.
To that I can add another petty response I've felt a lot this year -- like Hermione Granger, bitterly asking the clearly rhetorical question, did no one else do the required reading?
Ben Franklin, in his Autobiography, recounts discovering one General Loudoun's astonishing indecision. Loudoun's procrastination slows down the entire economy of the Colonies and keeps mail boats from carrying urgent information back to England. Franklin says:
On the whole I then wondered much how such a man came to be entrusted with so important a business as the conduct of a great army, but having since seen more of the great world, and its means of obtaining and motives for giving places, my wonder is diminished.
Leonard and I sometimes now use "my wonder is diminished" with each other as shorthand for this kind of disillusionment. But I suppose I retain some capacity to be shocked-but-not-surprised, and sometimes I need to spend a little time grieving before I breathe a big sigh and put my shoulder back to the wheel -- or figure out that this means I oughta switch wheels.
* A little while after that, I read John Rogers's coining? of the term "competence porn", and have since then appreciated the "Damn, Fandom Is Good At What You Do" fanwork fest especially for this Harry Potter alternate-universe fic about property law.
** If it actually ever does happen and someone dredges up this blog post during the proceedings, I hope I have the sense of humor to laugh about it.
# (2) 29 Dec 2017, 12:44PM: Blockchain and Bitcoin, Dar Williams, And So On:
Sipping my soda water at the saloon across the street before the Untitled Kondabolu Brothers Project show Wednesday night, I struck up a conversation with a guy who works in an art gallery, and with his friend who works in publishing.
We talked about the Kondabolus, about current events in India, about their artistic endeavors, about the business of business books and the current interest in Bitcoin and the blockchain. And the guy said he kept hearing about those things and did not understand what they were. I gave him a simplified explanation (grateful to Scott Rosenberg's explanation which I'd enjoyed previously), and decided to record it here.
I explained that the blockchain and Bitcoin are different, and that he can expect that the blockchain is gonna stay around even if Bitcoin isn't what it's used for, like magnetic tape stayed around even though Betamax didn't take off and VHS did.
I asked him to think of a ledger, where we write down financial accounts -- money going in, money going out. Now think of one that's got two columns, one for you and one for me. With that ledger, you can track the money you exchange with me, because on the left is you and on the right is me. So it's not just about $300 in or $20 out, now, individual pluses and minuses. Now, every row matches up and you know where everything came from or went. Yup, he could conceive of that, a shared accounting record like that.
Now, I said, imagine a lot of people could do that together, so the ledger had records for the money moving around among all of us. And imagine that we could trust that record because it wasn't written in pencil, it was written in ink, so we could trust its provenance -- new stuff will only be added at the end, and the old stuff won't be changed.
That's the blockchain, I said. And that's why it would actually be useful as a shared notebook where lots of different people have to look at a record together and add notes for the future, for stuff like electronic medical records and real estate records. When did the patient get that diagnosis? Oh, it was between this surgery and that surgery.
So that's the blockchain, I explained. That's a basic technology. When people talk about a distributed, append-only ledger, that's blockchain -- "distributed" because lots of people can do it together even if they don't know each other, and "append-only" because you can only add to the end, not change stuff that's in the earlier records.
And Bitcoin is an implementation of that technology to do money, to agree about who has what money.
I asked him: Think of a Monopoly game. The box comes with, I don't know, a thousand bucks of Monopoly money. OK, so everyone in the game can trade it around. But what if you want to get a lot more people in the game and people want to do stuff and we need more money in the system, more of these tokens that people can exchange? How do you get more money into the system, add new tokens at a reasonable rate, and have everyone trust it -- trust its provenance?
Remember SETI@home? I asked. He did. I reminded him of how it had worked -- back before there was a "cloud" you could buy time on (the cloud is just other people's computers, after all, as the saying goes), the researchers said, please install this software on your computer. And then when your computer's not busy, at night, we'll give your computer a chunk of work, some data that a space telescope collected, and then your computer can use its spare time to crunch those numbers and check, hey, are there any weird patterns in that data? Do we think there are there aliens here?
And so if you've heard of Bitcoin "mining", it's kinda like that. What the people behind Bitcoin decided on is: the way you make more tokens is by having your computer solve the kind of really hard math problems that we basically need computers to do. It's just in the nature of this kind of math problem that it takes a computer a long time, crunching data, to solve the problem, but once it comes up with a solution, it's easy to check whether that solution is right. And so if your computer crunches out the next solution, then that makes a new token, and by default, you own it, because you, your computer did the work of solving that problem. He got that.
But that means people who want to make Bitcoin are like, okay, I'll get a huge row of computers to do it! And that uses a bunch of electricity which is awful for climate change! Yeah, he'd heard about that.
And so that's another reason, in late 2017, why personal computer security is more important than ever. There's the Trump Administration and its invasion of people's privacy, and surveillance, and so on. But also, when someone tries to trick you with spam or a virus these days, it's not just because they want to get your bank account password or your other private personal information. That hacker is now trying to install malware on your computer so they can use it like an evil SETI@home, evil crowdsourcing, so they can make your computer crunch those numbers to make new tokens (Bitcoins) for them. Your computer crunches the numbers but when you "mine" the Bitcoins they go to the hacker's account.
Also: So once you have this distributed trusted ledger, you don't really need people's names. So that means it's really useful for people who want to do sketchy things, and so from the beginning, the kinds of people who are interested in Bitcoin and other "cryptocurrencies" ("cryptography" meaning the study of how you make things secret + "currency") and want to use it include many of the kinds of people who give libertarians a bad name. He had heard of "the Dark Web" and made the connection here.
Around this point I started explaining what is and is not fiat currency, but it was time to line up to get a good seat at the show, so I left him and his friend to catch up and I crossed the street. As I stood in line, a (drunk?) woman who'd overheard me at the bar came up to me and tried to start a chat -- she said she works from home and feels isolated from what is going on in the world more generally. I sympathized with her; I work from home, a lot, too, and isolation can be hard. Her friend apologized for her, gently drew her away and started walking her to the subway stop; I lost sight of them.
I got a front-row seat at the show and had a lovely time. I'm currently reading Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott, and it strikes me that Ashok Kondabolu's relentlessly contrarian and cheerful self-revelatory style is a bit like Lamott's, especially vivid when they discuss addiction or antisocial reflexes. During audience Q&A, I mentioned that I am the single person who's contributed the most to the English Wikipedia page about Hari Kondabolu and asked whether there were any major inaccuracies, on any of the Wikipedias, about either Hari or Ashok. Looks like there aren't! Hari Kondabolu looked through that article live on stage and said with wide eyes, this is everything I've ever done. I was incredibly proud.
Last night I went to a Dar Williams show. I snagged a front-row seat but the seat next to me remained empty, and I eventually realized it wasn't visible to the people standing at the back. So I went to look for people who might want it; next time I do this, I need to start my sentence with "there's a spare seat up front" and not start by asking if someone's there alone. I was not hitting on you, two women I came up to!
A guy overheard me and was glad to come up front; he's a teacher with a bad back. We talked about where we'd lived, and about what coworking spaces do that coffeeshops don't, and what Meetup does that Facebook doesn't. He asked what I do (I explained a project manager's job as coordinative communication), and what kind of software I specialize in -- I briefly described the several different worlds of software development, like embedded stuff and games and websites and developer tools and so on, and said I mostly specialize in stuff for websites and in developer tools.
I don't know when I have cried more than at that show last night. I started listening to Dar Williams because Seth Schoen introduced me to her music, nearly twenty years ago, probably just a few months after he introduced me to free and open source software. So many of us sang along to "The Babysitter's Here" and "As Cool As I Am" (she paused her own guitar and voice to gesture to us and we all sang "I am the others" together; I feel like I never realized how anthemic that song is before) and "The Christians And The Pagans" and "When I Was A Boy" and "Iowa" (which always makes me think of this great West Wing fanfic) and "Road Buddy", and I hear a lot more in "After All" than I did before. She read aloud from her book. She does this show in Brooklyn the last week of every year, and I'm going to try to go now that I know that. 2018, 2019, 2020 -- something to look forward to in every year. I could use that.
When you're in love, sometimes you feel like every love song applies to you. When I'm trying to change, to improve myself, I find fresh news in trite old platitudes, even in inspirational quotes people share on social media, as shocking and embarrassing as some part of me thinks that is, and in songs I've known for years. I'm in a bit of my life where I'm listening to Vienna Teng and Dar Williams and the Mountain Goats to give me different lenses for my melancholy, some thoughtful and loving answers to the "what's the point? all is vanity" that pops up. This year I saw the Mountain Goats and Dar Williams and Regina Spektor live and yeah, I'm one of those people crying and singing along at the show, I'm one of the people these shows are for. Sign me up. I'll go in the cold, I'll go alone, I'll pay ridiculous service surcharges for tickets. I'm very hesitant to say I need things, but gosh it turns out that without this particular vitamin I will start developing emotional scurvy.
It turns out that when I started listening to Dar Williams she was not that much younger than I am now.
# (1) 31 Oct 2017, 02:57PM: Happy Halloween:
Today in the US we have the 1st of the crowded season of holidays taking us into the spring: Halloween, Thanksgiving, ["the holidays"], New Year's, Valentine's Day.
Fear/horror, gratitude, tradition/family, hope, romantic love.
Halloween and Valentine's Day bookend this season; they are candy holidays of gesture, with eros and thanatos a hairswidth apart.
My best wishes to you all today; may your inner demons find a safe way to frolic.
# 18 Sep 2017, 11:01AM: On Noticing That Your Project Is Draining Your Soul:
I was talking with a fellow consultant about what to do if you have a gig getting you down. Especially when you realize that the client isn't being helpful, and there's a bunch of learning curves that are exhausting you, and you still have several weeks to go.
In my master's in tech management coursework, I learned the lens that thriving is a function of a person times their environment. I think those of us who are used to trying harder, overcoming obstacles, etc. can be -- kind of out of self-protective instinct -- bad at noticing "this environment is so crappy it makes it systematically hard for me to achieve and thrive". Especially with short-term projects. At first, things like "I feel tired" or "ugh, new thing, I don't want to learn this and be bad at it (at first)" and "I'm worried that person doesn't like me" or "they missed the email/meeting/call and now it's harder to execute the plan" are identical to problems that we are reasonably sure we can overcome. Maybe we notice patterns about what's not working but think: I can take initiative to solve this, myself, or with my few allies.
The data points accumulate and we chat with other people and, in the process, learn more data points and shape our data points into narratives and thus discover: this is a bad environment, structurally. But by the time we really figure out the effect a short-term project is having on us, it's supposedly the home stretch.
I'm looking back at gigs that I found draining, where, eventually, I had this realization, although I have never quite framed it this way before now. On some level I realized that I could not succeed by my own standard in these projects/workplaces, because there was so much arrayed against me (e.g., turf war, a generally low level of skill in modern engineering practices, lack of mission coherence, low urgency among stakeholders) that I could not do the things that it is kind of a basic expression of my professional self/competence to do.*
So I had to change what it was I aimed to achieve. For example, I've had a gig where I was running my head into the wall constantly trying to bring better practices to a project. I finally talked with an old hand at the organization and learned the institutional reasons this was practically impossible, why I would not be able to overcome the tectonic forces at play and get the deeper conflicts to resolve any faster. So we changed what I was trying to do. Running a daily standup meeting, by itself, is a thing I can do to bring value. I changed my expectations, and made mental notes about the pain points and the patterns, because I could not fix them right away, but I can use those experiences to give better advice to other people later.
An editor recently told me that, in growing as an editor, he'd needed to cultivate his sense of boredom. He needed to listen to that voice inside him that said this is boring me -- and isn't that funny? Parents and teachers tell us not to complain about being bored -- "only boring people are bored", or -- attributed to Sydney Wood -- An educated man is one who can entertain a new idea, another person, or himself. But pain is a signal, boredom is a signal, aversion and exhaustion are signals. Thriving is a function of a person times their environment.
Also, the other day I read "Living Fiction, Storybook Lives" (which has spoilers for Nicola Griffith's excellent novel Slow River).
How come I spent many years living a rather squalid existence... yet managed to find my way out, to the quite staid and respectable life I have now, when others in the same situation never escaped? In the course of writing the book, I found that the answer to my question was that the question itself was not valid: people are never in the same situation.
It takes substantial introspection and comparison to figure out: what kind of situation am I in, both externally and internally? Is it one where I will be able to move the needle? It gets easier over time, I think, and easier if I take vacations so I can have a fresh perspective when I come back, share my stories with others and listen to their stories, and practice mindfulness meditation so I am better at noticing things (including my own reactions). Maybe "wisdom" is what feels like the ability to X-ray a messy blobby thing and see the structures inside, see the joints that can bend and the bones that can't. In some ways, my own motivation and mindfulness are like that for me -- I need to recognize the full truth of the situation I'm in, internally and externally, to see what needs changing, to see how I might act.
The thing that gets me down most, on exhausting projects, is the meta-fear that nothing will improve, that I am stuck. When I realize that, I try to attend to that feeling of stuckness. Sometimes the answer is in the problem.
* As Alexandra Erin discusses, regarding her political commentary via Twitter threads: "I do the work I do on here because I feel called to it. For the non-religious, I mean: I have a knack for it and I find meaning in it."
# 26 Aug 2017, 01:37PM: Choice, Habit, and Sunlight:
Years ago, when advising me on how to change a habit, Mel Chua told me about the stages of behavior-rewiring. And the first step is noticing. Mindfulness. Not just about the reflex, but about whatever stimulated that response. Making it a conscious choice instead of something that happens automatically.
I am getting slightly better at noticing the cues and guiding myself into better habits. I start noticing that I'm about to do a particular thing as a response to boredom/fear/other stimulus, and so I let myself do that, as a conscious choice, but I tell myself that not next time but the time after that, I'm going to make a different choice, and then the time after that I'll do the unconstructive thing. And then each day I decide that the next day I'll choose to do that thing slightly fewer times. And over time the habit fades.
And sometimes this is fairly fraught. No more denying whatever pain, fear I'm avoiding. I need to let myself feel the panic masked in boredom, the anger or loneliness that feels anxious.
And that is hard. It's hard to rip denial away and face these. Maybe to grieve whatever loss I haven't admitted yet.
But you are what you practice. And what do I want to get good at -- or even better at, if I've been practicing for a long time? Do I want to get better at lying to myself? Probably not. And hurting my future self, procrastinating, feels like a lie -- it's the self-deluded lie that problems will go away if I avoid thinking about them.
At least for me, the metaphor feels like: I got jabbed by something sharp and jagged, and the wound didn't heal right, and I need to uncover that wound and feel fresh air on the bare skin again and rinse it out and look after it as it heals again.
Best wishes to us all.
# 31 May 2017, 12:18PM: Resilience:
Fifteen years ago, in my last semester of college, I was planning to set up my own desktop support business while supporting myself as a substitute teacher. I took and passed the California Basic Educational Skills Test, making me eligible to work as a substitute teacher. Then, in late May, just after I thought I had graduated, I found out that I'd made a mistake and I hadn't quite graduated, and to get my bachelor's I'd have to take another class. I took a six-week summer school class that met 4-6pm on weekdays. I started running out of money. I couldn't find temp work that would be fine with me leaving at 3:30pm to make it to class, and I didn't want to ask my parents or Leonard for more money. I started looking for jobs. I felt restless and embarrassed. In early July, I finished the summer school class, and on July 15th, I accepted a customer service job at a bookstore. I stayed there for about a year and then went to work for Salon.com, and I never got back to the teaching and desktop support plans.
Monday and yesterday, I was riding back home from WisCon with my friend Julia, and I was telling her this, and I was looking back and asking: why? Once I finished the summer school class, why didn't I go back to the plan that I had cared so much about and crafted with such ambition? Right now I'm fairly happy with where I am, but why did I give up on the thing I'd wanted to do?
I look back and I see that my mental health is better now than it was then, and I see that my parents -- though I think they wanted to be supportive -- didn't nudge and remind me, "hey, you can get back to your old plan now" -- Mom wanted me to find a way to regular employment, particularly with a government. And I so wanted to be independent of my parents and my boyfriend that a regular paycheck was so enticing -- and I didn't even consider using unemployment assistance or a credit card to give me more financial leeway. But more than all that, I just wasn't good at the skill of resilience when it came to big life plans and projects. I didn't feel like I was particularly in control of my own life, I think, and so when a big unexpected obstacle popped up, I just defaulted back to taking the opportunities that were in front of me instead of working to make my own.
This morning, catching up on friends' blogs, I see Mary Anne Mohanraj (whom I met eight years ago at WisCon):
...she thought the main difference between me and a lot of other people, is that when I want something, I tend to just try to do it, whereas she, and lots of other folks, would waste a lot of time dithering.
I think that's probably accurate. And I could try to unpack why that is, why I don't tend to hesitate, though I'm not sure I know. Some of it is base personality, some of it, I suspect, is cultural and class background -- being raised in a comfortable economic situation with parents who trained me to work hard, but also expected that I would succeed at whatever I put my hand to.
That gives me a baseline confidence that makes it relatively easy for me to try things, and even when I fail (I flunked calculus, I failed my driving test the first time, I have messed up far more sewing projects than I've succeeded at, I have plants die all the time because I forget to water them, etc. and so on), it mostly doesn't get to me. I can shake it off and either try again, or just move on to something else.
All this reflection is bouncing around in my head, jarring loose thoughts on adaptability, confidence, entrepreneurship, Ramsey Nasser on failure, saying no, danah boyd on the culture of fear in parenting, Jessica McKellar on why she teaches people to program, the big and increasing emphasis Recurse Center puts on self-direction in learning, etc. Love and strength and fear. You know, the little stuff. ;-) Onwards.
# 20 Apr 2017, 12:02PM: Penguicon, Orwell, ETAOINSHRDLU, and Being Important:
When I was eight or nine years old, I think my parents went through a chunk of "how do we support this weird kid?" planning and work. Around this time I remember coming across a book my parents had acquired, something like How To Deal With Your Gifted Child, the kind of book that has 70 pages of large-print line art-illustrated stories to read to your kid and discuss with them, followed by 40 pages of smaller-print nonfiction prose meant just for the adults. I read the whole thing, of course. Pretty hard to prevent a kid who loves reading from reading the whole book and finding use and joy where she can.
Another one of the paperbacks that made its way into our house around this time was about word puzzles, trivia about English, neologisms, and so on -- it had something to do with Mensa, I think. This is how I learned that the twelve most common letters in the English language are, in order, ETAOINSHRDLU.
Also I remember being given a collection of modern British short fiction and essays, for use in a supplemental tutorial or something -- this is how I read my first George Orwell, his essay "Shooting an Elephant", and my first D.H. Lawrence, his short story "The Rocking-Horse Winner", and my first taste of how truly dark Roald Dahl could get, "The Great Automatic Grammatisator".
The advice on dealing with myself, as a gifted child, helped some -- I got it into my head that an aversion to doing things that I wasn't already good at would be harmful, for instance, even if I couldn't prevent acquiring a bit of it anyway. Everyone who comes out of childhood has scorch and stretch marks. I'm glad I got an early start on Dahl, Lawrence, and Orwell, warning me about technology's effect on art, obsession's effect on childhood, and imperalism's effect on the oppressor, respectively. And though ETAOINSHRDLU caused me to regard "Wheel of Fortune" the way many programmers feel about Sudoku -- that it presents problems to humans that properly ought to be solved by computers -- and thus be a bit of a funless jerk for a while about a TV show that provides pleasure to many people, it's has proven useful in countless games of Hangman, and in an inadvertent audience participation moment during a play I saw in Manchester in 2014.
There's a bit in Sherlock Holmes: A Working Hypothesis where a lecturer, solving a Hangman-style puzzle and mocking the audience for our wrong answers, says something about the likelihood of the next letter. I blurted out something like "E, then T, then A, because the twelve most common letters in the corpus of English-language writing, in order, are ETAOINSHRDLU". The speaker teased me occasionally for the rest of the act, and I later learned that several other audience members inferred that I must be a castmember, a plant.
More and more frequently I find that other people in my communities treat me as though I must be one of the cast, not one of the audience. As though I am important. One way of looking at impostor syndrome is that it looks at two people with the same characteristics and pasts and treats one as less important, always the audience and never the cast, solely because it's the self. The How to Deal book had stories about kids who got swelled heads, and stories about kids who never believed they were good enough. "Shooting an Elephant" said: once you're in the cast, you have to follow the script or there'll be hell to pay. And ETAOINSHRDLU has long represented to me the power of double-checking whether something really is random, and finding patterns, and sharing them with others, empowering us. Which can break a kind of fourth wall between watching and acting.
In a little over a week, I'm a guest of honor at Penguicon, and one of my sessions will be a reprise of my LibrePlanet 2017 keynote, "Lessons, Myths, and Lenses: What I Wish I'd Known in 1998" (description, video, in-progress transcript). I'll give the audience a menu of topics and they'll select the ones I talk about, and the order. It'll be massively different from the LibrePlanet version because the audience will choose different topics or a different order, barring deliberate collusion. One reason I'm doing my Guest Of Honor talk this way is because there is too much to say, and this way each story or insight has a fighting chance to get said. But another is that I have given written-in-advance keynote speeches enough times before that it's in danger of becoming a habit, a local maximum. And -- perhaps this does not speak well of me -- I think this particular audience participation method also provides a release valve for the pressure of being the Important one in the room. Instead of performing as a cast of one, I turn everyone into a plant.
To close out, my favorite chunk of Orwell, the ending of "Some Thoughts on the Common Toad":
At any rate, spring is here, even in London N.1, and they can't stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can't. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, Spring is still Spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.
# (2) 07 Apr 2017, 09:08AM: Changing How I Deal With Those Humiliating Teenage Memories:
When I was in high school in Lodi, California, I worked on the school newspaper. It came out every two weeks; we gave it to the printer on Tuesday night or early Wednesday, I think, and we received and distributed it on Friday. So there was a deadline night every other Tuesday. For dinner, our tradition was to order calzones from a particular Italian place in Lodi; they didn't deliver, so one of the students who could drive would drive their car to go get the food.
One night I was the one who collected people's orders and made the call. But I lived in Stockton, some distance from Lodi. When finding the restaurant's phone number in the phone book, I absentmindedly chose the Stockton location and placed our order with the wrong restaurant. Catie* drove to the Lodi restaurant came back from her drive very unhappy and empty-handed; there wasn't time to go all the way to Stockton back and still hit the deadline for the printer, so we didn't get dinner that night.
Later that week, maybe the next day in the journalism room during lunchtime, I was about to go to the cafeteria, maybe to get my own lunch, but definitely also to get Catie's as well (she paid for her own lunch, it wasn't completely feudal). I think someone else said they could do it, but I still remember Catie snapping: "Hari can get me a burrito."
(Everyone at my high school newspaper called me by a shortened version of my last name, pronounced "Hairy". My journalism teacher called everyone by their last names, and had a devil of a time with mine, so on the third or fifth day of class my freshman year, I offered this solution. I have lost track of everyone I knew through that paper but I bet most of them would still think of me as Hari. I feel as though I ought to be embarrassed by this, or as though I should have been, but this is one of the ways social obliviousness protected me, for which I'm grateful.)
This happened twenty years ago and I still remember it. I especially remember it when I am taking care to order food from the restaurant location I intend, as I did last night.
The memory still has the power to wash chagrin over me. I can see why it does. I wasn't diligent about checking a detail, and so some of my team went hungry for a night,** and at least one of them was still irritated with me the next day. I feel a lot more embarrassed about that than I do about a nickname that didn't hurt anyone but me.
Several years ago, when I thought about this or similar past mistakes, I'd flush with feeling, humiliation coursing through me. I would subvocalize my self-loathing. Stupid.
Then I matured a bit, and my response changed. When I felt that rush of humiliation, I'd try to actively say, I love you, Sumana, and send myself some compassion. It helped me avoid going into a complete spiral of self-loathing, but it didn't stop the memories from coming back, unbidden, every so often.
Then I got enough distance to look back and see patterns. I grew to be different enough from teenage Sumana that I could see what she needed to learn -- like asking for help, resourcefulness, organization, resilience, dealing with failure. I'm better at those things than she was. And I can see ways that the people around me could have made better choices, too. I tried to make little moral lessons out of those still-piercing memories. As the saying goes, good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.
But all of these approaches assume the pain of the memory is a problem to be solved. Today I'm going to try to lay that aside. What if I just accept and experience that pain? This is what I'm feeling right now. And then this too shall pass; I always do move on to thinking about something else, empirically. Maybe I will just keep on occasionally remembering this and feeling bad about it, maybe on the last day of my life I will remember this thing and feel bad, and that's okay.
* Not her real name.
** You know what, actually, we probably could have figured out a way to get some food that night anyway if we'd thought about it, call someone's parents or something.
# 03 Apr 2017, 12:41PM: A Small Language Note:
I try not to say "don't get discouraged," because to me that sounds like telling someone not to cry or telling someone to calm down. It's a way of saying "stop feeling what you're feeling." Instead, I try to acknowledge that something is discouraging but also -- if the other person's ready to hear it -- that we can come back from that: your feelings are legitimate, and here are some ways to work with them.
# 02 Dec 2016, 09:30AM: Answering the Phone:
In one of my earliest internships, I volunteered in the local district office of my state Senator (that is, the guy who represented my area in the upper chamber of California's state legislature). I reordered and rearranged informational brochures for our waiting area, I filed, I took phone messages, I think eventually I graduated to writing drafts of replies to constituents for the staffers to revise and send. I volunteered there for a summer, which means that my time there overlapped with the Senate's recess, so I remember a lot more constituent service calls than policy calls -- and the district offices probably got fewer of those calls than the Sacramento office did, anyway.
One day, someone called and said something like, "I'm calling about the Senator's ethics violation." I had never heard anything about this and said "I'm sorry, which ethics violation is that?" to which the caller said "You mean there's more than one?!" I sputtered and put them on hold and took a message or transferred them to a staffer, which I clearly should have done as soon as I heard the tone of their voice and their general topic of inquiry, but hey, inexperience.
Within a few days, there was a letter to the editor in the local newspaper that mentioned this call and named me (I'm pretty sure misspelling my name) while excoriating the Senator and our office. My boss and colleagues sympathized and told me these things happen, and basically reassured me that this was not a black mark on my Permanent Record.
Decades later, I'm calling my local city councilmember, my Senators and my Representative who represent me in Congress, and related offices, spurred by emails from NGOs, aggregators like
"We're His Problem Now" or Wall of Us, and local meetings. And sometimes I stumble over my words, not sure whether they want my name first or my message. But when the intern on the other end of the line says "I don't know what her position is on that; could you call back in 15 minutes? All the staffers who would know are in a meeting right now," I can smile and say "Yes, I can, and I know how it is, I've been on the other end of this call, it's fine." And at least I know I'm not utterly blindsidingly frustrating to deal with. I know, empirically, that I am not as bad as it gets.
# 27 Oct 2016, 11:06AM: Learning Styles:
For years, while mentoring others, I've been using these engineering learning styles as a tool to help newer engineers reflect on how they learn, and to give them a sense of the possible toolbox of learning approaches, so that if they get stuck, they can recognize what approach they're using and try another one. But students don't have different learning styles, really, per science-based required reading for a Software Carpentry train-the-trainer class I'm about to attend. I need to rework my advice.
# 10 May 2016, 08:18PM: Crossover Edition:
Ta-Nehisi Coates is writing a series of Black Panther comic books. I just stopped into a New York City comic book shop and they were sold out of #1 in the sequence; tomorrow they'll get some new printings of #1, plus the brand-new issues of #2. I hung around and chitchatted with another customer and the clerk, about the new Captain America movie, about DC doing gritty movies and sunny TV shows and Marvel doing the reverse, about the importance of Clark Kent's dorkitude, about the fad of re-starting series numbering at 1 to bring in new readers, about whether I'd need to read any backstory to understand the new Black Panther run.
The clerk mentioned that Doctor Strange, the Silver Surfer, the Black Panther, and Moon Knight are great characters who never seem to get a real continuous series. I'd never heard of Moon Knight so he explained who he was.
The clerk, who's white, said that he started getting curious about Coates's work, since this guy was attracting so many new customers who were asking for Black Panther, and since he hadn't read any of Coates's work before. So he got and read Between the World and Me. And he was caught off-guard by some stuff in there, references Coates made to aspects of the black experience that he didn't know. I nodded and said that this was true of The Beautiful Struggle too, like references to particular black musical artists I'm not familiar with. But the clerk said that what really struck him was a thing Coates said about how a black man who was a friend of Coates got pulled over by the cops and shot and killed, for no reason, and the cop covered it up by lying and saying the guy was reaching for a gun. And this happens all the time, over and over, and cops do this to black people, and lie about it. He double-checked with a friend of his, who's black, and his friend said, oh yeah, there are states he won't even go to, because it's such common knowledge that this happens.
I decided, in a split second, not to feign surprise, not to say "how did you not know about this already?" The other customer, a South Asian-American guy, evidently made the same choice. I'm glad that comics fandom, in one small way, made one white person in the US more aware of racism and police brutality. I told Leonard about it and he said, "he's one of today's unlucky ten thousand." But I have a heavy heart right now, thinking of the things I have to know that I wish didn't exist at all, of how Moon Knight is a pretty paltry trade.
# 26 Apr 2016, 01:12PM: Temps:
As Leonard has blogged, he and I just returned from a weeklong anniversary trip to Paris, courtesy of my mom. I'm still a little jetlagged and I've said "Excusez-moi" when brushing past a stranger here in New York. But I'm awake enough to blog. In English.
We got engaged on April 18, 2006, and then married a few days later, on a spring day in the Shakespeare Garden in Central Park in New York City. That was ten years ago. It is the tritest thing in the world to be astonished at the passage of time, and yet, I remain astonished, because how can it possibly have been ten years ago that I went to that Macy's on 34th Street and bought those white trousers and camisole to wear, ten years since that Friday we came back home together and I felt like I could for the first time see decades away, as though atop a summit within my personal landscape and I could see the plains of middle age and old age stretching out beneath me?
Paris is a gratifying place to enjoy a vacation, gorgeous and delicious, and a humbling place for two Americans to celebrate Ten Whole Years of a marriage. The Celts and the Romans and Robespierre came and went before we ever paid a visit. The Arc de Triomphe has names carved into most of its sides, but then there are a couple of blank pillars, as though they're waiting. Versailles has a gallery of paintings celebrating French military victories that graciously includes a depiction of the Battle of Yorktown within the American Revolution.
I broke out my middle- and high-school French and found that French shopkeepers, bus drivers, and waiters and waitresses were friendly. They tried to speak with us in French and helped us get what we needed; one bus driver in particular went above and beyond in making sure I got on the right bus. Saying "Bonjour" upon walking in evidently sends the good-faith signal. Even the security personnel at the Paris (CDG) airport were friendlier than their counterparts at SFO or JFK.
I took a moment to visit a Hindu temple in an Indian neighborhood of Paris. The same smell of incense, the same chants, the same bellsong; a moment of home in a foreign land, even though I haven't been to a Hindu temple in the States since November. Familiarity is its own consolation, and a dangerous one. I can feel within me that impulse that would lash back against any change in the rituals, because even though of course there should be women priests and a less membrane-irritating alternative to incense smoke, I didn't grow up with them and the improvements would strike those synapses as jarring, off, ineffably wrong.
Paris's museum on the history of technology displayed not only a Jacquard loom but its predecessors; others had done programmable looms but their versions didn't auto-advance the program along with the weave, or didn't allow composability (replacing individual lines of code), and so on. Jacquard was Steve Jobs, integrating innovations. I need to remember that there are always predecessors. Leonard will probably blog more about our museum visits and meals and so on; I may not.
I now have almost three whole weeks at home before I leave to give my next conference talk. The summer's so full that I'm skipping Open Source Bridge for the first time since 2010, and even though CON.TXT and AndConf look amazing I will aim to attend them in future years.
I've been thinking about Ruth Coker Burks and role models, and Better Call Saul. I've been reading Missing Class: Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures by Betsy Leondar-Wright, In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri and translated by Ann Goldstein, Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology, edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer, Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, edited by Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown, and The Science of Herself by Karen Joy Fowler. That last one I read in the hotel room using the bedside lamp, next to my husband. Still such a strange word, "husband," or "wife" for that matter.
# 06 Apr 2016, 11:49AM: Reducing Twitter Usage:
I just posted this on Twitter:
I'm feeling bleh about Twitter recently. http://www.listen-tome.com/wasted-hours/
It's a closed-source platform. Recently time-to-load feels slower and navigation feels more unwieldy.
The speech I want to perform and experience doesn't fit in tweets or Twitter conversations/threads.
I want less glibocracy and more vulnerability, exploration, play, context, slow reflection.
The ads get under my skin, but so do the templated speech acts; we become headline writers.
In the attention economy, Twitter is an attractive casino; the house always wins, though.
Many of the reasons I don't use Facebook https://www.harihareswara.net/sumana/2010/10/19/0 continue to apply to Twitter, even more post-Snowden.
Twitter bots are great art! https://points.datasociety.net/bots-a-definition-and-some-historical-threads-47738c8ab1ce http://www.crummy.com/writing/speaking/2014-Foolscap/
But I'm here to signal-boost, get news, see friends & promote @ChangesetLLC, not to make art.
So tell me your blog's RSS feed (I use Dreamwidth https://www.dreamwidth.org/support/faq#othersites ) or podcast/newsletter, so I can subscribe.
I'm reducing the # of accounts I follow; I want to spend less time in the thoroughly surveilled casino.
We don't have robust etiquette here to use; I may hurt feelings. Sorry.
And blogs are great, so instead of Storifying, here's the text of what I've just said: [link to this very blog post]
# (1) 07 Mar 2016, 10:05AM: No Minimum Order:
The office/business supply company Uline has discovered that I have started a business, and thus I have started to receive giant catalogs from them. Yesterday Leonard and I started looking at those catalogs; perhaps you saw my tweet about crinkle paper:
As I kept reading, I was struck by how this catalog systematically lists the unnoticed objects that surround me in every office, workplace, shop, hotel, restaurant, and school. Certainly I had marveled, as a child, going into the Office Depot with my dad and seeing the boxes of badge holders, the desks and chairs, the day-to-day accoutrements of bureaucracy. But the Uline catalog goes further. Uline sells desiccant packets and takeout boxes and those gridded walls to hang merchandise from and bollards and red velvet ropes and PLEASE WAIT HERE signs and mats for cashiers to stand on and benches and wheeled utility carts and feminine hygiene dispensers.
I feel a curious awakening, as though given X-ray glasses for one of the systems that make the world go. I knew you could get these sorts of things on Amazon, sure, but I had not yet been confronted with a curated list. I don't have any plans, right now, to open a storefront or run a warehouse, but this list of products helps me see how I could. I would buy these things, and they would organize and streamline my operations, and my customers and my workers would react accordingly. I could put up a STOP sign, and people would stop. I could place a clothes rack near the entry to an event, and people would leave their coats there. I could put my team in white coveralls, and they would distinguish their colleagues from outsiders. The Uline catalog promises ways to make your world safer, cleaner, calmer.
But, reflexively, I also see this catalog as a set of heists, scams, and cons waiting to happen. You can buy and customize tamper-evident shrink bands for the caps of bottles -- and thus hide evidence of your own tampering! What better way to get a saliva sample from a smoker than by installing your own smoker's receptacle someplace you know they'll be? Reserve more handicapped-accessible parking spaces wherever you want by buying and installing "reserved parking" signs!
I am an entrepreneur and a manager who dreams about building things and works to build some subset of those things. And I am a suspicious security thinker who imagines ways to break and steal things, and blows off steam by talking about movie plot threats with her spouse, who transmutes a fraction of those conversations into science fiction. And on some level I am void fill, as are we all.
# 21 Jan 2016, 11:00AM: Risk Mitigation:
Next week I'm headed to Belgium for my first Free and Open Source Developers' European Meeting. I'll give two talks. I'm excited, because it'll be a chance to listen, learn, influence, introduce myself to potential clients, and see old pals.
But I asked one old pal whether he'd be there and got the reply:
Don't plan to be at FOSDEM; one of these years, maybe after their CoC isn't a joke.
For some time, FOSDEM participants and people who'd like to attend have asked FOSDEM organizers to improve their Code of Conduct. In October, one of the people organizing the Legal and Policy Issues DevRoom suggested,
FOSDEM is a fantastic conference and the only thing I can think of that would make it better is publishing a Code of Conduct...
Discussion ensued, and in November, the organizers announced their new Code of Conduct. I appreciate that different organizations need to customize their anti-harassment/friendly space/conduct policies, as the Wikimedia technical community did under my leadership, and I recognize that FOSDEM -- entirely volunteer-run, requiring no attendee registration, and charging no admission fee -- has its own particular challenges. But I see why my friend looks askance at FOSDEM's CoC. If you compare it to the example policy offered on the Geek Feminism wiki, you see how lots of little differences add up. For instance, FOSDEM's policy doesn't give a way to anonymously report a problem, and it doesn't suggest how you can find or identify team or staff members.
I figure I can go, this time, see how it goes, keep my guard up a bit, and then, as a member with more standing in and a more nuanced understanding of the FOSDEM community, ask for specific improvements, and explain why. My support network, my judgment, and my courage are in good enough shape that I can handle the most likely nonsense without taking too much damage.
But there's this one wrinkle.
The night before FOSDEM proper, the organizers run a beer night that -- according to my friends who have attended -- is a highlight of the convention. Since many FOSDEM attendees spend the session days in subject-specific devrooms, and since I want to meet people from many and varied projects, this beer night is probably the most high-value networking event all weekend. But. As the Geek Feminism wiki astutely notes,
Intoxication (usually drunkeness) both genuinely lowers inhibitions and provides people with an excuse for acting badly even if they genuinely knew better.
The data makes me cautious. FOSDEM improved its policy, but not enough to completely reassure me, and we still have yet to see how they implement it. Many individual devrooms and affiliated events, such as the FLOSS metrics meeting where I'm speaking, have added their own CoCs, but that doesn't cover the beer night.
So how will I mitigate risk? Maybe I won't go to the beer party at all. Maybe I'll go, but stay in loud crowded places, even if that makes it harder for me to have the kinds of in-depth conversations that lead to sales. Maybe I'll mention my husband a lot and dress androgynously. Maybe I'll mostly talk with women, with other nonwhite people, and with friends I already know, trading off serendipity against safety. And, despite the organizers' suggestion that I "don't miss this great opportunity to taste some of the finest beer in Belgium," and even though I enjoy trying new beers, I'll probably stick to water.
(And then next year I'll be part of the whisper network, helping other folks decide whether to go.)
I'm writing this to help people who don't have to make these risk calculations see a snapshot of that process, and, frankly, to justify my attendance to those who can't or won't attend FOSDEM till it's more clearly dedicated to a harassment-free experience for participants. And comments on this blog post are closed because, as Jessica Rose said:
Any extended conversation around a code of conduct will eventually demonstrate why a code of conduct is necessary.
P.S. I tried to think of an appropriate "free-as-in-beer" joke and could not. Regrets!
# 10 Dec 2015, 10:55AM: On Meditation And Other Training Exercises:
Last night, as I do most Wednesday nights, I went to my local mindfulness meditation group. It was a very distracted meditation for me, and as we ended, a voice in me judged, failure.
And I internally replied to that voice, saying, hold on, define your terms. If this is failure, what would success be?
And I thought of an analogy. When we jump rope to exercise, we jump, over and over again. We know that at the end of each jump we will fall back down to earth, because that's how gravity is. The aim is not to jump, each time, in the hopes that this time we'll take off into space, as though this time we will escape gravity. Jumping rope is a training activity. The aim is to strengthen the muscles of the legs by using the unbending force of gravity. We practice pushing off against it, and over time our legs get better and better at letting us move around.
Minds have thoughts. That's what they do. The distractions you will always have with you. Meditation and prayer help me get better at working with them, using them, instead of having them in charge of me.
# 21 Feb 2015, 12:37PM: New Loves And New Joys:
Over the last several years I've started getting into hobbies, skills, or activities that I had assumed I would not like or wouldn't get, or that I had dismissed due to initial impressions, such as romance novels, functional programming, watching sports on television, sewing, hiking, pop music, makeup, clothing, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and console-type video games. I've also deepened my general cinephilia and started regularly attending a guided mindfulness meditation group. Many of these communities or artifacts are pretty bad at some things I care about, but they are also pretty good at other things that my pre-existing milieu* doesn't excel at, and thus provide me with a richer variety of kinds of experiences. I want to look at what those things are; this is an incomplete start.
Certainly I can more easily achieve rapport with a wider variety of people if I can make conversation about, for instance, good NYC-area hikes you can get to without a car. And on my English Coast-to-Coast walks, I consistently found other hikers were sociable and supportive and friendly, taking time out of their rambles to help me and my companions wayfind, learn to use our tools, and swap stories.
In pop music, romance, makeup, clothing, sewing, hiking, film and Marvel fandom, I find a willingness to emphasize the sensual and the aesthetic experience. And we can talk about being overwhelmed emotionally by experience, which is also something appealing about sports fandom, that if we talk about our stomachs lurching with fear or happiness, or we ALLCAPS about how yes, breakups are super emotional so songs about them might be too, other people allcaps with us. We unapologetically get at the numinous. No one needs to write essays reminding us that people who read romance novels have emotions and that it's undesirable and impossible to eradicate those emotions.
In functional programming, film, clothing, and music, I've found new abstractions, new perspectives on things that already exist, that make me clutch my head as my brain changes configuration. I do already get that sometimes from my pre-existing milieu, but diversity of perspectives means I get it more if I am in more and more different kinds of communities.
And most of the communities I'm getting into have more gender diversity and far greater ethnic diversity than most of the communities I was previously paying attention to. (Please do pay attention to my disclaimers there instead of going #notallfans or similar.) I see and interact with people of more widely varying demographics, and I see the work of diverse people praised and discussed. And this is clearly something I need to improve in my life, because, for example, here I am in a world where Beyoncé Knowles is a global superstar, a critically important black artist and one of the most prominent feminists in the world, and I have barely been hearing or hearing about her work. I heard about a French gender-switch satirical film (Majorité Opprimée) just after it came out, but it's taken me six years to hear about Beyoncé's "If I Were A Boy" (via Arthur Chu's piece on white mediocrity and black excellence). I hear about all that Dove beauty stuff all the time, but only today did I watch Beyoncé's "Pretty Hurts" video. Clearly I need to up my game.
I've added a couple of photos in this post, pictures of some bits of papercraft I made. In December, I raised some money for Wikimedia by wrapping gifts at Astoria Bookshop; gift-wrapping was free, but if customers wanted to give a tip, the volunteer doing gift-wrapping could choose a charity where that tip went. During the slow periods, I cut up the leftover scraps of wrapping paper to make little decorative snowflakes and whatnot, and then I tied them to the ribbons when I finished wrapping up a book. They were pretty, and they didn't scale, and I tried out lots of different variations, and I gave them away, and I liked it. Maybe one more thing I see more in my new communities than in my old ones is the idea that it's okay to enjoy an experience without really understanding it. I'm gonna try that.
* One tip that fundraising consultants give you is that you should think of your communities, past and present, so you can further list people you know through those communities whom you could ask to give money to your cause. I started a list for that exercise, and now see that since about 2002 my communities have included: my blood family, Leonard's family, Wikimedia, Open Source Bridge/Stumptown Syndicate, the MS in Tech Management cohort from Columbia University, the University of California at Berkeley, GNOME, Maemo/MeeGo, AltLaw, the Participatory Culture Foundation, Hacker School, New York City tech in general, Geek Feminism, the Ada Initiative/AdaCamp, WisCon, Foolscap, Making Light, MetaFilter, ImpactHub NYC, the Acetarium, OpenHatch, Growstuff, Collabora, Fog Creek Software, Behavior, Salon.com, Cody's Books, Yuletide Treasure, the Coast-to-Coast walk, Strange Horizons, Slightly Known People fandom, Breaking Bad fandom, Mike Daisey fandom, Star Trek fandom, The Colbert Report fandom, Midtown Comics, the Outer Alliance, Python, Software Carpentry, Mozilla, MetaFilter, LWN, Crooked Timber, Systers, OpenITP/TechnoActivism Third Monday, my Twitter followees/followers, my Identi.ca circle, REI, Dreamwidth, code4lib and #libtechwomen/#libtechgender, Hackers on Planet Earth, the Professional IT Community Conference/LOPSA, Women in Free Software India, the New York Tech Meetup, Subdrift NYC, a few now-defunct private email lists, Google Summer of Code, Outreachy, Foo Campers, Empowermentors, the Unitarian Universalist church, Debian-NYC, Metrics-grimoire, Mailman, NYC storyreading, the Museum of the Moving Image, my local meditation class, and probably more stuff. That wasn't in any real order, in case you couldn't tell, and I claim zero consistency in my participation level. Patterns include: lots of geekiness and lots of online interaction.
# 13 Jan 2015, 03:39PM: Unlocking The Funhouse (Mirror):
In technology (as in many communities), capitalism makes it hard for us to understand what we're good at. A few source texts, and then a sketch of some contours.
- The "No true Scotsman" fallacy.
- Shweta Narayan on category structure, cognition, and side effects.
We tend to have this idea that categories, like "bird" or "food" (or like "human" or "white", which is what this is all really about) are like solid boxes. Entities are either in them or out of them, with a clear and unchanging boundary, and everything inside is an unsorted & equal jumble, and everything outside ditto.
This notion gets strongly underscored by our cultures, so it can be hard to ... er... unpack. But the fact is, cognitive categories aren't actually like boxes. They have internal structure, and fuzzy boundaries (which people can draw in different places, and move depending on context), and these things matter hugely in how we think about and deal with oppression....
we need to be aware of category-centrality as well as membership....
- Huckleberry Finn, specifically:
"All right, then, I'll GO to hell"--and tore it up.
The nuance I still ponder is: Huck doesn't say his way is right. He decides he's wrong but he's going to do it anyway. He decides to be a hypocrite. He does not see himself as articulating a new consistent ethical framework under which he is morally right; he is accepting the status and the consequences of his actions in the religious framework everyone's taught him, but he decides not to let that get in the way of what he feels compelled to do. It's a different kind of resistance.
I heard an echo of this moment in "The Rundown Job" (Leverage, S05E09), when a government official tries to get Eliot, who used to do wetwork, to leave the Robin Hood-type vigilante outfit he's with now:
Colonel Vance: The world can always use more good guys.
"Why Job Titles Matter To Me", a piece I wrote last year.
Deb Chachra on discomfort with the identity "maker" and the primacy of "making".
Eliot: Yeah, well, too bad we're the bad guys.
I educate. I analyse. I characterize. I critique. Almost everything I do these days is about communicating with others. To characterize what I do as 'making' is either to mistake the methods -- the editorials, the workshops, the courses, even the materials science zine I made -- for the purpose. Or, worse, to describe what I do as 'making' other people, diminishing their own agency and role in sensemaking, as if their learning is something I impose on them.
"MDN MozFest outcomes: self-teaching", a summary by Jeremie Patonnier that said one of the tools that self-directed learners most want is "Tools to measure/evaluate one's level of knowledge."
You may not be able to tell from this blog that I, like many people in tech, do experience self-assessment vertigo. Software engineering includes a zillion skills (it's clearly not just computer science) and no one knows all of them. We're so bad at assessing who's good at what that we end up pronouncing that the only way to tell whether someone is "good" is to work with them, or we use "culture fit", personal recommendations, and other easier-to-grasp handles as lossy proxies. The bizarre informational distortion of the job market makes it even harder to get a clear picture of one's own skills, "objectively" and relative to others. Even if, like me, you are not currently looking for a job as a programmer!
Outside of academia and Hacker School, the primary way I hear people talk about technical skill assessment is in relation to the job market or job titles. (And even in academia it's early days yet in teaching software engineering.) In open source we sometimes make one-time assessments as to whether individual people are ready to become maintainers, but other than that, the discourse I hear is about matching candidates with paid employment, and so we assess ourselves and each other in terms of potential job titles.
Just as there is no inherent genre to books (the "genre" of a book is a way to market it to the readers who would like it) there is no inherent category "backend engineer" or "business analyst" etc. That's just a convenient name that we have socially constructed to kind of correspond to a set of skills. (And so the goalposts move so easily it's as though they're on casters freshly sprayed with WD-40 by someone shouting "But no true hacker...")
Within individual organizations, there's some consistency in what a particular job title means. But the job descriptions the public sees are often wishlists that don't distinguish between "desired" and "required" qualifications for a particular title. And a "hey you're interesting for position x" email from a recruiter gives us a data point, even if it's super wrong, and maybe even so wrong that it is demoralizing to candidates! ("Shit, the only recruiters who reach out to me are so dumb and desperate that they don't count" or "Crap, I still look like a foo instead of a bar".) We get a lot of noise mixed in with the data.
My particular set of skills does not correspond to any particular well-known bucket, and I should not let that make me feel bad.
Buuut of course socially constructed things are real too! And it is useful to know whether I am correctly performing the role of "fullstack developer" or "devops expert" or "community manager", to know whether I can attract the particular kind of attention I want! And it's useful to know when I should say, "yes, according to the tech industry's dominant hierarchy, the work I enjoy and think is most important marks me as low-status, unintelligent, and ignorable. So what."
Even if I can get away from looking at myself as a good little worker bee, impostor syndrome and Dunning-Kruger both affect self-assessment. While I believe I am fighting both, it may be unavoidable that the only way to get better at self-assessing a skill is to get better at the skill in question, reflecting all along the way. Thus: a code review group. (Check out how I briefly describe my programming skill level in that post, by referring to what I can and can't do.) Thus: my Mailman work. Thus: blogging. Sketching out where I am so I can see where I've been. These points of data make a beautiful line.
Edited on 6 Feb 2018 to add: I said some of this stuff better in my post today, The Ambition Taboo As Dark Matter.
# (2) 16 Aug 2014, 10:24PM: Choosing to Leave, Stay, or Listen:
I've recently been thinking about the power not to care -- the power to dismiss, to decide that someone else's opinion doesn't matter to you, and act accordingly, to act entitled. I've been thinking about where I've run into advice about choosing when not to care.
Around age twelve I read "Self-Reliance" by Emerson, and read it to mean that, since you can't please everyone, you may as well just try to please yourself.
Also around that age I obtained a super simplistic understanding of Buddhism: attachment and desire lead to suffering, and if you just stop wanting things, then you won't get hurt if you don't get them.
A few years later a philosophy professor had us read a bit of Nietzsche and mentioned in lecture, lightly, that Nietzsche didn't particularly care about being rational. His opponents would say "but that's irrational!" and he could say "So?"
At some point around here I read Atlas Shrugged, and basically got out of it with "the social contract is not a suicide pact" as a lesson. I probably also caught a little of, as Teresa Nielsen Hayden summarizes, "continual self-sacrifice will leave you with nothing of your own" and "if there are people out there who are like Ayn Rand's characters, they don't need Ayn Rand's books to tell them so."
Early in college, I audited an intro sociology class because its lecturer, Andrew L. Creighton, just blew my mind in every class. I hadn't made it off the waitlist but I just showed up to every lecture anyway (at UC Berkeley in the late nineties this was fine for huge lecture classes and we called it auditing). I remember Professor Creighton talking about groups and norms and power, and saying, as an aside, that this is why he was a wild card in academic departments -- he didn't particularly want what they were offering.
In 2008, I ran across a wiki page about status play, meant for improv performers, and realized what dismissiveness looks in the small, in individual conversational transactions.
In 2009, I read N.K. Jemisin's "Cold-Blooded Necessity". "I think the shift from extrinsic to intrinsic valuation -- from caring about what others think to caring about yourself -- is a fundamental part of the transition from amateur to professional..."
A few years later, in Tina Fey's Bossypants, I read about Amy Poehler not caring whether you like it.
A little while after that, after reading How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran, I wrote "The Kind Of Feminist I Am" about the intersection of privilege and mobility with this particular power. "I love the means by which people can get away from their old selves and the people who thought they knew them.... Forking. For adults, the most fundamental freedom is the freedom to leave, to vote with your feet."
And then this year, in Gabourey Sidibe's speech at the Ms. Foundation Gala, I read about her deciding to be an "asshole":
I wanted that party! And what I want trumps what 28 people want me to do, especially when what they want me to do is leave. I had a great time. I did. And if I somehow ruined my classmates' good time, then that's on them.
Sidibe's comment of course could be misread as "people should take over parties where they aren't wanted," but in context that's an utter misreading. The really interesting transgressive thing Sidibe is saying is that, when you are systematically oppressed, pursuing your own pleasure will feel rude and selfish.
In retrospect, I see the variations in this theme. You get to choose whether to stay or leave, whatever They want. You get to decide not to want others' definition of success, and to listen to your own judgment.
(And related to this: the audacity to make plans, and the audacity to decide when not to listen to yourself (for instance, when ignoring internal emotional weather and just pushing forward anyway).)
# 26 Jan 2014, 08:42PM PST: Plunge:
It is easier for me to write a confrontational email in which I will disappoint someone than for me to open up a coding problem that I fear I will fail at. With the former, I know the territory; I know the rhythms of anxiety and release, I know viscerally that this practice will never stop and that I'll just get asymptotically better. With the latter I still obscurely fear some definitive NO telling me I'm no good at this, and I don't quite have enough experience of quietly positive outcomes to salve the scars away.
I draw upon my memories of Hacker School and I remember that growth is change, and I start up the video game music and a task in Project Hamster, and I switch to Emacs.
# (1) 18 Jan 2014, 02:59PM: Cleaning My Virtual Room:
In late December 2013, my personal email inbox got to over six thousand emails. Many of them had been there for years. I was using nearly no filtering, and so there was important stuff in there that I just forgot about. It caused me a lot of anxiety. I knew the kinds of tips Val suggests, like setting up filters and avoiding abusing "unread" markers, but I had just not kept up this hygiene, and it was getting to me. I have been a bad correspondent for years, and my overwhelming inbox is part of why.
Therefore, the last days of 2013, I rapidly went through big swaths of them -- Twitter notifications, a few less relevant mailing lists, and so on. By the minute 2014 started, I was down to two thousand. I started using Beeminder to track my goal: down to 10 messages in my inbox by the end of January 18th.
Today's the 18th. I'm at 160 messages. And this is the hard stuff, now. Here I find the heartfelt notes I saved for reading later, then didn't read for months, then felt embarrassed about. Here lie the year-old "here's my address since you promised to send me something!" notes. Here I see stories I promised to give feedback on, guest posts for Geek Feminism I started arranging, invitations to my cousins' weddings in India, followups from friendly people I met at PICC 2011 or Open Source Bridge 2012.
I am in a comfortable apartment, in reasonably good health, in no physical danger. And yet my body reacts to looking at these letters. It's absurdly hard work.
Doing this requires confronting my past negligence and remembering that I may have hurt people by that negligence. And thinking about tasks I've put off.
I'm reminded of Paul Ford's "Cleaning My Room", in which Ford talks about his years of slovenliness and then a sudden urge "to face down the beast of disorder".
Now I've reached 143, that old pager code for "I love you," and am reminded of that old saw, "Work is love made visible."
# (4) 04 Nov 2013, 09:30AM: Comprehensions:
I spent a bunch of September in San Francisco, trying to tie up loose ends at work so I could go on my sabbatical with a free heart. My notebook says things like:
"30 is a large #" -- why? context
While there, I finally went shopping with Val and bought some new sneakers, so I could throw away my ratty old sneakers. I'd bought them in a fit of exercise-related optimism about seven years prior. I find it easier to buy clothes and shoes in other cities. I'm already off-kilter, disequilibrated, so why not add one more change, get one more bit of anxiety over with?
explain briefly when to use test 2 vs beta cluster
Say there will be 4 types of failures, then give numbers as you go
And during that trip, I went one step further: I went to a salon and got my hair dyed blue, like I'd wanted to for years. The dark blue only looks obvious in bright light, so people at work did double-takes, checking that their eyes' photoreceptors hadn't fritzed out. I'd never done anything that chemical to my hair before. I hadn't wanted to sadden my mom.
I got to Hacker School on September 30th and found out I was one of two women with blue hair. (We discovered quickly that we have a few mutual friends.)
The weather got cooler and cooler as we eased into our term and found our rhythms. The library got more books as people donated or lent them to the school; now there are huge gaps on the shelves as the books migrate to work tables. The kitchen has accumulated several different coffee-making gadgets, about ten containers of communal tea, and a steadily increasing stack of leftover paper napkins from takeout lunches. Most people sit in the same place every day now, as far as I can tell. Some prefer the beanbags, some the conference room with plenty of sunlight, some the standing desks, some the ABSOLUTELY NO TALKING quiet room, some the rooms with whiteboards, some the shared tables. I try to move around a lot.
For the first few weeks of Hacker School, I consciously basked in the number, diversity, and quality of the women in my batch. As the folks who run HS recently blogged, 42% of our batch of 59 are women. I look around the room and our chat channels and I see people helping and being helped, within and across genders. After the first week, I still hadn't learned all the women's names! Now I'm nearly used to the gender balance, but those first few weeks disoriented me in a good way, to tell the truth, and visiting non-HS physical and online spaces disorients me back. From the HS blog post:
One of the many benefits of having a gender-balanced environment is that, at least within the confines of Hacker School, the pressure to represent or focus on "women in programming" largely fades away, and people are free to focus on programming rather than rehashing tired arguments.
Focus on becoming better programmers: our guiding star. We try to avoid distraction (one guy said his phone battery lasts longer these days). But I feel guilt for enjoying our oasis and concentrating on myself, when I have so many sisters outside, wishing and working for environments a tenth as nurturing as Hacker School is.
But I have to focus on my own transformation right now, letting this experience change me, so I can go carry that transformation elsewhere.
I take a walk most days. I'd never spent much time in the Soho/TriBeCa region before, and now I'm getting used to the tiny blocks and the tourists shopping for knockoffs on Canal. The other day I saw, in my meandering, a shop window advertising "Maps and Dictionaries," which amused me, because I've been improving my fluency in Python maps and dictionaries, and generally grokking things like data structures and lambdas and whatnot.
It's heady stuff.
Yes, I like grabbing data from APIs and munging it, and I chortle when I can make the command line do new tricks. But oh wow, functional programming and hash tables make me clutch my head and shout superlatives and profanities. I'm beginning to get how mild-mannered programmers can turn into complete zealots about things like functional programming and structured data. Oh, who am I kidding -- I already thought I understood how people could do that, just for something to believe in, but now I see how I could turn into one of those evangelists, if this were the only revelation I'd ever had or thought I'd have.
My notes from the past five weeks include far less "tell $person about $thing" than usual:
Went to Python "office hours," learned stuff re setuptools & pip & virtualenv, and started Flask tutorial - got to Hello World, then step 2. Emacs improvements....
Stopped when angry/tired, wrote down summary, got beer, got Joe, figured out was editing file that was not getting run (venv), started getting stuck in dependency hell (mysql?!) when checking whether problem was BZ-specific. Stopped for the day....
Some transformations make us over all at once, the same function applied uniformly to every element in a collection, from black hair to blue in an afternoon. Some happen to parts of us first, before other parts catch up, eventually consistent. I'd been programming for a long, long time before I called myself a programmer. I can't tell whether I feel arrived yet, whether I feel home. (We talk about progression in time as though it is progression in space, don't we? As though our lives are journeys, as though our schoolteachers are packing our saddlebags, as though a calendar is a map of time.)
Last week, Leonard and Beth made brownies with marshmallows and M&Ms. I taught a few peers at Hacker School to play Once Upon A Time. Leonard and I watched "Wives", a feminist Norwegian seventies film. I learned lots of little things about zip, map, filter, reduce, databases, packaging, bpython, bash. I dressed up as "Futuristic Businesswoman Sumana" for Hallowe'en, in my green business suit that looks vaguely Vulcan (lapels are illogical). I got to question 11 in Python Challenge. I'm in the middle of reading about eight books. The dead leaves started piling up on the sidewalk, fun to crunch through, and the autumn rain started, although Saturday the sun stayed out. I walked to the theater and thought, it won't be this warm again for five months.
Every few days I remember that Aaron is still dead. And I think I dreamt about my dad a few times in October; in one dream I got confused, thinking, "wait, I thought he died already, how could he be dying again?" but that's something you don't say to the rest of your family, or at least something I don't say. I think I've gotten to the long prairie of life where I'll be going to more funerals than weddings from here on out.
In September, in San Francisco, a colleague asked me: why all these changes all of a sudden? The sabbatical, the hair, the shoes? And I asked whether she remembered Aaron Swartz. She hadn't known him, but she remembered the public mourning of his death. I told her what he'd said, the revolution will be A/B tested, and explained what he'd meant. We activists have a responsibility to use our energy well. I, in particular, believe I need to become a better software engineer so I can be a better social engineer. So, I told her, I drew two relevant lessons from Aaron's death:
- Life is short, so be a better activist.
- Life is short, so do small harmless things that make you happy.
Today I'll put on those new shoes and go to Hacker School, and drink tea, and learn from women and men some new thing that makes me swear aloud, that will help me fight. Everything that lives changes; the only way to stop changing is to die. If I find myself afraid of growing, I'll remember all the forces that don't want me to learn. Death being only one of them.
# 02 Nov 2013, 02:25PM: Emboss:
I recently came across Lauren Bacon's "The Accidental Boss: Making Peace with Power" again, and it reminded me: We don't talk enough about power. We don't talk enough about how hard it is to transition from individual contributor to manager, and to delegate the tasks that you really love, that might even constitute your identity. We talk about delegating, but we don't talk enough about the inner emotional security you need to develop in order to hire and trust people smarter than you.
And we certainly don't talk enough about the necessary skill of constructively managing your anger in the workplace.
We say that anger is poison or that anger is righteousness, but have you had a role model who showed you how to manage your anger? Have you learned when to wait before sending that pissed-off email? How did you learn that?
And those intersect, of course. Sometimes I disagree with my subordinates or my superiors, but I believe I always work with them constructively and I don't let my mood get in the way of hashing out the issues and finding a decision. But what if I'm wrong?
Argh gender. We women get disproportionately less training, formal and informal, in handling personal power and in using anger. And I have to do that double-checking multiple times a week, predicting how others would react to any given reveal of my power or anger.
Jono Bacon publicizes the risk of burnout. Those middle stages include substantial anger, irritability, and anxiety. How do you know when your anger is a healthy, legitimate response to a wrong? How do you know when your anger is getting in your way?
(Oh, and those of us who grew up with parents who didn't deal with their own anger responsibly have even more trouble with this. Double argh.)
What do we have? Where are we talking about these things? Sunday sermons, "Chain of Command" and "Lower Decks" from Star Trek: The Next Generation, the odd thoughtful BDSM-related blog post or fanfic, a few essays about Obama's leadership style, leadership coaching seminars, activist retreats? Is this what the Harvard Business Review is for?
I have gotten into the habit of reviewing my anger with a trusted colleague or friend. "Foo happened and bar happened and he said x and I said y... I feel frustrated/resentful/unappreciated/patronized, and basically angry, and it's distracting me... what do you think? am I being reasonable?" Advantages: fewer damaging blowups. Disadvantages: sometimes I lose the opportunity to respond to a problem in the moment, and when I do respond, the other person thinks I'm holding a grudge.
Skill acquisition is hard, yo.
# (1) 28 Oct 2013, 11:59PM: On Ability:
Someone discovered "that the addition of 'Harry' to almost any Plato quote makes it seem legitimately like a nugget of wisdom out of the mouth of Albus Dumbledore." This reminded me to look up my favorite Dumbledore quote:
It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.
I am trying to remember that, because every day I go to Hacker School and sit next to people with lots more programming skill than me, and sometimes I find that discouraging. Or I realize how badly I want to impress people, to feel admired and respected, and how that sometimes gets in the way of growing and achieving actually admirable, respect-worthy things. I need to remember to disregard that kind of anxiety fungus emotion. Thomas Beagle said in some related comments:
to be a good geek you [have] to have both humility and arrogance in equal measures. The humility was so you'd admit you didn't know something and get help/read the docs/etc., the arrogance was the bit that said "I don't know that now... but I can and I will soon."
I think that, like a lot of people, I conflate skill and confidence, and I need to disassemble a construct I didn't even realize I had in my mental infrastructure. How slippery, that the confidence I need to develop is the confidence to express uncertainty, to say "I don't understand" as many times as it takes. Our Hacker School facilitators guide us to try projects that intimidate and scare us. Truly being vulnerable to my own ignorance is on that list. I wish I knew how to credibly and persistently promise myself that the rewards from being open to change are greater than the return on inertia.
# 28 Aug 2013, 11:50AM: Place And Perspective:
Telecommuters already know this. It's the first thing they tell you.
The power of place.
Don't work from the same couch or bed where you watch TV, relax, or sleep. Train your brain to associate one place with work and another with home. Make a home office that acts like a bubble of elsewhere, a little embassy of work.
It's more than that.
You can remake yourself when you travel, because this new place is someplace you've never been yourself before, someplace you've never been afraid before. This new kitchen has never seen you fail before. This new city has never seen you avoid the nice shops before.
The world, like a jewel, has lots of different facets, and they catch the light differently. Sometimes one of them is the reflection I can see a different, better self in.
So if you run a place, if you have the opportunity to provide hospitality, isn't that amazing? That you can help jog a person out of their rut, that your consulate can offer amnesty?
The most amazing thing in life is to help people transform and empower themselves. And perhaps the greatest sin is to block that growth. That's what gets to me the most, when I hear about conferences and hackerspaces and workplaces in my communities where my friends feel unsafe. I get that old Microsoft phrase in my head - "the freedom to innovate." That's what we lose, when new contributors find that our spaces are just yet another place they have to be on their guard. We lose their innovations, we lose our chance to collaborate with them, and, most damningly, we lose our chance to help each other on a journey of empowerment.
# (3) 05 May 2013, 09:04PM: A Really Long-Winded Way of Saying That Maybe I Love Techno Now:
That thought about music, love and transformation made me think of how strange and world-changing it is to find a new friend or author or musician or project or workplace and suddenly click.
They taught me in my management classes that thriving is a function of a person and their environment. That helped me to see things unemotionally. "Bad fit" really does exist.
Every collaboration will be particular, like all power and influence is particular (financial, emotional, cultural, military). You'll get leaks and emergent behavior, and sometimes you can funnel energy, but sometimes it refuses to be fungible. It withers and dies, misdirected, confused. Sometimes that joule, that heat is irrevocably specific. It makes you think about lasers and firehoses, flamethrowers and kindling, and limited burns at the urban-wildlife interface, and how high the specific heat of water is, and how water composes most of our bodies, and the compressed energy inside anyone needs just the right conditions to shine.
Do you remember stoichiometry?
That was the bit from chemistry about making sure that both sides of the equation matched, if I remember Mr. Marson's class right. (I wish I still had that extra credit project, where I went through the chemistry books for names and phrases and just made up like thirty or a hundred puns from scratch and wrote them on posterboard.) If you have two oxygens, and then three more, on the left, you'll end up with five, in some configuration, on the right.
Stoichiometry is tautology. There must be a metric zillion idioms, spanning every human time and place, reducing to the identity property plus the forward direction of time. "If you stand in the rain, you'll get wet." "A hungry cat will look for food." They sound like something you'd program into Cyc. We have sayings like "recipe for disaster" and "prescription for catastrophe," but the chemical equation suits some surprises best as a metaphor, because love is chemistry, and because sometimes you are an absent-minded would-be scientist, putting two and two and two together and getting surprised when you end up with six and your hair on fire.
If I stop by a restaurant often enough, I'll be a regular. If I work with people on something we care about, those people will become real to me and I'll find myself a member of a new tribe. If I self-medicate my mood with a particular album and incorporate it into the rhythm of my day, how is that not love? Why fight it?
I'm taking stock of my supply cabinets and my heat sources. The summer student's gotten the hang of safety procedures and requisitions and the rhythm of notes and meetings and R and late-night discoveries. I'm really just getting used to the idea that there's always going to be this lab here, that there's always R&D going on in my heart, no matter how polished the products and services I make a habit of offering to the public. That I can't stop growing and learning and changing and experimenting and compounding, that every once in a while I will run across something "new" whose existence was -- I always realize belatedly -- prefigured in the periodic table.
 I'm thinking of freshman year at Cal, Comparative Politics, learning about patron-client dyads, thick vs. thin relationships, the innovation that is bureaucracy, the impulse to rational-legalism, how attractive those clear roles seem and how quickly they blur in practice, how healthy humans resist not treating others as full complete people to love and hate and screw.
 The saying goes: lust is biology, love is chemistry, sex is physics. My take: I've always asked "what is love?" not as a hair-stroking poet by the river, but as a frantic sysadmin space-barring through man pages.
 But we are analog; we can't spec out our futures pixel-perfect.
# (4) 05 May 2013, 08:25PM: Music I Listen To A Lot:
Late last year, I was showing my colleague Rob the recent albums I'd been listening to -- by Daft Punk, Kraftwerk, and other electronica artists -- and mentioned to him that I was suddenly discovering that sometimes I liked techno, and yet had never thought I would, and what does that mean? Does that mean I am a techno person now?
- The 8-bit tribute album to Weezer
- The music that helps me get to sleep: Robyn Miller's soundtrack to Riven, Zoë Keating's One Cello x 16: Natoma, Ray Lynch, Clint Mansell's Moon soundtrack. Did you know Keating used to be an information architect?
- Guster, Easy Wonderful
- Tally Hall, Good & Evil
- The soundtracks to Battlestar Galactica and Lord of the Rings, which together combine into an almost ten-hour playlist that makes anything epic.
- Beirut, Gulag Orkestar
- Steve Martin, The Crow
- Everclear, So Much for the Afterglow
- Depeche Mode, The Singles 81>85
- Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
- Holly Yarbrough, Mister Rogers Swings!
- Belle & Sebastian, Dear Catastrophe Waitress
- Dar Williams, End of the Summer -- I think Seth gave me this album in the late 90s.
- Regina Spektor, What We Saw From the Cheap Seats -- like so many, I discovered Spektor via the "Us" video.
- Barcelona, ZeRo-oNe-INFINITY
- Lawsuit, Kind of Brown
- The Mountain Goats, The Life of the World to Come
- Daft Punk's Tron: Legacy soundtrack -- Andrea Phillips turned me on to this, saying that this soundtrack has a freakishly positive focusing effect and helps her work. It's pretty good for me too.
And Rob said, "You're an everything person, you just don't know it yet."
I felt like an arrow of enlightenment had hit me right between the eyes.
I get anxious over the betrayal inherent in adaptation. To instead conceive of growth as a radical hospitality towards and nurturing of previously unvoiced parts of myself -- what a revolution.
I like movies and TV shows, I like books and stories and blogs, I love stand-up and sketch comedy, but music and travel are what I find numinous, transformative. They crack open new Sumananess that blinks in the light, unaccustomed.
"I think I would close my eyes the whole time."
# 16 Feb 2013, 07:01PM: Navel-gazing:
There are so many things I ought to be doing, and instead I spent several hours today editing Wikipedia and Wikivoyage, reviewing new articles, and uploading photos or improving captions on Wikimedia Commons.
It makes me think of that panel I was on, a million years ago, about guilty pleasures, back when I had the spare energy to go to non-work conferences. One thing I wish I'd thought of to say then: If it weren't possible to run away from "obligations" then they wouldn't be obligations, the kinds of responsibilities we encourage with norms and shaming and praise. They'd be facts like mitosis. The discourse around guilty pleasures is part of how we manage the pressure to fulfill our responsibilities to each other, a loophole that helps us avoid talking about unfair burdens.
You've heard that frontier thesis, that it's an important release valve to be able to go someplace no one knows you so you can reinvent yourself, the idea that right now is a significant historical aberration because your old identity will follow you wherever you go unless you engage in a coverup, that the defaults have flipped. The productivity frontier is somewhere in this danger zone as well, and I can see the temptation to Taylorize myself and those around me, and perhaps my workaholic ethic is so strong that even my guilty pleasure is reducing New Pages Feed backlog.
# (1) 02 Jan 2012, 01:48PM: Self-Care, Sometimes On A Larger Scale:
I think some people I know might find Sam Starbuck's experience useful. He has social anxiety but wanted to leave the house more often, so he developed methods to cause himself to do so.
The idea originally was just to get out more; not even necessarily to have more experiences, but not to spend every single night at home. There's nothing wrong with that, in and of itself, but it wasn't what I wanted for me. So I developed the Adventur Programme.
I should say that I suspect the Adventur Programme would be different for everyone, because the key to doing it is finding something that will motivate you to actually follow through. Here's how I did it; the basic theme of all of this is to arrange things in such a way that making the decision to go isn't difficult....
Sam said that his plan
worked well. I think it's because it wasn't a resolution; it was a plan. Resolutions can be broken, and thus expose you to feelings of failure and despair. Whereas plans aren't broken. Plans are rescheduled for a later date. You haven't failed. You've just changed up your calendar a little.
I admire people and organizations that thoughtfully manage their sustainability. You can see Alexandra Erin develop this theme in her behind-the-scenes blogging; as a self-employed writer, she works as hard at developing her own infrastructure as she does at making fiction. For Sam, Alexandra, and me, the structure of a successful process must avoid causing feelings of failure and despair. We know that if we feel those, we'll stop. So we find patterns that suit our strengths and work around our weaknesses, and get us to our goals -- more adventures, more good fiction, better technical skills.
Maturity requires recognizing granite walls and finding workarounds, saying no to machismo.
We know from experience that counting only on unpaid volunteer effort to work on helping women in open technology and culture leads to burnout and inconsistency. So The Ada Initiative works as a nonprofit that pays two people's salaries to work fulltime on the issue. (I volunteer on their Advisory Board.)
In Notes on Nursing, Florence Nightingale wrote of management, "How can I provide for this right thing to be always done?" Even when she's not there? Nightingale focuses on executive energy, attention, and putting the proper processes into place such that patients have the resources and quiet they need to get better.
However, there is a habit of mind that scorns all visible processes (and sees no value in formal communication containers such as meetings or performance reviews). I was talking about this with Ari yesterday, about (for example) software developers who think source control is needless overhead. I imagine some of these folks have suffered from their own personal resource curse, coasting through day-to-day tasks, the accreted cruft not yet salient, atherosclerosis not yet completely blocking the bottleneck.
Some have the useful skill of translating to them, getting across why hygiene is important in some particular case. Sometimes I can do this with analogies. Others use diagrams. But by the time I'm working with someone, it's usually too late to inculcate in them that habit of mind, a critical respect of social infrastructure.
(If you can, try never to work for someone who has this blind spot.)
Like Sam, I'm also working on sustainability and process improvement in my personal life. For me, it's cleaning and housework. What can I do to make it more likely that I'll do my fair share? I already knew that podcasts help. As of last week, I've discovered that I am way better at doing the dishes if I do them first thing in the morning. With enough tips and tricks, maybe I can adequately simulate a good flatmate.
# (1) 29 Nov 2011, 09:39AM: Practices, And Practice:
A few months ago, I was talking with one of MediaWiki's summer interns in our IRC chatroom. He confessed that he had procrastinated on the work for his project and was rushing to finish it before the deadline. We had a chat that he thought other people might also find useful, in thinking about work habits and discipline.
I asked this Google Summer of Code student, do you know what caused the delays, so that you can account for them in future projects? and he replied, to be honest, procrastination & laziness. I know it's very shameful. I try many times to come out of this vicious circle but keep falling in it again and again.
I asked him whether he knew what works to combat his own procrastination and laziness. The most important thing is acknowledging one's problems and then fighting them. For example, for me, I have a suite of tactics that I use to combat my laziness & procrastination. What has worked, and what hasn't worked? Well, for me, for example, merely promising something to myself and making deadlines for myself doesn't help. But setting up a meeting with a peer to sprint -- even if we're working on completely different things! -- or promising a peer or a mentor that I will give them something to review by $time or $date helps.
He said, "motivation works but only for some time."
I replied: "what do you mean by 'motivation'? Merely telling yourself to increase your willpower? I think for most people that is unsustainable."
Another woman agreed with me: "motivation only works if it's a core part of you (and even then for me it's more the worry that other people will find me to not have that quality)." I sympathized with her.
I continued with more tips. For example, I also try to set very small TODO lists each day, because I find that the most important thing is getting started, and avoiding feeling intimidated and overwhelmed. Then once I have the momentum of a little work under my belt, the energy and interest of the work itself keeps me going and then I accomplish a lot.
"So, I know this advice is coming a little too late for you to use it for GSoC, but an accountability buddy program is great," I told him. If he hadn't had daily deliverables due to his mentor during GSoC, then the next time he could try that -- or a private accountability group blog with you & two friends, posting each day what you did, what you aim to do, how long it'll take, and auditing yourself. Instead of budgeting for 8 hours of work each day, I budget tasks that will take at most 6 hours, because I know other random stuff will come in and need doing urgently, and some tasks may take longer than I've estimated. This also helps on the "less intimidating TODO list" front.
We also discussed education; many colleges teach mostly theory, and a student who wants practice has to find it on her own. I said that there is always that balance of theory & implementation/practice. I told him that I wish I had been more brave and bold about experimentation when I was in college. It's just software; if it breaks then you can fix it. I was too timid. I pointed him to a Geek Feminism post of mine for some insight on my education regrets and hopes.
And, on the improvement that comes from working in a different environment, I gave an example: "Friday, I was having trouble doing work while sitting on the couch, so I sat on the floor with my back to the couch, and that helped! just a tiny change of position signalled to my unconscious that it was not relaxation time. For me, it can be as little as a different chair in the same room."
He was pretty grateful.
Him: now i know the power of honest revelations, i was looking for this from so long!
Me: so the trick is not being disciplined about work -- that is ineffective, exhausting, and dispiriting -- but being disciplined about the habit that tricks us into working. No learning is wasted. Take this for next time.
Him: sumanah: i would shower a million thanks if i could, you have striked the very core problem of mine n gave me very practical solution
Me: the best thanks you can give me is to continue to contribute to Wikimedia and to tell your friends these tips as well
Him: sumanah: yes, I will keep contributing to the best of my abilities
Him: now, I really feel that I am not the loner who does all that stuff!
Me: you are not alone.
Him: you should also blog a few lines like the tip you told me, it would help millions
Me: I will strongly consider that. Thanks.
I've edited the original log for easier legibility.
A line that others have found useful is "so the trick is not being disciplined about work -- that is ineffective, exhausting, and dispiriting -- but being disciplined about the habit that tricks us into working."
But the best part of that conversation, for me, was being able to tell someone, "you are not alone." That always makes a red-letter day.
# (2) 22 Mar 2011, 08:45PM: A Slightly Disjointed (Due To A Five-Day Cold) Musing On Open Source, Fear, Motivation, And Witnessing:
I was introducing C. to a set of QuestionCopyright friends and acquaintances, and they were joking about indoctrinating her, and she was curious to hear what free culture is all about. So she wondered why I reflexively suggested that the others wait a bit, tell her next time.
They did give C. the introductory spiel, and conversation was pleasant and edifying, and nothing terribly awkward ensued. She has developed a substantial interest of her own, now, in the theory and practice of free culture. But why did I have that reflex? I felt around for it and grasped something. It makes it harder, I said, once you know these things and care about them. Becoming a free culture/free software person is like becoming a vegan.
No, G. replied -- at least people know what vegans are.
We happy few.
Here I was, a fulltime free culture/free software consultant, feeling an unaccustomed reluctance to give someone else the sunglasses, to witness.
There are self-constraining ideologies like veganity or chastity that modern society at least theoretically understands, even if some cohorts scoff. Then there are the practices that always require an introduction. When I explain how I met Leonard, I often start with the thirty-second "what is open source" explanation, because it's all of a piece. But my "what is open source" intro focuses on pragmatism -- many eyes making bugs shallow -- rather than free software values.
I think I'm a moderate sort of open source gal, an ovo-lacto vegetarian. There's an iBook running Mac OS tucked off in a drawer, and all these Linux boxen in our house surely have nonfree binaries driving bits of hardware. No Facebook but I surely use many cloud services that violate the Franklin Street Statement. I hang out with copyright abolitionists, Debian users, and other free culture/free software folks who make me feel namby-pamby. And then I go to dinner with someone who makes me feel like a Jain. Or I find myself saying, as I said a week ago, that developing on a closed platform is like trying to fall in love with someone who won't talk to you.
Our love is part of what energizes us, moves us to act. In FLOSS, volunteers do things for two basic reasons: either because we enjoy doing them for their own sake, or because the task needs doing and we want to do our bit. We see some goal the task will help us reach, or fear an outcome the task will help us prevent. [By the way, it's useful to have experienced that, because it's useful to assume those two as the means of persuasion whether my colleague's paid or not. As a leader, I should either set up tasks people will genuinely enjoy (and get the scutwork out of the way), or help my colleagues see a straight line from the task to a glorious future. Show them how what we're doing leads to something they want. This is my pet theory of How To Lead Knowledge Workers and your mileage may vary.] And -- as a zillion social scientists will tell you -- even if we momentarily burn out on caring about a goal for its own sake, we don't want to let the team down. We don't want to let our buddies down.
As we were talking about GNOME marketing, Andreas once asked me what I found special, what personally spoke to me about GNOME. I rambled: object code is compiled from source code, but the source code is compiled, too -- compiled from people, from time, from love. Every time I look at my desktop, every feature and every bug comes from someone, someone with a name and a face, and sometimes I can even remember. Hey, I remember when she added that feature to Empathy. Oh, right, I know he's working on that bug. It's like all of Planet GNOME is helping me out, every day. It's like my whole community's right there, on my desktop, every time I open the laptop lid.
I don't want to keep my friends blissfully ignorant of this. Is there a more loving human impulse than the joy of sharing? I'm sorry, C. I'm sorry I was afraid of making your life harder. I remembered the local minimum and forgot the greater maxima awaiting you. Why keep us a "happy few" when we can be an ecstatic many? And yes, it's harder, to learn our principles and try to walk this path alone -- but the whole point of our principles is that our multitude, our diversity, our union, our communion is far richer and more sustaining than individual hoarding ever could be.
# (2) 28 Feb 2010, 04:13PM: Making The Hard Look Easy, Feminism, and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms:
Mary Anne Mohanraj recently wrote about sprezzatura, the nonchalance and easy grace that make all one's accomplishments seem effortless. She mentions that she's trying to cut down on that behavior, because she thinks its deception causes harmful expectations and self-loathing in others.
Mohanraj's post instantly reminded me of an ex. He told me of a compliment he'd once received: "You seem to be gliding through life." What does it say about me that I'd think of that as an insult, not a compliment? My take was: If you aren't visibly struggling, you're not working hard enough, your life is easy, and you're probably spoiled, lazy, and uncurious. How much of that is my workaholism? How much is insecurity, or resentment of privilege, or ignorance of my own privilege? Stupid female-socialized insecurity and self-sabotage for the sake of fitting in is, as I stipulated, stupid, and harmful both to the speaker and the hearer. But there's a difference between struggling to appear effortless and batting away compliments with a stick. I'm gonna quote myself from a column I wrote a few years ago:
There are people who say there's no such thing as arrogance, who would see nothing wrong with saying they're awesome, to whom humility, embarrassment, hubris, etc., are useless concepts that get in the way of efficient markets....
There is this thing called kindness, and it includes not eating a Snickers bar in front of a hungry person, and it includes not bragging about your skills in front of people who are trying valiantly to accomplish what you attained, especially if you got there without much effort....
Am I an expert at anything now? The larger my realm of experience gets, the more insignificant my tiny efforts seem.
What do I deliberately practice? What skills have I mastered? And what did my parents give me, in nature and nurture, that let me leap ahead?
I have no perspective on my own expertise, and no expertise on gaining perspective.
When something great happens in my life, I tend to think it's because of luck and discount my own effort. I aw-shucks my own accomplishments. And then I envy successful people instead of admiring them.
Envy comes from impotent desire. Role models get admired, the admirer assuming that he can get there too.
That's the difference, too, between destructive and constructive acknowledgments of one's accomplishments. Compassion, and hope.
Related essays that sprang to mind included some notes on protection and mentorship by Bitch Ph.D. She says that her strengths include calming students' and junior academics' anxieties by telling them the profession's unspoken rules, such as "No one reads everything they cite." I might turn her paragraph below into my new anthem:
I don't believe in unwritten rules, or at least I don't believe in not telling people what they are; I don't believe in meritocratic bull****; I don't believe that making people paranoid is the way to get them to do good work; I don't believe that competition need be cruel. I'm an extrovert, I'm honest, and I don't like to lie.
(Some thinking on meritocracy, in case you take reflexive umbrage at Bitch Ph.D.'s dismissal.)
When you're perceived as successful, you can more credibly criticize the system you've mastered and the game you've won. For example, because she takes the effort to look femme and stylish, she can awaken students to how much work goes into performing femininity: they "think more critically about why they spend so much time on their appearance, and what the costs and benefits of it are." This goes back to Mohanraj's hope that she can use others' compliments as an opening to encourage them, rather than discourage.
These days, I just keep trying to expose the work under the beauty.... I cheated and used a pre-made sauce for the base -- let me show it to you. Exposing the hard labor (or the clever workarounds) that are necessary to trying to do it all, for the sake of family, of profession, of self, of community. I believe that labor offers a different kind of grace.
Speaking of labor:
On the difference between labor and work, via Dara. "What is your work now?" may go into my toolbox of party questions, as "what are you reading?" and "what are you obsessed with?" aren't surefire conversation-starters.
Mohanraj is Guest of Honor at this year's WisCon (feminist science fiction/fantasy convention, late May, Madison, Wisconsin). So I can barely segue into talking about some speculative fiction that's caught my eye.
"Sundowning" by Joanne Merriam is a little bit like "The Second Conquest of Earth" by L. J. Daly (both good, same magazine, five months previous): interesting female point-of-view character trying to outwit or outwork a terrifying antagonist.
Got an interesting fictional take on the Ramayana? An anthology is seeking submissions.
I got to go to the launch party for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Book One of The Inheritance Trilogy) a few nights ago. And then I inhaled the entire book over the next 24 hours. To quote another reviewer, it's "full of danger, sensuality, and wonder." And it works as a self-contained book, by the way.
Reasons I wanted to read this book:
- the author's thinky posts about fantasy at The Magic District
- the author's post, "Warriors who don’t make war":
Yeine is a warrior who never makes war.
Or at least, she doesn't do it in any conventional sense. That's the point. Yeine comes from a warrior culture. In her land, serious disputes are resolved in a straightforward and efficient manner: with a knife-fight. She’s pretty good at it...
...a character who, out of habit, draws her knife in tense moments... then puts the knife away. She learns of a military threat and must deal with it diplomatically, economically, logistically, even magically -- but not militarily....
- similarly, her thoughts on Yeine as postfeminist
- the sample chapters one, two, and three
- she and Leonard used to be in the same writing group
- Her story for Haiti, "The Effluent Engine" - lesbian steampunk gun-toting spy drama in New Orleans
- all the stuff she wrote and said during WisCon last year, and around RaceFail
So it was overdetermined that I'd read the book. I'm glad to have loved it as well.
# (1) 28 Dec 2009, 10:23AM: Refracted Light:
Glurge is a certain kind of inspirational story. It's unattributed, it's a honed anecdote honoring goodness and generosity and loyalty and stamina and often faith, and it has a kitschy feel that irony-aligned people of my cohort are allergic to. Gives Me Hope made tears come to my eyes, but the saccharine gets to me after a few pages.
And then there's another kind of inspiration, from another direction, a different color of light. It's the way someone tells their specific story, or celebrates an achievement, more expository than persuasive. The author didn't write it specifically to inspire the reader to generalized goodness, but basic empathy leads a reader to consider the lessons mentioned, perhaps raise her sights a little.
Things that made me want to up my game recently:
Mel, as always. In this case, the way she actively seeks out uncertainty, and her ability and willingness to frankly say that she's good at things. My reflexive self-deprecation nearly won't let me think I'm good at things, and certainly wouldn't let me say it out loud. I need to work on that.
N.K. Jemisin, principally on a clash between an amateur writer's and a professional writer's mindset, but more profoundly on feeling secure in your past choices:
See, I think a lot of the angst surrounding this debate is happening because some folks -- particularly newer writers -- are caring about the wrong things. They're basing their sense of themselves as writers on extrinsic factors like which markets publish their work and how much their work sells for and whether they've got any sales at all, rather than on intrinsic factors like belief in their own skill. So of course they get upset when someone disparages a market they've sold/hoped to sell their work to; this feels like disparagement of them, and their skill. They take it very personally. And thus a conversation that should be strictly about business becomes a conversation about their personal/artistic worth.
This will sound cold-blooded. But the solution is for these writers to stop caring. Or rather, care better. I think the shift from extrinsic to intrinsic valuation -- from caring about what others think to caring about yourself -- is a fundamental part of the transition from amateur to professional, perhaps even more than pay rates and book deals and awards and such. It's a tough transition to make, I know; how do you believe in yourself if no one else does? How do you know your judgment of yourself is sound? I could write ten more blog posts trying to answer these questions. 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.
A kick in the butt to care about the right things.
Desi Women of the Decade. I bet my sister will be on this list in ten years. I love seeing us achieving in politics, arts/entertainment, science and business. Kind of hilarious that Parminder Nagra got on US TV to play a doctor. Maybe that's only funny to Asians.
I saw this seven-minute documentary about an aspiring comedian via the Best of Current video podcast. We all know the glurgy slogans: the lessons of adversity, no pain no gain, that sort of thing. But it is a different thing to see this man on stage, and then find out where he was before, and to think, of course the worthwhile thing is hard. I am comfortable and I need to reexamine my little lazinesses. And more that I don't have words for.
Yesterday, in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal, I ran across these lines from Rabindranath Tagore, which somehow get past my kitsch shields because they are personal, confessional, yearning, desperate:
Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers but to be fearless in facing them.
Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain, but for the heart to conquer it.
Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved but hope for the patience to win my freedom.
Grant me that I may not be a coward, feeling your mercy in my success alone; but let me find the grasp of your hand in my failure.
# (2) 09 Jul 2009, 06:07AM: Happy Birthday, Leonard:
As I said on his blog when he commemorated the end of his twenties:
Happy birthday, sweetie. I trust you'll be even more awesome in the next decade than you were during the decade when I first got to know and love you.
I can't believe my luck in getting and keeping your attention, much less your love. If I stay lucky, if I keep getting better than I deserve, I'll be next to you in 2019, leaning my head on your shoulder when you post the follow-up.
The urge to be indescribably mushy is interfering with my ability to string together coherent sentences, so here's a yearning look, a brush of my hand across yours, and a clink of our two rings together, joining us across the miles and years.
# 12 Jun 2009, 08:57PM: Let's Hear It For (Labors Of) Love:
Here is another narrative of my WisCon: something I learned from editing and publicizing Thoughtcrime Experiments, and what that makes me want to do next. It's long (the longer the post, the more I feel I'm leaving out), but there's some filk silliness at the end. (Title hat-tip to the Smokin' Popes; cue up Destination Failure while reading this, it'll take about that long.)
I arrived with ten copies of Thoughtcrime Experiments and nearly immediately gave away or sold them. I probably could have sold fifty, if I'd had them. I made about 200 copies of my flyer (seven-megabyte PDF, used a canned iWork Pages template) and people eagerly took them. I got to show contributor Alex Wilson Erica Naone's reviews of the stories, including her review of his "The Last Christmas of Mrs. Claus." In the "Was It Good For You?" panel, I mentioned three stories that made me feel unusually at-home: Connie Willis's "Even the Queen," my fellow panelist K. Tempest Bradford's "Élan Vital," and Mary Anne Mohanraj's "Jump Space" from the anthology I just published, squee!
Throughout the convention, people sounded receptive when I chattered about the anthology. Several people told me how exciting they found our project, and a few made noises about following Leonard's instructions and conducting the experiment themselves. And a few people said: "what are you doing next?" or "when you do it again next year..." A flattering boost and a natural assumption, but not a completely justified one.
Do I want to do it again? Good question!
In the "Was It Good For You?" panel, I observed that some editors and authors start with a vision they need to express (my nickel version of auteur theory), and some start wanting to respond to a community's need for certain viewpoints or stories. The way Leonard and I divided up anthology work reflects that division. He did line edits, pushed for more variety in the art, exhausted himself tweaking the layout to perfection, indeed conceived the project in the first place. I publicized the call for submissions, recruited artists, read slush and wrote rejections, and promoted the finished book electronically and in person.* My revealed preferences: sociable work. I want my work to make others happy. (When we got the first galley proofs from CreateSpace, I said it's real. But the reality of the literary marketplace is socially constructed, and foisting Thoughtcrime publicity onto hundreds of minds at WisCon transmuted the book into something more real.)
But how many people experienced any happiness from Thoughtcrime Experiments? A few thousand downloads and page hits, maybe ten thousand fleeting "oh it's neat that they did that" impressions. Is that enough? Would I spend my energy on a sequel anthology for a readership of less than, say, fifty thousand?
I mean, when I promoted the call for submissions, and when I went to WisCon, I couldn't help but see how many quality small presses and mags our genre enjoys. Shimmer, Goblin Fruit, GUD, Ideomancer, Small Beer, Electric Velocipede, Clarkesworld, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine**, Strange Horizons***, Verb Noire, Aqueduct... I'm just going off the top of my head. Some are electronic, some are print, some are more regular than others, but it's not like any one part of Thoughtcrime is new. Rejected Quarterly plus Creative Commons licensing (already done by Stross/Doctorow, not to mention Strange Horizons & others) plus easy online reading (several abovenamed pubs) plus good payrates (several again) plus gumption (passim). Thoughtcrime is a tiny fish in the pond.
When I see us in context, of course we've gotten maybe 4 emails of praise and 10 blog mentions from people who don't know us. What kills me is how little attention all these presses get. If Leonard weren't an author seeking markets, he wouldn't have started Thoughtcrime, and I wouldn't have heard of most of these presses and magazines. I'd see Tor's and Orbit's stuff in the bookstores, and maybe if BoingBoing or Tor.com or Making Light**** said something really positive about a particular story online I'd go click.
The ease of publishing doesn't mean readers automatically get hooked up with content they'd enjoy. Publishing is a binary switch, off to on, and new technology makes it cheaper to pull that switch. But publicizing -- marketing -- is analog, and really lossy. I'll only persuade a percentage of my desired audience to go read x, and I'll only ever hear about the fraction of that percentage that somehow signals back. Logs and analytics just tell me about impressions, not lasting impressions.
I am like the googolith person to observe, "it's a shame awesome indie stuff doesn't get as much mindshare as the mainstream does! It is almost as if having a large, established, for-profit publishing apparatus is good at turning capital into reputation, accessibility, and distribution!"
But just as I should be less in love with originality when appraising my past work (so what if Thoughtcrime did no one new thing? It combined a bunch of those things for the first time and it's a damn fun read), I don't have to put auteur-y novelty first on my priority list when allocating my future efforts. Why should I just turn five or nine stories from 0 to 1 on the publishing meter when I could get thousands of great stories from 1 to 2 or 5 or beyond?
Well, that "beyond" would be pretty tough. One assessment that sounds oppressively real: "The problem for SF writers and publishers today isn't that there's not a mass audience for high-end SF storytelling; it's that there are immense numbers of other diversions on offer for those hundreds of millions of people." Why should a person read at all, and if she reads why should she read the particular work I adore and want her to read? What particular need would I be uniquely fulfilling in her? Because that's where marketing starts: identifying or arousing a need.
I can reckon how a person might go about increasing the mindshare of any given indie scifi publisher among people who already consider themselves scifi fans. It's never been a better time to be a publisher or a cheapass reader; Amazon, Bookmooch, ManyBooks, Goodreads, DailyLit, the Kindle, blogs like Tor.com and BoingBoing, and other resources help hook up readers with the abundance of awesome fiction that already exists, for free, online. (If you are a cheapass scifi reader and you are saying, "Where do I start? SHOW ME THE FREE STORIES," Futurismic's Friday Free Fiction weekly roundup will get you started.)
Indie publishers still need a little marketing to get into many of those channels. Search engine optimization, some tech hairdressing, and time writing the equivalent of press releases come to mind. I can see a path to getting a rabid scifi fan to taste something new. I'd grow the market a little (rewarding!), but also displace the readership of my rivals, Big Publishers and other small presses (kind of disheartening!). I actually don't know how zero-sum the economics of this project would be, and am curious; I'd want to collect a lot of metrics, and set a quantitative goal in hopes of avoiding existential despair.
But the project of turning nonreaders into occasional sci-fi readers, and occasional readers into rabid readers? Unsolved and incredibly exciting. I'm wondering who else is doing this, and how; comments welcome.
I would like to make the pie higher, as the saying goes. Thoughtcrime Experiments will never be a huge slice of it in any case, and I'm not so delusional as to think it's objectively the tastiest portion.
So Leonard and I have different ideas for what's next (not that either of us is about to start anything; our jobs, writing, travel, friends, worries, etc. are consuming us for now). He's tentatively interested in doing what Brendan dares us to call Again, Thoughtcrime Experiments. I'd help again if he wanted. We found stories we loved and made them more real, and I love doing that. But my ambitions point me in another direction: scaling up.
* It wasn't till like three months into Thoughtcrime that I realized I was following in my parents' footsteps. My parents did a zine! Amerikannada, the literary magazine my parents ran for several years, printed fiction and nonfiction by the Kannada-speaking diaspora in the United States. The Amerikannada logo was a hybrid eagle-lion. They've been editing and writing and celebrating Kannada literature for decades, but I remember Amerikannada specifically because I got to help with kid-friendly mailing chores. After Leonard and I had an argument about art direction, I felt like I'd unlocked a memory of another editorial argument, conducted over my head as I pasted stickers to envelopes in the rec room of the first California house. I have no idea whether that's memory or invention, and indeed know nothing of how Mom and Dad divvied up the work, ran submissions, decided on timetables, or made any of those editing/publishing decisions I now find fascinating. I should ask them.
** You can sing "Andromeda Spaceways" to the same meter as "American Woman." As long as you're here: "Goblin Fruit" works as "Stacey's Mom" ("Goblin Fruit / is made of hemp and jute") and I always want to sing "Clarkesworld" to the tune of "McWorld!" from those old McDonald's ads.
*** Strange Horizons is a special case all on its own. When I started realizing that they've been publishing quality fiction and nonfiction weekly for more than seven years, paying pro rates, and generally been ahead of every curve I thought I was exploring, I couldn't believe that I hadn't been a fangirl earlier. I'm feasting on archives now, especially their reviews. You can start with Anathem and Little Brother, and then see if you find this analysis of Ted Chiang's work and this West Wing analysis as thought-provoking as I do.
**** I have been reading the Nielsen Haydens for like six years or more. Patrick and Teresa taught Leonard at Viable Paradise, and Patrick gave Leonard advice before we launched the anthology. We thanked them in the acknowledgments to Thoughtcrime. Teresa reminds me of my late mother-in-law, Frances, in a lot of ways. And yet, and yet.***** Nora speaks better than I could.
***** I meant to write about WisCon racism discussions weeks ago. Explanation seems impossible, so I'll sum up. Thank you, Rachel Chalmers, for putting my head straight when I saw you in January. Thanks to all the antiracists who have put spoons into this discussion, in education and anger both. And thanks to WisCon 33 and its participants, for being the place where I had drinks and panels and meals with uncountable fans of color. (Pleasantly disorienting: the meal where I was the only heterosexual and the only monogamist but not the only woman or person of color.)
My perspective on race in fiction has shifted. The short edition: if you write or edit or critique fiction, looking out for lazy racism is no longer optional. Analogies: 1. The feminist infrastructure is strong enough that sexist writing gets a bunch of flack, and the antiracist infrastructure is getting there. 2. An antiracist lens is going to be a usual mode of critique from now on. This is part of the new normal. The discourse has shifted. Someone trying to pretend this is a fad or a personal attack is like the RIAA lashing out to protect business models that no longer work. Some thoughts on problems and solutions in an upcoming post, I hope.
# 09 Mar 2009, 04:13PM: Lego Learning:
When I was rejecting submissions for Thoughtcrime Experiments, I told many writers that I'd give them suggestions for improvements if they wanted them. Some replied and took me up on the offer. Today I'm working on some of those critiques. Suddenly I am interested in litcrit theory and practice, because now that is a tool I can use to help people.
# (4) 05 Mar 2009, 09:05AM: A Fuss:
Ned Batchelder pointed to John Hodgman's condemnation of "meh" in one-off blog comments and tweets.
By definition, it may mean disinterest (although simple silence would be a more damning and sincere response, in that case)... But in use, it almost universally seems to signal: I am just interested enough to make one last joyless, nitpicky swipe and then disappear...
I think Hodgman is basically right here.* Another way to put it: "It's incredibly easy to make people feel embarrassed about having been enthusiastic about something, and 'I don't see what the fuss is about" is an effective tool with which to accomplish that task and shut a conversation down."
After submissions closed for Thoughtcrime Experiments (we've chosen the final stories, by the way!), Leonard defined our scoring process as: "From A to E the tiers are 'absolutely not', 'no', 'eh', 'yes', and 'yes!'" Note that the middle tier is "eh", not "meh". "Meh" is "I don't care" but "eh" is "I could go either way."
Batchelder praises Hodgman for "fighting the good fight for sincerity and engagement." Brandon Bird also recently mentioned "the new sincerity" and I'm into it -- earnest, enthusiastic passion is to me part of what makes a person worth talking to.
I expect a certain level of honesty, openness, engagement, and willingness to stand by one's statements in any conversation -- it's jarring to try to converse with people who don't share those values. I'm thinking when I vociferously challenged a claim by someone at my sister's housewarming -- he said that all TV is mindless because it dictates how you interact with it. Another conversant sort of stepped forward and said, to cool down the discussion, "I think we didn't mean for this to get...so..." meaningful? heated, to his eyes, because I showed that I cared and thought the other person was genuinely wrong about something important? I backed away. I probably should have shown more empathy and hospitality in conversing on a level that made the other guests comfortable -- direct challenges to statements of opinion do come off as angry and impolite, in some situations. But "meh" still isn't the answer to that; diplomacy is. And that I need to work on. My first year in college, a dorm-mate suggested I work on "something that starts with a t and rhymes with tact." I'm better, but evidently not great. Eh.
*(Disclaimer: JS, I still value and enjoy the flask you gave me that has "meh." laser-engraved onto the side.)
# (5) 19 Feb 2009, 09:51AM: Skills And Lenses:
A few models I've happened upon recently:
- No Big Deal: I visited Nandini. Her friend, a landscape architect, is helping her do up her apartment. We talked over breakfast. Susan's dad has always been a DIY type; his attitude is, why not try and do it himself? When she was a kid, her dad built a deck and she was his gofer. She'd take the leftover wood scraps and make doll furniture. To this day they enjoy working together and making stuff with their hands.
My parents have written and edited stuff for fun for decades. When I was a kid, Nandini and I helped them mail out their zine. Dad performed pujas and wanted participants to know what the rituals and Sanskrit mantras meant, so he'd write up articles in Hindi, Kannada, and English, typeset them in MS Word on the 486 running Windows 3.1 or 95, run off 200 copies at Office Depot, and have me staple the brochures together. Eventually he started asking me to edit them ("Dad, no one knows what 'clarion' means, you should use a different word").
They're always giving speeches, at parties, at Indian-American banquets/variety shows (invariably called "functions"), at schools, at an interfaith municipal Thanksgiving. And they'd push Nandini and me in front of the mike -- "Recite that poem you wrote! Sing that Weird Al song!" Once Nandini and I wrote, cast, and acted in a little four-act play called "Lost in Translation" at one of those Indian-American functions. I think we were teens.
So after breakfast, Susan was singlehandedly putting up shelves in the guest room -- studfinding, putting up rails, cutting planks to size with a saw, and placing the brackets. Meanwhile, in the living room, Nandini was writing a big report on transit infrastructure in Thailand and India. She'll be doing a presentation on it, too. And I was working on a fiction anthology I'm editing. But we took a break to cowrite a silly monologue.
One of the greatest gifts you can give your children, your employees, the people to whom you are a role model, is the knowledge that some field of endeavor is in a sense No Big Deal. Knowledge -- belief backed up by experience -- that they can do interesting and rewarding projects in it without fear of public embarrassment.
I grew up thinking that writing, editing, publishing, public speaking, community leadership, hobbyist programming, and using the Net were No Big Deal. To this day, though, I'm leery of trying home improvement, car repair, sports, camping, and childcare. I don't have a baseline, I don't know where to start, I don't know how to know if I'm doing okay, I've never played around in a context where results don't matter, so I have that vague fear. Nandini got cooking from my mom; I didn't. I lost my fearlessness about hobbyist coding and am trying to get it back. I've gained some fearlessness about travel and capitalism.
Leonard suggested a conclusion: you should treat everything like it's No Big Deal. Danger: you turn into one of those jerks who scorn strangers' struggles. (Yes, I'm thinking of those MIT jerks I met at that entrepreneurship meeting.) Self-efficacy demands that I treat my own attempts like No Big Deal; compassion demands that I recognize my privilege and help others build their skills and confidence.
Hospitality + Integrity: How can I enter a party or meetup and start a good conversation with someone I've never met? I take the initiative to introduce myself to random people. I have a few starter and restarter questions at the ready -- what cool things are you up to? what's exciting you these days? how do you know the host? do you live around here? what are you reading? -- avoiding the boring status-laden questions like "What do you do?" and "Where did you go to school?" I enthusiastically listen and ask follow-up questions and bring up related topics and trivia.
Some people respond in kind and get the momentum of the conversation going, start new threads and return to old ones. Some don't. If after five minutes of that treatment the person isn't saying anything particularly interesting, I say, "will you excuse me" and say something about food or drink or something, go away, and find some other person to talk to. I almost always find someone who can do twenty interesting minutes with me. And now I've made a new acquaintance, probably a friend. If I now need to mingle more to get good ROI out of the event, I frankly say, "I need to go mingle and meet more people," take her card or give him mine, and move on.
In a sense I think of my conversation-starting as merely hospitable. I try to make people feel cared-about and give them a platform to show off their coolness. But I couldn't just do that insincerely; that's cynical and such a drain. I honestly believe most people have something interesting to show me, and that some just need a little help opening up. So I don't hide my opinions (open platforms win in the long run, the GOP is irresponsible, venture capital is uninteresting, Harry Potter Book 4 was great). But compassion demands that I avoid giving needless offense, and integrity demands that I back up my arguments and admit when I'm wrong, and hospitality demands that I never let myself become a boor or a bore.
As I grow older, I find my deepest friends have integrity, a work ethic, some project that they're passionate about, and this seemingly innate dedication to conversational generosity. Attention, empathy, turn-taking, nitpicking only in the service of substantive truth, following the truth and the argument wherever it leads. And that's what I look for in new friends, and I keep finding it.
Jokes, Games, and Stories as Syllogisms: A common way to describe speculative fiction (otherwise known as "science fiction and fantasy" is to call them "what-if stories." There's some counterfactual premise. My favorite stories are the ones where the interactions of the characters and the counterfactual premise(s) elegantly and inevitably lead to some satisfying resolution. The author reveals the emergent properties of a system.
It turns out that this is also something I like in jokes. We see the rules of the world at the start, and then we see how they work themselves into something entertaining. My directions for creating observational humor aren't going to give you Dane-Cooky "that's so stupid! Blaaaaaah!" They're going to give you a Seinfeldesque analysis of the absurdity. Where did the incongruity come from, and what trend does it reveal?
I'll leave it to the Adam Parrish/Zack Weinberg/Leonard Richardson/Brendan Adkins/Holly Gramazio/Kevan Davis/Alexei Othenin-Girard types to let me know whether I'm grounded in suspecting that this is some of the joy they find in designing games.
I started thinking about these models while chatting with friends and acquaintances near and far. Man, sociability is awesome.
# 29 Jan 2009, 11:48PM: Surprise, Surprise:
Having a publicly viewable stats aggregator displaying how quickly I read Thoughtcrime Experiments slush makes me want to work more and faster.
If only I could have responded to most Salon Premium tech support questions with "not suitable for our needs at this time, thank you."
# 02 Sep 2005, 11:55AM: Impulses:
What we are now learning about the devastation in the Gulf combines with a growing desire, borne of my working life, to become a manager, a good one.
You can hire me through Changeset Consulting.
This work by Sumana Harihareswara is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available by emailing the author at email@example.com.