Categories: sumana | Memoir
Reminiscences of my earlier life
# 05 May 2021, 09:56AM: Fatigue And Adaptability:
In my dream last night, I was in an in-person work meeting. And then, halfway through, we started talking about how badly we were coping with the strains of the pandemic. After each person spoke, they got a blanket and lay down on the floor and started a much-needed nap.
I had this dream the night after I read that, in some chunks of the world (such as mine),
The clear skies we're seeing might merely be the calm in the eye of a storm.
Consequently, I would advise everyone who is fully vaccinated to make the most of their liberty while they have it, in case it goes away again.
In particular, if there are important things that you've been putting off due to to the risk of doing them, because they're necessarily in-person, you might want to get on that. That might be health things, that might be family things, that might be work things. Whatever it is, maybe do it sooner rather than later.
Leonard and I got our second vaccine shots in late March, so the past few weekends we've seen a few fully-vaccinated friends. I got to go hiking on Sunday! But now I am thinking I need to think about errands, and -- despite this weariness -- use this time towards them, while I can.
Whatever structures I set up to help me through this, whether routines or mindsets -- I ought not let them calcify past usefulness. I am trying to remember that I have the capacity to be flexible, and that fear is the mind-killer.
# (1) 21 Apr 2021, 11:20AM: Anniversary:
Today is my fifteenth wedding anniversary!
Leonard and I got engaged on 18 April 2006 and then married on 21 April 2006. For our tenth wedding anniversary we visited Paris. While there we visited the awesome Musée des Arts et Métiers, where I noticed:
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.
And -- as I recall with gratitude and relief -- I don't have to be Jacquard. I can be one of those other folks. "Somebody Will". "I am willing to sacrifice something I don't have / For something I won't have / but somebody will someday."
Today Leonard and I are celebrating our wedding anniversary by having a little virtual vacation to France. We drank some French-blended tea with breakfast, we'll get some French takeout later, and we'll watch some French TV ads on YouTube and play GeoGuessr to virtually walk around Paris.
I'm appreciating today the gentle quiet durable pleasures of a long partnership. I hope you get some gentle pleasure today, too.
# 07 Apr 2021, 01:07PM: Painstakingly Reminding Myself How To Play:
This is a little bit about how free-range learners in programming assess our own skill levels and choose what to learn next. But it's also a response to my own insecurity, and to the sometimes-stultifying weight of concentrating one's work on infrastructure.
Working on things that matter
In the Abstruse Goose comic "Computer Programming 101", a learner provokes an explainer with further and further questions about the CS and hardware and physics underlying a programming task. One reading of the comic: "Get comfortable with abstraction. If you try to understand how everything works, you'll get nothing done."
Yeah, of course, everyone's time is finite, and we all have to make our own decisions about how much time to spend on learning and how much time to spend doing other things, using our existing levels of knowledge. (Although I've recently tripped up on the assumption that the listener aims to get anything in particular "done".)
But there's also a kind of obliviousness that is so helpful, not just cognitively but emotionally, when I'm learning. Not knowing that something is risky, or not really being able to comprehend risk, helps you do it. This is one reason it can be useful to learn a bunch of programming skills when you're young, not just because very little responsibility rests on your code's shoulders, but also because at that stage you haven't yet seen all the vulnerabilities and Daily WTFs and unlocalized sadnesses... you don't even know what all edge cases exist in the world. You can take the leap of faith that all your infrastructure will work -- heck, you don't even know what infrastructure you're relying on! You don't even realize you are taking that leap of faith! -- and concentrate on getting your corner just right.
For context: for my job, I primarily work, and want to work, on mature open source software that many users already depend on. I find a lot of satisfaction in rejuvenating and stabilizing widely-used open source projects and thus healing important parts of the whole system. My professional experience is loaded up with working on stuff like GNOME utilities and MediaWiki and the Python packaging toolchain. (I left the Wikimedia Foundation partly to mess around with blank slates and without legacy infrastructure/stakeholders.... and then turned into the de facto community manager for Python packaging!) I played with BASIC as a child, and I learned a bit of Scheme and bash in college, but I came to programming in a serious, sustained way AFTER years in the industry, as a technologist and manager in software engineering teams.
Which means that when I do want to make a little toy, sometimes it's been hard for me to just come to it with learner's mind. I see that it has no unit tests, no localization, a bad UI, crappy OO, no extensibility and zero separation of concerns, ridiculous performance. There are at least five worlds of software development (that article is pretty obsolete but its point is reasonable) and I am a permanent resident of the People You Don't Know Will Need To Use This Software world. I spent some of my childhood in Playing Around world but it can be hard for me to remember how to get around there. (And oppressed people, out of necessity, often mitigate risk more, tempering audacity. So that's yet another privilege thing.)
As Amandine Lee writes: "People's intuitions and risk-friendliness also vary based on personality, and how they've seen things fail in the past." Yes! But then the very next sentence: "A lot of growing as an engineer is fine-tuning that initial response to design decisions." She meta-cautions us against knee-jerk caution, a reflex that leads to "wasteful carefulness". Was it nearly a year ago I talked about this, about the balance between preservation and growth? Maybe it's a springtime kind of rumination.
Precursors to relaxation
I am trying to think about what helps me let go of those worries and fiddle, sketch, prototype. Curiosity about a specific dataset helps, as does the impatient desire to munge some data into a form I can more easily reuse. Or an external force causing me to concentrate on achieving some specific outcome OTHER than "other people need this," like "I want to create enough of a game that I can put it in my application to the Recurse Center" (e.g., this commit in "Where on the Oregon Trail is Carmen Sandiego?" -- global variables and pretty naive string concatenation abound, as you can see, and I think those were the first two classes I ever wrote). I also think it helps when I feel like I am exploring abundant neat stuff left over by past architects, as with "HTTP Can Do That?!" (video).
Geoffrey Litt reports that part of it, for him, is concentrated time: "Also, I just gotta say: years of professional software engineering has trained me to work sustainably, but there's something to be said for a few long, unsustainable days of furious programming. Early-stage creative prototyping seems to benefit from a certain energy level that's not easily attainable in a sustainable environment." (Which makes me think about different ways participants can use Recurse Center, deliberately creating bursty rhythms of work and recovery, if they're concentrating on inventing, versus using a consistent routine to aid learning.)
Security and insecurity (how novel, I know)
A few years ago* I started thinking about how to harness this dynamic for play and confidence, specifically by improving my cybersecurity skills. My reasoning went:
- I often see good engineering that is better than I could do
- There is a counterproductive reaction-pattern in my head that sometimes finds it intimidating, not inspiring, to see amazing work
- Thus I get turned off in a fixed-mindset way, thinking "I am not a good engineer" because of my relative inferiority
- But the reverse is also kind of true; if I discover flaws in real running production code then I will notice my relative superiority and feel more confident about my own abilities, which raises my morale and makes it easier for me to try things that I might fail at
- There is a lot of poor engineering out there, especially when, for instance, viewed through a security lens, and it is probably possible for me to use existing resources to understand common flaws and learn how to find them
- Thus, it would be a good step for me to learn more about the bit of the software industry that has lots of terribly written code, in production, that I can inspect and feel superior to
(There's something here in common with what I've said about ways to deal with impostor syndrome, and self-assessment vertigo -- find reminders of my own competence as compared to the whole human population, not just the experts whose skill level I aspire to.)
Less coherently, I feel emotionally insecure and feel digitally insecure; I would like to be able to make better-reasoned tradeoffs about my digital behavior and protection. And I was noodling around, thinking about the community of practice of script kiddies, and the envy I feel when thinking about having the time and equipment to play like that, and the joy of feeling powerful but not responsible. I thought that would be something I would get out of offensive (rather than defensive) security skills: a feeling of power without necessarily then feeling a new weight of responsibility.
Fast forward to now. I went in approximately the opposite direction. Sure, I know more about cybersecurity now, and I'm even a visiting scholar in an academic lab working on cybersecurity. But it's to better secure the Python packaging pipeline! More infrastructure work! I have not learned any offensive skills and all of my power comes with responsibility! It's like the sitcom trope where a person says "I think I'm gonna skip that party" and then the show cuts to them seated in the middle of a big banquette table at the restaurant and everyone's wearing party hats.
And I now know myself well enough to know that, as soon as I notice a needless wasteful problem, I itch to fix it, and have to remind myself to pick my battles. So: even if I did grow in my offensive skills, every time I noticed a vulnerability, I would immediately feel a frustrated desire to patch it, more than I'd feel a confirmation of my own capabilities. I am too mature to have power without feeling commensurate responsibility. I missed my window.
Old advice for a new mind
A few nights ago I couldn't get to sleep because of a wave of insecurity and negative self-talk. I never went to MIT and I wasted my social opportunities in college and that's why I founded Changeset solo instead of with a cofounder and that's why I haven't yet achieved what I wanted to! I'm middle-aged and my neuroplasticity is declining and it's too late for me to gain momentum on improving my habits and getting more efficient and making an impact! That sort of thing.
And I remembered an old teacher of mine, Mr. Berkowitz. He taught government and economics at my high school, and he looked ancient and frail -- when he slowly walked the path between the administration building and his classroom, I thought I could see the wind threatening to knock him over. And that's why it made such an impression on me when, on the last day of class, he told us: "if you keep learning, you will never grow old."
And I got out of bed and went to my computer, and figured out how to install Rust (with help from 2 people in the Recurse Center's Zulip chat), and started Rustlings, an exercise-by-exercise approach to learning Rust by fixing code that doesn't work. I completed the first exercise and got the string of "tada" emojis and smiled, a strong real spontaneous smile, and felt and noticed it. And a few exercises later, I was calm enough to go to bed and fall asleep.
I have some unformed ideas about how knowing a bit of Rust might help me with my work, to lead projects like Federico Mena-Quintero's work on librsvg, replacing C library code with Rust. But maybe the big reasons it appeals to me are that everyone I've ever heard of working on Rust is friendly, and the language aims to be really helpful with its error messages, and no one needs me to learn it. It's ok if I don't do it. Which makes it more ok to do it.
In my job I want to work on things that matter. To do that job well I need to learn. The pressure of "this matters" can make it harder to learn. Therefore there is meta-work I must do to make tidepools and sandboxes for myself to learn in, shifting my mindset accordingly. And, for bigger jaunts into Playing Around World, maybe making time for another retreat at Recurse Center sometime.
* I have a note here that maybe this was related to my experience watching a preview of Jessica McKellar's talk "Building and breaking a Python sandbox". In it, McKellar mentioned to us that ping runs as root, which stuck with me.
# 05 Apr 2021, 12:41PM: Paralipsis:
I'm in the process of working with a contractor to overhaul my personal and professional websites. Thus, I have been thinking about my brand (oh how I want to put distancing quotation marks around that word when it pertains to me), and breadth.
I value my ability to use this weblog to write about a broad variety of topics (and, in the writing, find out what I think) and in a variety of tones. This is at odds with the approach of many successful professional blogs, and perhaps there's an inertia here, a self-sabotaging recalcitrance to shape up and make my interface easier for my future customers to grasp. "Indie 101, do stuff that defeats your own purpose. Reflexively, routinely." as John Darnielle said.* I think I'm not. I think I'm doing this out of a kind of intuition, about habitually being and seeming like a person who will bring a multidisciplinary approach to your problem, about the relative advantage of being a bit weirder and having more odd edges to catch on in a Web of frictionless interchangeability, and about the mental benefits to me of minimizing the upfront cognitive cost of choosing which venue I use to think aloud about what.
But, in the overhaul, the contractor and I will be making it easier for people who only want to see the work-related stuff to browse and concentrate on that, particularly via resource collections on the Changeset Consulting website.
And I've been reflecting on the limits I do have in what I blog about. As early as 2002 I wrote here:
I'm not my whole self here. If you are your whole self in your weblog, if I could completely know you by just reading your weblog, then you've broken some barrier and become a Philip K. Dick character, or you have a very small life.
Talking about that necessarily seems a bit coy, but I've been meaning to write about it for years, so, here are some thoughts.
The nonrandom distribution of absence
... rhetorical devices ... in which a speaker claims something to be true while implying the opposite. Sarcasm works that way, of course, but there are subtler forms. For instance, praeteritio, also known as paralipsis: pretending one is omitting information while providing it. "I shall refrain from mentioning my opponent's lengthy criminal record...."
Several years ago, a friend of mine asked me for a bit of advice, because she was thinking of blogging something about sexism in technology, and wanted a risk assessment. How likely is it that jerks would contact her employer and suggest she be fired, or send her rape threats or death threats, or try to break into her online accounts, or find her phone number and harass her that way, or follow her around and try to argue with her at conferences, or give her a hard time via Twitter, or start overlooking her for various kinds of opportunities, or write thoughtless or hurtful comments on the inevitable Hacker News discussion, or otherwise demonstrate Lewis's Law?
I write about technology, and sometimes I write about anti-sexism initiatives. But I thought about the things I rarely or never publicly write about, because I'm afraid. Here's what I wrote, more than six years ago:
I don't write about the few really bad experiences I've had.
I don't write about the things friends and acquaintances are going through.
When I travel, I don't publicly mention what hotel I'm staying at.
I don't talk in detail about what it's like to be the only woman in the room.
I don't write about my own sex life, at all.
I don't write about figuring out what to wear, or about the trouble I fear if I explore traditional expressions of femininity.
I don't talk about my period.
I don't talk about men assuming that I went to Hacker School to learn how to program, from scratch.
I don't talk about deciding which photos of myself are too chesty to put on my site, or about not knowing whether photographers at an event really want to get a lot of shots of the only woman of color who's turned up.
(And here I stopped writing for a while, because it's wearying and sad and tedious to think about this, and because there were probably more topics that I didn't even want to mention in the list.)
@hashoctothorpe started a #whatitslike hashtag on Twitter.
It's like deciding how far to stick my neck out, all the time, every second, never not making that decision #whatsitlike
"Like being the emotional grownup in the room." #whatsitlike
Like watching my friends and role models be terrorized and being unable to help. #whatsitlike
"Like my friend and i were talking and you interrupted to ask that" #whatsitlike
My friend -- the one who'd asked for advice -- thought about it for a while, and changed all her passwords, and posted the piece she'd written.
But some don't. "Ghost works are all the works that never get made in the first place, or are made but not released".
A bit later, Leigh Alexander wrote:
One of my colleagues just wrote me she's frustrated about all the conversations we're not having. We all are, I think, migrated against our will to interminable residencies in a politicized minefield, where even talk amongst ourselves is scrutinized.... We are not free to debate and to disagree lest we be set against one another.
And that resonated with me, because we're missing people in our public discourse; our conversations are poorer because some of us are more afraid to speak our truths, and that difference is not randomly distributed.
Sometimes the most urgent thing to hear, the lifeline, is "you are not alone." But the consequences of sharing are hard to assess ahead of time. And I'm not just talking about harassment. Sometimes the legal ground shifts under your feet; in the US, if the Affordable Care Act disintegrates, then it will have been more unsafe to talk about health stuff online.
Or the technology changes, so the ground shifts from opaque to transparent under our feet, and archaeology turns trivial. What is public? Or: what is secret, or private, or public, and does that middle category exist anymore?
I think that’s what Twitter is all about, and permits: it’s sort of magically translated the informal register of text messages into the public space, and for public figures, allowed them to get away with throwaway comments far more than before.
I don't know how well Danny O'Brien's 2009 assessment there held up. Perhaps as more people learned to use Twitter search it got less true.
Then, mostly separately, there's the "brand" stuff.
Limited-purpose public figure
Am I a public figure?
Courtney Milan wrote, regarding a legal controversy in 2014:
...if you inject yourself into an issue of public concern, you may be a limited purpose public figure -- that is, someone for whom the standards differ....
...And the standard for defamation actions for limited purpose public figures is substantially different than for private citizens.
I don't know whether I am a limited purpose public figure, legally, for any controversies at the moment. But the phrase strikes me. It's an evocative phrase, sounding more sophisticated than "brand" or "platform". They get at different things.
A brand is a way to carve a shelf into your brain, at a particular junction of ideas and feelings, so that a picture of me can sit there. But a too-narrow shelf is a pigeonhole. What do we avoid sharing, not because it is uncharitable or misleading or overly revealing, but because the more different things I say the less you know where to shelve me? How many ghost works un-exist for these reasons? Ryn Daniels wrote: "More and more of the time, I end up not posting something I was considering. The bigger my 'brand' gets, the bigger the boundary I have to maintain between it and my self."
The contractor interviewed a few of my friends, colleagues, clients, and peers in the free and open source software world to help understand what they see in my business and in my personal blog. They determined that the indie informality and voice of my personal site helps establish my credibility especially among free and open source folks, and that we can have the personal site and the Changeset Consulting (business) site reinforce each other, so that the Changeset site does the job of establishing my serious professional face to potential clients (i.e., mostly companies) yet benefits from my personal writing too.
This feels like a reasonable path forward. A brand is a public tool for a limited purpose; the business site will be pointed, drawing the reader through a few specific paths. And the personal site will be more browseable, but still diffuse, more of a kaleidoscope where decades of my facets shimmer and reflect off each other. Still not everything, of course; I'm still not a Philip K. Dick character. But enough rich variety to retain the capacity to surprise you, and, just as importantly, myself.
* about 3:00 to 3:15 in the "Leaving Home" track in this 2007 concert recording.
# 12 Mar 2021, 12:58PM: A Strange Vision Of The After Times:
Yesterday someone, talking with me about what is ok to do once we're fully vaccinated, referred to that as "the After Time".
I mentioned in April that if the pre-pandemic past was The Before Times, and the post-pandemic future will be The After Times, then "right now is The During Times. Right? That feels right. Duration, during, endure, endurance."
I don't know yet whether it will feel like The After Times for me once I have received my second vaccination shot and then waited two weeks. But I do know that I am having a hard time with endurance right now.
My brittleness is counter to how so many things are going better, big and small. Spring weather, the new federal administration, the vaccine rollout, book stuff. I cannot do a standard push-up but I can do inclined push-ups, and today the trainer for my remote exercise class explicitly told me that my push-ups are coming along nicely.
My habits are helping pull me through. The exercise class, and the other ways I exercise with friends and Nintendo. My regular coworking sessions in videocalls with friends. These took energy to establish, and now they are repaying the favor... I would say that I feel like they're a conveyor belt, but it's nothing so well-designed. I am being dragged along an ocean floor by a chain of metal links. Someday the surface will show up again. The light will be a different color and won't weave around in the waves. The smells and the breeze will smash into me without warning. And all around me friends and strangers will bob to the surface, and look around, and cautiously start swimming over to one another. Those who made it.
# 02 Mar 2021, 07:55PM: Getting My First COVID-19 Vaccine In New York City:
On Saturday night I received my first vaccination dose against COVID-19. I've had minimal side effects and the appointment went very smoothly. Here's a longish post about eligibility in New York, booking the appointment, and how the process went.
You might be eligible, too
If you live in New York, it is very much worth looking at the eligibility criteria in detail. The current groups eligible for vaccination include new groups added within the last couple of weeks, including people with several health conditions. The conditions include several that I think people skimming may have overlooked. For instance, moderate-to-severe asthma, type 1 and type 2 diabetes, and hypertension are on the list. "Severe obesity (body mass index of 40 kg/m2 or higher), obesity (body mass index of between 30 kg/m2 and 40 kg/m2)" is on the list; I know a strength and conditioning coach whose BMI qualifies for that, just in case you're feeling unhappy about also being in that category (BMI: an extremely flawed measure). And "Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities including Down Syndrome," too, which probably include Autism Spectrum Disorder and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, which I only realized because of folks talking about that on Twitter.*
If you have one of those health conditions: as the official guidelines on eligibility proof say:
You do not need documentation from your personal health care provider or any other proof of your condition to get a vaccine in NYC. It is only necessary for you to self-certify you have an underlying condition that makes you eligible. You will be asked to self-certify as part of the appointment scheduling process, or a vaccine provider will ask you to complete the below certification document before or at the time of your appointment.
And! As of today, eligible groups include
- Regional food bank paid or unpaid workers
- Food pantry paid or unpaid workers
- Permitted home-delivered meal program paid or unpaid workers
(If I know you personally I'll share why I'm eligible.)
Getting and preparing for the appointment
Once I realized I was eligible, I used TurboVax as an easy way to see when new vaccine appointments were available. I happened to refresh again one day and saw appointments available at Brooklyn Army Terminal. I'm glad I followed the TurboVax advice on having forms filled out ahead of time; I had several rounds of clicking on a time and immediately being told it was not available, then finally nabbed one.
I read the info sheet about the Moderna vaccine and followed the electronic instructions to fill out some patient info and consent forms online. And I made a to-do list ahead of my appointment: print out the appointment info, grab proof of my eligibility, fill out and print the confirmation that I filled out the day-of-vaccine online form, bring my insurance card and government ID, bring some proof of NYC residency just in case they wanted additional confirmation beyond my ID, and - since people on Twitter had reported 3-hour waits in the past few days at the Brooklyn Army Terminal location - prep for a long wait in an outdoors queue (water and a snack, a charged phone and power brick, a few fresh podcasts downloaded). And I assumed I would need to take a cab there and back, so my list also included ensuring I had a means to pay for those cabs. But a friend who is vaccinated and who has a car volunteered to drive me there and back!
Nearly no wait
We arrived like 45 minutes early and there was NO LINE. I did have to fill out about 1 page of paperwork that felt duplicative (maybe many people do not fill out the online stuff). How it went (all people I interacted with were wearing masks -- I think they were all women, by the way):
- Arrived and was immediately given a form and a pen; took maybe 3 min to fill it out.
- As soon as I was done, a worker walked me to a small standalone room -- kind of reminded me of a portable classroom from when I was in high school, but much smaller -- and another worker asked me some questions, took my ID and insurance card for a moment, took the form and eligibility proof, and typed a bunch of stuff into the electronic health records system. Also, she showed me available dates and times for my second dose, I chose one, and she scheduled it. This whole bit took maybe 5-10 minutes.
- As soon as that step was done, a worker walked me to another room elsewhere in the grid, divided in half by a curtain. A person at a computer was supposed to do one last bit of electronic health record stuff, I think, but seemed to be having trouble finding the right desktop icon to click. The clinician? finished with the person she was dosing on the other side of the curtain, and did the electronic health record stuff herself, and filled out the paper vaccination record card that I can take with me. And she injected me (with the Moderna vaccine), which felt about as painful as accidentally scratching my skin with my fingernail. I spent maybe 5-10 minutes in this room total.
- One of those workers walked me to the observation tent where patients waited 15 minutes in case we had a bad reaction to the vaccine. Some people sat quietly or talked with (I assume) the person they came with; some of us chitchatted with the clipboard-wielding workers, who every once in a while called someone's name to tell us we were free to go.
- I had been texting my friend throughout to let him know how fast things were going; once I was outside (at the well-lit and guarded entrance), I called him and he came from where he had parked and picked me up. It was now just about time for my originally scheduled appointment, and now I was already done!
On my way home I started feeling a little tingling at the injection site, and later that evening, some mild soreness. Sunday I had some more soreness in the upper arm (that felt like a muscle ache from exercise) and I went to bed a bit early and slept for about 10 hours, and Monday I had some mild soreness. Over the course of today I'd say the soreness has completely faded away. I've been able to do my usual workouts Sunday, Monday, and today without trouble.
(This is perfect, because to me the perfect level of side effects for this is "very mild, but just enough that I viscerally feel like it's working.")
I feel very happy about having gotten the first vaccine dose and it's been excellent for my mood, but talking more about that here feels like taunting the people who haven't been able to get it yet, so I won't dwell on that.
It's worth taking a fresh look at the current groups eligible for vaccination, including various health conditions, because some of those items may surprise you. And if you are eligible, it's worth taking a little look at TurboVax once in a while to see whether new appointments pop up that you could snag. Right now, TurboVax and an official state tracker say that there are first dose appointments available starting in April at Medgar Evers for Brooklyn residents.
I am so grateful for all of the infrastructure that got me/us here.
* There is no canonical list of intellectual and developmental disabilities recognized by New York State for the purpose of vaccine eligibility, as far as I can tell. I checked several pages within CDC's web content that cover developmental disabilities (including a COVID-specific page), called a New York vaccination helpline (the worker escalated and searched and got no definitive answer), and have now called one of my state-level legislators to suggest that they clarify this. Maybe they should coordinate with the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities and the Children and Youth with Special Health Care Needs Program, or maybe they should just point to the closest thing to a canonical list I found on the CDC's site -- I don't know what the answer is, but there needs to be some kind of way for people with various conditions to check whether they're eligible before turning up for the vaccination and maybe being told they're not!
# 01 Feb 2021, 12:59PM: Three Ways I Exercise In My Apartment:
My mental and physical health are much better if I can exercise, to the point of getting sweaty, for at least 20 minutes every day. The forms of exercise I most enjoy (hiking, biking for errands, helping people move belongings or build things, multiperson sports) are a lot harder to do during the pandemic. So I was very sedentary for a lot of 2020.
I started trying various approaches to in-my-apartment exercise, such as calisthenics while listening to podcasts, working out alone in my living room along with an online video such as this New York Times six-minute workout, etc. It was hard for me to make and stick to a schedule and stay consistent. I eventually came to a few approaches that, combined, work well for me. I have actually been able to exercise approximately every day using a combination of these three activities.
Here's what I'm doing, in case you've been struggling with similar problems.
Nintendo Ring Fit Adventure
Three to five days every week, I play a Nintendo game where I do specified exercises in order to travel through a fantasy landscape and fight monsters. I am told that this is a classic role-playing game (RPG) and that all the stuff about levelling up, collecting potions, choosing the right attack for a particular monster, fulfilling bystander requests, etc. is totally standard for the game genre. I am fairly unfamiliar with it and am learning everything just fine as I go, thanks to in-game instructions. Once, in about 20-30 sessions of playing, I've looked up stuff in online forums (it is hard to get the console to register when I'm doing a plank), but otherwise it's been very easy to learn. And there is immediate feedback to help me learn the proper form for each exercise, as much as the sensors allow.
It works to keep me motivated! There's novel stuff every day, so I want to discover what's next in the story and what new exercises, potions, and minigames the game has in store for me. And I like the immediate feedback. It is easier for me to get myself to do a bunch of squats if it will defeat a monster!
The bits of the game that are not exercise (like talking to characters and turning ingredients into potions) are not exercise, so there's an in-game clock that helpfully tells me how much I have actually exercised in the current session. A 30-minute exercise session might take 45 to 60 minutes of game time for me (your results may vary).
At the start, the game helps the user set a difficulty setting based on things like how often the user currently exercises. I started at "10" and have been gradually cranking it up -- I think I'm at 20 now. I think this means I have to do more exercise movements to beat any given monster.
I dislike that I am using proprietary software and hardware for this. If there were a libre alternative that had approximately all the same characteristics and was engineered to the same quality, I'd love to use that instead.
Technical details: You will need to buy the console (which includes two "Joy-Con" controllers), the game, and two special attachments: the leg strap and the Ring-Con (see "money details" below for costs). One Joy-Con goes into a pocket on the leg strap, which wraps around a thigh and attaches with Velcro, so that can measure when you're jogging or squatting and so on. The other Joy-Con slots into the Ring-Con, which is like a stiff circular resistance band that measures how hard you squeeze and pull it, and whether it's moving and in what direction (so, whether you have lifted it over your head).
You'll also need some physical space to play it -- maybe something like a 6 foot by 4 foot space, where you can also wave your arms above your head and kick your legs and so on without knocking stuff over. I use a couple of yoga mats as a light cushion and to reduce noise.
Money details: To play this, you'll need to buy:
Small-group video class with a trainer
- A Nintendo Switch (the console, which comes with two "Joy-Con" controllers): currently about USD$300
- The software (the game), which (if you buy it new) costs about $80 and comes with the two attachments listed below
- Two attachments, the leg strap and the "Ring-Con"; can be bought separately for like $10 and $30 respectively in case you bought the game used/standalone
Once a week I take a one-hour strength-type class led by a certified strength and conditioning coach in the Midwest. He's a brother of a friend of a friend and he has a little extra time right now. So my friend told me about this class (USD$15/session), and now once a week I get on a Zoom call with 2-4 other people and do, like, leg lifts and weightlifting and whatnot.
If you decide to do something like this, it is fine to shop around for an instructor who suits your style and whose demeanor you like! I like someone who encourages you to only do what you can handle and who tells you how to modify if, for instance, your wrist is not up to pushups today. And I like someone who is straightforward in explaining the anatomical dynamics of what you're trying to do -- this is especially helpful during a remote class since they can't physically come over and help you re-position to do a movement right.
The externally scheduled commitment helps me show up, and, once I'm there, I'm more likely to do hard exercises because a trainer has just instructed me to do so. And the peer pressure helps. I can see my classmates working, and the trainer, and my other classmates, can see through my camera as I work. Also, the professional "bend your left leg more, that's good"-type advice helps me get more out of each movement.
Technical details: I use a Snap to run the Zoom client on Debian Linux. I also use a sports-y Bluetooth headset (hooking over the ear) so I can more easily hear the instructor while multiple feet away from my laptop's speakers. And I have some light (like 2-5 pounds) hand weights that I use for some exercises, and I use a yoga mat as a light cushion.
Money details: The instructor for this charges $15 per session, payable by PayPal. I think it's totally worth it for a one-hour class that includes expert interaction.
1:1 or small group videocalls working out with a YouTube video
About 3-4 days per week, I have pre-scheduled videocalls with a few people I at least kind of know, where we work out together while simultaneously watching a YouTube exercise video.
I pick the videos we use, and generally stick to 10- or 15-minute novice-friendly exercise videos. I prefer videos where the instructor (or a demonstrator in the video) shows how to modify each activity to make it easier or harder, and where the instructor doesn't get sizeist or too imperative. I like Jessica Valant's Pilates videos and have found some reasonable cardiovascular exercise sessions on the POP Sugar Fitness channel.
Again, the pre-scheduled commitment to other people makes it more likely I will show up, and seeing each other through our cameras nudges each of us into trying to move along with the video (or doing some kind of substitute movement if the video's too hard).
I used some private online groups/chats and individual emails/texts/catchup-calls to mention the opportunity to friends and acquaintances whom I know well enough to do a sweaty plank or graceless jumping jack (in UK English: star jump) in front of. I suggested that they let me know if this was something they might like to join in, even just to try it once, and offered to make the videocall arrangements, figure out a few good times, pick videos, etc. So now I have some recurring calendar items set up. And it's a nice way to have some virtual face time with a few friends without having to make a ton of conversation!
The structure is generally:
- 5 minutes: Setup, getting a glass of water, talking about what we're up for (including whether anyone has parts of their body that can't take stress right now), choosing a video and length
- 10-20 minutes: Exercising along with the video
- 5 minutes: How was that -- length, intensity, movement complexity, instructor demeanor, etc.? Things to keep/change for next time?
Technical details: Whereby.com and Jitsi Meet both make it easy to start a free meeting and to watch a YouTube video together (ad-free). The YouTube audio takes over and everyone else is muted, but you can still see everyone else's camera. Meetings on Whereby's free tier are limited to 4 people; Jitsi can deal with, like, 25 people at least. Both Whereby and Jitsi work fine in the browser and invitees don't need to download a new app or plugin, or create a login account.
As with the small group class calls, I usually use a sports-type Bluetooth headset and a yoga mat. I usually choose videos that do not require that you have any hand dumbbells, because some of my friends don't have any.
A few of my friends have a tough time learning a set of complex physical movements while watching and doing those movements. So with them the session is a little longer. We watch the video once to learn what movements to do (maybe on 1.5x speed, sometimes skipping ahead 5 seconds using the right arrow key) and then close it and share it again (at 1x speed) to watch it and exercise along with it. You can do this in Jitsi or Whereby but I think there's a jumpiness glitch in Jitsi; haven't tried it in Whereby yet.
Money details: Free! Fortunately, it's free to watch videos on YouTube. And Jitsi is free to use, and I already have a Whereby account that's good for up to 4 people.
We have a neighbor who can hear when I exercise noisily, so I negotiated via text message to ask what times of day are reasonable windows for me to exercise without bothering them, and I try to stick to those windows.
I went a bit too hard early on and went straight from sedentary life to doing about 45 minutes of intense exercise (with not nearly enough stretching along the way) in one day. This made one of my legs cranky and I had to stay off it as much as possible, and alternate ice and warmth on it, for like two weeks. I am middle-aged now and need to treat myself somewhat gently!
I figure at some point, months from now, I will want to increase the intensity, duration, etc. of some workouts. Nintendo Ring Fit Adventure and the strength class will be able to scale up to provide more difficulty, but the videocalls with friends may struggle to do that depending on what my friends want and need. But at that point I could, for instance, play Ring Fit every day, including days when I have a short additional workout with friends. I have done this a few times already when my videocall workouts have been very light or short.
# 21 Dec 2020, 10:31AM: Graduating From The I-Didn't-Graduate Dream:
I used to have dreams that, oh no, I didn't actually finish high school and need to go back and finish a class or exam. I hear this is pretty common.
I thought I'd graduated from college with a bachelor's, found out I'd actually made an administrative mistake that meant I needed to take one more summer class, and took my diploma home and tacked it onto my wall near my bed. I have not had "oh no I didn't really graduate from college" dreams; I figure this is because the memory of actually going through that incident and its aftermath cemented into my head that I really do have the degree. (However, when I recently got a fundraising email with a subject line like "A Message From The Chair of the Political Science Department at UC Berkeley," my reflexive reaction was "oh no they're taking my degree back!" So I suppose I still have issues, just differently configured.)
Then I got my master's degree a few years later. By then I was an adult, and school only took up part of my time (it was a nights-and-weekends program); I figure that's why less anxiety has clung to those memories, and thus why I don't think I've ever dreamed that "oh no, I didn't actually finish and need to go back."
This is all preface. My brain still scrabbles to provide me with anxiety dreams involving having to do more school, but with a twist. Like: some time ago, I dreamed that I had made some commitment to go through high school AGAIN, for the sake of some kind of experiment or similar, and was gritting my teeth and doing it all over again. I didn't want to, and I knew I already had postsecondary credentials, but still!
Or last night, when my dream included -- all mushed up with other stuff, like losing my cell phone (one that I last used in like 2016), trying to get a membership at a zoo using a coupon that wasn't cutting the price as much as I'd been told, seeing Jay Blades from The Repair Shop in an outdoors production of Hamilton while crossing a small river on a boat that was falling apart -- me fretting over whether to complete my second bachelor's degree. Dream Sumana knew that she already had a bachelor's and a master's, yet had at some point nearly completed a second bachelor's in some other major and at some other college. But not completely! So I was trying to figure out: should I finish those last few classes to get that second bachelor's? I don't need it at all! And yet I was nearly done with it, why quit when I was nearly done?!
I woke up and talked about this one with Leonard, and with my mom when I called her. Often my dreams are ways of processing things I'm dealing with. What was this new twist on the "need to finish school" dream doing? Maybe a few things.
It's about the frustration of being "nearly done," as I am with a few work projects, and as so many of us are with the pandemic. We hope.
It's about the frustration with wasting something that I have put a lot of work into, in opposition to the danger of the sunk cost fallacy. Which is something that comes up for me fairly frequently, though I don't often articulate it.
It's about the aspects of college life I do miss: narrower concerns, a time mostly before the September 11th attacks (which happened my senior year), frequently seeing and chatting with lots of friends and acquaintances. And it's about the unrequitable desire to do those four years over again, better, with the wisdom I have now about who I am and what I need. I feel that desire especially keenly when I've been admiring people younger than me who are accomplishing great things, which is only going to happen more and more as I age. The way I can counter it, when I have my head on properly, is to be grateful for and proud of where I am now and what I've done and what I'm doing, and the people I've snagged into my life along the way.
It's about a longing for a more structured endeavor with clear, externally-set win conditions. Right now I run my own business within a new market category that I am defining, I am writing a book and I am deciding how and with whom I will publish it, and the end of 2020 is coming up soon and no one but me can define whether I have used this year well. Sure would be a relief if someone else could authoritatively tell me whether I'd succeeded. But perhaps maturity is accepting that you are the only person who gets to decide that.
And perhaps this is a transitional stage towards my brain finally taking "but you still need to do more school" out of rotation on what Leonard calls my "golden oldies" of anxiety dreams. Turn the dial to something new.
# 11 Dec 2020, 12:17PM: On Realizing There Was Still Some American Exceptionalism Lurking In My Brain:
One of the most valuable things I treasure about the Internet is that I can have a glimpse into the lives of people who live a very different life from mine. I regularly read the blogs/journals of people who live in Israel, Singapore, India, the UK, Australia, Malaysia, and more, not to mention other parts of my own country. The people whose lives I follow include clergy, therapists, parents, medical workers, students, lawyers, and more. I attempt to read at least a little by people I disagree with, or I'm not sure I agree with, or who hold jobs that in a better world might not exist; Granola Shotgun, Patrick Skinner (context), and LadyLovesTaft are thought-provoking, entertaining, edifying. And I appreciate getting geographical breadth in my feed.
Because of this mix, some of my info feed includes blogs by people who live in countries that have effectively controlled COVID-19. Reading one of their "what I did this week" posts is like reading a blog by someone who is rich, or by a man going on a long solitary hike as a fun vacation (while women get advised to never go alone). Their world and mine have diverged; the sphere of my capability is as a marble next to their planet.
We talk so much about the Constitution but our constitution was so weak.
I am a patriot but I thought I was a thoughtful one. This year has brought home to me how much American exceptionalism was still lurking in the corners of my head.
The bigotry I can notice in myself always has this fuzzy shadowy aspect -- it's in the gaps, the moments where I subconsciously think that I don't have to take [person, news, idea, work, etc.] properly seriously, the assumptions I make about what categories someone or some country's going to fit. Or, I learn individual facts -- that trains are cheaper and more frequent and more convenient in many countries I've visited, that my colleague in Norway has used easy electronic transfers to receive and pay money all his life and has never seen a paper check, that folks in Melbourne just call an ambulance for a stranger in trouble and don't worry about cost, that a bunch of people I know in Europe or Australia make their livings working part-time and don't have to figure out how to pay for health insurance -- but I have a mental block stopping me from adding up that two and two are four.
For several years, in conversation, whenever a foreigner complained about some aspect of the US, I would jump in, get ahead of them, get the crowd cracking up by reciting a litany of my country's deficiencies, apologizing for them on behalf of us all. Our utterly insufficient transit network, imperial measurements, all our paper money is the same size and shape and color, the health care disaster, the wars ... I've lost track, it's been a little while since I've given the spiel, since this sort of thing was usually something I said to tourists. But, I realize now, on some level it was always superficial and I did not take to heart how deeply my country was behind, was worse.
"We're number one!" No, we're not. To claim superiority without first assessing whether you're right, or on flimsy grounds, is arrogance. We are arrogant. I am arrogant. Wish I could say "was" but this is not the Rumpelstiltskin story and naming the problem does not make it vanish.
I am not a man and I am not white, but I think the particular bouquet of feelings I am feeling is like feelings a thoughtful white person or man might feel -- thinking that I knew that I was not the center of the world, but stumbling and noticing, in my disorientation, that clearly I had not yet decolonized my mind as thoroughly as I'd thought.
# 01 Dec 2020, 03:15PM: Frances, Thanksgiving, And Potatoes:
Because it's World AIDS Day, today I want to tell you a story about Thanksgiving, food, breaking and remaking tradition, and family. Caution: death because of AIDS.
Back in 2005, when my now-spouse Leonard and I lived in San Francisco, one year a bunch of Leonard's family drove north from Bakersfield for Thanksgiving. I was Leonard's girlfriend and they always tried to make me feel welcome at these things.
We were all going to have Thanksgiving at Uncle L's place in SF, hosted by Uncle L and his partner J, another man. Leonard's mom, Frances, was a Mormon, but a feminist one; the fact that her brother was gay was a complete non-issue.
J ran his kitchen and finished cooking and didn't let any of us help; L played Trivial Pursuit with us. And then we sat down to a heaping table of Thanksgiving goodies. Including a kugel J had made! But....
THERE WERE NO POTATOES.
Mashed? Scalloped? Roasted? Fried? Au gratin? Baked-from-frozen tater tots? Zip, nada, zero. No potatoes of any kind.
Of course we had asked ahead of time about what we could bring. Martinelli's apple cider, rolls, dessert maybe. There had been no mention of this fundamental lacuna, this chasm of carbs.
Someone delicately mentioned/asked about the taterlessness, and we were redirected to the kugel. The kugel was fine! But many of us shared a glance.
Frances's contemporaneous blog post does not mince words: "We had a lovely Thanksgiving, but there was no mashed potatoes and gravy, which horrified me."
And on the ride back to Leonard's place, Leonard, his sisters, his mom, and his brother-in-law began to plan the next day's meal. Which would include potatoes. It was early in a new tradition: Backup Thanksgiving.
Leonard delicately wrote (later): "In recent years I made Backup Thanksgiving because I was learning to cook, or because of the absence of certain foods from the official Thanksgiving table." (By now you know what "certain foods" means.)
I'm glad we had both those Thanksgivings with Frances in 2005. That was her last Thanksgiving. She died of AIDS in May 2006. In her last days others took over updating her blog.
Today Leonard made Backup Thanksgiving food, including some fantastic scalloped potatoes. I loved Frances and I miss her. My government's failed at containing a pandemic. So many people Thanksgave apart this year to increase the odds we can come together next year. I'm emotional.
I wish I could tell Frances that I'm writing a book, that the new pip just came out, that Leonard's book got a great review. I wish I could have had more than a few weeks of being her daughter-in-law. She was only 54.
If you broke your traditions this year to keep everyone safer, to reduce the number of people who will feel the way I do fifteen years from now, thank you so much. I hope the Backup Thanksgivings you have in mid-2021 are fantastic and joyous.
Frances saw what was important. The love is essential and the nourishment is essential. I wish you love and nourishment.
(Especially potatoes, if you love potatoes.)
# 13 Nov 2020, 11:52AM: It Goes On One At A Time:
I want to tell you a story. It's about this year's election results, and it's about hope.
Just a few days after Election Day last week, with only 58% of the vote total reported, the New York Times was already comfortable projecting that Democratic incumbent Jerry McNerney will hold his seat in California's 9th Congressional District.
I used to live in that district, in the 1990s. I spent my early teen years in Stockton, an agricultural and shipping city. And that seat was Republican, Norman Shumway holding it 1978-1992 and then Richard Pombo winning and holding it after that.
In the mid-90s I came across an ad recruiting volunteers in the local alternative newspaper. I was a young teen and I was intrigued by the ad that said even people as young as 13 could volunteer for 2 hours per week, Wednesday afternoons, to do camerawork at a local cable access TV show. That's how I started volunteering with the Peace & Justice Network of San Joaquin County.
I met folks who had gotten in serious trouble for protesting the Vietnam War, for anti-nuke actions at Livermore Lab, and for various other acts of conscience. I ran the camera, then served as tech director, as a philosophy professor-turned-carpenter interviewed activists, journalists, politicians, scientists, poets, teachers, clergy, old folks with interesting stories to tell.
Every Congressional cycle they organized to try to beat Pombo. He seemed glued to that seat.
Then, years after I left, in 2004, someone ran unopposed as a write-in candidate for the Democratic nomination, and got 39% of the vote in the general election.
Then, in the 2006 election -- which I will always associate with this witty, angry, upsetting, didactic political music video set to "Freedom! '90" (content note for images from Abu Ghraib, Hurricane Katrina, and the 9/11 attacks) -- he WON! Jerry McNerney, who literally used to run a wind energy company and has a Ph.D. in math, won against a guy who was one of the worst politicians in America on environmental issues. Didn't hurt that by now Pombo was tied to the Abramoff corruption scandals.
My friends helped. They helped elect McNerney in 2006, and I think they had helped lay the groundwork, with decades of on-the-ground organizing, huge Rolodexes, media and fundraising experience.... All those years, trying and trying again, growing their networks. It's like Marge Piercy said. And now McNerney has been re-elected over and over, as a solid Democrat, and again this year.
There are candidates who lost last year and won this year. Activists, teachers, clergy. There are seats and chambers we came close to flipping this year, laying the groundwork for future efforts. Whatever those efforts need to be, whatever tomorrow brings.
(originally posted as a comment on MetaFilter)
# 09 Nov 2020, 11:06AM: Quite A Weekend:
All the news networks and newspapers have analyzed the ballots counted so far and predicted that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have won the US Presidential election. We have so much work ahead, yes, but the RELIEF of this result is tremendous. Those spontaneous jubilant gatherings in the streets would have been much larger if it weren't for COVID (I stayed home and I'm guessing a ton of other rejoicers did too). As a friend said, it's like we juuuuuust made the last offramp.
My citizenship is safer (I'm the daughter of immigrants). My property is safer. My health is safer. My neighbors are safer. It's easier to make plans and have them feel meaningful. To feel purpose.
As I've seen some folks point out on social media: there are no red states, only voter suppression states. One of the corollaries here is: states that you think of as reliably Democratic would and could turn Republican if bad actors suppress enough of the vote. Great user experience for voter registration, voter notification, citizen engagement and turnout, and voting matter everywhere. If you want to see how this could work, read America, Inc. by Andrea Phillips -- it's a near-future science fiction novel with a lot of design thinking about US elections. And then if you want to start getting involved in those issues in your area, adults of all genders are welcome to help out with the League of Women Voters.
Leonard finished reading Vikram Seth's monumental novel A Suitable Boy and we talked about it at some length. Soon we'll probably start watching the BBC adaptation. It's such a generous and loving book, so many people doing so many human things. Shoemaking! Electoral politics! Music! Love! Poetry, farming, sex work, riots, parenting, teaching, healing, gardening, romance.... and did I mention the shoe manufacturing?!?!?! I'm so glad he's read it now so it's a part of both our internal worlds, together.
Alex Trebek died. I am sad about this; I grew up watching Jeopardy! and the older I get the more I appreciate all the little rituals and institutions that, together, make a culture.
The brilliant leaves on the trees outside are so gorgeous and, in their own way, lush.
I kept on adding at least 400 words per day to the git repository where I work on my book. It's like a hike. I look up at an intimidatingly high peak in the morning, and then I walk a step at a time for long enough, and then it's lunchtime at the vista. The height is a kind of mirage. What's important is the path.
: Reading Memoir
# 08 Oct 2020, 08:43AM: Dappling:
The light through the window is still beautiful.
# 07 Oct 2020, 06:55PM: Autumn and Reckoning:
In late September, I took a one-week vacation. Which is to say, I took several days off from my client work, and I did a lot of biking around to different New York City parks. I contacted a few friends I hadn't seen in a super long time and we met and talked (distanced, masked except for short periods while someone was eating -- and I kept my mask on while my friends were eating, and vice versa) in parks in Queens and Brooklyn. Or I sat on a bench and sketched while listening to a podcast, or I lay down on a picnic blanket (a staff gift from when I worked at Wikimedia) and I read. (I've just started Laurie J. Marks's Elemental Logic fantasy quartet and I like it a lot.) The weather was dry and crisp-to-warm and I had a very nice time. It was amazing to see and chat with multiple non-Leonard people in a week. By Friday afternoon my brain felt freshly full in a way that reminded me of going to in-person conferences.
I had read guidance on COVID-19 transmission and how to prevent it, and I reasoned (and my friends did too, of course) that it was safe enough to do this. On Saturday a few days ago I repeated this and went to Brooklyn to see two other friends this way.
Recently the plateau of safety has been eroding. The case count in New York City is trending up. Just now I checked New York City's COVID-19 milestones/goals page and the New York Times's NYC COVID case count tracker. New cases started rising in September and are still going up. The NYT reports: "Over the past week, there have been an average of 553 cases per day, an increase of 59 percent from the average two weeks earlier."
I talked with Leonard briefly. Given the stats, we ought to cut down on the risky things we're doing. But .... there's nearly nothing to cut.
I recognize that anyone can say "we have been cautious" and you have no way of checking their actual discipline level against your standards without fairly extensive surveillance and logging, but perhaps these broad strokes help you assess our assiduity. There's a growing consensus that it's key to reduce exposure to aerosol transmission -- but we were already wearing cloth masks at all times outside the apartment, avoiding crowds and unmasked people, and avoiding indoors spaces as much as possible (our local corner shop for 5 minutes once a week or so; the in-building laundromat, early in the morning, about every 5 weeks; in-and-out of the local post office to check my PO Box every few weeks). We've bought an air purifier. We have not eaten in a restaurant, indoors or outdoors, since March.
But there is one thing I can cut. This "seeing friends" thing, even though it's always outdoors. I can be stricter if I see friends -- stricter on distance (more like 10 feet, and using a measuring tape to make sure), no eating (and thus no mask removal), shorter durations. And I could limit the number of households I see to just one, going into a proper pod. Or we could just dial it all the way down to zero. Figuring that out.
I have been trying out different ways to motivate myself to exercise, and I found "you get to see a friend!" pretty motivating for the bike rides (sometimes about 90-120 minutes each way). And I got to see my friends and talk with them, learn new stuff, explore things through that digressive figuring-things-out kind of conversation. I know researchers for ages have been looking into in-person conversation and how to make online stuff a better simulacrum of it, and a zillion more people became citizen scientists in this field this year, especially in work and education. My experience right now is: there exists no replacement for in-person socializing, for me, that gives me all the same stuff that I value, that I think I need.
My sadness at losing this is just one of the many sadnesses of this pandemic. It's a small one, comparatively. But it's there.
It's autumn here, a season of transformation and of reckoning with the growing darkness. In many faith traditions, sometime soon we'll get to the rituals about bringing the sun back. I suppose that's something we're doing already, donning our masks, waving at our friends instead of hugging, stewarding our own little flames.
# (1) 16 Sep 2020, 07:13AM: I Miss You, Friends And Strangers:
I met you in a storytelling workshop taught by someone later discredited.
I met you in the front-row fandom for a now-defunct sketch comedy troupe.
I met you at a women's networking event where you were the only person I talked with who wasn't tedious.
I met you -- you remember that it was a Redditors' meetup, but it must have been cross-pollinated with something else, maybe a scifi thing?
I met you through work -- we were remote colleagues who saw each other several times a year, and then you moved to New York.
I met you through a meditation workshop you led.
I found your blog through a link from a friend, then met you at a scifi thing, maybe a Tor.com party or a Cory Doctorow reading.
You, I first met at a Tor.com party, I'm sure.
I met you at WisCon.
I met you through a friend I went to middle school with.
I met you when a colleague let me regularly cowork at the nonprofit where he and you worked.
I met you when we were at Recurse Center together.
We probably first met at an Electronic Frontier Foundation thing, maybe here, maybe in San Francisco.
I met you through your girlfriend, now wife.
I can't quite remember how we first met because we're connected in a few ways.
We met on the MTA when one of us recognized the other's stickers/t-shirt.
I met you through someone I met at WisCon.
I met you through Leonard's writing group.
I met you because we volunteer on Python packaging tools together.
I met you at the now-ended Open Source Bridge conferences.
I met you in a local political activism group.
I think I met you in a friend's storyreading circle.
I met you through fandom on Dreamwidth, and then invited you to a meal.
I met you through fandom on Dreamwidth, and then you recognized me at an N.K. Jemisin reading.
I met you at PyCon or Open Source Bridge, I think.
I met you through a Wikimedian friend.
I met you when we were undergraduate students together, twenty years ago.
I met you through the business you run.
I met you through the nonprofit you ran.
I met you through the ex you're now estranged from.
And so on.*
I have lived in New York City for ~15 years, and over that time I've grown several local friendships, some lighter and some stronger. I miss seeing you.
I was a kind of isolated teenager who had very few friends. I'll amend that. When I was in high school, I had one friend at the "talk on the phone about something other than homework" level. I invited people to come see a movie with me** for a birthday and no one came.
Over the decades since, I've become much more accustomed to making, having, and regularly seeing friends. In a September week last year I had breakfast with one friend and lunches with two friends, not counting the folks I saw at various clubs, groups, and events.
Every few weeks I contact some friends and arrange phone or videocalls. Some of you I haven't talked with in way too long and we're more acquaintances now. And I talk with people in other places a lot -- I have friends spread out so far. If my New York-area friends may as well be in other countries, a friend in Asheville may as well be in another solar system, for how impossible it feels to imagine that we'll see each other again.
For the past few months, my friend Mike Pirnat DJed a radio show on his old college radio station. His usual outro is Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again" (don't know where, don't know when). I've listened to it dozens of times now and only today am I realizing how I could read it as not descriptive but prescriptive.
Right now I am doggy-paddling to keep myself above water, and part of that is keeping up with the friends I have made, especially the local friends. But someday I want to meet a stranger and make friends with them again. That's a vision to look forward to.
* Sorry if I missed you - I'm sure that as soon as I hit Post I'll think of three more to add, and then three more....
**In retrospect, Beyond Rangoon was not the most appealing selection for most teens.
# 23 Aug 2020, 03:13PM: A Sunday Morning Bike Ride:
This morning I woke up before Leonard did and I bicycled in the relative cool and quiet of a Sunday morning. Thank you, past planners and builders, for bike lanes and promenades. I'd had some bike trouble in the past few months but now it was straightened out (thank you, bike repair shop) and this was my first pure-pleasure ride in months.
I passed by a gas station sporting an ad: "Proudly Fueling Whatever Happens Next." The "next" was partially blocked so it seemed to read "Proudly Fueling Whatever Happens." Which seemed comically out of touch. But I work in open source software. We bar ourselves from saying "The Software shall be used for Good, not Evil." So who am I to judge?
I sat on a bench by the water -- I live on an island, as hard as it can be to remember sometimes when I sit in my apartment like the proverbial brain in a jar -- and smelled the salt through my mask, and saw water birds. People walked and rode by.
Reading an absorbing book while surrounded by a lovely, novel natural view is one of the pleasures I treasure. I'm partway through Joanna Russ's nonfiction collection To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction. I took it out of my backpack, a satchel my friend Teresa Nielsen Hayden gave me while she and her partner Patrick were moving. Teresa and Patrick knew Russ and they were friends when they all lived in Seattle. I'm settling into Russ fandom as a stranger, and in every essay I find some new lens to use on this literature I've been reading my whole life.
I read for a while, and biked home. On one residential street I saw some downed power lines -- maybe from the storm earlier this month? -- and stopped to call 311, who told me to call Con Edison, and then the options confused me, and then I called again after I got home and succeeded in telling them so they could go send a truck out. It seems so dangerous to see several power lines stretching from the poles down to the street and the sidewalk, and the storm was multiple days ago, so how could I be the first to call in and report it? But I think I was. For every problem there's someone who's first to get the ball moving to get it fixed.
The other night as I was falling asleep a thought came into my mind: Some lessons you learn like scars. I think I will only know months and years from now about what lessons are stiffening, calcifying inside and on me, as I pass by and through the birds, the book, the power lines.
# 25 Jul 2020, 11:03PM: I'll Miss You:
In March or April I learned of friends -- generally those with children -- who were temporarily leaving New York City to stay with relatives in other places. Now I'm hearing of more of them who have turned their moves permanent, or plan to. I understand. I'll miss you.
One person I know, seeing the news about the pandemic coming, moved back home to Japan, deciding and executing that move within something like a week. She was right.
Go. Take care of yourself. It makes sense. Once it's more possible to see friends in person again, I'll miss our lunches and breakfasts and co-working days. But you are reacting to forces bigger than us and I get it.
I've gotten this little shock a few times now, but I haven't yet gotten the bigger one, that someone I personally know has died of COVID-19. I know enough people that it feels fairly inevitable that it will happen, or that it's already happened. I feel some urge to steel myself but I figure that's a pretty vague and unproductive kind of vector to operate on; I'm just trying to keep up with stuff, keep my various plates spinning and keep my varied balls in the air, and get enough ahead of my commitments that I can take a day debilitated by grief if and when it comes. But there is this tinny foreboding, like a small constant noise from just the other side of one of my walls that I can hear if I let myself concentrate on it.
Are you experiencing this pre-grief too? It's not just me, I think.
# 18 Jul 2020, 06:17PM: Incentives:
From the time that I was a child, my parents wanted me to learn and be fluent in Kannada. My interest has waxed and waned.
Yesterday I saw this tweet, which starts generalizing (in English) about girls named Sumana, and then switches to Kannada to make a jibe that I only fractionally understand.
Finally I have a strong, urgent motive to learn fluent Kannada: people might be making fun of me and I need to know what they're saying.
: Comedy Memoir
# 13 Jul 2020, 03:38PM: Still Here:
I am still here.
# 30 Apr 2020, 04:50PM: What We Subsume:
I've gotten a lot better at sewing pleats on face masks, and have found that -- if I cut the material ahead of time -- I can usually finish a mask, or nearly finish it, while watching a one-hour lecture, or while on the kind of conference call where I say very little.
I sometimes remember to do the things that will help set me up for a better day.
Sometimes I notice someone saying, about telecommuting and distributed/remote/virtual conferences and paperwork moving online because of the pandemic: So we could have been doing this all along?! And I notice the "all along" because it's subsuming or blurring a more specific claim about how long we've been wastefully delaying. If you joined your institution in January and they said no to remote work, and now they're allowing it, then yeah, they could have said yes all along, because "all along" means "since January" and there have been very few advances/innovations in bandwidth and installed connections, hardware, software platforms (such as operating systems and servers), relevant software applications, relevant professional skills, etc. since January. But at least in the US, I think that even five years ago, and certainly ten or twenty years ago, there were lots of kinds of infrastructure that would not have been up to the task of moving work online. Of course, we should have been properly investing in those things, at all levels, so really I'm just quibbling and "well-actually"ing with some wording in a way that might not look great. I will be turning off comments on this one.
Irritability. Fluffy fanfic. Peanut butter on celery or apples. A hollow ache inside my torso. The whirr of the sewing machine. Other people's faces via videocalls -- oh how great a solace that is, for I love my spouse but I need some variety in the faces I see. Light through the window, always through the window. Endless emails from every organization that has ever heard of me, earnestly telling me what they are doing, or importuning me to do something, because the sky is falling and we all need to hold it up. Using a video game to pretend I am outside, to pretend I can visit a friend or stand on a rocky shore. Trying to be there for my friends, my family -- Leonard suggested we compile a list of funny YouTube clips to send to our sick friend and so we did and maybe it will be a tiny comfort to her. Watching the National Theatre plays and Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals and concerts and music livestreams and being overcome with gratitude for the artists.
Yesterday was the 29th, which means it was one of the days of the month that I would let myself drink alcohol (days with a 9 in them, so, the 9th, 19th, and 29th) and I just realized today that -- as the wording in my head popped out -- I forgot to drink yesterday. I briefly thought about making up for that day, but I think the fact that my reflexive phrasing made it sound like an obligation rather than an option reinforces the stricter part of myself, which says, no, wait till the next window comes round again.
I've made some good work and volunteer progress in the last few weeks! I've had some great laughs with my spouse and my friends, and I'm glad I'm getting better at sewing, and not all is gloom. Especially when I have a chance to help someone else. But at this very moment, this afternoon on this Thursday, oh readers and oh future self, Sumana is hearing and feeling the gears grind as she bears up under the load.
Sometimes we talk about that impossibly distant past, The Before Times. Back in the Before Times, I thought I would .... we signed up for .... we had just started.... it seemed like ..... Fewer of us use the corresponding phrase for the future: The After Times. Perhaps judiciously and perhaps superstitiously and perhaps exhaustedly, we decline to make predictions and plans. But right now is The During Times. Right? That feels right. Duration, during, endure, endurance. We are enduring. I hope you are too.
# 21 Apr 2020, 12:18PM: Persisting:
Today is our wedding anniversary. Instead of going out for a nice dinner, we'll .... do something at home. Maybe we'll remember a bunch of nice memories from the last fourteen years. Maybe we'll go through the Anniversary Gifts bot output and see if there's something we can make at home.
I've now sewn three fabric facemasks. For fabric I used old tech company tee shirts. For ties: elastic from free airline eyemasks, shoelace-like handles from fancy shopping bags, and the hemmed bits of the tee shirts. All of them are serviceable. I'll be trying to improve and, if I can get better, give some away.
We used this approach to gather and grow yeast using raisins, sugar, and water in a jar on a windowsill. Today Leonard's using it to make bread. We have some powdered dried yeast but are trying to save it. And we've been growing green onions in some jars of water on another windowsill. Their stalks keep pushing out new green growth. The most successful watercolor painting I've done so far is a portrayal of one of those bunches.
The pip 20.1b1 beta release is out. And Python 2.7.18 is out marking the very last, final, release of Python 2.7 and the end of the 2.x era. My household contributed to both of these things. Here's Leonard's pull request that adds an informational banner to the 2.7 docs. When I can concentrate on work or exercise or media it's better. The news is awful. I try to only listen to or look at it a few minutes per day.
There is light through the windows, along with the rain and lightning, and I see the tree branches in the wind, falling and rising, falling and rising. Every night at 7pm I know it's 7 because people start clapping and ringing bells from our windows and balconies, a gesture of support for the health care workers and all the other essential workers who are trying to keep us all going. I do it too. The other night I got out a little temple bell and started using that. Someone has a tambourine. A few nights ago someone started chanting "USA! USA!" and I recoiled; as I joked to a few friends, better to chant "South! Korea!" or "Germany!" since they're actually doing it right. And someone else has, a few times, played a recording of "The Star-Spangled Banner". As I mentioned to friends: well, the thing that works about that song now is that it's a question. Does that banner still wave? We don't know!
I also have joked: And is this the land of the brave and the home of the free, or the land of the scared and the home of the at home? But it's all those things, of course. And the rhetoric of that joke, as though you cannot be both at home and free, plays into the hands of foolish, even malicious shouters who prefer to swan around shedding and catching viruses, and to mob streets while braying about government restrictions, and refuse to love their neighbors.
I'm glad of the rain. It feels natural to be inside when it's raining.
# 12 Apr 2020, 07:20PM: And Still Here:
Still here, still okay. Hoping you are too.
# 03 Apr 2020, 10:38AM: Still Here:
Still here. Still okay.
# 28 Mar 2020, 05:29PM: "Again, novelty novelty novelty breaks up the day.":
I bring your attention again to this Twitter thread by Connie Rourke:
I'm starting a thread of every coping mechanism I've used in the last 20 years as an immunocompromised person who lives like a(n almost-completely) shut-in.
and this Dreamwidth post by alias-sqbr:
A bunch of you are dealing with being stuck in your houses, which is something I have a lot of experience with, if not in quite the same way. So I thought I might as well give what advice I have to give.
It's amazing how much novelty is helping me. I played a fun in-browser computer game -- for those 90 minutes I was immersed in another world. I found a teensy super-old packet of decaf coffee and now a scent I don't usually smell at home wafts from a warm mug nearby. A face mask (edited later to explain: the goopy kind that you spread on your skin and peel off later), a pair of socks on feet that usually go bare, different scented lotions....
# 27 Mar 2020, 02:23PM: We're Still Fine:
We haven't been outside since ... Saturday?
The CDC says all households "can "practice routine cleaning of frequently touched surfaces"; the New York Times (see "Clean your home") has an animated GIF saying "Clean high-touch surfaces in your home every day." So I'm improving how frequently I use an alcohol wipe (especially on my phone) or some bleachy spray cleaner on the refrigerator handle, doorknobs, light switches, and so on. Last night my hands smelled like bleach when I went to bed. I wonder if I will learn to associate that smell with dread.
It's such a pretty, sunny day outside. I have the window open and the sunlight warms my elbow.
I've gotten better this week at concentrating on work. I sometimes use a timer to limit myself to 10 minutes of what I saw someone call "doomsurfing."
A friend's best friend has COVID-19, went to the hospital this week, and, as of yesterday, is on a ventilator. I talked with my friend this morning, listened, gave her a bit of welcome distraction, like how funny the governor's interview with his brother was.
Yesterday I teared up at how generous so many artists have been this month -- giving away new albums, films, books, for free, online, to help everyone cope. Ken Burns's Baseball, for instance.
Most of my writing is in email, chat, or GitHub. I added an item or two to a crowdsourced list of free and open source video or audio conferencing platforms. Cool Tools ran my review of a great sports bra (with a stock photo of a model who is not me, by the way). I finished and published a blog entry about my team's pip work and helped a colleague move a lot further toward a new pipenv release. I collaborated with Leonard on starting a shopping list for the day, weeks from now, when our desire for eggs and onions is strong enough to make us reset our isolation clock.
PyCon North America is cancelled; it would have been in Pittsburgh, PA, USA, in April. Title of Conf would have been on May 7th in Detroit, and WisCon was going to be in Madison in late May. All of them (at least the in-person bits) are cancelled. I am figuring out whether and how to present the Otherwise Auction online anyway, just as I would have at WisCon, and how my team working on pip can still form relationships and swap tips and experiences in small group calls to partially replace what we wanted out of PyCon.
This morning my mom called, worried. New York City is now the place in the US where COVID-19 has infected the most people. I reassured her: we're staying inside, we're taking all the precautions.
The fundamental and inherent subtext of every diary entry and every blog post is today closer to the surface. I'm still here, I still exist, I'm still here.
# 20 Mar 2020, 12:02PM: Responsibility And Blame:
Humans have a really hard time dealing with problems that are partly under our control and partly not (and where we can't tell how much of it is inside or outside our locus of control).
A comment that helped me remember this, by philip-random on MetaFilter:
I'm currently taking care of an older parent with help from another family member. A week or so back when everything started getting VERY SERIOUS, we had a brief but essential discussion. Whatever happens, we concluded, we're not going to lay blame on anyone who may have erred and spread the virus -- family or friend or random stranger. There's just no winning that way. The wartime analogy is the best. It's London WW2, the Blitz. The bomb either lands on your block or it doesn't.
If you want to blame anybody, go after the bastards behind the Treat of Versailles twenty years previous whose failed politicking guaranteed this would happen.
I'm practicing prevention to avoid catching or transmitting COVID-19. So is my spouse and so are all my friends and colleagues. It might not be enough to keep us safe from this disease. So I want to prescriptively take responsibility, but descriptively avoid blaming myself or my loved ones in case we get sick anyway. This is difficult.
# 16 Mar 2020, 09:12AM: Liminal Thoughts At An Inflection Point For The Pandemic:
In January a writer I read started telling her readers to prepare for the pandemic. I am glad of the ways in which I followed her advice and I regret the ways in which I did not. Siderea noted that, during a pandemic, when big news starts happening, things start happening very fast, and we have arrived at that stage here in New York City. This week the schools close and the restaurants go to delivery/takeout-only.
So the "ring theory" of grief says: when dealing with grief, listen to and comfort the people closer to the center of the problem, those most deeply affected, and then complain or grieve outwards, so people less affected can comfort you. But it's pretty hard to work out who's least affected by COVID-19. Even if you are youngish, healthy, have very few risky health conditions, and don't particularly care about anyone who isn't in that category, you are probably affected by some of the ripple effects that come faster and faster each day: travel restrictions, event cancellations, the closing of schools and gathering places, work-from-home shifts, some supplies becoming far less available. There is no one I can vent to who is significantly less concerned than I am -- unless they have not yet worked out that they need to be concerned.
Leonard and I have some unavoidable errands we need to do this week that involve leaving the home and/or interacting with other people. I am looking forward to later this week when we can really hunker down and isolate. This experience has many items that are pretty similar to mine.
Not since the passage of the GDPR have I been reminded of how many websites/institutions have some kind of (sometimes tenuous) "relationship" with me. Every day I get many emails telling me about what they're doing.
Every day New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio holds a press conference and the government provides a transcript and I find it informative and soothing to read it. My city is trying to do the right things to take care of me -- I need to write to them about doing better regarding reducing criminal justice interactions, but overall, I think the city is doing the right things -- and I'm reassured.
Several days ago I realized: if individuals and institutions actually step up and do social distancing, cancel large gatherings, etc., and reduce the scale of the catastrophe, then there will be people in the future who say "this was an overreaction". (Just as they did with Y2K.) I later found out this is called "the paradox of prevention."
Some things I am grateful for right now:
- It's possible to do a lot of stuff online that used to require visiting someplace.
- We stocked up somewhat in February and aren't in as bad a situation as we could be.
- We are well-off enough that some unexpected expenses are easy for us to bear.
- I have friends who have caught up with me over the phone in the last few days -- and a couple of neighborhood friends who, last night, came over to our place. We stood outside on the sidewalk and spoke to each other across a six-foot distance. It was really nice.
- Leonard and I can both work from home -- and in fact have 10+ years experience, each, in doing so.
- We have both made moderate improvements in our health in the last few years so we are better placed than we might be to deal with illness, heavy lifting, and stress.
- Right now, I am ok and my family is ok.
Finally: on MetaFilter, lesbiassparrow wrote:
I just don't understand how in Canada every Canadian around me doesn't think it will really hit them and they don't personally need to worry
There is this moment in the Mahabharata called the yaksha-prashna* -- a riddle contest with a disguised god. Yudhisthira has to answer a bunch of questions to rescue his brothers from death. Stuff like:
What is heavier than a mountain?
What is faster than the wind?
What is bigger/heavier than the earth?
Mother [in that she is greater in her effects on our lives, in how much we love her, etc.].
And the final riddle is:
What is the most amazing thing in the universe?
Every day, we all see people around us fall ill, wither away, and die. And yet each of us, to ourselves, thinks: "I will live forever." That is the most amazing thing in the universe.
(He answers all the riddles successfully and saves his brothers -- and it turns out that the crane is actually his father, Yama, the god of duty and death, whom he is meeting for the first time.)
I read this in an Amar Chitra Katha comic book when I was a child and it has always stuck with me.... and it reverberates so powerfully now.
* In case I misremember any of this --- uh, oral tradition! Right, folklore, always changing....
# 09 Jan 2020, 04:09PM: Everyone Has Bugs To Report, Everyone Has Bug Reports To Accept:
I was partway through college. I was taking a class about US films of 1939 and their social/historical context. The professor said something in a lecture about Upton Sinclair. I went to his office hours and checked: had he meant Sinclair Lewis? He had! And in the next lecture, he said: I made an error last time, I said Upton Sinclair when I meant Sinclair Lewis in [context], Sumana corrected me, thanks Sumana!
And then several weeks later, we were discussing some movie and I raised my hand and said something about a male character seeming "effete" but I pronounced it like "eff et", like the "ette" part was like how you pronounce the end of "suffragette". I think I'd never heard it aloud before, just read it. Classic autodidact pronunciation mistake.
And Professor Michael Rogin said: what?
And I said: Effete. Like, effeminate.
And he said: Oh, you mean effete! [And he pronounced it like "ef-feet".] But you corrected me about Sinclair Lewis before, so it's fine. And then we carried on the actual conversation and I didn't feel bad. It was like: well, we've both made mistakes and corrected each other, and we're fine, and let's talk about the substantive point now.
I'm using italics instead of quotation marks here because I'm sure my memory is paraphrasing. My point is: Professor Rogin, you made me feel okay about taking that particular bug report, may you rest in peace, and I still remember the nonchalant humility and self-confidence you demonstrated and encouraged in me.
# 29 Nov 2019, 03:29PM: A Heritage:
I was talking with a friend earlier today about how I've come to understand some different temperaments and skills I inherited from my different parents.
And the specific thing I am reflecting on now is how very into learning and teaching I am, and their two influences showed up differently in my childhood.
My mom was a teacher from the time she was a teenager. She developed curricula, she's worked as a teacher or as a volunteer for so many stints, she's gotten so much pleasure out of regularly meeting and working through a course of instruction with people and helping them grow more capable.
And my late father loved learning, and was an enthusiastic independent scholar of eclectic topics, and loved passing that knowledge on ... anywhere and everywhere was a stage for this sage. In writing, in formal and informal lectures, anytime -- he loved telling you stuff he knew. What a waste it would be not to!
And so here I am.
# 30 Sep 2019, 11:36AM: The Breath Before:
A few days ago, Leonard and I went to see a movie at our local museum/arthouse theater. We settled into our seats and turned off our phones and chitchatted, and I mentioned a funny line from a Paul Ford interview.
A curator came in to briefly introduce the film, and mention the film series this screening was part of, and to tell us that the director would be there in person for a screening of another film several days from now. An appreciative "oooh!" rippled through the crowd.
And then the lights went down and everyone hushed and looked forward and the movie was about to start. And then it did, and it was fun, but the moment I most treasure was that little tiny moment of civilization where we were all waiting together in anticipation.
# 01 Aug 2019, 09:09AM: Background Music:
So in my household we have a zillion little shared references, and some of those are about pop songs of the late 20th century. For instance, if we're in a restaurant or something and we hear "Higher Love" by Steve Winwood (I just had to look that up, it's not like I knew the name of the song or the artist already), we laugh because of the time Leonard pointed out that the main lyric kinda sounds like a complaint a customer might give a server.
Bring me a higher love
This love is insufficiently high
Leave bad review on Yelp
(Upon a full listen: the synth riff from 3:04 to 3:11 reminds me of the start of the Doogie Howser, M.D. opening theme. A lot of the folks I meet are not people who went to schools in the US in the late 1980s/early 1990s while younger than approximately everyone else in their grade cohort, and thus they did not experience being called "Doogie". Nor did they experience Head of the Class which was -- for me -- sympathetic representation of book-smart nerddom in mass media. Not sure I'd feel that way if I re-watched it now.)
Every once in a while we go use YouTube to watch the music videos for songs that are in sort of the "you will hear these in public spaces in the US" canon but that we've never really listened to. Always feels like popping the hood in a car where up till now I've just been a passenger.
# 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.
# (2) 22 Dec 2018, 02:34PM: I Welcome Your Point Of View On Whether I Am An Alto:
I love listening to and singing a lot of labor and folk songs. Like, the highlight of my week a little while back was when a friend got out his guitar and learned to play "Union Maid" and three of us sang it and harmonized together in a living room. I have an untrained voice but I enjoy using it.
A little while later, I saw a friend mention on social media that she would be participating in The Mobile Hallelujah, organized by Make Music New York, and asking whether anyone wanted to join her.
In this participatory choral program open to all interested vocalists, producer Melissa Gerstein and conductor Douglas Anderson team up to bring George Fredric Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" -- from his Messiah oratorio, the oldest continuously performed piece of Classical music -- out of the concert hall and onto the streets of NYC.
I said sure! And then, on a bus on the way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art last night, I looked at the sheet music and listened to the guide track, and, uh, NEWS FLASH, HALLELUJAH FROM HANDEL'S MESSIAH IS WAY HARDER TO LEARN THAN YOUR AVERAGE PETE SEEGER TUNE, this surprises no one. It's a gorgeous piece because it's got a bunch of interconnected cause-and-effect stuff! It's not an eternal golden braid, but it's a very complicated four-minute Rube Goldberg machine! And it's not like I am actually good at sticking to a vocal part during a round or even a simple harmony (I'm an alto I think? I've never actually checked) if there are other people near me singing another part. I sort of gravitate to whatever I'm hearing loudest and end up chameleon-ing into that, like a panicky manager throwing their hands up and saying nobody ever got fired for buying
But hey, New York City has a ton of great singers, so I figured they'd carry the thing and I would just, you know, add oomph for the bits I could figure out.
So I practiced a bit and got to the point where I could, most of the time, keep track of where I was in the sheet music. I think a bindi-wearing woman whisper-singing "Hallelujah" is in, at most, like the thirtieth percentile of weirdness achieved during that hour on New York City Transit. I arrived on the museum steps, tried and failed to find my friend, and saw people assembling -- like 8 sopranos, 20 altos, 1 bass, and an alto or two who said "I guess I'll try to sing tenor" -- and we sorted ourselves out and then the maestro gestured for us to start.
And I found out that a lot of us were muddling along! It was not like "dozens of people who know their parts very well, plus Sumana". It was .... you know how you can call food "authentic" or "rustic" to say "it was lumpy and the presentation was unpolished but I loved it because of who made it and how they made it and how I relate to them"? It was like that. We blurred a bunch of the cool counterpoints and whatnot instead of hitting them precisely, we didn't enunciate great -- whatever. We hit that last Hallelujah and I looked up from the sheet music and people on the sidewalk had gathered to listen, and they clapped! We'd done it! It was a fun thing to try, a fun challenge, and maybe I'll try to get better at singing in chorus, because that is fun!
My friend had been running late and turned up right at that last "Hallelujah". Ah well! We hung out afterwards anyway. Maybe I will see if she wants to sing some Woody Guthrie with me sometime.
I have been enjoying various bits of music recently aside from Handel's elaborate celebration of a divinity that I don't particularly believe in:
- Have you heard The Regrettes, a punk/pop/rock band with a kind of surfer feel sometimes? They covered "Helpless" from Hamilton and have music videos on YouTube. I enjoy how the videos feel like a bunch of (mostly women) friends in the 1990s having fun and goofing around while dancing and making music.
- On BBC's Gaelic radio service, there's a 2-hour, mostly-music programme that is mostly in Gaelic with a little bit in English, new every weekday, and I enjoy streaming it while I'm working or reading. The music is pleasant and, since I don't know Gaelic, the audio words don't distract me from the words I'm looking at. (But I am curious what the presenter is discussing 1:19:30-1:20:20 in the 21 December episode; Leonard and I both got the impression she's talking about getting socks for Christmas?)
- Episode 4: "Jenny" of podcast "I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats", featuring Erin McKeown's cover of a John Darnielle song, is an episode I can listen to basically over and over. As soon as I heard those strings, I was transported. And the conversation keeps making me smile and inspiring me.
# 05 Dec 2018, 05:41PM: The US Midterm Elections, One Month Later:
I made phone calls and I canvassed in person for some candidates and a ballot measure.
Leonard and I gave money to some candidates and I successfully encouraged a friend to do the same.
On election night, a month ago, we avoided the news; we went to a play ("Sakina's Restaurant" which is like a documentary as far as the emotional dynamics of many Indian immigrant families), then came home and watched a bit of Forged in Fire, and then we went to bed.
And the next day I was so relieved. Retaking control of the House of Representatives, and sweeping so many state and local races, is not only a logistical win, it's a morale boost for me. I feel more supported and protected by my fellow citizens. I catalogued a few wins that feel particularly meaningful in this MetaFilter comment (including an aspect of Tim Kaine's re-election to the US Senate from Virginia that I didn't see anyone else noticing).
None of the causes I did leg/phone work for won. A few candidates we financially supported did win. And we were a part of the success -- the Blue Wave, some called it, but there's also the underlying fact that most of the United States agrees with the policy stances of the Democratic Party and, when they have a chance to push past voter suppression, expresses that. (Which is one reason that the post-election activism we need to work on includes working on voting reform in every state, particularly Florida.)
Thank you, thank you, thank you to all the people who stepped up, who started and restarted organizations, in the last two years. Swing Left and Indivisible and Run For Something and 5 Calls and other organizing groups and tools, for sure, and local DSA chapters, and independent journalists/commentators/curators as well, like The Weekly Sift, thisfinecrew, Alexandra Erin, Chrysostom, siderea, rydra wong, and so many others. I believe a big story of this election is the not-affiliated-with-the-Democratic-National-Committee community leaders who got their friends, neighbors, workplaces, fandoms, online forums, and classmates informed and activated -- and in some cases got them to run.
And then, Trump ... Rosenstein .... to quote Pervocracy (cache):
Me, 8 AM: I'm so glad the midterms are over! I can finally have a little break from worrying about politics all the time!
Me, 9 PM: crouched on my kitchen floor, checking protest locations, writing "THE PRESIDENT IS NOT A KING" on a giant piece of posterboard
The protests included people chanting RULE OF LAW! RULE OF LAW! which ... I don't disagree! I agree! I am very into the rule of law! I am just disconcerted, because I would like to get to a point where chanting that does not seem vital.
# (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.
# 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!
# (1) 04 Sep 2018, 11:38AM: Code Review Play at RubyConf, and Think Tank Fiction:
Jason Owen and I will co-present "Code Review, Forwards and Back" at RubyConf in Los Angeles, November 13-15 2018. We'll update and slightly lengthen the version we performed at PyGotham last year. If you'll be at RubyConf, consider watching our one-act play:
Your team's code review practices cause ripple effects far into the future. In this play, see several ways a single code review can go, then fast-forward and rewind to see the effects -- on codebase and culture -- of different code review approaches.
The setting: an office conference room. The characters: a developer, who's written a chunk of new Ruby code, and a team lead, who's about to review it. The code is not great.
See a fast-paced montage of ways things can go. Recognize patterns from your past and present. Learn scripts for phrasing criticism constructively. And laugh.
I've been doing a lot of theater-inflected conference presentations recently. I came up with the ideas for "Code Review, Forwards and Back" and "Lessons, Myths, and Lenses: What I Wish I'd Known in 1998" and "Python Grab Bag: A Set of Short Plays" (more details on all of these on my Talks page).
In some sense this is unsurprising, as I'm a programmer and public speaker who has dabbled in the more creative performing arts my whole life. As a child I had small parts in school* and community** theater, and my sister and I wrote and performed in some number of long skits for Indian-American association get-togethers (there was a lot of No Big Deal family-based practice here, as with writing and public speaking in general). I have also been willing to sing in public really quite out of proportion to my actual singing ability for a very long time. And I got all right at stand-up comedy and at comedy auctioneering.*** So I have started to bring those skills into my conference presentations, and am interested in how spectacle, fictional narrative, and different presentation formats can make different kinds of teaching and representation possible.
Someone else thinking about the value of storytelling in conference talks is Maria Farrell, who posted at Crooked Timber about that and about "think-tank fiction" (fictional stories/scenarios, sometimes composites of real situations and sometimes future projections, reflecting on and demonstrating the effects of particular policies and trends).
I find several of Farrell's reflections resonate with me, about the "quality of atmosphere" that obtains when you start telling a story at an event where it's unusual to do so, and:
...people at all-day tech events are really, really glad to just relax and have stories told to them. News flash. And actual stories, with, hopefully, meanings heading off on different trajectories, not TED anecdotes driving to One Big Lesson...
I hope Farrell can come to !!Con or a similar event sometime, to see how it nurtures some similar experiences.
There must be a bunch of talks like this and now my cataloguing fingers are itching. As Bruce Sterling wrote in "User-Centric":
To: the Team Coordinator
From: the social anthropologist
Subject: Re: *****Private message*****
Fred, people have been telling each other stories since we
were hominids around campfires in Africa. It’s a very
basic human cognition thing, really.
My colleague Erik Möller did a talk like the ones Farrell mentions at Wikimania 2013, "Ghosts of Wikis Yet to Come: Three Stories of Wikimedia's Future". And I think Tom Scott's scifi shorts and story-style talks, and the "Slaughterbots" video from Ban Lethal Autonomous Weapons, are worth checking out as exemplars.
I also love related "our technology will make this future possible/likely!" narratives like AT&T's 1993 "Connections" video. (The AT&T Archives page pointed me to this collection of similar concept videos I totally want to see, made by Ameritech, Motorola, Sun, NEC, etc. Natalie Jeremijenko and Chris Woebken collaborated on a 2009 montage I haven't watched yet, and there's a 2014 followup -- looking forward to diving in.)
* Not always onstage -- the first bit of project management I ever did was stage management. I fuzzily remember running a puppet show in elementary school, and officiously checking off attendance using a clipboard (oh how important I felt!) for some middle school thing.
** Perhaps most memorably: Rudy, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer's nerdy little sister, in "The Night Before The Night Before Christmas" at a local YW/MCA. I actually had lines in this role! To demonstrate Rudy's bookishness, the script had her say aloud, apropos of nothing, "O is for oxygen," "N is for nitrogen," "C is for carbon", and so on. In retrospect this dialogue has more verismilitude than I would like to admit.
*** And of course this feels completely normal to me, because, you know, you only have your own one life, and your own life has a way of becoming the yardstick rather than the judged.
But a great swathe of programmers and other technologists don't think of writing or putting on or starring in a small play as No Big Deal. Many haven't ever memorized lines. And sometimes I forget that, if you've taken a storytelling workshop and served as a dramaturg for someone's one-woman show, and you're a programmer who gets to speak at conferences like PyCon and FOSDEM, you're unusual. Your intersection of skillsets is rare.
And one of the intuitions that's helped me develop my career is that I can provide unique value where the intersection of my skillsets is rare.
# 18 Jul 2018, 11:42AM: Fear And Motion:
The other day I went on a little bike ride in my neighborhood, for exercise and to check mail at my post office box. I walked part of the way because sometimes I just didn't feel safe biking on the road, especially when construction blocks the bike lane and forces bicyclists to merge into the main traffic lane.
Some thoughts I had along the way:
- It just doesn't feel safe to share the road with cars. I wish it were legal for adults to ride on the sidewalk when it's safe to do so (when it won't cause danger to pedestrians, or to cars coming in and out of driveways).*
- Just as we Americans, when travelling abroad, plaintively wish that others would distinguish between America-the-government and Americans-the-people (as in, I myself am not representative of what my government does and please don't paint us all with the same broad brush), I imagine a bunch of Russians in the US right now deserve better than they're getting. I myself have said "Russians" or "the Russians" when I mean "the government of Russia" and should stop doing that.
- It's bitterly funny how I carry proof of my US citizenship with me when I leave my apartment, as though it were an amulet of protection, as though I will be able to force racists to honor my store coupon.
Today I feel better. I biked again today and tried a different street -- usually it's a busier thoroughfare, but today it had fewer cars, and (at my current stage of biking skill) I prefer the clarity of stoplights to the uncertainty of two-way-stop intersections. And - joy! - I biked home in the shade, which made me feel safer, because the sun in a motorist's eyes makes it harder for them to see me (the one time a car hit my bike, the sun was in the driver's eyes). I was able to bike the whole way to my destination and back.
After I came home, I reread a little more of Pat Barker's Regeneration, my current comfort reading. A main character, an anthropologist and psychologist, is counseling British veterans of trench warfare during World War I. He sees how their helplessness and immobility in the face of constant onslaught traumatizes them. I remembered a thing Mel Chua has taught in her "educational psychology for free-range learners" talk, about the factors affecting self-efficacy -- when you feel stuck and helpless while trying to learn something, it can help to get up, to stretch, to walk around, to remind yourself that you are in control of your own body. And I thought about what activities I genuinely find rejuvenating, taking me out of my worries and into the sensations and experience of the present moment and changing my experience of time. pidge once wrote, about motorcycling:
I ride because it makes me sane. It clears my head. It allows me to feel a sense of freedom. It's my 900cc therapy. When you are heading down I-5 at a speed that certainly isn’t legal, all of the bullshit that is in your head, all of your distractions, it gets the hell out or you turn into a wet smear on the asphalt. You are focused on nothing but the next quarter mile that will pass you buy at 9 seconds or so.
Over and over I find inertia drawing me to a sedentary life, and then over and over I inhabit my body and surprise myself with how much I love strenuously using it, how nourishing and joyful it is to power new journeys with my muscles. I hope I remember a little better this time.
* I looked up New York State traffic rules and New York City traffic rules to confirm; yup, as an adult, I am not allowed to ride my bike on the sidewalk. Side note: both the NYS Vehicle and Traffic laws and New York City Department of Transportation traffic rules have specific rules pertaining to horses, but neither of them defines "horse". In one case the NYC traffic rules refer to a "horse or other beast of burden" in case you want to use that while obscurely complaining to your housemate about carrying groceries.
# 27 Jun 2018, 05:50PM: Songs And Books That Have Helped Me Get Through News Despair:
When I feel despondent about my country and my world, a few things that help or have helped:
- Rebecca Solnit's nonfiction book Hope in the Dark (which I still have not finished) which makes the point that YOU JUST DON'T KNOW. You don't. You plant seeds and you may never get to see them sprout.
- Cory Doctorow's novel Walkaway, Annalee Newitz's novel Autonomous, and Margaret Killjoy's novella The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion, which have people like my friends and me as creative and loving and disappointed and brave and effective protagonists
- Elvis Costello's song "Tramp the Dirt Down" (even if you feel no hope, transmute your rage into stubbornness)
- Josh Millard's song "Everything is Fucked (Keep on Going)" and Pete Seeger's song "Tomorrow is a Highway", on persistence and promise and the future
# 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).
# 05 Jan 2018, 11:30PM: My Fun Cleveland Vacation:
In October I visited Cleveland, Ohio for a long weekend and had a really lovely time. I'm looking forward to visiting Cleveland again for PyCon North America 2018, or even before that. I have talked to a few people who ordinarily like going to PyCon NA but have assumed Cleveland's not a fun place to visit. Early bird tickets for PyCon are nearly gone so now's a good time for me to tell you about the great time I had, even though I have been quite lax on photo taking, sorting, processing, and posting.
I came into town on Amtrak (which arrives way early in the morning) and took a cab to my lodging. I stayed at the Cleveland Hostel and stayed in a giant room (with a loveseat and a desk!) in a walkable restaurant district for pretty cheap. All the common areas, including the bathrooms, were clean and had what I needed. I had some deadlines to hit so I spent a bunch of that first day in my room on the wifi.
My friend Mike Pirnat swung by that night and we ate at a Burmese place, I think, in the Ohio City neighborhood near the hostel. We got some ice cream, watched an in-progress glassblowing workshop, and walked around a little, then he drove me around so I could see the city by night, and taught me a bit of the geography. Mike is a far better photographer than I am and someday you will see his photos from this weekend and I will sort of noiselessly point there and move my head in some complicated fashion indicating that you should look at his superior photos, not my snapshots.
The next day was super packed -- Ernest W. Durbin III was my guide. He took me to
Johnny Mango for breakfast, then we went on a walking tour of the downtown. Oh wow. The Cleveland Arcade, the grocery store that used to be a bank (where we ate lunch in the deli and marveled at its atrium), so much beautiful architecture and interesting history! I think this is also where I noticed Cleveland has a bikeshare, quite a bit of cool public art, and of course, to my New York City ears, ridiculously low prices for food and lodging. (I believe the walking tour guide mentioned luxury condos right in the heart of the city that go for as much as $1,500 a month, then rushed to say that they do come with various concierge-type perks. I was reminded of where I was.)
Ernest drove us to an open house and tour at the Midwest Railway Preservation Society where Ernest, Mike, and I got to see a ton of old trains and ride for a bit in a vintage railcar. (For a few hundred bucks, at MRPS, you can get trained and spend an hour running a diesel locomotive. I am interested in figuring out how to do this when I return to Cleveland in the spring.) We met up with Ernest's spouse Kaitlin and went to an art exhibit I had thought sounded interesting. It turned out to be pretty small but the curator was happy to show us the art warehouse in the back where they store pieces not currently on display and pieces being restored! So that was neat.
An Internet acquaintance of mine, Catherine Kehl, met up with us, and a subset of us went to eat pastries nearby, then to eat and drink at the Fairmount since it had been recommended by strangers on MetaFilter. I enjoyed my soft pretzel and beer cheese. Catherine gave some of us an impromptu tour of a science lab she runs at Case Western Reserve University (home of the Michelson-Morley experiment!), and I realized I was wiped and called it a night instead of heading to a folk concert.
The next morning, Mike picked me up bright and early so we could head to ride a local scenic railway. We got there a little early and walked around the canalway at a local park a bit, then boarded the vintage train and got to ride around a bit. The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad runs a bunch of different trains through the national park -- if you really wanted your PyCon corporate party to be lavish and memorable you could rent a private railcar which, goals.
Then, after a tasty lunch at The Oak Barrel, we went hiking and saw a couple of waterfalls: Blue Hen and Brandywine. Gorgeous scenery and pleasant exercise -- lots of rock-hopping across streams, which I love.
Mike, his family, and I saw a bit of the sunset over Lake Erie at a lakefront park, and then he joined my friend Catherine at dinner with me at an Indian place near Case Western. And then the next morning I took the local bus to the Greyhound station and the Greyhound to Pittsburgh and saw some other friends.
A few more photos I enjoy as reminders of the trip:
Approximately all of my photos of myself or my friends came out horrible so I am not inflicting those pictures on you or on us. Thanks to my Cleveland friends and acquaintances for showing me a good time, to acquaintances who gave me tips, and to the contributors to the Wikivoyage guide to Cleveland for useful tips.
And you can buy your ticket to attend PyCon in Cleveland right now and I believe the early bird rate is still available: Corporate for $550 USD, Individual for $350 USD, and Student for $100 USD.
# 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.
# 21 Sep 2017, 08:16AM: A Misheard Moxy Früvous Lyric, Corrected:
Sometime around 1999 or 2001, I first heard "King of Spain" by Moxy Früvous. The UC Berkeley a cappella group DeCadence performed it during one of their lunchtime concerts near Sather Gate. (Four out of five weekdays one of the a cappella groups would do a noon concert -- DeCadence, Artists in Resonance, the Men's Octet, the California Golden Overtones -- and I caught as many of them as I could.) And then Steve Shipman introduced me to more of their songs and albums -- it was Bargainville, which ends with that haunting a cappella "Gulf War Song", that I was listening to on September 10, 2001.
In 2014 it came to light that band member Jian Ghomeshi had a fairly sordid history, and for a while I couldn't listen. Now I seem to have the ability to listen again; that change I don't have as much insight into as I'd like.
Just now Leonard and I were singing bits of "King of Spain" to each other; he sang:
Lord, it looked good on me
I said "What?!" Because back around 2000 and through all the years to the present, I heard those lyrics as:
Lord of the good ennui
So for the entire time I've been with Leonard, he and I have interpreted that song slightly differently. He heard the narrator figuratively wearing royalty like clothing, like a fashion statement, which connects to the silk he mentions in the next line, and which logically connects to the garment swap later in the song. Through my mondegreen, I heard an emphasis on the narrator's malaise and boredom (a reason for the prince-and-pauper swap) and a connection to the literal meaning of an additional French loanword, laissez-faire, that he uses later.
A quick web search tells me that Leonard's version is the consensus, that to join intersubjective reality I would let go of "Lord of the good ennui". I shall bury it here, with due ceremony. Goodbye, old mondegreen friend! You were a lot of fun.
# 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.
# 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.
# (2) 01 Nov 2016, 09:46AM: Political Memories:
I've been reminiscing about past US elections and administrations.* I've been paying attention to US federal politics since the early nineties, which means I remember a lot of details that many younger politics enthusiasts don't. I decided to dredge some of them up:
I imagine some of my readers will be utterly uninterested in this litany, and some will be a little curious, and some will say "AGGGGH" and remember a bunch of things they thought they had forgot in a partially pleasing and partially disorienting experience. I will admit that this entry is mostly aimed at that last group.
* I misheard Leonard or something and we came up with the phrase "Munchin' Accomplished" which he immediately realized ought to be the name of a George W. Bush-administration-themed food cart. It would serve:
- Freedom fries
- "Condoleezza" rice (her name is Italian, so, risotto maybe?)
: Comedy Memoir
# 05 May 2016, 02:08PM: I Miss You, Frances:
You died ten years ago today. I wish I could show you what your kids and their spouses have been up to in the last ten years. I like to believe you'd be pretty proud. Like, Leonard is making it easier for people to check out ebooks from their public libraries. I'm building a business. I wish I could tell you, I wish I could see you. I never got to ask you so many questions about Leonard's childhood, and about your own.
I miss you. I wish you weren't gone.
# 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.
# (3) 03 Jan 2016, 12:25PM PST: Star Wars: The Force Awakens:
I saw the original trilogy many years ago and just don't remember a lot of stuff. I was maybe sixteen; I missed my window for really loving it, in keeping with that old saying, "The golden age of science fiction is twelve." And then I saw Phantom Menace -- standing in line for it and all -- with my then boyfriend, when it came out, and then we had our first real argument, because I didn't like it and he did. Past Sumana, bewildered and frustrated in that dorm hallway, you are not wrong, basically the entire critical consensus agrees with you, and someday you will learn to trust your own aesthetic judgment.
In any case: even though I'd never seen Episodes 2 or 3, and I barely remembered the others, The Force Awakens was totally accessible and fun for me. I walked in as someone who thought Boba Fett was one of Jabba the Hutt's names, and I was fine.
I've heard that -- to trufans -- there's sort of a red herring happening in The Force Awakens about someone being set up to be the next Jedi. I did not see it, and I think one reason is that I don't know anything about what the harbingers of Jedi are, but also I think it's because I am such a nonfan that when I am watching a Star Wars movie I do not automatically think "ah there will have to be a new generation of Jedi, so who will it be?" It has not soaked in for me that Star Wars is fantasy and that the way we solve problems is by finding and training people sensitive to the Force. I have Star Trek in my DNA instead (like Leonard) so I assume that the way we solve geopolitical problems is by, like, being transgressively inclusive and making good arguments.
P.S. Does "TFA" mean Star Wars: The Force Awakens or two-factor authentication? In my upcoming fanfic on security in lightsaber summoning, both! Although I may need to figure out whether the Force is something you have, something you are, or something you know.
P.P.S. I will not be writing that fanfic, but you go ahead and feel free. Happy new year!
Edited to add at 11:45pm PT: OK, I wrote the fanfic. "Security Question" is about why a young Jedi apprentice can't shortcut the anti-theft system on the lightsabers by Force-summoning the two-factor auth token itself.
# 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.
# (3) 17 Nov 2015, 05:48PM: Announcing Changeset Consulting:
I'm delighted to announce the launch of my new business. I am the founder of Changeset Consulting, LLC.
Changeset provides short-term project management services to free and open source software projects. Need to expedite the releases of new versions of software, write developer onboarding and user documentation, triage and respond to bugs, clean out the code review queue, or prioritize tasks for upcoming work? Changeset Consulting lightens the load on your maintainers.
Details about the services I offer, my past work, and useful resources I've made are at http://changeset.nyc. I'm seeking new clients and would love referrals.
For now the shop is just me, but I'm aiming to have enough income and work by summer 2016 to hire an intern or apprentice, and to eventually hire full-time staff. We'll see how it goes.
I highly recommend Galaxy Rise Consulting, the firm I hired to design my website. Much thanks to Shauna Gordon-McKeon, and to all the friends and family who encouraged me on my way here!
# (2) 28 Sep 2015, 10:52AM: Penumbra, Apotheosis, Friable:
I had a pretty full weekend here in Queens.
Saturday morning I went to an information session in Flushing about a business plan competition in Queens. About 170 new or small businesses enter each year for a chance at one of three $10,000 grants (the three categories: Food, Innovation, and Community). I also learned more about the Entrepreneurial Assistance Program, a 10-week, $500 night course. I am thinking seriously about doing this; my MS in Technology Management focused much more on big corporate tech than on solo entrepreneurship, and it's been several years since that coursework anyway.
Then I went to Maker Faire to help staff the table for MergeSort, the new New York City feminist hackerspace. A year or two ago I entertained the idea of cofounding a feminist community workshop in Astoria and decided I did not want to try without several dedicated cofounders. Then, a few months ago, I happened to meet Anne DeCusatis on the subway (she noticed my laptop stickers) and found out that she and Katherine Daniels are founding MergeSort! Right now it's a monthly meetup in Brooklyn.
I brought my zines "Cat, Dog, and Badger Each Own A Bookstore. They Are Friends." and "Quill & Scroll" and taught passers-by how to turn the letter-sized sheet of paper into an eight-page booklet with one slit and a bit of folding, just as Liz Henry taught me at that Double Union workshop where I started "Cat, Dog, and Badger." (Brendan, there are now like 150 more people who have received copies of your gorgeous illustrations of a hedgehog running an all-night bookstore.) I saw a few people I knew, and met Jenn Schiffer!
Saturday night I attended a vocabulary bee sponsored by my local bookshop. During the first round, in which we had twenty minutes to define fifteen words, I discovered I did not know the meanings of "flocculent", "phthisis", and "dipsomaniac" -- and I was slightly off regarding "trenchant" (which means "forceful" rather than "perceptive"). The MC encouraged us to write in jokes in addition to or instead of accurate answers, as the judges also appreciated and awarded points for style and hilarity. So I defined dipsomania as an obsession with the singing the "dip da dip da dip" scat from "Blue Moon", and I japed that "flocculent" is a service that lets Catholic priests monitor their congregations on Twitter during the 40 days of Lent. I made it into the oral rounds, during which I successfully defined "penumbra", "apotheosis", and "friable," each time adding a little something -- about constitutional law, about the first becoming the last, about how we, too, will crumble into ashes and dust.
I won first place.
Yesterday: back to Maker Faire for more tabling. A Philadelphia visitor in an International Workers of the World shirt recognized me because of my Dreamwidth pin, but declined to sing a labor song with me. (I have been working on "Banks of Marble," personally.) It feels possible at this point that the majority of the sentences Anne has heard me say are: "Hi there, we're starting a feminist makerspace here in New York City." (A little misleading, since I am not one of the founders, but hey, clarity over precision for a carnival barker's patter.) I can stay on message and repeat talking points for many hours, and was glad to deploy these skills in the service of a good cause, while also giving away silly zines about animals who own bookstores.
I grew much better at teaching people how to cut and fold the zine; sometimes, when I said to an adult or a child towards the end of the process, "Do you see how it wants to become a book?" I saw the joy of discovery and mastery in their face. "It's yours to keep," I said, and maybe they'll unfold and refold it, to understand. I think some of those people, kids and adults both, have started thinking about what zine they might make. Maybe some kid got some paper and pen on the drive home to Long Island or Connecticut or Jersey, and sat in the back seat drawing, making and numbering eight cells on a sheet of notebook paper or the back of an old math worksheet. Maybe a couple of women, on the long subway ride back to Brooklyn, used the back of a flyer to start drafting -- maybe I'll see them at a MergeSort meetup one of these days.
We ran out of zines, and of business cards, and of eighth-of-a-sheet slips Anne had printed Saturday night, and of hastily-handwritten DIY cards cut from notebook paper and the back of a mis-cut "Quill & Scroll".
I got home to a Leonard-cooked dinner, some Internet time, and a few episodes of The Legend of Korra, then the lunar eclipse, then sleep.
# 09 Sep 2015, 03:57PM: What I've Been Up To:
Over the last few weeks:
I bought a bike and started riding it. I spent a bunch of time with my blood family. I saw movies and read books, including a bunch of rereading. I worked on an article for an online magazine. I talked with other scifi/fantasy fans about the Hugo Awards and sf/f that takes Hinduism seriously. I got further behind on email. I added metadata to a few videos in the John Morearty archive. I caught up with friends on the phone and by letter. I tried to stay out of the heat. I did errands.
I recovered from a difficult summer. I'm glad it's getting to be autumn.
# 04 Aug 2015, 01:14AM: My Eulogy for Nóirín Plunkett:
A few hours ago, I spoke at Nóirín's memorial service. This is what I said (I am sure I varied the words a bit when I read it).
My name is Sumana Harihareswara, and I will always remember Nóirín's compassion, insight, and bravery.
They were brave to publicly name and fight back against wrongs done against them -- by members of the open source community -- wrongs done against them and others; I think it is not exaggerating to say that their bravery galvanized a movement. Our open technology community owes them a debt that can never be repaid.
We also benefited tremendously from their insight. Nóirín had just started a new role at Simply Secure, one that combined their expertise in open stuff with their writing and coordinating skills, and their judgment and perspective. And before that, when they worked as a project manager for the Ada Initiative, I had the privilege of working closely with Nóirín; I am grateful for that, but of course now I know what I'm missing, what we're all missing, because I had the chance to see, every day, their diligence and insight and discretion and judgment and empathy, and compassion. Some of us lead like engineers, by making systems that scale; some of us lead like nurturers, cultivating relationships and trust with emotional labor. Nóirín was brilliant at both of those, and I wish I could have decades more to learn from them, and toss around more ideas and frameworks.
The last time I saw Nóirín was at WisCon, a feminist science fiction convention in May. One morning I came down the hotel stairs and saw them seated against a wall, crying, sobbing, because Ireland had just passed a referendum legalizing same-sex marriage. They were so happy that their friends and loved ones and everyone back home were now freer to marry and have their families recognized that they'd gotten a glass of champagne from the hotel restaurant, at maybe eight in the morning, to celebrate. They felt deeply the joy and suffering of others.
Nóirín, I miss you, and I will try to live up to the example you set. Thank you.
# 21 Jul 2015, 11:59AM PST: HIV Prevention News, and Grief:
I miss my mother-in-law.
Most of you never got to know Frances Whitney. Here's her obituary, which, like all obituaries, is incomplete. She was so sharp and no-guff, so constitutionally opposed to quitting. Work is love made visible, as the saying goes, and she put so much love into her extended family and her community. Her testimony "On Being a Single Parent" starts: "Sister Lewis asked me to talk about being a successful single parent tonight and I've been quite flummoxed by her request, firstly because I don't feel particularly successful." But she survived the death of her husband and successfully fought illness and money struggles long enough to raise three children and see them all graduate from college, and she enjoyed teaching, gardening, reading, cooking, traveling, writing, filmgoing, and her church (Latter-Day Saints) till the very end.
Frances died of AIDS.
Dr. Amin said he presented my case at a conference for infectious disease specialists in San Francisco in December and the doctors there couldn't believe I'm still alive. But I still am. Viral load through the roof, and only one T-Cell, but I got out of bed this morning! (January 8, 2004)
I met her in the spring of 2001, just before she started blogging. This week I went back and started rereading her blog. I can appreciate it differently now -- for instance, right now, I'm going through a dead friend's correspondence to archive it, just as Frances did in 2003. And then there's stuff I'd forgotten, like how she vexed the home health service by consistently leaving her house.
The home health service thinks I should live my life lying around in bed at home, ready for their beck and call. I keep TRYING to educate them otherwise.....
It turns out the nurse was looking for me all morning, and they ended up calling Kim Cornett (my emergency contact), and Kim called Jill and Sara [because they have a key] so the Langleys could come over and see if I was dead in my bed with the cats eating me. I have told and told and told the agency that I work until noon. They don't believe it. (June 28, 2004)
Frances was mordant, liberal, angry about inequality. I reflect on her loves and woes that I also see in her son; she loved history and good fiction, well-made things, geology and paleontology, seeing the impact of her work, quiet contentment; she detested incompetence, waste, missed opportunities, boredom. She tried not to indulge in self-pity or Pollyannaism about the slings and arrows that had come her way. She was sensible, and she wanted us to be sensible too.
I should have driven to Utah today to attend Melea's funeral tomorrow. I'm still really sad about this. But my body has been doing that thing where my temperature shoots up and down, and I'm usually running a fever. Also the stomach has been acting up more than usual. Therefore, I thought if I made that drive it would be to MY funeral....
I should be in Utah. But like many things I would have liked to do in life, the HIV virus wins again. Don't anyone catch HIV. You WON'T win. The virus is always triumphant. (June 3, 2005)
Here is the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention webpage about how you can prevent getting HIV. One recent advance: PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, a daily pill you take that "has been shown to reduce the risk of HIV infection in people who are at high risk by up to 92%" when taken consistently. I only heard about PrEP this month, and I thought I was pretty up-to-date on sexual health news. So maybe you didn't know about it either; take a look.
Frances died in 2006. I miss her. She was great.
# (3) 10 Jul 2015, 01:41PM: "Inside Out" and Maturity:
I saw Inside Out last night on a date with my spouse.* I recommend that you see this film, and that you see it with someone you care about.
I stay through the credits when I watch movies, which means I saw Pixar crediting its consultant psychologists including Paul Ekman. (Ek is Hindi for "one" so whenever I see his name it feels like a trailer voiceover: One man...)
Leonard and I walked out of Inside Out wanting to know more about how accurate its metaphors for emotion and cognition are. I'd still like to know more, and look forward to more making-of commentary. A Fresh Air interview with the movie's director discusses how, for instance, memory realllllly doesn't work like that. But it's refreshing to think about the purpose of disgust, of anger, of fear, or of sadness, and I'm pleased that a mainstream Hollywood movie is telling people -- especially girls -- that each of these emotions has a legitimate role in our personalities and our lives.
Spoilers start here.
Sadness is the most interesting character in the film and I am still wrestling with understanding her, and I don't know whether that's a mark for or against this movie. Maybe the occlusion between me and her is in my own emotional blockage. Maybe Pixar couldn't quite get at the heroism of sadness. Maybe her very nature is one of empathy and relationship-building, one that does not make sense only as an aspect of interiority, so it's hard to demonstrate her powers and purpose in the confined set inside Riley's head. Maybe since Riley feels such pressure to be joyful and to perform joy, we rarely get to see Sadness's natural flow and ebb, and I need to see baselines as well as extremes to understand a system.
Leonard and I both think it's super-intriguing that Riley's mom evidently keeps Sadness in the driver's seat. What does that mean? How did that happen? Is this nature, nurture, other? The adults we see into seem to have emotions of all the same gender, which the director called "phony"; might Fear and Anger in Riley's head shift as her gender identity strengthens, or is this a hint that she's genderfluid? I am particularly interested in these nuances because I wonder whether they're in any way based on the science consultants' research.
When I was younger I wondered: what is maturity? What is the special skill or knowledge that you get from being older? In recent years I've begun to understand. Mindfulness meditation has helped me take a step back from the momentary caprices of mind. People I've loved have died, and I've achieved things I'm proud of and that will last; this too shall pass. Mel Chua's guidance gave me one lens, Dreyfus's model of skill acquisition; with more experience comes an entirely new way of seeing situations. And I've seen enough of lots of kinds of things -- people, elections, businesses, relationships, homes, jobs, cities... -- that I can pattern-match and predict outcomes better, and I can help people who haven't paid attention as long as I have.
...it's common to feel this way, and it's also common to feel more comfortable as time passes and you experiment with different strategies. To use Kathy Sierra's construction, these problems are typical and temporary. Quickly recognizing when you're in one of these failure modes and changing your habits will help you make the most of the opportunity you have before you. (Allison Kaptur, detailing four common failure modes of Recurse Center participants)
Inside Out is an entertaining movie, but it's also a primer in some emotional failure modes and how to recognize and stop them. I wish I could have seen it ten years ago. Maybe I should make a note to myself to watch it again ten years from now.
* For many years I've used "spouse" or "partner" much more often than "husband" because I didn't want to use the gendered terms until same-sex married people could use them too. Since June 26th that's less relevant in the US, but we don't yet have legal same-sex marriage worldwide. I also like de-emphasizing heteronormativity; it's more important for new acquaintances to know that I'm married than to know that I'm married to a man. So now it's a habit. I wonder whether I will ever try to change this habit.
# 04 May 2015, 12:54PM: A Hiking Trip:
In February I got an email from my pal Jane:
Subject: Long shot: Hiking in TN at end of April?
This led to a fun hiking trip last week in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I took Amtrak south and Jane picked me up in Raleigh. The long drive west gave us a chance to begin catching up. We walked to the Alum Cave Bluffs and to Rainbow Falls, and we did the Bud Ogle nature walk near a falling-apart sluice mill, all accompanied by the very helpful Falcon guide Hiking Great Smoky Mountains National Park by Kevin Adams. Our timing evidently helped us get a lot of the trails to ourselves, as we missed both the wildflower-loving spring crowd and the family-vacation summer crowd, and forecasts had predicted more rain than actually occurred. Few hikers were around to mind our duets of "Union Maid" or "Goodnight Ladies/Peck A Little, Talk A Little" or "Women and Men".
After my Coast-to-Coast walks through England, during which I developed wayfinding hygiene approaching paranoia, I found the trails in the Smokies super well-marked. (Right after Rainbow Falls we did overshoot, but I blame that on our inadequately attentive reading of the guidebook.) Also we saw a deer, and a weasel, right on the trails! And we saw a mama bear with her three cubs, safely across a valley from us, but still! Wild black bears!
And then I got to spend May Day in Asheville, North Carolina with my friend David. I caught "Loving After Lifetimes of All This" at The Center for Craft, Creativity, and Design, and thus discovered the amazing art/zine partnership Temporary Services; I particularly appreciated their Group Work: A Compilation of Quotes About Collaboration from a Variety of Sources and Practices (PDF link), and now that I've glimpsed a neat-looking booklet about Madison in their exhibit, I'm planning to seek it when I go to WisCon in a few weeks. We filled the evening with a May Day rally, a whomping performance of A Streetcar Named Desire, and the end of a Beltane celebration. I read a lot during my Saturday bus ride eastwards through North Carolina, and then Saturday evening I saw live roots rock near Raleigh. And during the train northwards, I did a good six hours of work on my fanvid.
Spring came back to New York City while I was away. I'm thinking about spring cleaning, and about what I want to make room for. Making things, yes, code and art. More live music, live theater, hiking, and long chats with friends I rarely see, who live very different lives. Changing and allowing myself to be changed.
# 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.
# (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).)
# (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.
# 21 Aug 2013, 10:45AM: My Family And The Ada Initiative:
Please join Leonard and me in donating to the Ada Initiative. Why? Let me tell you a story, and then a surprise.
My parents came to the US from Karnataka, in south India, in the 1970s, and they were lonely. They spoke Kannada and English and Farsi and Hindi and Sanskrit, but Kannada was their mother tongue, and they arrived in Oklahoma and found no Kannadiga community to speak of. (Go ahead and groan. My dad passed on his love of terrible puns to me.)
I'm not saying they were the first Kannada speakers in the US. There were definitely already Kannadigas in the US in the 1970s. Indians had been immigrating here for decades.* There were letters and long-distance phone calls and occasional visits, a few families getting together, the adults laughing and swapping tips in Kannada while kids ran around. But the Kannada-speaking diaspora was scattered and had no central place to talk with each other. A bunch of people who shared a characteristic, but not really a community.
So my parents did some community organizing, in their spare time, in between working and raising my sister and me. How did they get Kannada speakers together? They started "Kannada Koota" local organizations (like user groups). "Koota" means "meeting" in Kannada. They basically started a grassroots network of Kannadiga meetups. How did they get these folks talking to each other, all across the country? They started a bimonthly magazine, Amerikannada, and ran it for 7 and a half years, until their money and energy ran out. It had great fiction, and articles from the literary magazines back home. And it included ads for those Kannada Koota meetups, "how I started a Kannada Koota" articles, and tutorial exercises for "how to learn Kannada", for parents to teach their kids. My parents were sharing best practices, talking meta, inspiring people all over.
I didn't really know that, as a kid. As my parents processed subscriptions, recruited articles and ads, wrote, and edited, my sister and I stapled, stamped, glued, and sealed bits of paper in languages we couldn't quite yet read. We had a rubber stamp with the logo: a griffin-like creature, half-lion, half-bald eagle. I gleefully deployed those magical bulk-mail stickers, red and orange and green with single-letter codes, and piled envelopes into burlap sacks and plastic bins for the frequent trips to the post office.
It was always my Dad who took the Amerikannada mail to the post office. He was strong in those days, heaving the great bags of mail like an Indian Santa Claus (mustache yes, beard no) alongside the blue-uniformed workers on the loading dock, the part of the post office most people never use or even see. My sister and I came along, not to help -- how could we? -- but to keep my Dad company.
At home, while toying with BASIC on a PC Jr, I overheard the shouted long-distance phone calls in mixed Kannada and English. Stuff like "Go ahead and give me the directions to the venue, and I'll tell it to Veena." or "Well you know who you should talk to? Raj is going to be over there around then...." Weekend after weekend I spent reading science fiction in some corner at a Kannada Koota.**
The funny thing is that I thought I was rebelling against my parents by taking the path I did. I majored in political science at Berkeley instead of engineering, and fell in with open source hippies. I used AbiWord on Caldera Linux to write papers about nineteenth-century American political theory and naturalization rates among Indians in Silicon Valley. I fell away from coding and saw that other things needed doing more urgently: tech writing, testing, teaching, marketing, management.
And here I am now, a community organizer like them, finally appreciating what they did, what they made, what they gave up. My dad had to work to support us; he couldn't edit Amerikannada full-time, even if that would have been a better use of his talents, and a greater service to the world. My parents couldn't find enough ads and subscribers to pay for the cost of keeping the magazine going. I appreciate WordPress and PayPal all the more because I see that Amerikannada folded (partly) for the lack of them.
What if one of my parents had been able to bring in income from the community we were building? What if it had been sustainable?
Today, the community that I most identify with is that of women in open source and open culture. We've talked to each other in pockets and locally for decades - hats off to LinuxChix and VividCon, for instance - but in the last few years, The Ada Initiative has brought us more resources, a stronger community, and faster progress than ever. And this is possible because the Ada Initiative's staff is full-time.
So, here's the surprise: Leonard and I will match every donation to the Ada Initiative up to a total of USD$10,000 until midnight August 27th PDT, one week from today. Yes, again. And this time, if the community matches the full amount, we'll chip in an extra thousand dollars.
The Ada Initiative's work is useful in our own lives. When I needed an anti-harassment policy for my workplace's technical events, and when Leonard wanted resources to advise his technical communities on diversity, we consulted the Ada Initiative's resources. AdaCamp brings together, teaches, and inspires women from all over, including me. And the network I found via the Ada Initiative helped me write a keynote speech and respond to unwanted touch at a hackathon.
But more than that, we know that we're improving our world and helping science fiction, open source, and Wikipedia live up to our values. We believe in inclusiveness, compassion, empowerment, and equal and fair treatment for all, and the Ada Initiative opens the doors for more women to get to enjoy those values in the places we love.
And my parents taught me that I should give back. It feels so much better to give back than to give up.
* One couple who moved from Gujarat to California in 1958 had a son who's now a Congressman.
** Nowadays I get to be the only Kannadiga at science fiction conventions.
# (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.
# 12 Feb 2012, 07:51PM: What Does A Volunteer Development Coordinator Do?:
A giant wall of text follows, giving a snapshot of work I do. I nurture the software community that supports the Wikimedia movement. So here's a big swath of stuff I did between February 1st and today.
Wrote and posted a blog entry about the San Francisco hackathon. Still need to do more followup with participants.
Handed over the MediaWiki 1.19 deployment communications plan to Guillaume Paumier, WMF Technical Communications Manager. He blogged a summary of the deployment and of our efforts and that's just the tip of the iceberg; he also set up a global message delivery and improved the CentralNotice maintenance message and did even more to make sure that we thoroughly communicate about the upcoming deployment to all the Wikimedia communities. I also shared information with various folks regarding testing of site-specific gadgets on 1.19.
I sent at least 285 work-related emails. That's 41 per workday but I definitely sent some work-related email on weekends.
Some patch queue work, responding to contributors and getting experienced developers to review the patches. I'm just trying to keep our queue from growing while code reviewers are mostly focused on getting MediaWiki 1.19 reviewed, polished, and deployed. But I do want to take care of all parts of the volunteer pipeline -- initial outreach and recruiting, training, code improvement, commit access, continued interest and participation, and debriefing when they leave -- so the patch review queue is a continuing worry.
Some work preparing for the Pune hackathon and for GLAMCamp DC, neither of which I am attending. I wrote or edited some tutorials and made a tutorial category which pleases me. We have more good material for workshops and stuff now, yay! And I helped the GLAMCamp people a bit in talking through what technical goals they wanted to achieve during the weekend.
Got dates from Wikimedia Germany for the Berlin hackathon, 1-3 June, and started trumpeting it. Also worked on planning for it and did outreach. For example, I reached out to about 13 chapters that are pursuing or interested in some kind of technology work like, say, funding or working on the offline Wikipedia reader (Wikimedia Switzerland), or usability and accessibility for Wikisource (Wikimedia Italy), or the Toolserver, a shared hosting service for tools and stuff that hackers use to improve or make use of the Wikimedia sites (for example, Wikimedia Germany & Wikimedia Hungary). We hope they can convene, share insights and collaborate at the WMDE hackfest.
Told at least 30 contributors to apply for Wikimania scholarships because the deadline is 16 February.
Talked to some Wikimedia India folks about planning technical events, and contributed to a page of resources for upcoming events.
Worked on some event planning & decisions for a potential event.
Passed the word to some friends, acquaintances, and email lists about some job openings at the Foundation.
Google Summer of Code has been announced, and I am managing MediaWiki's participation. I have started -- flyers, emails, recruiting potential students, improving the wiki page, asking experts whether they might mentor, and so on. I'm trying to start a thing where every major women's college in North America gets a GSoC presentation by March 15th, to improve the number of GSoC applications that come from women; let's see how that goes. MediaWiki still needs to apply to participate as a mentoring organization and acceptances only go out after that, but I'm comfortable spending time preparing anyway. And the women's college outreach will lead to an increase in the number of applications for all the participating open source projects, instead of just aiming a firehose at MediaWiki; that's fine. Like Tim O'Reilly says, aim to create more value than you capture.
Related to that -- I set up a talk for one of our engineers to give at Mills, a women's college that has an interesting interdisciplinary computer science program (both grad and undergrad, the grad program being mixed-sex) and I think it may end up being a really amazing talk. Ian Baker is going to talk about how CS helps us work in Wikimedia engineering, how we collaborate with the community during the design, development, and testing phases, and what skills and experiences come in handy in his job. I'll publicize more once there's an official webpage to point to.
Had a videoconference with a developer and my boss about our conversion to Git. I prepped for it by collecting some questions and getting preliminary answers, and then after the call we ended up with all this raw material and I sent a fairly long summary to the developers' mailing list. There's a lot left to do, and the team needs to work on some open issues, but we have a lot more detail on those TODOs now, so that's good.
Saw a nice email from Erik Möller publicizing the San Francisco hackathon videos and tutorials/documentation, yay!
Talked with a few people about submitting talks to upcoming conferences. I ought to write some preliminary Grace Hopper, Open Source Bridge, and Wikimania proposals this week.
Various volunteer encouragement stuff (pointing to resources, helping with installation or development problems, troubleshooting, teaching, putting confused people in touch with relevant experts, etc.), especially talking in IRC to eager students who want to do GSoC. Many of them are from India. I wonder how many of them see my name and think I'm in India too.
Commit access queue as usual.
Helped with the monthly report. I have a colleague who wants to learn more about All This Engineering Stuff, so every month we have a call where I explain and teach the context of the report, and for this month's call I suggested we add another colleague who also wants to learn how the tech side works. Who knows, maybe this will turn into a tradition!
Followed up on the GSoC 2011 students who never quite got their projects set up and deployed on Wikimedia servers, and looks like two of them have some time and want to finish it now, yay! Updated the Past Projects page.
Checked in on the UCOSP students who are working on a mobile app for Wiktionary and told them about Wikimania, new mobile research, etc. Also got some feedback from their mentor, Amgine, on how they're doing.
Started an onwiki thread to discuss the MobileFrontend rewrite question(s).
Talked to Oren Bochman, the volunteer who's working on our Lucene search stuff, and followed up on a bunch of his questions/interests.
Ran & attended meetings.
Suggested to the new Wikimedia Kenya chapter that maybe we could collaborate, since they're interested in helping schools get Wikipedia access via offline reading.
Looked into the code review situation by getting a list of committers with their associated numbers of commits, reviews, and statuschanges. It's just a first pass, but it's a start for discovering who's been committing way more than they review, so we can start efforts to mentor them into more code reviewing confidence. I also saw who's been reviewing way more than they commit, and saw a name I wasn't familiar with -- looks like I've now successfully recruited him to come to the Berlin hackathon. :-)
Put two groups of people in touch with each other: did a group-intro mail to people at various institutions working on Wikimedia accessibility, and another to people who want to work on a redesign of mediawiki.org's front page.
And there was other miscellaneous stuff, but this is already sooooo TL;DR (too long; didn't read). (Which is funny because that's the name of my team.) Monday awaits!
# (2) 26 Apr 2010, 07:25PM: Thoughtcrime Experiments, One Year Later:
Today is the one-year anniversary of Thoughtcrime Experiments, the free scifi/fantasy anthology Leonard and I edited last year.
Thoughtcrime Experiments got a bit of recognition in the form of award nominations. We made the British Fantasy longlist (voting closes 31 May). The Variety SF blog loved Ken Liu's "Single-Bit Error" and considered it one of the best short stories of the year. And Patrick Farley's "Gaia's Strange Seedlike Brood (Homage to Lynn Margulis)" has made the Ursa Major shortlist. We'll find out if he won next month.
Another form of recognition was the sharings, remixings and adaptations we hoped would happen when we released Thoughtcrime Experiments under a Creative Commons license.
LibrisLite, an ebook-reading application, includes our anthology as a free sample book. Marshall T. Vandergrift made a hand-crafted ePub edition, Arachne Jericho made ePub, Kindle/Mobipocket, Microsoft Reader, and Sony Reader editions, and manybooks.net provides the book in many formats. Andrew Willett's short story "Daisy" received a lot of love this way, including an audio recording read by Ian McMillan and an upcoming project I can't mention yet. A fan also read it aloud at a storyreading party.
(To the right: E. J. Fischer's photo of me with Mary Anne Mohanraj, author of "Jump Space.")
We were also gratified to see people thinking about, reviewing, enjoying, and linking to individual stories and illustrations.
"Jump Space" by Mary Anne Mohanraj got substantial thoughtful attention, such as Rachel Chalmers's review:
"Even cooler, the story they sort of chose for me is "Jump Space", which I purely love. It's a head-on collision between the Heinlein juvenile adventure stories I adored as a kid - the Have Spacesuit Will Travel or Space Family Stones - and a thoroughly 21st century set of attitudes towards love, sex, dating one's professor, marriage, faithfulness, jealousy, prostitution, slavery and even raising children (my main preoccupation these days and one that Heinlein tended to rather idealize...)
Erica Naone's review of "Jump Space", in part:
I think the anthology is trying to explore a wider
variety of human elements and viewpoints than are seen in the
typical science fiction anthology...
Mary Anne Mohanraj's "Jump Space" has some of the most fully
realized relationships that I've seen in science fiction.... the
theme of love's simultaneous strength and fragility was emphasized
against the backdrop of space. Love and family seem even more
accidental and precarious when the universe is so large.
Mohanraj wrote a post about what she did wrong & right in "Jump Space". Hugo Schwyzer posted about "Jump Space" and academic ethics (specifically, on initiating professor-student romance), to which Mohanraj replied.
Rachel Chalmers's review continued:
I liked "Jump Space" so much that I was startled to find a story in Thoughtcrime that I liked even better. It is "Single Bit Error" by Ken Liu. Can't tell you much about it without spoiling a rather excellent surprise, but wow, it's just a stunner. Weaves together theoretical computer science and existential philosophy in a way I've always thought could be done, but never quite managed to do or see anyone else doing...
You should allow for my extreme bias in favor of my friends; despite this utter lack of objectivity I recommend this anthology to anyone who's interested in the best and bravest modern science fiction.
(To the left: "Bio Break" by Brittany Hague.)
Kit Brown wrote: "I really liked Daisy by Andrew Willett and Single Bit Error by Ken Liu. I also loved Robot vs Ninjas by Marc Scheff and snagged it to add to my desktop wallpaper rotation."
Erin Ptah's illustration "Pirate vs. Alien" also got some attention: "More silliness may be found in this picture by Erin Ptah, wherein a buxom pirate battles a well-endowed alien who appears to be preparing to give himself a shave."
Lynda Williams says of "The Ambassador's Staff," a short story by Sherry D. Ramsey: "Well put together, goes down smooth, and captures my feelings about too little sleep and too much coffee, to boot. Allegorically speaking."
Sam Tomaino calls Thoughtcrime Experiments "an anthology filled with stories that I enjoyed thoroughly". And Jane Irwin of Vogelein liked it, especially "Daisy".
Erica Naone's thoughtful reviews of several Thoughtcrime Experiments stories are another useful resource; I can't quote them all here or they'd take up half the post!
One manybooks.net reviewer says:
When I saw the "mind-breakingly" description, I thought to myself, "No way, that is just too ambitious." Well after reading the first five or six stories, I must say I agree. This seems to be another example of really good authors publishing under the Creative Commons. Welcome to the future.
Other readers posted about the Creative Commons and DIY facets of our project interesting:
rollicking....The anthology wears its DIY cred on its sleeve and even has a how-to appendix and all the source code for the website is gank-able. It’s available as a free download or POD book. Keep Circulating the Tapes!...
They're publishing because they want to give back to the community. They have no illusions about reaping financial gains from these transactions, and that's okay. We all do things for love that we would never do for money....
The point of Thoughtcrime Experiments is its punk/hacker ethic. You don't have to wait for Gardner Dozois or any of the other 'masters of the genre' to make an anthology for you, you can go out there and do it yourself. If you can't find a magazine publishing SF you'd like to read, and feel they're all publishing the same tired stuff, Much like their punk predecessors at 'Sideburns' they have an appendix on "How we did this". It's the three-chord diagram for a revolution in SF.
Now, it probably won't catch on. Just because punk happened, doesn't mean one can start a revolution every time one is needed. But imagine if it did. Imagine if the kids started getting together, and producing their own SF magazines. Imagine if SF became, for some small portion of the population, the new rock-and-roll, or at least the new indie-rock....
But it's not just the anthology that's interesting. Leonard used this entire project to better understand the editing process. His conclusions are quite interesting for writers. Basically, that we don't suck as bad as we think we do just because we get so many damn rejections...
(To the right: "Times Square" by David Kelmer.)
Another author talked about our anthology while considering commodification, scarcity, and publishing. And Freedom to Tinker noted,
Still, part of the new theory of open-source peer-production asks questions like, "What motivates people to produce technical or artistic works? What mechanisms do they use to organize this work? What is the quality of the work produced, and how does it contribute to society? What are the legal frameworks that will encourage such work?" This anthology and its appendix provide an interesting datapoint for the theorists. (See Leonard's response.)
Jed's repost of our call for submissions, and his announcement once we were out, also commented on the ripples our project might send out: "So I'm hoping, as Leonard and Sumana are hoping, that in addition to providing a good read, this anthology will inspire others to embark on new publishing ventures."
If you want our thinky thoughts about the whole venture, you might be interested in Sharon Panelo's interview with me, my length anthology retrospective and thoughts on scifi publishing, more such, and Leonard's many interesting posts on the stories, the process, and what we learned about the field. And I hope we get that Hour of the Wolf radio show interview up for download/reading sometime soon.
To finish up the link roundup: Grasping in the Wind, BoingBoing, Tor.com,
John Scalzi, Baby Got Books, and Locus also notified their readers of our existence, for which we are grateful.
The book's still up. Read or download it for free, or buy a paperback for USD5.09 plus shipping. I'm arranging to have about seventy copies for sale at cost at WisCon.
If I missed your review, please post a link in the comments!
# (3) 03 Apr 2009, 09:58PM: Happiness:
Leonard and I got to hang out with Jed Hartman, an editor of Strange Horizons, this afternoon! We talked about scifi and editing and his magazine and our anthology. Then he left, then Aaditya came over to Astoria and we went to Sparrow, the great new indie restaurant just northeast of the Astoria Blvd. N/W station. We've come home and played some DDR, and watched some web videos, and now they're talking about video games and Guster is playing, and Leonard just made peanut butter chocolate brownies and they're cooling on the rack. Leonard just told Adi about robotfindskitten.
How long have we been rolling the dice and hoping to be surprised by joy? I won.
# 25 Feb 2009, 09:20PM: Atlas Danced:
Highlights of my recent round trip between NYC and Washington, D.C.:
- Sitting next to a fresh-from-college geekish Indian-American woman, chatting pleasantly for hours, reassuring her that she isn't alone in finding most Indian-American males unattractive, and finding and returning to her the well-loved copy of Atlas Shrugged she nearly left on the bus.
- Seeing the J. Fenimore Cooper Service Area. Great name.
- Driving past the Vigilant Hotel on 8th Ave. at 28th St. Even better name.
- Listening to 24 Hours at the Golden Apple, a This American Life episode that feels like a Unitarian Universalist Sunday service in the best possible way, and Big Wide World, a personal and uncomfortably historical TAL. What's the standard public radio listener lifecycle, and do I fit it? When I was a teen I'd listen to Morning Edition, Prairie Home Companion, Weekend Edition, Fresh Air, Says You!, and whatever Celtic, jazz, opera, folk, bluegrass, electronic, and et cetera music KUOP played before they switched to all-talk the moment I went off to college. Now I hear ten seconds of ME/WE or Marketplace when my alarm goes off, plus a TAL or two when I travel. Shouldn't I be increasing my public radio listenership as I become an old fogey?
# (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.
# 12 Jan 2009, 05:59PM: Call Me Sentimental:
Just ordered a business card refill from the same San Francisco copy shop that did my cards when I lived there.
# 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.
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