Cogito, Ergo Sumana

Categories: sumana | Reading

: Some Recent Reading: I've recommended several short scifi/fantasy stories I've enjoyed by posting about them on MetaFilter.

In addition, here are a few notes on some books I've recently read.

I read the harrowing memoir Year of the Nurse by Cassie Alexander. She's a registered nurse in an ICU in Northern California, and her contemporaneous writings from early 2020 through mid-2021 show us the risks and the costs and the waste of the COVID-19 pandemic. It's piercing, edifying, darkly funny, sad, and a clear, loud warning about the damage done to our health care workers. Recommended but of course watch your own mental health while reading -- content notes for discussion of death, of course, and also suicide. A few quotes:

where's the drama in an endless cycle of competent people doing competent jobs?

(from early in the crisis): This feels a lot like being drafted for a war that some people still don't even believe we're in.....It's not going anywhere. It's endless. Like knowing that you're being chased by a steamroller and someone's gone and nailed down both your feet.

Do you realize if they get more than 50 cases in South Korea, they shut everything back down? They treat every life there like a treasure.

I can usually bounce back with a day off and gardening. But my bounce is getting stiffer and the boxes I compartmentalize all my shit into are getting very full.

Me, this morning, watching my traveler that I'm training pull out an old N95 to use from their backpack, because she thought we wouldn't have enough PPE: "Darling, put that away and WELCOME TO CALIFORNIA."

I think you shouldn't be able to opt out of a covid vaccine until you've seen five people die of covid at a hospital. Like up close and personal. Their last 72 hrs. times five.

[what she aims to give families around a deathbed]: enough time to say good-bye and hopefully circle around to the story-telling part of things, laughing about memories and sharing photos. Where it's not about the dying person in there anymore -- it becomes about knitting together those who will be left behind.

How are we, the sane ones, to take this? Knowing that people around us would gladly chum the waters with our countrymen for sport?

[her first time seeing her friends in person since February 2020]: starting to sob, "You all lived. You all lived!"

... since 2016, the average hospital turned over 83% of their RN workforce, due to a combination of churn and burn at the lower end of the experience scale, and older RNs retiring out.....We kept coming to work because we trusted in, believed in, and wanted to help our coworkers....until I and other nurses stop picking up extra shifts, at my hospital and so many others, upper management will never learn....

There's just going to be a gap of a few years in there, post-covid-times, where you shouldn't trust any nurse that's too excited to be working.

I'm still mad that last year happened the way it did, when it didn't have to. I'm mad that serving a mad king "broke" me. But mostly I'm mad that so many people died who didn't have to. 

An amazing read that I wish didn't exist [if you read this, Cassie Alexander, I think you understand].

In fiction:

I'm friends with Benjamin Rosenbaum so I was looking forward to his new novel The Unraveling. I had a good time but I wanted the constant idea-flourishing that I get from Rosenbaum's nonfiction speaking and writing (e.g., on college and on hacking games you play with your kids), and I got that in the first third or half of the book. Then, in the second half or last third of the book, I knew where things were going and it felt like a kind of familiar story. But it's an interesting read with some ideas and one character who will stick with me, and feels like it's going to be a 2021 must-read for people who want book-length speculative fiction that plays with gender. I think it might feel brain-breaking to readers who haven't read any of Ada Palmer's Terra Ignota series, or the 2nd and 3rd books in Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy.

(Speaking of which, the last of those Terra Ignota books, Perhaps the Stars, comes out in a few weeks, so maybe I'll go reread the first one and read the second and third so I can catch up. I also saw there's a new Neal Stephenson book coming out pretty soon, and once that would have led me to literally take time off from work to read it the day of release, and instead I'm looking at this blurb and saying like "oh no are you a climate change denier now? please say no.")

I enjoyed the anthology It Gets Even Better: Stories of Queer Possibility. Lots of sweet sci-fi and fantasy stories, some more moving and some more funny, starring queer people. For a taste, read Aimee Ogden's reprint "Venti Mochaccino, No Whip, Double Shot of Magic": "his coffee comes with a nice cantrip that'll help him send all his emails for the next week with zero typos and exactly the right number of exclamation marks." I always enjoy rereading Zen Cho's "The Perseverance of Angela's Past Life" and I had a took note of "I'll Have You Know" by Charlie Jane Anders, "unchartered territories" by Swetha S., "Frequently Asked Questions About the Portals at Frank's Late-Night Starlite Drive-In" by Kristen Koopman, and "The Cafe Under the Hill" by Ziggy Schutz. The most memorable pieces: "Sea Glass at Dawn" by Leora Spitzer and "What Pucks Love" by Sonni de Soto. "Sea Glass at Dawn" tells the warm and loving story of dragons helping a human figure out how to control a new talent for fire. "What Pucks Love" illustrates the worries and joys of a relationship between an asexual person and a person with a strong sex drive, using a telescoping story structure to lovely effect.

Speaking of happy stories, yay for romance novels -- engaging, sweet, attentive to interiority, valorizing courage and care! I read some Alyssa Cole (An Extraordinary Union: An Epic Love Story of the Civil War, Loyal League #1, plus Let It Shine which was more memorable and visceral for me) and enjoyed that. I've now started Celia Lake's gentle magical romance Mysterious Charm series with the first book, Outcrossing, and enjoyed it and will probably read more.

Division Bells, a romance by Iona Datt Sharma, stands out because it stars bureaucrats trying to draft and pass a bill concerning renewable energy, and goes into lovely detail about the workings of the British Parliament, and brings that signature Datt Sharma emotional texture -- deft glimpses of indirectly expressed grief and melancholy and attentive care and hope -- to a Happy-For-Now romantic triumph.

And I've just read a really awesome romance, For The Love of April French by Penny Aimes. Aimes is a trans woman, and one of the protagonists, April, is a trans woman navigating romance after having been burned before. This novel reminds me of Courtney Milan's Trade Me in its realistic treatment of work in the tech industry, and it reminds me of Becky Chambers's work in its lively cast of supporting characters. And it goes places I haven't seen before in romance -- I haven't read that much romance that incorporates kink communities and negotiation, and Aimes's work felt very accessible to me -- and I'm eager to read more of the author's work.

I am unfortunately not super interested in reading further work by Andrew Hickey after reading his The Basilisk Murders (The Sarah Turner Mysteries, #1). The premise -- people start dying during a singularity/cyberlibertarian/longevity conference on a private island and a skeptical journalist tries to solve the murders -- sounded great! But Sarah Turner's characterization is wobbly and the narrator's choices of what to tell us leave me consistently unsatisfied, and the dialogue rang hollow. I started to wish I were rereading one of Nicola Griffith's Aud books instead.

Ah, that reminds me: sometime in the past year I read Nicola Griffith's gripping, propulsive, addictive detective series starring Aud Torvingen (The Blue Place, Stay, and Always). As page-turning as candy and as deep as a meal -- stories of love, grief, work, sex, achievement, vengeance, cities, disability, and slow true friendships. Here's Griffith talking about what Aud represents to her. If you read the first two books then have a hard time finding the third, you can borrow Always via the Open Library (do not look unless you've read the first book, as the description for Always includes spoilers for The Blue Place).

More soonish.

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: New History of AIDS Activism: I'm looking forward to reading Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993 by Sarah Schulman for the same reason I love Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves by Adam Hochschild. This thing worked -- how?! And what can we learn and replicate?

In just six years, ACT UP, New York, a broad and unlikely coalition of activists from all races, genders, sexualities, and backgrounds, changed the world. Armed with rancor, desperation, intelligence, and creativity, it took on the AIDS crisis with an indefatigable, ingenious, and multifaceted attack on the corporations, institutions, governments, and individuals who stood in the way of AIDS treatment for all. They stormed the FDA and NIH in Washington, DC, and started needle exchange programs in New York; they took over Grand Central Terminal and fought to change the legal definition of AIDS to include women; they transformed the American insurance industry, weaponized art and advertising to push their agenda, and battled—and beat—The New York Times, the Catholic Church, and the pharmaceutical industry. Their activism, in its complex and intersectional power, transformed the lives of people with AIDS and the bigoted society that had abandoned them.

Based on more than two hundred interviews with ACT UP members and rich with lessons for today’s activists, Let the Record Show is a revelatory exploration—and long-overdue reassessment—of the coalition’s inner workings, conflicts, achievements, and ultimate fracture. Schulman, one of the most revered queer writers and thinkers of her generation, explores the how and the why, examining, with her characteristic rigor and bite, how a group of desperate outcasts changed America forever, and in the process created a livable future for generations of people across the world.

Here's an excerpt from the start of the book.

Let the Record Show is a 736-page tome, so if someone wants to get together in a book club to read it together over a few months, let me know.

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: Willis and Cho: I meant to mention here that some months ago? I reread Connie Willis's Doomsday Book. So, I have a strong memory of having read Doomsday Book previously, back when I lived in Berkeley. In particular -- and my memory gets hazy on this -- I remember reading it in an aisle -- possibly while standing up -- at the late Black Oak Books in north Berkeley, not far from Chez Panisse, not that I had the money to go to Chez Panisse back when I was a student. I also have a strong-yet-fuzzy memory of meeting a guy at Black Oak and having a really nice conversation with him, and then going to dinner with him, and then him dropping me off at or near my apartment, and never learning each other's name or running into each other again, and only much later thinking "hold on, was that a date?" So that goes to show the level of basic human interpersonal domain knowledge I had around this time, which means that any novel I read at or before that era will likely reveal new levels to a less-doltish modern Sumana.

Doomsday Book, right. If there was a past Sumana who thought "how could people act so foolishly during a pandemic?!" then present Sumana is disillusioned and no longer doubts the verisimilitude of such a portrayal. I have been for years and am still a non-fan of the way so many scenes in Willis's stories are driven by missed phone calls and people who just will not listen or learn. It's like an endless fugue on the futility of communication. But this book does the main thing it tries to do, helping you see that the Black Plague interrupted real lives and that even when one cannot stop the big wave of history from sweeping across and drowning people, kindness matters, gestures matter, witnessing matters. It's a grand tragedy and it pulls at the heartstrings.

Just today I finished Zen Cho's latest novel, Black Water Sister. If you love Zen Cho already then you should absolutely go ahead and get this one, and if you've never tried her work, go ahead and start with this one! (Excerpt to start.) A closeted gay woman moves, with her mom and dad, back from the US to Malaysia, and discovers even more secrets to untangle. Suspenseful, funny, observant. I loved how familiar so many touches felt to me -- the rhythms and constraints of long stays with family, trying to find private time for private calls across time zones, Englishes where people say "why did you off the light" instead of "why did you turn off the light", and so much more that evidently translates among different Asian families. And I appreciated how this book got at the experience of coming to one's heritage country as an adult, after (previously) only experiencing it as a child, and starting to grasp how politics, real estate development, old familial dynamics, and chance decisions have shaped the people and places that one took for granted. Cho also -- like Maureen F. McHugh and Philip K. Dick -- has the skill to show us a protagonist making unwise decisions that we know, and sometimes she knows, are suboptimal (Jessamyn! Stop putting it off and reply to those text messages already!!), yet keep us rooting for her anyway.

It's been quite a ride to watch Cho work over the years and develop certain themes in greater and greater depth. She's written short stories (in particular I'm thinking of "The Guest" and "The Perseverance of Angela's Past Life") about contemporary queer women coming to terms with their own sexuality and finding acceptance. And she's written so many contemporary (or set in the future) stories about women coping with death, the dead, the undead, etc. vis-a-vis family and sometimes diaspora -- "The First Witch of Damansara", "Balik Kampung", "Everything Under One Roof", "The House of Aunts", "The Terracotta Bride", "The Four Generations of Chang E", and "First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia". In particular Black Water Sister is intriguing to view in comparison to "The First Witch of Damansara" which shows us two granddaughters, one angry and one (the point-of-view character) an emigrant or expat to the West who is attempting to be sensible. Jessamyn in Black Water Sister is in some ways a Westerner and starts off doubting the supernatural things that are happening to her; to blossom she needs to access her own rage.

This is Cho's first contemporary novel (all her past novels and most of her novellas/novelettes have been in historical or fantasy-historical settings), and I find myself thinking about Courtney Milan's Trade Me, her first contemporary novel after a string of historicals, in which she brought to the fore aspects of her own personal experience she hadn't previously infused so directly into her fiction. Further books since then -- including her historicals -- have grown more radical, more attentive to what ground-down people need in order to break free into their own lives. It's fallaciously appealing to make 1-to-1 analogical predictions about authors' trajectories, but I do see Black Water Sister as a kind of culmination of some themes in Cho's work, and I look forward to seeing her build from there into cool new places -- always keeping her protagonists' distinct wryness and sometimes unnerving practicality.

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: A Few Other Recent Books Read: Several months ago I read Laurie J. Marks's Elemental Logic fantasy quartet and liked it a lot. Today, Fire Logic, the first book in the series, is on sale for $1.99 on Kobo as an ebook. These books are great! They are about grown adults dealing with the aftermath of war, trying to make peace, falling in love with each other, raising children, and doing the hard work of working together with people whose temperaments seriously rub them the wrong way. You get multiple queer love stories, magic that feels numinous (as opposed to paperwork-y or airplane dashboard-y), and characters you can root for. Marks is in a writing group with Steerswoman author Rosemary Kirstein (I love the Steerswoman books) and I can see how they would appreciate each other's work. People at WisCon recommended these books for ages and I'm glad I've finally read them!

I've finished Nicola Griffith's Hild and it was slow going for me. I loved the court intrigue when I could understand it; in a novel I can have a hard time with keeping track of 20 different people's names! Sometimes Hild thinks really subtly and never comes out and says/thinks "here is the insight I just had" and sometimes I catch on and sometimes I don't. A friend who, she says, loves Hild the way I love Steerswoman is eager to talk with me about Hild and maybe she will explain some stuff to me so I can appreciate it better!

I had never read Richard Adams's book Watership Down and then I read it several weeks ago. What a story! Suspenseful and funny and moving! I didn't think I was going to cry, and then I cried at the last page. And I love what Adams does with General Woundwort's moment when he's balanced on the precipice of being a truly great leader and then falls back into being "no more than a tyrant with the courage and cunning of a pirate."

Naomi Kritzer's Chaos on CatNet. I have enjoyed every story or book I have ever read of Kritzer's, and this is no exception -- suspenseful, funny, satisfying. You know how some clothing manufacturers suit you really well, because the body shapes, the mannequins they're fitting their clothes to are very similar to your body? Evidently the ideal reader in Naomi Kritzer's head is shaped a lot like me, and I'm glad. This book continues the story started in "Cat Pictures, Please" and "Catfishing on CatNet. Those of you who have seen the animated film The Mitchells vs. The Machines might understand why, even though there is a conscious AI in the CatNet stories, Chaos is a more realistic teen-centered cautionary tale about modern tech platforms. I hope some number of teens read Chaos and think twice about installing sketchy apps on their phones and saying "sure, why not" to their permission requests!

Martha Wells's Fugitive Telemetry, the most recent book in her Murderbot series, is another fun story in the series; if you like the Murderbot books then this is another one, and if you haven't tried them yet, don't start with this, start with All Systems Red. I was talking with a friend about how the Murderbot books and Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch books (in particular the trilogy starting with Ancillary Justice) speak to the same modern meritocratic middle-class worry that echan illustrated in the vid "The Organization and the Assets", about brainwashed assassins and the institutions that make and use them. We're telling a particular story to ourselves A LOT, these past few years. I've heard recently (via Annalee Flower Horne) the sentiment that dystopia is when the same things that were already happening to everyone else start happening to privileged people; in the stories echan juxtaposes, and in Wells's and Leckie's work, we see from the point of view of people finding that they have been involuntarily complicit in harming others, just like the rest of us. There was a 2001 Bad Subjects piece by Jonathan Sterne about The West Wing and Star Trek as meritocratic fantasies* that rings true to me, and the trope echan highlights in "The Organization and the Assets" shows us the flip-side idea: You are the best at what you do, no one could question your competence -- and the very system that trained you forces you to use your talent to do massive evil, and you can't help it. The Murderbot books and the Ancillary trilogy start after the weapon-in-human-form is able to say no, and stop serving empire/The Corporation, and start trying to redeem their past atrocities.

I reread Neal Stephenson's Anathem and I still love so many of the ideas, the system of the maths, the articulations of how it can feel to feel like the least bright person in a discussion yet not want to show one's own humiliation, etc. But ugh! The treatment of women! Like when Cord is excited about something and Erasmas describes her as being enthusiastic about it the way other women are interested in shoes?! Why does our protagonist, who grew up in a monastery where all the fraas and suurs wear the same sandals, even have that stereotype about women?! It makes no sense!

I love every nonfiction essay by Joanna Russ that I read, so I'm slowly working to read all of them. To Write Like a Woman ranges around and gave me new ways to think about scifi as a literature, the portrayal of women in lots of kinds of literature, and ends with a letter she wrote that ends, "We are surrounded by nonsense. Love, Joanna" and it's energizing and thought-provoking. Wish I had met her.

* (see also: Hamilton: An American Musical)

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: Recent Books I've Read: The Devil Comes Courting by Courtney Milan -- about people in 1870 falling in love while figuring out how to encode Chinese characters for transmission on the first worldwide telegraphic network. It's like a "Landsailor" view of the kind of infrastructure historical fiction that Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle did: postcolonial, nearly all the major characters are Black or Chinese, focusing on how we can use these advances to connect to and empower ourselves and each other. With interiority and smooching and so on.

Ammonite by Nicola Griffith. As I read it, I grew increasingly sure that this feminist scifi classic is in conversation with a bunch of feminist sf classics I have not read, by Suzy McKee Charnas and so on, which I think the author's note at the end confirms. Still a great story and legible to me regardless. An anthropologist involuntarily joins a couple of civilizations and has to actually face the thing in her that was stopping her from connecting with people. Arduous travel, figuring out how stuff works, people falling in love, super-powerful meditation -- lots of interesting and moving passages.

Nadia Eghbal's Working in Public: The Making and Maintenance of Open Source Software: a book that is wrong in ways that accumulate page by page. This surprised me badly, especially since her Roads and Bridges report was so helpful. My copy of Working in Public has corrections and rejoinders from me in the margins of about every fourth page. I need to write a more thorough review but, in short, Eghbal's choices to ignore all projects that don't use GitHub, and all contribution types other than code commits, and all of the effects of venture capital on the economics of open source, and the roles governments can play in funding digital infrastructure, constrict the analysis and recommendations towards a disappointing conclusion that will not help most of the infrastructural open source projects (and their maintainers) I know and work with.

I'm partway through reading Nicola Griffith's Hild, a historical fiction novel about a real person, St. Hilda of Whitby. I am grateful that it starts off with Hild as an observant child trying to figure stuff out, because that's a key way Griffith gives me the necessary exposition to understand seventh-century Britain. And the book gets some form of indie-cred economy units because the only reason I've ever heard of St. Hilda is because of Hild, a bit like how the only reason I've ever heard of Dr. W. H. R. Rivers is because of Pat Barker's beloved World War I novel Regeneration. Neat to get to experience a world I've never known and learn about a person I didn't know. (This is perhaps where I should plug my MetaFilter post about Congressman Dalip Singh Saund, the first Asian American elected to the United States Congress, who in 1956 beat Jacqueline Cochran-Odlum -- a woman who'd flown fighter jets, known Amelia Earheart, and beat several men to get the Republican nomination -- to become Congressman from Burbank, California. I would please like a lush 10-episode prestige cable miniseries period drama about that election!)

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: A Few Books Influencing Mine: I'm working on a forthcoming book on rejuvenating legacy open source systems. In addition to my bibliography of open source management books/courses, I'm grateful to a few management, teaching, and writing books that have influenced me recently:

Florence Nightingale's Notes on Nursing: What it is, and what it is not, a cranky and thoroughgoing text on management that covers the healing environment as a whole: "let whoever is in charge keep this simple question in her head (not, how can I always do this right thing myself, but) how can I provide for this right thing to be always done?"

Greg Wilson's Teaching Tech Together: How to create and deliver lessons that work and build a teaching community around them, a guide to effective instruction: "We have been talking about mental models as if they were real things, but what actually goes on in a learner's brain when they're learning? The short answer is that we don't know; the longer answer is that we know a lot more than we used to....As scary as it is, we are the grownups."

Via a recommendation from Eszter Hargittai on Crooked Timber: Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction and Get It Published by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato (concentrating on the kind of nonfiction from big publishers that gets reviewed in major newspapers), and So You Want to Publish a Book? by Anne Trubek (who runs a small press). I just read these within the past week. In Trubek's book I particularly appreciated the list of presses and imprints belonging to the Big Five, her breakdown of budgets, her frank appraisal of what helps sell more copies of a book, her thoughts on horizontal solidarity among authors and reader, and her assessment of Amazon's effects on the market. And in Rabiner's and Fortunato's book, I was struck by their in-depth explanation of how to structure a book proposal (and the many examples of what works and what falls flat), their thoughts on what editors are seeking, and their advice on structuring a book and making one's argument fairly.

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: A Miscellaneous Reading List:

A few days ago I submitted my nomination ballot for the Hugo Awards. In many years it's a bit hard for me to think of five excellent things to nominate in each work category. But last year I spent a lot of time highlighting interesting short speculative fiction that you can read for free online, so it was super tough to choose in the Best Short Story category! I wish I could have nominated 15 things.

My nominations for Best Novelette:

and Best Short Story:

Also, in Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form, I nominated "Explaining the Pandemic to my Past Self Part 2" by Julie Nolke.

I didn't have as many books to nominate -- I often read stuff years after it's published, and I've been far more lax about logging my reading than I was years ago.

A few days ago I finished The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson; I liked it, and since it came out in 2015 Dickinson has published two more books in the series, so I'll probably pick those up. It's wrenching and full of political intrigue, and perhaps it's a measure of my mental wellness that I was up for that. I don't think I would have made it more than two chapters if I'd tried that in December.

Today I finished reading Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair by Sarah Schulman. I'd meant to read it since I'd read this fascinating and wide-ranging Autostraddle interview. For a few years now I've been interested in feminists talking about how we distinguish character assassination from accountability. I appreciated adrienne maree brown's thoughts from last year that included:

i, we, have to be able to discern what is me/us, and what is fear.

which leads to my next unthinkable thought: do i really know the difference between my discernment and my fear?

Schulman goes broad and deep in discussing this topic. What do we lose when we use email and text messages to try to discuss conflict, instead of phone and in-person meetings? How do displaced anxieties and unprocessed trauma cause us to overreact to expectable, no-one-is-at-fault problems with our friends and peers? What ripple effects emerge when we are afraid to negotiate and when our groups don't support processes of reconciliation? A very worthwhile read and I recommend it for anyone who wants to think more deeply about a wide variety of phenomena that often get labelled "cancel culture."

Less recently, I read the thought-provoking collection "The Beatrix Gates (Plus....)" by Rachel Pollack, in PM Press's great "Outspoken Authors" series. I appreciated a perspective on the transgender experience that I'd never read before, and images from the stories will stay with me.

And, many many months ago, I finally finished Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon. I was a little disappointed! Lots of fun observations, but I found the finale of the virtual reality plot kind of empty.

I have a bunch of notes about shorter reads to share with you:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: 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.

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: Making Groups, Leading Them, Treating Others Well: Some writing I've appreciated in the past year, on leadership, and on understanding others and treating them well:

synecdochic's "dreamwidth as vindication of a few cherished theories":

His decision to take energy away from his marathon coding sessions and put it into creating a positive and collaborative environment is a major reason why DW development is what it is today, and it was more than worth the extra few weeks' delay in going from closed beta to open beta.

"The Spy Who Came Home: Why an expert in counterterrorism became a beat cop" by Ben Taub:

Espionage hinges on human relationships. "The best assets I ever ran weren't in it for money," Skinner said. "They had this urge to be part of something bigger. It wasn't patriotism -- they just wanted to be part of a high-functioning team.”

Mary Anne Mohanraj's acceptance speech for her Locus Special Award for Community Outreach & Development:

So we saw a need, we came together with a group of friends and like-minded folks we gathered on the internet, and we made a thing to fix it. One of the best aspects of our genre is that it is full of such people and the organizations they’ve built.

Ada Palmer's "A Better Way of Understanding the Debate Over Free Speech on Campus":

In the nationwide debate over campus free speech, a lot of apparent disagreement derives from failing to separate the objects of study, and the habitat where study takes place.....the conditions needed to cultivate hard thought and judgment are not the same for all students...

"Doing ethical research with vulnerable users" by Bernard Tyers shares moving stories of talking with compulsive gamblers (some of whom did not know they were compulsive gamblers at the start of their conversations).

Fred Clark, Slacktivist, writes about how to deal with the dishonest weights of post-transaction surveys in "All fives (ready or not, here I come)". "You are asked questions in a language of lies and are thus forced to respond in kind."

And I deeply appreciated this essay on categories, pain, and an approach to getting better at treating others well. (This is a religious sermon that focuses on humility/love/empathy; feel free to skip, of course.) "'You're not a thing at all,' or 'The political implications of Dunbar's Number.'" is a sermon that Doug Muder (the Weekly Sift guy) presented on May 12, 2019. It's about cooperation, stories, parts we play and expect, Tolstoy, Disney, gender, inadequate and obsolete scripts, and the ideal of the perfect rulebook. Also discussed on MetaFilter.

"We want to belong, but we also want to be individuals .... I think we need to recognize that no matter how necessary it might be to simplify our experience somehow, there's always going to be an injustice in putting people into categories and dealing with them through roles and scripts. That's an injustice that we both suffer and inflict on others."

I also liked the phrase "to come into right relationship with our own pain".

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: Very Brief Book Reviews: A few quick book reviews from 2017 that I never finished writing up. (Thanks, SimplyE, for making it easy for me to reserve and borrow New York Public Library ebooks and read them on my phone!)

Meredith Willson's great memoir But He Doesn't Know the Territory about the making of The Music Man. Funny and inspiring.

Barbara Hambly's fast-moving, funny fantasy novel Stranger at the Wedding.

The high-concept scifi novel The Power by Naomi Alderman. Memorable, thought-provoking, uneven.

Operating Instructions, a memoir by Anne Lamott. I enjoyed it while I was reading it but remember very little.

Provenance, a scifi novel by Ann Leckie. A super different tone compared to the other Imperial Radch books -- has the feel of a fairy tale in some ways.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling. I read this out of completism and didn't particularly care for it.

All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries #1, a scifi novel by Martha Wells. Loved it (and I have now read all of the sequels). I recommend it especially for people who enjoyed Breq's alienation in Ancillary Justice and its sequels, and to people who have ever felt incredible apathy regarding their jobs. Extraterrestrial adventure & tradecraft, untrustworthy corporate overlord, competent people trying to be careful of each other's feelings, and gallows humor. Read the first chapter for free online.

Hamilton's Battalion by three authors, including Courtney Milan. Three romance novellas. I have read most of this -- fun fluff.

Partial read: Seeing Like A State, the classic "the map is not the territory" critique of systematizers, by James C. Scott. I will probably need to restart this from scratch if I want to finish it.

Partial read: Zephyr Teachout's Corruption in America which is very edifying, and, ditto.

Partial read: Jeremy Brecher's US labor history Strike! which is also super edifying. From the latter book: a lot of strikes in US history have been started not by established unions, but without them and sometimes against their wishes. I had an assumption that unions make strikes -- often, strikes make unions.

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: Quick Book Recommendations: A few timely book recommendations.

Wilkerson and McMillan Cottom are black; Einhorn is white.

Dreamwidth's "Writers of Color 50 Books Challenge" community crowdsources reviews of books by people of color, in case you want to diversify your reading along that dimension.

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: "That was not supposed to happen.": In December 2016 Lightspeed published "The Venus Effect" by Violet Allen. I wish I did not think of it so often; it is an amazing story but I think of it every time I learn that an African-American has died of police brutality. It horrifies me to see what is playing out, again, in my country. The institution of policing is badly broken; as Alexandra Erin points out,

We give the police extraordinary powers of life and death and then rather than saddle them with any additional responsibility, we just give them even more power. They must be allowed to operate with impunity "because they put their life on the line"... but then we grant them even more impunity because "you can't expect them to put their life on the line." They are the noble servant and protector of the community and upholder of the law when they plead for more powers, but when held accountable, they plead that they cannot be expected to serve, must not be expected to protect, and need not have any knowledge of or respect for the law to do their job.

So what is their job?

They say, and the courts affirm, they need not serve. They need not protect. They need not uphold the law.

If we have the words of the courts and the police themselves that police cannot be compelled to serve, to protect, or to uphold the law, then what is their job? For what reason do they exist?

You can read those last questions as "therefore, abolish" (which seems to rhyme with the author's intent) but they also work as a really important and genuine question for anyone who wants laws enforced fairly and accountably, and wants our tax dollars spent sensibly. And they are a reason to follow up on this to-do list, compiled by T. Greg Doucette, for police accountability (such as: require officers to carry malpractice insurance). Because, otherwise, as Frank Wilhoit put it, "There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect."

I have also appreciated the roundup Jason Kottke put together, "Listening to Black Voices Amid Murder, Violence, Protest, and Pandemic".

But if you just can't take any more news, but you want to reflect on this current tragedy using art, do read "The Venus Effect". And if you want to increase racial and ethnic diversity in the production of and audience for speculative fiction, you can support the Carl Brandon Society. (On a much lighter note, but again with a touch of pastiche, the fanfic "Matchmaker of Mars" by Edonohana has the summary "John W. Campbell accidentally matchmakes T'Pring and Uhura.")

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: "Yes, Minister", Chesterton's Fence, And Wasteful Caution: Just now I was in a pretty grumpy mood and it threatened to spiral further. I decided to give myself a break, got a snack and the rest of my morning tea, set a timer, hit Play on the BBC Introducing Mixtape podcast, sat facing the window and away from my laptop, and picked up The Complete Yes Minister by Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay. And within probably ten minutes I was grinning with joy.

Jim Hacker: Humphrey, do you think it is a good idea to issue a statement?
Humphrey Appleby: Well, Minister, in practical terms we have the usual six options. One: do nothing. Two: issue a statement deploring the speech. Three: lodge an official protest. Four: cut off aid. Five: break off diplomatic relations. And six: declare war.
Hacker: Which should be it?
Appleby: Well, if we do nothing, that means we implicitly agree with the speech. If we issue a statement, we'll just look foolish. If we lodge a protest, it'll be ignored. We can't cut off aid, because we don't give them any. If we break off diplomatic relations, then we can't negotiate the oil rig contracts. And if we declare war, it might just look as though we were over-reacting.

When I was a child I saw Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister on public television. What a joy. And what a clinic in getting involved with complicated systems, full of moving parts and others' motivations.

I was thinking just now about how the viewer's allegiance is caught; Jim Hacker has some good instincts about fighting for the people, but he's not as clever as he thinks he is, and he's vain and a bit lazy. And Humphrey Appleby knows how to prevent some kinds of disasters, but cannot conceive of fundamental change or the need for it. Over and over in my life in software engineering, or watching politics, or working with any collaborative group, I've seen this dynamic, though it plays out in different ways. I'm glad I got both perspectives early on, Hacker and Appleby both, to inoculate me against being purely either. I hope.

A while back I went and read about Enoch Powell, because it's always enriching to understand the previous generation's version of today's arguments and standard-bearers, even if they're horrifying. He articulated something about the same tension you find in Yes, Minister: "The right finds it easy to explain what is and to justify what is, but not to account for change. The left finds it easy to justify change, but not to account for what is, and what is accepted."

As Fred Clark says, though, in criticizing the adage of Chesterton's Fence ("If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away...when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it"), what Powell describes as "what is, and what is accepted" can be a bit of a mirage. Nearly no shared piece of infrastructure simply sits in stasis, requiring no upkeep:

Fences have to be maintained, mended, and constantly rebuilt. Fences just don't work as a metaphor for traditions, laws, and institutions handed down immutable, inviolate, and inviolable from ancient times. There's no such thing as a multi-generational fence. You don't build a fence so much as you adopt a perpetual budget for perpetual fence-building. Would-be "reformers" don't need to propose "destroying" an existing fence, they only ever need to propose that the fence-builders stop rebuilding it.

And, in practice, as Clark notes,

no matter how thoroughly we are able to come back and tell our conservative friends that we do fully understand and appreciate the original reasons for the construction of the fence, they remain unwilling to "allow" us to remove it. (The word "allow" there is worth pondering. The presumption there about who is, by definition, always a supplicant, and who holds the authority to permit or to prohibit is telling. "Allow" is, in this instance, very much a fence-builder's word.)
I also recommend Clark's followup which includes such great articulations as "fear is not the same as taking care".

Amandine Lee, discussing failure scenario generation, safety, and verification, notes:

we often push to a small percentage of real traffic, do bug-bashes and conduct pre-mortems where we imagine different types of failures and what would have caused them. We're trying to smoke out the unknown unknowns that cause issues. It's a type of thinking I am actively learning how to lean into. As an optimist, someone who tends to seek out nuance, and a person who has a strong bias towards action, I tend to chafe against risk-aversion without a clear threat model. The term "Cover Your Ass" gets thrown around to describe extreme end of this - wasteful carefulness.

...People's intuitions and risk-friendliness also vary based on personality, and how they’ve seen things fail in the past. A lot of growing as an engineer is fine-tuning that initial response to design decisions.

Sometimes have that knee-jerk caution -- I feel a reflex that leads to, as Lee calls it, "wasteful carefulness". And sometimes I am the less patient person on my team, asking others why we can't try out the idea at least in some limited way.

And now I am thinking about the symbiosis of Jim Hacker and Humphrey Appleby, how they need each other, anchor and sail. And I'm less grumpy, which was the point of the exercise anyway.

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: An Annotated Bibliography of the Inside of My Head: A friend suggested:

You know those books that you can’t stop thinking about, won’t shut up about, and wish everyone around you would read? The ones that, if taken in aggregate, would tell people more about you than your resume?

So, per request, this is a "list of books that you recommend over and over... the handful of books that you ENDLESSLY recommend, or refer to, or what have you," but since I have a cold, this is late and somewhat unlinked and VERY non-comprehensive. And I reviewed many of these books at more length in my Reading tag.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: Miscellany: Life is varied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: Miscellaneous Recommendations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: 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:

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: Boisebration!: I deeply enjoy the work of writer and artist Jon Bois, so I compiled a big MetaFilter list of fiction and nonfiction he's created about class, feminism, aging, sports, politics, wonder, education, and art (not including his better-known series, Pretty Good and Chart Party). The post also collects several 17776 influences, references, precursors, and callbacks, so heads-up in case you loved 17776.

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: A Theme in Newitz, Sugar, Wells, & Leckie: I'm starting Annalee Newitz's Autonomous (enjoying so far; the science-sex-and-slaves narrative makes me also want to reread Nicola Griffith's Slow River). I'm fuzzily thinking about thematic echoes in Rebecca Sugar's Steven Universe, Martha Wells's All Systems Red, and Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy (Ancillary Justice and its sequels). I'm noodling around thinking about how all of them tell stories of networked identity and body violation. What is it actually like to have unaccountable masters who can alter your mind? How similar is that to being misinformed and betrayed, in normal human ways, by people and organizations who have power over you? These are all stories that ... take cyberpunk for granted, you know? Of course we are all always plugged in, or could be, and freedom depends on being able to unplug, and to freely choose fusion, conversation, association, intimacy.

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: In Black: Grabbing a book to read, thought I was grabbing Johnny Cash's autobiography, was actually grabbing Jonathan Zittrain's The Future Of The Internet And How To Stop It.

I'd like to code a rainbow every day
And tell y'all it's 200 OK
But cyberspace is crying out: the commons we shall lack
Till we steal it back
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: From Conversation: A few recent thoughts.

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: 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.
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: Yuletide 2016 Recommendations: Every year the Yuletide fanfic exchange delivers a bounty of fun transformative works concerning books, movies, songs, games, news stories, and other parts of our media landscape. I myself have, as they say, committed fanfic a few times, but right now I'm much more a reader and cheerleader than a fiction-writer. I have only started on this year's harvest but I already have some favorites to recommend:

A hopeful story, using "Expert judgment on markers to deter inadvertent human intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant" (you know, "Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.") to tell a ghost map story. (If you want more hope about far future human civilizations, try the fanvid "Dance Apocalyptic" which cheered me this year. And here's more fic about those waste markers.)

This fairy tale, about children and destiny, stands alone so you can read it even if you've never looked at the illustrations that inspire it.

There was once a land, long before and far away from these troubled times, where every child was born with a desire and a destination marked upon them, so that they might know what dwelt in their future. Upon their left hand, a symbol to represent what would give them the greatest happiness in their life. And upon their right hand, a compass that would lead them in the direction of where their desire might be found.

If you liked Hail, Caesar!, perhaps you wanted to revel in the loveliness of Hobie Doyle, who is an understated instance of the Captain Carrot/Middleman/Captain America/Agent Dale Cooper archetype.

The Ghostbusters get a call to a theater built in 1925, and Patty Tolan really shines.

"The War of the Worlds and All That" is a Jeeves and Wooster story that has aliens and mentions Gussie Fink-Nottle and the scripture knowledge prize Bertie won in school, and it's a bunch of fun. And if you're missing the sartorial scheming, enjoy "Jeeves and the Christmas Socks". (I grew up on Wodehouse and on the Fry and Laurie adaptations -- relatedly, here's a sweet story about Tony and Control.)

It's been a while since I read Jurassic Park but "A Strange Attractor in a Stable System" gets Ian Malcolm's voice so right.

If you enjoyed the 1941 movie Ball of Fire (particularly relevant to Wikipedians, incidentally), how about a crossover story that includes The Middleman? And, speaking of The Middleman, "The Extraterrestrial Elf Emergency" includes a paragraph I adore:

"We don't have Christmas on my planet," they said plaintively, through a translator box at the base of their throat. "All our holidays are about military victories and death. Christmas seemed fun."

This Mulan story makes the Disney movie make more sense in ways I had not even thought before.

If you enjoyed Good Omens then perhaps you will like one or more of the three different stories in which those characters enact their own version of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia".

I've never seen the 1944 film Gaslight but this story, set after the film, is about bravery and recovery and resilience and I drank it deep and felt nourished.

No, she thought. I must stop being afraid and bear this until it is done and then, then I'll consider what to do next.

I also enjoyed stories transforming Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Fresh Off The Boat, Arrested Development, Arrival, Baby-Sitters Club, and the Mahabharata. And I haven't finished this year's Yuletide yet. Thank you, authors and organizers!

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: Book Catch-up: I need to catch up with my book reviews or at least log some of the books I've read and liked. I have some notes going back more than a year -- I'll do a very uneven and incomplete recounting just to start catching up.

In mid-2015, for instance, I read and enjoyed several stories in the Kaleidoscope anthology, Andrea Phillips's Revision, Jennie Crusie's Bet Me and Welcome to Temptation, a big chunk of Thomas Merton's New Seeds of Contemplation, about a third of Charles Platt's interview collection Dream makers: the uncommon people who write science fiction, and more. And I reread Losing Joe's Place by Gordon Korman. I remember the first time I ever read Losing Joe's Place, in a childhood bedroom in Stockton, to calm and entertain myself after a scary episode of Unsolved Mysteries. It still holds up as comfort reading.

This year I reread Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy). I'd read them as they came out but this was the first time I read them all in a row. As I mentioned in a Making Light comment which is a longer review of the third book (but I softened my view upon rereading), I thought the shape of the books' narratives was interesting -- the first book is like an arrow, and the second is like a V, going from spaceship (and functional community) to space station to planet and back again. What's the third one like? Another commenter, TexAnne, said: an orbit. Yes. These are books about power-over versus power-with, about an unreliable narrator, about the Borg as protagonist, about complicity, and -- Ancillary Sword especially -- trying to give up privilege when it's superglued to your hand and won't come off (Of Noble Family by Mary Robinette Kowal takes on that same issue and it's a reason I'm fond of them both). The most resounding and heartbreaking bit of Ancillary Sword is Queter saying that she can make you look at it. Zeiat's demonstration of cakes and counters -- how we socially construct differences & sameness -- has an enthusiastic explication by JJ Hunter. I'm reminded of the comparison in Emily Nagoski's book Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life of us and constellations -- the effect of having the same parts, but arranged differently, can be tremendous. (And there's now a fan trailer for the Imperial Radch books!)

More as logging than as reviewing: I haven't yet blogged here about reading Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer, Known Associates by thingswithwings, Hold Me and other recent works by Courtney Milan, Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, Making Conversation by Teresa Nielsen Hayden, the Hamilton book, Zen Cho's The Terracotta Bride, Ken Liu's The Grace of Kings, Jeannie Lin's The Lotus Palace, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl written by Ryan North, Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, part of Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana, and probably other books. And I want to note that in the last year I've reread, or reread most of, Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon, Travels by Michael Crichton, Zodiac by Neal Stephenson, American Taxation, American Slavery by Robin Einhorn, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin, How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, Getting to Yes by Fisher and Ury, A Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag by Gordon Korman, and Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary -- plus probably other stuff I'm not remembering off the top of my head. I read Octavia Butler's Parable of the Talents and Parable of the Sower, one of which I'd read before and one of which I hadn't. Bracing, and inspiring the way that memoirs of successful activists can be inspiring.

Right now I'm making my way through Elinor Ostrom's Nobel Prize lecture, "Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems", and Thomas Pynchon's Bleeding Edge.

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: A Few Thoughts On Recent Scifi/Fantasy: Star Trek Beyond is actually a Star Trek movie rather than an arbitrary summer blockbuster wearing Starfleet paint. (I thought the MacGuffin was going to be the resonator from "Gambit" but the movie ended up being more like "The Wounded". Actual Trek episodes! Yay!)

Naomi Novik's Uprooted features a grand library of magic-related books. In this scene a young woman is seeking writings by the magician who most inspires her, a woman named Jaga, or by magicians like her, and speaks with the disapproving Father Ballo:

"Are there any other spellbooks like Jaga's here, that I might look in?" I asked, even though I knew Ballo didn't have any use for her.

"My child, this library is the heart of the scholarship of magic in Polnya," he said. "Books are not flung onto these shelves by the whim of some collector, or through the chicanery of a bookseller; they are not here because they are valuable, or painted in gold to please some noble's eye. Every volume added has been carefully reviewed by at least two wizards in the service of the crown; their virtues have been confirmed and at least three correct workings attested, and even then they must be of real power to merit a place here. I myself have spent nearly my entire life of service pruning out the lesser works, the curiosities and the amusements of earlier days; you will certainly not find anything like that here."

..... [some of the excluded works] seemed perfectly reasonable formal spellbooks to me, but evidently hadn't met Father Ballo's more rigorous standards.

Father Ballo is the fantasy equivalent of a Wikipedia deletionist. Indeed, given Novik's love of fandom and the internet, I would venture to guess that she's aware of the echo and doing it deliberately.

And a few recent short stories to recommend:

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: Five Loosely Connected Things:

  1. Unexpected beauty: There's a little stretch of quiet waterfront walkway with benches tucked away behind the Astoria Costco. It's just north of Rainey Park.
  2. Fierce spycrafty women: At the launch party for Genevieve Valentine's new book, Icon, I purchased it plus The Girls at the Kingfisher Club. Both recommended! Valentine engages in a recurring focus on women who fight their way out of institutional and interpersonal status traps -- using deception, self-control, fashion, and any other means at their disposal -- to achieve freedom and security for themselves and those they care about, and I consistently enjoy it.
  3. Incisive comedy: Hari Kondabolu has a new album coming out! And he and W. Kamau Bell have a new podcast!
  4. A little better every day: Beeminder continues to be a great tool to help me make better choices that will lead me towards my goals.
  5. Bees and art: The current exhibition at Socrates Sculpture Park includes a salvaged piano turned into a beehive -- and earthworks and gardens that attract pollinators. I like to imagine it would be a safe place for a woman to make bees in public (short story by Alexandra Erin). That piece of fiction is sad and funny and incisive about the necessity of being fierce and spycrafty in order to be a woman, about bees, about unexpected beauty, and about doing a chunk of work every day and witnessing what emerges. I recommend it.
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: 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.

Leonard's and my hands, joined on our wedding dayWe 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.

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: Recent Discussion on Unfairness in FLOSS Economics: I'm keenly watching the conversation on structural imbalances in funding and use of free and open source software. Nadia Eghbal's recent essay has garnered attention, and here I collect some additional posts and threads by others about this disparity in the economics of FLOSS:

I include above some pieces that, on the surface, are adjacent to this conversation rather than in it: on open data, on emotional burnout, on GitHub's tooling, on license compliance, on setting expectations about unmaintained projects. But I see these frustrations as -- like the injustice driving volunteer maintainers to step away -- coming from a fundamental perception of unfairness. Free and open source software makers will notice if there is no measure of reciprocity in an environment that pays lip service to gift culture.

My next step probably ought to be reading the work of Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom: "groundbreaking research demonstrating that ordinary people are capable of creating rules and institutions that allow for the sustainable and equitable management of shared resources." I do hope so.

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: More Zen Cho, and History in Hamilton: People who read this blog will probably like the stuff I've been posting on the Geek Feminism group blog. I wrote a bit more about Zen Cho's Sorcerer to the Crown in October, covering "Cruciat-ish, or, Magic and Microaggressions", "The Diasporan Ugly Duckling", and "All The Fun Bits". And then, in November, I wrote a list of reasons why Hamilton appeals to geeky feminists -- including its user experience affordances.

I took some of those concepts and developed them further into my first-ever piece for, "The Uses Of History in Hamilton: An American Musical". It compares Hamilton to Drunk History, Hark! A Vagrant, 1776, the HBO John Adams miniseries, Ginsberg's "America", Hughes's "Let America Be America Again", Sassafrass's "Somebody Will", and science fiction in general, and considers its narrative approach and metatextuality. I also link to a few great pieces of Hamilton fanfic.

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(3) : Words I Didn't Know in "Camp Concentration": I recently re-skimmed Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch to list the words he uses that I did not know. In this list I do not include words he uses and then immediately defines (e.g., orthoepy), or obscure words I already knew (e.g., supererogatory), or words I believed to be proper nouns. I mark with an asterisk words that are nearly defined in the text and words I was nearly sure I already knew. Where the word appeared at the beginning of a sentence and I'm not sure whether it's a proper noun, or derived from one, I've preserved the initial capital letter. Here they are, in the order they appear in the book:

Pellucidar, empyrean, hermetic*, triturated, factoricity, tappets, lutulence, caliginous, resile, chrism, Hierodule, hypogeum, breccia, spirochete*, treponeme, orchitis, tabes dorsalis, Adamite, chilead, megrims, scherzoes, quaggy, unhouseled, fire-drakes, squitters, jactitations, hassock, enfouldered, stabile, quittors, oblate, athanor*, electuary, telluric, minorating, perfervid, concinnate, factoricity, ortilans, sacerdotal, philoprogenitiveness, ruck, hypogeal, daedal, fane, cornua, epalpibrate, picador, pic, banderilleros, hierograms, catechesis, symbolatrous, cope (noun), drier (noun), benisons, tellurian, bellycrabs, viscid, Carmot, crozier, hyperdulia, opuscula, crapulence, stelae, chiliasts, glouting, epithesis, illapses, wyverns, virescense, latria, umbelliferous, plash, fascinariorum, Ramiform, conatus, Anastomosis, haecceity, farctate, flagitious, squiffy, satispaison, rugate, cerebration*, emulous, gravid, compassionating, spining, sybilline, moiety*, perforce*, bolking, innocuity*

I have not looked up any of those words yet, as I am posting this partly to suggest Camp Concentration as a word source to the officiants of my neighborhood vocabulary bee. Also, I used my phone to note down the words I found, so a side benefit is that my autocorrect just got a lot more highbrow.

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: A Month, Ish: I have been fairly low-volume on this blog lately. Some stuff I've been up to:

I wrote a Geek Feminism piece about feminist tech demos I saw at a showcase in New York City. I also asked the Geek Feminism book club what we want to read next, and then posted some thoughts on Zen Cho's Sorcerer to the Crown. I'll be posting more about Sorcerer to GF this week.

I wrote fanfic about Star Trek: The Next Generation and current events.

I helped spread the word about a bunch of openings for UX experts, developers, and sysadmins at the New York Public Library.

For the first time, I've signed up to participate in the Yuletide Treasure fanfiction exchange (my "Dear Author" letter). I'll get my assignment by November 1st and I'm pretty curious -- this experience will inform my answers to my question: What would a "Secret Santa"-style gift exchange along the lines of Yuletide Treasure look like in other parts of open source or open culture?

Leonard and I finished watching The Legend of Korra and I read Ancillary Mercy (my review), and I got most of the way through Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg. I listened to the entirety of Gimlet Media's show StartUp and cried at the end of the second season. And I got super into the musical Hamilton, getting to see it for $10 via the lottery for front-row seats, buying the cast album, and listening to it many, many times. I've started posting thoughts about it in the Hamiltunes community on Dreamwidth. For those of us who miss The West Wing and good Star Trek it fills quite a void.

Leonard and I hosted various visitors. I cooked a few dishes I'd never cooked before. I cycled places (my longest ride on this bike so far: from Astoria to Park Slope and back, about twenty miles) and learned how to clean and lube the chain. I worked on business planning and started talking to leads. I got used to a Jolla phone running SailfishOS (it's a little underfeatured but improving steadily).

In perhaps the most boring news at all, I'm trying out the world of the standing desk, using a stack of books to raise the laptop to typing height; I'll have to take out Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic by David J. Schwartz from this pile in order to finish it.

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: Ripples In The Information Stream: Media consumption! I read various books recently: a bunch of Courtney Milan, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (my first Austen!), Of Noble Family by Mary Robinette Kowal, and the whole run of Gotham Central (Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker, et alia). I've been bookmarking links via Pinboard and sometimes making a short comment or highlighting a particular excerpt, but I haven't blogged much recently about interesting stuff I've seen; here's a delayed update.

seekingferret recommended and analyzed my vid "Pipeline" and I'm honored! I met seekingferret by happenstance at a scifi/fantasy reading in Brooklyn, having already appreciated his vids and his vid analysis online, and asked him to beta my vid; within about a day, I had such detailed, thoughtful feedback that I nearly cried with gratitude. You should also see his Iron Man vid, which also premiered at WisCon. "Cassavetes", in just a minute and a half, wittily assays fannish conversations about Tony Stark and reminds you to listen to more Le Tigre. And thanks to sasha_feather for WisCon vid party notes!

Beatrice Martini's "An intersectional take on technology, rights and justice" includes some nicely summarized lessons for us as individuals and as organizations, including "evaluate when it’s the case to go beyond short-term single-issue funding".

I also thoroughly appreciate Martini's "Menstruation Matters: A Guide to Menstrual Hygiene Day". I've been browsing the Net since the mid-90s, and Martini's link roundup wows me, because there is so much more information available about menstruation than there used to be!

Tinsel is a necklace that "will have the complete functionality of headphones built into it, without compromising a woman's style." It looks marvelous and I may well buy one, depending on the price and depending on the labor conditions under which it's manufactured. I bet several folks I know will also find this appealing.

An "On Diversity" roundtable by several makers of speculative fiction, poetry, and art gets at some interesting thoughts, particularly about the flattening effects of the "diverse" label. I made inarticulate surprised noises upon seeing Zen Cho refer to Randomized Dystopia!

If you're interested in reading more translated stories, check out Read Paper Republic and look at Ben Rosenbaum's translation offer.

I have a note here about a "flattening effect" discussed in Leigh Alexander's recent piece but I'm not certain why. I do recommend reading it.

Mel Chua, once more, shares a fascinating perspective on her experience of grace and of community-building: "There are three stories that join into the way I understand the flames of Pentecost: Babel, the summer lake, and Cana...." Gordon Atkinson's Foy Davis stories also speak to the burnout of community managers (specifically the clergy) in a way I've found insightful.

I'm curious whether any of my readers have used DevonThink, and if I ever embark on another big vidding project, I am thinking of using something like it to track my notes and clips.

Seriously, Slashdot?

Eleanor Saitta writes: "Silicon Valley companies must recognize that the law won’t do this work for them, and that if they want to avoid undermining freedom globally, it’s time to ditch the dated and dangerous ad model and start building decentralization and content and metadata privacy into everything they create." Relatedly, Cory Doctorow makes an interesting argument about the free and open internet as the meta-fight crucial to all others.

A list of unsayable things has some interesting thoughts about death, abuse, menstruation, and various other topics; I like Nalo Hopkinson's very short thought experiment best.

The "rando" article, Not One Of Us, from the New York Times Magazine, provoked thought about trust boundaries, about defaulting to open or defaulting to closed.

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: My Thoughts on Two Ken MacLeod Works: Crooked Timber invited me and other writers to discuss the work of science fiction author Ken MacLeod. Thus, I have a new post up at CT: "Games, simulation, difference and insignificance in The Restoration Game & The Human Front". Henry Farrell, Farah Mendlesohn, Cosma Shalizi and Jo Walton have joined me in writing about various aspects of MacLeod's work, and after their posts go live, CT will also be publishing a response by MacLeod.

My post includes a joke about Trotsky's death and a note about what the year 1947 means to me (not Roswell), and starts:

I had, frankly, been afraid of trying to read Ken MacLeod, because I wasn't sure I had the prerequisite domain knowledge. I studied Russian and majored in Political Science at UC Berkeley, and wasn't sure that this had given me enough expertise on the history of Communism to jump into his work. Now that I've overcome this fear, I should check whether there's a market for a MOOC, "Remedial Ken MacLeod Prerequisites," in which I discuss leftism in the twentieth century, MacLeod's crony and former Big Pharma dispenser Charles Stross, and the landscape of rural Scotland, or, "Reds, meds, and sheds."

Check it out! Comments are live over on Crooked Timber.

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(1) : Technothriller Book Review Partially In The Form Of A Python Exercise:

cover of 'Hackster'

I am glad I read Hackster: The Revolution Begins..., a technothriller by Sankalp Kohli and Paritosh Yadav taking place in modern-day India. It's plotty and passionate and tense, and it's about Indians to whom India is the center of the universe. But it's also got major problems. Here are some quotes:

It was now time to attain answers. And he had found his answers in SNAGROM -- a device conceptualized by his father, but built and made operational by him with a few modifications to avenge the death of his patriotic father who had sacrificed his whole life for the progress of beloved country, India, only to be publicly humiliated and pronounced a terrorist with links to Pakistan's ISI by the ruling party of India, The Democratic Alliance Party. [p. 23]

Mr. Bedi, Vikram's father, was a scientist. He had the unique ability to solve problems by using concepts of one domain, into an altogether different one - something which most academicians couldn't do. His papers and theories on early meta-systems had brought a fresh perspective and direction into the scientific community. In his papers, he reduced the bigger problems into simple ones. He put it very simply, a meta-system is a system based on other systems. [p. 35]

Arjun could feel this guy getting to him.... he was not a person who took even the smaller defeats sportingly. For him defeat was accompanied by a splurge of vengeance. [p. 68]

"It seems like he had conceptualized a system that replicated the modern day concept of Big Data trackers and used it to come out with trends which were closer to reality." Vikram whispered to himself. [p. 78]

But, was it all because of one man? How could a single man cause so much havoc? It must have been 'the system'. [p. 111]

For ten years, he had used his peculiar ability to suppress all sorts of mutiny within the alliance with an ease that always surprised everyone around him. Nobody had ever seen him running across the country to meet the influential people in times of crisis. He would simply make a private phone call and follow up the next day. The matter would be resolved. [p. 152]

So I didn't love the prose or the characterization. And one plot thread in Hackster disproportionately bothered me.

In the scene below, two guys are investigating a break-in by Vikram, a super-elite hacker. Vikram broke into the Srinagar police department's "criminal database" to remove his friend Ashfaq's name from "the list of arms dealer with a pending investigation" (sic). Initially, police investigators had overlooked the incursion: "They termed it a routine hack failure." [p. 17-18] But this new anti-cybercrime unit digs deeper. For context, both authors of Hackster have MBAs, one "in the field of telecom technology," and in the Acknowledgement they thank someone for cybersecurity advice.

"He deleted one entry and then used a jumbler on all the others."


"After deleting the entry, he covered his track by jumbling up the names of all the people in the list. I tried running a point to point match between the shuffled copy of this list with an older correct copy, but none of the names matched. In short the whole list is corrupted, and we will not be able to make anything out of it easily. It is a long list. It has too many names. This guy is a genius." [p. 51-52]

But then Aarti, a top-shelf cybersecurity expert, succeeds at extracting the name "Ashfaq Ahmed Karim":

"He didn't know that entire data of servers of police department gets automatically stored in tape drives at the end of each month. These tape drives are detached from the servers and are stored in a secret location. I took out an older version of Illegal Arms Dealer List from the backup tape drives and then wrote a program to match each word of the older list with the newer one and rearranged the new list accordingly."

Sumit and Rao watched her with awe as she continued further, "Even the most advanced computer of ours took two days to complete this activity and give us this one name. This one lead should help us to take a step closer to our target." [p. 82]

My suspension of disbelief at this point broke so hard that it sent shards into nearby brick walls, where they remain, softly vibrating. I'm willing to set aside, for the sake of fiction, how badly guarded this data is, and why does Aarti have to go to the tape drive if there's an older version of the list more readily available, and why are they acting like this is a giant string rather than a set of rows in a table in a relational database and thus amenable to additional forensic techniques. Even so: this kind of puzzle is practically a junior programmer's intro-to-Python exercise. You could do this in bash; you could do it in Excel. And unless the Srinagar police department is tracking pending investigation against literally millions of arms dealers, a bog-standard developer's laptop could run that script in, mmm, 20 minutes. is 31 lines including commentsHmmmmmmmm, how long would it actually take? I decided to try to replicate this, without even trying very hard and while listening to a Taylor Swift album on repeat. I took the 417 names from the Nielsen Haydens' old blogroll, put them into a file separated by newlines (bloggers-archive.txt), and then removed one name, and saved the new file as bloggers.txt. Ah but now I want to obfuscate it! So I pulled all the names apart into their component words and shuffled them randomly and then wrote that back to a file (code: The new, jumbled list looks suitably forbidding:


My script does not bother to "rearrange the new list accordingly" because what Aarti really wants is the missing name. spits out the two words in the missing name, and it takes 0.04 seconds to do so on a ThinkPad. And I'm bone certain I could optimize performance further.

This points to an asymmetry I had not previously noticed regarding what will and will not break my suspension of disbelief. When I'm reading scifi or technothrillers, I am reasonably fine with magic zoom-enhance, encryption, robotics, and other implausible advances. I can deal with it if you have way cooler toys than exist in my world, if you tell me something hard for me is easy for you. But if you try to tell me that something easy for intermediate-skilled me is hard for hella competent world-class experts with best-of-breed gadgets, I laugh, because you're ridiculous.

I am married to a programmer whose code has literally been used to catch an illegal arms dealer. I highly doubt this repository is going to have a similar impact. But hey, I learned something new about my genre reading conventions and I practiced my Python 3.

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: Book Reviews With Idiosyncratically Selected Book Covers: More book reviews from the past year or so! I believe this catches me up!

'Government Brahmana' coverGovernment Brahmana by Aravind Malagatti. I am a Brahmin, which is to say, I have high-caste privilege. I have a lot of work to do understanding where this situates me as an Indian-American, and how to be a better ally to South Asians and desis who do not share this privilege. As part of this work I read Malagatti's memoir of growing up Dalit in Karnataka, the Indian province my family comes from. And guess what, my caste has done incredibly shitty things to perpetuate its privilege! You know that experience when you learn a specific horrifying detail, and you consider the strong likelihood that one of your blood ancestors is on the wrong side of history here, and that you personally have benefited from their complicity or abuse? Anyway, you don't have to be a high-caste Hindu to find Government Brahmana edifying (but it helps!). Malagatti does describe an angsty passionate romance where (in my eyes) he didn't act admirably, but for me that fell into "use every man after his desert, and who shall 'scape whipping?" territory.

Courtney Milan: the Turner Series, the Brother Sinister series, many novellas, and so on, but not quite her entire published oeuvre. After I read Trade Me, I went on to consume maybe a dozen more of Milan's romances. They're funny and loving and moving and smart. I like how she sets up and calls back to other books within series, I love that The Heiress Effect included an Indian guy, I love seeing queer characters and characters with disabilities, and -- with the exception of the rushed tempo in her novella Talk Sweetly To Me -- I find her romances believable. I'm reading her work on a Kobo, and I find her ebooks nicely typeset and easier to read than some ebooks from self-publishers or small presses. And it excites me that her upcoming books will explore more geographies and depict even more diverse characters.

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal. I sallied into historical romance territory via Milan's back catalogue, and decided to try some other authors in the genre as well. I'd previously enjoyed Kowal's short pieces and her fannish writing and leadership within speculative fiction, so I picked up Shades of Milk and Honey, the first in her Glamourist series. Blurbs say it's like Austen with magic and recommend it to Austen fans, but I haven't yet read any Jane Austen, and I bought it one afternoon and stayed up till 1:30am that night to finish it. Yay, the protagonist and her eventual beau are good people who don't do creepy or irresponsible things! And, as Jo Walton did in Ha'Penny, Kowal does something interesting with the complicated bonds between sisters with very different interior lives. I've already ordered several more Glamourist books and look forward to seeing adventures, magical innovation, and characters of different ethnicities.

The King's Name by Jo Walton (probably accompanied by a reread of The King's Peace, which sits before it in the trilogy). I do not know the details of the Arthuriana that Walton is messing with in this series but I nonetheless enjoy as I always do Walton's depiction of competent people trying to do the right thing in unprecedented circumstances.

'The Just City' coverThe Just City by Jo Walton. It's no surprise that I liked yet another Jo Walton book! It's an immersive and fascinating story, and since I have participated in a massive androgogical experiment recently (the Recurse Center) I particularly love reading thought experiments around pedagogy! As I write this I am wearing an Action Philosophers shirt featuring wrestler Plato shouting "Plato smash!" I richly enjoyed the Action Philosophers edutainment comics, super thinky and super fun. If you enjoyed Action Philosophers you will probably also like the combination of adventures and arguments in The Just City. Or: I once retweeted the message "RT if you're still angry about the Library of Alexandria." If you have related feelings you may find this book particularly interesting.

My Real Children by Jo Walton (reread). Or should I say the Tiptree Award-winning My Real Children? It's about work, parenting, love made visible; I continue to appreciate it.

Strength In What Remains by Tracy Kidder. Competent people trying to do the right thing in unprecedented circumstances. But nonfiction! And I still have yet to read a Kidder I don't like.

The Entry Level: Approaches to getting used to the idea of talking about class zine by several contributors and edited by Chris W. (reread). I reread this as part of my effort to spark discussion of classism at Open Source Bridge 2014; thanks especially to Lukas Blakk for making more copies of the zine to share, and to Chris W. for making the PDF available and coming to the conference for one of the discussions. Entry Level continues to serve its purpose ably, and I found it helpful as a jumping-off point for the OSBridge session. Distributing well-made physical artifacts often helps engage discussion participants on more levels than a voice-only meeting. And Entry Level provides frameworks and vocabulary to help us talk about our own experiences, and about the changes we might need to instigate.

Indigo by Beverly Jenkins (did not and will not finish). I wanted to love this romance between two black characters in 1859 America. The heroine is a conductor on the Underground Railroad! But the exposition started bothering me -- hella infodumps about, e.g., the effects of the Fugitive Slave Act. I loved learning this stuff, but the segues from "Hester experiencing her life" to "Hester's POV is suddenly indistinguishable from that of an encyclopedia" did not work, on a character and a prose level. And then the guy's behavior started bothering me and didn't stop. SPOILERS AHEAD. He's creepy -- he trespasses, he lies, he breaks promises, and he doesn't respect "no." She tells him to stop giving her gifts, and he keeps giving her luxury goods. After the dubcon sex scene I started skimming, faster and faster, until I was finally reading it entirely for the infodumps about the nineteenth-century black experience. We find out he comes from the black aristocracy of New Orleans. And then he tricks her into marrying him, and she gets dubcon pampered by servants who won't even let her say no to the salts they're adding to her bath water, and I realized: Oh! This is a billionaire romance! (1850s, so, thousandaire, but still.) My discomfort with Galen's behavior is (probably) not unconscious racist bias; it's an aversion to the tropes of billionaire romance novels. I stopped reading Indigo, and in its stead I welcome recommendations of your favorite fictional or nonfictional texts on free black communities in the antebellum North.

'Rat Queens' coverRat Queens Volume 1: Sass & Sorcery by Kurtis J. Wiebe, Laura Tavishati, Roc Upchurch, and Ed Brisson. This comic grew on me over the course of the trade paperback. Snappy banter, heists, easy-to-follow fight scenes, hella women whom the story treats as first-class citizens, various kinds of diversity. If you like Firefly or Alexandra Erin's Tales of MU, check this out.

[Tentatively titled in-progress novel] by Leonard Richardson, interim drafts. Oh oh oh oh when you all get to read this and see how he subverts redacted and parodies redacted and the Indian stuff and oh no what happens to redacted and redacted and redacted! This novel is going to be to redacted what Constellation Games was to redacted.

Torn Shapes of Desire by Mary Anne Mohanraj (partway). This is an erotica collection. It is good and I like it, and it rewards a piecemeal reading style. (Fun fact: when I first read Cryptonomicon I did not read it linearly. I picked it up at arbitrary pages and read completely out of order, and then eventually opened to page one and began a traditional-style readthrough. I think I used to do this a lot with short story collections, but I have no recollection of why I did this with a novel, or what caused me to stop sampling and go linear.)

Saga, Volume 4, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. Come to think of it, I like Saga for many of the same reasons I liked Rat Queens. Also Saga includes metafiction that I find less portentous and more "wheee!" than the metafiction in The Unwritten, which I read for a while.

The Middleman, Volume 5: The Pan-Universal Parental Reconciliation, by Javier Grillo-Marxauch, Armando Zanker, and Les McClaine. Did someone mention metafiction?! Fun and spirited. I now want to actually read volumes 1-4 and then reread this one, to appreciate it better.

'RESTful Web APIs' coverRESTful Web APIs by Leonard Richardson and Mike Amundsen. I read this as Wikimedia engineers discussed whether and how to revamp the MediaWiki API, and referred to it during my fall 2014 stint at the Recurse Center. I thoroughly appreciate its thorough coverage of HTTP and hypermedia, the authors' attention to the user experience of APIs for the developers of clients, and the opinionated appendix of HTTP status codes. I started to use the suggested API design procedure while working on the static analyzer, then realized my functionality was so simple and limited that I didn't need the multistep HOWTO. But I intend to use that design procedure when I work on APIs in the future, and I recommend it to your attention as well.

Secure Beneath The Watchful Eyes by GroteskBurlesque. Fanfiction, based on The Thick Of It, features competent people trying to do the right thing in unprecedented circumstances. With lots and lots of canon-appropriate swearing. I am not particularly interested in shipping Malcolm Tucker with anyone, but this author made me believe Malcolm/Jamie enough to enjoy the rest of the tale. It was tremendous to see Malcolm and the rest of the crew in a situation where their utter gruff cynical bastardry was actually called for. Malcolm Tucker considers very little sacred, and this story shows what and why, and shows us something redeeming about Ollie, and shows us Nicola coming into her own. It's touching.

Moonshine by Alaya Dawn Johnson. I love reading fiction about energetic women fighting evil, be that evil structural kyriarchy or bitey monsters. And I love reading about competent people trying to do the right thing in unprecedented circumstances. I am a little befogged with confusion in terms of self-assessing my reaction to this book. You see, years ago, I read an passage of fiction, an excerpt of a novel by a black woman about a vampire-beset woman in an alternate 1920s New York City. And I loved it! And then I forgot who wrote it, and asked Astoria Bookshop for help, and got Moonshine, but I am still unconvinced that this is the book I was seeking. Perhaps forty-five years from now I will come across the book I sought. Will I read it? Via what medium, and in what language? Will I remember that I wanted to read it? Will this blog still exist so I can link back to this post? Anyway, I don't want to blame Moonshine for being itself rather than whatever other fantasy I fantasized. It's good.

Update a few hours after writing this paragraph, and probably 6 months after reading Moonshine: I have just looked at Johnson's site and found an excerpt from Wicked City, the sequel to Moonshine. I think this is the excerpt I liked. It is not 2060 A.D. I am still blogging and I will read Wicked City in English and on paper or a Kobo. Oh past Sumana, you worried your imagination couldn't stretch far enough to encompass the truth, but lo! The twist! Your imagination couldn't stretch NEAR enough!

'This Place Has No Atmosphere' coverThis Place Has No Atmosphere by Paula Danziger (reread). This is a short 1986 scifi novel aimed at, um, young adults? middle grades? you know, whippersnappers. I read it in my youth and still love it. The different levels of sex ed videodiscs! Not being able to play hooky because every adult in your tiny moon colony would know you ought to be in school! Putting on a production of Our Town as a means of engaging with your new moon life! This remains the best story I've ever read about reconciling yourself to leaving behind your Earth friends and getting used to your new life as an adolescent extraterrestrial. (Zen Cho's "The Four Generations of Chang E" comes really close though!) In retrospect, This Place Has No Atmosphere particularly spoke to me because my family moved around dozens of times during my childhood. In case you have ever wondered why I am less well-adjusted than that other Indian-American woman you know, this is like 80% of the reason why.

The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. It's a classic, it's as good as everyone says it is, it has fun illustrations.

Black Science, Volume 1, by Rick Remender and Matteo Scalera. It's a scifi comic and I bought a trade paperback collecting the first few issues. I don't think I finished it. Superviolent, not enough interesting women characters, art didn't speak to me.

cover of 'Hackster' Hackster: The Revolution Begins by Sankalp Kohli and Paritosh Yadav. Oh goodness what do I even say about Hackster. So, when I was visiting India in November, I bought a few books by desi authors. Three looked great: Complications by Atul Gawande, The Hope Factory by Lavanya Sankaran, and Government Brahmana by Aravind Malagatti. And indeed they were good. And then I saw the cover of Hackster, which features a black helicopter, the Mumbai skyline, and an exceedingly wide-stanced person in a black hoodie. And the back of the hoodie has code-y looking green text, like /usr/src/. And above the title: "FROM THE BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF 'Because Every Raindrop is a Hope' and 'When I Found You : I Found Myself'".

You know what, I am going to save my comments on Hackster for another time when I haven't just spouted 2400 words on other books. OK, so I am not entirely caught up. Think of my Hackster review as the sourdough starter for my next roundup.

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(2) : More Books I've Read Recently: More book reviews from the past year or so! I am still catching up and am not done catching up.

Up Against It by MJ Locke. You can read the first 5 chapters free online. I read this fast-paced space mystery during the 2014 summer vacation I shared with Julia and Moss, and enjoyed it as a mystery/procedural, as solid hard scifi, and as a character study of the protagonist. The first time we see Jane Navio, head of the Resource Commission, she makes a tough call. She is the kind of creative, tough leader who can abandon a few likely-to-die people in order to save resources the space colony's going to need in three weeks' time. Later we see that she's a cunning, passionate, thoughtful, and empathetic leader as well -- once you've read it, talk with me about a monologue she delivers in the last few pages of the book, about work and the public eye, because when I read it (as I was thinking about the job I then had at Wikimedia Foundation) it struck me as though I were a gong. And you get space surveillance, posthuman subsocieties, and some teen drama as well, but basically I am all about super leader Jane. Incidentally, MJ Locke is an open pseudonym for Laura J. Mixon, whose work Leonard has really liked. I should pick up more Mixon.

Life Class and Toby's Room by Pat Barker. I thank yatima for bringing my attention to Barker's Regeneration trilogy, which is super great. And thanks to Sam Read Book Shop in Grasmere, where Julia, Moss, and I stopped during our walk. I saw and picked up Perfecting Sound Forever, then got to talking with the store clerk, found out Pat Barker had new World War I fiction out, and bought it. I read both of these books in spare moments while continuing the Coast-To-Coast walk, which meant I had a sort of double vision of England, seeing it in front of my face in 2014, and seeing it in my head a hundred years previous. During my Coast-to-Coast walk in 2012 with Mel, I'd basked in the hospitality of rural northern England. And I enjoyed it again when I came back last year, but I also saw it through wartime eyes -- participant and observer at once. The cosy bits of life -- board games, pub trivia nghts, jokes over breakfast -- felt like civilization, like something to protect, like "what we're fighting for." Life Class -- in comparison to Regeneration -- feels like Young Adult, perhaps because we see the journey these youngish adults take because of the war. Toby's Room has a lot to recommend it but there is a sex-related content warning that I'll put in the comments as it's a spoiler.

The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo by Zen Cho (reread). So fun and funny and heartwarming and incisive. "I used to be a good girl and that was uncomplicated, but I thought complicated would be more interesting than safe." If you liked Jade Yeo, check out this interview with Cho about fluff for postcolonial booknerds, the fantasy of communicating easily with your ancestors and heritage, and her writing in general. I particularly love the bomb she drops nonchalantly: "I've always loved stories that examine the dynamics within small communities with their own rules and conventions -- Jane Austen's two inches of ivory, Enid Blyton's school stories, L. M. Montgomery's Canadian villages, Star Trek's starships." YES. Just add that last one on there. Ooof.

your blue-eyed boys by Feather (lalaietha). Via a recommendation from yatima. I read this both before and after I watched a bunch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and it makes more sense afterwards (me during the first read: "who's this Sam guy?"). It's the longest piece of MCU fic I've read, but you might also like my Archive of our Own recommendations and Pinboard bookmarks.

American Taxation, American Slavery by Robin Einhorn (2006, University of Chicago Press) (partial reread). This history remains brainbending and full of astonishing anecdotes. Dr. Einhorn's particularly great in describing the importance of institutional competence in government agencies and in refuting "taxation=slavery" rhetoric. Check out this example of her amazingness.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X (reread) and Iacocca: An Autobigraphy (reread). I wrote about these at the time but I did not really talk about why I read Iacocca. I was about eight, and visiting India with family, and I read voraciously. I remember reading many issues of Reader's Digest (the Indian edition, which was different from the US edition). And a relative of mine had a copy of Iacocca and I read it with tremendous interest. I had never read such a detailed narrative about grown-up work before! He used the f-word and I was SCANDALIZED. Cars, these things that I utterly took for granted, did not just emerge ab nihilo; someone had to think them up and design them and compromise and whatnot. And I think I also liked reading Iacocca -- as I liked watching and reading Andy Rooney -- because they used plain language and owned up to their frailties.

So I monologued, a lot, the way kids do, but about Lee Iacocca and Chrysler and the K-car and the Mustang and various other topics, and these Indian aunts and uncles of mine smiled and nodded and perhaps presumed I would be an automotive engineer when I grew up. And then my parents held a sort of family reunion party (the hook being "Sumana's and Nandini's birthday (Observed)"), and my uncle Ashwin gave me one of the most memorable gifts I've ever received: Iacocca's new book of essays, Talking Straight. I don't think I even knew it existed before I had it in my hands! I was SO EXCITED. I probably forgot the minimal socialization my parents had painstakingly attempted to instill in me and went off to a corner to start in on it right away. I am still laughing about this.

Incidentally, the hunger for reading material also affected me eight years later, on another trip to India, as I was preparing to return to the States. Airplanes had no seatback entertainment; you brought twenty-two hours' worth of self-entertainment resources to get you all the way to San Francisco or you explored new depths in boredom. The day before my flight, Mom took me to an English-language bookstore. I'd heard The Lord of the Rings was good, and long. The store didn't have it. But they did have this other super long book. And that's how I read Atlas Shrugged.

(Even so, somewhere above the Pacific I started skimming that Galt radio speech. It is so repetitive you could programmatically transform it into a musical score suitable for Koyaanisqatsi!)

An inflight shopping magazine that helped me discover my roller derby name ("Asian Competence").

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: Words About Words About Words: I'm most of the way through Beloved by Toni Morrison -- my thanks to Debbie Notkin for causing me to take a deep breath and open it again.

Reading it now, I'm grateful for all the skills and context I've learned over my life as a reader, because Beloved rewards close reading, and because I could imagine being a more confused reader if I were less versed in the history of slavery in the US.

Spoilers ahead!

I am only partway through Beloved, but I can already venture a guess that a strong theme here is: the often racist inadequacy and deceptiveness of the written word. Sethe would have had "Dearly Beloved" written on the gravestone, not just "Beloved", but didn't think to ask for both words until too late. Paul D can't read, but he knows that "there was no way in hell a black face could appear in a newspaper if the story was about something anybody wanted to hear." Baby Suggs didn't need to read aloud from a Bible to preach The Word, and "Jenny Whitlow" was written on her sales ticket but that doesn't make it her name. Beloved, speaking/thinking of past experiences, expresses sentence fragments and allusions, including "how can I say things that are pictures". And the schoolteacher measured Sethe and the Sweet Home men, and wrote down their particulars, and instructed his pupils to run data analysis on the two columns of Sethe's "human" and "animal" characteristics ("And don't forget to line them up.").

This book is a fantasy, that is, it has something magical/supernatural in it, and I want to find out how that resolves and read all the other work it's in conversation with, inside and outside of whatever genres.

End of spoilers.

Morrison's also discussing intimacy and bodies and homes and permission, and detoxing from belonging to someone else, and healthy and poisonous desires, and a bunch of other topics of course. The story has enough atrocities that I can't comfortably read it while eating, so, giant trigger warning for terrible things that happened to black people in the US in the nineteenth century. But if you haven't read it, I hope you will read it, so we can talk about it.

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(3) : Some Books I've Read In The Last Year: I have read many, many books since I last rounded them up. I may start using LibraryThing or similar to track and recommend things since I demonstrably don't blog about the books often enough to keep up. Future Sumana and others, have some fragmentary, tardy reviews, with more to come.

Zen Cho, Spirits Abroad (short story anthology). Deeply engaging, funny, loving, and heartstring-tugging (I'm reasonably sure that midway through the first story, I burst into tears and called my mom). I appreciate how Cho talks about things I don't understand, uses words I don't know, and helps me keep going even when I'm missing bits that (for instance) Malaysians would grok. She does not do this by explaining or glossing every phrase, in case you (like me) dislike that approach.

Greg Milner, Perfecting Sound Forever: The History of Recorded Music. I picked this up because of Scott Rosenberg's recommendation and give it two thumbs way up. I never took a college-level physics class and I suspect know less than the median US-born person my age about pop music of the 20th century. Milner's exposition gave me the background I needed to understand the ways recording and playback technology affected music, and vice versa, without being condescending. I learned even more about Edison's vengefulness, and I now understand a lot more about the influence of World War II on the music tech industry, about racism in the folk music preservation scene, about how we choose codecs for compression, about the loudness wars and dynamic range, about why we revere or despise particular practices or musicians, about the sexist culture of audiophilia, and about how to (or how not to) get people to switch workflows.

Joanna Russ, The Adventures of Alyx. I don't see as much fiction as I'd like about super-competent women managers. I especially do not see enough fiction about competent women managing incompetent men and causing them to realize, empirically, that she is right and they are wrong. This is the best thing about The Adventures of Alyx.

Molly Gloss, The Dazzle of Day. The very first thing I want to get across is that this is not comfort reading; it includes realistic depictions of sexual assault and its aftermath. I am very glad I read this heartbreaking, nuanced tale of Quakers in space -- Jo Walton gets at the way Gloss depicts people and situations I rarely see in scifi, and as Sue Gardner has mentioned, understanding Quakers helps me understand Wikimedian consensus better -- but it is not gentle.

Rita Mae Brown, Rubyfruit Jungle (reread). I more thoroughly noticed the "make my own stories/films about Us" theme this time. Maybe that's because Leonard and I have been watching so many films, via the Museum of the Moving Image, from decades past. As bad and simplistic and inaccurate as media representation of QUILTBAG people is now, it's better than it was.

Ha Jin, A Good Fall (short story collection). I had previously read his novel Waiting, and in both his short stories and his novels, Ha Jin does a painfully good job of delicately splaying open the interiority of ordinary people navigating modernity. He sets much of A Good Fall in Flushing, in my own county, and many of his characters are Asian or Asian-American, so I got that added touch of familiarity. If I recall correctly, Ha Jin can make me feel empathy for a character who is making bad decisions, which not every author can do!

Lavanya Sankaran, The Hope Factory. I'd previously read Sankaran's short story collection The Red Carpet, which I do recommend. I loved The Hope Factory -- what a Bangalore story, getting the texture of class, gender, and location so right. (I wonder whether the flashback chapter about one protagonist's day laborer past would work as a standalone story; it sure has a Crowning Moment of Awesome that I will remember for a long time.) I honestly do not know whether I should recommend this book to non-Indians or even desis who are not Karnatakan or Kannadiga, whether it will sparkle quite as bright to people who have never been to that particular dosa restaurant, who don't think "wait I think I have relatives in that square mile of Mysore." But if you're looking for an English-language novel set in modern-day Bangalore, spanning rich and poor, family and business and politics, check this out.

Toni Morrison, Beloved -- haven't finished this yet. I picked this up at a moment when I wasn't ready for how deeply sexy it gets, so I paused; I'll be picking it up again sometime.

Kate Griffin, A Madness of Angels. I cannot remember whether I finished this book. I heard about it because people said the protagonist uses an Oyster card as a component in a magical ward. (People on Dreamwidth find this charming and I am no exception!) But A Madness of Angels is about 1% that kind of awesome Terms-Of-Service-based magic, and about 99% moody swirling coats and "I thought I was dead, how did I get resurrected?" and men in fog and GET BACK TO THE END USER LICENSE AGREEMENTS ALREADY! I am much more interested in urban fantasy if someone is committing magical fraud or magically suing someone than if someone is committing magical murder.

Jean M. Converse and Howard Schuman, Conversations at Random: Survey Research as Interviewers See It (reread). I love this super-obscure book, which I picked up used many years ago. It includes many anecdotes about surprises that door-to-door survey-takers have run into. I like these stories for the same reason I end up rereading the case studies and blockquotes from Carol Gilligan's In A Different Voice or Irving Yalom's Love's Executioner.

Ken MacLeod, The Human Front and The Restoration Game. I read these for an upcoming online book club-type event, and am currently reading MacLeod's Newton's Wake for that same project. I enjoyed the two that I've finished: brisk reads, relatable protagonists, Big Reveals, reasonable exposition so you don't have to come into the book already knowing all the Trotsky-related feuds in twentieth-century communism. Either of these would be a reasonable first MacLeod. (I attempted to read his Fall Revolution series by starting with The Star Fraction and bounced off, at least for now, on the "ugh why do I care about these people, giant dream sequence, I do not know enough about communism to grok this" barriers. I have since been advised to try again with a different Fall Revolution book later!)

Atul Gawande, Complications. I liked this and read aloud bits of it to people, especially the bits about teaching and risk, but it does suffer a bit from comparison to Better, which has a throughline. Still good enough to make me daydream about finding myself on some kind of Indian-American Powerhouses panel with Gawande!

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (reread). I last read this about 15 years ago, for a class, and I'm grateful that I've grown as a reader since then. This time through, I could appreciate Neale Hurston's lush descriptive prose more thoroughly, because now I see what other authors are trying to do when they expend verbiage on hot humid Southern garden scenes. There's an exemplary early passage that connects our protagonist's blossoming sexuality with her new awareness of the sensual world around her and mixes observation of her interior life with trees, flowers, etc. Also, I'd love to talk about class, gender, and sexuality in Their Eyes Were Watching God with other people who have read it recently.

Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy. I believe I've never read this book before. Just as other adults have said, this book holds up -- when you read as an adult, you see and understand the drawing-room conflicts that Harriet sees but doesn't understand. And yeah, if you are obsessed with discovering everyone else's secrets, other people might hate that and might decide you are not awesome. Hear that, NSA? Perhaps if more people had read Harriet the Spy as kids, we wouldn't have the massive intelligence overreach problems we have now. Neither you nor I have any way of disproving that!

Janet Mock, Redefining Realness. Like many US people, I picked up Redefining Realness because I heard about it, heard it was good, and realized I had not yet read a memoir by a trans person of color. And now I continue this chain of recommendations. Redefining Realness, interestingly, succeeds both as a public service announcement about transphobia and intersectionality and as a memoir about one woman's coming-of-age. I appreciated how Mock interwove her story with statistics and other context.

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Sword. I enjoyed this. The previous book, Ancillary Justice, I enjoyed quite a lot as I was reading it. Ancillary Sword I did not enjoy as much as I was reading it, and then enjoyed a great deal more afterwards, thanks to a great conversation with Jed. Intriguing ideas include: Breq as unreliable narrator, especially regarding other people's emotions, genders, and sexualities. The shift in settings, from spaceship to space station to planet to station to ship, which helps us compare societies that are functional, dysfunctional, and broken. Leckie compare othering, oppression, and possibilities for resistance across urban and plantation settings. The Ancillaryverse as scifi that argues with other scifi; Radchaai as Borg (ancillaries), or as Federation (per the "root beer" and Eddington/Maquis critiques from Deep Space Nine). Justice of Toren as literally the ship who sang (see the comments in Leckie's post here, around the novels' feminist lineage). Danny O'Brien's take on Radchaai beauty standards. What bits of the Radch feel Hindu to me.

Peter Falk, Just One More Thing (reread). I originally read Falk's autobiography before I had gotten into Columbo, and enjoyed taking another look. Fun, funny, wise, a nice collection of heartwarming and offbeat stories, exactly what I wanted as a Columbo fan.

Julie Phillips, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice Sheldon. I'd been putting this off until I could handle the anguish of it, and I'm glad I did. Julie Phillips's comprehensively heartbreaking biography made me weep and yearn hopelessly for an alternate universe or two. I remember standing in the Shakespeare & Co. south of the UC Berkeley campus, reading "The Screwfly Solution" in an anthology -- maybe I've never gotten over that disturbance. And, like a memento mori, in the spinner rack in my living room, within arm's reach of the sofa, I've placed a copy of Warm Worlds and Otherwise by James Tiptree, Jr., an edition that includes that Silverberg intro where he calls her prose "ineluctably masculine." "So when the human male describes his world he maps its distances from his unspoken natural center of reference, himself," Tiptree wrote. My own experience of being othered, misread, being thought too emotional or too unfeminine or too weak by some man's standards, are far fewer than hers were. But it does bother me that I frequently get misgendered in open source communities. It would be really lovely if I never again needed to say, "I'm a woman; please don't assume everyone you meet in IRC is a man." If I felt like pretending, I would not have to call myself James or Arjun; an abstract avatar, the amount of ASCII swagger I already exhibit, and others' assumptions would do the job for me -- our assumptions, I should say, as I also wonder how many women I am currently misgendering as men.

Billy Fawcett (?), Captain Billy's Whiz-Bang. Leonard or I picked this up basically because it shows up in The Music Man. My favorite joke: "How do you like the Volstead Act?" "Oh, I never did care for vaudeville." Has a tremendous number of sexist or otherwise wince-inducing jokes, some of which depend on stereotypes I don't even know and are thus inexplicable.

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(1) : Revisiting "Dave Barry In Cyberspace" (1996): I have been rereading Dave Barry's Dave Barry In Cyberspace (published in 1996), which has held up about as well as Neal Stephenson's In The Beginning Was The Command Line (1999).

On the software you'll need for your personal computer:

First off, you need an operating system, which is the "Godfather" program that operates behind the scenes, telling all the other programs what to do, making sure they cooperate, and if necessary leaving the heads of horses in their beds. The most popular operating system in world history as of 10:30 A.M. today is Windows 95, but there are many other options, including Windows 3.1, Windows 3.11, Windows 3.111, Windows for Workgroups, Windows for Groups That Mainly Just Screw Around, Windows for Repeat Offenders, Lo-Fat Windows, and The Artist Formerly Known as Windows. There is also the old "MS-DOS" operating system, which is actually written on parchment and is rarely used on computers manufactured after the French and Indian War. And there is "OS/2," which was developed at enormous expense by IBM and marketed as a Windows alternative, and which has won a loyal following of thousands of people, an estimated three of whom do not work for IBM. And of course there is the Apple operating system, or "Apple operating system," for your hippie beatnik weirdo loner narcotics-ingesting communistic types of Apple-owning individuals who are frankly too wussy to handle the challenge of hand-to-hand combat with computer systems specifically designed to thwart them.

On the internet:

... I had managed to send this hideously embarrassing message to everybody in the world except the person who was supposed to read it.

Yes, thanks to the awesome communications capabilities of the Internet, I was able to make an intergalactic fool of myself, and there's no reason why you can't do the same.

Prefiguring Clay Shirky's cognitive surplus arguments:

So go ahead! Get on the Web! In my opinion, it's WAY more fun than television, and what harm can it do?

OK, it can kill brain cells by the billions. But you don't need brain cells. You have a computer.

The origin of Bill Gates's wealth: "versions."

How much should your new computer cost? "About $350 less than you will actually pay."

Also, I am gonna avoid G7e rage and not quote the entire section, but check out the Comdex chapter for Barry's thoughts on the limited range of stories and game mechanics available in games written by and for men in 1996, and his speculation on what more diversity would look like.

The fiction short story that appears in two parts at the end of the book causes disproportionate feels in me, because it's about falling in love with a stranger via America OnLine chat, and I read it around the same time I fell in love with a guy I met on Usenet, via a Dave Barry fan group. Oh dear I just looked him up and he has a freaking beard. I don't know why that detail gets to me, but I was not prepared for that. At this moment I am under a blanket on my couch in New York City with midmorning light bouncing off brick and fire escapes outside, but I am also in hand-me-down tee shirt and shorts in front of a 486, easily remembering how to turn the audible modem volume all the way down so Mom and Dad don't hear me dialing in, the mousepad the only clear area on my dad's desk that's cluttered with printouts and Post-Its and boxes of 5-and-a-quarter floppies, navigating to HoTMaiL, California night outside the blinds. And now I'm remembering all those other local maxima and minima of my teenage life, and how intense things felt. He sent me a photo and I printed it out in black and white and took it into my AP US History test. That printout is probably still in a box somewhere. He dumped me, and we never met, and I wonder whether either of us still has a copy of that email.

And now the only Dave Barry book I own is Dave Barry in Cyberspace. It's still funny and it still has a barb in it. I am genuinely curious whether people ten years younger than me would enjoy it, since clearly part of what I'm getting out of it is nostalgia. And now I'm thinking about setting a reminder to myself to read current tech humor by Rose Ames and James Mickens in 2035.

Filed under:

: Internet Things I Am Appreciating: Here are a bunch of interesting links.

My pal Brendan wrote an appreciation of my old MC Masala newspaper column and I am totally still basking in it. Yes Brendan you totally were and are the Kentuckian I know best! Also this satirical pastiche about moving from San Francisco to New York City still makes me laugh.

A hypothesis on why so many scifi fans/authors are libertarians. This reminds me that I should read Paulina Borsook's 2000 book Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech.

Related: Kate Losse on Silicon Valley and cults -- incisive, on the other side of the "identity management method" (Joel Spolsky, 2006).

The sign of successful recruiting becomes finding people who feel so matched to the startup's culture that they will happily allow their identities to be subsumed it, to the point of happily wearing the startup's uniform of branded t-shirts and other swag. 'The startup uniform encapsulates a simple but essential principle: Everyone at your company should be different in the same way--a tribe of like-minded people fiercely devoted to the company's mission.' In Thiel's vision, then, the best kind of 'different' is difference that scales--individuality is just a property of people who haven’t found the right startup to work at yet (or alternately, who have not been found by the right startup).

Christina Xu on Blowhard Syndrome which I have absolutely seen.

The constant bagging on Chetan Bhagat in this post makes me laugh pretty hard.

From Rivka in 2003: "I have a Thing about shoes." I particularly find helpful the comment that starts: "I think that everybody has the thing that reminds them of all the issues that they thought they'd completely gotten over in their life, and the thing is often some small, seemingly trivial detail." I'm currently reading a bunch of Courtney Milan novels and she basically always hits this note, by the way.

I appreciate this "TMI" self-description by blogger Aiffe, particularly the paragraph in which they discuss their non-binary gender identity. I particularly recommend it to other cis people like me to see an example of how someone feels different about being included in "women" as opposed to being referred to as "a woman."

Sabrina wrote me a list of book recommendations; if you believe you often like books I like, you should check out her post!

A short parable on art and imperfection.

I found that the bit about personal integrity and promises in this post about procrastination spoke to me.

Leonard and I have been watching a lot of Batman: The Animated Series, and I liked this piece on "Beware the Gray Ghost". Also check out this fun, thought-provoking post on queerness in Batman, especially in the 1960s live-action series.

I found the last two paragraphs of this Belle Waring piece particularly thought-provoking. I genuinely do want nuance in social justice discussions and I care about building bridges with people who don't yet agree with me on every particular and who don't yet know bits of etiquette and jargon that I know. I also don't want for strangers to perceive that good faith as a boundless well of sweetness, time and energy to which they are entitled. Not every conversation is a Dialogue And Deliberation process. It's a tough balance and no one has it down, in my opinion. I'm curious about Aspiration's work on social scripts and whether it'll provide some improved approaches to thinking about this. I'm also rereading Aria Stewart's "Creating just online social spaces" (the "that #couldhavegonebetter" re-routing tactic looks like a good script that I may copy).

Related: "white supremacy culture" by Tema Okun. "This is a list of characteristics of white supremacy culture that show up in our organizations." I'm finding a lot to think about in this.

Mel Chua writes a sarcastic poem: "How to succeed in engineering as a disabled person".

Martin Fowler writes, "In recent years we've made increasing our [gender] diversity a high priority at ThoughtWorks." He's heard arguments against some diversity initiatives, e.g., if everyone followed suit, the industry would run out of qualified women to hire. He responds: "We'll know this is something to be worried about when women are paid significantly more than men for the same work."

I have been chewing on a bunch of other posts: abi's thoughts on intellectual provincialism and the profile of assertions in conversations where people learn things, Ned Batchelder's "Engineers are people", sky croeser's "Our collaborative feminist organisations should be critical of capitalism or they will probably be bullshit", Aphyr's "this guide is for you" (via Dan Abramov), and Ben Rosenbaum on numinous magic and playfulness and on compassion, love, and demanding hard things.

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(1) : It's On My Mind: So a few years ago, a friend of mine was at a party, and one of the people at that party was a laconic fella, a new boyfriend who hadn't met this group before. Eventually someone got around to asking him what he did for a living. He said something a bit general, about government service, yes, at the federal level, until someone said, "you're a G-man? With the FBI?"

"That's right," he said, briefly, with a small nod.

Someone speculated as to whether he was in New York City because he was concerned with things like the security of the Indian Point nuclear power facility.

"It's on my mind," he replied.

And someone else told a story of a cop or a federal agent, losing their gun while on the job.

"That's frowned upon," he noted.

Ever since then, Leonard and I have found this triad of answers endlessly entertaining. These are polite yet distant ways of giving answers in the affirmative, the negative, and the noncommital.

That said, here are some links that are on my mind (whether I think they're right or frowned upon will be your guess to make!):

Transparency about money: a fiction author, a public speaker, and a publisher are sharing real dollar amounts so you know what you might be getting into. You might also enjoy a similar HOWTO that Leonard and I wrote, about making a one-off anthology.

Disagreeing well: This distinction between task-focused and relationship-focused people (which may be very similar to Rands's organics and mechanics model or my engineer and mother leadership models) will stick with me.

Transformative work and the origins of abuse: In an interview about Jo Walton's new book The Just City, check out Walton's response to the interviewer's question, "Why have Apollo learn about 'equal significance and volition'?"

Catwoman: chaila and beccatoria are telling me to read Genevieve Valentine's run writing Catwoman and I may well listen to them.

"Everything is a bit orange for some reason": I can't decide whether Holly Gramazio's hilarious analysis of games in fiction (e.g., the futuristic sports in dystopia movies) has more insights or jokes, but there are plenty of both.

Impostor syndrome tips: Concrete steps you can take to stop automatically assuming you can't do stuff.

What are you willing to consider?: Danny linked to this piece which I think stands alone (seeing as I haven't read the Chait piece it's responding to (and every time I see Chait's name I think of "TBWA Chiat/Day" and the old Apple ads)). This controversy touches on trust, courage, groupthink, the purposes of different environments and different kinds of environments, how quantity can have a quality all its own, the attention economy, and a zillion other things. Put this in the "on my mind" bucket.

Techish things: Hound is a new competitor to DXR. You should enable automatic updates on your servers. A Python developer is offering code review in exchange for donations to Doctors Without Borders. Learning to sit with discomfort: part of yoga, part of life. Changing history (advanced Git). The Mailman project wants to switch translation platforms. A gentle primer on reverse engineering.

The dream factory, the sausage factory: A television writing room feels a bit like the opening of Anathem (Socratic questioning about scifi/fantasy tropes).

Popular: I'm using Dreamwidth as my RSS reader. Check out the popular feeds, ranked by how many DW users subscribe. The top 10 feeds include the Organization for Transformative Works, Cake Wrecks, & PhD Comics. Also, as a data point, at current writing, the feed for this very blog has more subscribers than Paul Krugman's feed has.

Finally, because I have my immature moments like anyone else: A Project Gutenberg find by Leonard: "Diary of Richard Cocks, Cape-Merchant in the English Factory in Japan, 1615-1622" pub. 1882. (It's legitimately historically interesting .... but that's not what caught my attention at first.)

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(3) : "Trade Me" and Courtney Milan: Today I snarfled up Trade Me, a new contemporary romance novel by Courtney Milan. It stars a Chinese-American woman studying computer science at UC Berkeley. It's about class and classism, deconstructing the Prince Charming/billionaire trope in romantic fiction, Bay Area tech, ally fails, how to deal with cops, authenticity and adaptation, safety and freedom, trust, parents, and work. And one of the main secondary characters is trans, and all the physicality in the relationship is super consensual, and there is a kind-of reference to Cake Wrecks, and (maybe only I see it) to Randall Munroe's "What If?" blog. I link it thematically to Jo Walton's The Just City, Ellen Ullman's The Bug, and the good parts of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. It's pretty great. (ROT13'd trigger warnings that are spoilers: qvfbeqrerq rngvat naq gur arne-qrngu bs n cnerag.)

I'd heard a bit about Milan before via metaphortunate and rachelmanija and enjoyed the Ask A Man blog, but hadn't gotten around to reading a novel by her yet. Then I heard that Trade Me would star someone who sounds far more like me than a lot of protagonists do, and decided it was time to try out this whole ebook-reading thing. Glad I did!

I know more and more romance authors are writing books with protagonists like me these days, not just Milan, and I should check them out. (Milan, like me, likes Zen Cho, and she further recommends another lawyer romance author, Julie James. According to Milan, James "writes ladies who unapologetically have careers and who care about those careers and don't have to sacrifice them in a fit of self-immolating pain at the end of the book." Hurray!) But I'm going to dwell a moment on how fascinating I find Milan in particular.

First off is the software thing. She wrote and wants people to reuse a chunk of GPL'd software to autogenerate links to a particular book at multiple bookstores. Also she used to use Gentoo. Of course she gives her readers permission to strip DRM from their copies of her books. Basically I would not be surprised if there is super flirty pair programming or a double entendre in a bash script in a future Milan book.

Her FAQ goes into more detail on what she does and why. She's neurodiverse, she encourages fanfic, and she has interesting ideas about the romance genre, diversity, and pay.

She brings an analytical approach to all aspects of her work (informed by her past as a chemist, programmer, and lawyer), and is willing to frankly and transparently talk about circumlocutions and the ways powerful systems, organizations and people -- deliberately or inadvertently -- suppress free speech. As a woman of color ("half-Chinese" in her words) she's also especially aware of the importance of writing fictional representations of women of color in STEM, and of fixing broken standards that lead to unequal representation.

If you are into legal minutiae you might enjoy her post on impotence and annulment; even if you aren't, you might like to see her hypothesize a bit about Regency vase cartels. I totally want to attend the workshop she did providing "a very broad overview of how people thought about property throughout history. When she writes historical romance, she writes people who could have existed as outliers; "I import modern morals into my historical romances. In my mind, that's a feature, not a bug."

Since a great "Must Pleasures Be Guilty?" WisCon panel I did in 2010, I've been particularly interested in new perspectives on the stigmatizing of intentionally pleasurable entertainment, and Milan's "The stigma of happy (a rant)" provides! Milan respects pleasure as a good and, in her work, aims to illustrate the work it takes to get to happy. She can snark about the "shame" of reading something pleasurable (and her fake book covers are spot-on), but she can also go deeper and show that another world is possible, one where we can have healthy, respectful conversations about women's sexual desires.

Milan and I are both geeky feminist Asian-American women who went to Cal and are interested in law, writing, and programming. Trade Me cost USD$3.99 (ebook); I can't put a price on what it feels like to read fiction meant for me, by someone who's only a few alternate universes away from me.

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: Ruthanna Emrys, A Writer I Like: Are you reading the fantasy or science fiction of Ruthanna Emrys? I recommend it.

I found out via Ada Palmer's glowing review about "The Litany of Earth". This is your way into Emrys's work if you want stories about secrets, furtive faith, government mistakes, and the silenced Other from a well-known narrative. "The Litany of Earth" hits about two thirds of my "some things I like in fiction" list, especially "recognizing and even celebrating the work of underappreciated people."

Sometime later in 2014 I wandered across "Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land", which is a good place to start with Emrys if you like stories about religious communities, hospitality, fighting illness and drought, girls, women, and making friendships across boundaries. People familiar with fables or Judaism will get something extra out of the allusions. Among other things I like in fiction: "point-of-view character outwitting or outworking a terrifying antagonist."

Then yesterday I read "Exposure Therapy" (Part I, Part II). If you like fast-moving prose, Harry Potter/Global Frequency-style "you have been selected for a special secret mission" plots, good-faith cooperation, scientists, and phobia, check it out. It has "closely observed characters going through uncomfortable changes in life and identity," which I like, but the reason I particularly recommend it is that it hits with a whanging great mallet another of my favorite tropes: the (eventually triumphant) struggle to empathize with the Other.

All three of these stories are, in some way, about one of the most important themes in speculative fiction: empathy with the Other, especially if we get to see the struggle it takes to get it. (The power of that trope, by the way, is a big reason why the Star Trek: The Next Generation fable "Darmok" and Deep Space 9's "Duet" make us cry, and why Orson Scott Card's Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus is genuinely readable.) The personal is political here; temperamentally and ideologically I want to treat others as I wish to be treated, respectfully, assuming good faith until counter-evidence arises, reciprocating with mutual aid, and inviting to join in common causes.

If her fiction is any guide, Ruthanna Emrys gets that. (Also, at a recent WisCon, she enjoyed the "Imaginary Book Club" panel that my friend and I originally conceived, so clearly she has good taste.) I look forward to reading more of her work!

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(2) : Yuletide Recommendations: Every year the Yuletide fanfic exchange delivers a bounty of fun and goodness, and enables me to refuel my participation in fandom. (Last night at the Hacker School holiday potluck (I brought beet juice), I ended up having at least one earnest conversation about fan fiction and other transformative artwork.) I myself have, as they say, committed fanfic a few times, but right now I'm much more a reader and cheerleader than a fiction-writer. So let the recommending commence!

In the subverting childhood mass-media memories category:

The Mystery of the Third Storey (3506 words) by Anonymous
Chapters: 1/1
Fandom: Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
Rating: General Audiences
Warnings: No Archive Warnings Apply
Relationships: Jane Eyre/Diana Rivers
Characters: Diana Rivers, Jane Eyre, Edward Rochester, Bertha Mason
Additional Tags: Alternate Universe - Detectives, Alternate Universe - Canon Divergence

Diana Rivers is a promising young detective in the sleepy village of Morton. One day a letter arrives from Jamaica, which leads her to journey across the country to Thornfield Hall, where a strange mystery awaits her.

The Birds of the Sky and the Beasts of the Field (1865 words) by Anonymous
Chapters: 1/1
Fandom: The Sound of Music - Rodgers/Hammerstein/Lindsay & Crouse
Rating: Teen And Up Audiences
Warnings: No Archive Warnings Apply
Relationships: Baroness Elsa von Schraeder/Maria (Sound of Music)
Characters: Maria (Sound of Music), Elsa Schraeder
Additional Tags: Alternate Universe, Yuletide Treat, Misses Clause Challenge

Maria leaves the convent, but not to be a governess to seven children. There's someone else who needs her.

The Affair of the Filched Fic (1958 words) by Anonymous
Chapters: 1/1
Fandom: Mathnet
Rating: General Audiences
Warnings: No Archive Warnings Apply
Characters: Kate Monday, George Frankly, Graciela Hernandez (OFC), Nina Hernandez (OFC)
Additional Tags: Yuletide, Characters Writing Fanfiction, Case Fic

A Yuletide fic goes missing. Set in a glorious AU where Yuletide exists but everyone still has 80s hair.

In the mpreg is hot category:

So Goddamn Beautiful (4693 words) by Anonymous
Chapters: 1/1
Fandom: Saga (Comics)
Rating: Not Rated
Warnings: Creator Chose Not To Use Archive Warnings
Relationships: Alana/Marko (Saga)
Characters: Alana (Saga), Marko (Saga)
Additional Tags: Alternate Universe, Mpreg, Non-Chronological

Or, Twelve Things That Alana Didn't Expect When Marko Was Expecting

Snapshots from an AU where it's Marko who got pregnant instead of Alana.

In the awwwww gruff curmudgeons opening up category:

Training Styles (1268 words) by Anonymous
Chapters: 1/1
Fandom: Protector of the Small - Tamora Pierce
Rating: General Audiences
Warnings: No Archive Warnings Apply
Characters: Keladry of Mindelan, Wyldon of Cavall, Nealan of Queenscove
Additional Tags: Post-Series, New Hope, Training, Banter, Mentor/Protégé, Yuletide, Yuletide 2014

Kel has an unexpected visitor.

Mind Over Matter (1108 words) by Anonymous
Chapters: 1/1
Fandom: Hot Fuzz (2007)
Rating: General Audiences
Warnings: No Archive Warnings Apply
Relationships: Nicholas Angel/Danny Butterman
Characters: Nicholas Angel, Danny Butterman
Additional Tags: Fluff, Pre-Slash, Missing Scene

Mainly, Nicholas just wanted Danny to come out of the coma.

In the someone in this universe gets to be happy?! category:

Unsteady Ground (10108 words) by Anonymous
Chapters: 1/1
Fandom: The Thick of It (TV)
Rating: Mature
Warnings: No Archive Warnings Apply
Relationships: Nicola Murray/Malcolm Tucker
Characters: Nicola Murray, Malcolm Tucker, Terri Coverley, Glenn Cullen
Additional Tags: Alternate Universe - Canon Divergence, Season/Series 03, Infidelity

Malcolm stops the second he's through the door, stares right at her before demanding, "Am I going to enjoy hearing your explanation for how you've lost your fucking mind?"

"Yes," Nicola says, the bitterness rising in her throat, ignoring Terri standing right behind Malcolm, able to hear every word. "Because clearly that's what happened, I decided to end a twenty year marriage to the father of my kids on a whim. Got me all figured out, haven't you." She wants, so badly, for her voice to stay hard and dismissive, but despite Nicola's best efforts, a wobble slips through right at the very end.

(AU, set during Series 3.)

In the pastiches so spot-on they feel like missing scenes from the original category:

Odds Against (2568 words) by Anonymous
Chapters: 1/1
Fandom: Robot Series - Isaac Asimov
Rating: General Audiences
Warnings: No Archive Warnings Apply
Characters: Susan Calvin, Alfred Lanning
Additional Tags: Case Fic, Robots

A steel factory robot starts predicting the results of horse races, with perfect accuracy. With Alfred Lanning flapping wildly, Susan Calvin investigates.

floraphilia (1343 words) by Anonymous
Chapters: 1/1
Fandom: Hot Fuzz (2007)
Rating: Teen And Up Audiences
Warnings: No Archive Warnings Apply
Relationships: Nicholas Angel/Danny Butterman

Nicholas grieves. Danny helps. (Kind of. Not really, but it's the thought that counts, right?)

And finally, because it's Yuletide, in the only this character could give this other character this specific gift category:

Soft Offering (1034 words) by Anonymous
Chapters: 1/1
Fandom: Imperial Radch Series - Ann Leckie
Rating: General Audiences
Warnings: No Archive Warnings Apply
Characters: Mercy of Kalr, Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen | Breq

A gift from one ship to another.

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: Lee Iacocca and Malcolm X: I read Malcolm X's autobiography at about twelve and Lee Iacocca's autobiography at around eight. (You know how it is with childhood; you read what's around you.) This past weekend I dipped back into the X, and realized something they have in common: both of them get fired from the number two jobs at their respective organizations.

In their stories, as they tell them:

X converts to Islam in prison and from that point onwards devotes his total loyalty to the Nation of Islam. Iacocca starts working for the Ford Motor Company right after getting his degree. Both rise through the ranks till they're reporting directly to the heads of their orgs, and they live and breathe their orgs' missions.

And then something goes rotten. The top guy in each org is insecure, flawed, can't deal with having such a charismatic, effective, headline-grabbing guy as his direct subordinate. So he gives our protagonist the runaround, then fires him. And our protagonist undergoes the most severe emotional and even physical confusion of his life, reeling from the betrayal.

What next? After Ford fires him, Iacocca goes on to head bankruptcy-bound Chrysler and help turn it around. X founds new organizations, takes the hajj, changes his views. (And assassins kill him a year later.)

Of course Iacocca's and X's self-serving biases skew these narratives. But I still got something interesting out of this repetition, I think, related to what I got out of John Morearty's mentorship -- a belief that, contrary to that old quote, there can be second acts in American lives. That you might rise and fall and rise again.

And that you should be hesitant to love anything that can't love you back -- and institutions can't love you back.

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(3) : Recent Reading Responses: Data & Society (which I persist in thinking of as "that New York City think tank that danah boyd is in" in case you want a glimpse of the social graph inside my head) has just published a few papers. I picked up "Understanding Fair Labor Practices in a Networked Age" which summarized many things well. A point that struck me, in its discussion of Uber and of relational labor:

The importance of selling oneself is a key aspect of this kind of piecemeal or contract work, particular because of the large power differential between management and workers and because of the perceived disposability of workers. In order to be considered for future jobs, workers must maintain their high ratings and receive generally positive reviews or they may be booted from the system.

In this description I recognize dynamics that play out, though less compactly, among knowledge workers in my corner of tech.

This pressure to perform relational labor, plus the sexist expectation that women always be "friendly" and never "abrasive" (including online), further silences women's ability to publicly organize around grievances. Those expectations additionally put us in an authenticity bind, since these circumstances demand a public persona that never speaks critically -- inherently inauthentic. Since genuine warmth, and therefore influence, largely derive from authenticity, this impairs our growth as leaders. And here's another pathway that gets blocked off: since since criticizing other people/institutions raises the status of the speaker, these expectations also remove a means for us to gain status.

Speaking of softening abrasive messages, I kept nodding as I read Jocelyn Goldfein's guide to asking for a raise if you're a knowledge worker (especially an engineer) at a company big enough to have compensation bands and levels. I especially liked how she articulated the dilemma of seeking more money -- and perhaps more power -- in a place where ambition is a dirty word (personally I do not consider ambition a dirty word; thank you Dr. Anna Fels), and the same scripts she offers for softening your manager's emotional reaction to bargaining.

I also kept nodding as I read "Rules for Radicals and Developer Marketing" by Rachel Chalmers. Of course she says a number of things that sound like really good advice and that I should take, and she made me want to go read Alinsky and spend more time with Beautiful Trouble, but she also mentions an attitude I share (mutatis mutandis, namely, I've only been working in tech since ~1998):

I've been in the industry 20 years. Companies come and go, relationships endure. The people who are in the Valley, a lot of us are lifers and the configurations of the groups that we're allied to shift over time. This is a big part of why I'm really into not lying and being generous: because I want to continue working with awesome, smart people, and I don't want to burn them just because they happen to be working for a competitor right now. In 10 years' time, who knows?

Relationships, both within the Valley and with your customer, are impossible to fake, and is really the only social capital you have left when you die.

No segue here! Feel the disruption! (Your incumbent Big Media types are all about smooth experience but with the infernokrusher approach I EXPLODE those old tropes so you can Make Your Own Meaning!)

Mark Guzdial, who thinks constantly about computer science education, mentions, in discussing legitimate peripheral participation:

Newcomers have to be able to participate in a way that's meaningful while working at the edge of the community of practice. Asking the noobs in an open-source project to write the docs or to do user testing is not a form of legitimate peripheral participation because most open source projects don’t care about either of those. The activity is not valued.
This point hit me right between the eyes. I have absolutely been that optimist cheerfully encouraging a newbie to write documentation or write up a user testing report. After reading Guzdial's legitimate critique, I wonder: maybe there are pre-qualifying steps we can take to check whether particular open source projects do genuinely value user testing and/or docs, to see whether we should suggest them to newbies.

Speaking of open source: I frequently recommend Dreaming in Code by Scott Rosenberg. It tells the story of the Chandler open source project as a case study, and uses examples from Chandler's process to explain the software engineering process to readers.

When I read Dreaming in Code several years ago, as the story of Chandler progressed, I noticed how many women popped up as engineers, designers, and managers. Rosenberg addressed my surprise late in the book:

Something very unusual had happened to the Chandler team over time. Not by design but maybe not entirely coincidentally, it had become an open source project largely managed by women. [Mitch] Kapor [a man] was still the 'benevolent dictator for life'... But with Katie Parlante and Lisa Dusseault running the engineering groups, Sheila Mooney in charge of product management, and Mimi Yin as the lead designer, Chandler had what was, in the world of software development, an impressive depth of female leadership.....

...No one at OSAF [Open Source Applications Foundation] whom I asked had ever before worked on a software team with so many women in charge, and nearly everyone felt that this rare situation might have something to do with the overwhelming civility around the office -- the relative rarity of nasty turf wars and rude insult and aggressive ego display. There was conflict, yes, but it was carefully muted. Had Kapor set a different tone for the project that removed common barriers to women advancing? Or had the talented women risen to the top and then created a congenial environment?

Such chicken-egg questions are probably unanswerable....

-Scott Rosenberg, Dreaming in Code: Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest For Transcendent Software, 2007, Crown. pp. 322-323.

I have a bunch of anecdotal evidence that projects whose discussions stay civil attract and retain women more, but I'd love real statistics on that. And in the seven years since Dreaming in Code I think we haven't amassed enough data points in open source specifically to see whether women-led projects generally feel more civil, which means of course that means here's where I exhort the women reading this to found and lead projects!

(Parenthetically: Women have been noticing sexism in free and open source software for as long as FOSS has existed, and fighting it in organized groups for 15 or more years. Valerie Aurora first published "HOWTO Encourage Women in Linux" in 2002. And we need everyone's help, and you, whatever your gender, have the power to genuinely help. A man cofounded GNOME's Outreach Program for Women, for instance. And I'm grateful to everyone of every gender who gave to the Ada Initiative this year! With your help, we can -- among other things -- amass data to answer Scott Rosenberg's rhetorical questions. ;-) )

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: On Status: From Susan McCarthy, specifically from her great book Becoming a Tiger: How Baby Animals Learn to Live in the Wild.

Animals learn about individuals through play. If little coyotes cheat, the other pups won't play with them. On the other hand, the dingo Hercules was raised by humans, an only child, and didn't get to play with other puppies. Dingo puppies learn through play fighting with other puppies when to back down. Hercules had a full repertoire of aggressive behaviors but no submissive behaviors. When he was three months old, researchers released Hercules into the wild, where he could play with a litter of five wild dingoes of the same age. The wild pups were baffled by Hercules and his apparent belief that he was invincible. No matter how badly he was losing, he persisted in aggression. "After two days, Hercules displayed no submissive behaviour (essentially because he did not know how to), and became the leader of the group; the wild pups followed his movements and usually submitted passively whenever they made direct contact." - p.54

Becoming a Tiger is charming and warm and informative, and I recommend it.

Also, if you liked that particular quote, you may also be interested in On the Psychology of Military Incompetence by Norman Dixon (my thoughts), Elliot Aronson's The Social Animal, China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh, and How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston.

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(2) : 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).)

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: A Failure In Fluff Recommendation: A friend mentioned that she's particularly interested in reading fluffy fiction novels authored by people who are not white men -- comfort fic, and (in her case in particular) preferably not mystery or romance. (And I believe she reads only in English.) I told her I would blog a list of books like that, and was certain I'd have a few.

I started trying to come up with recommendations and realized that I find this quite difficult! The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo by Zen Cho (review) is a romance, albeit a very unconventional one that satirizes usual romance tropes. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth has comfortfic bits in it but lots of wrenching passages too. I personally found The Red Carpet: Bangalore Stories by Lavanya Sankaran comforting, but if you are not Karnatakan you might not, and it's short stories rather than a novel. R.K. Narayan's My Dateless Diary is nonfiction. A lot of people like Naomi Novik's Temeraire novels and Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamourist novels, but there sure is death and gore in Novik's work, and I haven't read the Kowal yet. Most of these recommended books are by white men. Jean Merrill's The Pushcart War, Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter, Tamora Pierce's Tortall books, and Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber all have really quite high stakes, now that I think about it. I can reassure you that everything is basically going to come out all right, but is that good enough to make it fluffy comfort fic?

Why is this so hard?!

In the afterword to Jade Yeo, Cho described it as "fluff for postcolonial booknerds" (more on that here), and at least one commenter discussed how difficult it can be to feel safe and comfortable reading about marginalized people who are currently happy: "I guess what haunted me through every interaction was the precariousness of Jade and Ravi's position...". And yeah. I worry! I can get pretty invested in a protagonist's happiness. Some of these books only serve as comfort fiction on a second read, when I already know what is going to happen. (One nice thing about certain genre boundaries, such as standard romance and mystery, is that I can reasonably expect the protagonist will not die, be enslaved, etc.) So I think my actual answer is: keep my eyes open.

I promised my friend a list of recommendations and am failing her. Apologies! I think I will ask you more questions about what you find comforting in fiction so I can recommend things better.

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: Ways To Be: I just reread Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle, the classic lesbian coming-of-age novel that screams from page 1 and never forgets the intersections of class, gender, and sexuality. I just reread the bit where Molly asks Leroy if it's true that he's flunking school.

"School's stupid. There's nothing they can teach me. I want to go make money and buy me a Bonneville Triumph like Craig's."

"Me too, and I'd paint mine candy apple red."

"You can't have one. Girls can't have motorcycles."

"Fuck you, Leroy. I'll buy an army tank if I want to and run over anyone who tells me I can't have it."

Leroy cocked his slicked head and looked at me. "You know, I think you're a queer."

"So what if I am, except I'm not real sure what you mean by that."

"I mean you ain't natural, that's what I mean. It's time you started worrying about your hair and doing those things that girls are supposed to do."

"Since when are you telling me what to do....[snip]....How come you're all of a sudden so interested in my being a lady?"

"I dunno. I like you the way you are, but then I get confused. If you're doing what you please, out there riding around on motorcycles, then what am I supposed to do? I mean how do I know how to act if you act the same way?"

"What goddamn difference does it make to you what I do? You do what you want and I do what I want."

"Maybe I don't know what I want," his voice wavered. "Besides, I'm a chicken and you're not. You really would go around on a candy apple red Triumph and give people the finger when they stared at you. I don't want people down on me." Leroy started to cry. I pulled him close to me, and we sat on the bank of the canal that was stinking in the noon sun.

p. 62-63, Bantam paperback.

People talk like this in Rubyfruit Jungle, speaking their subtext, very on-the-nose, and it doesn't make for velvety-smooth subtle mimetic literature, but that's fine. Here I am grateful to see Brown lay bare Leroy's plaintive need for belonging and direction.

One of the most valuable things, to me, about having a big diverse variety of friends, acquaintances, and colleagues is that I see many ways it's possible to be, and can say "that looks cool, I'll try that."

(If Leroy's lament - how do I know who to be and what to do if we don't have set roles? - strikes a specifically geeky chord with you and you start thinking about nerds and gatekeeping, you might want to read "On geekitude, hierarchy, and being a snob" and "What is geek".)

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(1) : Five Books For: John: I recently got to catch up with my brother-in-law-in-law John and we talked about books a bit, and I started thinking about books I would recommend to him. John, my apologies if you've already read any of these!

  1. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher, William L. Ury, and Bruce Patton. John, you and I were talking about how we want to behave when we are in authority, how we want to respectfully and calmly negotiate with and teach others. This book helped me see how to do that, with principles and practical examples. Like, you know when you talked about using the Socratic method in a non-jerky way? I feel like that's in here.
  2. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Switch has a lot of good ideas and case studies about how to change institutions, companies, families, and yourself. It was so accessible and smooth that I was a little suspicious and envious, as a writer. I bet you'll find ideas in here that will help you in your everyday work and community.
  3. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. I babbled about this to you -- I think this book integrated adventure with thinky conversations and interstellar intrigue and music and illustrations of empire and power and gender really well. I think you might especially like how the characters wrestle with the question of how to be loyal and obedient to imperfect institutions. You can read the first chapter for free online.
  4. My Real Children by Jo Walton. This is the story of how the little things a woman does, as a good parent and in her local community, end up having ripple effects far beyond what she might have imagined. And it's also about caring for aging parents, and becoming an aging parent who needs care. So I think you'll find it strikes close to your heart in a lot of ways. You can read the first two chapters online for free.
  5. Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress. This is a story about a woman with a messed-up birth family and gifts that estrange her from them - so in that I think it resembles that memoir you liked. And it illustrates the hate that comes from envy and ignorance, and how, if you've been feeling isolated and lonely, finding a community of people like you at first seems scarily amazing and then gets more complicated. It asks: what responsibility do we have to those who are less gifted, who seem to only leech off our resources? The answer the protagonist comes up with has stuck with me for more than a decade, and has helped me think about this.

As non-John readers may have been able to infer, John's a guy who cares a lot about taking care of his family, being faithful, and helping his colleagues and clients get better at what they do. So if you're like that, then you might like these books, too.

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: Younger Sumana As Media Consumer: A few memories.


One morning in May 2001, I looked through my apartment, gathered together a bunch of items into plastic bags, and walked a few blocks to a man's apartment. I broke up with him and gave him back his stuff -- all the stuff of his that he'd left at my place over time (although of course I missed a few things and had to arrange a handoff or two over the next several months). As he processed that I was dumping him, I looked around his room for my stuff so I could take it back. A few things caused me hesitation. I specifically remember thinking that I had given him Waiting by Ha Jin, which I'd already read, and that he would never read it. I took it back, I think.

Today I bought a book of short stories by Ha Jin. I hope I like it.


In the fall of 1998 I took a history class with Robin Einhorn. Her use of economic data fascinated me. I learned that she specialized in tax law. I started getting interested in it too (see my blog posts filed under "Taxes") and, after I got my bachelor's, asked her to coffee so I could learn more about whether I should pursue a graduate degree in tax history. She gave me a short reading list. I started it, and enjoyed what I was learning, but didn't feel the "I want to pursue this as a career" itch. I could tell that it was only going to be a hobby for me, not something I wanted to spend several years researching full-time.

It still fascinates me. Approximately everyone pays taxes, approximately every government collects taxes, and the creation of every tax statute -- even in non-democratic societies -- causes and/or is caused by a special interest group. There's a lens that sees every government as, at its core, a taxation structure, and I still see every clause in a tax code as a fossil hinting at immense struggles.


One birthday, I was on an airplane on my way to a bee (I am trying to remember whether it was a vocabulary bee or a spelling bee). My mother flew with me. She got out my birthday gift from under the seat: the Star Trek Encyclopedia. Oh how I pored over that thing.

A few years later, I was like 14 or 15, and still an intense Star Trek fan, and my parents -- and I don't know how they did this -- found out that Naren Shankar, a Trek screenwriter, would be at some Indian-related event, and arranged for him to have a meal with us. I am pretty sure I asked just the most pedantic fannish questions, like "so I heard in this new Voyager Kes is from a species that only lives for seven years, how can that even work?!" and was generally an ass. I'm sorry, Naren Shankar! I'm really glad I got to meet you and feel that connection every time I saw your name in the credits! It was so cool to know that an Indian like me was working on the show!

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(2) : A Brief Foray Into Amateur Litcrit: Some things I like in fiction:

Some things I don't like in fiction:

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: My Real Children: A few months ago I got to read an advance copy of My Real Children, the new book by Jo Walton. It goes on sale today in North America, and if your reading tastes mirror mine, get it.

My Real Children pulls you along; it's a compulsively readable book. I adored its tempo and thoroughly wanted to know what protagonist Patricia would do next and what would happen to her. (This is quite a feat given the narrative structure of the book, as you'll see if you try it out.) Keep some tissues ready; I wept with joy and grief, prayed for someone's health, and shivered with fear. Throughout, Patricia's steadfast strength inspired me.

I feel as though I've gotten to read another book about Taveth from Jo Walton's Lifelode, in a way, in how thoroughly I see that Patricia's housekeeping and parenting and teaching and writing and peace work are all of a piece -- all her work is love made visible. Walton pays attention to the concrete domestic details of real people's lives. There's a moment where Patricia and her partner have to buy another pillow the first time they have an overnight houseguest. This is science fiction written by a host, someone who reflexively practices hospitality both in her social life and in her fiction. (I got to meet Walton in Montreal in April and therefore can say this authoritatively.)

You can read the first two chapters online now. After you've read it, you might be in the mood to read or reread Bury the Chains by Adam Hochschild, or Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale.

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: Necessary Dreams - Content and Cover: My household has donated a few books to the Hacker School library. RESTful Web APIs - easy. I also donated four interrelated books:

  1. Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing
  2. Women Don't Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation--and Positive Strategies for Change
  3. Ask For It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want
  4. Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women's Changing Lives
Geek feminist reading lists often mention the first three. I ran across Necessary Dreams in a thrift store several years ago and it changed my life, so I wanted to include it. The review Slate published in 2004, when the book came out in 2004, summarizes it pretty well; see also the Broad Universe review.

Author Dr. Anna Fels points out that the childhood or adolescent desire for fame is often a precursor to a more nuanced ambition, combining the urge to master some domain or skill with the desire for the recognition of one's peers or community. She also notes that women, especially, feel the need to hide that wish for fame instead of developing it into a healthy passion to guide our careers. This book blew my mind in the best way when I read it, and massively helped me guide my career development. It now informs my emphasis on explicit encouragement and mentorship of new open source volunteers, and my willingness to openly toot my own horn here on this blog.

The hardcover on my bookshelf (this edition or so) has a text-on-white cover. In contrast, check out the cover for the paperback edition I just bought: it portrays a businesswoman with an infant, and cuts off the woman's head with the title.

Fels, incidentally, discusses the visual language mass media use to discuss white-collar women:

"...women shuttle back and forth between two dissimilar cultural contexts. Articles on professional women often visually represent the incongruity of their dual roles by photographing them in formal work attire -- a suit, a crisp blouse, pumps, stockings, jewelry, a briefcase -- awkwardly clutching a drooling, sprawling toddler."
-p. 190 (paperback)

Did Anchor (the publisher) use this as a spec for the graphic designer?

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: Some Short Reading: American Scientist is the good stuff. Accessible prose but not condescending, and covering a variety of biological, mathematical, physical, and social sciences. "Programming Your Quantum Computer", "The Toxicity of Recreational Drugs", and "Empirical Software Engineering" brought me much pleasure, as did Henry Petroski's engineering history column. In the March/April 2014 issue, Petroski goes on a tear regarding inaccurate graphical depictions of quadrupeds and sharpened pencils. For four angry pages. Whatever, it's Petroski, even his nerd rage is fun.

"Scalable Web Architecture and Distributed Systems" by Kate Matsudaira gives a general overview of web architecture; I found it helpful in understanding the context of "service-oriented architectures" and the challenges of big-scale web architecture in general. MediaWiki currently does NOT have a service-oriented architecture as Matsudaira describes it, but engineers are working on changing MediaWiki from a giant spaghetti ball into a more logical, convenient, and maintainable set of interfaces/services. (The overview also has a bit of humor; I especially laughed at Figure 1.6.)

"Little Ambushes" by Joanne Merriam portrays the thing I always want out of science fiction: making a real connection with the Other. Her "Harvest" and "Sundowning" tear my heart out, too. Her work reminds me of things I've loved in the work of Maureen McHugh, Nancy Kress, and Connie Willis.

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(1) : Cat, Dog, and Badger Each Own A Bookstore. They Are Friends.: In San Francisco last month, I found out about the bookstore trio of Dog Eared Books, Alley Cat Books, and Badger Books. Immediately I wished for a children's book about the weekly chats of a cat, a dog, and a badger who run companionate bookshops.

So I got illustrations from artists at a Double Union zine workshop, and some materiel and free photocopies from Foolscap to make a zine. This directory holds the 2.7 megabyte scan of the whole page that you could print out and cut and fold into an 8-page booklet, and lower-resolution close-ups of the individual sections, which I display below.

Cat, Dog, and Badger each own a bookstore.
They are friends.

Cat organises large book orders. They club together to get volume discounts.
"If we get a hundred copies of Hyperbole and a Half, the wholesale cost goes down."

Dog sorts out book clubs, special orders, and referrals.
"Sarah Vowell is actually speaking at Badger's on the 19th..."

Badger warns them of bad books. Badger wants to like the books. But...
"REAMDE comes out next week!"
"I wanted Anathem II, not Michael Crichton."

Every Saturday, they have tea together, and reconcile finances.

by Sumana Harihareswara with Sailor Hg, Rose!, Sarah Peters, & Lizzard Amazon
27 Jan 2014, Double Union, San Francisco
2 Feb 2014, Foolscap, Seattle

Foolscap auctioned the original of my zine, gathering about twenty dollars for charity.

I am playing with a followup about a bookstore-owning hedgehog, in honor of my local.

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(3) : Hasty Reviews of Recent Books: I have been reading a lot of books lately and not blogging about them. This reign of non-terror must end! I am trying to note what I've read over the past, like, five or six months, so I will be super inconsistent in detail, and I bet I'm missing stuff.

Justine Larbalestier's Liar. Interesting! I believe Naamen at Borderlands noted, when I bought this, that it had a relatively non-annoying unreliable narrator. That seems very likely, but I still itch at unreliable narrators. At least this text foregrounds a woman's experience!

Ellen Ullman's By Blood. The narrator is not unreliable, but he does have bad ... whatever the emotional equivalent of metacognition is. As always with Ullman, you get closely observed characters going through uncomfortable changes in life and identity, and mildly Dick/Kafka-y paranoia (more Dick-esque because it's in California). There is also a super dramatic monologue about Europe and the Jewish experience that I read aloud to Leonard.

Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang. AMAZING. Read it read it read it. I should have listened to Brendan years ago. The ending makes me tear up when I think about it, but in a good, inspiring way. McHugh takes a kind-of dystopia and shows you regular people living their lives, taking courses, changing jobs, dating, moving, feeling cold, talking to friends. Including some on Mars. It's inspiring the way Quinn Norton talks about Hitchhiker's Guide being inspiring, in her essay in She's Such a Geek; the book starts with the end of the world but after that people are still living and doing stuff. (And there's fanfic.) Did you know Patrick Nielsen Hayden of Tor found this in the slush pile (of unsolicited novel manuscripts)? I'm sorry, I am incoherent about this book, read it. It is what science fiction can be.

Octavia Butler's Bloodchild & Other Stories. The title story sticks in my mind, as does "Speech Sounds". Worth reading, but pretty short. Reminds me that I want to go read the novels of hers I haven't read yet.

Jacob Shapiro's The Terrorist's Dilemma (previously). I was telling people anecdotes from this for months. The poor copyediting bothered me, but I loved the schadenfreude, the thought-provoking insights, and the bibliography. I do think there are some management tips in there as well.

Lauren Beukes's Zoo City. If you liked Moxyland but wanted a touch more fantasy, you'll like this. I like detective stories and I like seeing social milieus I don't ordinarily see, and I think Beukes does well on both.

Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice. As I said, it blew my head off, in a great way. Ancillary Justice's viewpoint character used to be a starship and hasn't quite gotten used to being a woman. (Have any of us?) I think this book integrated fist-punching-related adventure with flashbacks and thinky conversations and interstellar intrigue and music really well. You can read the first chapter now. Ancillary Justice stands alone as a book, but I am looking forward to the next book almost as much as I am looking forward to Vikram Seth's A Suitable Girl.

Thomas Disch's Camp Concentration. Kind of like By Blood in that our narrator, though super erudite, has a snobbish outlook that makes my skin crawl a bit. At least Camp Concentration's poet/conscientious objector/diarist has a witty side. A hasty web search reveals that no one has yet compiled a list of the super-obscure words Disch uses on every page, e.g., hypogeal, daedal, epalpibrate. You could probably put something together with word frequency stats and an ebook, if you felt like it! Also Camp Concentration has a multipage syphilitic rant that I skimmed; hallucinations tend to lose me. (At least it wasn't as boring as that giant radio speech in the middle of Atlas Shrugged!) Still, I'm glad I've now read one Disch. It's memorable, and more accessible than I feared.

Jo Walton's My Real Children, as an Advance Reader's Copy (it comes out in May). I gobbled this up like nobody's business; it's compulsively readable, and inspiring. Walton pays attention to the concrete domestic details of real people's lives (as in Lifelode), she demonstrates the different ways we show our love through work (love made visible), and she foregrounds women's experiences -- especially around some aspects I don't see described enough. Read the first chapter online. Pick it up when it comes out.

Adam Hochschild's Bury the Chains. I reread most of this as comfort reading. Great footnotes and anecdotes, as always.

John Scalzi's Redshirts. I resisted for ages; it just felt like Scalzi was pandering to me, an intelligent Star Trek fan inclined to meta. Then the Hugo. Then one or two people I knew saying they liked it. Finally yesterday came the news of the TV series. So I bought it today and read it. Verdict: it is exactly as popcorn, as once-in-a-while tearjerky, as fast-paced, as clearly written, as everyone-sounds-alike, and as controlled as you thought it was going to be. It's like Agent to the Stars, down to the well-timed Mexican-food-induced toilet break. If you want an interesting take on Redshirts's subject matter, with more interiority and a less well-trodden adventure story, check out Expendable by James Alan Gardner (whose main character, by the way, is a woman of color).

E.B. White's Trumpet of the Swan. I reread this for comfort while ill, I think. It stands up. I love all of White's little touches, like the guy who gets so agitated at a little kid's irresponsible BB-gun firing that he goes home and writes a letter to the editor supporting gun control. Also, have you noticed how Trumpet and Charlotte's Web both implicitly praise kids who can keep still and watch animals quietly, and show you brief sketches of less admirable boys yucking it up?

Yael Kohen's We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy. I think I haven't quite finished this yet. Whenever you're doing oral history of an entire industry you'll run into sad gaps where specific people won't speak on the record. We Killed suffers from that a little. But gosh how interesting it is! Reading this reminds me of the diversity of women in US comedy the way that Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, or Hacker School, remind me of the diversity of women in programming. I like learning about our different approaches -- to the content and to our careers in general. Back in November of 2002 a now-friend saw me perform for the first time and thought I reminded him of a young Margaret Cho. Knowing what I know now, I think I'm more like Paula Poundstone or Ellen Degeneres. (If I could split myself into several Sumanas, one would travel around in a techmobile teaching random North Americans digital literacy, one would research best practices in missiology/Communism/Amway/terrorism/etc. so we could use them in FLOSS, one would go to a different tech conference every few days doing corporate comedy, one would do an entry level coding job, and and and and.)

Allie Brosh's Hyperbole and a Half. Exactly what you're used to from the site but more of it. The last few pieces, on identity, gave me pause; Brosh turns from catch-my-breath funny to Dostoyevsky-level observant and I hope she keeps it up.

Brian K. Vaughan's Saga graphic novels. Love it, just like Mary Anne.

Baratunde Thurston's How To Be Black. I read aloud great swaths of this to Leonard because Thurston's so incisive and funny. I like how Thurston uses the experiences of his acquaintances to get different perspectives on the issues he covers; if you liked the "wait, how many sons did Dasharatha have?" arguments in Sita Sings the Blues, you'll enjoy Thurston's Council. And Thurston tore several "ohhh wow" bitter laugh/groans from me, the most I can recall since reading America: The Book. Very worthwhile.

Several chapters from The Architecture of Open Source Applications (yay case studies! They helped me wrap my head around other big codebases) and from The Practice of Programming (reassuring in that we-all-have-problems way, but I'll return and reread once I know Java or C and can read the examples).

Lizz Winstead's Lizz Free or Die. I admire Lizz Winstead for making a career out of political comedy and for achieving so much. But I found Lizz Free or Die sort of disappointing; I wanted more Daily Show details, and of course you're gonna compare this book to Bossypants and it just isn't as witty and memorable.

I'm partway through Thomas Pynchon's Bleeding Edge, and gosh it's disorienting to have Pynchon's random obscure references be things I know, e.g., the "CSS IS AWESOME" mug, rather than seventies hippie stuff. I love the prose like I always do, and the zany adventures, and a complicated and sympathetic view of the (female) protagonist's sexual life. I will probably have to just start this book over at some point to load all the backstory and minor characters into my head, and then report in full here after I'm done.

Just started: Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. I think this is pandering to me as much as Redshirts but I don't really mind. I'm loving it the same way I loved Gawande's Better.

Tracy Kidder's Strength in What Remains. (Read an excerpt.) What kind of person lives through atrocities, has to flee his country, and then comes back to try to do good? Who helps him? It's all that, and it's by Tracy Kidder, so you know it's good. The way he works on the school-building, in the end, and the stance he takes towards community help, is making me think about how I try to make change.

Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions. This short, sharp book helped me see what 1960s Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) felt like to a gifted black girl, and vividly details how people interact with each other -- and how sometimes they hurt when they're just trying to help. I'm glad Bluestockings stocks it.

And speaking of bookstores: I have bought a lot more books now that I have an independent bookstore within walking distance of my flat. Astoria Bookshop sells a fine selection and does special orders cheerfully. Yay!

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: Foolscap Followup: I'm currently at Foolscap, a hospitable and thoroughly delightful scifi/fantasy convention in the Seattle area. Leonard is a Guest of Honor and I get to be his consort. This year Foolscap takes place in Redmond, which means I am exactly "as lonesome as a Linux user in Redmond," but it turns out that doesn't have to be too lonesome!

Some links and whatnot I've meant to give people:

(This is probably incomplete. It's been a fun con and it's not over yet!)

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: Linkdump of Scifi, Songs, Sprezzatura, and Misc Does Not Start With S: Medical user experience in the US is pretty terrible; at least one New York City medical practice is looking to improve that. I've had really good experiences with Kaiser Permanente's infrastructure (pharmacy, test lab, specialists and general practitioners all under one roof, integrated scheduling and useful email/website), but they don't have any services in New York State.

I'm using Beeminder again to track a personal goal of mine (getting my personal email inbox under control). Danny O'Brien told me about them and I like their approach: easy to enter data, free until and unless I go off track.

I have a weak spot for corporate anthems. I think the HSBC song is gonna end up in my "energizing music" playlist. It's just so peppy!

Actually, Jamie Newton, one 'hi' will suffice. "Actually, Jamie Newton, one 'hi' will suffice."

I'm interested in seeing how the Wikimedia community (including you, if you ever read Wikipedia) will help make the new discussion system better.

In speculative fiction:

What have you accomplished since March 2007?

I may have to read all of the New York Fed's blog posts on historical echoes in modern economics news and financial practices.

Mary Anne has another moving, thoughtful post on professionalism and showing the messy work behind the impressive result (against sprezzatura). Relatedly, Peter Fraenkel goes into some detail thinking about how arrogance presents and what to avoid.

I'm interested in thinking more about what jokes & bugs have in common, per Val Aurora's insight. I have indeed laughed aloud at a particular bug's presentation (which feels like a pratfall) or at finding the cause of a bug (which feels like observational humor). I also laugh aloud sometimes when I think of a possible arbitrage. The art of imagining hypothetical worlds leads to many other arts, and a few of them include testing, stand-up comedy, game design, and politics.

Finally, a sweet gluten-free Christian reminder that "Disciples don't fit in."

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: Yuletide 2013 Recommendations: I have been sick with a cold for about a week. Fortunately, this year's Yuletide fan fiction harvest brought me tremendous bounty! I now feel the urge to re-watch or re-read Protector of the Small, Breaking Bad, Arrested Development, Brick, Stranger Than Fiction, Legally Blonde, and World War Z.

My bookmarks include:

Do you have any favorites from this year?
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(2) : Why Julia Evans's Blog Is So Great: Some writing is persuasive; it aims to cause you to believe or do something. Some is expository; it aims to cause you to understand something. A lot of tech writing is persuasive or expository.

Some writing is narrative. It aims to cause you to feel or experience something. In personal narrative, the writer shares a personal experience and invites you to walk with her on that journey, experiencing it as she did, emerging with a new perspective. I really like narrative-style tech writing.

What I call the "Amazing Grace" story (previously) is, in a sense, all three of these. "Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound) / That sav'd a wretch like me! / I once was lost, but now am found, / Was blind, but now I see." Or, in more modern terms, "An English Sailor Found Salvation Through This One Weird Trick."

  1. Exposition: My experience started in sordid terror and ended in divine ecstasy
  2. Narration: Bask and wonder with me in the intricacy of my journey and the unexpected yet inevitable emergent properties of my condition
  3. Persuasion: Thus, if you are enthralled to sin, if you are a fallen resident of our fallen world, you should follow my example

I started thinking about this because my Hacker School colleague Julia Evans has a super-engaging blog. During our batch, she dove into operating system internals, and blogged about what she learned and how she learned it. She's consistently inspired me and made me laugh. Two of her fans (fellow HSers) even made a loving Markov-chain tribute, Ulia Ea.

One reason we love it is that most entries narrate her daily learning and illustrate a journey through confusion into wonder. See "Day 37: After 5 days, my OS doesn't crash when I press a key", which is possibly the most "Amazing Grace"-esque of her posts. Excerpt:

5. Press keys. Nothing happens. Hours pass. Realize interrupts are turned off and I need to turn them on....

12. THE OS IS STILL CRASHING WHEN I PRESS A KEY. This continues for 2 days....

As far as I can tell this is all totally normal and just how OS programming is. Or something. Hopefully by the end of the week I will get past "I can only receive one IRQ" and into "My interrupt handler is the bomb and I can totally write a keyboard driver now"....

I'm seriously amazed that operating systems exist and are available for free.

It's not just the large-scale rhetorical structure; her diction and even her punctuation delight me. I particularly marvelled at her sentences in "Day 43: SOMETHING IS ERASING MY PROGRAM WHILE IT’S RUNNING (oh wait oops)". Excerpt:


Can we talk about this?

  1. I have code
  2. I can compile my code
  3. Half of my binary gets overwritten with 0s at runtime. Why. What did I do to deserve this?
  4. No wonder the order I put the binary in matters.

It is a wonder that this code even runs, man. Man.

The disarmingly informal ALLCAPS adds to the intimacy more explicitly created with the question "Can we talk about this?" which invites the reader into one-on-one conversation. Moreover, I specifically call your attention to the statement "Why." and the repetition "man. Man." They demonstrate how Julia acknowledges mystery, with a tinge of disbelief.

As Patrick Nielsen Hayden observed,

A great deal of science fiction is about what the field's insiders often call "sense of wonder," a quality not entirely unrelated to the good old Romantic Sublime. Many of the genre's classics are in essence carefully-tuned machines designed to attract readers whose primary conscious loyalty is to rationalism, and lead them by a series of plausible contrivances to a sudden crescendo of mystical awe. This is an important part of SF from Olaf Stapledon to William Gibson and beyond.
And Julia Evans.

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: Shiny: I hereby recommend to you the super-readable, witty, on-point analysis of cosmetics ad claims at "Brightest Bulb In the Box: Beauty for Critical Minds". Much thanks to terriko for the link to BBItB! If you liked Constellation Games, you might imagine Robyn as a genderswapped Ariel Blum. If the aliens show up, she may demand to try and test their cosmetics. I had no idea I wanted to read beauty blogging until I came across Robyn.

I love her perfume reviews, e.g.:

This is the most generic perfume ever. Like, if you didn't care about perfume and just sort of imagined something boring, this is what it would smell like.

If this scent were being worn by a fictional character, it would be Ann Veal from Arrested Development.

Robyn also makes her research available free-as-in-blush, e.g., testing "What Methods of Foundation Application Use the Least Product?" or "How Much Do Your Eyeshadow Brushes Matter?". Most recently, she got out the chi-square to compare two different monthly subscription boxes a few different ways.

But I especially want you to check out her resveratrol and Urban Decay Naked Skin Beauty Balm posts. Her commentary on "light-defusing spheres" especially made me guffaw. Other tidbits:

"DNA repair, optical blurring, oil free"? One of those claims just doesn't belong. (And it is the last one, because it makes sense.)...

First, I want to deal briefly with "reseveratrol". Juice Beauty spelled the name of their supposed active ingredient incorrectly. What they mean to say is resveratrol, which is a phenylpropanoid that is found in the skins of grapes.... If you are a yeast cell, congratulations on your literacy. Maybe check out this resveratrol thing. If you are a human, though, you should know that at the present time, there are NO peer reviewed journal articles that suggest that resveratrol has any effect on people....

Also, Robyn's leitmotif "your face" (e.g., "Your imperfections really would be less noticeable in diffused light, but the solution to that is to avoid uncovered bulbs in your house, not to put this stuff on your face.") reminds me of Danni, who says "your face" a lot and whom I miss.

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: Current Reading: Just read Jo Walton's Among Others, and then of course the spoiler thread on her LiveJournal. I absolutely see why it won the Hugo and Nebula. It's about how the love of speculative fiction can change your life, and about fandom -- the first moment it really emotionally moved me was when the librarian gently observed that our protagonist doesn't have many opportunities to talk with people about the things that are really important to her -- and it's an absorbing page-turner. This further cements my belief that I will enjoy anything Jo Walton writes. (So far I think the Walton I love best is Lifelode.)

Also I reread Good Omens (the Pratchett-Gaiman collaboration) and Changing Planes by Le Guin when I was visiting Zack and Pam recently, partially to reminisce about the fact that over the past decade Zack has introduced me to like half of my current taste in speculative fiction. He linked me to Making Light, and he gave me stuff I never would have picked up by myself. Good Omens is as messy and funny and British as ever, and Changing Planes has great Le Guinny thought experiments, sometimes pointed, sometimes moody, always plausible.

Pam lent me Design is a Job by Mike Monteiro. Recommended for people (like me) who work with designers. By reading how Monteiro suggests designers work best in their individual contributions and in teams, I saw how I might work better with designers in my community. I also sat with my head spinning for a bit after he pointed out that anxious people seek safety, and that problem-solving and innovation cannot come from safety-seeking behavior. Yes. You have to make people feel secure if you want them to try risky things.

At a geek trivia contest, my spouse and I won a David Mack Star Trek book. Star Trek: The Next Generation: Cold Equations: Silent Weapons. It is not very good. I say this as someone who has read a lot of Star Trek branded novels. Those branded novels were another of my gateways into scifi. The Margaret Troke Library in Stockton had spinner racks of genre paperbacks -- including lots of Next Gen novels -- right next to the shelves of hardcover, which is I think where I got curious and got on a little stool to reach the As and thus started off with Asimov and Adams. Then, as an adult, I've revisited the branded novels and found there's good stuff -- Diane Duane, for instance -- and disappointing -- Keith R.A. DeCandido and Peter David come to mind. In most cases the fanfic is better. And Silent Weapons was good enough to occupy my brain during a few long flights -- the repetitive prose actually made it easier for my sleep-deprived sensibilities. But once I was back at sea level, I yelled at every other page. Geordi doesn't act like that! Why are you using the word "mien" so much? And why are you describing nearly every woman (but nearly no men) in terms of their physical attractiveness? Gross. However, it's cool to see the Gorn and the Breen, so that's nice.

Alaya Dawn Johnson's The Summer Prince has a tone and a story unlike any I've seen before. I loved the worldbuilding, the characters, the approach to sex and love and art, the foreign-to-me culture and influences, the relationships among women within and across generations, the protagonist's fierceness and growth, and the imagery. I think I have some Fridge Logic concerns about the political system Johnson depicts, but I got into the book while I was reading it and you might too.

I'm also keeping up on graphic novels -- The Unwritten continues to pander to my meta tastes, and Saga to my everything tastes. As Mary Anne Mohanraj puts it, "these graphic novels pressed all my buttons -- culture clash, a war on, funny family dynamics, a loving but also sardonic romantic relationship, a breastfeeding fighting woman, strong female protagonists in general, really alien aliens, imaginative world-building, weird royalty, class issues, sex workers, etc. and so on. Just fascinating, and I'm really looking forward to future volumes." I bought Volume 2 of Saga a few weeks ago and devoured it. That was the day that I saw Hank Azaria eating breakfast at the same restaurant as me, and Monty Widenius buying comics at the same shop as me. (Monty asked me for comics recommendations, so I said he should check out DMZ.) Celebrities everywhere!

I just started Jacob N. Shapiro's The Terrorist's Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations which I found out about via BoingBoing and Schneier linking to Shapiro's Foreign Affairs piece on micromanagement within al Qaeda. It would probably be misleading and dangerous, though hilarious, to say I'm reading it as management self-help. But I am, of necessity and by temperament, interested in how voluntary organizations work, especially super-distributed ones full of ideologically passionate people who are apt to schism when dissatisfied. So I look forward to schadenfreude and tips. But for my next plane flight I might replace its dust cover with that of More Poems About Golfing And Cats or whatever uncontroversial suchlike thing I can scrounge up.

Also, Leonard and I are listening to Cabin Pressure (yay light-hearted zany sitcoms!) and just enjoyed the new Simon Pegg/Nick Frost film The World's End (perhaps the best characters and emotional story of the Cornetto trilogy).

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: A List You Could Click Through: I've been really enjoying Rachel Kroll's blogging at Rachelbythebay. I got kind of addicted to reading her archives yesterday. My favorites, in no particular order:

(If you prefer ebooks, you're in luck.)

Her site supports HTTPS, so I was able to follow the pretty clear documentation to make my own ruleset for HTTPS Everywhere (and submit it back as a patch, though it hasn't shown up in their mailing list archives yet). So that was a first for me, and a reasonably apropos errand given the hacker can-do "let's try stuff!" spirit that permeates Kroll's writing. Neat. Next up: the DNA Lounge site, why not?

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(5) : Uniform Light: I can be bad at remembering titles (e.g., misremembering "Silent Weapons" as "Distant Voices"). Part of this is because titles in specific genres blur together for me. You can come up with "this is about spaaaaace" titles pretty easily. Constant Gravity, Uniform Acceleration, Specific Heat -- anything from a physics book. You can just keep going. I'm sure some of these are actual books. Specific Gravity. Surface Tension. The Moment of Inertia. I'm reasonably sure that, along the lines of the Chinese restaurant name generator, you could mix-and-match some adjectives and nouns.



Rejected adjectives: "Star" (too fifties), "Perseid" (Leonard thinks it makes things sound more romance than interstellar), and "Stellar" (sort of tie-in sounding). "Quantum" unfortunately just sounds too cheesy to me, although Quantum Quantum holds a silly appeal.

Along the way I came up with kiddie titles The Moon War or The Luna War, and Leonard and I realized that Jerk could be a parody of Accelerando.

I couldn't possibly be the first person to do this, and I do not care.

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(1) : Writing A Short Varied Life Update In A Fruitless Attempt To Ignore The Heat: All those words for "hot weather, uncomfortable variety" feel about right now. Sweltering, sultry, torrid, what have you. It broils my brain more than hot weather used to; I feel like a Terry Pratchett troll.

I have now watched the first season of Netflix's House of Cards -- interesting, but not as awesome as the British original, although I welcomed seeing so many thought-provoking women. If you liked watching Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada then you'll like the Claire of episodes 1-10. I also massively enjoyed the giant intratextual movie that is Season Four of Arrested Development; props to musician Lucy Schwartz whose song "Boomerang" captures not just the relationships among the Bluths but the tortured disappointed yearning of a fan for her show. Just a few weeks till the last season of Breaking Bad begins!

In long-form reading, I'm in the middle of John Le Carré's The Night Manager, my first Le Carré. So far it has a lot of nice close observations, which I love, but all the women are love interests, which is not so hot. Basically I feel like Jo Walton does this stuff approximately as well, and foregrounds women! I just read her The King's Peace and liked it far more than I usually like fantasy. So I'll probably track down The King's Name and The Prize In The Game and read them soon.

I recently bought a seed account for Growstuff, the new site for home gardeners. I got a reminder to do so: Skud, the project's lead, posted a financial breakdown of expenses and income, and I remembered that I could make a difference in the latter. In June Skud also posted some plans to "talk to a whole range of people and get a sense of what's important and what we should be prioritising." I enjoyed reading questions she will be asking gardeners, and now I've enjoyed seeing their product roadmap for 2013. It makes me happy to help nurture a small business that is doing things right on lots of levels. I think other open source projects and other mission-driven enterprises, especially those seeking to figure out what features to concentrate on or how to be accountable to their constituents, could learn quite a lot from Growstuff's example in transparency, decisiveness, and sustainability.

It makes me happy to see comedians of South Asian descent getting more attention: narrative-meta-obsessed Kumail Nanjiani just had a Comedy Central special (clips), and Hari Kondabolu just recorded a first live album. I'm happy for Kondabolu that he got on NPR, and his analogy to the kids' room at an Indian immigrants' party moved me more than I'd expected. It makes me so happy to watch the comedy of someone who shares that specific experience with me.

Lots of tech folks are passing around this piece on "surviving being senior management"; rings true to me, though I am merely a middle manager. The blog comment that really clicked for me:

The other thing I noticed is that my feedback cycle is very long....To a large degree this is why the stereotype of egotistical executives and researchers exists -- if I can work on anything I want, and I won't be able to tell if I've done any good for a very long time; then I need a durable self-sustaining ego to go into work day after day.

I also got a bit thoughtful after reading about learning, programming, and memory; we know that experts think about situations differently from beginners, and I look forward to gaining that experience and expertise in a few areas of my life, including programming.

Finally: on "creepy" and "creep".

It is still way too hot. I feel so floppy I may as well be five-and-a-quarter. (Joke only relevant to people over 30.)

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: The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo: "I had tea with the intolerable aunt today," begins Zen Cho's short and fast-moving The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. (Guardian review.) It is so great. You can read it for free online, and then - even if you don't much like speculative fiction - you will understand why scifi/fantasy fans have been burbling about Zen Cho for the last few years. After you read it, check out the afterword and comments.

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(1) : Recent Books: I know I'm missing some, but here are some books I've read in the last few months.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. SO GOOD. READ THIS. Ta-Nehisi Coates agrees with me. Want to understand the US in the twentieth century? Want to think in real terms about exit, voice, and loyalty? Read Wilkerson's narrative history of black people who decided to stop putting up with Jim Crow and escaped from the US South (sometimes in the face of local sheriffs ripping up train tickets). Riveting, thought-provoking, and disquieting in the best way. My only nit to pick: I think if her editor had cut repetitions of things she's already told the reader, she coulda cut about 15 of the 500+ pages. But that's really minor, and as a scifi reader I'm accustomed to absorbing world-building at perhaps a higher clip than expected.

By the way, "Exit, Voice, and Loyalty" is a trilemma based on the work of social scientist Albert Hirschmann. I've never read the book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty but I basically think of it this way: if you're in a situation you don't like, you have 3 choices:

  1. You can leave.
  2. You can speak up and try to change it.
  3. You can give up on your desire to change it, and learn to like what you have.

But if one or two of those avenues is blocked off, because it's unsafe for you to speak up and you're prevented from leaving, then the only way you can survive is "loyalty," even if that means twisting or losing yourself entirely and maybe even hurting other people. And some people don't survive, because the situation is so overconstrained and unlivable that it obliterates them.

(The middle option, "voice," is scary to the people in charge of the situation you don't like. They might say "love it or leave it" and gloss over the lever.)

OK, now a bunch of other books that are less I will stand over you and press this into your hands rockin'.

Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley. It took me a while to get into this (I just don't think the fake novel by Byron is that interesting) but the middle was pretty interesting. And of course it's a nod-worthy thing to have made, given the constraints of the form.

I reread some Asimov, Caves of Steel and Naked Sun and some Tales from the Black Widowers. I am officially no longer twelve and non-Susan-Calvin Asimov fiction may not work for me anymore as comfort reading. The ideas don't actually make sense and I get annoyed at the prejudice. But I suppose I should give him a chance to surprise me in stories of his I haven't already read.

"The Ancestors" by Brandon Massey, Tananarive Due, and L.A. Banks. I didn't realize when I got this that it's really a horror anthology, but I'm glad I read it, especially for Due's "Ghost Summer" which is, among other things, a story of the Great Migration. The Massey tale is also a reasonably good read, but the Banks was inexplicably sexist, so you can just skip that.

Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It's as good as everyone says it is -- funny, eye-opening, heartbreaking, sweet. You may not have heard that there are fun cartoons in it. There are!

Gettysburg: The Graphic Novel by C. M. Butzer. I am not the target audience for this; maybe it's for preteens who are on the verge of becoming history buffs? It's pretty short.

Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce. I kind of wish I had read the Lioness Quartet when I was a teen and then read the Protector of the Small Quartet (the sequel) in my twenties. Instead, while I was working at Cody's Books, I devoured the Protector of the Small Quartet and liked it a lot ("I certainly wasn't expecting the phrase 'refugee camp,' I'll tell you that."), and now find the earlier work a little facile. But Alanna: The First Adventure is still fun and I'll still finish the quartet when I get around to it.

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I adored Fitzgerald when I was fifteen, and I still love The Great Gatsby and some of his short stories are still awesome, but the racism and sexism in Tender is the Night are really offputting. There's no Nick Carraway viewpoint character who partakes less in the rich-people-acting-like-dunderheaded-jerks parade, so I was basically spending a few hundred pages thinking "all these people should get real jobs." But every once in a while Fitzgerald describes a particular emotional reaction particularly well, or articulates a gorgeous experience such that I can actually empathize with people who like to party, and that keeps me reading.

Caitlin Moran's How to Be a Woman memoir/polemic is fantastic, if a teensy bit on the glib side. But feminism (as presented to non-feminists) sometimes needs a dose of glib! I especially loved the chapters about the choice of whether to have children. For a taste of her style, see the book trailer. Thanks to Camille for the recommendation!

Ungifted by Gordon Korman. A perfectly reasonable Korman entry; not as poignant as Pop, not as incisive about status play as The Twinkie Squad, not as Avi-esque interrogation of character as No More Dead Dogs, but more compelling than some of his recent elementary-school stuff. In Ungiftted and Schooled we're seeing a Korman trend I believe he started with Don't Care High (and arguably in Jake, Reinvented, his take on The Great Gatsby): slyly questioning standardized school structures (not just the cliques students form, but the buckets teachers, administrators, and politicians put them in). You see some of this in The Twinkie Squad as well. How do homeschoolers, remedial students, mediocre football players, and other people outside the spotlight critique the places they land? I wish the kids from Son of Interflux's wacky arts academy could hang out with the revolutionary high schoolers of Don't Care High for an afternoon and swap tales, and I think the kids of Ungifted, Schooled, The Twinkie Squad, and Jake, Reinvented might enjoy a similar meetup. And why don't I throw Aaron Swartz in there as well as long as I'm imagining.

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, recommended by my boss. Thanks, Rob. It's great! He basically takes one of the only inspiring approaches you can take in a Holocaust memoir: he realized that no matter what anyone else does to you, you always have some control of how you react in return, even if it's just how you feel about it. From nearly anyone else this would be glurge, but he has the cred to say it both descriptively and prescriptively, and has the harrowing details to back it up. When I think about this and about the idea of exit, voice, and loyalty, I see that Frankl's approach provides some more nuanced options. You can exit mentally by changing the focus of your consciousness; and you can pray or meditate, to exercise a kind of voice without endangering yourself.

The Man Who Wasn't There by Pat Barker. I didn't like this as much as I liked the Regeneration trilogy, partly because the interspersed fantasy life "screenplay" just wasn't my cup of tea -- too disorienting. And the nearly relentlessly depressing plot got me down. But I can't help but admire the closely observed details of lower-class English life, and I liked the boy's conversation with the spiritualist about her work.

The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It took a while for me to get used to Coates's lyricisim, but he achieves the alchemy of drawing the reader into his childhood lingo without ever providing anything as blunt as a glossary. If you like his blogging, go ahead and pick this up to better understand where he came from. I see Baratunde Thurston loved the same quote I loved.

Ha'Penny by Jo Walton is creepy, suspenseful and good, just as Farthing was before it and just as I expect Half a Crown to be after. I liked that we saw the main character's complicated relationship with her many sisters; I don't often see that in speculative fiction. If you want a taste of this universe, try the short story "Escape to Other Worlds with Science Fiction", which asks: if the Small Change books show you what's up in England, what's germinating on the other side of the Atlantic?

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. I am actually glad I waited so long to read this, so I could think about stuff I've read (especially, recently, The Unwritten) and plug it in. I usually read comics for story and dialogue and have not much cared for particularly eye-catching art techniques, but now I'll have a framework to appreciate what I'm looking at!

I reread bits of Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird (soothing), Charles Stross's Glasshouse (popcorn), and most extensively, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves by Adam Hochschild. That last one, Hochschild specifically wrote to remind us that activists really can achieve what seems impossible. We've done it before and we will do it again. There will be setbacks and challenges and half-steps and repetitions over and over. I think about Aaron every day; something brings it up, whether it's The Muppet Movie or Thomas Clarkson or school reform or the importance of casual Wikipedia contribution or a song by The Police that I used to be able to sing along to but now I vividly notice the line about suicide. And books like Bury the Chains help me remember my context and reshoulder my pack and keep moving.

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: "Constellation Games" Out as Ebook: Constellation Games is out as a 5-dollar ebook. PDF? Kindle version? Nook version? DRM-free? Of course.

“Richardson’s keen observations of human behavior combined with his sharp sense of humor make Constellation Games a terrific read.” —Wired Geekdad (full review)

“If Douglas Coupland wrote sci-fi this is the sort of novel he would produce... it is now quite hard to imagine first contact going any other way... a simply impressive first novel.” —Starburst Magazine

“This book is amazing - sci-fi where the mainline ‘sci’ is game design.” — Rob Dubbin, writer for The Colbert Report

“A deftly comic very fresh SF novel of the everyday.” — Benjamin Rosenbaum, author of The Ant King and Other Stories

“Should appeal to gamers and fans of light-hearted space opera.” —Publishers Weekly

If you liked it, now's a great time to tell your friends, recommend it to bloggers/podcasts/celebrities you know, review it on GoodReads/LibraryThing/bookstore sites, or repost the first two chapters in your blog.

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(3) : A Commandment To Iterate: Nearly twenty years after reading about Kohlberg's proposed stages of moral development (alongside reading Huckleberry Finn in a high school lit class), I'm finally reading the response: Carol Gilligan's In A Different Voice. (I consistently sing "In a different voice" to the tune of "In a future time," the first line from They Might Be Giants' song "Robot Parade". Join me!) Here's the extremely simplified apocryphal backstory:

Kohlberg: To understand how people decide their moral questions, I shall ask them how they'd deal with this dilemma: should a man steal medicine from a pharmacist to cure his dying wife?
Some participants: Yes, because [x]! or: No, because [y]!
Kohlberg: [scribbling notes] Yes, yes, mmm, very good. You can tell more developed from less developed levels of moral reasoning by whether they proceed from self-interest, societal expectations, or principles.
Some participants, many of them women: Hold on. What if the guy gets caught and goes to jail? That won't help his wife. What about going to charity, or asking for an installment plan, or something? [participant tries to figure out how to solve the problem in some creative way, often making use of personal relationships]
Kohlberg: Obviously you don't really understand the dilemma and your moral reasoning is underdeveloped.
Kohlberg's research assistant, Carol Gilligan: Wow, you're missing out on some pretty fascinating data there. [writes "In A Different Voice" essay, turns it into a book, discusses decisionmaking that focuses on avoidance of hurt, responsibilities, relationships, etc.]
(I imagine Carol Gilligan saying that sort of like police chief Marge Gunderson in Fargo. "I'm not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work, there, Larry.")

To me, the coolest thing about this story is the fix at the end, where Gilligan discovers that "noise" is signal. Science is not just discovery, it's iteration. Elliot Aronson wrote an outstanding sociology textbook, The Social Animal, that's full of this sort of progress narrative: Scientist A conducts a study, and twenty years later Scientist B redoes the study in a better way and finds stronger conclusions.

For a physical sciences example of noise turning out to be signal, consider how we discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation, a.k.a. evidence that there was a Big Bang. Or sing about it.

This is how we fight.

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(2) : Bertie Wooster, Tom Buchanan, and George Oscar Bluth II: In Arrested Development, G.O.B. makes use of a racist felon, "White Power Bill," as the unwilling demonstratee of a magic trick. Humiliated, Bill stabs G.O.B., crying, "White power!" As G.O.B. falls, he croaks, "I'm....white..."

This, like his more famous line "illusions, Dad, you don't have time for my illusions," demonstrates G.O.B.'s knack for the irrelevant riposte, but more clearly reveals why he does it. G.O.B. is entitled and one aspect of his entitlement is the inflexibility of his mindset. He does not even recognize immediately when life has handed him a setback, so his reflex is to immediately nitpick any criticism. Think of how often his conversational turn starts with "Technically, Michael..."

I thought of White Power Bill as I was flipping through The Great Gatsby just now, and reread the Tom-Jay confrontation scene:

Daisy looked desperately from one to the other. "You're causing a row. Please have a little self-control."

"Self-control!" repeated Tom incredulously. "I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife. Well, if that's the idea you can count me out.... Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions and next they'll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white."

Flushed with his impassioned gibberish he saw himself standing alone on the last barrier of civilization.

"We're all white here," murmured Jordan.

They are. But Tom's status anxiety is fungible, channelling into abuse along race, gender, and class lines -- the Triple Crown of the kyriarchy! Fitzgerald makes Tom's racism part and parcel of his hideous dominance fetish, and it makes complete sense that he and White Power Bill would frame their attacks (on other whites) as defenses of whiteness.

But back to the irrelevant riposte, a dialogue trick I adore beyond reason. As a kid I read Wodehouse, and my favorite bit in all of the Jeeves & Wooster tales is from Right Ho, Jeeves. Backstory: Bertie quietly talked to Angela in the garden, making mock of Tuppy in a scheme to get Angela to un-break-up with Tuppy. This did not work, and it turns out Tuppy was hiding in a bush and heard the whole thing. After Tuppy emerges, enraged, Bertie tries to cool him down and is mostly terrible at it.

A sharp spasm shook him from base to apex. The beetle, which, during the recent exchanges, had been clinging to his head, hoping for the best, gave it up at this and resigned office. It shot off and was swallowed in the night.

"Ah!" I said. "Your beetle," I explained. "No doubt you were unaware of it, but all this while there has been a beetle of sorts parked on the side of your head. You have now dislodged it."

He snorted.


"Not beetles. One beetle only."

"I like your crust!" cried Tuppy, vibrating like one of Gussie's newts during the courting season. "Talking of beetles, when all the time you know you're a treacherous, sneaking hound."

It was a debatable point, of course, why treacherous, sneaking hounds should be considered ineligible to talk about beetles, and I dare say a good cross-examining counsel would have made quite a lot of it.

But I let it go.

Bertie Wooster is detail-oriented in all the wrong ways, and sometimes I am foolish that way too, and that exchange has cheered me for twenty years. I may be an annoying, bikeshedding pedant, but I'm not alone, and sometimes we make people laugh.

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: Reading & Rereading:

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(1) : "But your news is not true.": Fun things from tonight:

Reading bits of Hamlet aloud with Leonard. Some bits do really well if you do them as Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza.

George: "Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing to what I shall unfold."
Jerry: "Speak. I am bound to hear."
George: "So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear."
Jerry: "What?"

And honestly, the "to be or not to be" soliloquy has the same rhetorical structure as the last two thirds of a Seinfeld monologue...

Turns out that I've been misunderstanding, for half my life, Hamlet's line "a custom more honored in the breach than in the observance." Disorienting! It's fun that Hamlet still has surprises for me. Also, to you, what does the phrase "Murder most foul, as in the best it is" mean?

Leonard's related to Eli Whitney, who -- as we discovered tonight -- took upwards of seven years to deliver on a one-year government contract! This makes me feel better about missing and bending deadlines.

Re-watched the very last bit of Dave and realized that one reason I like being a community manager is that it's a position as a public servant. (Complete with Greek Chorus of Doom some days.) I must also own up to Dave-related assumptions that the way to solve difficult problems is with a big speech!

Dave stars Frank Langella, who has played evil dudes in Dave, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, etc. He has played Dracula and Skeletor.... and Sherlock Holmes. It's cute that he did a few roles for his kids. I also look forward to someday seeing Frost/Nixon and Robot and Frank.

Less fun: Amazon has some weird rights-related glitch that's keeping us from watching any Star Trek via Instant Watch. More fun, as an exercise for "count the ways in which you know the author is not a native English speaker": the description for We're No Angels.

In Christmas, three prisoners - Joseph, Albert and Jules - escape from the Devil Island to a French small coastal town. They decide to robber a store, to get some money and clothes and travel by ship to another place.

And, just discovered: Mel Chua analyzing me (I laughed aloud in glee several times, most at "I have no reason to doubt that these things are true.").

Blog post title from Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii. I like imagining different deliveries.

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: Additional "Constellation Games" Commentary: Chapter 17: Leonard writing the phrase "flashy desperate jewelry" far predates the day we watched the episode of Breaking Bad where one character accuses another of "obvious desperate breakfasts." Still funny (to me).

By this point in the novel, it's amusing to ask: what scifi film/novel do the major human characters think they're in? Fowler thinks he's in Triple Point. Krakowski thinks he's in like a Crichton or Tom Clancy novel. Ariel is acting like he's in a Neal Stephenson or Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy thing. Jenny... Nancy Kress? (Leonard jests, Neon JENNYsis Evangelion.)

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: Announcements and Reading: I'm speaking at Open Source Bridge - June 26–29, 2012 - Portland, OR I'll be keynoting the Open Source Bridge conference this year (late June, Portland, Oregon, USA). It's an honor to be asked to give a keynote address to this exciting and inspiring conference.

"<body> <img> -- the anxiety of learning and how I am beating it" is my newest post at Geek Feminism.

Enjoyed in the last several weeks: Naomi Kritzer's "Scrap Dragon," a short story in the January/February issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. "Recognizing Gabe: un cuento de hadas," a short story in Strange Horizons by Alberto Yáñez. "Things Greater than Love" by Kate Bachus, another story in Strange Horizons. Past Lies, a graphic novel by Christina Weir, Christopher Mitten, and Nunzio DeFilippis.

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(1) : Yet Another List: This weekend I have gotten to spend some lovely lengthy quality times with my pals Camille and Julia and Nick, and met Nick's friend Jana. Yay! We talked about the standard things: work, relationships, books, Battlestar Galactica, software development, art, volunteering, activism, &c.

In between, I caught up a bit on comic books. I went to Midtown Comics, my usual haunt, and got the most recent trades of DMZ and The Unwritten. The staff weren't that helpful in my explorations, though -- for example, when I asked about what Alison Bechdel's been up to, I got basically a shrug.

The next day, I visited Forbidden Planet south of Union Square, and the staff seemed far more helpful and sympathetic. When I got up the nerve to ask, "What comics have people who look like me?" they were actually interested in figuring it out and loading up my arms. "OMG you haven't read Love And Rockets?!"

(Doesn't it suck that so much of the Virgin India line is just crap?)

So, since it's on my mind, some comics that feature women of color as interesting characters:

I don't much care about superhero comics so I'm leaving out Storm from X-Men, etc. Should I read Frank Miller's Martha Washington stuff? I should also sweep through my household's shelves, especially our three binders of indie stuff we've bought at MoCCA, to find more recommendation-worthy books and one-offs, especially by women and people of color.

(Random shout-out: Mel Chua's engineering education comics "What is Engineering?" and "What is Education?")

Crossposted to

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: Music, Fiction, and Craft: I have been excitedly pointing people to Zen Cho's speculative fiction, Software Carpentry, Making Software, "Suzy" by Caravan Palace, and Leonard's writeup about social reading.

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: Lit On My Mind: cover of Charitable GettingLight fun: Charitable Getting by Sam Starbuck, free to download. It's a dramedy about the employees of a nonprofit and "a secretive blogger who might be one of his staff, a journalist determined to uncover who it is, and a client who not only doesn't want to pay their fee, but wants to sue [the firm] for telling the truth." I laughed out loud and was satisfyingly right in predicting the identity of the secret blogger.

More light fun: fanfic from the Yuletide challenge, 2011. A few of my favorite stories cover Casino Royale and Billy Elliot. Also check out Star Trek: Deep Space Nine heartwarmers "The Life That Is Waiting" and "In the Files".

I don't write fiction, but it's fun to read writing advice from authors because sometimes you get funny anecdotes. This is basically why I read Stephen King's On Writing memoir, and why I've been splashing through Jane Espenson's blog archives. At the Emmys:

...even the very end of the night was fun because there was this crush of people all waiting for their hired limos to come pick them up and everyone was in the same situation even though they might be, say, Vanessa Williams. Bizarrely egalitarian, the limo-waiting process.

(Jane Espenson majored in computer science at UC Berkeley, so I should add her to my list.)

For the same reason, I'm reading Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, whom I used to read in Salon. Restful & inspirational without being glurgy. (Example piece on her eating disorder.)

Book recommendation blast from the past: Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women's Changing Lives by Dr. Anna Fels. Slate review, Broad Universe review. Fels points out that the childhood or adolescent desire for fame is often a precursor to a more nuanced ambition, combining the urge to master some domain or skill with the desire for the recognition of one's peers or community. She also notes that women, especially, feel the need to hide that wish for fame instead of developing it into a healthy passion to guide our careers. This book blew my mind in the best way when I read it a few years ago, and massively helped me guide my career development. It now informs my emphasis on explicit encouragement and mentorship of new MediaWiki volunteers.

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: Discovering An Origin: Yesterday I helped a bit with a Dreamwidth code tour. Every time Dreamwidth deploys a new update to the site, someone writes up explanations of what all the new bits are. Not just a summary of the big changes, but a sentence or a paragraph about every bugfix and improvement. Basically, imagine if release notes had explanations like this summary by ghoti:

Bug 4102: Checkboxes to retain relationships when renaming have disappeared
Category: Misc Backend
Patch by: [staff profile] denise and [staff profile] fu
Description: So when you rename your account, you're supposed to get checkboxes that keep your access list, filters, and stuff like that during the rename. Unfortunately those checkboxen had disappeared. This shouldn't happen anymore. If you got caught in this bug, please tell [staff profile] denise or [staff profile] fu.
for every bug. Then the code tour gets posted in the Dreamwidth Development community, and linked to from general Dreamwidth news posts. This effectively tells customers where their money's gone, showcases the work of volunteers, and provides examples for people who had been thinking of getting involved in bugfixing (a form of babydev-bait). I fear that the Wikimedia development pace is too high and its community size is too large to make this particular method effective for us, but I'm going to keep thinking about ways we could modify this tactic to achieve those goals for us.

I wrote the summaries of bugs 3186 & 3087, which took maybe ten or fifteen minutes from start to finish. It was fun to flex that muscle, remembering how to distill and translate and explain:

Most support requests are visible to everyone, so everyone can help answer them. For privacy, only Dreamwidth staff and trusted volunteers can see support requests in certain categories, like Account Payments issues or Terms of Service violations. But that wasn't clear to regular users on the support ticket submission page. Now it is, because there are asterisks marking those categories.
I remembered writing functional specifications as a project manager, and reading technical specs and translating them into "what this means for your weekend." I thought about my eventual goal of managing a product, a role that requires someone to think from logistical, marketing, design, financial, and technical perspectives.

Then this morning I picked up A Case of Need by Michael Crichton. He wrote it as a young doctor, under the pseudonym "Jeffery Hudson."

I cut a slice of the white lump and quick-froze it. There was only one way to be certain if the mass was benign or malignant, and that was to check it under the microscope. Quick-freezing the tissue allowed a thin section to be rapidly prepared. Normally, to make a microscope slide, you had to dunk your stuff into six or seven baths; it took at least six hours, sometimes days. The surgeons couldn't wait.
The key context you need to understand the emotional valence of the detail, always keeping the reader aware of what's normal and what's a surprise, what's the best practice and what shortcuts people end up taking. Crichton would have written that summary of the private category marking exactly as I did.

So -- just as I learned my long-distance mentorship skills from Beverly Cleary in Dear Mr. Henshaw, I learned my expository skill from Michael Crichton. Embarrassing, given what Crichton got up to in his later years, but I'll take my skill where I can get it.

(If I were smarter I could make a nice comparison among George Orwell, Alan Furst, Michael Crichton, and Ellen Ullman.)

(By the way, someone quoted from that A Case of Need passage in a comment in an FCC filing.)

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: Diligence And Joy: I get a different kind of understanding, now, out of Paul Ford's "Cleaning My Room," ten years later. When I reread it, I flash back to my old messy apartment in Berkeley, where I sat as I absorbed it the first time. I'm years older than Ford was when he wrote it. I haven't quite been through the journey he experienced, but I've tasted some of the other side. It pairs with "Until the Water Boils."

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: Constellation Games:

Constellation Games by Leonard Richardson

First contact isn't all fun and games.

Ariel Blum is pushing thirty and doesn't have much to show for it. His computer programming skills are producing nothing but pony-themed video games for little girls. His love life is a slow-motion train wreck, and whenever he tries to make something of his life, he finds himself back on the couch, replaying the games of his youth.

Then the aliens show up.

Out of the sky comes the Constellation: a swarm of anarchist anthropologists, exploring our seas, cataloguing our plants, editing our wikis and eating our Twinkies. No one knows how to respond--except for nerds like Ariel who've been reading, role-playing and wargaming first-contact scenarios their entire lives. Ariel sees the aliens' computers, and he knows that wherever there are computers, there are video games.

Ariel just wants to start a business translating alien games so they can be played on human computers. But a simple cultural exchange turns up ancient secrets, government conspiracies, and unconventional anthropology techniques that threaten humanity as we know it. If Ariel wants his species to have a future, he's going to have to take the step that nothing on Earth could make him take.

He'll have to grow up.

Constellation Games is a novel by my spouse, Leonard Richardson. You can read the first two chapters for free. It's now available for purchase as a serial -- for USD$5, total, you'll get a chapter in your email every week. If you pay a little more, you'll get a print paperback, bonus stories, a phrasebook, and so on. And for free, anyone can read the author's commentary, Twitter feed, &c.

This is a great book. I love it. Oh, and for all of December, Leonard's publisher is running a give-one-get-one special. So I encourage you to read those sample chapters and I hope you'll decide to subscribe.

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: Asymptomatic, Asymptotic: Last night I gave Leonard some alone time to work on a Constellation Games bonus story. I went to Ward III, a Manhattan bar that does bespoke cocktails. They have a menu of predesigned cocktails as well, but if you tell them, "I would love something bubbly with basil and lemon," they think about it and figure something out. I especially appreciate that they are perfectly fine with making interesting nonalcoholic drinks. I don't know a better place to get a bespoke mocktail.

Sunita Williams aboard the International Space Station, working with a biological and chemical substances detector, 2007, public domainWhile there, I read a bit of Making Software. One of its editors also cowrote "Empirical Software Engineering: As researchers investigate how software gets made, a new empire for empirical research opens up" in the latest American Scientist, in case you want a taste of his approach. We can now do metasurveys and overviews of existing research into software development, and the science says:

Pair programmers tend to produce code that is easier to understand, and they do so with higher morale. Their productivity may fall initially as the programmers adjust to the new work style, but productivity recovers and often surpasses its initial level as programmer teams acquire experience....

Doctor Ella Eulows (right) and laboratory assistant Sadie Carlin (left) testing antipneumoccus serum for potency, 1920, public domainLarge meta-analyses and further studies by Hannay and others conclude that a programmer’s personality is not a strong predictor of performance. The people who swear by their beliefs about personality and programmer success have now been given reason to assess their position critically, along with methodological support for doing so....

....the distinctions between the two worlds are often illusory. There are cathedrals in the open-source sphere and bazaars in the closed-source. Similar social and technical trends can be documented in both.... Schryen and Rich sorted the packages they studied within categories such as open- and closed-source, application type (operating system, web server, web browser and so on), and structured or loose organization. They found that security vulnerabilities were equally severe for both open- and closed-source systems, and they further found that patching behavior did not align with an open–versus-closed source divide. In fact, they were able to show that application type is a much better determinant of vulnerability and response to security issues, and that patching behavior is directed by organizational policy without any correlation to the organizational structure that produced the software.

fishery biologist, 1972, public domainI read about software engineering research while sitting at the bar, over lemon-lime-and-bitters and devilled eggs served with slices of jalapeño. I always love getting to watch people who are good at their jobs, and the craftsmen at Ward III have a particularly explicitly collaborative style with their customers. One of them, Michael J. Neff, blogs at Serious Eats about cocktails and tending bar. He writes thoughtfully about the use of sugar, free-pouring versus using jiggers to measure, why Californians like us find hurricanes so unsettling ("I tend to think natural disasters should be short, violent, and most of all, unannounced."), and the downside of cocktail nostalgia.

Much of the current cocktail trend is based on nostalgia, and it is difficult to say it, but many cocktails that we now call "forgotten classics" are forgotten for a reason. They have the shine of history, and we're told we are supposed to love them, but they're too sweet, they lack balance, and they kind of suck....

...none of us invented the cocktail. Whatever we create now is a collaboration between those who make spirits, those who make cocktails, and those who imbibe them. If we leave behind the drinker, we leave behind the only people who can tell us what works. None of us make cocktails in a vacuum.

No matter what field you're in, it can be hard to hear criticism. It can be hard to switch habits in response to new data, from your customer or from research. But that's what learning is. Disequilibrium -- surprises, failures, jokes, and disorientations -- will always happen. Taking that opportunity to move away from a local maximum towards a global maximum is up to me.

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: Professional Education: Yesterday I bought and read Jeremy Blachman's Anonymous Lawyer because I remembered liking the blog. Strange. I don't usually like wince humor, but the book went pretty fast and balanced out the narrator's ambition and arrogance with quiet subtext. I have recently been letting work swallow up my life, so it was nice to sit on the couch next to Leonard and read a book for a while, even if it was a book about someone who lets work swallow up his life.

Now reading Making Software: What Really Works, and Why We Believe It. I swing between utterly loving this book and needing to take a nap.

Many claims are made about how certain tools, technologies, and practices improve software development. But which are true, and which are merely wishful thinking? In Making Software, leading researchers and practitioners present chapter-length summaries of key empirical findings in software engineering...

One of the editors is Greg Wilson, the Software Carpentry dude who wants to teach scientists basic software engineering skills -- talk about doing the Lord's work! I heard about Software Carpentry via Mary Gardiner's "Changing the World with Python" talk (transcript).

Speaking of Python, I'll be in Boston the weekend of December 17th to attend a project-driven introduction to Python for women and their friends. There are still 7 slots left, in case you want to join me. I fear that I'm in that bleh spot, not an utter novice but still too unskilled to make Python do what I want, so here's hoping the weekend gets me over that hump.

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(2) : Milk Stout, Vanilla Porter: Leonard and I both spend most of our time at the apartment these days, me working for the Wikimedia Foundation, him working on Constellation Games, his science fiction novel, launching Tuesday. (The novel's done, but he's been working on the bonus stories, Twitter feeds, and so on.) So we have to take care to give each other some regular alone time in the apartment. Yesterday he left for several hours, and today I did.

I read the end of a Kim Stanley Robinson collection, first in a park and then over beer and fries at a tavern. I liked the funny stories, like "Escape from Kathmandu" and "Arthur Sternbach Brings the Curveball to Mars" and "Zürich," and upon a second reading still found the end of "A History of the Twentieth Century, With Illustrations" kind of inexplicable. I read "The Lucky Strike" and "A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions" for the second time and loved them all over again. Sensible people sweating out hard choices, that's KSR. Sometimes they find courage, sometimes they don't. Math, history, geology, biology, mining, astrophysics, poetry, music (the best fiction about classical music I've ever read), cleaning, archaeology -- all the disciplines get this gentle, straightforward, clear attention. He's funnier than Vernor Vinge, but Vinge talks about software more, and I'm a sucker for that. And I think Vinge writes about more kinds of characters.

Home, and the electric light on, because it gets dark at freaking four-thirty now. After I hit Post, some together time with Leonard, because we need that too.

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: Muppet Fanfic: "Tomorrow Is Waiting" by Holli Mintzer.

If you want the truth, it happened because Anji was feeling lazy. Her AI class wasn't all that interesting, nor was it a field she wanted a career in, so there wasn't any reason she could see for trying especially hard. So she came up with a project that didn't look like too much work, and she picked what looked like the easiest way of doing it. Things just got a little out of hand, after that....

Sweet and moving and happy-making.

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(3) : Sigh: Just finished REAMDE, walked into the study, thudded it onto Leonard's desk, and said with wonder, "I cannot recommend that you read this."

I cannot recall the last Stephenson I read that had fewer ideas, and I include his short fiction in this. And you know those lovely little similes and metaphors and fanciful explanations of technical topics and arias, soliloquies on the nature of things, the Stephenson signatures? Nearly absent. Imagine a Michael Crichton novel that stretches to over a thousand pages. I'm disappointed and a little disgusted. REAMDE is essentially a serviceable technothriller, and that's all. An unworthy followup to Anathem.

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(2) : Pretty Spoiler-Free, In My Opinion: I'm now 812 pages into REAMDE. It reads as though Cory Doctorow, in preparing to write For The Win, had drawn upon his eleventh grade lit teacher Thomas Pynchon, who had taught him what "puissant" meant and given him Alan Furst novels to read, but also upon the paperbacks that he'd found in the bookcases lining the wall of his social studies classroom, which included Tom Clancy and Where the Red Fern Grows.

Back to it.

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: UN Convention On the Rights of the Mild: For professional development reasons, I'm starting a four-week course that'll teach me JavaScript/jQuery/CSS/JSON stuff in the context of the Etsy API. This meant that today I read the Etsy terms of use, and had to email the Etsy legal department about multiple errors in it (which, to their credit, they fixed the same day). Some fun facts from that document, and from their other documents incorporated by reference:

Speaking of business/arbitrage/game theory musings, today I picked up and started REAMDE, the Neal Stephenson thousand-pager that came out today. I'm on page 283. Themes/references that carry over from Cryptonomicon include: Hakka, Manila, Shekondar, discovering facts that make a job hard but your isolated boss thinks it should be easy, being compelled to do a task under duress, gold, military and hacker habits, silly/revealing business meetings. Carried over from Anathem (and less from Snow Crash/Diamond Age): ikonographies/narratives and the importance of story.

I think the last book I picked up on the day of release was Book 7 of Harry Potter. I was working on a farm in northwest New Jersey and we had to cross the state line into Pennsylvania to get to the closest bookstore that was selling it at midnight. If there were midnight Stephenson release parties where people dress up, I'd expect to have heard about them already, but then again I don't read Boing Boing much anymore.

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(4) : You: Seven years ago, I received a copy of Yevgeny Zamyatin's We in the mail. I don't know who sent it to me. Two days ago, the same thing happened to my friend Will. Is this a coincidence? We don't know what to make of it. More about the mystery. If this has ever happened to you, we want to know.

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(1) : An (NCSA) Mosaic Of Colorful Little Bits: I looked at my past, like, eight blog entries and saw that they were pretty thinky pieces. When did my blog turn into Crooked Timber? So, a little miscellany.

Saturday I went to the beach! And now I am parti-colored. I got to see Gus, whose "How We Know What We Know: A personal explication" is riveting, and I wish every interesting thinker would write a similar intellectual memoir. I learned how to play the card game Guillotine, and led a couple of games of Once Upon A Time. When I'm the first player, I like to set up a named pair of characters, in a particular city or setting, with a clear problem. This seems to help when I'm playing with novices, as it gives them something to build on.

Yesterday I had a three-minute dispute with Leonard over whether his three-Sundays-in-a-row habit of ordering the chicken and waffles at the local brunch place meant that was now "his thing."

Leonard bought us a September 1945 issue of The American, a monthly general interest magazine, and we're reading it with Wikipedia or Wolfram Alpha at the ready. Reference material helps contextualize, say, propaganda about how well people can eat despite wartime rationing. "Wait, how does the population density of France in 1945 compare to that of the US?" (Way higher. Thank you, Wolfram Alpha!)

Another bit of reading: Ben Franklin 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 later writes in his autobiography:

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.

Punchline: "The Governor General Loudon was a mail steamer and excursion vessel..." Not sure about the namesake, especially because of the orthographical variance, but still mouth-twitchingly funny.

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(1) : On The Usefulness Of Writing:

About this time there was a cry among the people for more paper money, only fifteen thousand pounds being extant in the province, and that soon to be sunk. The wealthy inhabitants oppos'd any addition, being against all paper currency, from an apprehension that it would depreciate, as it had done in New England, to the prejudice of all creditors. We had discuss'd this point in our Junto [debating and science society], where I was on the side of an addition, being persuaded that the first small sum struck in 1723 had done much good by increasing the trade, employment, and number of inhabitants in the province, since I now saw all the old houses inhabited, and many new ones building; whereas I remembered well, that when I first walk'd about the streets of Philadelphia, eating my roll, I saw most of the houses in Walnut-street, between Second and Front streets, with bills on their doors, "To be let"; and many likewise in Chestnut-street and other streets, which made me then think the inhabitants of the city were deserting it one after another.

Our debates possess'd me so fully of the subject, that I wrote and printed an anonymous pamphlet on it, entitled "The Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency." It was well receiv'd by the common people in general; but the rich men dislik'd it, for it increas'd and strengthen'd the clamor for more money, and they happening to have no writers among them that were able to answer it, their opposition slacken'd, and the point was carried by a majority in the House. My friends there, who conceiv'd I had been of some service, thought fit to reward me by employing me in printing the money; a very profitable jobb and a great help to me. This was another advantage gain'd by my being able to write.

This is from Ben Franklin's autobiography. It rocks pretty hard that, when you own a printing press and your government is fairly loose, you can write a persuasive pamphlet, and distribute it, and thus get a contract to print money.

I first read Ben Franklin's autobiography in eleventh grade, in that spot in the American Literature curriculum where lots of people read Catcher in the Rye or Death of a Salesman or something. So glad Mr. Hatch assigned us Franklin. Success, persuasion, enlightened self-interest and altruism and civic action, data-driven decisions, the perks of being a weirdo -- so much is there.

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(1) : A Loose Constellation of Thoughts on WikiLeaks: This is a good time to remind my readers that this, my personal website, does not necessarily represent the views of my employer or anyone else.

Around 2000, I took a political science class with Steve Weber, International Politics perhaps. He said that the major question of international relations was: why isn't there a substantial international alliance of non-US countries countering the US in a battle for global dominance? That's how balance of power works, after all.

Now we see the answer: not countries but networks, like Al Qaeda and WikiLeaks. They use individual countries, the way one uses a coffeeshop that has a particularly lenient free wifi policy. Bruce Sterling once predicted that a really effective global civil society would look "kind of like Al Qaeda, only not murderous," and indeed now you have WikiLeaks. I'm half a year late talking about this (the weird timestamp is because I started this piece in India half a year ago), but after reading all those history of technology pieces, I figure why not.

If you haven't read Geert Lovink & Patrice Riemens's "Twelve theses on WikiLeaks" (formerly ten theses) and Aaron Bady's "Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy; 'To destroy this invisible government'" yet, they're pretty foundational texts. Most recently I read Finn Brunton's "Keyspace", which may as well have been written for me.

Thinking of all the things WikiLeaks is reminds me of teaching "Politics in Modern Scifi" and filling up a blackboard with the names of all the writers the Wachowski brothers ripped off.

WikiLeaks is a crowdsourced panopticon; it's open source, distributed antistatism; it's a descendant of Indymedia, samizdat, Drudge Report, Salon, bootlegs, the Rodney King video, and human flesh search engines; it's as audacious as a terrorist attack, showing what a soft target certain infrastructure is; it's invading the government's privacy just as the government's invaded ours; it's a backswing of the secrecy pendulum.

Brunton muses, "WikiLeaks, and what it portends, is all about working with and managing our points of failure and overload, as human minds and as social creatures." Which makes it rather like Agile software development, and polyamory -- organizational forms deliberately constructed as workarounds for human failings. As the framers of the US (federal) government constructed checks and balances, because we're not angels, so these new systems aim to help us play jiujitsu with our workflows and our secrets. Which, if organizational forms are kinds of technology, are technical fixes to social problems.

Science fiction again: did you ever read Asimov's "The Dead Past"? The one where it turns out the government was right to suppress that one secret?

"Nobody knew anything," said Araman bitterly, "but you all just took it for granted that the government was stupidly bureaucratic, vicious, tyrannical, given to suppressing research for the hell of it. It never occurred to any of you that we were trying to protect mankind as best we could."

"Don't sit there talking," wailed Potterley. "Get the names of the people who were told-"

"Too late," said Nimmo, shrugging. "They've had better than a day. There's been time for the word to spread. My outfits will have called any number of physicists to check my data before going on with it and they'll call one another to pass on the news. Once scientists put [spoiler] and [spoiler] together, home [spoiler] becomes obvious. Before the week is out, five hundred people will know how to build a small [spoiler] and how will you catch them all?" His plum cheeks sagged. "I suppose there's no way of putting the mushroom cloud back into that nice, shiny uranium sphere."

Araman stood up. "We'll try, Potterley, but I agree with Nimmo. It's too late. What kind of a world we'll have from now on, I don't know, I can't tell, but the world we know has been destroyed completely. Until now, every custom, every habit, every tiniest way of life has always taken a certain amount of privacy for granted, but that's all gone now."

He saluted each of the three with elaborate formality.

"You have created a new world among the three of you. I congratulate you. Happy goldfish bowl to you, to me, to everyone, and may each of you fry in hell forever. Arrest rescinded."

That's the fear. The flip side, the hope, you see in Warren Ellis's Global Frequency, the wish-fulfillment fantasy about a vigilante team of experts:

"These are the things I formed the Global Frequency to deal with. The litter of the way we live. The unexploded bombs. There has to be someone to rescue people from the world they live in...."

"Life goes fast. And we seem to spend most of it dancing around all these landmines left in the dirt. All this stuff left over from the last century that some bunch of bastards thought we didn't have the right to know about. Bert? You remember the crap we took from NASA just for wanting to go to space? Like they owned the gate to the world? Screw them all. We'll do what we like. We'll save our own lives and grow our own wings."

Miranda Zero, the leader of the Global Frequency team, is a lot more personally appealing than Julian Assange (look for more wince-inducing media coverage on July 12th).

Relatedly: "On Getting People Mad And Winning Anyway" and "We Are The That Ones We Have Been Waiting For". It is possible to use technology (hardware, software, and workflow processes) to recursively build leadership. I'm learning how.

I feel as though I'm alternating between platitudes and uncracked thought-nuts. It's a nice day out, I see through the window, and I should shower and dress and join it. My thoughts turn to Orwell, the ending of his "Some Thoughts on the Common Toad", which turns even enjoying nice weather into antiauthoritarian resistance:

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.
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: Histories: When I was getting my bachelor's degree at the University of California at Berkeley, I took a few courses studying technology in the context of history and political science. The other day I discovered that I still owned a thick "reader" for one of those courses, photocopies of a bunch of articles and book chapters, and settled down to skim through the thing. Sitting on the living room floor with the couch at my back, reading a ream of academic prose and taking notes, I vividly remembered my undergrad days -- except now I have Wikipedia to look up terms like "reverse salient".

I wonder why I found so many of the texts stale. Did I learn it that well the first time around? Were those articles insipid to begin with? Or have the ten intervening years of thinking, conversation, and experience given me so much background knowledge, and intellectual facility with the major issues, that those course materials feel shallow to me now?

(I wouldn't envy a teacher trying to create an equivalent course today, and I'm demonstrably not the target audience. But the Atlantic Tech Canon would be a cool place to start, and there's a bunch of interesting conversation to be had in more specialized courses.)

A few bits that still had the power to knock around my brain:

Hans Jonas: "And here is where I get stuck, and where we all get stuck." From "Technology and Responsibility: Reflections on the New Task of Ethics". To irresponsibly simplify his point: since we can now do different kinds of things, do we need a new system of ethics?

It's always worthwhile remembering the history of technology. Oh the multivariate effects of barbed wire in the North American West! You already know how US telephone companies initially hated "trivial" social use of the telephone, right? Partly because it tied up scarce lines, and partly because the people selling the phones just couldn't grok the importance of ambient intimacy and community connection, a prejudice that probably included some sexism. (If I read Scott Rosenberg's history of blogging, Say Everything, that might prove an instructive comparison.) For a fun medley of related lessons, check out the "Simpsons Already Did It -- Where Do You Think the Name 'Trojan' Came From Anyway?" talk from last year's The Next HOPE.

Cybernetics has the concept of "requisite variety": a well-designed system must have a variety of responses commensurate to the variety of events, stimuli, and situations it will encounter. Do you?

The freshest, funniest voice in the whole collection was Langdon Winner, Autonomous Technology, 1977.

But in almost every book or article on the subject the discussion stalls on the same sterile conclusion: "We have demonstrated the relationship between Technology X and social changes A, B, and C. Obviously, Technology X has implications for astounding good or evil. It is now up to mankind to decide which the case will be."

Poor mankind. Although freshly equipped with the best findings of social science, it is still left holding the bag.

Slightly more quotable Winner: "Technologies are structures whose conditions of operation demand the restructuring of their environments." Yep. The last few times I was looking for a job, I half-fancifully decided, if my workplace is not killing an entire industry, the job's not worth doing.

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: Another Recommendation: "Trouble" by David M. deLeon -- raw and piercing.

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: Some Short Online Scifi Recommendations: "Saving Face" by Shelly Li and Ken Liu is light and sweet.

"Smaller Fleas that Bite 'Em" by rho is a short, funny sequel to Neal Stephenson's Zodiac: The Eco-Thriller.

"Sisters of Bilhah" by kel is a wrenching, immersive sequel to Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. As the summary says: Sisters of Bilhah is the largest registered charitable organisation in the UK working with asylum seekers and refugees who were citizens of the former United States of America.

"Source Decay" by Charlie Jane Anders is by turns funny, strange, and poignant.

And "(Rising Lion -- The Lion Bows)" by Zen Cho speaks to me as perfectly as if the author were next to me on this couch. My heartstrings turned into leashes and I willingly follow the author wherever she goes. (I fear my RSS feeds or blogging software will break if I try to copy the title with its Unicode characters intact; apologies.)

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: Thumbs Up, Sarah Glidden: Just finished Sarah Glidden's touching, heady, funny memoir How To Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less. She went on a Birthright Israel trip, determined that they wouldn't brainwash her, and had her views confirmed and challenged. Recommended.

For a taste of Glidden's style, check out her graphical travelogue, available to read at her site. She's Kickstarted funding for a new book documenting being embedded among traveling reporters, which is already conceptually neat. Looking forward to reading it.

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(1) : The Long And The Short Of It: If you enjoyed Babysitters Club and have more than an hour, Baby-sitters Club The Next Generation #6: Byron and the God of California will reward your readership. It reads like Ann M. Martin, plus profanity and sex.

If you have less time, check out The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen's Window by Rachel Swirsky:

It was then that I knew what she would say next. I wish I could say that my heart felt as immobile as a mountain, that I had always known to suspect the love of a Queen. But my heart drummed, and my mouth went dry, and I felt as if I were falling.

Science, magic, betrayal, gender, a wooden robot, academe, empathy, and change, constant change. This is what speculative fiction can be!

And if you have only a minute, a recent 101-word Anacrusis might be to your taste, on procrastination, linguistic scientist-adventurers, cognitive hazard, or specfic litcrit.

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: Atul Gawande, "Better": I keep recommending in-person that people read Atul Gawande's Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance, so I ought to write about it too. I describe it, tongue-in-cheek, as a secular self-help book. Gawande, Michael Lewis, Malcolm Gladwell, This American Life, my ex-boss -- who else gets lyrical about process improvement?

"Process improvement" is such a dry term for it. As Gawande puts it, success and improvement require diligence, ethics, and ingenuity. Mom points out that these match up against three old-school Hindu virtues:

Diligence = karma
Doing Right = dharma
Ingenuity = atma

That last might seem strange except for Gawande's definition. From the introduction:

...ingenuity -- thinking anew. Ingenuity is often misunderstood. It is not a matter of superior intelligence but of character. It demands more than anything a willingness to recognize failure, to not paper over the cracks, and to change. It arises from deliberate, even obsessive, reflections on failure and a constant searching for new solutions.

This book enraptured me, in my late twenties, thinking about capability and courage, the way I didn't even realize science fiction, procedurals, and competence porn enraptured me as a teen. This is the opposite of ER. As I've mentioned in terms of systems thinking and interpersonal responsibility, I used to think that medicine was about heroics, not hygiene -- godlike individuals with huge responsibilities, not teams, not scientists who are good at changing their minds.

And as I get older, I understand diligence and perseverance better, and have a greater capability for them. I appreciate food or software or prose more when I've tried my hand at making it; I appreciate consistency, stamina, grit more when I've seen them from the inside.

Atul means "a lot" or "very," my mother says. I read aloud several portions of Better to my mother. I read aloud his commencement address on becoming a positive deviant. The book version is better than the speech he spoke.

The published word is a declaration of membership in that community, and also of concern to contribute something meaningful to it.

And I read aloud to her the incidents Gawande observes so vividly, the moments one person tries to persuade another. A doctor and a patient, a vaccinator and a resister. Mom says the prose is so beautiful it reminds her of Kannada. I liked every case study in Better, but the ones that stick with me described a Karnatakan polio vaccination drive and two cystic fibrosis clinics. They marry "How can I provide for this right thing to be always done?" with Trollope-level interpersonal power struggles.

In a job interview the other day, after the interviewer praised me for a moment of candor, I said, "I'm not an engineer, but I have an engineer's honesty, I hope." What's that Lincoln line that Obama quoted? I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. (Clever playing with "bound," there.) The joke I make about my Indian parents is that it would have been okay for me to turn into a doctor, because a doctor is an engineer of the body. Conversely, then, if engineers are like doctors, then who am I to them? A hospital administrator, a lab director, a nurse, a paramedic, a journal editor, a public health officer, a research assistant, a med school counselor, and Michael Crichton?

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(3) : Quotes: First a bunch of little snippets from my recent instant messenger conversations:

Oh, the new movie Black Swan isn't an adaptation of the economics book? It's about ballerinas? BLAH TO THAT. I mean, there's a Freakonomics movie. And surely you saw that summer blockbuster The General Theory of Employment, Interest, And Money. I think Keynes got a best screenplay Oscar nod for that one.

Leaving the house is magic.

[After saying "didn't mean to nag, just correct for lag," I sought a rhyming followup or rephrasing.] You disconnected from the server, I repeated my line further. Just checking dropped packets, didn't mean to make a racket. DOGGEREL AWARD HERE I COME?

"oh yeah" like "OH yeah" or "oh, that would be a good idea" or Kool-Aid man bursting through a wall?

I am reading about Privilege Denying Dude, etc. while a young Indian woman sweeps my room. Right near me. COGNITIVE DISSONANCE

I thought we were not-bothering buddies. I RESCIND MY HIGH-FIVE

And now quotes from recent issues of The Caravan:

It was 20 years ago that I experienced for the first time while reading, the strange combination of soaring and falling natural only to the economies of debtor-states.

...those of us who criticise the Western media for bestowing magical Taliban-defeating powers on Karachi's Ecstasy-popping 20-somethings...

Just outside Italian Village, I found a Dairy Queen fast-food restaurant, filled with Kurds talking rapidly on Bluetooth headsets. A spokesman for Dairy Queen told me his company had no restaurants in Erbil, and he suspected another Dairy Queen operator in West Asia had gone rogue and set up shop there as a freelancer; just as a mushroom cloud in North Korea bears the marks of the influence of AQ Khan, an ice cream cake in Kurdistan implies the assistance of someone with mastery of Dairy Queen technology in Istanbul or Bahrain.

And so it was, in this entertainment vacuum following the Hindi ban and without a decent replacement, that something unexpected happened in Manipur: the Koreans moved in.

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(1) : Longbows & Longboxes: Read some Amar Chitra Katha comic books today.

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(1) : Speculative Filk & Short Fiction: As with The Autograph Man, I have a couple book titles that now fall into melodies in my head.

Billy Joel's "Great Wall of China":

We coulda gone all the way
to The Left Hand of Darkness
if you'd read a little Ursula K. Le Guin

They Might Be Giants' "Mink Car":

I had sex in a Glasshouse
sex in a Glasshouse
written by Charlie Stross
[pronounced "Strouse" causa rhymi]

Thanks for recommending Glasshouse, Danni and (IIRC) James. I'm a few chapters into it now, so, just past the second sex scene (hence the filk). So far this is the most enjoyable Stross I've read, with neat ideas and a compelling POV character and mystery, up there with the clever "Down on the Farm". I never got into Accelerando, the other Laundry story of his I read didn't hook me (yet another creepy-funny take on Santa Claus), and The Family Trade felt dumbed-down. I find The Family Trade's origin story more interesting, and C.C. Finlay's July 2010 Futurismic story "Your Life Sentence" is a better woman-on-the-run story.

Speaking of that, some short online pieces I've liked recently:

"Private Detective Molly" by A. B. Goelman, 4 June 2007, Strange Horizons. I'm a sucker for hard-talking detectives, and talking robots.

I grab my trench coat and fedora from the closet before looking around the room.

That's when I see my new boss. Four feet of trouble. Brunette variety.

"Death and Suffrage" by Dale Bailey, from the 2007 anthology The Living Dead. "The dead had voted, all right, and not just in Chicago." Not a postapocalyptic zombie story; instead, politics and a compelling droning dreary nightmare feel. Like The West Wing meets World War Z.

"Talisman" by Tracina Jackson-Adams, 19 August 2002, Strange Horizons. Is this urban fantasy, except rural? Horses, a family feud, dark ceremonies in the wood. I don't usually like fantasy, or fiction about horses, but Jackson-Adams got me with high stakes, slow-burn reveals, and believable emotion and characters.

"How to Make Friends in Seventh Grade" by Nick Poniatowski, 21 June 2010, Strange Horizons. "I wasn't mad at you for losing the rocket. I was mad at you for being such a nerd. I'm not your friend, and I never was." Hurts so good. One character's wish fulfillment, but not the POV character's.

I'm halfway through the great Machine of Death anthology (free to download). The Camille Alexa and J. Jack Unrau, David Malki!, and Jeffrey C. Wells stories especially stick with me.

It was a good salesman voice, keen and enthusiastic, and it bore shockingly little resemblance to the one he'd been using his entire workaday life up until that day about two months ago, the day Simon now liked to call "Torn Apart And Devoured By Lions Day."

"Hokkaido Green" by by Aidan Doyle, 1 November 2010, Strange Horizons. Bittersweet fantasy about emotions and trafeoffs.

A brown bear entered the clearing. It walked upright and carried an old-fashioned miner's lantern filled with fireflies. It waddled towards the pool, looking less like a predator than like an elderly sumo wrestler tottering uncertainly towards a bout with a reigning champion.

In the comments, I welcome your thoughts on the linked stories, or additional filk on spec-fic titles.

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(1) : Four Short Story Recommendations: One thing I do while I should be hanging out with my mom, or sleeping, or writing, is read short science fiction and fantasy stories online. A few recommendations to close some tabs:

Jo Walton's "Relentlessly Mundane", 23 October 2000 in Strange Horizons. Just right in the way that Walton always does, realistic and inevitable and surprising all at once.

Jane hated going to Tharsia's apartment. It was hung about with tapestries and jangling crystal windchimes and a string of little silver unicorns, and it reminded her of Porphylia and everything she wanted to forget. If Tharsia had been able to get it right it wouldn't have been so irritating; it was just that little silver unicorns look so tacky when you've been used to the deep voices of real unicorns and great silver statues that speak and smile. Jane's own apartment was modern and spartan. Her mother approved of how clean it was but kept giving her houseplants and ornaments to, as she put it, "personalise the place." "You always look as if you're going to move out at any minute," she said. Jane threw them away. She didn't want personalised; she wanted functional and clean, in case she moved out at any minute. Eventually her mother gave up, as she had long since given up complaining about the huge belt-pouch Jane always kept on, and Jane's lack of a boyfriend since Mark, and her working out too much. Jane's apartment stayed bare and devoid of personality. The room she liked best was the shower, brightly lit and white-tiled with copious amounts of hot water flowing whenever Jane wanted it. She had missed showers most of all, in Porphylia.

She walked briskly up the three flights. Tharsia's apartment would irritate her, but she could deal with the irritation. At least walking up the stairs would be exercise, partly making up for the fact she'd missed her fencing lesson to come here today. She'd make the time up. She knocked. The bell, she knew from experience, rang a ghastly madrigal, a tinny parody of the tunes the minstrels used to play in the Great Hall. She couldn't understand how Tharsia could be content with this. Well, she wasn't content, of course.

"Hwang's Billion Brilliant Daughters", by Alice Sola Kim, November 2010 issue of Lightspeed. Haunting and sweet. Found via Julia Rios -- thanks, Julia!

When Hwang finds a time that he likes, he tries to stay awake. The longest he has ever stayed awake is three days....

Whenever Hwang goes to sleep, he jumps forward in time. This is a problem. This is not a problem that is going to solve itself....

And now two that I read aloud to my mother. "Little Brother™" by Bruce Holland Rogers, 30 October 2000 in Strange Horizons.

But then, while Mommy went to the kitchen to cook breakfast, Peter tried to show Little Brother™ how to build a very tall tower out of blocks. Little Brother™ wasn't interested in seeing a really tall tower. Every time Peter had a few blocks stacked up, Little Brother™ swatted the tower with his hand and laughed. Peter laughed, too, for the first time, and the second. But then he said, "Now watch this time. I'm going to make it really big."

But Little Brother™ didn't watch. The tower was only a few blocks tall when he knocked it down.

"No!" Peter said. He grabbed hold of Little Brother™'s arm. "Don't!"

Little Brother™'s face wrinkled. He was getting ready to cry.

Short but cutting.

And Cat Rambo's "Magnificent Pigs", 27 November 2006, in Strange Horizons.

Three years later, on a rainy September afternoon, my parents died in a car accident and I returned home to the farm to take care of Jilly. A few townfolk felt I shouldn't be allowed to raise her by myself, but when I hit twenty-one a year later, that magic number at which you apparently become an adult, they stopped fussing.

The insurance settlement provided enough to live on. It wasn't a lot, but I supplemented it by raising pigs and apples in the way my parents always had and taking them to Indianapolis. There the pigs were purchased by a plant that makes organic bacon, pork, and sausage, and the apples by a cider mill. I didn't mind the farm work. I'd get up in the morning, take care of things, and find myself a few hours in the afternoon to work in my barn-stall studio.

The Rambo story made me sniffle as I read it to Mom, and after the ending, Mom asked me to write a fan email to Rambo telling her how moving it was.
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: When Fluff Fails: From last night, not posted till now:

Tonight, instead of going to sleep at a reasonable hour, I quickly read Neal Shusterman's young adults' dramedy novel The Schwa Was Here. Washington, D.C. bookstore dude, why did you recommend Shusterman to me when I was disappointed you didn't have any more Gordon Korman? Shusterman is okay, with some good lines and observations in Schwa and Unwind (horror YA sf), but the prose isn't quite as well-crafted, and I think Shusterman's not as witty. (Not to mention that the central premise of Unwind is unbelievable and Shusterman never quite earns the reader's suspension of disbelief.)

And now I'm up late thinking about invisibility, mortality, legacy, and other cheering topics. What else did I bring to read? Earth: The Book is also somewhat depressing, but it's mightily funny and cutting and erudite as it depresses. Finished that yesterday. My luggage also contains a Star Trek branded novel about Kahless. I guess I'll go to sleep.

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: The Hyperlinks I Forged In Life: Disregard the timestamp on this entry, which is leftover from a draft I began on the other side of the world, when the Elizabeth Moon controversy broke. Everything feels unfinished, uncertain, temporary. I finally upgraded my laptop to Lucid Lynx -- yes, half a year after its release. Leonard and I finished watching the first season of the new Reggie Perrin and like it, but not as much as the brilliant original Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. Gordon Korman's new young adult novel Pop is the most moving thing he's ever written. I talked with my mother on the phone and she sounds happy in Mysore. I feel like I'm on a road trip on a conveyor belt.

Some links.

Roleplay scenarios to train concealed-carry weapons permitseekers.

Everything Scott writes, of course, but especially him and his readers discussing what's exhausting about running a web publishing organization.

Kate Beaton's Maurice "the Rocket" Richard for Kids made me cry with happiness.

A few weeks ago, speculative fiction author Elizabeth Moon wrote an essay arguing, among other things, that groups of minorities in the United States are responsible for assimilating and seeming non-threatening (a simplification, of course, since if she had written it that baldly maybe she would have understood how absurd her argument was). She then shut down the comment thread on her post and hid all the comments from public view, thus effectively deleting the conversation by which many readers were trying to discuss how and why she was wrong. Yasaman's response on civilization, the meaning of American citizenship, and pride spoke to me, and I thank coffeeandink and Jed for collecting several other of the many thoughtful responses from around the Net. My old Berkeley friend Shweta Narayan, in response, detailed her experiences of assimilation; I had a much, much easier time of it growing up, so hearing her experience is sobering and edifying. And, as usual, Liz Henry tries to build on our dismay to get us to contribute to relevant, productive causes.

Elizabeth Moon is currently one of two Guests of Honor at next year's WisCon feminist sci-fi convention, which has of late been a locus of anti-racist activity. Thus: additional controversy, which I am not attempting to cover systematically in this idiosyncratic selection of links. What can the organizers and participants do to mitigate the implications? Many ask: should she remain a GoH? And it's not like she's the first GoH in WisCon history to have held some abhorrent views, but it's not just about her words, but her actions: the attempted erasure of opposing voices.

I am, right now, deliberately making no plans regarding travel in 2011 so that I can stay free to make plans to take care of my mother. I might go to WisCon, and to other gatherings that honor people who have said or done some things I find breathtakingly wrong. Been there before, will be there again. I was at the GUADEC where Richard Stallman did the sexist emacs virgins comedy act, for instance. But I have my own reasons and needs and tolerances and trade-offs, and will aim not to proselytize others who differ.

On a completely different note, a tearjerking story about family and machines.

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(1) : Unclear: All I have is small thoughts, right now, in-between thoughts as I shower or eat or pause before reading another chapter to my mother. (The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. A Mahabharata retelling, which means that today I checked an incident with the C. Rajagopalachari and Amar Chitra Katha versions when I doubted Divakaruni's version. Nope, she didn't entirely make it up! And why did I never before connect the hatejoke "Die In A Fire" with the Pandavas' house of lac?)

Or sometimes I have a conversation with Mom or a friend and from that kneading and churning emerges a small idea. I discovered today, while talking with a friend about integrity, something about how I think about the value of truth-that-hurts. When an honest friend says something that reminds me of my faults, it hurts a little. Sometimes I can use that information to improve myself. But, even if I can't or won't or don't, I still take that pain as part of the price of honesty, as I would pay a regular insurance premium. I pay by taking those little cuts, because the promise inherent in that transaction is that if I need to ask an important question someday, to make a big claim, I can trust without question that my friend will answer it in good faith.


Of course "lavender" comes from the root "to wash." We just unwrapped and started using a block of lavender soap in our shower/bathtub, and after someone's bath the scent of it floats around in the bathroom like a blessing.

Elisa visited yesterday and talked with Mom and me about health, Fred Astaire, the lessons we learned while growing up, &c. She highly recommended The Band Wagon so we watched it that night. I called her during a pause to babble excitedly about how great it is. It's especially superlative if you've just watched a bunch of the interchangeable musicals like Follow the Fleet for contrast. (Huh, those & Agatha Christie & P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves & Wooster stories: what 21st-century media is like that, enjoyable, will sort of hold up decades from now, but all the individual stories blur together and the reader/viewer can't recall which ones she's seen?) The Band Wagon has complicated, unusual characters and dances, and a plot more mature and interesting than the run-of-the-mill. I loved: the stylized gangsters' getting-shot dance in a stylized Times Square subway station; the for-once unadorned silence after a "spontaneous" song-and-dance (the beer-drinking song at the cast party); Charisse and Astaire's silent "Central Park" dance. That last one nearly made me cry, it was so beautiful.

Tonight we watched Singin' in the Rain, which (no one told me!) was about artists trying to keep pace with technological change, and (like Band Wagon and Sullivan's Travels) about the superiority of comedy to drama. Melinda and Melinda was fairly unnecessary, it turns out. Singin' is fun, but Band Wagon made me want to watch it again immediately.

They aren't actually small thoughts, and I know that. They are little flashes and seedlings that grow when I am not looking. They pop up and shy away and ebb back in between warming tortillas and unfolding the sofa bed and thanking Rachel for recommending Regeneration. (I picked up Inherent Vice at the airport on the way to Australia, and Regeneration at an airport on the way back to New York. Loved the former -- read aloud a paragraph about a run-down casino to everyone I could buttonhole -- and am loving the latter. Then there's Trading in Danger, the entertaining-but-Mary-Sue-ish Elizabeth Moon I bought in Melbourne 50% on the strength of its cover. Before she said things I disagree with and need to discuss when I have time.)

They run away with me when I give them a chance, my thoughts; they are vines that grow in fast motion and ensnare me. This connects to that connects to the other, in a net, a web, and soon enough I don't want to say anything because it couldn't be enough. And everything I say is insufficient to the emotion in a single phrase my mother read aloud this morning, to the texture of the light bouncing off the ceiling light fixture this afternoon, glossy with a sheen like oil, like the fat in cream.

It's a different rhythm and cadence of thought I must sink into when I am caretaking, as different as travel is from work and work is from plain old unemployment.

I am writing this long blog entry because I haven't the time to write a short one. Or -- to blaspheme -- what else is there to do, when stuck, but to write long posts, have think long thoughts, and pray long prayers? So I can't seem to decide whether I have lots of time or none -- it's a temporal illusion, like an optical illusion, deceptively slicing up a quantity to make it change size. But shape does change size, experientially -- that's what affordances are all about.

Oh dear I'm rambling some more. Almost time to unfurl the sofa bed. Post.

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(3) : Beginning To Think About A Formative Influence: Suresh Naidu visited the other night and, of course, inspected our bookshelves. "You're the only household I've ever seen that had every Stephenson, including the Baroque Cycle, but not Snow Crash. The Big U and not Snow Crash?!" Snow Crash was on another bookshelf because it didn't physically fit on that one.

When someone asks me, "Who are your favorite scifi authors?" I sometimes say, "Depending on who's asking, Neal Stephenson or Ursula K. Le Guin." But that's unbalanced, because I deeply adore Le Guin's The Dispossessed but have read only five of her thirty-plus books, while I've read nearly everything Stephenson's published in book form. (Speaking of Le Guin: congratulations, Jed!)

I am trying to remember the timeline on how I discovered each of these authors. Did someone recommend The Left Hand of Darkness to me my freshman year at Berkeley? I know I had that used paperback by my junior year when I taught it. (Note: I find that syllabus incredibly embarrassing since I'd have much more diverse and interesting works and questions if I taught it now; Andy's syllabus is cooler.) Seth Schoen gave me a copy of In The Beginning Was The Command Line sometime in 1999, I think. And then I bought Snow Crash at Cody's Books on Telegraph, and started reading it as I walked home to my apartment, and came home to discover that my flatmate Nikki had moved out with zero notice, after living with me for six weeks, leaving a note on the refrigerator whiteboard telling me "you know why." I did not know and still do not know why she moved out; it is one of the mysteries of my life, like why sociology lecturer Andrew Creighton laughed at me that one time when I guessed that the video clip he'd just shown us was "modern dance?".

Oh right, Stephenson. Then I got Cryptonomicon and I didn't read it linearly the first time, I just dipped in and read random chapters.

I think I've had about fifteen conversations about Neal Stephenson and his work in the past month. Not surprising when I've been to the World Science Fiction Convention, but then there was Tennant Reed, the climate change policy wonk I ended up chatting with at the Melbourne airport when our flight to LA was delayed. Not a WorldCon attendee. He's a Tolkien fan; I'm not. I introduced him to Pynchon, whom he hadn't tackled yet. But we quoted lines from the first chapter of Snow Crash at each other verbatim. It's in The Atlantic's thought-provoking "Tech Canon", and it's in the geek canon. (Speaking of The Atlantic and thinking-about-tech: I am a fan of Biella's Anthropology of Hackers syllabus & explication.)

This is just spadework, right now, this entry, just clearing some brush so I can really think about what Stephenson has meant to me. There's a way in which In The Beginning Was The Command Line got me the job at Fog Creek Software. There are satirical scenes in Cryptonomicon that I initially read as erotic. I could go on and on (as he does!), and at some point I should.

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(1) : "Going once / Going twice / Won't these gentlemen suffice?": Something like a full day on airplanes, and I skipped getting sick. But then I caught my host's cold, so instead of exploring Melbourne on the last day before WorldCon starts, I'm yawning out from the living room at a sky smeared with indifferent shades of grey, like used paintbrush-cup water drying on newsprint. I sit crosslegged on a couch, under four thin blankets, consuming lemongrass ginger tea, toast with peanut butter and banana (Australia has peanut butter! despite Leonard's declaration that it's the American marmite), and comfort media. I'm listening to Tally Hall's Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum (post title from "The Bidding") and reading Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice. Fortunately I've already read the prerequisite Stephenson, Owen Hill, and Nathanael West, and seen The Big Lebowski, so I can keep up and laugh as Pynchon riffs on "a hippie walks into a noir." And then there are Worldcon-related tweets and the AussieCon 4 LiveJournal community, and Finn's old winter thoughts, which match my physical climate.

More "responsibly," I'm pondering things to do in Melbourne. I'm especially interested in the immigration museum and hot-air balloon rides, the tramcar restaurant, and visiting Puffing Billy. Watching Three Thousand for more idiosyncratic, local, and one-time events happening between 7 and 13 September, and welcoming suggestions.

Yesterday was great, till I got sick. Danni led me onto train and tram to Fitzroy, which seems to be like San Francisco's Mission District. I bought a few cards and a button at Incube8r, and mooned over some jewelry from Limerence: very simple excerpts from working watches, the first steampunk I've ever seen that made me Get It. The name's enchanting and accurate. We visited a Friends of the Earth (acronymises to FOE) shop where an "It's Time." shirt indirectly caused Danni to explain Gough Whitlam to me. The shop allows people to stick small housing-related ads onto the window, facing out. I looked to my left and saw a short set of sentence fragments that I couldn't instantly read, set (to the reader) left-justified and ragged-right, and flashed back to the Pegasus bookstore at Shattuck and Durant in Berkeley, poems all over its windows -- where I first read Adam Zagajewski's "Try To Praise The Mutilated World," right after the 2001 terror attacks.

Drinks with Danni, Steph, and their friends at Polly's (recommended for service, ambiance, and selection), where I acted tourist and asked for AUTHENTIC Australian or Melburnian liquors or cocktails. Liquors: not so much (another bit of indigenous culture that got wiped out?). Evidently 1806 serves a "Japanese Slipper" cocktail, invented in Melbourne a whole twenty-six years ago. "[C]an be ordered safely in most countries where Midori is available." In other countries: peel it, it's the feds!

A fine faux lamb bolognese at Vegie Bar (recommended for food, veg friendliness, and buzz) (warning: it is a restaurant and thus the site is all in Flash or some other obstructive doesn'tworkalike). We talked about Askers vs. Guessers, the Melburnian ex-Perth crowd, neighborhoods, travel, computers, clients, footnotes and punctuation, booze, &c. I found myself asking "what?" a lot, sometimes because Australians speak very quickly, or because of crowd noise, and sometimes because I did not know whether I had heard a proper name, a bit of slang, a mistake, or a standard English word I would recognize were it written down. After India, it's a relief to be in a foreign country where nearly everyone speaks a variant of English, but I do feel loud, overbearing, obvious, a quarter-beat off. I'm five feet one, yet socially, I lumber, stumbling into things, an SUV among bikes.

Tram to train home. The Parliament train station played music over the public address system, random 80s stuff. Now I'm listening to the Mountain Goats, Tallahassee: more comfort music. Time to forage for lunch. No pub crawl for me tonight, I suspect. Pynchon, email gardening, the indoor life, intoxicated only by pseudoephedrine, if I can convince a nearby chemist I'm not looking for meth precursors.

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(15) : Science Fiction That Argues Back: Julia and I were talking yesterday about Maureen McHugh and her excellent, searing novella The Cost To Be Wise came up. The Cost To Be Wise is in part a critique of Star Trek's Prime Directive and noninterference policies like it. This reminded me of how Nancy Kress's great Beggars in Spain novella is nearly explicitly a response to Ayn Rand, specifically Atlas Shrugged (I wouldn't say the expanded book and Beggars trilogy are). Several characters in Beggars in Spain follow Yagaiism, which reads clearly as this universe's Objectivism.

This got me thinking: what scifi interestingly critiques previous scifi? Cory Doctorow has a series that explicitly does this:

In spring 2004, in the wake of Ray Bradbury pitching a tantrum over Michael Moore appropriating the title of Fahrenheit 451 to make Fahrenheit 9/11, I conceived of a plan to write a series of stories with the same titles as famous sf shorts, which would pick apart the totalitarian assumptions underpinning some of sf's classic narratives.

A few other examples: Leonard makes the case that the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Measure of a Man" responds to the original series's "Court Martial"; it "puts one of the underlying themes of TOS on trial and shows that it hasn't held up well." ("on trial" - zing!) And lots of fanfic does this, like "Second Verse (Same As the First" by Friendshipper/Sholio. "The power disparity between the 'Lanteans and the other peoples in Pegasus is something I think about occasionally, but it's never addressed on the show."

It's all a shared discourse, sure. We talk about themes we've read and play with them. "Another End of the Empire" by Tim Pratt, for example, is responding to a common fantasy trope. But I'm interested in hearing about science fiction and fantasy that says, "In this specific work, there is a specific ideological failing that I will now use, or refute, and that idea will be a primary premise for my story." Do you have a favorite bit of speculative fiction that's like that?

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(1) : Sorry, Yet Not, For The Length: I closed the lid of my iBook G4 at some point this summer, maybe in June, and didn't open it again till I came back from India, with my Linux laptop unavailable. I'd been timesinking (otherwise known as keeping up with RSS feeds) via NetNewsWire on that 5-year-old Mac, and I suppose I accidentally experimented with simply dropping that part of my life, for a time. Some friends' or writers' blogs, I followed manually, and some I just forgot about;, Twitter, LiveJournal and Dreamwidth fed my pipeline steadily enough; I just stopped trying to follow a lot of the stream.

I supposed I vaguely thought it would build up, the backlog. I'm usually a completist. I get anxious about reading every word, seeing every episode, rewinding if the phone rings and I miss five seconds of dialogue. (I'm an asshole about no talking when we're watching something together. The pause button gets employed a lot.) But today I started up NetNewsWire and there weren't ten thousand new items, there were like 1400. Quirks of settings and configuration, of RSS feeds simply no longer carrying such long-past items, so my reader had never retrieved them -- I have missed a big stripe of the stream.

And that's fine. There is no complete. Some of that stuff I will never know about. Some I'll hear about in other ways. Some might have changed my life. Some might have just amped up my anxiety, added yet more I Shoulds to my dark cloud. I was living a different full life instead, meeting new friends at conferences, whiling away long afternoons in the living room in Mysore while my mom slept, reading poetry aloud into a recorder for a friend on the other side of the globe, frittering away precious irrevocable moments in other ways. Maybe not better, but different, and different is its own kind of better.

Edinburgh for me was always the randomizer, the place I hitched to every year, camped out in, and came out in some other country, six weeks later, with hungover and overdrawn, with a new skill or passion or someone sadder or more famous or just more fuddled and dumber than ever.

I feel like I started traveling this year in April, or January, and never stopped. Traveling, and writing harder, and meeting new people who knock me to pieces, and trying and failing to volunteer better and make things socially. (Try again, fail better, when I have a moment to breathe, in November.)

This post started as a letter to one of those people, so I could talk about how looking at these RSS feeds now, I have a different pruning hand. I'm more prone to cut the Must Keep Up! politics and tech firehoses. And my eye has changed. I catch my breath when I see a gem of prose or thought, especially a phrase of love or anger that punches through. I get overwhelmed with happiness when someone articulates something just so, or when a precise, vivid illustration-in-words works its magic on my mind's eye. Insight and beauty -- did I get inured to them, mixed in with the sod and dross, or was I not noticing them? How much have I changed, my God?

I could hear the lilt and awe in Scott Rosenberg's voice when I read him saying "There's so much that's fun and unexpected in Perfecting Sound Forever:..." and it made me want to collect the pretty marbles as I read instead of just letting them fall to the floor. A stream, caught for once, another form of completism, but maybe less neurotic and more about joyous sharing.

...your books do not love you. They are objects, and not morally superior to any other object in your house. Again, books are not morally superior to any other objects. They are just heavier. all good hells, the eating down the pantry hell is all the worse because it is a hell of your unique making.

The study has its limits, of course; we are strongly multivariate bags of chemicals, after all.

The tie from this book to my own interests should be clear, but if not, I should make them explicit: free and open source software often thinks of itself as being sui generis, but in fact it is part of a history (in this country) of retreat from established economic structures with the intent of creating parallel systems that would eventually compete with or replace those established structures with something simultaneously individually empowering and socially just.

(A laugh-out-loud The Big Caption.)

The argument I have always seen against dropping the use of such words always boils down to "But I'm a word nerd, and I think I should be able to use any word I want. Not using that word cuts a hole in my lexicon, and demonizes it, besides. Also, I like that word."

That's not word-nerdery. That's laziness. That's favoring metaphor over precision, generality over specificity. A real word-nerd would keep searching until they came up with a more correct, more fitting descriptor. If the situation you're involved in actually resembles a death-march? Then by all means, go ahead and use that word. If not? Head back to the well and drop the bucket. Surely you can come up with something better than that.

Finally I suggested that Alex design her own coin. Her first reaction: "But it's against the law!" No, I explained, it's only against the law to make copies of real coins trying to fool people. I drew the circles for her and helped with some of the spelling. Here you have the results: the Alex 1000 dollar coin.

i have been meaning to write an article about the whole experience
for some time now
maybe pitch it to some of those magazines
that run personal-narrative articles

you know the kind of article i'm talking about
they begin in medias personal res
and then gently flesh out a few details
and toward they end they circle some greater truth

like a dog who's worried there's a trap somewhere near the food dish.

I thought about how it is with this kind of high joy, that there has to be a kind of recklessness, a forgetting, in order to fly like that.

On all sides of the political spectrum of homeschoolers, I tend to see an unrealistically rosy view of families. Parents care more about their kids than anyone else ever could, and parents know what’s best for their kids’ education. Yeah. I know too many parents who use crack to buy into this one; disillusionment about the awesomeness of families is an occupational hazard for me. There will always be parents who are disengaged and/or incompetent and/or malevolent. We will always need a default educational system that is not dependent on parents knowing or caring about what is best for their children, and it needs to be as good as we can make it because those kids are already starting out with two and a half strikes against them, and they deserve a chance.

I was terrified. It may have all been about anticipating the roaches that I suspected were all over our new apartment. It may have been the foreign sturdiness of the word, "wife."

My own guess is that a rule like this breaks one of the important criteria for a rule of justice that are there in some versions of Rawls - that the social decision rule has to be justifiable to everyone in society on their own terms, otherwise it's not really a society. If you have an overarching rule about priorities, it's going to create what Kenneth Arrow calls "positional dictators" - ie people whose position in the current allocation of resources gives them a status such that the social utility function is wholly determined by theirs. More importantly, there are going to be loads of people whose priorities are nowhere near the social priorities and who therefore have no chance whatsoever of seeing their particular hobbyhorse being funded. People like that are eventually going to get pig sick of making their contribution, because they're going to believe (correctly) that the society they're in isn't working for them.

"In this town everyone's rich. So when everyone's equal serendipity becomes a status symbol." ... Maybe telling them "no" trashed their delusion that life should just be one series of effortless moments after another.

"Yeah, they never show you at home what they can do."

We're both fans of public transit, something we discovered the first time we met; we talked about our favorite AC Transit bus line (the 51) the first time we had dinner, and celebrated a subway-accessible wedding a year and a half later.

Subjectivity Isn’t Sustainable... Sometimes it takes extra time and effort to describe and document situations that appear obvious or hard to describe. We should at least try. Failing to do so keeps all the power and decision making with the people who know.

Then, to our utmost surprise, the captain stepped down from the platform and continued: "My wife and I struggled for a long while, and we just adopted a child last year. It is life's greatest gift. And so, it is my pleasure to do this for you. Won't you please give me your hands so that I can fingerprint them?"

I recently told a reader that if forced to choose, I would sacrifice every video game in existence for the works of Shakespeare and not give it a moment's thought. Such mental experiments are folly. It's likely that if we ever do lose the works of Shakespeare it will be at the same instant we lose all the video games and everything else.

I like universal health care not for any moral reason but because it encourages job mobility, enterpreneurship, takes the burden off our manufacturing industries, and leads to cheaper health care costs. I like to spend money on education because it makes our workers competitive in the international market. I want cap and trade because reliable humans tell me that the long-term costs of climate shift will be worse than doing nothing. I want solar power so people with thousand-year-old grudges in countries half a world away stop yanking us around. I want to cut defense spending so we can move it to border control and humint resources. I favor separation of church and state because, like Thomas Jefferson, I don't want people of faith to have other faiths shoved on them by the power of the government.

I'm a goddam 1972 Republican.

As I read these, copy and paste these, sitting for hours on my nice couch in my American apartment -- Philip Glass, Ray Lynch -- all my tactile senses drift away, I live in my mind, and you can tell, because the quotes get less and less sensual and beautiful, more and more cerebral and clever. That former, pain and breathtaking joy, that's what I got some of this summer, by leaving things I knew and breaking my heart open more and losing my mind a little. I don't want to just have had a vacation from this straitlaced intellectual life, one that doesn't stick.

Perhaps this should have been a letter after all, personal and quiet, about sun and grass and ants constantly getting onto my skin, about enthusiasm and the hope in knowing time will pass, I don't know. More like this.

I want my writing to be good enough for you. I want my living to be good enough. I don't know what I'm losing in this change, I just have to do what I can't not do.

The first day we met he informed me that the essence of our work was learning to get out of our own fucking way. I am learning that out here--how to get out of my own fucking way--and really listen to what I care about, what I truly ache to say. ...

It is almost 11. There is nothing out there but the terrible night.

I scramble around for words to shape and convey how I'm feeling and all I have is what already exists. It is a little late in life for me to decide to invent a new language to love the world with -- isn't that sort of conlang pursuit more suited to the 18-25 demographic, or poets? Isn't this sort of rather embarrassing love letter to discovery and change more suited to Dreamwidth?

Screw it. Jim Blandy said, musing to me and Amber Case at the Mozilla table at Open Source Bridge, "every good thing I've ever done has been unauthorized." Post.

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(2) : An Ecstatic Patron of Recurrent Light: I first read The Great Gatsby in eleventh grade, Mr. Hatch's American Literature class. Every few years I reread it. I read it a few years ago, after moving to Astoria, and got a richer sense of place out of all the geographical references and touches. I'm rereading bits of it now.

Wow, those party scenes are much more informative, funny, and tragic when you've had friends, and been to parties you enjoyed, and not been the most awkward person in the room. In fact, all the interpersonal stuff is. I'm kind of wondering how it was that I loved this book so much for its aesthetics and psychological insight when I was so completely undeveloped on those fronts. And it's not like Anjana Appachana (Incantations and Other Stories), where I liked the work half a lifetime ago and now it seems obvious. I loved Gatsby then and I love it now, but I can't easily reach back to what I saw in it then, because every page feels fresh now.

I was rereading the end of Chapter 6 ("He broke off and began to walk up and down a desolate path of fruit rinds and discarded favors and crushed flowers....") and remembered Mr. Hatch -- I could call him Sam now? -- reading it aloud to us. "Can't repeat the past?" he cried incredulously. "Why of course you can!" I remember his greying hair, his two desks stuffed with essays and handouts, the green chalkboard, the classroom's chairdesks in two sets facing each other. (And him, and how he influenced me, but that's several thoughts too many for this was-supposed-to-be-short post.) For his class I wrote an essay about Gatsby, comparing him to Karna from the Mahabharata. It was perhaps the high-water mark of my overachieving high school nerdery, being way longer than the minimum and including a six-page appendix summarizing the Mahabharata with special emphasis on Karna's origin, trials and fate. Cue knowing mockery from classmates. Perhaps they meant it as friendly, mostly.

My parents showed it off to their Indian visitors; their daughter wasn't into bharatnatyam dance or the sitar or classical singing and her Kannada sucked, but at least she was oddly interested in the mythology. I wonder how many printouts they made. "Just like her father," I bet the aunties and uncles said.

I came across that essay last week, while sorting through some boxes. Maybe I'll ask Leonard to read it, to tell me whether it'll make me wince to see what I thought of Fitzgerald and Vyasa before I was even really sentient as a critical thinker. I can barely bear to read my ten-year-old blog entries!

I know what I see in Gatsby now; I saw something else, something valuable and beautiful, ten-plus years ago, and I expect I'll see yet a different face in the next decade. That's a classic for you, one that rewards new orbits with fresh discovery. I now see it through layers of history: Long Island in the 1920s, Tokay High School in the nineties, Queens from the 2000s. Can't repeat the past? ...borne back ceaselessly...

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(1) : From "I Have A Tambourine" to "LOL Warmongers" (Really Just Listen To The Talk): After making some absurd, thrice-removed-from-original-text inside joke with Leonard, like "I never Medipren I didn't like," I told him about Biella Coleman's & Finn Brunton's talk at HOPE about pleasure in political spectacle, lulzy media, Anonymous vs. Scientology, etc.

"I was reminded of our injokes when they talked about exploitables. BUT NOT ENOUGH! I shall hold them hostage and force them to give their talk again, with more discussion of exploitables! Bright lights in their faces, rivulets of sweat --"

"Or you could just talk to them," Leonard broke in.


"They won't even know they've been captured," I mused diabolically.

Anyway, Biella and I were already acquainted before the talk (via Seth), and now Finn and I are pals, which is why they greet me during the Q&A around 58:30. I can recommend Finn's talk on spam and metagaming and his essay "Why I did not kill myself in January of 2010" along with the rest of his writing, and Biella's 1998 FLOSS memories, Precor ethnography, and full lulz talk (more work than I can summarize). And the HOPE talk.

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: Some Preliminary Thoughts On My Adoration Of The Week: Mysore is a few hours' train, car, or bus travel from Bangalore. Conventional wisdom says Mysore is a small, quiet city, with colleges and parks and long afternoons sipping coffee with friends and relatives.

But a few days ago, with welders fixing a gate on our street, I couldn't get away from the noise, it's been louder and more annoying than anything I have to put up with in Astoria. Which makes Mysore noisier than New York City.

Also, I hit myself in the face while waving away a fly or mosquito.

From some incoherent early morning notes a few days ago:

Electrical current is out upstairs. Sound of water pouring into tank (I hope). Dogs barking intermittently; make me that rat.

Geckos, not feeling all aggravated at ants, eating off banana leaves 3 times in a week, tea tea tea, the idea of too many cooks in the kitchen is hella alien.

"Make me that rat"? I think I was remembering how intermittent, unpredictable rewards and punishments drive lab rats crazy. It sounds like a prayer, though. Batter my heart. Make me that rat.

A few days later:

It's the perfect temperature, and breakfast is long over and lunch is thankfully at least an hour away, but dust from old papers stuffs my nose and the workers' noise turns my energy and creative attention to mush. All I want to do right now is grab you -- yes, you, reader, whoever you are -- by the lapel and read to you large extracts of R.K. Narayan.

I have written all the following essays because I had to. I had to write to meet a deadline every Thursday in order to fill half a column for the Sunday issue....I had not the ghost of an idea what I was going to do. As [my editor] had left me to do anything I wanted within my column I started writing, trusting to luck; somehow I managed to fill the column for nearly twenty years without a break.
-p.8, A Writer's Nightmare: Selected Essays 1958-1988
Anyone who's ever written a weekly column sees, at this moment, straight into Narayan's heart. Somehow, from all the frantic tuggings and scribblings, you end up with a body of work, and there are some gems in there, and how did that happen?

Narayan died two days after Douglas Adams did. He'd been honored by lots of governments and academies, and nominated to the Rajya Sabha (India's upper house of parliament). One of the most touching columns in the collection is a remembrance of Indira Gandhi, who made time to talk with him about books, the environment, and urban development. Then there's the obligatory "how they ruined the movie version of my book" story, and Thurber-y stuff about losing an umbrella or how the morning newspaper gets snatched up and torn to pieces by every relative or neighbor except the subscriber.

He'd lived in Mysore and spent lots of time in Berkeley and New York, both of which he loved. For comfort, the last few weeks, I have been writing and emailing and instant-messaging and phone chatting with friends in NYC and the Bay Area, so when I read Narayan getting nostalgic about 14th Street and the Campanile, Washington Square and Telegraph and Sather Gate, I felt that enchanted expat camaraderie wash over me like a pleasant alien bath. It means even more coming from someone who articulated Karnataka so particularly well:

Even adjoining cities, such as Mysore and Bangalore, to take an immediate example, have antagonistic temperaments although they come under the same State administration and partake of the same culture, separated only by an 85-mile concrete road, which you can cover in two hours; and yet what a difference! Strangers who have passed through, inadvertently say, "I was in Mysore," when they mean Bangalore! This sort of slip distresses a true Mysorean and a Bangalorean equally. For the shades of prejudice between the two cities are not mere gradations in a chromatic scale but well-defined conflicting colours. In the shops of Mysore if any commodity is unfairly priced, and you ask for an explanation, pat comes the answer, "It is all due to Bangalore, where they have put up the prices." The Bangalorean thinks, "God, nothing will prosper in Mysore. People are too sleepy and impossible. Once, when I was in Mysore, I tried to get a plumber to fix the tap in my bathroom and for fifteen days no one turned up. In Bangalore...."

Bangalore hotels, taxis, water supply, and the colour and composition of masala dosai are categorically disapproved of by Mysoreans. "Mysore is dull" is balanced by "Bangalore is getting so congested that it will choke itself one of these days". If a Mysorean admits certain deficiencies in Mysore, he'll always trace them to the fact that it has no spokesmen either in Delhi or in Bangalore, most of the Ministers (at least till recently) being men of other districts, which is the reason why Mysore is without a train connection to the South through Chamarajnagar-Satyamangalam (a distance of only 45 miles through an oft-observed track), an airport, a broadcasting station, and a broad-gauge track. No one in authority has any feeling for Mysore. There is also a comforting view adopted sometimes that Bangalore is a sort of filter keeping out undesirable industrial elements, leaving Mysore to live in its pristine glory.
-p. 148, from "Pride of Place"

As with Lavanya Sankaran, I find here an enchanting and rare specificity. I can always find English-language writers showing off their familiarity with Berkeley and Manhattan, but then it's no longer an in-joke, just sophistication. Narayan as South South Asian:
It is childish to imagine that by sending us Hindi forms you are making us more Hindi-conscious. Shall we supply your post offices with forms and stationery printed in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada? That would at least give this whole business a sportive and reciprocal touch.
-p.28, "To a Hindi Enthusiast"

Go read it, whether you want to grok South India because it's your home, or because it's not.

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(5) : Method Of Loci: I sit in my father's old office, in the chair his typist used when he came every morning to take dictation (memoirs, articles, essays, books, email, whatever struck my father's fancy. We kept telling him to concentrate on the memoirs, but he always had some new project to push).

The great big shelf built into the wall above the door was nearly full of newspaper-wrapped bundles of books, packed in batches of five or ten each. Nearly all of them were copies of books by my dad. He was, I realize now, our household's own Asimov, prolific and polymathic. He wrote about the history of Kannada, about the Bhagavad Gita, recently a set of essays about sparrows in literature and the word "sparrow." Today my sister and I used the ladder and brought down about eight hundred books, our fingers turning black with newspaper ink. We'll be giving a lot of these away at the service on Sunday.

I hear rain outside. No surprise; it's monsoon season. I can't see it, since it's 1am -- just the reflected shadow of the curved metal bars in the diamond-patterned window panes, by the light of two white fluorescent tubes above. Every so often the power fluctuates and various devices beep.

To my left and behind me are five dark gray metal bookcases, reaching nearly to the ceiling. Each case has nine shelves, including the top, bolted. I think these are the sturdiest bookcases I have ever seen. They are completely filled with books. Nearly all the titles I can only sound out slowly, since I barely know Kannada and don't know Hindi. It looks like he had a complete set of F. Max Muller's Sacred Books of the East.

Just behind me is a pink plastic chair. I think Dad sat in it while dictating. Three thin cushions lie on the seat, and a green acrylic blanket slumps over the back.

Of course there are closets set into the wall, also filled with books, and a computer desk with books and notes on every free horizontal bit of wood, and a dining-style wood table in the middle of the room, piled with books, surrounded by upholstered wooden chairs whose seats serve as book-pile pedestals. Rounding out the table's inhabitants: notes, a phone that doesn't work, a white-and-maroon mug of pens ("First West Coast Kannada Sammelana: April 1996, Los Angeles"), newspapers, a magnifying glass, folders, plastic bags ("plastic covers" they would say here) full of who-knows-what. Under the table and in the corners, cardboard boxes sit, half-full of office supplies, brochures, clippings, I wish I knew because we are going to have to sort all this out.

My dad got broadband, at my sister's cajoling, in case she and I had to suddenly drop everything to visit them. If the house switched from dialup to a speedy Internet connection, she reasoned, we'd be able to work from India remotely. Now that's come true and he can't appreciate it. He'd been asking in recent months for us to set up Skype (he called it "Spike") on his computer so he could video chat with his daughters. I put it off.

While debugging the wifi the day I arrived, I pulled out my blue Ethernet cord (don't get on a plane without it) and plugged it into the router. The wifi works now, but I like sitting in the typist's chair in the office, plugged in. My sister gives me a look of disbelief when I say I'm going to go do my internetting in Dad's office. "It's so crowded," she says. "Aren't you uncomfortable?"

She forgets that I'm the girl who loved to take stacks of "Jack and Jill," "Cricket," and other children's magazines into a cardboard box and sit for hours, reading. I once moved the box into the closet, leaving the door a crack open for light, and got so absorbed that I didn't hear them calling me, and they thought I was missing. My mother hated that. She told me I should never get so lost in something that I couldn't hear someone calling my name. I might have learned hyperfocus if it weren't for that, I think bitterly, unfairly. "Code fugue" is what we called it freshman year of college, in Freeborn Hall, when hackers lost themselves in the trance state. I bet my dad found himself in code fugue many a time, when he was developing that Hindu astrology starchart-casting program in GW-BASIC. I think I helped with the colors.

One reason it's unfair to resent my mother is that her edict is probably not the reason I'm not a hacker -- the true bottlenecks were elsewhere, I think, but that's not what I mean to dissect now. And another is that the Harihareswara children had one excuse that absolutely, without fail, got them out of chores, eating, or nearly any other obligation: "I've been struck by inspiration and I have to write this down NOW." The parent always retreated so the child could return to that struggle we all knew, instantiating the private golden world onto the unforgiving page. She and I remembered this a few days ago while telling visitors about our childhood, and looked at each other, realizing with a start that we'd never abused this privilege.

What did it do to us, growing up in a household that put out a magazine every other month, edited anthologies every year, organized book tours for author friends, accumulated boxes of books in the garage the way some families end up with seas of cheap toys? We learned to treat writing as sacred and easy.

If I am sitting in the typist's chair, then I can imagine my father sitting behind me, reading something, taking longhand notes, looking around for Post-It notes to annotate the text. I don't hear him, but then I am wearing headphones.

I wish he were here, to organize his damn notes, to tell us what his system was. But he would have been impatient with us. He had things to do.

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: From My Father's Library: 20th Century Kannada Poetry (Selections)
Edited & Translated by Sumatheendra Nadig

M. Gopalakrishna Adiga
"A Common Man"

How dare you call me Common Man; Your dad
is common, in the company of my father
your grandfather and your great grandfather
                   who are dead.
Hey you, tell me if you know my name. Does
                   your father own
this face, this stance and this lashless
God's-eye mind of mine? Faraway you sit in your
airconditioned room and conduct
my funeral rites with your generalisations.
If you have any guts, come out
and look at my palm; look at the
unique mounts, crosses and lines. I will show you
how in this broken lantern the sooty wick
lifts up its burning head.

You are the wooden handle of the axe
which has forgotten the flowering, fruit bearing tree.
For you everything is the same. A group
means a flock, a flock means sheep
and sheep means mutton. Where is the humanity
in you to call each one by name, feed
and fondle it with endearing words? you know
only to number us and fill up the trucks by the
meat factory. You know only to apply the
same brand name to all the cans. You dream
of tasting me only from the can.
For a piece of bread, you bastard, you
have allowed them to scrape off your nose and face.
You are the tailless fox for whom variety
is sour. You hold the foot rule and
Scrape off everything until it becomes common.
You, worshipper of the shapeless black money's
jingle, what is the name of the machine
in your chest? Come on, breathe out.

Everything that can breathe has its own history,
its special smile, its own evolution
and direction. It will escape your map
and lift up its flag of individuality
until it can build a tower of light.
I may be an eczema-stricken farmer in torn cloths,
                part of a chorus,
or a come-what-may-I-don't-care factory
                worker in sooty clothes,
or a limping thrusting-forward beggar on the street.


Did you call me a common man? You are mistaken.
Beware, I don't stretch my hands for the handcuffs.
I will bite and tear the noose round my neck
while I close my eyes and muse. Your pistol may
threaten me to march to its tune but I
will be dancing to a different tune in my mind.
I am a free-born soul.
You, worshipper of commonalities who has scraped
off your face to wear the mask of Hiranayaksha

Your only ambition is to stick to your chair,
Therefore either you chisel off the faces of others
or keep them in jails. But look, look! there
the great boar is sharpening his tusks,
waiting for the proper time.
I am the Narasimha caught up in a pillar.
I am also waiting
for a proper time.

It's uneven but I love "Everything that can breathe... / ... tower of light", "Beware, I don't stretch my hands for the handcuffs", and "I am the Narasimha caught up in a pillar."

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(1) : (I Say, While Reading About Zombies): Last night I was told that if you read Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France side by side with Paine's Rights of Man you get two different perspectives on the French Revolution and it's really cool. When I say this it sounds like I'm recommending putting pop rocks in your Diet Coke, doesn't it.

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(3) : Foo Camp, Generosity, and Surrender: Sumana Harihareswara, Steven Levy, and Chad Dickerson at Foo Camp 2010, photo by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid / few Foo Camp-related notes and links. Leigh suggests this Twitter search should you like to look through that particular collective stream of consciousness. (Cuttingly funny link I found via that search: It Must Be a Marketing Problem.)

Thanks to Scott Beale of Laughing Squid for the photo of me with frickin' Steven Levy (yes, the one who wrote Hackers) and Chad Dickerson, CTO of Etsy. Chad and I met at a retreat, the first year I worked there and his first year as a Salon alumnus. I'm the one who looks like Geordi LaForge; to my right is the desktop support guy who did a poetry fellowship at Stanford. Oh, those early Salon memories.

Selena Marie Deckelmann led a Foo Camp discussion about the ethics of endless permanent logging: "Forgetting should be built into our applications by default," she suggests. This ties into Danny O'Brien's Open Source Bridge keynote, in which he told us we need to change logging defaults on Apache and the like to be more sensible to protect dissidents. And that reminds me of some threads floating through my Foo Camp experience: We're the ones creating others' user experience. That's hospitality, that's generosity, that's the natural authority and dominance that happens, or that we take on because it needs to happen and we're the ones we've been waiting for. We have an obligation to take care of the people who depend on us. Where we have power and strength, we need to recognize that and use it responsibly, not just flee from and resent it. And where I say "we" I mean "I."

On generosity:

After I arrived in San Francisco but before heading to camp, I realized I'd need a warm jacket in Sebastopol, and hadn't brought one. Long story short, I ended up with an eight-year-old's maroon fringed hoodie, as seen here (again, Scott Beale of Laughing Squid). Got a few compliments, though the sleeves were a bit short. I happened to mention this situation in front of Bubba Murarka, who then literally lent me the coat off his back. I don't think I had a single conversation with him all weekend, which means that someone from Facebook gave me a tangible benefit without requiring any personal information. Just kidding! We talked about getting our parents to accept it when we date & marry white people. I think.

my becoated back + scores of digerati & cognoscenti; photo by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid At the camp, I was supposed to share a tent with Leigh, but the tent she'd borrowed would have been rather too cozy. As we were making arrangements to store our luggage in Thor's tent (interrupted by scifi recommendations of course), a guy I was talking with mentioned that he'd brought a six-person-sized tent and was sleeping in it alone. I gracelessly invited myself in and David Forbes proved himself a generous host who easily outgeeked me on tax history. David, the book I mentioned is Conversion and the Poll Tax in Early Islam by Daniel Dennett, Jr. From the Introduction:

...Nevertheless, all the contributions to the literature of Muslim taxation within the last forty years have been monographic in character and limited in area to particular provinces of the Arab Empire, with the result that there is no single work to which a student who might be interested in the general problem to turn; and if he attempts to master the secondary literature, he will discover so many conflicting data and opinions that his confusion will be increased rather than resolved. This book, therefore, attempts to present a broad view of the system of taxation as it existed in East and West throughout the lands once subject to the Persians and the Greeks, and it is based on all the evidence the writer has been able to discover. It is not, however, a synthesis of the latest opinion, for, as the reader will presently discover, I have views of my own and an axe to grind....
Anthemic! Also, David, in case you're wondering how I knew to get you Gouda, popcorn and orange juice from the Lucky supermarket down the road as a host gift, it's because it takes five seconds to Google you and you mentioned them on FormSpring.

Also in the gifts-from-strangers category: the contagiously enthusiastic Dan Shapiro ran a session in one of the tents with miraculin tablets. Incredibly simple demo: let a tab dissolve on your tongue, swish your saliva around, then taste something sour like lemon juice or vinegar and it'll taste sweet. I knew it'd work, but I hadn't anticipated how joyous, convivial, and transformative it would feel, like a secular communion. Is this what psychedelics are like? You've hacked your senses and now pain is pleasure, sour is sweet, perspective is topsy-turvy, wrong is oh so right. The most numinous scheduled session I experienced.

What is it that makes us more receptive to gifts and transformations? Built-in boundaries, trust, security, self-esteem, love. Sometimes it's harder for me to accept a gift than a setback. One useful concept from Christianity, I've found, is grace -- the undeserved good thing, the good thing one can't possibly deserve, but there's no point in fighting it. Surrender. Minutely I move closer to being willing to lose myself, because every time I do, I'm still there when I come back, and more whole than before.

Speaking of pills: I use melatonin to help me sleep on planes or when jetlagged. On the flight back to New York, I offered it to my rowmates. The fella on my left said, "No thanks, I lived through the sixties and took enough pills from strangers."

And that made me laugh, but also reminded me how egalitarian and generally Californian the whole thing was. Tim O'Reilly made I think 3 cumulative minutes of speeches between his opening and closing, and the closing included his request that we do as he'd done, creating more value than we capture. Imagine what generous things we can do! The joy transforms me and I marvel at it.

Filed under:

(1) : Catabacklog: I am homesick. In other news, I seem to have read several books and not mentioned them here. No longer!

Dear Genius (Nordstrom) coverUrsula Nordstrom's letters (Dear Genius). Blew my mind every twenty pages as I started thinking of childhood classics (Trumpet of the Swan, for example) being made by people. And she was amazing at coaching, criticizing, and cajoling creative people from afar. Transferrable advice for my career.

Deepness (Vinge) coverA Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge. Won hella awards and rightly so. Immersive, cerebral, satisfyingly huge. I love how there's "hard sf" here (the physics of space icebergs) and "soft" stuff like multiple well-realized alien sociologies and characters.

Confessions (Berkun) coverScott Berkun's new public speaking book, Confessions of a Public Speaker. I just skimmed this since right now I think I need to concentrate on executing instead of reading inspiration or tips. Nice wackiness sidling in at odd moments -- who doesn't hate non-classy chandeliers? -- and a few ideas I needed to hear as I prep my Open Source Bridge talk (like exactly how to ask audience members to do some small-group discussion).

Red Carpet (Sankaran) coverThe Red Carpet: Bangalore Stories by Lavanya Sankaran. I picked this up in the Manhattan public library when I was looking for Dorothy Sayers. Most English-language Indian fiction isn't about Bangalore, so this is an ultra-specific YES YES SO RIGHT YES. Sankaran hooked me a few pages in by using the Kannada/English slang "one-thaara," ("a kind/type of") which I'd never seen written down before. The title story is so sweet!

The File (Garton Ash) coverThe File by Timothy Garton Ash. As a grad student, he lived in West and East Germany. After the reunification, he reads his Stasi file, compares it with his own notes and memories, and interviews the Germans who informed on him. Riveting, funny, a quick and rewarding read.

For The Win (Doctorow) coverFor the Win by Cory Doctorow. Along the same lines as Little Brother -- thriller/polemic -- and I liked it about as much, although the ending seemed abrupt. I thought I'd just read the first few pages... and then ended up reading all of For the Win when I meant to be working, although I skimmed the "here is how economics works" bits. The bits set in India sounded fine to my diasporic ear, for what it's worth. Available as a free download, of course.

cover for The Good That Men DoStar Trek: Enterprise: The Good That Men Do, by Andy Mangels & Michael A. Martin. If you know about the stupid and wrong thing that happens in the last episode of Star Trek: Enterprise then you may also know that this is one of the books that retcons it. I liked the plot and the relationships, but the writing was flabby. Funniest example:

In fact, Trip didn't recall, but he made no response, busying himself instead with the various controls that were arrayed before him. As the vessel's numerous interlocking systems continued powering up, Trip continued to study the consoles, hoping against hope that he wouldn't reveal his imposture to Ehrehin by appearing hesitant or bewildered by the flight instruments and indicators. Fortunately, Romulan instrumentation was fairly streamlined and straightforward, lacking an excess of confusing redundancy.

Most satisfying individual sentence in which the authors get in a few digs at the plausibility of the canon story:

Trip felt as though they were being almost too arch with these exchanges, but hoped that upon a close investigation of Enterprise's security logs, no one else would notice just how dunderheaded this entire piracy scenario really was.

Leonard saw the framing device, in which Jake and Nog from Deep Space Nine investigate implausible goings-on in canon, and decided there should be an entire series of such stories: Jake & Nog: CanonCops! Jake & Nog chould investigate "Similitude" from Enterprise and figure out why Phlox really decided to kill that sentient species. Maybe he's Section 31. And the warp 10/salamanders incident from Voyager, the de-evolving from "Genesis" (The Next Generation), and the Genesis Device (films) make no sense separately, but CanonCops! could retcon them into coherence.

While talking about The Good That Men Do, I mentioned to Julia that I should recommend a few Star Trek branded novels. Diane Duane is always a good bet: Doctor's Orders, The Final Reflection, and Spock's World are strong, and Doctor's Orders and Spock's World help me understand McCoy and Spock better. The Kobayashi Maru by Julia Ecklar tells how Kirk, Chekov, Scotty, and Sulu faced impossible tests when they were Starfleet cadets. None quite as memorable as "Lunch and Other Obscenities", but good. A Stitch in Time by Andrew J. Robinson is a deep, deep dive into Garak and Cardassia, written by the actor who portrayed Garak. It hints at Garak's queerness, if I recall correctly. And the anthology Tales of the Dominion War has a few stories I liked, about the fall of Betazed, a Romulan spy on Deep Space Nine, and a neutral race of engineers helping fugitives McCoy and Scotty.

When I was about fourteen, I used to really love Peter David's novels. Imzadi is a classic (and taught me completely legitimate therapeutic technique), Q-in-Law and Q-Squared are gripping and fun and make the canon universe make more sense, and Vendetta has a very creepy last page. But then I grew up and disliked his Arthurian novel and his She-Hulk and Babylon 5: Crusade work -- forced, glib, smarmy. So I can't say whether I recommend the stuff I read as a teen, and am a bit afraid the suck fairy has visited it. Same with Spartacus.

Of other interest: Dark Passions, one of those mirror universe novels that's just an excuse to turn all the Trek women into Hot Bi Babes. Ghost Ship, memorable to me chiefly because Picard decides to spend several hours in a sensory deprivation tank to help him make an important decision. Ultra-strange scene. And I have not yet read Planet X, the Star Trek/X-Men crossover novel, but realistically it's only a matter of time.

Filed under:

(2) : 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 cover

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 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.

Mary Anne Mohanraj and Sumana Harihareswara at WisCon in 2009(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.

Bio Break by Brittany Hague(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 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...

Times Square by David Kelmer(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,, 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!

Filed under:

: GNOME Video Site, Mysterious Bugzilla Upgrade Patron, Mallard, Acire/Quickly, An Interview & A Goodbye: I'm an editor and the release coordinator for GNOME Journal, which just released its 19th issue.

This issue has six articles:

Paul, Jim, the authors and I put some hours into this and I think it's worth it. Check it out.

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(1) : Gussied-Up Link Blogging: I am accumulating draft posts as I focus my days on GNOME Journal work, errands, and preparing for conferences and other appearances. So, very little blogging; even my Ada Lovelace Day post will be days late. But I can at least mention some interesting links.

"The reason this exists is because every time we watch Parks and Recreation we sing 'Jabba the Hutt' along with the theme. So naturally we had to make this video." I like the way you think.

This New York Times article on China's cyberposses, or "human-flesh search engines", was scary and enlightening.

Searches have been directed against all kinds of people, including cheating spouses, corrupt government officials, amateur pornography makers, Chinese citizens who are perceived as unpatriotic, journalists who urge a moderate stance on Tibet and rich people who try to game the Chinese system. Human-flesh searches highlight what people are willing to fight for: the political issues, polarizing events and contested moral standards that are the fault lines of contemporary China.

It also led me to feel less sympathy for an Encyclopedia Dramatica moderator.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, as often, eloquently states something that gets my head nodding:

But I think any sort of conservatism intellectual critique of liberalism and minority rights, really has to reckon with American conservatism's appalling record on that front...

Moreover they have used a skepticism of change, to mask a defense of institutional evil...

There is a fundamental problem here, one that can't be elided by pointing out the differences between "true" conservatism and Republicans. A bias toward time-tested, societal institutions almost necessarily means a bias toward institutional evil....

Derek Powazek's recent foolproof guide to nurturing houseplants reminded me of a heartwarming houseplant story he once wrote.

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(2) : Web: About eleven years ago, I saw a link from Slashdot to a geek humor site called Segfault. I started reading it, then started reading the homepage of one of the editors. Leonard Richardson. He posted something new nearly every day, like a diary. (I didn't know the word "blog" in 1999.) He shared funny lines from his friends, his mom, his colleagues. I kept reading.

About ten years ago, I started reading Joel on Software. Just a few years previous I'd discovered Gerald Weinberg, specifically his The Psychology of Computer Programming, and loved it. So this Joel guy was talking about things I found interesting, and was introducing lenses, metaphors, models that immediately spoke to me. Fire And Motion. Ben & Jerry's vs. Amazon. The Law of Leaky Abstractions. Managers as the developer's abstraction layer (I later heard the synonym "windshield"). Smart and Gets Things Done. The iceberg problem in software development. Five Worlds. Architecture astronauts. I could go on.

Almost exactly nine years ago, I saw a funny line ("Those guys are gods of applied physics!") in an article on SFGate, decided that Leonard guy would appreciate it, and sent it to him. He and I started corresponding, and then hanging out. I went down to Bakersfield with him one weekend to help his mom move. Eventually we started dating.

About four years ago, I saw another pivotal blog post. I was living in San Francisco, in my third year working for Salon, and realizing that I'd like to go into management, and this Joel guy announced that his company was looking for me. Well, for someone who wanted to lead geeks, not necessarily a programmer. I saw that post, then woke up at 3am the next day, thinking, "I have to apply."

I applied, thinking I hadn't a chance in hell. Joel phone-screened me. I'd been told to prepare a short lesson ahead of time, on a topic of my choosing. So I came up with my stand-up comedy lesson plan, which I still use today. He asked whether, if accepted, I could move out to New York the next month. I hesitated a second or two, then said sure. They flew me out for an interview. I got an offer and said yes. Fog Creek paid handsomely to relocate my household. Leonard, who had left Collabnet to work on Ruby Cookbook, came with me. He'd never seen New York before we arrived in January of 2006.

Leonard and I were unhappy that we were moving so far from his mom. Frances had been fighting HIV for more than a decade, and had lived far longer than the doctors had ever predicted, but her health was still perceptibly declining. So I told him he should fly back once a month to see her. But he didn't get much of a chance to do that, because her health started getting much, much worse a few months after we moved. Leonard flew back and spent several weeks with her as she died. I took some time off to go be with her; later I discovered that Fog Creek had quietly, kindly given me those days for free, and not counted them against my paid time off.

Of all the job perks I ever got at Fog Creek -- relocation, half a Columbia Master's paid for, lunches, Broadway tickets, unlimited sickleave, Metrocard, a great library -- that one sticks with me most.

Oh man, this thing is getting long. Anyway. I learned a lot from Joel, before, during, and after my time at Fog Creek. I appreciate his decisiveness, his straightforwardness, his species of eloquence and encouragement, his financial generosity, his entrepreneurial spirit, and his insight. Sure, it wasn't all roses and sunshine, but he changed my life, mostly for the better.

A few days from now, Joel Spolsky will retire from active blogging, ten years after he started. Leonard and I are married, and still live in New York, and will for the next year at least. We still miss Frances terribly. Segfault's been gone for nine years. My Fog Creek salary subsidized Leonard's work on Ruby Cookbook, then RESTful Web Services. I have a master's degree in tech management and am looking for my next job in that field. Fog Creek was 6 or 7 people when I arrived, and now it's thirty or more. All those articles of Joel's are up on the web, ready for us to reread or brandish or rip to ribbons.

And so are my archives, and Leonard's, and Frances's.

It really is a web, isn't it.

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(4) : Fanfic Recommendations: Some fics I've liked:

Erin Ptah's Colbert Report archive includes "The Thing With Feathers", the fifth time Jon terrified Stephen, and "In Time".
"Theories About Nuclear Winter" by hollycomb (continued in Part II), the best Calvin and Hobbes Susie/Calvin fic ever. The end still makes me cry.
"Second Verse (Same as the First)" by Friendshipper/Sholio. "The Marines call it the Planet of the Willing Virgins, you know." I don't know much about Stargate but this still kicked me in the gut (here's a warm-fuzzy chaser).

And recently I've tried out some Psych fic, most of my favorites centering on the relationship between Lassiter and O'Hara:

Elisa, these two reminded me of your discussion of useful vagueness in sex scenes, which reminded me of this analysis (caution, includes shoulder-biting).
Flirting. Possibly my favorite of all the tension-on-the-job stories.
Carlton almost majored in theater.
Someone has nothing to do on Christmas.
Buzz/Carlton? Sure.
There's a lot of schmoopy they-know-each-other-so-well fic. Exhibits A, B, C, D, E.
Do they comfort each other after trauma? Sure do!

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(2) : Some Books: Recently read, don't want to forget:

A Year Without "Made In China" by Sara Bongiorni: a quick read, finished in a few hours (long after receiving it as a gift, I'm embarrassed to say). The author gets caught up in edge cases and logistics, as you always do when you make a rule-based change to your lifestyle (sometimes that heightens your appreciation of the intention you're manifesting, and sometimes it fogs it). She makes it engaging, but don't look here for recommendations on finding non-Chinese-made alternatives. Much more a memoir than a how-to.

World War Z by Max Brooks: I started reading this before bed and had to finish it before going to sleep, or else zombies would haunt my dreams. Hard horror (like hard fantasy), first-class worldbuilding, grim satire, chills, thrills, relentless inevitability yet surprises and twists on every page.

The Carpet Makers by Andreas Eschbach: seems to start out a family-scale fantasy, expands into space opera, epic in scope but always personal and believable. Empires fall and rise, investigators work on eons-old mysteries, and you see bits and pieces from several perspectives. Very good. Translated from the German.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin, as I mentioned a few days back.

I've also reread most of Bury the Chains and The Left Hand of Darkness. (Jo Walton's book reviews make me feel better about spending time rereading for pleasure or curiosity.)

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(2) : Making The Hard Look Easy, Feminism, and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: Mary Anne Mohanraj recently wrote about sprezzatura, the nonchalance and easy grace that make all one's accomplishments seem effortless. She mentions that she's trying to cut down on that behavior, because she thinks its deception causes harmful expectations and self-loathing in others.

Mohanraj's post instantly reminded me of an ex. He told me of a compliment he'd once received: "You seem to be gliding through life." What does it say about me that I'd think of that as an insult, not a compliment? My take was: If you aren't visibly struggling, you're not working hard enough, your life is easy, and you're probably spoiled, lazy, and uncurious. How much of that is my workaholism? How much is insecurity, or resentment of privilege, or ignorance of my own privilege? Stupid female-socialized insecurity and self-sabotage for the sake of fitting in is, as I stipulated, stupid, and harmful both to the speaker and the hearer. But there's a difference between struggling to appear effortless and batting away compliments with a stick. I'm gonna quote myself from a column I wrote a few years ago:

There are people who say there's no such thing as arrogance, who would see nothing wrong with saying they're awesome, to whom humility, embarrassment, hubris, etc., are useless concepts that get in the way of efficient markets....

There is this thing called kindness, and it includes not eating a Snickers bar in front of a hungry person, and it includes not bragging about your skills in front of people who are trying valiantly to accomplish what you attained, especially if you got there without much effort....

Am I an expert at anything now? The larger my realm of experience gets, the more insignificant my tiny efforts seem.

What do I deliberately practice? What skills have I mastered? And what did my parents give me, in nature and nurture, that let me leap ahead?

I have no perspective on my own expertise, and no expertise on gaining perspective.

When something great happens in my life, I tend to think it's because of luck and discount my own effort. I aw-shucks my own accomplishments. And then I envy successful people instead of admiring them.

Envy comes from impotent desire. Role models get admired, the admirer assuming that he can get there too.

That's the difference, too, between destructive and constructive acknowledgments of one's accomplishments. Compassion, and hope.

Related essays that sprang to mind included some notes on protection and mentorship by Bitch Ph.D. She says that her strengths include calming students' and junior academics' anxieties by telling them the profession's unspoken rules, such as "No one reads everything they cite." I might turn her paragraph below into my new anthem:

I don't believe in unwritten rules, or at least I don't believe in not telling people what they are; I don't believe in meritocratic bull****; I don't believe that making people paranoid is the way to get them to do good work; I don't believe that competition need be cruel. I'm an extrovert, I'm honest, and I don't like to lie.

(Some thinking on meritocracy, in case you take reflexive umbrage at Bitch Ph.D.'s dismissal.)

When you're perceived as successful, you can more credibly criticize the system you've mastered and the game you've won. For example, because she takes the effort to look femme and stylish, she can awaken students to how much work goes into performing femininity: they "think more critically about why they spend so much time on their appearance, and what the costs and benefits of it are." This goes back to Mohanraj's hope that she can use others' compliments as an opening to encourage them, rather than discourage.

These days, I just keep trying to expose the work under the beauty.... I cheated and used a pre-made sauce for the base -- let me show it to you. Exposing the hard labor (or the clever workarounds) that are necessary to trying to do it all, for the sake of family, of profession, of self, of community. I believe that labor offers a different kind of grace.

Speaking of labor: On the difference between labor and work, via Dara. "What is your work now?" may go into my toolbox of party questions, as "what are you reading?" and "what are you obsessed with?" aren't surefire conversation-starters.

Mohanraj is Guest of Honor at this year's WisCon (feminist science fiction/fantasy convention, late May, Madison, Wisconsin). So I can barely segue into talking about some speculative fiction that's caught my eye.

"Sundowning" by Joanne Merriam is a little bit like "The Second Conquest of Earth" by L. J. Daly (both good, same magazine, five months previous): interesting female point-of-view character trying to outwit or outwork a terrifying antagonist.

Got an interesting fictional take on the Ramayana? An anthology is seeking submissions.

I got to go to the launch party for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Book One of The Inheritance Trilogy) a few nights ago. And then I inhaled the entire book over the next 24 hours. To quote another reviewer, it's "full of danger, sensuality, and wonder." And it works as a self-contained book, by the way.

Reasons I wanted to read this book:

So it was overdetermined that I'd read the book. I'm glad to have loved it as well.

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(2) : Life Update That Might Very Well Do Better As A Bulleted List: Sorry, I haven't blogged in the past week (except microblogging & linking). Since last Sunday, I:

visited the Merchant's House Museum with Beth, went to a fun storyreading and met new Dan, had a lovely talky dinner with Rupa, gossiped and saw a Jane Austen exhibit with Julia, breakfasted with her and Moss and Mirabai, submitted a conference proposal, met Elizabeth Yalkut, visited Yahoo! Labs New York to hear lightning talks by Yahoo! researchers, bought Diana Abu-Jaber's Origin, tried stout-based hot chocolate, went to McGinty's to celebrate a peer's escape from an abusive situation (and ended up talking Python & PostgreSQL with her sister & Beth), ate a jar of pickles (and drank the brine) while reading in Union Square Park, talked with Joe and Elisa and Brendan on the phone, introduced Leonard to new Dan, walked around Astoria with Pat and helped him find no-kill mousetraps and explored the Socrates Sculpture Park and brought him home to Leonard (where we all squeed), there's probably more but it's not in my calendar.

I remember reading Gordon Korman's Zoobreak and Maureen F. McHugh's Mothers and Other Monsters, and a bunch of TVTropes (won't even link! admire my civic responsibility) and some Lassiter Psych fanfic. Also watched several episodes of Psych. Is there a more intertextual dramedy on the air?

Thanks for the McHugh, Julia! And for warning me about the DESPAIR NOOOO in "The Cost To Be Wise" and the BLATANT FANSERVICE in Psych: "Death Is In The Air." Although no warning is quite enough.

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: "Of The Other Insectoid Worlds, I Shall Say Nothing": Just finished Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker after a year or two. I was reading it at about two pages a day. But more happens in two paragraphs of Stapledon than happens in most entire novels. Entirely ordinary example (Ch. 8, "The Beginning and the End," Section 2, "The Supreme Moment Nears"):

The supreme moment of the cosmos was not (or will not be) a moment by human standards; but by cosmical standards it was indeed a brief instant. When little more than half the total population of many million galaxies had entered fully into the cosmical community, and it was clear that no more were to be expected, there followed a period of universal meditation. The populations maintained their straitened utopian civilizations, lived their personal lives of work and social intercourse, and at the same time, upon the communal plane, refashioned the whole structure of cosmical culture. Of this phase I shall say nothing.
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: Grace: Comfort music: Tally Hall's Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum, They Might Be Giants' "Thunderbird" (from Spine). There's a moment in "Thunderbird" that always snatches my heart and holds it up to the light -- Linnell's "am" in

Man oh man my throat is dry
Man are you thinking what I
well what about it then

Comfort TV: InfoMania, Rotten Tomatoes Show, Psych, Leverage. Eitan and I stood in toe-numbing cold for hours yesterday to get standby tickets to Colbert, and got in. You can hear me in the audience, the only one clapping when Arthur Benjamin reveals why 2520 was his childhood favorite number. I thought more people would be with me on that one.

N.K. Jemisin's third gripping sample chapter for her upcoming fantasy novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is up, my ex-boss is spreading the gospel that software testing is a neat career for nonprogramming geeks, Erin Ptah's "Castle Down" is highly entertaining magical Colbert/Stewart slash, and John Darnielle is (as always) passionate and enthusiastic about something:

Well, I stumbled across it somehow, I'm not sure how, and I watched it, and I had one of those experiences you have sometimes with a band you've never heard playing a song you don't know. One of those transformative reaffirming experiences, which you then get religious about, even if religious isn't exactly the word you'd use but trust me it's the word you actually mean: you start thinking, everything should be like this all the time, anything that's not like this is a ridiculous waste of time, I want peak experiences and only peak experiences because life is all about peak experiences and people who consent to have less than constant peaking epiphanies all the time are missing out, etc., etc., all infantile nonsense of course but as feelings go a bracing & pleasant one. The permanent reoccurring 19th summer is a nonstarter as a governing aesthetic stance, but as a tool in the kit it's not without some merits.....

...[the song] becomes a radiant source of self-regenerating power and wonder and lights start to go off in corners of the room where a guy didn't know there were actually any lights, and the guy goes, wow, this is so cool, I didn't expect to run across anything this cool today and I'm so glad I did, I'd really love to run across more things like this during my daily walk down toward the grave.

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: Working And Thinking Together: Karl Fogel's essay on "the transformative effect that good tools can have on a team's ability to collaborate" informs my hesitance to respond to this Ask Metafilter question.

What is the point of thought experiments in moral philosophy? The violinist and the IV, the cable car and the fat person, the pharmacist and the sick spouse. One commenter calls them an intuition pump, which feels right to me.

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(1) : Refracted Light: Glurge is a certain kind of inspirational story. It's unattributed, it's a honed anecdote honoring goodness and generosity and loyalty and stamina and often faith, and it has a kitschy feel that irony-aligned people of my cohort are allergic to. Gives Me Hope made tears come to my eyes, but the saccharine gets to me after a few pages.

And then there's another kind of inspiration, from another direction, a different color of light. It's the way someone tells their specific story, or celebrates an achievement, more expository than persuasive. The author didn't write it specifically to inspire the reader to generalized goodness, but basic empathy leads a reader to consider the lessons mentioned, perhaps raise her sights a little.

Things that made me want to up my game recently:

Mel, as always. In this case, the way she actively seeks out uncertainty, and her ability and willingness to frankly say that she's good at things. My reflexive self-deprecation nearly won't let me think I'm good at things, and certainly wouldn't let me say it out loud. I need to work on that.

N.K. Jemisin, principally on a clash between an amateur writer's and a professional writer's mindset, but more profoundly on feeling secure in your past choices:

See, I think a lot of the angst surrounding this debate is happening because some folks -- particularly newer writers -- are caring about the wrong things. They're basing their sense of themselves as writers on extrinsic factors like which markets publish their work and how much their work sells for and whether they've got any sales at all, rather than on intrinsic factors like belief in their own skill. So of course they get upset when someone disparages a market they've sold/hoped to sell their work to; this feels like disparagement of them, and their skill. They take it very personally. And thus a conversation that should be strictly about business becomes a conversation about their personal/artistic worth.

This will sound cold-blooded. But the solution is for these writers to stop caring. Or rather, care better. I think the shift from extrinsic to intrinsic valuation -- from caring about what others think to caring about yourself -- is a fundamental part of the transition from amateur to professional, perhaps even more than pay rates and book deals and awards and such. It's a tough transition to make, I know; how do you believe in yourself if no one else does? How do you know your judgment of yourself is sound? I could write ten more blog posts trying to answer these questions. But for pro writers -- and I include aspiring pros along with established ones in this designation -- it's an absolutely necessary transition. Otherwise you spend all your time caring about the wrong things.

A kick in the butt to care about the right things.

Desi Women of the Decade. I bet my sister will be on this list in ten years. I love seeing us achieving in politics, arts/entertainment, science and business. Kind of hilarious that Parminder Nagra got on US TV to play a doctor. Maybe that's only funny to Asians.

I saw this seven-minute documentary about an aspiring comedian via the Best of Current video podcast. We all know the glurgy slogans: the lessons of adversity, no pain no gain, that sort of thing. But it is a different thing to see this man on stage, and then find out where he was before, and to think, of course the worthwhile thing is hard. I am comfortable and I need to reexamine my little lazinesses. And more that I don't have words for.

Yesterday, in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal, I ran across these lines from Rabindranath Tagore, which somehow get past my kitsch shields because they are personal, confessional, yearning, desperate:

Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers but to be fearless in facing them.
Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain, but for the heart to conquer it.
Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved but hope for the patience to win my freedom.
Grant me that I may not be a coward, feeling your mercy in my success alone; but let me find the grasp of your hand in my failure.
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: Half-Sentence Reviews: Tricked (graphic novel) by Alex Robinson and Whip It (film) are more gripping & fun than they have any right to be.

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: "Not Ordinarily Borrowable: Or, Unwelcome Advice" by Thomas Thurman: My colleague Thomas Thurman wrote a light fantasy story called Not Ordinarily Borrowable. It's 106 pages, available as a print-on-demand book via CreateSpace (like Thoughtcrime Experiments), and delightful. You can read the first chapter online (and Google Books has the first half of the book but after that you'll have to buy paper or ebooks; I got to read a PDF on a mobile device, and it was fine). Excerpt:

Now in order to become a doctor of something, there is a simple rule to follow. You must find out something new, something nobody in the world has ever seen or known or thought before. You might suppose that with all the many people there are in the world, and with all the thinking that goes on every day, it must be difficult to find a new thing never thought before. But everyone has ideas every day, and there are so many different ones that, sooner or later, everyone must find something new. You yourself saw something nobody had seen before the last time you cracked open the shell of a nut.

After you have found out your new thing, you must write a book about it, a big, heavy book called a thesis. Then, last of all, you must explain your ideas to the other scholars, and the other scholars must be happy with your work. One day, when Maria had finished doing all this, she would be allowed to call herself Dr. Maria, and allowed to wear a scarlet robe instead of her black one. That way, everyone would know how hard she had worked to find out something utterly new.

But that day was still quite a long way in the future, and Maria still had a lot of work ahead of her before it would come.

Maria goes on an adventure that features a dragon, a bike, a mayor, and missing library books. It's charming. Lucky me, I got to call up Thomas yesterday on work pretenses and babble at him for twenty minutes on the following topics:

If you enjoy Naomi Novik's Temeraire books and/or the Hereville comic How Mirka Got Her Sword (Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl Comic), you might like Not Ordinarily Borrowable (and vice-versa).
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(1) : Useful Links: MediaBugs, Scott Rosenberg's awesome new nonprofit, is hiring a Drupal designer and an associate director/community manager.

My pal Stuart Sierra [who's an expert on The Cloud and graduates from Columbia next year with a master's in CS, (cough) recruiters (cough)] gives two talks on Clojure and Hadoop in the next few days.

My Collabora colleagues will appear at a bunch of conferences this month, usually giving talks: Maemo Summit in Amsterdam, Boston GNOME, and an embedded Linux conference in Grenoble.

I've now discovered that LWN, formerly Linux Weekly News, is invaluable in grokking the entire Linux ecosystem. It's helped me get an overview of areas I thought completely inaccessible to a nonprogrammer. Everything's free to read, except special subscriber-only content that goes public a week after publication. But a subscription's just $5 per month, less if your company gets a group rate, and it's way worth it. (Valerie Aurora writes for them quite a bit.)

What We Know So Far plays NYU on October 9th. Thanks, Biella. By the way, she has the best troll excuse ever:

So I am about to violate list rules but as an anthropologist, I am well aware that violation and transgression can be productive activities...

In November, a bunch of Colbert Report writers talk at the Paley Center; I'd like to go.

If you live nearish Oxford in England, and you'd like a fancy costume or dress sewn for you, may I suggest my colleague's wife Karianne? She might also available for FLOSS translation/community work, if you can drag her away from the horse farm.

Jen & Zed are rockin' intelligent simplicity at Frugal Culture, from philosophy to finance to recipes to politics to education.

At Year of No Flying, Anirvan & Barnali are spending a year traveling without airplanes, "traveling across continents, and talking to people exploring solutions to transportation and the climate crisis." They just crossed the Pacific on a container ship.

My colleague Thomas Thurman has a new light fantasy book out: Not Ordinarily Borrowable, "the story of a scholar whose studies are interrupted when her library books are stolen by a dragon." I have the PDF and hope to read it this weekend.

Flea of One Good Thing, sadly, has to move her blog; email her this week if you want the new URL.

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(1) : Game: I got Leonard & Martin to read Michael Lewis's Moneyball recently. (By the way, Brendan, I think you'd like Martin's blog, if you're not already reading it.) I'll read anything by Lewis. In Liar's Poker, Moneyball, The Ballad of Big Mike, In Nature's Casino, Serfs of the Turf, and other works, he explores social histories of arbitrage. What kind of person perceives new opportunities in established systems? What kind of person embodies a new opportunity? Where do their values, histories, aims, and rules differ from or align with the establishment's?

I especially appreciate the light touch Lewis brings to these questions. In his stories, those questions are implications, excursions from the narrative. Malcolm Gladwell foregrounds those questions and uses his characters and anecdotes as props; he seems to overreach because he's going for the universal. Lewis stays in the particular, telling one story well and rarely addressing his larger themes explicitly.

But there is one passage in Moneyball, one Lewis marks with "there will be a lesson in that", that fills me with expanding religious fervor each time I read it:

As the thirty-fifth pick approaches, Eric once again leans into the speaker phone. If he leaned in just a bit more closely he might hear phones around the league clicking off, so that people could laugh without being heard. For they do laugh. They will make fun of what the A's are about to do; and there will be a lesson in that. The inability to envision a certain kind of person doing a certain kind of thing because you've never seen someone who looks like him do it before is not just a vice. It's a luxury. What begins as a failure of the imagination ends as a market inefficiency: when you rule out an entire class of people from doing a job simply by their appearance, you are less likely to find the best person for the job.

Another resonant quote from the next page (116):

"You know what gets me excited about a guy? I get excited about a guy when he has something about him that causes everyone else to overlook him and I know that it is something that just doesn't matter." - Paul DePodesta

And from Martin:

Obviously that's fun to read just from a "nerd power!" perspective, but it's also fascinating to think of all the other industries still out there, plagued by chronic inefficiencies (i.e. opportunities) and just begging for the right nerd to come along and revolutionize them.
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(3) : Fun Short Scifi: "Let Us Now Praise Awesome Dinosaurs," by Leonard Richardson, Strange Horizons, 13 July 2009.

"I want to buy a gun," said the Thymomenoraptor. He moved his foreclaw along the glass case of pistols, counting them off: one, two, three, four. "That one." He tapped the case; the glass squeaked.

"Why would a dinosaur need a gun?" asked the shop owner.


The owner's gaze dropped to the three-inch claw that had chipped his display case.

"These are killing claws," said the dinosaur, whose name was Tark. "For sheep, or cows. I merely want to disable an attacker with a precision shot to the leg or other uh, limbal region."

"Uh-huh," the owner said. "Or maybe you figure humans shoot each other all the time, but if someone turns up ripped in half the cops are gonna start lookin' for dinosaurs."

Tark carefully pounded the counter. "There used to be a time," he said, "when gun dealers would actually sell people guns! A time . . . called America. I miss that time."

"I don't sell to foreign nationals."

"Racist!" The gun dealer flinched but said nothing. "All right, look, just give me this periodical, okay?"

"I got ripped off," said Tark a little later. "That periodical contained neither guns nor ammo."

Leonard wrote it and Jed edited it, and it would thus have a special place in my heart even if it weren't hilarious.

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: Four Cool Stories: Tim Pratt's genre-subverting Another End of the Empire, Jeff Soesbe's quiet and moving Apologies All Around, Jennifer Linnea's eerie glimpse Second-Hand Information, and Sergey Gerasimov's hella Russian The Most Dangerous Profession.

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: More Anthology Notes: Two weeks ago I posted a long entry about Thoughtcrime Experiments (a scifi/fantasy anthology Leonard and I edited), the market for and marketing of short speculative fiction, and my interests in future projects. I mentioned that small publishers can market to readers via new technologies and communities, at the cost of some sweat and little or no money.

Case in point: In case you didn't want to deal with CreateSpace, you can now buy a print-on-demand paperback of Thoughtcrime Experiments for $5.09 directly from (Note to self: figure out how to tell Amazon that Leonard and I are not the book's authors but its editors, and that people can download the Kindle version for free.) We've also shown up on GoodReads and LibraryThing.

I encourage anyone who enjoyed a story in the anthology to Delicious, Facebook, Tweet, Reddit, Digg, blog, mashup, podcast, email it around, and otherwise share your enthusiasm. Reviews on your blog or on LibraryThing/Amazon/Goodreads/etc. are very welcome and I should do a review roundup post next week.

Each story stands alone on its own page with its own URL. I assume that reading the anthology as individual webpages, or as a PDF/mobile ebook, or as a paperback, influences whether people see each story as standalone or as part of a whole. I wonder which view is better for this anthology, where there's so much variety in subject and style.

I also have some new, if weak, stats. Leonard usually articulates these kinds of musings on his own blog, but in this case I'm the one who broke out the spreadsheet a while back to get a very rough sense of the Thoughtcrime Experiments gender/ethnicity breakdown. (I was prepping for my WisCon panels.) Out of 200 distinct authors who submitted pieces, author names look like:


14  Hard to tell  ---- 7%
59  Female ---------- 30%
126 Male ------------ 63%


186 White ----------- 93%
14  Nonwhite --------- 7%

Of course, that's going by the names authors gave us, which might have been pseudonyms, and I can't tell anything about whether authors are transgendered or cisgendered from their names, and many people of color have names that I read as white. I wish I'd tried harder to recruit nonwhite authors; I wrote to a few relevant blogs/mailing lists/workshops/interest groups but not as many as I could have, and I got several bounce messages I should have followed up on.

We published nine stories. I believe four were by women and five by men, and at least two of the nine authors were people of color. Rachel did us the kindness of posting a review in a LiveJournal community whose goal is to get readers to consciously seek out books by people of color. Again, yay Internet!

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: Let's Hear It For (Labors Of) Love: Here is another narrative of my WisCon: something I learned from editing and publicizing Thoughtcrime Experiments, and what that makes me want to do next. It's long (the longer the post, the more I feel I'm leaving out), but there's some filk silliness at the end. (Title hat-tip to the Smokin' Popes; cue up Destination Failure while reading this, it'll take about that long.)

I arrived with ten copies of Thoughtcrime Experiments and nearly immediately gave away or sold them. I probably could have sold fifty, if I'd had them. I made about 200 copies of my flyer (seven-megabyte PDF, used a canned iWork Pages template) and people eagerly took them. I got to show contributor Alex Wilson Erica Naone's reviews of the stories, including her review of his "The Last Christmas of Mrs. Claus." In the "Was It Good For You?" panel, I mentioned three stories that made me feel unusually at-home: Connie Willis's "Even the Queen," my fellow panelist K. Tempest Bradford's "Élan Vital," and Mary Anne Mohanraj's "Jump Space" from the anthology I just published, squee!

Throughout the convention, people sounded receptive when I chattered about the anthology. Several people told me how exciting they found our project, and a few made noises about following Leonard's instructions and conducting the experiment themselves. And a few people said: "what are you doing next?" or "when you do it again next year..." A flattering boost and a natural assumption, but not a completely justified one.

Do I want to do it again? Good question!

In the "Was It Good For You?" panel, I observed that some editors and authors start with a vision they need to express (my nickel version of auteur theory), and some start wanting to respond to a community's need for certain viewpoints or stories. The way Leonard and I divided up anthology work reflects that division. He did line edits, pushed for more variety in the art, exhausted himself tweaking the layout to perfection, indeed conceived the project in the first place. I publicized the call for submissions, recruited artists, read slush and wrote rejections, and promoted the finished book electronically and in person.* My revealed preferences: sociable work. I want my work to make others happy. (When we got the first galley proofs from CreateSpace, I said it's real. But the reality of the literary marketplace is socially constructed, and foisting Thoughtcrime publicity onto hundreds of minds at WisCon transmuted the book into something more real.)

But how many people experienced any happiness from Thoughtcrime Experiments? A few thousand downloads and page hits, maybe ten thousand fleeting "oh it's neat that they did that" impressions. Is that enough? Would I spend my energy on a sequel anthology for a readership of less than, say, fifty thousand?

I mean, when I promoted the call for submissions, and when I went to WisCon, I couldn't help but see how many quality small presses and mags our genre enjoys. Shimmer, Goblin Fruit, GUD, Ideomancer, Small Beer, Electric Velocipede, Clarkesworld, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine**, Strange Horizons***, Verb Noire, Aqueduct... I'm just going off the top of my head. Some are electronic, some are print, some are more regular than others, but it's not like any one part of Thoughtcrime is new. Rejected Quarterly plus Creative Commons licensing (already done by Stross/Doctorow, not to mention Strange Horizons & others) plus easy online reading (several abovenamed pubs) plus good payrates (several again) plus gumption (passim). Thoughtcrime is a tiny fish in the pond.

When I see us in context, of course we've gotten maybe 4 emails of praise and 10 blog mentions from people who don't know us. What kills me is how little attention all these presses get. If Leonard weren't an author seeking markets, he wouldn't have started Thoughtcrime, and I wouldn't have heard of most of these presses and magazines. I'd see Tor's and Orbit's stuff in the bookstores, and maybe if BoingBoing or or Making Light**** said something really positive about a particular story online I'd go click.

The ease of publishing doesn't mean readers automatically get hooked up with content they'd enjoy. Publishing is a binary switch, off to on, and new technology makes it cheaper to pull that switch. But publicizing -- marketing -- is analog, and really lossy. I'll only persuade a percentage of my desired audience to go read x, and I'll only ever hear about the fraction of that percentage that somehow signals back. Logs and analytics just tell me about impressions, not lasting impressions.

I am like the googolith person to observe, "it's a shame awesome indie stuff doesn't get as much mindshare as the mainstream does! It is almost as if having a large, established, for-profit publishing apparatus is good at turning capital into reputation, accessibility, and distribution!"

But just as I should be less in love with originality when appraising my past work (so what if Thoughtcrime did no one new thing? It combined a bunch of those things for the first time and it's a damn fun read), I don't have to put auteur-y novelty first on my priority list when allocating my future efforts. Why should I just turn five or nine stories from 0 to 1 on the publishing meter when I could get thousands of great stories from 1 to 2 or 5 or beyond?

Well, that "beyond" would be pretty tough. One assessment that sounds oppressively real: "The problem for SF writers and publishers today isn't that there's not a mass audience for high-end SF storytelling; it's that there are immense numbers of other diversions on offer for those hundreds of millions of people." Why should a person read at all, and if she reads why should she read the particular work I adore and want her to read? What particular need would I be uniquely fulfilling in her? Because that's where marketing starts: identifying or arousing a need.

I can reckon how a person might go about increasing the mindshare of any given indie scifi publisher among people who already consider themselves scifi fans. It's never been a better time to be a publisher or a cheapass reader; Amazon, Bookmooch, ManyBooks, Goodreads, DailyLit, the Kindle, blogs like and BoingBoing, and other resources help hook up readers with the abundance of awesome fiction that already exists, for free, online. (If you are a cheapass scifi reader and you are saying, "Where do I start? SHOW ME THE FREE STORIES," Futurismic's Friday Free Fiction weekly roundup will get you started.)

Indie publishers still need a little marketing to get into many of those channels. Search engine optimization, some tech hairdressing, and time writing the equivalent of press releases come to mind. I can see a path to getting a rabid scifi fan to taste something new. I'd grow the market a little (rewarding!), but also displace the readership of my rivals, Big Publishers and other small presses (kind of disheartening!). I actually don't know how zero-sum the economics of this project would be, and am curious; I'd want to collect a lot of metrics, and set a quantitative goal in hopes of avoiding existential despair.

But the project of turning nonreaders into occasional sci-fi readers, and occasional readers into rabid readers? Unsolved and incredibly exciting. I'm wondering who else is doing this, and how; comments welcome.

I would like to make the pie higher, as the saying goes. Thoughtcrime Experiments will never be a huge slice of it in any case, and I'm not so delusional as to think it's objectively the tastiest portion.

So Leonard and I have different ideas for what's next (not that either of us is about to start anything; our jobs, writing, travel, friends, worries, etc. are consuming us for now). He's tentatively interested in doing what Brendan dares us to call Again, Thoughtcrime Experiments. I'd help again if he wanted. We found stories we loved and made them more real, and I love doing that. But my ambitions point me in another direction: scaling up.

* It wasn't till like three months into Thoughtcrime that I realized I was following in my parents' footsteps. My parents did a zine! Amerikannada, the literary magazine my parents ran for several years, printed fiction and nonfiction by the Kannada-speaking diaspora in the United States. The Amerikannada logo was a hybrid eagle-lion. They've been editing and writing and celebrating Kannada literature for decades, but I remember Amerikannada specifically because I got to help with kid-friendly mailing chores. After Leonard and I had an argument about art direction, I felt like I'd unlocked a memory of another editorial argument, conducted over my head as I pasted stickers to envelopes in the rec room of the first California house. I have no idea whether that's memory or invention, and indeed know nothing of how Mom and Dad divvied up the work, ran submissions, decided on timetables, or made any of those editing/publishing decisions I now find fascinating. I should ask them.

** You can sing "Andromeda Spaceways" to the same meter as "American Woman." As long as you're here: "Goblin Fruit" works as "Stacey's Mom" ("Goblin Fruit / is made of hemp and jute") and I always want to sing "Clarkesworld" to the tune of "McWorld!" from those old McDonald's ads.

*** Strange Horizons is a special case all on its own. When I started realizing that they've been publishing quality fiction and nonfiction weekly for more than seven years, paying pro rates, and generally been ahead of every curve I thought I was exploring, I couldn't believe that I hadn't been a fangirl earlier. I'm feasting on archives now, especially their reviews. You can start with Anathem and Little Brother, and then see if you find this analysis of Ted Chiang's work and this West Wing analysis as thought-provoking as I do.

**** I have been reading the Nielsen Haydens for like six years or more. Patrick and Teresa taught Leonard at Viable Paradise, and Patrick gave Leonard advice before we launched the anthology. We thanked them in the acknowledgments to Thoughtcrime. Teresa reminds me of my late mother-in-law, Frances, in a lot of ways. And yet, and yet.***** Nora speaks better than I could.

***** I meant to write about WisCon racism discussions weeks ago. Explanation seems impossible, so I'll sum up. Thank you, Rachel Chalmers, for putting my head straight when I saw you in January. Thanks to all the antiracists who have put spoons into this discussion, in education and anger both. And thanks to WisCon 33 and its participants, for being the place where I had drinks and panels and meals with uncountable fans of color. (Pleasantly disorienting: the meal where I was the only heterosexual and the only monogamist but not the only woman or person of color.)

My perspective on race in fiction has shifted. The short edition: if you write or edit or critique fiction, looking out for lazy racism is no longer optional. Analogies: 1. The feminist infrastructure is strong enough that sexist writing gets a bunch of flack, and the antiracist infrastructure is getting there. 2. An antiracist lens is going to be a usual mode of critique from now on. This is part of the new normal. The discourse has shifted. Someone trying to pretend this is a fad or a personal attack is like the RIAA lashing out to protect business models that no longer work. Some thoughts on problems and solutions in an upcoming post, I hope.

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(2) : Should I Go to Think GalactiCon?: I had such a great time at WisCon that I'm now considering sneaking a weekend at a like-minded science fiction convention: Chicago's Think GalactiCon, two weekends from now (the end of June).

This year's Think GalactiCon is the second, following an inaugural con in 2007. The programming schedule, the activities (intro to LARPing, block printing), and the general attitude look right up my alley. And I can afford it, especially if any Chicago-based friends want to put me up (although renting a hotel room wouldn't be a hardship).

I met Isabel and other TG organizers or con-goers at WisCon, and they made lots of encouraging noises. It really looks like they're trying to take the WisCon vibe and focus to a new level, working on all the -isms: sexism, racism, classism, imperialism, speciesism, ageism, ableism, homophobia/transphobia, and so on. Panels include:

... as well as multiple panels specifically about the current discussion around issues of race in genre fiction. "Race & Ethnicity in YA," "RaceFail '09," "Cultural Appropriation," and "Why Are These Brown People Harshing My Squee?" (That last title makes me guffaw even more than the WisCon panel title "Something Is Wrong on the Internet!" did.)

So, I can afford it, I could probably swing a half-day off work to travel late Friday, I know and like a few people who are going, and I'd probably enjoy the conversations. On the other hand, July 3rd-18th I'll be off in Europe on business, so pumping more travel in less than a week prior might be exhausting.

Musings and suggestions welcomed!

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(1) : Words And Constraints: I am not yet ready to publicly join the conversation on cultural appropriation in fiction. However I wish to draw your attention to Rachel Chalmers's warm, smart, funny book reviews, which she posts in a LiveJournal community whose members seek to read more books by people of color. 1, 2, 3, 4 so far. The Atlantic should get Rachel to replace whatever they have Hitchens doing.

Psychological complexity of the kind I look for in books is an artefact of the bourgeois novel tradition as an outgrowth of an emerging leisure class almost by definition....

You could read it [Octavia Butler's vampire story Fledgling] as a provocative and extremely effective satire on venture capitalism, if you were, say, me.

Today's my last day before the new job starts. I spent part of it in a park working on a poem that rhymes and scans.

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: This Retrospective, In Retrospect, Has A Theme: An abbreviated diary of the past few days, mostly for future Sumana's use:

Wednesday I went to Supper and the Sci-Fi Screening Room with a journalist who opines that it's his God-given right to drink scotch at his desk when he's on deadline.

Thursday I saw Tim Wu, Stuart, Jena, and Hailey as we hashed out next steps and plans for AltLaw. I stopped by Midtown Comics after; Hal had put aside the new Ambush Bug compendium for Leonard.

Friday night: Matt Weinstein, an old Berkeley pal, came to town, so I met him and some friends of his at The Silent H, a shockingly good Vietnamese place in Williamsburg. At Queensboro Plaza on the way there, I talked to a guy who was reading Cryptonomicon on the platform, and envied aloud that he's on his first reading. At the restaurant I met a Captain-Hammer-shirt-wearing friend of his who cemented his worth by trading Cryptonomicon references and quotes with me for twenty minutes.

This morning: breakfast and The Met with Anne and her sister Sarah, Anne being a woman I met online when I sought WisCon attendees who'd let me sleep on their floors. We got along great and I'm sure I'll learn a lot about scifi fandom from her. At my place, this evening, I did some career coaching with my friend Rebecca and helped her improve her LinkedIn profile.

In conclusion, dorkiness got me everything I adore in my life.

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: The Latter Link Includes Dick Van Dyke Non-Pun Joke: Today, looking at the tax documents, I saw Leonard's name next to mine and felt awe again that we're really seriously married. Mega-married! proclaimed Leonard. We conjectured that maybe the government should let same-sex couples get married but reserve MEGAMARRIAGE for heterosexuals couples. This is in keeping with John Holbo's thinking. By the way, here's a great comment in that thread that explains the rhetoric of same-sex marriages "contaminating" the shared marriagestuff pool.

And one of my new favorite blogs does a good Sarah Haskins impression in taking apart advertising narratives for laughs:

Oh, and do complete the circle of gender obliviousness, let's not forget the countless "home security service" ads pitched, hard, on men's programming about how your hot-looking but down-home wife is by herself in your big house with all the glass windows and no curtains and she's lovingly wiping invisible crumbs off the some-kind-of-expensive-substance counter and there's a man behind her, and because she's cleaning the kitchen with no lights on it's too dark for her to notice, and he's got ropes, or an ax, and he's really big and the music's getting all dumm-dumm-doom-y... and... oh if only you had locked her inside a secure perimeter before you went... wherever it was in that big SUV and/or first-class plane seat and you keep dialing and dialing to warn her about the big guy who's right behind her right now only she's deaf and... and...

And meanwhile on average women are safer when there aren't men there to protect them. Because ... the number of 911 calls about home-invasion injuries is dwarfed by the number of plain old-fashioned domestic violence calls.

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: "Also airport bathrooms.": As Leonard and I read submissions for the anthology, we compiled some tips for writers. Leonard has them up on his site.

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: A Tiny Anthology: If you liked my most recent poem (the Linton Johnson one about BART), you might like these:

Most of these are sonnets on various schemes.

Edited 25 Nov 2010 to add my Garrison Keillor event introduction.

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(1) : Five Books (With A Little Cheating): Years after Zed and Rachel C. (Update: and Erica Olsen!!) tagged me with fairly similar book blogpostmemes, I respond. Hugo Schwyzer did a similar one once that I'm taking this opportunity to link to, and I've posted other book recommendation lists elsewhere.

Number of books I own: This is one of those that blurs when you enter into a book-sharing household/partnership. We share, for example, all the Neal Stephenson. I have about 400 books, not including the hundreds of Amar Chitra Katha comic books and other such single issues, and then Leonard has bookcases more.

Total number of books I've [ever] owned: Probably a thousand. I know I left a lot in California.

Last book bought: I think that's the 1962 Cherry Ames "annual" I saw while walking by a bookstore in Cambridge, UK. It was in those one-pound boxes outside the door, in the front of the stack, and it instantly caught my eye. I thought, Rivka Might Like This! But it turns out she doesn't want it, so I'll be BookMooching it or something.

Last book read: Reread: I just reread several chapters of the great Vikram Seth book A Suitable Boy. I can always reread Haresh's battles in the shoe industry, the harrowing aftermath of Maan's and Firoz's confrontation at Saeeda Bai's, Professor's Mishra's scheming around Pran's promotion, Lata, Amit, Mrs Rupa Mehra, Kalpana, oh look I just reread another hundred pages.

Fresh read: started Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars ebook.

Last book finished: Reread: an old Cat and Girl anthology. Classic, funny, incisive.

Fresh read: I read and finished the ebook of Scott Sigler's novel Infected, which was more horror-y than I like in scifi.

Five books that mean a lot to me:

  1. Children of the River by Linda Crew. I read it my freshman year of high school, as an elective in our Romeo and Juliet unit. A Cambodian girl who was perfectly happy in Phnom Penh adjusts to life as a farm laborer and student at an Oregon high school. Her aunt and uncle, her foster parents in the States, want her to study hard and avoid boys. One comes easier than the other. There's a passage where she can tell that a guy's gaze across the classroom means that he could watch her all day with affection and awe. I wrote in my Double-Entry Journal for class that I simply couldn't imagine that ever happening to me. My teacher asked, "Why not?" and I had no answer. And the relationships between Sundara and her aunt, her brother, and her Khmer community helped me get perspective on my family and their friends.

    Special shout-out here to the similarly themed nonfiction oral history Bamboo & Butterflies, which opened my eyes substantially. There's an anecdote about an abortion and another about punctuality that still stay with me, fifteen years later.

  2. Imzadi by Peter David. I adored Star Trek and when I was a teenager this was one of the best Trek stories I'd ever watched or read. And there was graphic sex! SO COOL.

  3. The Mahabharata. In comics or in prose or in drama or in critical essays or in any other form. There's so much there. One reason I never really got into the Epic Fantasy Tolkien/Jordan/Martin stuff is that I already had a mythology, stranger and larger and more exciting than anything a single author could spin out.

  4. American Taxation, American Slavery by Robin Einhorn. I took an American History class with Prof. Einhorn my first year at Berkeley, and felt stupid and astonished when she used the changing price of slaves to inform her explanation of pre-Civil War economics. Her influence led me to consider grad school in tax history. American Taxation, American Slavery, which came out a few years ago, is dense and academic and brainbending. It prepped me to read Adam Hochschild's Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves. It gave me a tremendous respect for the importance of institutional competence in government agencies. And it refuted damaging "taxation=slavery" rhetoric, not least by diagnosing it as projection by slaveowners.

    Special shout-out here to academic texts The Social Animal by Eliot Aronson, the most lucid textbook I've ever read, and The Psychology of Computer Programming by Gerald Weinberg, which has informed my management style substantially.

  5. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. I read it in college, in that first apartment with green carpet and fake wood panelling on the walls, first in little random chapters, then -- maybe, finally, years later -- cover to cover. Just reread most of it on Saturday. I've been interrogating the pro-startup, anti-employee bent of my tech culture recently, and rereading Cryptonomicon reminds me that Randy cofounds a startup and gets to have awesome adventures! A zillion Stephenson phrases and images and metaphors and scenes have made themselves part of me. The ending of In the Beginning...Was The Command Line (Seth gave me my copy) stands next to the opening of the original GPL as a clarion call. How can I express how deeply Cryptonomicon is constitutive in my identity?

I figure the statute of limitations is under three years, so I won't tag anyone and coerce them into posting with this template, but I bet my in-laws would enjoy doing this if they haven't already!

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: Me In Other Media: The Thoughtcrime Experiments anthology, which Leonard and I are finishing up now, got me into Your Favorite Thing About The Recession from The Morning News. It's also a big reason Sharon Panelo interviewed me about free culture. It's paraphrased, but includes me talking about DRM pain points and the GEICO "Tiny House" ad.

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: The Long View: Throughout Jody Procter's memoir Toil: Building Yourself, a diary of his work helping build one specific house in a small Oregon city, Procter aches for the weekend, feels hopeful and buoyant working through Friday afternoon, and buys himself little treats at the 7-11 on the Friday drive home. The rhythm of building tension and weekly release thrums over and over again. The end of the March 17th entry:

I have been taking my watch off or leaving it in the car to try to keep from looking at it. 10:56. 2:05. Seeing those dead hours in the middle of the day demoralizes me. Now, this afternoon, I put my watch on, the better to savor the slow pace of the last hour and a half of the week. The sun has disappeared. The clouds rolls in. A few sprinkles fall and the air is cool and fragrant with the budding flowers of spring and the moist, freshly cut grass of the golf course. I am happier and happier as the final minutes of the work week tick by.

On my drive home I think, if you could only bottle that Friday after-work feeling and sell it to people, you could make so much money you could stop work and then you would never have that Friday after-work feeling again. Unless you indulged in your own product. And probably, after a while, you'd get addicted to it, it would lose its kick, it would turn out to have negative side-effects and all would be lost and in ruins. You would lose your fortune and have to go back to work and then some Friday you would be driving home and you would have that Friday after-work feeling all over again.

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: A Book Review About Leadership: I mostly wrote this book review in the fall of 2008.

On the Psychology of Military Incompetence

by Norman Dixon


On The Psychology of Military Incompetence is 400 pages long, and worth savoring. Its fundamental question: Given that information is the reduction of uncertainty, how do leaders of different temperaments react to information? The author limits himself to cases of British incompetence in battle, but of course you can extrapolate from that.

Dixon clearly but steadily builds his case against the prewar British military. The one-line summary is: culture stagnates into convention, which drives out the unconventionality you need to succeed. More nuances ahead.

From Skeleton to Prison Cell

Dixon shows that to advance in the British armed forces, in peacetime, demanded rule-following and an authoritarian mindset. But the mission of a military is to win wars, and that requires fluidity and a willingness to take risks -- and offend superiors.

So, what happened when peacetime promotions hit a war zone? Disaster -- in the Crimea, in southern Africa, all over Europe in the First World War, over and over again. Soldiers' courage and tenacity get their generals out of the holes they dig.

In general, institutions get the leaders who fit into those institutions and succeed at the unstated goals (for example, avoid retreats at all cost, impress politicians, keep civilians uninformed and complacent). If the unstated goals don't line up with the institution's stated goals, then leaders will tend to do the things they've been rewarded for in the past, especially in moments of high stress and low certainty. Therefore, in battle, bad commanders freeze up, wait for orders, ignore new information to appear "decisive," give panicked and contradictory orders, lie to maintain their personal reputations, and so on. And disaster happens, over and over again.

In Dixon's view, the British military suffered from groupthink and valued particular upper-class traits over merit. It's astonishing that military personnel would need to be told that the map is not the territory, the signifier not the signified, but indeed they cared more about the signs and forms of morale and professionalism (such as clean clothes and polished brass) than about warm clothes, edible food, and working equipment.

Narcotic Assumptions, Lenses & Blinders

I'm in India as I write this and dealing with my own need for shiny appearances. I often forget, once I return to the States, that I find -- for example -- hermetically sealed bathrooms reassuring. My parents live in a home where the plumbing and electrical work aren't consistently hidden beneath stucco and sideboards, and it surprises me how much that bothers me. I haven't seen any marked crosswalks in their city, either; we watch for a lull in the bicycles, mopeds, and rickshaws, then rush over the dusty, rocky street. No accidents yet.

I consciously desire function over form, but that only works if I can convince myself to rely on an ugly-looking system to work.

I calm myself with a fallacious appeal to statistics: if something's wrong, it would have broken already. If other people depend on similarly rickety-looking setups, then they must be dependable. Or I just go straight to infantilism and believe my parents wouldn't put me in danger.

Seth Godin recently wrote about the "edifice complex". He reminded us that, in times of uncertainty and stretched budgets, when we can least afford the "organized waste" of facades, we find them most reassuring.

In good times, insecurities and rationalizations like mine are a luxury. In battle and competition, they're delectable poison.

British commanders, similarly, clung to the false clarity of their chain of command, "masculinity," pride, and privileges when they faced the mess of battle. They feared shame more than they minded losing men, and they scorned the "motherly" chores (or retreats) that would ensure troop survival and readiness.

Valiant forays are masculine, but feints and retreating are girly? Again, ideology got in the way of success, as when insecure commanders pooh-poohed nonwhite adversaries, self-improvement, and new technology.

The lesson: Real self-confidence doesn't need ideology as a crutch. The flipside: if you see someone leaning on received assumptions, and repeating them rather loudly, it's because without them he wouldn't know who he was.


The argument above takes up most of the book. In an aside, Dixon suggests that "senior commanders have often to fill a number of incompatible roles": heroic leader, military manager, and technocrat, plus politician, PR man, father figure, and therapist. This is of special interest to me.

I've learned models describing styles of leadership: authoritarian, democratic, and whatnot. These days I'm more interested in the balance among managing up, down, and sideways. Reading these books and thinking aloud about them helps me get perspective. What leg of that tripod have I been shorting?

Works thematically related to On the Psychology of Military Incompetence: Dilbert, the Harvard/NASA case study on the Columbia shuttle disaster, and John Le Carre's The Tailor of Panama.

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(2) : Links: I usually keep stuff like this in Delicious but I wanted to bring a few things to your attention.

Dreadwhimsy is incredibly short stories inspired by weird photos.

Flea of One Good Thing linked to her six-year-old son's blog, Shut Up I'm Six. What more do you need from, say, games journalism than the following?

hay guys type in wizard101 and you will git a cool game its about a life but in a computer and you have to fight bad guys its cool i like it do you?

Forever's Not So Long is a very short, poignant science fiction movie whose final shots will stay with me for a while.

Waiter Rant, in Las Vegas, shows a person having an inappropriate emotional reaction, then analyzing it. I love that. Dara discusses a dormant skill cropping up again.

...that poem, which I thought I had left composting in the backyard of my brain, to feed future poems but not ever to remerge. Surprise. It's back, shuffling its overwritten zombie stanzas up the stairs, dropping rhymes like clods of earth all over the kitchen floor.

Despite the abundance of exclamation marks, this fantastical history of Quizno's is worth reading till the end.

Firefox now has a Kannada release!

A hilarious Trader Joe's FAQ, and a beautiful song/ad for Trader Joe's (or, as my mother calls it, Trader's Joe).

I had no idea that this program existed to help me travel late Saturday nights!

Ganesha helps Alison Bechdel unclutter after decades of doing her monthly comic strip.

Susan Senator, dealing with her autistic son's move out of her house, writes about the changes that only experience and time bring:

We go into things seeing them only in two dimensions: what we've seen from the outside, and what we've heard/read. Those are the two dimensions. When we enter into the thing, the big thing like marriage or childbirth/adoption, we then experience the addition of the third dimension. We go deeper. We go through some kind of pocket of time and in-the-moment action, and then suddenly we are on the other side....

When it was over, it was over, and I was on the Inside.

So when you go through something as intense as childbirth/adoption and suddenly there is a baby where there wasn't one before, you are just pulled inside out and a whole new consciousness surrounds you.

Then you get used to it. Then you get good at it. Then you enjoy it. And then they are ready to go. And suddenly, there you are, in two dimensions again, looking outward at their leaving you, not knowing how it will feel, only guessing by what others say/do and what you have heard/read.

She strikes at a reason I read so avidly, and that I gain such comfort from reading memoirs of work and parenthood. I can only guess at what those other lives are like, seeing flattened perceptions of their experiences. But if I sort of go through time along with them, watching and listening to their observations over the weeks and years, then I get a little bit of that third dimension from Alyson and Kristen and Susie, Rivka and Rachel, Flea and Susan, and now Claudia .

So parents don't talk in high-pitched baby talk because they like to, but because it works. If I try to explain to the Peanut that I need to put his socks on before I feed him, "I need to put your socks on" doesn't work. Now if I say "I need to put on your little sockies on your little toesies that are soo cutie" in a high-pitched voice with lots of animation (think smiling like crazy, waving the socks around), then I'll get an extra few seconds to put the socks on before he starts screaming. The only problem is that after talking in such a manner for 10+ hours, it's hard to turn off when I talk to an adult (aka, the husband).

And tomorrow night I get to see another Paul, Storm, and Jonathan Coulton concert. Whooo!

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(2) : 'Well, I'm back,' she said: I finished Toil by Jody Procter, read Five Point Someone by Chetan Bhagat, and got most of the way through Infected by Scott Sigler during my journey back home (via bus, subway, rail, airplane, AirTrain, rail again, subway again, and a lot of foot).

I can of course recommend the company of those I saw in the UK (Paul & Sarah, the Collabora team, Rachel, Rachel & her friends, Holly & Kevan, Avedon, Joseph). I can also recommend the London Transport Museum, a Chalmers-guided Best Of tour of the British Museum, the taster flights of beer at Porterhouse near Covent Garden, Rainbow Cafe on King's Parade in Cambridge, and any food Holly makes, especially cakes. Maybe I can link and elaborate when I wake up.

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(1) : Dara, Your Style/Substance Thoughts?: These Anacruses are not technically Bad Pennies, but Ana, @job, Taggert, Chronastromy HQ Officer Training: Final Exam, MAXBETTY92, Branford, #13102099, and The Musical all deserve to be grouped together. Any others?

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: BART-Approved: Not only did Seth translate into Latin and many friends enjoy my poem "BART Spokesman Linton Johnson", but Johnson himself just wrote me and said he loved it! Yay!

Okay, moment of validation over, back to errands.

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(2) : Citation Needed?: Some of you adore footnotes, right?

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(4) : A Fuss: Ned Batchelder pointed to John Hodgman's condemnation of "meh" in one-off blog comments and tweets.

By definition, it may mean disinterest (although simple silence would be a more damning and sincere response, in that case)... But in use, it almost universally seems to signal: I am just interested enough to make one last joyless, nitpicky swipe and then disappear...

I think Hodgman is basically right here.* Another way to put it: "It's incredibly easy to make people feel embarrassed about having been enthusiastic about something, and 'I don't see what the fuss is about" is an effective tool with which to accomplish that task and shut a conversation down."

After submissions closed for Thoughtcrime Experiments (we've chosen the final stories, by the way!), Leonard defined our scoring process as: "From A to E the tiers are 'absolutely not', 'no', 'eh', 'yes', and 'yes!'" Note that the middle tier is "eh", not "meh". "Meh" is "I don't care" but "eh" is "I could go either way."

Batchelder praises Hodgman for "fighting the good fight for sincerity and engagement." Brandon Bird also recently mentioned "the new sincerity" and I'm into it -- earnest, enthusiastic passion is to me part of what makes a person worth talking to.

I expect a certain level of honesty, openness, engagement, and willingness to stand by one's statements in any conversation -- it's jarring to try to converse with people who don't share those values. I'm thinking when I vociferously challenged a claim by someone at my sister's housewarming -- he said that all TV is mindless because it dictates how you interact with it. Another conversant sort of stepped forward and said, to cool down the discussion, "I think we didn't mean for this to" meaningful? heated, to his eyes, because I showed that I cared and thought the other person was genuinely wrong about something important? I backed away. I probably should have shown more empathy and hospitality in conversing on a level that made the other guests comfortable -- direct challenges to statements of opinion do come off as angry and impolite, in some situations. But "meh" still isn't the answer to that; diplomacy is. And that I need to work on. My first year in college, a dorm-mate suggested I work on "something that starts with a t and rhymes with tact." I'm better, but evidently not great. Eh.

*(Disclaimer: JS, I still value and enjoy the flask you gave me that has "meh." laser-engraved onto the side.)

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(4) : Poem: "BART Spokesman Linton Johnson": I wrote this in September 2008.

BART spokesman Linton Johnson
You speak for the trains
You must say so many things
Joyous and doleful
When the trains are stopped
Or when ridership is up
Or when the stations cry out for murals or bleach
You hear what the tunnels say
They whisper in your ears as you ride
Like a regular passenger
Out of uniform, out of sight
The seats and the cars plead with you
The turnstiles and ticket machines click and tick
As you watch the security cameras
They thank you for saying what they cannot
Each conductor drives one train
And announces its stops and destination
Only you sing of BART the whole
From Dublin to Pittsburg to Fremont to Richmond to SFO
Your heart MacArthur, centered above the freeway
Sing of the vessels that carry us from desk to bed
Speak for the trains
BART spokesman Linton Johnson
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: Make It No: Martin, newborn pub brawler, finds that the ST:TNG episode "Tapestry" speaks to him. He calls the theme among these episodes obvious. I'm guessing he saw that they are about leadership/organizational behavior. And thus if I had written Make It So: Leadership Lessons from Star Trek: The Next Generation, those are episodes I'd use as illustration.

You think I'm joking? I'm totally not joking. And this was prefigured in Euler, er, postfigured in Danny O'Brien.

I've read Make It So. It's supposedly a series of logs spoken by Picard, but the whole voice is wrong. Captain Jean-Luc Picard doesn't go for bulleted lists. And he wouldn't be so reductive as to choose one virtue (e.g., Focus, Urgency, Intellectual Honesty) to bolt on to his discussion of each episode.

Make it So rightly considers the leadership and career issues in "Tapestry," "The First Duty," "Chain of Command," "Lower Decks," and "The Drumhead." However, it also wastes time awkwardly shoehorning management lessons into "Coming of Age," "Darmok," "Encounter at Farpoint," "Peak Performance," "Relics," "Starship Mine," and "The Wounded" when it could be addressing "The Pegasus," "Allegiance," "The Game," "The Masterpiece Society," "I, Borg," "Ensign Ro," "Loud as a Whisper," "Samaritan Snare," "A Matter of Honor," "The Ensigns of Command," "Disaster," "Rightful Heir," "Lessons," and even the Troi subplot of "Thine Own Self." I'm really surprised the talky, ham-handed Picard impersonator didn't take on "Ensign Ro," "The Masterpiece Society," and "Allegiance," since they have more interesting things to say about organizations and management than "Starship Mine," "Relics," and "The Wounded" do.

What are the real leadership lessons of TNG? Other than "watch out for worm creatures taking over your superiors"? A few: You can't do a first-class job with second-class people (cf. every guest star in a uniform); everyone needs to be able to pinch-hit (away teams, "Disaster," "Starship Mine," "The Best of Both Worlds"). Explain your reasons and listen to suggestions when you can, so your colleagues will trust you when you can't ("Chain of Command" and "Allegiance"). The first duty of a Starfleet officer is to the truth. The mission has to take priority over individuals ("Lower Decks," "Darmok," "Lessons," and possibly "The Masterpiece Society" if you look at it from the perspective of the utopians).

Anyone else want a go?

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(2) : Getting Back Into Sorts: I'm nearly over my illness, but am delaying my next Boston trip till (probably) next week. Today I've been recuperating while reading Alan's War (Alan Cope and Emmanuel Guibert) and submissions for Thoughtcrime Experiments. By the way, Leonard's put photos and narration of our Per Se experience online.

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(4) : Host: We've been having friends over this week for food, Dr. Horrible, Wii Music, and conversation. When I look back on 2008, some of my best memories are of extending and receiving hospitality, sharing my enthusiasms and learning new ones.

We've also been fortunate enough to enjoy some financial comfort, and since we live in a tiny apartment, have found ourselves leaning towards spending on experiences like travel and dining that don't take up any room. I've probably spent less this year on books than I have any year since I started college -- thanks, library.

I did however grab an issue of "Haute Living" from Daniel when Leonard and I ate there this summer. Just now I rolled around laughing at the ads for stuff that even the Wall Street Journal thinks is excessive. One resort is "home to the world's only 'tanning butler' -- a gentleman who roams the pool to ensure those hard-to-reach places are effectively oiled" (p. 172), leading me to ask, "Is this man employed by the hotel?"

We don't have room for more stuff, so we avoid stuff-buying. If you're rich, you just buy a storage yacht! It's refreshing to see that, while Leonard and I may be more well-off than we're accustomed to, we're not rich jagoffs.

But, near the end of the magazine, I ran across an unexpectedly intense meditation/parable on hospitality and luxury from Eric Lepeingle, a yacht broker.

A client who has everything and can buy whatever he wants was in Cannes to visit the yachts. His manager comes in and says he wants to have the most perfect French experience possible. I say to myself, I'm sure he's already eaten at all the big three-star Michelin places. He knows where they are. He doesn't need me to bring him to a restaurant. So I call my wife and ask her to go to the meat shop and buy a cote de boeuf and organize everything and tell her that I'm coming to the pool with five people and we're going to barbecue with us. So I tell him, 'Tonight you're going to have a real French experience.' He asks what that is. I tell him, 'It's called home.' 'What?' the client asks. 'Come home,' I tell him, 'Why do you want to stay in your hotel, only to leave just so you can go to a restaurant with everyone in black and white, and get served in the exact same way you always do. The only thing I want is to have a good time.' So he says, 'You know what, you're the first person I've dealt with that has invited me home.' His eyes don't look the same way they usually do. They're smiling. You cannot do that in New York, in the office. You work all year for that one moment.

-"The Pleasure Broker" by Jeremy Lissek, Haute Living Florida, June/July 2008, p. 187.

Luxury is ....

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: How They Did "How He Did It": The Newsweek behind-the-scenes reports are indeed awesome, and I, like the Broadsheet women, have been using them as methadone post-election-season. However they raise troubling questions.

What tidbits would campaigners share with the long-term reporters but not the regular reporters? What were the criteria?

What are the things that interested parties wouldn't share even with the long-term reporters, or that the reporters still declined to publish? What will never come out, or only when someone dies or an administration ends?

Did the campaigners and other reporters start treating the long-term reporters as priests for confessional, or plant gossip with them as you might place artifacts in a time capsule?

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(3) : Notable: If there's one iota of wisdom I remember from Reader's Digest's "Quotable Quotes," it's that good stories feature ordinary people doing extraordinary things or extraordinary people doing ordinary things. This model explains to me why superhero comics get so boring -- if everything's extraordinary, then nothing is -- and yet another reason why plotless character studies written after Jackson/Hemingway/Fitzgerald get on my nerves (more complaining here).

Fortunately, real life comes chock full of the ordinary/extraordinary reversals. And there's never been a better time to capture them. We mundanes document ourselves with blogs and cameras, strip-mining our lives for something memorable. And paparazzi hunt down the ordinary moments of celebrated characters so we can watch them get the paper or carry a garment bag from a car to a hotel.

By the way, I saw those Obama photos and remembered Leonard of five years ago:

My doomed attempt at a photo op to create a surge of populism for my gubernatorial campaign.

If Obama Pics Daily is any measure, Leonard just needed a better photographer (viz., someone other than me). (For more recontextualization foto fun, compare Kris's silly alterations to their sources. Or just make a macro of scary finger-wiggling Obama.)

The reason that Quotable Quote's been in my mind is because of John's hilarious account of his trip to a megarich client on a private jet, and our conversation about it last night. He said it was surreal and completely outside the realm of any experience he'd ever had before; he found himself asking, "Is this really happening?" And indeed, whenever I've heard truly joyous or terrible news, or undergone a remarkable experience, the biggest surprise is that it's taking place in the same context as the rest of my boring life. No soundtrack, no paparazzi, no preface, just time ticking by at one second per second the same as anywhere and anywhen else.

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: Subjects And Objects In Geek Careers: I love reading Derek Lowe's In The Pipeline to glimpse the shape of the biochem industry: what's inherently hard, what's common, and what's revolutionary. The grammar is familiar if the nouns aren't. This came through quite clearly in his recent post, "Hard Times: A Manifesto".

The more I think about all the research layoffs that have been going on for the last year or two around the industry, the more I think that we really are seeing a change in the way drug discovery is being done....

Everyone knows - including the people in Shanghai and Hyderabad - that the difficult, high-level research is still not being done there. That'll change, as the human and physical infrastructure improves, but the bulk of the outsourced chemistry is methyl-ethyl-butyl-futile stuff. It's "Hey, make me a library based on this scaffold structure" or "Hey, make me fifty grams of this intermediate"....

So improve your skills. Learn new techniques, especially the ones that are just coming out and haven't percolated down to the crank-it-out shops in the low-wage countries. Stay on top of the latest stuff, take on tough assignments. Keeping your head down in times like these will move you into the crowd that looks like it can be safely let go.

The comment thread includes much sniping at US firms that hire immigrants. According to protectionists, there is some static number of jobs available for research chemists, forever, and the only effects of "allowing" a US-based organization to hire a chemist who was not born in the US are to drive down wages and deprive a native-born US citizen of that job. They also hold that long-term benefits to the industry and country from immigrants are a myth, unnecessary, slight, or past.

I find these sorts of attitudes astonishing, not just because they're angry and incoherent, but because in a software developer they would betray a complete lack of initiative. There is no way to simultaneously hold these views and to conduct one's career with the attitude of an entrepreneur. Analyzing opportunities, targeting positions and markets, networking, and generally taking initiative means viewing situations as dynamic, not static. What's growing? What's dying? How can I ride that wave? And if someone is thinking that way, then naturally she recognizes the likelihood that an immigrant's discovery or shoestring startup will create a new and profitable micro-industry, and that US universities gain tremendous value from being world capitals of science research.

I'm interested in constructing a software equivalent of srp's list of biochemistry dogmas ripe for profitable questioning:

1) Rational drug design is the best way to find good treatments. We should try to target precisely one receptor with one molecule.
2) We need to understand the mechanism of action of a drug in order for it to be successful.
3) Drugs that are safe and effective in humans are likely to also be safe and effective in animal models. (We know that the converse is false, which is why we use rigorous human testing.)
4) The incentives of the FDA and patients are very well aligned.
5) The discovery of new therapeutic regimes using combinations of existing off-patent drugs does not deserve to be rewarded.
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: Haze Outside, Malaise Inside: Seeing old friends makes me feel homesick. Going to more free culture events here may help. Also, distractions! Like HOWTO/memoir books about other professions!

Zac Unger's Working Fire, about a guy who basically leaves academe to become a firefighter, is short, switching between journalist-clear and memoirist-thoughtful. My ex's dad was a firefighter in Stockton, probably still is. When I try to remember what he looked like, I think of my old boss Leonard Pollara of Upper Meadows Farm. I once had Thanksgiving dinner in a firehouse with his family and remember feeling very nervous and out of place. Unger had the same fears but got over them, partly through competence, partly by adapting his social self and making friends.

I'm nearly done with Jane Addams's Twenty Years at Hull House, which chronicle the doubt, missteps, victories, and idealism of the young and middle-aged Chicago community organizer from the turn of the century. I was reassured when Addams talked about her long, hazy post-college period before starting Hull House. I haven't come up with my Big Project yet -- I'm not just waiting to be struck by certainty, I'm searching for what my unique value even is -- and every day I feel like the clock is running out.

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: Buffet: While updating my list of books to read I came across some snatches I'd meant to blog:

The DVD for The Matrix should include a deleted scene where Morpheus, who has shipped a cell phone to Neo, keeps reloading the FedEx tracking page so he can call as soon as Neo signs for it.

If you travel the elevated trains in Queens, like the N, W, or 7, you can hit Refresh on your list of available WiFi networks over and over to see what people name them. Best so far: Bob Loblaw.

The Boston science museum apparently collects ships in a bottle by accident, because people think they collect them. Leonard's late grandmother Rosalie had the same problem with frogs.

I signed up for, which now offers lots of free short fiction, and tasted a bunch of their ebooks during jury duty. I've learned that they publish a lot of stuff I don't like, and some that unexpectedly grabs me.

"The airlines, on the other hand, said they were simply following a list provided by TSA."

See? A list, not THE list. This guy's just on the "[expletive] you" list, not the "we actually think you're a terrorist" list.
And another quote I've been saving:

He feels isolated in the midst of friends. He feels what a convenience it would be, if there were any single person to whom he could speak simply and openly, without pulling the string upon himself of this shower-bath of silly hopes and encouragements...
-Nightingale, "Notes on Nursing"
And an extremely vague recipe for mango ice cream that I believe I got from my mother:

If you try it, let me know how it goes. Actually, let Leonard know, since he can do something with the info.

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(2) : Diary of Happy Summer Weekends: Finished Thomas Lynch's moving, dense The Undertaking: Life Stories from the Dismal Trade and was going to recommend it to Rachel Chalmers until I saw she already loved it. Leonard summed up some of our thoughts on Anathem and I'll share more when it comes out in a few weeks. Best moment may have been on page 3 when I cried with happiness that an author I so completely trusted was about to ravish me anew. I'm currently reading the short and insightful In The Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing by Walter Murch, which among other things addresses a Leonard-Brendan conversation from five years ago.

I got a bit more How to Design Programs work in and watched a wrenching Bab5 with Leonard. Egg creams are not all that. Yay for getting to see Adi, Caroline, Evan, Stuart, and Mollie; Mirabai, get well soon!

Sometime soon I need to visit the beach, or the summer will have passed with zero real wave-entrancing. Evan took Leonard & me west of the Westside Highway and we just gaped at seeing a single powerful wave cross from New Jersey towards us. Leonard, are you thinking of writing up some of our boat-related conversation with Evan?

Adi and Caroline have me completely beat on "Indian parents aren't so hot on the kid's white significant other" stories. Falling-down laughing at these tales was even better because we got to hear them in the Shakespeare terraces of Central Park, where my wedding proceeded many seasons ago, blessed by all relevant parental units. By crazy random happenstance, the very first evening I met Adi I also met the story's antagonist.

Mollie, who works in an emergency room, informed me that around two percent of the kids she sees with really bad injuries had parents who Did Everything Right -- no neglect, no abuse, just unavoidable. As I consider possible childbearing, that's just enough to let me keep worrying. Also I just read The Undertaking.

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: Log: L. Sprague de Camp's entertaining Lest Darkness Fall moves really fast. This is probably true even if you haven't just read a 900-page Neal Stephenson novel. I nearly mentioned Lest Darkness Fall in my brain candy recommendations to danah boyd, but fear it's not trashy enough.

William Ball's A Sense of Direction is fantastic and as soon as I return it to the library you should check it out. As I suspected, it has a mix of great inside baseball on directing plays (e.g., three pages on how to structure and practice curtain calls so that actors don't get their egos in a twist) and transferable advice on managing creative folk.

We learn in threes. The first step of learning is discovering; the second step of learning is testing; and the third step of learning is pattern-setting.

The actor will learn to relinquish his fear when he sees that the director never causes another actor to be frightened.

...a question from an actor is not a question. A question from an actor is an innocent bid to draw the director's attention to something unresolved. When the actor asks a question, a wise director doesn't answer the question. The answer to the question is not in the director; the answer to the question is in the actor. Answer the question by asking another question. Allow the actor to resolve the difficulty. He already has the best answer in mind before he asks the question.

Always begin rehearsal on time. There are some directors who like to gossip and joke and waste the first ten or twelve minutes. This awakens a sense of sloppiness in the actor and gives him the feeling that the work is not important.

For future reference, I'm also a fan of advice on pp 58-59, 66, 102-104, and 108 of the 1984 edition.

This weekend (among other activities) I went to a fun party, watched a lot of Babylon 5, saw a friend's wife and new baby, read the de Camp, ate Leonard's excellent sour cherry cobbler, walked around a lot, filed a bug or two on Miro, and rented movies to foist on my fellow jurors this last week of grand jury duty. All this and I still spent hours dinking around on the Web. So there, anxieties!

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: Noooo: Today we watched I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry again, because people tried and disliked Perfume and the original Night of the Living Dead. My Connie Willis novel, Lincoln's Dreams, disappointed mightily; it would have been fine as fifteen pages instead of two hundred. I desperately skimmed issues of O: The Oprah Magazine, Family Circle, National Geographic Adventure, the AARP magazine, the magazine for US radiologic technicians, and Antiques. Thank God for the Mad I bought on the way in.

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(2) : Learned This Week: Josh Fruhlinger appears on Jeopardy! in an episode playing this coming Tuesday. Come over to my place if you want to watch it!

The text prediction on my phone thinks that "leopardy" is a word.

Josh, as a science/tech writer, is also the plot-device/worldbuilding uncle from Asimov's story The Dead Past.

Some people wet a toothbrush before putting toothpaste on it, and some don't.

Even good people can't resist making an obvious joke about Governor Paterson's blindness.

I was reminded that one incident can lead to multiple legal charges. Prosecutors can slice ten seconds' worth of actions into infringements of several laws in different degrees.

I have an easier time reviewing written notes than memories of purely oral instructions. If I won't have the safety net of any written instructions, I have to take notes on the oral instructions or repeat them back to the teller, especially if there are steps that seem like duplicates. This is a repeat lesson from my time on the farm last year.

Witnesses often have to give approximate times, durations, or addresses. Numbers in general are hard to remember.

I give people the impression that I am smart and read a lot of books, and am possibly a doctor or lawyer.

The 1928 version of the NPR-listening vegetarian body-piercing liberal was "card playing, cocktail drinking, poodle dogs, divorces, novels, stuffy rooms, dancing, evolution, Clarence Darrow, overeating, nude art, prize fighting, actors, greyhound racing, and modernism."

Some people would rather sit around and do nothing, and complain of being bored, than read.

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: Service: For jurors and cops, the job erratically swings between moments of tremendous responsibility and stretches of consuming boredom. Thurber is a fine antidote to the boredom; I finished 356 pages of his short stories and essays today while getting processed into a grand jury and commuting an hour each way.

Last summer I spent two weeks doing physical labor and this summer I'll spend a month doing intellectual labor: evaluating evidence, critical thinking, all that buzz. I may diagram arguments in my juror notes the same way I did in high school debate.

The initial processing room had several bookshelves full of paperbacks, complete with two copies of The Fountainhead.

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: Spoiler! I'm Numb And Sad: Just read Y: The Last Man, final trade paperback collection of the monthly issues. Why does tragedy still shock me? I had to hunt around on the web to find people as sad as I am to help me process my grief.

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: Friday Night Blights: Yesterday: woke for an hour ear-li in the mornin' thanks to Leonard's incoming illness and a foolhardy attempt to start sleeping an hour early. This morning: wrong number woke me at 4 and I couldn't get back to sleep. Insomniacs take note: Hulu is adding a bunch of new shows and movies this summer, and now carries The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

I've just read The Puttermesser Papers (disappointing), The Fire Inside: Firefighters Talk About Their Lives (quick and moving), and the third trade collection of Action Philosophers! (funny; requires attention and serious reading comprehension). Am now on Peter Falk's autobiography -- yes, the Columbo guy. It's hilarious. Less autobiography than compilation of two-page anecdotes.

I worked probably ten hours today, yet still have an hour of work to do before I can call the week finished. At least I have a nice relaxing stint of jury duty soon. I got summoned for a grand jury; if I'm picked for the 23-person panel, I might serve for two weeks to several months.

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: The Invalid Coughs Piteously: Am siiiiiiick. Leonard characterizes my amount of whining as "not more than is seemly" and has been providing very homemade chicken noodle soup (seriously, made noodles from scratch and turned a whole dead chicken into soup) as well as tea and whatnot. Napped extensively, reread Zodiac: The Eco-Thriller and watched some over-the-top Psych. I should construct a Grand Unified Theory of Easy-To-Digest Media For The Sumana Sickbed. Criteria include: funny, not too original, happy ending.

Funny typo in my incoming email: "Sumana: Thanks for conforming." I'm assuming he meant "confirming" but why risk finding out what he really thinks of me?

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: Semifinal Thoughts: Zed wrote me several weeks ago with some research on Trollope and the "metropolitan moon". He gave me permission to post it so here goes:

The context was a spat between Trollope and the Anglican church over
Trollope criticizing how badly rural curates (or deans) were paid. As
Leonard notes, a metropolitan is an Anglican archbishop. So it's just
a reference to curates being envious of archbishops' riches. Holly, in
your comments, quotes the relevant passage, but missed that a dean is
the lowly underpaid figure.

Also, the phrase alludes to Hamlet.

Hamlet, Act I, Scene 4 (Hamlet addressing the ghost of his father).

Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn'd,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee: I'll call thee Hamlet,
King, father, royal Dane: O, answer me!
Let me not burst in ignorance; but tell
Why thy canonized bones, hearsed in death,
Have burst their cerements; why the sepulchre,
Wherein we saw thee quietly inurn'd,
Hath oped his ponderous and marble jaws,
To cast thee up again. What may this mean,
That thou, dead corpse, again in complete steel
Revisit'st thus the glimpses of the moon,
Making night hideous; and we fools of nature
So horridly to shake our disposition
With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls?
Say, why is this? wherefore? what should we do?

What he meant by alluding to Hamlet, and why it should be profane
(simply because he's suggesting the deans are violating the
commandment against coveting their neighbor's ox?) still escape me.

But at this point, I think it was totally not a sex thing.
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(2) : Aside: I'll be offline for much of this weekend at a retreat in San Antonio. It looks like my 10-year high school reunion, scheduled for next weekend, is cancelled for want of RSVPs. I'm managing three to five projects right now, double the number I had last month at this time. Dance Dance Revolution seems to be getting harder, probably because I've raised the difficulty level to Difficult. I want to talk with my California friends sometime soon. Born Standing Up by Steve Martin is thoughtful and funny and helps me understand artistic innovation. I've been reading Making Light comments by Abi Sutherland, especially for insights about software testing and motherhood. And Susan McCarthy's Becoming a Tiger is refreshing my love of life -- not just my life, but of rambunctious, smart fauna in general.

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(2) : Quick Reviews: Paddleboating in the Jefferson Memorial basin: harder than I'd thought. Iron Man: extremely fun. The fake Wired cover near the start stakes the claim that Tony Stark has the most badass gadgets EVER. Which he does. Silas Marner: I'm two-fifths through it and need to finish it to make sure Dunsey Cass gets his comeuppance. And nineteenth-century British lit always makes me incredibly grateful for the Internet and the Greyhound bus.

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(1) : Bookishness: I have now inhaled Scott Westerfeld's Uglies trilogy, complete with a night where I stayed up till 1:30 reading in bed while Leonard slept, just to finish Specials. Now I'm reading the companion novel, Extras, which makes me laugh out loud and wince at how familiar the attention economy feels. And this weekend, Leonard and I acquired huge stacks of cheap used books in Brooklyn. It's so nice to have more time to read fiction!

Speaking of nominally young-adult fiction, my friend Sabrina Banes has a new blog about YA fiction matters. I'm hoping to cause her to love Gordon Korman.

Also, Sabrina connived Leonard and me into going with her to the Little Brother signing this evening, starring Cory Doctorow and co-starring the Nielsen Haydens. Speaking of the attention economy. I'll be meeting people who have higher Technorati rankings than I do! I'll be wearing my oldest Electronic Frontier Foundation tee shirt, for cred.

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: Media Experience Revue: Since my mom is in town, I actually bought full-price Broadway tickets for once in my life. Tonight's showing of Curtains will star David Hyde Pierce and hundreds of dollars of my money in the form of fedoras and whatnot.

Zed and Jen: Leonard and I have bought and begun to watch Black Books, basically because you sold me on it by showing me the pilot when I stayed with you in January. It's like a sitcom, only good!

I've been binging on decades-old Nancy Kress (most famous for the awesome Beggars in Spain novella) from the Columbia library. She loves writing about lawyers, journalists, wives, genetic engineering and gene therapy, reincarnation, class, and upstate New York. I'm not enamored of her endgames in her novels, but nearly everything else is good.

Now I'm indulging in my friend Susan McCarthy's Becoming a Tiger: How Baby Animals Learn to Live in the Wild. Susan was a neighbor and confidant of mine in SF and I miss her! But now she has a smart and funny blog about animal behavior that will remind me to call her more often. The book is chock-full of retellable anecdotes and sounds like her, making me smile on every page.

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(4) : Tips, Modesty, and The Magic Word (Julie Andrews): My sisters-in-law have started putting longer essays and tipsheets on Associated Content (Susie, Rachel) . Susie writes mostly tips for domestic productivity and happiness. I especially like Susie's tips on beginner sewing projects using scrap fabric and reusing old, worn-out clothes, and her lists of tips on useful things to keep in the car, starting a meal swap group (a.k.a. once-a-month megapotluck), housewarming gift ideas, and setting up and maintaining a cleaning schedule. Now I just have to follow through!

Rachel's living in London, which led Susie to write up tips for reducing an expatriate's loneliness. Rachel mostly writes expat- and traveler-themed articles, like tips on planning a backpacking trip, a pros-and-cons piece on using guidebooks, and gift guides for expats and itinerants. This November, I'd like to use Rachel's tips for succeeding at NaNoWriMo. And it was neat and exciting to read her citizen reporting from the Democrats Abroad presidential primary.

Sadly, not all the stuff on Associated Content is as useful and cool as my family's work. Women have posted creepy Bible-related comments on an article on the history of pants in women's fashion. I never understood why skirts were more "modest" than pants until I read these comments. I'd figured: it's easier to have sex while wearing a skirt! Wouldn't pants, which would need to be removed, be more modest? But no, these women inform me: the lines of the leg-tubes draw the male gaze right to the forbidden area! They know where it is! They can't help but think about it! But wait, isn't mystery sexier? Wouldn't men actually obsess more over the invisible, unknowable skirt-covered crotch? Ridiculous.

If these women want me to wear skirts, they should turn their energies towards convincing mainstream America that God gave all his children leg hair and never meant for half of them to constantly battle it.

As long as I'm talking about my sisters-in-law, I should mention that Rachel recently recommended Lying About Hitler by Richard Evans and saw a stage production of The Sound of Music. Rachel, I saw a home-taped video of the film a zillion times when I was a kid, and I must have always fallen asleep around the wedding. When I was a teen, I then actually saw the ending with the escape and was like, "Oh! So it was all about Nazis!"

Also, when I was five, my mom took me to try out for a local stage production of The Sound of Music as Gretl, the tiny daughter. I said the lines Gretl had said in the movie instead of the lines they were giving me for the play. I didn't get the part.

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(6) : 19th Century Slang Help Request: I'm reading Trollope's autobiography and need help understanding this passage:

The [clerical] critic, however, had been driven to wrath by my saying that Deans of the Church of England loved to revisit the glimpses of the metropolitan moon.

What's a "metropolitan moon"? Ever since I heard that you can anagram "subtext" to "butt sex" I feel slightly more foolish for assuming things I don't understand are about sex, but -- is this about sex?

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: Mallory: "Mallory," a near-future sci-fi tale by my husband Leonard, is published at Futurismic. I absolutely love it and hope you do too.

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: Bloggers Who Give Me A Glimpse of Another World: include John Rogers on screenwriting and TV/movie production, Derek Lowe on research chemistry, Dara Weinberg on theater direction, Camille Acey on Slovenia, Beatrice Murch on Argentina, and Martin Marks on some kind of weird architectural concrete molding job. You know the hype saying the Net lets you read the gossip and shorthand stories of people in different countries and jobs and situations? It's true!

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: Tax History Saved For A Future Post: In the last few months, I've seen and read a few things and had opinions on them. Here we go.

I Chose a Parson is a 1956 memoir by Phyllis Stark, an American woman who went to Gustavus Adolphus College, married a seminary student, had two kids, and helped her husband as he rose to a bishopric in the Episcopal Church. I got it for a few bucks at Sam Weller's in Salt Lake City, in the cheapo-books room crowded with out-of-print manuals and histories and children's primers, where the pipe on the ceiling's dripping into a bucket on the floor. Never was there a greater diamond in the muck. Stark writes with the dry eloquence of the Brits and the earthy humor of the Midwest, and every page has a great anecdote. I kept reading stuff to Leonard:

In the original list of repairs new pews had been included, but later that item had been deleted because, as usual, expenses were exceeding the original estimates. I felt very strongly, however, that the new beauty we were seeking to achieve would be completely lost if the crude and wretchedly uncomfortable pews were to remain. With the hope of persuading Leland to press the point, I presented the case to him a good many times, but without success. Then one day I decided to drop my reasoned approach and try instead a more feminine technique.

'Darling,' I said sweetly, 'I've got my heart set on new pews.'

He pulled me up short with the trenchant reply, 'That, my dear, is the only part of your anatomy that will ever set on new pews.'

I'm glad to say, however, that the other members of the committee were more amenable to my importuning, and before the repair work was finished, not only did we have new pews, but also new kneelers upholstered with the best quality surgical foam rubber!

I think Rivka and Rachel would especially like this book. And I have more to quote from it in another entry.

Ratatouille is good. The animation of water is amazing. I got creeped out by all the rats. The critic's flashback is moving.

Juno is not the most comfortable movie to watch with my Mormon in-laws. The banter is great and all the actors were spot-on. I could have done with a less monotonous soundtrack. For the first half of the movie Jason Bateman is basically Michael Bluth, but he and Michael Cera really break out. Ellen Page makes me want to see the upcoming Smart People which is evidently this year's Little Miss Sunshine. Some people find Juno's choice to bear the child unbelievable, but I can see a bunch of reasons, implied strongly or subtly, why she'd do that. However, I do want to find a comedy-drama that is specifically about abortion, just to see if it can be done.

An Affair To Remember: Leonard and I saw the Cary Grant/Deborah Kerr version. All the annoying plot devices of screwball comedy without actual chemistry. That Italy scene takes forever! And the second half is a huge Idiot Plot. From my recollection Sleepless in Seattle is a much better film.

An American In Paris: I had an argument with Will Franken about this movie. I couldn't stand it because the lead, Jerry Mulligan, is a sleazeball stalker. Evidently Will wishes men could be more "romantic" in that manner today and feels castrated by feminism and the need to take a single rejection as a final rejection. I pointed out that I've been the aggressor in every romantic relationship I've ever had, and have been rejected many, many times. And yet somehow I got a husband without stalking him! And lots of men and women find each other without sexually harrassing each other!

Will asked, basically, what if it's love? What if you're in love with someone and they don't love you back? Isn't it just and true to persist in professing your love? The answer is no and it's a contradictory question anyhow. One-way romantic "love" is obsession, infatuation, lust; love is a conversation, two minds meeting as one. And how can you love someone if you don't respect their wishes (namely, "stop asking me out")?

The average Futurama is better sci-fi than the average Star Trek: Voyager.

Scott Westerfeld's Uglies is great, easy-to-read teen-focused sci-fi. The characters make sense while growing and displaying new depths, the worldbuilding is exciting, the action scenes and dialogue are all page-turners, and now I have another trilogy to finish, which I can't afford right now. See you again in May, Westerfeld.

If you can believe it, The Matrix was on American Movie Classics the other day. This is kind of embarrassing for me. I taught The Matrix enthusiastically in my Politics in Modern Sci-Fi class and in my prior Politics of the Midlife Crisis class. I still think the plot and visuals are fun and interesting, but most of the dialogue and acting hasn't held up well for me. I do still like Keanu Reeves's part, though.

The September 11th film anthology was on Sundance and I TiVo'd it mainly to watch Inarritu's segment. It was unbearably evocative and I couldn't watch the whole thing. The whole collection is worthwhile: see it with Brendan and followed by the original Shall We Dance?

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: Sending Creates The Recipient?: Once I start my job at Behavior tomorrow, I'll have a mailing address for packages, one that doesn't depend on Leonard being home during the day and doesn't reveal where I live. Thus, this week I've given out my not-yet-existent address (Sumana Harihareswara c/o Behavior) twice. These packages shipped before the person/address combo existed, but by the time they arrive I'll be there. This says something to me about networking architecture, ephemerality, lazy evaluation, worse is better, and Le Guin's lines from The Dispossessed:

"To break a promise is to deny the reality of the past; therefore it is to deny the hope of a real future. If time and reason are functions of each other, and if we are creatures of time, then we had better know it, and try to make the best of it. To act responsibly."
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(1) : Idiosyncratic Feminist Book Recommendations: Leigh Anne Wilson of the fabulous One Good Thing blog asked for recommendations of feminist books, especially history and fiction, for a college women's resource group's library. I love recommending books! So I made a little list.

Wilson had already recommended Gavin de Becker's The Gift of Fear so Leonard and I can just make oblique references instead. I think I lent my copy to Zack Weinberg five years ago and I don't know where it's gone. And others had already covered Atwood, Butler, Kingston, Tan, Ensler, bell hooks, and other well-known authors. I recommend:

A Midwife's Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, which I think Rachel gave me. Ulrich shows you and explains to you the cryptic diary of a New England farmhouse wife and midwife. Combines the most gripping bits of "Little House" with historical analysis.

Our Bodies, Ourselves. Just essential. The handbook to my body. Every girl should get a copy at puberty. The bits online are not enough -- she's gotta be able to flip through it and browse.

Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women's Changing Lives by Dr. Anna Fels. Points out that the childhood or adolescent desire for fame is often a precursor to a more nuanced ambition, combining the urge to master some domain or skill with the desire for the recognition of one's peers or community. She also notes that women, especially, feel the need to hide that wish for fame instead of developing it into a healthy passion to guide our careers. Just blew my mind in the best way, and massively helped me guide my career development.

Children of the River by Linda Crew. A moving young adults' novel about an Asian immigrant teenage girl and her conflicts with family and a suitor. Helped me a lot when I was a young teen.

Anjana Appachana's Incantations and Other Stories are short stories about Indians in India and abroad, stifled by or breaking through class and gender mores. When I was eleven, it gave me a new way to see Indian womanhood. Looking back I think the writing isn't as subtle as I'd like, but it was great for teen me.

Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. The classic lesbian coming-of-age story, messy and sexy and all mixed up with class and race.

The She's Such A Geek anthology. Great mini-memoirs about the intersection of gender politics and a particular field's attractions and annoyances.

Ellen Ullman's work, such as her memoir Close To The Machine and her novel The Bug. Same attraction as above, with reliably deft writing. With "The Bug" it looks like Ullman has the Great American Girl Geek Novel title locked. Excellent, suspenseful, evocative, emotionally accurate.

Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves by Adam Hochschild. A really inspiring tale of the British abolition of the slave trade and slavery. Reminds us that social justice battles are winnable. And reminds us of the historical connection between civil rights and women's rights.

Everything by Diana Abu-Jaber. Frances loved Crescent and I think my sister rereads it every year. One of my better recommendations while working at Cody's.

Asra Nomani's Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle For The Heart of Islam, with reservations.

In Code: A Mathematical Journey by Sarah Flannery. An Irish girl discovers math with the help of her dad, and makes international headlines with a discovery about cryptography. A nice memoir partly because there's nearly nothing depressing in it. I wrote when I first read it:

She's the type who can confidently approach a hard task and try at it and try at it and count her failures as learning experiences and live with the humility and keep going until she succeeds, self-esteem intact. I'm the other type. I've met quite a lot of that Sarah Flannery type over the years, and I always envy them, and now, maybe if I can just accept that I'm not like that, my envy won't have to get in the way of being friends with these people.

Now I know that's bollocks and I can indeed attempt and achieve hard tasks. It just took a while to find out what working style works for me, and to recognize my own self-deprecating patterns and stop assuming anything I've done wasn't hard.

Alison Bechdel's Dykes To Watch Out For comic strip collections and Fun Home memoir. DTWOF is a deep and broad look at the left and LGBT culture in America from the last two decades, and a great story. Fun Home is Bechdel's personal history, artful and edifying about queerness. They're clear, funny, and poignant, and they address lots of LGBT/feminist/left ideas in easy-to-read cartoons.

An old Secrets of Loveliness by Kay Thomas or similar girl's manual from the fifties or sixties. The reader gapes at what we used to tell girls, and what we still do. I bring it out to shock guests sometimes.

Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher, Ph.D. Puts a name to the pressures American girls face, and does some old-fashioned feminist consciousness-raising. These stories made young women, like me, say "that's me." I read it in high school journalism class. Probably heavy-handed for a lot of women, though, and looking back I wonder about the research.

Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed and Left Hand of Darkness. I taught the latter. Classic feminist/political what-if sci-fi about understanding the other and power structures.

"The Phantom of Kansas" by John Varley. I read this gender-fluid murder mystery set on a lunar colony when I was twelve and it still stays with me as a musing on sex and identity.

Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan. When you've read all of DTWOF, here's the serialized graphic novel to try out. You can read the first issue for free. The last man on earth tries to figure out why all the men died, and why he's still alive. A Sorkin-esque dystopia. The last issue comes out soon.

The Diamond Age, or A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson. What sort of education could transform any girl into a strong, independent woman? That what-if, among others, underlies this scary, funny, infuriating, and I think overlooked Stephenson.

Find some anthology that includes Connie Willis's short story "Even the Queen." Menstruation sci-fi. Hilarious. I taught that too.

Nancy Kress is a sci-fi author who thinks about genetic engineering and human relationships. Her main characters are often women.

Joanna Russ's sci-fi usually explores gender and power.

Others, such as my husband, tell me to tell you about Shari Tepper's science fiction, especially The Gate to Women's Country, and Lois McMaster Bujold, A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski, and Elizabeth Bear's Carnival. I haven't read them yet. Nor have I read nearly enough Alice Sheldon nor her celebrated biography, James Tiptree, Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips. But people recommend it highly. A bunch of Sheldon's work is available online for free and "The Screwfly Solution" is just indispensable.

Comments are open for you to tell me things, but comment over at One Good Thing too.

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(1) : Ramayaddayaddayadda: Last night I conversed with Leonard about the humor project that's been in the back of my mind for years: a comedic retelling of the Mahabharata akin to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Once Leonard drew my attention to the number of essential characters in the story, I realized that the Ramayana is much more manageable as a first attempt, not to mention more plausible in a purely textual form; I can't imagine doing my Mahabharata without sound or pictures. And I actually have ideas for reworking the four major characters, and the whole crazy situation with Rama's moms and dad. (Think Rama as Reginald Perrin, Sita as Cat and Girl's Girl, and Ravana as a cross among the Borg, Dr. Evil, and Indie Rock Pete. And Hanuman as T-Rex played by Michael Cera.) I should probably bang ideas around with Shweta and my sister.

Ashok Banker also did his Ramayana first, with amazingly intricate and extensive worldbuilding and a serious cast of fully realized characters. I bought most of that series, specially ordering the third and fourth books from abroad, because I loved the concept, but I couldn't get past book two and ended up selling even the unread books to the Strand. I ragged on the first few books of his Ramayana retelling in an MC Masala column in 2005, and he found out about it and wrote me an excellent note thanking me for reviewing it! Solid, and exemplary. His purple prose weighed down the story, I'd said, and Rama, Sita, the evil queen, etc. were completely good or bad with no shading. And, now that I think about it, not nearly enough humor.

Now he's working on the Big M. The Mahabharata just naturally has more complex characters and motivations -- Banker chose to stay true to Rama's perfect heroism and sacrificed conflict. But I probably could have dealt with that, if I could stand the voice. The wordy overdescriptive style sadly continues in this excerpt from his upcoming Mahabharata treatment. But at least there's a hint there that the line between good and evil runs down the center of every human heart (to borrow the line from Solzhenitsyn).

I see from other short fics Banker has posted on his site (I enjoyed a fantasy Western with a six-handed Indian woman and an expat pilgrimage story) that he can do vigorous and concise. I guess the grandeur of the epics turns him grandiose, which is a shame. He has a likable voice and he groks Creative Commons, so I am rooting for him personally, but I'll have to turn elsewhere, possibly inward, for mashups of my epics.

Which reminds me. Krishna as a talkative taxi driver who drives around in a chariot/cab/ice cream truck. What do you think?

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(3) : Gems: I post lots of little links in the account that Leonard and I share, and that keeps this blog from just being a mass of commentless links. But every once in a while I wish to celebrate bits of the net with/at you. Here!

If you can't get enough Randall Munroe, his LiveJournal should absorb you for ten to twenty minutes. Munroe's experience of Cryptonomicon and mine concur: "I keep picking it up to glance through and then accidentally reading through to the end." Sadly, Knuth, Stephenson, et al. are probably too busy with their magna opera to enjoy the thrice-weekly distraction of Munroe's work.

The soldiers' truce of 1914 -- I knew about it, but it turns out I didn't know a tenth of the story. Tremendous.

And, in a discovery almost certainly irrelevant to your life and to mine, I think Pseudonymous Kid's mom's dad lives where I used to live.

But the real hot tip of this entry is Yishan Wong's Reddit comments. Wong works at Facebook, his wife just had a baby, and I'd rather read his comments on Reddit than blog posts by jwz or Steve Yegge. Examples:

Abortion clinic bombers are the only terrorists who can accurately be described as "hating us for our freedoms."....

It's not one bad programmer. PHP makes bad programmers worse, but it also forces good programmers to have to be kind of bad just to get things working "okay."

What's remarkable about PHP is that it's the best PHP programmers who are the ones most vocal about how awful it is....

Just for irony's sake, I use [the powerful chip in the Sony PlayStation 3] to crack the encryption on my Blu-Ray discs.....

But the bit I really love, the bit that throws Paul Graham into the water, is Wong's encouragement and HOWTO on learning to work hard.

...One bonus effect is that you learn what smartness really does for you: it's a multiplier. It doesn't give you success for nothing (i.e. 5000 x 0 = 0), but if you apply smarts to a work ethic, your output is multiplied (i.e. 5000 x 10 = 50000). So a smart person who learns to work hard benefits far more than a mediocre person who works hard.

This benefit becomes very addictive: "whoa, by sheer force of will I can essentially call into being wealth for myself!" and that's what keeps you from backsliding....

That's going on my reread-regularly list.

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(4) : Yay For Our Common Heritage: According to a blog that watches the public domain, as of yesterday lots of works became free for all of us to reprint, remix, and generally be creative with. Depending on the country you're in, the magic year is probably 1937 or 1957 (the date of death of the author). Some of the authors whose works passed into the public domain yesterday:

As a celebration of our love for public domain literature, Leonard and I gave a Christmas gift to a few of his family: the Project Gutenberg best-of DVD. Leonard burned them and I decorated them with the label "Civilization: A DVD Archive."

For a measure of the long tail, check out the top 100 books downloaded from Project Gutenberg over the last 30 days. Half of them I'd never heard of before. Makes me wonder whether Leonard or I will be on that list someday.

It's your past, your cultural heritage, your public domain. Promote it, celebrate it, and use it, or we will lose it.
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: To Reread At Least Once A Year: "Cleaning My Room," by Paul Ford. And his "Until the Water Boils."

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: Instant Comedy: While riding public transit or what have you, visibly reading a copy of The Prince imbues all your other actions and aspects with new weight. It's comic shorthand on the level of having a character buy an enema as part of some varied selection at the drugstore.

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: Cornucopia: Headed to the comic book store to pick up MAD Magazine and found new trades of She-Hulk and Ex Machina, yay.

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(1) : What Slash Taught Me About "Stephen Colbert": You might think that I began reading Stephen Colbert fan fiction because the writers' strike is keeping his show off the air.* But it was two weeks ago that I started seeking it out. I'd had two or three recent dreams where Colbert was trying to teach me something -- math, management skills, ethics. What did that mean? I turned to The Colbert Report fanfic to help my conscious mind understand the themes in The Colbert Report that my subconscious was chewing on.

For background: like other fans, I didn't watch Colbert's show when it started out. This, despite a very friendly and funny call from a Report staffer when I worked at Salon Premium, back when the Report was just starting in 2005. He asked for a free subscription, a perk Salon and probably most major media outlets give their colleagues. We joked about Adam Carolla's car-like name and I wished him luck. But I wasn't watching. I thought The Colbert Report would be a one-trick pony and rather boring until that White House Correspondents Dinner speech.

Then I started tuning in and didn't stop. The Daily Show is parody but The Colbert Report is satire, the thumbnail conventional wisdom goes. "What's happened to The Daily Show?" one asks as Colbert looks comparatively hotter. "The Secret Agenda of Stephen Colbert", one speculates as his show nails not just the forms but the underlying conceptual dysfunction of reigning ideologies.

But that's all stuff you can get from watching the show, or reading nonfiction commentary. The Daily Show/Colbert Report fanfic brings subtexts to the surface. Sometimes it's just porny fanservice slash, fulfilling Wally Holland's critique. Or HOT fanservice. But sometimes you get psychological meat.

Erin Ptah specifically aims in her fiction to humanize the superficially despicable character that Colbert plays. Ptah comments:

He's clueless in a way that is (usually) charming. He's well-intentioned. He craves attention and approval. He's fragile and plagued by self-doubt. He always tries to do his best. He has a streak of childish innocence.

The theme of attention-seeking and approval-seeking resonates with me, and I hadn't expected it. The real Stephen Colbert is the youngest of eleven children and lost his dad and two brothers when he was a child. He freely admits a huge attention-seeking drive, but he'll act silly on stage without fear of embarrassment. The Colbert persona is a tremendous narcissist and that may be the only urge of his that he isn't in denial about. The real Colbert is aware enough to declare how lucky he is in an interview with Larry King: "[My character has] got a tremendous ego. I get to pretend I don't."

Once I really start thinking about how Colbert constructed an attention-hungry persona that screens his private, attention-hungry self from exposure -- because being authentic 100% of the time may turn you grey (cf. Jon Stewart) -- I want to digress a lot. His mask reminds me of customer service habits that prevent burnout, and the doubly-indirected attention-seeking reminds me of Anna Fels's insights on attention as a necessary component of mastery. But you get my point. There's a lot here. Another pervasive lesson in the Colbert character is the undermining of authority's assurances. It's always Opposite Day, so his blessings and curses are inimical to real-life value. What Ptah calls well-intentioned cluelessness goes hand-in-hand with pretzel logic:

"Well, there you are!" Stephen replied, triumphantly. "Only a man who was petrified of finding out he was gay would avoid having sex with men!"

How more succinctly could we put a neocon's wiretapping rationalizations than in this Colbert Report ad slogan? "I'm looking over your shoulder, but only because I've got your back." Well-intentioned cluelessness all the way.

You see the character's innocence come through when his character breaks. The fanfiction, as a rule, either shows Stephen or "Stephen," and so doesn't explore the space in between; Ptah's "The Thing With Feathers" is an exception (explicit example with implicit discussion throughout).

The best discussion, then, is a fan video: "Don't Stop Me Now/Don't stop me/'cause I'm having a good time!" Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" juxtaposed with three and a half minutes of Colbert breaking character. The character breaks are almost never outbreaks of seriousness when he's forcing jollity. It's his genuine pleasure breaking the serious mask.

And that's how you know he is having a good time. He wears the character lightly, breaking at least a little bit once an episode or more. It's great to see him smile for real! There's a lesson: the power of a genuine smile. And it makes you wonder how anyone could see those breaks and not recognize them, see the show and not know it's a parody.

Speaking of which, disturbing comments on a behind-the-scenes clip. People express their shock that it's an act. Liar! they cry. Or -- and I quote -- "HAHA! colbert exposed!there u go stupid liberals"


And as for the character always trying to do his best, and probably failing, he's not alone in that. For a fan fiction piece that explores this, I recommend Ptah's "Expecting" -- at the very least you should see the trailer.

So, if Colbert is showing up in my dreams as a teacher, what are my lessons? In some ways they're the same lessons I learned from sitcoms: be straightforward and honest to avoid drama. Low-probability embarrassments will happen, so get over it. Be kind to outsiders. But in sitcoms we learn to be kind and honest to others; Colbert is telling me to be kind and honest with myself.

* Leonard and I made muffins yesterday morning and I brought them to the Writers Guild picket line in midtown. Gawking report: John Oliver looked exhausted and a standup comic whose name I can't recall gave me a smile. Then, near Rockefeller Center, I saw paparazzi surrounding a car and asked a gawker who was in there. She finished snapping her cameraphone shot and turned to say triumphantly and definitively, "Celine Dion!"

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(1) : Just Read And Recommended: Books on the inadvertent themes of the US public school culture and acclimating ourselves to otherness.

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(3) : Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Making Out: Once upon a time, I watched that OK Go treadmill video once a day for a week because it cheered me so. I'm currently there with times Stephen Colbert has broken character, set to "Don't Stop Me Now" by Queen. Evidently "Don't Stop Me Now" is a popular montage tune on YouTube, mayhap inspired by that scene from Sean of the Dead.

In the comments, we see hordes of teenage girls noting that it's only n years till they can legally schtup Stephen Colbert. And indeed when we get to see Colbert's genuine smile it's quite winning. And this video is three and a half minutes of just those endearing moments, so of course it's cracktastic and attracts those gals. Maybe there are fanboys among the SQUEE! contingent too, but in their Twitter-length comments they'd have to justify why Colbert would divorce his wife AND TURN GAY for them at their 18th birthdays, and that takes a little longer than 140 characters.

The vid does not drive me to YouTube-comment-posting levels of lust; nonetheless, I enjoy The Colbert Report quite a bit. Certain episodes ("American Pop Culture: It's Crumbelievable" and the Decemberists shred-off) I've watched several times, and I maintain that "The Word" is changing how people understand Powerpoint. But I did not seek out the literary criticism, fan homages, fan music videos (aww), and fiction about Colbert written by amateurs until a few days ago. My reasons and findings: forthcoming.

If you don't know about slash and other fan fiction variants, or even if you do, there's no better intro than essays by Teresa Nielsen Hayden (whom I still haven't met!), such as: "Fanfic": force of nature; Squick and squee; Namarie Sue; and finally Punditslash. There is also a relevant xkcd cartoon in which the critical impulse turns into the creative impulse in four panels.

In case you think all slash is wrong, let me introduce you to the Very Wrong Slash community on LiveJournal. But what makes slash "wrong"? In the immortal Arrested Development distinction of "hot wrong" vs. "regular wrong," slash is only regular wrong if the author can't make her borrowed characters' actions believable. And it's easier to write fiction that's hot wrong using borrowed characters, because subversive and hot is like metahumor -- it works best when it's subverting something you have always taken for granted, not just taking a newly introduced idea one step further. And that varies by reader, like any taste or kink.

Example: I found this explicitly sexual Goofus & Gallant slash a little unbelievable, and it didn't overturn my mental furniture. In contrast, the moment I saw the name "Alton Brown" I said "Oh my God" aloud.

Alton grasped the edges of the counter, then moved his left hand along as if looking for something. He pressed a hidden button under the lip of the counter, and a shallow drawer concealed above the other drawers popped out. In it were .... could it be? Mike stopped [redacted] for a moment in sheer astonishment. Labeled in Alton's neat handwriting were half-a-dozen small screwtop jars: chocolate-cayenne, raspberry coulis, pineapple-mint, unflavored, cinnamon-clove, ginger-mango. There was also a stash of gloves and a beautifully polished marble french rolling pin, the kind that tapers. Alton cleared his throat. "Um, I've never liked the feel of the glycerin-based lubes, so I infuse my own silicone lube. I was.... I was hoping you'd like....." His voice tapered off, but this time it wasn't uncertainty, or ONLY uncertainty. It was invitation.

See, that helps you calibrate your standards for wrongness. Test yourself on this premise: alternate universe slash where Sarah Vowell, the casts of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, Anderson Cooper, Keith Olbermann, and Tina Fey attend a high school where Jerry Seinfeld and Will Ferrell teach. Or crossover Colbert Report-Harry Potter fanfic (no sex, mind) where the Stephen Colbert persona is the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. Might it be hot-wrong in some nonsexual sense of the word "hot"? It's certainly funny.

Author's Note: I'm not sure if this counts as a fanfic, a parody of a fanfic, a fanfic of a parody, or all of the above. Whatever it is, I just had to write it.

Slash folks sometimes argue over which pair of characters belongs in a couple -- which is the One True Pairing? Troi/Riker or Troi/Worf? Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, or Stephen Colbert and Tad, his building manager? (Self-conscious Mahabharata slash could have some fun defining Draupadi's OTP.) What pair feels right?

But that feeling of OTP rightness fits, in good slash, with the elegant subversion that makes it pleasurably wrong. Erin Ptah's wonderful and Pratchett-influenced "The Thing With Feathers" is an example. The way she borrows Colbert and Stewart, they belong together -- yet she rearranges the reader's universe, disorienting and reorienting my experience of The Colbert Report.

Some people write RPS, or Real Person Slash, about celebrities. I find this more icky because now the writer is objectifying a real person. The layered nature of reality on The Colbert Report allows writers to play with RPS and Fake Person Slash in the same story, so some FPS lands in the RPS community and it gets weird. Weirder, anyhow. And that's as close as I come to the reflexive anti-fanfic stance I've seen in a few folks: Fan fiction is cheating, since you're not making up the characters or their universe. And you're stealing someone else's work, and you shouldn't publish it, and probably it's stupid for you even to be writing it, much less reading it.

It makes me happy to read good fiction, fan or pro. And it's edifying, although what I've learned about The Colbert Report will be in a future post. But is all of fanfic stealing, cheating, regular wrong?

Nope. Maybe it's my generation and the affordances of technology, including how we determine what is important or relevant. But smarter theorists than I, not least The Presidents of the United States of America, have long noted that all work is at least a little derivative. We emulate role models, we pass along memes, and we share. OK Go borrowed most of those treadmills.

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(1) : I'm Disappointed In...: Colson Whitehead and Justin Lin. I'd enjoyed John Henry Days and Better Luck Tomorrow, so I eagerly dove into Whitehead's new book, Apex Hides the Hurt, and Lin's new film, the mockumentary "Finishing The Game". "Your single likeliest choice, statistically speaking, is a book by an author whose other works you've read and enjoyed, because you know it's a good bet that you'll enjoy this one too." That's what I'm saying, Teresa Nielsen Hayden! For example, I'm eager to read anything that Gordon Korman puts out: adventure serials, standalone zany-school-antic tales, reworkings of The Great Gatsby (really!), anything. And I basically feel the same about Neal Stephenson, Leonard, Michael Lewis, and Tracy Kidder.

But Apex was just a dim reflection of John Henry Days, complete with unnamed city slicker narrator ambiguously helping a country town trying to reinvent itself. It wasn't as funny, moving, deep, incisive, or anything. It was shorter, though.

And Finishing The Game had a great trailer, but it spread attention over too many characters, slowed its pace too many times, lost the funny, and completely broke tone in the last ten minutes. It did make me want to see This Is Spinal Tap again, though.

A guy in the credits: Sergei Sorokin, probably this guy. The name made me think of what The West Wing would be like if Aaron Sorkin had been writing within Soviet Russia. Martin Sheen is...Leonid Brezhnev!

Random thought from today's handball-playing with Leonard: Lydia the DRM'd Lady. Chastity belts are DRM.

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(2) : Notes From Classes: One of my classes has me reading The World Is Flat by Thomas "Airmiles" Friedman. I can skim it quickly because Friedman isn't talking to me, he's talking to the average American (specifically a non-techie whose parents were born in the US). Were I taking notes, they would read:

Chapter 1: Crap I already know
Chapter 2: Crap I already know
Chapter 3: Crap I already know

The professor has us reading it for the anecdotes, especially so he can brag/give details about the ones where he was involved. I skim fast enough to get them, but wince at the errors, e.g., p. 95, "BitTorrent is a website..." Leonard noticed one:

"Wow, CollabNet was founded in 2004?!" [p. 112]
"Did you know that for 4 years you worked for a nonexistent company?"
"It felt like it."

Cheap shots give the best ROI! Anyway.

In the storytelling workshop I took this last weekend, Mike Daisey (the teacher) made an interesting point. We tell stories to ourselves and each other all the time, to make sense of things. And when we use stories to work through our issues, to process numinous or terrible memories, certain tactics help. We explain, we repeat, we lick our wounds, we figure out what symbolizes what, we explicitly create morals and lessons. But irreducible mystery, lessons left ambiguous and unsaid, make for better art. The way you tell an artistic story requires that you leave undone things you'd do when telling a therapeutic story.

I can see this. But this means that there are certain tendencies in the artist -- as Elisa DeCarlo put it, you have to keep your guard down internally and externally -- that don't bode well for my concept of mental health. The artist has to stay intimate with disturbing thoughts, and avoid explaining away their power.

Flea and Leonard (in "Mud") are only two of the artists who have lamented that it's hard to create art while content. And this reminds me of other hypotheses floating around my brain, like a similar hypothesis about the cognitive habits that make good programmers and bad friends/coworkers/citizens, or the old chestnut about the incompatibility between ambition and contentment.

So: if you have a choice, what do you choose? And if you don't have a choice in how you've been built, then how do you adjust and learn to live in your own skin?

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(2) : "How can I provide for this right thing to be always done?": I've had some recent success in using spam as a source for recommendations, but more useful by far were Crooked Timber and Ask Metafilter. Speaking of CT, title ideas for your blog posts and a game theory question of sorts.

Thanks to "foobario"'s Ask Metafilter recommendation, I'm currently reading the Project Gutenberg text of Florence Nightingale's On Nursing and it's tremendous. This post's title comes from it. I thought it would be like Martha Ballard's diary, but instead it has a lot in common with Spolsky or my business-ish textbooks. Nightingale focuses on executive energy, attention, and putting the proper processes into place such that patients (employees) have the resources and quiet they need to get better (do their work). Once you get to a certain administrative level, instead of solving problems ad hoc you have to think strategically.

But it's still fun to solve a good puzzle, or to hear a good problem-solution story.

On New Year's Day, 2002, I was working on Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach -- Adam P., that's the exercise I mentioned at lunch the other day. I met Zack Weinberg on January 2nd, when we were both living in Berkeley.

Now we're living on opposite coasts. I go to Columbia, where Zack did his undergrad. He lives in/near San Diego, where my sister did hers. OK, maybe that's too forced.

Zack criticized The Atlantic, at least the 2003-era Atlantic Monthly. I've been subscribing for at least a year since I find it good for long trips, so Zack, I'd be very interested in hearing what it was you found unimpressive. I try not to pay too much attention to Hitchens or Flanagan, but Fallows and Bowden seem solid. Am I wrong?

And it's light enough for good not-class reading, a.k.a. cardio-machine reading. Elliptical, stationary bike -- the machines in the Columbia gym have little perches just big enough for paperbacks or magazines, but there's really no way I can take notes during the experience. Some people have beach novels; I have Colson Whitehead's fun and moving John Henry Days and Atlantics from the past ten months. And once I've finished the mag, I can leave it in the mag-swap slots on the wall under the clock, next to the Columbia Spectators and Entertainment Weekly that people bring in. ("So that's what Chuck's about!")

Speaking of Fallows -- James Fallows, former Microsoft employee, current China correspondent -- he had an interesting article in the July/August issue: "China Makes, the World Takes." I can't glibly agree with the cover headline, "Why China's Rise Is Good For Us." Fallows does what the business folks would call a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) for the economic relationship between China and the US.

Right now, it's the half-automated processes, like snapping a part onto an electric toothbrush, where Chinese manufacturing excels. At the beginning (design, branding) and end (retail and service) of a product cycle, IP-heavy firms based in first-world countries do great. Manufacturing is a cost center; design and retail are revenue centers. It's classic division of labor to offshore the parts of your business where you have no competitive advantage, can't add value for the customer, and can't make profit for yourself.

That's how US businesses are thinking strategically. And Chinese manufacturers, optimized for cheap prototyping and quick turnaround (hmmm), can do quite well partnering with such firms. But the Chinese government is thinking strategically at a higher level of abstraction. How can China become a revenue center? How can China add value? By building or enticing the institutions that grow intelligent, cosmopolitan executives and entrepreneurs. So the government, being in charge, provides that these things will be done. Schools, Microsoft design labs, whatever you could imagine the frickin' communist dictatorship of the PRC coercing or encouraging. China's not content with being China; China wants to be India too.

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: Reviews: Surprisingly unappealing: The Good Husband of Zebra Drive. Sort of predictable.

Surprisingly rewarding: Psych, Harvard Business Essentials: Strategy.

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: Ogden Nash = Hen Gonads: Turns out that my pal Hal just read the diabolical poetry/playwriting parody The Holy Tango of Literature, which includes some of my favorite Modern Humorist bits. I loved "I WILL ALARM ISLAMIC OWLS" when I read it a zillion years ago; just now I read "KIN RIP PHALLI" and nearly woke Leonard up with laughter.

Anyway, I just realized that author Francis Heaney is the Francis I know, the sweetiepie of Rose White, and that I've had multiple meals/meetings with them since moving to NYC (they're friends with the EFF crowd we knew in SF). Wow! And Holy Tango is under a Creative Commons license.

In other poetry news: Jon Carroll alerts me to funny Billy Collins poetry criteria.

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: Here We Go: In this week's MC Masala column, Leonard talks about making pesto, and I talk about the Indian tulsi plant.

Leonard used the garden as a trick to get himself to exercise. His hours of plantings, weedings, waterings and harvests yielded about five meals' worth of food. But he still remembers sharing those green beans with our neighbors. And that yard went from dead gray dirt, where not even weeds grew, to a beautiful green/brown profusion.

My mom gardened everywhere she lived, too. I remember the flowers best. All our houses smelled of jasmine -- Leonard included a jasmine vine in our backyard to make me happy. But she always made sure to grow one herb: Tulsi, or 'holy basil.' We ate it and we used it in Hindu ceremonies. No wonder I latched onto its cousin, the sweet basil that we usually mean when we say 'basil.'

I finished Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle. As always, some nice metaphors and insights, but I didn't get enough jaw-dropping moments out of the thing, and it got to the point where any clump of description longer than a few sentences tripped me up. Still: an awesome achievement, and the dialogue where Daniel Waterhouse meets Mr. Orney is deadly hilarious. Also, I recently read Isaac Asimov's crazy Murder at the ABA. Harlan Ellison didn't sue for libel?! And An American's Guide to Doing Business in China: Negotiating Contracts And Agreements; Understanding Culture And Customs; Marketing Products And Services by Mike Saxon is fascinating, especially in the vivid, deep, broad stereotypes of China and the Chinese.

I'm off for two weeks for my own exercise and green/brown profusion. Via WWOOF, I'll be working on an organic farm a ways northwest of here. Mostly tending tomatoes, I believe. I got a sun hat and some shreddable shorts and jeans at the thrift store. I leave tomorrow. If my schemes work out I'll still get a copy of the seventh Harry Potter book the day it comes out and read it before spoilers get to me. Also if my schemes work out my first time ever doing agricultural work will not maim or kill me.

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: Off to MoCCA: Today I visit the 2007 MoCCA Art Festival. Comics to get, or get autographed, include:

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: Notes On Attention And Shyness: An inadequate excerpt from Sarah Brown of Cringe, on hopes laid bare in a teenager's diary:

You want someone you like to come into your room and ask you if you've read all those books and which was your favorite and who is this in this photo and when was it taken, blah blah blah, you want that tractor beam of attention, that teenage feeling.

I'm reading "MU Tales", an addictive serialized novel about a shy girl starting college, and "Nothing Better", an addictive webcomic about a shy girl starting college and they're helping me understand what it's like to be pathologically shy.

But I'm also thinking about the other side of that coin: show-offiness. What's the basis for our scorn of attention-seeking? If it's about selfishness, does it inevitably turn into "Harrison Bergeron"? Is it a collective effort to treat conversations as ends in themselves instead of a means to an end? From The Big Kahuna:

It doesn't matter whether you're selling Jesus or Buddha or civil rights or "How to Make Money in Real Estate With No Money Down." That doesn't make you a human being; it makes you a marketing rep. If you want to talk to somebody honestly, as a human being, ask him about his kids. Find out what his dreams are - just to find out, for no other reason. Because as soon as you lay your hands on a conversation to steer it, it's not a conversation anymore; it's a pitch. And you're not a human being; you're a marketing rep.

These quotes, links, and thoughts underly my upcoming column on attention-seeking and modesty; that'll be this coming Sunday.

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(2) : MC Masala, and Le Weekend: A May 20th column on coffee rituals (citing Neal Stephenson) and a nice little column from yesterday, on my sister's graduation, dancing, food, and an old album.

It could be that the main reason I play Dungeons & Dragons is so that I can tell people at work, "At D&D yesterday we destroyed an undead dragon skeleton," and make them laugh.

We did indeed destroy an undead skeletal dragon. My fifth-level thief with charisma, constitution, and intelligence below ten was not the deciding force in the battle (rather an understatement). I think I'll create a new character soon, perhaps a fighter or a magic user, since our adventures are rather confrontation-intensive. We do travel a lot...Ranger? I'll also need to find an in-story explanation for how s/he runs into our party. This requires more thought.

Also this weekend: got my column off early (YES!) and finished The Confusion. Now, The System of the World, which starts off promisingly, but I did have to flip ahead many pages to find any glimpse of the character whose dramatic pledge we see in the last paragraph of The Confusion. Wrap it all up with a bow, Stephenson! I have faith.

It was way easier to understand The Confusion than to understand The Quicksilver, partly because the middle book had more action (Quicksilver had to set the foundation (ha ha mercury is a horrible foundation)), and partly because I actually read it straight through with no breaks longer than a few days. I read Anna Karenina in a few hours every afternoon one high school summer -- this is also the best way to read The Baroque Cycle.

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: Please Turn To The Next Book When You Hear This Chime: I've finished Quicksilver and gone straight into The Confusion. Boy, I'd appreciate that now-defunct Baroque Cycle wiki right about now. As an alternative I would also accept a decent tenth-grade World History course that, as promised, covered Europe up to the present day, instead of the version I got that ended substantive instruction around 1600.

Leonard is reading a biography of Samuel Pepys, so both of us had to seek out relevant primers. Were we really dedicated we'd use a more scrupulous source than Stephenson + Wikipedia to grok European history. "Yes, the moral decay of the kids these days, it's horrible." Leonard's historian sister Rachel is probably shaking her head in shame right now.

Anyway, the 900-page Quicksilver is not as imposing as I'd feared. The intellectual bits don't melt my brain; the science and math we now get in high school, and I've read enough philosophy to follow the arguments easily.

However, keeping track of the exposition gets formidable. The reader has to keep a lot of data readily accessible in her head, so I don't recommend that you read it as I did (read 100 pages, six-month hiatus, start again and read 250 pages, four-month hiatus, try to continue from bookmark and eventually backtrack 50 pages). For example, about 50 pages from the end, two characters allude to something that happened eleven years prior, and I couldn't figure out whether Stephenson had mentioned it (and I'd forgotten) or he was being coy. The surfeit of aristocrats leads to the same problem I had in reading Tolstoy: remembering that "Peter Shale" and "Count Vlogistaire" and "Rocko" are the same person. I didn't see the Dramatis Personae relational database till the end of the volume.

I realize that I sound whiny, but I liked Quicksilver; today I blarghed about it and Stephenson in general for about ten minutes at Michael. Stephenson knows how to make me laugh and ooh and turn the page. I'll quote my upcoming column on amateur anthropology:

On the level of plot and setting, it's about seventeenth-century Europe, political intrigues, scientific discoveries, banter in coffeehouses, and the movements of markets. But it's also about the false distinction between people of thought and people of action -- to paraphrase Einstein, thought without action is lame and action without thought is blind. And it's also a giant meditation on a theme that Stephenson can't stop thinking about: what it takes to "condense fact from the vapor of nuance", to quote his earlier book "Snow Crash."

For future reference, once I've finished the series: Andrew Leonard's Salon reviews of Book 1, Book 2, and Book 3. I think Andrew Leonard really gets Stephenson, so let's see if I'm (and he's) right.

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: Tiny Updates: The Elephantmen comic is okay.

My mom is visiting us. Last night we watched Altman's The Company. I fell asleep. Is there a plot in there? I've read a couple of reviews now and evidently I missed the Altmanesque point. But we liked Gosford Park so much!

I'm reading Quicksilver again, after dropping it in favor of schoolwork a few months ago. I had to backtrack several pages to remember all the moving parts but I'm back in it. I'm even reading it on the subway, which is kind of ridiculous since it's a thousand-page hardback.

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: Free Comic Book Day: Via BoogaBooga: Salon's guide to the samples you can grab on Free Comic Book Day (which is today). The Fantagraphics Unseen Peanuts collection looks the coolest.

As long as I'm hawking comics, I may as well put down for posterity the stuff I've bought. I mostly got these at Midtown Comics at Times Square, with a smattering from Forbidden Planet NYC, Comic Relief on Shattuck (formerly on University) in Berkeley, and Comic Outpost (warning: music starts playing if you click that link) on Ocean Avenue in San Francisco.

I'll do a different list sometime for the webcomic collections. And I've read some classics (most noticeably Watchmen and some great Batman tales) that aren't on this list because I borrowed them. Given that, wow, this was a longer list than I'd expected to write. No wonder Midtown Comics is still in business.

Today's recommendation: Find your local participating comics store, get the Peanuts sampler, and buy the first volume of Ex Machina, an issue of Action Philosophers or What Were They Thinking?, or the paperback DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore. Unless you already have comics predilections, in which case you should comment on this entry or write your own blog post with recommendations and arguments. (Zed, thank you for She-Hulk -- now give me more!)

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: Horcrucio!: The PDF of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that's floating around is in fact Melinda Leo's very nice "The Seventh Horcrux". Markers: more sex and profanity and overall emphasis on personal relationships than in HP1-6. And something ineffable. Rowling is very concrete. Lots of proper nouns.

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(3) : Riddle Me This: I work in a software firm. I am the only person there, except the office manager, who is not a born-and-bred computer geek. They play video games all the time. Yet I'm the only one who regularly walks in reading comic books, and who makes Star Trek references that no one understands at the lunch table. Worst....stereotype....ever.

Note on my objective weirdness: I've also been bringing in MAD Magazine to put next to Linux Journal for bathroom reading.

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(1) : "Stephen watched the samosa being smothered.": I have posted over 160 links, without meaning to accumulate such a repository, to the account that Leonard and I share. Here's something that might not get posted there: the Colbert/Stewart slash that made me think Colbert/Stewart slash was awesome. I've been thinking JS/SC is the One True Pairing; what's all this Colbert/Olbermann nonsense? More evidence of OTP status from SilentAuror.

I assume people who regularly read and write slash about real-life celebrities, especially ones they admire, have some well-articulated set of ethics about it -- I'd appreciate knowing about it.

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: Ironically, I Spent Longer Writing This Than I Meant To: So Adam Parrish and I have different readings of a recent essaylet by Aaron Swartz. Look, I've never read any of this Steven Johnson stuff, so I can't speak to Swartz's* criticism there. But when he says "need to stop pretending that this is automatically a good thing," I think it's clear he's not saying "Steven Johnson," but "we as net mavens," and only after that calls Johnson and Doctorow apologists for shorter=better. He probably includes his previous self in that group.

Also: It's not like Swartz's completely dismissed/dismissing entertainment that contains farts (Arrested Development, The Daily Show, what have you). The gibe about "pictures of cats with poor spelling on them" is not about either cat pictures or misspellings, Adam -- it's about that particular leetspeek/catpic subgenre of internet humor, although I will concede that that sentence is the third- or fourth-weakest sentence in the essaylet.**

As I see it, Doctorow's piece says to writers, "people will read works on the screen if they fit the affordances of the screen and continuous partial attention; if you want people to read the kind of thing that doesn't, give them enough onscreen for them to like it and decide to move to the appropriate medium." Swartz is saying to technologists: "tech right now is making it easier to come down with Dorito Syndrome, and the trend is only increasing, and we should stop it." Although I am not currently in a position to act on Swartz's suggestions, I do read Reddit, so I see where he's coming from and find the gist of his argument quite plausible.

Adam, on the other hand, you're in a prestigious tech/creativity Master's program, so maybe you hear all the time about new technologies that create new affordances for enjoying long-form content and community. What am I missing?

* (I feel weird calling him "Swartz," since he's slept in my living room, but house style tells me to refer to people by their last names while discussing their ideas.)

**First: "Similarly, no one (Doctorow included, I suspect), actually prefers blog posts to novels, it's just that people tend to have more short chunks of time to read blog posts than they do long chunks of time to read novels." I think there are certainly people who prefer blog posts to novels, especially (and this feeds into Swartz's fear) if they've never exercised their capacity to gain enjoyment from longer works.
Second: "Doctorow's conclusion? Blogs are just better." I think that's too broad a reading.

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: The Three Skills of Adulthood: Now, I foist upon you an extended excerpt from Rachel Chalmers's "I follow my nose":

...It occurs to me that all the really important decisions of my life - who to marry, where to work, when to sprog - were made on the basis of my gut. I think there are three sets of skills necessary to modern adulthood. The first is mastering administrivia; taxes, visas, passports, job applications, budgets, credit card bills, doctor's appointments, admission forms, financial aid. A second and quite closely related skill-set concerns your performance. These skills involve figuring out what's expected of you and serving it up, ideally with a twist that no one would have thought of but you. Bedrock director Jimmy Fay summed it up as "Say your lines and hit your marks." Haim Ginott's variation is my oft-cited parenting mantra: "Don't just do something; stand there."

Gut feelings fall into a third, seldom-used group of skills. For me, the only way not to get paralysed by the sheer earth-shatteringness of big decisions is to make them behind my own back, as it were, or in some other form of massive denial. Jeremy and I have long described our relationship as "the one night stand that went horribly wrong." We pretended we were only moving to California for a year or two....

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(4) : The Horror! (x2): Morning work discussion included proposing which films, and which films' special effects, still hold up on contemporary viewing. Suggested watersheds in special effects: Star Wars, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, The Matrix. Candidates without a broad consensus: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Jaws, The Blair Witch Project, Toy Story. I found Blair Witch quite frightening while a colleague found it amusing; I noted that a work of horror, as in porn, either pushes your specific buttons or it doesn't.

I don't generally read or watch horror, for fear of nightmares. I did pick up High Cotton: Selected Stories of Joe R. Lansdale at Borderlands once when a bookshop employee suggested it as a gateway drug to horror. I appreciated it, but it didn't expand my comfort zone. I still can't trust the squick to stay in its little box, going away when I close the book. I fear that it will attack again when I'm asleep, defenseless.

Yesterday I saw a trailer for a new horror film called Vacancy. Intellectually, I can decompose the premises, viewpoint and structure of the movie. It reminds me of Blair Witch and The Truman Show, and of what I've heard of Saw and Hostel. Viscerally, I can tell that Vacancy would actually push my buttons and scare me -- even the trailer is memorably scary. At least, it pushes my specific buttons.

Before "boundaries" became an in-vogue pop-psych word, I had already decided that I wasn't going to watch or read horror because it might make me uncomfortable, especially in ways I couldn't control. But every once in a while I peek over the edge. Blair Witch, Lansdale, an afternoon in the Pegasus bookstore at Durant and Shattuck reading Carrie.

I guess I'm trying to figure out what people get out of horror. Is it a thrill ride? Is it a reminder of the nearness of oblivion or hell, like "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" (Slacktivist name-check) or Camus? Is it catharsis or feeding for bloodlust?

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: QOTD: In a discussion about She-Hulk #1 this morning: "Robert's Rules of Order are not a suicide pact." -Leonard.

Thanks for the recommendation, Zed.

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(3) : "Leonard's Still Asleep" Digest: Leonard is still asleep, so I can't draw his attention to these:

  1. A groan-inducing pun about Ender's Game.
  2. Sadly, the only way to get Seth to write a blog entry is to make an error in modifying a Latin-cum-English phrase. For all I know he's been gritting his teeth over "Cogito, Ergo Sumana" for ages.
  3. "The algorithms of Matt Cutts!"
  4. Andrew and Claudia, I miss you.

    From the outside, I can imagine the American habit of supporting political arguments by making reference to "The Founders" seems bizarre, if not necrophilic. A rational interpretation of this belief is that Americans think these million-year-old dudes in powdered wigs were some kind of prophets, or supermen, capable of pulling eternal truths - inaccessable to mere mortals - from the ether, and distilling them into perfect words to endure for all time. The Bill of Rights as the new Ten Commandments, or something like that.

    And you'll like the kicker, Leonard.

  5. NSFW (unless you, like Leonard, work from home) Chris Rock bit on prescription and illegal drugs.
  6. Likable guy? "Oh, far from it. No one likes me. Will you be my friend?"
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: Did You Mean: I'm reading Roy Porter's book The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity for my class on emerging technologies. My group is studying the introduction of digital patient records, so I'm reading the Porter to give us a historical context for how medical institutions got more bureaucratic, and how processes and institutions changed once we needed/started using charts in the first place.

It's a terrific book, really comprehensive and littered with great anecdotes and quotes, but among the drier texts I've read recently. The past few times I've sat down to read it at length, I've reliably gone 50-75 pages, then conked out. Either I have tremendous sleep deprivation or I'm bored, which means I'm boring (Frances's dictum, "Only boring people are bored").

Yesterday I saw a pattern and exclaimed about it to Leonard. There's some received wisdom that everyone believes because it's traditional, and then someone new comes along and sees with new eyes and makes a new model for how the body works, and there's a flurry of new experimentation and theorizing, and then that model calcifies and becomes the new received wisdom for a few hundred years until the next experimenters come along.

Leonard reminded me that I had basically just reiterated the thesis of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Oh yeah. I read that book, didn't I? Ten years ago.

It's a good thing that we don't have little demons following us around all the time, humbling us with prior art every time we think we've thought up something original. Well, not good for innovation, but good for my personal ego. As Leonard commented (unrelatedly) yesterday, "I never know what sentence that I say is going to throw you into an existential crisis."

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: Concentration: One of the things I like best about Hugo Schwyzer's blog is that he regularly posts poetry, such as W.H. Auden's "A Walk After Dark." Poetry requires the most concentration of anything that comes into my RSS aggregator, and so reading it gets me closer to understanding my colleagues who read and understand code all day.

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: Phillip Robertson: I used to work at Salon, which means that I got to meet a lot of writers and editors. I had lunch with Cary Tennis a few times, hung out fairly regularly with Page Rockwell and Farhad Manjoo and Katharine Mieszkowski, etc. But the most alien experience was talking with Phillip Robertson.

He's a war correspondent. He didn't seem like an adrenaline junkie when I had lunch with him once or twice. At times I tried to say things like "Stay safe" or "Have you considered not going?" because, as much as I value his reportage, I kind of know him now, so I also value his life and limb.

He was on the ground in Iraq for the turn there from bad to worse. The Salon archives of his stuff comprise half the most memorable work Salon published while I was there. Substantial reading for the weekend.

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: Minimalism: Just got off the column for this Sunday. Something I had to leave out: Mike Daisey wrote about his time at Amazon in his book 21 Dog Years (based on his monologue) and talked about dot-coms and minimalism in architecture for a paragraph.

I don't know what it is about tech companies and exposed ductwork -- they love the stuff. It's as though the building's guts reflect an inner anxiety writ large, so that at any point in the day any of us can look up at the exposed piping and exclaim, "We're so busy, look how hard we're working...oh God, please, we're almost profitable, we're working so hard that we don't have time to cover up these ducts! They had to be exposed! That's how dedicated we are!"
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(1) : Historiography: From The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity, by Roy Porter:

Writing this book has not only made me more aware than usual of my own ignorance; it has brought home the collective and largely irremediable ignorance of historians about the medical history of mankind. Perhaps the most celebrated physician ever is Hippocrates yet we know literally nothing about him. Neither do we know anything concrete about most of the medical encounters there have ever been. The historical record is like the night sky: we see a few stars and group them into mythic constellations. But what is chiefly visible is the darkness.
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(1) : Why Booze Is Safer Than Heroin But More Dangerous Than MDMA: "The Toxicity of Recreational Drugs" by Robert S. Gable explains: for any given drug, there's a dose that's usually lethal, and there's a dose that usually produces a high. How different these doses are, i.e., how much you have to mess up on your dosage to get into trouble, is a good gauge for how toxic the drug is. Booze is actually really bad by this measure; just ten times the effective dose is often a lethal dose. The DARE program I went through decades back talked a lot about the pot/booze/tobacco gateway-drug triumvirate without ever explicitly saying, "Thanks to historical contingency, two of these are legal but restricted, and one is THE DEVIL WEED." The more I find out about the three, the less I like the "one of these things is not like the other" aspect.

Alcohol thus ranks at the dangerous end of the toxicity spectrum.... Indeed, if alcohol were a newly formulated beverage, its high toxicity and addiction potential would surely prevent it from being marketed as a food or drug.

Check the chart. So the tiny 5:1 ratio of Median Lethal Dose to Median Effective Dose is one reason why heroin users are at such risk of dying by OD. And the psilocybin, LSD, and marijuana ratios are much safer:

The least physiologically toxic substances, those requiring 100 to 1,000 times the effective dose to cause death, include psilocybin mushrooms and marijuana, when ingested. I've found no published cases in the English language that document deaths from smoked marijuana, so the actual lethal dose is a mystery. My surmise is that smoking marijuana is more risky than eating it but still safer than getting drunk.

Probably the funniest phrase in the American Scientist article: a section header entitled "Other Ways to Invite Death."

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: Discoveries: I've used the phrase "the cult of authenticity" many times; I didn't realize that I didn't make it up. Vikram Chandra did, in a long and interesting piece from seven years ago in the Boston Review.

Whatever you do felicitously will be Indian. It cannot be otherwise. If Bholenath speaks to you, put him in your painting, or your story. The inevitable fact that some reader in New Jersey will find Bholenath's tiger skin and matted hair "exotic" is wholly irrelevant. To be self-consciously anti-exotic is also to be trapped, to be censored. Be free.

Also, Peter Krause resembles my old boss. No picture of him there; never mind.

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(1) : Jonathan Coulton Song Reminds Me Of Leonard Blog Entries: "The Future Soon" reminds me of

"Oh but it's not the future yet Giblets" you say, "You just need to wait til the video of the present becomes the kitchen of the future." Maybe it was the present this afternoon but now it's the future and still no kitchen!

Coulton is sort of an uncredited coauthor of John Hodgman's career. Leonard just bought and read Hodgman's The Areas of My Expertise while I was finishing Asimov's Foundation and Empire and starting on Second Foundation. I ended up taking a New Year's Eve nap.

I used to lurve Asimov. I used to be a twelve-year-old girl. Susan Calvin is, after all, cranky and brilliant and awesome, sort of Housian. It's only after growing up and trying to read stuff written between 1942 and 1953 that I feel the datedness. People untold centuries from now talk and act like middle-class white US men from the 1950s, as though the most revolutionary technology only inserted the word "space" into our sentences and grew tobacco on Vega instead of in Virginia. I know, it's supposed to be a retelling of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but still. At least Battlestar Galactica is nearly self-parodying in its present-referentiality, without as much self-indulgent wish-fulfillment.

Cause it's gonna be the future soon
And I won't always be this way
When the things that make me weak and strange get engineered away
It's gonna be the future soon
I've never seen it quite so clear
And when my heart is breaking I can close my eyes and it's already here

Nonetheless: Happy New Year!

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(1) : Overdose: I just stayed up a wee bit too late, waiting for the Internet to work again and finishing up In the Company of Cheerful Ladies and Blue Shoes and Happiness. Blink, blink. I bet my mom would like them.

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(2) : Cheery: Woke up today grumpy and Leonard cheered me up by making up songs and playing them on the guitar. Then I bought four cans of Herdez Salsa Ranchera and ate the whole thing with bread and chips at work this morning. Perspiring, and feeling much better! On the Irish national standardized test:

The week of those exams, I dreamed I was flying. It marked the height of my sense of competence; the time when I was good at what the whole country seemed to value as the most important thing in life. In secondary school I knew exactly what was expected, and it barely troubled me to deliver it. I had a butter-wouldn't-melt demeanor and the only key to a school costume room, and most days I skipped a few classes there with selected pals. Schoolwork came so easily to me that I expected everything else to, and so when it turned out that I lacked natural talent at the violin, I refused to practice. Because I was uncoordinated, I dossed PE class every chance I could, and barely tapped a volleyball when I did show up. When I came fifth instead of first in a national school fiction contest, I gave up writing short stories.

It took a long time to unlearn this refusal to fail.

And of course, to my disappointment, life has been nothing like school. Only one company -- whose obsession with SAT scores pointed to their eventual implosion -- ever asked for my Leaving Cert results. In the self-inventing industries of the last ten years, there were no set texts.

There's a note at the end about Paul Graham. I want to write a scathing essay on why Paul Graham's notes make my blood boil, but no one would listen and it wouldn't change anything, including the temperature of my blood.

But the salsa has cheered me.

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(1) : MC Masala on Comics:

I eventually developed a theory of comic strips: The more punchlines in the last panel, the better they were. The likes of "Shoe" or "B.C." have maybe one punchline per strip. "Dilbert," "Zits" and "Foxtrot" have two. "Get Fuzzy" will have three or more punchlines per strip. "Luann" or "The Born Loser" have about zero.

"The Family Circus," "The Lockhorns" and "Born Loser" often start off disadvantaged in this metric, with their single-panel format. At least "They'll Do It Every Time" and "The Family Circus" try innovations in divvying up that one panel.

There's more here but I figured I should provide you a list of links to the gateway webcomics I recommend in the article.

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: I Haven't Read Any Scott McCloud Yet: You may have noticed that my column runs on Sundays, while it used to run on Thursdays. This means that it's no longer in the same section as the comics. Not that I read newspaper comics much anymore, but I'd probably pony up for a "Zits" or "Get Fuzzy" collection.

When I was a kid, reading the comics as I ate breakfast before heading to the bus stop, I was fond of "Zits" and "Foxtrot." I saved them for last. I eventually developed a theory of comic strips: the more punch lines in the last panel, the better they were. The likes of "Shoe" or "B.C." has maybe one punchline per strip. "Dilbert," "Zits," and "Foxtrot" have two. "Get Fuzzy" will have three or more punchlines per strip. "Luann" or "The Born Loser" has about zero. Like "The Family Circus," "The Lockhorns" and "Born Loser" often start off disadvantaged in this metric, with their single-panel nature. At least "They'll Do It Every Time" and "The Family Circus" try innovations in divvying up that one panel.

Nowadays, I get comics off the web and in graphic novels and comic books. I'll probably write a recommendation list for a column soon. The Comics Curmudgeon provides me with funny-paper snark.

And have I mentioned that "Bit Torment" is a terrible comic book?

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: Bookworm & Sandworm: Man, Diana Abu-Jaber's next book won't be out for another year. To tide me over, I reread my interview with her from last year.

Do you watch television at all?

I kind of watch vicariously through Mr. Scott. He sits in the living room, I sit in my office, supposedly working, but usually playing computer solitaire, and I hear him in the other room laughing. And then, when something's really good, he'll go, "Honey, you gotta see this!" So I'll go running in there, and usually it's South Park or it's Survivor, or -- oh, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. I watch that a lot. Yeah. Yeah, I love that show. But I don't like it as much - Queer Eye for the Straight Girl, do not like as much.

Really? What makes it not as good? The team that's making them over?

I don't feel like that particular cadre has quite got it down the way the Fab Five does. I feel like -- I'm sorry, I'm getting a little esoteric here.

That's quite all right! No, this is exactly the sort of hip, edgy, high-culture/low-culture combination that Saucy is built to create.

Other stuff in the interview -- cooking, writing habits, and what it's like living in Portland vs. Miami. Saucy seems defunct, but Bookslut has a Brian K. Vaughan interview this month.

Upon rereading the Abu-Jaber interview, I missed working in a bookstore, where we talked about books and authors all the time, engaging in the discourse of literature. Sometimes at Fog Creek we talk about books, fiction and non, but as with so many conversations I've had over the past year, I have to swim upstream against binary dichotomies and dismissiveness. Even at Cody's Books in Berkeley, California, the snobbish side of indieness never came out this much.

Benjamin has commented on my habit of assuming my colleagues have read certain books, ones I consider classics (Ender's Game, The Left Hand of Darkness, Jane Eyre). Often they haven't. And I've never seen Zoolander or played Halo. But I read more contemporary comic books than any of the nerds here. Just last night I bought an Action Philosophers, a mashup MST3K-y book called "What Were They Thinking?!", and an issue of "Bit Torment," whose title is the best part of it.

I'd like to believe I'm the Russian Lit Major but I need to bone up way more on tech. In the meantime I can talk about books and Star Trek with Leonard. Currently reading Diane Duane's I'm-told-it's-a-classic Spock's World, which he recommends. Pretty good.

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: Greenback-Colored Glasses: The business-y reports we have to write for my Corporate Finance class got to me when I was rereading P. Larkin's "This Be The Verse". The first two lines are "Executive Summary," the second half of the first stanza is "Analysis in Detail," the second stanza is "Historical Considerations," the next two lines are "Summary," and the last two are "Recommendations."

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: "How do you remember a truth that will cause clinical depression?": Are these the lessons of Auschwitz? What else must I be sure to recognize?

Our moral hearts, like our physical ones, are weak and prone to disease. If we acknowledge this and determine to exercise them, we have a chance to live. If we deny it and insist our hearts are failure-proof, we let the disease in at the door.

Like fragments of a hologram, each of us contains an image of the whole of our species; each of us participates in all of the beauty and all the evil of being human. We all participate in the music of Mozart and the murderousness of Mengele. If, in the morning, you look in the mirror and you say, "I have the face of a murderer," you have placed yourself in a position to begin the work that needs to be done.

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: Missing Frances: I miss Frances every day. Today I read a few of her old weblog entries.

A student today said she can tell that I like the class. I'm glad she thinks so. I'm glad she can't tell that I go beat my head against the wall after I leave them. Thank goodness it looks like I like them.

And I reread her "On Being a Single Parent", which isn't about that so much as it is about how to thrive.

I basically had to start over at CSUB because I didn't have enough units in any one subject to do anything with. One of my uncles and one of my brothers helped me, I started a Mary Kay business, and between those financial sources and part time teaching at CSUB and then at BC, I eventually acquired enough units to qualify for a credential. This was a very difficult thing to do and I am very proud of myself that I accomplished it during a time I had small children, a terminally ill husband, when I was living in a city where I was a stranger and considered an outsider not only by his family but also by members of the church. I learned during this experience that if I can go back to school and graduate, I can do anything, and in my opinion, so can anyone else.

I am so lucky to have had her in my life. I try not to think about her scrapbooks because it just makes me ache more. At least we have her blog.

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: Sensitive: Jon Carroll makes coffee and spins an awesome column out of it. I went back to Northern California for a week, for the first time in eight months, and drank booze with my editor and had a big party and went to a computer convention and I don't know what all, and I've made half a blog post out of it. I'm feeling as slow-witted as the narrator in Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, which I'm almost done reading. Why should I be rooting for [*SPOILER*] the mentally ill aunt, who is a horrible parent, to keep custody of her niece?


Kathy Sierra reminds us that every stranger, every customer, is having that tedious, routine interaction with us for the first time. Why did I find this so moving?

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: Steve Yegge & "Clothes For the Soul": I generally enjoy Steve Yegge's blog posts; you can find lots of adoring swooning to that effect in my archives from the past year. Recently he posted some thoughts that weren't out of the ordinary for him: "Clothes for the Soul", he called it.

A few of his claims:

Please do let me know if you think I'm leaving out something absolutely essential, or misrepresenting these claims.

Well, I have thoughts on how our bodies and minds and social relationships interact. Anyone who's read sci-fi, or been nonwhite in the US, or nonmale or nontall or nonthin, has done a fair bit of musing on the topic. I've read an interesting NYT article on gender transitioning. I've thought about how awesome an orgasm-button implant or "a truly effective aphrodisiac for women" or "a neurobiofeedback machine that could help women learn to be superorgasmic" would be. But I think about tradeoffs, too. I think about the monoculture problem, and tonsillectomies and thalidomide, and gender imbalance and destabilized societies, and the fact that the mind is what the brain (receiving information from the rest of the body) does. And if we could flip, ad hoc, through all the bodies that the human race could offer us, would we take advantage of the available diversities of experience? Or would we have a race to the bottom, ending up with a severely narrowed point of view, a new and more stifling conformism? Well, outsiders will always play with 0wnz0ring their bodies, with drugs, tattoos, piercings, Atkins, and beyond; they'd dare to experiment with out-of-fashion body types, but I doubt most people would buck the crowd.

But! Even considering the problem with mind-body duality, or taking any kind of nuanced view on the unalloyed good of the cutting edge in bodymod, puts me on the wrong side of Steve Yegge -- because he raises the logical rudeness shields at the end of his piece and throughout the comment board. He condescends to people who ask questions, or who are addressing the world as it is, not as he imagines it might be. He calls them sheep.

The point of the article is that YOU are a SOUL. Your body -- including your race, gender, genetic makeup, all the things I know nothing at all about as we interact through the internet -- they're effectively just accidents. They don't matter. So you should be able to change them.

I would indeed like to be able to change some things about myself, in my mind and in my body, and am making slow progress towards them.

But, if I am a soul, I am a contingent one. An accident, a sperm and an egg meeting, created me. In fact, nearly all births of humans have been accidents in that way. And the accidents - gender, race, geography, teacher lotteries, weather, accent, car crashes, books being checked out from the library -- make us who we are. The accidents do matter. I can't extricate my soul from my past any more than water can extricate itself from wetness.

Yegge writes, "You're holding on to notions like 'race' and 'gender' that may literally be meaningless words within 100 years." He later takes off the qualifier:

...notions of "race" and "gender" are going to be obsolete in 100 to 200 years, hence racism and sexism will be roughly equivalent to pants-ism and shirts-ism...

It would be completely awesome for men to be able to switch into women, physically and psychologically, with a quick bit of outpatient surgery. I'm talking the ability to conceive and give birth, lactation, height and weight shifts, Venusian temperament, longer lifespan, the whole deal.

But until everyone can have kids, or no one has to (the dependable existence of willing incubators?), gender has a lot to do with who can depend on never getting pregnant and who can't.

Steve Yegge's focus on cosmetic Swatch-watchability tells me he thinks he's a brain in a jar. This is weird, since he's so aware of his body in another context. Then again, maybe he just thinks of it as a tool to manipulate.

He notes that he can't tell a person's race or gender over the Internet. Is he also blind to class in text? In his audience? (Race, gender, and class: the interconnecting triumvirate of historical analysis.) And does he think we won't have face-to-face contact in two hundred years? An interesting claim, but I'd want to see a plausible roadmap to getting rid of all our meatspace social needs.

And heck, there is pants-ism! And shirts-ism! If I go shirtless on a hot day, I'm breaking rules. If I wear pants instead of a skirt or dress, some people think I'm less womanly.

Generally speaking, though, I think it's pretty obvious to most rational people that the trend is towards having control over how you look, and there's nothing wrong with making yourself look better. If a change makes you happier, then it will almost certainly make the people around you happier too.
Well, who decides what's better? The "duh" answer is "you do, duh," but I am not an atom. Society influences me, and just as sexism in India and China plus sonograms turns people to selectively abort female fetuses, lookism in the US plus easy bodymod might have ill effects.

But Steve Yegge has declared logical rudeness on anyone who asks for clarification or details on his utopia. He strongly implies that anyone challenging him simply doesn't understand his claims. From the comments:

Jay, poor Jay, you're really having a rough time. I'm sorry this is so hard on you! Take a deep breath. Thaaaaat's better. Calm.

And there's more of that in the comments. I was really shocked and disappointed by the disrespect Yegge shows to people who challenge his claims; he calls them mad, scared, or uninformed.

I wouldn't have paid as much attention to his post and associated comments had he not earned so much respect from me with his many previous posts. The way he's treated his commenters on this seems out of character for him, so maybe this whole exercise is a prank. Either way, I'm wincing.

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: Comic Sense...Tingling!: India-centric comic books. I've now read an issue of The Sadhu (interesting) and a collection of the first few Indian Spiderman issues (Brian K. Vaughn has nothing to worry about there). I'll try out Devi, Snake Woman, and maybe Brothers, but I've had enough of the Ramayana for a long time.

The artists and critics in the SFGate article loudly and persistently recognize the awesome, canonical work Amar Chitra Katha did; for a long time, it was the first and last word in Indian comics.

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: Need Some Wood?: Some great posts on Crooked Timber recently: "I space object!", a validation of my use of "flatmate", UK vs. Britain vs. England, hilarious self-parodying corruption defense, and an explanation of the current Middle East crisis.

Speaking of timber: some folks at the Fog Creek lunch table recently recalled all the weird Bush quotes from that town-hall-style second debate from 2004. "Internets" has stuck around. People still remember "You forgot Poland!" and, to a lesser extent, "I own a timber company?....Need some wood?" But the Dred Scott decision derision didn't stick in their minds, and many don't realize that Bush was probably using "Dred Scott" as a coded reference to Roe v. Wade.

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: And Hanging On The Car Door Handle Was...A NetNanny!: Want to hear a horror story about control freak managers?

...The engineers were placed out of the loop regarding what was happening in the standards committee and when they finally agreed on a standard, our hardware could not support it....
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: Faith in the Memory of the Unseen: In case you didn't see it last week, a lovely and thought-provoking article on memory from the NYT. Includes "dual processing," "neurological," "memory" and "double perception" theories, déjà vécu, presque vu, and jamais vu.

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: Stories and Wages: Do you remember that great Vampire Domestication PowerPoint? The creator has a bunch of free short stories for you to peruse. "Mayfly" is creepy.

Also: EFF is looking for a Staff Technologist to join Seth and Meetup is seeking a UI Developer. Man, either of those jobs would be awesome - not for me, though.

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: Tunnel: Now that I have read A Random Walk Down Wall Street by Malkiel, I can understand Daniel Davies on beta and his lyrical allusions to what Gladwell would call the black swan. A Davies bonus: calling something "risk aversion" when it's "pessimism."

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: Go Robin Einhorn!: Yay yay yay! Professor Robin L. Einhorn, who jumpstarted my interest in taxes and economic history in the first place, has published her big new book on the effect of slaveowners' tax avoidance on the structure of the US Constitution and government. American Taxation, American Slavery is going to be awesome! This follows her earlier work Property Rules.

E-dawg, Einhorn's latest is the book I've been meaning to recommend to you. Everyone else: for more tax geekitude and hilarity, read my thoughts from three years ago, and for the tasting menu for U of Chicago Press, read assorted excerpts.

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: Incredibly Valuable Reads: "[W]e also want our creations to be out of control....We want pride, but more than that, we want astonishment."

"The lie of everlasting novelty: a different take on the case against porn."

Kameron Hurley almost died because she didn't know she'd developed diabetes.

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: Enjoying A Fine Chabon: Despite feints to the contrary, neither Leonard nor I has read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. Leonard gave it to me to read on the plane(s) back from Bakersfield. I felt gauche reading it in public but now, 2/3 into it, I don't even mind people seeing me read it on the subway. Maybe a good strategy for me with these pop books is to start reading them at home so I get hooked enough to be ok with looking like an illiterate fool on public transit.

Chabon really loves the word "spavined" -- maybe the big twist ending will be where he finally uses it to describe a horse. That is my only carp (Karp?) with this book.

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: Brian K. Vaughn & Bernie Hou: I have started spending regular cash at Midtown Comics to get the compilations of Brian K. Vaughn's comics Ex Machina, Runaways, and Y: The Last Man. I grew up on Amar Chitra Katha and only recently have I graduated to the grown-up stuff. Man, it's fantastic.

One issue of Ex Machina includes a reference to Midtown Comics itself. Disorienting.

Alien Loves Predator also helps me feel at home in my new city.

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: In The Application Of My Seat To A Chair: Lunch (and dinner and Wikipedia and writing and conversing with Riana and Leonard) have helped me feel better.

Riana wrote about caffeine addiction, social acceptance of same, and prostate cancer (among other things) earlier this year, on the same day that Wikipedia featured an article on prostate cancer on its main page. This reminds me of Daniel Davies's musings on caffeine and the US. Both essays are amusing and edifying.

Back to the grind.

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: Time Capsule: Fog Creek just rearranged some furniture. Probably the most minor effect of this was that I espied a copy of Linux Journal whose cover article was titled:

Podcast And Reel In The Blogs And Wikis

Every once in a while I try to imagine myself as a person from a really long time ago, like 1990, seeing that sort of sentence with a high jargon-to-common-word ratio.

Currently I'm reading a Christmas gift from Leonard's sister and mother, the very good A Midwife's Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Ulrich interprets a diary of a Martha Ballard, a New England housewife and midwife from colonial and Revolutionary times. Ballard was resourceful, sturdy, and smart (as far as we can tell), but "Podcast And Reel In The Blogs And Wikis" might seem a sentence from a foreign language to her.

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: Old Love: "Crush" by Carol Ann Duffy.

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: Running Cliches Through The Cuisinart: Hey Leonard, how did Collabnet work out for you?

Like Leonard, I got book-reading as an initial task at my new job. I accidentally powered through Influence and the Carnegie way too fast because I also read them recreationally. Boy, were they good.

Cialdini's Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People approach salesmanship from different angles. Carnegie quotes Jesus and Lincoln a lot and focuses on specific tactics you can use to make others more amenable to your requests. Cialdini talks at a more theoretical level but includes examples from scams, sales, and studies to teach the reader to defend herself against manipulative techniques. Where Carnegie advises the reader to get the customer to start saying "yes, yes, yes" to a string of initial questions, Cialdini cautions the reader against the urge to accede to disproportional requests just to be consistent with earlier statements or behaviors.

Both authors mention that sincere persuasion is nothing objectionable. Carnegie stresses that it's also more powerful than sleazy tricks. I'll be using tips from both authors to do honest sales work for Fog Creek.

On my way out the door Friday I borrowed a copy of DeMarco & Lister's Peopleware, which I probably should have read years ago. I delayed reading it to read Book 6 of Y: The Last Man (a page-turner but not as politically awesome as earlier books, and with less captivating badinage, and more gratuitous skin, but I'll keep reading the series). I was especially struck by Chapter 3, "Vienna Waits For You." It quotes Billy Joel's song "The Stranger," [Belated update -- whoops, Zed reminds me that "The Stranger" is the name of the album and not the song] which made a huge impression on me when I saw it for the first time in 13 Going On 30.

But you know that when the truth is told
That you can get what you want
Or you can just get old
You're gonna kick off before you even get halfway through
When will you realize
Vienna waits for you?

Now, I was evidently not alone in thinking that the Vienna of the song was the dreamed-of wish, a paradise of our own making, the chance of happiness here on earth if we would only get up the gumption to reach out and grab it.

I'd not considered another view. DeMarco and Lister:

The Vienna that waits for you, in Billy Joel's phrase, is the last stop on your personal itinerary. When you get there, it's all over. If you think your project members never worry about such weighty matters, think again. Your people are very aware of the one short life that each person is allotted. And they know too well that there has got to be something more important than the silly job they're working on.

The bit in the song about dreams not always coming true speaks to the Peopleware view, while I find support for my interpretation in this bit:'s the life you lead
You're so ahead of yourself
That you forgot what you need
Though you can see when you're wrong
You know you can't always see when you're right

Here's where I pull a species of cheap conclusion trick: the fact that contradictory well-grounded interpretations of this song can exist is a testament to the enduring power of this classic! And maybe they don't contradict at all somehow!

(If you Google for "vienna waits for you", the top results are for tourism in Vienna. So the various Austrian tourism councils probably don't lean towards the Vienna=death side.)

Something like a decade ago, I was denied a spot as a page editor for my high school newspaper because (I was told) my people skills were insufficient. They were right. I was told to read Carnegie, which I did. They made up a copy-editor position so I could learn and practice editorial skills that year, which I did. The next year I got to be a page editor.

Carnegie was great for me because it systematically spelled out reasons for tactics that other people (e.g., my parents) advised haphazardly. Instead of just bumbling through a billion use-cases I got to learn the rules of the thing. Why shut up and let other people talk? Because they like to talk about themselves and their own problems and triumphs, just like you do, and if you listen to them they'll like you. That sort of thing.

My dad once told me to stop bringing books to read when we went to family friends' houses. "Bringing a book to a party is like bringing a sandwich to a dinner," he said, and I got it. And my mom tried to get me to listen better: "Listen to what people mean, not just what they say," she said, but I didn't get it.

My mom and dad tried their best, but I needed a handbook, something to memorize and apply, with lots of examples, and Carnegie helped a lot.

I wonder, in the same fashion as Leonard, how little teenager me would feel if I told her: the next time you read How to Win Friends and Influence People, it'll be to brush up, not to become a functioning member of society. You'll have self-confidence, a great job, a paid newspaper column on the side, a wonderful boyfriend, and a posse of superlative friends, who miss you because you've just moved to New York. Vienna waits for you.

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: Readings: As I was going through a cold this week (am currently 90% over it), I read Jane Austen's Persuasion, whose title I love. Persuasion is very fun for the first 90 percent of it but then once the endgame becomes obvious it is less compelling.

I also read Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, which is fantastic. Anna Karenina revealed to me why people love epic soap operas, and Casterbridge is smaller in scale but no less epic in the scope of human emotion explored. And it is funny.

Casterbridge couldn't happen today, I think, what with all the bureaucracy and open access to information the First World enjoys. It's like Jane Eyre in that way.

The town of Casterbridge is a minor town somewhere in England, like Stockton. Now I live in the equivalent of London. A weird thing to get used to.

At the Friends of The Library store in San Francisco's Fort Mason, I bought a cheap Blues Traveler CD, entirely because it has "Hook" on it. "Hook" was my first experience, possibly aside from Weird Al and songs from Broadway musicals, with meta songs. It blew my little teenage mind. I still like it.

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: Gotta Stand Up To Start Moving Forward?: According to some estimates, every six months in the Bay Area, I've made some new amazing friend whom I am now leaving behind. I arrived in August of 1998 and met Seth; most recently (basically) Eric. He lent me Daniel R. Headrick's Tentacles of Progress, about the infrastructure that empires lay down in conquered lands.

The Fashoda incident of 1898 (see Chapter 4), which had only a temporary impact on international diplomacy, was the turning point for Dakar. In response to the British threat, France decided to build a harbor in West Africa for its cruisers, submarines, and torpedo boats. The project took ten years and cost 21 million francs (£ 840,000). Deep dredging, over 2 kilometers of new breakwaters, and a dry dock made it a harbor fit for cruisers. By 1908 Dakar was the finest naval base between Cape Town and Gibraltar.

This passage struck me. The leaders of France made hard decisions and plans, and ten years later they had an awesome artifact and tool. They made their bet and won.

I've been afraid to bet. I've been loathe to predict or plan, to even cautiously strategize a career or make any long-term commitments. And now I'm locked in for the next three years. I've discarded other options and shaken off paralysis.

If you could save your mother, but at the cost of killing your father, would you do so? What if the situation were reversed? What if your great aunt would die, but your father would live, but he would have cancer, but that cancer would go be cured by a doctor, but that doctor eventually creates a supervirus which wipes out 1/3 of the Earth's population. Would you date that doctor?

I can't live like that anymore, second-guessing every move.

Joe is one of the friends I'm going to miss. Last night we saw a whole show of good comedy, in which none of the four comics disappointed; how often does that happen? It started with stand-up and so it shall end.

San Francisco's Bay Area was the first place I chose to move, and the first place where I made myself a home. Now it's the first place I'm leaving completely on my own. From November of 2002: Sumana stands up.

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: Reading Lists: An alternative (of sorts) to Personal MBA. Of Mr. Spolsky's tentative list, I've read:

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: It Always Comes Back: I thought Alan Furst's Dark Star would be a science-fiction novel, probably because I confused it with the film of the same name. Now that I'm two-thirds through, I've firmly convinced myself that it's Yet Another Europe-in-the-1930s Spy Novel, and a very good one. I like it much better than I liked Tim Powers's Cold War spy novel Declare, not just because there's no woo-woo fantasy, but because Furst does not hide from the reader important facts and memories attached to his viewpoint character.

Spoilers: Our protagonist, a Soviet journalist drawn/coerced into espionage, travels Europe in the guise of writing for Pravda. Szara witnesses Kristallnacht and reports back to his spymaster:

"And Germany?" [Goldman] asked.

"In a word?"

"If you like."

"An abomination."

Goldman's mask slipped briefly and Szara had a momentary view of the man beneath it. "We shall settle with them this time, and in a way they will not forget," he said softly. "The world will yet thank God for Joseph Stalin."

Pre-WWII Europe seems to have unlimited reserves of irony.

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: Sweet Lyrics: Reading Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate, a novel in sonnets. I like recognizing the scattered nice (precisely fitted) rhymes, and familiar external and internal locations. I adored A Suitable Boy as I loved Anna Karenina. This one, I don't know yet, but there are some wrenching passages about love:

"...Quit bugging
Me, will you, Ed -- I'm sick of lugging
This tragic burden week by week.
Some light refreshment -- so to speak --
Is what I thirst for. Ed, I love you,
But don't exhume this; there's no sense
In scouring ruins. Why condense
The happiness that floats above you
By seeding it with doubt and pain,
Crystals that force it down as rain?"


As Phil talks on, his eyes grow radiant.
Ed thinks of the first time they met.
The weeks have warped the placid gradient
On which his even wheels were set.
Neither the sense, at every meeting,
Of his heart's full and rapid beating,
Nor the abrupt and scalding rush
Of redness to his face, the flush
When he feels Phil's eyes resting upon him,
But something infinite and slow
And tide-like holds his life in tow.
The salt of human love upon him,
To it his leached will yields control,
Whether it stings or heals his soul.
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: Didion on Schiavo: You have probably already read Joan Didion on the Schiavo case and watched Didion illustrate, but carefully leave unanswered, more precisely formulated questions about that particular tragedy and the end of life. That piece makes me want to read Life's Dominion and The Year of Magical Thinking.

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: "Waiting Waiting Waiting": I laughed out loud at Spamusement! today. Incidentally, the other web comics comprising my daily comic trawl are: Achewood; Toothpaste For Dinner; Something Positive; and Dinosaur Comics.

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: Uplifting, Inspiring, Secular Art: I'm listening to Dar Williams, "What Do You Hear In These Sounds," and I see Jon Carroll:

It's the making, I think. The making is the important part. If you are lucky enough to be able to make something and earn a living, you should keep making it, because the ability to make something is a gift.

It's the only time we get to feel like gods: when we make something. Of course, not everything we make is good, but God himself has the duck-billed platypus to answer for....And then we do something else. As Samuel Beckett said, we "fail better."

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: Phillip Robertson Is Braver Than I'll Ever Be: I have the freedom to yammer on about literature. I'm not in Iraq.

Hajji Qais had been on Al Mutanabbi street for 10 years and the vendors all knew him. He sold greeting cards for births and anniversaries along with Christmas and Easter gifts, cologne and pens. He wore a beard and was also known as a devout Sunni who had no problem hiring Shia workers or spending time with Christian colleagues. Aside from stocking a few items related to Christian holidays, there was nothing unusual in his shop. He wasn't a known member of any political party, and he was, according to his neighbors on Al Mutanabbi Street, a generous man who often gave money to the poor.

No one in the district will speak openly about who killed him, including his own son.

Ahmed Dulaimi, a young guitarist for Iraq's only heavy metal band, told a story that has been going around Baghdad these last few weeks. There was an ice seller selling ice from a small shop on the sidewalk in the Dora neighborhood. One hot day, a man came up to him with a gun and said, "You shouldn't be selling ice because the Prophet Mohammed didn't have ice in his time." Then the gunman shot the ice seller dead. This story terrifies Iraqis but they often laugh when they recount it, because it is absurd that anyone would get killed for selling ice or shaving a beard. It is also true that the ice-seller anecdote follows a pattern of killings around the capital where Islamic militants have regularly assassinated Iraqis for violating strict, and utterly random, codes of behavior. The point of the ice-seller story is that now, anyone in Iraq can be killed for any reason at all. After Hajji Qais was killed, more than one person mentioned these spontaneous assassinations, and they spoke about them the way they'd describe a sandstorm, an all-encompassing thing that no one can stop.

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: Recommended Books: An acquaintance asked for book recommendations. I thought of a few. I'll share them here:

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: "Add it up": I am really glad that Paul Wright pointed me to a bit of non-glurgy inspiration that's akin to Paul Ford's old chestnut about the water boiling. Maybe I should borrow some Violent Femmes. Over the past few days, I've been using classical, Ben Folds, Guster, Dar Williams, and the Mountain Goats to self-medicate.

Limit your wheel spinning to those five minutes in the shower. Let the steam seep into your pores as you sing along to Violent Femmes. Sing, "Just last night I was reminded of just how bad it had gotten and just how sick I had become." Put on your shiny shoes and fight the good fight again. Fight the good fight until it becomes second nature, until it becomes who you are.
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: Giving Away Giants Ticket: R.K. Narayan in "My Dateless Diary" does a US book tour. He gets two tickets to some event. "Why two?" he asks. The giver tells him that "two tickets or none" is an unalterable principle in American life.

Update: Gone! Damian will accompany me!

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: Setting Records: I can't remember the last time I was this ill for this long. Thank goodness Leonard is taking care of me. If this lasts through tomorrow then I should seek real medical attention.

Read: Pratchett's Men at Arms - a wee bit taxing for my current state, but of course funny and heartwarming. Also - some Jeeves stories that make me understand what Orwell and Leonard say about him. I'd never seen that amoral side of him before, where he ditches the "make someone happier" objective just to make a few pounds.

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: Still No Punchline: I still have no punchline for the set-up "Asra Nomani is standing alone in Mecca..." But you can read my review of her book.

It seems unfair to judge Standing Alone in Mecca as a memoir when it's clearly unfinished. It tells us the history and the recent dispatches of battles within Islam, but the story's barely begun.
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: Meta-Spoiler Alert:

'But Bertie has no other way of living,' said Charlotte.

'Then, in God's name, let him marry Mrs. Bold,' said Madeline. And so it was settled between them.

But let the gentle-hearted reader be under no apprehension whatsoever. It is not destined that Eleanor [Bold] shall marry Mr. Slope or Bertie Stanhope. And here, perhaps, it may be allowed to the novelist to explain his views on a very important point in the art of telling tales. He ventures to reprobate that system which goes so far to violate all proper confidence between the author and his readers, by maintaining nearly to the end of the third volume a mystery as to the fate of their favourite personage. Nay, more, and worse than this, is too frequently done. Have not often the profoundest efforts of genius been used to baffle the aspirations of the reader, to raise false hopes and false fears, and to give rise to expectations which are never to be realized? Are not promises all but made of delightful horrors, in lieu of which the writer produces nothing but most commonplace realities in his final chapter? And is there not a species of deceit in this to which the honesty of the present age should lend no countenance?

And what can be the worth of that solicitude which a peep into the third volume can utterly dissipate? What the value of those literary charms which are absolutely destroyed by their enjoyment? When we have once learnt what was that picture before which was hung Mrs. Radcliffe's solemn curtain, we feel no further interest about either the frame or the veil. They are to us merely a receptacle for old bones, an inappropriate coffin, which we would wish to have decently buried out of our sight.

And then, how grievous a thing it is to have the pleasure of your novel destroyed by the ill-considered triumph of a previous reader. 'Oh, you needn't be alarmed for Augusta, of course she accepts Gustavus in the end.' 'How very ill-natured you are, Susan,' says Kitty, with tears in her eyes; 'I don't care a bit about it now.' Dear Kitty, if you will read my book, you may defy the ill-nature of your sister. There shall be no secret that she can tell you. Nay, take the last chapter if you please -- learn from its pages all the results of our troubled story, and the story shall have lost none of its interest, if indeed there be any interest in it to lose.

Our doctrine is, that the author and the reader should move along together in full confidence with each other. Let the personages of the drama undergo ever so complete a comedy of errors among themselves, but let the spectator never mistake the Syracusan for the Ephesian; otherwise he is one of the dupes, and the part of a dupe is never dignified.

I would not for the value of this chapter have it believed by a single reader that my Eleanor could bring herself to marry Mr. Slope, or that she should be sacrificed to a Bertie Stanhope. But among the good folk of Barchester many believed both the one and the other.

-Anthony Trollope, ch. XIV, Barchester Towers
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: Stephensonia: About once a month I wake up way too early for no good reason. Today it could be because my body is scared of today's dentist appointment. I woke up thinking about the oral surgeon from Cryptonomicon. Real subtle, subconscious.

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: Caustic Commentary & Time-Fillers: Get Your War On makes me laugh bitterly. On a scale of "how bitter is my laughter?" where ten equals "I am laughing black, black tears," The Daily Show is around a five and Get Your War On is a nine.

For the long weekend, a bunch of free essays by Susan Orlean, Michael Lewis, Calvin Trillin, et al.

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: Recommendations For Non-Light Reading: "Which academic books are fit for human consumption?" This list has added several titles to my wantlist.

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: Machiavelli's The Little Prince: A while ago, I read Peter Singer's Writings on an Ethical Life, the reader he put together to fairly represent his controversial views on animal rights, ecology, poverty, abortion, infanticide, and right living. After reading his book, I think activist Harriet McBryde Johnson has a weaker case than I thought she did before reading Singer's book. However, I do think it would be good for us to have more information on the abilities of people with major physical disabilities to have fulfilling, happy lives; I have much less of a problem with the abortion of fetuses with entirely missing brains than I do with the abortion of fetuses with disabilities on the quality-of-life borderline (e.g., Downs syndrome, Klinefelter syndrome).

The weirdest thing Singer says in the whole book is that we can't derive morals from facts. I'm still trying to figure that one out. Maybe I'm like Cindi Lightballoon in Arrested Development misunderstanding that George Sr.'s statement "Faith is a fact" is on the blooper reel.

Anyway, there's a contradiction between Singer's views, as I see it, on the idea of "potential." When it comes to poverty and the responsibility of humans to help one another, he says that we're responsible for the easily foreseen consequences of our actions. However, on the issue of abortion, he dismisses "potential life"; since the embryo cannot desire anything now, aborting it does not thwart any desires, and hypotheticals as to its future wishes are irrelevant. I understand that introducing "potential" into the argument also invites a slippery slope regarding onanism and birth control, but Singer's method of dismissing it seems solipsistic.

Singer's points on euthanasia seem formidable, but Rivka points out that it is practically impossible to administer euthanasia (or Physician-Assisted Suicide) fairly and ethically in this society; the theory does not work in reality because of logistical and financial constraints in the health care system. As she points out, people with terminal illnesses want to die because of depression (curable) and fear of pain (curable with proper pain management). But she distinguishes cessation of treatment from active killing. I'm still struggling with that argument, as am I with Harriet McBryde Johnson's arguments in general.

Singer, Johnson, and Rivka all want better care for all patients concerned. After all, if we all had excellent preventive care, pain management, counseling, and family planning tools, then the ethics of conception and end-of-life care would cause less agony for all concerned. I think they're on the same side of many issues, but Rivka and Johnson infer policy implications from their beliefs and Singer's on the other side. I need to read up more.

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: What A Dame: I interviewed Diana Abu-Jaber for Saucy Magazine. She said funny and interesting things and you'd probably enjoy it.

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: Homes Update: I finished What You Should Know. The best story in the collection, which mulls Nancy Reagan's day-to-day life caring for Ronald Reagan during his decline, made me weep. Like A.M. Homes's compelling New Yorker article about her adoption and her biological parents, the Reagan story draws on true events. My conclusion: instead of making up premises, stories, or characters, Homes should restrict herself to fictionalizing true stories from the newspaper. Thus, she will be assured of actually having a plot.

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: You Should Know That It Sucks: Things You Should Know by A.M. Homes is very, very depressing. So far, every story I've read has felt like a parody of the "nothing happens" New Yorker style of modern fiction. I now completely understand why Dave Eggers put together a book of adventure/mystery/fantasy genre stories as a backlash.

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: Oryx & Crake: If you have read Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, and you believe you understand the ending, please tell me your interpretation. I finished it last night and felt as though my copy were missing two pages. Since this actually happened to me with Gilgamesh it's not TOO farfetched.

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: Bookishness: At Sam Weller's bookstore in Salt Lake City, as I bought books to read on the train ride back home, I considered getting a copy of Pilgrim's Progress to read for the first time. Then I realized that I'd want a copy of the Bible next to me so I'd get all the references. Like many US public school graduates, I don't know nearly enough about the Bible to get all the Biblical references in great works of literature. Mr. Hatch in American Literature ameliorated that but not enough. I was too dumb to understand what he was trying to do and how hamstrung he was.

I bought and read Twain's hilarious Roughing It, which I enjoyed for the whole ride. Am now reading Margaret Atwood's Orxy and Crake, which takes about three paragraphs to get going. My review of Douglas Coupland's new book is up at Bookslut.

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: Litigious Fairy-Tale Queens: From The Fact-Checker's Bible by Sarah Harrison Smith, pgs. 74-75:

Audiotapes of interviews can be a wonderful source [italics in original]. They offer excellent legal protection. In a trial, libel lawyer David Korzenik says, "the factual support for an article needs to be reproducible; tapes are better than notes." He adds, "Everyone thinks they've been misquoted. Most people would sue a mirror for what it shows them in the morning if they could...."
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: Question Marks: Unitarian Universalist jokes and a Satanism joke: "Satanism seems to be an elaborate prank designed to annoy Christians while having some good parties ... rather than a system one could practically live by."

The classics AND contemporary media sometimes show people doing immoral things, and sometimes we see that these actions lead to their downfall. Kristen, you ask why certain books become classics, and whether classics that portray immoral behavior are smut. I've never understood what smut is. I think smut would be pornography that didn't care about a story or characters. The classics care about story.

Literature explores different ways of being human, as my old English teacher said. I realized, after reading George Eliot's classic Middlemarch and finding in Rosamond's character a reflection of myself, that I should be more emotionally independent and not a self-important parasite like her. But that's not because the story punishes her. It's because Eliot describes Rosamond so precisely, wittily, and devastatingly that I wince at recognizing myself.

And TV shows have taught me stuff, too. Sitcoms teach me that lying and hiding stuff never works; if I'm straightforward and honest with people, my life gets a lot easier. The elegant plot structures and wordplay I remember from Seinfeld (probably a classic) and Mad About You taught me about art before I ever read Fitzgerald.

I'd argue that the movie The Matrix is a classic; if anyone wants me to expand on that, shoot me an e-mail.

Compare-and-contrast: the CAPAlert guy who marks a movie down for portraying sin, even if the movie shows the sinner punished for his sin. His justification is that the very portrayal of the sin might influence a child who had not previously considered that sin. I'm not certain there are any edifying stories that don't depict bad behavior; there has to be a Goofus to make Gallant look good.

In our everyday lives, sometimes good things happen to bad people and vice versa. So morality plays for children will have to be somewhat unrealistic, and stories for adults, aiming to recreate the familiar, will depict these dismaying outcomes. (I hesitate to say the word "unrealistic." I've just read C.S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters, and his scorning comments on the secular world's use of the word "real" to mean "most unpleasant, whether material or notional" make the word "real" stick in my throat. What a funny, disorienting, doubly-directing book, Lewis's Christian edifications feinting behind the Devil's decreasingly convincing instructions.)

Last night I saw Camus's The Just, a hundred-year-old play about terrorists aiming to overthrow the Tsarist Russian state. [Spoilers ahead.] In the end, only one of them dies, but one goes mad. We as adults watching the play know that none of these people comes to a happy end and Russia never gets free, but within the play there's very little explicit punishment for the plotting and murdering. [End of spoilers.] Does that make the play immoral? I really doubt The Just encourages anyone to become a terrorist.

But the main point of your post, Kristen, was about teaching ourselves to act responsibly and accountably. If I could change one thing about the way my parents raised me, I'd work on that very aspect of my rearing. If they'd let me make little choices and suffer the consequences of choosing wrongly, I'd have been more prepared for the stormy ocean of adult life. I think.

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: The Spam King's Gambit: Last night I couldn't sleep and I read Spam Kings by Brian McWilliams, a frequent Salon contributor. For a reader at my level of net savviness, McWilliams spins a great tale of the intimate battles among spammers, antispammers, and side-switchers. They taunt each other via instant message! A failed anti-Semite writes great ad copy for pills and plays under assumed names in chess tournaments! I wish I knew how it ended, but nonfiction doesn't wrap itself up in time for a book deadline.

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: Metahumor Discovery: I have probably 150 Amar Chitra Katha ("immortal picture stories") comic books, and have been reading ACK for as long as I can remember. I learned most of my Indian mythology from ACK and press it on friends to teach them Indian culture and history. (Right now a friend has one of my Mahabharata sets.) I saw a recommendation for ACK and set off to the ACK online store -- fantastic! Ships anywhere in the world!

Click on "The Making of a Comic" to find out how much work goes into a single ACK. I started laughing uncontrollably when I saw that the ACK folk had drawn this section as an ACK comic. Metahumor works best when it's subverting something you have always taken for granted, not just taking a new joke one step further.

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: Media Matters: Tim Goodman turned me on to Arrested Development and it is awesome and I love it. Even Leonard likes it. Something aside from The West Wing and Star Trek that I can watch with Leonard! It is so great.

Currently reading Middlemarch by George Eliot, which is also fantastic, detailed and observant.

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: Books I Read When I Was Too Young to Really Understand Them: Back to Eden. A denunciation of modern, unholy, unhealthy eating patterns, and a handbook of herbs and more natural healing methods. Lots of enemas. This fascinated me for the anecdotes; I just flipped through the real reference material. He and his kids and grandkids talked about life on a farm, the virtues of a vegan diet, what God wants, and grotesque cases (ER meets All Creatures Great And Small). The guy had a clinic that used "electric therapy" -- I'm not sure what that means.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I was about eleven when I picked this one up. Why it was in our house I have no idea. I learned from this book the sorts of things that other people my age probably learned from the kinds of movies that my parents wouldn't let me watch, e.g., a passing reference to key parties. The introduction contains one of the best Malcolm X quotes, "My coffee is the only thing I like integrated." Looking back, I am surprised that I never confused Alex Haley (who took X's dictation) with Aldous Huxley, and that despite the LeVar Burton obsession I share with Leonard, we still haven't seen Roots.

I Never Played at the White House, Art Buchwald. A watergate-era column anthology. Dave Barry : Art Buchwald :: humor : satire, right? I was twelve. Like Mort Sahl, Buchwald was cheerfully chauvinist in ways I now find annoying. I learned most of what I know about Watergate from this book and from old Doonesbury cartoons.

A Few Minutes With Andy Rooney, Andy Rooney. I think someone gave my dad this book as a gift. Mom and Dad used to call me downstairs when 60 Minutes had 10 minutes left to make sure I wouldn't miss Rooney's stand-up/journalism/blogging. If you ever read the passage in Richard Wright's memoirs where he reads Mencken for the first time....take away most of the profound and awesome power of the experience and you get a sense of Rooney's influence on me. I mean, come on. I'm not Richard Wright! I think the honesty of his voice and the variety of his subjects got to me. I might not love Malcolm Gladwell now except that Rooney got me when I was young.

Sex And The Office, Helen Gurley Brown. Hoo boy. How that book got into my dad's library I have no clue. I may be the only person who's read this book and not Sex and the Single Girl, which came first. If I recall correctly, this book has absolutely no depictions or descriptions of actual sex, but lots of explanations of office politics. I have never used the techniques that the book recommends to succeed in the workplace (maybe I should) or romance (thank heaven I'm fine there).

Don't get my family started on Lee Iacocca's autobiography. It was the only English-language book around at a house in India that I visited when I was nine. I know a lot more about the Chrysler bailout than most people. Most people who dislike the Ford family do so because Henry Ford was an antisemitic wacko; I did because of Iacocca's description of his firing.

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: Deepavali, Dipawali, Whatever: Happy Diwali!

While dressing up for work in a shimmery pyjama juba, a.k.a. salwar kameez, I discovered that I don't have any kumkum, a.k.a. kunkuma, a.k.a. bindi, a.k.a. the red dot you wear in the middle of your forehead or between your eyebrows. I used a marker instead.

Diwali usually celebrates the day Rama comes back to Ayodhya (don't get me started on temples and mosques in Ayodhya) after defeating Ravana, a ten-headed demon. I'm reading the first book of Ashok K. Banker's passable fairy-tale retelling of the Ramayana right now; I should time my reading so that I read that part of the story a year from today.

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: Not To Mention The Original Big Book: Two of my favorite Christianity bloggers: Real Live Preacher and Slacktivist. I imagine that the Preacher, a.k.a. Gordon Atkinson, would enjoy Douglas Coupland's book All Families Are Psychotic, and now I find that Fred Clark of Slacktivist enjoyed Infinite Jest. Leonard read that recently and I acted irrationally hostile towards him and it whenever I saw the book. I get irrationally angry at people who are doing things I don't have the guts to do. In this case that's both the reader and the writer of a Big Book. When did I stop reading huge books? When I started commuting on BART?

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: An Ad For Canadian Schooling: If you ever visit my putative homepage, and you're viewing the page with graphics turned on, you'll see a bit of Russian at the bottom. "Ya mogu yest steklo; eto menya ne vredit," it says. This is a rare lie on my part. It means, "I can eat glass; it doesn't hurt me." A stray thought by some bored Internetter led to the I Can Eat Glass Project web fad, an attempt to translate this phrase into as many languages as possible and publish the results.

Another phrase of this sort is "my hovercraft is full of eels", deriving from a Monty Python sketch about a really bad Hungarian-English phrasebook. Today, whilst reading the really fun Gordon Korman book Son of the Mob [2]: Hollywood Hustle, a line jumped out at me:

...isn't the most romantic place in the world. But this is Willow. She could raise your heart rate in a hovercraft full of eels. She almost makes me forget that...

And a few pages later:

Maybe in Dad's mind, he can lie and tell the truth at the same time, just the way light can simultaneously be both a wave and a particle.

Gordon, you keep surprising me.

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: Want More Profane Rants?: I bought America: The Book by the writers of The Daily Show. It is a jewel. It actually disturbs Leonard to hear my cynical laugh several times per minute while reading that thing. A sample from the audiobook.

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: Erudition: Sometimes I wonder what a Camille Paglia presidential run would look like, but Lyndon LaRouche saves me the imaginatory effort.

I highly recommend Mary Roach's funny and enlightening Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. Not to be confused with Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man by Susan Faludi. My bookmark for Stiff: a World Vegetarian Day postcard.

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: Lots Of Puns And Theodicy: Done with Blameless in Abaddon, thus 2/3 of the way through The Godhead Trilogy. Enjoyable enough. Alexei, I think you'd like it.

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: Media: Read Y: The Last Man, Volume I: quite entertaining. I need more! Finished Morrow's depressing This Is The Way The World Ends. Yeah, he is obsessed with submarines and silly names and big show trials. Still reading the better Blameless In Abaddon.

Have now (deep breath) actually started Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson. (If I were incredibly hardcore, I could finish that and The Confusion by the time The System of the World went on sale tomorrow.) I was afraid to start Quicksilver and vaguely thought that I had to study the history of currency and the Enlightenment to prepare before reading it. Well, I'm fifty pages in and enjoying it, and of course Stephenson is exfoliating, I mean expositioning enough to keep me not-too-confused (i.e., it's not the cursèd Name of the Rose which is nigh-impossible to read without annotation if you didn't grow up Christian (I said nigh-impossible so you don't have to write me with exceptions)). I did say "gah" at the same thing that annoyed Leonard, but he assures me that it gets better.

I must admit that the Stanford college radio station is pretty good and, unlike the UC Berkeley station, has an MP3 stream as well as a RealPlayer stream.

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: Recurring: Just finished Douglas Coupland's Miss Wyoming. Yes, he writes the same book over and over, but it is a very good book.

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: Did You Mean: C.S. Lewis or Philip Pullman?: I've read James Morrow's Only Begotten Daughter and Bible Stories For Adults and now I'm reading Towing Jehovah. Like, say, Stephenson, he loves naming things, "Father Thomas Ockham" for one. Lots of great analogies: "A choral gurgling filled the air, as if the museum were honeycombed with defective storm drains." As for Towing Jehovah (which Leonard insists on singing to the tune "Waltzing Matilda") specifically, the World War II re-enactment subplot bores me, but I still like the main plot so far. On the whole, I like Morrow, and taught a very interesting short story he wrote in my sci-fi class. His Christian and ethical fantasy amuses me, even if it's uneven. The similarly themed stories in Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others are consistently good. I want to read more by both.

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: Also We Were Eating Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto On Arugula: This morning on BART, the person next to me was reading the same issue of Smithsonian as I was.

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: Books: Reading The Greedy Hand by Amity Shlaes, a WSJ writer with whom I vastly disagree, which means John might like it.

Also reading James Morrow's Only Begotten Daughter, in which Jesus Christ's sister is born to a Jewish bachelor in Atlantic City in 1974. James Morrow loves probing ethical systems and religions in the context of fantasy.

I'm sure tonight I'll dream of a booming voice directing me to render unto Him what is Caesar's.

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: Death, Taxes, And Sumana Writing About Taxes: Reading Conversion and the Poll Tax in Early Islam. Dennett writes clearly and entertainingly, even though it's a university press book with a tiny audience. Good job! Also, he amuses me by saying, "Let us examine the Byzantine tax system of Syria" and actually meaning "Byzantine."

The Arab Empire experienced, of course, some of the same problems that the modern US and modern Israel have. If you use reduced taxes as an incentive for some behavior (such as conversion to Islam or investment in state and municipal bonds), then people will do that and your tax receipts will go down. If you reduce the incentive, then the interest group you have just created will grumble or rebel. If you tax everyone else more heavily to make up the difference, you're fomenting class war. If you try to make up the difference with deficit spending or spending cuts, you might lose credibility, or even the ability to govern effectively. (You can only cut police and military spending so much!)

Finally, from Waltman's Political Origins of the U.S. Income Tax:

If we accord the income tax a high place in the patheon of bequests from the Progressive era, we must sadly note it is a legacy bequeathed only by racism. Were it not for the Democratic leadership in Congress being in the hands of those who wanted to spare the common man much of the taxes he bore in 1913, we would not have had the progressive income tax. But who were these economic humanists Ratner and others have praised? Kitchin, Simmons, Underwood, Hull, Williams, Garner. Every one of them was from the South, and they were all guardians of white supremacy. In fact, even their homilies on taxes are laced with crude racist stories and jokes. When they turned to such issues as black soldiers being armed during World War I or antilynch laws, their venom knew few bounds. To be sure, some were worse racists than others, and to be sure it can be argued that had they deviated from the "party line", their replacements might have been worse. And it is almost certainly true that without their votes and leadership we would have had much more exploitative tax policies. Yet, it is a sad tradeoff. Progressive tax policies were bought with impediments to any progress along racial lines. Before we celebrate the virtues of our income tax therefore, a tear is in order for those to whom taxes were secondary.

Every action has an opportunity cost. If you are sleeping, you can't be writing, and if you are sleeping or writing the Great Customer Service Novel then you cannot be hyping your new one-woman show.

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: Media Revue: All three of these bits of media experience have something to do with the Middle East! And I didn't even intend it.

Last night's Enterprise provoked even more US/Middle East Allegory babble in me. The sphere-builders are... Ahmad Chalabi! No, the neocons! Ahmad Chalabi is the leader of the Reptilians. No, the reptilian is Prince Bandar! Tucker is Ted Olson! And the Council is... OPEC? a "Mirror, Mirror" UN?

The Council seems really legitimate as a government to everyone in it except the Reptilians, which I guess makes the Reptilians like the US. Are the Insectoids Britain?

Also, Enterprise pulled off a surprisingly assertive mix of heavy exposition, lighthearted banter, trippy sci-fi sets, and suspenseful plot. Good stuff.

West Wing broke my heart in "Gaza." The West Wing thesis on Israel/Palestine resembles Everything Is Ruined's:

"Forget it Jake, it's Jerusalem." Jerusalem is Chinatown. There's nothing you can do. It's a place where there is no right answer. You ask Jake what he did in Chinatown, and he says, "As little as possible." (That's also what he murmurs to himself at the very end of the movie.) "Chinatown" means basically what Heart of Darkness means for Conrad: it's the dark place where every action is a mistake.

The new NSC character, I like. Will Bailey's impatience with nuance discussions, not so much. The huge expository dialogue chunks, a crazed hive-mind talking to itself, I liked. How else to think about the Middle Eastern ourobouros?

Reading Conversion and the Poll Tax in Early Islam by Daniel Dennett, Jr. From the Introduction:

...Nevertheless, all the contributions to the literature of Muslim taxation within the last forty years have been monographic in character and limited in area to particular provinces of the Arab Empire, with the result that there is no single work to which a student who might be interested in the general problem to turn; and if he attempts to master the secondary literature, he will discover so many conflicting data and opinions that his confusion will be increased rather than resolved. This book, therefore, attempts to present a broad view of the system of taxation as it existed in East and West throughout the lands once subject to the Persians and the Greeks, and it is based on all the evidence the writer has been able to discover. It is not, however, a synthesis of the latest opinion, for, as the reader will presently discover, I have views of my own and an axe to grind....

The Introduction's breezy style belies the density of the main text, well, to me. I don't know much about the Ottoman Empire or really a systematic world history at all. Perhaps Charles Adams's For Good And Evil: The Impact of Taxes on the Course of Civilization will provide me with a proper framework.
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: Women: Last night I stayed up too late watching Part I of the original Prime Suspect. Yes, the critics love Helen Mirren for a reason.

Women I have wanted to be (an incomplete list):

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: Compare And Contract: Currently reading Confessions of a Tax Collector: One Man's Tour of Duty Inside the IRS by Richard Yancey. I find it quite enjoyable, as I did Scott Turow's One-L (memoir of his first year at Harvard Law School) and Mike Daisey's 21 Dog Years: Doing Time @

Yancey got me with the premise and one of the first lines: "I had just turned twenty-eight, and was wearing a ten-year-old suit with a ten-day-old dark blue tie." Lots of close observations, complex cases nicely narrated, and a sense of suspense in the author's personal transformation. Like Daisey, Yancey uses dark humor and extended metaphors to persuade the reader that the demands of his job pressure him to act amorally and to become an amoral person. Yancey's story, though, is weightier; it tells more and covers a more formidable institution. And he doesn't paint his ethical dilemmas with the broad strokes that Daisey uses; I really won't know till the end of the book what he thinks of what he has done.

Just got to a section on clashes with tax protestors. Oh, the tax protestors. Leonard was kind enough to point me to a report on tax protestors from Reason that softened my heart:

Their attitude toward the Constitution and the statutes and legal decisions regarding the income tax are uniquely Protestant, relying on a layman's ability -- indeed, obligation -- to read and study and parse the original documents himself, to come to his own personal relationship with the law and the cases, and to prefer his understanding to that of the priesthood of lawyers, judges, and accountants.


Not merely Protestant, the tax honesty people are strangely reminiscent of fandom -- of the comic book, fantasy, science fiction, role-playing-game variety. They have the same obsession with continuity and coherence within a created fantasy world of words. It's just that, in this case, that world of words isn't a multivolume fantasy epic or a long-running TV series -- it's U.S. law. When these people try to reconcile the definition of income in this subsection of Title 26 of the U.S. Code with the definition in a 1918 Supreme Court case, it's like hearing an argument over the inconsistencies between a supervillain's origin as first presented in a 1965 issue of The Amazing Spider-Man and the explanation given in a 1981 edition of Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man.

The tax honesty movement's vision of the world is fantastical in another way. It is not merely obsessed with continuity; it is magical in a traditional sense. It's devoted to the belief that the secret forces of the universe can be bound by verbal formulas if delivered with the proper ritual. There are numerous formulae in the tax honesty spellbook, with rival mages defending them. Which spell is best: The summoning of the Sovereign Citizen? The incantation of the Constitutional Definition of Income? The banishing spell of No Proper Delegation?

The tax honesty folks similarly believe that their foe the IRS must also be bound by these grimoires of magic: that without the properly sanctified OMB number an IRS form holds no power, that without uttering the mystic word liable no authority to tax can truly exist.

And always, always, the ultimate incantation, The Question: Where does it say that I owe income taxes? Show me the law!

Related: "Reading Code is Like Reading the Talmud".

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: On The Night-Table:

  1. Science Fiction/Fantasy: Le Guin's The Word For World Is Forest (heavy-handed and unappealing) and Birthday of the World And Other Stories (nonbad ratio of good to boring stories). Kress, Beaker's Dozen (fun!). Chiang, Story Of Your Life And Others (many good stories, although the recursion theme gets predictable). Currently reading The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead. I like the pacing and characters; Whitehead slightly overdoes the elliptical, lyrical prose, but I don't especially mind.
  2. Tax History: Finished Taxes and People in Israel and am reading The Political Origins of the US Income Tax by Jerold L. Waltman. Did you know the Union imposed a temporary income tax during the Civil War? That's right, the idea didn't just suddenly appear during the Progressive movement.
  3. Children's Books: The sparkling and wonderful Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White - very much rewards rereading. Popcorn, a nice novel by Gary Provost and Gail Levine-Provost, chiefly memorable because I randomly picked it up when I was younger. The Toothpaste Millionaire by Jean Merrill, the author of The Pushcart War. I'd already read and loved Millionaire and had zoned out during a fourth-grade reading circle of The Pushcart War, which I'll read soon. I wonder whether she wrote the most of all children's authors on business and capitalism.

I could try to combine these trends by reading a sci-fi children's book about taxes, but I don't much care to reread Anthem.

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: Tax Tips: According to Taxes And People In Israel by Harold C. Wilkenfeld, not only does Israel have a Tax Museum, but that selfsame Tax Museum's exhibits go beyond famous people's tax returns. The museum also shows old smuggling devices! Also, it's good to have meetings with taxpayers in private offices, not large open areas where taxpayers can hear each others' cries of outrage.

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: This weekend I reread Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter. Today a loose window in the office is letting in mournful, wailing wind.

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: Salon Brilliant Career (Mine): On a midday errand jaunt, I bought some Fitzgerald and Trollope's The Way We Live Now at Stacey's. I asked some coworkers about Trollope and we talked about Victorian novels a bit, both the IT manager and the tech VP enthusiastically recommending Middlemarch. These are the conversations I suppose outsiders think we have all the time.

Yesterday I found out that everyone but me knew that jail differs markedly from prison. One is held in a city or county jail for under a year; a state prison houses longer-term inmates. I've gone my whole life thinking "jail" and "prison" were straight synonyms.

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: High school hierarchies and the attendant etiquette dilemmas are the closest I have ever come to the world of Anna Karenina.

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: Thanatos: Workers are tearing down a red brick building a block away. Salon's employees are oohing and aahing by the window. Reminds me of the powerful, awesome last pages of 21 Dog Years by Mike Daisey.

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: Long-Overdue Update: I had a contented Christmas with the Whitney/Richardson clan down in Bakersfield, CA. We exchanged pleasant gifts and put up with Gretel, a German Shepherd dog who is enthusiastic. I read Philip Pullman's The Broken Bridge and two Terry Pratchett Discworld books. I like The Truth, but Small Gods is my favorite so far.

I've been mildly ill since midway through the trip back, but I feel much better today.

As much as WebTV vexes me when its users have trouble with Salon Premium, I still hugely respect the urge that brought it to life. The founder of WebTV has died, having empowered and connected many, many people.

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: Beyond Microserfs, Beyond Nostradamus: Reading Douglas Coupland's All Families Are Psychotic. It so engrossed me this morning that I missed my Muni stop.

Once I watched Tartuffe at San Joaquin Delta College and the program praised Molière's economy of characters. He used only as many characters as were necessary, no more. Coupland feels like that to me, and helps jar the plaque loose from my brain.

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: Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, Presbyterian: Wesley Clark talks about his spiritual beliefs. He's regularly attended a few different churches in his life. Right now he considers himself a Catholic, but doesn't attend a Catholic church.

...One night I walked out of the church when the priest said that we should never have fought the Revolutionary War and every war was bad. It was 4th of July. It was an outrageously political statement. I just never felt right when people in the church would take these overtly political positions especially when I felt like I was a good Christian, I was serving my country, and I just didn't feel like I deserved to be lambasted by the priest on the 4th of July...

This passage really underscores the difficulty of reconciling a career in the military with a commitment to the Christian faith. I'd love to have a deep, off-the-record discussion with Clark about that.

Clark and his campaign make the right noises re: religious tolerance ("Wes Clark Sends Warm Greetings to Muslims for Eid Al-Fitr" today) and, earlier in the interview, we see that Clark loves his religion for its comfort and power of leadership and moral guidance. I'm more comfortable with that than with the crusader-like Christianity of George W. Bush.

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: If You Haven't Seen It, It's Greek To You!: Oresteia and Pratchett's Small Gods are alike in that they both propose a more rational, constitution-based relationship among gods and humans. Sort of.

I want to see both plays in the Continental Divide sequence/cycle/set/wave/particle in mid-December, and am tentatively settled on Sun. Dec 14th to see them both. If you'd like to join me, please make contact.

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: It Was Election Day: A year late, I got around to typing up my hands-wrung-over introduction to a Garrison Keillor event.

Good evening to you, ladies, gentlemen.
We welcome you to this evening's event.
Thank you for coming, since some of you want
To check tonight if your vote made a dent.

Instead, you're here, and, thanks to Cody's Books,
Tonight I have the honor to present
Garrison Keillor, master of the pen
And one-man radio establishment.

But first, a few administrative notes.
Please silence cell phones......yes, NOW, go ahead.
The bathrooms are behind you, on the right.
Sure, go, but don't make noise to raise the dead.

After his reading, he'll take Q & A
And then he'll do a signing, row by row.
I'd like to thank the church for our venue
And Cody's Books for putting on the show.

You may know Mr. Keillor from his show,
"A Prairie Home Companion," which is great.
Or maybe you have read some of his books,
like "Lake Wobegon Summer 1958."  Er, six.

He also does "A Writer's Almanac,"
where every day he reads one poem, no more.
And he's compiled them in his brand-new book,
"Good Poems."  (You can buy it at the door.)

I've listened to his show since I was twelve --
But you didn't come here to hear 'bout me.
So I thank Mr. Keillor, and I say,
I give to you the man you came to see:

Garrison Keillor.
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: Pretty tired.

When I was in eleventh grade, I asked my wonderful English teacher, Sam Hatch, to name his favorite novel. He considered and answered: Dostoyevsky's The Idiot. A few years ago I tried to read it and gave up in boredom and confusion forty or seventy pages in.

I've just begun it again, and can't imagine why I stopped last time. Leo and Nastasya intrigue me as two eccentrics who are playing by their own rules and forcing everyone else to adapt. You have to know the game to break its rules to your own advantage. Four years ago, I didn't know the game.

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: Cred: Andrew Leonard saw me reading Beyond Fear while eating lunch and proclaimed that I am such a geek.

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: Cody's Appearances: Terry Pratchett is at Cody's in Berkeley tonight. Other appearances this month (after October use this link, probably) include Berkeley Breathed and Molly Ivins.

I've finished reading the first three of Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency mysteries. Recommended.

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: Books: Reading Dostoyevsky's Notes From the Underground, which has so many quotable lines. The fragment that really affected me when I read the first few pages, years ago: " that fever of oscillations, of resolutions determined for ever and repented of again a minute later..." Now, I'm fond of this one: "My jests, gentlemen, are of course in bad taste, jerky, involved, lacking self-confidence. But of course that is because I do not respect myself. Can a man of perception respect himself at all?"

I'm considering his discussion of action and justice, which reminds me of the Bhagavad-Gita.

Just read The Eyre Affair by Fforde (a gift from Nathaniel and Shweta), which I enjoyed, and Changing Lanes by Le Guin (a gift from Zack), which I really liked, and Making Book by Teresa Nielsen Hayden, which I liked most when she talked about copyediting.

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: Currently reading The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, an alternate-history time-travel literary detective story. Reminds me of Connie Willis in that you see academics doing time travel in modern England, only it's not as annoying. Verdict in a few days.

About to read: Jake, Reinvented, the new Great Gatsby takeoff by Gordon Korman. I have probably talked more about this book than anyone else who does not work for Hyperion Books. Well, Korman and Fitzgerald are two great tastes, etc. If you don't have anything to be enthusiastic about then you're dead inside. I have Korman, Good Eats, and the possibility of writing another article for Salon. The stand-up bug is nagging rather than encouraging, in case you're wondering.

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: Nobody Expects a Palace of Wax!: I'm reading the Mahabharata in prose form, as edited by C. Rajagopalachari, "popularly known as 'Rajaji' or 'C.R.'" Fantastic stuff. I see the connections among little narratives and anecdotes that I read in Amar Chitra Katha comic books. I see how conflicting senses of duty wrought so much inner turmoil in the characters. Very plotty, with characters malicious, struggling, good, and misguided. Wonderful. The best BART ride read I've had in a while.

And this refresher will come in handy when I write my Monty Python-esque treatment of the epic.

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: "buy / my / album": First there was The Holy Tango of Poetry, and now we have the much more profane version which includes Jewel.

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: Sadly, No Chance of Customer Bashing: Cody's Books weblog. I bet that the outside-world liaison is the only one with write access to the blog, and I'll have to get on the webmaster's case to make permalinks, but for now, I'm getting excited seeing that my favorite authors have new books coming soon. I'll be reading Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver, Garrison Keillor's Love Me, and Terry Pratchett's Monstrous Regiment. And Michael Moore's new book is Dude, Where's My Country?

Update, 14 July: Correction on the blogwriter's descriptive title.

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: "In fact, Kia is trans-just about every system of human categorisation, and what she isn't trans- she is post-." -- Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon

My mind dwells on my post-ness because only last night did I hear Weird Al's "Your Horoscope For Today." Also, a customer just complimented me as such: "This may be the most postmodern, Gen WXY customer service letter I have ever received."

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: Verdict: It's okay. I didn't enjoy it as much as I did Goblet of Fire. Hey Leonard, no need to hurry. Finish Paradise Lost and that Grisham, Painted Christmas or whatever, first.

Update: I feel foolish for having cared so much earlier today, before I started the thing. As though "Even Cody's is hyping it!" were a prophecy of quality, as though this book would stand with The Great Gatsby and The Mahabharata and change my worldview. (Is this one really not as good as #4? Or am I now more demanding?)

On the upside, it was really nice to just escape into a book for hours. I needed the break. Tomorrow, back to packing, moving, and missing Leonard.

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: Can't Talk: This weekend: my sister and I are moving and I'm reading the new Rowling. And I miss Leonard.

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: I do hope Brendan wasn't too influenced by my disparaging comment on Microserfs (context). Microserfs felt epic and seldom annoying. I liked it a lot, and should reread it.

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: When You All Of A Sudden Aren't Working In A Bookstore: You can still read book excerpts, online, at BookBrowse, from Louise Erdrich to Joseph Ellis.

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: Find Your Grind: The Salon office environment reminds me, I now realize, of some cross between every media outlet I've ever worked for (e.g., KUOP, "Talking it Through with John Morearty: Dialogues on War and Peace", all my school newspapers from 5th grade on to the Daily Cal) and all the dotcom jobs I've ever had (tech writing, almost exclusively). Elements of the former include frequent deadlines, eccentric writers, loose or nonexistent dress codes, some amount of idealism and fulfillment. Elements of the latter include cubicles, references to "HR", lots of people spending 8 hours a day in front of a screen, more tedium.

But various elements remain the same as they were in my last job, at Cody's Books. Example: publishers send Salon advance copies, hoping we'll review them. So there's lots of free reading material around. But, unlike at Cody's, I find here that the publishers somehow sense the unlikelihood that Salon will review the latest potboiler (M Is For More Murder et al.), so the ratio of interesting stuff to faddle is higher. I just read Hands On!, an interesting collection of 33 essays giving advice to preteen girls. Recommended for all ages and genders for its practical and theoretical advice, the last item of which is "Don't Take Advice."

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: Since evidently I'm a 24 Hour Party Person and can't be bothered to actually talk about the books I'm reading, I hereby point you to the Cody's Books summer recommends. I recommended The Apprentice, Crescent, The Bug, Hey Nostradamus!, The Innocents Abroad, and the Salon and Slate anthologies. More seriously, I really do have to talk soon about books. Maybe after I move.

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: Beyond Extreme!: One of our distributors maintains a web page that alerts booksellers to hot new titles about to hit the market. One such title: Lost Souls of the Dead and Dying by J. Berkman.

Publisher Marketing: A nomadic group of vampires has come to Atlanta to find a new wife and daughter for their leader, a tortured creature who traded his soul for immortality and power. Tom Resnick, a successful conservative talk-show host, thinks he understands life, and that he is in complete control of his destiny-until his wife and daughter become the vampires' next target. Hell itself protects these creatures, and Tom refuses to believe they exist. If not for the intervention of a mysterious vampire hunter who's been chasing the monsters for over twenty years, Tom and his family would already by lost. But even with the stranger's help, Tom must quickly expand his view of reality, beyond logic and reason, to have any chance at protecting his family. To save his wife and daughter may cost Tom his own soul, but first he must admit he has one.
Will the pent-up demand for this book fill my store with Anne-Rice-haters champing at the bit?

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: Still No Word From Salon: That pretty much defined my day. Steve's travelogue, a very nice evening with Adam, and some Gordon Korman (The Zucchini Warriors and Losing Joe's Place) distracted me. Man, I really gotta fill up my weekend. I'm probably going to get a fish and go to some BATS Improv.

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: Second Thoughts Aren't Doublethink: On second thought, maybe modern sci-fi already contains an abundance of the sort of thinking exemplified in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and my friends, who read much sci-fi, will not read The Curious Incident and think, "Oh wow! This person thinks like me!" Instead, perhaps, they will read it and think, "Why is this person going on and on about these obvious things? I could have written this, why am I reading it?"

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: Just started reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Excellent so far. It's a rather-hyped mystery novel whose first-person protagonist is a 15-year-old boy with Asperger's syndrome (I think). Man, he feels familiar.

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: Take That, J. Bradford DeLong!: I just reread Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed. Silly idea: a book entitled The Good Soldier Shevek.

[The born-and-raised socialist/anarchist] tried to read an elementary economics text; it bored him past endurance, it was like listening to somebody interminably recounting a long and stupid dream.
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: Intellectual Time Waster: While researching books for a customer, I discovered that the University of Chicago Press posts tons of fascinating excerpts. Behind the scenes at talk shows, why hundreds of Chicagoans died in the 1995 heat wave and the mass media ignored it, apocrypha, Japanese-American draft resisters in World War II, Insiders' French, maps of gerrymandered districts, and more.

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: Father Blog Stories: I've been reading G.K. Chesterton; his Father Brown stories tickle my fondness for high-concept mysteries, and his style is great, but the preaching gets on my nerves. Here's a modern mystery tale of weblogs, secret meetings, skulduggery, and betrayal. (via Electrolite)

In other links, Frances might enjoy Teresa Nielsen Hayden's guide to "judging the dubiousness of saints", and Rob Walker goes a little nuts over new Humvee ads. Walker cites Gregg Easterbrook with coining the category "FUV" in "Axle of Evil", a monster article explaining reasons why SUVs are abominable.

"What does it say about the United States that there are now millions of people who want to drive an anti-social automobile? Huge numbers of Americans will pay thousands of dollars extra for vehicles that visually declare, "I have serious psychological problems." (Though maybe we are better off having this declared.)"
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: Excerpt From My Lonely Planet Guide To Weblogs: The difference between your high-powered, well-known weblogs (e.g. Instapundit and Body and Soul) and the journals of many of my friends is like the difference between a grand city restaurant and someone's kitchen at home. I go to a Big Blog for consistency and to my friends for personality.

Examples of those latter gems: Rachel, otherwise known as the sister of Leonard who's not getting married this summer, sums up her week; Sarah regularly tosses off links in the way I think Dorothy Parker would, and enchants me endlessly.

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: A science fiction short story featuring shipping containers.

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: How to Take a Nap: I'm sick. I needed to take a nap and I was a little tired. So I set myself up with tissues and water, and put on a soothing tape of Russian choral music, and tried to read my Routledge Great Philosophers: Berkeley.

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: Books You Can't Read Yet: Finished Crescent (April) by Diana Abu-Jaber, which is very good. The blurb calls it an Arab-American Like Water For Chocolate, and though I haven't read Like Water that seems right. I laughed and cried and hoped and gasped and there were almost no hints of magical realism, so I'm happy.

Now reading Ellen Ullman's The Bug (May), which at every page reveals itself as the novel I wish I were good enough to write. Various Indian diaspora writers have already written The Great Indian-American Novel, and now it looks like Ullman has the Great American Girl Geek Novel title locked. Excellent, suspenseful, evocative, emotionally accurate. It's bad for my health, since it tempts me to read rather than sleep. I'll go to sleep now anyway.

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: More neat paper things: Biella Coleman has met her and Paul Ford has pondered her. Geek writer Ellen Ullman will publish a new book, The Bug, in May. Today I received an advance copy. Looking forward to reading it and, someday, Close to the Machine.

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: I finally got around to visiting Sproul Hall. And now what's in my bag? My diploma! Doesn't look much different than most other computer-printed foil-stamped multi-signed certificates, but tonight I'll tack it on my wall to fend off I-never-graduated nightmares, like an ultraspecific dreamcatcher.

Not only did the registrar clerk give me the diploma, but she also gave me a "free" book (There Was Light) of UCB alumni essays. This book is paperback and seems to have no ISBN.

I walked down Telegraph. The sun shone. I'm more different from the mass here now. I have the thing they're ostensibly striving for. I'm not excited, just a little more confident, a little more fulfilled.

...Diploma in my haaaaaaand,
No, no, they can't take that away from me...
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: I have finished several books recently, such as Mostly Harmless (which I understand much better than I did ten years ago, and which touches me) and Jacques Pepin's memoirs and Ved Mehta's essay collection. I hope to tell you about the Mehta and Pepin books soon. Right now I'm reading Crescent, a delicious to-be-published novel by Diana Abu-Jaber. But for now: the Sally Lockhart series by good old Phil Pullman.

Half a year ago, as Leonard celebrated his birthday in Bakersfield with bouts of nausea, I devoured The Ruby in the Smoke, staying up late to eat one fudge-dipped strawberry page after another. The next day I had to drive up to SF, tired and silent (Leonard couldn't talk much), and I waited six months more to move on to The Shadow in the North, The Tiger in the Well, and the guest-starring-Sally-Lockhart The Tin Princess. I read all those in about a week. They entranced me even as each successive book got on my nerves more and more.

Pullman uses his share of Connie Willis-like plot contrivances that only frustrate the protagonists and reader. Adelaide in particular fulfills Ebert's Law of Economy of Character Development. But even that I can forgive when he pulls (ha) it off, which he often does. (Warning: The Tin Princess especially suffers from Willis Disease, being Pullman's non-supernatural novel of international intrigue and warfare. Anticlimactic ending, too.)

The thing that really made me gape was a subplot in The Tiger in the Well, where Pullman enlists turn-of-the-century socialism and his plot in each other's service. It's Bizarro Ayn Rand. In a climactic showdown with the villain, Sally tells him (paraphrase): "You're not evil. I've seen evil. Evil isn't exotic. Evil doesn't have an accent. Evil is five children living in one room, families who don't have enough to eat..." It's didactic and disorienting, but doesn't quite overpower the plot.

Leonard envisions a scenario where someone confronts Dr. Evil (of the Austin Powers movies) with this speech, and Dr. Evil realizes that his pro forma evil was not really evil, and in fact is cancelled out by his philanthropic works.

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: It Takes Galt's Gulch to Raise a Child: Libertarian children's books, from The Hobbit to Heinlein.

Update: Man, I hadn't thought about Galt's Gulch in a long time. For those of you who haven't wasted hours of your life on Atlas Shrugged, Galt's Gulch is the hidden libertarian paradise (the one Seth Finkelstein calls Libertopia). If I could stomach reading the thing again, I'd write up the outrageous childrearing practices of Galt's Gulch inhabitants, or you could do it yourself. I feel ill just thinking about it.

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: Finally, Some Reviews: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (IMDB entry): Leonard liked it, and I was glad, since I had been dragged to it and loved it four years ago. Dr. Evil really seems a separate character from Austin. Spoiler: Austin shows himself to be an honorable man when he refuses to take advantage of Vanessa when she's drunk. That's always been the sweetest moment in the film to me.

The Hidden Fortress (IMDB entry) by Kurosawa: I found the film rather boring and long. After The Seven Samurai I expected something more absorbing, with more sympathetic characters. I hated the buffoons, the two main characters (or at least framing-device characters) who just schemed stupidly. And why did everybody yell all the time? Bad microphones? I guess it must be good, as it's Kurosawa, but I didn't see the qualities that recommended it to George Lucas. (The story goes that Lucas thinks of The Hidden Fortress as the ur-Star Wars. Then again, I don't much care for Star Wars either.)

The Producers (IMDB entry): This film is definitely funny. It takes place in the comedy universe, as Leonard puts it, and doesn't try too hard to explain improbabilities. By my just-invented Some Like It Hot-o-meter, where the entire comediness of a film can be measured in the average funniness of a scene, The Producers shines. Most scenes are funny, and there aren't that many of them, thus shooting the film up to about a .75 or .8 Some Like It Hot ranking: about Some Like It H.

I would actually see the Broadway production for twenty or 25 dollars. I assume that Nathan Lane plays Zero Mostel's role and that Matthew Broderick plays Wilder, right? Oh yeah, that reminds me: as I watched Wilder, I thought, "I can't help thinking of him as Willy Wonka from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." That passed. A week later, when I showed Leonard Willy Wonka &c., he said, "I can't help thinking of him as Harold Bloom from The Producers!" [Update: He said Leo Bloom, not Harold Bloom. Whoops. Yeah, I work in a bookstore.] Oh, and Leonard can't stand Willy Wonka, except for the line where Mike TV jumps into a stupid situation and Wonka lazily calls out, "No, stop, come back."

My notes for The Producers contain the phrase "SF in spring", but I don't know why.

Adaptation (IMDB entry). Saw this with Joe, and it's quite good. For the Gödel, Escher, Bach crowd. Yes, it's gimmicky, but also immensely entertaining, and you probably will like the ending better than I did. I would see it again, with you, even!

Sarah Peters asks:

"so what's the deal with "dr. zhivago"? when is it set? is it actually about a doctor? like ER but with lots and lots of snow?"
Well, Sarah, Boris Pasternak set Doctor Zhivago around the Russian Revolution eighty-odd years back, with an actual doctor or two, but very few explicitly medical scenes. I haven't *cough* er, quite *cough* finished Dr. Zhivago yet. I put it down a few weeks ago and haven't come back to it. It's good. Pasternak writes a fine scene and sets up scenery wonderfully. I save about a paragraph every twenty pages that I simply must quote to Leonard. And, since I haven't seen the film, I really must finish the book to find out how it ends!

I have finished some books in the interim, despite my preoccupation with stand-up. I read a Routledge pocket introduction to Karl Popper, which strengthened my rather Popperian convictions on science and knowability. And I'm almost done with Philip Pullman's Sally Lockhart series, of which more soon.

I also skimmed Zoya's Story, an astonishing memoir by an Afghan woman working with RAWA. It brought tears to my eyes. How brave, strong, and resourceful these women are! The narrator notes briefly that she's my age and has already renounced marriage for the cause of the people of Afghanistan. Wow. What would I sacrifice, and for what? I am a coward.

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: McWhorter Update!: Johnnie Mac's newest tome, Authentically Black: Essays for the Black Silent Majority, has arrived at Cody's Books. I've been skimming it and it looks good. The cover photo is silly, but what are you gonna do.

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: I finally got back to the Sally Lockhart trilogy. I finished Shadow in the North in about two days. Now I'm on Tiger in the Well. Who besides Pullman and Card writes such non-trashy pageturners?

Oh, and I saw Christopher Hitchens at the store Friday night. He seems like The Economist: wry and British and presenting an appearance of extreme erudition. And the in-crowd is hip to him, and you'd better be too. I'm not sure whom I disparage more with this comparison.

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: Once upon a time I required students to read David Brin's political critique of George Lucas's work. Now Mr. Brin has rolled up his sleeves and made similar arguments regarding Tolkien. I prefer the Salon version to the longer one at his website.

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: It is my considered opinion, based on many years of reading Amar Chitra Katha comics, that Indra is not the king of the gods. He convenes councils to try to protect heaven from rakshasa invasions, a task which almost always falls to Vishnu or suchlike in the end. Once in a while he goes head-to-head with Vishnu or Shiva and loses, either directly or in some proxy battle fought on earth. Perhaps a more modern translation would have Indra be Secretary-General of the gods.

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: I'm enjoying the drawn-out pleasure of Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. I usually hate tone-setting narration, but here it's great. And Pasternak's swift and cutting depictions of the Revolution clearly say, "Censor me!" and/or portray all the reasons people became starry-eyed Communists.

Work, parties, Leonard, stand-up worries, books. Michael greeted me with a Bach sonata or partita when I got home. Could one go on the Atkins diet and remain a vegetarian? Does UC's president put the university on an Atkins diet? Will I make it to the Apollo Amateur Night performance in Zellerbach? What am I supposed to be doing?

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: Slang Serving Suggestions: If you've read Cryptonomicon, use "one-note flute" instead of "one-trick pony" or "one-hit wonder."

I got to share the bound kitsch that is Secrets of Loveliness (Scholastic, 1969) with Sarah and Anirvan this evening. Especially vexing: the quiz on distinguishing fun/harmless, sloppy, and objectionable/taboo fads. Pasting decals on one's legs is fine, but wearing longer skirts than everyone else is taboo? Aieee!

I'm flirting with the idea of doing stand-up at A Cuppa Tea tomorrow night, but I'm not sure. I'd have to write some material; I'll update you when I decide.

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: So I've been reading and watching a lot. I recently bought several CDs, and I'll have to talk about those after listening to them each several times. But the books and movies I can review. In progress: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, which gets going after the first few chapters, so stick with it.


The Interpreter by Suki Kim. The worst possible combination: bad, yet not so bad that I could excuse myself for quitting halfway through. Barely engaging plot and wholly unengaging main character. If I want to experience mopiness, indecision, past-stuckness, and first-generation immigrant rootlessness, I'll just think, thank you. But the mystery plot did interest me, and Kim made a few immigrant insights. Here are the best bits:

But a dream remains a dream always. Nothing alters the fact that she never got to see them again. She never held Mom's hands and asked why irises brought a smile to her face. She never let Dad explain what made him leave Korea, why he was so tortured by his old country. She never begged them for time, just a little more time to understand. She never told them that she had to run because she could not see ahead as long as they were there. She could not embrace this place called American while they never forgot to remind her what was not Korea. She could not make sense of her American college, American friends, American lovers, while her parents toiled away twelve hours a day, seven days a week at their Bronx store. She could not become American as long as she remained their daughter. She betrayed them, so she might live.


"...I can heat up some water, or maybe boricha?" he says, putting a kettle on the stove.

..."Boricha," she answers. My favorite, she is about to add, and then realizes that it's been years since she had it last. Mom had used to keep it refrigerated and serve it instead of water....She seems to have forgotten about it one day. Odd how that happens. You swear by certain things -- that particular sundress he first saw you in, or that rose lipstick you wore every day, or that barley tea you once declared you couldn't live without. But then, one day, someone, perhaps a stranger, in a bare, bleak apartment far from home, asks, without a hint of history, "Water or boricha?" and you suddenly remember that it's been years since you've even thought of it. But how is that possible? How is it that you could go on fine without what had once been so essential, that you haven't even been aware of its absence? How is it then you could declare, without hesitation, that it is your favorite? Shouldn't love require more? Isn't love a responsibility?

There. Now you don't have to read The Interpreter, Suki Kim's first novel, tentatively scheduled for publication in January of 2002 from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. But if you like you can have my advance copy.

Son of the Mob, by Gordon Korman. Actually good, and different from much of his past fare. Very different from Son of Interflux, thank goodness! More booze, sex, and death. Also, our emphasis is on one main character, and not his relationship with a best male buddy, and it's told in the first person. Korman, if I guess correctly, tried his hand here in using skills and addressing more mature content that he cut his teeth on with throwaway series stuff; he recently wrote some teen paperbacks with the title "Escape" or "Everest" or "S