# (0) 20 Sep 2018, 11:18AM: I Joked That We Could Call Each Of The Mini-Plays 'What Are We Even Doing':
Last night I dreamed that I had to leave my home? hotel? and realized I had forgotten to don pants, and then realized I was supposed to get on a flight to Germany, and was trying to check in online within Google Docs on my phone.
Perhaps my creativity is so spent from writing and rehearsal for "Python Grab Bag" that it's really phoning it in for by-the-numbers anxiety dreams.
Yesterday was the first on-our-feet rehearsal. I'm so grateful that Jason and I hired our director, Neofuturist alumna Aya Aziz (more about her and her playwriting, acting, singing, and dancing -- as Aya Abdelaziz she also (sort of) portrayed me in a reading of the Aaron Swartz memorial play "Building A Real Boy" last year). The words are really coming to life as we speak them aloud and block the plays (decide who's moving and facing which way when) and figure out sound, light, props. Her direction is -- as I'd hoped -- making it much more likely that these will feel like theater, affect the audience both cerebrally and emotionally, not just slide away like an embarrassing middle school book report skit. (I am speaking here as someone whose only memory of Otto of the Silver Hand is that I wrote a rap about it for class.)
I fairly often feel an incredulous "what the hell are we even doing" feeling when I reflect on this weird freaking thing we're making. On one level it's the most logical thing in the world. It's a port from one venue to another; I've seen The Infinite Wrench dozens of times and we're adapting a Neofuturist theatrical approach to talk about what it's like to be a Python programmer. And I did a Neofuturist-inspired keynote at LibrePlanet last year, we did a play at PyGotham last year, and we maybe aren't even doing the most ambitious Python conference performance in recent memory -- K Lars Lohn's PyCon 2016 keynote was an intricately designed multimedia narrative of discovery and wonder. So even though the piece we are making and sharing is novel, we aren't straying THAT far from prior art.
But also, let's be real, there is a well-worn path of advice and examples to help a speaker talk about "how to do foo with bar" or "five ways to be better at managing people" or "open source is making a difference!" and if you give a kinda boring or redundant conference talk along those lines, it just slides into the rearview mirror. This weird thing we are working on will stand out. The optimal rate of criticism is not zero and I anticipate -- even if most of the audience enjoys it -- there will be at least a few people who think it's awful, a waste of time, takes a PyGotham slot that ought to have gone to a real talk, and think less of me for my bad judgment and poor skill. The chance of failure feels greater and the risk in failure feels higher.
This is part of what innovation feels like: whacking past vines with a stick, mostly but not 100% certain that this direction leads to a place worth finding, pattern-matching and guessing without a trail or a map. Risking failing. To quote Ramsey Nasser again,
When you're failing, you're exploring things that are in that grey area. That there may be interesting surprises there, or there may be things that you don't want, but you're willing... It's a sort of brave commitment to go there and to see what's out there. Failing is not wrong.
And perhaps the fact that I'm going ahead and wrestling with that fear, moving forward, instead of letting it stop me, is another reason my anxiety brain is all, "I give up. Uhhhhh, you're late for a flight and you forgot your pants. Oooooh scary! *finger-wiggles*"
# (0) 11 Sep 2018, 08:55AM: Now Imagine Switching The Lead Actors For Those Two Shows:
I was in the midst of talking with my pal Jed about Star Trek: The Next Generation. He'd kindly checked whether I was ok hearing criticisms of this show-of-my-heart and I said dismissiveness no, criticism yes. We talked a little about Picard. I said how interesting it is that he's an introvert leader, how we don't often see that kind of person represented on TV. (And I informed him that I want him to text me immediately once he watches "Allegiance".) But he's still collaborative and listens well to his subordinates...
And Jed said: I know you've said that Picard taught you a lot about management. But what if you got into management because of watching Picard?
Me: you did not warn me you were going to be that incisive when we started this phone call.
I mean, maybe! In some ways Star Trek: The Next Generation* is to my management style as Mad About You is to my marriage style -- the formative-influence TV show that I, sometimes even consciously, modeled myself after. But maybe it goes deeper -- maybe those are also shows that made me think it would be awesome to be a leader, and to be married.
* And Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.
# (0) 10 Sep 2018, 01:31PM: Coming Back To My Senses:
A few miscellaneous thoughts:
I chose a driving school and have now had a few lessons. I'm already far better at appropriate mirror and blind spot checks, turns, stop sign stops, staying in my lane, controlling my speed, and keeping a safe distance from the vehicle in front of me. Next up: practice in lane changes (at speed, instead of slowing the hell down and snarling things up) and parallel parking.
My instructor has had to remind me: if I have to brake hard to a sudden stop (e.g., at a yellow light), I should check my rearview mirror first, to see whether I'm being tailgated -- if so, it may well be safer to run the yellow light, even if the light turns red while I am in the intersection! This is bouncing around my brain a bit before thoroughly settling in. The point of the rules is to increase safety, and it is better to break a traffic rule than to cause a collision. I am distantly reminded of Mr. Hatch, my high school American Literature teacher, teaching us about levels of moral reasoning in the context of reading Huckleberry Finn -- grasping the principles behind a system of rules helps a person make better decisions than they would if they just concentrated on doing as they're told.
And it's been raining a bit in New York City, so now I've gotten some fresh experience driving in wet conditions! And I have rejoiced in the rain and the lower temperatures, breaking out a belted, water-resistant knee-length tan trenchcoat I got for free at the WisCon clothing swap. It feels so cute and fall and wearing it with black boots, dark blue jeans, and a belted V-neck kelly green knit top felt so powerful and happy! This year I dropped off 20-30 items of my own and snagged a few really awesome pieces at the Clothing Swap -- the trenchcoat, a sparkly silver tasselled 1920s-style sheath dress (which I just had tailored for 20 bucks and now it looks so good on me), and a very bodyconscious above-the-knee black dress with a faux-wrap V-neck that flatters my torso.
The experience of wearing that black dress has already transformed me. The woman who donated it saw me wearing it during the Tiptree Auction and caught me during a break to say: "Did you get that from the Clothing Swap? It used to be mine! I saw you wearing it and thought, 'She looks better in it than I did! Bitch.'" And that was an affectionate compliment and I got it and felt like I had leveled up in a kind of femininity. Teasing has always been difficult for me to give and receive -- it's a highwire act to gauge intimacy well enough to trust/convey that the intent of an insult is to bond, not to wound -- and I feel like this woman gave me not only the gift of a kicky dress that suits me, but also a gift of spirit. It is as though she led me in a merry little dance, and for once, instead of falling or tripping, I followed her moves and unlocked the fun.
I feel like my sense of visual aesthetics has never been a strong point -- it's still a little surprising to me that I can find joy in a particular outfit, or please myself with a sketch. The other week I sketched a bit to quiet my distractible mind while in a long meeting. It turns out a gridded notebook (thanks for the old OSCON freebie, O'Reilly!) massively helps me sketch human-made objects. And the first time I try, I usually realize something I'm not quite getting right, quickly finish it, and then try to sketch the same thing again, and the second try is better. I've learned something about the proportions of the chair, the many nested borders of a window. It's so validating and inspiring to make a thing with my hands that did not exist before and then immediately make a clearly better version of that thing!
I was talking a few days ago with a new friend who mentioned that working and playing with her dog has helped her pay attention to being embodied. We're all animals. But sometimes we forget. I suppose the theme emerging in these reflections is that I'm exploring -- as a mechanized cyborg, and in fabric and on paper -- how my eyes and my skin want to dance with the world. The irreducible facts of motion, light, shape, texture, warmth, wet. And I can get more graceful with attentive practice, and what joy there is to be found here!
# (1) 04 Sep 2018, 11:38AM: Code Review Play at RubyConf, and Think Tank Fiction:
Jason Owen and I will co-present "Code Review, Forwards and Back" at RubyConf in Los Angeles, November 13-15 2018. We'll update and slightly lengthen the version we performed at PyGotham last year. If you'll be at RubyConf, consider watching our one-act play:
Your team's code review practices cause ripple effects far into the future. In this play, see several ways a single code review can go, then fast-forward and rewind to see the effects -- on codebase and culture -- of different code review approaches.
The setting: an office conference room. The characters: a developer, who's written a chunk of new Ruby code, and a team lead, who's about to review it. The code is not great.
See a fast-paced montage of ways things can go. Recognize patterns from your past and present. Learn scripts for phrasing criticism constructively. And laugh.
I've been doing a lot of theater-inflected conference presentations recently. I came up with the ideas for "Code Review, Forwards and Back" and "Lessons, Myths, and Lenses: What I Wish I'd Known in 1998" and "Python Grab Bag: A Set of Short Plays" (more details on all of these on my Talks page).
In some sense this is unsurprising, as I'm a programmer and public speaker who has dabbled in the more creative performing arts my whole life. As a child I had small parts in school* and community** theater, and my sister and I wrote and performed in some number of long skits for Indian-American association get-togethers (there was a lot of No Big Deal family-based practice here, as with writing and public speaking in general). I have also been willing to sing in public really quite out of proportion to my actual singing ability for a very long time. And I got all right at stand-up comedy and at comedy auctioneering.*** So I have started to bring those skills into my conference presentations, and am interested in how spectacle, fictional narrative, and different presentation formats can make different kinds of teaching and representation possible.
Someone else thinking about the value of storytelling in conference talks is Maria Farrell, who posted at Crooked Timber about that and about "think-tank fiction" (fictional stories/scenarios, sometimes composites of real situations and sometimes future projections, reflecting on and demonstrating the effects of particular policies and trends).
I find several of Farrell's reflections resonate with me, about the "quality of atmosphere" that obtains when you start telling a story at an event where it's unusual to do so, and:
...people at all-day tech events are really, really glad to just relax and have stories told to them. News flash. And actual stories, with, hopefully, meanings heading off on different trajectories, not TED anecdotes driving to One Big Lesson...
I hope Farrell can come to !!Con or a similar event sometime, to see how it nurtures some similar experiences.
There must be a bunch of talks like this and now my cataloguing fingers are itching. As Bruce Sterling wrote in "User-Centric":
To: the Team Coordinator
From: the social anthropologist
Subject: Re: *****Private message*****
Fred, people have been telling each other stories since we
were hominids around campfires in Africa. It’s a very
basic human cognition thing, really.
My colleague Erik Möller did a talk like the ones Farrell mentions at Wikimania 2013, "Ghosts of Wikis Yet to Come: Three Stories of Wikimedia's Future". And I think Tom Scott's scifi shorts and story-style talks, and the "Slaughterbots" video from Ban Lethal Autonomous Weapons, are worth checking out as exemplars.
I also love related "our technology will make this future possible/likely!" narratives like AT&T's 1993 "Connections" video. (The AT&T Archives page pointed me to this collection of similar concept videos I totally want to see, made by Ameritech, Motorola, Sun, NEC, etc. Natalie Jeremijenko and Chris Woebken collaborated on a 2009 montage I haven't watched yet, and there's a 2014 followup -- looking forward to diving in.)
* Not always onstage -- the first bit of project management I ever did was stage management. I fuzzily remember running a puppet show in elementary school, and officiously checking off attendance using a clipboard (oh how important I felt!) for some middle school thing.
** Perhaps most memorably: Rudy, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer's nerdy little sister, in "The Night Before The Night Before Christmas" at a local YW/MCA. I actually had lines in this role! To demonstrate Rudy's bookishness, the script had her say aloud, apropos of nothing, "O is for oxygen," "N is for nitrogen," "C is for carbon", and so on. In retrospect this dialogue has more verismilitude than I would like to admit.
*** And of course this feels completely normal to me, because, you know, you only have your own one life, and your own life has a way of becoming the yardstick rather than the judged.
But a great swathe of programmers and other technologists don't think of writing or putting on or starring in a small play as No Big Deal. Many haven't ever memorized lines. And sometimes I forget that, if you've taken a storytelling workshop and served as a dramaturg for someone's one-woman show, and you're a programmer who gets to speak at conferences like PyCon and FOSDEM, you're unusual. Your intersection of skillsets is rare.
And one of the intuitions that's helped me develop my career is that I can provide unique value where the intersection of my skillsets is rare.
# 13 Aug 2018, 12:38PM: Foreign Key:
I was born and raised in the US. I speak English natively and fluently, with a US accent.
A few times, in face-to-face, oral conversation, US-born colleagues or strangers have said something that reveals they assume I am an immigrant. I always found this bewildering; can't they hear my accent? In one case, last year, someone (a white person with a US accent) heard me say I was American, and replied "But your accent" -- the first time I'd ever experienced someone just making up a perceived Indian accent in my speech.
Turns out this happens frequently. Linguists in the US published research about it as early as 1992, and replicated findings, including in the piece "Code Switch" mentions. (Thanks to The League of Nerds for the bibliography that led me to the research papers NPR was citing.) From Okim Kang & Donald Rubin's "Reverse Linguistic Stereotyping: Measuring the Effect of Listener Expectations on Speech Evaluation":
In [reverse linguistic stereotyping], the speaker's language pattern is not the trigger to stereotyping processes but rather their object. In RLS, attributions of a speaker's group membership cue distorted perceptions of that speaker's language style or proficiency. Thus, Rubin and colleagues (see review in Rubin, 2002) have repeatedly documented that when listeners mistakenly believe they are listening to a nonnative speaker of English (NNS), they report hearing highly accented speech, and their listening comprehension significantly declines.
Well, at least now I know. Probably a ton of people have made this assumption over the years and I just never knew. And it'll probably keep happening; it's not like I'm going to start waving my long-form birth certificate around at the beginning of every meeting, party, and presentation. Bleh. Yet another thing.
# 07 Aug 2018, 10:37AM: New York State Licensed Driving Schools:
I have a driver's license but rarely drive, and the longer I go without practice, the more I think I ought to get some lessons in before getting back on the road. I'd like to feel more comfortable driving so I can share the work on long car trips, rent a car for hiking or activist work, and so on. So I decided to get some lessons from a driving school. I saw one in my area advertises itself as registered with New York State Department of Motor Vehicles as a driving school, and thought I may as well do my due diligence and check the accuracy of that claim.
Well, New York State DMV does regulate and certify driving schools and driving instructors; a driving school needs a license to sell instruction. Hella requirements and forms.
But there's no public list of driving school licensees. The NYS DMV provides a DMV-Regulated Facilities search on its site, for car repair shops, auto dealers, etc., but that does not include licensed driving schools. And the site lists providers of the in-classroom Point and Insurance Reduction Program (PIRP), in case you seek that. But I want behind-the-wheel lessons, not PIRP.
Short-term solution which I eventually found, and am sharing for future readers: you can call the NYS DMV's Bureau of Driver Training Programs (DTP) at (518) 473-7174, and ask them about a specific driving school (name and address), and they can verify whether it's licensed, and how long it's been licensed.
Long-term solution: I filed a Freedom of Information Law request for the list of licensed driving schools and I nominated that list in a dataset for New York's Open Data portal.
(More a daydream than any kind of solution: signing up to take a New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission-authorized behind-the-wheel course meant for New York City taxi drivers!!! Why half-ass my "get more confident as a driver" journey?!)
# 29 Jul 2018, 03:02PM: "Python Grab Bag: A Set of Short Plays" Accepted for PyGotham 2018:
Fresh from the waitlist onto the schedule: Jason Owen and I will be performing "Python Grab Bag: A Set of Short Plays" at PyGotham in early October. If you want to come see us perform, you should probably register soon. I don't yet know whether we'll perform on Friday, Oct. 5 or Saturday, Oct. 6.
(The format will be similar to the format I used in "Lessons, Myths, and Lenses: What I Wish I'd Known in 1998" (video, partial notes), but some plays will be more elaborate and theatrical -- much more like our inspiration "The Infinite Wrench".)
To quote the session description:
A frenetic combination of educational and entertaining segments, as chosen by the audience! In between segments, audience members will shout out numbers from a menu, and we'll perform the selected segment. It may be a short monologue, it may be a play, it may be a physical demo, or it may be a tiny traditional conference talk.
Audience members should walk away with some additional understanding of the history of Python, knowledge of some tools and libraries available in the Python ecosystem, and some Python-related amusement.
So now Jason and I just have to find a director, write and memorize and rehearse and block probably 15-20 Python-related plays/songs?/dances?/presentations, acquire and set up some number of props, figure out lights and sound and visuals, possibly recruit volunteers to join us for a few bits, run some preview performances to see whether the lessons and jokes land, and perform our opening (also closing) performance. In 68 days.
(Simultaneously: I have three clients, and want to do my bit before the midterm elections, and work on a fairly major apartment-related project with Leonard, and and and and.)
Jason, thank you for the way your eyes lit up on the way back from PyCon when I mentioned this PyGotham session idea -- I think your enthusiasm will energize me when I'm feeling overwhelmed by the ambition of this project, and I predict I'll reciprocate the favor! PyGotham program committee & voters, thank you for your vote of confidence. Leonard, thanks in advance for your patience with me bouncing out of bed to write down a new idea, and probably running many painfully bad concepts past you. Future Sumana, it's gonna be ok. It will, possibly, be great. You're going to give that audience an experience they've never had before.