Cogito, Ergo Sumana
Sumana oscillates between focus and opportunity

(2) : Cleveland Visit: I'm visiting Cleveland, Ohio this coming weekend, in case you live there or have suggestions for things I ought to do.

(One proximate cause of this is that, through the Python community, I've met multiple nice people who are organizing or championing PyCon North America in Cleveland in 2018 and 2019, and who will show me around a bit. Another is the United Airlines rep who, while trying to reroute us on our solar eclipse trip, said, "The only place in the United States I can get you tonight is Cleveland" which sounds more like a Call to Adventure than most bad travel news does.)

I'm particularly interested in hiking, walking tours, live folk and rock music, history (especially political, social, and science and engineering history), pair programming, and trains. I'll be there Friday October 20th through Sunday October 22nd. I'm also open to giving a talk or two while in Cleveland. Feel free to leave comments on this post -- the spam filter is rather aggressive but I'll fish things out regularly!


(0) : Hello City Limits, I See Your Sign, Left Your Dystopia Way Behind: A joking-around conversation from a recent conference, from memory and condensed.

A: "I saw the eclipse in Nashville."
B: "Oh I'm from Nashville!"
A: "Oh cool! Did you see it there too!"
B: "No, I didn't, I don't live there anymore."
A: "So you're from Nashville. Do you play an instrument? Are you a musician?"
B: "No, I'm not."
A: "Is that why you had to leave? Is there some age by which the Machine sends you a notification that you have to choose an Instrument and perform at the Audition?"
C: "I'm imagining that scene from A Wrinkle in Time, the street of identical houses, everyone in a row on the sidewalk, with their guitars."
A:"Playing 'Wonderwall', all at the same time. And you show up at the Audition, like, 'I'm Divergent, I'm not gonna choose an Instrument, I'm leaving!'"
B: "This is actually a little too real."

(You may also enjoy Randomized Dystopia, a.k.a. Assorted Abrogations.)

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: Code Review, Forwards And Back: This Friday, at PyGotham, Jason Owen and I are co-presenting "Code Review, Forwards and Back". This is not a standard technical conference talk. It's a 25-minute play, basically a one-act.

The setting: an office conference room. The characters: a developer, who's written a chunk of new Python code, and a team lead, who's about to review it. You'll see the code. It's not great.

What happens if the reviewer waves it through, or lets conflict aversion get the best of them? What if the reviewer says it should be "better" but doesn't articulate how? What if the review is abrasive, or nitpicky, or laid-back? What if the reviewer rewrites the code right there and then? And if we fast-forward to the same team years later, how has this code reviewing style affected the quality and evolution of the codebase, and the team's culture, skill and sustainability?

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.

Or, to put it another way, it's Run Lola Run but about code review.

I was getting advice about this from a friend who's both an actor-playwright and a senior developer, and I may as well tell you what I told him, about why I want to do this. I have artistic and educational reasons.

Artistically: it's frustrating to me that there's such a limited range in how we persuade and teach each other in sessions at technical conferences. Most commonly I see conferences with lots of lectures, panel discussions, and live tool demonstrations. Those aren't very interactive, and so I welcome conferences who bring some variety into the mix on the axis of interactivity, such as hands-on workshops and trainings, and birds-of-a-feather discussion sessions. But also, we could be learning a lot more about spectacle from the giant field of endeavor that is all about entertaining people who are watching you perform on a stage.* We encapsulate wisdom as, e.g., songs and cartoons whose entertainment value helps us value and retain their lessons; Jason and I are interested in seeing how theater can do things a lecture can't do, can be like a demo of behavior, while talking about tech.

And educationally: especially when it comes to the emotionally fraught art of code review, the medium of theater seems like a promising way to encourage empathy in the viewer. Code review is a moment of great vulnerability, an opportunity for courage and healthy conflict. We only know ways to be if we can imagine them. Jason and I hope this play illustrates a few ways we can be.

So we're preparing that. I hope it goes all right.


* No actual stage in the conference room where we'll be performing. But, you know. Figurative stage.


: A Misheard Moxy Früvous Lyric, Corrected: Sometime around 1999 or 2001, I first heard "King of Spain" by Moxy Früvous. The UC Berkeley a cappella group DeCadence performed it during one of their lunchtime concerts near Sather Gate. (Four out of five weekdays one of the a cappella groups would do a noon concert -- DeCadence, Artists in Resonance, the Men's Octet, the California Golden Overtones -- and I caught as many of them as I could.) And then Steve Shipman introduced me to more of their songs and albums -- it was Bargainville, which ends with that haunting a cappella "Gulf War Song", that I was listening to on September 10, 2001.

In 2014 it came to light that band member Jian Ghomeshi had a fairly sordid history, and for a while I couldn't listen. Now I seem to have the ability to listen again; that change I don't have as much insight into as I'd like.

Just now Leonard and I were singing bits of "King of Spain" to each other; he sang:

Royalty
Lord, it looked good on me

I said "What?!" Because back around 2000 and through all the years to the present, I heard those lyrics as:

Royalty
Lord of the good ennui

So for the entire time I've been with Leonard, he and I have interpreted that song slightly differently. He heard the narrator figuratively wearing royalty like clothing, like a fashion statement, which connects to the silk he mentions in the next line, and which logically connects to the garment swap later in the song. Through my mondegreen, I heard an emphasis on the narrator's malaise and boredom (a reason for the prince-and-pauper swap) and a connection to the literal meaning of an additional French loanword, laissez-faire, that he uses later.

A quick web search tells me that Leonard's version is the consensus, that to join intersubjective reality I would let go of "Lord of the good ennui". I shall bury it here, with due ceremony. Goodbye, old mondegreen friend! You were a lot of fun.


: Supporting Int 1696-2017 for Source Code Transparency in New York City: The principle at stake in California v. Johnson: due process requires that we be able to examine the evidence used to convict someone. Kern County got a $200,000+ grant and started using closed-source software to perform a new kind of DNA testing for criminal forensics. You are not allowed to audit the software to check for bugs, but the company founder will fly in and testify in court to say he attests to the validity of the results it finds. Uh, no, we need to check, and the ACLU and EFF have just filed amici curiae* briefs before California's Court of Appeal for the Fifth District, saying so.

Man at lectern in front of screen displaying 'Winning Raffle Numbers: 12345 12345 12345 12345', photo (used by permission) by Mike Pirnat at the PyCon PyLadies auction in 2017As I've written and even testified, we need more auditability, transparency, and security in software governments use in laboratories and field tests. Heck, we need it in software governments use to make decisions more generally -- lotteries for visas, school assignments, parole and prison sentencing, and so on.

So I was delighted to learn of bill Int 1696-2017, currently before New York City's City Council. Summary:

This bill would require agencies that use algorithms or other automated processing methods that target services, impose penalties, or police persons to publish the source code used for such processing. It would also require agencies to accept user-submitted data sets that can be processed by the agencies' algorithms and provide the outputs to the user.

I applaud James Vacca, chair of the council's Committee on Technology, for introducing and sponsoring this bill, and for citing/shouting out to danah boyd, Kate Crawford, and Cathy O'Neil as people whose work has shaped this legislation. The New York Times says: "As a committee chairman, he plans to convene hearings before he leaves office in December." I'm looking forward to attending those hearings.

If you live in New York City, you can contact your councilmember and suggest they cosponsor this bill. If you live elsewhere, consider telling your local elected officials that they oughta introduce legislation like this. When writing or calling, if you're a programmer or other technology expert, say so -- our voice matters.

I have more links in the algorithmictransparency tag on Pinboard.


* Many years ago, Seth Schoen made me an illustration that we still have somewhere. Reconstructed from memory:

[one smiling stick figure, male, near a courthouse] Sum amicus curiae.
[one smiling stick figure, female, near a courthouse] Sum amica curiae.
[many smiling stick figures of various genders, near a courthouse] Sumus amici curiae.
[one stick figure, male, holding a finger to his mouth as though shushing you, near a courthouse] Tacit! Sum inimicus curiae!

Edited Tuesday Sept. 19th to add: The Committee on Technology is holding a public hearing to discuss Int 1696-2017 on Monday, October 16th.


: On Noticing That Your Project Is Draining Your Soul: I was talking with a fellow consultant about what to do if you have a gig getting you down. Especially when you realize that the client isn't being helpful, and there's a bunch of learning curves that are exhausting you, and you still have several weeks to go.

In my master's in tech management coursework, I learned the lens that thriving is a function of a person times their environment. I think those of us who are used to trying harder, overcoming obstacles, etc. can be -- kind of out of self-protective instinct -- bad at noticing "this environment is so crappy it makes it systematically hard for me to achieve and thrive". Especially with short-term projects. At first, things like "I feel tired" or "ugh, new thing, I don't want to learn this and be bad at it (at first)" and "I'm worried that person doesn't like me" or "they missed the email/meeting/call and now it's harder to execute the plan" are identical to problems that we are reasonably sure we can overcome. Maybe we notice patterns about what's not working but think: I can take initiative to solve this, myself, or with my few allies.

Several papercraft pieces I made out of gold-colored wrapping paper, some alike and some differentThe data points accumulate and we chat with other people and, in the process, learn more data points and shape our data points into narratives and thus discover: this is a bad environment, structurally. But by the time we really figure out the effect a short-term project is having on us, it's supposedly the home stretch.

I'm looking back at gigs that I found draining, where, eventually, I had this realization, although I have never quite framed it this way before now. On some level I realized that I could not succeed by my own standard in these projects/workplaces, because there was so much arrayed against me (e.g., turf war, a generally low level of skill in modern engineering practices, lack of mission coherence, low urgency among stakeholders) that I could not do the things that it is kind of a basic expression of my professional self/competence to do.*

So I had to change what it was I aimed to achieve. For example, I've had a gig where I was running my head into the wall constantly trying to bring better practices to a project. I finally talked with an old hand at the organization and learned the institutional reasons this was practically impossible, why I would not be able to overcome the tectonic forces at play and get the deeper conflicts to resolve any faster. So we changed what I was trying to do. Running a daily standup meeting, by itself, is a thing I can do to bring value. I changed my expectations, and made mental notes about the pain points and the patterns, because I could not fix them right away, but I can use those experiences to give better advice to other people later.

An editor recently told me that, in growing as an editor, he'd needed to cultivate his sense of boredom. He needed to listen to that voice inside him that said this is boring me -- and isn't that funny? Parents and teachers tell us not to complain about being bored -- "only boring people are bored", or -- attributed to Sydney Wood -- An educated man is one who can entertain a new idea, another person, or himself. But pain is a signal, boredom is a signal, aversion and exhaustion are signals. Thriving is a function of a person times their environment.

Also, the other day I read "Living Fiction, Storybook Lives" (which has spoilers for Nicola Griffith's excellent novel Slow River).

How come I spent many years living a rather squalid existence... yet managed to find my way out, to the quite staid and respectable life I have now, when others in the same situation never escaped? In the course of writing the book, I found that the answer to my question was that the question itself was not valid: people are never in the same situation.

It takes substantial introspection and comparison to figure out: what kind of situation am I in, both externally and internally? Is it one where I will be able to move the needle? It gets easier over time, I think, and easier if I take vacations so I can have a fresh perspective when I come back, share my stories with others and listen to their stories, and practice mindfulness meditation so I am better at noticing things (including my own reactions). Maybe "wisdom" is what feels like the ability to X-ray a messy blobby thing and see the structures inside, see the joints that can bend and the bones that can't. In some ways, my own motivation and mindfulness are like that for me -- I need to recognize the full truth of the situation I'm in, internally and externally, to see what needs changing, to see how I might act.

The thing that gets me down most, on exhausting projects, is the meta-fear that nothing will improve, that I am stuck. When I realize that, I try to attend to that feeling of stuckness. Sometimes the answer is in the problem.


* As Alexandra Erin discusses, regarding her political commentary via Twitter threads: "I do the work I do on here because I feel called to it. For the non-religious, I mean: I have a knack for it and I find meaning in it."

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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
Until....
Till we steal it back
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This work by Sumana Harihareswara is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available by emailing the author at sh@changeset.nyc.