Cogito, Ergo Sumana
Sumana oscillates between focus and opportunity

: Some CON.TXT Links: I attended the fan convention CON.TXT yesterday and found or shared some interesting links on many varied topics!

My own stuff: my vid "Pipeline" about sexism in the tech industry, and my technothriller book review accompanied by a GitLab software repository.

On law, taxes and finance: a mention of Confessions of a Tax Collector: One Man's Tour of Duty Inside the IRS by Richard Yancey, the Moon Treaty, the MyPayrollHR incident and the danger of how direct deposit works in the US, this lovely quiet short romantic story that is 90% about people working out land law, the charter of the United Federation of Planets, the textbook Crime Classification Manual: A Standard System for Investigating and Classifying Violent Crime (cheaper in ebook), Confessions of a Radical Tax Protestor: An Inside Expose of the Tax Resistance Movement by Larry R. Williams, "Lying for Money: How Legendary Frauds Reveal the Working of Our World" by Daniel Davies (which I loved), the Tara Holloway mystery/romance series by Diane Kelly such as Death, Taxes, and a Skinny No-Whip Latte, where the main character is an IRS agent who detects tax fraud (thanks to Julia Rios for telling me about these!), the actuarial scifi contest (example, example), ways overseas drug manufacturers try to dupe the FDA, an old Daniel Davies piece about accidentally teaching people how to launder money, a fanfic about someone who learns accounting in prison, and a fanfic about Julian Bashir in court.

On fiction and media in general: Leonard's rewrite of the end of Battlestar Galactica, a bunch of odd US TV shows from the late 20th century, a primer for The Untamed (a 50-episode Chinese drama TV show that many fans are currently enjoying), Kishōtenketsu (an East Asian narrative structure to understand), and an unofficial Google Document listing fandom-themed conventions that have gone virtual for 2020-2021.

Some lovely new or new-to-me fanvids: bironic's new sports vid "Game On", Trelkez's The Good Place vid "Grand Hotel", and cosmic_llin's "Lullabye" about the children of the NCC-1701-D.

Tools: the social and medical models of disability; the URL importer within Archive Of Our Own, which helps you make AO3 entries for (for example) vids you'd already posted on Dreamwidth, so it's easier for con-runners to find them; Library Carpentry, which "focuses on building software and data skills within library and information-related communities. Our goal is to empower people in these roles to use software and data in their own work and to become advocates for and train others in efficient, effective and reproducible data and software practices."

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: I'll Miss You: In March or April I learned of friends -- generally those with children -- who were temporarily leaving New York City to stay with relatives in other places. Now I'm hearing of more of them who have turned their moves permanent, or plan to. I understand. I'll miss you.

One person I know, seeing the news about the pandemic coming, moved back home to Japan, deciding and executing that move within something like a week. She was right.

Go. Take care of yourself. It makes sense. Once it's more possible to see friends in person again, I'll miss our lunches and breakfasts and co-working days. But you are reacting to forces bigger than us and I get it.

I've gotten this little shock a few times now, but I haven't yet gotten the bigger one, that someone I personally know has died of COVID-19. I know enough people that it feels fairly inevitable that it will happen, or that it's already happened. I feel some urge to steel myself but I figure that's a pretty vague and unproductive kind of vector to operate on; I'm just trying to keep up with stuff, keep my various plates spinning and keep my varied balls in the air, and get enough ahead of my commitments that I can take a day debilitated by grief if and when it comes. But there is this tinny foreboding, like a small constant noise from just the other side of one of my walls that I can hear if I let myself concentrate on it.

Are you experiencing this pre-grief too? It's not just me, I think.

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: Incentives: From the time that I was a child, my parents wanted me to learn and be fluent in Kannada. My interest has waxed and waned.

Yesterday I saw this tweet, which starts generalizing (in English) about girls named Sumana, and then switches to Kannada to make a jibe that I only fractionally understand.

Finally I have a strong, urgent motive to learn fluent Kannada: people might be making fun of me and I need to know what they're saying.

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: Four Conferences In Three Days: I'm performing or speaking at, participating in or attending four different conferences/conventions online between July 24th and 26th. You can join me at no cost for all of them!

Going chronologically:

  1. GUADEC: Friday, July 24th, 21:00 UTC (5pm Eastern Time): I'll perform twenty minutes of stand-up comedy as part of the social events for GUADEC, the GNOME Users And Developers European Conference. This will be a bit like the stuff I've performed at AlterConf, Open Source Bridge, the Google Summer of Code Mentors' Summit, and so on. Yes, you can hire me to perform stand-up comedy at your tech conference, too.

    I'm also curious to watch talks on power management, principles of digital autonomy, freelancing tools, an open, programmable virtual assistant, rescuscitating a GNOME app, measuring and improving a project's environmental impact, and making videos.

    Register: for free! Watch live via BigBlueButton (in your web browser).

  2. EuroPython sprint: Saturday-Sunday, July 25-26, European time: Within EuroPython, I'll co-lead an online sprint where people can learn more about, and hack on, Python packaging tools.

    I unfortunately don't think I have time to attend the rest of the conference, but I'm looking forward to watching the videos of "Lessons from the Trenches: rewriting and re-releasing virtualenv" and "The Hidden Power of the Python Runtime".

    Register: for free, for a sprint-only ticket! Please register by July 23rd. Participate via Discord and via Zoom or Jitsi (I'm not clear on whether the sprints will use Zoom or Jitsi).

  3. CON.TXT: Saturday, July 25th, Eastern Time: I'll attend CON.TXT, a fan convention for people who enjoy talking about media, scifi/fantasy, fan fiction, fanvidding, etc. I'm looking forward to "Bring Your Fandom to Work", "Financial Crime for Fun and Profit", and the vidshows.

    Register: for free! Register by July 24th. Participate via Discord and Zoom.

  4. PyOhio: Saturday or Sunday, July 25th-26th, Eastern Time: I'll speak at PyOhio, delivering a pre-recorded ten-minute talk, "Apply for Grants To Fund Open Source Work".

    When I tell people about grants they could get to help fund work on open source software projects, sometimes they are surprised because they didn't know such grants existed. I share:

    This year, all PyOhio talks are 5 or 10 minutes. I'm also interested in talks on PySpark, livestreaming, Flask, "How the Python Software Foundation Fared Through the Impact of the Pandemic", managing your finances, mapReduce, and underappreciated gems of the Python standard library.

    Register: for free! Watch via YouTube. You don't have to register to watch the talks; PyOhio will stream them publicly over YouTube. You do have to register to participate in sprints and open spaces.

Please consider joining me! Probably not at all of them! That would be pretty difficult! I am curious how it will all work out myself!

: Misunderstanding What It Takes To Make Recurse Center's Social Rules Work: In a contentious thread on MetaFilter about race and racism on the site, one user lauds the bit of Recurse Center's manual about how if you are corrected for breaking one of the four Social Rules, you should just accept it, apologize, reflect a bit, and move on. The user, praising the way a particular user took a correction well, says, "I want to move to a world where this kind of confrontation can be so normalized and painless." Yes! I'd like that too! I'd also like for more people and groups to make progress on following the four Social Rules themselves: No feigning surprise, no well-actuallys, no back-seat driving, and no subtle -isms.

I'm not going to say this in the MetaFilter thread because it would derail things, but I'll blog it here. I have participated twice at Recurse Center, my first batch being in late 2013, and I've participated in MetaFilter for over ten years. The significant differences between Recurse Center and MetaFilter are similar to the differences between RC and Wikimedia, which I briefly discuss in "Hospitality, Jerks, and What I Learned" (a keynote about RC that I gave a few years ago at a Wikimedia conference, back when RC was known as Hacker School). And these differences would make it a lot harder for a website like MetaFilter to take this particular aspect of the Social Rules and make it stick. Maybe even impossible.

In this post, I am trying to be descriptive about what works, and what makes good outcomes more likely, not to prescribe what individual people or institutions should do.

Key logistical differences

Every Recurser has dedicated specific time to participating in a shared cause, there are gatekeepers who only let some people in in the first place (interviewing participants to check whether they are pleasant people to collaborate with), even when we're online most conversation is in a private space that only other Recursers can see, and there are under ~2000 Recursers, and (I believe) most Recursers trust RC staff to handle incidents well in case we need to escalate a report to them. And the vast majority of Recursers started after the Social Rules, in their current form or close to it, have been set as policy. And, till this year, every Recurser also had substantial experience of in-person interactions with other Recursers, including (at least since 2013, when I first participated in RC) an orientation session going into the social rules and modelling a correction and someone accepting that correction.* (RC is now remote and online, till at least the end of 2020. The orientation session is now via a videocall.) All of these elements help Recursers trust and understand each other, lower their defensiveness about being corrected, and correct each other with less worry that the other person will respond badly.

Also, pile-on/snarky responses to subtle -isms (such as racism, sexism, and homophobia) are not allowed, and Recursers are asked to only talk about distressing politics and -isms in spaces where every conversational participant has explicitly opted in to talking about that (to avoid distracting people from learning about programming). To quote the manual:

If you see a subtle -ism at the Recurse Center, you can point it out to the relevant person, either publicly or privately, or you can ask one of the faculty to say something. After this, we ask that all further discussion move off of public channels. If you are a third party, and you don't see what could be biased about the comment that was made, feel free to talk to faculty. Please don't say, "Comment X wasn't homophobic!" Similarly, please don't pile on to someone who made a mistake. The "subtle" in "subtle -isms" means that it's probably not obvious to everyone right away what was wrong with the comment.

We want the Recurse Center to be a space with as little bigotry as possible in it. Therefore, if you see sexism, racism, etc. outside of the Recurse Center, please don't bring it in. So, for example, please don't start a discussion of the latest offensive comment from Random Tech Person Y. For many people, especially those who may have spent time in unpleasant environments, these conversations can be very distracting. At the Recurse Center, we want to remove as many distractions as possible so everyone can focus on programming. There are many places in the world to discuss and debate these issues, but there are precious few where people can avoid them. We want the Recurse Center to be one of those places.

The "please don't pile on" guidance helps reduce one's worry that publicly correcting someone will cause an unpleasant pile-on, and helps a participant who's being corrected avoid the urge to get defensive. And discouraging discussions of -isms in common-area spaces that Recursers are likely to participate in by default (the "living room" and its online equivalent) means that everyone who has explicitly opted in to having such a discussion is likely to be more thoughtful and careful about participating in it. (For more on the opt-in suggestion -- and on the fact that, yeah, this means allies may learn less about fighting bigotry, because we don't talk about bias as much -- see Allison Kaptur's blog post "Subtle -isms at Hacker School".)

Of course, "accept corrections gracefully and move on" is generally good advice for an individual to try to adopt in one's own behavior in general!** I try to do this myself! But it really helps to get practice someplace where everyone is trying to do that, and RC helps everyone practice that skill. I was a lot better at correcting and being corrected on Day 90 at RC than I was on Day 1. And the particular systematic expectation of that behavior at RC depends on a sort of pact that everyone signs up to -- that today I'll correct you straightforwardly and nonchalantly about feigned surprise, and you'll accept that correction quickly and with good grace, and then tomorrow maybe our positions will be reversed, and you'll correct me politely about a subtle -ism and I'll take it well. That we will both be open and vulnerable to correction, and will both try not to get defensive. The structural forces I have listed earlier in this post massively help everyone trust in that pact. And there's a Recurse Center Code of Conduct introduced in mid-2017, which we know we can escalate to in case someone's behavior has been really egregious.

If you want to systematically make "give and accept corrections in this way" the norm on a message board where anyone can register for USD$5, there's no unifying purpose to why people join, everything we write there is public on the web forever, most participants never meet most of the other participants in person, there are tens of thousands of registered users who generally discuss ALL topics especially including -isms, snarky/dismissive responses to others' comments often are allowed, and the board itself is 20+ years old, that's going to be very difficult. There are significant structural barriers here.

It's also worth noting that the particular conversation that spurred this comparison is about reducing racist speech on MetaFilter. Many of the more vocal anti-racism activists on MetaFilter do not particularly trust most white users or the site's owner and mostly-white moderation staff, and are strenuously against civility norms when it comes to correcting racist statements. These are also significant differences between MeFi and RC, based on my experience in both.

"Community" and purpose

So far, in this post, I've said "message board", "website", "group", "users", "participants"; you may have noticed that I have not yet used the word "community." I am trying to be careful about how I use that word, because I think it subsumes some important assumptions.*** RC cofounder Nick Bergson-Shilcock wrote, "Having a genuine community requires that people know the other people around them, and that everyone shares some fundamental values and purpose." I agree. (I'd also say that a genuine community also has to have some kind of systematic way for the membership as a whole to affect/veto decisions that will affect them, which is a place Recurse Center falls down, being a privately owned for-profit enterprise that has no advisory board or other structurally empowered voice for Recursers in RC governance. MetaFilter is on its way to starting a user advisory board to specifically listen to the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color concerns.)

And my current assessment is that MetaFilter does not qualify, because most MeFites don't know most other MeFites, and because I think MetaFilter's shared fundamental purpose is ... thin in a way that bears more explaining but gets very wiggly.

The official MetaFilter guidelines say: "The fundamental goal of MetaFilter is for this to be a good, kind, generous, inclusive, and fun community on the internet." And the "About" page says:

Metafilter is a weblog ... that anyone can contribute a link or a comment to. A typical weblog is one person posting their thoughts on the unique things they find on the web. This website exists to break down the barriers between people, to extend a weblog beyond just one person, and to foster discussion among its members.

I would bet that a survey of a hundred MeFites chosen at random, about why they participate and the purpose of the site, would show several disparate clusters of answers. General entertainment and information, shooting the breeze about whatever comes up, fun (but not in particular to create fun for others), fun (to create for/with others), asking for and giving advice about specific problems and opportunities, getting publicity for stuff we've made... I'd be curious what people would say about why they participate, what they think MeFi's purpose is, and how much it would align with the goal/purpose statements above.

In contrast, RC (from the About page) "offers educational retreats for anyone who wants to get dramatically better at programming. The retreats are free, self-directed, and project based." Which is pretty clear. Everyone at RC has signed up for the purpose of "becoming a dramatically better programmer" and I would bet that, if you interviewed a hundred Recursers chosen at random, they'd all say something very similar about the reason they participated/participate and about RC's purpose.

Knowing each other, and sharing fundamental values and purpose, is important here because it's the soil from which interpersonal and group trust can sprout.

And you need trust in order to be vulnerable, including the vulnerability of speaking up about something that's wrong, and the vulnerability of accepting a correction without defensiveness.


Argh this is already so long, and I haven't even talked about how "no feigned surprise" and "no well-actuallys" and "no backseat driving" all play into the trust and vulnerability, how bad-faith actors can potentially weaponize "no feigned surprise," whether MetaFilter even wants to be a nurturing learning environment (to the extent that such a varied group can be said to "want" something), the ideological position that it is never an oppressed person's responsibility to make any effort to help create an environment that helps people learn facts or skills relevant to fighting that oppression, what general lessons I would draw from this for your Internet-based group of choice, and and and.

But: I hope you get my point. The Social Rules are great. And/but they work at RC partly in concert with the shape, type, configuration of the place and its membership. And that shape is very different from MetaFilter's.

* Recurser Nat Quayle Nelson wrote a play called "Survival Instinct" (link is to a recording of a live reading) that includes a fictional portrayal of Recurse Center. Listen to the conversation starting around 11:00 to hear a Recurser beginning to learn the "no -isms" rule.
** But I do not prescribe this as a general rule for everyone reading this, because you know what? Sometimes you should push back, though realistically this is incredibly unlikely if you're in a dominant group regarding the -ism that you got criticized about. I am not the arbiter of "the social justice rules of engagement" and that is a whole other essay that I may or may not ever write or publish.
*** I recently ran into David Gurteen's definition, "A community is a group of people who share things in common, who work together towards a common purpose which they care about and who care deeply about each other." I am not ready to buy into Gurteen's thinking, given that Gurteen believes it is not possible to have a real conversation in text, only face-to-face and maybe via telephone/videocall, and I figure that definitions of community and of conversation are pretty connected.

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: Still Here: I am still here.

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: Streamable For A Limited Time: A couple of stories about black women's lives. One fictional but based on fact, and one nonfiction.

Right now, till 7pm British time on Thursday June 25th, you can watch the drama Small Island on YouTube, thanks to the UK's National Theatre.

It's about Jamaica and the UK, about a particular historical set of migrants who moved from Jamaica to England starting in 1948 (are you "immigrating" if you are a British citizen, moving from a Crown colony to the empire's headquarters? what does that say about "immigrant" as a legal or social label?), about pride and discrimination and how you keep going in bad circumstances. I absolutely loved Hortense, one of the main characters, and the staging is cool. And here's the learning resource guide with two fascinating essays and a helpful timeline. One of the essays is by Andrea Levy, who wrote the book that the play's based on, and who based Hortense on her own mom.

BBFC rating is 15 due to some strong language, discriminatory behaviour, occasional sexual references and mild violence. Please note that, as part of depicting the experience of Jamaican immigrants to Britain after the Second World War, some characters in the play use racially offensive terms.

I started a conversation with my mom based on some experiences I saw in Small Island and that conversation's not over and I'm learning new things about my parents' experience.

Also (via Kottke): till 14 July, in the US, you can watch Recorder: The Marian Stokes Project online via PBS's Independent Lens. Leonard and I were lucky enough to see this on the big screen last year; here's his review. As he notes:

Content warning: this film includes harrowing recorded-live TV footage of 9/11, which is how I ended up seeing the second plane hit the tower after 18 years of successfully not seeing that footage.

Marion Stokes was an amazing, visionary activist, super-difficult to be around, eloquent, and driven, and her story was astonishing to learn. If you haven't seen this, I recommend it. Absorbing and moving.

2020 July

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