Cogito, Ergo Sumana
Sumana oscillates between focus and opportunity

: Design, and Friction Preventing Design Improvement, in Open Tech: This month a Recurser I know, Pepijn de Vos, observed a concentration of high-quality open source software in the developer tools category, to the exclusion of other categories. With a few exceptions.

I understood where he's coming from, though my assessment differs. I started reflecting on those exceptions. Do they "prove the rule" in the colloquial sense that "every rule has exceptions," or do they "prove the rule" in the older sense, in that they give us an opportunity to test the rule? A few years ago I learned about this technique called "appreciative inquiry" which says: look at the unusual examples of things that are working well, and try to figure out how they've gotten where they are, so we can try to replicate it. So I think it's worth thinking a bit more about those exceptional FLOSS projects that aren't developer tools and that are pretty high-quality, in user experience design and robust functionality. And it's worth discussing problems and approaches in product management and user experience design in open source, and pointing to people already working on it.

FLOSS with good design and robust functionality: My list would include Firefox, Chromium, NetHack, Android, Audacity, Inkscape, VLC, the Archive Of Our Own, Written? Kitten!, Signal, Zulip, Thunderbird, and many of the built-in applications on the Linux desktop. I don't have much experience with Blender or Krita, but I believe they belong here too. (Another category worth thinking about: FLOSS software that has no commercial competitor, or whose commercial competitors are much worse, because for-profit companies would be far warier of liability or other legal issues surrounding the project. Examples: youtube-dl, Firefox Send, VLC again, and probably some security/privacy stuff I don't know much about.)

And as I start thinking about what helped these projects get where they are, I reach for the archetypes at play. I'll ask James and Karl to check my homework, but as I understand it:

Mass Market: NetHack, VLC, Firefox, Audacity, Inkscape, Thunderbird, youtube-dl
Controlled Ecosystem: Zulip, Archive Of Our Own
Business-to-business open source: Android, Chromium
Rocket Ship To Mars: Signal
Bathwater? Wide Open? Trusted Vendor? not sure: Written? Kitten!

The only "Wide Open" example that easily comes to mind for me is robotfindskitten, a game which -- like Written? Kitten! -- does one reasonably simple thing and does it well. Leonard reflected on reasons for its success at Roguelike Celebration 2017 (video). But I'd be open to correction, especially by people who are familiar with NetHack, VLC, Audacity, Inkscape, or youtube-dl development processes.

Design: Part of de Vos's point is about cost and quality in general. But I believe part of what he's getting at is design. Which FLOSS outside of developer tooling has good design?

In my own history as an open source contributor and leader, I've worked some on developer tools like PyPI and a linter for OpenNews, but quite a lot more on tools for other audiences, like MediaWiki, HTTPS Everywhere, Mailman, Zulip, bits of GNOME, AltLaw, and the WisCon app. The first open source project I ever contributed to, twelve years ago, was Miro, a video player and podcatcher. And these projects had all sorts of governance/funding structures: completely volunteer-run with and without any formal home, nonprofit with and without grants, academic, for-profit within consultancies and product companies.

So I know some of the dynamics that affect user experience in FLOSS for general audiences (often negatively), and discussed some of them in my code4lib keynote "User Experience is a Social Justice Issue" a few years ago. I'm certainly not alone; Simply Secure, Open Source Design, Cris Beasley, The Land, Clar, and Risker are just a few of the thinkers and practitioners who have shared useful thoughts on these problems.

In 2014, I wrote a few things about this issue, mostly in public, like the code4lib keynote and this April Fool's joke:

It turns out you can go into your init.cfg file and change the usability flag from 0 to 1, and that improves user experience tremendously. I wonder why distributions ship it turned off by default?
Wikimedia and pushback: But I also wrote a private email that year that I'll reproduce below. I wrote it about design change friction in Wikimedia communities, so it shorthands some references to, for instance, a proposed opt-in Wikimedia feature to help users hide some controversial images. But I hope it still provides some use even if you don't know that history.

I wanted to quickly summarize some thoughts and expand on the conversation you and I had several days ago, on reasons Wikimedia community members have a tough time with even opt-in or opt-out design changes like the image filter or VisualEditor or Media Viewer.

  • ideology of a free market of ideas -- the cure for bad speech is more speech, if you can't take the heat then you should not be here, aversion to American prudishness etc., etc. (more relevant for image filter)

    • relatedly "if you can't deal with the way things are then you are too stupid to be here" (more applicable to design simplifications like Media Viewer and VisualEditor)

  • people are bad at seeing that the situation that has incrementally changed around them is now a bad one (frog in pot of boiling water); see checkbox proliferation and baroque wikitext/template metastasis

  • most non-designers are bad at design thinking (at assessing a design, imagining it as a changeable prototype, thinking beyond their initial personal and aesthetic reaction, sussing out workflows and needs and assessing whether a proposed design would suit them, thinking from other people's points of view, thinking from the POV of a newcomer, etc.)

    • relatedly, we do not share a design vocabulary of concepts, nor principles that we aim to uphold or judge our work against (in contrast see our vocabulary of concepts and principles for Wikipedia content, e.g. NPOV, deletionism/inclusionism)

      • so people can only speak from their own personal aesthetics and initial reactions, which are often negative because in general people are averse to surprise novelty in environments they consider home, and the discourse can't rise beyond "I don't like it, therefore it sucks"

  • past history of difficult conversations, sometimes badly managed (e.g. image filter) and too-early rollout of buggy feature as a default (e.g. VisualEditor), causes once-burned-twice-shy wariness about new WMF features

    • Wikimedians' core ethos: "It's a wiki" (if you see a problem, e.g. an error in a Wikipedia article, try to fix it); everyone is responsible for maintaining and improving the project, preventing harm

      • ergo people who feel responsible for the quality of the project are like William F. Buckley's "National Review" in terms of their conservatism, standing athwart history yelling "stop"

I haven't answered some questions: what are the common patterns in our success stories (governance, funding, community size, maintainership history, etc.)? How do we address or prevent problems like the ones I mentioned seeing within Wikimedia? But it's great to see progress on those questions from organizations like Wikimedia and Simply Secure and Open Tech Strategies (disclosure: I often do work with the latter), and I do see hope for plausible ways forward.


: Recurse Center, What Really Works And How We Know: I participated in Recurse Center (formerly Hacker School) in 2013 and in 2014, and emerged a better programmer, a calmer and kinder person, and a more confident learner. Gender diversity was part of the quality of that experience:

When part of the joy of a place is that gender doesn't matter, it's hard to write about that joy, because calling attention to gender is the opposite of that....

But, as Nick Bergson-Shilcock says in "What we've learned from seven years of working to make RC 50% women, trans, and non-binary", "We focus on diversity so Recursers can focus on programming.":

In April of 2012, we announced our goal to make RC 50% women. Seven years later, we are close to reaching an improved version of this goal: 48% of new Recursers in 2019 so far identify as women, trans, or non-binary. This post is a summary of what we’ve tried, learned, and accomplished over the past seven years, as well as our overall strategy and why we choose to prioritize this work.

Bergson-Shilcock's case study shares stats, what didn't work, and what they don't know yet -- the people who run RC are consistently like this, and this writeup exemplifies their judgment, integrity, and foresight. Even when I've disagreed with RC's faculty, I have always come away from the disagreement with my trust in them intact or increased. How many institutions could I describe in that way? Not many.

One last thing -- I've recently been trying to avoid saying "community" when I really mean group, set, school, industry, project, or workplace, and Bergson-Shilcock's articulation is gonna help me do that and to value substantive communities:

Having a genuine community requires that people know the other people around them, and that everyone shares some fundamental values and purpose.


: PyCon NA, !!Con, and WisCon: I'm back in New York City, and preparing to travel a bit; May is my big conference month this year.

I'll start the month at PyCon North America in Cleveland, Ohio, practically the whole conference, 1-9 May. I'm co-organizing The Art of Python, an arts festival -- several short plays, plus a fanvid and live music -- the night of Friday, May 3rd. And during the sprints, 6-9 May, I'll be concentrating on the world of Python packaging and distribution, e.g., PyPI.

I'll go home to New York City, then go to !!Con 11-12 May, where I am not organizing or speaking or suchlike.

And then I'll be at WisCon in Madison, Wisconsin, for the whole convention, 24-27 May plus a little extra on either side. I will once again be the comedy auctioneer for the auction on Saturday night that benefits the Tiptree Award -- if you have something to donate to the auction, please let us know by 15 May. I may not make it to the Floomp or the vid party. I will probably be on a few panels; several panels are still seeking volunteer panellists (sign up by 19 April). I do plan to be at the Gathering and the Dessert Salon (heads-up, changes to Dessert Salon entry flow).

If you're going to be at any of these events, perhaps we can share a beverage! If you want to make sure that we do that, let's actually set up at least a tentative appointment soon, so I can put it in my calendar.

I will be more responsive to emails and text messages than to social media while at these conferences, and in particular, I may see mentions and direct messages on Mastodon but I probably won't see mentions or direct messages on Twitter. Also, I am pretty forgiving about being called mispronunciations of my name, but here's a recording in case you want help -- I also respond to "Vikki" which is the fake name I use with strangers at restaurants. And I will probably not hug you unless we know each other well.


: Availability Update for April: I'm going to be off social media a lot between now and about April 14th. Please email if you want to reach me - https://www.harihareswara.net/ & https://changeset.nyc/#contact have my address - but I will probably be slow & terse in response.


: Expectations, Toil and Sludge, Discovery, And A Lot of Handwaving: I have an inchoate tangle of thoughts I'll spill out into this sandbox for thinking -- sometimes on this blog you get well-organized how-to guides and analyses, and sometimes you get "what constellation do these points make?".

My cri de coeur on the unnecessary fiddly and risky labor of everyday life got quite a lot of people saying yes, THAT to me. A friend pointed me to Cass Sunstein's recent piece calling this sort of thing sludge, but only today did I remember a Jon Carroll piece I love that includes:

I wrote radio advertisements for the Mercury News that were read at the halftimes of San Jose State football games. I ran a kind of Keno-like circulation promotion game; I had to check thousands of entries a week to see if the numbers matched the ones I had previously drawn.

As I did, I repeated a sentence that had stuck in my head from some political science class. I thought it was from Marx: "Man shall be saved from repetitive labor." Maybe Marx did say it; silly man.

And that reminded me that, in DevOps, they call that kind of work "toil". Work that we need a human's judgment to do is fine; work that could be automated away is toil, and we should minimize and automate it. And sometimes the powers that be aren't willing to prioritize that work, perhaps because they don't care enough about the problem or about the burden of addressing it, which helps you understand Liz Fong-Jones saying: "I'm focusing my EDII work on making tech a *safe* place to work with adequate career advancement opportunities before I'd recommend it. I'm done with pipeline work and diversity toil."

So far, so clear, but this is where everything gets tangly, for me. I want to liberate myself from toil and sludge, and there are ways to dissolve the sludge in money or cleverness, like by hiring a virtual assistant, or negotiating a car purchase via email without having to quarrel with a sales rep in person or on the phone. And where there is unavoidable toil and disappointment I need to accept it and move on. A change of expectations can be its own kind of liberation. But I need to not just liberate myself! The classic serenity prayer asks for the serenity to accept the things one cannot change, the courage to change that which can be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference. But it's dynamic, not static, right? One also needs the discipline to make sure to check again later, to possibly un-accept a thing that turns out to be changeable, or the reverse....

Maturity seems to be a discovery of the things I can't do that I thought I could, and the surprising things I can do. There are core parts of me that will not change, like a tendency to want to feel helpful that can get in the way of actually making a dent in things. And then there are the things I find myself telling my friends (while being careful about advice): did you know this is a thing you can do? You can submit multiple talk proposals, not just one, to most tech conferences. You can submit a play, even if they haven't said specifically that they want plays. Sometimes you can negotiate a layoff. You can tell your professional network that you'd like to serve on a nonprofit board, in case anyone's looking to fill a seat. You can move, you can leave, you can, you can.

And some toil you can skip! And within that: some toil you can just skip, and it's fine. And then there's toil that, if you skip it, someone else has to pick up after you.

This is big and complicated and political and philosophical and whatnot. I should eat dinner.

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: It's Not Just You: Malka Older writes:

here's the thing about "adulting": so much of it is entirely unnecessary. I have spent so many hours on health insurance and I only know because I lived in another country that health insurance can function perfectly well without that tax on my time.

Or take tax returns, which we spend time and money doing, even though they could be vastly simplified because the govt already has most of that data. Like the forms they make you fill out at the border even though most of that info is already in your passport (no forms in EU)

all of these tasks that we are taught are inevitable parts of being adult in an advanced society exist either because our society is not as advanced as it pretends or because it has advanced in the direction of making things easier for capital and harder for labor (or both)

Older's point, echoed in Anne Helen Petersen's January piece "How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation", reverberates in my life today: a ton of fiddly expensive-if-you-make-a-mistake labor has emerged or shifted onto the middle class's shoulders, without commensurate logistical, psychological, or financial support for that shift.

This came to mind today because some of us were talking about the anxiety of booking travel. Well -- Back In The Past we paid travel agents to do this sort of thing, learning all the complicated routes and fare trends and quality standards! (And even further in the past, people rarely travelled and we assumed that, of course, travelling to another city would take at least days if not weeks or months of preparation!)

Expectations around planning, decision speed and responsibility, and focus that used to only apply to executives with secretaries now apply to all knowledge workers. And I am struck by how many skills we are expected to have, as adults in 2019 middle-class America, that NO ONE HAS EVER HAD BEFORE, basically.

Here, manage e-mail, a.k.a. this endless TODO list that grows without your input.

Here, resist the best gambling temptation ever invented, which is on the same device you are expected to carry at all times. (When I talk to nonprogrammers these days, I take the opportunity to apologize on behalf of my industry. Email management, calendar management, and internet harassment - all of them are so much more of a burden than they have to be, because we have not done well enough.)

Here, make plans based on the most volatile future anyone has ever had. (And Do Your Bit regarding the greatest collective action problem there is, fighting global warming (which means: decide what Your Bit is, and feel good enough about that decision that the emotional miasma doesn't taint all the rest of your hours.))

Be as decisive as a 19th century tycoon, as nurturing to your family as a TV mom, and love your body as you are (but surely you could fix xyz).

You can't do it all; no one can.

I mean, heck. The other day I saw an ad for a Wells Fargo app feature called "Control Tower" where the use case is, specifically, "you pay monthly subscription fees for things you don't use - this feature helps you find those things so you can go cancel them". Wells Fargo specifically developed/tested/deployed this feature and made an expensive polished TV ad and paid for it to be broadcast (or in this case used as a web ad between acts of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), because it's going to be that profitable a product differentiator, because millions of people get confused/misled into recurring fees, because "deceiving us has become an industrial process."

I don't have a solution. But at least I can try to keep this in mind, when the overwhelm starts to get to me. It's All Too Much not because I am inadequate, but because standards for my class's behavior have risen faster than we've built the infrastructure and prosthetics we'd need to meet them, and because of an unequal distribution of the benefits of the information revolution.

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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:

Magic.

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:

  • You like The Good Place
  • You enjoyed Andreas Eschbach's The Carpet Makers
  • You gave up on Stross's Merchant Princes series because you didn't care about what would happen next
  • You are a technologist or scientist (here's an essay she wrote about the series, noting that we are all discoverers)
  • You enjoy stories about women's friendships
  • You enjoy stories where people of all genders and races intermingle without their genders or races getting in the way of what people think they can do or be
  • You enjoy stories where some characters have physical disabilities and are portrayed realistically and respectfully
  • You find that a lot of scene descriptions in fiction, especially fantasy, feel unmotivated and slow the story down (most of Kirstein's scene descriptions serve character and plot!)
  • You think of yourself as someone who has historically preferred science fiction to fantasy
  • You've vaguely heard about these books but thought they were out of print (recently Kirstein got the rights back and reissued them!)
  • You're hungry for a story where the protagonist has the analytical and observational skills of a scientist-detective and is not a misanthrope

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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This work by Sumana Harihareswara is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
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