Cogito, Ergo Sumana
Sumana oscillates between focus and opportunity

: "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.")

Filed under:

: Trailer and Registration for Otherwise Auction:

You have till 8pm ET tonight -- so, about 6.3 hours from me publishing this -- to register for this year's WisCon if you want to attend the auction I'm hosting on Saturday night (watching via YouTube livestream). You can register for USD$0 if affordability matters to you.

The auction is a comedy show where you don't need to spend any money, but you can donate to support some worthy causes.

This Otherwise blog post about the auction includes a one-minute video trailer/preview, and a list of auction items.

I'll also speak on Sunday within a panel on the recent renaming of the Otherwise Award (blog post).

: WisCon and Otherwise Auction, May 22-25: I'm hosting the Otherwise Auction (formerly the Tiptree Auction) at WisCon the night of Saturday, May 23rd. It'll be a virtual auction within WisCon, and mostly, Earth currency will not be involved. You can register for this year's WisCon now to make sure you'll be able to watch via YouTube and participate/bid via the private Discord chat server. I'm not 100% sure yet what time the auction will be, but it will probably be 7:30-8:30 pm Central Time.

This morning I was talking to my mother about some prerecorded material I am working on for the show. I told her how nice it is to get to work with my friends on a small fun project, and to edit together these videos with their faces all next to each other. Mom understood and said: it's like tying flowers in a garland. And my face broke into a goofy grin. It so is.

: Underused Headline:

In all the reporting about Internet infrastructure, bandwidth usage during the pandemic, spectrum controversies, etc., I have not yet seen this particular punny headline.

In the 1934 film It Happened One Night, one character tries to extort $5,000 from another by threatening to snitch on him: "Five Gs, or I crab the works!"

Therefore: if you see an article entitled "5G Or I Crab The Works," please let me know.

Filed under:

: "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.

: What We Subsume: Still here.

I've gotten a lot better at sewing pleats on face masks, and have found that -- if I cut the material ahead of time -- I can usually finish a mask, or nearly finish it, while watching a one-hour lecture, or while on the kind of conference call where I say very little.

I sometimes remember to do the things that will help set me up for a better day.

Sometimes I notice someone saying, about telecommuting and distributed/remote/virtual conferences and paperwork moving online because of the pandemic: So we could have been doing this all along?! And I notice the "all along" because it's subsuming or blurring a more specific claim about how long we've been wastefully delaying. If you joined your institution in January and they said no to remote work, and now they're allowing it, then yeah, they could have said yes all along, because "all along" means "since January" and there have been very few advances/innovations in bandwidth and installed connections, hardware, software platforms (such as operating systems and servers), relevant software applications, relevant professional skills, etc. since January. But at least in the US, I think that even five years ago, and certainly ten or twenty years ago, there were lots of kinds of infrastructure that would not have been up to the task of moving work online. Of course, we should have been properly investing in those things, at all levels, so really I'm just quibbling and "well-actually"ing with some wording in a way that might not look great. I will be turning off comments on this one.

Irritability. Fluffy fanfic. Peanut butter on celery or apples. A hollow ache inside my torso. The whirr of the sewing machine. Other people's faces via videocalls -- oh how great a solace that is, for I love my spouse but I need some variety in the faces I see. Light through the window, always through the window. Endless emails from every organization that has ever heard of me, earnestly telling me what they are doing, or importuning me to do something, because the sky is falling and we all need to hold it up. Using a video game to pretend I am outside, to pretend I can visit a friend or stand on a rocky shore. Trying to be there for my friends, my family -- Leonard suggested we compile a list of funny YouTube clips to send to our sick friend and so we did and maybe it will be a tiny comfort to her. Watching the National Theatre plays and Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals and concerts and music livestreams and being overcome with gratitude for the artists.

Yesterday was the 29th, which means it was one of the days of the month that I would let myself drink alcohol (days with a 9 in them, so, the 9th, 19th, and 29th) and I just realized today that -- as the wording in my head popped out -- I forgot to drink yesterday. I briefly thought about making up for that day, but I think the fact that my reflexive phrasing made it sound like an obligation rather than an option reinforces the stricter part of myself, which says, no, wait till the next window comes round again.

I've made some good work and volunteer progress in the last few weeks! I've had some great laughs with my spouse and my friends, and I'm glad I'm getting better at sewing, and not all is gloom. Especially when I have a chance to help someone else. But at this very moment, this afternoon on this Thursday, oh readers and oh future self, Sumana is hearing and feeling the gears grind as she bears up under the load.

Sometimes we talk about that impossibly distant past, The Before Times. Back in the Before Times, I thought I would .... we signed up for .... we had just started.... it seemed like ..... Fewer of us use the corresponding phrase for the future: The After Times. Perhaps judiciously and perhaps superstitiously and perhaps exhaustedly, we decline to make predictions and plans. But right now is The During Times. Right? That feels right. Duration, during, endure, endurance. We are enduring. I hope you are too.

: Remote Sprint Tips: Every year, many developers of Python (the language itself, not just stuff written in Python) get together for a sprint. This year it will probably be virtual. How should that work? I offered to share my experiences and tips, the folks in the core development group asked me to do so, and I listed some tips. My approach is less "top-down schedule" and more "here's how to adapt to and support the emergent ways people will act".

2020 May

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