Cogito, Ergo Sumana
Sumana oscillates between focus and opportunity

: Hey, You Left Something Out: Of course not all the responses I get to my work are positive. Sometimes I get criticism. And a subset of that criticism says more about the person giving it than about the quality of what I've made. I try to keep a thick skin about that but I don't always succeed.

One particular kind of response has piqued my interest lately. Some of the feedback I get means to be praise, but contains a kinda-joking complaint about something that the person thinks I left out. I saw this recently in a recommendation of my PyCon 2016 talk, "HTTP Can Do That?!", and in another commenter's response. And some commentary of the "they/you left x out" variety is straightforward criticism.

At its most loving, I think this kind of commentary means to be a kind of "yes-and" response, sharing the experience of enjoying something and extending it by recommending another related thing. (I have been working on this blog post, on and off, for a few months; the day I am posting it, I see a perfect example.) And I can empathize with that!

But, a lot of the time, this kind of response comes with an explicit marker or implicit connotation of complaint: the author/speaker did not mention the thing that I think should be mentioned, and therefore, something is wrong.* Perhaps a more useful approach would be to wonder, in a genuinely curious way, why the author didn't mention it? Was it out of ignorance? Was it a deliberate choice, and, if so, to what purpose?

Marco Rogers's recently observed: "A lot of men seem to have been conditioned to think that telling someone that you disagree is the same as asking them a question. Like the way they learn to engage is by *creating a conflict*." Maybe that plays into this.

And as Josh Millard notes,

There's a lot of this sort of detached entitlement out there.... "I want content generated to my tastes" collides with "I'm making something with my bare hands" in such a way that the folks in the more passive former camp feel somehow totally comfortable asserting the high ground on the people in the latter.

Personal taste is personal taste and everybody's got a right to it; criticism is useful, at least when it's useful. Beyond that, though, there's a lot of Why Am I Not Being Correctly Entertained out there in the world that manages to get off the leash for no good reason, and from the doing-the-work, learning-the-craft, making-the-content side of things that does get awful tiring.

And maybe that plays into this too.

Compilation-makers, list-makers, etc. run into this kind of criticism frequently, as fanvidders discussed in a Vividcon panel about multisource vids. Perhaps some readers read any list of things sharing particular characteristic as an attempt to make the one canonical list, and thus read any publicly shared list as implicitly inviting corrections and additions toward this goal.

Last year bironic commented wryly,

I love how many multifandom vids lately come with explainers about scope, as we brace for people to come in and yell about someone who was included or left out.

And I appreciate vidder thingswithwings's response:

...there are so many selection choices to make, and only so many seconds of song . . . I think it's good to make it clear that we're making these decisions thoughtfully...

That's the spirit I see in thingswithwings's vidder's notes on their joyous, spirited and dancey vid "Gettin' Bi" and eruthros's vidder's notes on her excellent, moving, incisive vid "Straightening Up the House". And that's the spirit I'd like to inhabit as I make and share recommendation lists, compilations, etc. going forward.

And in that spirit I'll address here the praise-complaints of my own work that I linked to in my second paragraph. I scoped "HTTP Can Do That?!" to discuss underappreciated real, working parts of HTTP and share examples of things that work, even if they're bad ideas, as illustrations. I didn't show the cover of Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 in my talk because -- as I mentioned during the Q&A -- I think it's fine to leave that particular connection as a bit of an Easter egg so some people have something to figure out when they look up response status code 451 later. I didn't include the teapot response code (418) because it's already fairly popular and well-known as a joke response code, and I wanted to spend my time on stuff folks weren't as likely to run across in other fora, and because it's a joke that isn't in the HTTP standards. I made a tradeoff between concision and nuance. Similarly, I didn't use the word "neoliberal" in that post about feelings of overwhelmption because that wasn't the point.

People who want to compliment work should probably learn to give compliments that sound encouraging. As one writer notes: "I think Twitter, for all its good qualities, can very much be a Killer Of Work exactly because people don't know how to say "that's so awesome!" or lift creators up in the idea stage." And people who genuinely want to submit you-left-something-out bug reports about someone else's work** should probably spend a few moments checking the maker's stated criteria and purpose, and reflecting on whether they perhaps had an interesting reason for the exclusion or omission, or on how much the gut biomes of the creator's intended audience matches the reader's gut biome. "I'm curious about the choice you made" may sound passive-aggressive, but I'd rather hear that than something that's just flat-out aggressive.

(Oh, and to be tiresomely empowering again: a human created the thing you're responding to; you're a human and you could make a thing, too.)

* "You forgot Poland" always comes to mind, even though a face-to-face debate is such an unusual context compared to the ways I usually get feedback like "you forgot x".
** even something tiny like a single joke


Thanks to Mindy Preston and others who commented on drafts of this idea & piece.


: Some Recent Films: I saw several movies recently!

I LOVED Booksmart which is in conversation with Election, Legally Blonde, and (at least visually) maybe Brick. It's hilarious, moving, sweet, and precise -- a delightful confection of a film. As with Clueless there are no villains and everyone gets to be a person. The parable of the laborers in the vineyard (not explicitly), a "Lean In" joke, feminists like me onscreen whose politics are core to their character, a friendship between a straight girl and a queer girl who love and want the best for each other -- so much fun. I went to see this mostly on the strength of knowing Sarah Haskins had cowritten it, because I have loved her for a decade because of her "Target: Women" segment from Infomania. Brendan was the one who informed me that she'd cowritten the earliest version of the screenplay in 2009 and that it'd been on The Black List of best-liked unproduced screenplays (Franklin Leonard's TEDx talk is pretty interesting if you haven't heard of that spreadsheet).

Always Be My Maybe is a cute, sweet romcom that will mean more to you if you are Asian-American or have ever lived in San Francisco. I'm always happy to see Randall Park in something (I've loved his silly face since his IKEA Heights videos) and the intergenerational dynamics in his character's family rang true to me.

I enjoyed Mindy Kaling's Late Night because of Kaling's and Emma Thompson's performances, because I've been the only woman or the only nonwhite person in the room so many times, because of a particular exchange between Thompson's and Kaling's characters about tokenism that took me right back to a particular meal in San Francisco many years back when I had a very similar conversation, because I'm still a softie for the fairytale fantasy of making comedy that millions of people laugh at. The movie sort of feels like a 100-minute sitcom on the level of its characters, dialogue, and plot -- people speak their subtext a lot, it brings up an issue that it doesn't then deal with satisfyingly, there are Big Gestures that solve things. But I still had fun.

Funny-but-not note about that last one: one of the trailers before Late Night was for After The Wedding. The first several seconds of the trailer show us a young white American woman working in an orphanage in India. OK, sure, yes, Late Night will attract a lot of Indian diaspora people, so it makes sense to advertise a movie set in India to us. But then that white woman talks with the older Indian woman who runs the orphanage about their financial needs and, seeking a big donation, goes back to the US and gets involved in a whole messy situation with a rich woman and her sketchy husband. And that's the rest of the trailer and probably what most of the movie is about. And I was sitting there thinking -- look, there are other donors you could talk with! Are you seriously the development director for your nonprofit, and if not, have you talked with them about how much trouble this donation is turning out to be? Also, the Indian woman who runs the orphanage -- what's up with her right now? What does she think and what other sustainability leads is she pursuing? By the end of the trailer I was much more focused on questions like "have they already looked at the grant listings at the Foundation Center?" than "will Billy Crudup's SECRET be EXPOSED?" which is a long way of saying that I am probably not going to see this movie.

Oh also the Museum of the Moving Image showed the 1997 John Woo action classic Face/Off which I have now seen for the first time and I may not need to see another action movie again for multiple years because how can you top it? I feel like there are no words for the utter infernokrusher spectacle of Face/Off; it transcends any articulation outside of its own cinematic achievement. And the escapism! As the credits rolled I asked "did I like this?" and realized that my face hurt from smiling, so, yes.

Filed under:


: WisCon Activities: I'm on my way today to WisCon, the feminist science fiction convention. This'll be the tenth anniversary of my first!

I'm a panellist or performer for three sessions:

  1. "Ethics In The Good Place And Crazy Ex-Girlfriend", panellist, Friday 9:00-10:15pm, in Caucus.

    Fantastical US TV shows The Good Place and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend both explore what we owe to each other, and to ourselves. What ethical frameworks do they explore and seem to approve? How do the shows judge the appropriateness of self-sacrifice, the importance of pleasure, the choice to fix or leave a dysfunctional relationship, and other ethical issues? And how do they use fantasy to approach and consider these questions?

  2. Tiptree Auction: comedian and auctioneer, Saturday 7:30-9:30pm (probably more like 9pm), in Capitol/Wisconsin.

    It is totally fine to just turn up for 15 minutes of this and spend no money and laugh at my jokes and then go get dinner. But also all the money we raise goes to the Tiptree Award.

  3. "Imaginary Book Club", panellist, Sunday 10:00-11:15am, in Conference 4.

    Panelists each choose an exciting book from the last year to describe, and the group discusses them all. The catch: we made all of them up. This year, we might talk about Charlie Jane Anders's inspirational romance, a newly discovered YA dystopia by F. Scott Fitzgerald, G. Willow Wilson's entry in the Babysitter's Club series, and the 90s-nostalgia horror anthology I'll Be There for You(r Blood).

And I will be getting cool free clothes during the Gathering and going to the Dessert Salon and subsequent speeches so I may catch you there!

I am also attempting to meet MetaFilter acquaintances on Sunday night and to hang out with other farflung friends over the course of the next week. Here are some tips for contacting me and so on during the con.


: Looking Forward To: I'm trying to note down some things I am looking forward to, and that don't make me want to hyperventilate and hide because they are attached to obligations I have not yet discharged. (Like: I enjoy biking, but it is also a chore I need to do. I will be happy when people enjoy the art/comedy performances at PyCon and WisCon, but also there's backlogged stuff I need to do for those to be successful. And so on.)

Someday Vikram Seth will finish A Suitable Girl and I will get to read it. And someday Rosemary Kirstein will finish the next Steerswoman book and I will get to read it.

I have a ticket to a Crazy Ex-Girlfriend live show next month.

In May when I travel to PyCon and WisCon I'll get to see some friends I don't usually see.

I have faith I will find more things to put on this list. I look forward to finding them.

Filed under:


: Rabbit Hole Interview(s): Recently, the Rabbit Hole developers' podcast interviewed me; we discussed open source sustainability, maintainership, sensationalism among bards who sang the Odyssey, how PyPI is like Wikipedia, and what we think is paranoid.

The interview continued into a second episode discussing PyCon and The Art of Python, my past talks and plays, Halt and Catch Fire, what conferences are for, and the feeling of giving a bad talk.

Thanks to Stride for providing rough transcripts along with the audio!

A listener punned on my username ("brainwane") to tell me, "loved your perspective and insight on the podcast ... for me, it was 'braingain'". Awww!

We recorded these episodes on 27 February. The 7:17-08:06 segment of the first one proved prescient:

David:... NPM does an audit of the packages and says, okay, like, "this version is flagged with a known vulnerability, you should upgrade this." And it will just hammer you with that [unintelligible], infinitely, until you handle it. But like, you know, that’s also a form of open source software, that we’re depending on to nudge us.

Sumana: Right, and then the question of, again, sustainability, of like, well, is NPM, as a venture-backed thing, right..... You stay in this industry long enough and VC sounds like a dangerous term for anything you’re actually going to depend on.

David: Yeah, like the idea of something like PyPI going away. Like, I don't know what I would do? I would just have to find all of the binaries on a website? And like host my own... thing? Or...?

Stride released this episode on 19 March. On 22 March, surprising staff and at least this observer, npm laid off a number of workers on its open source team.

Please note that you can make a one-time or recurring donation of any amount to the Python Software Foundation that specifically supports PyPI and related packaging and distribution work (disclaimer: the PSF currently pays Changeset Consulting to work on PyPI and packaging), and that your org can sponsor the PSF for as little as USD$500 per year. And I am, as always, speaking here entirely for myself and not for any of my clients or colleagues.


: 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.


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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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