Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

30 Jun 2014, 12:32 p.m.

A Passel of Feelings And Thoughts Upon Returning

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2014 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

A little over five years ago, I went to my first WisCon. I've now returned home from AdaCamp combined with another Open Source Bridge, a.k.a. the WisCon of open source. Every time I go to one of these, I see someone (example) rearranging their conceptual map to accommodate the knowledge that this thing is possible. Now I have the teacher's privilege of seeing new participants glow with new joy, finding these places. And though the "this is so amazing I can't even" feelings and thoughts no longer shoot off faster than I can track, I still make connections and hear or think things that I need to process.

Some things I thought about, and you know it's my blog because they're in a big unstructured list:

  • My talks: A Few Python Tips (notes) and The Outreach Program for Women: what works & what's next (notes). And I led two unconference sessions, on classism in open source and tech and the future of OPW-like programs. I didn't propose any AdaCamp sessions, but facilitated one on GitHub alternatives.
  • My intern, Frances Hocutt, gave the final keynote at OSB, on leadership (description). I found it moving and thought-provoking, and feel pride.
  • Open Source Bridge featured twelve talks on Wikimedia/wiki-related topics. I am trying to work out what effect this has. I want to know how much our presentations and presence help OSB attendees and the open stuff community as a whole, and how much wisdom and inspiration OSB gives to Wikimedians. I've been speaking at Bridge for five years and each year Wikimedian participation has grown. Next year I may change it up, perhaps by letting other people represent Wikimedia at OSB, and going to the Allied Media Conference instead (it's often in June, close enough to OSB that I can't go to both and be happy).
  • I showed some folks the newish Draft Articles feature on English Wikipedia and they loved it. I filed a Draft-related bug that the product manager has already responded to.
  • I met a stranger who reads my blog. Hi!
  • I now take alcohol wipes with me on air travel and use them to sanitize the hard bits of airplane seats (armrests, tray tables) when I sit down. So their ephemeral smell is now part of my travel ritual.
  • "Do you have your laptop with you? I can show [thing] to you right now" feels like magic to say.
  • Now that I've been working for Wikimedia Foundation for more than three years, my stories of Cody's Books, Salon, Fog Creek, Behavior, and Collabora feel so distant. I was literally telling some of those stories around a fireplace a few nights ago, and listening to an explanation of the begats of Helix and Ximian and Novell; it's so primal, doing that. There is so much lore. Perhaps the most urgency I feel is the urgency of distilling down what I learned through anxious years and conveying it to the new arrivals, making sure they know what is possible, how the rivalries started, how to get things done, whom to trust, our jokes, our pain.
  • I continue to betray my stewardship of this planet and my responsibility to my fellow beings. I flew to and from the West Coast, I ate a lot of non-vegan food probably grown under exploitative labor practices, I took a bunch of cabs when with a little more planning I could have taken public transit, I used proprietary software like Twitter on probably sweatshop hardware, and it just keeps going, complicity and complicity piled upon complicity within complicity inside complicity, more and different and same. And then there are all the directly interpersonal betrayals, forgetting to set up one meeting, forgetting to attend another, not spending enough work time with my mentee, being an even worse email and SMS correspondent than usual. And it does not really reassure me that I am practically a Jain compared to some people, or that even thinking about these failings implies that I at least have some integrity to start with. I know that "voluntarily-chosen constraints are the source of creativity" - that is kind of how marriage works, for instance. But what about the constraints we didn't choose? Orwell had to process that whininess too: "I wasn't born for an age like this". I used to only admire the hacks that seemed arty and harmless, like "making a game" of tedious work to soak up cognitive surplus. Then I lived longer, and found I could understand people who dropped out, cheated, hustled, broke the law, fought back, broke out the guillotine (thanks to Skud for showing me that video). Sometimes they were right. How do you know if you're Huck Finn and you should rip up the letter and decide to go to hell? Or even what that letter is, in your life? I was never Yudhisthira, though I thought I was. My chariot never floated a handspan above the ground. I was always complicit. It turns out you don't have to sign up for any particular club in order to be capable of betrayal. It's a cold comfort that my regret -- my grief, really, over the delusion that I Am Good -- says that at least I'm trying to do right. It's a cold comfort knowing that one actually can go on looking at one's face in the mirror, that it looks the same, that everyone else is navigating the same muck and mire that I am, that ....
  • Okay, while writing that, I looked up Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts" and came across an attempting-to-be-chummy analysis (excerpt: "Aw, Auden. You're such a rebel!"). Now I am laughing and everything's better. Despite everything, it remains possible for me to incandesce with joy at a good knock-knock joke, or at the Quaker Cop mythos Leonard and I are developing ("You have the right to remain silent .... in meeting!"), or at Matthew's reinterpretation of the Yaksha Prashna as a Silicon Valley job interview (why did the other four brothers die? "Poor cultural fit."). Incidentally, from my comic book memory of the Mahabharata, I always remembered the riddle as "What's heavier than a mountain? Debt" but online sources say "One's mother is heavier than the earth; one's father is higher than the mountains" which just seems like a centuries-old Yo Mama joke and less ringingly true besides.
  • This year at AdaCamp I attempted to be "laid-back" and tried out what it's like to not propose sessions specific to my interests. Now I know that such a course of action will lead to me feeling less engaged, and I'll be my usual pushy self at future unconferences.
  • People really appreciated "Entry Level", the zine/reader on class issues, and the opportunity to talk about how class and classism have affected them.
  • I groaned and laughed and shouted and generally talked more in those eight days than I usually do over eight days and now my throat is sore.
  • Talked with Skud about how the difference between self-care and slacking off is intentionality. But then, intentionality requires a decision, which causes decision fatigue? Noooooooo
  • It was so nice to pair program with Coral and do a small manageable technical task.
  • I can read body language now better than I ever could before, and it's often depressing. Because now I can tell better when people are uncomfortable or bored. Breaking news: it turns out that obliviousness helps build confidence (yet another point in the "everything is a skill and thus learnable yet subject to Dunning-Kruger" constellation).
  • I think the most rewarding thing about these conferences, for me, is some mix of the I've-been-there-too commiserating and solution-sketching, making people laugh, laughing at new inside jokes, literally seeing things in a new light, deepening my relationships with people important to me, and passing on the stuff I've learned. I am drawn to people with curiosity, a work ethic, compassion, and integrity (well, as much as anyone can have in this fallen world), and it nourishes me to see those characteristics in the little decisions they make in front of me.
Future Sumana, I hope you can make something out of this jumble. The light is clear outside and I can hear a bird calling. I am loved and cherished, and I hope you are too.


30 Jun 2014, 13:17 p.m.

FWIW, I've figured out my definition of "slack" (the term I am currently using in my time tracker). It's time you basically regret having spent. I used a lot of it yesterday in airports.

Example: In answer to the question "what did you do this afternoon", "I just kept staring at Twitter and hitting reload and there wasn't even anything interesting" is slack. Using Twitter because it's social, because you are learning things, or because you really need to see some cat pictures for self-care is not slack.

02 Jul 2014, 14:41 p.m.

1) Yay, you pair programmed with Coral!

2) I often wonder if obliviousness is a prerequisite to the code pipeline as presently constructed. You need to be oblivious to social rules or trolling to wander into so many spaces and actually speak up. And if you're any kind of minority, maybe you need to be oblivious to that, too - or at least oblivious to how strong the stereotype of "coders" is, how you get differently treated.

A pipeline that requires obliviousness...well, it ends up with the kind of culture you'd expect, doesn't it.