Cogito, Ergo Sumana
Sumana oscillates between focus and opportunity

: 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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(0) : 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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: Testing, Testing: Billboard-style ad for Vimeo: 'Turn soul-crushing feedback into organized soul-crushing feedback.'When I was in high school, a zillion years ago, I got reallllly good scores on the SAT I* and the PSAT (which played the Silver Surfer to the SAT's Galactus). I was good at taking standardized tests. I was the kind of completionist perfectionist who was disappointed at getting, like, a 1570 out of 1600 when I took the SAT. I believe it was Mateo who told me**: the upper reaches of SAT scores, between about 1450 and 1600, are essentially a matter of luck, volatile variation that it's practically impossible for the test-taker to control.

I was catching up with an old colleague last month and mentioned that I've been thinking a lot, in the last few years, about assessments, about how we assess our own and each other's skill and knowledge. And he was curious about what's prompted that. I talked a bit about how we form ambition -- to learn something and to have that mastery validated by people whose judgment we trust -- and how we don't have good ways to check our own skill levels in programming, so the job market ends up fulfilling that role (badly). And about summative and formative assessment, and how it can be hard to really make a space for truly formative assessment. And I didn't get around to talking about the function of public awards in these systems but that's connected too. And we got to talking about performance evaluation cycles at workplaces, and how working with superlative colleagues can mean always feeling behind.

Candlemaking items on countertop: three cylindrical metal molds filled with hot reddish wax, a wax-encrusted tray and spoon, and molten wax in pots atop a burner.And I meant to joke about Quantified Self-Loathing, about how it's now easier than it's ever been to constantly compare your own work to that of the best people in your field. Lyndsey once joked with me: "'Oh look, this person made 36% more commits than you did last month.' The problem isn't Quantified Self, it's Quantified Other People's Selves."

But -- I realize, looking back -- of course I want to dig into how we test. Because the particular kind of scaling-up of human interaction our civilization has chosen demands constant pseudo-objective assessments: star ratings, application processes, credit scores, engagement metrics. Precarity and austerity and the gig economy factor in; one's not told that one could not possibly get what one wants, but that one failed a test that others passed. And panopticon-style surveillance adds the layer of other unaccountable assessors, whose criteria and even whose identities are opaque. And, by living my ordinarily life, I am complicit in becoming endless statistics; my own actions get added to this soup and used to judge others.

Candlemaking items on countertop: pots on a burner, molds in tray, and an orange candle on a napkin, wick still tied to stabilization stick.To be at home, to be at ease, is to be in a place where -- ideally -- no one is assessing you, judging you. Second-best is to be in a place where they're judging you, but fairly, by rules you know and can follow.

The word I haven't used yet here is "anxiety".

I visited the Bay Area late last year and caught up with some old friends. It turns out a few of them are rich now. I mean, not "my escape plan for the coming climate refugee crisis involves an island" rich as far as I know, but "worked at the right place at the right time and acquired the right stocks" rich. And then there are some folks, just as talented, who did not. There's a reason they call it "winning the startup lottery."

I only bought a few tickets to the startup lottery, and I did not win, and I stopped playing. Financially I am better off than a LOT of people. But I feel that same multidimensional vertigo that probably a lot of my readers feel:

  • class mobility disorientation stemming from the dissonance between childhood and now
  • class consciousness stemming from the delta in financial stability between me, now, and most of the people I pass on the sidewalk every day
  • class consciousness stemming from the delta in financial security between me, now, and the rich people I run into via work and my social circles
  • existential uncertainty about the future of all of humanity, making all "investing for the long term" financial decisions suspect***

White man holding matchbox in one hand and using a match to light a candle in the other.The disorientation of travel can actually be a relief sometimes, when it matches an inner antsiness. This past weekend Leonard and I went on a tiny vacation to see a few friends -- Mike in Cleveland, then the Zack-and-Pam household in Pittsburgh. We've known Zack Weinberg (now Doctor Zachary Weinberg!) for ages, starting back when we all lived in the Bay Area. Sunday afternoon it was super cold out, so we got out Zack's candlemaking supplies and I learned a bit about how the whole process works -- I'd seen the implements and read his candlemaking tribulation blog posts back in the early 2000s but this was the first time I'd helped with the whole process, start to finish.

Zack showed me how to measure and cut wicks, thread them into the molds, and secure them. The bit that seems like the top at first, where you pour the wax, ends up being the bottom of the finished candle. We melted a block of whitish/clear paraffin in a bain Marie. We had bits of dye we could put in -- red, yellow, green, and blue, I think. What color did we want to make? Orange, I suggested. So we put in bits of yellow and red dye. The hot, molten wax is translucent, practically transparent; to test the color you have to spoon a bit out and drip it onto a surface, and let it cool. And then, to replicate a bit of the thickness of a real candle, you drip a bit more on and let it cool, so the light has to refract through more of the solid wax. The pinkish hue was fine for a pretty sunset or a dessert, but it wasn't quite the orange we wanted, so we added more yellow, and more, and saw the test drips iterate through shades of salmon. OK, we figured, orangey orange wasn't going to happen, we'd have some nice rosy candles.

Two of the three molds leaked and leaked and leaked -- the hole for the wick loves to let hot wax out, especially when a first-timer like me pours the wax in a bunch of stutters instead of one fluid motion. Repour, watch, see a leak, pour/scrape the wax back into the pot, repeat. It turned out we didn't quite have enough wax for the three forms, so we stirred in a few handfuls of crumbled uncolored soy wax. Finally we made an icewater bath in a tray and set the tray of cooling molds in there, which slowed the leaks down so the wax had time to harden before it could escape.

Close-up of a hand lighting an orange candle.And then when we slid the cooled candles out of their molds -- orange after all! You have to wait to find out what you'll get.

We briefly lit the small one, the one Pam and Zack gave Leonard and me to take with us. We joked that we were obeying the "Plea from the Author" of the candlemaking book Zack had on his shelf, which I'd skimmed during the melting-waits and cooling-waits. In The Candlemaker's Companion: A complete guide to rolling, pouring, dipping, and decorating your own candles, Betty Oppenheimer writes:

Please, please, please, burn candles! Too many people save them, look at them, fondle them, keep them wrapped up in a drawer or forever in the same centerpiece holder, never to be burned.

It breaks my heart....

On a practical level, you will need to burn your candles to test the compatibility of your wax and wick. The more you burn, the less painful it will be to see your work go up in flames, and the more you will appreciate the fruits of your labor....

...Lead by example, and burn your work!

We lit the candle to test it, to check the ratio of the molten wax pool to the diameter of the pillar, but also just because a candle is meant to be inflamed. And because it's a rich warm quiet moment, to silently watch the flame on a candle you made with friends you've known since before you were quite you.


* "However, in 1997, the College Board announced that the SAT could not properly be called the Scholastic Assessment Test, and that the letters SAT did not stand for anything." Whenever I hear about an initialism giving up the words it used to be based on I remember that old saying: if you don't stand for anything you'll fall for everything!

** In the editing room in IA7, probably, loading edited stories onto the big Mac to flow into Quark XPress. He and I co-edited the high school paper's opinion page together and talked about X-Files. Now we're both in the tech industry and we're both Recurse Center alumni. I still marvel that we ran into each other again.

*** And of course that last one is on a whole other level. Everything else, I at least theoretically know how to deal with: meditation, activism, keeping a varied friend group, and so on. Climate change grief -- "This civilisation is finished: So what is to be done?" -- pervades, and "Its severity and urgency and the sheer evil of how we are sliding into it demand that we tear our lives up to try to stop or at least slow it down." And I am a coward about this, and this footnote is part of me trying to talk about it so I become a bit less of a coward.

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: GSoC/Outreachy Mentoring Orgs: Consider Giving Applicants English Tutoring: Google Summer of Code just announced the 207 mentoring organizations (open source projects seeking participants) for this year's round, and Outreachy's 9 mentoring orgs also announced open internship projects.

This blog post is directed at org admins and mentors for those projects.

Many of your applicants are not fluent English writers. You have probably already experienced this, but stats back me up: Last year, GSoC had 5,199 applicants from 101 countries, many of which are not countries where English is a major medium of instruction. And nearly all the schools in the top ten were engineering schools in India, and Indian engineering schools do not teach students how to write in English at what the open source world considers a professional level. That lack of communication skills hurts your applicants as engineers, and as potential open source contributors in the long run.

I was an org admin for several years and saw, over and over, how many of our applicants had a hard time getting help and getting their ideas across because of poor writing skills. Mentors reviewed code and helped them become better coders, but weren't giving the same kind of systematic feedback about emails, bug reports, and so on, so applicants' writing skills stagnated.

In 2017, to address this, I ran English tutoring sessions for Zulip contributors. You can do this too.

Here's the call for volunteer tutors I used. Note that I explained my request in terms of global diversity and inclusion, reassured them that I'd set them up in the chatroom and be available to backchannel with them, and said "It's fine if you've never done this before and it's fine if you're not a programmer and don't know programming jargon." I circulated this request in scifi fandom, in particular in the fanfic community, which has tens of thousands of people who enjoy volunteering to proofread each other's written work and chatting online. A big source of volunteers was the Radio Free Monday weekly fandom newsletter (6 March 2017). I got 30 volunteers and was able to schedule 15 of them to tutor, and several of those volunteers were willing to do multiple 90-minute sessions.

Here's the announcement email I sent to our GSoC applicant mailing list.

We ran the tutoring sessions in the "learning" channel of our Zulip chat so it was easy to paste in links, explain proper formatting, and put side conversations in another thread. Here's the Dropbox Paper shared signup sheet where I kept the schedule and instructions for learners and tutors (basically: learners show up with a short written sample and with some thoughts about how they want to improve, and tutors take 30 minutes to critique each sample). The signup sheet format was, for example:

​​​Date & time: Sunday, March 19th, 1:00-2:30 PM ET (10:30 PM-12 AM in India) ​​
Host: Teresa
​​Cohost: Sumana
​​Channel: https://chat.zulip.org/#narrow/stream/learning/topic/English.20tutoring
​​Learners:
  1. Ayush
  2. Hari
  3. Italo

If only one person signed up for a session, that person got help for 45-60 minutes. Or, sometimes, we got drop-ins as other contributors got curious and realized they could ask for help on their blog posts or GSoC applications as well. After I got each tutor settled in I didn't have to pay attention for the whole 90 minutes, so I could do other Zulip work and check in occasionally -- and eventually other Zulip contributors helped out by "cohosting" so sessions could happen without me.

We ran about 20 sessions, and about 40 contributors got tutoring. They wrote better internship applications, blog posts, bug reports, code comments, pull requests, and mailing list posts because of what they learned in these sessions -- and they were so grateful for even 30 minutes of in-depth advice, because some of them had never gotten friendly, personal critique of their written English from a fluent speaker before.

So please copy me! And if several people tell me their projects are doing this, I'll help publicize your efforts together. There are a lot of fluent English writers with free time and an internet connection who would love to help the open source community in this way. Like Wikipedia, we can turn "Someone is WRONG on the Internet" into a good thing. :-)


: API Copyrightability Law Brings (Many of) Us Together: 'You Wouldn't Reimplement An API' in grungy typeface So you know that moment partway through a movie where heroes team up and stride toward the camera in slow motion while epic music plays?

The Python Software Foundation's counsel, Van Lindberg, writes: @ThePSF and @tidelift just filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to grant cert in Oracle v. Google. This case is central to the future of free and open source software. http://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/18/18-956/89548/20190225155816527_18-956%20Amici%20Brief%20Python.pdf

Tidelift cofounder Luis Villa notes: More on this tomorrow, but very excited to join @ThePSF in this. At @tidelift we believe in growing the pie, not fighting over the scraps, and the ability to reuse and reimplement APIs is part of how the software industry has grown (and hopefully will continue to grow!)

(Amicus/amici curiae briefs always remind me of a cartoon Seth Schoen drew.)

From the brief:

The Federal Circuit's decisions are so destabilizing because they upset the settled expectations of thousands of software developers -- and particularly open source software licensees -- across all aspects of the economy.

Yup -- one reason the docket has so many other amici briefs. As far as I can tell, all of them are in favor of the Court granting certiorari.


: Interesting University Press Ebooks via NYPL: Hey New York Public Library patrons!

Today I looked at NYPL's "E-Book Central" and discovered University Press Scholarship Online. Click "Connect to database" and enter your NYPL barcode number and PIN, and you can read a bunch of books from university presses for free in your browser (or, if you accept certain additional terms, download PDFs chapter-by-chapter)!

Most of the university press books I looked for weren't in there, but I definitely saw some interesting titles, such as:

  • MIT Press: Obfuscation: A User's Guide for Privacy and Protest by Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum, about "the production of noise modeled on an existing signal in order to make a collection of data more ambiguous, confusing, harder to exploit, more difficult to act on, and therefore less valuable" -- and the chapter "Closer to the Metal" by Finn Brunton and Gabriella Coleman, in Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society (I met Finn a zillion years ago and always find his writing interesting)
  • again MIT Press: The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise by Nathan L. Ensmenger
  • University Press of Mississippi: Time in Television Narrative: Exploring Temporality in Twenty-First-Century Programming, edited by Melissa Ames, about how a bunch of shows "rely upon temporal and narrative experimentation" (The Wire, Damages, Lost, Arrested Development, it goes on and on)
  • Oxford University Press: Bipolar Identity: Region, Nation and the Kannada Language Film by M.K. Raghavendra
  • Princeton University Press: The Golden Ticket: P, NP, and the Search for the Impossible by Lance Fortnow
  • MIT Press: Venture Labor: Work and the Burden of Risk in Innovative Industries by Gina Neff
  • Edinburgh University Press: Masculinity and Popular Television by Rebecca Feasey
  • From University of Chicago Press, two books I noticed because Harry Brighouse (author at Crooked Timber) coedited or coauthored them: The Aims of Higher Education: Problems of Morality and Justice and Educational Goods: Values, Evidence, and Decision-Making
  • Oxford University Press: Echoes of Mutiny: Race, Surveillance, and Indian Anticolonialism in North America by Seema Sohi, which I first heard about when reading about the history of anti-Asian racism in the US and South Africa and British surveillance of South Asians in the United States who advocated Indian independence in SAADA.

(You may be eligible for an NYPL card even if you don't know it yet: "Any person who lives, works, attends school or pays property taxes in New York State is eligible to receive a New York Public Library card free of charge.")

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: Tropes, and Missing Stories, in Art about Programming: two snowflakes made out of gold paper"The Art of Python", the one-night arts festival about your experience of programming, is still open for proposals, till February 28th.

What experiences do we want to explore? We want variety -- because there are so many experiences we don't usually see! I hope we get a range of tones -- humor, awe, melancholy, anger, joy, and so on. And I'm curious about ones we often don't discuss factually in public, because they're embarrassing or because we have non-disclosure agreements.

But also: there are so many missing stories -- even when movies, shows, books, plays, songs, etc. include programmers/programming, I so rarely find that they speak to the joys and sorrows of our experiences.

I listed, as inspirations, some of the ones that get it right, and asked for prior art. But -- admitting that I'm nearly entirely limited to English-language media -- I'm taking a moment here to reflect more deeply on what we usually get, and don't, in mass-media art about programming.

Movies and TV shows: There are a ton of movies that get the Internet hilariously wrong, and movies/shows "about programmers" are often much more about spies or tycoons. We tell a lot of dramatic stories about penetrative hacking and hockey-stick startups, and then a few workplace comedies like Dweebs, The IT Crowd, and Silicon Valley. I never saw Code Monkeys, which may have resonated more.

Halt and Catch Fire, which I enjoyed, is the only TV show I know of that is realistic about programming and its social and economic context. An important relationship starts, and is repaired, when people help each other recover from data loss. People who think that just making good hardware/code is enough for a good career find that, unless you pay attention to intrapersonal, interpersonal, organizational, economic, and social issues, you might still be able to make a living, but your work is far more likely to go into the trashbin where no one will ever use it. And: so many office/work shows are basically about people who do the same jobs for a super long time. Halt and Catch Fire reflects the reality of how you run into the same people over and over in different companies and jobs and configurations, teammate, boss, investor, competitor, family, conference co-panellist, and you bring your past to it but you can also grow, especially thanks to the healing power of making stuff together.

several snowflakes made out of gold paperWritten fiction: I know of no novel-about-programming as magnificent as Ellen Ullman's amazing 2003 debugging detective novel The Bug. One of its point-of-view characters is already a programmer when the story starts, and The Bug helps us understand Ethan's bug-hunting fugues, obsession, anxiety, and volatile bounces between certainty and insecurity:

Step, step, step.

Some part of him knew that he should get away from the debugger. He should get away from the machine, stop and think on a yellow pad, a whiteboard. He wasn't making headway like this. He kept beating against the same certainties--here, else here, else here. Writing and sketching might break his thinking patterns, force him into other channels. But there was something seductive about the debugger: the way it answered him, tirelessly, consistently. Such a tight loop: Step, he said. Line of code, it answered. Step, line of code; step, line of code. It was like the compulsion of playing solitaire: simple, repetitive, working toward a goal that was sure to be attained in just one more hand, just one more, and then one more again.

And so the paradox: The more the debugger remained the tireless binary companion it was designed to be--answering, answering, answering without hesitation or effort late into the night--the more exhausted and hesitant the human, Ethan Levin, found himself to be. He was sinking to the debugger's level. Thinking like it. Asking only the questions it could answer. All the while he suffered what the debugger did not have to endure: the pains of the body, the tingling wrists and fingers, the stiffness in the neck, the aching back, the numb legs. And worse, the messy wet chemistry of the emotions, the waves of anxiety that washed across him, and then, without warning, the sudden electric spikes of panic.

The other is Berta, an academic-turned-tester-turned-programmer who looks back on the mystery -- and on her journey towards greater engineering skill -- with the wisdom of decades in the industry.

There might have been a hundred better ways to talk to a computer, but Ethan Levin had copied the Mac, which had copied the Xerox Star, which was later copied by Microsoft Windows. Who knew our mistakes would prove so durable? ....

And that was it: a tester found a bug, a programmer ignored a tester, a bug report went to the top of a pile on a programmer's messy desk -- nothing could have been more normal than what had just happened.

The Bug is Ullman's attempt to write "a historical, technical, Gothic mystery" about the debugging process, and I think it's terrific, and not nearly enough people in our industry have read it, and I urge you to do your bit to change that.

Music: MC Frontalot and Dilbert and Jonathan Coulton used to mean a lot to me. I am literally in the documentary about Frontalot. On reflection, a lot of Dilbert is generally about corporate office work, and a bit of it (such as "I'm gonna write me a new minivan!") is particularly tech-specific. Frontalot and Coulton sing a lot about being nerds, but somewhat less about being nerds who make technology. (Some of Coulton's work that's applicable: "Code Monkey" of course, and "A Laptop Like You", "Robots.txt", and "The Future Soon" -- often ruefully discussing alienation and the way we sublimate our anxieties into our making.)

And Barcelona still holds up in depicting the way that computers can feel like friends, how we make software that feels like a companion, how we make friends across networks and then use those same networks to get back at them ("I Have The Password To Your Shell Account"), how dreary the troubleshooting treadmill feels ("Bugs Bugs Bugs"). Paul Morris talked with me about how some of Radiohead's work gets at the narrowing-field-of-vision experience of being deep in a debugging session, with the long droney periods punctuated by surprises.

Comics: And there's a whole huge conversation I probably need to find about programmer narratives as told in webcomics over the past 20 years. Randall Munroe's tagline for xkcd is "A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language." and that attention to emotion ("romance") is part of the secret of its success. Ryan North's progression from Dinosaur Comics to Marvel's The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl -- which is partially about studying CS and using programming to solve problems -- succeeds at illuminating programmer experiences in ways that literature researchers have probably studied!

Stand-up comedy: I think the only major stand-up comic who ever talks about anything close to programming is Brian Malow, who jokes much more about physical and biological sciences.

several snowflakes made out of gold paper, plus some scrap gold paper, plus a purple ribbonWhat I want: We put several ideas in this part of the play creation guide. But also, I'd love art about, for instance:

I asked Siderea, a programmer-turned-psychotherapist whose essays I enjoy, what stories art about programming often misses, and what experiences she'd like to see reflected in art:

I would like to see art about programmers dealing with the things that can suck about being a programmer:
  • Programmers dealing with unreasonable, deceitful, and manipulative management, in the ways which are specific to "overtime exempt" programmers (i.e. if you are not willing to work 120-hour weeks, you aren't really a team player)
  • Programmers who are minorities dealing with broism
  • Programmers realizing that what they're working on is immoral or illegal, and deciding what to do about it; programmers not realizing the moral/legal implications of what they're working on until too late
  • Programmers dealing with difficulties without help because non-programmers don't even understand what the programmer is trying to say
  • Programmers dealing with the stresses of writing life-impacting code (e.g. embedded systems in vehicles, medication administration systems, etc.), especially in the situation of being without managerial support for adequate QA.
  • I would add something about work assignments and junior or unpopular people getting tasked to do awful or impossible tasks. Coding equivalents of Augean Stables. "Oh, we don't really have a role for you any more, so, uh, why don't you refactor this core business system for the web written in C with FORTRAN plug-ins by the most disgruntled employee we ever had."
  • Ooh, here's a thing: I'd like to see art about programmers not working in software development companies. In particular, about the (sometimes disturbing) things programmers learn about other industries when they take jobs, e.g. at insurance companies, in health care systems, with the government, in the space program, etc.
Sumana doing stand-up comedy in a cafe, in front of a few attendees, several years ago So please take a look at "The Art of Python", the one-night arts festival about your experience of programming, and consider proposing your art before February 28th. (And you can submit performance-style art to !!Con by March 3rd.)

And if you blog somewhere about what tropes you see in art about making technology, let me know and maybe I'll add those links to this post!


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