# 05 Dec 2018, 05:41PM: The US Midterm Elections, One Month Later:
I made phone calls and I canvassed in person for some candidates and a ballot measure.
Leonard and I gave money to some candidates and I successfully encouraged a friend to do the same.
On election night, a month ago, we avoided the news; we went to a play ("Sakina's Restaurant" which is like a documentary as far as the emotional dynamics of many Indian immigrant families), then came home and watched a bit of Forged in Fire, and then we went to bed.
And the next day I was so relieved. Retaking control of the House of Representatives, and sweeping so many state and local races, is not only a logistical win, it's a morale boost for me. I feel more supported and protected by my fellow citizens. I catalogued a few wins that feel particularly meaningful in this MetaFilter comment (including an aspect of Tim Kaine's re-election to the US Senate from Virginia that I didn't see anyone else noticing).
None of the causes I did leg/phone work for won. A few candidates we financially supported did win. And we were a part of the success -- the Blue Wave, some called it, but there's also the underlying fact that most of the United States agrees with the policy stances of the Democratic Party and, when they have a chance to push past voter suppression, expresses that. (Which is one reason that the post-election activism we need to work on includes working on voting reform in every state, particularly Florida.)
Thank you, thank you, thank you to all the people who stepped up, who started and restarted organizations, in the last two years. Swing Left and Indivisible and Run For Something and 5 Calls and other organizing groups and tools, for sure, and local DSA chapters, and independent journalists/commentators/curators as well, like The Weekly Sift, thisfinecrew, Alexandra Erin, Chrysostom, siderea, rydra wong, and so many others. I believe a big story of this election is the not-affiliated-with-the-Democratic-National-Committee community leaders who got their friends, neighbors, workplaces, fandoms, online forums, and classmates informed and activated -- and in some cases got them to run.
And then, Trump ... Rosenstein .... to quote Pervocracy (cache):
Me, 8 AM: I'm so glad the midterms are over! I can finally have a little break from worrying about politics all the time!
Me, 9 PM: crouched on my kitchen floor, checking protest locations, writing "THE PRESIDENT IS NOT A KING" on a giant piece of posterboard
The protests included people chanting RULE OF LAW! RULE OF LAW! which ... I don't disagree! I agree! I am very into the rule of law! I am just disconcerted, because I would like to get to a point where chanting that does not seem vital.
# (1) 30 Nov 2018, 02:28PM: Non-Influencer Fashion Blogging:
I've heard fleece-lined tights could be a game-changer regarding wearing skirts and dresses when it's cold. A friend recommended the Homma brand in particular, since they're footless and since (if you turn them inside out) they are machine-washable.
But the Homma brand/maker doesn't seem to exist in terms of an independent manufacturer or brand of an existing manufacturer that has its own website or catalog somewhere. It might be an Amazon-only brand. Sort of a mystery, and I've used up my Ask MetaFilter question for the week on a request to decipher a handwritten letter from 1792 and translate it from German. I'd welcome insights from Homma wearers regarding non-Amazon vendors!
So the other day I had a spare chunk of time in midtown Manhattan and went to a few shops asking about fleece-lined leggings and tights. Nothing in my size that wasn't made in China, so I'm still low-key seeking fleece-lined leggings/tights/whatever-new-jargon-emerges-in-the-next-week.
On my way home I stopped by the Grand Central holiday market and looked around. No tights, but the Carina Hildebrandt stall did have "joggers". They were very nice when I asked what that word meant (I mentioned that a problem with upward mobility is that you don't know all the right words). It turns out joggers are basically posh sweatpants.
I thought, maybe it is time for me to level up from the old black cotton sweatpants I've had for like 20 years! these are super nice! they have pockets! they're made from alpaca wool! I could take really good care of them and they would last for decades! they would be, like, investment sweatpants!
I asked how much they were, mentally preparing for, like, "$200" or something like that, thinking "well if I literally use them for the rest of my life, I could justify that." Those joggers are 535 United States dollars.
No I am not that rich! I demurred. The vendor mentioned that it was handmade, 100% alpaca wool -- I said, oh, I'm sure it's worth that much, I just can't afford it! Maybe in ten years.
I'm not about to follow the lead of Nicole Cliffe's friend who super loves Brooks Brothers (I found that thread very funny), but I've come to some kind of playful détente with the world of trying-to-look-good clothes? I guess part of that is because of Project Runway and my friendship with Elisa DeCarlo, which helped me see more of what high-end clothes are trying to do, and then knowing Lea Albaugh and seeing how she makes and reads clothes, and a whole bunch of low-stakes thrifting, conversation, and so on in between. And having more money makes it easier to try more expensive stuff, and the longer I live, the more I see how durability pays off. In retrospect this feels kind of like how I grew to enjoy wine.
It's interesting to look back on the time I spent over the past year seeking out a winter coat, especially in contrast to my approach last decade. Back in my mid-twenties when I was about to move to NYC, saying goodbye to Bay Area friends, my friend Claudia asked whether I already had a winter coat. I gestured to some kind of light cotton jacket I had on to protect against the mild late-December chill. Claudia, who had lived in Boston, went to her closet, took out a shiny puffy waist-length H&M coat, and handed it to me. And that was an excellent move and I used that for years. I wanted something longer, so at some point I hit an army surplus store and bought a long blue Canadian army surplus? coat that was a little too big for me. I gave it to a Recurse Center friend during our fall 2013 batch, depriving my spouse of the opportunity to call me Colonel Sumana.
Last winter I decided that I'd like a formal-looking (so, probably wool) warm winter coat, with a lot of leg coverage (mid-calf or so) and big pockets for my hands/gloves/phone. I bookmarked dozens of coats online and learned that the word I wanted to describe my desired length was "maxi" and that well-made maxi wool coats cost hundreds of dollars at least. I went to try things on at Nordstrom Rack, but a lot of off-the-rack stuff fit weird, in terms of shoulder and chest. I asked friends: Where in NYC do I go to find a well-made, non-slave-labor coat of this type for under, like, $200? If the answer is "what you want is not available at that price, you need to INVEST and it'll cost at least $400" then I will also accept this answer. I poked around sample sales and thrift stores opportunistically.
And then this past weekend, hanging out with a friend, I went to a vintage shop in my neighborhood and they had about 20 maxi-length coats. My friend told me what looked good, and we agreed that one of them suited me well -- I put it on and looked in the mirror and said this is it!. I got it for about $100 (it was $129 but I got a Small Business Saturday discount). It's a grey mostly-wool coat, 70% wool/15% mohair/15% nylon, and there's a union-made-in-the-USA label on it but no brand label. The owner said she thought it was from the 1980s or 1990s and might have been made by Jones Of New York. It makes me happy to put it on! Although I need to wear a scarf with it till I get a tailor to add a felt lining, because the collar scratches my neck.
A few nights ago, my spouse and I went on a little date and I dressed up a bit. I wore a red knit V-neck dress I got in a shop on Valencia in San Francisco a few years ago -- its material and shape are pretty flattering and forgiving of weight fluctuations -- and a string of pearls my mom gave me, and the new wool coat. We did a crossword puzzle and ate and talked about Steven Universe, Legend of Korra, and She-Ra.
Then we came home and watched a bit of the latest season of Great British Bake-Off. At one point, to cheer up a baker, Noel sketches a cat on their instruction sheet, then adds a speech bubble and writes the f-bomb inside the speech bubble. And the video is not blurred or otherwise redacted! I gasped, scandalized, and my hand flew to my neck in shock. Leonard asked: "Are you literally clutching your pearls?"
So I am not currently in possession of any trousers that only seem inexpensive when compared to $750 palazzo pants from the same vendor, but I am prudish about cuss words on TV and in my blog. I'm upwardly mobile financially, but in case you ever wondered what social class I'm in, I feel like that's a big clue.
Disdisclaimer: as you can probably tell, I received no payments, discounts, subsidies, or gifts from any of the companies mentioned in exchange for this post; indeed, in 2028 when I am able to afford to buy anything from Carina Hildebrandt, I may be required to recant portions of this post as a precondition of purchase. Also, Leonard hasn't seen the new She-Ra. For that part of dinner he mostly listened while I went on about it.
# 19 Nov 2018, 08:23PM: The Fascination Of Municipal Taxation Software:
On January 30, 2018, I attended my local city councilmember's "State of the District" speech. If one of your local officials offers such a speech, I recommend going; it's a structured way to find out what issues they think are important. And Councilmember Constantinides scheduled this one the same night as the US President's State of the Union address, which felt like a welcome alternative.
Among the plans and promises that got public notice, he mentioned a government IT project he wanted New York City to implement. In his address, Constantinides said he was introducing a:
bill that will direct the Department of Finance to create a website where anyone can view their property tax exemption status. Under this new website, property owners would be able to pay their taxes, directly submit questions to the DOF, and view their records. They'd be able to access specific information regarding their properties including applications for exemptions like the Senior Citizen Homeowners' Exemption, status of exemptions, date by which they'd need to apply to renew an exemption, or whether anything has expired in their record. If a property owner's application is rejected, they must tell you why. Property owners will also be able to set up alerts for any changes.
These are simple, common sense things that already exist on other government platforms, and the fact that the Council may have to pass legislation to create this system is very disappointing. But if we're going to ask you to pay substantial sums of your hard earned money to fund the government, the government needs to uphold its end of the bargain and give you all the tools it can to manage your payments.
The proposal caught my attention because I find it inherently interesting (and kind of amusing) when politicians give speeches about web apps. I took the photo because I couldn't remember the last time that a politician, literally giving a speech from a podium near a US flag, presented a functional spec for software he wanted, in bullet points. I'm a project manager and a programmer who has worked on multiple software projects for local governments. Some part of me, for a fraction of a second, saw that bullet list and thought, "OK, that's the scope. How many programmers do I have and what technologies will we be using?" before remembering that this was not my job.
Constantinides mentioned the bill again in a spring newsletter and I dug around a bit. Introduction 0627-2018: "Establishment of an online system to access property tax information and receive notification of changes to property tax exemptions." The Council referred it to the Committee on Finance, which hasn't held any hearings about it yet.
On the one hand, getting the local government to make a web application for property tax stuff makes obvious sense (and other localities, such as Santa Clara County, already do it). Public servants need to help the public, and so much of public service requires software. On the other hand, government IT projects have such a bad reputation. Ten years ago, Dan Davies wrote: "nearly anything new that the government does is going to require an IT element ... government projects tend to only come in one size, 'big', and to very often come in the variety 'failed'." I inhale sharply when I see someone propose a new government IT project, because I instantly foresee manifold hazards.
But we know a bit more than we did ten years ago about how to address those concerns. There's vendor lock-in, which is a big reason to prefer building or reusing open source applications. There's metadata wrangling and legacy application/infrastructure compatibility, and partnering effectively with agency staff -- 18F and the US Digital Service have grown serious capabilities in those areas. There's the challenge of serving everyone, no, seriously, everyone ("government doesn’t always appear to provide a satisfactory solution is because government has to take on the hardest problems") -- and we can incorporate "no, seriously, everyone" into our design processes....
And that last point -- about how government needs to serve everyone gets at perhaps the deepest reason this proposal caught my attention. I used to be incredibly interested in taxation, to the point where I considered following in Dr. Robin Einhorn's footsteps and going into the academy to seriously research tax history. And a big reason is that taxes affect everybody, often noticeably. A resident might be pretty oblivious to all the other ways government activities touch their life, but a ton of taxes impinge on their perception and cause notice -- income taxes, use fees, sales/value taxes, property taxes, payroll taxes, &c.
Taxes are surface areas, user interfaces, where the least-informed user unavoidably comes into contact with your system, and notices it, and (mostly) inherently resents the cost you're imposing on them, and thus finds any friction along the way particularly maddening. This reminds me of something Leonard wrote in 2003:
You can pay your San Francisco parking tickets online. This makes sense, as the general philosophy of the city of San Francisco is to make it easy for you to deal with the arbitrary aggravations they inflict upon you.
And, just like with software interfaces, tax structures have these nasty path-dependent ways of accidentally creating interest groups. Randall Munroe's xkcd #1172 ("Every change breaks someone's workflow") obscurely reminds me of Conversion and the Poll Tax in Early Islam by Daniel Dennett, Jr. -- if you use reduced taxes as an incentive for some behavior, such as conversion to Islam, and then people do that and your tax receipts go down, and then you try to make up for losses by raising taxes on the folks who now feel entitled to a tax break, the interest group you have just created will grumble or rebel.
And maybe this lens helps explain why I bang on about the governance side of maintainership, and how a bug tracker anyone can report issues to is a sign of hospitality and humility and stewardship, and and so on. Every once in a while a stranger calls me a politician. I'm not seeking elected office and I'm only as accountable to my neighbors as they are to me. But I am attuned enough to socially constructed things that I notice and try to work with them, and I try to notice where the resources come from and where they go and who ends up getting taxed, and how.
# 01 Nov 2018, 03:49PM: A Raised Eyebrow and a San Francisco Election:
My new MetaFilter post is about a strange edge case in the San Francisco school board election next week: what does it mean to you for a candidate to really withdraw from a race?
Josephine Zhao got heavy criticism for her past statements, and says she's withdrawn. But -- since she missed the deadline to legally withdraw -- her name's still on the ballot and her supporters are still campaigning for her. What if she wins anyway?
# 29 Oct 2018, 12:32PM: Miscellany:
Life is varied.
I spend some of my spare time trying to do my bit for the election next week. I volunteered at a voter registration drive. I participated in some get-out-the-vote phone banking, and in a few days, I'll spend some of the weekend canvassing in person.
I started rereading Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt, about a middle-aged, Midwestern white guy dealing with ennui. Now that I am middle-aged and have a bunch of middle-aged friends, my reaction is less "ha ha" and more "this is so incisive that I can only read small chunks at a time." Instead I've been blowing my way through:
- Dan Davies's Lying for Money: How Legendary Frauds Reveal the Workings of Our World, which is as informative, funny, and wise as you'd expect from his Crooked Timber posts and personal blog (which I've been reading for more than a decade). I read the UK edition (the US edition comes out next year) because my spouse Leonard is the best and got it for me as a present. Further review forthcoming, I hope.
- A reread of the Mary Sue story I loved as a teen, The Prodigal Daughter by Jeffrey Archer. Thank you, SimplyE and New York Public Library, for making it easier for me to indulge in this big-money-big-politics thriller. This does not hold up well. For instance, in the most "As you know, Bob" expository howler I've seen in years, a campaign manager literally reminds a senator and a vice president that in order to win the Presidency they will have to get at least 270 electoral votes. But as a fantasy of a perceptive, hard-working woman blowing through barriers and achieving stuff, it can be fun popcorn.
- A reread of Erma Bombeck's If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What am I Doing in the Pits?, a 1978 collection of her humor writing. (Again, thanks NYPL & SimplyE!) She was a fantastic writer and had such a gift for the absurd detail, like "she went to a parent-teacher conference alone to be told her son .... was flunking lunch" or "people whose children are overachievers..... don't forget little Kenneth, who gets up during the night to change his own Pampers."
I keep meaning to write here about my work (for four different clients, right now) -- for now I'll merely say, there's a lot to do and I'm glad whenever I make progress.
I discovered Caveat, which seems intent on pandering to my particular demographic (New Yorkers who want funny, cerebral theatrical entertainments for a night out with friends), so if there's an upcoming event there you'd like to attend, consider letting me know and maybe we'll go together?
"I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats" recently released the live episode they recorded in May. What a loving, funny show.
The Good Place continues to thrill and surprise me, and I'm so curious what conclusion Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is intricately skate-dancing toward.
Saturday and yesterday, I helped mentor a bunch of volunteer contributors at a weekend Python packaging sprint sponsored by Bloomberg. I sure do know a lot about Python packaging and Git, compared to people who first ran into those things less than a year ago. Some resources I pointed people to:
On Saturday afternoon I reached out to Jewish friends, and friends in Pittsburgh, to say: I'm thinking of you. I wish you safety.
Have you seen "Warning: Might Lead to Mixed Dancing", a fanvid by seekingferret that celebrates Jewish dancing? You can watch it on Critical Commons and on YouTube. In his commentary he discusses part of the argument he makes in this vid:
Judaism represents this incomprehensible world-wide community united by nothing except our mutual willingness to proclaim, sometimes reluctantly, that we are all Jewish. Jewish dancing occasions like weddings and Bar Mitzvahs are a time when we make that proclamation as a community, when we say that the divisions among us are less important than the bonds between us.
# 25 Oct 2018, 05:53PM: In Memoriam:
Content note: murder.
Terrorism -- in particular, terrorism against people who work to bring freedom and democracy to others* -- is on my mind.
A few days ago was the 150th anniversary of James M. Hinds's death. He was a white Republican in Congress, representing a district in Arkansas, one of the people implementing Reconstruction. He advocated civil rights for formerly enslaved men. On October 22, 1868, he was assassinated, the first sitting member of Congress to be assassinated. Before he died, he identified his attackers. The man who probably killed him -- an officer in the opposing political party, and a Ku Klux Klan member -- was never prosecuted.
Rest in peace, James M. Hinds.
The enemies of democracy do not stop at targeting politicians and donors. Chris Msando was the IT manager in charge of Kenya's computerized voting system for elections in August 2017; the day he was to oversee the public testing of that system, he was found tortured and murdered.
Rest in peace, Chris Msando.
Did you already know this part of US history or this part of the history of the tech industry? I don't think I learned of Representative Hinds when we studied Reconstruction in high school. And I don't think I saw my tech news circles mourning Chris Msando last year. So I am putting a small memorial here, now.
* Technologists who work on liberating their neighbors often face repercussions from their own governments, too. In November 2015, the Syrian authorities secretly executed Syrian open source technologist Bassel Khartabil, after imprisoning him for years. Rest in peace, Bassel Khartabil. Turkey in mid-2017 arrested IT trainers who were teaching people about digital security and privacy. The threat model can get dire.
# 25 Oct 2018, 12:03PM: The Concision-Nuance Tradeoff In One-To-Many Documents:
It's tough to balance the need for concision with the need for spelled-out nuance in factual documents. Dating profiles, CVs, job descriptions, release announcements, grant proposals, values statements, codes of conduct, service notifications, news stories, product labels..... in one-to-many static communications, every member of the audience arrives with slightly different context and varying levels of reading comprehension and patience. And as the "Fresh Fish Sold Here" joke goes, you'll get inconsistent feedback from your critics about whether you've struck the right balance. I have faith that, in every such document category, there exist people with the skill to -- mostly -- design that user experience well. I'm curious to learn more about how to do that, in the document types I write (like emails, blog posts, and conference talks), and how to appreciate it in the documents I consume.
In this BBC News story, "We've developed this new format to try to explain the story to you better." You can select whether you want the short or the long version of an answer to a question like "Where is Xinjiang?" I like it -- not least because it means I can read the summary first, then remember that overview as I go deeper.
What can you communicate in a job description? Detail, transparency, expectations, team, mission -- but designing the reading experience so it doesn't feel overwhelming is its own feat. It's particularly disheartening to try to provide concrete examples of kinds of optional skills the employer values, to inspire a feeling of invitation, and then to find that some applicants read that as an intimidating list of must-haves or buzzwords. I'd like to get better at this and there is probably a class I could take or a framework I could adopt.
If you are a voter in New York City, here's the voting guide for the election on November 6th (you should have received a short paper version in the mail). Here's an overview of the three ballot proposals (I believe each proposal has a one-paragraph explanation that is "The official text of the question as it will appear on your ballot"). For each proposal, the title links to -- the example here is Proposal 2 -- the "plain language summary prepared by the CFB based on official abstracts provided by the CRC" (a few paragraphs) and several individuals' statements, 1-2 paragraphs each, supporting and opposing the proposal, "based on statements ... at CRC public hearings, in the press, and in submissions to the CFB." There are "abstracts" (2-5 pages each) for each proposal that go into more depth on cost, specific rules, edge cases, and so on -- this statement solicitation page links to all of them, here's the abstract for Proposal 2, and here's all of them together.
But what's the context and reasoning for these proposals? Well it comes out of the 2018 New York City Charter Revision Commission which delivered a report, 147 pages long, explaining why they're suggesting these three changes, and what other issues we should consider addressing in the future.
Is that the right balance? Is this a good set of stair-stepped documents giving citizens as much engagement as they want, at the pace they can handle? I don't know. It worked for me and the friend (we spent an hour researching voting choices together), although it was a little harder than I'd have liked to find those links.
I'm a better writer than many, but this is someplace I can improve, and so I'm noodling around thinking about it.