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(2) : Potomac Jokes: When my spouse Leonard was young, his mother told him a joke about President Richard Nixon:

Nixon fell into the Potomac River and was in danger of drowning. A local kid jumped in to save him.

Nixon, grateful, said, "Is there anything I can do for you? A tour of the White House? An official commendation?"

The kid said: "When I die, can you make sure I get buried in Arlington National Cemetery?"

Nixon said: "I think so, but why is that on your mind? You have your whole life ahead of you!"

The kid replied: "But when my mom find out I saved you, she's gonna kill me!"

This is a great joke but it is not specific enough for my taste; it is a joke template into which you could insert the name of any particularly hated President. As a comedian I find it enticingly inadequate to my desires.

Our household owns a copy of a decades-old edition of Scholastic's 101 President Jokes For Kids. I went through it a few days ago and found perhaps 3 Potomac jokes, none of which were particularly funny or felt President-specific.

I do not have time for another project* but it would be neat to try to write a bespoke Potomac joke for each US President. Gerald Ford tripping, fallling into the Potomac, and dealing with a mermaid who's angry at him about the Nixon pardon. Millard Fillmore trying to use the Union Wagon as some sort of amphibious vehicle. I've already come up with one FDR joke and two Biden jokes. Ask me about them if we're chatting. Or share a joke in the comments. Child-friendly, please!


* but I may do it anyway

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: Frances, Thanksgiving, And Potatoes: Because it's World AIDS Day, today I want to tell you a story about Thanksgiving, food, breaking and remaking tradition, and family. Caution: death because of AIDS.

Back in 2005, when my now-spouse Leonard and I lived in San Francisco, one year a bunch of Leonard's family drove north from Bakersfield for Thanksgiving. I was Leonard's girlfriend and they always tried to make me feel welcome at these things.

We were all going to have Thanksgiving at Uncle L's place in SF, hosted by Uncle L and his partner J, another man. Leonard's mom, Frances, was a Mormon, but a feminist one; the fact that her brother was gay was a complete non-issue.

J ran his kitchen and finished cooking and didn't let any of us help; L played Trivial Pursuit with us. And then we sat down to a heaping table of Thanksgiving goodies. Including a kugel J had made! But....

THERE WERE NO POTATOES.

Mashed? Scalloped? Roasted? Fried? Au gratin? Baked-from-frozen tater tots? Zip, nada, zero. No potatoes of any kind.

Of course we had asked ahead of time about what we could bring. Martinelli's apple cider, rolls, dessert maybe. There had been no mention of this fundamental lacuna, this chasm of carbs.

Someone delicately mentioned/asked about the taterlessness, and we were redirected to the kugel. The kugel was fine! But many of us shared a glance.

Frances's contemporaneous blog post does not mince words: "We had a lovely Thanksgiving, but there was no mashed potatoes and gravy, which horrified me."

And on the ride back to Leonard's place, Leonard, his sisters, his mom, and his brother-in-law began to plan the next day's meal. Which would include potatoes. It was early in a new tradition: Backup Thanksgiving.

Leonard delicately wrote (later): "In recent years I made Backup Thanksgiving because I was learning to cook, or because of the absence of certain foods from the official Thanksgiving table." (By now you know what "certain foods" means.)

I'm glad we had both those Thanksgivings with Frances in 2005. That was her last Thanksgiving. She died of AIDS in May 2006. In her last days others took over updating her blog.

Today Leonard made Backup Thanksgiving food, including some fantastic scalloped potatoes. I loved Frances and I miss her. My government's failed at containing a pandemic. So many people Thanksgave apart this year to increase the odds we can come together next year. I'm emotional.

I wish I could tell Frances that I'm writing a book, that the new pip just came out, that Leonard's book got a great review. I wish I could have had more than a few weeks of being her daughter-in-law. She was only 54.

If you broke your traditions this year to keep everyone safer, to reduce the number of people who will feel the way I do fifteen years from now, thank you so much. I hope the Backup Thanksgivings you have in mid-2021 are fantastic and joyous.

Frances saw what was important. The love is essential and the nourishment is essential. I wish you love and nourishment.

(Especially potatoes, if you love potatoes.)

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: Getting Autoconf Unstuck: For most of this year, Zack Weinberg and I have been working on a pretty ambitious project:

  1. to make a fresh release of GNU Autoconf, a crucial free and open source build tool that hadn't had a new release since 2012
  2. to get paid for that
  3. to help put Autoconf on a more sustainable footing so it doesn't have to get rescued again a little while down the road

Autoconf 2.70 is due out this month; if you use Autoconf, check out the 2.69e beta and test it soon since Zack aims to make the release on December 8th.

If you hear "Autoconf" and think "I don't even know what that is or why it is important", you can read my LWN story about the rejuvenation & what's next.

(I am proud that a person said "That's one of the best pieces of technical writing that I've read in a long time." about my article.)

Several companies use/depend on Autoconf internally and would like for Autoconf and the entire Autotools toolchain to get back on track. There's lots of code out there already depending on autoconf. Converting it would be risky and expensive. Plus, competing build systems don't cover all the edge cases Autoconf does. If this makes you nod, check out the 2.69e beta and test it.

But also, the funding we got has run out, so we're trying to get some corporate sponsorship to make 2.71 even better (including building out a robust continuous integration system), and get the project on a sustainable footing. We'd like to:

Even a donation as small as USD $5,000 could help make substantial progress. If you want to directly pay Changeset to work on this, email me and let's talk. Or: the Free Software Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, collects donations on behalf of the GNU Toolchain (see their list of Working Together for Free Software Fund project areas), and your organization can make a tax-deductible donation to the FSF targeted at GNU Toolchain maintenance.

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: Ashwatthama (The Elephant): I read the comic book version of the Mahabharata as a kid (thank you, Amar Chitra Katha!) and many of its stories stayed with me. As I recollected in a newspaper column in 2005:

Yudhisthira is an incredibly virtuous man, and is in fact the son of the god of dharma (righteousness and duty).

Yudhisthira has never spoken a lie. The gods so smile upon him that his chariot floats an inch above the ground, never touching the dust.

But, as the days of war drag on, he knows that he must get a psychological edge on his opponent. So Yudhisthira has an elephant bought and named Ashwattama, the name of his opponent's beloved son. Yudhisthira has the elephant killed so that he can honestly say, with his opponent listening, "Ashwattama is dead."

As planned, this breaks the other warrior's heart, and he recedes from the battle.

But because he lied, Yudhisthira's chariot falls upon the ground, never to float again.

In the comic book version (Issue 36, "The Battle At Midnight", page 29):

battle scene, text in accompanying post

So now, he replied: "Ashwatthama is dead." Adding in an inaudible aside -- "Ashwatthama the elephant." As soon as the lie was uttered Yudhisthira's chariot touched the ground.* [We see Yudhisthira standing in a chariot in the background, and Drona in the foreground, visibly overcome.]

Hearing the news from Yudhisthira, Drona fainted. Dhrishtadyumna rushed toward him. When Drona gained consciousness, he could not gain his earlier strength. Yet he killed Dhrishtadyumna's horses. [We see him take aim at some horses with his bow and arrow.]


* Because of his righteous conduct Yudhisthira's chariot was always four fingers' breadth above the ground.

It surprised me to see this, going back to the comic, because I honestly remembered the speech bubble looking like:

ASHWATTHAMA the elephant IS DEAD.

Anyway, now you know one particular reason why Four Seasons Total Landscaping reverberates inside my being like a perfect joke outside of time.

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: Reflecting on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: The other night I watched two films in a row: Knock Down The House, the documentary about four progressive candidates running to unseat Democratic incumbents in the 2018 US election, and Douglas, Hannah Gadsby's comedy special.

They're both very interesting, and afterwards I read and thought a bunch in particular about what's striking about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's political career.*

Making expectations explicit

In Douglas, Gadsby starts the show with a lengthy table of contents, telling you what she is going to do, saying that she would like for everyone to have their expectations properly set. She calls her shot.

In Knock Down the House I noticed a related thing that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did -- talking explicitly about expectations. When Crowley tried to tie her to scandalous local politician Hiram Monserrate, her retort included an explicit refutation of the de facto way that "women tend to be made responsible for the actions of every man in the room". She brings to light an implicit expectation that underlies the smear, which makes it possible for her to explicitly refuse to meet it.

In this exchange Ocasio-Cortez demonstrates one of the skills that makes her an aspirational figure, a role model for so many marginalized people: live and in the moment, she can notice an unfair or misleading criticism coming her way, refute the specific criticism, and then name and categorize what's illegitimate about the criticism so as to defuse it and get the upper hand (and point out the problem to all watching).

This is such a powerful skill. I see it in Ocasio-Cortez, in Sarah Taber, in Rep. Katie Porter, in Alexandra Erin, in Tressie McMillan Cottom, in siderea, and in some other public intellectuals and activists and politicians (often women) who are unapologetic and sharp in their fast-paced analysis of illegitimate criticism. It's like they don't just deflect the object coming their way, but they also X-ray it and show everyone the schematics so we can build our own shields too.

I don't think I have this skill. I think it really helps to have gone through the school of hard knocks, which they have way more than I have. And it helps to have a ton of practice in fast-paced live oral argument, which I've probably atrophied in recent years since so much of my work is in written conversation.

But, in organic conversation, when conflicts crop up, I think I do a tolerable job of stepping back and asking (to myself or out loud): what mismatch of expectations brought us here? Which is definitely useful.

Analytical and organizing skill

You can watch the part of Knock Down the House where Ocasio-Cortez analyzes the difference between two campaign mailers and predicts their effectiveness. This is an example of the level of skill in analysis and organizing that Ocasio-Cortez brings to her job. Which is less surprising when you remember not only that she was a promising researcher as early as high school, and that she worked as an organizer for the Sanders campaign in 2016 and got a bunch of experience in on-the-ground political work.*** The skill she demonstrates in articulating progressive arguments in compelling ways is not just a general gift of gab; it comes hand-in-hand with wonky behind-the-scenes research and thinking that brought her to those positions, and deep and specific expertise in what disengaged voters need to hear to get them to turn out at the polls.

Ocasio-Cortez's college peers remember her as brilliant and driven, often calling her "the smartest person I know" -- which reminds me of similar phrases frequently popping up in people's recollections of Hillary Rodham. The first time Elizabeth Warren met Hillary Clinton (in May 1998) she had a similar experience.

Back in October 2008 I wrote about Obama's success and noted: "people used to think the Clinton machine was the best there was. But with the right tools, investment in time, and leadership, a networked/egalitarian group will beat a linear, top-down group." Hillary Rodham went to law school instead of taking a job with Saul Alinsky's new training institute. What if she'd leaned harder into the organizing model? I think with Ocasio-Cortez you get a glimpse of what kind of independent political force she might have been.

Beauty

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is conventionally beautiful. She is not only pretty, she frequently deconstructs beauty standards, and she has choice words for haters who think she is only pretty, but, as Tressie McMillan Cottom writes, you need to acknowledge her beauty to understand some of the dynamics around her place in politics:

I believe the right’s attacks on AOC (and a few of the left’s to be honest) are a visceral reaction to their inability to control what they see is her only legitimate source of power.....

We also feel icky about pointing out that someone is attractive and that is a certain kind of power because powerful women make us squeamish. And beauty as power makes us deeply afraid for our own self-worth.

Gadsby would probably agree with something Ocasio-Cortez says in the Vogue video (hat tip to kristi for highlighting it):

Our culture is so predicated on diminishing women and preying on our self-esteem, and so it's quite a radical act - and it's almost like a mini protest - to love yourself in a society that's always telling you you're not the right weight, you're not the right color, you're not the right, you know, whatever it is ... When you stand up and say, 'You know what? You don't make that decision. I make that decision,' it's very powerful. But that doesn’t mean we can't have fun.

Trusting one's own judgment

And, to reinforce that point about figuring out what expectations of you are legitimate, and tying that to authenticity, the Vogue article continues:

Just over two years ago, after defeating a 20-year incumbent and winning what was seen as the biggest upset of the 2018 midterm election primaries, Ocasio-Cortez was thrust into the spotlight at just 28 years old. "I went from working in a restaurant to being on cable news all the time," she recalls. "I initially really struggled with that. At a certain point, I just learned that you cannot get your feelings of beauty and confidence from anyone but yourself ... If I'm going to spend an hour in the morning doing my glam, it's not going to be because I'm afraid of what some Republican photo is going to look like ... It's because I feel like it," she says with a smile. Here, she picks up Fenty Beauty's Contour Stick, which she glides lightly down her cheekbones, over her forehead, and around her jawline. "I'm not trying to change my features or shape-shift -- I'm just trying to accentuate my existing features," she says as she adds a touch of the cream-to-powder pigment to her nose. "I'm not trying to make it look bigger. I'm not trying to make it look smaller ... I'm just trying to show people what I got."

When I get past reticence to advertise my company's services, to realistically say "I am one of the world's experts on [thing]," I too am just trying to show people what I've got. I remember N.K. Jemisin's articulation, for fiction writers:

...care better. I think the shift from extrinsic to intrinsic valuation .... is a fundamental part of the transition from amateur to professional, perhaps even more than pay rates and book deals and awards and such. .... How do you know your judgment of yourself is sound? .... But for pro writers -- and I include aspiring pros along with established ones in this designation -- it's an absolutely necessary transition. Otherwise you spend all your time caring about the wrong things.

The incentives you can see, the appealing and obvious ones, will often try to make you care about the wrong things. This means that integrity comes with inherent discomfort -- but by demonstrating integrity in public you can reduce the difficulty others run into when following your path. We've only gotten to see Ocasio-Cortez's integrity in action for a few years of public service so far. I look forward to seeing who follows her path.


* I have a caveat for Knock Down The House; it seems like the filmmakers made some misleading choices in the sequence of scenes in the NY-14 primary race.

In particular: The film makes it seem like Crowley fails to show up for a candidate forum in the Bronx (instead sending Councilwoman Palma as a surrogate), and then, maybe weeks later, he calls the Ocasio-Cortez campaign and agrees to appear on a TV debate with her. The implication is that her growing popularity, and news attention to his surrogate gaffe, have possibly shamed or scared him into agreeing to a fresh debate.

But in actual fact, the TV debate was on June 15th, and the in-person debate that Crowley skipped was a few days later, on June 18th. Here's the order things happened in, as far as I can reconstruct**:

  1. [not sure when]: Crowley does not attend a debate; this is not shown or mentioned in the film, but here's a tweet about it
  2. May 17th: AOC shows up at a Crowley office to request a debate
  3. May 24th: agreement to a debate on NY1
  4. June 15th: NY1 televised debate
  5. June 18th: Crowley sends a surrogate to an in-person debate in the Bronx; we see this at some length in the film
  6. June 21st: a somewhat quickly organized additional in-person debate (which we see briefly in the film) at the Jackson Heights Jewish Community Center (since Crowley was the chair of Queens's Democratic organization, Ocasio-Cortez wrote: "Not a single local Dem club would host a primary debate (my opponent is their Chairman). These organizers took it upon themselves to host their own."
  7. June 26th: Election Day

This is particularly difficult to reconcile with a bit of audio the filmmaker uses, where Ocasio-Cortez wryly says (just after we are shown footage of a Pride event from June 17th) that Crowley didn't show up to a 100-person event, but now wants to debate her on NY1.

The way I can sort of square the circle is if the filmmakers are using audio recorded before June 15th, and the skipped debate Ocasio-Cortez is referring to is the first debate that Crowley skipped (and which the filmmakers have no footage of).

In any case, the filmmakers are compressing and reordering stuff to strongly imply a particular narrative that is not congruent with the chronological record, and once I come across a discrepancy like this I gotta wonder what else in the film I should question.


** Twitter's advanced search options are helpful here, especially daterange search. Here's a search to get all of Ocasio-Cortez's tweets between May 1st and May 31st of 2018.

As long as I'm talking about the research I ended up doing for this post: Reddit user lpetrich seems to be a solid contributor to the world of AOC fandom. Thank you for your posts, lpetrich!


*** When and how did she choose to run? There's a little confusion on this point. In college she took an interest in politics as an intern for Senator Kennedy but then, as she put it, switched to more work that would have a more direct impact. She never thought she would get back into politics or policy again. So, what's the sequence of her brother nominating her to Brand New Congress, BNC's six-month vetting process, and her deciding to take that nomination? Did she hear from BNC before her road trip, or after?

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: On Realizing There Was Still Some American Exceptionalism Lurking In My Brain: One of the most valuable things I treasure about the Internet is that I can have a glimpse into the lives of people who live a very different life from mine. I regularly read the blogs/journals of people who live in Israel, Singapore, India, the UK, Australia, Malaysia, and more, not to mention other parts of my own country. The people whose lives I follow include clergy, therapists, parents, medical workers, students, lawyers, and more. I attempt to read at least a little by people I disagree with, or I'm not sure I agree with, or who hold jobs that in a better world might not exist; Granola Shotgun, Patrick Skinner (context), and LadyLovesTaft are thought-provoking, entertaining, edifying. And I appreciate getting geographical breadth in my feed.

Because of this mix, some of my info feed includes blogs by people who live in countries that have effectively controlled COVID-19. Reading one of their "what I did this week" posts is like reading a blog by someone who is rich, or by a man going on a long solitary hike as a fun vacation (while women get advised to never go alone). Their world and mine have diverged; the sphere of my capability is as a marble next to their planet.

We talk so much about the Constitution but our constitution was so weak.

I am a patriot but I thought I was a thoughtful one. This year has brought home to me how much American exceptionalism was still lurking in the corners of my head.

The bigotry I can notice in myself always has this fuzzy shadowy aspect -- it's in the gaps, the moments where I subconsciously think that I don't have to take [person, news, idea, work, etc.] properly seriously, the assumptions I make about what categories someone or some country's going to fit. Or, I learn individual facts -- that trains are cheaper and more frequent and more convenient in many countries I've visited, that my colleague in Norway has used easy electronic transfers to receive and pay money all his life and has never seen a paper check, that folks in Melbourne just call an ambulance for a stranger in trouble and don't worry about cost, that a bunch of people I know in Europe or Australia make their livings working part-time and don't have to figure out how to pay for health insurance -- but I have a mental block stopping me from adding up that two and two are four.

For several years, in conversation, whenever a foreigner complained about some aspect of the US, I would jump in, get ahead of them, get the crowd cracking up by reciting a litany of my country's deficiencies, apologizing for them on behalf of us all. Our utterly insufficient transit network, imperial measurements, all our paper money is the same size and shape and color, the health care disaster, the wars ... I've lost track, it's been a little while since I've given the spiel, since this sort of thing was usually something I said to tourists. But, I realize now, on some level it was always superficial and I did not take to heart how deeply my country was behind, was worse.

"We're number one!" No, we're not. To claim superiority without first assessing whether you're right, or on flimsy grounds, is arrogance. We are arrogant. I am arrogant. Wish I could say "was" but this is not the Rumpelstiltskin story and naming the problem does not make it vanish.

I am not a man and I am not white, but I think the particular bouquet of feelings I am feeling is like feelings a thoughtful white person or man might feel -- thinking that I knew that I was not the center of the world, but stumbling and noticing, in my disorientation, that clearly I had not yet decolonized my mind as thoroughly as I'd thought.

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: Two Upcoming Sumana-Talks-At-You Events: Most urgently: You have just over 24 hours to back the Mermaids Monthly project on Kickstarter, supporting a fun, independent speculative fiction magazine for 2021. If you back at the $100 “Subscription, Pin, and Poetry” pledge level, you'll get invited to a special Zoom party where I'll perform stand-up comedy.

And: in late January, I'll speak for the first time at Linux.Conf.Au, on "How To Get A Project Unstuck -- And Fixing The Skill Gaps That Got Us Here". You'll come away from this talk with steps you can take, in the short term and in the long run, to address this for projects you care about. Ticket sales are now open for LCA (which will of course be a virtual convention). Buy a ticket if you'd like to see my talk live and participate in questions-and-answers!

This talk will draw from the same material as the book I'm writing on getting open source projects unstuck. I aim to teach the skills open source software maintainers need, aimed at working scientists and other contributors who have never managed public-facing projects before. And I hope to have more news about that project soon!

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: Graduating From The I-Didn't-Graduate Dream: I used to have dreams that, oh no, I didn't actually finish high school and need to go back and finish a class or exam. I hear this is pretty common.

I thought I'd graduated from college with a bachelor's, found out I'd actually made an administrative mistake that meant I needed to take one more summer class, and took my diploma home and tacked it onto my wall near my bed. I have not had "oh no I didn't really graduate from college" dreams; I figure this is because the memory of actually going through that incident and its aftermath cemented into my head that I really do have the degree. (However, when I recently got a fundraising email with a subject line like "A Message From The Chair of the Political Science Department at UC Berkeley," my reflexive reaction was "oh no they're taking my degree back!" So I suppose I still have issues, just differently configured.)

Then I got my master's degree a few years later. By then I was an adult, and school only took up part of my time (it was a nights-and-weekends program); I figure that's why less anxiety has clung to those memories, and thus why I don't think I've ever dreamed that "oh no, I didn't actually finish and need to go back."

This is all preface. My brain still scrabbles to provide me with anxiety dreams involving having to do more school, but with a twist. Like: some time ago, I dreamed that I had made some commitment to go through high school AGAIN, for the sake of some kind of experiment or similar, and was gritting my teeth and doing it all over again. I didn't want to, and I knew I already had postsecondary credentials, but still!

Or last night, when my dream included -- all mushed up with other stuff, like losing my cell phone (one that I last used in like 2016), trying to get a membership at a zoo using a coupon that wasn't cutting the price as much as I'd been told, seeing Jay Blades from The Repair Shop in an outdoors production of Hamilton while crossing a small river on a boat that was falling apart -- me fretting over whether to complete my second bachelor's degree. Dream Sumana knew that she already had a bachelor's and a master's, yet had at some point nearly completed a second bachelor's in some other major and at some other college. But not completely! So I was trying to figure out: should I finish those last few classes to get that second bachelor's? I don't need it at all! And yet I was nearly done with it, why quit when I was nearly done?!

I woke up and talked about this one with Leonard, and with my mom when I called her. Often my dreams are ways of processing things I'm dealing with. What was this new twist on the "need to finish school" dream doing? Maybe a few things.

It's about the frustration of being "nearly done," as I am with a few work projects, and as so many of us are with the pandemic. We hope.

It's about the frustration with wasting something that I have put a lot of work into, in opposition to the danger of the sunk cost fallacy. Which is something that comes up for me fairly frequently, though I don't often articulate it.

It's about the aspects of college life I do miss: narrower concerns, a time mostly before the September 11th attacks (which happened my senior year), frequently seeing and chatting with lots of friends and acquaintances. And it's about the unrequitable desire to do those four years over again, better, with the wisdom I have now about who I am and what I need. I feel that desire especially keenly when I've been admiring people younger than me who are accomplishing great things, which is only going to happen more and more as I age. The way I can counter it, when I have my head on properly, is to be grateful for and proud of where I am now and what I've done and what I'm doing, and the people I've snagged into my life along the way.

It's about a longing for a more structured endeavor with clear, externally-set win conditions. Right now I run my own business within a new market category that I am defining, I am writing a book and I am deciding how and with whom I will publish it, and the end of 2020 is coming up soon and no one but me can define whether I have used this year well. Sure would be a relief if someone else could authoritatively tell me whether I'd succeeded. But perhaps maturity is accepting that you are the only person who gets to decide that.

And perhaps this is a transitional stage towards my brain finally taking "but you still need to do more school" out of rotation on what Leonard calls my "golden oldies" of anxiety dreams. Turn the dial to something new.

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