Laws of Spacecraft and Software

Lots of similarities between Akin’s Laws of Spacecraft Design and software management; via AJ’s weekly email:

  1. In nature, the optimum is almost always in the middle somewhere. Distrust assertions that the optimum is at an extreme point.

  2. (Shea’s Law) The ability to improve a design occurs primarily at the interfaces. This is also the prime location for screwing it up.

  3. A bad design with a good presentation is doomed eventually. A good design with a bad presentation is doomed immediately.

  4. Capabilities drive requirements, regardless of what the systems engineering textbooks say.

  5. (McBryan’s Law) You can’t make it better until you make it work.

  6. If there’s not a flight program, there’s no money. If there is a flight program, there’s no time.

I read "Hench" by Natalie Zina Walschots

| Review | ★★★★

Hench moves past “but what if superheroes were actually bad?” and into exploring whether one can have superpowers without aligning/performing as a hero (not according to the heroes) and can someone be villaneous without being evil? (open question)

It’s delightful in the Becky Chambers’-style of “let’s (try) to be our best selves while navigating our differences against a backdrop of adversity”. For some moments I felt like I was reading The Phoenix Project to the extent it was describing contemporary professional life …but then drops in a story of using child abuse as a supervisory tactic and that was not enjoyable.

Worknotes: Week 5

I just had my 1-month anniversary. The new job feels…. normal 🤷‍♀️ It’s 1:1s and sensemaking (dot-connecting, aligning, stortytelling) and gently holding and sharing and developing opinions about how people should collaborate in the worksplace and engineering the infrastructure that supports that. I dunno, given that I’m still working from home, it’s all still people stuff just different people. One of those Boasian “variations within groups are greater than variations between groups” things. People are great!

Something I’m inspired by

I’ve observed a lot of reinforcement of goals and values. I’ve been impressed seeing my team jump on an issue and not just say “I can help” but also “Our team’s purpose is to help.” Or seeing my Director hop in a comment and not just say “Great work” but also “This is a great example of our group’s charter”.

I think the majority of the feedback a manager should be giving is shining a spotlight on the things someone is already doing that are good and meaningful, and I’ve been inspired to see that in action from others.

Something I’m thinking about

I’ve been working through Lara Hogan’s “Questions for our first 1:1”, which is part of my personal manager runbook.

The question “How do you prefer to receive recognition?” gets spicy answers! I’m managing a very high level team and the answers closely line up with my own high-level friends and high-level former coworkers and myself: people are uncomfortable with recognition.

Which is… a not unreasonable reaction. In the words of a close friend “This is total shit, but… thanks, I’m glad you like it.” When I think about my own reaction, I attribute it to navigating a lot of intersecting supremacy cultures (conscious and unconscious) which are complicated: perfectionism, humbleness, honest practice, a desire to recognize all contributors (which has its own recursive sympathy).

I get it. I think about how much self-work I’ve done in my own life to reply to “I like your X” with simply “Thanks!” (and not “oh, and I like your..” or “oh, it’s not that great”).

What’s next

Two quarterly activities are upcoming that I’m excited to be organizing for the first time: engineering rotations and OKR setting. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot.

Weeknotes: Week 0

I started a new job midweek this week at GitHub, managing their Ruby Architecture team. I love the team’s mission:

Making it easy for our engineers to create, deliver, and operate best-of-class Ruby and Rails applications, and sharing the best of it with the world.

I also took about 2.5 weeks in between leaving Code for America and starting this job, so I’m feeling fresh and ready for several weeks of official onboarding, and several months of growing into the role.

Something I learned

GitHub is heavily into written documentation. “If it doesn’t have a URL, it didn’t happen.”. And not just cross-referencing, but emoting and emoji-ing, and being, well, extra. Writing and communication has been reinforced a lot during onboarding, more even than the content itself. Which makes sense: if you understand how the organization communicates, you can seek answers independently.

Something I was inspired by

Despite formal onboarding being my number one focus, I’ve been having casual 1:1s with my team. They’re great! I’ve been inspired by the nuance and understanding they bring to the work. On its own, being a service team is hard, and corporate open source is hard. I’ve found myself heavily nodding along hearing them discuss the challenges of moving people forward. It’s brought to surface a few thoughts and memories:

  • Of being a frontend lead at Pantheon and the challenges of getting platform-team resources to build up to the outcome and vision we all agreed on, but that had some uncomfortable zigs and zags to get there. A case of make the change easy (which can be hard), then make the easy change.
  • My falling out of the Drupal ecosystem as it developed more in line with the needs of full-service agencies than of solo devs and configurers like myself. As one of my colleagues admitted this week, our developers aren’t running “rails new” a whole lot and that’s something to be mindful of how it shapes the contributions.
  • “If you’re leading and no one is following, you’re just out for a walk.”

I read "Recoding Gender" by Janet Abbate

| Review | ★★★★★

Recoding gender

I enjoyed the book. It’s a quick survey of early computing and software history, and the lens of gender makes a lot of it new.

A few themes stuck out to me, from my standpoint of 2022:

  • Contemporary development, and even agile (by other names) come from feminized sources.
  • The distinctions between the activities of plugging, coding, programming, solving, planning, and training; and the roles of “Engineer”, or “Architect” or “Manager” which are largely gendered.
  • The feminization of “technical” work of interacting with business machines (e.g. a typewriter, photocopier, etc.) and the perceptual “de-skilling” of those roles despite them being, well, heavily technical.
  • Programming productivity gains being gobbled up by increasing complexity…. Well, sometimes… because there is a perceptual emphasis on complex edge-cases rather than the needs of the “typical” business.
  • Conference on Software Engineering sponsored by NATO and held in Garmisch, Germany on 7–11 October 1968 was a big deal in the history of programming.

Sure sounds like contemporary collaborative practices:

[Elsie] Shutt’s [of Comp Inc.] approach was to organize her programmers in teams that collaboratively divided the work among themselves: “We would get together every week, everybody working on the project. One thing we had to learn to do was to take a job and to break it into pieces—meaningful pieces—and then we’d get together, talk about it, assign jobs.” She coached her programmers to be meticulous, which resulted in efficiencies for the company and a better product for the client. For example, she emphasized desk-checking, the practice of having programmers review each other’s code before running it on the computer. Although desk-checking was a fairly common practice in the 1950s, Shutt believed that she “emphasized it more than others did” because we were doing things that we broke up into more pieces than some people did.” Comp Inc. had no room for “egotistical” programmers who refused the share their code. Another key priority was “documenting it—well—so that someone else would be able to maintain it if they needed to.” Producing modular, well-documented code also made it easier for Comp Inc. to repurpose programs for subsequent clients, which saved on programming costs.

…and Agile:

Women may have been uniquely situated to participate in these innovations because of their gendered role in the workplace. As working programmers—and as the staff members who stereotypically were asked to assist customers or in-house users—women had both the expertise to devise solutions and the incentive to make programming easier for experts and novices alike. And although women usually lacked the formal authority to impose workplace practices, this was unnecessary in a computer culture that left the choice of techniques largely up to programmers themselves.

On productivity and the never-realized goal of getting rid of programming as a specialization:

In many ways, the campaign for automatic programming was a rousing success: The new techniques were widely adopted, and as promised, they greatly reduced the time that was needed to produce programs and transferred much tedious work from humans to machines. Many programmers took advantage of these new tools to improve the organization of that programs, creating a visible, logical structure that made code faster to produce and easier to maintain, reuse, and share. However, to the disappointment of some, the overall effect of compilers and associated tools was not to eliminate programming but to redefine it. Much of what had been included as an integral part of programming practice–tedious copying or recoding of subroutines, the need to be aware of machine design and physical memory configuration, and the use of machine codes-was no longer required. But the programmer still had to design and specify the higher-level structure of the program, tasks that proved too complex for most end-users. The new techniques also did nothing to automate the initial analysis of the problem–the task of modeling a real-world activity as an ordered flow of computable steps. Although this work could potentially be shifted from the programmer to a systems analyst, in either case it was a person and not the computer that performed it.

To the extent that a factory-like version of automation failed to materialize, it vindicated programmers’ holistic view of their work as complex and creative. It also reflected a conscious decision by computer manufacturers and their customers to use automation to increase productivity and quality rather than to shrink the labor force. Managers asked programmers to tackle more ambitious projects or create more sophisticated user interfaces, expanding their demand for skilled labor to absorb the available supply. The ever increasing complexity of cutting-edge systems would soon lead to new calls for a reform of programming methods.

An ongoing discussion about what happens.

The term software engineering has become common enough today that its provocative effect has been lost. Yet when the term was introduced at Garmisch, it was purely aspirational. Rather than claiming to describe actual practices, the organizers named an ideal that did not yet exist. Nor was it obvious that engineering was the best model for programming. The computing literature of the 1960s is rife with competing metaphors, each or which was chosen to make a particular claim about the nature of programming. Some managers continued to view programming as creative art or craft—and in a positive sense, rather than as a problem to Be cured by imposing scientific rationality. In the academic community, computer science was often seen as a branch of mathematics, which had a higher intellectual status than engineering. The 1970 On the Management of Computer Programming, a book that targeted a business audience, ignored the new term software engineering and preferred to use managerial skill as its ideal. Maurice Wilkes argued in 1976 that the term engineering did not realistically represent the process of creating a large program. He suggested instead that “There are some analogies between writing a program and writing a treatise or a paper.” Computer industry writers invoked a host of other professions to emulate, including accounting (for its certification standards), medicine (for its skilled teamwork and strong professional societies), architecture (as a model for coherent design and precise specification), aviation (for its recognition of the dire consequences of failure), or even cooking (as a time sensitive production process).

Given this gendered status hierarchy, some practitioners—women as well as men—may have believed that programmers would rise in stature by adopting the title of engineer. An unintended consequence of this move may have been to make programming and computer science less inviting to women, helping to explain the historical puzzle of why women took a leading role in the first wave of software improvements but become much less visible in the software engineering era.
“For instance, getting your requirements right initially; understanding the materials you’re working with.” Susan Graham, the daughter of a mechanical engineer, got her Ph.D. in computer science a few years after Garmisch and easily identified as a software engineer. Referring to the process of checking the semantics of a programming language, Graham characterized engineering practice as trial-and-error: “You write a compiler, and then you do a lot of testing against real programs, and you try to see whether the right thing happens. And that’s why it’s engineer ing!” These examples demonstrate again the diverse meanings of engineering, as well as female practitioners ability to prioritize those aspects of engineering that matched their own needs, experiences, and values.

Some aspects of the software engineering ideal appealed directly to preferences that were widely expressed by women, such as the desire to create something that would improve users’ lives. Edward E. David of Bell Laboratories expressed this philosophy at Garmisch in 1968: “Software engineering and computing engineering have an extremely important and nice aspect to them, namely that people want to work on things that meet other people’s needs. They are not interested in working on abstractions entirely; they want to have an impact on the world.” Mary Shaw, who helped establish Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute in the 1980s, echoed this public service ethos in her own 1990 definition of engineering as solving “practical problems . . . in the service of mankind:”In her view, key aspects of an “engineering attitude” included “considering users” and realizing that design choices had to be made “for both technical and nontechnical reasons.’ Shaw’s emphasis on users and on real-word, nontechnical factors fits well with the computer-as-a-tool orientation more common among women. Although Engineering as a profession has been highly masculine, engineering as a discipline or philosophy has had wider range of potential meaning.

In at least three important senses, software engineering could be said to have failed. First, because of the divergent approaches and priorities of academic theorists and industry practitioners, much research investment has been wasted. Second, to the extent that software engineering was meant to revolutionize labor practices by deskilling and disciplining programmers, imposing standardized research-based methods, or mandating licensing, it has not succeeded. Finally, software engineering never solved the problem that was its raison d’etre—the software crisis. These failures call into question the notion that engineering is the most appropriate model for the programming profession.

I read "Science in the Capital" by Kim Stanley Robinson

| Review | ★★★★

The series is 3 books:

  • Forty Signs of Rain
  • Fifty Degrees Below
  • Sixty Days and Counting

It was subsequently re-edited into a single edition (Green Earth), but I read the originals. They have all the components of a KSR book:

  • Someone is smacked in the face
  • The last third of the book/series includes a travelogue of terraforming
  • Buddhism
  • Humanity rendered (and pondering) their place as a primates-out-of-forest/fish-out-of-water in a technology-based society.

And some uniquely nice and interesting things

  • Child characters. I found them the most interesting, especially toddler Joe. Older Nick is pretty boring and unmotivated (in the literary sense) in stark contrast to Aurora’s Devi.
  • Contemporary setting (which does have its problems, like suggesting fictional nano-rods instead of actual CRISPR). This is mainly why I gave it 4 stars; it’s fairly unique as a KSR book goes.

A main theme is “an excess of reason is itself a form of madness” with the various characters navigating contemporary rationalism (politics, bureaucracy, venture science, healthcare, courtship, family) within the constraints of their character’s authentic selves.

“We are animals. Animals whose wisdom has extended so far as to tell us we are mortal creatures. We die. For fifty thousand years we have known this. Much of our mental energy is spent avoiding this knowledge. We do not like to think of it. Then again, we know now that even the cosmos is mortal. Reality is mortal. All things change ceaselessly. Nothing remains the same in time. Nothing can be held on to. The question then becomes, what do we do with this knowledge? How do we live with it? How do we make sense of it?”

Well—indeed. Frank leaned forward, piqued, wondering what Drepung would tell them the old man had said next. That gravelly low voice, growling through its incomprehensible sounds—it was strange to think it was expressing such meanings. Frank suddenly wanted to know what he was saying.

“One of the scientific terms for compassion,” Drepung said, looking around the ceiling as if for the word, “… you say, ‘altruism.’ This is a question in your animal studies. Does true altruism exist, and is it a good adaptation? Does compassion work, in other words? You have done studies that suggest altruism is the best adaptive strategy, if seen from the group context. This then becomes a kind of … admonishment. To practice compassion in order to successfully evolve—this, coming from your science, which claims to be descriptive only! Only describing what has worked to make us what we are. But in Buddhism we have always said, if you want to help others, practice compassion; if you want to help yourself, practice compassion. Now science adds, if you want to help your species, practice compassion.”

This got a laugh, and Frank also chuckled. He started to think about it in terms of prisoners’ dilemma strategies; it was an invocation for all to make the always generous move, for maximum group return, indeed maximum individual return.… Thus he missed what Drepung said next, absorbed in something more like a feeling than a thought: If only I could believe in something, no doubt it would be a relief. All his rationality, all his acid skepticism; suddenly it was hard not to feel that it was really just some kind of disorder.

And at that very moment Rudra Cakrin looked right at him, him alone in all the audience, and Drepung said, “An excess of reason is itself a form of madness.”

Frank sat back in his seat. What had the question been? Rerunning his short-term memory, he could not find it.

Now he was lost to the conversation again. His flesh was tingling, as if he were a bell that had been struck.

“The experience of enlightenment can be sudden.”

He didn’t hear that, not consciously.

“The scattered parts of consciousness occasionally assemble at once into a whole pattern.”

He didn’t hear that either, as he was lost in thought. All his certainties were trembling. He thought, an excess of reason itself a form of madness—it’s the story of my life. And the old man knew.

The biggest problem with the book is that one of the main characters is super creepy. And it goes on too long. I think the latter is fixed in the edited Green Planet edition, but I dunno about the former. Fortunately he doesn’t act on it:

Now he was considering acting in accordance with his beliefs. Something else he had heard the Khembalis say at the Quiblers, this time Drepung: If you don’t act on it, it wasn’t a true feeling. … One can always just walk away. The Dalai Lama had said that for sure. Things you don’t like, things you think are wrong, you can always just walk away. You will be happier. Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive. But compassion is not just a feeling. You have to act.

And if you make it to the third book, you’re treated to some good liberal head-canon in the newly elected President’s inauguration speech:

“Fellow Americans,” he said, pacing his speech to the reverb of the loudspeakers, “you have entrusted me with the job of president during a difficult time. The crisis we face now, of abrupt climate change and crippling damage to the biosphere, is a very dangerous one, to be sure. But we are not at war with anyone, and in fact we face a challenge that all humanity has to meet together. On this podium, Franklin Roosevelt said, ‘This generation has a rendezvous with destiny.’ Now it’s true again. We are the generation that has to deal with the profound destruction that will be caused by the global warming that has already been set in motion. The potential disruption of the natural order is so great that scientists warn of a mass extinction event. Losses on that scale would endanger all humanity, and so we cannot fail to address the threat. The lives of our children, and all their descendants, depend on us doing so.

“So, like FDR and his generation, we have to face the great challenge of our time. We have to use our government to organize a total social response to the problem. That took courage then, and we will need courage now. In the years since we used our government to help get us out of the Great Depression, it has sometimes been fashionable to belittle the American government as some kind of foreign burden laid on us. That attitude is nothing more than an attack on American history, deliberately designed to shift power away from the American people. I want us to remember how Abraham Lincoln said it: ‘that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from this

Earth.’ This is the crucial concept of American democracy—that government expresses what the majority of us would like to do as a society. It’s us. We do it to us and for us. I believe this reminder is so important that I intend to add the defining phrase ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’ every time I use the word ‘government,’ and I intend to do all I can to make that phrase be a true description. It will make me even more long-winded than I was before, but I am willing to pay that price, and you are going to have to pay it with me.

“So, this winter, with your approval and support, I intend to instruct my team in the executive branch of government of the people, by the people, and for the people, to initiate a series of federal actions and changes designed to meet the problem of global climate change head-on. We will deal with it as a society working together, and working with the rest of the world. It’s a global project, and so I will go to the United Nations and tell them that the United States is ready to join the international effort. We will also help the under-developed world to develop using clean technology, so that all the good aspects of development will not be drowned in its bad side effects—often literally drowned. In our own country, meanwhile, we will do all it takes to shift to clean technologies as quickly as possible.” Phil paused to survey the crowd. “My, it’s cold out here today! You can feel right now, right down to the bone, that what I am saying is true. We’re out in the cold, and we need to change the way we do things. And it’s not just a technological problem, having to do with our machinery alone. The devastation of the biosphere is also a result of there being too many human beings for the planet to support over the long haul. If the human population continues to increase as it has risen in the past, all progress we might make will be overwhelmed.

“But what is very striking to observe is that everywhere on this Earth where good standards of justice prevail, the rate of reproduction is about at the replacement rate. While wherever justice, and the full array of rights as described in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, is somehow denied to some portion of the population, especially to women and children, the rate of reproduction either balloons to unsustainably rapid growth rates, or crashes outright. Now you can argue all you want about why this correlation exists, but the correlation itself is striking and undeniable. So this is one of those situations in which what we do for good in one area, helps us again in another. It is a positive feedback loop with the most profound implications. Consider: for the sake of climate stabilization, there must be population stabilization; and for there to be population stabilization, justice must prevail. Every person on the planet must live with the full array of human rights that all nations have already ascribed to when signing the UN Charter. When we achieve that, at that point, and at that point only, we will begin to reproduce at a sustainable rate.

“To help that to happen, I intend to make sure that the United States joins the global justice project fully, unequivocally, and without any double standards. This means accepting the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, and the jurisdiction of the World Court in the Hague. It means abiding by all the clauses of the UN Charter and the Geneva Conventions, which after all we have already signed. It means supporting UN peacekeeping forces, and supporting the general concept of the UN as the body through which international conflicts get resolved. It means supporting the World Health Organization in all its reproductive rights and population reduction efforts. It means supporting women’s education and women’s rights everywhere, even in cultures where men’s tyrannies are claimed to be some sort of tradition. All these commitments on our part will be crucial if we are serious about building a sustainable world. There are three legs to this effort, folks: technology, environment, and social justice. None of the three can be neglected.

“So, some of what we do may look a little unconventional at first. And it may look more than a little threatening to those few who have been trying, in effect, to buy our government of the people, by the people, and for the people, and use it to line their own pockets while the world goes smash. But you know what? Those people need to change too. They’re out in the cold the same as the rest of us. So we will proceed, and hope those opposed come to see the good in it.

“Ultimately we will be exploring all peaceful means to initiate positive changes in our systems, in order to hand on to the generations to come a world that is as beautiful and bountiful as the one we were born into. We are only the temporary stewards of a mighty trust, which includes the lives of all the future generations to come. We are responsible to our children and theirs. What we do now will reveal much about our character and our values as a people. We have to rise to the occasion, and I think we can and will. I am going to throw myself into the effort wholeheartedly and with a feeling of high excitement, as if beginning a long journey over stormy seas.”

Working the problem

From An Astronauts Guide to Planet Earth by Chris Hadfield:

Feeling ready to do something doesn’t mean feeling certain you’ll succeed, though of course that’s what you’re hoping to do. Truly being ready means understanding what could go wrong – and having a plan to deal with it. You could learn to scuba dive in a resort pool, for instance, and go on to have a wonderful first dive in the ocean even if you had no clue how to buddy breathe or what to do if you lost a flipper. But if conditions were less than ideal, you could find yourself in serious danger. In the ocean, things can go wrong in one breath, and the stakes are life and death. That’s why in order to get a scuba license you have to do a bunch of practice dives and learn how to deal with a whole set of problems and emergencies so that you’re really ready, not just ready in calm seas.

For the same sort of reasons, trainers in the space program specialize in devising bad-news scenarios for us to act out, over and over again, in increasingly elaborate simulations. We practice what we’ll do if there’s engine trouble, a computer meltdown, an explosion. Being forced to confront the prospect of failure head-on – to study it, dissect it, tear apart all its components and consequences – really works. After a few years of doing that pretty much daily, you’ve forged the strongest possible armor to defend against fear: hard-won competence.

Our training pushes us to develop a new set of instincts. Instead of reacting to danger with a fight-or-flight adrenaline rush, we’re trained to respond unemotionally by immediately prioritizing threats and methodically seeking to defuse them. We go from wanting to bolt for the exit to wanting to engage and understand what’s going wrong, then fix it.

Early on during my last stay on the ISS, I was jolted to consciousness in the middle of the night: a loud horn was blaring. For a couple of seconds I was in a fog, trying to figure out what that unpleasant noise was. There were four of us in the American section of the Station then, and like prairie dogs, we all poked our heads up out of our sleep pods at the same time to look at the panel of emergency lights on the wall that tell us whether we should be concerned about depressurization, toxicity or some other potential fatal disaster. Suddenly all of us were wide awake. That deafening noise was the fire alarm.

A fire is one of the most dangerous things that can happen in a spaceship because there’s nowhere to go; also, flames behave less predictably in weightlessness and are harder to extinguish. In my first year as an astronaut, I think my response to hearing the alarm would have been to grab an extinguisher and start fighting for my life, but over the past 21 years that instinct has been trained in, represented by three words: warn, gather, work.

“Working the problem” is NASA-speak for descending one decision tree after another, methodically looking for a solution until you run out of oxygen. We practice the “warn, gather, work” protocol for responding to fire alarms so frequently that it doesn’t just become second nature; it actually supplants our natural instincts. So when we heard the alarm on the Station, instead of rushing to don masks and arm ourselves with extinguishers, one astronaut calmly got on the intercom to warn that a fire alarm was going off – maybe the Russians couldn’t hear it in their module – while another went to the computer to see which smoke detector was going off. No one was moving in a leisurely fashion, but the response was one of focused curiosity; as though we were dealing with an abstract puzzle rather than an imminent threat to our survival. To an observer it might have looked a little bizarre, actually: no agitation, no barked commands, no haste.

The next step is the gather, so we joined the Russians in their part of the Station to start working on the problem. How serious was the threat? So far, all the signs were reassuring. We couldn’t smell smoke of see flames. Maybe one little wire had melted somewhere, or the detector was responding to dust. We talked to Mission Control in Houston and in Moscow, but as we investigated, checking the module where the detector had been triggered, it seemed more and more likely that we were dealing with a simple malfunction. Finally, everyone agreed that it had been a false alarm, and we headed back to our sleep stations. An hour later, when the fire alarm sounded again, we repeated the warn, gather, work protocol just as before. The response was similarly calm, though not perfunctory – possibly something had been slowly smoldering for the past hour. As it turned out, nothing had. The detector was a lemon, that’s all. I remember thinking, “That was a little like a sim, only better, because now I get to sleep.”

I doubt anyone’s heart rate increased by more than a beat or two while we were dealing with those fire alarms, even during the first minutes when the threat of a raging inferno seemed most real. We felt competent to deal with whatever happened – a sense of confidence that comes directly from solid preparation. Nothing boosts confidence quite like simulating a disaster, engaging with it fully, both physically and intellectually, and realizing you have the ability to work the problem. Each time you manage to do that your comfort zone expands a little, so if you ever face that particular problem in real life, you’re able to think clearly.

Sense-making list-making

From the “The MetaCryptoVerse”, which triggered my oft-observation that civic tech too-frequently regresses to resource directories (lists of services):

…what happens when our institutions become just lists. Lists scattered across a network of databases.

You see we are attune to the idea of data disrupting paper. What we are not attune to is this idea of data disrupting space. Or more accurately how information architecture is disrupting architecture. Banks become lists, manifest as a collection ATMs, PC and smartphones. Office blocks become lists manifest as web pages and mobile apps. Hospitals become lists manifest as patent records and augmented beds. Government agencies become lists manifest as web pages and pdfs. Libraries become Google. Which is to say they become lists. Our clubs and churches or more accurately our communal meeting places become Facebook pages. Which is to say they become lists. Our shops become lists. Be they Amazonian or iTuna. Or schools and colleges become Moocs. Which is to say they become lists.

Now these are ideas. Conceptual models. Thought experiments. Dare I say TEDs? worth exploring. What happens when our world evolves from the bucket list to a bucket full of lists?

What would this new architecture look like? How do we interact with these new spaces? And what are the types of games we will be playing to occupy our days? What is it like to live life as an endless fractal narrative? What will be the sum of our days? The sum of experiences in this brave new world? Of life lived as a bucket full of lists. Virtual or otherwise. Just how will these lists shape our behaviour? Regulate our emotions? Facilitate our transaction? Engineer our experiences? Provoke our responses? Design our Desires? Juxtapose our inner tensions? Manipulate our self image? Game our expectations?

We discovered these are conversations worth having… with others.

I read "Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993" by Sarah Schulman

| Review | ★★★★★

I discovered the ACT UP organization in the wake of Occupy, when I became friends with Michael Petrellis, who I met through my church.

This book is a wonderful approach to documenting an organizing: powerful, tragic, and practical.

When preparing the ACT UP Oral History Project, Jim and I looked at two Holocaust archives for guidance. The Shoah Foundation, organized by Steven Spielberg, had a structure that did not fit our needs. Designed to counter Holocaust revisionism, in which people who did not commit the Holocaust deny that it ever occurred, the project had hundreds of interviewers focused on a list of predetermined questions. We felt that the interviews were designed to emphasize the moments of trauma, of oppression and atrocity. As important as this was, we were more intrigued by a small archive financed by the Fortunoff department store family that investigated who each person was before the Holocaust, and then how they were impacted by the turn of events. This approach really appealed to us for a number of reasons. The primary purpose of the ACT UP Oral History Project, and of this book, is not to look back with nostalgia, but rather to help contemporary and future activists learn from the past so that they can do more effective organizing in the present. We wanted to show, clearly, what we had witnessed in ACT UP: that people from all walks of life, working together, can change the world.

The story of access in ACT UP is the story of a collective that intended to do good, and actually did in fact truly make the world a better place. Inside those accomplishments are realities of a human dimension: people who do great things also do bad things, sometimes out of bias and supremacy, and sometimes out of vulnerability, fear of demise, the desire to live, or all of the above. And when white people, and men, do things out of bias and vulnerability, people with less access pay a price. Sometimes that price is stress, or being forced to strategize, or being blindsided as a way of life. Sometimes that price is exclusion from treatments, from participation in decision-making, or from the machine of power. Sometimes that means death, and sometimes that means long-term and systemic deprivation for the collective as well as the individual. When we evaluate how we have spent our lives, we have to look at our cumulative impact, not at the moments of failure or bad faith. Assessing this history is not a game of call-out. Instead, it is an effort to really understand and make clear how the AIDS rebellion succeeded, and to face where it failed, in order to be more conscious and deliberate, and therefore effective, today.

This book contains a lot:

  • “Drive and commitment, invention and felicity, a focus on campaigns, and being effective are the components of movements that change the world.
  • “A small, very crucial group of individuals had spent their time in ACT UP observing and analyzing the full range of meaning and impact of ACT UP as a whole, and developed organizational overviews, which permitted broad analysis, recognition of large tropes, and a grasp of strategic reach. But most often, ACT UP did not theorize itself…. Direct action was a concept by which theoretical discussion was not separate from action. Of course, individual ACT UPers were influenced by theory. A number of young video activists had studied in the Whitney Museum Studio Program. Many older activists came from highly theorized earlier radical movements, and some members, like Douglas Crimp, wrote theory. But on the floor of the Monday-night meeting, theory was never debated unless it was tied to creating actions, or to setting active campaigns. As Maxine Wolfe, one of ACT UP’s most influential leaders, would say, when planning and carrying out an action, “theory emerges” as a concrete result of actual decisions that are being made for real-life application. Instead of the Gramscian concept of “praxis,” which is the application of theory into practice, ACT UP first chose a practice—an action—and then evolved a theory necessary to make it work toward our larger goal of “direct action to end the AIDS crisis.” In this way campaigns were structured as a series of interconnected actions, designed to produce a larger outcome. ACT UP would never just do a demonstration, zap, or action to stand on its own. These public expressions were designed to build to the next step. That’s why every event had a sign-up sheet, or leaflets announcing further actions, and participants were informed of the next step in the series on any specific issue. Every action included a component of giving participants and observers something else to do. In this way, energy was not wasted, and events had purpose, as part of a larger schema. Not wasting energy, effort, or goodwill was essential to being effective in a movement of people who literally did not have time.”
  • “Gregg got together with Charles Stimson and Ortez Alderson, an activist from Chicago who had moved to New York to become an actor and who was working in Black gay theater with Assotto Saint. They decided to get together to “do a kind of activism that was not necessarily authorized by the large group.” They were annoyed by what they felt was a slow pace as ACT UP grappled to develop their perspective. They called themselves “MHA,” which actually didn’t stand for anything, but had flexible uses. For example, they used “Metropolitan Health Association” in order to get a meeting with Stephen Joseph, the health commissioner of New York City. At that time, Joseph was talking about various kinds of punitive measures against prostitutes. He had engaged in some “very panic-causing kinds of rhetoric” about the threat that people with AIDS, for whom he was considering internment and other repressive measures, caused to the general public, particularly around tuberculosis. MHA showed up. “We said, ‘We’re the Metropolitan Health Association.’ They said, ‘Please come in.’” They were in a large conference room with Stephen Joseph. It quickly became apparent, though, that MHA was not any kind of interborough health consortium. They started asking Joseph about the slow pace in the city’s response to AIDS. When Joseph realized that they were AIDS activists, Gregg and company were arrested and the story appeared in the press. At the next ACT UP meeting, Gregg remembers rising and saying, “Look, you can just do this. You don’t have to go to the large group to get authorization. In fact, it’s better that the large group is not involved with these kinds of actions because they don’t have to be held accountable. So you can just do stuff. ACT UP is just this place we all meet on a weekly basis to talk about strategy and prioritize issues.” He remembered saying over and over again, You can just do this. Just go out and do this. And people were very enthusiastic. This happened at the same time that the concept of affinity groups, which were inherently autonomous from the larger body, was gaining more popularity in ACT UP.”
  • “I remember having this kind of conscious realization that if you stood up and said exactly what you meant and didn’t trail off into some kind of rambling incoherence, which is often the style of many people in meetings, that actually your opinion would be respected or at least heard.”
  • “The Media Committee’s job was to make sure the press covered the action. How do you get the press to pay attention? Ann laid out the fundamental points of doing media for a radical political movement: Well, first of all, you do plan an action that is interesting enough, that you think the press is going to care about it. But you have to woo the press. You have to find a way to get them there. Some of that is about writing a press release that you send to the press that’s interesting enough to make them look at it and say, Oh, I better go cover that—that’s going to be important or interesting or crazy, and will make good pictures and put wild people on television. But we also know that the press doesn’t generally read press releases, so don’t expect to get the press there, just by sending them a press release, because they’re going to throw it in the wastebasket, and you’re just going to have to do it all over again. So you have to call them. And you have to find the right person to speak to. So you have to know how to call a newspaper or television station and say—not ask to speak to a specific person, but say—I’m calling about this, who should I speak to? And let them tell you who to speak to. Then you have to know how to talk to that person, and how to present [the issue]. And you do it first by asking them questions, and saying, What do you know about this? What’s your opinion of such and such? Rather than just throwing something at them. And then, lead them into being interested about this, and say, Well, what you may not know is such and such. Or, We’re doing this, that you might find interesting, and sort of make them think it’s their idea to come do this, rather than haranguing them or lecturing them about—You should be there, and you should be covering this. That will make them sit home, guaranteed. Part of infiltrating the media’s messaging was through simple education, in the hopes of getting our message, and not the state’s, or the corporation’s, across. “The press was so stupid and so lazy, that they would come to every demonstration and ask one question: Why are you here? That was it. And they had no understanding of any issue, and no ability to ask questions about any issue. Ninety-five percent of any news story is what the reporter is saying. The sound bites are a very tiny part of any story. I would tell people, Watch the evening news, and time how much of a story is the reporter’s narration, and how much is the sound bite, and you’ll find that the sound bite is a very small portion of the story. So it’s far less important for you to come up with the right sound bite than it is for you to talk to the reporter before they do the story and educate them, so they will reflect your point of view in their narration.”…“And one of her well-known insights is that you’re not talking to the media, you’re talking through the media.”
  • “Like many women in ACT UP, Anne-Christine came from the reproductive rights movement, which heavily influenced her perspective on AIDS activism. “I actually think it was the closest to the reproductive rights work, because it was the angriest. People in reproductive rights were really angry. I didn’t think the people in the peace movement were as angry at all. I thought that they were sort of morally high ground in the peace movement, but I don’t feel like there was the same direct stake. And I think with AIDS, it was such a direct thing, because people were terrified … Coming out of Haiti, where a lot of people had died and were dying, it felt much more urgent to me. And so it was compelling in that way”
  • “There were two groups of people in ACT UP. There were the groups of people who thought that until they had AIDS, they thought that the government was out there, and working for them. And I went to an affinity group meeting with this guy, I don’t remember his name; and he said it, quite clear. And he was really serious. He said, I can’t believe that my government let me down. I had a good job, I had plenty of money. But when I got sick, the government let me down. I wasn’t getting the services, I got treated like a pariah. Then there was the other group—and it wasn’t only people of color; but there’s another group, I think it’s more of a class thing—who knew that the system stunk, and the system had been letting them down, for years … People with insurance were definitely feeling something different than people going in with Medicaid … There were people that socialized in ACT UP who would never, ever, in a million years, if it wasn’t that situation, even talk to each other on the street. “But I think that’s the thing that held the group together so long, and made it work. Even people you didn’t like in ACT UP, right—you would support them in some way, because you had the same issues … People were dying, it was urgent; a lot of people in the group were dying; and this was it. There was nowhere else to go but ACT UP. And I think some people came to ACT UP or they would have jumped out windows if they didn’t come to ACT UP, because it was also, in a way, some kind of therapy for people coming there. Whether you were rich or poor, that was one of the only places you could talk about your condition, your friend’s condition, whoever you were taking care of. That was the only place to talk about it. And I think that made an alliance that would have never happened anywhere else … And the anger was there. Everybody was pissed. They weren’t getting the services; most people were still treated like pariahs, in the beginning.”
  • “And so César articulates for us that ACT UP and its relationships are, as Matt Brim notes, not just a model of activism but a model of making sense of the problem that activism is trying to address, and the problem that lingers in the lives of individuals, long after the activism creates some kind of positive permanent change. Activism is, consequentially, the process of making sense of one’s experience of the problem that collectively we have transformed. It creates order, demystifies, and allows an understanding of systems that otherwise feel overwhelming and unaddressable.”

Five years on food stamps

This reflection of my experience on GetCalFresh is dedicated to the memory of Andrew Hyder who taught me a lot about living out and protecting team values every day.

Plus: We are the team; Extreme Programming are the values

We are not the website. From the beginning, there was an opinionated directed emphasis on building healthy team norms and values. These principles and doctrines were from “Extreme Programming Explained”; the values were legible and strongly reinforced by team leadership. All of the things we have created (websites, text messaging, document processing, research) were outputs not artifacts and never the goal. There was a strong emphasis on “And the friends we made along the way.”

Plus: An experience of critical inspiration

This was always an exercise in pattern matching what we were trying to achieve in the benefits space to Bay Area tech ecosystem structures and practices. Early debates of products and services, jobs to be done, design principles, disruption (“making the status quo untenable”), leverage, and the thing itself we were building: a funnel-based, outreach machine that disintermediated the benefits process. It was a practical act of constructive criticism of the tech and tech culture around us that recognized mastery of existing forms before we inevitably depart and transcend them (“shuhari”).

Plus: Incremental growth is a hell of a drug

A growth engine, an “engine that eats barriers”. It demonstrated that a line that went “up and to the right” could itself pay the organizational story tax. While we celebrated partnership wins, there was a focus on growing client outreach unbounded (“permissionless”). As software engineers, we were achieving the Agile principle that working software, in the hands of users, was the primary measure of progress.

58 counties was an incremental goal, that was out of reach but attainable, which made planning and decision making tangible, though not easy. It helped align the team and gave direction to planning out the next steps and necessities.

Delta: Maintain Client Success as the centerpole during growth

I think of “scaling” entailing both size and health. Early on, “Client Success” was the unifying intention of everyone (“close the participation gap”). Everyone was exhorted to use their whole selves to help clients receive benefits. I remember being mindblowingly told “you have their phone number, call them” when I observed clients hit technical or process barriers; I did, again and again. Technology was in the truest sense an extension of our embodied capacity to help.

As time went on the client success function became less of a critical inspiration, and instead came to feel closer to the status quo: handling the overwhelming externalities of the service, rather than the service being the multiplier of our puny human abilities. I feel a responsibility to help balance “we don’t need to help ourselves” with “put on your oxygen mask before helping others”; and “leave a seam” with “a stitch in time saves nine”.

And “success” felt narrowed with a refocusing towards “Systems Change” and the subjectless “Build with”. My desires for lighting escalation paths (“click here to talk to a supervisor; a director; your state representative; the FBI”), and consciousness-raising (“20k people in your county also had their benefits denied this month too”) remain unfulfilled.

Plus: Small teams can do big things

From me starting as the first outside hire, to me rolling off the team, we helped more than 8M people receive $5.3B in benefits. And the team continues on without me: I feel missed, unnecessary, and proud of both. Small, directed (North Star: “close the participation gap”; Mission: “use the principles and practices of the digital age to improve how the government serves the American public and how the public improves government”) teams, can do things together that far exceed the capacity of any one individual, and also outperform teams multiples of their size. It has been an amazing journey.