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I ran into this quote recently,

“We believe we are seeking happiness in love, but what we are really after is familiarity.”

The assertion sounded interesting enough, so I followed the link. In the rest of that discussion De Botton goes on to claim that what we are actually seeking in our adult romances is the same sort of dynamic we had with our parents, so we turn down perfectly good partners to seek out troubling ones with whom we can recreate our parental troubles. While I’ve no doubt this describes some people, and might even be willing to believe it describes a plurality, it most certainly does not describe all. And the unwaveringly universalizing way he makes this claim is patently offensive to those of us it excludes.

There are numberless people whose parental relationships were/are defined by abuse. To coyly describe these relationships as “[love] entwined with other, more destructive dynamics” is to normalize and erase the physical, sexual, and psychological violence we have endured. To boldly declare that, “We are constrained in our love choices by what we learned of love as children”, is to say that those who were abused as children are incapable of making healthy decisions as adults. To bombastically assert that, “Without [replicating our parental relationships], we may simply not be able to feel passionate and tender with someone”, is to say that passion and tenderness can only be felt through (re)enacting such violence as we endured as children. These claims are irresponsible and disgusting.

I, for one, have no desire to recreate the abuse of my childhood. Indeed, the surest way to end any relationship with me (romantic or otherwise) is to head even vaguely in that direction. And yet, I most assuredly do feel passion and tenderness and love. If those sensations were ‘learned’, they were most certainly not learned from my parents. What De Botton is doing is gaslighting those of us with abusive childhoods. Like most gaslighting it's a two-pronged assault: simultaneously denying the history of abuse, while also denying the healthiness of the present. De Botton is continuing the long tradition of blaming victims for the abuse they’ve suffered, lest one be forced to recognize the lie inherent in the fable of universal parental love. The lie must not be admitted, for to do so is to admit the truth that abusive parents exist and cause harm in virtue of a society that refuses to stop them or to protect its least powerful members from them. To admit the prevalence of parental abuse is to admit one's own culpability for not working to stop it. People will do much to escape blame, but they will do anything to escape blame for what they already feel guilty about.

Perhaps, in spite of De Botton, there is still some kernel of truth to the idea that it is familiarity more than happiness that we seek in love. Cognitively speaking, while excitement is valued in the short term, in the long term contentment is valued more. It's not too far a stretch to blur contentment/familiarity and excitement/happiness; so, to the extent that can be done, one might be able to substantiate the claim with data from cognitive and psychological research. But any further exploration of the idea should be done far away from De Botton's love affair with Freud by gas light.

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Life has been good overall. I’ve been wanting to write about various happenings of late (e.g., my trip to Nara for ICFP), but I’ve been terribly busy. Sure, sure, everyone’s busy. But no, my problem is that I have a terrible habit of overcommitting. For the longest time I’d always chalked it up to a personal failing; but lately I’m thinking that’s not quite right. Our society has a way of making us think whatever problems we face must be due to “personal failings”. One of the classic examples here is the Norman Door. But another classic example is the way we blame people with chronic conditions for the ableism they face.

So, what is a “Norman Door”? They’re called that because the problem was first (or most famously) highlighted by Don Norman. Have you ever had a door where you always pull when you’re supposed to push, or always push when you’re supposed to pull? Everyone has, and yet whenever we encounter them we always resort to blaming ourselves. Doors are such simple devices, surely any problems we have must be on us, right? But the problem isn’t us; the problem is the door. We discover how to operate the world around us by making use of affordances: flat/horizontal surfaces afford sitting and putting things on; handles afford grabbing and pulling; vertical surfaces afford pushing and leaning. So when public buildings don’t want people to sit on their ledges, they add bumps so they’re not smooth. When airplanes have surfaces they don’t want you to sit or put your feet on, they make them slanted so things don’t stay put. And a well-designed door is transparent about whether it should be pushed (plates or crashbars) or pulled (handles, especially vertical ones), and transparent about which side of the door needs operating (rather than, say, putting a doorknob in the center of the door). Those doors you can never get right are so difficult to deal with, not because you’re an idiot, but because they are poorly designed: the door’s affordances say to do one thing, when in fact you must do the opposite.

Poor design is ubiquitous, and I could go on all day about it. But the problem of Norman Doors isn’t just a problem of poor design, it’s a problem of social expectations. The problem isn’t just that these doors are annoying. It’s also that we blame ourselves for the failings of their designers. It’s also that this continuous low-grade annoyance exerts a continuous low-grade cost— in time, in flow, in emotional reserves. We get disrupted, frustrated, exhausted, and then we feel bad for not “measuring up” to society’s standards; and we reinforce that guilt by shaming others whenever they fall into the same traps. This is the same trick we play on minoritized people and people with chronic conditions. These people have to pay constant low-grade costs to overcome the iniquities of a society designed against them, but then we train them to blame themselves for encountering those injustices at all, let alone for not having the reserves to go on to lead “a productive life” after being exhausted by microaggressions.

Yes, I have problems overcommitting. But is it a personal failing? I’m not so sure. The problem is less one of not having enough time in an absolute sense, but rather a problem of not having enough spoons. I long ago got used to the constant low-grade costs of sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and saneism. But try as I might, I’ve not been able to get used to the costs of ableism. The sexism et al. was far worse in Bloomington than they are here in Mountain View. But from what I’ve seen so far, academia is far more amenable to folks with my sort of physical disabilities than industry is. It’s not even that Google is bad, per se; and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a lot better than most of industry. But even if the grass is browner on the other side, that doesn’t make it green here. The goog is great about providing ergonomic support, and that helps a ton. But the food/wellness program is grossly pro-orthorexic, which means they’re terrible for my dietary needs: I have issues with low-electrolytes, and the whole “salt is bad m’kay” propaganda causes health problems. (Hint: salt is crucial for the proper functioning of neurons. Also for silly things like maintaining blood volume, and hence adequate blood pressure.) I can, of course, bring salt from home or make sure to have extra at breakfast and dinner; but there’s an ongoing cost for keeping extra vigilant about it.

One of the bigger and harder-to-address forms of ableism in industry is the requirement to be ever present. Office life is exhausting. The triggering of sensory hypersensitivity, and accusations “antisociality” for wearing sensory-dep headphones. The expectation to sit still at your desk all day, and judgment for getting up to move around every pomodoro. Being interrogated if you use your cane irregularly, or being invisibilized if you use it regularly. To say nothing of the extreme ubiquitous fat-shaming of California. Many days, I’d be fine to get stuff done if I could work from home, but it takes all my spoons just to be “present”. And after a whole day or a whole week of being “present” I don’t have any energy left to pursue my passions and ambitions. Is it my fault for “over”committing to these passions? Of daring to have ambitions outside of surviving capitalism? Or is it a systemic problem that forces disabled people like myself to absorb the costs of society’s failure to design for the whole variety of human bodies?

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I took the US Trans Survey a while back and had some feedback, though I forgot to include it in the survey itself. In particular, my comment is about the gender/identity portion of the survey (question 2.2). It's great that you include a variety of nonbinary identities (fa'afafine, mahu, genderqueer, genderfluid, two-spirit, third gender,...) but I noticed a severe bias in terms of the more binary options. You offer a variety of options for masculine-of-center folks (AG, butch, stud,...) but you offer zero options for feminine-of-center folks. This contributes to the ongoing problem of femme/feminine erasure in feminist and LGBT communities. I identify very strongly as femme, in fact it's one of the few labels I "identify" with— far moreso than I "identify" with trans, fwiw.

While I did write in under the "other" option, I worry that this only serves to contribute to the ongoing erasure and underrepresentation of feminine identities. Having worked on a number of these sorts of surveys, here's a short list of reasons why:

  • Feminine-of-center folks will be undercounted because many will not feel strongly enough to write in.
  • The presentation of specific choices for masculine-of-center identities helps to funnel people towards particular terms, improving their statistical significance; whereas the lack of explicit options for feminine-of-center folks will result in a larger diversity of terms, thus decreasing each term's likelihood of reaching significance.
  • Attempting to correct for the previous point by aggregating all feminine-of-center identities serves to erase the diversity of femme/feminine identities: "femme" forms no more a singular identity than AG/butch/stud/etc forms a singular identity. The distinctions between high femme, hard femme, tomboy femme, etc are just as important as the distinctions between varieties of nonbinary or masculine-of-center identities.

While it is too late now to correct the 2015 survey, I do hope you take this into consideration when choosing how to report your results and when designing future surveys.


15 Feb 2015 03:03 am
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(Originally published as a comment to a friend, desiring to change the world and despairing to complain)

The feeling of not being allowed to complain is one of the primary ways that abusive settings perpetuate themselves. Complaints are a symptom that things are wrong, and implicitly a demand for things to change, so toxic communities do their best to indoctrinate people into the belief that "complainers" are bad people, that complaint is "a waste of time", that complaint is a sign of "weakness", that one's complaints are "frivolous", that one does not "deserve" to complain, that one does not have the "right" or the "authority" to complain, and so forth. It is a self-reinforcing process since to call it into question is to subject oneself to the accusations themselves.

To eschew complaint and wait for things to improve is to buy into the very system that estranges you. There is no glory in posing as the stoic hero; you cannot help others when you are reeling from your own wounds. Our glorification of solitary heroes is but another way of keeping people silent. There are no solitary heroes, there never have been; there are only communities of support. History chooses its heroes out of those communities in order to erase the community, to undermine the very support it gives. There are no "great men" in history, there are only great communities and great movements and the handful of names that get remembered.

Know this: you are always allowed complain. You are always allowed to exhibit your humanity, your pain, your unwillingness to suffer. That others may be worse off does not negate your own suffering. That others stay quiet —or have their voices silenced— does not negate the pain.

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A followup to my previous [reddit version]:

The examples are of limited utility. The problem is not a few bad apples or a few bad words; were that the case it would be easier to address. The problem is a subtle one: it's in the tone and tenor of conversation, it's in the things not talked about, in the implicitization of assumptions, and in a decentering of the sorts of communities of engagement that Haskell was founded on.

Back in 2003 and 2005, communities like Haskell Cafe were communities of praxis. That is, we gathered because we do Haskell, and our gathering was a way to meet others who do Haskell. Our discussions were centered on this praxis and on how we could improve our own doing of Haskell. Naturally, as a place of learning it was also a place of teaching— but teaching was never the goal, teaching was a necessary means to the end of improving our own understandings of being lazy with class. The assumptions implicit in the community at the time were that Haskell was a path to explore, and an obscure one at that. It is not The Way™ by any stretch of the imagination. And being a small community it was easy to know every person in it, to converse as you would with a friend not as you would online.

Over time the tone and nature of the Cafe changed considerably. It's hard to explain the shift without overly praising the way things were before or overly condemning the shift. Whereas the Cafe used to be a place for people to encounter one another on their solitary journeys, in time it became less of a resting stop (or dare I say: cafe) and more of a meeting hall. No longer a place to meet those who do Haskell, but rather a place for a certain communal doing of Haskell. I single the Cafe out only because I have the longest history with that community, but the same overall shift has occurred everywhere I've seen. Whereas previously it was a community of praxis, now it is more a community of educationalism. In the public spaces there is more teaching of Haskell than doing of it. There's nothing wrong with teaching, but when teaching becomes the thing-being-done rather than a means to an end, it twists the message. It's no longer people asking for help and receiving personal guidance, it's offering up half-baked monad tutorials to the faceless masses. And from tutorialization it's a very short path to proselytizing and evangelizing. And this weaponization of knowledge always serves to marginalize and exclude very specific voices from the community.

One class of voices being excluded is women. To see an example of this, consider the response to Doaitse Swierstra's comment at the 2012 Haskell Symposium. Stop thinking about the comment. The comment is not the point. The point is, once the problematic nature of the comment was raised, how did the community respond? If you want a specific example, this is it. The example is not in what Swierstra said, the example is in how the Haskell community responded to being called out. If you don't recall how this went down, here's the reddit version; though it's worth pointing out that there were many other conversations outside of reddit. A very small number of people acquitted themselves well. A handful of people knew how to speak the party line but flubbed it by mansplaining, engaging in flamewars, or allowing the conversation to be derailed. And a great many people were showing their asses all over the place. Now I want you to go through and read every single comment there, including the ones below threshold. I want you to read those comments and imagine that this is not an academic debate. Imagine that this is your life. Imagine that you are the unnamed party under discussion. That your feelings are the ones everyone thinks they know so much about. That you personally are the one each commenter is accusing of overreacting. Imagine that you are a woman, that you are walking down the street in the middle of the night in an unfamiliar town after a long day of talks. It was raining earlier so the streets are wet. You're probably wearing flats, but your feet still hurt. You're tired. Perhaps you had a drink over dinner with other conference-goers, or perhaps not. Reading each comment, before going on to the next one, stop and ask yourself: would you feel safe if this commenter decided to follow you home on that darkened street? Do you feel like this person can comprehend that you are a human being on that wet street? Do you trust this person's intentions in being around you late at night? And ask yourself, when some other commenter on that thread follows you home at night and rapes you in the hotel, do you feel safe going to the comment's author to tell them what happened? Because none of this is academic. As a woman you go to conferences and this is how you are treated. And the metric of whether you can be around someone is not whether they seem interesting or smart or anything else, the metric is: do you feel safe? If you can understand anything about what this is like, then reading that thread will make you extremely uncomfortable. The problem is not that some person makes a comment. The problem is that masculinized communities are not safe for women. The problem is that certain modes of interaction are actively hostile to certain participants. The problem is finding yourself in an uncomfortable situation and knowing that noone has your back. Knowing that anyone who agrees with you will remain silent because they do not think you are worth the time and energy to bother supporting. Because that's what silence says. Silence says you are not worth it. Silence says you are not one of us. Silence says I do not think you are entirely human. And for all the upvotes and all the conversation my previous comment has sparked on twitter, irc, and elsewhere, I sure don't hear anyone here speaking up to say they got my back.

This is not a problem about women in Haskell. Women are just the go-to example, the example cis het middle-class educated able white men are used to engaging. Countless voices are excluded by the current atmosphere in Haskell communities. I know they are excluded because I personally watched them walk out the door after incidents like the one above, and I've been watching them leave for a decade. I'm in various communities for queer programmers, and many of the folks there use Haskell but none of them will come within ten feet of "official" Haskell communities. That aversion is even stronger in the transgender/genderqueer community. I personally know at least a dozen trans Haskellers, but I'm the only one who participates in the "official" Haskell community. Last fall I got hatemail from Haskellers for bringing up the violence against trans women of color on my blog, since that blog is syndicated to Planet Haskell. Again, when I brought this up, people would express their dismay in private conversations, but noone would say a damn thing in public nor even acknowledge that I had spoken. Ours has never been a great community for people of color, and when I talk to POC about Haskell I do not even consider directing them to the "official" channels. When Ken Shan gave the program chair report at the Haskell symposium last year, there was a similarly unwholesome response as with Swierstra's comment the year before. A number of people have shared their experiences in response to Ken's call, but overwhelmingly people feel like their stories of being marginalized and excluded "don't count" or "aren't enough to mention". Stop. Think about that. A lot of people are coming forward to talk about how they've been made to feel uncomfortable, and while telling those stories they feel the need to qualify. While actively explaining their own experiences of racism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ablism, sanism, etc, they feel the simultaneous need to point out that these experiences are not out of the ordinary. Experiencing bigotry is so within the ordinary that people feel like they're being a bother to even mention it. This is what I'm talking about. This is what I mean when I say that there is a growing miasma in our community. This is how racism and sexism and ablism work. It's not smacking someone on the ass or using the N-word. It's a pervasive and insidious tone in the conversation, a thousand and one not-so-subtle clues about who gets to be included and who doesn't. And yes the sexual assaults and slurs and all that factor in, but that's the marzipan on top of the cake. The cake is made out of assuming someone who dresses "like a rapper" can't be a hacker. The cake is made out of assuming that "mother" and "professional" are exclusive categories. The cake is made out of well-actuallys and feigned surprise. And it works this way because this is how it avoids being called into question. So when you ask for specific examples you're missing the point. I can give examples, but doing so only contributes to the errant belief that bigotry happens in moments. Bigotry is not a moment. Bigotry is a sustained state of being that permeates one's actions and how one forms and engages with community. So knowing about that hatemail, or knowing about when I had to call someone out for sharing titty pictures on Haskell Cafe, or knowing about the formation of #nothaskell, or knowing about how tepid the response to Tim's article or Ken's report were, knowing about none of these specifics helps to engage with the actual problem.

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Gershom Bazerman gave some excellent advice for activism and teaching. His focus was on teaching Haskell and advocating for Haskell, but the advice is much more widely applicable and I recommend it to anyone interested in activism, social justice, or education. The piece has garnered a good deal of support on reddit— but, some people have expressed their impression that Gershom's advice is targeting a theoretical or future problem, rather than a very concrete and very contemporary one. I gave a reply there about how this is indeed a very real issue, not a wispy one out there in the distance. However, I know that a lot of people like me —i.e., the people who bear the brunt of these problems— tend to avoid reddit because it is an unsafe place for us, and I think my point is deserving of a wider audience. So I've decided to repeat it here:

This is a very real and current problem. (Regardless of whether things are less bad in Haskell communities than in other programming communities.) I used to devote a lot of energy towards teaching folks online about the ideas behind Haskell. However, over time, I've become disinclined to do so as these issues have become more prevalent. I used to commend Haskell communities for offering a safe and welcoming space, until I stopped feeling quite so safe and welcomed myself.

I do not say this to shame anyone here. I say it as an observation about why I have found myself pulling away from the Haskell community over time. It is not a deliberate act, but it is fact all the same. The thing is, if someone like me —who supports the ideology which gave rise to Haskell, who is well-educated on the issues at hand, who uses Haskell professionally, who teaches Haskell professionally, and most importantly: who takes joy in fostering understanding and in building communities— if someone like me starts instinctively pulling away, that's a problem.

There are few specific instances where I was made to feel unsafe directly, but for years there has been a growing ambiance which lets me know that I am not welcome, that I am not seen as being part of the audience. The ambiance (or should I say miasma?) is one that pervades most computer science and programming/tech communities, and things like dogmatic activism, dragon slaying, smarter-than-thou "teaching", anti-intellectualism, hyper-intellectualism, and talking over the people asking questions, are all just examples of the overarching problem of elitism and exclusion. The problem is not that I personally do not feel as welcomed as I once did, the problem is that many people do not feel welcome. The problem is not that my experience and expertise are too valuable to lose, it's that everyone's experience and expertise is too valuable to lose. The problem is not that I can't teach people anymore, it's that people need teachers and mentors and guides. And when the tenor of conversation causes mentors and guides to pull away, causes the silencing of experience and expertise, causes the exclusion and expulsion of large swaths of people, that always has an extremely detrimental impact on the community.

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Finally, hard evidence of what we've known all along: Everything the TSA has been doing is a waste of time and money, and violates our privacy for no security gain whatsoever.

quoted from the TSA's own statements: "As of mid-2011, terrorist threat groups present in the Homeland are not known to be actively plotting against civil aviation targets or airports; instead, their focus is on fundraising, recruiting, and propagandizing."
Elsewhere, in the redacted portions, the TSA is quoted as admitting that "there have been no attempted domestic hijackings of any kind in the 12 years since 9/11."
Amazingly, it appears that the government forced Corbett to redact the revelation that the TSA's own threat assessments have shown "literally zero evidence that anyone is plotting to blow up an airline leaving from a domestic airport."

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All you hackers should read this. True to form, I came to hacking late, much despite a strong interest in mathematics as a child. (For those who may not be aware, mathematics does not have the same gender inequity problems CS does.) These sorts of privilege contests have always pissed me off, not just because of the machismo involved but also —though I did not have the words at the time— exactly because of their brandishing of white male privilege as virtuous and ideal.
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March 2017



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