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The Great Man and the WASP

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Last week, the New York Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat published a piece called “Why We Miss the WASPs.” Newspaper writers don’t get to choose their own headlines, and it’s possible that if the essay had run under a different title, it might not have attracted the same degree of attention, which was far from flattering. Douthat’s argument—which was inspired by the death of George H.W. Bush and his obvious contrast with the current occupant of the White House—can be summarized concisely:

Bush nostalgia [is] a longing for something America used to have and doesn’t really any more—a ruling class that was widely (not universally, but more widely than today) deemed legitimate, and that inspired various kinds of trust (intergenerational, institutional) conspicuously absent in our society today. Put simply, Americans miss Bush because we miss the WASPs—because we feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.

Douthat ostentatiously concedes one point to his critics in advance: “The old ruling class was bigoted and exclusive and often cruel, it had failures aplenty, and as a Catholic I hold no brief for its theology.” But he immediately adds that “building a more democratic and inclusive ruling class is harder than it looks, and even perhaps a contradiction in terms,” and he suggests that one solution would be a renewed embrace of the idea that “a ruling class should acknowledge itself for what it really is, and act accordingly.”

Not surprisingly, Douthat’s assumptions about the desirable qualities of “a ruling class” were widely derided. He responded with a followup piece in which he lamented the “misreadings” of those who saw his column as “a paean to white privilege, even a brief for white supremacy,” while never acknowledging any flaws in his argument’s presentation. But what really sticks with me is the language of the first article, which is loaded with rhetorical devices that both skate lightly over its problems and make it difficult to deal honestly with the issues that it raises. One strategy, which may well have been unconscious, is a familiar kind of distancing. As Michael Harriot writes in The Root:

I must applaud opinion writer Ross Douthat for managing to put himself at an arms-length distance from the opinions he espoused. Douthat employed the oft-used Fox News, Trumpian “people are saying…” trick, essentially explaining that some white people think like this. Not him particularly—but some people.

It’s a form of evasiveness that resembles the mysterious “you” of other sorts of criticism, and it enables certain opinions to make it safely into print. Go back and rewrite the entire article in the first person, and it becomes all but unreadable. For instance, it’s hard to imagine Douthat writing a sentence like this: “I miss Bush because I miss the WASPs—because I feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.”

But even as Douthat slips free from the implications of his argument on one end, he’s ensnared at the other by his own language. We can start with the term “ruling class” itself, which appears in the article no fewer than five times, along with a sixth instance in a quotation from the critic Helen Andrews. The word “establishment” appears seventeen times. If asked, Douthat might explain that he’s using both of these terms in a neutral sense, simply to signify the people who end up in political office or in other positions of power. But like the “great man” narrative of history or the “competent man” of science fiction, these words lock us into a certain set of assumptions, by evoking an established class that rules rather than represents, and they beg the rather important question of whether we need a ruling class at all. Even more insidiously, Douthat’s entire argument rests on the existence of the pesky but convenient word “WASP” itself. When the term appeared half a century ago, it was descriptive and slightly pejorative. (According to the political scientist Andrew Harris, who first used it in print, it originated in the “the cocktail party jargon of the sociologists,” and the initial letter initially stood for “wealthy.” As it stands, the term is slightly redundant, although it still describes exactly the same group of people, and foregrounding their whiteness isn’t necessarily a bad idea.) Ultimately, however, it turned into a tag that allows us to avoid spelling out everything that it includes, which makes it easier to let such attitudes slip by unexamined. Let’s rework that earlier sentence one more time: “I miss Bush because I miss the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants—because I feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.” And this version, at least, is much harder to “misread.”

At this point, I should probably confess that I take a personal interest in everything that Douthat writes. Not only are we both Ivy Leaguers, but we’re members of the same college class, although I don’t think we ever crossed paths. In most other respects, we don’t have a lot in common, but I can relate firsthand to the kind of educational experience—which John Stuart Mill describes in today’s quotation—that leads public intellectuals to become more limited in their views than they might realize. Inspired by a love of the great books and my summer at St. John’s College, I spent most of my undergraduate years reading an established canon of writers, in part because I was drawn to an idea of elitism in its most positive sense. What I didn’t see for a long time was that I was living in an echo chamber. It takes certain forms of privilege and status for granted, and it makes it hard to talk about these matters in the real world without a conscious effort of will. (In his original article, Douthat’s sense of the possible objections to his thesis is remarkably blinkered in itself. After acknowledging the old ruling class’s bigotry, exclusivity, and cruelty, he adds: “And don’t get me started on its Masonry.” That was fairly low down my list of concerns, but now I’m frankly curious.) I understand where Douthat is coming from, because I came from it, too. But that isn’t an excuse for looking at the WASPS, or a dynasty that made a fortune in the oil business, and feeling “nostalgic for their competence,” which falls apart the second we start to examine it. If they did rule us once, then they bear responsibility for the destruction of our planet and the perpetuation of attitudes that put democracy itself at risk. If they’ve managed to avoid much of the blame, it’s only because it took decades for us to see the full consequences of their actions, which have emerged more clearly in the generation that they raised in their image. It might well be true, as Douthat wrote, that they trained their children “for service, not just success.” But they also failed miserably.

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19 hours ago
Boulder, CO
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Two-Year Snowfall Slump in Rare Company for Denver as We near the End of 2018

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I understand that we typically measure seasonal snowfall totals (September - May) rather than annual, but given we're not even halfway through this season, let's take a quick look at how annual snowfall since January 2017 in Denver stacks up against previous years.

2017 was the least snowy year on record (dating back to 1882) for Denver. At just 17.2" on the year, it nudged out 1887 (18.9") as least snowiest, with 1888 coming in as a close third at 21.5". Remarkably, Denver has only recorded less than 30" in a year just 12 times in the last 137 years of record keeping. Two of those 12 came last year and this year (we need 3.4" of snow before the end of the month to hit 30" this year), several focused in the late 19th century, and just a few sprinkled in during the "big snow years" of the 20th century.

Annual snowfall totals in Denver, CO from 1882 to 2018

As you probably gathered above, the least-snowy two year stretch for snow in Denver came in 1887 and 1888, when just 40.4" of snow fell in the city over that period. Last year and this year are pulling in as close second, with 43.8" of snow recorded in Denver since January 2018.

This is an exceptional snow drought we are in, no two ways about it. The 43.8" we've seen over the last two years is running about 13" below our annual average. If we compare these last two years to our snowiest duo (1912 - 1913) when 193.1" fell on the city, well... as a snow lover, I just get depressed. I can't even really fathom what a two year period like that might be like? Of course, a huge chunk of that came in one epic snow in December of 1913, which blanketed the city in 45.7" of snow. Somewhat remarkably, that's again more snow than we've seen in the last two years combined.

Of course, the year isn't over, so perhaps we'll round out 2018 with an unexpected boom of heavy snow. The problem is that time is running out... and as it stands, we aren't staring any big storms directly in the face. Our next chance of snow appears to be mid to late next week... let's see how we do.

We've got a long way to go this season, a new year is around the corner, our analog package and winter outlook offer some optimism for moisture returning as we head into late winter and the spring. Let us hope we turn things around.

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2 days ago
la la la la la everything is fine
Boulder, CO
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How do you document a tech project with comics?

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Every so often I get email from people saying basically “hey julia! we have an open source project! we’d like to use comics / zines / art to document our project! Can we hire you?“.

spoiler: the answer is “no, you can’t hire me” – I don’t do commissions. But I do think this is a cool idea and I’ve often wished I had something more useful to say to people than “no”, so if you’re interested in this, here are some ideas about how to accomplish it!

zine != drawing

First, a terminology distinction. One weird thing I’ve noticed is that people frequently refer to individual tech drawings as “zines”. I think this is due to me communicating poorly somehow, but – drawings are not zines! A zine is a printed booklet, like a small magazine. You wouldn’t call a photo of a model in Vogue a magazine! The magazine has like a million pages! An individual drawing is a drawing/comic/graphic/whatever. Just clarifying this because I think it causes a bit of unnecessary confusion.

comics without good information are useless

Usually when folks ask me “hey, could we make a comic explaining X”, it doesn’t seem like they have a clear idea of what information exactly they want to get across, they just have a vague idea that maybe it would be cool to draw some comics. This makes sense – figuring out what information would be useful to tell people is very hard!! It’s 80% of what I spend my time on when making comics.

You should think about comics the same way as any kind of documentation – start with the information you want to convey, who your target audience is, and how you want to distribute it (twitter? on your website? in person?), and figure out how to illustrate it after :). The information is the main thing, not the art!

Once you have a clear story about what you want to get across, you can start trying to think about how to represent it using illustrations!

focus on concepts that don’t change

Drawing comics is a much bigger investment than writing documentation (it takes me like 5x longer to convey the same information in a comic than in writing). So use it wisely! Because it’s not that easy to edit, if you’re going to make something a comic you want to focus on concepts that are very unlikely to change. So talk about the core ideas in your project instead of the exact command line arguments it takes!

Here are a couple of options for how you could use comics/illustrations to document your project!

option 1: a single graphic

One format you might want to try is a single, small graphic explaining what your project is about and why folks might be interested in it. For example: this zulip comic

This is a short thing, you could post it on Twitter or print it as a pamphlet to give out. The information content here would probably be basically what’s on your project homepage, but presented in a more fun/exciting way :)

You can put a pretty small amount of information in a single comic. With that Zulip comic, the things I picked out were:

  • zulip is sort of like slack, but it has threads
  • it’s easy to keep track of threads even if the conversation takes place over several days
  • you can much more easily selectively catch up with Zulip
  • zulip is open source
  • there’s an open zulip server you can try out

That’s not a lot of information! It’s 50 words :). So to do this effectively you need to distill your project down to 50 words in a way that’s still useful. It’s not easy!

option 2: many comics

Another approach you can take is to make a more in depth comic / illustration, like google’s guide to kubernetes or the children’s illustrated guide to kubernetes.

To do this, you need a much stronger concept than “uh, I want to explain our project” – you want to have a clear target audience in mind! For example, if I were drawing a set of Docker comics, I’d probably focus on folks who want to use Docker in production. so I’d want to discuss:

  • publishing your containers to a public/private registry
  • some best practices for tagging your containers
  • how to make sure your hosts don’t run out of disk space from downloading too many containers
  • how to use layers to save on disk space / download less stuff
  • whether it’s reasonable to run the same containers in production & in dev

That’s totally different from the set of comics I’d write for folks who just want to use Docker to develop locally!

option 3: a printed zine

The main thing that differentiates this from “many comics” is that zines are printed! Because of that, for this to make sense you need to have a place to give out the printed copies! Maybe you’re going present your project at a major conference? Maybe you give workshops about your project and want to give our the zine to folks in the workshop as notes? Maybe you want to mail it to people?

how to hire someone to help you

There are basically 3 ways to hire someone:

  1. Hire someone who both understands (or can quickly learn) the technology you want to document and can illustrate well. These folks are tricky to find and probably expensive (I certainly wouldn’t do a project like this for less than $10,000 even if I did do commissions), just because programmers can usually charge a pretty high consulting rate. I’d guess that the main failure mode here is that it might be impossible/very hard to find someone, and it might be expensive.
  2. Collaborate with an illustrator to draw it for you. The main failure mode here is that if you don’t give the illustrator clear explanations of your tech to work with, you.. won’t end up with a clear and useful explanation. From what I’ve seen, most folks underinvest in writing clear explanations for their illustrators – I’ve seen a few really adorable tech comics that I don’t find useful or clear at all. I’d love to see more people do a better job of this. What’s the point of having an adorable illustration if it doesn’t teach anyone anything? :)
  3. Draw it yourself :). This is what I do, obviously. stick figures are okay!

Most people seem to use method #2 – I’m not actually aware of any tech folks who have done commissioned comics (though I’m sure it’s happened!). I think method #2 is a great option and I’d love to see more folks do it. Paying illustrators is really fun!

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2 days ago
I've done a little bit of documenting stuff with comics elements, and this is all pretty solid advice.
Boulder, CO
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Can you just search ‘Yoga’ on the computer and *white noise*

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Can you just search ‘Yoga’ on the computer and *white noise* 

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7 days ago
Boulder, CO
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How to abandon a FLOSS project

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It’s no secret that maintaining free and open source software is often a burdensome and thankless job. I empathise with maintainers who lost interest in a project, became demotivated by the endless demands of users, or are no longer blessed with enough free time. Whatever the reason, FLOSS work is volunteer work, and you’re free to stop volunteering at any time.

In my opinion, there are two good ways to abandon a project: the fork it option and the hand-off option. The former is faster and easier, and you can pick this if you want to wash your hands of the project ASAP, but has a larger effect on the community. The latter is not always possible, requires more work on your part, and takes longer, but it has a minimal impact on the community.

Let’s talk about the easy way first. Start by adding a notice to your README that your software is now unmaintained. If you have the patience, give a few weeks notice before you really stop paying attention to it. Inform interested parties that they should consider forking the software and maintaining it themselves under another name. Once a fork gains traction, update the README again to direct would-be users to the fork. If no one forks it, you could consider directing users to similar alternatives to your software.

This approach allows you to quickly absolve yourself of responsibility. Your software is no worse than it was yesterday, which allows users a grace period to collect themselves and start up a fork. If you revisit your work later, you can also become a contributor to the fork yourself, which removes the stress of being a maintainer while still providing value to the project. Or, you can just wash your hands of it entirely and move on to bigger and better things. This “fork it” approach is safer than giving control of your project to passerby, because it requires your users to acknowledge the transfer of power, instead of being surprised by a new maintainer in a trusted package.

The “fork it” approach is well suited when the maintainer wants out ASAP, or for smaller projects with little activity. But, for active projects with a patient maintainer, the hand-off approach is less disruptive. Start talking with some of your major contributors about increasing their involvement in the administrative side of the projects. Mentor them on doing code reviews, ticket triage, sysadmin stuff, marketing - all the stuff you have to do - and gradually share these responsibilities with them. These people eventually become productive co-maintainers, and once established you can step away from the project with little fanfare.

Taking this approach can also help you find healthier ways to be involved in your own project. This can allow you to focus on the work you enjoy and spend less time on the work you don’t enjoy, which might even restore your enthusiasm for the project outright! This is also a good idea even if you aren’t planning on stepping down - it encourages your contributors to take personal stake in the project, which makes them more productive and engaged. This also makes your community more resilient to author existence failure, so that when circumstance forces you to step down the project continues to be healthy.

It’s important to always be happy in your work, and especially in your volunteer work. If it’s not working, then change it. For me, this happens in different ways. I’ve abandoned projects outright and sent users off to make their own fork before. I’ve also handed projects over to their major contributors. In some projects I’ve appointed new maintainers and scaled back my role to a mere contributor, and in other projects I’ve moved towards roles in marketing, outreach, management, and stepped away from development. There’s no shame in any of these changes - you still deserve pride in your accomplishments, and seeking constructive solutions to burnout would do your community a great service.

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7 days ago
Boulder, CO
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What I Found Most Interesting from Amazon re:invent 2018

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Amazon has completely crushed it again at this year’s re:invent conference.

They continue to innovate a truly frightening pace. And when I say frightening, I mean…in that it creates fear within me. It’s just doing so much, so quickly, that I can’t help but feel uncomfortable.

But it’s a good thing. I think. It’s definitely sending a great message to basically anyone in technology, which is, “We’re coming for you, and we just might implement your business as a special project next weekend”.

Anyway, they announced way too many things to focus on individually. Here were the ones that stood out to me.

Keep in mind that many of these projects by Amazon start off with very basic functionality, and only get good enough to replace a startup’s offering after multiple updates.

  • AWS Control Towwer: Shots fired at all the various AWS security startups out there, as this thing gives you a single place to go to manage your account’s security.
  • Security Hub: Gives you a single view of your highest-priority security alerts. Basically the beginnings of a SIEM and/or orchestration play.
  • AWS On-prem: Run AWS services locally.
  • Lake Formation: Create data lakes within AWS.
  • Global Accelerator: Basically a global performance and availability network.
  • Amazon Personalize: Create personalized recommendations using your own data, just like Amazon’s.
  • Amazon Textract: Automatically extrat text from all sorts of inputs.
  • Amazon Sagemaker: Train models using reinforcement learning.
  • Cloud Map: Map out your various applications and how they talk to each other.
  • Ground Station: Full-managed satellite communications service.
  • Amazon Deepracer: Train autonomous cars using a small but accurate physical scale model.
  • Quantum Ledger Database: They basically took the most powerful use case for Blockchain and made it a standalone service.
  • Managed Blockchain: No need to roll your own anymore.
  • Amazon Timestream: Their own version of a time-series database.
  • RoboMaker: Create, test, and deploy robotics applications.
  • C5n EC2 instances for super high bandwidth requirements

If I had to pick I’d say the top 5 were:

  1. AWS Control Towwer: Shots fired at all the various AWS security startups out there, as this thing gives you a single place to go to manage your account’s security.
  2. Security Hub: Gives you a single view of your highest-priority security alerts. Basically the beginnings of a SIEM and/or orchestration play.
  3. Quantum Ledger Database: They basically took the most powerful use case for Blockchain and made it a standalone service.
  4. Amazon Personalize: Create personalized recommendations using your own data, just like Amazon’s.
  5. Global Accelerator: Basically a global performance and availability network.

Other companies need to figure out how Amazon innovates at this pace, and copy it.

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8 days ago
«It’s definitely sending a great message to basically anyone in technology, which is, “We’re coming for you, and we just might implement your business as a special project next weekend”."»

Yeah, great message. Love it.

(I hate everything.)
Boulder, CO
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