Day 5: Protests and Anger

As the protests ignited by the murder of George Floyd spread across the country, I am inspired by the energy. I came of age during the protests against the Vietnam War, and have always associated those actions with a positive correction – analogous to running a fever to fight an infection. Racism, corruption, hatred… these are all diseases that, when unchecked, require a strong immune system response.

Anger is an energy.

Rise, Public Image, Ltd.

Not every part of these protests is perfect, of course. When anger is your fuel, it can express itself in destructive ways, especially in groups of people.

In the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Many will continue to refuse to hear. They will focus on the negative: the looting, the destruction, etc., and completely ignore that which pushed people to react with such intensity. They will clutch at straws that somehow explain why it was necessary to kneel with your full weight for 9 minutes on the neck of a man who was handcuffed and face-down on the ground.

Kick over the wall, cause governments to fall

How can you refuse it?

Let fury have the hour. Anger can be power!

Do you know that you can use it?

Clampdown, The Clash

Growing up, I watched the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, and by the 70s I thought that that was settled. But those forces of hatred weren’t eliminated; instead, they were pushed to the background. In my naiveté, I never imagined that ignorance like that could persist. I mean, wasn’t it clear that segregation was completely wrong? Wasn’t it clear that people were people, no matter their skin color?

They never did go away, though. They went underground, and spoke in “dog whistle” code to avoid being ostracized, since overt racism was not tolerated by the public. The election of Obama to the Presidency was the moment that galvanized these hateful people, and the Republican Party was all too willing to tap into it. I have written how the ascension of Donald Trump led to these people feeling free to once again be publicly hateful; my hope is that these protests start the pendulum swinging the other way, where racism, hatred, and bigotry are no longer tolerated.

Day 4: Racial Blindness

I’ve always hated the expression used by well-meaning white people: “I don’t see color”. They think that it means that they are open-minded, and treat everyone the same no matter their skin color. It’s a wonderful sentiment, isn’t it?

It’s also one that is only possible if your skin color doesn’t disadvantage you. For everyone else, they have to deal with the reality of being visibly different than those in power, and being treated differently (ok, worse) as a result.

Back in the late ’80s I had a friend who was black. He was in his early 30s, like me, had a young child, like me, and lived in a house he owned in northern NJ, like me. He was also very light-skinned, and dressed, well, like me. His appearance was the furthest thing from the “gangsta” style. We worked together, played tennis together, and got to know each other very well.

At work we were both on the evening shift. Since we lived near each other, we took the same route for the most part, and one particular evening I saw his car pulled over by a cop. The next day when I saw him, I started to give him shit about getting a speeding ticket, and he told me that he wasn’t speeding and didn’t get a ticket. I asked him why he got pulled over, and he told me that the cop wanted to know what he was doing driving through that part of town.

The look of confusion on my face must have been apparent, and he started to explain the problem of what we now call “driving while black”. This was the first that I had heard of such a thing, and told him that there had to be more to it than that. In those days I still hadn’t learned to listen when someone tells you of an experience that you can’t possibly fathom because you aren’t in that group that experiences discrimination. Fortunately, he was patient with me, explaining that this happens often enough that he knew how to respond in as non-threatening a manner as possible so as not to provoke the police, and that they always let him go.

Over the next few weeks we talked a lot about what it was like for him. Me, in my ignorance, assumed that since he was the least-threatening-looking person around, no one would harass him, but he had story after story about just that. One day we were hanging out at his house, and his wife asked him to run to a local department store to pick up something. When we got there, he told me to not stay with him, but stay close enough to watch the store security follow him. Once again, I thought he was exaggerating things, but I played along. He went to one side of department, and I went to a nearby aisle. I saw several people who I assumed were security, and they did seem to be looking at him and ignoring me. He then walked to the opposite side of the area, and sure enough, two of the security people moved with him to keep him in their sight. I walked around several areas, including crossing directly in front of them, and never got a second glance from them. But as my friend moved around, they followed.

From that day on, I always try to see color. Pretending that it doesn’t permeate our experience is only possible when you’re white and ignorant. The luxury to ignore race is what people mean when they speak of “privilege”.

Maybe some of you are feeling a bit defensive, thinking “I’m not racist!”, and I’m sure you aren’t, at least consciously. I wrote about unconscious bias before, and it is really important to be aware that it exists, no matter how kind and loving you try to be.

Don’t be blind to our differences! Instead, recognize them, celebrate them, and embrace them! And if you, like me, are lucky enough to have been born into privilege, don’t feel bad – it’s only a bad thing if you don’t use it to help those who weren’t as fortunate. We can’t overcome the racists of the world by turning a blind eye to these problems.

Damned If You Do

The recent spate of canceled conferences, sporting events, etc., due to concerns about spreading infection of the coronavirus COVID-19 has made me think about what will happen if these efforts are successful.

Back in the late 1990s, people realized that a lot of software written in the mid-20th century had a problem: due to the expense of storage, programmers shortened the way years were stored, so that something like 1978 would be stored as 78, with the century assumed. This was fine, but as that software aged, and the coming change of century approached, it was realized that many critical software problems would go from December 31, 1999, to January 1, 1900. This was the Year 2000 problem, commonly abbreviated as Y2K.

Having recognized the issue, most software companies invested heavily in updating their software to use full 4-digit representations for the year. It was tedious work; I personally had to write a series of tests for my projects that verified that things would continue to work in the year 2000. But because the warning was heeded, by the time that January 1, 2000 came most software had been updated. As a result, all of the doomsday scenarios (such as planes dropping from the sky) had been avoided. Yes, there were some billing glitches that were missed, but because of the intense efforts to address this problem, there were no serious problems.

What was the public’s reaction to this? Did they laud the developers for successfully averting a potential problem? Of course not. Instead, they reacted with disdain: “I thought this was going to be the end of the world! Nothing happened!”.

And that’s the point: because the warnings were heeded, and action was taken, nothing catastrophic happened. It didn’t mean that the problem wasn’t real; it just meant that the tech community understood the problem, and addressed it head-on.

So I’m wondering what will happen if the common-sense steps we are taking now to avoid spreading this virus ends up that not that many people get sick or die: will the Fox News people start complaining that it was all a politically-inspired hoax? That the liberal media tried to make Trump look bad by crying wolf? It almost makes me think that if there is a terrible body count, people will be ridiculed for taking ineffective steps, but if there isn’t such a terrible outcome, the steps that were taken will be ridiculed as overreaction, or, even worse, a political stunt.

Damned if you do; damned if you dont.

Why Go to a Tech Conference?

Good question! It does seem unnecessary, especially since most major conferences record every talk and make them freely available online. PyCon has been doing this for many years, and are so good at it that the talks are available online shortly after they are finished! So there’s no real penalty for waiting until you can watch it online.

I suppose that if you look at tech conferences as simply dry tutorials on some new tool or technique, the answer would be “no, you should save your money and watch the sessions at home”. But there are much bigger benefits to attending a conference than just the knowledge available at the talks. I like to think of it as pressing the restart button on my thinking as a developer. By taking advantage of these additional avenues of learning, I come away with a different perspective on things: new tools, new ways of using existing tools, different approaches to solving development issues, and so much more that is intangible. Limiting yourself to the tangible resources of a conference means that you’re missing out. So what are these intangible things?

One of the most important is meeting people. Not so much to build your social network, but more to expand your understanding of different approaches to development. The people there may be strangers, but you know that you have at least one thing in common with them, so it’s easy to start conversations. I’ve been to 14 PyCons, and at lunch I make it a point to sit at tables where I don’t know anyone, and ask the people there “So what do you use Python for?”. Invariably they use it in ways that I had never thought about, or to solve problems that I had never worked on. The conversation can then move on to “Where are you from?”; people usually love to brag about their home town, and you might learn a few interesting things about a place you’ve never been to. Many people also go out to dinner in groups, usually with people who know each other, but I always try to look for people who are alone, and invite them to join our group.

Another major benefit of attending in person is what is known as the “hallway track”. These are the unscheduled discussions that occur in the hallways between sessions; sometimes they are a continuation of discussions that were held in a previous talk, and other times they are simply a bunch of people exchanging ideas. Some of the best technical takeaways I’ve gotten from conferences have come from these hallway discussions. When you’ve been to as many PyCons as I have, there are many people I run into who I haven’t seen since the last PyCon, and we can catch up on what’s new in each other’s lives and careers. Like the lunchtime table discussions, these are opportunities to learn about techniques and approaches that are different than what you regularly do.

Closely related to the above is the “bar track”. Most conferences have a main hotel for attendees, and in the evening you can find lots of people hanging out in the bar. The discussions there tend to have a bit less technical content, for obvious reasons, but I’ve been part of some very technical discussions where the participants are all on their third beer or so. But even if you don’t drink alcohol, you can certainly enjoy hanging out with your fellow developers in the evening. Or, of course, you can use that time to recharge your mental batteries.

Yet another opportunity at a conference is to enhance your career. There is usually some form of formal recruiting; if you’re looking for a change of career, this can be a valuable place to start. I’ve heard some managers say that they won’t send their developers to conferences because they are afraid that someone will hire them; it makes you wonder why they think their developers are not happy with their current job! But even if you’re not looking to make a career move at the moment, establishing relationships with others in your field can come in handy in the future if your job suddenly disappears. You can also learn what companies are looking for skills that match yours; I was surprised to learn that companies as diverse as Disney, Capital One, Yelp, and Bloomberg are all looking for Python talent. As an example, back at PyCon 2016 I met with some people recruiting for DataRobot, and while I didn’t pursue things then, they made a good impression on me. When I was looking for a change last year and got a LinkedIn message from a recruiter at DataRobot, I remembered them well, and this time I followed up, with the result that I’m now happily employed by DataRobot!

Unfortunately, I’ve seen people who arrive to a conference with a group of co-workers, attend the sessions, eat with each other at lunch, and then go out to dinner together. By isolating themselves and confining their learning to the scheduled talks, they are missing out on the most valuable part of attending a conference: interacting with your community, and sharing knowledge with your peers. If this sounds like you, I would advise you to try out some of the things I’ve mentioned here. I’m sure you will find that your conference experience is greatly improved!

Towel Theory

A popular way of looking at the effort that someone with a chronic illness must expend to get through the day is Spoon Theory. It came about when the author, who has lupus, was in a restaurant trying to illustrate to her friends how she must ration her efforts to avoid exhaustion. She gathered spoons from nearby tables, gave them to her friend, and asked her to list the activities for a typical day. As her friend recited the activities she would have a spoon taken from her. Once those spoons were used up, any further effort that day would be nearly impossible.

This metaphor for expending limited resources has become very popular in communities for those with such chronic illnesses; some even refer to themselves as “spoonies”. I’ve also heard Spoon Theory applied to introverts, who can be in social situations for a much shorter time than others. I am an introvert, and I guess I could never quite feel that Spoon Theory was an accurate description of what my exhaustion felt like. I’m also a bit too literal at times, so the concept of somehow your spoons getting replenished didn’t seem realistic – is there some spoon delivery service? Spoons also don’t lend themselves to division: how would you spend half a spoon? Yes, I understand that this is all a metaphor, but effective metaphors should have clear connections to the reality they are describing. For it wasn’t just the simple passing of time that recharged me; it was how that time was spent made a huge difference in how quickly I could handle more activity among others.

One day I was hanging up a towel after a shower, and I thought about the cycle of use for a towel. A fresh towel can dry off a person who has just bathed, but there is a limited capacity any towel has for this. Once it has absorbed enough water, it can’t absorb any more. So after drying the person, the towel has to dry itself out. And it isn’t just the passing of time that is needed, but also proper placement of the towel. Leaving the towel balled up on the floor would require a very long time for the towel to fully dry; it would probably get mildewed first! But if you were to hang it up so that air is able to circulate around it, it will be dry much more quickly. And if you hung it on a clothesline outside in the sun on a breezy day, it would be dry in no time at all!

Towels also come in different sizes and materials, both of which affect its capacity to absorb water. The drying task that the towel is used for also affects its usefulness: drying a hand here and there would never saturate it, but being wrapped around someone stepping out of a pool soaking wet would test its limits.

8pc Cotton Bath Towel Set - image 1 of 6

Introverts are like smaller towels that more quickly reach their limit absorbing social interactions. My experience attending tech conferences seems to mirror the cycle of towels. If I’m listening to sessions, with only occasional interactions, I can go all day. If I’m involved in lots of discussion-type sessions, I can’t go nearly as long. If I’m giving a talk, that’s even more draining. And when I’m staffing a booth, where I need to be constantly talking with all sorts of people, I run out of energy much more quickly. For a towel, that would be like being held under a running faucet: it loses its ability to dry very quickly.

How I “hang myself up” also determines how quickly I recover. I can sit in a corner of the conference and work on my laptop, but it’s much better if I can work in my room where there are no other people walking around. And what seems to work best for me is to go outside and walk around: the movement, the fresh air, the different visual scenery – all that helps me feel more energized. The last few years I have made it a practice that, weather permitting, I find a block of time toward the middle of the day, and go outside walking with my camera. Being a photographer, I can often get some good opportunities, no matter where the conference is held. And it seems that focusing my brain on creativity for an hour or so allows me to feel energized and able to immerse myself back into the conference events. It’s like a clothesline in the sun for my towel!

So I hope that Towel Theory does as much to help people understand what the introvert experience is like as Spoon Theory has done to help illustrate the situation of people with chronic illnesses.