A Sanguine Neurastheniac

Changing Modalities of Work Is The New Work; or, Linux Mint Talked Me Down Off A Ledge

July 22, 2014 · Leave a Comment

“It become work just to refresh and relearn my tools enough to work.”

Amarok 1.4

This is Amarok 1.4, a music application that turns me into Archie Bunker.

Huh, it’s been a while since I marked this bloggy territory. Oh well.

Anywho, those who have seen my computer desktops, or even had the misfortune to inquire about them, have been treated to an earful about how “they’re gonna have to pry Natty Narwhal out of my cold, dead hands!”

(Translation: “I run a particular version of a Linux desktop that was released in two-thousand-freakin’-eleven and refuse to give it up for you kids and your fancy tablet-style touchy-feely huge icon crap, dagnabbit!”)

Listen, I know I’m quickly becoming a greybeard, but now that I’m old and cynical, I can at least explain how it happens.

But first, the TL;DR, which is that I finally dumped Linux Mint onto a laptop. You know what? I’m not miserable. I’m not even annoyed. So for those of you who pine for the days of Pine and, erm, nom(?) for the days of pre-Unity Gnome, I’m here to tell you that the Cinnamon window manager, out of the box, feels just fine. Give it a spin.

And now, on to the long-form rant.

There was a time, oh those halcyon days, when Target sold womens’ pants with dignified and usable pockets, and I had tweaked my Gnome desktop to perfection. In my younger years, I had hours to lavish on deeply-buried config files and 2-character flags. Computing-wise, I grew up with Gnome. Heck, I grew up with Linux. I come from a time when you had to install Red Hat from a stack of floppies and the whole operation was an act of faith and bravado. In the words of Grandpa Simpson, “I used to be with it, but then they changed what *it* was. Now what I’m with isn’t *it*, and what’s *it* seems weird and scary to me. It’ll happen to you.” So Gnome was fancy like a freakin’ geodesic dome! So many things to right-click! So many files to delve into! So many annoyances to banish and productivity enhancements to enjoy.

Those days are gone. I’ve become the owner/operator of a toddler and a couple of houses. Right now, as I write this, I’m trading, like, a shower for the time required to type. What really harshed my mellow is that whenever I updated a tool–not just a desktop computer, but a phone app, or the phone itself, or even my stupid refrigerator which nannies me such that I can’t dispense water if I open the door–I was forced also to update the way I worked with the tool. It become work just to refresh and relearn my tools enough to work.

Folks, this doesn’t happen with hammers. Nor paper books, 12″ vinyl. Nor circular saws, drill presses, vintage sewing machines. Even new sewing machines mostly work like the old ones, they just give you the option to press buttons for fancy stuff. Is it any wonder I retreated into the world of handcraft and the analog side of life for the better part of year?

(Oh right, I forgot to mention, I kind of went on sabbatical for a year. I made furniture and clothes and even a bare-bones Etsy store whose listings are expiring. It was cool.)

As well as being a grumpy Unity-hating greybeard, I’m also an Amarok 1.4 apologist, meaning I LOVE LOVE LOVE an ancient version of a music-playback application. This GUI was just perfect. Compact, intuitive, powerful. Then they wrecked it by making it chunky and clever. And you know what, developers? I get it. You want to make your programs run beautifully, and you want a new version to make a visual impact so that users will at least notice the shiny GUI even if they don’t notice that you busted your backside to overhaul the database design and improve performance in subtle but significant ways. But listen, from now on, can you skip the whole tablet-style graphical makeover that makes me feel like my computer is a toy, and instead, like, make the whole thing purple or something?

Natty Narwhal was the last version of Ubuntu that easily allowed me to run both a Gnome desktop the way I liked it, and Amarok 1.4. So I clung to it. Flash updates came and went. I tried to keep up and eventually just abandoned videos on that machine. Slowly, it became difficult or impossible to get and use tools that I needed. Finally, when I recently started some contract work, I was unable to install a current version of some critical tool. So I decided it was time to give up.

This time, I got lucky. Enough people share my work habits that the open source community enabled the release of Linux Mint, and this has loosened my death grip on the unicorn of the sea. It’s supposed to be another one of these easy-peasy desktops, and it is, but it’s also completely not annoying to a grumpy curmudgeon like me. I did opt to use Cinnamon, but it was so painless and unobtrusive, that I can’t even remember how I set it and what I did to make it work the way I like.

My needs are not exotic. Specifically, I like two app panels, one at the top and one at the bottom, I like to dock a bunch of app icons in the top panel for easy access, I like to maximize them from the bottom panel, and I like to have 4 workspaces. So now I have modern software repos, my Flash video works again (when I allow it), and I’m annoyed with the state of pockets in womens’ fast fashion, but not the placement of icons on my desktop.

Now the Amarok 1.4 issue? That might take some more work…

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Trans Technology Symposium at Rutgers next Tuesday, 3/5

February 27, 2013 · Leave a Comment

trans_textonly2

My friend Christina Dunbar-Hester and her colleague Bryce Renninger are guest curators of a pretty eclectic and awesome exhibit of gender-subversive art and artifacts which runs through June 3, 2013 at Rutgers University Institute for Women and Art in the Douglass Library.  In their words, “Trans Technology focuses on technological art and artifacts that engage in trans, queer and feminist projects that help to trans (to use the word as a verb: spanning; interrogating; crossing; fusing) conceptions of the heterosexual matrix in technology.” A bunch of the featured creators will be at a symposium this Tuesday, March 5, 2013.

I was asked to contribute a jokey tee shirt with a series of (fallopian) tubes (Senator Stevens, don’t tie our tubes!) that I made back in 2006.  Click here for the back story.  My friend and frequent collaborator, Georgia Guthrie, is showing a piece that she knit from network cable and a computer keyboard.  She and I will also be participating throughout the day on a hacking demonstration in the morning and a panel in the afternoon.

silver-on-pink-cropped

It’s not a big truck!

It’s exciting and humbling to be featured alongside Micha Cárdenas, who recently has been working on a wearable electronics art-activist project that would allow people to alert each other of danger or harm with the push of a button by connecting the wearables wirelessly.  It’s also amazing to be on a bill with the Barbie Liberation Organization, famous for swapping the voice boxes in talking Barbie and G. I. Joe dolls.  Artists featured in the exhibit include: Shana Agid, Stephanie Alarcón, Zach Blas, Micha Cárdenas, Heather Cassils, Zackary Drucker, Georgia Guthrie, Jacolby Satterwhite, and Sandy Stone; including two artist/activist groups- Genderchangers and the Barbie Liberation Organization (BLO)

With those teasers, I’ll leave you to explore the other artists and participants on your own.  Here’s the schedule for the day, and if you can’t make it on Tuesday, consider checking out the exhibit during its run until June 3.

image

SYMPOSIUM / March 5, 2013

This event is free and open to the public

DOUGLASS LIBRARY
Mabel Smith Douglass Room

Hacking Workshop/Demonstration  11 AM – 12:15 PM
Artists: Georgia Guthrie, Stephanie Alarcon, and Micha Cardenas

 

Lunch 12:15 -1:15 PM
(Click here to RSVP)

ALEXANDER LIBRARY
Teleconference Lecture Hall, 4th Floor

Interventions in Tech Industry and STEM  2 – 3:30 PM
Panelists: Stephanie Alarcon (artist), Zach Blas (artist), Georgia Guthrie (artist), and Jessa Lingel (Rutgers PhD Candidate, LIS)
Moderator: Katie McCollough (Rutgers PhD Candidate, Media Studies)

 

Utopian Technics  4 – 5:30 PM
Panelists: Micha Cardenas (artist), Heather Cassils (artist), Jacolby Satterwhite (artist), and Leah Devus (Associate Professor, Rutgers History Department)
Moderator: Aren Aizura (Rutgers Institute for Research on Women, Post-Doctoral Researcher)

On View: Trans Technology
Circuits of Culture, Self, Belonging

January 22 – June 3, 2013
Mary H. Dana Women Artists Series, Douglass Library
Gallery Hours: 9 AM – 4:30 PM; Weekends by appointment
Press Release

 

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Overclocking, wire tripping, and further adventures with Tor

February 27, 2013 · Leave a Comment

Tools of the Trade

Tools of the Trade

Yesterday I was at the OTI offices again for a workday. For a chunk of the day I worked with Dan Staples on reviewing some things I’d learned about network settings in Commotion, and testing a Tor-enabled Commotion build. (More on that in a separate post.)

A couple of funny things happened on the way to the Internet. First, running Tor on a Ubiquiti PicoStation wireless node caused the little machine to overheat and reboot within 30 seconds of the process starting! Ha! We niced the process and managed to get it to stay up long enough to properly start up. I’ll do some more troubleshooting to figure out why it’s running so hard and see if there’s a way to (literally) cool it down. But I thought that was a pretty awesome problem.

At the same time, I successfully connected to the Internet through a Buffalo Air Station router that was elegantly modified by Access Labs to be a Tor transparent proxy. A couple of funny things happened as a result. First, since I had Thunderbird open and set to check my email every 5 minutes or so, my Gmail accounts freaked out. I got notices of suspicious activity for 3 different accounts because all my network traffic was running over Tor, meaning that my mail requests were hitting the Gmail servers from several different Tor exit nodes around the world. This caused Gmail to assume that malicious users were trying to access my account from a bunch of different places. It was a minor hassle to convince Gmail to stop panicking, but it was kind of neat to trip that wire.

Most adorable of all, however, came from your favorite activist tech collective and mine, Riseup Labs. One of the IPs in the suspicious activity notices was listed this way:

Tuesday, February 26, 2013 9:04:31 PM UTC
IP Address: 77.109.139.87 (load-me-in-a-browser-if-this-tor-node-is-causing-you-grief.riseup.net.)
Location: Cham, Switzerland

So that’s a little message from the Riseup operators of that Tor exit node. If you do indeed load it in a browser, you’ll see that it’s a very wry RTFM.

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I Want a CSA for music.

February 15, 2013 · 1 Comment

I was just listening to the Eavesdrop Radio podcast from two of my favorite djs, Junior and Lil Dave and it occurred to me that for as long as I’ve loved and respected their work, I have yet to actually pay money for a release on Junior’s label Recordbreakin.  That’s horrifying…great friend I am!

But then it occurred to me that it would actually be easier for me to just pay Junior a chunk of money every year or month and have him send me download codes for whatever they’ve released in some time interval.  Think of it like a CSA for music.

In a CSA, or community supported agriculture, you “subscribe” to a farm.  You sign up and pay a lump sum to a farm in the winter which entitles you to a share of veggies every week through the growing season.  It ensures that the farmer has enough cash on hand to operate, and the customer doesn’t have to choose what to buy.

What about a subscription to a music label?  I would totally pay a certain amount per year for the Recordbreakin’ catalog or a portion of it.  CSAs have half- and full-size shares.  A label could offer subscriptions that entitle a customer to every release, every other, every fifth, etc, or entitle the customer to a certain number of releases per year or month.  I can think of several labels and artists that I would be very happy to support this way.

Has anyone done this?

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Solidarity with a gap year student

February 11, 2013 · Leave a Comment

I have a close friend who graduated from high school last spring.  After a lot of thought and negotiation with her parents and the university where she’d been accepted and funded, she decided to take a gap year, that tradition of time off after high school that is common in Europe but often maligned in the US.  I was one of the people who got her thinking about it.

It’s fair to point out that we’ve known each other for a long time and I’ve been there to selectively pass ideas across the table to her:  an introduction to Linux, tours of subversive little urban spaces, genres of music.  So I was in a good position to suggest a gap year to her, and to substantiate the benefits to her parents.

She’s in the middle of it now, and her version of taking it easy is working 2 jobs plus a paid internship.  She is being offered a second paid internship and called me to hash out the pros and cons of taking it.  I could tell right away that she was really hesitant about it.  Some gentle prodding revealed that she’s getting guilted left and right for both living in the city instead of her parents’ “safe” exurban refuge, and for “only” working her butt off for 3 days a week.  (Plus the one internship.)  She was afraid that if she took this second internship it would corrode her free time to do the things that the gap year was intended for.  She needs time to take walks, do art, experiment with professional and leisure time activities so that when she starts her college career she’s more centered and focused.

Let’s pull this apart.  I’ll be frank that I think it’s bullshit to lay a guilt trip on a young person for taking a gap year when they work plenty of hours to cover costs but not a standard 40-hour week.  To me it belies ageism and a hazing attitude–ageism as in “These kids have it too easy.  What do you need time off for?  It’s just grade school and high school”, and hazing as in “Well, I went right from high school to college and I just had to buck up and do it.”

I’ll bet there are a lot of people would have loved to take a gap year but couldn’t because of parental pressures, admissions policies, financial realities or something else.  If that’s the case, shouldn’t we support young people who do have the opportunity? Let’s be honest, the first 12 years of education, if you make it that far, can be a battering experience.  I remember leaving high school dazed, baffled, lacking a good handle on what work and a career really entailed, and utterly, down-to-the-bone, exhausted.  I went through undergrad anyway and came out similarly confused and exhausted.  Burnout is as real at 17 as it is at 35.

Gap years are often cast as a carefree time to explore and get “it” — whatever “it” is — out of your system.  But what if we thought of them as a first sabbatical, a time to get “it” into your system?  I think that’s much more honest, honorable, and accurate.  For students who don’t have a crystal clear vision for their career when they finish high school, a year out in the world can be grounding in a way that is really hard to achieve in an educational setting.  And why not provide that, rather than putting students through the ringer for another four or more years, then dumping them out in the world with mounds of debt, to discover by themselves if the career they trained for actually translates to the job they want to do all day for the next 10-50 years of their lives?  Tangentially, I think we do students a great disservice by focusing so heavily on the philosophical significance of a given career to the detriment of helping them discover what the day-to-day reality is like.

But don’t take my word for it.  Big names in .edu are starting to agree. Like Harvard College, which “encourages admitted students to defer enrollment for one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work, or spend time in another meaningful way – provided they do not enroll in a degree-granting program at another college. Each year, between 50 and 70 students defer their matriculation to the College.”  This snip from the essay “Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation” might have a familiar ring:

“Professionals in their thirties and forties – physicians, lawyers, academics, business people and others – sometimes give the impression that they are dazed survivors of some bewildering life-long boot-camp. Some say they ended up in their profession because of someone else’s expectations, or that they simply drifted into it without pausing to think whether they really loved their work.”

My auspicious ending happened well into my computer career when I used my employer’s educational benefit to go back for a master’s degree in environmental studies.  I was way more focused and responsible for all the reasons you’d expect.  I was there completely by choice, I had a goal in mind (though admittedly still not as clear as I’d like), and I valued the opportunity.  But I wish I had had that experience much earlier, and I still struggle to clarify my goals and develop strategies to realize them.

Let me make it clear that my friend didn’t just passively take the opportunity.  She carved it out with research, paperwork, phone calls, and effective negotiation.  She single-handedly got her college acceptance and scholarships deferred for a year, and in a hurry at that.  It took a lot of conviction and honest work to arrange her gap year, and she knows in her gut what she needs from this time.

So my advice to her was to go into the interview prepared to state gently but firmly her needs and best-case wants.  I told her that if she didn’t feel comfortable taking on the hours that they were asking for because they would eat into her personal time, she should just say she has a prior commitment for X hours/week.

It’s for her to determine how she needs to use that time, not the customers at her service jobs or the managers at an internship.  It’s probable that lots of those people would have appreciated and benefited from a gap year.  But until it is viewed for what it is, a first sabbatical for gaining focus, setting goals, and preventing or healing from burnout, I stand in solidarity with young people who guard their prior commitment to explore and mend.

Maybe when I grow up I’ll have the conviction and organization to take a proper sabbatical myself!

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Adacamp was my dream un-conference, and so can you!

February 8, 2013 · Leave a Comment

TLDR: Click here to indicate your interest in AdaCamp 2013 in San Francisco this June.  You’re interested because the last one was awesome.

Wall of compliments at AdaCamp DC (c) Máirín Duffy CC-BY-SA

Wall of compliments at AdaCamp DC (c) Máirín Duffy CC-BY-SA

Ladies and lady-positive people, you know that tech gathering that you dream about, the one where you’re surrounded by people who are smart and strong but modest and appreciative of all the factors that helped them get where they are?  The one where privacy and maintaining a safe space is conspicuously valued even more highly than the conference’s own publicity?  Where the women’s room sees some traffic and the men’s room is declared an all-gender space? Where the food is sensitive to a range of dietary needs and tastes AMAZING?  And the one where you wish you could be friends with everyone there?

I was there, and let me tell you, it was awesome. In July, 2012 I went to AdaCamp, an unconference organized by the Ada Initiative, who support women in open technology and culture.

Let’s define some terms.  An unconference is a gathering where the participants both set the agenda and provide the content.  Think of it like the salad bar of the conference world.  Typically, the schedule emerges from a process where people post topics they want to learn about and/or can teach about on a wall.  Attendees vote by putting tick marks on the proposals that interest them the most and the most popular ones get organized into a day’s worth of talks and workshops.  Open technology and culture are projects where the work is shared openly with the goal of allowing everyone to be more creative, more accurate, or simply make progress faster.  Open source software is the typical example, but it includes things like open hardware and transformative works (fan fiction) as well.  The Ada Initiative’s namesake is Ada Lovelace, widely considered the world’s first computer programmer.

AdaCampDC was the second gathering sponsored by the Ada Initiative and had something like 150 participants, mostly women.  It felt like a profoundly safe space with a diverse range of industries, ages, nationalities, and professional experience.  There were nitty-gritty sessions on things like career development and asking for more money, intros to tech topics like OpenStreetMap and programming, and even a super fun soft circuit workshop where we made an old pillowcase into an LED-bedazzled AdaCamp memento.

There were classy touches like photo-consent indicators and the best conference food ever.  When you got to the conference space you were offered a green, yellow, or red sticker for your nametag.  Green meant “ok to photograph me”, red meant “please don’t photograph me”, and yellow meant “ask first.”  Ahhh!  It’s so refreshing not to have to explain that it’s rude to take my picture without asking.  And seriously, the food.  Middle Eastern and…wait for it… Ethiopian.  Unheard of.  So good.

It was a profoundly healing and uplifting space.  Early sessions on imposter syndrome were so popular that they ran pretty much the whole second day, speaking to a deep need for participants to work out unjustified feelings of inadequacy.

Little spots of magic popped up throughout the two days.  Several companies had sponsored dinner for a bunch of people so we could split into interest groups and have deeper conversations in a more intimate setting.  People self-organized into dinners via a shared spreadsheet that worked amazingly well.  One favorite feature was a spontaneous wall of compliments that was dreamed up during an imposter syndrome session.  The idea was people would write compliments and post them on the wall.  Anytime you were feeling low you could go to this wall and take one for yourself.  I stuck compliments on several of my friends.  It was a fun, silly way to express real appreciation.

So, yes, it was a respectful and healing love-fest where we got to talk about both our successes and the times we’ve felt beaten up.  But it was also a pretty heady connection-maker.  I met people doing archival data storage, heavy lifting in coding and databases, and really worthwhile non-profit work.  In fact the opportunity to work with OTI came to me across the AdaCamp alumni list.

In summary, you should go to the next one this year in San Francisco, June 8-9.  The organizers are polling for interest to estimate how big a space to secure.  If you think you might like to go, click here to help them plan the next awesome gathering.

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Hacking The Gender Gap this Thursday

January 29, 2013 · Leave a Comment

Hacking the Gender Gap” is a hands-on workshop for understanding and defeating the gender gap in tech.  I helped develop it last March for the Women In Tech Summit with my good friend and Hacktory powerhouse, Georgia Guthrie.  Amy Guthrie (no relation, another awesome Hacktory organizer) and I will be facilitating it this Thursday evening at our new space at 3711 Market St. for Girl Geek Dinners.  We’ve done it at Adacamp, HOPE9, and HacDC, and if you’ve heard of it, it might have been as “that timeline thing.”  In a nutshell, participants share their experiences with technology–both positive and negative–on a physical timeline; identify patterns in the assembled experiences; and discuss ways to make tech communities more inclusive, and ways that awesome people already have.  (Many thanks to Katie Bechtold who, I think, wrote that description for HacDC.)

Check out the Meetup link for details and to sign up.  There are only a few seats left!  This event is open only to people who identify themselves as women, but my understanding is that most GGDs are open to non-women if they are guests of a woman in tech.

Also, if you’re interested in being a facilitator in the future, keep an eye on The Hacktory‘s website.  We’ll be holding trainings throughout the year.

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Un-Borked

January 28, 2013 · Leave a Comment

Erm. So, WordPress had replaced the widgets in my right sidebar with my penultimate post, but only on the front page. If I clicked a post to view it on its own page, the sidebar worked correctly. But it persisted even if I deleted a post or changed my theme.

I managed to fix it, but I’m not sure how. I do know that my web host upgraded WordPress a few days ago and that I only noticed the issue yesterday. Yesterday I did notice that the html editor was adding a lot of div tags that it wasn’t using before. I went through my last few posts and replaced them with the good ol’ P (paragraph) tag. The front page works again. I’m not 100% convinced it’s because of the deleted div tags, but the sidebar in my theme is indeed differentiated with div tags, so maybe???

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Tor basics in plain English

January 28, 2013 · Leave a Comment

Here’s a cheat sheet that I wrote up for myself about two weeks ago after I’d gotten my bearings with the basics of Tor.  I actually wrote it as an informal status update to my mentor and realized that if it was helpful to me, it might be helpful to someone else.  If you see any errors, don’t be shy about setting me back on the right path!

First, though, please bask in the glory of this super awesome clickable graphic that demonstrates what network traffic is and isn’t obscured by Tor and HTTPS (encrypted HTTP).  This snippet below is just a teaser.  Click it to go to a page where you can click buttons for Tor and HTTPS and see how they work.

Tor and HTTP

Tor and HTTPS

After a visit to the OTI offices and an overview of Commotion with my project mentor Will Hawkins, I felt like the fog had parted a bit on the Commotion side so I moved over to get the same level of clarity with Tor.  That’s most of what I did that week.  The Tor IRC channel has been unexpectedly not-unpleasant and I have a basic grasp of the vocabulary and principles.I learned that all Tor-enabled machines use the same code, and they are differentiated by changes to the config file.  All Tor network participants (machines running Tor) are either clients or relays. Clients just connect to a stable entry, or “guard” node, and get on their merry way.

As for the rest, all relays are entry relays; some entry relays are guards (once they are proven to be stable via analysis of a descriptor that is pushed from the node once an hour); some entry relays are unlisted (therefore not publicly known) and they are called bridges; and finally only a relative few Tor nodes are configured as exit nodes.  Exits have specific policies that allow and disallow traffic to various places, allowing exit node operators to be choosy about what kind of activity they allow on their node.  Relevant ports on *nix machines include 9001 (data) and 9030 (directory).

         Tor
        /   \ 
  Client     Relay (Entry)
            /      |      \
        Guard    Bridge    Exit
   (if stable)  (unlisted)  (configurable rules)

I learned about verifying that your Tor relay is working correctly.  The easy way is to go to check.torproject.org and see if it says that you are routing through the Tor network.  But all it does is check whether you arrived at that page from one of the published exit nodes.  You can find the code in SVN here, and the code for a newer TorCheck utility is on Github.  Digging a little deeper, you should see Tor running if you do a ps -ef, and your Tor log file should have something to say about whether it is running properly or not.  More on logging and *nix behavior in a later post.

I looked at a list of ISPs that are Tor-friendly and Tor-unfriendly.  I found that mine probably is friendly, i.e., it was before it was acquired (twice).  But in talking to folks on IRC I was reasonably well assured that for the purposes of testing, especially if I’m running a bridge, I should be fine.

Before I came to that conclusion I kind of spun off into a swirl of what-ifs, wondering how safe it was to test Tor on my home IP.  I thought through scenarios where I might test on a hosted server, on a new and separate Internet connection to my house, and internally on a fake network of physical or virtual machines in my house.  I may revisit those options once I’m really moving with testing, depending on how informative I think my testbed seems to be, and for what use cases.

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Week three is the new Tuesday

January 28, 2013 · Leave a Comment

Last week I was chatting with one of the GNOME internship program mentors who asked how the internship was going for me. I said that I felt pretty good, but that I was in a little bit of a lull. I’d learned about all I needed to know to get my feet wet with the technical end of my project, and now I needed to get better clarity on the question I am asking/problem I am solving to be able to really dig my heels in. I was floundering a little, but also having open-ended conversations with people who might be interested in the work. I didn’t know at that moment that those conversations would lead to a significant breakthrough the next day, resulting in a much clearer goal for my internship term.

It was nice to hear, then, that apparently a bunch of the interns in my cohort were at just about the same point. And so, if this internship were a week, last week would have been Tuesday!

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