Ruthie Byers


    Contra Dance Bookings and Gender

    I promised a while ago I would write a post analyzing gender in the context of contra dance bookings. This post keeps that promise. I was hoping to be able to draw more interesting conclusions, but alas, my dataset was too small to do so with any confidence.


    Women called 47% of dances in my sample, and were about a third of musicians (weighted by gigs). This is compared to a baseline of about 54% women in the Bay Area contra dance community.

    There are a few trends you can find if you break this up into subgroups, but they seem to be mostly driven by a few outliers, so I won’t point them out. Overall, the sample size is small and dominated by a relatively small number of very active people, so it’s hard to draw conclusions from the sort of small-percentage-point differences between subgroups that I was able to find.

    Implementation Notes

    I obviously don’t know the genders of every person in my dataset. My dataset contains people I’ve never met with non-gender-signalling names, people who I know or suspect have identities different from what one would guess based on their names, and many many people who I only know from seeing perform. Most of the gendering was done using a name-to-likely-gender mapper I found on the internet. I special-cased several people who (a) had ambiguous names and unambiguous presentations or (b) had unambiguous names but I have reason to believe that the lack of ambiguity is misleading.

    People who I believe to be neither men nor women were counted as half a man and half a women. I realize this may not accurately represent the genders of those people, and I’m sorry they’re misrepresented in this statistic.


    I have access to exactly one statistic on the gender ratio in the Bay Area contra dance community in general, which is that 42% of attendees at this year’s non-gender-balanced Balance The Bay were men and 54% were women (the rest declined to state). This matches my anecdotal impression that there are slightly more women than men in the community.


    It’s clear that men both call and play a disproportionate number of dances, but it’s hard to tell what to make of these statistics without a lot more context. The gender disparity could reflect a difference interest, or skill, or confidence, or perceived skill, or availability, or any number of other things.

    One interesting note is that these statistics only reflect the people who had enough of all of those things to play at least one dance over two years, which cuts out the vast majority of potential contra dance musicians and callers. I was playing folk music for more than 10 years before I first played for a contra dance; some of that time I was playing other styles, some of it I was too busy, and most of it I didn’t have the skill yet. To better understand why we see big gender disparities, I’d have to compare the number of people playing or calling gigs to the people who request to be booked, or the number of people at slow jams or callers workshops, or compare those actively playing dances to those who have played at least once.

    See full post with comments

    More Things I'm Learning about Playing for Contra Dances

    I have a new band! Since last summer I’ve been playing with John-Michael Seng-Wheeler and Christopher Jacoby in a band called Switching Protocols (it’s a nerd reference). We’ve played a number of dances around the Bay Area and generally are having lots of fun.

    It’s also been a particularly great learning experience for me because, unlike me or Ben, Christopher Jacoby is an actually experienced contra dance musician, so I get to see what someone who knows what the fuck they’re doing thinks about.

    More rhythm options

    As a melody player, my model of what rhythm players do has always been a little weak, so this may not be news to actual contra dance rhythm players.

    In my impoverished model of contra dance rhythm playing (well, piano playing), you have about two rhythmic options– rolling octaves and boom-chucks. But these are just good defaults; you can choose more or less any rhythm you want. Several Switching Protocols sets have some sort of distinctive pattern that Christopher and John-Michael made up for that particular tune. Different rhythmic patterns make sets sound more different from each-other, and if they’re interesting enough, you can foreground them, and play them with no melody over them at all.

    Save your good tricks

    But even if you have a cool rhythm pattern for some tune, you don’t usually want to start out with it, or play it all the way through. This goes for any neat trick you do– it loses its effect if you overuse it. It’s generally better to start out more straight-ahead and bring out the interesting stuff when the dancers have learned the dance and are bored of just hearing the tune over and over again.

    Think about the arc of the dance

    I’ve thought about choosing good kick-ass sets for the two half-closers, but there are other things to think about in terms of when you play your sets. At the begining, choose straight-ahead sets that you’re confident on, while the dancers are warming up (and showing up) and the beginners are figuring out how this works. The half-closers should obviously be some of your best, highest-energy sets, and to accentuate that, the ones right before can be on the laid-back end. If you’re going to play sets that you’re less confident on, or that might be harder to dance to, save them for the second half when everyone is warmed up and most of the beginners have gone home.

    Callers also vary on how much and how specifically they’ve programmed the evening. Most callers we’ve worked with had a set of dances in mind ahead of time, and made only minor adjustments, but when this isn’t true (because the caller is more flexible, or, in one case, because he lost the program he had made), the band can guide the evening by requesting dances that go with tunes they want to play.

    Think about where you sit

    Switching Protocols spent some time experimenting with seating arrangements during rehearsal, and ended up with one that works better for us than our default half circle. A good arrangement makes it possible to see each-other and hear each-other talk so we can communicate, and also ideally be able to hear each-others instruments without too much help from the monitors. Monitors are great, but they’re often be badly balanced, so it’s good to be able to just hear each-other.

    Dynamic range

    John-Michael programmed his keyboard to add an extra layer of bass at variable volume when he presses an extra pedal (yes, this is a nerd band, we even program our instruments). The effect is that he can add more oomph beyond what the keyboard does by default. And it’s really effective! I can’t program my fiddle, but I can work to expand the dynamic range of my playing, both at the high and the low end.

    Less is more

    Even with just three instruments, we don’t all play all the time, or even close. Set starts especially don’t need much going on. At one recent gig the caller asked for a “dreamy” set, and we acheived that effect by leaving a lot more space, and it looked really effective (to me sitting on stage).

    Be ready with your waltz

    With contras you usually have a good five minutes to get organized while the caller does the walk-through. With the waltzes, people start being ready to dance within a minute or two of the contra ending. If you choose your waltz and any arrangement you’re going to use before the last contra, you won’t leave them waiting.

    See full post with comments

    Putting Together a Group House

    Ben and I have wanted to live in a group house for a while. Last month, we finally acheived that goal! We are now living in a five-bedroom in Oakland with four other wonderful people. It’s been a long journey, and sometimes a stressful one, but we think it’s well worth it.

    What we did when

    Putting together a group

    Our first email-feelers looking for housemates went out in late May and early June. We started by emailing people we knew were looking for housing, but quickly expanded to people whose housing situations we didn’t know about. We found three of the four people we were looking for this way, via two first degree connections and one second degree connection. In mid-June I posted on facebook that I was looking for housemates, and found another friend-of-a-friend who was interested. We all met up and everyone liked her, so we were set with a group.

    One thing that made housemate-finding harder than otherwise was that me and Ben have two very different social circles. Neither of us wanted a house entirely drawn from the other’s circle, so we had to find people from both circles who were happy living in a house that straddled those communities. We succeeded, but it added a layer of complexity and awkwardness to the search.

    Give notice at our old place

    We had to give six weeks notice at our old place, which meant that we had to give notice before we had a house lined up. We also had to be out of our house by August 1st, and we were considering either an August or a September lease, so we lined up temporary housing with friends for the month of August.

    Finding a house

    The house-finding process was substantially complicated for us by the fact that me and Ben were in Kenya for the middle two weeks of July. We watched Craigslist and went to some open houses before we left, and our housemates continued the search with documents from us available to show potential landlords if needed. The Bay Area housing market is competitive by reputation, but we rejected at least three houses, and no landlord rejected us (we only filled out applications for the house we eventually rented).

    The house we eventually rented is not particularly large or nice, and is in a less convenient location that one might hope, but is almost half of the price we expected we’d pay. We also got it on a short timeline– we saw the house, applied, and signed the lease all within about a week.

    Moving, moving again, buying appliances.

    On August 1st, Ben and I picked up a U-Haul, signed the lease, did the walkthrough, and then moved our furniture in.

    One of the quirks of this house was that it didn’t come with some of the usual appliances, like a stove or a refrigerator. So even though we were able to move our furniture in on August 1st, we spent a couple of weeks at the temporary housing we had lined up.

    Although we had originally planned to hang around with our friends for most of the month, we realized we were tired of being transient, and we moved fully into the new place as soon as there we had appliances there.

    Replace a roommate

    After a few weeks in the new house, one of our housemates was having mold allergies badly enough that she decided to leave. This housemate search was much easier. Everyone left posted on facebook, and we generated several leads. We had one particularly promising one, who already knew about half of the house, and he decided to move in before we got to consider any others.

    What I would do differently

    This was not the most fun process I have ever been through. The uncertainty about my housing situation stressed me out for most of June and July, and the feeling of not really having a livable home made me impatient for most of August. I think the majority of this is the inescapable reality of moving, but some of it could have been easier. In particular:

    • We should have looked for a house before or in parallel with looking for housemates. Looking for a house without a full group set is probably a little harder, since some landlords want to vett the whole group, but looking for housemates without a house is also hard. Anyone who signed on to our group pre-house had to be ok with the max price we were willing to pay, and with the least attractive neighborhood. It was also stressful ta have to juggle everyone’s preferences while looking for the house.

    • When talking to potential housemates, we held pretty firm that we weren’t willing to restrict our search by neighborhood or price, but our last-added housemate had a couple of more ideosyncratic constraints– she has strong mold allergies and had a hip injury which meant that she couldn’t handle a lot of stairs. In retrospect, the stairs constraint in particular was pretty restrictive, and it’s not clear why we were ok with that but not narrowing down to fewer neighborhoods or lowering our max price.

    • I would have taken more time off work to set up the house. Having missing appliances, and having the livingroom unusable while we were painting were a big drag on my happiness for the first month plus we lived in the house.

    See full post with comments

    Questions I Think About

    They are big enough such that I can’t answer them in an afternoon, but small enough that I expect to be able to at least make some headway in a lifetime. Questions that can be answered in an afternoon I just answer. Questions that can’t be answered in a lifetime I don’t even start on. These are the in-between sized questions. They are the things that I think about while I’m walking places or doing dishes or lying in bed staring at the ceiling. They are the questions that some of my favorite conversations hinge around.

    • How can we effectively teach computer skills that don’t revolve around programming, especially to beginners?

    • How do individual folk artists view their relationship to the traditions they practice? How should they?

    • How can I connect to people who are much older or much younger than me?

    • How can we create communities which value excellence without pushing away less experienced or less talented people?

    • What roles do exclusive spaces and institutions play in communities? Can we fill those roles without exclusivity? How?

    • How do people navigate the boundaries of communities?

    • Does identity have to be public? How do people reconcile the differences between how they think of themselves and how they present themselves?

    • To what extent do we choose our identities, especially with respect to gender and sexuality?

    • What is gender for, if people of different genders aren’t different in concrete ways (or are they)?

    • How should I evaluate arguments that aren’t framed consequentially? For example, cultural appropriation is frequently critiqued, but mostly in theoretical terms. Should I take those arguments seriously?

    See full post with comments

    Who gets booked in the Bay Area, Callers Edition

    Here are the top nine most-booked callers (tenth was a four way tie, so I’m omitting it here).

    • Erik Hoffman (32)
    • Lynn Ackerson (27)
    • Kelsey Hartman (27)
    • Susan Petrick (22)
    • Warren Blier (19)
    • Yoyo Zhou (18)
    • Kalia Kliban (17)
    • Eric Black (15)
    • Susan Pleck (11)

    Most of my observations about this data involve comparing bands and callers:

    • There are a lot fewer unique callers than unique bands or unique musicians (35 callers compared with 130 local musicians in 109 local bands)

    • More callers than bands had large numbers of gigs– 4 bands had more than 10 gigs, while 14 callers did (but 34 individual musicians had more than 10 gigs, and I’m not sure what the better comparison is).

    • How much turnover is there among callers? This is hard to get a good sense of from only two years, but the short answer seems to be “not much.” As far as I can tell, no local caller was booked for the first time in the second year of my analysis (of the two local people booked in the second year but not the first, Dean Alemang was billed somewhere as having recently moved from another part of the country, and Karen Fontana is a longer time caller who just didn’t happen to call between October 2013 and October 2014). In contrast, more than zero new musicians made their contra dance debuts in the bay area in the second year of my analysis.

    • 278 of the 388 events I analyzed (or about 71%) had local callers (local includes all parts of the bay area and Monterey, but not as far as San Lois Obispo). Bands at 274 of the 388 events had at least one local member, but only 243 had entirely local bands (most of the partly but not entirely local bands were Rodney Miller and one or more local musicians).

    • Calling seems to be a pretty gender-balanced activity, unlike music, which is male-skewed, and frankly, unlike most activities.

    See full post with comments

    Who Gets Booked in the Bay Area, Music Edition

    I recently spent roughly 20 hours on airplanes had time to take on a silly useless project. So I took all of the Bay Area contra dance schedules for the last two years, converted the information into csv format, and made pretty pictures of the results. Since there’s a lot of stuff there, I’m commenting on music related things in this post. I will comment more in future posts.

    All the pretty pictures can be found here. Mouse over to see details for a particular dance.


    The top ten most booked local bands to play in the Bay Area (with number of gigs) are:

    • StringFire (23)
    • The wiNgNuts (16)
    • The Rosin Doctors (14)
    • Uncle Farmer (13)
    • The Crabapples (9)
    • The Raggedy Annes (8)
    • Swing Farm (7)
    • Common Ground (6)
    • Erin Shrader, Richard Mandel (6)
    • Whimsical (5)

    Things I find interesting here:

    • One band, Peak Nouveau, was booked nine times, eight of them for the San Jose contra. Although it clearly had more gigs than some bands here, I didn’t feel like it counts as a commonly booked band in spirit, so I didn’t include it in my list.

    • Some out of town bands were booked six or seven times in the last two years (these were bands that did multiple tours where they played multiple gigs each tour). Although these are clearly commonly booked, it didn’t make sense to compare them to local bands, since for local bands the limiter for booking is likely to be interest from dances, whereas out of town bands are almost certainly constrained by availability. More on out of town vs. local bands in another post.

    • The frequency of band bookings drops off pretty steeply. The top band plays more than twice as often as the the fifth most commonly booked band, and the fifth most commonly booked band plays almost twice as much as the tenth.

    • This list shows totals over two years, which undercounts the popularity of bands who weren’t playing for that whole time. In particular, Uncle Farmer started playing a lot fewer gigs around here when Mike Sokolovsky moved back East, and Common Ground played their last gig about a year ago (although some of the members still play together under another name).

    • Musician overlap in the top bands is small. Only one person plays in multiple bands (Charlie Hancock in the Raggedy Annes and Swing Farm). Lots of musicians play in multiple bands (see below) but mostly not in multiple very popular bands.

    • Most bands substitute musicians only occasionally, and many will use alternate names on a schedule if they are not appearing with all canonical members (e.g. The WingNots is the wiNgNuts with Darcy Noonan instead of Christie Hubbard). StringFire is the outlier. StringFire always includes Erik Ievins and Patti Cobb, but has appeared with no fewer than five configurations of fiddlers. They may have an advantage booking since they need only one of the four fiddlers who appear in the band to be available to book a gig.


    The top ten most booked musicians in the bay area over the last two years are:

    • Chris Knepper (51)
    • Charlie Hancock (40)
    • Ben Schreiber (33)
    • Rodney Miller (29)
    • Erik Hoffman (24)
    • Patti Cobb (23)
    • Erik Ievins (23)
    • Topher Gayle (22)
    • Will Wheeler (19)
    • Christie Hubbard (19)

    Things I notice here:

    • All of these people are local except for Rodney Miller. Rodney Miller hangs around the bay area a lot, and plays gigs with local musicians in addition to his big-name out of town bands, so he gets a lot more gigs than bands who show up like once a year and play several local dances and then leave.

    • Only two of the top ten people are women (Patti Cobb and Christie Hubbard). More on this in another post.

    • You can think of there being two ways to get on this list, one is by playing in a lot of bands, and the other is by playing in one really popular band. Chris Knepper played about a fourth of his gigs with his top booked band, the wiNgNuts, whereas Erik Ievins and Patti Cobb only appeared with StringFire (the middle is well represented alsa). Here are the most booked musicians, in the same order, but with number of bands instead of number of gigs. Note that “bands” here is different from “named bands,” since some musicians are booked without particular band names (e.g. “Rodney Miller and Charlie Hancock”)

    • Chris Knepper (23)
    • Charlie Hancock (18)
    • Ben Schreiber (15)
    • Rodney Miller (17)
    • Erik Hoffman (8)
    • Patti Cobb (1)
    • Erik Ievins (1)
    • Topher Gayle (8)
    • Will Wheeler (5)
    • Christie Hubbard (4)

    Where I got this Information

    I generated the statistics here from publicly posted schedules from

    • Bay Area Country Dance Society
    • North Bay Country Dance Society
    • Traditional Dancers of the Golden State (Hayward Contra)
    • SF Queer Contra

    Queer Contra booking information was suplemented by personal email from Margaret Pigman.

    My processed schedules are in the *.csv files. You should be able to open them with your favorite spreadsheet program. There’s some syntax to the band info; you can probably figure out how it works. The code I used to process them is also in the repository.

    See full post with comments

    What I've been Reading

    Here are all of the non-fiction things I’ve been reading recently (I promise the fiction things have been both fewer and less interesting).

    Clandestine In Chile: The Adventures of Miguel Littín (Gabrial Garcia Marquez)

    This book (ghostwritten by Gabriel Garcia Marquez) recounts how Littín, a well known Chilean filmmaker exiled during the military dictatorship of 1970s, returned to Chile disguized as a Uruguayan businessman to make a film about Chile. I picked it up in the bookstore because I’m interested in that part of history because it produced a lot of good music, and because I thought it might contain cool adventure stories.

    On the cool adventure stories front I was a bit disappointed. Besides some awkward conversations with policemen and a lot of getting in and out of cars going in different directions, there’s not much adventure here. Littín wasn’t very careful, but it seems like even a military dictatorship isn’t that good at finding a well disguized operative. Mostly the book consists of Gabriel Garcia Marquez waxing poetic about Chile before and after the coup.

    My favorite passage was right at the beginning, where Littín describes how uncomfortable he felt in his Uruguayan businessman disguise. He describes feeling unlike himself, and I’ve experienced something similar when I have to dress in certain ways, particularly for “formal” occasions like job interviews, and I was interested to find this experience described so well in such a different context.

    Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty (Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo)

    This is a classic in the genre of applying evidence to fighting global poverty. It mostly consists of study after study working out what works and what doesn’t to make peoples’ lives better in the developing world, organized to pull out more generalizeable insights. I’ve kind of hung around people who think about this a lot and it still had lots of information that was new to me. If you’re interested in global poverty and somehow haven’t read it, I obviously recommend it, and I also recommend it if you’re interested more broadly in human society and behavior. Most of our anecdotal dataset about how people behave comes from well off people in developed nations, and it’s interesting to see how people behave and what systems they make to work together to survive in a very different situation.

    Gang Leader for a Day (Sudhir Venkatesh)

    This is a book written by an anthropology grad student about how he spent his grad school years– making frieds with a gang leader and hanging around the projects in Chicago. It discusses the day-to-day lives of the people in the projects, and also the power dynamics between the gangs and other community leaders in the projects. It’s also extremely fast paced and hard to put down.

    One focus I found interesting was on the informal economies inside the building the author hung around. In particular, I was struck by the similarity between these and the informal economies in developing countries. It’s not surprising in retrospect, but people do a lot of the same things– buy big containers of food and resell in small amounts for a profit, take care of each-others children for money, and use bribery when formal systems fail.

    Reading this book also made me wonder what good accounts of life in a gang, or living in the projects is like from a more insider perspective. I appreciate that this book focusses on aspects of life that are most surprising to me as an outsider, but I also imagine that Venkatesh misses parts of that experience that someone who actually had it would be able to identify. If you’ve read books along these lines that you found interesting, I want to hear about them.

    Money, Real Quick: The Story of M-Pesa (Tonny K. Omwansa and Nicholas P. Sullivan)

    M-Pesa is this system in Kenya which essentially allows users to text each-other money. It’s also the system that Wave sends money to to. This is a short book, and it reads like a kind of repetitive promotional pamphlet for M-Pesa, but it’s informative in a kind of repetitive promotional way. On the other hand, it’s probably the best book on M-Pesa ever written, so if you’re interested in modern money transfer in East Africa, you don’t actually have many other choices.

    The Anti-Politics Machine (James Ferguson)

    This is hardcore academic anthropology (or at least, way more hard core than what I usually read). It discusses a long running, multi-million-dollar, unsuccessful development project in Lesotho (that little country surrounded on all sides by South Africa). Ferguson argues (I think convincingly) that the project failed not simply because of incopetence, but because of the way it and similar projects are framed.

    This book is long and dry and I learned a lot about how people of Lesotho think about owning cows. On the other hand, I appreciated its thoroughness and all the stuff about cows came around to the main point. This book successfully made me feel the need to view develpoment projects more skeptically, but it didn’t make me want to give up on the whole idea (something the author clearly advocated, although he didn’t pretend to say that the book was a complete case for this), and since going to the developing world and spending years deeply understanding people’s needs is not particularly on the table for me, I’m going continue to outsource my thinking on what development projects are worth supporting to other people.

    See full post with comments

    How can I be a Respectful Tourist?

    How do you tourist respectfully? I’ve been a tourist in Kenya for four days, and have had a range of experiences:

    On Saturday Ben and I went on a boat ride on Lake Victoria with a couple of others. We went along pretty close to the coast, so we could see the people in the fishing villages working and cleaning and bathing in the water, then stopped at a small market where fish were being sold, and watched people preparing and cooking the fish. Basically no one but the boat owner interacted with us the entire time. This felt really bad, like the people I was seeing were in a zoo.

    On Sunday we went with a friend to the home of one of his local coworkers (he works for Innovations for Poverty Action, which employs locals as well as foreigners). The family welcomed us, and let us watch while they slaughtered a chicken for lunch. Then we took a walk around their village and everyone we met greeted us and shook hands. We paid for the chicken, but the family otherwise didn’t want money. This experience felt good– it’s possible that the people who were so nice to us were compelled to for reasons I don’t understand, but my guess is that they were just happy to have guests.

    Today Ben and I went on a tour of Kibera, a slum in Nairobi where somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 people live. The tour was run by locals, but it was definitely a commercial tour. It was expensive, for one thing, and was into stopping by “feel good” locations, like a small crafts cooperative for HIV-Positive women. We got to talk to individuals and ask questions, but I know that most of the people we talked to were hoping for donations or purchases of tourist tchotchkes, so I’m not sure how truthful their representations of life there were. This experience was somewhere in the middle. I didn’t feel like I was invading anyone’s privacy, but I was also not sure how good of a thing it was that I was there as a tourist.

    I feel like I’m mostly at the mercy of my guides as to how positive and respectful an experience I have, since they choose where we go and how they introduce us. But besides having a lot of local friends (which I won’t be able to do everywhere I go) I don’t know how to find guides that will facilitate meeting people and talking to people in a genuine way that doesn’t violate their boundaries. I’m about to leave Kenya, so it’s too late for anything new I learn to make a big difference on this trip, but I suspect I’ll be back on the developing world at some point wondering how to connect with people and learn about their lives in positive ways.

    See full post with comments

    Dear NYT Ethicists: Hanging out at the Movies Does NOT Count as a Date

    Yesterday’s New York Times Ethicists column answers the letter of a woman who had discussed the possibility of a romantic relationship with a married friend of hers, and then found out that he had misled her about how ok with this his wife was. The judgement of the ethicists was that she was out of line, and should cease contact with her friend (of particular worry was going out to the movies with him).

    Wow, if going out to the movies with someone who’s attracted to you is a date someone better phone my boyfriend and tell him I’ve been cheating. A date is defined by the intentions of the people involved, not by the specifics of what happned, or whether anyone’s significant other perceives what happened as a date.

    The ethicists spend a long time criticizing the letter writer for having an affair with this person without the permission of his wife. I agree that this would be a bad thing to do (although I might not raise it to the level of an ethical no-no), but I don’t think she did it. Hanging out as friends and seeing a movie, and or eveen discussing the possibility of having a romantic relationship in the future, does not count as having a romantic relationship in the present. The writer says at the beginning of the letter that she has no intention of being involved with this man without the consent of his wife, and (if I’m reading the letter correctly) she hadn’t stepped out of the realm of friendship when she found out about the wife’s feelings, so I’m pretty sure she’s in the clear.

    The ethicists in the column come off as a little old-fashioned. The asertion that going to a movie with an opposite-sex friend who’s attracted to you counts as a date sounds very 1950s to me, and they scoff at the husband’s assertion that he’s in an open mairrage like it’s completely implausible, while many, maybe even most, of my peer-aged married friends are in open relationships. I don’t particularly appreciate them forwarding a model of relationships where marriage is a first class citizen, to be preserved at all costs, and where people get wide latitude to police the behavior of their spouses.

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    This Thing that Bothers me on the Internet

    I really really don’t get the introvert/extrovert thing. People will ask me, are you an introvert or an extrovert?


    Then they say, to clarify, “well do you gain energy or lose energy from being around people?”

    No. I gain energy from eating food and sleeping. I lose energy from exercising and staying up late.

    “Well, you know what I mean.”

    Oh, so you’re trying to ask me whether being around people affects my mood? Sure yeah. I have felt totally drained after five hours of job interviews, happy and relaxed after five days of vacation with my family, energized after a weeklong retreat with my coworkers, lonely after a week as the only young person music camp, exhilerated after a day of contra dancing, overstimulated after a party where I meet a lot of new people, and satisfied after a long evening with my friends. On the flip side, I have felt relaxed and thoughtful after a long walk by myself, but antsy after a day where I don’t leave my home.

    How I feel around other people depends on a lot of things. How many other people? How well do I know them? What are we doing? Do I think they’re judging me? Are we indoors or outdoors? Can I move around and talk to different people, or do I have to stay in one place (like because I’m in a car, or I have the inside seat in a booth at a restaurant)? Am I hungry? Tired? Souped up on endorphins after exercising? Is the interaction scripted, or do you need to make it up? I worked at a nice fast food restaurant in high school, and I usually felt great after interacting with customers for a few hours– you smile, you give them their food, and they thank you for it. Or are we just sitting around together working? You’d think this would be neutral, but the presence of other people can be comforting on the one hand or annoying and distracting on the other. I find a surprising amount of my feelings towards social situations are explained by how loud the environment is. If I’m in a noisy restaurant, and I have to concentrate on other people to hear what they’re saying, I tire a lot more quickly.

    So I know that people have the bias of thinking that everyone else is like them, but it stretches my imagination that most people are not only unlike me, but much much simpler in this respect. That’s not to say that no one is clearly an introvert or clearly an extrovert, but the idea that that’s everyone, or even most people is bizarre.

    My social circle is pretty good at questioning false binaries, even ones with much longer social histories. It surprises (and annoys) me how much screen space this particular one gets.

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    Why Living off Campus was the Best Decision I Made at MIT

    In high school, I seemed to be pretty smart. I got good grades, did well at math competitions and Quiz Bowl tournaments, and got big numbers on standardized tests. So of course I applied to competitive colleges and ended up going to MIT. At MIT, everyone had a high school experience like mine, so suddenly, instead of being one of the smartest people around, I was more middle-of-the-road. As you can imagine, this transition was pretty bad for my self esteem, and by my sophomore year most of my emotional energy was going into protecting it from the ongoing onslaught.

    How do you deal with this situation? “I compare myself to others too much” seems to be a common problem in general, and “I compare myself to others to the point that it gets in the way of my life” is an alarmingly common problem at places like MIT. I had this problem (although not as severely as many) and I think I was more successful than most at dealing with it.

    One extremely useful thing I did that not many students at MIT do was getting an appartment off campus. At MIT, most students live in dorms for all four years and my friends thought my appartment ten minutes from campus might as well have been on the moon.

    And in a way, it was. The people walking past my door didn’t care about how many classes a semester I was taking. Most of them didn’t go to MIT or anywhere like it, but they still lived good lives, went to work, walked their dogs, and hung out with friends.

    I’d like to say I spent more of my social time outside of MIT after moving (that would have been a good idea), but I don’t think that happened, at least not at first. I was, however, spending more of my eating and drinking coffee and getting exercise and running errands time outside of MIT, and just bumping shoulders in line with a wider variety of people helped me remember how much more there is to life than how smart you are.

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    My Dirty Secret about Traveling with Instruments

    You must not, under any circumstances, tell any airline personnel that I said this.

    The truth is, when push comes to shove, I will never literally forfeit my seat on an airplane because I have to check my fiddle.

    My fiddle is unique and irreplaceable. My fiddle is also in a lot more danger under the plane than in the cabin. It’s sensitive to temperature changes, being dropped long distances, and of course to the general rough handling that baggage gets. But it’s not in that much danger. It’s been checked before without incident, when I was carrying my even more valuable and more fragile nyckelharpa on board. I have a good case that protects it pretty well from rough handling. If the bridge fell over, or the body was cracked, I could bike over to the neighborhood luthier and have it fixed for a few hundred dollars. Maybe not quite as good as new if it was badly damaged, but close. There are worse scenarios (it could get lost or stolen) but I think those are unlikely enough that I’m justified in not worrying about them.

    More importantly, as unique and irreplaceable as my instrument is, my time is also unique and irreplaceable. If I miss a plane, that could be an evening of dancing I never get back, or dinner with a friend, or just some much-needed rest at home after a trip.

    Fundamentally, I have a fiddle so I can use it, including using it in places I have to fly to. If protecting my instrument makes it difficult for me to bring it places, it has defeated its own purpose (I feel a similar way about leaving instruments on chairs while I go to the bathroom at jams).

    An obvious note: while this is how I feel about my instruments, and while I think a lot of people could buy a fancy case and relax about this issue, there are plenty of people who shouldn’t take this risk, and only they can make that decision. My decision is based on a cost/benifit analysis of missing a plane vs. a small risk of an injured instrument. The costs and benefits of both sides of this equation can be completely different, and extremely personal, for other people.

    A less obvious, but potentially useful note: I have never been forced to gate check my fiddle. I have been given a lot of gate check tags for it that I proceeded to put in my pocket while waiting on the jet bridge. I have also had some fun conversations with flight attendants getting them to make room in the overhead bin, or put my instrument in the first class closet. I have even stood at the top of the cabin and yelled asking for a volunteer to gate check their suitcase so I could keep my instrument on the plane. It turns out that the overhead bins are rarely as full as you think, and a little squishing of the coats and purses will make space for fiddle case no problem.

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    Less Performance, More Musicmaking

    There’s this conversation I have pretty regularly. I’m chatting with someone and I mention that I play fiddle. They perk up and say, “oh, cool. I have a violin at home, but I haven’t played it since high school. I’ve thought about playing fiddle music, but never really got started.”

    This strikes me as a huge failure of our music education system. I talk to violinists, but I’m sure that the vast majority of high school band and orchestra members also have an instrument in a closet somewhere that they haven’t touched in years. Thousands of students a year graduate from high school music programs, but only a few go on to play in community choirs, bands, or orchestras.

    I find making music incredibly rewarding and I find it most rewarding in recreational sit-in-my-livingroom-and-hang-out situations, rather than performance situations. However, school music emphasize musical formats (orchestras, marching bands, big choirs) that are well suited for performance over ones that are well suited to recreation.

    Furthermore, I don’t think that you can have your cake and eat it too. Enough of the goals of performance are just completely orthogonal to the goals of fun that emphasizing performance will inevitably mean sacrificing fun. Performing entails choosing formats and styles of music that people want to hear– in the case of most school music programs, orchestras, where the conductor does the creative work and the musicians just follow instructions. In order to perform well, you need to polish particular pieces of music, which basically means playing them over and over exactly the same way, even if you’re bored of them. Rehearsing also requires lots of time and dedication, often from a lot of people, which is easy when the time is literally taken out of the school day, but hard in the real world.

    Recreational living-room music can be done by any number of people at any time. You don’t need a consistent, dedicated group, or a conductor to have a good time. You can play exactly the music you feel like, learning new tunes as the old repertoire gets stale, and you can improvise and experiment without worrying that you’ll sound bad.

    There’s an imagineable music education system where students spend most of their times in small ensembles, playing music they choose. This could be classical string quartets, but it could also be bluegrass, or jazz, or pop– students will be most motivated by music that they genuinely want to play. You could have a showcase performance at the end of the year, or you could just not. I think you’d be much more successful at creating lifelong habits of musicmaking this way.

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    Why I Care about Bi Visibility

    I recently asked my bisexual facebook friends about how they approach bi visibility. I got a lot of interesting answers, but the most liked comment on the thread was my own answer to the question of why I wanted visibility. Most of what I have found on the internet about this is of the poetic, be-yourself strain, like this one. While I like these, I tend to crave more concrete explanations, so I thought I’d post my answers more publicly.

    • I like hanging out with queer people and talking about queer things, and being visible, especially to other queer people, helps me find these friends and conversations. When I asked my friends about this, “community” was by far the most mentioned reason to want to be visible.

    • With friends I’ve had a long time who don’t know I’m bi, I have a really hard time mentioning it, even when it’s relevant to the conversation. I don’t like disrupting people’s well-established images of me, and this experience makes me pretty uncomfortable.

    • I feel strongly about creating space for other people like me. I’m not overwhelmingly affected by people’s assumptions about me (or lack thereof) but I think that there are other people who are, because they’re less comfortable with people’s assumptions, or less likely to out themselves when the time comes. I spend time in spaces where no one has a problem with my sexuality, but where people also assume everyone is straight by default. Being visibly bisexual erodes that assumption, and makes it both easier to come out and easier to stay quiet without worrying that people’s incorrect impressions are becoming more entreanched.

    One reason that I might have put on this list a couple of years ago is ease of partner finding, but this isn’t a major reason for me, and wasn’t mentioned by any of my friends. While I think visibility probably helps, I think it’s far from necessary (I think my past self viewed it as much harder to find same-gender partners while being relatively quiet about my sexuality than it actually was). I have the power to come out to a potential partner whenever I want, and same-gender people who are interested in me are the least likely people to make assumptions, and the most likely people to pick up on subtle hints.

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    More Discoveries about Listening

    It’s been a bit more than a year since I’ve been thinking about how to listen better. It’s hard to attribute any particular successful conversation to the things I’ve learned, but I haven’t been afraid that I’m dominating a conversation as often, and I’ve had some good successes learning interesting things from other people, and I have been able to help friends who needed to get something off their chest, and done a good job. That being said, I still think I have a ton of space to improve, and my successes are disproportionately with people who seem to like talking anyway.

    Here are some more recent additions to my explicit knowledge about how to be a good listener.

    Listening takes energy

    I think of listenining as being pretty passive, but if the person I’m talking to isn’t very talkative, it actuall takes me more attention to keep the conversation in their court than to talk about myself or just drop the conversation. When I’m listening to other people, I need to work to assimilate new information, and persistance and creativity to keep asking them questions with non-trivial answers. When I’m talking about myself– well, I’m usually saying things I’ve said before, or at least understand well.

    Ask about what I’m most interested in

    This seems obvious, but it took me a while to figure it out. I started out trying to find questions that would bring out things that the person I was talking to knew about and I didn’t, or the things they found most interesting, but I often didn’t know what to ask, or found that the conversations petered.

    First of all, I come up with different topics by thinking about what I’m interested in. I’m often interested in pretty mundane parts of people’s lives– what are their communities like? Why did they choose to live where they do? How do they make friends? These aren’t the most “interesting” things that people think about, at least in an intellectual sense, but they’re parts of people’s lives I find interesting to learn about, and as a bonus, basically everyone can talk about the answers to these questions.

    I also find it easier to come up with follow-up questions. If I’m genuinely interested in what we’re talking about, I don’t need to do any complicated calculation to decide what to ask next, I just ask the next thing that pops into my head.

    Conversation structure

    I obviously haven’t given up talking about myself or things that I’m interested in entirely, but I have noticed that even my well-balanced conversations have changed structure. I’m more likely to spend a while asking someone else about an experience they’ve had or something they know about, and then switch modes and let them ask me questions. In my mind, this has become the “interesting people poking at each-other” mode of conversation, and they’re some of the most enjoyable conversations I have.

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    Happiness and the World's Imperfections


    There’s a type of thought experiment typified here:

    On the planet of Hypothetica, there are two groups of people identical except for their hair color: Blues and Greens. They have equal capabilities in every respect, but the Blue majority believe Greens are inferior, Greens are discriminated against, and as a result Greens are poorer, less happy, and live shorter lives.

    Is creating an additional Blue person in Hypothetica better than creating a Green person, since the Blue person will be happier and live longer?

    A baby is born in Hypothetica with orange hair. The doctors say to the parents, “he has a rare condition and will die unless he is treated. A side effect of the treatment is that his hair will change colors, but you can choose whether he ends up with blue or green hair.” Is it better to choose that the baby end up with blue hair? Is choosing to give the baby blue hair as morally good as any other action that similarly increases his lifespan by a few years and increases his happiness?

    How good is it to provide hair dye to one Green, thereby enabling him to become Blue?

    (These questions are from Stanford Effective Altruism discussion questions, which I found here)

    These questions have analogues that hit closer to home. If you could choose the sexuality of your child, what would you choose? They also have analogues that people actually have to make decisions about. Do you give a deaf child a chochlear implant, allowing them to hear, but potentially removing them from a community and source of identity? Should a bisexual person remain closeted and choose an opposite-gender partner in order to gain straight privilege? As a parent, do you encourage or discourage a child’s non-standard gender expression?

    Note: unlike on Hypothetica, we can’t say by fiat what likely outcomes will be, and for these examples I genuinely don’t know. However, it seems extremely likely that these decisions do affect life outcomes, and an intellectually honest researcher might find the decision that likely causes the best outcomes is not the one that they prefer or the one that is socially sanctioned. Even if these particular cases the decisions are easy, that’s extremely unlikely always to be the case.

    I find this kind of decision extremely confusing. Naively, I would say that I want to maximize happiness, so to be consistent with my moral stance, I would have to give out blue hair dye to greens, and do what I can to produce myself privileged children children.

    But I also don’t want to live in a world of only white people. If I could suddenly make all the black people in the US white, I would potentially improve a lot of their lives by objective measures, but simultaneously strip many of those same lives of a major source of meaning. Would those people choose that outcome? Even if they wouldn’t, would their lives be better afterwards?

    Happiness in my life

    There are multiple senses of the word “happiness.”

    One is moment-to-moment happiness. I’m going to call this enjoyment. There are a lot of things that I get enjoyment out of. I enjoy having sex. I enjoy going to dance weekends. I rarely experience the feeling during sex or dance weekends that I would rather be doing something else, which is a feeling I get, say, while I’m at work, or even during a weekend at home, which suggests that sex and dance weekends are more enjoyable than work. Confusingly, though, I don’t seem to be optimizing for these much. I’ve been to five dance weekends in the last year; I could easily have been to twice that many. With only a little more inconvenience I could rearrange my life so I have a lot more sex than I do now. But I don’t.

    So what am I optimizing for? There are things that make me feel “happy” with my life that aren’t enjoyment:

    • Looking back on past accomplishments that I think are meaningful

    • Remembering good times in the past

    • Working on goals that are important to me

    • Looking forward to enjoyable things in the future

    I think these are all part of what we say when we talk about having a “meaningful” or “satisfying” life, as opposed to just a “happy” one.

    However, for my life to have these properties, I necessarily need to give up some minute-to-minute enjoyment. Having satisfying accomplishments probably means overcoming at least a little bit of adversity. Having meaningful goals means having some part of the world that is not already exactly how you want it to be. To look forward to enjoyment in the future, I at least have to not be having that same type of enjoyment now.

    I’m happy with this tradeoff. As I mentioned, I could spend a lot more time on minute-to-minute enjoyable things, but I choose not to in favor (among other things) of being able to invest more energy in work, which is tied up in my long term goals. I also expect to continue to do this. For example, I want to have children in spite of the morning sickness and screaming babies necessarily involved because I expect it to be a challenging, meaningful project that will bring me a lot of satisfaction.

    Is there such a thing as too good a world?

    Sometimes I dream about living in a gender-free utopia, free of expectations that women should be pretty and polite and men should be aggressive. This would solve a lot of problems I have now.

    But living in a gender-free utopia would also rob me of experiences I find meaningful. I don’t shave my legs, but in middle school and high school, I didn’t really feel like that was an option. Today, my hairy legs make me feel powerful, since I overcame a lot of social pressure to have them. In a perfect gender-free utopia I would still not shave my legs, but I wouldn’t get much satisfaction from it. Even given my negative experiences around it when I was younger, I definitely prefer to keep my current experience with body hair. And yet I’m passionate about making body hair acceptable for women, and thereby robbing other people of an experience I consider positive.

    I don’t think the world shouldn’t be better for women or racial minorities or disabled people. This is why I try to combat stereotypes that apply to me, like that women shouldn’t have body hair. But I do worry that a world where everyone has it easy and no one is different would just not be interesting. Which is why I hesitate to do the obvious thing and start the blue hair dye factory.

    Luckily, I don’t have to figure this out right now.

    This is currently just a theoretical problem. I don’t think the world is in any danger of being too good in the near future, and I don’t think any of my personal efforts to make the world better run up against this objection (I’m basically 100% sure that people are more able to lead meaningful lives when they don’t have malaria, for instance).

    It’s also possible that this is not a real problem at all ever. I could be wrong that I wouldn’t feel satisfied with my life in a utopia where I never had to overcome adversity. It could also be the case that the amount of adversity you have to overcome to feel satisfied with your life is sufficiently small that even inevitable problems like breakups or losing sports games will provide sufficient adversity. After all, even by local standards, I’m extremely lucky– I’m paid a lot of money to do something I enjoy doing, good health, familial wealth enough to send me to a fancy college, etc, but I’ve still had a pretty satisfying life so far.

    How do you optimize for giving people meaningful lives? Surely they should be long and healthy. Probably they should include many choices, and a fair chance at success in any reasonable endeavor. Also surely, they should contain some challenges and some hard times. Should these meaningful lives include gendered beauty expectations? The echos of generations of racial inquality? Religious tension? Online bullying? Generational conflict? Charity? Activism? I’m not sure.

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    Why I have Suddenly Grown an Interest in History

    I have been really enjoying reading books about history recently. I got Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition because I was interested in how social movements work, and I thought I might gain some insight by learning about one I didn’t know much about yet. I enjoyed that book a lot, mostly for reasons unrelated to my original motivation for buying it, so the next time I was in a book store I browsed the history section and picked up Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages.

    These books did not try to draw deep or universal conclusions, but had more of a “here are some things that happened, and this is what it was like” tone. The extracurricular history books I’ve read in the past (like Guns Germs and Steel and A People’s History of the United States) were definitely trying to make points beyond the specific events they described, and while I enjoyed them and got things out of them, I found it exhausting to read them and overwhelming to try to evaluate their claims. On the other hand, books that just give surveys of particular parts of the past don’t force me to take a side in a great debate, but do teach me things I didn’t know before and give me new and interesting perspectives on the present.

    These books have filled a couple of important niches in my life.

    One is bedtime reading. These books were not intellectually challenging enough to require me to be fully awake to appreciate them, and they were interesting enough to make me want to read them without being so riveting that I couldn’t put them down.

    The other is conversation starters. There are people who I spend enough time with that I have a hard time findig topics we are both interested in that we haven’t hashed over already. It’s easy to start a conversation about history without the other person having to do any background reading (compare to, say, physics, or even fiction reading). It’s also easy to connect history to the present day, which means that conversations that start on history often end up on other interesting and relevant-to-our-lives topics that we might not otherwise think to talk about.

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    Musical Updates

    It’s been a while since I’ve written about making music here. I’ve done a lot of it, and improved a lot, so I wanted to talk about the things that I’ve been doing and what’s changed.

    Asking really good fiddlers for lessons

    I don’t have anything approaching weekly lessons, but I have had several one-off lessons. Over the last year or so I’ve had about half a dozen music lessons with four different people. These have been incredibly helpful in terms of giving me things to practice and ultimately in changing the way I play.

    A lot of the most helpful things boiled down to very simple suggestions:

    • Emphasize the upbeat more
    • Play with less bow
    • Leave more space between the notes

    These are all ideas I’d encountered before, mostly be observing other fiddlers, but hadn’t implemented very well yet, which makes me think that maybe I should have been able to access these improvements without lessons. I’m not convinced though– I notice a lot of things about how other fiddlers play, and it can be hard to tell which are important and which aren’t. And frankly, even if I need to pay $45 and go through the inconvenience of arranging a lesson in order to make this type of thing sink in, it’s still well worth the cost to me.

    New bow

    I bought a bow! I was inspired by playing around with a friend’s carbon fiber bow to see if I wanted to get one myself. The new bow is a bit unusual in that it’s extremely light. It took some getting used to, but now that I’m used to playing with it, I like it a lot. It’s much easier to control anything that involves lifting the bow off of the string and putting it back. That means I have an easier time with chops, or just putting more space between the notes, which, oh hey look, was a thing I was trying to work on!

    One thing the process of trying new bows made me realize is how much I like my old bow. That bow was a 14th birthday present, which means that I was playing with it for almost exactly ten years (wow!). I had to spend a lot of time during the bow-trying process asking myself whether I liked that bow because I was used to it or because it was a good bow. I’m pretty convinced it was just a good bow. After all, I found something I liked better, but only after trying 10s of bows, all of which cost more than my old one.

    Moar band members

    In March, Ben and I were invited to play as a last-minute-substitute band at a local dance. For fun, we asked our friend Will to join us on guitar and mandolin, and we had such a good time that we asked him to also join us for all of our future gigs.

    Having a third musician allows us to do lots of things we couldn’t do before. I can play chords or a harmony while Will keeps the melody going on mandolin, and Ben can play accordion while Will backs us up on guitar. In general, I was a lot more cautious experimenting in a duo setting, because if I messed up we would lose the melody and the dancers might get lost. Playing with three feels a lot more like a jam session, which is more fun for us, and more fun for the dancers.

    Overall, the Stolen Goods is doing well. At first we were asking other people to book us, but now other people sometimes ask if we’ll play their dance! It’s certainly not a complete transition, but it’s an encouraging step.

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    An Hour's Impact

    Note for my regular blog readers: this post is in response to the prompt for this months effective altruist blogging carnival. If you’ve never heard about effective altruism, this is an extremely bad introductory post and I don’t really recommend reading it. Instead, you should read the Center for Effective Altruism’s website or the Wikipedia page.

    Thanks to Ben Kuhn for substantial help organizing and editing this post.

    The Impact you can (and can’t) Make in an Hour

    There’s a trope in the EA world of comparing every activity to spending the same amount of time working and donating the money earned to charity. The implication is that one shouldn’t do any potentially charitable activities unless they meet this extremely high standard. Some examples:

    This naive hour-for-hour comparison adequately captures the actual consequences of decisions that trade off time, and as I’ll discuss in this post, I think they unfairly discourage us from using our time other ways. We need ways to make decisions about how we spend our time that take into account how we’re spending our time overall, not just any particular hour.

    Why the naive hour-for-hour tradeoff model doesn’t work

    Non-linear return on work

    These comparisons assume that return on work is linear, that is, the marginal hour at work is worth the same amount of money as the average hour at work. This isn’t usually true. People who earn salaries usually earn their salary as long as they fulfil the minimum requirements for their job. Even if working more than the minimum helps you earn more, there’s no reason to think that it does so at the same rate.

    For a clear example, consider a teacher. They earn $40,000 a year and have 12 weeks off during the summer, so their wage for the 40 weeks that school is on is $1,000/week. During the summer, they can try to get a second job, but they probably can’t do better than $10/hour, bringing them to $400/week during the summer. Since teacher salaries are usually based on seniority and not skill, putting extra time into school-related things probably doesn’t pay off monetarily. Even though the average wage is about $860/week, their marginal income is more like $400/week. The comparisons above, then, give twice the lost income a teacher could reasonably expect from a lost hour of work.

    What if I’m a software engineer? Since working more in tech probably helps you primarily by increasing the probability that you are promoted, it’s harder to estimate your expected reward. Some considerations:

    • Raises in the tech industry are usually small; you usually increase your pay only by switching jobs.

    • If you work hard and climb the tech career ladder faster, you enjoy higher salaries for longer, multiplying the effect of your work.

    • Tech salaries have a long tail. If you end up the CTO of a successful company, you make a lot of money, but very few people achieve that. One thing this means is that moving from the 60th percentile of tech workers to the 65th is probably much less valuable than moving from the 94th to the 99th.

    • It’s also probably much easier to move from the 60th percentile of tech workers to the 65th than from the 94th to the 99th, because the other people in the 94th percentile of tech workers are also pretty awesome.

    • It’s not obvious that working more will help you get ahead at all in tech (although I think it’s likely), and if so, what kind of work. Learning new technical skills, expanding your open source resume, working for high-prestige companies, expanding your network, and investing in leadership and interpersonal skills all seem plausible routes forward, and I think any of them could be the best, and any of them could have almost no effect.

    Given this, my guess for the value of a marginal hour for a tech worker is something between a quarter and a half of their average salary. Again, this is enough of a difference that we could be significantly misled by valuing their time at their average hourly wage, as the examples above do.

    Counterfactual spending

    When I see these comparisons, they always compare the good done by volunteering to the amount of good that could be done with the full amount of money that the potential volunteer would earn. This comparison makes some sense in the abstract– if I’m willing to take a week off work to do good, I should be willing to work an additional week and donate the full amount, not just part of it. However, if I usually donate 10% of my earnings to charity, I will probably only donate 10% of my weeks earnings if I work that week.

    Note that this doesn’t apply to everyone– if you donate all of your earnings above an amount that you are certain to make, you can claim that every marginal dollar would be given to charity. However, if you don’t use that system, and I believe most of us don’t, you should either expect to donate your usual percentage to charity, or to do some complicated accounting.

    Counterfactual Time Use

    Another assumption these comparisons make is that time time spent on one of these activities comes only out of work time. I think this is often false, and we should generally guess that volunteer time comes partly out of work and partly out of recreation time.

    Since people usually make commitments at work to get particular things done, they pretty much have to work long enough to get those things done, so even if someone take Tuesday morning off to walk to the voting booth, they are increasing their probability of working late a future week.

    In addition, since many volunteer activities more closely resemble recreation than work, they may not only funge mostly against recreation time, but have the same positive effects as recreation. That is, if I take two weeks off of work to donate a kidney, I may return to work more rested and productive than if I had worked those two weeks.

    Adding it Up

    Say that I earn on average $100 per hour worked, and I’m considering taking on some volunteer activity. If I assume that I can earn in a marginal hour half of what I do in an average hour, and if I work an extra hour that I’ll donate half of the proceeds, and that the volunteer activity I’m considering funges half against work and half against other non-work activities, then the amount I expect my donation to decrease by is not $100/hour, it’s $12.50/hour. This order of magnitude difference could easily make the difference between “worth it” activities and “not worth it” ones.

    More importantly, though, how a particular time commitment affects your earnings depends a lot on the situation. Every time we make this type of comparison, we’re making assumptions. Mine are more explicit, and I think they’re more realistic, but even so they only apply to some situations. Someone with a flexible job taking on a small time commitment is likely to have their earnings change by essentially zero. Someone who is paid by the hour who has to trade their shift away to meet a new commitment probably loses essentially their full wages for that hour. No single number comparison will capture all or even most situations.

    All this somewhat begs the question, though– how should we manage the trade-off between work and other potentially impactful activities? It seems like for most people, working and donating a portion of their salaries is the most impactful thing they can do, and it seems likely that working harder is a path to being able to donate more. It also seems likely that many of us are at risk of overcommitting to volunteer activities to the point where they do interfere substantially with our jobs. I think we can do better than naive hour-by-hour comparisons for understanding time tradeoffs.

    Better Models for Time Tradeoffs

    Instead of comparing the uses of every hour individually, people trying to maximize their earnings should have policies for how they spend their time. A simple and good example is a budget. I might commit to spending 50 hours/week on work (or on investing in work skills), 10 hours/week on other EA related activities, and use the rest of my time how I want. Using this system would allow me to still do activities that I want to do (voting, volunteering) in my free time, and feel confident that I’m still doing a good job at work and investing in future earnings. If I overspend in one category, I can consider it a loan from the future, and pay it back later.

    Understanding counterfactual use of time

    I’ve said that when deciding to spend time on something, it doesn’t make sense to assume that in the counterfactual, that same time would be used for work. However, I don’t have a high-certainty idea of what I would do in the counterfactual. Budgeting time gives us the opportunity to be able to answer that question better.

    When you’re considering modifying a budget to add an ongoing time commitment, you can compare two plans directly, and be able to make claims with reasonable certainty about what you would do in the counterfactual if you don’t take on a commitment.

    Jeff Kaufman wrote about keeping monetary choices donation neutral (they also mention how they would approach some time tradeoffs).

    For many of us, donating money is going to be the most effective thing we do by a noticeable margin. If this is true of you, this probably means putting work in its own category, since regularly choosing to do something besides work with your work time is probably not donation neutral. If you don’t think voting is an effective use of your time, but you still want to do it, go to the polls, but make sure you also meet your other time obligations for the week.

    This all leaves a question, though. My initial criticism was of a way we communicate about time tradeoffs (making naive one-off-comparisons). I’ve talked about a better way for people to frame their decisions about how they spend their time, but I’ve still deprived them of a catchy way to demonstrate the relative impact of different activities.

    Better Ways to Talk about Time Use

    Overall, I’d rather see the impact of different activities compared to money than to time. While the good different people can do with an hour may vary from person to person, the good they can do with a dollar can’t, so dollars makes a better currency for impact than time. I also think comparing the impact of an activity to the impact of a donation is similarly vivid–Scott Alexander uses in very well in this recent post to make the same point.

    I also think it’s also reasonable to categorize an activity as “not very effective.” I think the examples of soup kitchen work and voting both count as good things that are far enough from being effective we should probably never call them EA activities. This doesn’t mean you should never do them, only that you shouldn’t put them in your “altruism” budget.


    I think there’s a larger pattern that’s worth pointing out here. Ben wrote about how the idea of comparative advantage causes no one in the movement to do things that need to be done. Even though every individual career decision may make sense, in the context of the EA movement they fail to meet some needs. Similarly, making decisions about how to spend our time without context causes us to allocate our time in ways that aren’t as valuable as we’re portraying them.

    I think there’s a tendency to discover a useful tool for thinking about how we should behave, and then apply it with insufficient scrutiny to too many situations. We should spend more time stepping back and investigating the actual results of our decision-making algorithms, and looking for algorithms that result in states that we are happier with.

    See full post with comments

    Gender Free Dancing is for Everyone

    Berkeley’s mainstream contra had its first entirely gender-free dance this week. Erik Hoffman, who calls that dance about half the time, used “larks” and “ravens” to refer to the traditional gents and ladies roles, and he’s announced that he will continue to use non-gendered language in the future. Guest callers will still have their choice of language, but my guess is that many of them will try larks and ravens.

    Gender free contra has been a thing for a while–just a little longer than I’ve been alive. But, as far as I know, it’s separate always from just contra dance. The people who do it seem to be different from those attending mainstream contras (although there’s certainly some overlap). There’s a separate national umbrella organization for gender-free contra dances, Lavendar Country Dance Society. And you certainly wouldn’t go to a contra dance and expect it to be gender free, unless it was specifically advertised as such.

    In addition to being separate, most gender free dances are also advertised explicitly as LGBTQ events. The Bay Area organization is called “Queer Contra.” The Boston area dance has the tag line “Boston Gender Free Contra Dance for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer Folks and Friends!”. The NYC area dance, Village Contra makes it through its home page without any “LGBT,” but it appears three times in their one paragraph history blurb, and one of their FAQs is “Are straight dancers welcome?” so I think that was just an oversight.

    I don’t say this to accuse the gender free community of being unwelcoming to straight people (they aren’t), but to point out that it seems like no one thinks straight people are interested. Which is kind of ridiculous. The advantages of dancing both roles, or dancing your non-traditional role, apply to everyone. For example:

    • The two roles are fun and rewarding in different ways, and more people will get to do both

    • You can dance with everyone, including, for example, same gendered friends who you bring to a dance, or very good dancers of your gender

    • Learning both roles makes you better at each individually

    • You can switch roles back and forth during the dance or do shadowplay/shenanigans/chaos more easily

    And gender-free communities have advantages that you don’t get by just dancing both roles in a traditionally gendered setting: These communities are more welcoming to people who are bothered by gendered language

    • You cause less confusion by dancing non-traditional roles

    • Weekends never have to exclude people of a particular gender in order to maintain similar numbers of each role

    • More people to switch roles back and forth or do shadowplay/shenanigans/chaos with.

    • Even if you don’t dance both roles, more people to dance with

    Having Berkeley Contra be gender free means that a lot of people who wouldn’t have sought out a gender-free dance will start to experience these advantages. Regular Berkeley dancers will find themselves at a gender-free dance just by going to their local dance. New dancers will come to their first contra and choose a role without reference to gender. Dancers from other places who come through town will dance with us to non-gendered calling, maybe without expecting to, and they’ll come back to their home communities with less of an assumption that all dances are traditionally gendered.

    I think this change is a big deal, not just because I like gender free dancing and want to see more of it. I think this is a bigger and more important change than, say, the creation of another gender free dance. Berkeley Contra is a gender free dance that’s a gender free dance for everyone. Not just queer people. Not just young people. Everyone.

    See full post with comments

    New Job

    I started a new job this week. I’m working for Wave, an app for sending remittances (money immigrants send back to their families). I’m their third full time employee and their first engineering hire (so far all of the engineering work has been done by the founders, Lincoln and Drew). They’re starting out, but they have a lot of users, and from what I’ve seen they have a good chance of being successful.

    When I left my last job I had some criteria for what a better job would look like, and I feel lucky to have found something that fits those criteria extremely well. It’s a product that clearly helps people. I’m working from home and I have flexible hours, both of which make it easier to find time to do the things I want to do that aren’t work. One thing that I increasingly think is important is working for a small company, or at least on a small team. At my last job, I was suffering both from feeling that the product I was making wasn’t helping others significantly, and that I wasn’t contributing significantly to the product (note that neither of these are necessarily true, they’re just how I felt). While intellectually I’d probably put more weight on the former, the latter is probably more psychologically important.

    Being chosen as the second engineer for a company as promising as Wave increased my confidence that tech is a good place for me. At one point in my interview, Drew, one of the founders, said that I seemed really genuine, and that they thought I was a great culture fit. I was surprised, since I’m used to thinking of myself as a not-great culture fit in tech. I have different hobbies from most of my past coworkers, I’m not very wowed by shiny technology or hip startups, and I don’t spend much time on the internet. It seems like Drew and his cofounder Lincoln wanted someone who cared about their mission more than someone who fit a particular mold of software engineer.

    I originally planned to try not to go back to work until New Years. However, four weeks in I was feeling a little bored. I had projects that I could have worked on, but I wasn’t excited about them or making much progress on them. Since I am excited about working for Wave, I think I’ll be happier between now and new years working than I would be continuing my break.

    See full post with comments

    New Practice Strategy

    I recently started listening to and immitating professional recordings as one of my main practice strategies, and I’m really pleased with how it’s going.

    I’ve long understood that having structure will help me focus my practice. I’ve tried some structures before–polishing a tune to record on my computer, making lists of tunes or techniques to focus on–but without much success, so I’m excited to have finally found something that works.

    What I’ve Been Doing

    I sit down and choose a recording, and open it up in audacity. I choose an iteration of the tune where I can hear the fiddle well and listen to it a few times. Usually I crop the recording down to just that one iteration for convenience.

    After playing the piece through until I have the notes, I choose aspects of the piece to work on one-by-one. An aspect of the piece might be an ornamentation strategy, a difficult phrase, some aspect of the player’s bowing, etc. A particularly fruitful direction I’ve found is understanding the rhythm of the piece– what part of the measure is getting emphasis and how. Usually I work on the A part until I’ve worked on all of the aspects I’m going to work on, and then I move on to the B part.


    The biggest success of this strategy is that I actually use it. When I’ve started using new strategies before, I’ve always lost interest within weeks. What’s worse is that I didn’t just stop using my particular strategy–without direction, I practiced a lot less overall.

    The second biggest success of this strategy is that now when I practice I’m focussing on something. I’m not sure if the things I’m focussing on are the most valuable for me, but I’m pretty sure that if I don’t try to improve something particular, I basically don’t improve.

    The other second biggest success is listening closely to what fiddlers I admire are doing. I’m getting better at identifying what tools players use to create different effects, even if I don’t know how to use those tools yet. I’ve noticed also some systematic things– fiddlers I admire emphasize the offbeats more than I do (“one-and-TWO-and” instead of “ONE-and-two-and”).

    I see signs that I’m improving. I’ve learned some new tunes. I’ve gotten a lot better at bow tripplets, which I could barely do before. Bow tripplets appear a lot on recordings, so I’m obliged to play them a lot more, and it turns out that just playing them a lot goes a long way.

    I also have a few hints of more important successes. I’ve caught myself using things I’ve learned from recordings on other tunes, but not very often yet. A couple of times recently my playing has pulled Ben away from whatever he was doing to come accompany me on the piano, which I don’t think would happen if I wasn’t playing particularly well


    One problem I’m encountering is that I find that after working hard to master a particular player’s version of a tune it’s harder to vary it, which I need to do if I’m going to play it eight times through at a contra dance. More broadly, I’m not doing much concious work on creating my own arrangements, or applying what I’m learning from recordings to other tunes. I’m fine with this for now, but unless I want to become a robot and play tunes only exactly as I heard them, I may want to spend some more time trying to fix this.


    I’ve found it useful to play recordings at half speed, not only to figure out what’s going on with very fast ornaments, which I expected, but also to understand the rhythm, which I didn’t. I’ve been able to immitate rhythms better by listening to a recording at half speed, playing the tune at that tempo, and then slowly speeding it up until I’m playing at full speed.

    It matters which tunes I pick for this exercise. It helps to have recordings that aren’t too busy. Especially bad are ones where something else is playing in unison with the fiddle, because on these it’s much harder to hear the bowing. The very best tunes include the fiddler doing something very simple very well. On Elixir’s recording of the tune House of Hamill, at the beginning the fiddle does a rhythmic drone on an E like “doot-do-doot-do-do-doot-do-do-doot-do-do-doot.” I enjoyed working on the bow articulation without worrying about a bunch of notes, and then once I started playing the tune, I noticed a lot of similar rhythmic patterns, and I could play them better because I had figured out the pattern on the drone. It was like Ethan Hazzard-Watkins had put a little fiddle lesson for me in that recording. I hope to find more recordings with fiddle lessons in them, but I’m not sure this will happen often.

    What about this strategy makes work?

    I think this strategy is working so well for me because it gives me guidance that I don’t have to generate. When I try to work on a tune until it’s good enough to record, I need to first figure out what part of my playing to work on improving, which I’m not very good at. I’m more likely to think of things to work on that I’ve thought about in the past, which are likely the ones I’m already good at, or ones where I’m reaching diminishing marginal returns on.

    See full post with comments

    Leaving my Job

    This Halloween I did something scary– I left my job.

    There are parts of my job that I love. At Pivotal, we pair program all day, every day, two people at one computer. This has allowed me to learn an incredible amount in the last year, more than I think I would have learned elsewhere. It also means the people working at Pivotal are some of the most pleasant and cooperative and overall wonderful to work with people who exist in the tech industry.

    There are also flip sides to that. Pairing is exhausting, and I had never quite adjusted to that. The second half of the day was always quite a drag, and I was not appropriately excited to see people outside of work. Three months ago, my roommate and best friend from college moved in with me again, and I’ve been coming home and having to hide in my room from her desire to talk to me. That sucks. Pairing also dictated my work schedule, which meant coming in and 9:00 even when I’ve been up late dancing, and using sick time for every doctors appointment or errand. In the end, I wasn’t enjoying being at work, and it wasn’t allowing me to put the energy I wanted into other parts of my life, and these considerations override the practical and professional reasons I had to stay.

    At least for employable tech workers like me, I don’t think leaving a job is usually such a terrifying experience, but for me it’s been a harrowing couple of weeks. I had to tell my manager (who was sad to see me go) and my mom (who thought I probably should stick around at least until I have another job, but helped me get back on her insurance at the last minute). For the first week and a half my team didn’t know I was leaving so I was walking around my workplace with the feeling of this horrible secret resting on my shoulders.

    I don’t like making people sad, and my manager was definitely sad to see me go. The morning after I turned in my resignation, we sat down to talk in a tiny conference room, and she told me that she had told her boss, who had pulled my resume from the pile to interview himself, that I was leaving. I whimpered and covered my head with my hands, but she came back with “No. You don’t get to let other people tell you to stay and stunt your growth if you should be elsewhere. Not that I’m worried, because as much as you’re whimpering and covering your head right now, I notice that you’re not rescinding your resignation.” This was about the right thing to hear, and I think she was right– I don’t always love doing it, but I’m pretty capable of sticking up for my own priorities.

    I’m nervous that I’m making the wrong decision, because I don’t love going to work, but really, who does? Maybe work is just a drag and I’m leaving a pretty good place that I’ll never be able to replace. I don’t think this is true, and even if there’s a risk that it is, staying somewhere I’m not happy only out of fear that there’s nothing better seems like a poor bet. If work sucks everywhere, I intend to find that out by working at a bunch of places and discovering that work sucks everywhere.

    I’m not sure what’s next. I have some savings, so I’m taking some time to look around for particularly interesting looking opportunities. While I do that, I am planning on working on personal projects, making music, and tending my garden, and other things that I have been less able to while also working.

    At most points in my life, I have some sort of life story drawn out in my head, where the current moment is part (often the beginning) of some long trend of improvement. I’ve been doing this long enough that I have no confidence in these narratives, but now in particular I’m acutely aware that while the short term looks really nice, I may have to try a bunch of different jobs before I find one that works well for me, and that process probably has a lot of ups and downs. More reflection and planning on how to use a suddenly much larger amount of free time is likely to appear hear in the next few weeks, so stay tuned.

    See full post with comments


    Stolen Goods (me and Ben Kuhn) had it’s first gig playing for a contra dance this September. This is how it went.

    What went well

    As far as I can tell, we did a reasonably good job in general. People seemed to have fun; I heard some whooping during the dance. Our friends are not reliable sources on this, but they all said we sounded good, and a facebook friend I’m not particularly close to who offered frank feedback said we were about average for contra dance bands in the area. For our first gig, I think that counts as success.

    I also personally had a great time. I really enjoyed hearing my playing amplified all over the hall and watching people move to it. A lot of our friends came to see us play, including some non contra-dance friends, and I felt awesomely supported.

    What we learned

    As you’d imagine, our first gig did not go off without hitches, and we have a lot to improve.


    Before the dance, we had about 14 sets that we’d been practicing and polishing, and four backup sets. All but one of the ones we played were in our polished collection, but one of the ones that went best (Dancing Bear/Tam Lin) was on our backup list, and another was actually two tunes from different rehearsed sets. It seems like right now, anyway, after a point, rehearsal of particular sets doesn’t matter very much.

    Sound balance

    We heard that at the highest energy moments, the piano overpowered the fiddle. In the future we should make sure we play both ends of our dynamic range during the sound check, and not just the middle.


    One piece of feedback we got second hand was that one person couldn’t hear the phrasing on some tunes. I’m making a lot of inference about what was going on here, but I noticed that we had at least two tunes where the phrases didn’t line up with the figures. Most contra dance tunes have a 16 beat A part and a 16 beat B part, divided up either 4-4-4-4 or 8-8. Most contra dances which have four, eight, or sixteen beat figures, and it’s easier to time the dance correctly if the figures end at the same time as phrases. At this dance, we played Northern Air, which has a B part with 4-8-4 phrasing, and we played the Calvin Cycle, which has one long 16 beat phrase in the B part, both of which don’t fit well with most dances. I suspect that the person who had this problem was hearing the phrasing correctly, but was noticing that it didn’t line up with the dance.

    In the future, I think we’ll have to save these two tunes for dances that happen to have exactly the right phrasing, or for advanced dancers who won’t rely as much on the phrasing (as opposed to counts) to figure out when to move.

    What’s next?

    We had a great time playing, and we’re continuing to practice looking for more gigs in the area. We sent a couple of emails to dance organizers, but haven’t heard back, so we’re starting to think that email is not the best way to contact most dance organizers.

    See full post with comments

    What I wish I could tell my teenage self about dating

    When I was in high school, most of what I knew about dating came from movies and school health classes. All the information about sex I learned in several iterations of sex-ed was important, but wouldn’t be useful to me until years after I learned it. I recognized that a lot of the relationships I saw in movies and read in books was unrealistic, but didn’t have a good idea of what real relationships were like.

    For all that, I think I had pretty good high level ideas about relationships. Respect your partner. Try to make them happy. Respect yourself. Try to make yourself happy. I didn’t have any clear idea about how to create relationships like this, though, or really how to create relationships at all. How do you ask people out? How do you flirt? If you go out with someone once, are you dating? How about after two or three dates. How do you bring up problems? How do you break up?

    I have some answers to these questions now, maybe even pretty good answers. I don’t have access to my younger self so I can explain things to her, but I may have access to other people with similar difficulties.

    Take this advice with a lot of caveats. My experience dating is relatively narrow. All of my serious relationships have been monogamous (or almost monogamous), opposite-gender, boyfriend/girlfriend relationships with people I met in person. The fact that my relationships have all been pretty similar means that I don’t know how this advice generalizes. By the same token, however, similar relationships means I’ve been able to apply the things I’ve learned to subsequent relationships, so most of this advice comes from more than one experience.

    Asking People Out

    Don’t ask someone out suddenly

    I want more than the 20 seconds I get to think when being asked out in person with no warning. I’m much more likely to make a bad decision (in either direction) when rushed than when I have some time to think. Alternatives are discussed later in this section.

    Women are allowed to ask men out

    Or people of any gender. This probably goes without saying, but in case it doesn’t, it’s now been said.


    The classic approach to letting people know that you’re interested is flirting. Flirtation is typically ambiguous. This is ok. Since all you have to do is make the person you’re flirting with wonder whether you’re romantically interested, ambiguity is ok.

    Flirtation walks a fine line and it’s possible to be way too subtle and not be noticed, or way too forward and cross people’s boundaries. If you don’t trust yourself to do a good job flirting, just saying things like “I think you’re awesome” is a pretty good way to get the message across and is unlikely to make other people uncomfortable.

    It’s ok to express affection

    Being liked, when the person doing the liking is respectful about it, feels awesome, even when you’re not interested that way. I am still friends with people who have asked me out who I have said no to. One pitfall to watch out for, though: make sure it’s clear that your happiness doesn’t depend on them liking you back. No one wants to feel on the hook for someone else’s happiness.

    Be explicit when asking people out

    No matter how explicit you think you’ve been, there is someone who would not have caught that you had romantic intentions. Use explicitly romantic language (“date” is a good word). Be clear that you are asking them out because you are romantically interested in them, not because you need someone to go with you to some event.

    This may be socially uncomfortable, but the alternatives suck more. It will be very awkward if you have to go on a date with someone who is slowly realizing that this is a date they would never have agreed to.

    Don’t coopt a platonic occasion

    If you didn’t ask someone if they want to go on a date with you (or something similarly explicitly romantic), but you did ask them if they wanted to go hiking with you, or go to a play, or have lunch with you, you should not try to make romantic or sexual advances. If you profess your love to someone five miles from the car you both need to drive home together in, you and the person you are with are both likely to feel uncomfortable for the next five miles of hiking. This kind of behavior may also cause your partner to question whether you wanted to be friends with them in the first place or whether this was all about sexual stuff the whole time. That won’t make them like you more.

    Try asking people out over the internet

    Doing this gives the person you’re asking infinite time to think, without the unpleasant and sometimes judgement-warping possibility of saying no to your face. As a bonus for you, you have plenty of time to draft an email that’s suave and romantic and clear about your intentions. This may not be as romantic as asking someone out face to face, but I’ve been asked out this way, and waking up to an email full of smiley faces and an invitation to dinner is also really nice.

    It’s ok to ask mutual friends to help mediate

    This is especially useful if you feel uncomfortable asking someone out, or you think they might feel uncomfortable being asked out by you. Friends can feel someone out for you, let you know if that person is very likely not interested for reasons you didn’t know, and generally smooth things over. Remember though that every individual is the arbiter of their own decisions, and you use this technique at your own risk. Choose a friend whose judgment you trust, and don’t mistake a “probably not” for an “absolutely no.”

    Setting Relationship Norms

    Ask about all the things:

    • What words can I use to describe our relationship? Boyfriend? Girlfriend? Partner?

    • Can I be affectionate towards you in public? Around your friends?

    • Can I be in other relationships at the same time as this one? Can I hook up with other people? Make out? Cuddle? Flirt?

    • How often do you want to spend time together? Doing what kinds of things?

    You don’t need to have these conversations all at once, and you have no need to have them at all until you’re a couple of weeks into a relationship. Frontloading them may waste your time if the relationship falls apart early, or make you and your partner feel under pressure to figure things out right away. Remember with all these questions that the answers can change later if need be.

    Set accurate expectations

    A common failure mode I’ve seen and experienced in relationships is the “other person doesn’t hang out with me enough” failure mode. In my experience, the absolute amount of time spent together matters less than the difference between reality and your expectations. Talk about how much time you want to spend together per week, and if you have a week when you’re expecting to be too busy to spend your usual time with a significant other, tell them a week or two in advance.

    In a similar vein, to be accommodating to a busy significant other, I’ve learned to interpret a lot of maybes as nos. I’m surprised at how easily I trick myself into thinking that things that might happen will almost certainly not happen, and then being pleasantly surprised when they sometimes do happen.

    In any relationship

    Your partner is the person it is easiest for you to hurt

    Since so much emotion tends to ride on relationships, it’s easy to hurt your partner. If a friend flakes on an appointment I’ll probably shrug it off, but if a significant other does it usually stings.

    Check in every once in a while (but don’t expect every problem to be resolved)

    Create times set aside to talk about how things are going. This can be a time to raise problems and try to think of ways to solve them. This can also be a time to think of ways your relationship can get more awesome, even if there’s no immediate problem. Don’t expect every problem to be solved right away, or ever, though.

    Talk about your partner to other people

    I remember one summer I had a boyfriend who had an internship in another state. I would have liked to hear from him in some form every day, which I told him repeatedly, and which he repeatedly appologized for not doing. I was pretty annoyed at him for this until I talked to another friend, who said “you know, communication every day is probably a lot of communication for him.” Hearing that completely broke me out of my funk and I was able to relax and enjoy his emails and calls the few times a week that they came. In general, talking with people about my problems helps me feel better about them and come to better outcomes. When my problems involve my partner, I need someone besides my partner to talk to them about.

    Express affection

    Receiving affection makes your partner happy and comfortable with you. “I love you”s, random hugs, small presents and meaningful complements are all easy things to do that have an outsized emotional impact.

    Breaking Up

    Take your time

    This is a process. Don’t jump to the conclusion that it’s time to end it the moment you start feeling doubts about a relationship. Sit on it. Sometimes they go away. Obviously, sometimes they don’t, but there’s no hurry.

    You should also give your partner plenty of time to think about what’s going on. Hopefully you’ve been raising issues as you go along, but bring up the things that make you unsure about the relationship before you’re last conversation as a couple.

    Learn to recognize what breaking up feels like

    It’s easy to break up and have an awful set of breakup emotions, and interpret them as your psyche telling you you’ve made a huge mistake. Learn to interpret these as your psyche telling you you just broke up. Breakups are hard.

    Keep your distance for a little while

    I find that right after breaking up, a lot of people strongly prefer not to see their former partners. This usually wears off, and people go back to being friends, but realize that this might take a while, and keep your distance until then.

    See full post with comments

    Teaching Dance Roles

    What if, when teaching new social dancers to dance, instead of dividing by gender or choice, we just taught everyone to follow first?

    I think learning to follow is easier than learning to lead. That’s not a value judgment, but an observation. As a beginning follow dancing with an experienced lead, you get good feedback on what you should be doing. You’ll know it if you’re tripping over the lead’s feet, or if the lead is pulling you somewhere besides where you are. Importantly, a follow will typically be able to feel not only that they’re doing something wrong, but in which direction they should adjust. Leads also get some feedback from how comfortable the movements seem, but that feedback is less directed than what follows usually get from leads.

    Empirically, I find beginning follows more fun to dance with than beginning leads. I have more control as a lead over how we share weight, how fast we turn, and whether we’re on the music than when following. When dancing with beginning waltz leads, I often feel conflicted over whether to backlead, which will help my partner learn what to do with their feet and how to get around but mislead them about how to show a follow what to do, or not, which will help them learn how to take responsibility for where the follow is, but leave them clueless about what to do with their feet and how to get around.

    Anecdotally, I was following for years before learning to lead, and I learned lots of different couples dances (rotary waltz, cross step waltz, redowa, polka, hambo, schottis, blues) with basically no formal training, not even the one-hour lesson before the dance. When started to I learn to lead dances, I picked it up pretty quickly and got compliments on my leading when I hadn’t been doing it for very long.

    There are obviously some problems with this plan. Currently role balancing is rarely a problem, but teaching everyone to follow first might make it a chronic issue. To make this work, you’d need to have a strong norm of learning to lead as soon as you feel confident enough to. Even so occasional dancers, underconfident dancers, and anyone who just has a harder time learning to dance might never learn the other role.

    Following first is probably a gentler path into the dance world than leading first, but I’m not sure how much of an effect this has. I see enough excellent dancers in both roles that I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t take an unreasonable amount of time to get started as a lead. I doubt the system of teaching everyone the same role first would work well for dance communities, but it’s a possible alternative, and it would plausibly be better for individuals.

    See full post with comments

    JSON resumes

    A coworker recently showed me this. The idea is that instead of creating PDF resumes from scratch, we could encode the information in a well defined format, and then use generic tools to display and distribute resumes.

    The most exciting part of this in my mind is the idea that resume information could be distributed raw, and displayed in standardized ways to humans or even initially consumed by computers.

    The practice of putting a lot of effort into a designed resume is annoying. The last time I did a job search, I put five or ten hours into this that I could have spent elsewhere. If I was a particularly conciencious job seeker, employers might have learned that from a nice resume, but since most job seekers put comparable effort in, this doesn’t happen.

    Five or ten hours of lost time is the worst of it for me, because I won the job-seeking game. What of those who missed the memo about pretty resumes, or don’t have taste that matches their potential employers? Ability to come up with a socially acceptable resume is a very poor proxy for qualification for almost any job, but it seems to have an outsize effect.

    Standardized resume formats would also be one small step in the direction of more systematic hiring processes. There is both research and anecdata show that people are treated differently in hiring processes based on their names. If a company replaced a resume screen by hand with an automated one, they could no longer unintentionally discriminate based on gender or race.

    Distributing raw data instead of pretty resumes is not a single-edged-sword. It might make it harder for people with non-traditional backgrounds to get a second look. Until good tools become available to construct JSON resumes, it might be difficult for non-techy people to even make a resume this way. On the whole though, I think that this would be a positive change.

    See full post with comments

    College without the Classes

    I’m glad I went to college for a bunch of reasons. I got to spend time around a peer group selected to have similar interests to mine. The prestige of my institution helped me get internships and a job when I graduated. I got involved in the student group which ran Splash, which gave me valuable experience organizing events and managing people, and sparked an interest in teaching. Oh yeah, and I took some classes. While I can think of a many specific things I learned in classes and I remember enjoying some of them a lot, I also put a ton of effort and stress into my classes, and it’s not clear to me whether I learned more through them than I would have learned by other doing things.

    There’s this thing called the Thiel Fellowship. Young people are paid $50,000 a year not to go to college and take classes for two years. Instead they found companies and do scientific research and write books and otherwise educate themselves.

    In theory, this option is open to any student. Out-of-state or private college costs (nominally) $50,000 a year– you could just not go to college and pocket the money. In practice, though, this isn’t an option for most people. First, most students don’t actually pay $50,000 a year for college; they go to in-state schools or have scholarships or financial aid. Second, few parents would be willing to pay college tuition in order for their child not to go to college.

    What if you had a college with no classes? Students could live in dorms, socialize together and form student organizations, but instead of taking classes they could start companies or do scientific research or write books. The institution could provide support by having faculty to advise students, space, and other resources. Prestige is a little harder to acquire, but some new educational institutions, like Olin College of Engineering seem to have acquired a lot of prestige fairly quickly, and I suspect such an unusual institution as this one could pull it off without a lot of trouble.

    Such an institution would have all the advantages of college except for the classes, and with a form factor a little more like college, parents might be more willing to financially support their children doing whatever they want for four years.

    See full post with comments

    Preparing to Play for Contra Dances

    My boyfriend Ben and I have been booked to play Circle Left Contra Dance in September. This is the first time either of us have played for a dance outside of an open band setting, and Circle Left is a popular dance, especially among my friends (the people who’s opinion I care most about), so we’ve working hard to make sure we do a good job.

    We started practicing in May, putting together sets and polishing them. In early July we went to BACDS American Week and got to spend a bunch of time talking to people and taking workshops and playing for dancers our plan for preparing changed. Particularly influential was Max Newman’s workshop, “Making Dance Music Danceable”, but we also learned a lot from talking to musicians and callers and actually playing for dancers.

    Keep in mind reading that our current strategy is a work in progress. We practice a lot, but don’t get to test our success by playing for dancers very often, and it may turn out that we’re on the wrong track.

    More tunes, fewer polished sets

    We originally planned to prepare a polished set every week this summer. Some of these we posted on SoundCloud and facebook and asked for feedback. We got some good feedback this way, but I think the main effect of that decision was that it helped enforce that we were satisfied with our final recordings.

    For the first time at American Week, we actually had to match tunes with dances, and we discovered that it was harder to find good matches than we expected. We had thought about preparing sets with a variety of moods, but we didn’t think about other aspects of how a tune fits with a dance, like phrase length and balance placement. Some of this can be added with how you play the music, but that doesn’t work if you have arranged sets. We decided to move away from the arranged set approach and try to expand our repretoir of tunes we felt comfortable playing.

    The other influence on this decision were new things I learned about how callers program. It seems like most callers pick dances as they go along depending on the mood of the hall, instead of programming ahead of time. At one point we thought about asking the caller at our first dance if we could look at the dances ahead of time. I think it’s less likely we’ll do that now, since it seems like a caller might feel overly restricted by having arranged sets with the band.

    Fewer Variations, More Repetition

    One thing Max Newman pointed out to us is that dancers don’t have their whole attention on the music, so they need a lot less interest and variety than we assumed. As a rule of thumb, any musical idea we have we should repeat at least twice. This discovery was a great relief to me because it was hard for me to come up with five or more variants on every tune, especially with just fiddle and piano for instrumentation.

    Passion Graphs

    In his workshop, Max Newman showed us the idea of the “passion graph” of a dance set. A passion graph is the visual representation of the arch of the set. For example, a common pattern is to start high energy, bring the energy down in the middle, and then end with a lot of energy, like this:

    A common antipattern is a wiggly passion graph, that starts somewhere in the middle and goes up and then down and then up and then down.

    I think our first arranged sets had this problem. We would just think of as many variations as we could and order pretty arbitrarily. Now, when we start playing, we’ll often draw the passion graph we’re aiming for in the air with our fingers before starting.

    Where to Put the Energy

    It’s usually easier to add a balance to a smooth section of tune than to take one away from an inherently choppy tune. On the other hand, playing smoothly through a balance is usually no big deal to the dancers, whereas playing bouncy or choppy music when the dancers need smooth music can be really frustrating. We should probably lean towards preparing more smooth sets and count on our ability to add bounce in appropriate places if need be.

    Marking the Phrases

    Very smooth dances sometimes have the problem that the dancers’ timing gets mushy. It helps if the musicians make it very clear where the phrases start and end, and choose tunes with very clear phrasing. I really like the Crowfoot tune Twinflower, which has a beautiful wandering melody, and would like to play it for dances, but if and when that ever happens it can’t be for something too flowy or else the dancers won’t know where they are.

    Communicating While we Play

    We need to work on communicating while we play. A lot of variations we want to require coordination (e.g. one of us dropping out). I have a hard time talking while I play; it feels like playing music uses up my verbal loop. I’ve practiced a little, and managed to get a few words out without totally flubbing the rhythm, but this is something I really need to improve more on.

    What Else?

    Are there things we haven’t thought about, or ways we should be preparing that we aren’t?

    See full post with comments

    On What They Can't Teach You in Intro Programming Courses

    There’s a type of obstacle a lot of people face where they’re learning computer programming. Someone tells them to do something like to “compile their code” or “install something” and they know what this means but they don’t how to do it.

    Here’s an example:

    Computer code written in computer languages like c and go needs to be translated into binary code before it can be run. This is done by a program called a compiler. It’s a simple system, but it’s much easier to understand what it does than to use it. If I have some c code, and I want to run it, what do I do?

    Why I care

    This is only one of many similar problems. How do you install things? How do you run a webserver? How do you set up a hostname for your computer? Configure an operating system? These don’t sound like exciting problems, but they’re frequently the barriers to doing cool stuff with computer science, like writing programs and running websites. The knowledge needed to solve these problems–operating systems, networking, sysadmin skills–are not beginner skills, but beginners need to use them.

    When I was in high school learning to program, I remember being discouraged and sometimes paused for months on a problem like this. I don’t think my experience is unique. I had an acquaintance in college who said that in high school, she learned HTML and made a home page for herself with links to things she liked to visit, but she never figured out how to put it on the internet. She just kept it as a file on her desktop and opened it in her browser. More broadly, this type of problem is frequently cited as particularly discouraging by my friends. I don’t want to see people discouraged from pursuing computer science because of problems like this.

    How I learned to use a compiler and how I approach it now

    I learned to do things like compiling programs and running web servers by experiment and example. If I needed to compile something, I’d look up how to on the internet, try it, try to parse the error, look up how to fix that, try again. As I used a tool, I’d start to notice patterns and cobble together an understanding of it.

    I’ve gotten better at a lot of things since my beginner days:

    1. I’ve seen more examples of how programs usually work

    2. I know a lot more about what’s going on in a computer

    3. I have more practice at translating from concepts to actions

    The first thing means I have better guesses as to how to use a compiler. The second lets me debug better when my guesses are wrong. The third helps me use documentation and internet searches to figure out how to use a thing.

    A little bit of this is now systematic knowledge. I didn’t learn it systematically, but I have organized it in my head in useful ways that are theoretically transferable to other people. For example, I can list ways to give input to a program, and ways that programs give output.

    How can I teach this kind of knowledge to others?

    It would be difficult to teach these skills to beginners. First of all, they’re not easy skills. Time programming and time using a command line made operating system concepts seem a lot less abstract. Second, these skills aren’t usually interesting to beginners, and when students aren’t interested in learning something, they generally don’t. Most importantly, though, these aren’t the most important skills that beginners can be learning. Compared to basic programming, the operating system, network, and system skills are more work to learn and less widely applicable than basic programming skills.

    My best idea of how to bring students over this barrier is in person support. If I am physically present in a classroom of students, I can help them through the frustrating problems that might otherwise stop them without them needing to go through everything they’d need to generate the solutions themselves. This isn’t a very satisfying answer though– it’s not easily scalable, and it’s only available to those who manage to make it into classrooms or aren’t too shy to ask for help.

    I’m curious about how other people made it over these bumps. My impression is that most of us who made it through a CS program spent hours stuck trying to install something. What got you unstuck? What prevented you from being stuck?

    See full post with comments

    Learning to Listen

    I’ve noticed particular people being good at listening, both in very casual and very personal situations. I am not one of these people, but would like to become one. I’ve asked some people what they do and I’ve done some practicing and this is what I’ve learned so far.

    Ping-Pong Conversations

    A friend posted this article about having conversations on facebook. It framed conversations in a way that helped change how I think about them:

    The response a person gives to what someone says can take two forms: the shift-response and the support-response. The support-response keeps attention on the speaker and on the topic he or she has introduced. The shift-response attempts to set the stage for the other person to change the topic and shift the attention to themselves. Let’s look at an example of the difference between the two:


    James: I’m thinking about buying a new car.

    Rob: Oh yeah? What models have you looked at?


    James: I’m thinking about buying a new car.

    Rob: Oh yeah? I’m thinking about buying a new car too.

    James: Really?

    Rob: Yup, I just test drove a Mustang yesterday and it was awesome.

    In the first example, Rob kept the attention on James with his support-response. In the second example, Rob attempts to turn the conversation to himself with a shift-response.

    Previously, each time I spoke in a conversation, I thought of myself as contributing to the body of thought that had been shared. I hoped that the people I was talking to would be reminded of interesting things that they thought, and so contribute back. I like this idea, but it doesn’t usually create interesting, balanced conversations.

    This article helped me see conversations as games of handing control back and forth. Every time you speak you can either take the conversation or hand it back to the other person, possibly with a gentle idea of where it might go.

    This shift was especially helpful in helping me not talk about myself too much, because it gave me something to replace the things I would have said about myself. Instead of my stories, I thought about what questions I could ask.

    Choosing questions to ask

    Ask general questions

    “What’s an example?” and “what is that like?” are questions I have started using a lot.


    “I work on boats. I’m the only woman in a crew of over a hundred men”

    “Wow, what’s that like?”


    “I got back my students final projects this week. Some of them were really creative!”

    “Nice. What’s an example?”

    Ask questions about things you don’t know about.

    One strategy I’ve used is looking for holes in my own knowledge in what we’re talking about. Exposing my ignarance helps other people say things that are new to me.


    “I’m really interested in the history of dance. People used to put on gigantic spectacles way beyond what we do today.”

    “What were the performances like?”

    Bring up things you know about them

    It’s ok to bring up things from outside of a conversation. I went on a hike last weekend with someone I had never met before. The person who introduced us told me that he had hiked half of the Pacific Crest Trail. When there was a lull in the conversation in the car on the way there, I said “so I heard you hiked half of the Pacific Crest Trail?” I got to hear a lot of anecdotes about that trip, both right then, and along the trail, and I don’t think I would have heard as many had I not brought it up.

    Bring up things mentioned in passing

    If someone mentions something you think might be interesting to hear more about, but that’s not the current direction of the conversation, you can bring it up later.


    “You mentioned earlier that you traveled to Egypt. What were you doing there?”

    In more personal conversations, people will sometimes purposefully mention something in passing that they want to talk about more in depth. This was pointed out to me by someone else, but after it was pointed out, I realized I had been doing it. If there’s something on my mind, but I don’t feel comfortable just saying so, I’ll bring it up briefly as part of some other topic in hopes that someone will ask me about it.

    I want more advice

    I’ve had some nice successful conversations since starting to think about this, especially with people I don’t know well. I learned about growing up in a small town in central California, enterprise software product management, and the politics of a small town in Colorado, among other things.

    However, this is an ongoing project. I’ve noticed that some people are much more forthcoming than others, and I’m still struggling to talk to people who are shy or uncomfortable for some reason. I’m also way better at safe topics like work or academic topics than at talking about personal or political topics, which also happen to be particularly interesting topics to me.

    If you know things about how to listen well or have conversations better, I am interested in hearing them.

    See full post with comments

    Contra dance, Consent, and Social Grace

    There are some moments that come up regularly in contra dance that I’ve struggled to find good ways to navigate. This weekend, I went to a dance in a new city, and a whole bunch of these came up. I’m mostly happy with how I dealt with them, although there are some I wish I had done better.

    Not booking ahead

    Some dancers (especially at some dances) will “book ahead” and promise dances besides the one that’s about to happen to particular partners. It’s generally frowned upon; Jeff Kauffman’s experience gives a good idea of why people frown upon it, and also why it can be good, or at least tempting. My policy is to book ahead only for people I’ve never danced with before, or people who I don’t expect to see again for a long time.

    At this dance, I booked ahead with one person under this policy. After I agreed to dance I told him what my policy was, so that he knows he won’t get to book me again. He also asked me why I have my policy. I told him that I had seen it abused (which is true), but I wish that I had said something like “I think not booking ahead makes dances more welcoming.” This would give him an idea of what I want to acheive instead of what I want to avoid, and given him a better idea that booking ahead might be a problem, even in his community.

    Saying no to dances

    I think it’s always ok to say no to a dance. I don’t implement this idea often because (a) a lot of people consider it rude, and I don’t want to alienate people in my community (b) I want to be very careful not to use this rule to unfairly avoid dancing with certain kinds of people (e.g. people outside of my demographic) and (c) I’m very rarely actually asked to dance by someone who I actively don’t want to dance with.

    I got two chances to practice saying no at this dance. Unfortunately, in both cases I had to reiterate my “no.” In one case I’m not sure I could have been clearer:

    “Do you want to hambo?”

    “No, thank you.”

    “Do you know how to hambo?”

    “Yes, but I don’t want to right now.”

    “Why won’t you hambo?”

    “Just… no thank you.”

    In the other case, I could have been clearer, but at the expense of expressing a more complex idea. I had been asked to dance by someone I had met before, and while we were lining up he asked me for the waltz also. I said he could have the contra or the waltz but not both. He said things that made it clear that he understood, but he still tried to find me for the waltz later. If I had just said “no, thanks” he might have gotten the message. I’m sorry to have learned that conditionals may be too complex for clear communication in these situations, because they could help these situations end in better outcomes (a good waltz partner is much harder to find than a good contra dance partner!), but I think this is what I have learned.

    Ask before dipping

    I prefer if people ask me before dipping me for the first time. I like being dipped, but not everyone does, so I consider asking first an important piece of etiquette. Two people dipped me without asking first. In both cases, I told them in a pleasant tone “I prefer if you ask before dipping.” Both people acknowledged this, didn’t seem offended, didn’t seem to think I was more offended than I was, and carried on dancing.

    Deflecting out of line comments

    This was my least successful communication of the evening. I asked my waltz partner where he learned to waltz backwards (I was actually curious if he was a Scandinavian dancer, because this is something that Scandinavian dancers do). He said “with you, my dear.” I think this kind of flirtatious comment is usually meant well, but it makes me a bit uncomfortable. The best I could do was to say “that’s not true” and shrug it off, but I wish I could do better. Maybe something like my approach to being dipped would work, but I can’t think of a clear formulation of what I’m asking them not to do. Please don’t flirt with me? Please don’t call me “my dear”? If anyone has done something that worked well in this kind of situation, I’d love to hear about it.

    Edit: some relevant context is that this was a much older man, my guess is in his 70s. Although I focus on flirtation because that’s the part of the tone that bothered me, I don’t believe this person was trying to flirt with me per se. I think this is how he treats young women because he thinks they like being treated that way.

    Gender free dancing at a gendered dance

    The first dance of the evening I danced with a young man who was moderately new to contra. I guessed that he had only lead before, so I said “I assume you want to lead?” He said he wanted to lead this one, but would be up for following one later. Because it’s behavior I want to encourage, and because this person was awesome enough to dance with twice in one night, I agreed.

    When that dance happened, he and I were lined up near the back of the line. The caller called something a little weird (a ladies chain into a rollaway) that confused me. We ended up in the wrong positions, and didn’t manage to recover, no thanks to our non-traditional gender roles. Most people got what was supposed to happen right away though, and the caller barelled on, not noticing that the end of the line was paralyzed.

    I knew we were lost, I knew my partner probably wouldn’t be able to pick up the dance on the fly, and I knew that I had to do a particularly good job of leading, so I did the assertive thing and shouted “we’re completely lost!” The caller stopped, helped us by making us parade all the way to the top to put us with a couple who got it the first time (embarrasing!), and let them demo the move that derailed us, and then we were on our way.

    I realize that I delayed the dance, and I might have been able to figure out what was going on without doing this, but I also could have failed to do this and messed up the dance for several sets of neighbors and given my awesome partner a really bad first experience following. The good things I achieved by doing that were less apparent than the inconvenience I caused everyone else, so I don’t think I’m getting many social rewards for that move, but I still think it was the right one.

    This incident ended with a bright spot. Somewhere in this mess, a woman in the next minor set tried to help get us back on track, and she came up to me at the end of the dance and appologized for assuming I was following. She was instantly forgiven and she now has major respect from me for realizing her mistake and wanting to appologize, and I hope I meet her again and get to dance with her.

    Community Values

    A common thread in a lot of the things described here is me trying to encourage social norms that are not already universally accepted. That’s a hard place to be, since plenty of people don’t want to change, and will be offended if you ask them to. I want to maintain my choice of who to dance with, and keep contra a safe and welcoming space for others, while also not making the other people I share this space with unduly unhappy. I haven’t always been good at this, and I’m excited to be getting more successful at walking those lines.

    See full post with comments

    Remembering the Manhunt

    A year ago last Friday Boston and Cambridge residents were asked to stay in their homes for a day while police searched for the Boston Marathon bombers. Like a lot of particularly emotional days, this one sticks out in my memory.

    It was one of the only times since moving to my apartment in Inman Square that I missed living in a dorm. My place felt isolated, and the sense of crisis around me made me crave the company of the people I cared about.

    It wasn’t so much that I felt compelled to stay inside. I lived a stone’s throw from Somerville, which was in theory not under the same recommendation to stay inside as Cambridge. A few people were on the streets outside my window. My friends were sending pannicked messages to each other online, but privately, I thought they were treating it like a bigger emergency than it really was.

    But I had nowhere to go. I might have gone to the dorm where my boyfriend at the time lived, but their housemasters had asked them not to admit non-residents. Businesses around me were closed. Friends who I would have visitted encouraged me to stay inside.

    The man hunt scared me, but not in the way it seemed to scare the people around me. I wasn’t afraid to leave my home. I was scared because so many people were. The police “warning” actually kept the vast majority of Bostonians inside. I don’t want to it to be true that our fear of terrorism can shut down a city and keep us away from the things we want to be doing and the people we care about.

    See full post with comments

    Being Almost Alone

    This weekend I went to Queer Contra Camp. It was basically a tornado of the most joyful things I do in life with the most welcoming communities I know of. In fact, it was kind of overwhelmingly so.

    I’ve had this experience at many dance camps, even less superlative ones. Usually I’m having a good time and dancing and talking to people and at some point a dance ends and I think to myself, is it time for another dance, or time to take a break and talk to people? And who do I want to dance with, or talk to? And then I discover that I don’t actually want to dance with or talk to anyone, and the thought of asking someone else to dance sounds kind of unpleasant, and there’s no one I really want to dance with right now because I want to make people have fun while they dance and make people like me and all of the things I usually do to make that happen sound hard and why is there so much sound in here, and everyone else seems to be having so much fun so how come I feel so LONELY? Then I know it’s time to take a break.

    My first instinct, and a strategy I’ve taken many times, is to go somewhere where I will literally be alone. In a room. By myself. With no one else there. However, this has rarely been effective at making me want to be around people again. After an hour of alone time I often come back to the dance hall only to find I really just want more alone time.

    This weekend I discovered the alternate strategy of spending time with a few other people, and found that it works a lot better. A couple of times when I was feeling overwhelmed, I took a hike with a couple of other people and came back feeling refreshed and happy. And not wanting to go away again immediately.

    Looking back, I remember taking the same walk-with-one-or-two-people strategy at student group retreats in college. On these retreats, the group would rent a house in the woods to spend a weekend having important, often stressful policy discussions, and they were unlike dance camps in about every way except that both are intensely social. When we had a long break from discussions, the group tended to explode into sets of two and three walking in different directions. In an hour we would come back having vented our feelings and sit down to another important, stressful policy discussion.

    I’m not sure what about talking to just one or two other people serves as a social reset button. Verbalizing my thoughts probably forces me to organize my thoughts in a way that being by myself does not. Being around a few people I’m familiar with lets me relax the self-policing I need to do when I’m around big groups that I don’t know well, without relaxing my social muscle entirely. Or it may be that trying to create connections erodes my feeling that I already have them, and talking to an individual for a while rebuilds that feeling.

    In any case, I intend to use this insight at future very-very-social events.

    See full post with comments

    Creativity and Constraints

    One of my musical projects for the past couple of years has been to get better at improvising harmonies and accompaniment parts for the folk tunes I like to play.

    Of all the assignments in this direction I’ve been given and things I’ve tried, the hardest ones are the most open ended. It’s just kind of overwhelming. At a moment, I can choose to play any note. Or two notes. Or no notes. And I can hold it for a long time or a short time. And it can have any dynamic. And then I have to choose another note. And then another. At 120 beats per minute. Oh yeah, and it has to sound good.

    Making totally unconstrained decisions that fast is really hard, and most of my improvisations that begin this way end up being lost, messy, or distracting. However, if I have a rule that I choose a rule to follow and stick to that rule, my harmonies start to sound much better.

    Some examples of rules

    • Play only ascending (or descending) runs
    • Only Echo the melody
    • Play only things that come directly from some other part of the melody
    • Play two notes from each chord in any rhythm
    • Play only on the lower two strings (or the upper to strings, or any individual string)
    • Play a third or a fourth below the melody
    • Play a “skeletal melody”–only the minimum number of notes to make the tune recognizeable–an octave above or below the melody (playing at the same pitch as the melody tends to make it sound muddy, but can work if someone else is playing wild variations on the melody and you need to maintain an anchor)
    • Play only when the melody is still (or boring) and try to fill it with movement.
    • Make a base line out of notes in the relevant chords. Start on a note and every beat (or every chord change) play the next higher or lower note in the chord.

    If you have other things to add to this list, I’d love to have more ideas to draw from.

    Rules like these turn the task of generating a harmony into the tasks of filtering for good ones. For most possible rules, following them leaves you only a small number of options. It’s a lot easier to go through options a, b, and c, and figure out which is best, than to make up options a, b, and c, in the first place, and the difference is particularly noticeable when you have to make these decisions in real time.

    The only problem (that I can think of) with rules like these is that they exclude lots of good harmonies. I don’t know what most of them are, because they’re in the giant space that I never touch, but I do tend to notice ones that are similar to the ones generated by my rules. For example, if you echo the melody note-for-note, you often get clashes, but if you’re willing to modify your echos just a little, you have a lovely little countermelody that sounds a lot like the melody.

    Luckily, if following a particular rule seems like a bad idea right at the moment, I have no problem breaking it. If I look at why these are actually useful to me, the rules are valuable even if I don’t always follow them (not true of rules in every part of life).

    Another way I’ve varied my harmonies that works well is to play notes from the chords, or a simple parallel harmony, and look for places to vary from it, for example by moving when the melody is still or playing above the melody. I have a rule, but instead of waiting for places where it doesn’t work to change it, I actively look for points where it could be changed. This seems like playing a totally unconstrained accompaniment, but it would be much harder if I didn’t have a default to return to when I’m done adding some accent.

    Is this true of other art forms too?

    Music is the art form I know best, but I’ve also seen this pattern at work in other art forms. I was part of a dance-drama troupe growing up, and had to choreograph plenty of my own roles, and I remember having very little trouble with it, especially compared to the more free-form choreography I later did. Although I never did much visual art, I did color other people’s outlined mandalas, which is clearly a challenge with constraints. I know contra dance leads who don’t like leading more free-form social dances like swing and blues because they don’t like having to figure out what to do.

    See full post with comments

    Cooperation isn't Surprising

    Scott Alexander recently explained why you should argue politely with your enemies (this was in response to some comments on this post advocating much the opposite). Arguing politely with your enemies instead of using nasty tactics is a good idea and, and Scott’s explanation is correct. However, he seemed to think that the fact that we pull this off is a bit more surprising than I do.

    But consider the following: I am a pro-choice atheist. When I lived in Ireland, one of my friends was a pro-life Christian. I thought she was responsible for the unnecessary suffering of millions of women. She thought I was responsible for killing millions of babies. And yet she invited me over to her house for dinner without poisoning the food. And I ate it, and thanked her, and sent her a nice card, without smashing all her china.

    Please try not to be insufficiently surprised by this. Every time a Republican and a Democrat break bread together with good will, it is a miracle. It is an equilibrium as beneficial as civilization or liberalism, which developed in the total absence of any central enforcing authority.

    The fact that Democrats and Republicans break bread together may be a sign that something very surprising has happened, but I don’t think that it in itself is very surprising.

    My lack of surprise doesn’t come from my model of people as rationa actors selfishly trying to acheive their ends; it comes from my complementary model of people as squishy bags of chemicals.

    In particular, my experience as a bag of squishy chemicals is that I really like other people. Not universally, but overwhelmingly, and the better I know any individual, the more I like them.

    This is true regardless of ideology. Like Scott, I am a pro-choice atheist. I am also friends with pro-life Christians. In fact, several. One of the same ten or so people whose faces are featured on the bulletin board above my desk is banned from my facebook wall because I want to see his face but not his opinions.

    To armchair theorize a little bit:

    I don’t think squishy-chemical-bags understand words like “pro-choice” or “Catholicism.” These words refer to big concepts fairly removed from the concrete, day-to-day things that squishy chemical bags are mostly concerned with.

    On the other hand, squishy-chemical-bags care a lot about other people. We’re social animals, our survival historically depended on us liking each-other enough to work together. In fact, it still does. So it makes sense, not only that we care about other people, but that that we like them.

    We all have squishy-chemical-people inside of us, and when as far as our squishy-chemical people are concerned, cooperation with people we encounter often is generally advantageous. This is not to say that those reasoning, outcome optimizing people don’t exist, but they’re only half the story.

    It may be a miracle that we live in an ideologically mixed society. However, once Democrats and Republicans are living down the hall from one-another, working together, and bumping shoulders on the train and at sporting events, each individual friendship between ideologically opposed people is hardly remarkable at all. In our direct interpersonal interactions at least, civility and tolerance provide a stable equilibrium– once we’ve acheived it, it tends to perpetuate itself.

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    What to do when I'm tired

    I have (what feels like) very little free time, and lots of fiddle practice, contra dancing, friend phone-calling, Splash website work, etc, to do. I’m always looking for (even little) ways I can get more time to do things I care about.

    One of the types of time I’m looking to use better is the late evenings, from about 8:00 to 9:30 or 10:00, when I start getting ready for bed. When I’m tired, my brain stops being very good for not only intellectual, but also non-intellectual work. Example: this weekend I washed my sheets, and they came out of the dryer at 10:00 PM. I tried to put them on my bed before going to sleep, but gave up halfway through because I wanted to sleep on a bed without sheets more than I wanted to put sheets on my bed.

    When I come home from work, I tend to start doing something I want to do and but somehow find myself on facebook or staring at the ceiling and thinking. I’d love to use this time to do things I care about, but so far haven’t been successful.

    Some strategies I’ve considered to use this time better:

    Go to sleep

    I could go to bed hours earlier than I actually do. If I did this, I would probably also wake up earlier and have more high-mental-energy time to before work.

    There are a few problems with this plan. When I sleep may be a zero-sum game. If I go to bed earlier, I’ll also be more tired earlier in the evening. This plan will also probably go badly on evenings when I do social things that run late. If my usual bedtime is 9:00 PM, and I do a social thing until 1:00 AM I’ve stayed up four hours later than usual, and I’m pretty sure my sleep schedule is not elastic enough to just compensate.

    Do low-focus things that I need to do

    I’ve definitely tried this, but with discouraging results. I don’t do things, or do them slowly and/or badly. However, this is an attractive enough option that I don’t want to write it off as impossible without some real effort.

    One strategy I haven’t tried is to delay not just easy tasks, but fun ones for the evening. I’m less likely to end up on facebook if my goal is to organize my music collection or call friends on the phone, because I enjoy doing these things and have an easier time sticking to them. Similarly, if I did things which kept me away from the computer, like cooking or exercising, I’d be less likely to end up on facebook.

    Do things that I wouldn’t otherwise do

    There are plenty of things that I don’t do because I don’t consider them high enough priority, but would still prefer to ceiling staring. Examples:

    • Reading (I read, just not that much)
    • Knitting (an old hobby I haven’t done much of lately)
    • Listening to music, especially music of the type I want to be better at making
    • Having dinner with friends

    Or just keep doing what I’m doing

    Last, but not least, maybe I should just embrace ceiling staring. Based on past experience, it might be hard to eliminate entirely, and I actually find it pretty pleasant. At its best, the thinking I do while staring at the ceiling could lead to interesting conversations, blog posts, or just general life improvement.

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    Keeping a Blog

    Sometimes I think things that I think are interesting. I now have a blog to record and share those thoughts.

    Goals for this project

    • Clarify my thoughts by writing them down

    I spend a noticable amount of my life just thinking about things, and that time doesn’t contribute to anything concrete that I can look at later. In fact, I think I mostly just forget about what I thought about in the past. Writing down thoughts will hopefully turn thinking things into something with concrete positive

    • Interact with other people over things I’m thinking about

    In the past, talking to people about what I’m thinking about has helped me develop my thoughts further and understand the things I’m thinking about better. A persistent and public place to do that will allow me to interact on demand with people who want to think about the same things as I do.

    • Social validation

    I enjoy the feeling I get every time someone likes my facebook status. I expect it to be even more exciting to have comments on something that I worked hard to create.


    • Posting regularly

    I don’t have a particular desire to post with a certain frequency, or an aversion to not posting for months and then coming back. This could change, but for now, no goal that I have is dependent on my posting regularly, and now that my website is set up, most of the work to maintain it is proportional to how much I use it.

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