Search Results: "Ulrike Uhlig"

22 May 2022

Ulrike Uhlig: How do kids conceive the internet? - part 3

I received some feedback on the first part of interviews about the internet with children that I d like to share publicly here. Thank you! Your thoughts and experiences are important to me! In the first interview round there was this French girl.
Asked what she would change if she could, the 9 year old girl advocated for a global usage limit of the internet in order to protect the human brain. Also, she said, her parents spend way too much time on their phones and people should rather spend more time with their children.
To this bit, one person reacted saying that they first laughed when reading her proposal, but then felt extremely touched by it. Another person reacted to the same bit of text:
That s just brilliant. We spend so much time worrying about how the internet will affect children while overlooking how it has already affected us as parents. It actively harms our relationship with our children (keeping us distracted from their amazing life) and sets a bad example for them. Too often, when we worry about children, we should look at our own behavior first. Until about that age (9-10+) at least, they are such a direct reflection of us that it s frightening
Yet another person reacted to the fact that many of the interviewees in the first round seemed to believe that the internet is immaterial, located somewhere in the air, while being at the same time omnipresent:
It reminds me of one time about a dozen years ago, when i was still working closely with one of the city high schools where i d just had a terrible series of days, dealing with hardware failure, crappy service followthrough by the school s ISP, and overheating in the server closet, and had basically stayed overnight at the school and just managed to get things back to mostly-functional before kids and teachers started showing up again. That afternoon, i d been asked by the teacher of a dystopian fiction class to join them for a discussion of Feed, which they d just finished reading. i had read it the week before, and came to class prepared for their questions. (the book is about a near-future where kids have cybernetic implants and their society is basically on a runaway communications overload; not a bad Y[oung]A[dult] novel, really!) The kids all knew me from around the school, but the teacher introduced my appearance in class as one of the most Internet-connected people and they wanted to ask me about whether i really thought the internet would do this kind of thing to our culture, which i think was the frame that the teacher had prepped them with. I asked them whether they thought the book was really about the Internet, or whether it was about mobile phones. Totally threw off the teacher s lesson plans, i think, but we had a good discussion. At one point, one of the kids asked me if there was some kind of crazy disaster and all the humans died out, would the internet just keep running? what would happen on it if we were all gone? all of my labor even that grueling week was invisible to him! The internet was an immaterial thing, or if not immaterial, a force of nature, a thing that you accounted for the way you accounted for the weather, or traffic jams. It didn t occur to him, even having just read a book that asked questions about what hyperconnectivity does to a culture (including grappling with issues of disparate access, effective discrimination based on who has the latest hardware, etc), it didn t occur to him that this shit all works to the extent that it does because people make it go. I felt lost trying to explain it to him, because where i wanted to get to with the class discussion was about how we might decide collectively to make it go somewhere else that our contributions to it, and our labor to perpetuate it (or not) might actually help shape the future that the network helps us slide into. but he didn t even see that human decisions or labor played a role it in at all, let alone a potentially directive role. We were really starting at square zero, which wasn t his fault. Or the fault of his classmates that matter but maybe a little bit of fault on the teacher, who i thought should have been emphasizing this more but even the teacher clearly thought of the internet as a thing being done to us not as something we might actually drive one way or another. And she s not even wrong most people don t have much control, just like most people can t control the weather, even as our weather changes based on aggregate human activity.
I was quite impressed by seeing the internet perceived as a force of nature, so we continued this discussion a bit:
that whole story happened before we started talking about the cloud , but the cloud really reinforces this idea, i think. not that anyone actually thinks that the cloud is a literal cloud, but language shapes minds in subtle ways.
(Bold emphasis in the texts are mine.) Thanks :) I m happy and touched that these interviews prompted your wonderful reactions, and I hope that there ll be more to come on this topic. I m working on it!

19 May 2022

Ulrike Uhlig: How do kids conceive the internet? - part 2

I promised a follow up to my post about interviews about how children conceptualize the internet. Here it is. (Maybe not the last one!)

The internet, it s that thing that acts up all the time, right? As said in my first post, I abandoned the idea to interview children younger than 9 years because it seems they are not necessarily aware that they are using the internet. But it turns out that some do have heard about the internet. My friend Anna, who has 9 younger siblings, tried to win some of her brothers and sisters for an interview with me. At the dinner table, this turned into a discussion and she sent me an incredibly funny video where two of her brothers and sisters, aged 5 and 6, discuss with her about the internet. I won t share the video for privacy reasons besides, the kids speak in the wondrous dialect of Vorarlberg, a region in western Austria, close to the border with Liechtenstein. Here s a transcription of the dinner table discussion:
  • Anna: what is the internet?
  • both children: (shouting as if it was a game of who gets it first) photo! mobile! device! camera!
  • Anna: But one can have a camera without the internet
  • M.: Internet is the mobile phone charger! Mobile phone full!
  • J.: Internet is internet is
  • M.: I know! Internet is where you can charge something, the mobile phone and
  • Anna: You mean electricity?
  • M.: Yeah, that is the internet, electricity!
  • Anna: (laughs), Yes, the internet works a bit similarly, true.
  • J.: It s the electricity of the house!
  • Anna: The electricity of the house
(everyone is talking at the same time now.)
  • Anna: And what s WiFi?
  • M.: WiFi it s the TV!
  • Anna (laughs)
  • M.: WiFi is there so it doesn t act up!
  • Anna (laughs harder)
  • J. (repeats what M. just said): WiFi is there so it doesn t act up!
  • Anna: So that what doesn t act up?
  • M.: (moves her finger wildly drawing a small circle in the air) So that it doesn t spin!
  • Anna: Ah?
  • M.: When one wants to watch something on Youtube, well then that the thing doesn t spin like that!
  • Anna: Ahhh! so when you use Youtube, you need the internet, right?
  • J.: Yes, so that one can watch things.
I really like how the kids associate the internet with a thing that works all the time, except for when it doesn t work. Then they notice: The internet is acting up! Probably, when that happens, parents or older siblings say: the internet is acting up or let me check why the internet acts up again and maybe they get up from the sofa, switch a home router on and off again, which creates this association with electricity. (Just for the sake of clarity for fellow multilingualist readers, the kids used the German word spinnen , which I translated to acting up . In French that would be d conner .)

WiFi for everyone! I interviewed another of Anna s siblings, a 10 year old boy. He told me that he does not really use the internet by himself yet, and does not own any internet capable device. He watches when older family members look up stuff on Google, or put on a video on Youtube, Netflix, or Amazon he knew all these brand names though. In the living room, there s Alexa, he told me, and he uses the internet by asking Alexa to play music.
Then I say: Alexa, play this song!
Interestingly, he knew that, in order to listen to a CD, the internet was not needed. When asked how a drawing would look like that explains the internet, he drew a scheme of the living room at home, with the TV, Alexa, and some kind of WiFi dongle, maybe a repeater. (Unfortunately I did not manage to get his drawing.) If he could ask a wise and friendly dragon one thing about the internet that he always wanted to know, he would ask How much internet can one have and what are all the things one can do with the internet? If he could change the internet for the better for everyone, he would build a gigantic building which would provide the entire world with WiFi.

Cut out the stupid stuff from the internet His slightly older sister does own a laptop and a smartphone. She uses the internet to watch movies, or series, to talk with her friends, or to listen to music. When asked how she would explain the internet to an alien, she said that
one can do a lot of things on the internet, but on the internet there can be stupid things, but also good things, one can learn stuff on the internet, for example how to do crochet.
Most importantly, she noticed that
one needs the internet nowadays.
A child's drawing. On the left, a smartphone with WhatsApp, saying 'calls with WhatsApp'. In the middle a TV saying 'watching movies'. On the right, a laptop with lots of open windowns. Her drawing shows how she uses the internet: calls using WhatsApp, watching movies online, and a laptop with open windows on the screen. She would ask the dragon that can explain one thing she always wanted to know about the internet:
What is the internet? How does it work at all? How does it function?
What she would change has to do with her earlier remark about stupid things:
I would make it so that there are less stupid things. It would be good to use the internet for better things, but not for useless things, that one doesn t actually need.
When I asked her what she meant by stupid things , she replied:
Useless videos where one talks about nonsense. And one can also google stupid things, for example how long will i be alive? and stuff like that.

Patterns From the interviews I made until now, there seems to be a cut between then age where kids don t own a device and use the internet to watch movies, series or listen to music and the age where they start owning a device and then they start talking to their friends, and create accounts on social media. This seems to happen roughly at ages 9-10. I m still surprised at the amount of ideas that kids have, when asked what they would change on the internet if they could. I m sure there s more if one goes looking for it.

Thanks Thanks to my friends who made all these interviews possible either by allowing me to meet their children, or their younger siblings: Anna, Christa, Aline, Cindy, and Martina.

30 March 2022

Ulrike Uhlig: How do kids conceive the internet?

I wanted to understand how kids between 10 and 18 conceive the internet. Surely, we have seen a generation that we call digital natives grow up with the internet. Now, there is a younger generation who grows up with pervasive technology, such as smartphones, smart watches, virtual assistants and so on. And only a few of them have parents who work in IT or engineering

Pervasive technology contributes to the idea that the internet is immaterial With their search engine website design, Google has put in place an extremely simple and straightforward user interface. Since then, designers and psychologists have worked on making user interfaces more and more intuitive to use. The buzzwords are usability and user experience design . Besides this optimization of visual interfaces, haptic interfaces have evolved as well, specifically on smartphones and tablets where hand gestures have replaced more clumsy external haptic interfaces such as a mouse. And beyond interfaces, the devices themselves have become smaller and slicker. While in our generation many people have experienced opening a computer tower or a laptop to replace parts, with the side effect of seeing the parts the device is physically composed of, the new generation of end user devices makes this close to impossible, essentially transforming these devices into black boxes, and further contributing to the idea that the internet they are being used to access with would be something entirely intangible.

What do kids in 2022 really know about the internet? So, what do kids of that generation really know about the internet, beyond purely using services they do not control? In order to find out, I decided to interview children between 10 and 18. I conducted 5 interviews with kids aged 9, 10, 12, 15 and 17, two boys and three girls. Two live in rural Germany, one in a German urban area, and two live in the French capital. I wrote the questions in a way to stimulate the interviewees to tell me a story each time. I also told them that the interview is not a test and that there are no wrong answers. Except for the 9 year old, all interviewees possessed both, their own smartphone and their own laptop. All of them used the internet mostly for chatting, entertainment (video and music streaming, online games), social media (TikTok, Instagram, Youtube), and instant messaging. Let me introduce you to their concepts of the internet. That was my first story telling question to them:

If aliens had landed on Earth and would ask you what the internet is, what would you explain to them? The majority of respondents agreed in their replies that the internet is intangible while still being a place where one can do anything and everything . Before I tell you more about their detailed answers to the above question, let me show you how they visualize their internet.

If you had to make a drawing to explain to a person what the internet is, how would this drawing look like? Each interviewee had some minutes to come up with a drawing. As you will see, that drawing corresponds to what the kids would want an alien to know about the internet and how they are using the internet themselves.

Movies, series, videos A child's drawing. In the middle, there is a screen, on the screen a movie is running. Around the screen there are many people, at least two dozens. The words 'film', 'series', 'network', 'video' are written and arrows point from these words to the screen. There's also a play icon. The youngest respondent, a 9 year old girl, drew a screen with lots of people around it and the words film, series, network, video , as well as a play icon. She said that she mostly uses the internet to watch movies. She was the only one who used a shared tablet and smartphone that belonged to her family, not to herself. And she would explain the net like this to an alien:
"Internet is a er one cannot touch it it s an, er [I propose the word idea ], yes it s an idea. Many people use it not necessarily to watch things, but also to read things or do other stuff."

User interface elements There is a magnifying glass icon, a play icon and speech bubbles drawn with a pencil. A 10 year old boy represented the internet by recalling user interface elements he sees every day in his drawing: a magnifying glass (search engine), a play icon (video streaming), speech bubbles (instant messaging). He would explain the internet like this to an alien:
"You can use the internet to learn things or get information, listen to music, watch movies, and chat with friends. You can do nearly anything with it."

Another planet Pencil drawing that shows a planet with continents. The continents are named: H&M, Ebay, Google, Wikipedia, Facebook. A 12 year old girl imagines the internet like a second, intangible, planet where Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, Ebay, or H&M are continents that one enters into.
"And on [the] Ebay [continent] there s a country for clothes, and ,trousers , for example, would be a federal state in that country."
Something that was unique about this interview was that she told me she had an email address but she never writes emails. She only has an email account to receive confirmation emails, for example when doing online shopping, or when registering to a service and needing to confirm one s address. This is interesting because it s an anti-spam measure that might become outdated with a generation that uses email less or not at all.

Home network Kid's drawing: there are three computer towers and next to each there are two people. The first couple is sad, the seconf couple is smiling, the last one is suprised. Each computer is connected to a router, two of them by cable, one by wifi. A 15 year old boy knew that his family s devices are connected to a home router (Freebox is a router from the French ISP Free) but lacked an imagination of the rest of the internet s functioning. When I asked him about what would be behind the router, on the other side, he said what s behind is like a black hole to him. However, he was the only interviewee who did actually draw cables, wifi waves, a router, and the local network. His drawing is even extremely precise, it just lacks the cable connecting the router to the rest of the internet.

Satellite internet This is another very simple drawing: On top left, there's planet Earth an there are lines indicating that earth is a sphere. Around Earth there are two big satellites reaching most of Earth. on the left, below, there are three icons representing social media services on the internet: Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok. On the right, there are simplified drawings of possibilities which the internet offers: person to person connection, email (represented by envelopes), calls (represented by an old-style telephone set). A 17 year old girl would explain the internet to an alien as follows:
"The internet goes around the entire globe. One is networked with everyone else on Earth. One can find everything. But one cannot touch the internet. It s like a parallel world. With a device one can look into the internet. With search engines, one can find anything in the world, one can phone around the world, and write messages. [The internet] is a gigantic thing."
This interviewee stated as the only one that the internet is huge. And while she also is the only one who drew the internet as actually having some kind of physical extension beyond her own home, she seems to believe that internet connectivity is based on satellite technology and wireless communication.

Imagine that a wise and friendly dragon could teach you one thing about the internet that you ve always wanted to know. What would you ask the dragon to teach you about? A 10 year old boy said he d like to know how big are the servers behind all of this . That s the only interview in which the word server came up. A 12 year old girl said I would ask how to earn money with the internet. I always wanted to know how this works, and where the money comes from. I love the last part of her question! The 15 year old boy for whom everything behind the home router is out of his event horizon would ask How is it possible to be connected like we are? How does the internet work scientifically? A 17 year old girl said she d like to learn how the darknet works, what hidden things are there? Is it possible to get spied on via the internet? Would it be technically possible to influence devices in a way that one can listen to secret or telecommanded devices? Lastly, I wanted to learn about what they find annoying, or problematic about the internet.

Imagine you could make the internet better for everyone. What would you do first? Asked what she would change if she could, the 9 year old girl advocated for a global usage limit of the internet in order to protect the human brain. Also, she said, her parents spend way too much time on their phones and people should rather spend more time with their children. Three of the interviewees agreed that they see way too many advertisements and two of them would like ads to disappear entirely from the web. The other one said that she doesn t want to see ads, but that ads are fine if she can at least click them away. The 15 year old boy had different ambitions. He told me he would change:
"the age of access to the internet. More and more younger people access the internet ; especially with TikTok there is a recommendation algorithm that can influcence young people a lot. And influencing young people should be avoided but the internet does it too much. And that can be negative. If you don t yet have a critical spirit, and you watch certain videos you cannot yet moderate your stance. It can influence you a lot. There are so many things that have become indispensable and that happen on the internet and we have become dependent. What happens if one day it doesn t work anymore? If we connect more and more things to the net, that s not a good thing."

The internet - Oh, that s what you mean! On a sidenote, my first interview tentative was with an 8 year old girl from my family. I asked her if she uses the internet and she denied, so I abandoned interviewing her. Some days later, while talking to her, she proposed to look something up on Google, using her smartphone. I said: Oh, so you are using the internet! She replied: Oh, that s what you re talking about? I think she knows the word Google and she knows that she can search for information with this Google thing. But it appeared that she doesn t know that the Google search engine is located somewhere else on internet and not on her smartphone. I concluded that for her, using the services on the smartphone is as natural as switching on a light in the house: we also don t think about where the electricity comes from when we do that.

What can we learn from these few interviews? Unsurprisingly, social media, streaming, entertainment, and instant messaging are the main activities kids undertake on the internet. They are completely at the mercy of advertisements in apps and on websites, not knowing how to get rid of them. They interact on a daily basis with algorithms that are unregulated and known to perpetuate discrimination and to create filter bubbles, without necessarily being aware of it. The kids I interviewed act as mere service users and seem to be mostly confined to specific apps or websites. All of them perceived the internet as being something intangible. Only the older interviewees perceived that there must be some kind of physical expansion to it: the 17 year old girl by drawing a network of satellites around the globe, the 15 year old boy by drawing the local network in his home. To be continued

22 March 2022

Ulrike Uhlig: Workshops about anger, saying NO, and mapping one s capacities and desires

For the second year in a row, I proposed some workshops at the feminist hackers assembly at the remote C3. I m sharing them here because I believe they might be useful to others.

Anger workshop Based on my readings about the subject and a mediation training, I created a first workshop about dealing with one s own anger for the feminist hackers assembly in 2020. Many women who attended said they recognized themselves in what I was talking about. I created the exercises in the workshop with the goal of getting participants to share and self-reflect in small groups. I m not giving out solutions, instead proposals on how to deal with anger come from the participants themselves. (I added the last two content pages to the file after the workshop.) This is why this workshop is always different, depending on the group and what they want to share. The first time I did this workshop was a huge success and so I created an improved version for the assembly of 2021. Angry womxn* workshop

The act of saying NO We often say yes, despite wanting to say no, out of a sense of duty, or because we learned that we should always be nice and helpful, and that our own needs are best served last. Many people don t really know how to say no. Sarah Cooper, a former Google employee herself, makes fun of this in her fabulous book How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men s Feelings (highly recommended read!): A drawing of a woman who says: How I say yes: I'd love to. How I say no: sure. That s why a discussion space about saying NO did not seem out of place at the feminist hackers assembly :) I based my workshop on the original, created by the Institute of War and Peace Reporting and distributed through their holistic security training manual. I like this workshop because sharing happens in a small groups and has an immediately felt effect. Several people reported that the exercises allowed them to identify the exact moment when they had said yes to something despite really having wanted to say no. The exercises from the workshop can easily be done with a friend or trusted person, and they can even be done alone by writing them down, although the effect in writing might be less pronounced. The act of saying NO workshop

Mapping capacities and desires Based on discussions with a friend, whose company uses SWOT analysis (strengths weaknesses opportunities threats) to regularly check in with their employees, and to allow employees to check in with themselves, I created a similar tool for myself which I thought would be nice to share with others. It s a very simple self-reflection that can help map out what works well, what doesn t work so well and where one wants to go in the future. I find it important to not use this tool narrow-mindedly only regarding work skills and expertise. Instead, I think it s useful to also include soft skills, hobbies, non-work capacities and whatever else comes to mind in order to create a truer map. Fun fact: During the assembly, a bunch of participants reported that they found it hard to distinguish between things they don t like doing and things they don t know how to do. Mapping capacities and desires

Known issues One important feedback point I got is that people felt the time for the exercises in all three workshops could have been longer. In case you want to try out these workshops, you might want to take this into account.

4 February 2021

Ulrike Uhlig: On anger, misunderstandings, and hearing with different ears

Anger Anger is a feeling that is mostly taboo in our society. People tend to think that anger and rage are the same thing and reject anger. We are taught to suppress it. But: The suppression of anger can cause a lot of trouble, giving rise to virulent progeny such as malice, passive aggression, hostility, rage, sabotage, hate, blame, guilt, controlling behavior, shame, self-blame, and self-destruction. (Quoted from: Anne Katherine, Where to draw the line ). When we talk about anger, we need to distinguish between acting out anger, and feeling anger. In general, when you hear me talking about anger, I m talking about the feeling named anger in English. Anger is a normal feeling with a super power: it gives us the energy to change a situation that we consider to be unsustainable. We can express the feeling of anger verbally by saying for example: That thing makes me really angry , I can t talk right now, I am very angry about what I just heard . Let s also note that there may be other feelings lying below anger, such as sadness, frustration, grief, fear, etc. Mixing emotions This is a page from the wonderful Making Comics by Scott McCloud. (Yes, emotions are complex! See some more of Scott McCloud s pages about emotion in comics)

Bottling up feelings Most of the time, people don t get angry suddenly, even though it might seem like that from the outside. Instead, they ve been bottling up feelings for a while, and at some point, a small trigger is enough to make the bottle overflow. The reasons for bottling up feelings can be as diverse as people:
  • Low self-esteem: not thinking one has the right and the capacity to express unpleasant feelings
  • Not knowing how to express unpleasant feelings. For example not having learnt to say: I am not comfortable, I ll leave now, I ll get back to you once I know what s going on / if this is about me / if I feel like it.
  • Not trusting one s own feelings, specifically common in people who have been victims of gaslighting
  • Repressing emotions, specifically anger, sometimes to the point of not being able to feel one s own feelings anymore
  • Not being able to express disagreement and instead applying the fawn response: trying to please the other in order to avoid further conflict. See: Fight, flight, freeze, or fawn
  • Not being able to express boundaries: stop , this is enough , I don t accept this , etc.
  • Not being in a situation or a space in which feelings can be expressed freely, for example a workplace or a hierarchical situation where this might be disadvantageous
These are just some examples I can come up with in 3 minutes, the list is non exhaustive. When someone s bottle overflows, their peers can be confused and not know how to react to what they perceive as a sudden outburst while what they are seeing might just be the other person s first time tentative of saying no or stop . Oftentimes, the responsibility for the situation is then put on the shoulders of the person who supposedly exploded : they have been behaving differently than usual or not within the expectations, right? Well, it s not that simple. Conflicts are relational. The other party might have ignored signs, requests, feelings, and needs of the angry person for a while. Maybe the relationship has been deteriorating since some time? Maybe there was a power imbalance, that has never been revisited, updated, questioned? Or maybe their bottle is being filled by something else in their life and getting too small to contain all the drops of suppressed emotions. People change, and relationships change. We cannot assume that because a person has accepted something for months or years, that they always will. I think that anger can be a sign of such change or need thereof.

A message has four sides and that creates misunderstandings Friedemann Schulz von Thun has created a theory, the four-sides model, that establishes four facets of a message:
  • Fact: What is the message about?
  • Self-disclosure: What does the speaker reveal about herself (with or without intention)?
  • Relation: What is the speaker s relationship towards the receiver of the message?
  • Appeal: What does the speaker want to obtain?
Let me adapt Schulz von Thun s example to a situation that happened to me once: I came to a friend s house and I smelled some unknown thing when I entered the apartment. I asked: what s that smell? I actually never bake, so I don t know anything about whatever it is people put into cakes. I wanted to say: I don t know what that smell is, tell me what it is? She replied: You never like anything I do, my furniture gets criticized, my cake s not right, and you criticize me all the time. We ended up in such a big misunderstanding that I left her house 5 minutes after I arrived. With Schulz von Thun s model we can understand what happened here: The speaker s question What s that smell in the kitchen? has four sides:
  1. Factual: There is a smell.
  2. Self-disclosure: I don t know what it is.
  3. Relational: You know what it is.
  4. Appeal: Tell me what it is!
The receiver can hear the question with 4 different ears:
  1. Factual part: There is a smell.
  2. Self-disclosure: I don t like the smell.
  3. Relationship: You re not good at baking cake.
  4. Appeal: Don t bake cake anymore.
At this point, the receiver will probably reply: Bake the cake yourself next time!

Behind the message Sometimes, we hear more strongly with one ear than with the other ears. For example, some people hear more on the relational side and they will always hear You re not good at . Other people hear more on the appeal side and will always try to guess into a message what the other person wants or expects of them.

Form and contents of a message Getting back to anger, I think that it s often not the contents i.e. the factual facet of a message that triggers our bottle to overflow, but the (perceived) intention of the speaker, i.e. the appeal facet. For example, a speaker might have an intention to silence us by using gaslighting, or tone policing. Or a speaker wants to explicitly hurt us because that s how they learnt to deal with their own feelings of hurt. The actual relation between speaker and receiver also seems to play a role in how anger can get triggered, when we hear with the relational ear. There are many nonverbal underlying layers to our communication:
  • The position of both speaker and receiver to each other: are they equals or is there any kind of power imbalance between them? A power imbalance can be a (perceived) dependency: For example, one person in a friendship has a kid and the other one regularly helps them so that the parent has some time to advance their work or career: this can create a feeling of not being good enough by oneself and having to rely on others. Or there is indeed a dependency in which the speaker is a team lead and the receiver a subordinate.
  • The needs of each person: a need to solve problems quickly for one person might conflict with the need to be involved in decision making of the other person. (See Taibi Kahler s drivers)
  • The inner beliefs of each person: in childhood we might have constructed the inner belief: You re okay, I m not okay , or Nobody cares about what I want , or I have to be nice (friendly, hardworking, strong, etc.) all the time otherwise nobody loves me - as some examples.
So, suppose person A offers to help person B, and what person B hears instead is their overprotective mother instead of their friend. Person A might be surprised to see B overreact or disappear for a while to get back their feelings of autonomy and integrity as an adult. Or person C expresses she d like to handle problem X like this while person D might well not hear this as a proposal to handle a problem, but as a decision made without involving her. Which might propel D back to her childhood in which she could also not take decisions autonomously. Then D might react like she would react as a child, slamming a door, shout, run away, freeze, or fawn.

Communication is complex! So, whenever we hear a message, not only do we hear the message with four ears, but also, we hear it with our position, our needs, and our inner beliefs. And sometimes, our bottle is already full, and then it overflows. At that point, I find it important that both sides reflect on the situation and stay in contact. Using empathy and compassion, we can try to better understand what s going on, where we might have hurt the other person, for example, or what was being misunderstood. Did we hear only one side of the message? Do our respective strategies conflict with each other? If we cannot hear each other anymore or always hear only one side of the message, we can try to do a mediation. Obviously, if at that point one side does not actually want to solve the problem, or thinks it s not their problem, then there s not much we can do, and mediation would not help. The examples above might sound familiar to you. I chose them because I ve seen them happen around me often, and I understand them as shared patterns. While all beings on this planets are unique, we share a common humanity, for example through such patterns and common experiences.

29 October 2020

Ulrike Uhlig: Better handling emergencies

We all know these situations when we receive an email asking Can you check the design of X, I need a reply by tonight. Or an instant message: My website went down, can you check? Another email: I canceled a plan at the hosting company, can you restore my website as fast as possible? A phone call: The TLS certificate didn t get updated, and now we can t access service Y. Yet another email: Our super important medical advice website is suddenly being censored in country Z, can you help? Everyone knows those messages that have URGENT in capital letters in the email subject. It might be that some of them really are urgent. Others are the written signs of someone having a hard time properly planning their own work and passing their delays on to someone who comes later in the creation or production chain. And others again come from people who are overworked and try to delegate some of their tasks to a friendly soul who is likely to help.

How emergencies create more emergencies In the past, my first reflex when I received an urgent request was to start rushing into solutions. This happened partly out of empathy, partly because I like to be challenged into solving problems, and I m fairly good at that. This has proven to be unsustainable, and here is why.

Emergencies create unplanned work The first issue is that emergencies create a lot of unplanned work. Which in turn means not getting other, scheduled, things done. This can create a backlog, end up in working late, or working on weekends.

Emergencies can create a permanent state of exception Unplanned work can also create a lot of frustration, out of the feeling of not getting the things done that one planned to do. We might even get a feeling of being nonautonomous (in German I would say fremdbestimmt, which roughly translates to being directed by others ). On the long term, this can generate unsustainable situations: higher work loads, and burnout. When working in a team of several people, A might have to take over the work of B because B has not enough capacities. Then A gets overloaded in turn, and C and D have to take over A s work. Suddenly the team is stuck in a permanent state of exception. This state of exception will produce more backlog. The team might start to deprioritize social issues over getting technical things done. They might not be able to recruit new people anymore because they have no capacity left to onboard newcomers.

One emergency can result in a variety of emergencies for many people The second issue produced by urgent requests is that if I cannot solve the initial emergency by myself, I might try to involve colleagues, other people who are skilled in the area, or people who work in another relevant organization to help with this. Suddenly, the initial emergency has become my emergency as well as the emergency of a whole bunch of other people.

A sidenote about working with friends This might be less of an issue in a classical work setup than in a situation in which a bunch of freelancers work together, or in setups in which work and friendships are intertwined. This is a problem, because the boundaries between friend and worker role, and the expectations that go along with these roles, can get easily confused. If a colleague asks me to help with task X, I might say no; if a friend asks, I might be less likely to say no.

What I learnt about handling emergencies I came up with some guidelines that help me to better handle emergencies.

Plan for unplanned work It doesn t matter and it doesn t help to distinguish if urgent requests are legitimate or if they come from people who have not done their homework on time. What matters is to make one s weekly todo list sustainable. After reading Making work visible by Domenica de Grandis, I understood the need to add free slots for unplanned work into one s weekly schedule. Slots for unplanned work can take up to 25% of the total work time!

Take time to make plans Now that there are some free slots to handle emergencies, one can take some time to think when an urgent request comes in. A German saying proposes to wait and have some tea ( abwarten und Tee trinken ). I think this is actually really good advice, and works for any non-obvious problem. Sit down and let the situation sink in. Have a tea, take a shower, go for a walk. It s never that urgent. Really, never. If possible, one can talk about the issue with another person, rubberduck style. Then one can make a plan on how to address the emergency properly, it could be that the solution is easier than at first thought.

Affirming boundaries: Saying no Is the emergency that I m asked to solve really my problem? Or is someone trying to involve me because they know I m likely to help? Take a deep breath and think about it. No? It s not my job, not my role? I have no time for this right now? I don t want to do it? Maybe I m not even paid for it? A colleague is pushing my boundaries to get some task on their own todo list done? Then I might want to say no. I can t help with this. or I can help you in two weeks. I don t need to give a reason. No. is a sentence. And: Saying no doesn t make me an arse.

Affirming boundaries: Clearly defining one s role Clearly defining one s role is something that is often overlooked. In many discussions I have with friends it appears that this is a major cause of overwork and underpayment. Lots of people are skilled, intelligent, and curious, and easily get challenged into putting on their super hero dress. But they re certainly not the only person that can help even if an urgent request makes them think that at first. To clearly define our role, we need to make clear which part of the job is our work, and which part needs to be done by other people. We should stop trying to accomodate people and their requests to the detriment of our own sanity. You re a language interpreter and are being asked to mediate a bi-lingual conflict between the people you are interpreting for? It s not your job. You re the graphic designer for a poster, but the text you ve been given is not good enough? Send back a recommendation to change the text; don t do these changes yourself: it s not your job. But you can and want to do this yourself and it would make your client s life easier? Then ask them to get paid for the extra time, and make sure to renegotiate your deadline!

Affirming boundaries: Defining expectations Along with our role, we need to define expectations: in which timeframe am I willing to do the job? Under which contract, which agreement, which conditions? For which payment? People who work in a salary office job generally do have a work contract in which their role and the expectations that come with this role are clearly defined. Nevertheless, I hear from friends that their superiors regularly try to make them do tasks that are not part of their role definition. So, here too, role and expectations sometimes need to be renegotiated, and the boundaries of these roles need to be clearly affirmed.

Random conclusive thoughts If you ve read until here, you might have experienced similar things. Or, on the contrary, maybe you re already good at communicating your boundaries and people around you have learnt to respect them? Congratulations. In any case, for improving one s own approach to such requests, it can be useful to find out which inner dynamics are at play when we interact with other people. Additionally, it can be useful to understand the differences between Asker and Guesser culture:
when an Asker meets a Guesser, unpleasantness results. An Asker won t think it s rude to request two weeks in your spare room, but a Guess culture person will hear it as presumptuous and resent the agony involved in saying no. Your boss, asking for a project to be finished early, may be an overdemanding boor or just an Asker, who s assuming you might decline. If you re a Guesser, you ll hear it as an expectation.
Askers should also be aware that there might be Guessers in their team. It can help to define clear guidelines about making requests (when do I expect an answer, under which budget/contract/responsibility does the request fall, what other task can be put aside to handle the urgent task?) Last, but not least, Making work visible has a lot of other proposals on how to visibilize and then deal with unplanned work.

24 August 2020

Ulrike Uhlig: Code reviews: from nitpicking to cooperation

After we gave our talk at DebConf 20, Doing things together, there were 5 minutes left for the live Q&A. Pollo asked a question that I think is interesting and deserves a longer answer: How can we still have a good code review process without making it a "you need to be perfect" scenario? I often find picky code reviews help me write better code. I find it useful to first disentangle what code reviews are good for, how we do them, why we do them that way, and how we can potentially improve processes. What are code reviews good for? Code review and peer review are great methods for cooperation aiming at: Looking at this list, the last point seems to be more like a nice side effect of all the other points. :) How do code reviews happen in our communities? It seems to be a common assumption that code reviews are and have to be picky and perfectionist. To me, this does not actually seem to be a necessity to accomplish the above mentioned goals. We might want to work with precision a quality which is different from perfection. Perfection can hardly be a goal: perfection does not exist. Perfectionist dynamics can lead to failing to call something "good enough" or "done". Sometimes, a disproportionate amount of time is invested in writing (several) code reviews for minor issues. In some cases, strong perfectionist dynamics of a reviewer can create a feeling of never being good enough along with a loss of self esteem for otherwise skilled code authors. When do we cross the line? When going from cooperation, precision, and learning to write better code, to nitpicking, we are crossing a line: nitpicking means to pedantically search for others' faults. For example, I once got one of my Git commits at work criticized merely for its commit message that was said to be "ugly" because I "use[d] the same word twice" in it. When we are nitpicking, we might not give feedback in an appreciative, cooperative way, we become fault finders instead. From there it's a short way to operating on the level of blame. Are you nitpicking to help or are you nitpicking to prove something? Motivations matter. How can we improve code reviewing? When we did something wrong, we can do better next time. When we are told that we are wrong, the underlying assumption is that we cannot change (See Bren Brown, The difference between blame and shame). We can learn to go beyond blame. Negative feedback rarely leads to improvement if the environment in which it happens lacks general appreciation and confirmation. We can learn to give helpful feedback. It might be harder to create an appreciative environment in which negative feedback is a possibility for growth. One can think of it like of a relationship: in a healthy relationship we can tell each other when something does not work and work it out because we regularly experience that we respect, value, and support each other. To be able to work precisely, we need guidelines, tools, and time. It's not possible to work with precision if we are in a hurry, burnt out, or working under a permanent state of exception. The same is true for receiving picky feedback. On DebConf's IRC channel, after our talk, marvil07 said: On picky code reviews, something that I find useful is automation on code reviews; i.e. when a bot is stating a list of indentation/style errors it feels less personal, and also saves time to humans to provide more insightful changes. Indeed, we can set up routines that do automatic fault checking (linting). We can set up coding guidelines. We can define what we call "done" or "good enough". We can negotiate with each other how we would like code to be reviewed. For example, one could agree that a particularly perfectionist reviewer should point out only functional faults. They can spare their time and refrain from writing lengthy reviews about minor esthetic issues that have never made it into a guideline. If necessary, author and reviewer can talk about what can be improved on the long term during a retrospective. Or, on the contrary, one could explicitly ask for a particularly detailed review including all sorts of esthetic issues to learn the best practices of a team applied to one's own code. In summary: let's not lose sight of what code reviews are good for, let's have a clear definition of "done", let's not confuse precision with perfection, let's create appreciative work environments, and negotiate with each other how reviews are made. I'm sure you will come up with more ideas. Please do not hesitate to share them!

17 June 2020

Ulrike Uhlig: On Language

Language is a tool of power In school, we read the philologist diary of Victor Klemperer about the changes in the German language during the Third Reich, LTI - Lingua Tertii Imperii, a book which makes it clear that the use of language is political, creates realities, and has reverse repercussions on concepts of an entire society. Language was one of the tools that supported Nazism in insiduously pervading all parts of society. Language shapes our concepts of society Around the same time, a friend of mine proposed to read Egalia's daughters by Gerd Brantenberg, a book in which gendered words were reversed: so that human becomes huwim, for example. This book made me take notice of gendered concepts that often go unnoticed. Language shapes the way we think and feel I spent a large part of my adult life in France, which confronted me with the realization that a language provides its speakers with certain concepts. If a concept does not exist in a language, people cannot easily feel or imagine this concept either. Back then (roughly 20 years ago), even though I was aware of gender inequality, I hated using gender neutral language because in German and French it felt unnatural, and, or so I thought, we were all alike. One day, at a party, we played a game that consisted in guessing people's professions by asking them Yes/No questions. Turns out that we were unable to guess that the woman we were talking with was a doctor, because we could simply not imagine this profession for a young woman. In French, docteur is male and almost nobody would use the word doctoresse, ou femme docteur. Unimaginable are also the concepts of words in German that have no equivalent in French or vice versa: Or, to make all this a bit less serious, Italian has the word gattara (female) or gattaro (male), which one could translate to English roughly as cat person, most often designating old women who feed stray cats. But really, the way language shapes our concepts and ideas goes much further, as well explained by Lera Boroditsky in a talk in which she explains how language influences concepts of space, time, and blame, among other things. Building new models This quote by Buckminster Fuller is pinned on the wall over my desk:
You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.
A change in language is such a new model: it can make oppression and inequalities visible. Words do not only describe our world, they are a vehicle of ideas, and utopias. Analyzing and criticizing our use of language means paving the way for ideas and concepts of inclusion, equality, and unity. You might be guessing at where am I getting at with this Right: I am in favor of acknowledging past mistakes, and replacing oppressive metaphors in computing. As noted in the IETF draft about Terminology, Power and Oppressive Language, by Niels Ten Oever and Mallory Knodel, the metaphors "master/slave" and "blacklist/whitelist" associate "white with good and black with evil [which] is known as the 'bad is black effect'", all the while being technically inaccurate. I acknowledge that this will take time. There is a lot of work to do.

12 June 2020

Ulrike Uhlig: The right to demand change

Two women sit in an office, one asks: "What's the difference between being assertive and being aggressive?" The other replies: "Your gender." (Cartoon by Judy Horacek, 1999.) When a person of a marginalized group (read: a person with less privilege, a person with lower rank) is being framed and blamed as being aggressive, she is being told that her behavior is unacceptable. Marginalized people have learnt that they need to comply to fit, and are likely to suppress their feelings. By being framed as aggressive, the marginalized person is also being told that what they are saying cannot be listened to because the way they are saying it does not comply with expectations. There is a word for this: tone policing. This great comic by Robot Hugs has all the important details. Tone policing is a silencing tactic in which privileged participants of a discussion one-sidedly define the terms of the conversation. This tactic has the interesting side effect of shifting the responsibility to prove that one is not aggressive, hostile, explosive, a minefield, etc. to the person being framed and blamed - proving that one is worthy to be listened to. (Some of those words are actual quotes taken from real life.) Years ago, I worked in a company in which my female developer colleague would put herself in a state of overly expressed sorriness, all the while pretending to be stupid and helpless whenever she needed to ask anything from the sysadmins. When I confronted her with that, she replied: "I do it because it works." In the same company, another woman who generally asked assertively for what she needed ended up being insulted by one of the project managers using the word "dominatrix". While the example comes from my own experience, this kind of thing happens across any oppression/privilege boundaries. In some conversations, be they verbal or written, frustration and anger of one person are sometimes being mistaken by the communication partner for aggressiveness. Why is this happening? Asking a person with privilege to see, question, or change their behavior, questions their privilege. I'm thinking that it might be that most people think of themselves as "being good" and when they are being asked to question themselves or their behavior, their self-image is being challenged. "Me? But I did not do anything wrong! It's certainly not my fault if you are being oppressed! I sacrificed myself to reach my current position in life!" This comic by Toby Morris, "On a Plate", explains it quite nicely. So are we stuck with seeing conversations derail? I'd argue instead that while anger and frustration are unpleasant feelings, they're important: they show us that our boundaries have been crossed, that we want something to change, to stop, or that we need something different right now. We have the right to be angry and to demand change.

2 April 2020

Ulrike Uhlig: Breaking the chain reaction of reactions to reactions

Sometimes, in our day-to-day-interactions, communication becomes disruptive, resembling a chain of reactions to reactions to reactions. Sometimes we lose the capacity to express our ideas and feelings. Sometimes communication just gets stuck, maybe conflict breaks out. When we see these same patterns over and over again, this might be due to the ever same roles that we adopt and play. Learnt in childhood, these roles are deeply ingrained in our adult selves, and acted out as unconscious scripts. Until we notice and work on them. This is a post inspired by contents from my mediation training. In the 1960s, Stephen Karpman has thought of a model of human communication that maps the destructive interactions which occur between people. This map is known as the drama triangle. Karpman defined three roles that interact with each other. We can play one role at work, and a different one at home, and another one with our children. Or we can switch from one role to the other in just one conversation. The three roles are: Does this sound familiar? "Involvement in an unhealthy drama triangle is not something another person is doing to you. It's something you are doing with another person or persons." Well, to be more precise, it's something that we are all doing to each other: "Drama triangles form when participants who are predispositioned to adopt the roles of a drama triangle come together over an issue." (quoted from: Escaping conflict and the Karpman Drama Triangle.) People act out these roles to meet personal (often unconscious) needs. But each of these roles is toxic in that it sees others as problems to react to. In not being able to see that we take on these roles, we keep the triangle going, like in a dispute in which one word provokes another until someone leaves, slamming the door. This is drama. When we are stuck in the drama triangle, no one wins because all three roles "cause pain", "perpetuate shame [and] guilt", and "keep people caught in dysfunctional behavior" (quoted from Lynne Namka: The Drama Triangle, Three Roles of Victim-hood). How to get out of the drama triangle Awareness. To get out of the triangle, it is foremost suggested to be aware of its existence. I agree, it helps. I see it everywhere now. Identifying one's role and starting to act differently. While we switch roles, we generally take on a preferred role that we act out most of the time, and that was learnt in childhood. (I found a test to identify one's common primary role in German.) But how do we act differently? We need to take another look at that uncanny triangle. From the drama triangle to the winner triangle I found it insightful to ask what benefit each role could potentially bring into the interaction.
Acey Choy has created the Winner triangle, in 1990, as an attempt to transform social interactions away from drama. Her winner triangle shifts our perceptions of the roles: the Victim becomes the Vulnerable, the Rescuer becomes the Caring, the Persecutor becomes the Assertive.
Persecutor            Rescuer       Assertive              Caring
I'm right.            I'm good.     I have needs.          I'm listening.
    ----------------------              ----------------------
    \                    /              \                    /
     \                  /                \                  /
      \                /                  \                /
       \              /                    \              /
        \            /                      \            /
         \          /                        \          /
          \        /                          \        /
           \      /                            \      /
            \    /                              \    /
             \  /                                \  /
              \/                                  \/
            Victim                            Vulnerable
            I'm blameless.                    I'm struggling.
Karpman Dreaded Drama Triangle            Choy's Winner Triangle
The Assertive "I have needs." has a calling, aims at change, initiates, and gives feedback. Skills to learn: The Assertive needs to learn to identify their needs, communicate them, and negotiate with others on eye level without shaming, punishing, or belittling them. The Assertive needs to learn to give constructive feedback, without dismissing others. (In the workplace, it could be helpful to have a space for this.) The Assertive could benefit from learning to use I-Statements. The Caring "I'm listening." shows good will and sensitivity, cares, is empathic and supportive. Skills to learn: The Caring needs to learn to respect the boundaries of others: trusting their abilities to think, problem solve and talk for themselves. Therefore, the Caring could benefit from improving their active listening skills. Furthermore the Caring needs to learn to identify and respect their own boundaries and not to do things only because it makes them feel better about themselves. The Vulnerable "I'm struggling." has the skill of seeing and naming problems. Skills to learn: The Vulnerable needs to learn to acknowledge their feelings and needs, practice self-awareness, and self-compassion. They need to untie their self-esteem from the validation of other people. They need to learn to take care of themselves, and to strengthen their problem solving and decision making skills. What has this got to do with autonomy and power structures? Each of these interactions is embedded in larger society, and, as said above, we learn these roles from childhood. Therefore, we perpetually reproduce power structures, and learnt behavior. I doubt that fixing this on an individual level is sufficient to transform our interactions outside of small groups, families or work places. Although that would be a good start. We can see that the triangle holds together because the Victim, seemingly devoid of a way to handle their own needs, transfers care of their needs to the Rescuer, thereby giving up on their autonomy. The Rescuer is provided by the Victim with a sense of autonomy, knowledge, and power, that only works while denying the Victim their autonomy. At the same time, the Persecutor denies everyone else's needs and autonomy, and feels powerful by dismissing others. I've recently mentioned the importance of autonomy in order to avoid burnout, and as a means to control one's own life. If the Rescuer can acknowledge being in the triangle, and give the Victim autonomy, by supporting them with compassion, empathy, and guidance, and at the same time respecting their own boundaries, we could find even more ways to escape the drama triangle. Notes My description of the roles was heavily inspired by the article Escaping Conflict and the Karpman Drama Triangle that has a lot more detail on how to escape the triangle, and how to recognize when we're moving into one of the roles. While the article is informing families living with a person suffering from a spectrum of Borderline Personality Disorder, the content applies to any dysfunctional interaction.

31 March 2020

Russell Coker: Links March 2020

Rolling Stone has an insightful article about why the Christian Right supports Trump and won t stop supporting him no matter what he does [1]. Interesting article about Data Oriented Architecture [2]. Quarantine Will normalise WFH and Recession will Denormalise Jobs [3]. I guess we can always hope that after a disaster we can learn to do things better than before. Tyre wear is worse than exhaust for small particulate matter [4]. We need better tyres and legal controls over such things. Scott Santens wrote an insightful article about the need for democracy and unconditional basic income [5]. In ancient Greece, work was regarded as a curse is an extreme position but strongly supported by evidence. In his essay In Praise of Idleness, Bertrand Russell wrote Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever. Cory Doctorow wrote an insightful article for Locus titled A Lever Without a Fulcrum Is Just a Stick about expansions to copyright laws [6]. One of his analogies is that giving a bullied kid more lunch money just allows the bullies to steal more money, with artists being bullied kids and lunch money being the rights that are granted under copyright law. The proposed solution includes changes to labor and contract law, presumably Cory will write other articles in future giving the details of his ideas in this regard. The Register has an amusing article about the trial of a former CIA employee on trial for being the alleged vault 7 leaker [7]. Both the prosecution and the defence are building their cases around the defendent being a jerk. The article exposes poor security and poor hiring practices in the CIA. CNN has an informative article about Finland s war on fake news [8]. As Finland has long standing disputes with Russia they have had more practice at dealing with fake news than most countries. The Times of Israel has an interesting article about how the UK used German Jews to spy on German prisoners of war [9]. Cory Doctorow wrote an insightful article Data is the New Toxic Waste about how collecting personal data isn t an asset, it s a liability [10]. Ulrike Uhlig wrote an insightful article about Control Freaks , analysing the different meanings of control, both positive and negative [11]. 538 has an informative article about the value of statistical life [12]. It s about $9M per person in the US, which means a mind-boggling amount of money should be spent to save the millions of lives that will be potentially lost in a natural disaster (like Coronavirus). NPR has an interesting interview about Crypto AG, the Swiss crypto company owned by the CIA [13]. I first learned of this years ago, it s not new, but I still learned a lot from this interview.

16 March 2020

Ulrike Uhlig: Deconstructing the term control freak

Control freaks. You may have called people like this. Or you may have been called one yourself. Maybe you got angry. Or, on the contrary, you felt like being a control freak is a feature, because who would notice all these little details that are not exactly perfect if not you? This post is an attempt to deconstruct the term. Etymological considerations Control - from latin contra- rotulus - refers to the copy of an account register as a means of verification of the original register. So control is about keeping track, not making mistakes, i.e. it's about doing a perfect calculation. The meaning of control in our society is linked to authority, or to policing like in crowd control. What English calls an inspector, is a Kontrolleur in German or contr leur in French. The word is also linked to manufacturing, as in quality control. We also talk about being in control, which is linked to the desire of being autonomous, to be able to act on one's own account. Being in control can also designate a need to preserve one's own integrity: if I have integrity (in the sense of feeling whole), I can self-determine, which is the most fundamental requirement for having one's own identity. Freak - refers to someone who does not fit the norm. Calling someone a freak is per se problematic, because it blames a person for being atypical, abnormal. Freak is a word that, while pointing a finger at difference, at the same time denies people the right to be different and diverse. People can reappropriate such words to make it clear that not fitting the norm is a wanted expression of their diversity we can see that if we follow the history of the word queer for an example. Types of control freaking To me, being a control freak is mostly a feature, if it's about controlling my own life and my own effectiveness. Control freaking becomes troublesome when it's about controlling other people's effectiveness. And it becomes highly problematic when it's about controlling other people's lives. Controlling one's own life Having control over one's own life is a basic human need. In particular people who are part of minorities, people who face discrimination and oppression every day have an increased need for self-determination, and the need to see their existence and their identity acknowledged and accepted by the rest of the world. Too often do we experience that other people (generally the ones with privilege, or not facing the same oppression) try to own the narrative over our lives (1)(2). Calling this control freakish is missing the point, and is probably a sign of looking at it from a perspective of privilege. Controlling one's own effectiveness People produce things. People write code, make ceramics, or write texts, for example. People have a need to control their own effectiveness: they set up routines, product tests, documentation. This type of control is a feature, and can help to release better software, better texts, or perfectly burnt clay pots ultimately controlling one's own effectiveness helps to learn from one's mistakes and to improve routines over time. The grey zone The grey zone describes the zone in between wanting to control one's own effectiveness and wanting to control other people's effectiveness. Here we could situate the type of control freak who does not delegate tasks to others for fear of seeing them done differently then they had expected them to be done. This can be harmful particularly to the person who does not delegate: they can get overworked or burnt out. This type of control freakism might be linked to perfectionism. Controlling other people's effectiveness When we work with other people, our own effectiveness might get in the way of other people's effectiveness, or vice versa. Indeed, it happens - not only in work contexts - that people find themselves in setups in which mutual responsibilities and autonomies conflict with one another because one person is dependent on the other for making decisions or moving things forward as they see fit. (There is generally a relation of dependency between two conflicting parties that is worth looking at (3).) Add to this the fact that, when delegating a task, some people have a hard time also delegating the responsibility and autonomy needed to resolve the task. They lack trust that another person can also do the work, or want that person to do the work exactly in the same way they would do it. (In some cases this can be related to Founder's Syndrome and can result in organizations staying stuck with one or a small group of founders holding knowledge and power, and preventing the organization from growing. Page 11 in the booklet "Working with conflict in our groups" describes how such an informal hierarchy can come into being in grassroot groups.) The (perfectly valid) need behind this type of control freaking could be to make sure that a group of people builds a successful product, releases a fact-checked documentary, or creates a publication without mistakes. But controlling other people's effectiveness as a strategy to satisfy this need can create a non-cooperative climate in which people do not meet each other on eye level, but are dependent on each other, experience a lack autonomy, a break of boundaries, or sometimes feel authority to be overexerted. Acknowledging the need to build a good product, it is possible to create the appropriate strategies to guarantee that the involved people can meet each other on eye level: for example by clearly defining and documenting role-responsibility-accountability along with appropriate decision making processes, or by distributing leadership ( you should totally click on that link!), by looking at inclusive leadership models, by learning from past mistakes, by instating feedback cycles, by making boundaries between the direction of an organization and the day-to-day work clear. An organization I work with has the rule that people can make decisions for themselves if the decision only affects their work, while decisions that affect a team should be made with the team, and decisions that affect the organization as a whole need to be made at the organizational level. They call that a no-brainer, but in organizations with traditional hierarchies, or in grown grassroot environments that have never clearly defined and assigned responsibilities and accountabilities (aka "functional roles") this is not so obvious at all. Controlling someone else's life This type of control freak does not only desire to control their own life but for a reason or another wants to know and control what other people do, think (especially about the control freak), decide, or how they live. In some cases, this type of control freak might even want to force upon others things they should do as a way to be accepted by the control freak. It's what we call narcissism, harassment, abuse. It is unacceptable. Conclusion In summary, the distinctions I came up with in this post describe the boundaries along which control freakism takes hold of someone else's effectiveness or life and ultimately prevents them from self-determining. In German we have the word bergriffig which describes that someone is infringing someone else's boundaries they are over - grabbing, seizing, grasping, taking hold of. Which type of control freak are you, if any?

(1) Like when a West-Berliner in a round of 15 East Germans arrogantly talks about the time when the wall came down and tells the story that he could not go shopping between Thursdays and Sundays because the East Germans bought too many products in the supermarkets while this event marked an unimaginable rift in the biographies of 17 million East Germans, 15 of whom are sitting right in front of him. Thirty years after 1989, many of us are finally starting to question this publicly ( links in German language).

(2) Women experience it similary regularly, see Men Explain Things to me, a book by Rebecca Solnit.

(3) By the way, rather than having "recruited the wrong person" conflict may intrinsically arise as part of certain work relationships, simply due to the inter-dependencies of roles or workers, like in a delivery chain.

8 March 2020

Ulrike Uhlig: Implementing feedback into our work culture

Everywhere I worked in the past, the only feedback that was asked of employees was during a yearly evaluation meeting. These meetings always felt to me like talking to Santa Claus and his Knecht Ruprecht. I was asked: Were you a good employee last year? If yes, we might give you a raise. If no, admit all your mistakes now, even if we already know everything, ho ho ho. And don't you talk about your feelings, or your well-being, or say anything about the organization's (invisible) hierarchies, otherwise we will put you on the "naughty list", and that's it with candy. The yearly evaluation set aside, there was no other place to give feedback (except by escalating a matter by involving the Labour Court, if you happen to work in France, or going on strike, also mostly part of French culture). Feedback allows to reflect on work processes, to situate oneself, and to get closure. How surprised was I when, some years ago, I received an email from a collaborator asking me: kindly for just few paragraphs (doesn t have to be anything long) to hear from you about the process, your work, challenges you had, or anything else you want to mention there.. Wow!
This simple email allowed me to reflect about: How do we get to a feedback culture? How do we get from German Christmas folklore, protestant work ethics, and the deeply rooted principles of disciplining and punishing to a feedback culture on eye level? It sounds a bit like going from the dark ages to a really cool science fiction utopia with universal peace, telepathy, and magic between all sentient beings on all inhabited planets in the cosmos at least that's how I imagined it as a child, just like some of my heroes did: the cosmonaut girl who saves Earth, the boy who talks to space flowers that give him the capacity to fly, and the little onion who fights for justice (the Italian author was so popular on our side of the iron curtain that a soviet astronomer named a minor planet after him. His wife meanwhile immortalized Karl Marx.) and some romantic part of me hangs on to these ideas. Feedback is not always easy to hear and to give. I-Statements Giving and receiving feedback is hard in a culture where people learnt that when they made a mistake they won't get candy. Or that they have to constantly please other people because they are not worthy by themselves. This can lead to people putting mistakes on one another. Every sentence that starts with You are has the potential of creating a lot of hurt, and anger. Have you heard of I-Statements? They have very powerfully changed my world view, as they shift from accusation to ownership of feelings. So instead of telling someone Your writing style is impossible! You really need to change the way you write., with an I-Statement one could say I have a hard time understanding that part of the text. I-Statements make cooperation possible. Listening actively Feedback is not about being right or wrong, it's first of all about being able to see how another person has experienced a situation. Active listening is a tool that helps with understanding. It might seem easy, but needs quite some practice and a safe space. One part of active listening is to restate what you hear the other person say (by mirroring, or paraphrasing), to make sure you understood, and make sure they know you understood what they were trying to say. You can practise this: in a circle of three people, have one person tell how they experienced a (possibly conflictual) situation, have one person do the active listening, and the third person observing in order to give feedback to the active listener about how they did. Then switch roles, for example clockwise, until everyone has had every role. Encouraging continuous feedback A working feedback culture does not take place only once a year. It needs to be a continuous process and therefore implemented in meetings, teams, eventually on the level of a project. Making clear: Who can I talk to if I experience an issue? is not different than telling developers and users where and how they can report a bug, or request a feature. A safe space to express feedback is key. Encouraging multiple feedback channels Some people might feel less empowered or more vulnerable over a channel than others. Make sure to have different channels for receiving feedback such as email, a point on each meeting agenda, a one-to-one meeting, or a poll. Giving and receiving feedback on eye level In a workplace that does not have a working feedback culture, feedback is easily perceived as policing. If your feedback process consists of asking people to upload a form to a cloud server every 3 months, and you notice that some people don't do it, you could ask yourself if there is an issue with how your colleagues perceive giving feedback in your organization. Do you meet your colleagues on eye level when it comes to feedback? Do you take feedback seriously and act on it? How do you deal with unpleasant feedback? How do you react when colleagues don't meet your expectations? Can people participate in the feedback process within their paid work time? Did everybody understand what the feedback process is about? Don't jump to conclusions Humans are problem solving animals. When someone comes to us with a problem, the first thing we want to do is to solve it, to help them. But sometimes this is uncalled for, it can be disempowering, or prevent people from acquiring competences themselves, and it can even break people's boundaries. So instead of asking What can I do for you?, try asking What do you need right now? People will often reply something that you did not expect at all. Acting on feedback Make sure you have a process to collect feedback (possibly anonymized) and to regularly evaluate if the organization needs to implement changes to thrive. Conclusion I stumbled upon Hans-Christian Dany's critique of feedback again recently, therefore I need to make it clear: I'm not interested in improving capitalist work culture by using cybernetic principles of self-regulation through feedback. Instead, I am interested in improving cooperation between people who work either individually or in organizations on eye level. In this framework, I see feedback processes as profoundly anti-capitalist methods to improve cooperation while working towards common good. Implementing these ideas should be doable: there are organizations who provide feedback training for example. This document, initially aiming at people in cooperatives, gives many insights on communication skills and feedback, the agile and UX worlds do feedback "retrospectives". and otherwise I'll have to go and write science fiction stories for children myself.

1 March 2020

Ulrike Uhlig: Conflict as a clash of strategies and a vector for change

Map of conflict I've been practising Non-Violent Communication (NVC) for several years. It helps me to better understand my feelings and needs. The concepts of NVC can also help to look at conflicts. I would like to introduce a way to look at conflict using the basic concepts of NVC:
  1. Humans have needs. (I would add that this applies to other sentient beings, too).
  2. It's okay to have needs.
  3. When needs are satisfied, we experience pleasant feelings (joy, love, happiness, etc.).
  4. When needs are unsatisfied, we experience unpleasant feelings (sadness, anger, grief, etc.)
  5. To satisfy our needs, we employ strategies. (Example. Need = well-being. Possible strategies = sauna, sleeping, walk in nature, etc.)
  6. When conflict occurs between two parties, it's not the needs that conflict, but the strategies that are employed to satisfy the needs.
An example. May has issues doing all the work they're supposed to do and seeks to talk to their manager about it. The manager repeatedly refuses to receive them, as the manager is very busy. May had the hope to be able to sort their issues out with the manager but now they feel frustrated, and helpless, on top of feeling stressed out. Week after week, May tries to get in touch with the manager, as they don't know how to solve their issue alone. But as their demands become more pressing, the manager starts to feel annoyed, tense, and insecure, and keeps ignoring May's requests. May's needs: communication, cooperation, being understood, being seen, autonomy.
Manager's needs: efficacy, independence, respect, autonomy. Both their needs are legit. Some of them even overlap. The conflict occurs at the level of their strategies: the manager makes the conscious decision to deny May's discussion requests, effectively denying them to voice their concerns and worries, which makes May feel helpless, frustrated, and angry. When May chooses to make their demands more explicit, the manager starts to feel more and more insecure. Working on our strategies There are always different strategies to satisfy our needs. Out of habit, we sometimes fail to see them, and keep using the ever same strategies. How could May deal with the situation differently? When we are aware of the need strategies dynamics, we can work on strategies without compromising our needs. When we are not, we are running in circles, effectively worsening the situation. The manager could also employ different strategies as they start noticing that they are feeling tense and insecure. Which ones could that be? There are also inappropriate strategies, and if not aware, the manager could well end up employing one of those: What would be appropriate strategies for the manager? Transforming organizations Working on strategies is a good first step. But generally the emotional work effectively lies on the shoulders of the individual with lower rank in the organization who lacks control and corresponding privileges to deal with the conflict. I believe that when conflict occurs in the workplace, it is important to draw further conclusions that would benefit the organization as a whole. In the above example, such conclusions could be: These are just some ideas for a fictitious conflict, but you get the idea.
Conflicts effectively are chances for the organization, or the involved parties, to grow in maturity.
More about working with conflict and conflict mapping tools in this great publication.

7 November 2017

Reproducible builds folks: Reproducible Builds: Weekly report #132

Here's what happened in the Reproducible Builds effort between Sunday October 29 and Saturday November 4 2017: Past events Upcoming events Reproducible work in other projects Packages reviewed and fixed, and bugs filed Reviews of unreproducible packages 7 package reviews have been added, 43 have been updated and 47 have been removed in this week, adding to our knowledge about identified issues. Weekly QA work During our reproducibility testing, FTBFS bugs have been detected and reported by: Documentation updates diffoscope development Version 88 was uploaded to unstable by Mattia Rizzolo. It included contributions (already covered by posts of the previous weeks) from: strip-nondeterminism development Version 0.040-1 was uploaded to unstable by Mattia Rizzolo. It included contributions already covered by posts of the previous weeks, as well as new ones from:
Version 0.5.2-2 was uploaded to unstable by Holger Levsen. It included contributions already covered by posts of the previous weeks, as well as new ones from: reprotest development development Misc. This week's edition was written by Bernhard M. Wiedemann, Chris Lamb, Mattia Rizzolo & reviewed by a bunch of Reproducible Builds folks on IRC & the mailing lists.

7 March 2017

Bits from Debian: New Debian Developers and Maintainers (January and February 2017)

The following contributors got their Debian Developer accounts in the last two months: The following contributors were added as Debian Maintainers in the last two months: Congratulations!

20 December 2016

Reproducible builds folks: Reproducible Builds: week 86 in Stretch cycle

What happened in the Reproducible Builds effort between Sunday December 11 and Saturday December 17 2016: Reproducible builds world summit The 2nd Reproducible Builds World Summit was held in Berlin, Germany on December 13th-15th. The event was a great success with enthusiastic participation from an extremely diverse number of projects. Many thanks to our sponsors for making this event possible! Reproducible Summit 2 in Berlin 2016 Whilst there is an in-depth report forthcoming, the Guix project have already released their own report. Media coverage Reproducible work in other projects Documentation update A large number of revisions were made to the website during the summit, including re-structuring existing content and creating a concrete plan to move the wiki content to the website: Elsewhere in Debian Packages reviewed and fixed, and bugs filed Chris Lamb: Daniel Shahaf: Reiner Herrmann: Reviews of unreproducible packages 9 package reviews have been added, 19 have been updated and 17 have been removed in this week, adding to our knowledge about identified issues. 3 issue types have been added: One issue type was updated: Weekly QA work During our reproducibility testing, some FTBFS bugs have been detected and reported by: diffoscope development reprotest development trydiffoscope development Misc. This week's edition was written by Chris Lamb and reviewed by a bunch of Reproducible Builds folks on IRC and via email.

9 March 2015

Ulrike Uhlig: Final report from the Outreach Program round 9

Between december 9th 2014 and march 9th 2015 I ve been working as an intern for Debian on Improving AppArmor support in Debian. Progress Before the internship started, I had no clue about AppArmor at all. Reading the Wikipedia page and the AppArmor wiki did barely enlighten me. At least, until I got my hands dirty and installed and activated it. I was able to do this only because there was already some basic documentation on the Debian wiki on how to get AppArmor running on a Debian system. When the internship started I felt a little bit lost. I started to read the documentation and to play around with some AppArmor profiles. But the error messages I saw and the profiles I opened for reading overwhelmed me. What did all these lines mean? Then one mentor briefed me about the current status of AppArmor in Debian. I took many notes and tried to bring some order into the information I was being given. These notes became the first page of the documentation and my first blog post.
Surprise: suddenly I was in the middle of knowing what we were talking about and how the next few weeks would look like. To start with, I have set up a test environment and continued to test some of the profiles which came with the packages I had installed, namely apparmor-profiles-extra which provided me with a profile for Pidgin. I was very much interested in securing this several thousand lines long C-code application on my machine! As a Pidgin user, I noticed immediately that one of my favourite features pidgin blinklight threw an error in the logs. I tried to fix it on my test VM and eventually made it work. Now knowing that such fixes should first be done upstream, i cloned the corresponding upstream repository and sent my first patch. It was not easy at first to switch to another VCS than Git, although I had been using Bazaar and Subversion years ago. Shortly afterwards, I saw my patch showing up on the upstream mailing list, and some days later it got merged. That was a huge encouragement. I was now able to write more documentation on how to contribute upstream. In order to organize the documentation, we ve set up some User Stories. I did not know about this tool before and had quite a hard time to grasp all the details but it proved to be very useful as some pages started to become long and confusing. Writing the documentation took up a lot of time, but before being able to write anything down, I needed to work everything out! This way I incidentally learned how to interact with many parts of Debian s infrastructure: While playing around with the tools provided to inspect AppArmor status on the system, I even accidentally found a little bug in one of the upstream tools. It got fixed very quickly after I mentioned it on the AppArmor team s mailing list. Organization Although I was uncomfortable with this in the beginning, we organized public meetings every two weeks on IRC. These meetings were also attended by MeetBot who took care of taking notes and leaving a trace of our discussions.
Based on the meetings, I maintained a progress page and todo list on the Debian wiki, which helped us to know which tasks were planned for the next two weeks. Before each meeting I sent a status update to the mailing list, so the mentors could catch up with my work. During the meetings I was not only asked to provide feedback on progress but also on mentoring itself. It proved to be very useful to be able to say where I was stuck and if the mentoring process worked out well enough (it did!).
Furthermore, I got regular, detailed and pedantic (thanks for trying to push me to perfection!) feedback on the team s mailing list. The mentors had introduced me on the upstream IRC channel in the beginning, so most of the people who are active there knew about my existence, something which also proved to be handy! Future The internship time is over, but some work remains to be done. As a new member of the AppArmor Packaging team, I am committed to make it happen: Thanks I feel much more confident after these three months, technically but also personally. Thank you: Holger Levsen and intrigeri for mentoring and encouraging me on this journey and to upstream contributors Christian Boltz, Steve Beattie (and everybody else I might forget here) for providing help and feedback. The Debian community (OPW organizers, sponsors, Alioth maintainers, maintainers although my posts don t show up anymore :( -and others) has been very friendly and welcoming and I am very happy to be part of it.

5 March 2015

Ulrike Uhlig: So, how usable is AppArmor in Debian?

The short answer is: using AppArmor in Debian is fairly straight forward. Installing and activating it though is not yet a very user friendly experience. One needs to install the apparmor package, then activate it in the kernel by editing a line in the GRUB bootloader and then reboot. The procedure is explained in detail here.
We are working on fixing Debian Bug #702030 which aims at making the installation process easier for normal users by activating the module automatically as soon as one installs the apparmor package. Once you have set this up though, you re good to go. Profiles for confining processes and programs should then be activated automatically. One can verify this through the sudo aa-status command which should output something like this:
apparmor module is loaded.
30 profiles are loaded.
30 profiles are in enforce mode.
0 profiles are in complain mode.
8 processes have profiles defined.
8 processes are in enforce mode.
0 processes are in complain mode.
0 processes are unconfined but have a profile defined.
As of today there are only a dozen packages which ship their own profile in Debian: bind9, clamav, cups-browsed & cups-daemon, libvirt-daemon-system, mysql-5.5, lightdm, obfsproxy, sssd, tlsdate, tor, torbrowser-launcher, vidalia. In order to confine other applications, like evince, irssi, ntpd, pidgin, totem or tcpdump, one can install the apparmor-profiles-extra package. All those profiles work very well in a Debian Wheezy environment or higher, from my own experience. (Only the torbrowser-launcher profile needs to be fixed in wheezy-backports, but works well in Jessie or higher I m working on it.) If you want to confine other applications and found a profile which you want to use on your system, you can copy that profile into /etc/apparmor.d/ and then run
aa-enforce /etc/apparmor.d/myprofile
And that s pretty much it!

17 January 2015

Ulrike Uhlig: Updating a profile in Debian s apparmor-profiles-extra package

I have gotten my first patch to the Pidgin AppArmor profile accepted upstream. One of my mentors thus suggested that I d patch the updated profile in the Debian package myself. This is fairly easy and requires simply that one knows how to use Git. If you want to get write access to the apparmor-profiles-extra package in Debian, you first need to request access to the Collaborative Maintenance Alioth project, collab-maint in short. This also requires setting up an account on Alioth. Once all is set up, one can export the apparmor-profiles-extra Git repository.
If you simply want to submit a patch, it s sufficient to clone this repository anonymously.
Otherwise, one should use the auth parameter with debcheckout . The debcheckout command is part of the devscripts package:
debcheckout --auth apparmor-profiles-extra
Go into the apparmor-profiles-extra folder and create a new working branch:
git branch workingtitle
git checkout workingtitle
Get the latest version of profiles from upstream. In profiles , one can edit the profiles. Test. The debian/README.Debian file should be edited: add what relevant changes one just imported from upstream. Then, one could either push the branch to collab-maint:
git commit -a
git push origin workingtitle
or simply submit a patch to the Debian Bug Tracking System against the apparmor-profiles-extra package. The Debian AppArmor packaging team mailing list will receive a notification of this commit. This way, commits can be peer reviewed and merged by the team.