Wednesday, October 14, 2015

What it Means to have a Culture of Consent at Contra Dances

I am terrified to write this post. I'm terrified that my friends will hear that a dance committee took action against me and assume that it was justified. I'm terrified that people I respect will misunderstand what I'm about to say and think that I'm an enemy to causes I care about. A large part of me wants to stay silent and hope that the situation will take care of itself.

And yet I must write this. There's already a heated debate going on in my local community, and most of the participants don't know what the topic of the debate is. All of those dancers deserve to know what's happening, and to make an informed decision about how their dance operates. Meanwhile, the larger contra dance community is trying to figure out how to promote consent-based culture and create safe spaces at dances, and this data point is too important an example of that process going wrong for me to stay quiet. So I have to accept my role as the center of controversy and try to make this conversation as constructive as possible for everyone involved.

Last week, I was permanently banned from the Mt. Airy contra dance. The board that runs that dance did not give me details about the complaints the decision was based on, did not give me a chance to respond to them before coming to a decision, and most importantly, did not articulate any policies I had violated. In fact, a couple months earlier, the same board alerted me that there had been complaints, but that the board had found them categorically unactionable: none of the complaints alleged violations of consent or unsafe dancing. Rather, they were complaints about my personal life.

I want to clarify my goal in writing this before I continue. I think that creating safe, consent-driven spaces at contra dances is important. I think that boards should investigate every complaint, and should be willing to hear complaints anonymously. I think that everyone, including popular or influential dancers, should be subject to the code of conduct a dance community establishes. I don't want to pressure the Mt. Airy board into making public details of complaints they received in confidence.

I do want to make the information I have about this situation public, so that local dancers know the process being used by their board. I hope anyone else reading this will feel more equipped to have discussions in their own communities about consent, misconduct, and the implications of ostracization. To that end, I am going to include complete copies of emails between myself and the Mt. Airy board, with names redacted. None of these emails reveal private information that is not my own, and I believe this is the only way to enable an informed discussion.

I think the decision of the Mt. Airy board is wrong, but my real focus is not on their faults. The board is earnestly trying to respond to and respect the needs of its community, and I am hopeful that they will soon take a step back and recognize on their own that this action was counter-productive. Rather, my focus is on the much more dangerous underlying trend – that broad confusion about the goal of consent-based culture will lead to shifting harm instead of eliminating it. This is part of the conversation we've all started on creating safe spaces.

The Correspondence 

In June, I was alerted by the Mt. Airy board that a complaint had come to them, second-hand, about a young woman who no longer attended dances because of me. They arranged to talk to me in person about it, and asked me not to call until the investigation was concluded (but that I was still welcome to dance). I was frustrated by some of the process, but understood how difficult it was to respond adequately to complaints, being on two other regional dance boards myself.

In July, following the in-person conversation, the following email exchange took place:

Hi xxxx, 
I was wondering if the Mt. Airy board has had a chance to discuss the complaint against me. It's now been a month, and if the board is not planning on any kind of penalty (which I hope is the case after speaking to me), it would be nice to have the option of calling dances again. 
Please let me know. 
Hi Bryan, 
I apologize that it has been so long since you've heard from us.  We meant to contact you sooner.  We finally came to a decision late last week.  Another email to follow shortly!

-xxxx :)
Dear Bryan,

The investigation and discussion surrounding this complaint disclosed some extremely unsettling patterns which have clearly resulted in several young ladies no longer participating at our dances. We have grave concerns related to the nature and consistency of the stories in which you were specifically referenced. While they were not directly related to the formal complaint, several board members have direct knowledge of cases where young ladies have been persistently booked ahead, and serially engaged for very intense waltzes or danced with in a style that is more appropriate to Blues dancing -- until they fall out of favor. Once the initial enthrallment passed, these young women no longer felt comfortable dancing with you or sometimes even in your proximity. 
That said, you will be relieved to know that after our review of the reported problem, we do not find it actionable. You continue to be welcome as a member of the dance community, and may resume calling activities at PATMaD events. 
The behavior attributed to you is not illegal or currently prohibited, but it is resulting in significant distress for some of the young women involved.  It is damaging to the community when they choose not to return because they no longer enjoy your close attention. 
The PATMaD board are not moral police, and we recognize that contra dancing is a social activity where people meet, and relationships go where they go. By all accounts, there was no non-consensual sexual behavior. But the damage lies in what is perceived as a disregard for the emotional well being of the junior participants, and their subsequent choice to no longer dance where they do not feel comfortable. These young women talk to one another, and part of the reason they enjoy dancing is to be with their friends. When one or more decides she is no longer comfortable in the community, then we lose her circle of friends as well.  As you are aware, the vitality of the contra community depends on active participation by young dancers.  if there are not friendly peers at the dance, young people are much less likely to return. 
Callers, Organizers or volunteers, we are all stewards of the PATMaD community and that requires that we conduct ourselves at events in a way which supports and builds our community. To the extent that you continue to call at PATMaD events, and hold a position of authority within our group, we expect you to treat all dancers in such a way as to honor them as people and encourage their enjoyment of dance and inclusion in the community. We strongly encourage you to reconsider how your behavior might be perceived by other dancers. Dance flirtation should be a matter of friendly play, not single minded pursuit; Please do not overwhelm the young ladies with intense attention such that they are made uncomfortable or to feel preyed upon. 
The PATMaD Board
Hi xxxx, 
Thanks. It's good to have some kind of resolution, and the larger feedback is legitimate. It's tempting to be defensive or nitpick, but the truth is I do want to be a positive influence in the community as a whole, and it has been a process to fully appreciate how much all my actions affect others, even outside of dances. I want to be receptive to feedback and for you guys to feel comfortable bringing issues like this up. 
I know I was frustrated by the length of time involved here, but I do appreciate that this was a hard thing for you to broach. Thanks for caring as much as you do. 

I was disturbed by some of the language in the board's response, but the core idea made sense - informally alerting me to feedback was appropriate, but formally taking action wasn't appropriate when the feedback was about my personal relationships. I also do recognize that it's difficult for the board to say anything about my personal life that doesn't sound awkward or paternalistic, and that they were trying in earnest to be balanced and sensitive.

Still, the email contained a very stereotypical gender narrative that the board didn't seem interested in questioning. Phrases like "until they fall out of favor" created a strange message. Was the implication that once I waltzed with a particular dancer, I should feel obligated to continue waltzing with them at future dances?

Shortly thereafter, the Princeton dance committee, which I was part of at the time, received the same complaint. Their process proved even more frustrating than that of Mt. Airy, especially since I thought the matter was already resolved, but I don't want to get side-tracked by the comparison. Eventually, both complaints were resolved, and I was still welcome to participate in both dances. A couple months later, however, I found that it was difficult for me to shake off the stress of being accused of wrongdoing, or the problematic tone of the two committees' approaches, and actually enjoy local dances.

In late September, I sent this message to a member of the Mt. Airy board:

Hi xxxx, 
Hope you're well (and ready for YDW!). You might have noticed during the last dance tonight (when we were shadows) that I was pretty distracted, and I thought it might be a good time to bring this up. Something triggered me to think about the investigations by Mt. Airy and Princeton a couple months ago, and I ended up unable to concentrate on the dance for much of the night. 
I expected that after the Mt. Airy board decided that nothing actionable had happened and a little time had passed contra dances would feel normal again. I don't know if it's because of the investigation restarting with the Princeton dance, or something else, but the truth is that nearly half of the dances I come to now, I end up thinking about the accusations, and start questioning how welcome I am at dances, and once the thought crosses my mind, it becomes difficult to relax and enjoy the dance for the rest of the night. 
To be clear, you and most of the Mt. Airy board have been friendly and gracious recently, and I know that you all tried your hardest to be sensitive about the matter, and I really do appreciate it. That said, the more time has passed the more problematic I think a number of the comments of the board were, and the harder it is to shake them off and feel totally comfortable at dances. 
I have not called at Mt. Airy since this issue first arose, even though I'm theoretically welcome to. The fact that both Mt. Airy and Princeton cited my calling as a reason to scrutinize me more harshly has left me feeling uncomfortable calling at either dance. I have in fact stopped attending Princeton dances entirely because I was so offended by their handling of the matter (which was much less graceful than Mt. Airy's). 
The reason that I have consistently danced contra, every week, when there have always been more hip and cool activities available to me, is because there is a rare sense of community that can emerge from dances, where people odd in a hundred different ways can all feel accepted for who they are. The ability to let go of the stress and expectations of the outside world and respond directly to music has been a powerfully healing thing in my life. For me, responding directly to music often looks really flirty, which is something that surprised me when I started dancing, since I'd been extremely introverted most of my life, but it was an honest expression of music and motion, and discovering that within myself transformed me.  
Tonight, when I started questioning how welcome I was at this dance, I felt a suddenly sharp sense of loss of the kind of community and safe space that brings me back to contra, and I nearly broke into tears in the middle of the dance. 
I don't have anything specific to ask from you, and I don't know what I can or should do about this. I'm not even sure if I'm contacting you as a member of the board or just as a friend, but I needed to talk to someone, and I hope you get something from knowing what my experience is like. I hope I'm able to figure this out and feel comfortable being a member of the local contra community. 
Sorry this is so long and heavy. Once again, you and the community overall are very welcoming, and I'm glad that I've been part of it. Thanks for hearing me out. 

I didn't get any response before or during YDW, and danced amicably with this person (and other members of the Mt. Airy board) at that weekend. Then, October 6th, during a meeting of the Contradelphia board, I received this email:

Dear Bryan, 
Since our last correspondence, we have received additional complaints and we have had to reevaluate our stance on the situation previously discussed. 
These complaints, comprising further incidents very similar to the original complaint against you were conveyed to us from different individuals.  These dancers felt they had to remove themselves from the PATMaD community (and other regional dances).  They explicitly referenced unpleasant feelings toward you and not wanting to be in the same place with you, due to your emotional and physical manipulation of them, as their reason not to return. 
Beyond the original specific complaint, we have had additional input in the form of direct personal testimonials, multiple second hand reports, and observation of your behavior at our events.  We are basing our decision on those specific behaviors and complaints.  Now that we are more fully aware of the scope and severity of the situation and your involvement, we will not allow this behavior to be conducted in our community. 
After much discovery and deliberation the PATMaD board have decided that, effective immediately, you are no longer welcome to participate in PATMaD at an organizational level or to attend our events.  This includes but is not limited to  Thursday Night Contra, ContraCopia, Medley Marathon, Techno dances, and New Year's Eve.  This is the recourse we are going to take at this time.   
PATMaD's primary charge is to provide a safe and fun place to dance for all individuals. Our obligation is to protect the well being of the members of our community.    
If you would like to respond, representatives of the board will be available to speak to you.  
PATMaD will keep all matters regarding this decision confidential.  It's on you to decline any invitation received from the coordinating callers. 
PATMaD Board
[names of board members]

I spent the rest of that meeting trying not to meet anyone's eyes, and feigning interest in the discussion. Afterward a couple of my housemates noticed I was unresponsive, and I eventually told them what had happened. They spent the rest of the night trying to comfort and distract me. The next day a housemate and a partner took me to a concert and then came home, held me, and let me cry. That Thursday, when I would have gone to the Mt. Airy dance, I stayed in with a partner, watched Blades of Glory, and ate ice cream.

I felt that the only option available to me was to turn my back on the entire contra dance community. I felt like I had been betrayed, judged, and rejected. I didn't want to organize anymore. I didn't want to join in conversations about how to merge modern and traditional culture, or how to think about gender roles in dancing. I just wanted to be left alone.

A few days later I started getting contacted by friends, acquaintances, and even old lovers who heard what had happened to me, or heard that something had happened and figured out that it was me. They were overwhelmingly supportive, and most expressed outrage about the decision. Eventually, I pulled myself together enough to respond to the board:

Dear Friends, 
I decided to take a few days before responding to this letter, because I needed time to process, because I was too hurt to trust myself to word it properly, and because I needed to decide whether it was worth the pain to even try to fight this action. I have taken that time, and I have decided that this community does matter to me, and that this decision is too important and too dangerous to accept silently. There are many things I have to say, so I will try to be as organized and clear as possible. 
As an individual, I am utterly shocked and heartbroken. I know every single person on this board, and think of many of you as friends. Your readiness to accept negative stories about me at face value, judge complex emotional situations from my past without speaking to me about them, and ban me without articulating any actual misconduct is among the most hurtful things to happen in my life thus far. Perhaps what makes this even harsher is that I just reached out to xxxx a week beforehand to talk about my own discomfort at the dance, and my concerns about some of the board's language. I expected a dialogue and hoped for some reassurance. Instead I received a wall of willful ignorance of the problems I was trying to raise. 
What's more, as a fellow dance organizer, I am deeply disturbed by the precedent the Mt. Airy board is setting. The board has established that it can permanently ban dancers without giving them any specifics about the accusations against them, without giving them a chance to respond, and without articulating any policies they have violated. What's more, this same board formally decided just a few months ago that none of the complaints they had heard were actionable, noting that there were no claims of non-consensual or unsafe behavior, and that the board were not “moral police.” Now the board has made a 180 degree turn on that supposedly final decision, a few months later, without a formal change in policies, a warning, or a real explanation. Would any dancer feel comfortable at a dance knowing that this is the same lack of process that they could be subject to? 
It is difficult for me to respond to the specific complaints, to say the least, because I have no idea what specifically has been said, who it was said by, who it was said about, or when the incidents are supposed to have happened. Some facts, however, seem fairly clear from the language of this letter, the July letter, and related conversations, and I can speak about what I do understand.  
I understand that the complaints are about my personal relationships, and about people, mostly young women, mostly from 3-4 years ago, who felt rejected, disappointed, or otherwise hurt. They were hurt that I did not want to date them, or that I did date them and the relationship didn't work, or just that I stopped dancing with them as frequently. The background facts about me – that I'm a flirty dancer, that I tend to get a lot of attention from people of all genders, that I am male, and that I am poly – all make the narrative that I am heartless seducer that much easier to believe. 
The obvious reality that is being avoided, however, is that I am a human being. The person the board has taken action against is a dehumanized caricature of myself. The real me has been hurt, rejected, disappointed, and even harassed and physically abused by other dancers, just as often as I have disappointed anyone else. I have come to dances where I feel uncomfortable because of the presence of dancers who I have had difficult interactions with outside of the dance. And yet I come back. For me the dance floor is a separate, and sacred, space. Dance is a way to heal. Dance is a way to build community among people who would otherwise be too different or too individually awkward to come together. I, too, have to accept the full range of emotions I feel and come to peace with them in order to be part of a community made up of sometimes thorny, sometimes lovely humans. 
Every single interaction between myself and other dancers is complex and subtle, and it simply isn't possible for anyone hearing one side of a personal story to make a moral judgment about it, unless the story indicates a clear violation of someone's rights. I don't know who has contacted the board, or what they said about me, but it's fair to assume that every single story would sound different coming from me. Some of the stories might be downright false, exaggerated, or twisted about, and there is no way for me to know. 
In fact, I have very good reason to believe that some of the reports to you are exaggerated, even without knowing the details. I brought to the board's attention back in June that a particular young woman was intentionally trying to harm my reputation in my social circles. This person called my girlfriend in January, out of the blue, to tell her not to date me because of how manipulative a person I was. When I confronted this young woman, she admitted that she'd had a positive impression of me just a few months earlier, but had changed her mind after hearing stories from someone else who was once a good friend of mine but who I hadn't seen in months. When I in turn confronted this one-time friend, it again became apparent that the stories they had told were second-hand or pure conjecture. 
Gossip breeds gossip, and I have been the subject of speculation and wild stories for as long as I've been dancing. I know that many young people in particular have felt social pressure to join in and contribute to a group narrative about me that was appealing because it conformed to their gender expectations and because it knocked a very popular dancer down a social peg. I know that some young women even built up these stories with the specific goal of discouraging others from dating me, either out of resentment or competition. I have historically ignored gossip entirely, and only addressed it with close friends or lovers who had a genuine interest in knowing about my personal life.  
There's something else about the stories here that should have triggered some scrutiny. As I understand it, there were a variety of unsolicited reports that came to the board that led to the recent decision. Doesn't it seem strange, however, that a large number of reports concerning stories from years ago would all come to the board at once, during a confidential investigation? The board did not reach out and ask for these stories, and hardly anyone knew that the board was looking into the matter. These are not organic complaints, but coordinated ones. Doesn't that necessarily mean that a particular person who became aware of the board's interest has been orchestrating the response? It's disturbing to imagine that some vindictive person is trying (and succeeding) to use the Mt. Airy board as a personal tool to harm someone from their past that they resent. 
All of that said, I do admit that I have had complicated interactions with some dancers, and I do believe that there are dancers who feel awkward around me. I have never violated anyone's consent, danced or behaved in an unsafe manner, lied to anyone, or intentionally hurt anyone's feelings. That said, I did realize several years ago that some people had been hurt anyway, and that merely failing to do anything “wrong” wasn't good enough. I became more introspective about the total affect that I had on the communities around me, and realized that I had become a role model, for better and for worse, and that I had more influence than I ever asked for or expected.  
At a Princeton dance two years ago I addressed the community about my own desire to make the culture more welcoming, and vowed to stop booking ahead aggressively, to make marginalized dancers feel included, and to give other dancers the opportunity to ask me to dance rather than immediately initiating after each dance. I started calling more actively, and used that role to think about and start conversations about gender roles, and how to make young dancers feel safe. I insisted at Princeton on a more comprehensive policy about consent, and my own frustration with the slow pace at which regional dances were modernizing motivated me to start my own dance series in Philadelphia, which uses gender-neutral calling, is accessible and welcoming to young dancers, and addresses consent explicitly in beginner's lessons. I also had a shift in my personal life, and found myself in more stable relationships, and with a more explicit sexual identity I felt comfortable with. 
The implication that I am actively causing more harm than good to the local contra community is simply false. You don't have to agree with my own thoughts about gender-neutral calling or other ways to modernize contra to recognize that I am actively part of conversations about the future of this tradition, about creating safe spaces, and about the importance of a culture of consent. I want to cooperate with the Mt. Airy board in figuring out how to improve contra dance culture, not fight with you about it. 
Indeed, there is something unsettling and culturally regressive about the underlying message in this recent action. The previous email from the board about reports noted that many young women experienced an “initial enthrallment” to dance waltzes with me each week, “until they fall out of favor.” If the basis of action against me is merely disappointment that consensual behavior with me, including waltzes, “blues-y” swings, and dating, did not go as far as a female partner of mine wanted, then the implication is that I, myself, do not have a basic right of consent. My own ability to decide exactly how intimate to be with other people is being judged less important than the immediate desires of women around me. Once again, the assumption that consent is not a pressing concern for me, as a man, is dehumanizing. If the genders were reversed in this narrative, it would probably seem obvious that punishing a woman for failing to give a group of aggressive men what they want is sexist and repulsive. I am not particularly blaming you for failing to recognize the heavily gender-enforcing tone of your message, because it's a common issue, but I am asking you to take a step back and earnestly think about this. 
I could continue, but I think I'll just make one final point. I don't think it is appropriate for this conversation to remain confidential anymore. So far I have only told a few close friends, but many people have already become aware of the situation and have contacted me to express their support and outrage. I think that this action is too extreme and problematic to stay silent on. The community has a right to know what kind of precedent the board is setting, and to know why a prominent member of the community is suddenly absent. I am inclined to bring this conversation to an even broader audience, in fact, because the entire national contra community is trying to figure out what it means to create a culture of consent, and this decision is too important a data point about such efforts going wrong to ignore. This process won't be easy for me, but like I said at the beginning of this message, this is too important for me to leave alone. Knowing how many people are already upset about it, I feel I have an obligation to step forward and speak out, and plan to do so in some form soon. 
My goal here is not to make you out as villains. I really do respect you all, and I believe that you are all earnestly trying to do the right thing. I can only assume that this situation has been overwhelming for most of you, and that you haven't been able to think through the full meaning of this action. I imagine most of you volunteered for the board expecting mainly to help set up dances, book bands, and do the day-to-day tasks needed to keep a dance running. You probably didn't realize you had signed up to be in the middle of a dramatic conversation about the nature of consent. 
I am writing this long and detailed of a message to you because deep down I still believe that you're all good people, and that you will want to hear what I have to say and take a second look at your own assumptions and decisions. I am going to be a continuing presence in the Philadelphia contra scene whether or not I am welcome at the events you organize, and I want us to be able to have an open dialogue. I want you all to feel welcome at events I organize, and I want you to recognize that at the end of the day we all want the same thing. 
I have some very fond memories of the Glenside dance, and of the new Mt. Airy dance. I hope that you will be able to remember me fondly, as well. I also hope that you will be prepared to talk to me further in the near future. 
Bryan Suchenski
Hello Bryan,

Thank you for this thoughtful communication.  I'm writing at this point mostly to acknowledge receipt, and will not specifically address the content of your message.  That will have to wait until the "Troublesome Behavior" committee can meet.  The President and another member of that committee are traveling for the next two weeks.  Presumably it will be at least that long before a proper response can be formulated.

The timing of your note to xxxx was unfortunate, as the PATMaD letter to you had already been written and approved at that point.  The points you raised were discussed, but did not change the board's decision.  We assumed there would be further discussion, and are prepared to have that conversation.   
A very active facebook thread notwithstanding, the board will not make any public statement about the details of this issue.  Within the limits of confidentiality we will discuss them with you personally. 
In an effort to minimize inbox clutter and fracturing of the thread, I'm dropping the rest of the board from the "to" list, but will bcc them on my reply.  I will update them on any ongoing communication.  Feel free to copy everyone if this is not satisfactory.
I appreciated the response, but knowing how active this topic is now, I couldn't wait several weeks to have a private conversation before writing something.

The Goal: Are We Really Interested in Consent?

There seems to be consensus that the boards in charge of contra dances should be doing more - but more of what? If board action is haphazard or reactionary then it's not likely to move contra culture in a productive direction. Step one is figuring out what qualifies as a productive direction.

Is the goal to maximize the number of people who are happy at a dance? Is it to avoid offending anyone? Is it to make the dance a safe space where consent is respected? The problem is that those are different goals, and they cannot always be equally emphasized. For example, when a new dancer comes to a dance scene for the very first time, they may hear either of the following sentences: (1) "You can always say no to a dance, for any reason or for no reason at all," or (2) "It is polite to always accept invitations to dance, and if you do say no to one person, you should sit that dance out." I have heard both of these sentences told to new dancers, and they are fundamentally incompatible.

As communities we make similar decisions about what it means to be inclusive and tolerant. There are people who are uncomfortable seeing men in skirts or apparent men dancing with each other, and they have come to contra dances. We can't make such a person perfectly comfortable and also expect dancers to respect the gender identities and orientations of other dancers. We have to make decisions about our values. Of course most of the time we hope that as many dancers as possible will be comfortable and that all will have their identities respected, but when there is a conflict, one goal has to give.

I believe that the most critical values for a dance community should be consent and safety. Notably, when I say consent, I'm not just talking about sex - consent happens every step along the way of a dance. Every time one dancer asks another to dance, consent is needed. Every time one dancer initiates a flourish, consent is needed. It doesn't have to be verbal, but it has to be enthusiastic, or else the flourish should stop.

The right of people to say "no" to things that make them uncomfortable is necessary for creating a safe space. The other necessity is assurance that people won't be harassed and won't be targeted, excluded, or judged because of their identity, their skill level, or other features that are inherently personal. They can be excluded for their actions, when those violate the consent or safety of others.

Other goals can and should be promoted, but should never override these two. I support intergenerational dancing, for instance, but would never insist that a dancer meet a quota of partners from different age ranges.

As I said in my response to the board, being punished for rejecting the desires of other dancers is itself a way of denying me the right to consent, and the frustration experienced by those rejected dancers is not an equal or greater harm. This isn't just rhetoric. I have had a woman explicitly threaten to hurt my reputation in the community if I refused to date her. I'm not suggesting that the same person is one of those who complained to the board, but that the threat was live, and that the action of the Mt. Airy board gives that kind of threat teeth.

I want to clarify, again, that I'm not accusing anyone who complained against me of lying, nor am I trying to deny their experience. If someone were going to intentionally lie, I assume they would accuse me of a more clear violation of some sort. What I'm talking about is the framing of the issue. Being emotionally hurt is awful, but if a dance committee starts acting on personal issues that can't be traced to misconduct at or around dances, they will necessarily be abandoning other more critical principles, and start down a murky road into the private lives of their dancers.

What Does Good Committee Action Look Like?

I want this controversy, and this post, to ultimately be productive if at all possible, so I will outline the kind of committee action that I do think would be valuable. These are just my own thoughts, but hopefully helpful to anyone struggling with this topic.

1. Make Explicit Policies, including a code of conduct. This is the single most important thing a committee can do, because it makes clear what kind of dance culture is being sought. It is the foundation of all other committee action. As I said before, a good code of conduct should have consent and safety as its cornerstones. Policies should focus on a specific dance community, and codes of conduct should only respond to behavior outside a dance that is fundamentally inconsistent with safety, such as violence or harassment.

2. Communicate Aggressively about those policies. That means more than just making them available on your website. A good committee will informally remind dancers of their policies frequently, and immediately if they think a policy has been ignored or violated. A really good committee will figure out how to organically work the language of their policies into the everyday language employed at the dance. Policies should be understood to be part of a positive goal of improving the dance, and are not only relevant when things go wrong.

3. Talk to Potential Problem Dancers early and often. Most dance committees wait until there is a critical mass of negative feedback or a particularly egregious violation before taking any action at all, and then are driven to extreme action. If you instead make the expectations of your community clear and consistent, it gives dancers an opportunity to reform and join the cultural shift. Meanwhile those true problem dancers who will never reform will leave on their own if they know that the culture will not accept their conduct.

4. Take Feedback from anyone and everyone who has it to offer, anonymously or sourced. However, weigh the feedback you receive. If feedback is surprising, actively look for the other perspective. If feedback is second-hand, recognize that your ability to respond to it is more limited. Make sure that the community as a whole has a chance to understand and provide feedback to any actions the committee is taking.

5. Cite Specific Misconduct if you do have to take action, and always give an accused person an opportunity to respond or conform. If you cannot give a dancer sufficient detail about a complaint for them to meaningfully respond, you haven't established the basis for action. If you cannot articulate what a dancer should have done differently, you aren't shifting the culture in any direction, except toward stress.

6. Mean it. If your committee comes to a final decision on a particular case, stick to it. If your committee decides on a particular policy, stick to that policy until you've enacted and notified the community of a change. If a committee appears unpredictable, it will create instability in the community and undermine whatever kind of good they are trying to promote.

If you've made it this far, thank you for caring as much as you do, however you feel about the situation I've described. As I said, I'm hopeful that the situation at Mt. Airy will take a turn towards reason soon, and that in the long run, the drama will help push multiple communities toward constructive policies and healthy dance environments.

-Bryan Suchenski

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Why I started calling "Lead" and "Follow" for contras

Apparently there's been a recent explosion of conversation among contra callers about what terminology to use when calling, and an online poll on the topic. I haven't read all of the conversation yet myself, but I just helped launch a new dance series in Philly using the terms "lead" and "follow," and a number of people have asked why I made that decision. I thought it would be helpful to explain some of my thinking.

Before I begin, I should note that the decision wasn't made in a vacuum - my housemates Patrick and Shane suggested it, and we had several conversations about it before our first dance. This post, however, is about my own personal reasoning. Also, this gets kind of academic, so if you want the short version it's this:

(1) When starting a new dance, we had a rare opportunity to start our terminology from scratch without confusing new dancers or having to overcome the standard usage of the series, so we went for it. We didn't make an announcement about it or call the dance "gender free," we just did it.

(2) "Lead" and "Follow" are at least somewhat descriptive of the roles, easy for me to remember as a caller, and intuitive to many dancers (especially those who dance other styles).

The long version follows.

Goals of Word Choice

There are a slew of different goals that callers have in mind when choosing which words to use. We want to communicate clearly and concisely. We want to make all dancers feel included, whatever their background or experience level. We want the calls to contribute to the atmosphere and make the dance fun. We also want to connect this dance to a greater tradition and larger community of folk musicians and dancers. We're performers, but also teachers and representatives of the community.

The use of gender-prescriptive language can make some dancers feel less welcome, but can also affect the overall atmosphere of a dance. On the other hand, many callers feel that they are able to most effectively communicate and connect to the tradition of the dance by using the language of gender.

I don't think that these various goals are necessarily competing with each other, but they all need to be considered.

Prescription and Translation

So this brings us to my first main point, which may surprise some people - I don't think that using the terms "gent" and "lady" is problematic on its own. There are two different roles in contra dancing, and noting that one is the traditional "gents' role" and the other is the traditional "lady's role" doesn't enforce gender as long as it's clear that each role can in fact by danced by anyone. The word "gent" just becomes a code word for one of a roles, rather than prescribing who should dance the role. The dancers can translate the term "gent" in their head to mean "the person who ends swings on the left" or some other equivalent description.

That said, I find the calling habits of many or most callers problematic, because that isn't the end of the influence of gender on their language. Many callers will use the words "gents," "men," and even "boys" interchangeably, and use "he" and "she" to describe individual hypothetical dancers dancing the roles. They will make coy references to the assumed gender of the dancers by saying things like "women are always right" or "I emphasize the 'gentle' in 'gentlemen'" or even "the women go to the center and the men start salivating."

When we talk about the atmosphere of the dance and making dancers feel welcome, this is what we're really concerned about - language that prescribes a gender (and gender-specific behavior) for a dance role. I would strongly encourage callers who use any terminology for the roles to think about the impact of all the language they use when teaching and calling. The choice of terminology is neither the only nor the most important choice made by a caller when it comes to making dancers feel welcome and comfortable.

That all said, the use of gender-neutral calling terms, all else being equal, seems like an advantage on its own. If I think of the terms "gents" and "ladies" as just code words for the roles, why not pick code words that lack a gender association? Or what if we could just skip the translation step altogether?

"Lead or Follow?"

So assuming we're going to use gender-neutral terms of some kind, the next question is: which ones? There are a lot of options that have been proposed, such as "elms and maples," or "jets and rubies." There are dances that distinguish on the basis of who wears an arm band. The basic reason I didn't want to use any of these is that they seem too arbitrary.

"But Bryan, weren't arbitrary terms the point? We're trying to eliminate the gender associations of the traditional terms!" Fair point, straw-person, but remember what I said about translating code-words above? If the term has no relationship to the role at all, then what happens in dancer's heads is that they translate "jet" into "gent" (and then into something more descriptive, like "person typically on the left"), and the terminology starts to feel like an exercise in covering up gender associations, rather than a means of eliminating them.

So like I said before, why not skip the translation step altogether? When I started thinking about gender neutral terms, there was one point that kept resurfacing in my head: No matter what terms were being used by the caller, if I wanted to ask another dancer which role they preferred, every time, at every dance, I would use these words: "Lead or follow?" I think most others who dance both roles in contra ask the same question. The same words appeared on the first generation of "I dance both roles" buttons worn by many dancers.

The more I thought about it, the more I knew, in my heart of hearts, that the roles in contra dancing are "lead" and "follow," and that every other term used by callers is a translation. It's true that compared to most other social dances, the roles are more equal, and that many moves don't require a "lead" because they are choreographed and performed autonomously. However, the distinction between the roles, aside from happenstance starting positions, comes out when executing flourishes, which are typically initiated by the person in the gent/elm/left-default role. That's called a lead.

There is no inherent gender association of the terms "lead" and "follow", and there's nothing demeaning about dancing the "follow" role (it's a real skill to be able to listen to another dancer's movements). I understand that some dancers specifically appreciate the relative equality of the roles in contra (I do, too), and want to distinguish the relationship of the roles in contra from the roles in couple dances such as swing or blues. By the same token, however, using the terms "lead" and "follow" in contra makes the dance more intuitive to those with couple-dancing experience. In Philadelphia, many of the young dancers who are interested in contra are also blues dancers, and to them it would seem strange for us to use any terms other than "lead" and "follow." Many of these same dancers dance both roles in blues.

I am aware of arguments against the use of "lead" and "follow" in contra, and to play devil's advocate I tried to raise these arguments when discussing terminology with my fellow organizers. In the process of trying to make the point, the arguments all felt forced coming out of my mouth. So I decided to give "lead" and "follow" a shot.

The Result

This is the most important point, in my mind: using the terms "lead" and "follow" just worked. In our first dance, new dancers and experienced dancers all picked the terms up and danced without apparent confusion. As a caller, once I got used to it, the terms felt totally natural. The thing that really surprised me is that aside from one or two people saying "Hey, I appreciate the gender-neutral calling," we didn't even get feedback about it. There wasn't a big debate. There wasn't a divide between the progressive and conservative dancers. Everyone just danced.

Many of the considerations above will vary from community to community. There are reasons why our dance in Center City Philadelphia was able to use the terms so smoothly, and anyone else having this discussion about their own dance series needs to consider their local culture. As far as Contradelphia is concerned, though, we are sticking with "lead" and "follow," and perfectly content with it.

-Bryan Suchenski

Monday, January 19, 2015

Contradelphia! And New Dances!

Time for an update in the life of Bryan-the-Caller. I've been calling more and more frequently, and just over a week ago my housemates and I launched a brand new dance series in downtown Philadelphia called Contradelphia, which was a success by every measure: there were 80+ dancers at our very first event and lots of energy in the hall, and the new dancers all seemed to get along fine and stay the whole evening.

One thing that was interesting for me as the caller was our decision as a group to use gender-neutral calling. Traditionally, contra dances are called with a "gents" role and "ladies" role, but anyone can dance either role. Given the fact that not all gents-role-dancers are men, a lot of people in the community have discussed using gender-neutral terms, and for Contradelphia I went with "lead" and "follow," because those are the most common terms in other forms of social dancing. What ultimately surprised me was how easily the dancers accepted the new terms. I took Shane's advice and made no announcement about the terminology - I just started using the terms in the beginner's workshop as though they were standard, and then started calling that way when the dance began. I made it easier on myself by selecting dances early on that had very few gender-specific moves, so that most of the time I could rely on familiar terms like "neighbor" and "partner," and let myself ease into the words "lead" and "follow" over the course of the night.

Another thing that was interesting for me was calling a relatively new dance I'd written in an audience made up largely of new dancers. Once again, it went more smoothly than I expected, and I have heard that a couple other callers have called my most recent dance, so I figure there's enough interest for me to post the choreography up here:

Winter is Coming, by Bryan Suchenski

A1. Balance the ring, Gents roll neighbor away across the set*
     Balance the ring, Gents roll partner away along set
A2. Balance the ring, Gents draw neighbor to their side and swing

B1. Ladies chain across to Partner
     Promenade across the set and loop counter-clockwise to face new neighbors**
B2. Ladies gypsy R
     Partner swing

*At Contradelphia I called this as "Leads roll your neighbor away across," but I trust the reader to translate terms as appropriate for their calling situation.
**This is the same progression as in Sharks in the Pond. I usually pause after the chain and ask dancers to look on their left diagonal to identify their next neighbor before doing the promenade-loop. The loop is to each dancer's left, but on at least one occasion dancers growled at me when I told them to "loop left," so now I say "counter-clockwise." This progression ends the dancers one space to the right of where they started, along the set (hence, it's a rightward-progressing becket).

The name of the dance, of course, is a reference to Game of Thrones, and at least one person I encountered responded to the name, quite adorably, "I keep hearing people say that phrase, but it sounds so mean and ominous!" The original choreography for this dance I settled on six-months ago was much more complicated and included a promenade-into-revolving-doors progression. The concept there was to start with a dance that felt open and bouncy and gradually became intimate and partner-focused (the transition toward Winter, in my head). Some of that feeling was kept in the final version.

Meanwhile, prior to Contradelphia I had started thinking about gender-roles in contra dances by focusing on gender-specific moves, the most egregious of which is the ladies chain. Although there exists a move called the "gents chain," it is called very rarely because it begins with the opposite hand that the ladies chain does (the left-hand), and feels backward, which means that no one in the room knows how to do it properly and it feels awkward for 90% of the dancers. I decided it was silly to have a separate "gents chain" and "ladies chain," so I wrote two dances, in which two moves were separated from their gender roles, and renamed them the "left-hand chain" and "right-hand chain":

Ambidexterity, by Bryan Suchenski

A1. Long lines, roll away (gents in front of P)
     Ladies LH chain to N*
A2. Circle L 1/2 and N swing
B1. Ladies RH chain to P
     Pass through across, turn R and promenade single along set
B2. P gypsy and swing**

*This is the move often called "gents chain." It is identical to the typical ladies chain, except it begins by offering the left hand across to the other lady, and the courtesy turn ends with the lady on the left. For the courtesy turn, the rule remains: right hand to right hand, left to left, gents back up, ladies go forward. Let dancers practice the new chain a couple times.
**To face their partner, ladies should turn over their right shoulder to begin the gypsy on the side of the set across from their new neighbors.

Equivalent Exchange, by Bryan Suchenski
Becket (starts in lines/4)

A1. Down the hall, turn alone, back
A2. Gents RH chain to N*
Star L
B1. New N balance & swing
B2. Give and take to ladies side
P swing, end facing down

*The converse of Ambidexterity - here the gents are performing the move typically called the "ladies chain." It is identical to the ladies chain, in every way, except executed by gents, with the ladies courtesy-turning them. That means that gents end up on the right, and ladies on the left. Remind dancers not to "fix" this or they'll end up in the wrong place after the star!

Of the two, Equivalent Exchange is my preferred dance to call, both because it's easier for dancers to pick up and, in my mind, more directly confronts the typical role restrictions. I've called it at Pinewoods Camp and elsewhere, and any reasonably open-minded audience should have no difficulty with it.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

2048 and Marketing

Two things struck me about the latest game-nerd darling, 2048: the number of friends who have independently recommended it to me, and how quickly I got bored of it. Eventually I figured out why there's such a disparity in my reaction to the game and everyone else's, and I'll focus on that here because I think it's interesting. In a separate post I plan to talk about some of my own favorite mobile games of the last year.

First, to clear the air - 2048 is a good game. I like puzzles, I like simplicity, and I like numbers. I like the smooth and intuitive mechanics. I like the fact that the game has a set endpoint - a goal established from the beginning. Given all of this, I was surprised by the fact that the game only appealed to me for about 20-30 minutes before I got tired of it.

The reason 2048 failed to hold my interest is simply that I've played this game before, and I'm not talking about the fact that the game is a clone several times over. That's its own entire topic. I didn't play 1024 or Threes, but I have played the same category of puzzle game, starting with Triple Town a few years ago, and manifesting in other games like Puzzle Forge. You see, the big secret of 2048 is that at its heart, the game is not about numbers - it's about spatial planning. The novice player will focus on matches they see and try to build up mid-size numbers only to discover that these midsize numbers are too far apart to be effectively combined, and they quickly run out of space. In order to get the largest numbers, you need to plan ahead and make sure that your mid-sized numbers end up next to each other, so that you can combine them into the really big numbers.

With this kind of puzzle, the number theme is unnecessary. The key is that you have like tokens that combine into bigger (higher-value) tokens, and those bigger like tokens can combine, but only with each other, requiring exponentially more space to build each new token up the hierarchy. The size of the board then determines how far up this totem pole combination will become difficult for players, as the amount of space required for all the components of a big token outstrips the playing area. In Triple Town these tokens were bushes, that combined into trees and then into houses of various sizes, ultimately leading to a floating castle. In Puzzle Forge you combined metals into higher and higher quality smithing materials, and then could cash in your big tokens to produce items and sell them. You could just as easily have the tokens be single-celled organisms building into animals up an evolutionary chain, or coins combining into larger units of currency. The only requirement is that there is a clear sense of hierarchy, and that the game gives you limited space to work within.

So what makes this iteration of the spatial-planning puzzle game so much more popular than its predecessors? The answer is the marketing and virality. I don't mean that they spent a bunch of money on ads, but that design decisions, and specifically the decision to represent its tokens as powers of 2, enable the game to appeal to new audiences and be more sharable than its predecessors. Even though the game, according to me, isn't about numbers, the decision to theme it on numbers is brilliant for a few reasons.

First, the numbers make the hierarchy of tokens instantly intuitive, rather than requiring the player to learn that bushes make trees which make houses (which is totally arbitrary). This, combined with the simplicity of the confounding agent (the fact that new numbers appear randomly, rather than being placed, which serves the same chaos-inducing role that ninja bears did in Triple Town), means that the game's learning curve is so shallow that it needs no tutorial. You can literally hand your phone to a friend and just say "check out this game" and they will fairly quickly figure out how it is played (in fact, this is how the game was first introduced to me).

Second, the numbers theme makes the game extra appealing to math and science nerds, especially since powers of 2 are evocative of computer science (bits and bytes and all that jazz). The theme not only vindicates nerds, it gives the game an air of being pseudo-educational or at least more intellectual than a game that is visually about trees and ninja bears. The nerd appeal is particularly evidenced by an xkcd comic on the game (random side note: when plugging in that link I half-expected the comic's serial number in the url to itself be a good 2048 combination).

Third, and perhaps least importantly, the use of a number for the title of the game makes it appear at or near the top of an alphabetized list. This doesn't matter too much for people playing the flash game on their browser, but if you download the game on an Android device, you may notice that it will be the first item to appear when you press that "apps" button. Moreover, the title is a good one because it is easy to remember and communicates the game's goal.

Of course, much of the game's success is a matter of sheer luck (especially since it is a clone of other games that came out a month earlier to less fanfare), but luck only allows a game to get noticed - in order to sink in, it also needs the qualities that make it viral, and the difference in reception between Triple Town and 2048 is, in my mind, something to take note of. It is fair to reply to this entire post by noting differences in basic game mechanics between the two games, and there is an argument to be made that swiping the board is simply a more interesting mechanic than placing tokens. However, as someone who played Triple Town fairly thoroughly, I recognized the same area of my brain activated when planning in 2048. They are most certainly kindred spirits.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Can Companies Patent Human Genes?

Sometimes I write tech policy articles. This one is reposted from the Rutgers Institute for Information Policy and Law.

Can Companies Patent Human Genes? A Myriad of Problems with the Court's Answer

Last June was a busy time for the Supreme Court, and amidst a flurry of important decisions, it was easy to let opinions slide through the news cycle without a careful analysis. So when the Supreme Court announced its decision in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics (Myriad), unequivocal victory was declared for the public interest. The New York Times headline read “Justices, 9-0, Bar Patenting Human Genes” and the ACLU's blog nearly shouted, “VICTORY! Supreme Court Decides: Our Genes Belong to Us, Not Companies.”

One month later, Myriad, the same company that had lost its case before the Court, filed patent infringement suits against two smaller companies concerning the same genes that were the subject of the June decision. How is that possible? A closer reading of Myriad reveals a problematic opinion that simply fails to address the core issues at stake in the gene patent debate.

The Decision

What was this case about? Myriad Genetics owned patents on “isolated DNA molecule[s]”, including BRCA1 and BRCA2, which can indicate a predisposition to breast cancer. The company then built its business on offering an exclusive test on the isolated gene, and suing anyone else who attempted to offer breast cancer screenings based on the same gene. This resulted in both a heightened price for clinical tests, and a potential roadblock for other researchers, leading the Association for Molecular Pathology, several universities, and several patient advocacy groups to go to court in order to have the Myriad patents invalidated.

The case made its way up to the Supreme Court, which rendered a unanimous decision on June 13th, 2013. The Court invalidated Myriad's patents on isolated genes, on the basis of the fact that a DNA sequence found in humans “is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated.” However, there was a second variety of patent at issue in the case – patents on complementary DNA, or cDNA. A cDNA molecule is made by copying all of the protein-coding portions of a particular gene, and thus contains the same code as the naturally occurring gene, except that excess non-coding segments (called introns) have been removed. The Court held that cDNA, since it was prepared in a laboratory, could be patented.

This distinction drawn between cDNA and naturally-occuring DNA, or gDNA, is at the heart of the logic of the Court's opinion. What the opinion notably does not rest on is the competing interests of those who invest in patents and the public at large.

The Public Interest

There is a great deal of popular interest in the question of patentability of human genes. Patents on genes can make not only tests, but potential treatment options for many patients expensive or simply unavailable, while independent researchers may run into roadblocks in trying to progress knowledge because making any use of a patented molecule is an infringement of a patent owner's intellectual property rights. On a more basic emotional level, however, many individuals simply feel that it is wrong for a private company to “own” a DNA sequence that naturally occurs in human bodies.

At first glance, the Court's decision does seem like a victory for the public interest because it declares naturally occuring genes ineligible for patent protection. However, isolating a gene is only the first step in most clinical or research applications of gDNA, and the second step in many of these applications is to create a copy of the exons – cDNA. As a result, many important avenues of research that involve an isolated gene sequence are still blocked by cDNA patents. Even the narrow situation presented in the Myriad case, diagnostic tests of BRCA1/2 to assess a woman's risk of breast cancer, expose clinicians to potential lawsuits because of the surviving cDNA patents .

This is particularly troubling because as with gDNA, a company that patents a cDNA sequence does not invent the genetic sequence, which leads one to ask – what is the patent office incentivizing by granting such patents? The patentee does not have to discover a new specific new use for the cDNA sequence, nor a new method of creating it. The patent for a sequence can theoretically go to the first company that happens to produce cDNA in a lab even if the gene in question is already understood, and the patent, once granted, prevents any and all use of that genetic sequence in cDNA.

One response is to point out that the Supreme Court only ruled on subject matter eligibility – a patent on cDNA can still be denied by the USPTO for other reasons, namely lack of utility or obviousness. The utility requirement does place some barrier in the way of a research firm patenting huge swathes of DNA without rhyme or reason, but it is a small barrier, because the existence of any single known use for a particular gene allows a patent holder to monopolize all future uses, known and unknown (including uses that will be left undiscovered because of the effect the patent has on research).

The obviousness criterion could potentially be a very important tool for filtering out inappropriate patents, because the process of creating cDNA is “well understood,” to use the Court's language, and it should be a obvious step to anyone studying a particular gene. However, technically the patent act only invalidates a patent if it obvious relative to other patents or published discoveries and inventions (called “prior art,” see 35 USC 103). Even though human genes are “naturally occurring,” an invention based upon them is not obvious unless that gene has been described in a patent or publication, and since the Supreme Court just invalidated patents on isolated genes, it is now even less likely that any such publication will preempt future applications for patents on cDNA (though there are other ways to find a patent application on a gene obvious – see In re Kubin). In short, the patentability of cDNA provides research firms powerful patent tools nearly as extensive as they would have had if the Supreme Court came out differently in Myriad.

Patent Applicants

So if the above is all correct, should patent applicants be happy about the Myriad opinion? The answer is still no, because the Court's logic is far more broad than it admits. The distinction the Court relies upon, between substances that are “naturally occuring” and those that are not, buries a century-old line of cases that defined when “extracts” or “purified” forms of naturally-occurring substances can be patent-eligible, starting with Learned Hand's 1911 decision granting a patent on extracted adrenaline. Although the Court claimed that it's holding was limited to isolated genes, it's emphasis on “naturally-occurring” substances, if taken seriously, could entirely eliminate discovered compositions from patentability (in spite of the language of 35 USC 101, which provides that patents can be given to “anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter”).

The question of policy again rears its head. If the purpose of patent law is to incentivize new inventions and discoveries, then why does it matter that a discovered substance is naturally occurring if it has never been available to public previously? Perfectly good answers could be given to this question – perhaps the protection available from patents on particular uses of discovered substances are sufficient to incentivize discovery without unduly restricting public access to the substance. The Court, however, fails to even raise that question, and provides no reason to believe that the line between “naturally occurring” and artificial compositions is the line that actually promotes the most good.

The Point: Balance of Interests

The point is that the Court's opinion in Myriad attempts to address an important issue by reference to an irrelevant distinction. Even if the outcome – providing broader access to testing for breast cancer – seems good, in practice the Court has left the plaintiffs in nearly the same situation they were in before, and potentially confused the debate about the proper scope of eligibility for patents on genes by focusing on the wrong issues. The confusion surrounding the decision is made even more clear by Scalia's concurrence, in which he joins the entire opinion except “portions...going into fine details of molecular biology.” By his own admission, he doesn't understand the science well enough to have a valid opinion on the matter.
What we need is an opinion that actually wrestles with the core issue in debate – the balance between the need to incentivize research and the need to protect the public's access to their own genetic information. This is far from the last we'll hear on the issue.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Random Projects Ahoy: 3D Printed Totoro-TARDIS

So I had access to a 3D printer this summer, and I had all kinds of ideas for it. However, after a failed experiment in which I attempted to print a bead for a bracelet I often wear (far too round a design), I realized I would have to think through anything I wanted to print. My friends insisted that I should print a TARDIS, and that I should print Totoro, so I did both (click images for biggen-ed versions):

The concept is that Totoro is dressed as the TARDIS for Halloween. I found several models to use as sources on Thingiverse, and proceeded to chop them up and recombine them in Tinkercad. The result looked pretty cool, but then I realized that the "hat" part would be difficult to 3D print (since the printer puts layers down from the bottom up, unsupported floating sections in a design won't turn out well). So I redesigned it to make the hat removable, including ear-holes big enough to fit on Totoro's head:

I considered this something of a masterpiece. The real test, though, is "will it print?" So we heated up the ole makerbot. Unfortunately, we only had red plastic to work with, and it isn't the highest resolution printer around, but it did its duty:

And the result, after tearing off a bunch of excess plastic:

Unfortunately, the light on top of the TARDIS broke off (and the pics aren't great, I admit). I might also paint the whole thing a little if I find time, but it more or less worked, so I'm satisfied.

3D printers have a long way to go before they bring about any kind of revolution, but it was really cool to see one in action and get a better sense for the technology. If you happen to have one and want to print this design, send me an email (bsuchenski at gmail) and I'll send you the file.

-Silent Ellipsis

Friday, March 15, 2013

Contra Dances

Well this blog gave up on being about one topic a long time ago, and for those who don't know, I've been really active in the folk dancing scene for the last few years. In the last year I've also begun calling dances and writing them, including the two below. For those who don't contra dance this might be meaningless (aside from the pond story), but if you're curious about contra I encourage you to try it (there's probably a dance near you).

Sharks in the Pond  – Becket-R  by Bryan, Angela, Erika, Lynn*

A1: Pass the ocean, balance wave of 4 (8)
Women allemande L 1 1/2 while men orbit 1/2 (8)
A2: Balance and swing partner (4, 12)

B1: Men cross (passing L), gypsy & swing neighbor (2, 4, 10)
B2: Women cross (passing R), 1/2 L shoulder gypsy partner (8)
1/2 promenade partner, loop to meet next (8)

*Authors are Angela DeCarlis, Bryan Suchenski, Erika Rosenberg, and Lynn Ackerson as part of Rick Mohr's workshop at Pinewoods

This dance was written at Pinewoods American Week in 2012. The workshop as a group came up with a list of interesting moves to base a dance off of, including the opening of this one, and then broke up into smaller groups to flesh the dances out. To our surprise, Lisa Greenleaf then called this dance on the last evening to the full dancing population of Pinewoods. So now that it had been baptized, we needed a name for the dance.

FLASHBACK...the night before, I was out in one of the lakes (or ponds as we called them) that flank the camp with a friend of mine. There's a floating dock in the middle of the water, and she was sitting on it while I treaded water nearby. We had been chatting until some unholy hour when I felt the sting of teeth sinking into my back. It didn't actually hurt terribly, but the when you're in dark water and something bites you, your instinct is not to objectively evaluate the degree of pain involved. I proceeded to freak out and flail about while trying to climb onto the dock. Once I did I immediately began pretending it was no big deal to keep my friend from panicking. We both turned and saw a fish, about 6 inches long, staring at us from the water. 

"Well, he's not that big and scary looking," we said to each other. Then his friends started showing up. Soon there were a half-dozen fish all staring intently at us from the water, and we were fairly certain that we were going to die at Pinewoods American Week. My friend finally built up enough courage to stick her finger in the water, testing the intent and speed of these savage beasts. One of the fish took the bait, and began to slowly rise toward her finger. Very slowly. She started coaxing it, "Come on, little fish, just come get a nibble!" Approximately 30 seconds later, the fish achieved its nibble, and upon our realization that the pain (eventually) involved ranked somewhere near "cute", the fish seemed much less intimidating. Figuring that at worst they would only get one of us, we resolved to jump in at the same time and frantically swim to shore. 

After surviving the ordeal, and noting that this new dance had an "orbit" figure that looked like circling sharks, I called it Sharks in the Pond.

Welcome to the Neighborhood – Improper  by Bryan Suchenski

A1: Neighbor balance and swing (16)
A2: Circle L 1/2 and pass through up and down (4, 4)
Neighbor 2 swing (8)

B1: Gents Gypsy L 1 1/2 (8)
Partner swing (8)
B2: Long lines forward and back (8)
Ladies chain (8)*

*After the chain, turn away from this neighbor to face the next and begin the dance again.
**This is a double progression dance with two neighbor swings, so you swing everyone

This dance doesn't have quite as amusing a story behind it - I wanted to write a double progression dance in which you got to swing both of your neighbors, to avoid the situation where you join the set with the cool hip dancers, only to discover that it's a double-progression dance and the people you most wanted to swing are those even-numbered couples that you skip the entire time down and back. I was expecting to call it "Won't You Be My Neighbor", but apparently there's already a published dance with that name.

Note to callers, the hardest part of this dance by far is the A2. Dancers are used to circling 3/4, and if they circle too far, or think they are supposed to pass through across the set, the progression is thrown off. Fortunately, there's a partner swing not far after, so if you see couples that failed to progress, encourage everyone to simply find their partner and swing on the side of the set. Also, some communities are more down with gents gypsying each other than others, and if you suspect dancers might be uncomfortable with this move you can simply replace it with an allemande L. In my mind, though, more varied gent interactions in contra is a good thing.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Crazy Ideas for Crazy Times: Guaranteed Income

It's been a while since I wrote a substantive blog post, but I just ran across a post from 3 years ago which effectively predicted the crowd funding craze we've seen in the last year in indie games (I referred to it as "pre-pre-ordering", which admittedly is not the catchiest phrase). So I have newfound confidence that things I post under the "crazy ideas for crazy times" label are more feasible than they might sound.

Which brings me to the topic of today's post: guaranteed income. Some of my friends have heard me talk about the idea in person, and I'd like to outline it more thoroughly. We'll start with some background concepts.

The Nature of Money

Most people see money for its value to the individual - as a substitute for services and desirable articles. It seems natural, then, to treat money simply as a tool for facilitating bartering: instead of carrying my goat around so I can trade it on the spot for the chickens I want, I sell my cow for a small value-token which I can later exchange for those chickens. Lovely. However, as I discussed in more detail here, money serves a larger social purpose - it functions like a rapid and constant voting system, and is how the market determines the relative value of goods and services. If you don't have a planned economy, you need some way of determining what kind of goods get produced, which requires a method of measuring the value of goods. Money is a fabulously robust method of decentralized value judgment, especially because every single member of the society contributes to these value judgments whether or not they think of themselves as doing so.

There are, of course, problems with money as the primary measure of value. Most importantly, since money also determines how many goods individuals get, we are extremely covetous of the resource, and often don't spend it in a way that's representative of our perceptions of value. There are also significant categories of goods and services that we simply don't think of as being commercial, even if we find them very valuable. For instance, we may think that a stay at home mother (or father) is creating an enormous amount of value by raising children, but that doesn't lead us to think we should pay parents for their efforts, much less that we should pay particularly skilled or dedicated parents more than lackadaisical parents.

Nonetheless, money keeps a market running, at least as long as there is a constant flow of data - enough money is being spent to tell us where to dedicate our labor.

What the World Needs Now...

Is more people to buy things. That's not my typical answer to this question, but if our immediate goal is to pull the economy out of recession, all we need is for more money to be spent. That's because without spending, we don't have the value-voting data we need to determine what people should be doing with their time, and the result is unemployment. Since those who have the lowest income are most likely to spend every dollar they acquire (out of necessity), the way to increase spending is to get money into the hands of the unemployed, but since they're unemployed (or underemployed), they're not making enough money to spend. So to create jobs, the unemployed need money, and to get them money, they need jobs. That's the default state of things in a recession, and where we've been stuck for the last four years. 

So here's the weird thing that Keynes figured out a while ago: it doesn't matter why you pay these underemployed citizens; you can hire one person to dig a hole and another to fill up the hole, and net effect for the economy would be positive. If you don't believe me, consider how we got out of the Great Depression - certainly new deal policies were helping, but the final push was World War II. Why would it be that having Americans spend their time building tanks that got shipped overseas and blown up would help the domestic economy? The answer is because paying those workers to do anything would have helped the economy, because it enabled them to spend, and get the great value-voting machine running again.

This is the theory behind stimulus spending, which certainly would help the economy if it were done on a larger scale (and has helped some even though the size of stimulus so far has been small). I want to propose something else, or if you prefer, a particular, relatively radical kind of stimulus.

Guaranteed Income

The best solution to the economic crisis, on both economic and ethical grounds, is to simply stipulate that every citizen should have a certain minimum income. If employment were high, this might be accomplished by a robust minimum wage, but when there are not enough jobs to keep workers employed, you need an alternative way to pay citizens. This is the role the welfare system played in the Great Depression before the war created a sufficient mass of state-funded jobs to restart economy. There are a several important differences between a guaranteed income and welfare, which will become clear if I spell out the proposal.

Here's how I envision guaranteed income:

(1) Every qualifying adult citizen gets a grant with no strings attached. The amount should be enough to provide basic needs in the absence of other income (above the poverty line), but not so much as to totally disincentive work. I imagine the amount here to be around $15,000 a year.

(2) In order to qualify, the citizen must, if capable, contribute to society in some way, either by working for pay (meaning everyone who has a job, even a part-time job if it provides enough hours/week, qualifies), by doing community service, or by working on registered unpaid projects (meaning artists, opensource programmers, etc. qualify on the basis of their projects). 

(3) Any citizen can collect, but the grant is taxable income, meaning that those at a high marginal income rate effectively don't collect much (especially given the next point).

(4) In order to pay for the program, I would support a marginal tax rate up to 90% (or more). The marginal tax rate would only reach this level for those making massive incomes - more than, say, $500,000/yr. 

There are several things to note about this proposal. For one, guaranteed income is not a temporary replacement for income from work, like welfare payments are, but a supplement to income from working. This, together with (2), effectively eliminates the concern that welfare discourages citizens from working. The system doesn't focus on efforts of recipients to find work, but on what they can do immediately to have some positive impact on society as a whole. This means that the unemployed are still doing something useful, and that artists can choose to dedicate themselves to their craft if they don't mind living on a minimal income. If a citizen wants to live on more than a bare minimum, they will try to find paid work anyway, and the guaranteed income helps to ensure that they will be able to live off whatever income they do earn. 

Point (4) clearly makes this a kind of wealth redistribution proposal, but I want to be clear that I'm not entirely against disparate income. I don't have any problem with those who pursue more commercially viable careers, or those who are most skilled in such careers making more money than the unlucky/idealistic. I think doctors, lawyers, and CEOs should make more money than academics or video game designers. That's how we encourage people to pursue practical careers. The problem is, after a certain point (say, a half-million dollar salary), increased income simply stops to be any significant motivator for high earners, and it has no effect on the quality of their lives. The difference between a very high and absurdly high income might motivate a person to choose one particular company or specialization over another, but at that point, we should be encouraging employers to come up with better motivators than salary (such as a rewarding working environment, intellectual/creative freedom and authority, or the ability to contribute to projects the employee cares about). 

I've spent most of my life around wealthy people (and was at one point part of a reasonably wealthy family myself), and in my experience, the top few percent of income earners are primarily concerned with their relative, not absolute wealth. A person making more than a half-million dollars a year doesn't benefit from having that money around to spend on what they will, but it may be important to them to be recognized for earning as much money as they do. So even with a high marginal tax rate, if they can convince someone to pay them a $100 million salary, they get to be wealthier than (almost) everyone else around (but they still have to pay the majority of that money in taxes).

Also note that (4) might not be strictly necessary in a recession. If taxes were not raised to pay for the program, it would result in inflation, which in a healthy economy would act like an "invisible tax" - it disproportionately affects those with the more money in savings. In a recession, the stimulus effect could effectively allow the program to pay for itself. I would support (4) nonetheless to ensure the program remains sustainable.

Finally, if you're wondering about the general feasibility of this kind of idea, note that I'm not the only person to propose something along these lines. Norway provides guaranteed income and grants to artists in the interest of promoting culture generally. BIEN is an organization that advocates for basic income, which is essentially the same idea minus (2), the contribution requirement. Similar ideas have been endorsed by an assortment of Nobel laureates in economics (cue cite to wikipedia).

The solution simultaneously solves two problems: it stimulates the economy and invigorates the existing market by increasing spending, while also allowing citizens a way to be supported for working on projects that are valuable but not well suited to market economics. If it were coupled with national healthcare and free college education, we really would have an America fit for the 21st century.