Author Archives: brainwane

About brainwane

Sumana Harihareswara is a geeky woman living in New York City and teaching newer coders, reading science fiction, writing technical documentation, and programming (most recently at the Recurse Center). She has managed programmers at an open source consulting firm, led the open source community behind Wikipedia, and co-edited a speculative fiction anthology. She dents and tweets as @brainwane.

Open thread: Robot Roll Call

finished Tom Servo lantern, lit by a 9-volt battery, on our windowsill

my new lantern

This thread is open for geek feminist introductions, speculations, reminiscences and chatter. Please see our commenting policy guidelines.

brainwane makes Tom talk

brainwane makes Tom talk

Conversational seed, in case you need one: in my recent sewing, software packaging, and lantern-making crafty/make-y/learn-y binge, I put some LEDs inside a gumball-dispensing toy my partner had found.

The toy looks exactly like Tom Servo, one of the robots from Mystery Science Theater 3000.

So:

  • Favorite robot, fictional or real?
  • Crafted/made anything you like recently?
  • Movie you can only stand by talking back to the screen, MSTK3K-style?

FLOSS inclusivity: pragmatic, voluntary, empowering, joyous

Lucy Connor’s “Diversity at what cost?” and Benjamin Otte’s blog post on equality got me thinking about the backlash against diversity and outreach initiatives in open source. Specifically, I sometimes see arguments that inclusivity

  • is a slippery slope into coercion and quotas
  • should not be a FLOSS value, or
  • competes with the core mission of his/her software project.

In response to Otte’s thoughts on whether the principle “all men are created equal” stands in opposition to core GNOME and Fedora goals, I said in part:

The words “equality†and “inclusive†can be easy to misinterpret. Advocates often use them as a softer way of saying “don’t be sexist/racist/etc.†and “let’s give due consideration to people we’re inadvertently leaving out.†Perhaps [critics] are misreading this suggestion as greed for market share, or conflating cowardice with the intention and practice of thoughtful inclusivity.

Yes, it is an important principle that all people deserve to be treated equally *by the law*, and as an ideal to reach toward, it’s laudable. However, it’s a straw-man argument to suggest that advocates for equality and inclusion propose that all seven billion people’s opinions should have equal relevance in every endeavor and choice.

Every organization has a specific mission, such as “change the government’s policies to improve the environment†or “maintain an excellent Linux distribution with cutting-edge innovations.†This is its “value proposition,†in US English. It embodies some of its core values. The Fedora project is indeed facing a tension between its value proposition and one facet of inclusivity — suitability for novice users. But there are many other aspects to inclusivity and an interest in equality, such as accessibility, nonsexist language, university outreach, and documentation. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

You may also be interested in http://geekfeminism.org/2009/11/29/questioning-the-merit-of-meritocracy/ for thoughts on meritocracy in FLOSS.

… If you simply find any good product unstylish as soon as a certain proportion of the population starts to benefit from it, that strikes me as needlessly snobbish, and implies a misanthropy that will permanently be opposed to even the least controversial inclusivity initiatives.

We linkspammed Connor’s piece a few days ago, and commenter koipond noted:

I hear the sentiment, but it’s kind of missing the point. No one is saying “Diversity at all costs†where they want to force people in who don’t want to be there. It’s more a case of trying to break down the barriers that prevent people who might be interested but see a toxic morass and refuse to swim in the pool.

My comment was along similar lines:

When I read http://geekfeminism.org/ or the http://geekfeminism.wikia.com wiki, or listen to the women on the Systers mailing list, I don’t hear a general and undifferentiated “WE MUST GET MORE WOMEN INTO FLOSS†or tech agitprop agenda. I see lots of initiatives to help underrepresented groups — African-Americans, women, people from developing countries — get in on the joy and empowerment of hacking.

I think there is a separate argument to be made that everyone, of every gender and from every socioeconomic, ability and ethnic background, should be generally technically literate, which means being able to code a “hello world†in some decent language and feeling empowered to modify their computing environment a little. To extend the analogy, I know it ruined your [Connor’s] enjoyment of Model UN when the teachers forced everyone to participate, but you’re not against the goal of everyone learning a little about how international politics works.

And because these sexist behaviors and attitudes keeping women out of high-status and high-paying professions are just now starting to fade, it’s important to take an extra look at seemingly innocuous traditional attitudes to make sure they don’t conceal yet more barriers and discouragement. As Kirrily Robert pointed out in her OSCON keynote, the community as a whole grows organically and benefits greatly from (voluntary, of course) women’s participation:

http://infotrope.net/blog/2009/07/25/standing-out-in-the-crowd-my-oscon-keynote/

Like you, these advocates like helping people. Check out http://gnomejournal.org/article/88/the-un-scary-screwdriver for an example of the kind of noncoercive, entirely opt-in outreach that most advocates, well, advocate.

As I noted to Connor: Sure, coding, and open source work, are not really intrinsically appealing to lots of people. But because there are so very many external factors keeping interested girls and women away from tech careers and open source, I’m comfortable prioritizing breaking those down, so that maybe in fifty years people’s intrinsic interests will shine naturally through. And then we’ll talk and see what interesting patterns show up.

On geekitude, hierarchy, and being a snob

Liz Henry’s thoughts on geekitude got me wanting to post my own half-formed thoughts on the topic. (Crossposted from my personal blog at Skud’s suggestion.)

Evidently I have the capacity to continuously raise my standard for what makes a real obsessed fan of, say, Star Trek or Cryptonomicon or whatever. I read the Memory Alpha wiki (Star Trek compendium), but I don’t contribute to it; I only know a word or two of Klingon; I haven’t *memorized* more than, say, ten lines of Cryptonomicon.
So I can always say, “oh, I’m just a regular person who happens to like this thing, there are OTHER PEOPLE who are really obsessed.” But that’s just No True Scotsman in reverse. These goalposts must be made of new space-age alloys, they’re so easy to move!

But when I come across an enthusiasm more ardent than mine, there is a kind of intellectual squick, a cooler and more abstract horror. And there’s relief — at least I’m not like that, at least there’s someone below me on this imagined hierarchy. Which makes little sense; to whom am I proving this alleged cool?

Obsession is a derogatory synonym of mastery.

Mel’s post on how she learns tickled my brain. When I learn, I like to hypothesize internally consistent systems of rules. And then I take pride in the architecture I’ve built, in my mastery of my personal social construction, and bond with new tribe members when we learn that we share intersubjectivities.

New skills are tools and catalogs of tools. If you learn what I know, then you’ll realize certain tasks are far easier than you thought. I can be uneasy with that power; it’s like the disorientation of suddenly driving an SUV, getting used to a bigger, stronger body.

But an expert also confidently says, “No. That’s far harder than you realize.” While the fairy tales usually scorn naysayers — they’re just obstacles in the hero’s way — in our real lives, over coffee and beer, we shake our heads and say, “I told him it wasn’t gonna work.”

I had a dinner with an out-of-towner once, and happened to mention that Roosevelt Island’s tram is a major means of transit for RI’s residents, and that when it gets taken down for construction/maintenance for several months (sometime soon, I believe) it’ll be a big hardship for those residents. It would suck to commute by car (that teensy bridge would get backed up real fast), and the RI stop on the F subway line will get uncomfortably crowded. She started making suggestions. Run more F trains? Well, that would probably throw the rest of the system out of whack. Get a bigger bridge? Probably not worth it for a five-month workaround, and besides, building bigger roads means asking for more traffic. She finally said in bewilderment, “Well, they should just fix it!” And I said, eh, it is complicated, isn’t it? And we moved on.

I felt very superior and sophisticated at this – scorn is shorthand for status. There’s a whole other thread here about urban systems, interdependence, respect for homeostasis. But basically, I’m ashamed of that impulse to snobbishness. Had I time, love, security, and patience enough, I’d be about sharing, not shaming.

I like being enthusiastic. I like sharing myself. My opinions, my judgments, and my ideas sometimes feel like an extension of myself, as much as my adopted culture says I should take criticism of those opinions impersonally.

But sometimes I have a snobbish geekiness, so complacent & happy to bond with one person by slamming another. Either because I have more mastery than her (e.g., re: transit), or less (e.g., re: Star Wars).

So, the Twitter version: Parallax sucks, and I love mastering worlds because I can’t master myself.

Quick hit: nominate recent fantasy and scifi for awards

If you love scifi and fantasy, especially works that “assert one’s right to be in the world, even if one is not One Standard Unit Straight White Man”, consider recommending your favorite recent works for awards.  I’ll specifically draw your attention to some awards that encourage work that explores issues of sexuality, gender, race or ethnicity:

  • The Gaylactic Spectrum Awards “honor works in science fiction, fantasy and horror which include positive explorations of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered characters, themes, or issues”
  • The James Tiptree, Jr. Award is for speculative fiction that addresses gender
  • The Carl Brandon Awards are for works by people of color or dealing with issues of race and ethnicity

All three of those welcome nominations from the general public (that’s you!).

One source of recommendations: the 50books_poc SF/Fantasy list and metabooklist.

What are you nominating?

Epistemology and impostor syndrome

Successful women often suffer from impostor syndrome. As wiredferret succinctly explains,

Imposter Syndrome is the pervasive feeling that whatever success or acclaim you might have, it’s all a cosmic accident, and other people really are much smarter and more successful than you.

Armchair psych follows, in which I massively mix descriptive and prescriptive:

The actor-observer bias and the related self-serving bias often cause a person to attribute her actions and their outcomes to certain kinds of causes, and attribute others’ actions, successes and failures to other kinds of causes. In other words, these bias lead me to believe that I caused my own successes and external events caused my failures, but others’ successes are due to luck and their failures are their own fault. Depressives’ biases run the other way; a clinically depressed person often believes that any good thing that happens to her is luck, she causes all her own failures, and her peers and role models and enemies get their deserved successes through their virtues. (Elliot Aronson’s book The Social Animal, chapter 4, “Social Cognition”)

It strikes me that Impostor Syndrome preys on the same epistemological problem as the biases I listed above. How do you know whether you belong, whether you deserve your success, whether your achievements even count as success?

Surprise!  You deserve to think of yourself as successful!

Surprise! You deserve to think of yourself as successful!

How would I know if another person, female or male, were succeeding or failing in my position? Would I judge them by number of emails sent per day, quality of relationships, apartment cleanliness, salary, credentials, orgasms per week, number of FLOSS commits?

Well, I could try to make a yardstick.  Consensus reality has an array of subjective and objective criteria for “is this person a success?” Proxies include money, influence, fame, respect from one’s community, and pride. I can use that data to try to fight the automatic negative thoughts. My bosses and colleagues praise my work unbidden. I’ve written articles I’m proud of. I can make strangers laugh at my jokes. I know so much about technology that my friends and acquaintances consistently ask me for tech advice. At one job I was earning more yearly than my dad ever did. I aimed to do foo and I did it.

“Does this person belong?” Belonging seems trickier, slippery and social. What’s the baseline? What’s a good metric for “does this group really accept and like me”? I can come up with plenty of falsifiable propositions to check whether they act as though they like me, perhaps even whether they are sending costly and hard-to-fake signals that they like me, but I can’t check their internal states.

And besides, it takes a lot of discipline and consciousness to address Impostor Syndrome with data. As long as I’m concentrating, I can believe I’m competent. But the data can be pretty handwavy.  And unless I use that data to change my permanent beliefs, sooner or later I’m subconsciously moving the goalposts on myself.  So at some point I have to just start acting as if I believe I’m good enough, stop believing — without proof! — that I’m a fraud, and allow my identity and beliefs to be fluid enough to catch up.

And we all have nonfalsifiable beliefs that undergird our behaviors. We all make assumptions to get through the day. Maybe you believe that men and women should have equal opportunities in the workplace, or that sunrises are beautiful, or that all humans should behave compassionately, or that God does, or does not, exist. Too many women refuse to add “I am a success” and “I deserve to be here” to their list of beliefs. If your excuse is that you can’t believe it because it’s not objectively provable, well, neither is “I am a failure” or “I don’t deserve this awesomeness” — let’s do some social construction to fit our blueprints for once.

What would I be like, if I were successful and deserved it? Well, I’ll try to act like that, then.

Other useful resources on Impostor Syndrome include Valerie Young’s Overcoming the Impostor Syndrome blog and Anna Fels’s great book Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives.

Geek & feminist thoughts on “In The Loop”

I saw the political satire In The Loop a few days back.  It passes the Bechdel test — how novel — and it struck me as a fairly geek-oriented film.

We geeks like our entertainment as plot/banter firehose with subtle, unspoken worldbuilding. That’s what In The Loop (and its predecessor TV show, The Thick of It) deliver — that and social engineering.  You get to watch people scheme, performing ad hoc systems analysis to solve the puzzle of their immediate predicament.  It’s like Leverage without the wish-fulfillment or Hardison, Elliot or Parker.  (In the geeky-banter category, In The Loop has characters mock Toby (Chris Addison) by calling him “Frodo,” “Ron Weasley,” and “baby from Eraserhead.”)

One of my geekeries is politics, specifically organizational behavior and the power of institutions. In The Loop argues that the media/governing apparatus functions as one homeostatic institution, where any demonstration of the pettier human weaknesses (e.g., status-seeking, frustration, lust, loathing) leads to an instant barrage of bad press and gives your enemies leverage. It’s a marvelous system, really, and ultra-efficient: if you think you’ve found some room to maneuver, some opportunity for arbitrage, you’re wrong and your audacity will be punished. It’s a power structure that guards itself against change, and will only ever pay lip service to feminism and anti-racism. A dark vision, but the film left me laughing.

Warning: Sexist and homophobic insults pervade the dialogue from start to finish.This would have bothered me more if I’d thought the insults were more substance than form; the viciousness was so over-the-top that I couldn’t take it seriously. But some people will find it distasteful or triggering.

Software geekery: Late in the film, two users across the Atlantic from each other open their laptops and work on the same document simultaneously, one telling the other via phone what to delete or rearrange. I immediately thought, If only they were using AbiWord’s document-sharing plugin, they could collaborate in realtime using Telepathy integration!

If The West Wing and Star Trek are idealistic, meritocratic wish fulfillment, and In The Loop is a cynical response to West Wing-style idealism, then what’s the bitter-laugh counterpart to Star Trek? Potential candidates:

When it changed (1998?)

Anthropologist Biella Coleman just posted “1998 and the Irish Accent is Why I Study F/OSS”. She quotes a rumination by Don Marti on 1998 as a crucial and strange year in tech:

…there was all this fascinating news and code for 
recruiting new hackers at the same time that there
 was a huge power grab intended to drive hackers out.

Biella tells her own 1998 story as well:

…that was the year I ditched my other project and decided to go with F/OSS for my dissertation….I let the idea go for a few weeks, possibly months until one Very Important Conversation over coffee transpired with an Irish classmate…

So I asked my co-bloggers to tell us whether 1998 was a pivotal year for them, too. For most of us, it was.

Continue reading

Yet Another Geeky Gal

/me waves

Hi!  I’m Sumana Harihareswara, a twentysomething geeky gal living in New York City. I grew up in various US cities and states, the daughter of Indian immigrants, loving books and Star Trek. Currently I manage programmers at an open source consulting firm. With my partner (a programmer I met via his blog), this year I edited Thoughtcrime Experiments, an online scifi/fantasy anthology.

Geek communities are home to me.  I never feel more comfortable than when I’m complaining about the end of Enterprise, or joking that the problem with desktop open source software is that it so often ships with the “usability” flag set to 0 by default.

So it amazes me when leaders in my communities say and do things that exclude or demean me.  But I’m also amazed, and gratified, at how many allies I have (at WisCon, Systers, the Geek Feminism wiki…), and how visibly the tide is turning.  It’s only right that I should be a part of this effort, and blogging here is a little bit of that.

To quote myself from a discussion on Skud’s other blog: Public discussion of our values, and explicit enforcement of our norms, is nothing new to open source. And another principle in open source is that any design that makes lots of users go through some hacky workaround (â€oh, everyone just ignores that bugâ€) is long overdue for rewrite.