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.

On competence, confidence, pernicious socialization, recursion, and tricking yourself

The other night I went to a hacking meetup for the first time in months. It’s usually an informal Python learnfest, and as I’m refreshing my Python basics, I went with the assumption that I’d be the least technically skilled person there. Like, of course, right?

The hacking meetup that night was, as it turns out, an installfest, so I ended up generally poking around at the software being demonstrated, and conversing with strangers. One in particular caught my attention with a fairly ill-formed question: what meetups should he visit to learn how to make websites?

Over the next hour, as I answered his questions, it became clear that he just didn’t know much, compared to me, about software engineering, or about the wider world of technology or the web. He’s in the second year of a computer information systems bachelor’s degree, and knows his way around a little Java (of which I am wholly illiterate). He didn’t know about the LAMP stack, or about Drupal or Rails or Django (or why one might choose PHP versus Ruby versus Python versus Java versus pick-your-web-friendly-language). He didn’t know that these tools exist, or why one would use a framework or pre-existing CMS rather than coding “everything” oneself. He has never heard of bug trackers, or source control, or diff. He said he did not know what a wiki was (I scarcely believed this, and told him that Wikipedia is a wiki).

As a side note: I gathered that his entire career trajectory and curriculum comes not even from conventional wisdom, but from “I once heard someone say.” Examples: “Why are you doing CIS instead of CS?” “Someone told me that CS majors get outsourced.” Or, more boggling: “Someone told me Python is useless.”

From one perspective, this guy has more technical merit than I do. He has taken an algorithms class. He can probably do a job interview coding question better than I can (reverse the characters in this string, etc.). But I have a fair amount of wisdom he lacks, full stop.

Then there was the guy who was interviewing me to work at his startup. As we walked, he offhandedly mentioned his current project at his day job: a PHP web app needed to be able to turn user markup into HTML. “And you’ve already checked whether MediaWiki has something you can grab, right?” I asked. He stopped in his tracks. No, he had not thought of that.

I need to stop assuming that everyone else knows more about the tech than I do.

We’ve talked a fair amount here at Geek Feminism about impostor syndrome and sexism (my past post). I’m just going to start with a few postulates:

  • In sexist societies, women get especially socialized to think we’re not as intellectually capable as we are, and to act self-deprecating about our abilities
  • In technical spaces where women are the minority, sexists dismiss our successes and concentrate on our missteps

Regarding the latter, I recently reread Abi Sutherland’s “Permission to Suck”, which included a moment of a familiar self-flagellation:

…every achievement is just a mitigation of the disservice I’m doing womankind.

It’s as though my goalposts came on casters to make them easier to move

But of course that is an error in judgment. Our sense of our own merit gets calibrated by feedback from the outside world, but sexism and impostor syndrome get in the way of that calibration. All the tentacles of this issue — the prejudice, the tokenization, the distorted self-perception, the discounting of one’s achievements and comparative lionization of others’ — bother me because they mess with proper judgment.

On an emotional level, I especially hate that anything is interfering with my data-collection and judgment. I am the kind of person who delayed drinking alcohol and took notes the first time she drank, to record any degradation in perceptions and prudence. I delayed getting a credit card till I’d supported myself for more than a year, partially to ensure that I had the correct attitude to judging purchases & debt. And here is this thing, clogging and fogging my mind, which I know is a lie, but which does not go away even when I speak its true name and snap three times.

Recursion Dinosaur


And a poisonous effect of the socialization is that it turns women’s conversations about the problem into yet another self-deprecation exercise.

“I hate myself for hating myself so much”

“oh god you’re awesome, I have worse impostor syndrome than you”

“No way, your self-confidence is admirable”

“I’m meta-shit”


So I seek lessons and tactics on how to become a less irritating person to my friends, and a more useful and capable person going forward. Some assorted thoughts and ideas:

Five ways you can feel as competent as you really are

  1. Everything in Terri’s earlier advice, especially a shield of arrogance.

    I’m not saying you need a thick skin. That’s maybe true, but it won’t help your confidence nearly as much as the ability to say, “screw you; I’m awesome.” Shield of arrogance it is.

    If you are worried about being confidently wrong sometimes, note that a small increase in confident wrong assertions is a small price to pay for a big increase in capability, correct assertions, momentum, and achievement.

  2. Know that sometimes thoughts come from feelings, not the other way around. The “I suck” feeling does not necessarily have a basis, just as good weather and ephemeral physiology can put you on top of the world. Instead of looking for reasons that you feel mildly down or incapable, consider disregarding them, acting, and seeing if your feelings dissipate.
  3. If you feel compelled to go from success to success, you may not be risking enough. As these entrepreneurs do, try assuming that you will fail the first time you try something.
  4. Every endeavor that anyone has ever done is therefore in some sense No Big Deal, that is, doable. Some people make the hard look easy, but experience and effort make for far greater variation than does innate ability — or, at least, isn’t it more useful to assume so? Watch other people succeed, and watch other people fail. Mere life experience helped me out here, but so did Project Runway, where I saw good people trying and failing every single week. And so did seeing these guys, at the meetup, at the job interview, being dumber than me. I just had to keep my eyes open and it happened, because I am smarter than the average bear.
  5. Notice the things you know. A friend of mine recently mentioned to me that she worries that people perceive her as incompetent if she asks more than two questions about a hard problem via her company’s internal IRC channel. I asked her to compare how many questions she asks and answers on IRC each day. She hadn’t even been considering that ratio, because she’d unthinkingly assumed that what she knew must be basic, and blabbing about the stuff she already knows is easy and natural and unremarkable. But upon consideration, she’s a good peer in that informational ecology, seeding more than she leeches.

This is all corollary to my earlier injunction to make irrationality work for you. We are all monkeys, seizing on narratives and any status signals we can find. Don’t keep the default sexist irrational assumptions get in the way of your confidence-competence virtuous circle. Make your own recursion dinosaur of win.

Cathy Malmrose of ZaReason: Linux Entrepreneur

I recently was looking for an ethically sourced Linux laptop and came across ZaReason. CEO Cathy Malmrose‘s candid answers to my questions were the deciding factor in my decision to buy ZaReason. I saw her name in my inbox and recognized it from the Un-Scary Screwdriver piece she wrote a few months back:

Since I had been staring down a pile of excess, but still quite usable hardware, I asked my dad, “Hey, can you wait a few weeks and your granddaughter will build you a desktop that will be ideal for video editing?”

Since we GeekFeminism folk are foursquare for awesome women, FLOSS, cool hardware, and empowering girls and women of all ages with science and technology, Cathy Malmrose deserves a link roundup of her very own.

“How would you describe your customer base?” “Intelligent people.” I love being pandered to! :-)

Malmrose is also CEO of Partimus, “a nonprofit organization that provides repurposed computers running free software to students and schools who need them,” and a former schoolteacher.

On my side, I have seen inventory go unused, depreciating every day that it sits on our shelves. Laptops that are used for shows, demo models and other lightly used systems can be donated to people who could put them to good use.

Several economic and societal factors are coming together to make this an excellent time to launch the Partimus branch that can be the go-to donation center for hardware vendors who want to keep their inventory tight like we do…. The end result will be to not only donate systems to good new “adoptive” homes, but to encourage others to do the same unofficially in their own social circles.

In an interview with the Southern California Linux Expo, Malmrose talks at length about how her kids got her into FLOSS, the welcome and respect she feels in the open source community (more than in the business world), and women in STEM. A tiny excerpt:

Question: What methods do you use to encourage other women to get involved in technology?

Cathy: Talking about it in an open, friendly way, the same way I tell a friend about a great restaurant, a cool museum, a competent babysitter, or a fun science camp. My friends don’t have to try Linux, but they sure would enjoy it if they did. There is a certain fear factor involved in computing, possibly because it seems so magical, but there are two ways to approach something you don’t understand — with fear or with awe. When I talk about Open Source, I focus on easing the fear and projecting the awe.

In a profile feature at, Malmrose explains how one specific welcoming community helped her go from novice to leader:

She also discovered another important aspect: community. It began with her first trip to the Alameda County Computer Resource Center, an organization that refurbishes older computer systems to give away to those less fortunate.

“I brought my own laptop and stayed in the background, too shy to do any good. I had 20+ years being shown the ‘no girls allowed’ sign on this particular tree fort. The owner, James Burgett, was explicitly approachable, and I liked him on sight. I knew he would cut me all the leeway I needed to integrate into his corner of the tech market.”

Burgett helped Malmrose break out of her shell. Whether it was observing in amazement the way the group could create order out of chaos from all the donations, to popping off the Windows super key to replace with a custom Tux key, Malmrose came into her own. “I found that every time I visited ACCRC, the people on duty were accepting and kind. They were always busy, always moving, and the rhythm surprised me.”

ACCRC played a vital role in the formation of ZaReason. “We saw James addressing the low end, shipping now more than 17,000 FOSS systems. We like the newest, fastest hardware, and we saw few reasonably priced options for the high end.”

She also writes about women in FLOSS in her article “An International Look at Women in Open Source” from the Women in Open Source issue of the Open Source Business Resource.

Malmrose has video interviews up explaining how her family moved to Linux and “how her small company came to be number 3 in the sales of computers running GNU-Linux”.

I’m writing this on my new ZaReason Hoverboard, which arrived running Ubuntu Linux. (It arrived with some bad memory, I did a memtest at their advice and then shipped it back, and I got it back fixed under warranty.) Thanks for your entrepreneurship and your activism, Cathy Malmrose!

Who are your favorite female executives in tech? Tell us in the comments.

2009 Tiptree Award Winners: Gilman and Yoshinaga

The James Tiptree, Jr. award is a yearly “prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.” The award council has just announced that the winners, for work published in 2009, are:

Greer Gilman, Cloud and Ashes: Three Winter’s Tales (Small Beer Press)

Fumi Yoshinaga, Ooku: The Inner Chambers, volumes 1 & 2 (VIZ Media)

Also check out the Honor List and Long List for other recent speculative fiction exploring gender. Stuff you can read online right now:

The Tiptree Award presentation is a highlight of WisCon, the feminist science fiction convention in May.  Just in case I won’t see you there to hear you enthuse about scifi in person, leave recommendations in the comments!

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.


  • 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 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 or the 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:

Like you, these advocates like helping people. Check out 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.

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