Author Archives: Tim Chevalier

About Tim Chevalier

Tim has written Haskell code on the job, worked on the Rust programming language at Mozilla, and been a graduate student in computer science at Portland State University and at UC Berkeley. He is currently a Senior Member of Technical Staff at Heroku, whose opinions his writing does not represent. He likes cats and bikes. His personal blog is at http://tim.dreamwidth.org/

Quick hit: A good example of how to handle trolls

With his permission, I’m reposting this blog comment from Marco Rogers, in a reply to an anti-feminist comment on a blog post about women in tech that he wrote 2 1/2 years ago. Although the post is that old, the comment is from a few days ago, because even years later, anti-feminist trolls are stumbling across Marco’s blog post and feeling the need to express their displeasure with it.

I’m reposting Marco’s comment because I think it’s a good example about how to respond to a troll. I would love to see more men let their anti-feminist peers know that uninformed anti-feminist wankery is a waste of time. And I would love to do that more often myself, rather than engaging with it.

Hi [REDACTED]. I thought a long time about whether to let this comment stand or delete it. I do listen to input from different perspectives. I read this entire thing. And I’m sorry to say it was a waste of my time.

I’m afraid this reply won’t be very constructive. I had to chose whether to waste further time dismantling your false logic, and I had to take into account whether it would make any difference to you or anyone reading. I don’t think it will. In my experience, it’s very difficult to educate men who think like you do.

I’ll admit it also annoys me that you would come and write a small novel in my blog comments but not say anything new or original. Men have been making this argument that their long history of sexism is somehow the natural order of things since the beginning of time. It’s not revelatory, it’s not some profound wisdom that people haven’t heard, it’s boring. The feminist/womanist movement grew in direct opposition to all the nonsense you spouted above. There is a ton of literature that debunks and rejects every single point you are poorly trying to make. The least you can do is educate yourself on the system you’re up against, so you can sound more cogent and have an actual chance of convincing anyone.

The question remains of whether I let your comment stay up. I think I will. Not because I feel compelled to represent multiple viewpoints here. This is my blog and I choose what goes here. But I’ll leave it because I’m no longer afraid of letting people read tripe like this. You’re losing. We WILL create a world where the mentality of men like you is a minority and women get to exist as themselves without fear. You can’t stop it. Stay mad bro. Thanks for dropping by.

Quick hit: Simply Secure, a new nonprofit promoting usable security, is hiring a research director and an operations manager

Simply Secure is a new non-profit that focuses on helping the open source community do a better job at security. Their focus is on adding usable security technology on top of existing, already-widely-adopted platforms and services, and their advisory board includes Wendy Seltzer, Cory Doctorow, and Angela Sasse, among others. (Full disclosure: I went to college with the executive director and founder, Sara “Scout” Sinclair Brody.)

They are hiring for two full-time positions right now: a research director/associate director with some mix of practical experience and formal education in security and UX design (sufficient experience compensates for a lesser degree of formal education), and an operations manager who will write grants and manage finances. Simply Secure strongly encourages applications from populations under-represented in the technology industry. For both positions, experience with and/or enthusiasm for open source is desirable but not required. Simply Secure is located in the US in Philadelphia and is actively recruiting candidates who work remotely.

To apply, visit their jobs page!

Re-stating our support for the victim/survivor in the Dana McCallum case

[Content warning: rape]

Back in April, we published a statement of support for the victim in the Dana McCallum rape case. In the letter — written by Liz Henry and co-signed by Leigh Honeywell, Valerie Aurora, Brenda Wallace, Tim Chevalier (me), Annalee Flower Horne, and Beth Flanagan — we stated our empathy and support for the victim/survivor — who is McCallum’s wife (they are in the process of divorcing) — in this case as well as for her family.

This month, McCallum accepted a guilty plea for two misdemeanors in this case: one count of domestic violence with corporal injury to the spouse and one count of false imprisonment. McCallum will serve probation, community service, and will have to undergo counseling. We already included this link in a linkspam, but given our previous statement of support for McCallum’s victim, I want to reiterate that support.

As Liz wrote in our statement of support back in April, “Rape is a horrible violent crime no matter who the rapist is.” McCallum’s wife read a statement that says, in part:

I must say that it deeply saddens me that as a victim, my only public support has been from hate groups. I expected more from the LGBT and feminist community. It’s a shame that they can’t do the emotional work it requires to process that someone they love is capable of such an awful crime. That is their burden to carry, though.

In April, we also expressed disappointment in the transmisogynistic response to McCallum’s crime. As geek feminists, we believed then, and do now, that we can and must accept that someone in our community is capable of the crime of rape. Hard as it may be to accept, self-identified feminists can sustain rape culture — up to and including actually committing rape — too. We also believe that at the same time, we must resist the narrative that would use this crime to de-gender or misgender McCallum and, by extension, trans women. Rape can be committed by anyone, regardless of their assigned sex at birth or their self-affirmed sex or gender. Structural power dynamics and rape culture mean it’s far more likely to be committed by cis men than by people in any other group, but that is a fact that needs to inform anti-rape organizing — it does not make rapes committed by specific non-cis, non-male people less damaging.

McCallum’s wife also said that she still loves McCallum and wants “forgiveness” to prevail. The Revolution Starts at Home (PDF link) is recommended reading for anyone curious about what that might look like.

Edited to add: McCallum’s ex has also written a public blog post, as a guest post on Helen Boyd’s blog, about her experience:

The transphobic radical feminists and other transphobic people will continue to rage over the state of my wife’s genitals, and I can’t stop them. But I hope more intelligent and thoughtful people will rise to the occasion to steer the conversation to what really matters.

I want her to be accountable. I want this to never happen again. I want to forgive her. I want this story to be about forgiveness and redemption. I need it to be. I need others to let it be that, too – to be my story, my trauma, my choice, my agency.

I recommend reading the post, but not the comments.

Cookie of the week: Jake Boxer and Github


We’ve been critical of Github on this blog before. And the problems we talked about before — specifically, sexual harassment and structurelessness — haven’t necessarily been resolved.

Nonetheless, I want to recognize an individual engineer at Github for our occasional “cookie of the week” feature, Jake Boxer.

Harassers who are part of the ongoing Gamergate coordinated harassment campaign created a repository on Github to coordinate their harassment efforts, and when @nexxylove reported this, Jake responded promptly by removing the repository.

I’m giving a little piece of the cookie to Jake’s employer, as well. Jake did not feel that he had to consult their legal team or wait a week for a response, or start a lengthy internal discussion about whether the repository was appropriate. He did not show any fear that if he removed the repository promptly, he would be criticized for supposedly targeting a group to marginalize their free speech. I can infer from this that Github, whatever its flaws (and there are many), is a company that will support an employee acting to stop the abuse of their resources for a purpose that doesn’t further the interests of the company.

Jake recognized that he would be able to do what he did while facing relatively few consequences, and in light of that, chose to use his privileged position for good:

Have a cookie, Jake!

Quick hit: “I’ll fight them as an engineer”

Thanks to a backchannel comment earlier, I had the thought that Peggy Seeger wrote a way better version of Lean In back in 1970, when Sheryl Sandberg was a baby. For those who didn’t spend their teen years listening to seventies folk music when all their peers were listening to rock and/or roll, here’s her song “I’m Gonna Be an Engineer”, with a bonus animation by Ken Wong:

Excerpt:

Oh, but now the times are harder and me Jimmy’s got the sack;
I went down to Vicker’s, they were glad to have me back.
But I’m a third-class citizen, my wages tell me that
But I’m a first-class engineer!

The boss he says “We pay you as a lady,
You only got the job because I can’t afford a man,
With you I keep the profits high as may be,
You’re just a cheaper pair of hands.”

Well, I listened to my mother and I joined a typing pool
Listened to my lover and I put him through his school
If I listen to the boss, I’m just a bloody fool
And an underpaid engineer
I been a sucker ever since I was a baby
As a daughter, as a mother, as a lover, as a dear
But I’ll fight them as a woman, not a lady
I’ll fight them as an engineer!

44 years later, Australian businessperson Evan Thornley — who was six years old when Seeger wrote “I’m Gonna Be an Engineer” — presented a slide at a startup conference that said: “Women: like men, only cheaper.”

The same week, Ashe Dryden wrote:

In a world where a business’s bottom-line comes before anything else, industries profit from the unequal treatment of their employees. Marginalized people often have to go above and beyond the work being done by their more privileged coworkers to receive the same recognition. The problem is readily apparent for women of color, who make between 10 and 53% less than their white male counterparts. The situation is such that compensating people equally is seen as a radical act. In maintaining an undervalued workforce, businesses create even more profit.

(Emphasis author’s.)

Thanks to Maco for reminding me both that the song exists and of how timely it is almost half a century later. There’s some good news, though: Peggy Seeger is alive and well, and still performing and releasing music. She turns 80 years old next year and according to her Twitter bio, she’s openly bi and poly. (Footnote: happy Bisexual Awareness Week! Yes, we get a whole week now.)

Verifiability, truth, and hearsay: feminist point of view on the Geek Feminism wiki

The following quasi-anonymous comment was received and acknowledged on the Geek Feminism Wiki’s article about the Gittip crisis.

If I understand the editing policies here (I just read them), lies or heresay [sic] can be printed as fact, because you don’t take an NPOV, you take a feminist point of view. That implies that feminism involves lies or hearsay otherwise you would recognize that incorrect information (whether it supports a feminist viewpoint or not) doesn’t belong in an article of any merit.

“NPOV” stands for “neutral point of view”, a notion that Wikipedia editors take as a governing principle. NPOV is useful in some contexts, but also can be abused to camouflage specific ideologies — especially those that happen to dominate discourse in a particular place and time. Like “meritocracy“, NPOV is an abstraction that may or may not be realizable, but in practice often serves as neutral clothing for the decidedly non-neutral opinions of those who power structures currently happen to serve.

The inimitable Rick Scott took the time to craft a patient reply, which I’m reproducing in its entirety here (with Rick’s permission) because it deserves to reach a broader audience. I think it’s a good companion to Skud’s “Feminist Point of View” talk from July. It also serves as an illustration in a specific case of the general points we make in the Geek Feminism wiki editorial guidelines.

The remainder of this post is Rick’s words, not mine.


You have read the editorial guidelines (for which I thank you), but not understood them. Perhaps I can clarify.

NPOV properly applies to opinions and analysis, not facts. We convey the facts as accurately as we can ascertain them—there’s no such thing as “feminist facts” and “non-feminist facts”.

Having gained our best understanding of the facts at hand, we analyse and interpret those facts from a feminist perspective—one which is informed by the substantial research, scholarship, and critique that the field encompasses. For instance, if a woman is harassed by a male colleague, her supervisor may deny that sexism played a role, explaining the incident in other ways: “He’s just a jerk”; “He’s not good with people”; “Are you sure you aren’t imagining it”, etc. A feminist perspective, however, draws on the considerable research documenting gendered patterns of harassment in the workplace, and points out that this incident is likely part of the larger pattern—that the woman’s gender probably played a significant role in how her colleague elected to treat her.

What you actually take issue with is our approach to matters addressed by Wikipedia’s two other core content policies, namely Verifiability and No Original Research. Our editorial guidelines, which you so kindly read, state (emphasis added):

While citations are preferred wherever possible, we do not require them. Much of our wiki is primary source material, sometimes added anonymously in order to avoid backlash against the whistleblower. Original research is welcome.

To take but one example, harassment and abuse often occur in ways which leave no artifact save the accounts of those involved. Turning our back on these accounts would eliminate our ability to document what happened and undermine our work. Moreover, in the face of a society which tries to silence marginalized people and casts them as liars when they talk about their actual lives, we push back against this erasure by respecting their integrity, taking them at their word, and treating the facts, as they describe them, as facts. This may offend some people’s utopian notions of epistemological purity, but in a world where speaking truth while female can invite significant retribution, this is what we have.

On the topics of truth, fact, whom we presume to be telling the truth, and whom we presume to be lying, you may find some of the articles linked from the Innocent until proven guilty page to be illuminating: specifically, Christie Koehler’s post on Community Safety, and Jill Filipovic’s article The ethics of outing your rapist.

Finally, and separately from all of the generalities above: I can affirm that the information described as “heresay” (sic) comes from an impeccable source, and so am content to leave the description of events as they are. Since nobody has deigned to present any evidence to the contrary, I consider the matter closed. — RickScott, 18:01, September 4, 2014 (UTC)

Breaking news: the gamer community is broken

[CW: verbal abuse and massive online harassment directed at women]

In case you missed it, there’s a war on against women in games. Trolls and/or misogynists (when the two groups are observationally equivalent, fine distinctions seem beside the point) used the 4chan hate site to organize an attack against game developer Zoe Quinn, opportunistically exploiting a series of revenge posts made by Quinn’s disgruntled ex-boyfriend.

Quinn has now posted detailed excerpts from 4chan members’ IRC logs that make their intentions to carry out a false-flag operation, and manufacture a controversy about “ethics in game journalism” out of thin air, crystal-clear. The people making sockpuppet accounts to post what they think are convincing simulacra of feminist thought aren’t concerned about ethics; they’re not even sympathetic with Quinn’s hapless ex. No, they simply have a vendetta against “social justice warriors” (I guess they think that term is an insult?)

You can follow links to read many more details. I’d like to highlight one thing, though. Normally, we don’t publish rejected comments on this blog — sort of by definition — but most comments this blog receives never see the light of day, whether they’re nonsense spam, indiscriminate proposals for posts on the most faintly on-topic issues, trolling, or outright hate. I’ll make one exception, though. This comment sat in the pending queue for a while before it was deleted:

The full text of a comment from Matthew Rappard that was left on this blog

This is a comment that was deleted before it appeared on the blog. Wow, are we glad.

As far as I can tell (people who are sufficiently dull, sheltered, or both to think that fighting against social justice is the best thing they can do with their clearly-copious free time), 4chan trolls planned to manipulate the Fine Young Capitalists to provide publicity for their hate campaign. I was already suspicious, when I saw the initial comment, of a group purporting to help women in games that has a spokesperson with a traditionally masculine first name; more suspicious by not seeing obvious credit given to any women who were also collaborating with the organization. I thought it might be innocent, though. And now, I see that it was — but that it could well have been preparation for some not-so-innocent manipulation.

(By the way, I didn’t think to whois the IP address until just now. Turns out it’s a public Toronto Public Library terminal. That probably would have raised a red flag for me as well — usually, representatives of nonprofits that are on the up and up don’t need to hide their identities by using a public library computer.)

I think the moral of the story, for people who moderate blog comments, is to be careful and seek second (and third) opinions. It’s natural to want to err on the side of not dismissing somebody as a troll when they actually have a genuine issue that you don’t know much about. But sometimes, when it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it really is a member of Anas platyrhynchos.

I take it wearing cat ears wouldn’t help?

Moskowitz

A Twitter friend of mine linked to a cute post that Asana — a startup that makes collaboration software — has on their web site. It’s a joke proposal for furnishing the office with kittens. This is a nice type of humor because it doesn’t rely on making fun of anyone. I would have appreciated it, if not for one thing.

Back in June 2013, I got a recruiter email from Asana. I was already considering leaving my job at the time, and it seemed like the company was doing something pretty cool. I asked whether they offered trans-inclusive benefits. The recruiter looked into it for me, and came back with the following answer:

“We researched this and went back and forth with the insurance company and our insurance broker. It appears we probably do not have the coverage you are looking for. Sorry about that. I would have liked to be able to talk.”

So that was it. I would have considered the job otherwise, but not if I was clearly going to be a second-class employee. There was nothing particularly unusual about this interaction. As trans people, we’re not a protected class under US law, so it’s okay for insurance companies to deny us medically necessary care as long as it’s care that only a trans person would need. This isn’t because insurance executives actively hate us or something like that — no, it’s because of something worse. They know that because the American public considers us subhuman, they can get away with cutting costs by denying us health care — just because we happen to be in a politically unpopular group. To me, that’s worse than being actively hated.

Is this the fault of a small tech startup? No, of course not. But at the same time, many companies — big and small — have found ways to be fair and just in how they provide benefits to employees. Generally, this just means negotiating a deal with an insurance broker to add a rider for trans-related care. It should be the default, but in the meantime, negotiating that deal is the right thing to do. Engineering is supposed to be about solving problems, not reassigning blame so as to accumulate more of them.

Negotiating a better insurance plan is also the smart thing to do, because at a time when it seems widely accepted that there’s a shortage of tech talent, turning somebody away because a doctor assigned them an incorrect sex category at birth makes no sense; being trans has no bearing on anybody’s ability to write software. And even when you are not actively discriminating against trans people, saying (explicitly or tacitly) “it’s not worth our time to treat trans employees the same way as everybody else” is effectively equivalent to active discrimination.

So when I saw that “kittens” link, this is what I thought about. Somebody at Asana had enough time to write a cute, silly blog post — that nevertheless must have taken some effort — on the clock. And there’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself. But at a company with more than 50 employees, nonetheless, nobody has time to spend a few hours executing a simple, well-documented procedure to make sure that they are treating all employees as equally welcome. So that says something about their priorities.

When I made this observation on Twitter a few hours ago, it didn’t take much time before Asana’s co-founder Dustin Moskowitz was in my Twitter mentions explaining to me that Asana doesn’t have any trans employees (how does he know that, exactly?) but if they ever did, they would be sure to make their health insurance coverage fair after that person got hired.

Even more mind-bogglingly, he defended this choice by saying that many HR processes work this way, using pregnancy leave as another example. This is like saying “we are only going to install men’s restrooms in our office, and wait until a woman gets hired before installing a women’s room. Too bad if she needs to take a bathroom break while we’re interviewing her.” Lazy evaluation can be a great feature in a programming language, but it’s a terrible way for a company to ensure it’s meeting minimal standards about equity and inclusion right from the beginning.

Right now, I’m thinking about the free labor that I’m expected to perform by virtue of my membership in a marginalized group. If I actually did apply to Asana and was hired, I’d be expected to out myself to, potentially, people outside HR, just so I could get something every other employee takes for granted: health benefits. As it is, Moskowitz attempted to deflect criticism by asking me if I knew which insurance brokers were willing to negotiate trans-inclusive riders. Is that my job? And anyway, I reported the problem directly to Asana over a year ago — if they had acted on my feedback (as a job candidate who would have considered working there if not for this), the whole conversation would never had had to happen! How much more work do I have to do for free? In the time Moskowitz spent writing defensive tweets, he could have instead called up Blue Shield and gotten a price quote for a trans-inclusive rider. It took me less than five minutes on Google to find that Blue Shield has been offering such riders since 2012. Moskowitz never claimed that cost was an issue in deciding not to provide equal care for trans employees, so what’s the problem, exactly? Is this a good way to do public relations?

I don’t mean to single out Asana here. There are many companies that fail to provide this basic health coverage to their employees. But today, there was only one whose co-founder chose to spend his time arguing with me instead of fixing the problem. Is that a good way to do business? While Moskowitz eventually replied to me saying that he recognized he’d been wrong and would look into it more, still, I’m tired. I’m tired of the knee-jerk reaction to constructive feedback about how to stop marginalizing people that amounts to, “when you do more work for us for free, we’ll stop marginalizing you.” Again, no startup founder made the decision that insurance companies shouldn’t treat trans people equally by default. But by expecting trans people to take the lead in working around that decision, they reveal their own complicity with it.

What it amounts to when a startup co-founder says, “fix the problem for me, being fair isn’t important enough to me for me to do it myself” is attempting to convince users that a problem those users are having isn’t really hindering them, in lieu of just solving the problem. I think engineers can do better than that. If you want to build reliable software, you do the research on tools for static analysis, debugging, and testing; you don’t ask your customers to tell you what the best test framework is. Likewise, if you want to show that you treat people equally — that you try to be like a meritocracy, even if that abstraction is unrealizable — then you take the lead. I think business people call this “being proactive”. And when proactiveness is selectively applied so that no work ever gets done to move a company closer towards fairness unless the people being treated unfairly do all the heavy lifting — well, we notice. There is nothing complicated about what trans people are asking for. We want to be treated like everybody else. Apology or not, Moskowitz’s reaction to criticism today confirmed what we already knew: for many of the companies that employ us, treating us fairly is just too hard and takes up too much time that could be spent writing proposals about kittens.

Edited to add, October 19, 2014: I wanted to note that Dustin Moskowitz actually took the time to email me on September 11 (I just didn’t read it until now) to say that he had researched the issue and found out that Asana already had a level of trans-inclusive coverage comparable to Yelp (see their entry on the MicroActivism wiki). I’m glad they do, and hope that the lesson to other startup folks who see this post is to know the level of benefits you offer up front, before a potential hire asks; as well as familiarizing yourself with your state or locality’s laws about what types of coverage must be provided.

Quick hit: Free travel grants for women to attend EuroBSDcon 2014 in Sofia, Bulgaria

Google is offering 5 grants for women in computer science (either working in or studying it) to attend EuroBSDcon 2014 — the main European conference about the open-source BSD family of operating systems — in Sofia, Bulgaria, to take place September 25-28. The grants cover conference registration as well as up to €1000 in travel costs.

Women who have a strong academic background and have demonstrated leadership (though if you don’t think you do, you should apply anyway) are encouraged to apply. Google’s form requires selecting either “male” or “female” as a gender; if you are not binary-identified but are marginalized in computer science and wish to apply, make use of the contact information for this Google program.

Also note that EuroBSDcon does not appear to have a code of conduct or anti-harassment policy. (If I’m wrong, add it to the wiki’s list of conferences that have anti-harassment policies!)

Quick hit: Maryam Mirzakhani wins the Fields Medal

Image of Maryam Mirzakhani

CC-BY-SA 3.0 image by Ehsan Tabari

The Fields Medal is the highest award in the field of mathematics. Some people have called it the math equivalent of the Nobel Prize, though it’s not a perfect analogy since Fields medalists must be younger than 40 years old. Fifty people received the Fields Medal between 1936 and 2010 (the award is given every four years to between two and four mathematicians). All of them were men.

Today, Stanford math professor Maryam Mirzakhani (born in 1977) became the first woman, and the first person of Iranian descent, to win the Fields Medal. (It was also awarded to Artur Avila, Manjul Bhargava, and Martin Hairer.) Her work lies in the intersection of geometry, topology, and dynamical systems.

You can read more about Dr. Mirzakhani in a profile of her by Erica Klarreich:

Mirzakhani likes to describe herself as slow. Unlike some mathematicians who solve problems with quicksilver brilliance, she gravitates toward deep problems that she can chew on for years. “Months or years later, you see very different aspects” of a problem, she said. There are problems she has been thinking about for more than a decade. “And still there’s not much I can do about them,” she said.

Mirzakhani doesn’t feel intimidated by mathematicians who knock down one problem after another. “I don’t get easily disappointed,” she said. “I’m quite confident, in some sense.”