Author Archives: gfimportuser

Screenshot from Mike Hoye's gender-hacked version of Windwaker

Daughter wins with Geek Dad who hacks video game gender pronouns

Michael Chabon, in “Manhood for Amateurs”, writes an essay telling the story of being at the supermarket with his child, feeling quite run-down and barely hanging on, with his toddler in tow on a Sunday morning so as to give his wife a chance to sleep in. As he’s in line to pay, a woman in line with him says something along the lines of “You’re a good dad, I can tell just by looking”. At that moment he has this epiphany that to be a ‘good dad’ in our society one must merely not be in the process of killing a child in public whereas a women can rarely achieve the status of ‘good mother’ in the public’s ever-shaming eye. If they ever do briefly get told that, it is all too quick to fade with the barrage of societal and internalized messaging women get telling them they are never good enough.

Michael Chabon’s take was this:

“The handy thing about being a father is that the historic standard is so pitifully low.”

As someone who did not have a dad, I have nothing in my upbringing about what it’s like to  be a young female with a grown male caring for you, teaching you, or taking an interest in your life’s outcome. Chabon does sum up for me the conclusions I came to, quite young, about these creatures called ‘fathers’. Growing up with my lesbian, feminist mother my understanding of the odds was that netting a ‘good dad’ seemed so low and I was convinced I was lucky for not having to participate in that particular life lottery.

To folks who did have ‘good dads’, this story might seem familiar to you, but to many it may come as quite a pleasant surprise. Someone I am proud to consider a friend had their blog post picked up by ArsTechnica today and, yes, the title of this article is very unfortunate but the amplification of what Mike Hoye did for his daughter is such a ‘good dad’ moment that I hope there will be ripples of this for months as well as more hacking of games to do even just that simple binary flip that helps a young girl see something more like herself as the hero of the stories the games people play are centered around. Imagine for a moment if we could take this kind of hacking to children’s television and movies. Those are immutable objects for now, but video games?  Well, Mike has proven that a bit of hacking can go a long way.

Because I am fortunate enough to know Mike through my time at Seneca College where he was a regular mentor to our zealous open source program, I asked him if I could interview him for a Geek Feminism post and he said yes so we hopped into an etherpad and had a talk.

LB: Hi Mike!

First let’s be clear, you didn’t give a fictional character who exists only as pixels in a video game a ‘sex change’ but you certainly upset the dominant males-as-heroes pattern in video games by simply flipping the gendered forms of address in the text of the game where the Hero does in fact have quite a gender-neutral appearance. Does it feel radical to you to do this kind of hack?

MH: It certainly felt… transgressive. I’m an inveterate gamer and Legend Of Zelda fan, and the Zelda series revolves around some pretty well-used tropes. You know you’re going to be the hero, that there’s going to be the Master Sword, a bow, the boomerang, the hookshot… Changing something, especially something as basic as the nature of the characters, feels like it should be a pretty big deal.

But at the same time, it seems like I’m just solving a problem that’s stubbornly refused to solve itself. That option should always have been there.

LB: You gloss over a bit in your post, will you put up more details (maybe another blog post) of  step-by-step instructions to help people who have less technical depth than you try to do this at home with their kids? Alternately, is there a way to package up what you did and distribute it without getting yourself put in jail (or heavily fined)?

MH: The way I packaged it up – by making it clear that you’ll have to find the original material on your own, but here is the tool you’ll need to apply the following changes – is the best I could come up with.  As for the step-by-step instructions… I found the game’s disk image, opened it up in a hex editor – I used http://ridiculousfish.com/hexfiend/  for that, because it works really well with extremely large files – but once you’ve done that, you just need to make a copy of the disk image, and work on that one; just page around the file until you find the dialog, and then start editing it. The important thing, at least as far as the approach I took, was that you need to be extremely careful to use phrases that are exactly, letter-for-letter the same length as the phrases you’re replacing and make sure you can see the difference between a space (one kind of whitespace) and a linebreak, that look the same in the text but have different numerical values.

It helped me to use a very basic text editor with a fixed-with font, so that I could copy the phrases I was replacing out and work on them for a while without committing anything back until I was reasonably happy with them.

LB: I wonder if you handed this hack back to the game developers/publishers, would they be receptive to putting out the alternate version, considering how simple the hack really is?

MH: It’s unlikely that my approach is well-suited for that – I’m not building in an option that a player would be able to toggle. You either change the whole game or nothing.

LB: That’s a good point. Advocating for more options in the game defaults seems like a great tactic here over asking for entirely different releases of games.

Any plans for other games that you play with your daughter where you might want to make this similar adaptation?

MH: I don’t know – it depends on what she’d like to play next. We haven’t started The Ocarina Of Time yet, so that’s a candidate. But so much of this depends on whatever holds Maya’s interests that it’s impossible for me to say.

LB: It will be interesting when she grows up and talks to others about playing the game, perhaps slipping in a female pronoun.  The looks of confusion from other players will hopefully make her laugh and perhaps feel bad for them that their dads didn’t take these matters into their own hands. My mom did a similar thing for me with pronouns in Dr. Seuss stories on characters that were too gender-stereotyped with no bad side effects so far, to my knowledge.

MH: God, I can only hope.

LB: Obviously you’re an accomplished hacker, what is your approach to hacking with your child(ren) in terms of meeting kids where their skills are at?

MH: I don’t have fully-formed thoughts about this yet. I’d like to start by asking Maya what she’d like to create – not necessarily out of code, but starting with carpentry or paint, and then helping her work stuff through. The only overarching principle I want her to understand is that she can, if she puts her mind to it, make and change things.

LB: Have you had to deal with any sentiments from your daughter that suggest she might get messages telling her that computers are ‘for boys’ or that doing anything hacky or tech-related isn’t ‘for girls’?

MH: Yeah, that shit is pervasive. It’s not so much computers – there aren’t a lot of those in school yet – but “boys do this”, “girls do that”, that starts awfully early.

I quiz her on it, when it comes up – Why do you think that? And the answer is always, always that one of the other kids, usually boys, in her class told her. It’s… disheartening, but you push back when you can.

LB: That’s interesting that your anecdotal evidence is that the boys seem to be doing more of the gender policing.  In my experience it was more the girls who seemed invested in protecting ladydom.

MH: My sample may not be representative (interviewer acknowledges that hers wasn’t either) (also, it’s certainly possible that I’m not getting a reliable story from Maya, who has in the last two weeks claimed to be a girl, a boy, a crab, a moose and, earlier, a pentagon. So she may not be the most reliable narrator.

LB: Starting kindergarten can be a time when the gender binary really hits home for kids and the positive messages a kid gets at home start to become overwritten by the massive mainstream’s – are you having to up the ante in un-learning?

MH: She is in preschool, not quite kindergarden yet – and I don’t really have a clear sense of how things get addressed there – I suspect well, but I don’t know. Having said that, I think the old lead-by-example tropes are important. Mom and Dad treat each other with respect, even when we disagree, and insist that Maya does so as well. When she uses some other kid’s misbehavior as a justification for her own, we don’t accept that as an excuse, and occasionally admit our own mistakes as well.

photo of a child with a backpack ready to head out the door to school

Mostly, though, we just try to avoid television and Disney movies, and try to avoid books where the women are either helpless NPCs or props or both. It’s not always a perfect approach, because frankly there’s not a lot of those books out there, but it’s an uphill battle.  But so is all parenting, so hey.

LB: Should we talk about the “P” word?  Are there inklings of wanting to be a princess?  Even if it was Princess Leia (who is now owned by Disney) would this fly with you and your particular approach?

MH: I don’t really know. We’re not there yet. She’s expressed as much interest in being a princess as she has in being a moose at this point, so I’m not super-concerned about it.

We’ll go through that phase at some point, I’m sure, but I just don’t want it to be the only phase she goes through.

LB: Love the moose stuff – where is that coming from?

MH: She has a shirt where the moose has antlers, so she holds up her hands to her head like antlers and says “MOOSE” and charges. It’s pretty great, unless you’re afraid of moose.

LB: Have you broken the news to her that moose are really big and stinky?  Also a menace on country roads in Canada? :)

MH: For polite situations, she’ll hold up only one hand, and be a half-moose.

LB: You’re doing a great job here :)

Are you aware of projects such as: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/16029337/goldieblox-the-engineering-toy-for-girls ?

MH: Yeah, I gave them some money on general principles.

LB: Can you speak to what works/doesn’t for you in terms of making technology feel accessible to your daughter and what seems to entice her or dissuade her from the things we technologists might be taking for granted?

MH: It’s too early to say. Right now, she’s surrounded by the tech Mom and Dad use in our day to day lives, watching us work with it. She understands very quickly how to use it herself. So far, to be quite blunt, “Accessible” means “stuff I can manipulate without needing to know how to read”, which basically means touchscreens with icons or hardware with big buttons, where interactions don’t generally have hard consequences.

LB: That brings up a good question – what does Mom do with regards to hacking or owning/customizing things in a way that teaches curiosity and exploration of creativity?  Are you a one-man show, or is a love of technology, gaming, hacking something the whole family participates in to varying levels?

MH: Mom has almost no interest in technology per se. It’s not her thing, but her hobbies – more artistic, craftier in general – are complimentary, and also something Maya’s taken to.

LB: So your daughter gets balance then, between those many areas. I think it’s great that you take such responsibility for transferring your knowledge and sharing your passions with your kids.

MH: I’m not sure how they learn any other way.

LB: Final question:
What would you list as starting point for useful tools/skills a geek or geek-leaning parent might want to have at their disposal tohelp them alter the tech realities around us in this way and other ways that upset the defaults?

MH: I don’t think there’s one answer to that question, certainly not one that’s less than book length or applies to everyone. The thing that you ultimately need to do is to believe that not only can you look behind the curtain, but that if you’re a little bit smart and a little bit careful, you’ll be able to step up and operate the machinery there yourself. That’s what I’m hoping Maya takes from this – there may be an infinite number of things in the world you don’t understand, but there’s nothing that you can’t understand, and a little patience, a little courage  and enough small steps. will get you there.

LB: Thanks for sharing your approach here, Mike, I think you’re an inspiration for open source geek parenting and I hope we’ll see more of these sorts of hacks in the years to come until they are no longer even “hacks” but in fact, defaults or built-in options.

MH:There’s a lot of work left to do, but we’ll get there.

Head and shoulders photo of Margaret Dayhoff

Wednesday Geek Woman: Margaret Dayhoff, quantum chemist and bioinfomaticist

This post appeared on my blog for Ada Lovelace Day 2011.

Head and shoulders photo of Margaret Dayhoff

It’s become kind of a cliché for me to claim that the reason I’m happy working on ACPI and UEFI and similarly arcane pieces of convoluted functionality is that no matter how bad things are there’s at least some form of documentation and there’s a well-understood language at the heart of them. My PhD was in biology, working on fruitflies. They’re a poorly documented set of layering violations which only work because of side-effects at the quantum level, and they tend to die at inconvenient times. They’re made up of 165 million bases of a byte code language that’s almost impossible to bootstrap[1] and which passes through an intermediate representations before it does anything useful[2]. It’s an awful field to try to do rigorous work in because your attempts to impose any kind of meaningful order on what you’re looking at are pretty much guaranteed to be sufficiently naive that your results bear a resemblance to reality more by accident than design.

The field of bioinformatics is a fairly young one, and because of that it’s very easy to be ignorant of its history. Crick and Watson (and those other people) determined the structure of DNA. Sanger worked out how to sequence proteins and nucleic acids. Some other people made all of these things faster and better and now we have huge sequence databases that mean we can get hold of an intractable quantity of data faster than we could ever plausibly need to, and what else is there to know?

Margaret Dayhoff graduated with a PhD in quantum chemistry from Columbia, where she’d performed computational analysis of various molecules to calculate their resonance energies[3]. The next few years involved plenty of worthwhile research that aren’t relevant to the story, so we’ll (entirely unfairly) skip forward to the early 60s and the problem of turning a set of sequence fragments into a single sequence. Dayhoff worked on a suite of applications called “Comprotein”. The original paper can be downloaded here, and it’s a charming look back at a rigorous analysis of a problem that anyone in the field would take for granted these days. Modern fragment assembly involves taking millions of DNA sequence reads and assembling them into an entire genome. In 1960, we were still at the point where it was only just getting impractical to do everything by hand.

This single piece of software was arguably the birth of modern bioinformatics, the creation of a computational method for taking sequence data and turning it into something more useful. But Dayhoff didn’t stop there. The 60s brought a growing realisation that small sequence differences between the same protein in related species could give insight into their evolutionary past. In 1965 Dayhoff released the first edition of the Atlas of Protein Sequence and Structure, containing all 65 protein sequences that had been determined by then. Around the same time she developed computational methods for analysing the evolutionary relationship of these sequences, helping produce the first computationally generated phylogenetic tree. Her single-letter representation of amino acids was born of necessity[4] but remains the standard for protein sequences. And the atlas of 65 protein sequences developed into the Protein Information Resource, a dial-up database that allowed researchers to download the sequences they were interested in. It’s now part of UniProt, the world’s largest protein database.

Her contributions to the field were immense. Every aspect of her work on bioinformatics is present in the modern day — larger, faster and more capable, but still very much tied to the techniques and concepts she pioneered. And so it still puzzles me that I only heard of her for the first time when I went back to write the introduction to my thesis. She’s remembered today in the form of the Margaret Oakley Dayhoff award for women showing high promise in biophysics, having died of a heart attack at only 57.

I don’t work on fruitflies any more, and to be honest I’m not terribly upset by that. But it’s still somewhat disconcerting that I spent almost 10 years working in a field so defined by one person that I knew so little about. So my contribution to Ada Lovelace Day is to highlight a pivotal woman in science who heavily influenced my life without me even knowing.

[1] You think it’s difficult bringing up a compiler on a new architecture? Try bringing up a fruitfly from scratch.
[2] Except for the cases where the low-level language itself is functionally significant, and the cases where the intermediate representation is functionally significant.
[3] Something that seems to have involved a lot of putting punch cards through a set of machines, getting new cards out, and repeating. I’m glad I live in the future.
[4] The three-letter representation took up too much space on punch cards

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Women in science: contrary to popular belief, some of us are actually alive!

This is a guest post by Lindsey Kuper. Lindsey Kuper does math and code and music and splatters it unceremoniously all over the Internet.

This post originally appeared at her blog and was linked from Restructure!’s comments.

I’m happy to see that the xkcd about “Zombie Marie Curie” has been making the rounds, because the “I make a sorry role model if girls just see me over and over as the one token lady scientist” bit gives voice to my long-held frustration about the predictable and repetitive trotting-out of the same handful of historical women as the go-to examples of women in science.

Those women were amazing and groundbreaking, but to always focus the discussion around them to the exclusion of actual, living, breathing female scientists is to make actual, living, breathing female scientists feel even more invisible than we already sometimes do.

Here’s an example of what I mean: the first page of Flickr search results for “women scientists” is top-heavy with results from the Smithsonian’s “Women in Science” photo set, which consists entirely of black-and-white photos of women, most of whom died in the middle of the twentieth century sometime. Why not call that photo set “Pioneering Women in Science” — or, uh, maybe just “Women Scientists from the Age of Black-and-White Film Photography”, since there were women in science before that, too? To not show any contemporary scientists under the heading “Women in Science” is to pathologize and exoticize the idea of simultaneously being a woman and being a scientist, and that’s about the last thing scientists need.

I like Photos of Mathematicians. It’s exactly what it says on the tin — one person’s collection of photos of living, working mathematicians, many of whom are actual regular human beings who you might run into on the street. Some of the photos are of women. I wish that, instead of seeing Marie Curie and Ada Lovelace over and over, we saw them sometimes, or their counterparts in physics or CS. A color photo of a living person1 feels more immediately relevant than a painting or a black-and-white photo of an (un)dead person, even if the (un)dead person has more Nobel Prizes.


  1. There’s nothing special about the four photos I chose, aside from the fact that they are, as far as I can tell, of women. I hesitated about picking particular photos to link to, but I decided that sharing some photos of modern women mathematicians who are probably actually alive is important enough to me that I’m willing to risk being wrong about someone’s gender identification in the attempt.

The compiler doesn’t care what you’re wearing

When not making music and splattering it unceremoniously across the Internet, Lindsey Kuper braindumps on her blog about life as a computer science Ph.D. student and human being. It took her fully half an hour to write this two-sentence bio, but it would have taken longer without Emacs.

This post originally appeared at her blog.

I’ve talked to a few women who’ve said that they fear they won’t be taken seriously as computer professionals if they dress in a “girly” way. I used to think that I was immune to that fear. But two weeks after my job started at GrammaTech, I looked at my closet and pushed everything I’d worn in the last two weeks to the left and everything I hadn’t worn to the right. On the left were jeans and t-shirts and gray and black and brown. On the right were dresses and bright green and bright blue and pink and floral prints. I was very surprised. I took a picture of what it looked like so that I wouldn’t forget.

I realized that what I thought my clothes looked like, based on what was hanging in my closet, was completely different from what my clothes looked like to other people in practice. I clearly liked the dresses and the floral prints and the bright colors, or I wouldn’t have had them in my closet — but I wasn’t wearing them, because on any given day, they seemed like the wrong thing to wear. I realized that I feared not being taken seriously by my co-workers if I wore floral dresses to work. I decided to call bullshit on that. After all, as Kathy Sierra points out, the compiler doesn’t care what you’re wearing.

Of course, there are a lot of women programmers who choose not to wear girly clothes because they don’t want to wear girly clothes, not because they’re afraid to do it. And a lot of the time, that’s me. In 2008, when I was living in Portland, someone I knew was hesitant to wear her preferred everyday outfit, a skirt, to OSCON out of concern about not being taken seriously by people there. Eventually, she did wear the skirt, and a friend of hers congratulated her on being brave enough to wear the clothes she liked to wear. I remember standing there listening to their conversation and feeling rather irked. I, too, was at OSCON and wearing the clothes I liked to wear, but because my clothes happened to be a t-shirt and thrift-store sneakers and jeans, nobody seemed to be congratulating me. It made me wonder, briefly, if I was less brave than the woman in the skirt — or if anyone at OSCON was concluding from my clothes that I was less brave. In retrospect, I don’t think anyone was. Bravery is extremely personal. One person’s brave act could be a neutral or cowardly act for someone else. And certainly the idea that one’s bravery can be determined from one’s appearance is completely senseless.

Fashion and The Female Geek – First Steps

This is part of “Ask a Geek Feminist” series! Questions are still being taken at the Ask A Geek Feminist post – so ask away!

I’ve got some general questions regarding dress code…

I’ve never been terribly observant regarding fashion matters, but it seems to me that male geeks can get away with a much sloppier wardrobe than female geeks. Is that just my impression or have others noticed anything similar?

What’s considered a suitable professional wardrobe for front-line geek feminists trying to be taken seriously?

“…I suggest that manners and etiquette, like language and fashion, are fundamental means of communication and self-expression. And, as with language and fashion, manners and etiquette adapt effortlessly to social change.” John Morgan, introduction to Debrett’s New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners, 2001.

On the heels (no pun intended) of my post about girls, stereotyping and the colour pink (‘Does It Mean A Thing If It ‘Ain’t Got Pink Bling? Gender Differences, Toys And The Psychology Of Color‘) – apparently Barbie’s now an engineer? Sign Of The Times: Barbie’s A Tech Geek:

Mattel put the selection of Barbie’s 125th career in the hands of online voters for the first time… To create an authentic look for techie Barbie, designers worked with the Society of Women Engineers and the National Academy of Engineering to develop the wardrobe and accessories for the doll. She wears a binary code patterned T-shirt and is equipped with the latest gadgets including a smart phone, Bluetooth headset and laptop travel bag.

It’s interesting that they have the endorsement of the Society of Women Engineers and National Academy of Engineering in the creation (as I look at the doll, I notice that the article forgot to also mention the vibrant pink high-heels, laptop-logo and glasses – what, no contact lenses?).

I guess I’m in favor of changes to a doll which has traditionally perpetuated a rather narrow-portrayal of women – and yet it’s still limited by its portrayal of ‘geek-chic’. The blog post title says ‘Barbie as Tech-Geek’ – why not Barbie as educated or technical-savvy? Why is one of the most popular dolls on the planet (arguably, the most popular) – still posed on her toes and biologically impossible?

And what on earth does it mean to be ‘geek-chic’ anyway? Apart from sounding rather nifty when you say it aloud?

I’m going to see if, by responding to this question by a reader, I can address not only how to be taken seriously as a ‘front-line geek feminist’ – but also how to maintain a standard of comfort that is (quite frankly) essential to a woman who has plenty of ‘geeky’ passions that occupy her time and keep her on her biologically-accurate toes.

Despite the adage ‘never judge a book by its cover’ – we do. Some companies do have a written dress code, some rules are unwritten and we follow the lead of senior management when considering building our wardrobe.

We’re not dolls. But we’re can’t ignore that there are eyes upon us that ponder ‘Maybe I can be like her one day – and doesn’t it look fine to be her?’

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One year ago today: what have your formative geek experiences in the past year been?

Girl With Computer (Ashley McClelland) has a post titled “One year ago today — Learning to Embrace the Tech Community”.

One year ago today, I also had a very pivotal experience. I attended my first technical conference— an unconference, a barcamp — at the Rochester Institute of Technology… up until that point, I had only ever seen HTML and CSS (sparingly.) I was familiar with HTML and in-line styles. And I knew how to use things like myspace and facebook. My background was exclusively education and English (literature and writing.) I was interested in programming, but I felt a severe barrier to entry: I thought it was too technical for me…

That day, despite my intimidation, I was inspired by the things I saw. I attended an excellent talk on Haskell during which the presenter admitted he had very little experience with the language… I saw another talk on the OLPC/XO by an awesome woman, Karlie Robinson, who detailed the effort and reached out to the tech community to engage their skills towards a cause for education. I could relate. I even brought myself to go up to her after the talk and give her my e-mail address, given my experience in education, thinking maybe I could help. For the first time, I thought, maybe there is something worthwhile that I can contribute to the tech community.

I started programming one year ago today, because I was inspired by the technical talks I saw that day, and because I realized I am not any different than any other extraordinary geek…

I gave a talk on learning programming today at BarcampRoc 2010… I no longer feel limited by what I don’t know. Because I know I can learn. I didn’t know this small, and seemingly obvious bit of knowledge, one year ago today.

Today, I know.

What formative geek experiences have you had during the past year? Post your stories in the comments.

The heroine with… what are her thousand faces?

This is my first post on GF. I’m new to the idea of feminism and still have a hard time identifying with – even thinking about! – the subject, and sometimes envy the ease with which the other writers here seem to be able to address the topic. But I figure that perhaps there are some others in the same place. And so I’m trying to drum up the courage to write about my stumbles through this, in the hopes that it’ll help me learn, and maybe help other people learn as well.

Inspired by this post on Long story; short pier about Erdos.

As a high school math geek (being on the math team at IMSA – the math and science magnet for the state of Illinois – was sort of like being a football player at Notre Dame, except without the cheering crowds at meets), I loved the story of Paul Erdos. On more than one occasion, I decided this was how I wanted to live when I grew up. On more than one occasion, friends in high school, and later college, would tell me (without knowing I had been thinking about it) that this was what I should do when I grew up, too.

“He would not stay long in one place and traveled back and forth among mathematical institutions until his death. Possessions meant little to ErdÅ’s; most of his belongings would fit in a suitcase, as dictated by his itinerant lifestyle. Awards and other earnings were generally donated to people in need and various worthy causes. He spent most of his life as a vagabond, traveling between scientific conferences and the homes of colleagues all over the world. He would typically show up at a colleague’s doorstep and announce “my brain is open,” staying long enough to collaborate on a few papers before moving on a few days later.” –Wikipedia

Remember, this was the age (14-17) at which my love of fantasy and sci-fi was rising dramatically – I’d always loved the genres, but those years of geek-fueled adolescence sent that love explosively rocketing upwards. Erdos was a wandering adventurer whose magic was mathematics, whose innkeepers were research colleagues and their families, and whose boss fights were against tough problems. When he won, the enemy would drop a Scroll (which looked suspiciously like a published scholarly paper) and Erdos and his party for that fight would add the spell (the proof described therein) to their inventory. He was my hero of a thousand faces.

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” –Joseph Campbell, from The Hero with a Thousand Faces

A hero ventures forth. He has to leave home, and the outward journey becomes a metaphor for that inner transformation and the mechanism by which a hero seeks and finds the experiences that help him grow. And of course one could be a heroine and go off and do exactly the same things – okay, it was less common, but the use of the masculine word was just historic and incidental, girls could grab a sword and sneak out the window and go off into the swashbuckling great beyond as well. No problem, never bothered me. Sure seemed a lot more fun than the alternative.

“In The Odyssey, you’ll see three journeys… the third is of Penelope herself, whose journey is… endurance. Out in Nantucket, you see all those cottages with the widow’s walk up on the roof: when my husband comes back from the sea. Two journeys [Odysseus and Telemachus] through space and one [Penelope] through time.” –Joseph Campbell

What did that tell me? Strong women wait? I knew I didn’t have the patience; I was young and a high-pass filter and wanted a sword now. Stories with quests and swords were celebrated; they sounded cool. Way cooler than the widows-walk adventure format. Walk a (metaphorical, in Penelope’s case) roof, raise a kid, fend off suitors trying to convince you that your husband’s dead. Big whoop – I didn’t want to walk a journey of endurance. I knew inside that it may be just as hard (or harder) or take just as much bravery (or more) to spend years pacing that widow’s walk than it does to spend those years on the high seas, avoiding sirens, blinding Cyclops, and the frequent application of the good old-fashioned “take your sword and stab things” tactic. But young people are high-pass filters, and I wanted (and still want!) to swing that sword.

And mostly, I kind of did. Being young and excited and extremely stubborn makes you unaware of a lot of things, especially the ones you’d rather already ignore. But now I wonder: does every Odysseus create a Penelope? If I become an Erdos, then who pays for my freedom other than me? Is privilege a zero-sum game?

And if it is, then who the heck am I supposed to follow?

That last line was originally the ending of this post. When I shared the draft, I didn’t feel like it was done; after some conversation, I was asked what I had hoped to get from asking that question, and the answer below was what I gave.

The example that pops to mind is the way I thought about… say, husband/wife relationships, a couple years ago. I’m from a pretty traditional Chinese Catholic family, and the only kind of marriage I’d seen was the type with a dominant breadwinner and a nondominant caretaker. Wonderful, loving relationships that both sides had consented to and all that – I don’t think my mom and aunts would have chosen any different, or if they could – you can’t choose something if you don’t know it exists, too.

I knew intellectually that more configurations must be out there, but I couldn’t really fathom what they were in anything except vague theoretical approximations that I knew to be unmapped against any sort of reality, because I’d just never seen them. I also knew I wanted to see more options before I started thinking about which, if any, I would maybe someday like to choose.

So when I went to college and met people – professors, older friends outside of school – who didn’t have a one-person-dominant other-person-not sort of relationship (I’d gotten the idea that those roles weren’t gender-specific, but they were still the same roles), it was one of those “oh, okay, that’s another way it could work” sort of moment.

Once I saw a few examples of things outside the paradigm that I was used to, I could think about it way more flexibly – these were different parameters you could set, and I’d just been exposed to one particular setting of parameters.

And with respect to the “is privilege a zero-sum game?” question, I’m looking for that kind of thing to happen again – I have a theoretical idea that other, non-zero sum configurations can exist, but… what are they?

Looking to the past

It’s an oft-voiced suggestion that rather than looking at the bad things that happen in our communities, we should focus on the good things. There’s a number of highly successful geek women already – should we not be concentrating on encouraging more of them, rather than scaring people away with tales of thoughtlessness, discrimination and outright abuse?

Let’s draw an analogy. One day, a $20 charge appears on your credit card. You didn’t make it. You report it to your credit card company, who assure you that they take fraud seriously and then do nothing. A few days later, another $20 charge. Your credit card company tells you that such events are rare, unrepresentative of the general credit card experience and continue to do nothing. A week afterwards, another charge. This time your credit card company describes how they’re planning on implementing a brand new anti-fraud system, but that this is unrelated to any events that may currently be occuring and will give no details as to when it’s going to be rolled out. And proceed to ignore any further reports you make about fraudulant transactions.

Would you stay with this company? Or would you take your business somewhere else?

The problem with the “Let’s look to the future rather than spending too much time getting stuck in the present” argument is that it assures people that things will get better without providing a roadmap for getting there. It does nothing to validate their concerns or make them feel wanted within a community. It assumes either that people will stick with a community that doesn’t respond to their complaints, or that it’s possible to construct a community that’s welcome to an assortment of genders, ethnicities and lifestyles without any of those people being represented in the first place.

Ignoring people’s concerns is an excellent way to drive them away from your community. Doing so because of a potential future that’s probably conditional on you having those people in your community is short sighted and self defeating. Ignoring the present doesn’t benefit the future. It benefits the status quo.