Tag Archives: books

cover of TRADE ME by Courtney Milan

Book Club: Thought experiments around privilege, and more Trade Me thoughts

Apologies for getting this up late; I’ve been travelling back from WisCon (where I also praised Trade Me at length!).

So as you saw in my April post announcing Courtney Milan’s contemporary romance novel Trade Me as a GF book club topic, I love this book for multiple reasons. From here on out I’ll be indulging in spoilers, so, more after the jump!

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cover of TRADE ME by Courtney Milan

Book club: “Trade Me” by Courtney Milan

Hello! I’m helping relaunch the Geek Feminism Book Club, with a bit of a tweak in the interests of getting us going again swiftly (details at end). The book is Trade Me, a new contemporary romance novel by Courtney Milan, and we’ll talk about it in a comment thread here on May 28th.

In January, I snarfled up Trade Me. It stars a Chinese-American woman studying computer science at UC Berkeley. It’s about class and classism, deconstructing the Prince Charming/billionaire trope in romantic fiction, a product launch, Bay Area tech, ally fails, how to deal with cops, authenticity and adaptation, safety and freedom, trust, parents, and work. And one of the main secondary characters is trans, and all the physicality in the relationship is super consensual, and there is a kind-of reference to Cake Wrecks, and (maybe only I see it) to Randall Munroe’s “What If?” blog. I link it thematically to Jo Walton’s The Just City, Ellen Ullman’s The Bug, and the good parts of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. It’s pretty great, and you can read the first chapter for free at Milan’s site. (ROT13’d content warnings that are spoilers: qvfbeqrerq rngvat naq gur arne-qrngu bs n cnerag.)

Overall, Milan’s work is funny and loving and moving and smart. I like how she sets up and calls back to other books within series, I love that The Heiress Effect included an Indian guy, and I’m happy that she depicts queer characters and characters with disabilities. As a woman of color (“half-Chinese” in her words) she’s also especially aware of the importance of writing fictional representations of women of color in STEM, and of fixing broken standards that lead to unequal representation.

And she’s not just a geek, but a geek of my persuasion — specifically, an open source software maker. She wrote and wants people to reuse a chunk of GPL’d software to autogenerate links to a particular book at multiple online bookstores. Also she used to use Gentoo Linux. Of course she gives her readers permission to strip DRM from their copies of her books. Basically I would not be surprised if there is super flirty pair programming or a double entendre in a bash script in a future Milan book.

So this is the book for the next book club; usually we vote on what book to discuss next, but in the interests of getting momentum going again, I figured I’d choose this one by fiat and we’ll vote on the next one. Trade Me costs about USD$5 via any of several ebook retailers, and may be available via your local library‘s ebook lending program as well. Read it sometime in the next month and then come back here and we’ll talk about it!

The linkspam instinct (24 May 2014)

Announcements etc:

  • Long Hidden, a Kickstarter-funded anthology of spec fic centering marginalised characters, is now available for purchase.
  • Registration for Solutions Summit 2014: Women in Science Writing (June 13–15 at MIT) is open.
  • Model View Culture’s Queer issue is out! Individual articles will be scattered over the spam over the next week, but check out the whole thing.
  • FOSS4G — a conference for open source geospatial software, to be held in Portland Oregon in September — is dedicating 50% of their travel grants funding for women and minority attendees. Applications close May 30. They’re also looking for donations to the travel fund; you can donate when you register for the event.

Gender diversity data and tech companies:

Spam!

We link to a variety of sources, some of which are personal blogs.  If you visit other sites linked herein, we ask that you respect the commenting policy and individual culture of those sites.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on Pinboard, Delicious or Diigo; or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Drupal for Women Who Just Googled It

This is a guest post from Nikki Bailey. Nikki is a queer feminist lady: barista by day, web developer and feminist bookworm by night. She’s just launched a website for crowdsourcing knowledge about science fiction/fantasy books by women, and things she enjoys while that’s not taking up all her free time include gardening, aikido and Minecraft; you can reach her on Twitter at @kwerey.

Update by Mary, May 24: the site Nikki discusses in this post is at kwerey.com: Kwery, genre fiction by women.

About a month into the new year, during the winter lull at the cafe I work for, I decided to make a website.

Well, no, that wasn’t quite how it worked. I decided I wanted to learn about programming, and when CodeAcademy didn’t really hold my attention, I figured I might have more fun making something myself. Something small but practical: I’d make a site to keep track of books I’d read. That sounded like it’d be simple but useful, and I’d probably be done in a week and I’d be able to put “knows HTML” on my CV.

That plan changed pretty quick. I asked some techy friends on Facebook: One of them recommended WordPress, and then a couple of people mentioned that Drupal was cool at the moment. It’s probably a bit more versatile as a CMS overall, someone reckoned, but it’s difficult to get into – you might want to start with something a bit more simple.

I’ve been hacking stuff into working in Linux for more or less a decade now: the words “it’s not user friendly” lost all effect on me a while back. I took a look at Drupal and found a tool someone had written for it that looked up any ISBN in an open database and populated a form with the results automatically. That was me sold then and there: I went straight to the Very Basic Tutorials page on the Drupal site and started putting together some mysterious thing called a LAMP stack…

Three weeks later I’d got pretty carried away. I moved from learning my way around Drupal to learning about CSS and HTML and version control and PHP arrays. I learned to troubleshoot. I fixed problems – I even nervously published a few patches.

I hadn’t worked this hard since final year exams, or been so excited about what I was learning. I cycled to work daydreaming about UX and faceted searches, came home and filled my Firefox bookmarks with tutorials.

Eventually, I got there. My finished project is this: an online catalogue that stores books with all kinds of metadata: reviews users have added, publication date, genre, and the kind of questions things like the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign asks: there’s a field for ‘are there LGBT characters?’ and ‘is there a person of colour as a central character?’. In the end, I made it a catalogue of just books by women, because that’s an axe I’ve got to grind with the science fiction & fantasy community: hardly anyone ever recommends me books by female writers.

The site went live a few weeks ago, and last time I checked in on it, there were all kinds of cool sounding books on it I hadn’t ever heard of: I’ve made a way to find to provide myself with infinite new books to read, and put a resource out there I think could be really useful to people: I was over twenty by the time I read a book about a lesbian character that wasn’t totally depressing, and I’m pretty proud and excited about putting something out there to help marginalised people find themselves in fiction.

I always thought of the phrase ‘web development’ as referring to some kind of very structured skill, with a budget of thousands and probably more than one Gantt chart involved. That changed pretty much as soon as I started googling. Thanks to open source technology and the generosity of geeks with their secrets, it’s taken me under 2 months and £20 to put together a website that’s getting 1000~ unique visitors a day in its first few weeks of life: it’s been an act of creativity and collaboration, and it’s left me really excited about all the cool stuff the internet makes possible.

Thanks for everything, geeks of the internet. I hope this is gonna be the first of many projects you’ll see from me.

Book Club: Coding Freedom, Part II: Codes of Value

In Part II of Coding Freedom, Biella begins the vital work of problematizing the meritocratic ideal.

“Hackers will publicly acknowledge… acts of “genius” and are thus fiercely meritocratic – in ideology and practice. Yet given that so much of hacker production is collective, a fact increasingly acknowledged and even celebrated in the ethical philosophy of F/OSS, a commitment to individualism, meritocracy, and independence is potentially subverted by the reality of as well as the desire to recognize their fundamental interdependence. The belief in the value of individuality coupled with the constant need for the help of other hackers points to a subtle paradox that textures their social world.”

Who among us picked up any technical skills whatsoever without the help of someone more skilled who helped us out just because, in the spirit of paying it forward? Patient friends, lucid documentation, gentle answers on mailing lists: these are the familiar stepping stones from n00b to basic competence. Depending on your point of view, they exist in dynamic tension with, or in stark contrast to, the Romantic hero, powered only by genius and Mountain Dew. You know, this guy:

The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

There is for sure a seductive aspect to the idea of meritocracy, an aspect that’s maybe especially potent for adolescent people – or nations – who are trying to separate their identities from their progenitors in order to individuate and develop their potential. It’s understandable, but it shouldn’t survive contact with the real world, which is nothing if not More Complicated Than That.

“The United States is often thought of as a living embodiment of meritocracy: a nation where people are judged on their individual abilities alone. The system supposedly works so well because, as the media myth goes, the United States provides everyone with equal opportunity, usually through public education, to achieve their goals. As such, the hierarchies of difference that arise from one’s ability (usually to achieve wealth) are sanctioned by this moral order as legitimate.”

You’ve got to love the strategic deployment of qualifiers in the above passage, especially if, like me, you have come late in life to the conviction that meritocracy is bullshit. Yeah. I said it. The single biggest flaw in the idea of meritocracy is the proposition that there are people who are without merit. This is, to put it mildly, not the case.

The second biggest flaw in the idea of meritocracy is that it’s just a recursive modern gloss on the Divine Right of Kings. Leaders in the (ostensibly-meritocratic) open source community are entitled to exercise power because of their merit. The proof of their merit? Is their exercise of power. The word “meritocracy” is an ungainsayable defense of the status quo. It’s conservatism in a nutshell. As Alexander Pope once, infuriatingly, put it: “Whatever is, is right.”

This week, in which Linux kernel developer Sarah Sharp advanced the revolutionary notion that programming could be carried on without ad hominem attacks, has added special piquancy to this passage from Biella’s book:

“When Torvalds and Murdock developed their own projects (the Linux kernel and Debian, respectively), they did things differently than the earlier cadre of Unix hackers by fostering a more egalitarian environment of openness and transparency. Participation was encouraged, and recognition was given where it was due. Accepting more contributions was also, of course, seen as a way to improve and encourage technical efficiency.”

Biella acknowledges that Linux and Debian grew up to be very different projects, and goes on to discuss Debian’s Social Contract, Free Software Guidelines and Constitution. She has some sharp observations on the fear within the Debian community that the “meritocracy” will be “corrupted.”

I’d like to propose that the notion of meritocracy is itself corrupt. Ideas may have, or lack, merit. People have worth, and every person is worth more than we can possibly imagine. Inclusive communities are likely to write the best software because in them, ideas can compete on their (yes!) merits; and because software written by the other communities has exclusion coded into its very DNA.

But, y’know, I’m not a kernel coder, so who the hell cares what I think? ;) More to the point, dear readers: what do you think?

Wednesday Geek Woman: Mary Anne Mohanraj, Author and Editor

Photo by Alberto Yáñez.

Photo by Alberto Yáñez.

Mary Anne Mohanraj started one of the Internet’s first blogs, back in the wild days of 1995 when we still called them “Online Journals,” and everyone had to do all their html by hand.

She founded the award-winning speculative fiction magazine Strange Horizons, and the Speculative Literature Foundation, which promotes literary quality in speculative fiction. She has made a lot of her own short fiction available for free on her website.

She’s also a co-founder of the Carl Brandon Society, which works to “increase the racial and ethnic diversity in the production of and audience for speculative fiction.” Her essays about race in fandom have had a substantial impact on my own understanding of racial privilege. For folks looking for a solid introduction to these issues, I strongly recommend her two guest-posts on John Scalzi’s Whatever on race in SFF fandom: Mary Anne Mohanraj Gets You Up to Speed, Part I and Part II.

Mohanraj has an essay in Queers Dig Time Lords, which is coming out on June 4th. Her latest book, illustrated Science Fiction Erotica The Stars Change, is currently available for pre-order. It’ll be released on October 1st.

Book Club: Coding Freedom, Part I: Histories

(Sorry this is so late! Life kept happening, and then the blog went down :)

Since this is a book that deserves and rewards attention, and since we all seem to be reading it slowly as a result, let’s just discuss it one section at a time. From the introduction:

Free software hackers culturally concretize a number of liberal themes and sensibilities— for example, through their competitive mutual aid, avid free speech principles, and implementation of meritocracy along with their frequent challenge to intellectual property provisions.

(I’ll get to that “meritocracy” bit in good time.) One of the great points Biella makes early on is that hacking, while recognizably part of the liberal tradition, uses liberal techniques to critique liberalism itself. This restless contrarianism showed up earliest around IP, of course:

The expansion of intellectual property law, as noted by some authors, is part and parcel of a broader neoliberal trend to privatize what was once public or under the state’s aegis, such as health provision, water delivery,
and military services. “Neoliberalism is in the “first instance,” writes David Harvey (2005, 2), “a theory of political economic practices that proposes human well- being can be best advanced by liberating entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong property rights, free markets, and free trade.” As such, free software hackers not only reveal a long- standing tension within liberal legal rights but also offer a targeted critique of the neoliberal drive to make property out of almost anything, including software.

Oh, the 1990s. On the one hand you had a set of corporatist states seeking to exercise ever-more-restrictive controls around, for example, the precious, precious image of Mickey Mouse and music of Metallica; on the other hand you had a ragtag crew of approximately-libertarian hackers still simmering over the injustices handed down in the Unix wars. In between you had every other imaginable nuance of position. Shenanigans, naturally, ensued, and both Biella and I were on hand for the fun. I met her at various Bay Area Linux User Group and EFF events while she was conducting fieldwork in San Francisco around the turn of the millennium.

Those were glory days. The brilliance of Richard Stallman’s GPL was just beginning to make itself apparent. The GPL has radically transformed both the culture and the economics of software in ways that will continue to play out for the foreseeable future. Biella justly celebrates the terrific humor of hackers and hacking – I don’t think I really understood software, or my life partner, until I first looked into the Jargon file – and the GPL is one of hacking culture’s best and subtlest and most effective jokes.

Stallman approached the law much like a hacker treats technology: as a system that by virtue of being systemic and logical, is hackable. In other words, he relied on the hacker technical tactic of clever reuse to imaginatively hack the law by creating the GNU GPL, a near inversion of copyright law… By grafting his license on top of an already- existing system, Stallman dramatically increased the chances that the GPL would be legally binding. It is an instance of an ironic response to a system of powerful constraint, and one directed with unmistakable (and creative) intention— and whose irony is emphasized by its common descriptor, copyleft, signaling its relationship to the very artifact, copyright, that it seeks to displace.

What the GPL and the Jargon file share with the code itself is the ways in which they resemble literature – celebrating and codifying a culture – and the ways in which they resemble law – functioning as the constitutions of public spaces of the mind. (I think of the Unixes as a kind of Colossal Caves, only somehow more real.) And this, ultimately, is why we talk about coding freedom, and why the freedom part matters. Software systems are at once frontiers, meeting places and societies.

In the words of one programmer who helped me (a novice user) fix a problem on my Linux machine, “Unix is not a thing, it is an adventure.”

That’s the way I see Debian: alive.

This book is reminding me how much I love it here, but it’s also refreshingly blunt about hacker culture’s failings:

Along with the awkwardness I experienced during the first few weeks of fieldwork, I was usually one of the only females present during hacker gatherings, and as a result felt even more out of place.

That said, the answer is right there staring us in the face. Just as hacker culture uses liberal techniques to reform liberal techniques, geek feminists can and do hack hacker culture.

During cons, participants make crucial decisions that may alter the character and future course of the developer project. For example, at Debconf4, the few women attending, spearheaded by the efforts of Erinn Clark, used the time and energy afforded by an in- person meeting to initiate and organize Debian Women Project, a Web site portal and IRC mailing list to encourage female participation by visibly demonstrating the presence of women in the largely male project. Following the conference, one of the female Debian developers, Amaya Rodrigo, posted a bug report calling for a Debian Women’s mailing list, explaining the rationale in the following way:

From: Amaya Rodrigo Sastre
To: Debian Bug Tracking System
Subject: Please create debian- women mailing list
Date: Tue, 01 Jun 2004 22:12:30 +0200
Package:lists.debian.org
Severity: normal

Out of a Debconf4 workshop the need has arisen for a mailing list oriented to debating and coordinating the different ways to get a larger female userbase. Thanks for your time :- ).

Given enough eyes, all bugs are shallow, right? I’m trying to feel my way towards an evidence-based geek feminism, in which my ideas and practices are continually tested and assessed for usefulness or otherwise. Maybe the trick is to be woman enough to cull my ideas when they are bad?

Book Club: Coding Freedom

You came, you voted and we have a clear winner! I’m delighted to announce that the next Book Club pick will be Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, by the awesome Gabriella Coleman. The book is available for free download.

Go! Read! Let’s meet back here on Thursday, May 9th! I’m pretty sure this one’s going to rock our socks off.