Tag Archives: class

Guest post: My Nerd Story: Class, queerness and the transformative nature of technology and open source.

This is a guest post from Beth ‘pidge’ Flanagan. Beth is a Senior Software Engineer for Intel’s Open Source Technologies Center and spends most of her time working on OpenEmbedded Core and the Yocto Project, mainly as the release engineer and maintainer of the yocto-autobuilder. She is also a geek, a queer trans woman, a motorcyclist, and a practitioner of random bits of general purpose geekery. She has been working in IT/software engineering now for the past 23 years. She blogs at http://hacklikeagirl.wordpress.com.

I was born and raised right outside of Newark, NJ. My family was working class and I grew up in a working class neighborhood full of first and second generation immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, Brazil, Italy, Puerto Rico, Central America, etc. Basically, a neighborhood that most people wouldn’t think of as a fertile bed for nerds. I tell people to basically imagine some of the more gritty scenes from The Sopranos and they’d get an accurate idea of where I grew up.

The Sopranos - Satriale's Pork Store

I realized at a very young age that I was a trans woman and that without a well thought out plan, I wouldn’t be able survive the conservative confines of that world. This concept of needing to escape was further compounded by the fact that I was on the bottom of the social ladder at school. I was bookish, had a serious lisp and a severe femoral torsion which caused me to walk pigeon toed (hence the nickname I carry to this day). I also had a classroom full of boys and some of the girls who marked me as “different” from my first day at school and did not let up in their abuse for the entirety of my elementary school career.

When I was 9 or so, I had a pretty good idea that all the praying in the world wouldn’t make me not trans and that I should probably spend some time figuring out what to do about it. So, I petitioned my father for an adult library card (remember a time when ‘looking stuff up’ included a trip to an actual library?). I remember asking him if he would sign the papers for my library card and he handed me the largest book on the bookshelf he could find,’The Crusades’ by Zoe Oldenbourg. He told me “Read this and do a book report and I’ll sign the permission slip”. I read it in about a month or so and that signed permission slip opened up a world I could never have dreamt of.

That library was my salvation. In its stacks I learned, in carefully hidden books, that I could do something about being trans. For the first time I could remember, the serious depression I had been in since age 6 when I figured out that I wouldn’t grow up to be a woman, not at least without a little bit of help, abated somewhat. The library became my second home. It was where I spent my days, hiding from the world. I went into full on reading mode, devouring anything I could get my hands on, but always ending up back in the science row with it’s miniscule amount of books on computer science. But, they did have an entire set of “The Art of Computer Programming”. I flipped through it somewhere around age 10 and didn’t understand one bit of it! Somehow though, I was strangely enamored with the idea that language could be turned into something that made machines do work.

I mentioned before that people generally don’t think of working class people as a hotbed of nerdism. If anything, I think that the reality is the exact opposite. When you grow up without a lot of money you end up learning how to make things last and fix things that need repair. My family was no different. My father was a fairly decent carpenter who tried, bless him, to teach me with absolutely no success. His mechanical skills were impressive, something I ended up being able to learn much later in life. My grandmother however taught me how to crochet. In crocheting I saw math and patterns and it taught me how patterns could create beauty.

When you’re the kind of strange effeminate kid in a working class world that I was, you end up spending a lot of time alone and learn to quickly entertain yourself. One summer I spent a full week alone in my backyard with a roll of tin foil, a magnifying glass and a thermometer seeing what the highest temperature I could achieve was. That was also the year I built a boobytrapped for the backdoor to the house. (I was afraid of burglars). I forgot to unset it and it almost knocked my mother out when she opened it and a few of my brothers baseball bats came flying out, full speed, towards her face.

1982 came around and something happened that would change my life forever. It all started with two lines.

10 PRINT "I HATE SCHOOL!!!"
20 GOTO 10

I still remember those first two lines of code I ever wrote. It was a 10 year old kid’s ‘Hello World’. The Catholic school I attended had invited this computer education company in to do an optional computer class. I begged my parents to let me take it. I remember the first day I stepped into that class. About a dozen or so Commodore PETs, with the ever so high tech audio cassette storage devices.

Pet4016

After the first few classes, you just stopped trying to load your prior work from tape at the start of class as it took forever to load. You got really good at remembering what you did the week before and learned to type quicker than the audio tape could load. I ended up falling asleep at night listening to those tapes (SkreeeetchWoooooSkreeeeeeetch!); in love with the idea that you could store STUFF on tape other than music!

So, here I was, this kid who was absolutely on the bottom of the social ladder. I was despised by the kids at school and my ability to have control over my life was greatly impacted by overly protective parents, my age and obvious gendered behavior difference, but… for those 45 minutes a week in 1982, I had, for the first time in my life, actual agency. I could sit there and tell a machine to do whatever I wanted it to and the results were up to me. It wouldn’t beat me up. It wouldn’t make fun of me for the way I walked, or held my books. It wouldn’t call me awful things. It would just do what I told it to do. (This generally entailed new and more complex ways of spitting out how much I hated school, to be perfectly honest.)

Those little two lines of code turned into a much larger program that year and my parents ended up trying to nurture the one thing I had shown an actual interest in. I’m still unsure of how my father afforded it, but one day he came home with a Timex Sinclair 1000, literally the cheapest computer there was. I actually recall using it quite a bit, but, as the concept of needing to store things was a bit beyond my dad, who was a truck driver, he had neglected to buy the audio tape drive. I would have to leave it on for weeks with a note on it, telling people not to shut it off or I’d lose my program.

Zx81-timex-manipulated

But, no matter how much computers could act as an escape for me, there was still this huge thing I had to deal with and as I got older and the effects of puberty started to hit, my depression worsened. I stopped writing code in my Junior year of high school and just focused on trying to make it through the day. By the time I hit university I was an absolute wreck from trying to deal with being trans. So, after the first year, I made the best decision ever. I quit and moved to Washington DC and was able to have space to figure out what my plan was.

I moved back home after about a year because I had gotten fairly sick. By this time, my mother had gone from being a secretary to getting a degree in accounting to being a VP at a small software company. Behind my mothers back, I finagled a job there. I will always remember the engineering manager who risked her wrath to give her weird, green mohawk having kid a job. So, my lucky break came in 1991, at age 19, writing insurance software in MagicPC for 5 dollars an hour.

Eventually, I left to take a job at the local university. Here is where I encountered the second thing to change my life. Windows 95.

It was 1994 and we were previewing the beta of Windows 95 for a migration from Windows 3.11. I absolutely loathed it. There was no integrated TCP/IP stack. I was use to the Solaris command line by that point and this was still the clunky DOS shell. It was nothing I wanted and while it was an improvement over 3.11, I wanted something more, so I went searching for a better solution and found it in Slackware.

I don’t remember the exact version of Slackware I finally got to install, but I know the kernel was around 0.99 (before loadable modules and ELF binaries!). It was like a dream and a nightmare rolled into one. When you got it working it went like clockwork, but it was an absolute TERROR to set up. Package management? Nope, tar.gz and make were your friends. I got really good at debugging makefiles.

But, I was hardly bored. I spent way too much time getting kernels recompiled, fighting with X11 settings on my Diamond video card, wondering why the NE2000 card would blue screen all the Windows 95 boxes on the token ring. Bored? I was too busy tearing apart this amazing thing that people had put together, in part, just for something cool to do.

It was magic. Here was this thing that didn’t work out of the box! I had to actually sit there and figure it all out. That year and a half I spent learning the operating system inside and out gave me a sense of accomplishment, a sense of pride and a sense that if I could survive a Slackware install and make it out on the other end, a gender transition should be a piece of cake, right?

I had finally figured out the logistics of my transition and set a date. To put it mildly, the concept was sound, but the execution went poorly. I lost my job, my family and the entire situation created a rift in my family that will probably never, unfortunately heal. So, here I was, age 24, with a brand new gender presentation, a high school diploma, a job history I couldn’t use because it was under a different name. I had moved to Philadelphia and was living on a friends couch because I was kicked out of home. Things were not looking very positive.

But, there were a few things I did have.

I knew how to write code.

I knew Unix and Linux.

I was too damn stubborn to take “No”.

And I was left with no other choice.

I’m not sure how I got hired, I’m sure in part it was a bit of desperation on their part, but within the month, I ended up getting hired as a sysadmin, administering 250 AT&T BSD boxes that ran a computer based testing suite. I ended up working on porting the program over to Linux which got me hired into writing the next generation of that software.

From there it was on to trying my hand at UI design with stops in animation, power grid, control systems. And then, eventually, to my current home in the embedded world.

I look over the past 30 years since I first sat down at that old Commodore PET and am thankful. I had a mother who, despite our differences, firmly instilled in me the idea that women, even women like me, could do anything. I had a work ethic that instilled in me that as long as I could do the job, nothing else mattered. I had the stubbornness to not believe the people who were telling me “NO!”. I had the curiosity and the drive to figure it out for myself because I knew that no one was going to tell me how to do it.

My nerdcred doesn’t come to me from a piece of paper, but by sheer force of will. I know a lot of my colleagues came to where they’re at by the “traditional” route, university, internships, etc. I’m glad for them but I do not envy them a bit. While my route was the hard, tough slog, I would never trade it for the world.

I firmly believe that my past gives me a perspective in geekdom that is relatively unique. It has made me a better engineer than I think I would have been had I gone that traditional route. It has defined who I am and has made me a better person because of it. I can look at people from non-traditional nerd backgrounds and see their inner engineer. I’ve learned that sometimes, you find the most brilliant of people in the least likely of places. I approach new experiences, be they personal or technological without one iota of fear.

And lastly I always know that the first program I write whenever I learn a new language is going to be my own, special, personal version of the first two line program I ever wrote.

And I thought Linkspams smelled bad on the outside! (30 October, 2012)

  • Race, Class, and Gender in the History of Computing | The Computer Boys Take Over: “It is clear, however, that just as computer programming was made masculine over the course of the 1970s (in the sense that the idealized stereotype of the programmer was transformed from female to male), computer programming also became increasingly white (again, if not in numeric terms, at least as a cultural category).”
  • Open source software: Open to all? | The Ada Initiative: “What matters for the open source community is that, just as many politicians immediately withdrew their endorsements of Mourdock, Rivard, and Akin, the open source community should also withdraw their support of leaders who make statements like this.”
  • 2D Goggles in Motion | Sequential Tart: Interview with Sydney Padua, creator of 2DGoggles (webcomic about Ada Lovelace) and well-known animator.
  • Even When Women Write Their Own Checks, The Gender Pay Gap Persists | Forbes: “When female entrepreneurs pay themselves a salary (and they do just 41% of the time in contrast with 53% of their male peers), they earn $60,000. Male founders write themselves much fatter paychecks-$78,000 on average.”
  • Border House News Roundup | the border house: “We’re introducing a new feature, starting this week: a Friday news roundup, with a summary of releases, events and happenings in the games world; and the best of the week’s articles concerning intersectionality, social critique, and women in videogames.”

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious or pinboard.in 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.

Wall of Spam, by freezelight on Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Linkspam shattered on impact (19th September, 2011)

  • The GNOME Women’s Outreach Program is running paid internships (for women, and not only students) from December 12, 2011 through March 12, 2012. The application deadline is October 31.
  • Just 12% of CSIRO’s senior scientists women: While at entry level almost 50 per cent of post-doctorate graduates are female [at CSIRO, Australia's government research agency], just 12 per cent of senior specialists are women.
  • Women, swearing and the workplace: Since [Carol] Bartz’s very public departure from Yahoo last week, her penchant for blunt, profane language has become recurring themes in discussions of her career, driving conversation about what women can and can’t be in the workplace.
  • (Warning: self-harm and harassment mentioned.) Naming Names on the Internet: Three years ago… It required contributors to Web portals and other popular sites to use their real names, rather than pseudonyms… Last month, after a huge security breach, the government said it would abandon the system.
  • (Warning for sexual assault and denial.) Reddit Users Find New Way To Be Assholes. When a woman posted about her sexual assault on Reddit, she enraged doubters, who eventually convinced her to post video proof of the crime.
  • Introducing Ladydrawers: it’s the female-identified creators who aren’t being encouraged to submit [comics] work, aren’t being sought out and aren’t getting books turned into big movie deals. In comics and elsewhere, women creators of all sorts of media are starting to ask: Why? Ladydrawers, a new semimonthly comics collaboration, will look at a few possible reasons and impacts in comics form.
  • Across the digital divide: This doesn’t change the part where, every time a discussion of ebooks turns, seemingly inevitably, to Print is dead, traditional publishing is dead, all smart authors should be bailing to the brave new electronic frontier, what I hear, however unintentionally, is Poor people don’t deserve to read.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious, freelish.us or pinboard.in 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.

Where are all the linkspams? (14th March, 2011)

  • Betsy Leondar-Wright and ana australiana write about the impenetrability of middle-class activism to working class people, and about how the sidelining of middle-class subcultures isn’t equivalent to systemic oppression: It’s not “them” — it’s us!, Equivalences.
  • “Very rarely do stories of women and technology vary in tone from the gender gap theme. Where are the women? Well, heck, we’ve been here all along – something we’ve recently pointed out in our Valentine’s Day piece about ENIAC.Writes Amber Bouman in MaximumPC for Women’s History Month.
  • sqbr is interested in user stories about the use of image descriptions on Tumblr. my arguments have all been about hypothetical users and it would be useful to have some evidence against the “but noone who needs descriptions would use a visual medium like tumblr” argument. There’s lots of feedback in comments.
  • s.e. smith: Why I’m Leaving Feminism: So many disabled people, nonwhite people, transgender people, people of colour, poor people, adamantly refuse to identify with feminism in its current incarnation in the United States… The model of feminism we see is one where oppression perpetrated in the name of “activism’ is acceptable, where casual ableism, racism, classism, transphobia run so deep that many of us don’t even bother to point it out anymore.
  • A bit of history: Carl Sagan’s appeal to the Explorers Club to admit women.
  • Gender Differences and Casual Sex: The New Research: Women’s reluctance comparative to men to accept the [offer] wasn’t really a reluctance to have casual sex, but rather a response to a different offer than the men got — the didn’t think the men would be as much fun.
  • Heidi Grant Halvorson on the difficulties of high achieving girls: What makes smart girls more vulnerable and less confident when they should be the most confident kids in the room? At the 5th grade level, girls routinely outperform boys in every subject, including math and science.
  • Gaming industry finally recognizes the work of a pioneer: It was back in the mid-1970s that [Jerry] Lawson developed the first video game console system, breaking ground in more ways than one. You see, Lawson, 70, is black. And while we often try to pretend that's neither here nor there, the truth is it is here — and it was even more-so there, when Lawson arrived in the valley in 1968.
  • Inoculation Against Stereotype: …choice isn’t as simple as people think. People assume that these choices are free choices, based on talent and interest and motivation, Dasgupta said. …Even talented people may not choose math or science not because they don’t like it or are not good at it, but because they feel that they don’t belong.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the geekfeminism tag on delicious 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.

geekiness and the reimaging of craft

I’ve recently gotten back in to cross stitching, after a twelve year break. The first thing I tried was this Firefox pattern from Radical Cross-stitch. It was not too difficult, and a good nerdy way to start.

firefox cross stitch

I have high aspirations, though. I’m really interested in gaming type cross stitches; in particular I love this cross stitch Zelda map.

My latest project is a stitching of the Melbourne tram map. I’m stitching it without a pattern, and hoping for the best, really. You may remember the London tube cross stitch. It’ll be like that, only more yellow.

There’s been a resurgence, or a growth I guess, of ‘radical’ or reinterpreted craft. No flowers and doggies and quotes from the bible, it’s all breasts and vulvas and expletives undeleted. This reimaging of craft as a feminist radical endeavour is fun and interesting, and lots of crafters talk about empowerment, but the majority of this radical craft is Western-based (I don’t have stats or references for this claim, just from what I see as I cruise around the crafting blogs, but if you’ve found a stash of non-Western-based craft blogs then hand them over), very knitting and cross-stitch focussed, and incredibly time consuming. It seems almost class-based, which I suppose is inevitable – it took me a month to do that Firefox, who has time for that, you know? So there are lots of questions for me about the feminist empowerment of this craft movement, and the appropriateness of talking about it in these terms.

I am new to the world of radical crafting, though, and am very interested to hear the thoughts of others in this area.