Tag Archives: floss

Plover: Freeing Stenography

Mirabai Knight is a Certified CART Provider (realtime stenographer for the deaf and hard of hearing) in New York City. When she was 11, her older brother introduced her to the concept of free software. At the time she mocked him for being a soppy idealist, but the idea quietly took root, and now 18 years later she’s thrilled to be responsible for launching the world’s first free stenographic keyboard emulator.

Leigh: I’m very excited to be able to pick the brains of open source pioneer Mirabai Knight, whose project Plover just had their initial public release. Can you tell us about Plover and stenography?

Mirabai: I’ve been geek-identified and hacker-adjacent all my life, but never actually wound up learning how to code until, after years of frustration with the DRM-riddled $4,000 proprietary steno program I use in my CART business, I decided that the world needed free steno software, and that if I didn’t get it going, it probably wouldn’t happen. That might sound conceited, but the overlap between the stenographic and computer geek worlds is bafflingly small, considering how vital efficient text entry is to virtually every tech field.

Before Plover, the price of even a bare bones computerized steno system was around $1,500, so only people who intended to go into a stenographic career (court reporting, captioning, or CART) could justify the expense. There were no opportunities for amateurs, tinkerers, or dabblers, and it frustrated me, because I could see so many non-commercial applications for stenographic technology. That’s when I decided to start up The Plover Project. I knew I needed someone who could wrangle both hardware and software, and I was hoping I could get some elementary instruction in Python along the way. By a great stroke of luck, Joshua Harlan Lifton, a freelance programmer with extensive hardware hacking experience, was renting space two floors above my Brooklyn coworking co-op, and after noticing the call for a Python tutor/developer that I posted on the building’s elevator corkboard, he enthusiastically agreed to help out with the project. A little less than a year later, we have an actual functional realtime steno program that lets you type at 200 words per minute directly into any X window using a $45 off-the-shelf keyboard.

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Linkspam decided she liked math after all

  • Desperate to own Computer Engineer Barbie? She’s now up for pre-order on Amazon.com, shipping December 15, 2010. Other places may have her as well (feel free to note any you find in the comments, especially for non-US readers). Edit: Note that she comes as both African American and the stereotypical Blonde-haired Caucasian variety.
  • Think maybe Computer Engineer Barbie just isn’t for you? You might get a kick out of this photo of the Open Source women at GHC10. We decided to do a photo where we “patched” her to be a bit more free software friendly:
    Grace Hopper 2010-13

  • Ever wondered if complaining about sexist language actually made things better? The answer may be yes: Accusations of Sexism Spur Greater Sensitivity: “New research finds confronting a man about his sexist language can have surprisingly positive results.
  • Eva ponders, “What does Bechdel really mean?” examining why she originally disliked the arbitrary-ness of the test and what she gradually learned through applying it to things she loved.
  • You’re probably sick of hearing about The Social Network, but I’ve been told if you’re feeling like doing some outreach to feminists who believe that CS really is for loser male nerds, here’s a thread or two you might like (or hate) to check out.

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here and if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism” to bring them to our attention you can also use the tag #geekfeminism 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 in comments and on delicious or twitter.

Survival of the spammiest (5th August, 2010)

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism” to bring them to our attention. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.

Quick hit: FSF Women’s Caucus recommendations

The Free Software Foundations Women’s Caucus grew out of the September 2009 FSF mini-summit on women in Free Software. The Caucus has now released their initial findings and recommendations, here’s an excerpt:

We identified a number of barriers to women’s participation in free software and strategies for overcoming these obstacles… Women who are not already involved in free software often don’t feel invited to join free software groups or projects. We have identified strategies for groups who are looking to grow and diversify their membership… We noted the relative invisibility of women who are already making significant contributions to free software…

What do you think? (Remember that I’ve only posted an excerpt, do read the whole thing.) Has the Women’s Caucus identified new ideas and strategies that would be widely useful in women-in-computing or women-in-STEM advocacy? Have they missed significant first steps?

Hairy-legged bra-burning linkspam (17th June, 2010)

  • Open World Forum 2010 (Sep 30 to Oct 1, Paris) is having a Diversity Summit: Why women matter? relating to women in Free/Open Source Software. There’s an associated poll to gather data about women in FLOSS that anyone involved in FLOSS might be interested in taking.
  • Andrea Phillips is super-excited about Caitlin Burns and Jurassic Park Slope events.
  • Making games is hard: On the barriers that women face: … as someone whose life has been consumed by learning the ins and outs of game development for the past three years, I have to say that making a game is pretty damn hard. And I think that the complicated process of game development itself can be a barrier to women entering the field
  • Discussing sexism in geek communities is more important than discussing gender imbalance: Restructure! writes Ironically, when some female geeks use the capitalist discourse of increasing female representation in STEM fields as a structural strategy for reducing sexism and improving our personal autonomy / right to pursue our career of choice, many male geeks misunderstand these efforts as being anti-choice.
  • In light of Restructure!’s post, see Eric Ries, Why diversity matters (the meritocracy business): That’s why I care a lot about diversity: not for its own sake, but because it is a source of strength for teams that have it, and a symptom of dysfunction for those that don’t.
  • Women and Technology and Myth: Adriana Gardella interviews Cindy Padnos, a venture capitalist. The article is a little bit on the "suck it up, buttercup" end of the spectrum, but has good points about critical mass and homophily.
  • Jessa Crispin has given up reading bad books about women: I had to give up on a pretty good book because halfway through I did a little equation: what was the probability that the two women in the book would turn out to be anything other than gold diggers and sluts. Not great! So: gone.
  • Isis the Scientist has more on John Tierney, bonus humorous pictures!
  • What I got wrong about women in science: Maggie Koerth-Baker writes Several hours after I hit “publish”, I realized that I’d managed to put together a panel on diversity made up of nothing but white people.
  • Her blogging about social justice doesn’t make Renee your on-tap free expert on womanism, anti-racism or social justice.

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism†to bring them to our attention. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.

The linkspam-whore dichotomy (17th May, 2010)

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism†to bring them to our attention. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.

Cathy Malmrose of ZaReason: Linux Entrepreneur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LinuxCon Wants You!

I’ve been talking to some of the organizers of LinuxCon, and they are very interested in making sure that all women in the Linux community feel encouraged to submit a CFP to speak at LinuxCon. So if you weren’t sure if LinuxCon was right for you or your friends, consider this your personal invitation, and get those proposals in ASAP!

We’d like to encourage all women in the Linux community to submit a proposal to speak at LinuxCon, the industry’s premiere Linux conference. While our CFP has closed officially, we still have it open to receive last minute submissions.

LinuxCon 2010 is taking place August 10-12 in Boston, MA and will bring together the best and brightest that the Linux community has to offer, including core developers, administrators, end users, community managers and industry experts. LinuxCon provides an unmatched collaboration and education space for all matters Linux. With a wide range of speakers and attendees, LinuxCon offers a unique conference experience that encourages collaboration, progress and interaction. We invite you to share your ideas and experiences with the Linux community by submitting proposals for presentations, tutorials, birds of a feather sessions, panels, lightning sessions and workgroups.


We’ve got some more exciting LinuxCon related news coming, so stay tuned!

Women and geek prestige

This an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our commenters. I have some comments on this one at the bottom, but not a real answer.

I’ve seen various mention of trying to increase the respect given for non-coding activities, such as documentation and testing, which seem have a better gender ratio than coding, as a way of increasing acknowledged female involvement in FLOSS. But, while we definitely should give more recognition to non-coding involvement, it seems to me that allocation of respect / recognition simply does naturally concentrate on that which has the longest and steepest learning curves (just as I guess that in running there’s a hierarchy of jogger – runner – marathon runner – hypermarathon runner), and that this route will risk perpetuating a division into “womens’ work” and “men’s work”, with the traditional difference in public valuation. Is this a risk? Is it happening? And if so, what can we do about it?

And likewise, I get a similar impression about scripting vs compiled languages — that, statistically, women (more so than men) tend to prefer languages like python, rather than the languages that they’re implemented in (typically C). Is this a real divide? And does it have risks of getting more female involvement in FLOSS but in a way that some [male geeks] will dismiss as “not the real thing”?

Something I think is worth considering about this question is whether or not the hierarchy the questioner gives is objective. I’d argue that it largely isn’t. The learning curve for coding can be long and steep, yes. But consider documentation, for example. Writing well is a really difficult skill. It’s sometimes not as obvious that you’re acquiring it, precisely because it’s such a very long process and it involves doing a lot of reading and practising other forms of communication as well. A baseline level of skill in writing is also more common than a baseline level of skill in coding, but a high level of skill is no easier — I’d actually guess much harder at the very extremes — to achieve.So we need to be very wary of accepting this hierarchy at face value, both because it buys into the existing undervaluation of certain skills and because it risks continuing a nasty pattern: “if women can do it, it must be easier than we thought, let’s look for something currently mostly done by men and value that instead.”

That said, coding is fun and useful. (Well, for me. But that’s enough!) So is nuclear physics, pure mathematics, electrical engineering, hard SF and many other “male” halves of the gender binary fractal. So we don’t want to cede those to men.

For more of my own thoughts on this, see “Girl stuff” in Free Software, a post from last year from the point-of-view of deciding what to work on as a woman. What do you think? Where’s the balance between creating and properly valuing roles more suited for women’s existing socialisation and more women entering male-dominated and currently highly valued roles?

If She Can Do It, I Can Too

Leslie Hawthorn has just made another huge career change and will begin life as a consultant shortly after speaking on FOSS mentoring in Turkey and accepting an award from the National Center for Open Source and Education. Oh yes, and some vacation. :)

You can find her on identi.ca and Twitter.

A little over four years ago, I made a huge career change. While I loved talking to geeks all day, recruiting just wasn’t the right role for me. When Chris DiBona asked if I was interested in joining his team to help make Google Summer of Code happen for the second year, I was elated. I knew I had great organizational and project management skills. I knew I got along really well with programmers and loved to talk tech. I knew what the Summer of Code was – an awesome program to give jobs to students by giving them a chance to work on Open Source projects, and a great way for those projects to find new contributors. And I knew what open source software was in a general sense – everyone shares their code with everyone else. Sounded beautiful and idealistic. I was in!

What I didn’t know was, well, everything else. Sure, I used Firefox, but I was running Windows. I’d used GNOME about, oh, four years previously, but never to do anything but play music files and it wasn’t ever running on a computer I owned. I had never been on a mailing list before joining Google, and had never been on a mailing list outside the company. I hadn’t used IRC since high school. And did I mention that I don’t write code?

Now consider that the team I was joining consisted of the dude who used to talk about Linux on TV – oh yeah, and he’s now my boss – the then Chairman of the Apache Software Foundation, two of the lead developers of Subversion – those guys whose Poisonous People talk has more than 120,000 views on YouTube, and a dude who is an IP attorney in addition to being a compiler developer. A few months later, I’d be sharing a cube with the guy who literally wrote the book on Open Source software. No pressure, right?

Needless to say, I was intimated. Really intimidated. But I was also passionately excited about the chance to help people do good in the world, and that pushed me to get out there and get things done. I talked to some lawyers, knocked on the doors of some accounting types, wrote some documentation, kicked mIRC until I could figure out how to connect to Freenode, and created a channel called #gsoc. And the games began.

I spent the first few days hanging out, seeing who was there and trying to answer questions quickly and effectively. There were a lot of people in the channel who had participated in Summer of Code the year before talking about what a great program it was and how it really helped them become better coders, get a good job, and meet great new programmers for their projects. I knew I’d made the right choice in taking on this job. I also knew I had no idea what I was doing and that I was going to be found out for the Impostor I was at any second.

Suddenly, this amazing person burst into the channel, filled with praise for the program. I didn’t know who she was, but I surmised from her handle webchick that she was, well, a chick who worked on web stuff. She was infectiously enthusiastic about her work on Drupal, which I quickly Googled. I still didn’t know a Content Management System from a Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, but I quickly deduced that it was software that helped you make websites. Cool beans. I had played around with DreamWeaver a little bit back in the day. I could understand this stuff.

So I asked webchick if I was right and Drupal helps you create websites, figuring it was a stupid question but that I had to start learning sometime. She replied immediately telling me that I was right and that it was written in PHP – okay, good, I know what PHP is – and that she hadn’t worked on it before Summer of Code. I was astounded. I asked her to tell me more since I could only imagine that doing this kind of work required all kinds of experience, so she must had some really great classes at school or she wouldn’t have been able to learn so much so quickly.

To my surprise, she let all of us know that she had taken a few classes on web design at community college, but nothing that had really prepared her extensively for working on Drupal. She said that she’d been terrified of contributing to open source because it was just for geniuses but since she saw that Summer of Code was a program for students, she thought they’d be OK with someone who was a complete beginner. She’d been sucked in completely by Drupal and now spent morning, noon and night working on it. If I remember correctly, she’d already been hired by a Drupal consulting shop when we had that first fateful interaction.

I know webchick was just telling her story, but I can’t even begin to tell you how much what she said gave me confidence. I too attended community college and after walking through halls filled with Stanford PhDs for three years, I had a little bit of, um, degree shame. Sure, I graduated from Cal at the top of my class, but I only had an English degree and couldn’t possibly be as awesome as all those people around me who had only attended universities and had done advanced studies in Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence. Hrm. Maybe not.

I walked away from that IRC chat feeling so inspired. I knew if webchick had been successful, I could be too. She had passion for her subject, unbridled enthusiasm and the willingness to share her experiences. I had all those things, too. If those were the indicators of success, I could make it work, even if I didn’t know a darn thing yet.

One year later, I was promoted to be manager of the whole Summer of Code program. I started traveling the world to share stories like webchick’s with people so that they would be just as inspired by the wonder that is participating in the FOSS community. I started inviting the public to Google to hear about all the great work being done by famous open source developers who’d joined the company. Two years later, I launched one of the most widely read developer blogs at Google soon after and kept it fed with regular content. With the help of webchick and an awesome team of mentors, I then went on to create and launch the world’s first global initiative to get pre-university students involved in open source development. I might have had zero experience then, but now I was making things happen.

Four years after that chat in IRC, webchick, a.k.a. Angela Byron, is now the maintainer for Drupal 7. Even if you don’t know what a CMS is, you’ll be impressed to know that the software that Angie is currently in charge of is what powers whitehouse.gov. Angie was the recipient of one of five Google O’Reilly Open Source Awards for Best Contibutor in 2008. Being able to share that stage with her and put the award figurine in her hands remains one of the most shining moments of my life.

If you’re intimidated, you’re not alone. Don’t let that stop you. We all have to start somewhere and FOSS people who seem like deities to you were all new at this once, too. If Angie can do it and I can do it, you can too. Cease procrastination and begin your application for Google Summer of Code 2010.

And remember, even if you fall flat on your face, at least you know you’re moving forward.

See you in #gsoc on Freenode.