Monthly Archives: September 2009

On the fringes or in our own center?

On the geekfeminism IRC channel today we were talking about the Open Source Bridge conference in Portland this summer. This conference sounded great, but I missed it and then never went back around to see what had happened there. Maria from .51 gave her mandatory unicorn talk, Faking It Til I Make It: A Woman On The Fringe Of Open Source.

As a long-time user of open source software, I’ve often considered myself an advocate but not necessarily a participant. Over the last year and a half, my own search for technical inspiration has led me full-circle to the realization that I’m an active member of a vibrant community of technical women.

Cami Kaos from StrangeLoveLive did a short interview with Maria at OSB. They only just mention Maria’s work with embedded systems and Linux, but they joke around a lot about the unicorn law. It’s extremely charming!

On her blog, .51, Maria links out to some other interviews featuring women from Open Source Bridge, in keeping with her blog’s purpose and her primary interest: “spreading the word about the pursuits and accomplishments of geeky women everywhere.” Yay Maria! (Her own geeky pursuits include ham radio and model rocketry.)

I really enjoyed her post on explaining embedded systems by busting open some cell phones.

Our talks were followed by a selection of activities. My activity was (surprise!) busting stuff open. I brought along about a dozen cell phones with the sim cards and batteries removed, told folks how they could open the cases to see the boards and components inside, then gave them the tools to do it. It was great! It was much easier to explain embedded systems to folks once they had the examples in their own hands and I could point to specific components as I explained their uses.

Now that would be a good video. I’d watch it!

Thanks to Emma Jane for the link to OSB!

I agree with Maria. We’re fringified, but we build our own centers and gravitate towards them, and that process is snowballing right now. Keep it coming. We’re unstoppable – we don’t need to be in someone else’s middle to be powerful.

On that note, if you would like to view this page with moar rainbow unicorns, the way I like to read Slashdot, install the cornify bookmark for some instant sparkle. It’s very funny, sort of like having Lisa Frank’s worst nightmares barf all over your browser.

Quick hit: Macarthur Fellowship

I was hoping to get round to doing this last week, but things exploded. Luckily, Peggy over at the Women in Science blog has written up a great post about Lin He and Beth Shapiro, two women scientists who received the $500,000, no-strings-attached grant this year:

Lin He’s research involves a class of small ribonucleic acid, or RNA, that are not transcribed into protein like messenger RNA. Instead, these microRNAs or miRNAs bind to messenger RNA to regulate the amount of protein produced. This entirely new level of dosage regulation in mammals was not realized until 2000, even though miRNAs were first discovered in 1993. Now, miRNAs have been shown to be involved in many aspects of development and diseases, He said.


Beth Shapiro is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology at Pennsylvania State University. She is “an evolutionary biologist who integrates molecular phylogenetics with advanced computational biostatistics to reconstruct the influences on population dynamics in a wide variety of organisms.” She is using the methods she and her colleagues developed to study the population history of recently extinct (like the dodo) or currently threatened species to assess the effects of environmental change on polar bear populations, an approach that will help in shaping conservation efforts. She also has been studying the evolution of RNA viruses in individual patients, an approach that may help in understanding the development of virulence in human pathogens.

Penny’s post also includes video and further links.

Responding to offensive presentations at conferences

Selena Deckelmann is a software engineer for End Point Corporation, a PostgreSQL developer and user group liaison for it’s global development group, and co-chair of the Open Source Bridge conference in Portland, OR. She likes bikes, sourdough bread and her steak medium-rare. This entry was originally posted on her blog.

How to handle WTF conference presentation moments.How to handle WTF conference presentation moments.

On a couple mailing lists I participate in, people have raised the question: “When something offensive occurs during a conference presentation, what’s the right response from the audience and/or conference organizers?”

Unfortunately, at least one of these discussion lists is private, so I can’t directly quote the individuals who posted. But the content was worth sharing, so I’m summarizing the group’s thoughts in my own words below.

Here are some of the suggestions for handling offensive, unprofessional or inappropriate presentation content:

  • Train session monitors for a conference to contact the conference chair in the event of an issue, so that the conference chair can make a decision on whether to stop the talk or directly address the issue immediately (or later)
  • Conference chairs/committees make it clear to presenters up front what the expectations are (Presentation be rated G/PG-13/R, none of the “seven forbidden words” allowed, no commercial pitches, etc) — and there were dissenting opinions about this (esp G-rated issue — examples were given of things that were G-rated but also incredibly offensive depictions of women and minorities)
  • Screening presentations ahead of time (typically not something that open source conferences are able to do because of the habits of our presenters, and the rapidly evolving nature of the topics, but possible for a subset of presentations)
  • Audience members could address something that is offensive during Q&A (and audience members are encouraged to operate under the assumption that the speaker unintentionally offended)
  • Leave room for judgment on the part of conference organizers when developing community standards, as conferences are an “intentional community” and are free to set standards which are more or less strict than other conferences/communities
  • Bake a WTF cake, and serve it to the presenter (WAY underutilized tactic)

One theme that emerged was the need for some kind of immediate response that communicated both to the audience and the speaker that something was wrong. However, many situations require individuals to use their best judgment in responding, and stopping a talk should likely be left to the discretion of a conference chair.

Also, treating the speaker as though they have made an honest mistake and did not intend to offend anyone (I have yet to experience a situation where this was not the case, personally) is always the right way to start a conversation about it.

Photo courtesy of SanFranAnnie, under a Creative Commons License

Names, glorious names

Some time back, I wrote:

We [on the LinuxChix lists] also had a long-standing problem articulating what it was that led to the extreme gender imbalance in Free Software development and many of its user communities… There was sexism in computing and in Free Software… probably? Some women had stories, some women didn’t.

Now we have our long list of incidents, but I want to highlight another list which I’m happier about, our list of women in FLOSS. Back in the olden days, say 1999 or 2000 or so, LinuxChix tried to make a similar list. The Wayback Machine tells us it got to ten names, and I recall a significant amount of head scratching going into that. Now we have a list of women that is no doubt badly incomplete, probably uncompletable, but nevertheless something like ten times the length.

Today, instead of scratching our heads about what women could possibly deliver a keynote presentation at a technical conference, we started listing women who have done so, and I suspect that list too is fated to remain drastically incomplete no matter how actively it is updated. This is an inexpressibly happy thing for me: too many women to name! Thank you geek feminist flowering of 2008/2009!

Are there recent sources of geek feminist inspiration the Internet has tossed your way? Any treasure troves of women doing things you hadn’t heard about before? (Recall, we define geekdom broadly here, there’s no need to limit yourself to tech.) Who are you a mad fan of right now?

A followup on the Shuttleworth incident

We’ve turned off comments on the original post; there were about 200 already and there’s only so much that can be said before people stop adding anything new.

I wanted to let you know that I received a private response from Mark Shuttleworth, in which he says that he has no intention of apologising for his comment. I know that a number of other people have approached him in person and by email, both before and after I posted my open letter, to ask him to consider the effects of what he said, and I’m still hoping that he will come around. (Despite numerous assertions to the contrary, I do prefer to see the glass as half full when it comes to these issues.)

Here are some other blog posts about Mark’s comments and their effects:

On Keynotes and Apologies by Chris Ball, Lead Software Engineer for One Laptop Per Child:

Well, I was at the keynote too, and was paying attention, and it turns out that even with context applied, someone who talks about “explaining to girls what we actually do” when talking about free software really is saying something sexist, and buying into the noxious stereotype that women can’t be developers or tech-savvy; that they’ll never be a real part of our group, even if a few of them are brave enough to try in the face of other people dismissing their efforts (and Mark certainly isn’t the first to have done that).


Finally, I want to repeat that for me the real shame here isn’t that Mark said something unfortunate — we can all say something unfortunate when we’re speaking in front of a large crowd for a long time, myself certainly included. What’s a shame is that it doesn’t take a superhuman dose of empathy to give a short and sincere apology for an obviously harmful joke afterwards, yet we don’t have one yet. To make matters worse, it’s the second time in a few months that someone’s implied that women are people who lack technical knowledge during a conference keynote, and it seems to be the second time we aren’t getting any kind of apology for it. We’re left to conclude that the biggest heroes in free software — the people who speak for and about us to the world — don’t care much about whether women feel invited to or excluded from free software, or how they could use their power to affect that.

Sexism debate by Adam Williamson, Redhat developer and QA community manager:

If we’re going to accept the big — yet paradoxically easy, because it’s abstract — proposition that sexism in F/OSS exists and should be tackled by people modifying their behaviour, we’re going to have to start actually listening when people start trying to point out exemplary instances of the kinds of behaviour that are problematic and need to be changed, rather than taking each example in isolation and trying to pick it apart or denigrate its individual significance.

Hide of a rhino or constitution of a psychopath by Brenda Wallace, Statusnet developer and one of the organising team for this year’s

Other survival techniques include changing project – I know of women who contribute actively to one distro, then change, then change again – in the hopes of finding a place where they can contribute their skills without frequent grunching. Yesterday’s “linux is hard to explain to girls” comment by Mark Shuttleworth is an example of The Grunch, and I know it’s caused more than one ubuntu contributor to start looking for another project. It’s the (prominent) straw that broke the camel’s back.

And it all ties up into the “Harming the Community” speech – that by reporting any incident, then you, the reportee, are doing harm to open source. I’m expecting some comments here along that line. I don’t agree with you, but could you please spend half as much energy helping ensure these incident don’t happen again as you spend telling the reportee how wrong she is to report it. Thanks.

People have been asking for transcripts or video; unfortunately those aren’t available. However, a number of people who were present have blogged, tweeted, dented, or commented about Mark’s keynote showing that they were angered or annoyed by it. (Others who were present have confirmed that Mark made the comment, but have said it didn’t bother them; at least there is no doubt that he did make the comment about explaining Linux to girls.)

Emma Jane Hogbin, Ubuntu user and Drupal contributor, first dented about it here while watching the live stream:

Mark! “Explaining to girls what we actually do.” WHATTHEFUCK!! RMS, anyone? #linuxcon

Chris Ball, commented here with his experience:

I was there and was annoyed by this. It’s true that it was said in quieted tones, imitating self-deprecating embarrassment. I think a simple apology for saying something that unintentionally excluded women would be sensible, and I’d applaud Mark for doing it.

An anonymous commenter, at comment #39 on Chris’s blog post:

I’m male. I was there, at the keynote, and I heard the comments. I found them both tacky, and I could tell that the women sitting next to me found them even more tacky.

Matt Zimmerman, CTO of Canonical, was present and audibly said “WTF?” from his seat in the audience, then mentioned it on IRC. His was one of the early reports that led to my letter. In email over the weekend (quoted with permission) he said:

I was there at Mark’s keynote, and have spoken to various people in the community about it as well as to Jono and to Mark himself.

My position is that Mark made a mistake in what he said. This mistake doesn’t make him evil, but it does warrant a response on his part. There’s some very good advice on about what to do in this situation which I hope that Mark will consider.

Women in the community who have concerns, questions or advice regarding this issue are welcome to contact me directly.

(ETA: Matt has now blogged about the subject here.)

Matt also has an excellent blog post on the subject of backlash from the last go-round, Backlash: feminism considered harmful, which is recommended reading for anyone taking part in this discussion:

We have a problem in the way that women in free software are regarded and treated. If this is news to you, I encourage you not to take my word for it, but read what women in the community are saying about it. Ask women you know about their experiences.

What I want to discuss here, though, is how people are received when they speak up about this, for example by criticizing sexist behavior they have observed. Often, the problem is denied, the critic themselves is personally attacked, and the victims are blamed. In short, there is a backlash.

This is probably the time to reiterate that Geek Feminism has a comment policy that says, in part:

We welcome discussion that encourages and supports women in geek communities. […] If you join the discussion here, we assume you are either a feminist, or want to learn more about feminism. If you are new, we recommend that you read some background material. A good starting point is the Geek Feminism Wiki, especially Resources for men. […] Comments that are anti-feminist, abusive, creepy, derogatory, or which add nothing to the conversation will be deleted on sight.

I’d also like to remind everyone that the correct English term for female, adult humans is “woman”. Thank you.
EDIT: Video now available

  • “A release is an amazing thing; I’m not talking about the happy ending..”: 3:02
  • “Your printer, and your mom’s printer, and your grandma’s printer”: 35:30
  • “We’ll have less trouble explaining to girls what we actually do” at 35:55

Thanks to Chris for taking the time to find the timestamps.

iLinkSpam 2.0 (29th September, 2009)

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, of if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism” to bring them to our attention.

Open Thread: First Fun with String

I first learned cat’s cradle from other little kids on the playground in kindergarten. Through elementary school, yarn and string fads would sweep the playground. We’d do cat’s cradle, finger crochet, or string figures. Some other kid in Detroit taught me four-finger knitting.

Like hand-clapping games and jumprope rhymes, string figures are passed from young girl to young girl over decades and centuries. Older women teach these games too and of course also teach knitting, weaving, and other textile crafts. But think about how great it is that kids teach each other this complicated, geeky skill.

At some point I realized that most guys didn’t even know how to make a braid, much less the complicated ways to do fingerloop braiding, and that most women, and most girls, in the U.S. of my generation, could braid, single crochet, and do particular string figures. That seemed quite odd, since U.S. society hasn’t depended on women doing textile work by hand for many years. Yet it’s still ingrained very deep that it’s something we teach each other.

It strikes me we could learn something crucial, as geeky feminists, from the pattern of how knowledge is passed on between young girls, and how that is presented to them and by them as gendered knowledge – as something “girls know how to do”.

Single crochet is just making a loop with your fingers and thumb, and tying the same sliding knot over and over. It teaches the skill of maintaining tension on a strand. It’s easy enough to teach to a very small child, and it’s useful skill for life to make a weak cord into a stronger, thicker one.

Four-finger knitting seems a bit more rare in the world of playground games with yarn. I remember being absolutely fascinated with the way it worked, how the structure would evolve as it got longer, falling from the back of my hand like the rib cage and spine of a very long dinosaur, then would magically change to a knitted tube once I’d finish it and pull it taut.

Cat’s cradle I learned very early, maybe around 4 years old. Later, around 5th grade, I tried to make drawings of the possible configurations; the cradle, the manger, the candles, the diamonds, cat’s eye, and the other ones I didn’t have names for, and charts of how they connected to each other. It was hard to graph out, and now in poking around on the net, I don’t see any such graph. Let me know if you make one or find one! It is also interesting to find how-tos that try to develop a vocabulary like that of knitting to describe the actions and name the sections of the bits of string as they change.

Here’s some string figures I learned from other girls:

* Cat’s Whiskers
* Jacob’s Ladder
* Crow’s Feet
* Something I called “Pitchfork” but which is often done today as “Pick a banana”
* Handcuff (called “Hand Catch” here)
* Something I called “Pinwheel”.
* Cup and Saucer


What figures did you make? How did you learn them? Can you still do them, and do you teach them to anyone? What are the popular string figures of your childhood and culture? If you like, post a photo of yourself with it, or attempt to describe how it’s done!

Write linkspam on it (26th September, 2009)

Update (by Mary, 28 Sep): misskinx told us in comments that the workshop on dating violence is not a Carleton University event, it’s organised by the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women (OCTEVAW) and the Sexual Assault Network (SAN).

Upcoming Ruby on Rails workshops for women and allies

Leigh Honeywell is a computer security geek, hackerspace organizer, Ubuntu member, open source advocate, and probably the easiest-to-spot cyclist in all of Toronto due to her pink bike/helmet/hair/ramp for skateboarding combination.

Following on the heels of highly successful workshops in July and August in San Francisco, there are two upcoming free workshops for women and allies (including men, if they are invited by a female friend) who are interested in getting started in Ruby on Rails development. The one in San Francisco is already full, but there is one coming up on Oct 16-17 in Boston as well.

Both events are still looking for experienced Rails devs of any gender to volunteer, and the Boston event is looking for non-experinced volunteers as well as sponsors too.

Also worth a shout-out is the awesome RailsBridge community – check them out too!

Dreamwidth invite codes

As many of you know, Dreamwidth is a fork of the LiveJournal code base and community, and is one of the few open source projects with a majority of contributors who are women. I blogged about it on Ada Lovelace Day and again in dispatches from the revolution where I interviewed developers about their experiences in open source more broadly, and on Dreamwidth and AO3 (another majority-women project) in particular. If you were at OSCON or ALF you may also have seen my presentation about it.

The Dreamwidth project is explicitly welcoming and diverse. Here is part of their diversity statement:

Platitudes are cheap. We’ve all heard services say they’re committed to “diversity” and “tolerance” without ever getting specific, so here’s our stance on it:

We welcome you.

We welcome people of any gender identity or expression, race, ethnicity, size, nationality, sexual orientation, ability level, religion, culture, subculture, and political opinion. We welcome activists, artists, bloggers, crafters, dilettantes, musicians, photographers, readers, writers, ordinary people, extraordinary people, and everyone in between. We welcome people who want to change the world, people who want to keep in touch with friends, people who want to make great art, and people who just need a break after work. We welcome fans, geeks, nerds, and pixel-stained technopeasant wretches. We welcome Internet beginners who aren’t sure what any of those terms refer to.

Dreamwidth is one of the best projects I know for mentoring and training developers. If you’ve ever wanted to get involved in open source but don’t know where to start, or find it hard to break into a project, this might be the place for you.

As well as being an open source project, Dreamwidth is a blogging/journalling platform (currently in open beta), and if you’re interested in being part of the project you’ll probably also want to sign up for a journal. However, to prevent spam and manage server resources, signups are limited to those with an invite code or who pay for an account (which start at $3, btw.)

Here are 10 invite codes:


Please, if you take one, comment below to let us know which one you took, and try to use them in order from top to bottom.

You can create your account at Once you’re signed up, and if you’re interested in becoming a Dreamwidth developer, take a look at the following resources:

  • dw-dev, the main developer community
  • dw-dev-training, for people who want help getting started as Dreamwidth developers
  • changelog, if you like drinking from the fire-hose
  • dw-news, for general news about the service and new features (more end-user oriented)
  • Bugzilla and the DW wiki, which has a bunch of information for developers

You might also like to get on the IRC channel, which is where much of the developer/volunteer chatter happens. If all the invite codes listed above run out, you can also show up on IRC and let them know you’re interested in becoming a Dreamwidth developer, and someone’s sure to give you one.