It's all about the framing: connections between free software, rape culture and labour rights

16 December 2013, 13:45

NB. I wrote this in August 2012 and it has sat as a draft since then. But funnily enough the relevance remains.

Your money and your freedom is an article from the July 2012 members Bulletin of the Free Software Foundation by the Executive Director, John Sullivan. A couple of the articles in this Bulletin talk about e-books and e-readers. I thought this point was particularly good:

We want [people] to see how using free software is better for their privacy and security, and how it is wrong to subjugate themselves to a corporation’s control.

This process is complicated by the fact that, in many countries, people are accustomed to having such a relationship with corporations. […] When Amazon, using its proprietary Kindle software, remotely deleted copies of George Owell’s 1984 from readers’ devices, or when they disabled the Text-to-Speech features on many e-book titles, people recognized this as bad behavior but mostly saw it as an example of a company making some individually bad decisions, rather than as natural and expected outcomes to a model of software distribution that gives Amazon immense power over readers.

When Apple bans politically controversial applications from being distributed through the App Store, or removes some feature from applications users already have installed on their phones, people have complained about those decisions but often think that the problem is that Apple didn’t exercise its authority in justified ways, rather than contest that they should have that authority at all.

It’s all about the framing. It reminded me of a couple of other issues:

  • The suggestion that to avoid harassment, women should just not go to some conferences – rather than, those conferences should work to stamp out harassment.
  • The notion that unions or workers need to show an increase in “productivity” to justify an increase in pay – rather than, when a company has huge increases in profitability, those dividends should go back to workers who create the value in the first place.
  • Similarly, fires, mass suicides etc that happen in developing world factories under sweat-shop conditions are seen as individual tragedies, rather than the inevitable outcome of global capitalism where profits always trump workers’ rights and conditions.

The idea of “just don’t buy that product” being an appropriate response to unethical corporate behaviour also just shows how shrivelled and miserable our concept of democracy (power in society) is, I think. Never citizens – always consumers, or customers.

The Free Software Foundation are currently fundraising for 2014 and with the recent NSA revelations, free software has arguably never been more important. I am proud to have been a member since 2008.



Impostor Syndrome vs Everyday Extraordinary Syndrome

1 November 2013, 19:41

Mary Gardiner and Valerie Aurora of the Ada Initiative recently wrote a guest post for the USENIX blog called Impostor Syndrome-Proof Yourself and Your Community. I found this point, made almost off-hand, rather striking:

Often Impostor Syndrome is a completely rational response to being called an impostor over and over. In fields in which women are not supposed to be good (and where sexism is rife), women are more likely to face Impostor Syndrome. The idea that most people, when their skills, authority, and legitimacy are regularly questioned, can answer with a “Not so, I’ll show you” is a myth. Rather, when our community tells us over and over that we’re imposters, we start to believe it.

(My emphasis.) It makes total sense. It is not merely a coincidence that women in male-dominated fields should face this indiscriminately. Of course, it is related – of course.

I was reminded of this when someone on a widely-read tech mailing list made a “tongue in cheek” (pff) comment about the evils of affirmative action:

We see ourselves as a meritocracy; for sake of honesty and transparency, our special programmes for women should candidly admit patronage of incompetence over political correctness. Let’s cancel our “women in IT” programmes and replace them with programmes that reward “incompetent women in IT,” or at least to widen eligibility to include hamsters and fish.

Yep. Incompetent women, hamsters and fish.

I am reminded of a quip that we will know there is equality when there is just as many incompetent women in power as there are men.

Specifically, what reading a post like this reminds me, is that a non-trivial number of people in a geek crowd will see my name on a mailing list or see my face at a conference, and they will wonder. Does she deserve to be here? When I give a talk, they will wonder, is she a token appointment? If someone congratulates me on something I’ve done, they will wonder, is it just because she’s a girl? Whether I succeed on skill or not, some people will always look at me sceptically and doubt my abilities.

My intention is not to talk about affirmative action, but cultural dissonance of belonging to a community that suspects at first glance, you’re probably in the wrong place.

One of the suggested counter-actions to impostor syndrome is to Go to an in-person Impostor Syndrome session at a conference, from your workplace training program, or your school: There’s nothing like being in a room full of people you respect and discovering that 90% of them have Impostor Syndrome.

This is good advice. And the flip side of Impostor Syndrome is maybe this point by Garann Means, made better than I could:

When you go to a fucking conference and you look around at all the white dudes, do you really honestly think, “Wow! What a bizarre fucking statistical anomaly it is that basically everyone with the special magic gift of computer programming happened to be born into a teeny tiny little demographic sliver of the population”? Of course you don’t. You don’t think about it. You focus on telling yourself that you’re supposed to be there, because you’re so fucking smart, and if other people were as smart or, if you prefer, they were “technically inclined,” they could be there just as easily.

Should there be a term for the inflated sense of personal achievement and bright-eyed belief in meritocracy that comes from unexamined privilege? I put “Everyday Extraordinary Syndrome” in the title but it’s not ideal. It’s probably more widespread than Impostor Syndrome, and is arguably more harmful (to others, if not the individual).

Any individual’s achievements will be a result of both of their personal actions and societal forces. Privilege silently and seamlessly working in your favour in some cases, and systemic discrimination and isms working against you in other cases, where sometimes you won’t even know which doors were closed before you thought to look (or maybe you were discouraged from looking well before then), and other times you definitely know.

Anyway, I’ve a little thought experiment to cap this off with. It will only take, hmm, the rest of your life.

Imagine that what minorities report about their lives is actually true.

Chew, swallow, digest.

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An interview with a conference organiser

22 October 2013, 01:54

INTERVIEWER: Hi there, thanks for joining us.

CONFERENCE ORGANISER: No problem, thanks for having us.

INTERVIEWER: Now, you’re the lead organiser of this conference, which has been running for several years now, is that right? Can you tell us how this year’s edition is shaping up?

ORGANISER: That’s right, this is a conference which has really come from a humble grassroots beginning of barely a few dozen attendees, growing to what it is today, the premiere conference in this region for this field with several hundred attendees. It’s really a must-be-there event for people working in the field thanks to our incredible line-up of speakers. The program has just been released and we are super excited about the latest and most important developments with the best speakers.

INTERVIEWER: I noticed one of your keynotes is from the local university here, which is a bit different to the usual industry crowd I suppose.

ORGANISER: Yes, we wanted to make a real effort this year to hear voices from a wide range of fields, so we have some great speakers from academia, from government and even a CTO from a non-profit. We think they will provide a surprising and perhaps even controversial counterpoint to the accepted wisdom, and it’s so valuable for professionals in this field to have an opportunity to hear from them.

INTERVIEWER: Indeed. Has the incident that occurred at an industry conference just a couple of months ago had any influence on the organising of your event?

ORGANISER: Oh, yes, that was terrible. Thankfully that guy has been identified and won’t be causing any more problems. Just a terribly unfortunate story to hear.

INTERVIEWER: You haven’t decided to adopt an anti-harassment policy?

ORGANISER: It’s not really relevant to our event, I believe. We have a different vibe and it’s always been fine. And we don’t want to be seen as censoring our speakers.

INTERVIEWER: How much work goes into organising a conference of this size? Are the hard yards done now or are the late nights just beginning?

ORGANISER: Well many late nights of planning have passed to get us to this point, which is really laying the foundation. But at this point registrations are now open, and it’s all about dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s to bring a superb conference experience to our attendees.

INTERVIEWER: I couldn’t help noticing that none of your invited speakers are women.

ORGANISER: …Oh, is it? I hadn’t noticed.

INTERVIEWER: In fact you have a stuffed toy listed as a speaker, but no women.

ORGANISER: Well, Sparky is standing in for our secret mystery speaker. But, uh, it’s certainly not a deliberate decision to not have any women speakers. In fact we invited several, but they all refused. And, uh, there are some among our submitted talks, I believe.

INTERVIEWER: There’s one.

ORGANISER: Well, again, that’s just based on what was submitted. Our submissions are judged purely on merit. If women don’t submit anything we can’t accept any more talks from them, obviously.

INTERVIEWER: How many women did you approach to give invited talks?

ORGANISER: How many exactly?



INTERVIEWER: And they both said no?

ORGANISER: One was busy and the other one couldn’t attend because it’s in the school holidays.

INTERVIEWER: Your conference doesn’t provide childcare for attendees?

ORGANISER: What? No, it’s a conference for IT professionals, not mothers.

INTERVIEWER: Right. And so after they both declined you didn’t think to approach any other women?

ORGANISER: Well, seriously, who else would we have asked? Like, we are open to suggestions. It’s not like we are not open to suggestions.

INTERVIEWER: You don’t know any other women working in the field?

ORGANISER: Well, no, not personally. But that’s just because there aren’t many women in the field. It’s not like I’m avoiding them. At the local monthly meetup, there would be maybe one woman out of twenty, and actually maybe she stopped showing up about six months back. I can’t remember.

INTERVIEWER: Do you go to the local Girl Geek Dinners events? Or the local Women in IT Society?

ORGANISER: What? Of course not — look I don’t appreciate this suggestion that the conference is somehow anti-women. All we aim to do is invite the best technical speakers and accept the best proposals that are submitted. We are not discriminating and throwing out anything with a woman’s name on it. We simply don’t get anything to throw out. It is hardly our fault if women choose not to be part of the industry or choose not to participate in community events like ours. We are not going to have some token woman just for the sake of having a woman. That would be insulting to our other speakers and also insulting to women.

INTERVIEWER: Did you reach out to any groups attempting to target submissions from women? Did you reach out to individual women on Twitter or via email that you knew of in the industry? Did you make any effort whatsoever to encourage women to submit to the conference?

ORGANISER: No, we just sent the call for papers to the mailing list of the local meetup groups like normal.

INTERVIEWER: Like the group that had one woman six months ago?



INTERVIEWER: It looks like your conference has some new schwag this year. This pen-sized electronics board is going to be a popular item I suspect.

ORGANISER: Oh yeah, people are going to love it. That took literally months of wrangling by our organising team, trying to get stuff organised with the Chinese factory. We’re really proud it’s finally made it into the schwag bag. I think it’s really that attention to detail that we bring that makes this conference so special, you know?

INTERVIEWER: Thanks for your time.


Any resemblance to reality is coincidental. Imagine this being read by Clarke & Dawe for a superior experience.

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My First Patch

15 October 2013, 23:04

This happened a little while ago but I didn’t get around to writing about it yet: I added a feature to py.test that is available as of release 2.4.0. :)

I have dabbled in dozens of open source projects, which might extend as far as filing bugs for a few handfuls. But I have rarely been motivated enough to dive in and figure out what was going on and add a new feature or fix a bug that was annoying me. I guess in the case of py.test I use it so heavily at work that I was “itchy” enough to really want to “scratch” it.

The problem – it is very easy to parametrize tests in py.test (feed different inputs into the same test), which is very useful for test isolation (ideally one assert statement per test) without heaps of repeated code. That’s all great, but there is no easy way to mix passing tests and xfail tests. Xfail means “expected to fail”, and this is a powerful way of writing “demonstration tests” for bugs that you are aware of but haven’t yet fixed. Yep, test driven development!

One way to do it could be to simply copy the test and have a version of it just for xfail cases. However if our test function’s contents are more complicated, this is obviously going to be bad repetition liable to fall out of date. With my patch you can now apply the marker directly to the tuple which has the parametrized values:

Incidentally you can apply any marker, not just xfail. At work we use marks to link tests to issues in our issue tracker (essentialy test metadata), and this would work here too.

As well as enjoying using py.test I like the dev community too. The founder Holger Krekel is undoubtedly a very clever guy (he founded and co-developed PyPy) and a good project leader, exactly what you would want in a BDFL. If you’re not using py.test for testing in Python – why not? :)

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Using tricky key functions for sort/min/max in Python

25 September 2013, 19:53

After reading another exhortation for developers to blog (they used to be way more common…) I was shamed enough into writing up something I have enjoyed working on lately – key functions for sort/min/max in Python. Doesn’t sound that exciting but it can be a powerful technique and using key functions encourages you to write better code than trawling through iterables yourself. Everything I have read about key functions is super basic. So maybe this is sorting 201. Have I missed some great resources that cover this kind of thing? Let me know.

I started writing a blog post and then it turned out to be way easier to write the whole thing as an IPython Notebook. So it’s committed in a Github gist, and you can easily view it online via the notebook viewer. I wish I could embed it here but there doesn’t seem to be a way to do that. So – go read this thing I wrote. Corrections etc welcome.




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