A month ago I attended my seventh Linux.conf.au, LCA2014 in the lovely Perth. January rushes by so fast I often neglect to write about it at all, but this time I would like to highlight my two favourite talks.
The first is Friday’s keynote, “Deploying software updates to ArduSat in orbit” by Jon Oxer. I would call this talk: “A school class can do a science experiment in space for a week for $300”. CubeSats are a “standard micro-satellite” (about 10×10cm). Jon got involved with a Kickstarter campaign called ArduSat and helped them design an Arduino board to go in the CubeSat, as well as a prototyping board that students could use in their classroom to design their experiment.
Jon shows the web-based interface where a class would submit their Arduino design, which includes an “upload to satellite” button. Really. :)
(My title for this talk is a little bit of an over-sell, as at the moment the ArduSats have massive waiting queues for anyone to book time on them. But Jon’s intention is to get lots more of them up there, so hopefully that will change sometime soon. I’m not sure where the best place to stay in the loop on that is. I would also love to read a blog or something where schools talked about how their experiments went.)
So his talk (youtube, mp4) was wonderful, highly recommended if you want to feel inspired and amazed and hopeful.
The second is a little more down to earth! I was really into the talk on Visual Editor by James Forrester and Roan Kattouw of the Wikimedia Foundation. (Youtube, mp4, slides) Visual Editor is the WYSIWYG-ish/rich text/Google Docs-ish editor that Wikimedia has developed to avoid people having to learn arcane mark-up and help drag MediaWiki’s interface into this decade.
First of all I think this is inherently interesting, that they have solved (or are well on the way to solving) this problem, as it is one that loomed so large that it has threatened to topple Wikipedia and the other Wikimedia projects many times. Large vibrant communities have certainly been destroyed (or destroyed themselves) over less.
Secondly, they needed to build something that would largely work for the existing corpus that is millions and millions of Wikipedia articles, in over 300 languages. OVER 300 LANGUAGES.
What was most fascinating was hearing about how they tried to reproduce “expected behaviour”. For example, in a right-to-left script, when you press the right arrow, should you move right in the text or “forward” in the text? And in bidirectional text such as numbers embedded in Hebrew, which direction is “forward” anyway? And do Windows apps behave in a similar way to OSX? Or phone OSes? What about IME software for inputing non-alphabetic scripts?
You would think the simple design of moving a cursor around some text was a well-solved problem, but not necessarily. It must have been a nightmare. A fascinating nightmare.
Oh, and if you work on some web-based software and think a nice HTML editor could be an improvement over whatever your default is, they would love to help you try and integrate VisualEditor into another project, like Drupal or Wordpress.
Today at the first day of the main conf proper, Sky Croeser gave a talk Free and open source software and activism (slides), talking about the politics of FOSS and how it can be quite aligned with activists’ values, but why it can often currently fall short. I first met Sky at AdaCamp Melbourne a year ago and I was impressed with her clear communication and academic perspective which helped to link current issues or actions in techy communities with those in other political movements. So I was very excited to see her at LCA, and her talk did not disappoint.
One of her points about why (Australian) activists might not be excited about FOSS relates to the way it is commonly described, Free as in Freedom. Sky pointed out that freedom is often the cause named as the motivator behind many political (especially military) acts of recent years in the US and thus may be a somewhat “polluted” term. She suggested that anarchists might tend to talk about an autonomous community, as an alternative. I’m not well grounded in philosophy to pinpoint the difference between the two concepts, but perhaps part of it is this: autonomy is about self-ruling, “positive freedom”. It doesn’t rule out the possibility of obligations to others, which perhaps “freedom” can be taken to encompass (“freedom from”).
Autonomy is a term not widely used by free software activists, although it has been – the autonomo.us group was set up to help promote free network services. But I wonder: what if we reformulated the four freedoms in the terminology of autonomy rather than freedom, and emphasised the benefit to communities over the benefit to individuals? Would such a document be more amenable to leftie activists today?
(I note it is already explicit that freedoms 2 and 3 are for the benefit of others rather than oneself.)
Free software, open source, libre software, F(L)OSS — do we need to add another label to the stable — “software for autonomy”?
Monday. No less than 7 miniconfs: Open Programming (more programming/developer focused), Freedom in the cloud, Southern Plumbers (kernel/low-level), The Business of Open Source, Multimedia + Music, Haecksen (LinuxChix) and Arduino.
The weather is really lovely. The humidity is OK considering I spent the past five days in Emerald (acclimatising! just like a tennis player :)) and, uh, the fact that we spend nearly all day inside.
I missed the opening and the first sessions because I was stressing over the three talks I gave today. One of them was a lightning talk, sure, but it was a well-prepared one nonetheless! First was An approach to automatic text generation in the Open Programming Languages miniconf (my “work talk”), then Distributed wikis (slides) in Freedom in the Cloud, and finally a lightning talk called Neurosexism (a kind of book review of Delusions of Gender ; slides) in Haecksen. (I will publish links to video when it comes online, and slides for the work talk if I get permission. :)) I got positive feedback on all of them which was nice.
Whew! I was happy that by afternoon tea, they were all over and I could relax and enjoy the rest of the conference.
I had to brush off quite a few people today to say “I need to work on my next talk… catch up with me later, OK?” I hope they actually do. :) It’s great to catch up with people – this is my fourth LCA. There have also been some nice surprises seeing people I didn’t expect to attend.
Then it was off to Red Hat offices for a Girl Geek Dinner. Which was very nice but hunger and fatigue gave me trouble keeping up with socialising.
The tail of October is shaping up to be busy for me. Apparently having an intimate understanding of the workings of Wikipedia, and being willing to speak about it, is a valuable thing.
Next week (Friday 22nd) I will be speaking at a ‘SHARISM’ conference in Shanghai, which is pretty cool. (Squee!) One of the main event sponsors is Mozilla’s Drumbeat, which seems appropriate – it’s kind of free software, free culture, open web. Ish. I’m not sure what kind of audience it will attract, but I’m really looking forward to it.
Squeeeeeee!!!! So pretty… and I found an awesome video on Vimeo demonstrating mtXcontrol – software to communicate with your Rainbowduino via a GUI. It’s all kind of jaw-droppingly SHINY. I just may have to buy one.
(Techiturn is a tad neglected. I somehow managed to not blog once about attending OSDC. My bad. Anyway, let’s skip straight to LCA...)
Monday’s Haecksen and LinuxChix miniconf brought what was for me, the first great talk of LCA 2010: Liz Henry’sCode of our own. Because there were no abstracts, I guessed from the title she was going to talk about the Archive of our own (AOOO) project, but she was talking more generally about potential answers to questions like, what can we do to encourage more women in open source? How can we better support the ones that are here already?
The title (as well as that of AOOO) is a reference to Virginia Woolf’s A room of one’s own, directly referencing the feminist ideas about the value of spaces specifically for women. In terms of coding, I definitely see the value myself in spaces to talk to other women about programming: I can ask questions and share my experiences without having the pressure of representing All Women Programmers Of All Time. Not to mention, I can actually just have a tech conversation with another woman without a man butting in.
So, Liz opened by saying that she wanted to apply “advanced feminist solidarity theory” to FLOSS, and was going to skip over some assumptions, like diversity is good, and universal design is a goal of FLOSS. (I am paraphrasing from memory and brief notes, so if you can correct my paraphrase please let me know.) I hadn’t heard the term “universal design” before but I guess in software it mostly is referred to as usability and/or accessibility.
denial of agency — “someone else (a guy) must have written it”, but also, interestingly, seemingly complimentary statements like “women are just naturally good at design” (ie, she didn’t have to work so hard)
pollution of agency — “she only hacked with her boyfriend”
double standard of content — kernel hacking is important, blog software is not. Coding is important, documentation/design/support is not.
false categorising — women defined as a relative/partner of a male hacker rather than in their own right. Maybe also related to above, “what she did isn’t REALLY hacking”.
Liz talked about her experiences at the BlogHer conferences, with some 1800 attendees, mostly women, who all write their own blogs and in some cases earn a living from it. Many of them may be on the verge of being able to hack. How could they be “converted”? What kind of things can be done to encourage women to contribute to FLOSS projects?
One thing often suggested is a mentoring programme. She mentioned she is not a big fan of these, because they typically have a very strong teacher/learner dichotomy, which can put a lot of pressure on the self-appointed “expert” teacher. Rather than this, maybe it is better to have a situation where two people are just learning and figuring out stuff together, rather than one having the responsibility to always have the answers.
Another barrier is that new developers often don’t have “old school skills” — ie the command line. This is often required (or virtually required) for contributing to FLOSS projects. I definitely notice this myself, even though I am comfortable with the command line. For example, a page describing how to access/commit to the code base of a project will have sample command-line SVN commands to run, even though there are great SVNGUIs that don’t require any command-line fu at all. They could have screenshot-based walk-throughs but they don’t. I mean that is one side, the other side is making sure women have a chance to learn command-line stuff. Lots of demystification is needed. Plus even if you did complete a CS degree, there is always a ton of command-line tricks you don’t happen to know about yet!
Liz also made the great point that the reaction “We need more women in FLOSS – let’s teach programming to girls!” is not very rational. Of course, teaching programming to girls is great. But it’s not like all the existing grown women in the world who don’t currently program are write-offs. :) Teach programming to WOMEN, too!
So when it comes to actually holding women-friendly or women-specific hacking events, she had the following advice:
Treat tech support and debugging as feminist activism — demystify, reassure and empower
Create a culture of figuring things out together
Always do introductions! Do them faciliated – have people talk about their life briefly, or 5 keywords, or one thing they know about and one thing they want to learn, or have everyone put their picture on a sheet of butcher paper with a brief bio.
“Show and tell” – what tools does everyone use? How do they go about doing a particular task?
Have a “installathon” — install Wordpress on a webhost, just go through bits of code together. Admit that debugging (figuring out how code works) is hard!
Create guest accounts for everyone on a server if need be
Have a house party. It doesn’t have to be huge or super formal.
Do lots of paired/one-on-one activities
Borrow the practice from fanfic of having a beta reader – someone who looks over your work before you release it to the world. (AKA code review! I love this reframing)
Liz mentioned that she hates IRC and much prefers using instant messaging and Pastebin. Got to say I’m not much of a fan of IRC either — the attitude is just so often hostile or just apathetic, although it is a useful just to know how to use it because a lot of FLOSS projects don’t give you much other choice. Knowing how to connect to the LinuxChix server is a good skill to have too. :)
She also recommended to show the code! Blog about your code, even though it means exposing it along with all your potential mistakes. Although it is hard not to feel wary about this, after observing the reaction to Leah Culver doing a similar thing.
One of the audience questions was, “Where do I find these great geeky women?” One answer was Girl Geek Dinners (although I was discussing with another woman later, that the women I’ve met at these are often a distinctly different crowd to the women I know through FLOSS. But that’s no bad thing, we can recruit them :D). Liz also suggested running a class at a library on blogging.
Another audience comment was that this may not be a good approach for getting women into a particular project. This kind of approach, which is not integrated with the project’s community, may make it seem that when a woman does begin publicly contributing, she is “coming out of nowhere”. I have often observed that FLOSS projects don’t take too well to suggestions or criticisms that seemingly come from outsiders. (Of course, some don’t take to them too well from insiders, either. ;)) Making contributions inside a community is important for establishing reputation and trust. Personally I see the kind of approach Liz is suggesting as preceding any kind of project-specific recruitment, and just encouraging a “can-hack” attitude.
This year I organised a miniconf at LCA called Free as in Freedom. I don’t intend to submit it for next year, so I’m offering it up for adoption in case anyone else does.
There are two main reasons I don’t want to run it this year — 1, I wouldn’t know where to start with trying to contact NZ folks, and 2, as I’m on the papers committee, pretty much anyone I would think of inviting to that, I will try and convince into submitting to the main conf.
But don’t let that discourage you. ;) I am happy to help out someone a bit by providing support, being an ideas bouncing board, etc, but that’s pretty much it.
You can submit miniconf ideas up until July 17th, so drop me a line if you would like to adopt this miniconf for 2010.
In her talk, she recapped some interviews she had done with women in the free software world. One of the interviewees apparently commented that she was amused she had ended up doing “girl stuff” (documentation and usability work) in her community, because when she started out she had tried to avoid it.
I guess my first reaction was surprise to hear non-coding activities so explicitly devalued to be labelled “girl stuff”. Gosh, I thought, here I was doing all this “girl stuff” and having no idea my presence was merely being tolerated as a non-harmful side activity.
Well — that’s not strictly true. I don’t think it’s possible to work in a software project without being aware that status is directly proportional to coding skills. I just thought most geeks would be enlightened enough by now to realise and acknowledge that non-coding activities are also essential to the success of any software, Free or otherwise.
So is there really a perception of “girl stuff” or is it perhaps women’s paranoia about pigeon-holed into lower status activities, and wanting to prove oneself on the same terms as men? I dunno the answer to that one.
Later I thought, if other project leaders and developers aren’t enlightened enough to realise the importance of documentation, usability, design, organisation, community management, whatever other non-code things you can think of, well, that’s their problem. Eventually they will realise their shortsightedness and fix their priorities. …Probably.
And if you are good at something, and you want to do it, you should do it. Duh. You shouldn’t feel obliged to play at the highest status role if it’s not one that particularly suits you. For any given project I could spend an hour trying to code a feature for it, or an hour fixing up its documentation, and I can tell you for sure which activity is going to have a better bang-for-buck.
But… later I talked about it a bit with Mary and some others, and she mentioned that you need to “be selfish” to deliberately choose to devote the time to something like mastering a software codebase in order to be able to contribute to it.
And that’s true too. Actually my favourite thing about writing software is building virtual shit. I understand why they call it software engineering. It is constructing. It is making something from nothing, or from an idea. It is powerful and empowering and gives you an awesome feeling of accomplishment. IMO this is where geek kin comes from, knowing we have both experienced this. It’s that obsessiveness geeks are renowned for.
And everyone who wants to, should be able to feel confident enough, to be selfish enough, to take however much time it takes and write however much really crappy code it takes, to be better at it, because that is the only way to get there. Yes. This is a time when women should be selfish. And gosh, that taught-instinct to be helpful, and consider others’ needs, is so insidious that I didn’t even notice it there until Mary said the magic word, “selfish”.
I’m still going to do all that non-code stuff, of course… but maybe I will carefully choose to be selfish a little more often this year.
I flew down to Hobart on Sunday morning. I knew there were some fellow LCAers on my flight although I didn’t know them by face. It turned out to be easy to find them since two chaps sat in my row and one had a previous LCA shirt. :)
After hanging around the airport for a bit, we got a taxi to the UTas Sandy Bay campus where our venue and accommodation was. Seeing the hill between the campus buildings and the accommodation, I suddenly understood why a shuttle bus between them had been arranged.
The accommodation was very spiffy – recently-built little apartments set into the hills, overlooking the river. Lucky students that had such accommodation every day (dare I say the brochure would be very reassuring for the parents of overseas students). Will, the guy in charge of check-in, was very friendly.
Rego was at 2. I caught up with a few people milling around and checked out the room that my miniconf would be in.
I mucked up my meals a bit and so by 4.30pm I was starving. I walked further down the hill and explored Sandy Bay and had a very early dinner. The rest of the evening was spent wrapping speaker gifts and doing lots of last-minute planning.
Miniconfs! I spent the day between LinuxChix and BizDev miniconfs.
Starting your free software adventure by Mary Gardiner – she interviewed some women about how they became involved in free software/free culture, and tried to extrapolate some tips for women interested in getting involved but not knowing where to start. It was one session that got me thinking throughout the whole week, so I will write about it separately later.
On speaking by Jacinta Richardson – I saw the first run of this at the LinuxChix microconf, but it was still funny and useful second time round.
I skipped the geek parenting panel to check out Open Source Business 101 for Hackers by Ross Turk, who is like head of community management at Sourceforge. This was a really excellent talk by a good speaker – highly recommended. In particular I thought his “funnel” analogy between “getting people to buy your product” to “getting people to write code for your project” was insightful.
I spent lunch and the following sessions running around the printers, arranging a poster for my miniconf, and printing for Open Day on Saturday.
For dinner I met up with wiki-folk for a Wikimedia BoF/meetup (1, 2). We had dinner at Blue Skies, on the suggestion of Charles, the only local. It was a really fun dinner! Decent food and great talk. At 11.30 although the offer of drinks was tempting, I declined in order to get enough sleep to not be totally braindead for my miniconf.
Free as in Freedom! All my speakers showed up, and they were all awesome, everything ran very close to on-time, and the audience size and questions seem to indicate it was appreciated.
The evening was the speaker’s dinner, which involved a 45 minute catamaran cruise to Peppermint Bay, which was seemingly both the location and the restaurant’s name. I was engrossed in conversation for most of the evening, so that counts as a good night. The food, unfortunately, was not as good as anything else. But it’s hard to get everything 100% right. I only wish I’d been talking a bit less on the way over and thus able to appreciate the scenery. On the way home it was pitch black.
Although an inauguration party was in the offing, I was exhausted and headed for bed.
The main conference begins! Well… almost.
My power adaptor, which had been sputtering a bit the previous evening, gave out entirely this day. It was a bit distressing as I had been looking forward to a tutorial that afternoon, not to mention the rest of the conference. I stood around stressing with the volunteers and one of them, Henry, volunteered to drive me into the CBD and pick up a new adaptor from a computer store specialising in laptops. So although I missed the first keynote, I did recover in time for the rest of the conference. Thank you Henry!
Use the fork Luke! by Brian Aker – interesting talk about what led to the decision to create the MySQL fork, Drizzle, and some new rules of thumb they decided for themselves along the way.
Introduction to Django by Jacob Kaplan-Moss – great. Now I feel confident and excited about starting my planned Django project.
The Genderchangers Academy by Nancy Mauro-Flude – talk about projects run in the Netherlands to encourage women to get involved with technology, like the Eclectic Tech Carnival. I wonder if one will be run in Australia? now that she is moving here :)
Then it was time for the Penguin Dinner, at the casino. Although it looked for a minute like I might not get fed (apparently I forgot to fill out a mandatory box when I registered online…hm, that’s why my nametag didn’t have a little penguin icon…), it all ended happily and the food was excellent. The charity auction was just insane and amazing. The guy who instigated the winning bid was sitting on my table. I just kind of gazed at him in awe.
Angela’s keynote on the contradictions in Wikipedia went down pretty well. The extended analogy of including-fair-use-material-in-a-freely-licensed-project as meat-at-a-vegan-dinner went down very well. (See original)
After-lunch tute was The Joy of Inkscape by Donna Benjamin which was very well attended. I learned lots of useful stuff just by listening/watching her zoom through keyboard shortcuts and unknown features and the like. And I finally found out what the difference between an Inkscape SVG and a plain SVG is! :) (The answer is: the Inkscape SVG records more internal stuff like what your last action was, so you should use that format while you’re still editing, then save as plain SVG when you’re finished to reduce the bloated file size.)
Thursday evening, I found out belatedly that I was eligible to attend the Professional Delegates Networking Session. But I needed some recuperating time so I went to Sirens resaurant by myself, hearing it was a vego place. It was OK, the food was decent although a bit overpriced and wanky, but that tends to be par for the course when a town only has one vego restaurant.
Simon Phipps gave an excellent keynote, talking about what he perceived as the “third wave” of open source and how “adoption-led” approaches were going to win business to open source. I think. It was one of those talks that had the right mix of name/anecdote-dropping, humour, guessing and reasoning, where at the end you feel impressed and smarter, even if you can’t grab a single tangible thing from it. Well it was four days ago now, maybe that’s an unfair comment. I count it as an excellent keynote.
Note for future reference: you can never have too many stickers. Thanks to Karl, Angela and Tim for helping out, and Charles for bringing his daughter so we could all enjoy watching her play with an XO. :)