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Posts Tagged ‘Feminism

Ada Lovelace Day 2011: Dr. Marian C. Diamond

For Ada Lovelace Day this year, I want to share my appreciation for Dr. Marian C. Diamond.

In years past, I’ve saluted women in the field of computing, which is my field as well. Dr. Diamond, however, is a biologist. Her research includes “neuroanatomy, environment, immune functions, and hormones. In particular, she is interested in studying the effects of the external environment, aging, and immune responses on the cerebral neocortex.” She has, in her words, had a love affair with the brain for about 70 years.

I know very little about biology. The content and methods of her research are, frankly, beyond me, though some of her results have garnered popular attention. She has inspired me by demonstrating that rare combination of gifts: a deep understanding of a technical subject, and the ability to explain it to other people in an accessible way.

In her interviews, articles and lectures, many of which are available online, Dr. Diamond displays these gifts in abundance. Her skill and enthusiasm for both learning and teaching is unmistakable. After applying her gifts in the classroom for many years, digital distribution has now enabled many more people to see and hear her, through millions of YouTube views.

In 1960, she became the first female graduate student in UC Berkeley’s anatomy department, and was apparently given the job of sewing a cover for a magnifying machine. I can only imagine the persistence required to continue from there to become a recognized leader in her field. She has gone on to help many other students along their way, and was named an “unsung, everyday hero” for the support she provided to students outside of the classroom or lab.

As if that weren’t enough, she has also traveled to Cambodia to apply her expertise in helping children injured by land mines. She still teaches today, just across the bay from where I write this, and will turn 85 next month.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

October 7, 2011 at 19:29

A diversity statement for Ubuntu

The Ubuntu website states that “we aim to make Ubuntu a wonderful place to participate”. We developed the Ubuntu Code of Conduct to set a standard for participants to accept each other in the spirit of cooperation, and have improved it over time to state these principles more clearly.

It is implicit in our philosophy that these and other Ubuntu values should hold equally true for everyone. I would like to propose that we upgrade this to an explicit statement on behalf of the project.

I have spoken with many people who were interested in joining a free software project, but were put off because they felt unwelcome. I know various people who participate in Ubuntu today, but sometimes face difficult social obstacles in order to do so. Going forward, I would like for us, as members of the Ubuntu community, to make the extra effort to accept all kinds of people. This may sound simple, but it can be very difficult to put into practice. People often don’t even notice they’ve gotten it wrong, until the offended party points it out to them. We need tools and guidance to make this a reality.

To that end, I would like to propose a diversity statement for Ubuntu. This draft has already received support from a majority of the Community Council, but I’d like to take it a step further. Because I want this to be a commitment that we can all stand behind, I’m also calling for support from the community as a whole. Please give this issue your consideration, and let me know in the comments if you can get on board with an official statement like this. The more support we have, the more real this commitment can be.

Here’s the text. Many thanks to Mary Gardiner, Valerie Aurora and Benjamin Mako Hill for their review and input.

The Ubuntu project welcomes and encourages participation by everyone. We are committed to being a community that everyone feels good about joining. Although we may not be able to satisfy everyone, we will always work to treat everyone well.

Standards for behavior in the Ubuntu community are detailed in the Code of Conduct and Leadership Code of Conduct. We expect participants in our community to meet these standards in all their interactions and to help others to do so as well.

Whenever any participant has made a mistake, we expect them to take responsibility for it. If someone has been harmed or offended, it is our responsibility to listen carefully and respectfully, and do our best to right the wrong.

Although this list cannot be exhaustive, we explicitly honor diversity in age, culture, ethnicity, genotype, gender identity or expression, language, national origin, neurotype, phenotype, political beliefs, profession, race, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, subculture, and technical ability.

Some of the ideas and wording for this statement were based on diversity statements from the Python community and Dreamwidth Studios (CC-BY-SA 3.0).

Written by Matt Zimmerman

February 7, 2011 at 15:55

Finishing books

Having invested in some introspection into my reading habits, I made up my mind to dial down my consumption of bite-sized nuggets of online information, and finish a few books. That’s where my bottleneck has been for the past year or so. Not in selecting books, not in acquiring books, and not in starting books either. I identify promising books, I buy them, I start reading them, and at some point, I put them down and never pick them back up again.

Until now. Over the weekend, I finished two books. I started reading both in 2009, and they each required my sustained attention for a period measured in hours in order to finish them.

Taking a tip from Dustin, I decided to try alternating between fiction and non-fiction.

Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins

This was the first book I had read by Tom Robbins, and I am in no hurry to read any more. It certainly wasn’t without merit: its themes were clever and artfully interwoven, and the prose elicited a silent chuckle now and again. It was mainly the characters which failed to earn my devotion. They spoke and behaved in ways I found awkward at best, and problematic at worst. Race, gender, sexuality and culture each endured some abuse on the wrong end of a pervasive white male heteronormative American gaze.

I really wanted to like Priscilla, who showed early promise as a smart, self-reliant individual, whose haplessness was balanced by a strong will and sense of adventure. Unfortunately, by the later chapters, she was revealed as yet another vacant vessel yearning to be filled by a man. She’s even the steward of a symbolic, nearly empty perfume bottle throughout the book. Yes, really.

Managing Humans by Michael Lopp

Of the books I’ve read on management, this one is perhaps the most outrageously reductionist. Many management books are like this, to a degree. They take the impossibly complex problem domain of getting people to work together, break it down into manageable problems with tidy labels, and prescribe methods for solving them (which are hopefully appropriate for at least some of the reader’s circumstances).

Managing Humans takes this approach to a new level, drawing neat boxes around such gestalts as companies, roles, teams and people, and assigning them Proper Nouns. Many of these bear a similarity to concepts which have been defined, used and tested elsewhere, such as psychological types, but the text makes no effort to link them to his own. Despite being a self-described collection of “tales”, it’s structured like a textbook, ostensibly imparting nuggets of managerial wisdom acquired through lessons learned in the Real World (so pay attention!). However, as far as I can tell, the author’s experience is limited to a string of companies of a very specific type: Silicon Valley software startups in the “dot com” era.

Lopp (also known as Rands) does have substantial insight into this problem domain, though, and does an entertaining job of illustrating the patterns which have worked for him. If you can disregard the oracular tone, grit your teeth through the gender stereotyping, and add an implicit preface that this is (sometimes highly) context-sensitive advice, this book can be appreciated for what it actually is: a coherent, witty and thorough exposition of how one particular manager does their job.

I got some good ideas out of this book, and would recommend it to someone working in certain circumstances, but as with Robbins, I’m not planning to track down further work by the same author.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

June 21, 2010 at 16:00

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Ada Lovelace Day 2010

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, “an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science”. By participating in this event, and blogging about women in these fields, my hopes are:

For Ada Lovelace Day 2010, I would like to honor two women in the free software community who have made a strong impression on me in the past year: Akkana Peck and Miriam Ruiz.

Akkana Peck

I became aware of Akkana’s work through Planet Ubuntu Women, which is something of a year-round Ada Lovelace Day as it aggregates the blogs of many of the women of the Ubuntu community. As a senior engineer at Netscape, Akkana was instrumental in the development of the Linux port of Mozilla. Having developed a number of extensions to the GIMP, she went on to write the book on using it as well.

Her website, blog and Twitter feed include top-notch content on both free software and astronomy.

Miriam Ruiz

I met Miriam through the Debian Women project. Her profile there seems to be out of date, as it says she is not an official Debian developer yet, but she was officially recognized over two years ago as a trusted member of the team, through Debian’s notoriously thorough New Maintainer process. Miriam has been particularly interested in game development, and as the founder of the Debian Games Team has been responsible for uncountable hours of pleasant distraction for Debian users and developers. Thanks to her leadership, the Debian Games team has been exemplary in terms of cross-participation between Debian and Ubuntu.

Miriam blogs and tweets on free software topics in English and Spanish.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

March 24, 2010 at 11:00

linux.conf.au 2010: Day 1 (afternoon)

After lunch, I had a three-way conflict, as I wanted to attend talks on SVG as an alternative to Flash (Libre Graphics Day), gnucash and domain-specific package management.

Sometimes, when I have a conflict like this, I try to attend the talk whose material is less familiar to me (in this case, probably the SVG/Flash one). However, since the talks are being recorded and made available on the Internet, this changes the dynamic a bit. I don’t have to miss out on watching anything, as I can download it later. So, it makes more sense for me to go where I can best participate, taking advantage of my presence at the conference.

Distro summit: Package management

So, I chose to attend the package management talk, as I might have something to contribute. It was about how to harmonize general distribution packaging mechanisms (dpkg, RPM, etc.) with special-purpose ones like those used by Ruby (gems), Lua (rocks), Perl (CPAN modules) and so on. The solution described employed a set of wrapper scripts to provide a standard API to these systems, so that they could be used by the distribution package manager to resolve dependencies.

Due up next was Scott James Remnant’s talk on booting faster, but due to travel difficulties, he hadn’t arrived yet. Instead, we had a free-form discussion on various other challenges in the area of package management.

I took the opportunity to put forward an idea I had been thinking about for some time, which is that we may need to move beyond a “one size fits all” or “everything is a package” approach to package management. Modern package management systems are very capable, and solve a range of difficult problems with a high degree of reliability. The cost of all of this functionality is complexity: making packages is difficult. The system can be made to work for a wide range of software, but the simple case is often not very simple.

I also made the point that there are non-technical challenges as well: it is difficult for developers and ISVs to understand the ecosystem of distributions, and even more difficult to succeed in making their software available in “the right way” to Linux users. The obstacles range from procedural to cultural, and if we only approach this as a technical problem, we risk adding more complexity and making the situation worse.

The opportunity to have this kind of participatory discussion really validated my decision about how to choose which talk to attend.

Liz Henry: Code of our Own

Back in the Haecksen/LinuxChix miniconf, Liz Henry presented an action plan
for increasing the involvement of women in open source, with many well-considered “dos” and “don’ts” based on observations of what has and has not worked for open source communities.

It was the first opportunity I’ve had to attend a free software conference session which went beyond the typical “yes, this is important” and “yes, there really is a problem here” content which is unfortunately as necessary as it is commonplace.

I won’t attempt to summarize it here, but I can definitely recommend Liz’ presentation to anyone who is looking for concrete, actionable methods to promote gender diversity in their technical communities.

Lucas Nussbaum: The Relationship between Debian and Ubuntu

Historically, in Lucas’ assessment, many Debian developers have been unhappy with Ubuntu, feeling that it had “stolen” from Debian, and was not “giving back”. He said that bad experiences with certain people associated with Canonical and Ubuntu reflected on the project as a whole.

However, he says, things have improved considerably, and today, most Debian developers see some good points in Ubuntu: it brings new users to free software and Debian technology, it provides a system which “just works” for their (less technical) friends and family, and brings new developers to the Debian community.

There are still some obstacles, though. Lucas says that many bugfix patches in Ubuntu are just workarounds, and so are not very helpful to Debian. He gave the example of a patch which disabled the test suite for a package because of a failure, rather than fixing the failure.

He felt that Canonical offered few “free gifts” to Debian, citing as the only example the website banner on ubuntu.com which was displayed for Debian’s 15th anniversary. I felt this was a bit unfair, as Canonical has done more than this over the years, including sponsoring DebConf every year since Canonical was founded.

It occurred to me that the distinctions between Canonical and Ubuntu are still not clear, even within the core free software community. For example, the “main” package repository for Ubuntu is often seen to be associated exclusively with Canonical, while “universe” is the opposite. In reality, Canonical works on whatever is most important to the company, and volunteers do the same. These interests often overlap, particularly in “main” (where the most essential and popular components are).

Lucas speculated that more mission-critical servers run Debian pre-releases (especially testing) than Ubuntu pre-releases. It would be interesting to test this, as it’s rare to get sufficient real-world testing for server software prior to an Ubuntu release.

Lucas presented a wishlist for Ubuntu:

  • more technical discussions between Ubuntu and Debian (particularly on the ubuntu-develdebian-devel mailing list
  • easier access to Launchpad data
  • Launchpad PPAs for Debian

The prominence of Launchpad in these discussions spawned a number of tangential discussions about Launchpad, which were eventually deferred to tomorrow’s Launchpad mini-conf. One audience member asked whether Debian would ever adopt Launchpad. The answer from Lucas and Martin Krafft was that it would definitely not adopt the Canonical instance, but that a separate, interoperating instance might eventually be palatable.

I made the point that there is no single Debian/Ubuntu “relationship”, but a large number of distinct relationships between individuals and smaller groups. Instead of focusing on large-scale questions like infrastructure, I think there would be more mileage in working to build relationships between people around their common work.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

January 18, 2010 at 04:45

What “Britainthinks” of sexism

Photo of a billboard reading "Career women make bad mothers"
As I left the office yesterday, I passed a billboard at a bus stop near the Canonical office. In large, capital letters, it read “Career women make bad mothers”. It invites readers to “have their say” on a website called “Britainthinks!”, which I won’t dignify with a link. I say it stinks. Who on earth thought this would be acceptable?

Apparently, more than a few people took notice, as The Guardian reports that the ad will be withdrawn. According to the article, a representative from the agency responsible offered a non-apology, saying that “they were intended to spark a debate, and did not represent the opinion of the agency or the campaign organisers.” Whose opinion was it, then, and how did it end up all over London? (I saw a larger format version of the same billboard in a different location today) What must the meeting have been like where this originated? “Well, we thought about debating whether rich white men are poisoning the Earth, but decided it was better to go after working mothers instead. Sound good?”

This reminds me a bit of the BBC’s recent screwup, where they attempted to “spark debate” about whether gay people should be executed(!?), and then defended their actions as intentionally polarizing. The common pattern is disregard for the rights of a class of people, followed by blind excuses and justification. It’s no coincidence that the target groups are routinely subject to harassment by more privileged folk.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

January 9, 2010 at 21:42

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Who’s afraid of Ubuntu Women?

At the recent Ubuntu Developer Summit, there were three sessions held to discuss the future of the Ubuntu Women project. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the first two, because I didn’t realize the first one was happening, and I had a scheduling conflict for the second. The first session was video recorded, and hopefully the recording will be made available soon. While attending the third and final session, I tried to catch up on the earlier discussion as I listened to what was being said.

The first thing I noticed in the Gobby notes was a link to an existing roadmap for Ubuntu Women. I hadn’t seen that document before, and was encouraged to see that it included concrete, measurable goals for increasing the participation of women in Ubuntu. In particular, it presents a goal of increased representation in Ubuntu governing bodies, which I think is an important step in promoting gender diversity in the project. People want leaders they can identify with.

The next thing I found in the document was a list of goals. I asked about the relationship between the goals in Gobby and the ones in the wiki roadmap, and someone explained that the goals in the wiki were long term, while the ones in Gobby were short term (to be completed in the 6-month Lucid cycle).

There were about 25 people attending the session, and most of the talking was done by Amber Graner, Elizabeth Krumbach, Laura Czajkowski, Jono Bacon and Kurt von Finck. It was Friday afternoon, the last day of an intense week, and the energy level was fairly low. The focus seemed to be on reviewing the group’s objectives and agreeing who would take the next steps. The objectives were as follows:

Clarify the purpose of the #ubuntu-women channel

The group seemed to feel that there was confusion about what this IRC channel was for. A couple of men in the room said that they didn’t know whether they could or should join the channel, because it had the word “women” in the name.

The core of the issue seemed to be less about purpose than governance. The group was concerned about the fact that the channel was not publicly logged like most other Ubuntu channels, and that this gave the impression of it being a “fiefdom” within the community, or a place where people would “gossip”.

As far as I’m aware, there is at present no requirement that Ubuntu channels (official or unofficial) must be publicly logged, and there are many channels which are not. If this is considered to be a requirement for a healthy IRC community, then the Ubuntu IRC council would be in a good position to put forward such a policy. I don’t think I have enough experience in regulating IRC discussions to say whether this is the right thing to do, but it seemed a bit odd to me that this came up in the context of #ubuntu-women. It isn’t clear to me what problem this is meant to solve, and whether it is consistent with precedent (again, I’m not very familiar with IRC governance).

There was some confusion over why folks might not want the channel to be logged. Kurt suggested that if the conversation adhered to the Code of Conduct, there should be no reason not to publish it. I suggested that there were many occasions where a conversation might be appropriate to keep “off the record” while still following the code of conduct, and that these were separate issues (standards of behavior versus privacy).

The group’s agreed actions on this topic included agreeing and documenting guidelines for behavior in #ubuntu-women, and arranging for the conversations in the channel to be publicly recorded.

Create a safe space IRC channel

This objective seemed to acknowledge that something would be lost if the conversations in #ubuntu-women were made a matter of public record. The group therefore proposed the creation of a separate channel, which would still be logged, but only the Community Council would have access to the logs.

The reason for this seemed to be, again, the need to ensure regulation, and the concern that without oversight, channel participants would misbehave. While a safe space does require oversight in order to be maintained, the goal of involving the CC seemed to be general governance of behavior rather than the safety of women. The group seemed to acknowledge that this idea needed more work, and in particular wasn’t satisfied with the terminology of safe space.

The agreed actions were to create the new channel, document guidelines for behavior in it, and arrange for the conversation there to be logged for the Community Council.

Appoint a leader of the Ubuntu Women team

The group seemed to feel that, in order for the team to meet its goals, it was important to implement some form of government, and that the appropriate structure (at least initially) would be to have a single leader. They proposed to define the responsibilities of such a role, solicit nominations from the community, and ask the Community Council to appoint a leader.

I asked why the team could not appoint their own leader, and they explained that the team was not well defined enough, e.g. the Launchpad team is open for anyone to join. Without explicit membership, it’s difficult to organize a fair election. They suggested that the appointed leader would go about organizing the team to the point where it could govern itself more effectively.

There seemed to be some concern that this would be controversial.

Change the perception of Ubuntu Women

After the written goals had been reviewed, Amber said that in her view, the true value of the sessions had been to change the perception of Ubuntu Women in the community, and that the perception had been very negative. All of the vocal participants agreed with this assessment, seemed to feel this was an important problem to solve, and felt that great progress had been made during the course of UDS.

I was surprised by this, because I hadn’t encountered this perception myself, and so I asked to hear more about it. Several people asserted that that there was a problem, that Ubuntu Women and/or its IRC channel were perceived in a negative light. Two men in the room offered anecdotes: one didn’t think he should join the IRC channel because it had “women” in the name (which seems like a different issue), and another said that someone in his LoCo had advised him to avoid it because it was hostile.

I didn’t really understand all of this, but I didn’t want to derail the conversation, particularly as I had missed the first two thirds of it. In talking to people following the event, the issue at hand seems to be the IRC channel, #ubuntu-women, rather than Ubuntu Women itself. The channel, at one point, had become a sort of common meeting place for women in various geek communities, and was a place where they would sometimes blow off steam, or conduct broader feminist discussions beyond the scope of Ubuntu Women. This was apparently a bit off-putting to the uninitiated, as well as to some of the channel’s regular participants.

Some time ago, #ubuntu-women reverted back to its original purpose and the other discussion moved elsewhere, but it seems that this perception remained among some members of the Ubuntu community. This also may explain why I’ve been hearing that people are confused about the difference between Geek Feminism and Ubuntu Women, because some of the same people are involved in both, and discussed both on #ubuntu-women.

Hopefully that’s the end of this apparent stigma, and Ubuntu Women can get on with the business of helping the Ubuntu community to welcome more women.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

November 23, 2009 at 06:44