Ada Lovelace Day: from my subscriptions

Here’s a big assorted hunk of tasty soft-centered Ada Lovelace Day goodness, brought to you care of the ridiculously large list of weblogs I poll:

Ada Lovelace Day 2010: Betty Allan

This is much more of a quick post than my post about Skud, but a call to highlight Australian women pioneers in science and technology reminded me of idly flicking through a CSIRO internal publication a year or two back and discovering Frances Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Allan.

The CSIRO is Australia’s government research organisation. Allan was CSIRO’s first statistician. John Field has written a lot about her at CSIRO’s first statistician, Miss Frances Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Allan:

… The first of these [early biometricians at CSIR, the first three of whom where women] was Frances Elizabeth Allan. On return from Rothamsted, she took up duty with CSIR on 29 September 1930, seventy-five years ago.

Over the next decade she championed and demonstrated the usefulness of biometrics – the application of statistics to biology, often now called biostatistics – throughout the organisation and beyond. Her work was highly valued; she devoted her energies to helping other researchers rather than establishing her own scientific reputation. She is remembered by those who knew her as kind-hearted, considerate and easy to work with.

Allan’s marriage and therefore, by law, her retirement, occurred at more or less the same time as the formal establishment of a Biometrics Section in CSIR, forerunner to the present-day CSIRO Mathematical and Information Sciences. Allan’s legacy is a CSIRO Division which employs scores of statisticians from Australia and overseas. These people are working on problems and conducting research with an impact that Betty Allan would certainly be proud of.

It’s already easy to forget that women were required to retire from many jobs upon marriage as a matter of law until well within many people’s living memory (mine, for a small number of women in Australia). It was still the case at the time of the publication of The Female Eunuch, and, in Australia, it was occasionally required until the passing of the Federal Anti-Discrimination Act in 1986.

Ada Lovelace Day 2010: Kirrily Robert

This is a profile of a woman in technology for Ada Lovelace Day, 24th March. Everyone is invited today to profile a woman in technology or science.

Skud (two photos)
Creative Commons License
Skud (Two photos) by Kirrily Robert, Erica Olsen, Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Australia License.

I’ve run across Kirrily Robert in any number of capacities. Originally it was in 2001, presenting at about the work of her then employer, e-smith. She and I and several other people went to a LinuxChix BoF. We’ve only met one other time in person, I think, and she performed the essential service of introducing me to Ackland Street St Kilda and mentioning that there are very rummy rum balls to be had there. (Very large ones too, it turns out, about the size of a fist. Don’t buy two.)

I admire Skud for her generalist interests and her leadership. In a decade or so of following her blogs and occasionally contributing to her projects, there’s been Perl hacking, Perl community, fandom, social media, geek feminism, geek etiquette, Freebase…

One of Skud’s specialties is seizing expertise by the throat. She writes and talks about whatever is interesting her constantly, learning and teaching at the same time and thereby making herself central to the community around it. I also admire her embrace of generalisation: of focussing on breadth as well as depth.

It’s hard to write about generalists without making it sound like a second prize, so I want to address that specifically. Firstly, I don’t think depth versus breadth of interests is a zero sum game. Certainly there’s a trade-off at some point, but I think geek culture creates a quite artificial separation between the intense take-all intense interest and expertise and those other people in second place, with their shallow fiddling around. (I suspect geeks have inherited this from academia.) The people I know achieving the most at the moment are all in some way generalists and Skud is at the forefront. Skud is an uber-geek. There’s nothing she’s interested in that she’s not geeky about. If I ever want to unashamedly get my teeth into Perl, Freebase, knitting, Age of Sail fandom, or historical household arts, I know where to go.

I’ve obviously been closely involved in the Geek Feminism project, which is why I’m choosing to write about Skud this year. No other person in technology has influenced my life and time so much recently. Skud’s big success in founding this was that she took the intense reaction to her OSCON keynote and built upon it. Considering the amount of venom around both the general topic of feminism and specifically feminist claims that geekdom’s individualist utopia might still be systemically difficult for women, it’s really really hard not to throw a stone and then run and hide for a few years. And I’m really really pleased that someone didn’t, and I think this is typical of Skud: she creates, builds and unifies. Watch and learn!

Quick hit: Battle of the Opens

A quick link for you: people interested in Free Software and similar intellectual property sharing and re-mixing movements would probably enjoy reading Dorothea Salo’s Battle of the Opens, talking about open source, open access (to research literature) and many other related movements. I think, in general, that Open Access and Free Culture and so on are far more aware of the software movement than the software movement is aware of any of the movements it partly inspired.

Here’s an excerpt about open access:

What is being made open? The academic literature: specifically, the peer-reviewed journal literature which is not written for royalties or any other direct monetary reward to its authors. (While open-access advocates happily cheer for open access to books and other research media, the different money-flows in these areas mean they are not a focus of the movement.) Open-access literature is in opposition to literature which is not available to be read unless a subscription, per-article, or other fee is paid by the reader or the reader’s proxy (e.g. a library).

What legal regimes are implicated? Copyright, again. Typical practice for the academic article is that its author(s) transfer their copyright in its entirety to the journal publisher, allowing the publisher to control reuse.

On breastfeeding

I don’t intend to post a lot of parenting stuff here, but I wanted to make some notes about breastfeeding activism (‘lactivism’) for the geekosphere, as Brenda Wallace has done in talking about her decision to do mixed feeding.

A couple of preparatory notes:

  • The compulsory Mary notice: I am not looking for advice. I am not lacking personally for professional support for my breastfeeding difficulties. It is easier for me to rely on that support than it is to filter through the advice of millions of onlookers. Thank you for your concern!
  • I am a whole week into parenting and have exclusively breastfed to date. I feel quite committed to continuing such to the recommended six months of age and then continue partial breastfeeding for some time thereafter. But. One whole week. And it’s been really hard, actually, even with a good supply from me and a good suck from him and fairly good institutional support from my hospital. I’ve had a middle-of-the-night visit from a locum already to treat mastitis. One whole week. I’m not here to tell you how easy it is.
  • I do not have personal experience of feeding-related persecution or even hassles. (I’ve hardly left the house, I could be not feeding him at all and no one would hassle me.)
  • I really do not mind about your feeding choices for your infant or child, in the sense of exclusive breastfeeding, mixed feeding or exclusive formula. The hassling in the street goes both ways, and in many areas (especially, I gather, the US) the hassling from medical staff sure runs both ways too. I am generally uninterested in person-to-person shame advocacy. More on this later. It’s demeaning, insulting and counterproductive. Lose, lose, lose. Feed your baby, I’ll feed mine, who am I to tell you how?
  • Purely as a terminology thing, formula feeding is not the same as bottle feeding: you can put human milk in bottles and many people do so. (It’s not functionally equivalent to breastfeeding though, because it’s harder to establish and maintain supply, and the correct handling of the bottles is a nuisance as Brenda notes.)

So, why lactivism, a kind of 101:

Consider areas without safe water supplies, that is, most of the world (and this includes major cities of Western nations in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, New Orleans was an example). Formula feeding, or anything other than extended exclusive breastfeeding, is really really dangerous without a safe water supply. Gastric illness kills babies. Lots and lots and lots of babies, many of whom would not have died if exclusively breastfed. Unless there’s a safe water supply mothers with HIV are currently encouraged to exclusively breastfeed, as the risk of the baby contracting HIV is less than the risk of her or him dying of gastric illness related to substitution.

There are several problems with promotion of formula in such areas, or any economically disadvantaged area, a non-exhaustive list includes:

  1. correct preparation of infant formula, including sterilisation of bottles and correct dosages is not trivial and not always (I suspect, not even often) communicated in a manner appropriate to, for example, illiterate people or even people literate ‘only’ in their local language
  2. correct preparation of infant formula is expensive
  3. weaning to formula creates dependency on the product, or at least on milk substitutes: women can restore their own milk supplies (at least sometimes?) some time after weaning to formula, but it’s not especially easy. Without support they’re stuck with a major hole in the household budget, or with dangerous feeding, ie, watered down formula or homemade milk-ish substances.
  4. Per lauredhel here, for many women exclusive breastfeeding is the only reliable contraceptive they have access to (exclusive breastfeeding on demand is more reliable than you’ve been led to believe as a contraceptive) and the use of formula therefore imposes a potential burden of very closely spaced pregnancies.

Right upfront I’ll note that I am far from the most ethical consumer in the world, I have not a shred of pedestal to proclaim from. But. Formula producers are involved in aggressive marketing in exactly these circumstances, in addition to marketing to new mothers in the Western context who are in the often difficult phase of establishing their desired breastfeeding relationship. I’ll note again that in a Western context and in a proclaimed pro-breastfeeding medical environment, I have found aspects of establishing nursing hard. Really hard. If I’d had formula in the house last night it would have been very likely to have been used. (Again, not that there’s anything wrong with that morally, but as a practical matter supplementing is not exactly helpful in further establishing nursing. Or for that matter in dealing with mastitis.)

So, I support very strong institutional focus on establishing breastfeeding in Western countries, and particularly strongly oppose marketing attempts to establish formula feeding as desirable in developing countries. That is my lactivism.

Now to the horrible shaming mothers thing. This sucks. My take on it is that it is two way, like a lot of Mummy Wars. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Telling formula feeding mothers that every breastfeeder [is] a better mother than any formula-feeder? Spew. Using the power of the state against breastfeeding mothers? Unspeakable.

I only wish Chez Miscarriage had left her archives up about (some) reproductive choices: no kids? selfish non-Mummy. biological kids? selfish narcissistic eco-raider Mummy. ART biological kids? selfish rich narcissistic eco-raider Mummy. adopted kids? selfish, also rich, Mummy. etc. (Incidentally, re reproductive choice, go be challenged, you’ll gain more there than here.) None of that is the argument I want to have or the people I want to have it with.

Fantasy 2010

I won’t be at LCA, but since I wish I was, here’s what I wish I could see most. (Note that I haven’t picked something in every timeslot and so this wouldn’t be my complete talks list. This is just my personal highlights.)

I’ve never seen Mako Hill speak, but you can’t be interested in free software and culture activism without stumbling across his name. Because he’s involved in the FSF. And Debian. And Ubuntu. And Wiki[mp]edia. And OLPC. And Among others. I actually don’t know what his keynote is about, the webpage is just the speakers’ biographies, but I’m just going to go ahead and assume that whatever it is, I’d enjoy. I’m also sure Gabriella Coleman‘s Tuesday keynote would be interesting.

Build Your Own Contributors, One Part At A Time. I don’t know that the Dreamwidth project has good name recognition in the LCA community: consider this an attempt to rectify that. It’s a blog hosting company on the Livejournal model with a fork of Livejournal’s codebase. It’s also very, almost uniquely, innovative and successful in mentoring new and non-traditional contributors. (Kirrily Robert has some information, mostly focusing on their very unusual developer gender ratio.)

Loyal fans of my writing will remember that I’m generally suspicious of how to run an Open Source project submissions to LCA, because so many members of the audience have either run one or seen one run at close range. But I really wanted to select this one because it’s successful at something very unusual. There’s a lot more talk than action on mentoring and diversity in Open Source development; here’s your action.

Introduction to game programming. Yeah, this clashes with Build Your Own Contributors, but since I’m not going at all, it can still be a Fantasy LCA pick, can’t it? Richard Jones is an import from the OSDC scene, he’s a good speaker, he wrote a good chunk of the tools he’s talking about and he regularly puts them to use and watches others put them to use in the PyWeek challenge.

I’m very curious about how Matthew Garrett’s Making yourself popular: a guide to social success in (and for) the Linux community goes and I’d also like to see Claudine Chionh’s Unlocking the ivory tower: Free and open source software in collaborative humanities research: luckily, again this is Fantasy LCA and I don’t have to choose. I’d also get along to FOSS and Māori Language Computer Initiatives later in the afternoon: it’s not exactly my field, but close enough that I’m interested in language and computer interfaces in general.

I don’t know that I’ve ever actually made it to one of Matthew Wilcox’s talks, but I heard great things last year, so I’d get along to Discarding data for fun and profit for sure.

Gearman: Map/Reduce and Queues for everyone! sounds like something I’d enjoy hearing about and might put to use. Can’t lose.

I was accused of being a fangirl when reviewing Adam Jackson’s The Rebirth of Xinerama, if I recall. I don’t think I qualify without, say, asking for autographs, but I enjoyed his 2009 talk a lot. It was not at all aimed at the Mary demographic (short version: I know nothing about X, long version: I know nothing about X) but was still accessible even while totally ignoring my demographic. I love that kind of technical talk. And the more competent parts of the audience seemed fine with it too.

After seeing Andrew Tridgell’s OSDC keynote in 2008 I am wretched about missing Patent defence for free software. Just as you can find Mako Hill everywhere when it comes to free culture activism, you can find Andrew Tridgell everywhere in building… anything. From chess playing server software to homemade coffee roasters. And on the side he’s spent a long time with the Samba team testifying and advising on aspects of the EU’s antitrust investigations into Microsoft. And because of that and because he’s a great speaker and essentially is LCA, it would be a great talk to get to.

Finally, thank goodness this is Fantasy LCA, so I don’t have to tell you which I’d choose of Rusty Russell’s FOSS Fun With A Wiimote, involving Rusty, who is a marvellous speaker, and babies, who… are babies, and Wiimotes, which are white and blue, or Liz Henry’s Hack Ability: Open Source Assistive Tech about the advantages of hacking up assistive tech and thus adapting it to individuals. What a cruel world that timeslot is.

Hermit’s cave

For my loyal and devoted readers: I need to turn off the firehose so I’m taking something of a ‘net vacation for a while, including but quite possibly not limited to Identica/Twitter/Facebook, mailing lists and blog comments. Phone and direct email will reach me (before I go into labour at least, which is likely not any day now).


I’ve held off on mentioning this here, although it’s not exactly a secret, that I’m group blogging elsewhere; I wanted to wait until there was something to see at both sites. You can now find me regularly at Geek Feminism (well, possibly only regularly before my child is born), and occasionally at Hoyden About Town. I won’t in general be cross-posting things to, although I might do so occasionally if it’s relevant to my usual topics here. At some point I may set up a feed of my posts in various places in case you are in need of the full Mary experience. Not that I’d suggest skipping the other GF or HAT authors…

How to improve public health

  1. Discover or suspect that sedentary lifestyles are causing people health problems.
  2. Further discover to your shock and horror that people are doing this for such damaging inexplicable reasons as earning a living in an occupation requiring mostly/entirely sedentary desk work.
  3. Point out how easy it would be if people would just think a little and spend a bit more of their day exercising. Everyone wants to live longer right? People are so silly. It’s not like there’s some kind of counter-incentive encouraging them to do the job they’re paid for. They just don’t know how unhealthy it is to sit around all day!
  4. Break the exercise up into bite sized portions so as to point out that it’s even easier than people think. It’s not an hour a day! It’s 30 minutes a day! Plus 30 minutes extra, in small units of time!
  5. Profit!

There are even advanced forms of this manoeuvre. For example, you could set up some kind of cycle. Because people don’t spend much time with their children either! And they don’t cook healthy meals from scratch! And employers have noticed that their employees are oddly unwilling to work the long hours this tough economy requires! If we just remind them about all of these things, they’ll be able to find an hour a day to exercise, another half hour for changing clothes and showering and such for exercise reasons, an hour a day for cooking, a couple of hours for the kids, an hour for commuting, ten or eleven hours for the office and then there’s still the opportunity to remind them that seven and a half hours sleep is really only just acceptable and that we’re probably designed for more!

Oh, did I say an hour of exercise every day? Oops. That’s pretty nice of me. Actually you just need three or four. Caring for yourself: it’s all about the ‘just’.