Linux and Chix

I’m heavily involved in LinuxChix, an online group targeted at women users of Linux. The whole point of LinuxChix, originally, was that there are a lot of online Linux groups that have a… quite high standard of entry.

Or more to the point, they prefer the entry standard to be too high rather than too low. If there’s a choice between encouraging someone who doesn’t even know the words to ask the question with, and roasting them alive (eating their liver with some fuava beans and a nice Chianti, if that’s to your tastes), roasting them alive is healthier, because it preserves the technical, or possibly, inflammatory, standards of the group.

So LinuxChix is expressly anti all of the usual straight out derogatory stuff. Certainly, it’s not the place to turn up and say, "maaaan, I wish there were more chix using Linux, cos I could use more cute butts in my lab." It’s also not the best place to tell someone to come back once they’re out of diapers, and certainly not the place to try and fool someone into deleting the contents of their hard drive.

But, on the other hand, this means it is almost unfailingly nice. It means that on the (quite rare) occasions when someone gives the wrong answer, they give it at such long and reasonable and informative length, and they’re so nice about it, that they sound right. And then you need to double their word length, and apologise heaps, when pointing out that they’re wrong.

It’s actually quite a female way of interacting, at least, according to your average analysis of female ways of interacting. It places a lot of emphasis on ‘positive face’ (in the socio-linguist’s terminology) – that is, doing as much as you can to make other people feel good and maintain their status in the community. Most Linux groups are very much about ‘negative face’ – maintaining status by destroying others image in the community.

And it’s not something I’m entirely comfortable with all the time. I don’t always favour making people feel better about themselves over teaching them the right way to do things, if there is one. I’ve gotten past the ‘oh my god, there are indeed other women who use computers’ experience I see on LinuxChix everyday – although the fact that we do hear that a lot is an excellent reason for its continued existence.

One of the things I do not like about ‘positive face’ stuff is needing to apologise for correcting people. This isn’t an unambiguous position, as there have been times when I’ve been very embarrassed and upset to be told that I’m wrong, or that I’m not doing things the best way. But I feel, sometimes, especially in all-female groups, like correcting people is a socially unacceptable thing to do. I also don’t mind if the correction becomes a mutual correction, and you get a better answer than either individual answer.

I learn in a very collaborative way. I like to be in a group tossing ideas around, throwing things into the mix and seeing what happens. I don’t mind being the least experienced person in the group.

I dislike learning by continual correction right up until the point where I reach perfection – "wrong, wrong, still wrong, um, still wrong, wrong, ok, now you’re done". But I also dislike learning by continual affirmation – "good try, good try, oh you’re working so hard, everyone finds this hard, you’re making a good try, oh don’t worry, you’re doing fine, ok, now you’re done".

So in that sense, the prevailing atmosphere on LinuxChix sometimes irks me. I crave polite technical discussion. Sometimes I don’t want to have to end the whole discussion when the inevitable new subscriber turns up and says "wow, you’re all so smart, guess I’m really dumb hey?" and the inevitable old subscriber (sometimes me, when I’m in a better mood) says "no, no, you’re the reason why we’re here, don’t worry about it".

But, at the same time, a woman who works for a large software company told a story today about how their software went through usability testing with five users, and the programmers were shown the videotapes. The users were given tasks to do, and the programmers watched the tapes of them doing it and spent lots of time thumping their heads against the wall and saying "oh god, I had no idea someone would think to click there", which is the point of usability testing.

But, the one woman in the five users ended up in tears, and was recorded crying and saying "tell them I’m sorry I suck". And I’ve been there, not as a guinea pig in a usability study, but many times when I’ve tried to learn some computing skill or other. And, purely anecdotally, it seems to be the primary reason that high achieving women in my university’s computer science course walk away from computers forever after three years and high marks – they’re sick of the endless frustration and damage to their self-esteem.

So LinuxChix is doing something really good, I just wish it didn’t have to start afresh every single day. I guess that’s the goal.

I don’t understand why people give you money

Here’s a couple of bad ideas.

Bad idea 1: Have friendly, perky charity collecters at a railway station having a massive appeal for a good cause. Have them tell people that to donate, they have to hand over bank account details (and a name and address). Have them refuse all one off donations. Definitely don’t accept any cash.

Bad idea 2: Have a computer ring people up, and play them a message telling them a telemarketer will be with them shortly.

OK, so I bet the reason for 1 is that it makes more money for the charity. If you let someone drop $2 in the box, then they feel all good about themselves and won’t give again for a year.

In fact, since I’m someone who has two charities taking money from their account at the middle of each month, and if I could be bothered I’d stop both of them, I’m sure it makes them money. But it is very very annoying, and since I now have two leeches, there’s no way I’m signing up for anything else. Maybe I’d drop a gold coin or a bill in a bucket for Appeal of the Month, but I’m not handing over bank account details.

It seems like a bad move to me. Maybe if you were the first charity on the block to do direct debit, it was working. Now all the other charities are poisoning the minds of the populace too. Lose-lose.

2 just seems really really really dumb. I can’t see how it works.

But friends in telemarketing have told me though that people will do anything rather than say "sorry, not interested." They’ll say they’re busy, or to call back later or they’ll fake illness or anything else. (Hint: this is a bad idea. Telemarketers will have to call back if you say something that makes it sound like you’d be open to a second call. Neither they nor you want to waste time on the phone if you aren’t buying or taking their survey or whatever. Do everyone a favour and tell them no, and not to call again.)

I guess there are people out there who are too polite to hang up on machines.

Free Software

The idea of Free Software is writing software, and allowing other people to modify it at will. The reality of Free Software, for me to date, has been that I can use a large amount of software for gratis. I have been a user, not an author.

By default, copyrighted works have all rights reserved. If I put a piece of software up on my webpage with no specific mention of allowing you to do anything with it, you can only do ‘fair use’ type stuff. You could satire it, you could review it, and you could quote from portions in the course of your research. You couldn’t go and make a bigger and better piece of software based upon my code (you could base it upon my ideas if I hadn’t patented them, but not my code). Just as if I put a novel up on my webpage, you couldn’t write a novel with the same characters in the same fictional universe, nor could you write a sequel, or take my novel, make it a better novel, and publish it, even under joint names.

Anyway, the point of Free Software is giving people a licence to make derivative works based on your code (a better novel, if you will). You can do this to varying degrees. You can tell everyone that they can do what the hell they want with it. You can tell them they can do what the hell they want with it as long as your name is still part of any copyright notices.

A relatively common way of doing things is to use the GNU General Public Licence, which doesn’t really let people do what the hell they want with your code. They can make derivative works, but they must make the source code of their derivative work available if they distribute it, and it too must be GPLed, meaning that people can then make derivative works of their code, and

This doesn’t mean they have to distribute it gratis, just that they must then distribute the source code to anyone who has the product (and the source code must be distributed at cost, not for profit), and because the source code is GPLed, anyone who has it can make derivative works and distribute them, with the modified source.

It’s not really a winning proposition if your business model involves making software and relying on the fact that people can’t make better software from your software. You use the GPL if you want to make sure your work, and improvements on your work, remain Free. If you want to make the lives of programmers everywhere easier without forcing them to distribute modifications, you don’t use the GPL. Your decision.

Which is all well and good, until you suddenly realise that you might be making a derivative work of an existing GPLed piece of code (which means that your product, if you distribute it, must also be GPLed), rather than an original work, as you had intended. As I am considering doing with this weblog.

I rather like the idea of people being able to do what they want with their own intellectual property, produced for some value of time and/or money. If they want to sell it for oodles of money and not allow derivative works, and they can get someone to buy it, so be it. If they want to hand it out on street corners, well that’s generous, well done. The GPL is somewhere in between, and well, if you put the work in to make an original piece of software, and a condition of using it is that derivative works have certain restrictions, well, it was your work.

Now wanting to contribute a few hundred lines of blogging software to the world is not exactly the most serious of contributions. And I was considering using a piece of software in it that is in fact, GPLed, which would mean that this software is a derivative work.

However, I kind of sputtered. I’ve been thinking of it as an original work, you see, and therefore entirely my property to be distributed under such terms as I choose. It seems odd to hook it up to something else, and have it suddenly lose its status as my own work. I’m more accustomed to the idea of the GPL applying when you make little improvements to something big, rather than when you take two rather different pieces of software and link them together at a few points. It feels rather like writing a novel that makes a passing reference to Frodo Baggins and having your novel’s copyright suddenly owned by the Tolkien Estate. The analogy is not fair, but I’m illustrating reactions rather than ethical decisions.

So, at this point, I’m deciding whether or not to re-implement the wheel a little bit for the sake of having an original work, or to eat of the fruits of the GPL. It’s been luxurious being a user of Free Software, since it is generally distributed for rather small sums of money, I wonder if I’ve been fed too well?

Blogging and blogging software

It used to be a bit of a tradition among people I know to have about one hundred million unfinished web projects hanging around on various accounts we’d all forgotten the passwords to.

I’m not as bad as that, I tend to have old, finished, but badly badly in need of a redesign, projects, that move between hosts when I do.

In fact, my oldest web project, the Discriminant Boy stories, has gone through abut six design iterations and is still in fact hanging around on the web, having escaped the black hole of geocities, and of a user account, and now having its own subdomain. My personal website has been through about four design iterations and about six content iterations, and has now stabilized, pending me writing my own personal mega content management system for it.

This blog originates in me wanting to do some non-fictional writing, and not being able to do it in my online diary, because the tone and content established in the diary now restrict it to being my day-to-day life. It took about a year to move from idea to reality.

I did the basic site design, inspired by the GIMP adding all the hot colours to the eye logo, about seven or eight months ago, but gave up before I began coding.

About a month ago, I searched freshmeat for blogging software and found such a banquet of it that I couldn’t be bothered sampling them all to actually make a choice. I decided writing my own might actually be faster.

It took the old trick of stuvac to get it to a launch phase. I was, and am, procrastinating an essay you see.

Anyway, I now have a rather cute codebase, which I will tidy up and release – fancy that. I’m tempted to try and get it onto freshmeat, just to further annoy people who want to download some blogging software for their site. It’s probably going to have version numbers attached to it.

I’m worried that writing for it might not be as much fun as coding it was, and for me, that’s a serious, serious statement.

On history

I took first year Modern History this semester, as a kind of "fill in the gaps" thing for my degree. And like other ‘accidental’ subjects I’ve taken (linguistics) I really enjoyed it.

I only wish that high school history hadn’t been so piecemeal. I have vague recollections of learning about Gallipoli without understanding what World War I was about, of learning about JFK (and my mother lent me the findings of the Warren Commission) without learning about the 60s, or about the US. I wish there had been social history, and Big Picture history. Instead, we got snapshot history.

No wonder kids hate learning about the Australian explorers. There’s no maps given out to show where they went, no idea of the conditions they lived under, or the size of their cities, or whether they needed more land for agriculture, and nothing said about the colonial mentality.

We saw a map of Europe in 1750, and almost nothing, save England, was the same. I wish I’d seen that years ago. But then, I can’t remember whether or not I knew what a map of Europe looked like before I was thirteen or so. And I don’t know if my contemporaries would have recognised one either.

Our exam question is about how the ideals of the Enlightenment and the horror of World War I are tied together. I wish I’d had to answer questions like that at school.

On writing a diary for an audience

You know those diaries that people keep under their bed? Maybe with a key? I’ve never been able to keep them. I’ve tried. Several times. I still have some of them. I can’t bear to reread them. And I’ve never been able to keep writing in them for more than a month.

I always get caught up in guilt complexes. First, I feel guilty if I don’t write in them. Second, I feel that I need to put everything in them. An emotional experience left unrecorded is almost as if I have lived a lie. And I always end up lying by omission to my secret journals. There’s always something that is too painful to form into a narrative that evening.

Of course, it always ends up taking forever to write in them too.

But, years ago, when my grandmother (who died nearly two years ago) finished writing her life story for us, she told me that there was one thing that had been very helpful, and that was keeping a diary. Or so I remember. Noone in the family seems to think she kept a diary of any form, except possibly an appointments book.

In any case, that was something to feel guilty about. I didn’t have a record of my life for myself when I got older, or when my grandchildren wanted to know.

I ended up keeping an online diary due to my growing appetite for them. I felt like if I was going to consume the details of people’s lives (and I really do like reading the daily details of people’s lives, it’s only television snobbery that keeps me away from reality TV, I’m sure) then I should write about mine.

And so I have, for nearly two years now. And I’ve really enjoyed it.

People wonder how I can stand writing a diary that is emotionally bland, or relatively so. The secret is: I can’t write for myself, I can only write for an audience. I have tried to write for myself; I’ve tried to keep diaries, I’ve tried to write essays, and I’ve tried to be a poet. But the only thing that keeps me writing is a feeling that I’m writing for other people.

I don’t really use my diary as an emotional outlet – not an unthrottled one anyway. Rather, I use my diary as a writing exercise, as a record of my day-to-day. Already, there’s memories that are only ever invoked by rereading my diary, events that I now think would be lost to me without the diary.

I use it to practice writing. I use it to tell my mother details of my life that she would never hear in our weekly phone conversations.

It helped me discover that writing is something I really enjoy, and that’s something that forcing myself to pour my fifteen year old heart out to paper journals I’ve never reread couldn’t do.

Community stuff; Code

Community stuff

I’m on the SLUG committee, rewriting the constitution, organising a Python Interest Group after spiv‘s talk: SLUG PIG! [It’s all about the naming.]

jdub is doing the logo. Mmmm, slugs and pigs. It will be beautiful.

I’m doing lots of stuff for LinuxChix, including managing the FAQs, and helping restart the Sydney chapter.


I’m learning Perl. Hopefully.

It’s been 1.5 years since I’ve tackled a new language and there are reasons for that – low frustration threshold 🙁

Tuesday 26 March 2002


jdub: “haw haw” is so passe. It is now “haw haw… um.” The inspiration is clear.


barryp: I have a theory about Python uptake that runs something like this: five or so years ago, your average larval phase pizza-guzzling university computing student was a big Perl user and Perl advocate. Now, a lot of those students are Python users and advocates. Which is not to say that a lot of them don’t know Perl too, but Perl is moving away from being the scripting language of choice of your Geek of Tomorrow. Still, this might just be my university.

Tuesday 2 October 2001

Part of the problem [with teaching groupwork] is the difficulty recruiting good tutors. The other part is that noone is as committed to their studies as they are to their job (people will allow themselves to fail much more often than they will allow themselves to get fired), so even though people are meant to work in a group, one or two group members end up being responsible for much of it. Result: groupwork is the most despised part of CS courses especially by the good people, who ended up doing much of the work.