2011: dinner activities has a charity auction over dinner. There are various failure modes:

  1. it’s a year of big corporate budgets, so bidding reaches about $5000, no one else can compete, and then it stops
  2. it’s not a year of big corporate budgets, so bidding reaches about $500 from a private individual and then it stops
  3. bids aren’t high enough, so there is some pressure for someone to donate something precious. This was how Bdale Garbee ended up being shaved by Linus Torvalds at 2009. This can be fun, but it also at least tweaks and sometimes outright triggers people’s fear of coercion (having a lot of drunk people screaming for your beard is definitely coercive).

There’s always been a tradition of large consortia of private individuals forming to try and solve problem #1, in recent years these have even tended to win. The trouble then is what happens to the money that was pledged by losers: at lca2011 (and I think lca2010 too, but I wasn’t there) bids aren’t revocable. The donated money stays donated, the only question is whether you get a prize associated with it.

So far so good for money. And now for entertainment, as Rusty posts. The trouble with lca2011 was that the auction consisted of people walking up to laptops and having their donation amount entered and associated with their team. Running totals were displayed on a graph, but spectacle was lacking.

The ritual humiliation of Linux celebrities does have something in it. But, no more screaming for people’s beards. I think it would be much more appropriate, and probably fun, to organise something in advance to occur at the dinner, with celebrities volunteering. The closest model would be lca2004’s dunking of Linus Torvalds (which was organised in advance, the pressure placed on Torvalds to participate I can’t speak to but he gives the appearance of generally enjoying some mild organised humiliation for the benefit of charity).

Say, as an example, that five developers compete to throw three-pointers (actually, this is probably too hard, in addition to being difficult to stage at a dinner, but never mind). Then there’s a very short pre-planned set of auctions for things like being able to take steps forward to start with, extra shots, probably culminating in the right to substitute, together with a simple “highest amount, yay!” kind of contest. At least one or two bids to allow your celebrity to increase the challenge facing an opponent. Probably five rounds of shots total with bidding in between. You could probably solve some obvious problems (like everyone backing Torvalds or betting against him or whatever) with simple transparent manipulation: Linux Australia increasing their matching donations when tables back their assigned celebrity, or something.

Finally, since this is a developer conference, there should be some kind of application allowing people to pledge using their phones from their tables.

Ethics of Free Software community research

Most of this entry is exactly a year old today and it’s just sat around in draft form all that time. Since I posted something similar on Geek Feminism about research into women in tech and similar topics, I thought I’d get it out there.

In January 2009 a researcher named Anne Chin of Monash University Law emailed the chat list for the 2009 conference asking for research subjects to be interviewed about licencing and Open Source software. There were several responses criticising her use of HTML email and Microsoft Word attachments. I’ll leave the specifics of this alone except that people should be (and probably are) aware that this is almost always an unknowing violation of community norms.

I did, though, think about making some notes on research ethics and Free Software research. A bit about my background: I am not a specialist in ethics. I’m somewhat familiar with ethics applications to work with human subjects, but not from the perspective of evaluating them. I’ve made them, and I’ve been a subject in a study that had made them.

For people who haven’t seen this process, the ethical questions arising from using human subjects in your research in general covers the question of whether the good likely to arise from the outcomes of the study outweighs the harm done to the subjects, together with issues of consent to that harm. (There are many philosophical assumptions underlying this ethical framework, I don’t intend to treat them here.) Researchers in universities, hospitals, schools and research institutes usually have to present their experimental designs to an ethics committee who will determine this question for them and approve their experiment. Researchers who work across several of these (eg, a PhD student who wants to interview schoolchildren) will need to do several ethics applications, a notable chore when the forms and guidelines aren’t standardised and occasionally directly conflict. Researchers working for private commercial entities may or may not have a similar requirement. Researchers who use animals also have to have ethical reviews, these are done by animal ethics committees, which are usually separate.

At my university, essentially any part of your research that involves measuring or recording another person’s response to a research question and using it to help answer that question needs a human ethics application.

The good/harm balance may include very serious dilemmas: is there a health risk to subjects? how will the researcher manage the conflict between maintaining subject confidentiality and research integrity and the good of her subjects or the requirements of the law if she uncovers, say, episodes of abuse or violence? But it also involves less immediately obvious and serious ethical questions. Is this study a giant waste of subjects’ time? is considered a question of ethics by ethics committees, and is in fact the most serious problem for linguistics research, since there’s very seldom an outcome of particular interest to the subjects themselves.

The study in which I took part a few years back was towards the serious end actually: it was a study into the psychological profiles of people who have an immediate family member who had cancer as a child and involved both questionnaires and a phone interview with a psychologist. Both because the study explored memories of the illness and because the profiling included evaluating depressive episodes, suicidal ideation and so on, it came with a detailed consent form and with information about a counselling service that had been informed of the study and was prepared to work with its subjects.

In the case of the Free Software community the ethical questions are often more towards the waste of time? end of the spectrum than the more immediately serious end. It’s important to understand that this isn’t necessarily the case though. Here are some more cutting ethical problems:

  • getting findings that expose your subjects and/or their employers to intellectual property claims; or
  • revealing that your subjects are breaching employment contracts in some way (generally also related to IP) and thus exposing them to job loss and possible civil action.

Getting ethics approval to carry out workplace studies can be fairly hard precisely due to problems like these. But in the rest of this post I will treat the waste of time problem.

Firstly the basics: are your subjects going to be identifiable in your final reports or to the general public? If not, who will know who they are? Can a subject opt to have their responses removed from the study? When and how? All this should be explained at the start. (Usually if an ethics committee has been involved, there’s a consent form.) If doing a survey look into survey design, in order to construct non-leading questions and such.

Now, for specifics. Most of them arise from this principle: there are a lot of researchers working, in various ways, on the Free Software community, possibly making it a slightly over-studied group if anything. This places the onus on the individual researcher to demonstrate to the community that their project is worthwhile and that they’re going to do what they say. Thus:

  1. demonstrate some familiarity with the background. Depending on your research level this could mean anything from demonstrating a knowledge of existing anthropological work on Free Software (say, if the research project is for your anthropology PhD) down to at least understanding the essential concepts and core history (say, a project at high school level). This can be demonstrated by research design, eg asking sensible well-informed questions, but actually mostly requires a bigger time investment: making appearances in the community, either virtually or physically, ideally for a little time before asking the community to help you get your PhD/A-grade/pass.
  2. don’t get the community to design your experiment for you. Have a specific goal, more specific than get people to write me lengthy essays about Free Software, and get ideas from that and write about them. In the general case, the ask people incredibly vague stuff and hope they say something interesting technique fails the waste-of-time test.
  3. give your results back to the community. The most common problem with the various surveys, interviews and questionnaires sent to the Free Software community is that responding to them is like shouting into a black hole. It is not unheard of, of course, to see the thesis or essay or roundup that comes out of these, but it is unusual, relative to the number of requests. Most of the time the researcher promptly disappears. Researchers should come to the Free Software community with an explanation of when and where they will make the results of the study available. They should explain the aims in advance unless this would compromise the results. (On that note: Anne Chin is giving a talk this year.)

On girl stuff

In both of my recent talks involving women and Free Software the audience has latched onto something I didn’t expect. At OSDC it was the GNOME finding that they only got women applying for their summer of code projects once they created special ones for women. I think I expected people to have heard about that already, but they hadn’t. (GNOME had zero applications from women for Google Summer of Code, and some hundreds for the Women’s Summer Outreach variant.) There were probably a couple of things going on there aside from women responding to a specific invitation — in particular, computer science academics at some universities getting excited about being able to give their women students a specific invitation — but clearly invitations are part of what’s going on.

There is a karmic debt to do some work already incurred by giving these talks, but since the work I do isn’t Free Software and wouldn’t be generally useful if I released it as such (I know a lot of people say this about their work, but I try and predict word usage based on the opinion of the document, this really is quite niche software) and I had a reasonable idea for a variant on this kind of talk, I gave a second one anyway, at the LinuxChix miniconf. It was titled ‘Starting Your Free Software Adventure’ and happened to use women as examples. The idea was to show people what the first steps look like. I conducted (extremely short) interviews of several women involved in Free Software or Culture or their communities, including Kristen Carlson Accardi, Brenda Wallace and Terri Oda among others. (I intend to make the slides available, but since I quoted the subjects extensively and directly, it will require gathering permission and then a bit of work editing them.)

As I noted previously this talk was a failure all up, because the wrong audience turned up for it. But one thing stood out and kept coming up all week: Terri mentioning that she had resisted at times working on things perceived as ‘girl stuff’. In Free Software this includes but is not limited to documentation, usability research, community management and (somewhat unusually) sometimes management in general. The audience immediately hit on it, and it swirled around me all week.

This is a perennial problem for professional women: software development is by no means unique in having developed a hierarchy that goes from high status roles disproportionately occupied by and associated with men to somewhat lower status roles disproportionately occupied by and associated with women. (In the case of software, disproportionately occupied by women still means male dominated, by the way, at least in the English-speaking world.) It’s difficult to disentangle the extent to which women and/or their mentors and teachers self-select for the lower status roles (and I would hardly argue that the self-selection occurs in a vacuum either) versus the extent to which they are more or less barred from high status roles versus the extent to which the association is actually flipped and professions and jobs within them have become low status because women started doing them. Other well-known examples, are, for example, the concentration of women in biological sciences as opposed to, say, physics, the different specialisation choices of male and female medical doctors and surgeons, and so on. Sometimes, as in the war between sciences, the status of a field is somewhere between a joke and real, to the extent that those can be differentiated, but often it isn’t: there’s a correlation between the male to female ratio of a medical specialty and its pay.

In all of these cases, a woman who is conscious of this problem tends to face a choice. Do the ‘girl stuff’, or not? (Of course, ideally one rejects the dichotomy, but no individual woman is responsible for constructing it, and if you are sincerely of the belief that one is not programmed to a frightening and unavoidable extent by one’s social context we’re working from very different premises and don’t have a lot to say to each other.) And some, although I don’t know what proportion, of women feel guilty about their choice, especially if they do choose to do girl stuff. Just go ahead and imagine your own scare quotes from now on, by the way.

It also gets messy in various other ways. There’s the extent to which a woman who doesn’t do girl stuff is invested in maintaining the status she has chosen and also the aforementioned loop where if women are doing something, it will come to be seen as not particularly hard or noteworthy.

Most concretely, I usually see this tension bubble away underneath outreach programmes promoting computing careers (you know what, I have my own status issues and I still resist calling it IT) to women. There’s the people who want to go for yeah we all know coding is populated by weirdos, and male weirdos at that, luckily you don’t have to be a geek and you don’t have to code, phew! I tend to hear about that one only once my outreach friends have gotten involved and staged a coup, admittedly. There’s the there’s so many opportunities in computing, and yes, coding is one of them and its fulfilling and it’s something you can do, but dammit, coders get all the cred and attention and dammit can we talk about something else? Women who admin/write/test/manage rock! And there’s you know, women coders don’t exactly rule the world yet, and furthermore isn’t all this oh-yes-you-could-code-I-guess-and-that’s-a-fine-thing but look! something for folks with people skills! talk basically a soft version of ew coding that’s for boys, also, last I checked, math is hard?

I observe again that there’s no right answer here in the real world right now. Women doing girl stuff have good reasons to feel dissatisfied that their hard-won skills are underpaid and under-respected, women doing boy stuff (scare quotes! please insert!) want other women to know that there’s fun to be had over here, thank you.

One crucial point in my thoughts about this I stumbled on only after the conversation Brianna Laugher recounts, over Indian on the Friday night (the location of all major conference breakthroughs worldwide). She said — paraphrased — that she didn’t feel that she should have a problem or be criticised for doing what she is good at, or what’s so desperately needed in her communities, and have to be just another coder in order to be fully respected. And I said that while this was certainly true, women also need to have the opportunity, to give themselves the opportunity, to be selfish: if they want to code, or do something else they are currently either bad at or not notably good at, or for that matter which they are good at but in which they’d have competitors, they should consider doing that, rather than automatically looking for and filling the space that is most obviously empty.

I had a brief, but related conversation with Jeff Waugh at the Professional Delegates Networking Session — an attempt to formally recreate the Indian diner breakthrough environment —  at which he commented that he continued to find the invitation culture (the same one I discussed in my OSDC talk) of women in Free Software mystifying and frustrating. (Not his exact words, if you have better adjectives Jeff let me know.) I took that one somewhere else: specifically to invitation cultures outside Anglo culture and then to honorific use in the Korean language, but when considering the question of women I think this is intertwined with the be selfish thing: women are reluctant to enter places where they aren’t obviously welcomed, and what better way to be welcomed than to do work that needs doing and not become just another person doing the coding free-for-all and delaying external validation for potentially quite a long time?

I have no answers. Just the perennial question of distinguishing what other people want, what other people claim they want, the genuine satisfaction of being of service to someone, and the genuine satisfaction of knowing you’ve done a good job of something hard. Take a look at where you’re standing on that one occasionally. 2009: miniconferences 2009 was held in Hobart from January 19 to 24.

After two years (co-)running the LinuxChix miniconf I was glad to not be tied to the room the whole day on Monday. My talk was first up though, so into the room I went. The talk was a failure as far as my primary aim with it went: the idea was to inspire newcomers with stories of existing contributors (all women, given the context) stories of getting involved. The reason this failed is that only the hardcore faithful attending: it wasn’t a talk intended to preach to the choir in that way. I came up with the idea after hearing about the FOSSCoach event at OSCON 2008: I even thought about proposing a whole FOSSCoach miniconference before I remembered that I wanted to have less major timesinks.

There is no video recording of my talk either unfortunately, I will make audio available fairly shortly assuming that the audio that comes off Andrew’s mobile phone is at all passable.

I went to the panel on geek parenting after morning tea: this was very popular and perhaps deserves a better forum in future. I’m hoping to get some audience write-ups of this. I then went to half of Matthew Garrett‘s talk How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love ACPI, partly because I’d recommended him as a good speaker to Sara and then ran into Matthew very shortly before his talk, and he casually mentioned something about how he was about to write the slides. So I had to check that I had not led Sara astray: luckily not, if only because the structure of the talk was along the lines of ask Matthew a question about something that makes him angry and wait and learn..

The afternoon of the LinuxChix miniconf was sunny and informal: there was a wrap-up session about evangelising IT to girls and then Robyn had a short piece advertising the existence of ChixBits and hoping to get some contributors.

Tuesday’s programme was generally more exciting for me. I went to much of Brianna Laugher‘s Free as in Freedom miniconf. Matthew Landauer repeated his OSDC talk on Open Australia (our version of They Work For You). It’s a cool project and approachable from my point of view: screenscraping and such. If I was taking on new projects I’d probably send patches.

Over at sysadmin for once in my life, I went to Gus Lees’ talk on Google and ipv6. Essentially from Google’s point of view ipv6 will arrive sooner or later and they want to make sure their (quite strict) internal SLAs are met when they start serving AAAA records for So they have some analysis of how many people will use AAAA records (about 0.7% of web users if I recall) and how many of them then have broken routing somehow (about one-third of the aforementioned 0.7% of web users). Then there’s the folks with crazily long routes for no good reason and so on. The upshot is similar to Google’s blog: ipv6 is moving inside Google. If you (as a network admin) are interested in testing, see here. Gus is at the other end of that email address and his home was the first DNS server to get access to AAAA records for

Jeff Waugh did a historical analogy between printing presses as revolution and Free as in revolution. Rusty Russell gave a talk which he hated on principle — it wasn’t about code —  but which was beneficial to his audience, if not to any actual code. Its main point was that those arguing against stronger intellectual property is not an argument for strong property rights of the type that are important to capitalism, it’s arguing against them. People who own a copy of a book, movie, or computer programme under strong intellectual property own less of that copy. This is dear to Rusty’s heart: property rights are important. If it wasn’t that he disclaimed all intent to ever do a ‘soft’ talk (ie no code) again, I’d recommend hearing it from the man with the passion.

Rusty’s talk ended in his intellectual property interpretive dance, of which, like many shenanigans, there is surprisingly little evidence on the Web.