linux.conf.au 2010 miniconf idea

I’m not taking on additional tasks for linux.conf.au 2010 (above co-chairing the presentation selection committee with Michael Davies) and so won’t run with this, but an idea for someone with more time on their hands: a FOSSCoach miniconf or co-located event. I’m not sure whether you can call it FOSSCoach precisely (or would want to, I dislike the FOSS acronym), but the idea is an event teaching people how to work on Free Software projects. It could possibly be extended into, say, editing Wikipedia. If anyone wants to do this, go for it.

The linux.conf.au 2010 call for miniconfs is out now and is open until July 17. linux.conf.au 2010 will be held from 18–23 January 2010 in Wellington, New Zealand.

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.

linux.conf.au 2009: miniconferences

linux.conf.au 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 www.google.com. 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 www.google.com.

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 linux.conf.au shenanigans, there is surprisingly little evidence on the Web.

OLPC

This morning at Bruce Schneier’s keynote it was announced that they wanted to give a One Laptop Per Child XO laptop to the people at the conference who were going to do something incredibly cool with it. Except… they didn’t have a way of determining who those people were. So, they were given away to conference attendees whose names were chosen at random. The condition is that they recipients should either do something wonderful or pass it on to someone who will.

Did we get one? No. But Matthew Garrett gave us his. And by ‘us’ I mean ‘Andrew’. But still.

Ideas for wonderful things accepted.

The linux.conf.au review process

I’ve written already about the type of proposal that is likely to be accepted to linux.conf.au, this is a discussion of how the process worked.

Our process aims to find a good set of talks. Past conferences have asked for written papers too, but we do not believe they are widely read and some authors have simply not sent them in, which is possibly unfair to people who believed the given requirements and wrote their paper. This year we didn’t ask. By not asking for papers, conferences like linux.conf.au are missing one opportunity to actually check that our speakers have had more than a paragraph worth of thoughts concerning their talk. Hence the emphasis on known good technical quality and known speaking ability in the criteria.

I’d like to make a quick comparison here with academic computing conferences. Firstly to clear up a common misconception about academic conferences: people don’t just read their papers out loud; or at least not in computing. I’m told they do in philosophy. It’s meant to be an engaging narrative about a problem and its solution, much like a technical conference talk. (Both types of conferences have speakers that fail at this.) The selection is very different though: for an academic conference you submit an abstract or a full academic paper, usually in the 8–15 pages range, and selection is usually based entirely on the quality of the research as demonstrated in the paper, rather than on your history as an engaging or hugely popular public speaker. And the papers are actually important, in computing they will contain (or ideally contain) enough details to allow people to replicate the research (in traditional experimental science, that stuff goes in journals, in computing journals tend to contain only very serious and really stellar work). People wanting to do serious critiques of the work or to extend it will refer extensively to the paper; the paper matters in the way that code does in Free Software. Reviewers will study the paper in detail: ten conference papers would be a very very high reviewing load for a single conference.

This year all program committee members were asked to review all proposals. We voted on them, literally, on a scale of 1–5, which I personally interpreted as please no through to I will die if we reject this, although other reviewers may have calibrated differently. We did not provide feedback that was intended for the authors. We did not, therefore, do what would be called peer review, which is about extensive constructive criticism of the work suggesting ways to improve it, even if it is being rejected. That’s expensive for reviewers and would require drawing reviewers from a broader range of backgrounds: the kind of expertise required to say this talk is not terribly exciting is not the same as the expertise required to write a letter to the author suggesting technical improvements to their work. I called the linux.conf.au process Am I hack or not? initially, although since our acceptance rate is about 25% this turned out to be unfair to people who were rejected. Many were actually hack.

That acceptance rate does have certain effects when it comes to our criteria. We are not able to take many chances on people without a track record. We do not have the reviewing manpower to make any useful suggestions to people about their work or their talk proposal, although this would be possible with some other processes we could have used. The abstracts length for this conference makes proper peer review impossible (we could offer suggestions about making a better abstract, but not about doing better work as such even if we had the manpower). We can aim to possibly only select good or excellent talks.

I’ll be interested to compare the PyCon process, particularly since they’re pattern nuts and have found a series of patterns around which you can organise your committee meetings. I have to say an occupation hazard of doing these things is that you really want to go to the conference afterwards. I’d kill to go to PyCon now, if it wasn’t that that wouldn’t help me get a ticket to Texas one bit.

In other news, the linux.conf.au programme is available. Here’s talks I’m particularly looking forward to:

  • The Kernel Report (Jonathan Corbet)
  • Fixing suspend for fun and profit (Matthew Garrett)
  • Digital Preservation – The National Archives of Australia, Open Standards and Open Source (Michael Carden) [although unfortunately this is up against Val Henson, who I’d also like to see]
  • The OzDMCA: what it means for FOSS (Kimberlee Weatherall)
  • Tutorial:GIMP Uncovered: Understanding Images and Image Editing (Akkana Peck) [I’ll have to catch either Kimberlee Weatherall or Akkana Peck on video though, another clash]
  • Starting an Open Source business (Paul Fenwick)
  • How to Herd Cats and Influence People (Jono Bacon)
  • Concurrency and Erlang (André Pang)
  • Making Sausage: How the OLPC Machine Was Designed (Jim Gettys)

Andrew has already put his hand up for the cricket match and he doesn’t even have permission to take the leave yet.

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The linux.conf.au review process by Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Getting a talk into linux.conf.au

We had a programming committee meeting for linux.conf.au 2007 on Saturday. Decisions were made. They may be revised based on budget. But the general consensus was that it’s the papers that linux.conf.au rejects that makes linux.conf.au the best. And here’s the more cuddly than Rusty guide to being among the best.

First a note. We had in the order of 250 proposals for 60 talk slots. (The ratio is a bit better for tutorials, about 2 proposals for every slot available.) We reject most of what we get, and we reject a fair number of things we suspect or know would be perfectly fine talks. It’s a competitive conference.

  1. Software talked about or that is core to your talk must be available under an Open Source licence. This is not negotiable, with a tiny bit of wiggle room for people who are waiting for their employer to sign off on an Open Source release. Only a little wiggle room, mind you.
  2. It is getting towards being a requirement that you are a core member of a project, or of the part of it you’re talking about. You need to have written a fair chunk of the code, initiated the documentation project, done the benchmarks, whatever. Sweated the sweat. Tutorials are a little different: for a tutorial, evidence of ability to convey enough knowledge well is generally important, and depending on your intended audience might trump not being a major developer of the tool in question.
  3. Project maturity is not essential, but is desirable. If it hasn’t been merged yet, or you are the only user, it will have to be great to be accepted.
  4. Enormous maturity can be a disadvantage, or at least it is if it leads to the the style of proposal that goes here’s the update on my LCA 2005 talk about [some project]. It’s easier to get accepted if you submit a talk focusing on a particular new feature or development.
  5. Being known as a good enough speaker is a big advantage. Standards here are high, but I feel not crazy. You can be accepted without being an amazing speaker. It is, however, essential to convince the review committee somehow that you have had and can convey 45 minutes worth of thoughts about your subject and that people will want to hear it. Being known as a good speaker from other conferences or events is excellent, and a high quality abstract can be convincing in some cases too.
  6. Insane coolness is another huge advantage. In particular, people who’ve built things they can hold in their hands, put their arms around or have a sword fight with, tend to get their papers accepted. Most proposals do not fall into this category, those that do have a high acceptance rate.
  7. Not submitting a kernel talk helps your chances of acceptance. This one is interesting. The problem is that we get a huge number of very good kernel proposals. linux.conf.au accepts a fair number of kernel talks, but is not a kernel conference and doesn’t intend to become one. So to get a proposal accepted into this stream, you must not only be good, but be very very good.
  8. Not submitting a general commentary on your experiences in the Open Source world also helps your chances of acceptance. Again, we accept some of these, but almost everyone has opinions on how to run an Open Source project, and they submit a variety of them. We need some special reason to believe you have something to say that the audience can’t easily think up for themselves or read about.
  9. Having some relevance to a primarily Australian audience is useful. This is really only meaningful for the above mentioned commentaries, for things like kernels it doesn’t matter, and if it’s hella cool, it also doesn’t matter.

For comprehensive information about submission statistics and a list of all the program committee’s blog entries, see John Ferlito’s entry.

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Getting a talk into linux.conf.au by Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.