Monthly Archives: October 2012

Support the Ada Initiative

That time of year (a tradition has not yet been established) has come around again: the Ada Initiative is fundraising!

The what? The Ada Initiative is the charity that Valerie Aurora and I started in early 2011, supporting women in open technology and culture. Val and I have been working independently and together on supporting women in open source since circa 1999 (starting, in my case, when someone said something derogatory about my computing skills, in a university context*) and we were both at a transition point in our careers last year and decided to try and go pro. Everyone in open source is growing up and getting paid, the activists too!

Since then we’ve done a bunch of things:

  1. run two AdaCamps: cross-project summits for and about women in open tech and culture (to give an idea, at AdaCamp DC we had women who do GNOME programming, women who help run fandom organisations, and women from Wikipedia among many others)
  2. continued to work with conferences and communities to develop and promote the conference anti-harassment policies we developed in late 2010. Most recently a version was adopted by Google and linked from the Google IO 2012 homepage.
  3. developed our allies training workshop: we’re planning to develop a curriculum to train other people to run it
  4. worked with several companies and conferences to respond to sexist incidents or patterns in their community

I also appeared at Wikimania this year, to give a keynote on diversity ideals and strategies.

As for reasons to donate: let me share with you the argument that got me involved. They still motivate my work for the Ada Initiative. (I’ve been paid a salary for over a year now, but I donated my time through to July 2011.)

The basic reason is this: open technology and culture is changing the world. But all world-changing movements have problems with replicating the same old problems inside their communities: that the more boxes you check of Western, white, educated, male etc, the more you will find the community suited to putting you in leadership positions and the more you will benefit from it and change it to benefit you. Some areas of open technology and culture — famously, open source software development, but also, for example, Wikipedia editing — are notorious for low participation by women. For me the argument amounted to “I want to play too” but there are knock-on effects too: see Valerie’s Why We Need More Women In Open Source: The Founder Gap when it comes to employment.

At present this is do or die time: we have project experience and fundraising experience now. Our donation drive has 7 more days to run: if there’s not enough support out there for us to keep doing what we’re doing, we’ll need to re-think the idea that this is activism that it is possible to pay for.

I’d very much appreciate it if people who have benefited from open source, open knowledge, Creative Commons work and so on, especially people who have built a career from it or from having access to the community consider donating: it’s not a level playing field and it damn well should be!

* I don’t think it was the time that my tutor announced “oh hey, here’s our token woman” on the first day of semester, actually, but for the record: don’t do that.

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Support the Ada Initiative‘s work for women in open technology and culture!

Ada Lovelace Day: Marita Cheng, Robogals founder

Today, October 16, is Ada Lovelace Day: write or record a story about a woman in science, technology, mathematics or engineering (STEM) whose achievements you admire.

This is a slightly updated version of a profile that has appeared on Geek Feminism and Hoyden About Town.

Marita Cheng was named as the Young Australian of the Year winner at the beginning of the year. She’s been involved in volunteering since she was a high school student, and in 2008, early in her undergraduate studies (mechatronic engineering and computer science at the University of Melbourne) she founded Robogals, which is an engineering and computing outreach group, in which women university students run robotics workshops for high school age girls.

Marita, while still in the final year of her undergraduate degree, is also an entrepreneur and has been previously awarded for her work as founder of Robogals, including winning the Anita Borg Change Agent award in 2011. In 2012 she travelled to several countries with the aid of the Nancy Fairfax Churchill Fellowship to study “strategies used to most effectively engage female schoolgirls in science, engineering and technology.”

While I have heard of Robogals, I hadn’t heard of Marita specifically before she became Young Australian of the Year. One of the fascinating things about starting the Ada Initiative is slowly discovering all the other amazing women who work in technology career outreach and related endeavours. But it’s a little embarrassing, judging from her bio, to have not heard Marita Cheng’s name before the beginning of the year!

Further reading:

Ada Lovelace Day: Else Shepherd, leading Australian electrical engineer

Today, October 16, is Ada Lovelace Day: write or record a story about a woman in science, technology, mathematics or engineering (STEM) whose achievements you admire.

Else Shepherd is an Australian electrical engineer specialising in communications equipment. She has co-founded multiple Australian engineering companies, including Mosaic Information Technology, a custom modems company, and Microwave & Materials Designs, developing microwave filters for mobile phones. She was appointed as the chairman of Powerlink, the state government-owned corporation maintaining Queensland’s high voltage electricity grid, in 1994, and has been a board member of the National Electricity Market Management Company (now known as the Australian Energy Market Operator).

Shepherd won Engineers Australia’s Peter Nicol Russell Memorial Medal in 2007, their most prestigious award, recognising an engineer with over 20 years of substantial contributions to professional engineering in Australia. As best I can tell, she is the only woman Peter Nicol Russell medallist. She is also a Member of the Order of Australia since 2003, and was the University of Queensland Alumnus of the Year in 2009. She is also a pianist and choral director.

Shepherd has talked about her experience as a woman in electrical engineering with University of Queensland publications. She and one other woman graduated in 1965, the university’s first women graduates in electrical engineering. She was unable to attend Institution of Engineers meetings in the 1960s, because they were held at the local Men’s Club. She continues to promote workplace flexibility, having used part-time work during parts of her career to care for her two children.

Further reading:

Sunday spam: porridge and honey

What is cultural appropriation?

The problem isn’t that cultures intermingle, it’s the terms on which they do so and the part that plays in the power relations between cultures. The problem isn’t “taking” or “borrowing”, the problem is racism, imperialism, white supremacy, and colonialism. The problem is how elements of culture get taken up in disempowering, unequal ways that deny oppressed people autonomy and dignity. Cultural appropriation only occurs in the context of the domination of one society over another, otherwise known as imperialism. Cultural appropriation is an act of domination, which is distinct from ‘borrowing’, syncretism, hybrid cultures, the cultures of assimilated/integrated populations, and the reappropriation of dominant cultures by oppressed peoples.

Aircraft Carriers in Space

An article about naval metaphors in fictional space warfare. Sometimes I suspect that I like science fiction meta way more than I like science fiction.

“I’m not like the other girls.”

A quote I saw making the Tumblr rounds, which said, “I’m not like other girls!” It went on to avow wearing Converse instead of heels, preferring computer games to shopping, so on and so forth. When I saw it, about 41,000 girls had said they weren’t like “the others.”

Is Australia in Danger of Becoming Greece? Austerity and Blackmail Down Under

It is not enough to respond to this ongoing rhetoric about Australia’s supposed calamitous future by pointing out, as Ms Gillard correctly did, that these comparisons are ridiculous given the state of European periphery countries. Yet the ideological blackmail is strangely telling, precisely because the financial sector in the form of the troika (the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank) has held Greece’s politicians hostage, forcing a slashing of the government in exchange for “bail-out” loans.

The Start-to-Hate Review System

The concept is simple: Rate media based on how long it takes to encounter something bigoted. The longer it takes, the better the media.

An Investigation Into Xinjiang’s Growing Swarm of Great Gerbils

I am subscribed to two “long form” websites: the picks of Long Reads, which focuses on newer pieces, and the editor’s picks of Longform, which tend to skew a little older. Hence, this, from McSweeny’s in January 2005. I always like a piece that clearly ended up not being about what the original pitch was about. In this case, the writer wanted (or supposedly wanted, I guess) to investigate a gerbil plague, and ended up writing an article about gerbil social structures, text messaging on Chinese phone networks, and, several times, the Black Death. Which is how I ended up reading Wikipedia articles about pandemics the same night I was getting sick with the first illness I’ve had since I got out of hospital.

Mariana Trench Explosion

I think of Randall Munroe as a science writer who happens to be funded by merchandise sales from a comic. I don’t regularly look at the comic any more but I follow his blag and his What If? Answering your hypothetical questions with physics, every Tuesday writing more closely. This What If? is one of my favourites to date, although it’s hard to beat the first one. However, this one features an excursion into unpublished work by Freeman Dyson. SO HARD TO CHOOSE.

Do bicycle helmets reduce head injuries?

It’s impossible to follow Liam Hogan on Twitter without becoming interested in urban transport issues. At the moment the big conversation is helmet laws in Australia, which are arguably interfering with take-up of bike share schemes (if you’re going to have to get hold of a helmet, you don’t just jump on the bike, hence, scheme falls apart), although see Why is Brisbane CityCycle an unmitigated flop? for several other reasons that scheme may be failing.

Anyway, this one: A new study reports the rate of hospitalisations for cycling-related head injuries in NSW has fallen markedly and consistently since 1990. The authors say it’s due to helmets and infrastructure.

The drugs don’t work: a modern medical scandal and Ben Goldacre: ‘It’s appalling … like phone hacking or MPs’ expenses’

Reboxetine is a drug I have prescribed. Other drugs had done nothing for my patient, so we wanted to try something new. I’d read the trial data before I wrote the prescription, and found only well-designed, fair tests, with overwhelmingly positive results. Reboxetine was better than a placebo, and as good as any other antidepressant in head-to-head comparisons… In October 2010, a group of researchers was finally able to bring together all the data that had ever been collected on reboxetine, both from trials that were published and from those that had never appeared in academic papers. When all this trial data was put together, it produced a shocking picture. Seven trials had been conducted comparing reboxetine against a placebo. Only one, conducted in 254 patients, had a neat, positive result, and that one was published in an academic journal, for doctors and researchers to read. But six more trials were conducted, in almost 10 times as many patients. All of them showed that reboxetine was no better than a dummy sugar pill. None of these trials was published. I had no idea they existed.

Given that I favourited two separate articles about this, I’m going to buy the book. Now you know.

Going blind? DRM will dim your world

[I]t turned out I needed Adobe Digital Editions to ‘manage my content’… It tried, of course, to force me to give Adobe my email and other details for the ‘Adobe ID’ that it assured me I needed to get full functionality. I demurred… and was confronted by a user interface that was tiny white text on a black background. Unreadable. Options to change this? If they exist, I couldn’t find them.

Getting this far had taken me half an hour fighting my way through a nest of misery and frustration with broken eyes and a sinking heart. Along the way, I’d been bombarded by marketing messages telling me to “enjoy the experience” and “enjoy your book”.

Reader, I wept. Marketing departments, here’s a top tip: if your customer is reduced to actual, hot, stinging tears, you may wish to fine-tune your messaging.

5 Plans to Head Off the Apophis Killer Asteroid

Friday the 13th of April 2029 could be a very unlucky day for planet Earth. At 4:36 am Greenwich Mean Time, a 25-million-ton, 820-ft.-wide asteroid called 99942 Apophis will slice across the orbit of the moon and barrel toward Earth at more than 28,000 mph. The huge pockmarked rock, two-thirds the size of Devils Tower in Wyoming, will pack the energy of 65,000 Hiroshima bombs–enough to wipe out a small country or kick up an 800-ft. tsunami.

On this day, however, Apophis is not expected to live up to its namesake, the ancient Egyptian god of darkness and destruction. Scientists are 99.7 percent certain it will pass at a distance of 18,800 to 20,800 miles… Scientists calculate that if Apophis passes at a distance of exactly 18,893 miles, it will go through a “gravitational keyhole.” This small region in space–only about a half mile wide, or twice the diameter of the asteroid itself–is where Earth’s gravity would perturb Apophis in just the wrong way, causing it to enter an orbit seven-sixths as long as Earth’s. In other words, the planet will be squarely in the crosshairs for a potentially catastrophic asteroid impact precisely seven years later, on April 13, 2036.

It turns out that with current technology we might be able to move the asteroid prior to the (potential) 2029 entry into the gravitational keyhole, but if it did so we would be unlikely to perturb the orbit sufficiently after that point to avoid a civilisation-ended impact. So it’s the question of how many resources to spend on a low-probability but enormously catastrophic event.