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Twit-storms, women, and discrimination

The piece: can be found here.

I read a great piece about women in computer science tonight, written by a woman in computer science. I’ve read many articles on the lack of women in computer science, and how we can make the field more ‘friendly’ to invite increased participation. I’ve researched conferences and scholarships just for women, and had many people give me a nice ‘good for you!’ for my tangential involvement in the field. And yet, I continue to say things like ‘tangential’ when referencing my involvement in the field. I frequently admit to ‘not being able to code’ or ‘coding not being my strong suit.’ Whether or not that is actually the case is debatable. I’d like to talk about the fact that the language of incapacity or inability persists.

I recently wrote a paper on Facebook’s Privacy Policy. I submitted it for publication at the University of Washington’s Undergraduate Law Review and was accepted; it is expected in Fall 2010. Describing this success to a female computer science professor, she offered her congratulations. I responded with “I just got lucky on the timing.” In fact, no such thing had happened. A year before, I had planned and researched the probability of Facebook’s privacy taking a turn for the worse and begun the research. I had fought hard to have the topic accepted, and harder to do it justice. Confronted with a compliment, I brushed off the success. Her response? Paraphrased, she said, “Don’t do that. Women always have the tendency to downplay their success. You did a good job.”

Stubbornella says, “Women are less likely to jump up and say ‘me! me! me!'” I agree. To avoid jumping to say me, I replace acknowledging a job well done with insulting my own work or downplaying achievements. Doing so avoids confrontation, and lets me escape follow-up questions which I may not be able to answer, or may expose my supposed lack of education. I have recently graduated from college, and can now say that I sincerely doubt I suffer from a lack of education. When an individual cannot answer a question, their lack of response should be met with an explanation and offer of help. The CS world should be more of a community, less of a ladder. The most effective work comes from teams, and a successful team makes the team look good, not the individual. In the classroom setting, encouraging one-upping of students doesn’t benefit anyone. I was often avoided as a partner because I wasn’t the fastest coder in the west – just like being picked last for the baseball team. Great coders should be encouraged to teach, partners should help one another and, more than complementing skill sets, should teach each other their skills. This is still a new field, and, female or male, it still needs all the help it can get to meet the challenges ahead. We should all be aware of this, and we should all seek to help each other.

Stubbornella also points out the single aspect I found most challenging about the field: “CS education works best for people who already know how to code before they begin.” This fact compounds the problem. Women are less likely to take credit for great work, but they are also less likely to have the necessary background in CS to get started. And people are judged harshly for being beginners. At first, this judgement seems a mere acknowledgement or passing reference, but it is often combined with low expectations for the individual. I recall being told that I would never write a decent line of code. Was it because I was a woman? I doubt it. But it was because I had never attempted to write a line of code before diving in. And as a woman, it was much less likely that I would be introduced to code before taking a college CS course.

One of the problems with discrimination is that its very tricky to pinpoint when and where it actually occurs. There have been many points where I have heard of or been victim to insulting comments, judgements, and general negativity. I’ve also had a female peer approach me to discuss discrimination and her belief that we had fallen victim to it in one of our courses together. To make such an accusation, however, is a great risk that bears shame and embarrassment as likely costs. We opted not to.

Instead, I will say here that I quite agree with Stubbornella. I find her thoughts on the subject inspiring, and I hope to continue to defy expectations and accusations that I never should have entered this field. Besides, anyone making such a statement, that one person or another belongs or does not in a field, is evidence of the very problem, and it is they who do not belong in the community.

To Ada Lovelace

To a woman who loved puzzles, who lived beyond the limits of her gender.
To women in technology.
To computers and their possibilities.
To knowledge, for the sake of knowledge.

A toast.

Open vs. Closed – A late-night thought experiment

Intel and AMD have been running each other ragged, and racking up legal settlements that surely have an effect on consumers, as the debate rages on as to whether open or closed is the correct religion, so to speak, by which to run a company. Back in the day, when Intel was selling its 286 chip to Microsoft, Microsoft demanded an additional supplier. So Intel went out and licensed the x86 to AMD, a rather “open” move that AMD has since exploited for processor after processor. Reflecting on AMD’s innovation (or lack thereof), scholars have published such works as “Congratulations, It’s a Clone!” Intel will be dishing out $1.25 billion to AMD in the coming years, the cost of settling all antitrust suits, but to what avail? The singular open move Intel made with its coveted x86 technology has cost them decades of clones. Sure, they’re still the worldwide leader in x86, but with AMD climbing into a 20% market share, haven’t they already paid their dues? These days, Intel is significantly less liberal with their licenses. They’ve signed up for the “closed” religion and they look unlikely to turn back.

On the flip side, RISC architectures that garnered any respect did so by massive licensing. Early 90’s licensing of Sun’s SPARC and MIPS’ technologies were seemingly the only way to enter the market, supposedly to get software developers to bite. Which draws a comparison to the exploding role of developers today in the mobile market. While RISC went open, and Intel paid out in significant sales loss in its one open move, where are we in the battle between open and closed?

From the marketing perspective, history teaches us that its better to get your users hooked and make them pay later, than have them dish it out up front. Gillette and his disposable razors were sold at a loss; Coca-Cola started shoving cokes through the Berlin wall as soon as they punched the first hole – all for free. And all to get consumers hooked. Though these architectures generally run a course below the radar of the average consumer, even the Pentium had its limelight, when a floating-point bug hit the internet and Intel learned the meaning of “No press is bad press.” How much are these settlements costing me? And would an open architecture fuel innovation? Or stifle it?

In the summer of this year, Google reprimanded a hacker by the name of Cyanogen. His modifications to the Android OS were fast, and incredibly popular. Though Google’s OS is entirely open-source, Google’s legal department went after him for the release of Google’s Gmail, and other popular Google built and branded apps native to the OS. Yet these apps are also available on the Android market free of charge. At what point do we draw the line, even in the most open of architectures, between mine and yours?

That is to say – how open is good, how successful is closed, and how can we counter-balance the two to fuel adoption and keep costs low?

“Wise or waste?”: NYTimes slaps broadband internet access on the front page

I’m a diehard NYTimes reader, and generally get it delivered daily. But I was shocked to discover Internet Money in Fiscal Plan: Wise or Waste?, one of the leading articles on this morning, and, as it turns out, printed on A1 of the paper today. The article says the clause for implementing widespread broadband adoption in President Obama’s stimulus package could be a “$9 billion cyberbridge to nowhere.” The inclusion of increased broadband adoption is neither surprising nor novel; in fact Obama himself promised it in one of his Weekly Addresses to the nation:

It is unacceptable that the U.S. ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption. Here in the country that invented the internet, every child should have the chance to get online, and they’ll get that chance when I’m President.

I simply don’t understand the root of the Times’ cyncism- the plan will take long to implement? (I’d be surprised if any part of the package didn’t take years); the money could be better spent? (Is helping all homeowner refinance at 4.5% or lower fulfilling the President’s push for innovative solutions? I think not.); or is this simply another example of an old generation failing to recognize the revolutionary possibilities of the internet. Much of the internet’s success was unanticipated, much of its ability to educate the population was unexpected, but we’ve come to a point where the power of connection is no longer avoidable. Computers are shifting more emphasis to the browser, One Laptop Per Child is working to put computers in the hands of children the world over, and the general focus is the internet. At a time when NASA is teaming with Google to solve humanity’s challenges, via Singularity University, the NYTimes is citing Brett Glass, founder of an broadband provider in Wyoming, stating “The Devil is in the details,” and arguing that the money could be better spent. Of course nationwide broadband access has the potential to hurt local providers, but the article fails to state this may be Mr. Glass’ motive. Furthermore, although it criticizes the bill for providing the minimum speed requirements of Cadillac when an economy car will do, it also states the technology will be obsolete by the time of its implementation. With a large percentage of internet users using far obsolete browsers and some Windows users still on Windows 97, I’d say that old or new, the technology will be useful. Finishing somewhat hopefully, “‘We can’t sit around waiting for the perfect technology when we have the good before us,’ [says Mike McIntyre],” this article is an insult to the possibilities of improved access, and to the promises of a President who promised us anything but the same, and is making good on fulfilling it in a way that (at the very least) will excite and empower the youngest generation of workers and scholars.

Chicago Freezes, AccuWeather Explodes

I once had an HP phone representative tell me not to carry my computer around in the winter, for fear of my screen freezing and cracking in my backpack from the sub-zero temperatures. As Chicago dips below freezing, and the flurries begin to fall, I am impressed by the creativity of my AccuWeather widget, which I hadn’t noticed spill snow all over my dashboard. AccuWeather’s creativity reminds me of the latest Wario Land advertisement, and the general trend of breaking down strict borders to increase integration. Borders are also being broken on my new G1, as apps integrate more efficiently with the capacities of my phone, and with each other. While Wario and AccuWeather are simply the destruction of visual confines that I’ve grown adjusted too, they are evidence of a larger movement to create seamless experiences, and make design more intuitive. In this case, AccuWeather seems to be freezing my screen from the inside out, and bringing a touch of creativity and flair, capitalizing on breaking down boundaries, to my cold and windy days.

Stepping Up to the Plate (OpenID style)

With the recent Windows Live announcement of OpenID support, the open protocol is making huge advancements. And the open community must be thrilled, because who wouldn’t love 400 million newly enabled identities to take you anywhere on the web? But I would’ve preferred a different announcement. I would’ve been much more excited if Microsoft announced themselves as an OpenID relying party, and started making my OpenID actually useful.

As a user of Google, Yahoo, Windows Live, and countless other sites, I appreciate when my logins are synced and my I can align my identity as I choose. The problem is that each of those three doesn’t let me use my OpenID to sign in. As I spend most of my time on those sites, and while its great that they’ve each claimed a piece of my identity, when are they going to let me use it?

It’s time that the open community demanded something different; it’s time they demanded reliance. I want to make my identity usable, portable, and simple. I want to consolidate the person I am on the internet, and allow my sites to talk to each other. I want to move my data as I choose, hold on to my friends, and maintain my privacy. The flood of different services, some of whom rely, some of whom provide, some of whom do neither, disrupt what should/could have been an easy experience. It seems that sites like Plaxo and JanRain are of the few who remain committed to the central mission of OpenID- to make it useful in the way that it’s intended. While others engage in a land-grab for my identity, one that now encompasses an additional 400 million Windows Live users, I’m still waiting for the person who will accept my identity as I know it now- because the site that lets me use it is the site I’m going to trust to hold it.

Props to John McCrea and Joseph Smarr (full disclosure: I was their intern at Plaxo)- for getting the vision right.

Why I Love T-Mobile (and G1 in the mail…)

I called up my local T-Mobile this morning to check on the lines and that the G1 was in stock. Receiving confirmation, I wandered over to finally get my hands on the OS I’ve been evangelizing for months. After answering a few questions for the salespeople, they began the upgrade process only to discover I was far from eligible. Without an upgrade, the reasonably ($180) priced G1 shoots up to $400, much farther from my student budget. So I called 611 (T-mobile support) for a little chat.

After being put through to Customer Loyalty, and professing my undying love for T-Mobile, and essentially begging for the phone at a reasonable price, (all the while expecting to have to pay in full), the employee on the line said simply, “Ok- we can get that phone for you. No problem.” Years ago, I was an AT&T customer who bought out my contract just to escape the hell of communicating with their employees, and I am proud to say that it was well worth the decision. Saving me $200 on the phone, with no better incentive than my desire for the phone, is EXCELLENT customer service. Toss in my 30 day “Buyer’s Remorse” period, where I can return the phone at any point, and the “Just glad to put a smile on your face” that topped off the phone call- I am thrilled to be receiving my G1 in three short days (via mail since they couldn’t get me the cheap price in store), and proud to have waited it out for the truly phenomenal G1.

Also on this note, further smooth experiences at T-Mobile, a good revenue model for developers, and fantastic applications in the works. I couldn’t be a more satisfied customer.

RIP Muxtape, Hello MySpace Music

MySpace Music launches tonight, filling a void created by the death of Muxtape and capitalizing on MySpace’s faith in the users to recharge the recording industry. Will the initiative fulfill its goal of replacing lost cd sales (down $2 billion last year alone)? Yes.

MySpace is already the destination for many users in search of info on their favorite band. With the support of Amazon (DRM-free downloading) and the best features of Muxtape, MySpace adds huge value to their already popular music site. Users will be able to compile playlists, much like Muxtape, but with a larger library to choose from (virtually any song now that all four major recording labels are on board). One click buys will be available directly from an artist’s site, further increasing the utility. The addition of Amazon deals another blow to iTunes, who already faces the built-in Amazon MP3 store on the soon to be released Android G1.

Though MySpace must bring in significantly more revenue to break even on the deal, they stand to gain attention simply for being legal. Speaking as a college student, I actually do want to support my favorite musicians. MySpace Music solves all of the barriers to doing so:

  1. ability to listen to the full song (giving me 30-seconds just makes me guess at whether or not I’ll like it)
  2. accessibility- I don’t want to migrate somewhere else. I want to see concerts, pictures, and music in one place.
  3. trust- Amazon’s DRM-free mp3 store actually lets me own my music, rather than have it on loan. Having purchased from MSN’s now dead music store, I’m tired of losing music I’ve paid for.

Thanks MySpace, for bringing me Muxtape’s successor, and giving me back music the way it should be. (Check out ReadWriteWeb for some great screen shots and discussion on the interface!)

Update: MySpace Music went live last night and (as expected) moves the industry in the right direction.

Party Hard- Yahoo introduces Y!OS

These Yahoo execs may bring the nerd into “revenge of the nerds,” but they sure have something to celebrate. Yahoo slammed into the Open Web last week with Open Hack 2008- bringing every strength of Open right to their home page. According to Cody Simms on this week’s episode of the The SocialWeb TV the shift came more as a declaration: “We are going to be open.”

Yahoo! Open Strategy is introducing applications to Yahoo (using OpenSocial) and using OAuth, to make social “a dimension.” Rather than making the case for the Open Strategy and asking users to give new, Open services a try, Yahoo-ers are getting a heavy dose of an Open Web on their home page. Why is this brilliant? Because for a user, this is a natural evolution of their homepage that easily lets them utilize different services in a familiar space.

Ok so maybe they won’t use any of the new opportunities that are going to EXPLODE when this rolls out- but my truth is this- when facebook introduced applications, I didn’t know where to find them or how to use them or even that they existed. But over time, they were there, in my space, where I could access them. And eventually, I did. For the millions of Yahoo users out there, this is a giant step forward in being able to freely explore the web, bringing Web 2.0 directly to the users. Yay!

hnKJF39&#NG)@!? Not Good Enough.

While checking out Mashed Life a new security site that helps you out with your passwords, I couldn’t seem to get past the sign-in process. I wanted to have the most secure password possible, especially for a site that’s going to hold all of my other passwords in a centralized location. But the most obscure password I could think of barely filled half the security bar. Banging incessantly on the keyboard, alternating between shift, caps lock, letters, numbers, symbols, and spaces never got me past 75%. If this is security, is it supposed to be ironic that I can’t get past 75% secure?

There are lots of services offering to host all your passwords or provide the toughest encryption, but logically each of these will require one password to rule them all. Yubikey, Usable, keychains, and browser plug-ins will all help us out with remembering and encryption, but none of these seem to solve the ultimate problem: to maintain all passwords will always require a password. ¬†Without being able to produce a secure password, it seems to me that the anonymity of keeping my services separate is still strongest. At least I’ll be lost in a large crowd on each individual site, without raising the potential of being targeted for all of my passwords maintained in one (again) password-protected area. Until I can find out how to beat that by banging on my keyboard.