Tina K. Russell

October 1, 2008

Chicks dig custom kernels

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 12:52 am

Ten easy ways to attract women to your free software project
The gender inequality among developers and supporters of free software is stunning. Less than 2% of us are women, according to studies conducted for the European Commission. Why? The evidence says we’re driving them away. There are even some pretty good published guidelines on how not to drive them away. What’s missing is a practical implementation strategy: here I present ten relatively simple changes in how you run your project, to make it more attractive to would-be contributors—especially women.

These are some great pieces of advice. I think some of them really resonated with me personally: using high-level languages like Python and eliminating as many extraneous tasks as possible (no more “tweaking the tools”) has really helped me dig into a software project when otherwise I would have just given up. I’m not sure if that’s the lady-brain or the ADD, but when a programming project feels more like making adjustments to your car (or even a complete overhaul) than it does channeling the spirit of Henry Ford, founding your own institution for the study of the mechanical arts, writing a dissertation on the internal combustion engine, and then searching through man pages for hours to figure out how to start the ignition, something’s gone right. (The latter hypothetical example should be familiar to anyone who has mucked around with programming. In general, whenever I’ve tried to play with C, I’ve learned my lesson; double-checking my pointers or whatnot is not just lost time, but far more in lost concentration and lost productivity. Try to avoid a “boys and their toys” environment; if your code is low-level and convoluted for that last extra bit of performance, you’re going to have a program stuck in the past that is impossible for new contributors to improve upon.)

Lots of other examples are great! Use forums, not mailing lists! Forums are more open, and bad behavior is aired and identified quickly without draining resources from the project. Use wikis! Easy collaboration definitely appeals to us lady-folk, but it’s also where technology and, uh, the human race is headed (ask any marketer; the lone wolf is a dying breed). And for the love of all that is holy, recognize and thank your valued contributors. Men tend to be thick-skinned about getting jabs from people they’ve helped; for women, being insulted (even in jest) or ignored for your hard work tends to make us think, oh, well then, be that way. At least, that’s my experience. ….With me. Never mind.

And here, I need to toot my tranny horn. One of the grand blessings of being transsexual is that, yes, we’ve had experience living as men. We know how you work, beloved man-types! Seriously, it’s no coincidence that computer science is such a common field for the garden-variety transsexual woman (pah! like there is one); women are naturally analytical and collaborative, and nowhere better can we feed our collective problem-solving jones than in the field of computer science. (I mean, men are naturally analytical and collaborative, too, but you know, tendencies…) With our experiences under cover of faux-maleness (often for far too long), we get a tougher skin for the habits of you lovable man-folk. Since programming is an area in which us trans women have established such a strong beachhead, I hope we can use our places of power to ensure that all women, whichever side of the fence we were born on, get a chance in the bold new information economy.

Really, this list is just recommendations for bringing more diverse thinkers into your open-source project, and that’s something that always helps. And since I’ve basically just been elbowing men in the ribs this whole post, I want to say that men are wonderful, strong and compassionate, carrying, as the hero of I My Me! Strawberry Eggs puts it, “a great love in their hearts!” More women in computing and in open source would benefit women, but it would benefit men just as much. With our complementary skills, together we can make better programs, more fun working environments, and a better world of computing for everyone.

Side note: The Canonical Store brought back the “Linux for Ladies” shirt! Hooray! (I actually sent them an e-mail requesting its return; I guess they were listening!)

September 9, 2008

Proprietary science is patently absurd

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 10:18 pm

(I also wanted to call this post, “Putting drug companies on the Dole? I don’t Bayh it!”)

Unboxed – When Academia Puts Profit Ahead of Wonder – NYTimes.com
In the past, discovery for its own sake provided academic motivation, but today’s universities function more like corporate research laboratories. Rather than freely sharing techniques and results, researchers increasingly keep new findings under wraps to maintain a competitive edge. What used to be peer-reviewed is now proprietary. “Share and share alike” has devolved into “every laboratory for itself.”

In trying to power the innovation economy, we have turned America’s universities into cutthroat business competitors, zealously guarding the very innovations we so desperately want behind a hopelessly tangled web of patents and royalty licenses.

The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 is one of my least-favorite pieces of legislation ever for this reason. Once upon a time, the results of federally financed research were public domain, since after all, we paid for them! Of course, two Senators got it into their heads that this was a problem, that America can succeed as a country only if we devolve into everyone-for-themselves, Lord of the Flies melee combat. Now universities are in a rush to patent their findings (as though basic knowledge of the universe could be patented) and license them exclusively to drug companies that can take advantage of a sick and desperate audience and bilk us for all we’re worth. (The “cost of innovation” excuse is nonsense, as anyone who knows about price elasticity of demand is aware.)

Please read the article! It tackles the research rather than the public health side, but it’s a blow-by-blow account of the mess we’re in. Over in the software world, we’ve slowly learned that sharing information and then competing on merit—that is to say, standing on the shoulders of giants, who are themselves standing on the shoulders of other giants—produces better software than locking up our code and having to reinvent the wheel each and every time we make a new application (and even then not being able to release it without a maelstrom of C&Ds from opportunistic patent trolls). In science, sadly, we run a risk of slipping steadily back from this realization, from Jonas Salk’s bemused reaction of “there’s no patent… could you patent the sun?”, and into a world in which we compete not for titles or reputations but for cold, hard cash, and are willing to let the scientific world splinter into a thousand pieces and let innovation grind to a halt for that worship of money.

I like intellectual property, I like copyright, I like the idea that you have control over the things you create. I want people who write books and make movies and report the news and create astonishing inventions and build the latest videogame to be able to make lots of money from what they do. However, when a university is receiving public money, they ought to be willing to give back to the people that gave them the opportunity, and we ought to attach those strings to the money we give.

More important than any of that though is the simple fact that—as we’ve learned in software—a mad rush to patent everything “under the sun, made by man” does not promote innovation but rather grinds it to a halt. Innovation, by and large, is not a college student with a billion-dollar idea; it’s many, many bright people slowly building on an idea until it becomes robust and unstoppable. An angel coming down from the heavens with the concept for your next patent application is rare, and those “aha!” moments can only come from the long hours of drudgery, the thankless work of intellectual labor, the ninety-nine percent perspiration whose inspirational component makes it all worth it. When you cannot build on others’ ideas, when the giants are wearing massive, spiked shoulder-pads of IP to prevent you from standing on their shoulders, you must repeat every act of this intellectual drudgery that anyone before you has ever completed before. Oh, and if you work for an institution with such a strong-IP bent, and you leave or are fired or laid off, guess what? Work-for-hire just means you lost your life’s work. Sucks to be you.

What’s more, the article goes on to discuss how these patents, for the massive intellectual gold rush going into them, for the university legal departments sprouting up like mini-malls and the armies of men in lab coats hiring brokers, are mostly not even profitable! The money that goes into the sheer legal paperwork and hoop-jumping of the patent mess—not to mention enforcing your patent in costly lawsuits—is more money than you can ever hope to get from Fig. B. This doesn’t even begin to describe the massive deadweight loss to society when universities quit cooperating and attempt to establish their own scientific fiefdoms, their own legal terrariums, sheltering their research from the outside world, forcing institutions of science to go it alone and duplicate every lab-room slough that anyone has ever endured if they ever want to make any kind of discovery.

This is something that’s crushing to me not only because I have ADD and the patent on my medication does not run out until 2018 because somebody decided that you could patent the very concept of a generic medicine with an immediate- and extended-release mechanism (not such a mechanism, but the basic idea of one!), and the courts and the patent office have rolled over like doting puppies. It’s not crushing to me just because of the rising costs of healthcare across America are explained not only by very real and impressive technological and medical advances but also because of an elaborate scheme of publicly-funded extortion of sick people unknowingly set up by our government and paid for by taxpayers (twice!). It’s crushing to me because I love science, and science can’t happen if no one is able to stand on the shoulders of giants because the giants have taken out patents on their shoulders and they won’t be public domain for twenty years, at which point they’ll be changed slightly solely for the sake of a new shoulder-patent.

Today’s science patent scheme was supposed to create innovation by allowing scientific institutions to have twenty-year monopolies on their discoveries. It works great for books or movies (unless Disney can buy enough Congressmen to keep America’s cultural heritage under copyright forever), and it’s great for specific inventions that are reasonably clever and nonobvious. For science, however, excessive patenting means that innovation happens in a glacial, twenty-year cycle. I can’t think of a good way to get the public riled up about this, but we must. Don’t pay for your medicine at both ends. Lets restore trust in our doctors and scientists and kick out the plague of greed from our institution of science.

America’s economy of innovation depends on it. Public funding should mean public domain.

May 21, 2008

Credit where it’s due

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Tina Russell @ 9:29 pm

Office 2007 to gain native ODF support early next year

Well, that’s good.

May 19, 2008

Pax Microsoftus

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 12:59 am

Microsoft Joins Effort for Laptops for Children – New York Times
After a years-long dispute, Microsoft and the computing and education project One Laptop Per Child said Thursday that they had reached an agreement to offer Windows on the organization’s computers.

“I think some people, including Walter, became much too fundamental about open source,” Mr. Negroponte said.

In an e-mail message, Mr. Bender wrote that he left the project because he decided his efforts to develop and support the Sugar open-source learning software “would have more impact from outside of O.L.P.C. than from within.”

Outside the constraints of working on a single hardware platform, like the XO laptop, his work, he wrote, should “lead to a broader base, more options, and a better set of tools for children.”

This really bothers me. I think a lot of us felt that Linux was one of the organization’s ends for legitimate reasons. I’m sure Microsoft is entirely legitimate in wanting to offer its operating system at a steep discount to developing countries, but I know that Steve Ballmer is grinning with dollar signs in his eyes at the prospect of raising the entire world on Windows and not merely the “developed” part of it.

The whole idea of this simply offering “choice” is a red herring. The whole problem of Windows is that it does not allow choice. By promoting Windows use in developing countries, they’re doing legitimate promotion of a product. However, they also want the entire country’s infrastructure, training, and education based on an operating system that you cannot easily switch away from and has to be dragged, kicking and screaming, towards any kind of interoperability. Microsoft wants you to believe that their operating system monopoly is a “natural monopoly,” that interoperability is easily achieved only by one standard OS lingua franca. This is dubious when Windows requires a proprietary end-to-end chain of OS components in order to function, and Microsoft has fought open standards for information interchange, such as OpenDocument, every step of the way. “Linux,” meanwhile, refers only to a software kernel and a set of standards that anyone can use to develop an operating system.

So, yeah, I’ve always supported OLPC because, besides the primary goal of bringing educational tools to all the world’s children, I’ve always appreciated OLPC’s bulwark against Microsoft’s quest to ensure that the rest of the world is squirming in the grip of its bloated, malformed, insecure OS. It’s not fair competition, it’s leveraging a monopoly position, and I’ll start believing that Windows offers “choice” when Microsoft fully documents the Windows API, promises to stop making vague software patent threats towards independent competitors (or sow slanderous FUD campaigns aimed at potential Linux customers), works toward supporting other filesystems on Windows (on Ubuntu, I can do anything I want to my Windows partition, but Windows won’t give my Ubuntu partition the time of day), makes the Windows installer stop eating the user’s bootloader (thus preventing competing OSes from loading), implement OpenDocument in good faith in their Office products and quit trying to lock users into a monopoly, stops promising to media companies that they will be able to have control over users’ computers that the users themselves do not have, and make its software work with competing OSes rathing than making them do all the work, then maybe I’ll believe that Microsoft believes in genuine choice. As far as I’m concerned, though, Linux was always a means and an end for One Laptop Per Child and I don’t want to see Microsoft covering the developing world in its proprietary blanket and then jacking up the prices as soon as the countries develop. With Linux, the user is in control, and can switch to other operating systems as soon as he or she wants… in fact, Linux works hard to play nicely with Windows, through support of dual-booting in installers and bootloaders, projects like Samba for fileservers, and support for binary Office formats in office programs. With Linux, you learn expertise that you can take anywhere. On Linux, you can choose the OS you want because all the components are indentifiable and interchangeable. Windows asks you for an unbroken string of Microsoft purchases to ensure compatibility, and I don’t want them to spread that poison abroad, or see OLPC abetting that.

And I’m not even a Richard Stallman purist or anything like that. I happen to find his views as of late repulsive. I simply believe that Windows fails the test of a sustainable operating system, that it will probably be dead or dying in ten years, and I don’t want a new generation of children around the globe have their skillsets fixed in one company’s OS the way it is here. Sure, Microsoft is giving away the OS for cheap, but what about when they decide to stop doing that? What about when you need support or maintenance? Sorry, because Windows is closed-source, there’s only one company that can do any of that. There’s no community around enhancing Windows or making it better. Windows’s outdated programming model has made it slow, bloated, and insecure. It’s not because Microsoft is a bad company, it’s because their model of an OS produced entirely on one corporate campus, with no outside input, is an aging dinosaur with no place in modern computing. The sad collapse of Vista shows just how incapable Microsoft is at polishing their own product through iteration, and with its closed-source model, if Microsoft does not act on security glitches or outdated technology, you are well and truly screwed.

Linux, by its very philosophy, encourages users to take control and make the OS their own. It’s easy to program on a Linux machine because highlighted text editors, compilers, interpreters, and often introductory learning material are all right there. You usually get an office suite and high-quality graphics software for free just for entry. I can’t tell you just how empowering it was to try Ubuntu and find just how much of it was rooted in an implicit trust of me and giving me the tools to make stuff, to make my own world, to impose my will on my computer. After years and years of using Windows, which seemed to have a mind of its own and would always try to guess what I want (“it looks like you’re…”) this empowerment was nothing short of a revelation. After years of falling behind in the world of computer science, my childhood excitement for computers withered away by years of cryptic error messages and unhelpful OS design, I was finally back on the cutting edge. It’s the feeling that’s lasted all the way until now, one that sparks upward with each six-month Ubuntu release, each right on time, faster, more efficient, and filled with more features and programs than before. I want to spread that feeling to children all over the world, I want to show them that they are in control, I want to give them an OS that gives them the power rather than selling it to them piece by piece.

I have no problem with commercial software, I’m just upset at the tendency for vendors like Microsoft to convince people through intimidation that if they’re not using Windows, they’re being left behind. To the contrary, if you’re using Windows, you’re spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars just to get to the level of basic functionality present in your average Linux distribution’s default setup. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that most people don’t percieve Windows as an individual purchase, they merely recieve it with their computers, paid for half by a “Microsoft tax” on each computer purchase (about $50), and half by subsidization through “bloatware,” the aggravating trial software that your computer is installed with, slowing it down and bombarding you with intrusive ad messages.

Linux is simply an OS, a family of OSes, developed in good faith. That’s why I want to spread it to the world, and why I wish it were still OLPC’s exclusive platform. This is for entirely pragmatic reasons, okay? I couldn’t care less about Stallman’s rants about how evil proprietary software is or whatever. I simply think Microsoft is acting in bad faith in the moment, and we should get kids started on an OS that provides choice rather than one that restricts it, and one that will teach the valuable IT skills–yes, Linux is the lingua franca of computer science, and that’s great because Linux is an OS that gives you freedom, is developed to standards, and lets you switch whenever you like–rather than the ones everybody already has.

Okay? Sheesh.

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