Posts that are olpc-ish

On the diversity-readiness of STEM environments: “It’s almost as if I could only enter the makerspace as a janitor.”

My thoughts from an online discussion with other female Olin engineers on this NYT article on “how to attract female enginers, women’s health “, edited for context. In particular, we brought up the (well-worn) claim that women don’t want to “just focus on the tech stuff” and want to “do sociotechnical/humanitarian work that makes a difference in the world.”

I’ve built my career as a “technical community person” who “thinks beyond the technology,” and as a teacher and researcher of learning environments — so this may come as a surprise to people who know and have worked with me. But if my teenage self had had her way, I would have VASTLY preferred to “just focus on the tech stuff.”

As a kid, I wanted to choose the privilege of being oblivious and keeping my head down and immersing myself into the beauty — the sheer beauty! — and joy of STEM for STEM’s sake. I didn’t become an ECE to work on educational computers or hearing aids or anything like that. As my friend (and former roommate) Kristen Dorsey said, “I just geek out about nerdy stuff, OK?”

But I couldn’t “just geek out about nerdy stuff.” The environments where I was trying to “learn about nerdy stuff” were sociotechnically broken in a way that made it hard for me (as a disabled minority woman, among other things) to join in. If I wanted to even start being part of the technical community, I had to start by fixing the technical community — patching the roof and fixing the plumbing, so to speak — before I could even walk inside and start to live there. And when I patched the leaking roof, I patched the roof for everyone, and other people who needed non-leaky roofs to be in the community could now… be in the community as well!

For instance, I got really, really good at facilitating meetings because it was the only way I had to make meetings accessible to me — when other people facilitated meetings, they’d often forget I need to lipread, so… I just quietly started leading them myself, and ended up making meetings work better for everyone. And I found that when I drifted towards “humanitarian” projects, the people there were much more conscious of sociotechnical things and more likely to have already-healthy environments, so I would have less leaky roofs to patch, and less resistance when I tried to patch the roofs — and people actually recognized and valued roof-patching labor instead of looking down on me for not writing code full-time.

After a while of patching roofs and unclogging toilets and plastering the rotten drywall, I got a reputation in industry for being really, really good at open-source software/hardware (technical) community facilitation. It’s almost as if I could only enter the makerspace as a janitor. And part of me resented that, but never said so. But, I told myself, at least I was in the building. And I saw that my “janitorial” work made it possible for other people to enter the building and do the things they wanted to do — which were often the things I wanted to do, too! — and so I thought: okay. That’s okay. At least somebody gets to do it. I can see my gift to the community doing so much good, that I will give up my desire to learn and do the technical things — so I let my own STEM learning slide. I am good at “community work,” and I did come to genuinely love it, over time.

But if I had the choice, I would have never gone into “community work.” I would have chosen — if I had the choice — to focus on “shiny tech stuff” that… didn’t save the world at all. If my teenage self had had her way, I would not do community-facilitation-anything, I would not be thoughtful about women or minorities or disabilities or any underprivileged group in engineering… I would be oblivious to all my privilege. I’d be a kernel hacker, or an embedded geek, or something “hardcore technical,” Because I could be.

But I didn’t have the wherewithal (or the desire) to shovel all the stuff out of the way that I would have to do in order to do that. If you think of “caring/environmental labor” as a sort of tax some people have to pay in order to get to “learning/doing technical things,” my tax rate has always just been too frickin’ high.

So I have been “the full-time community person who is ridiculously good at tech stuff that she no longer gets to do,” instead of “the technical person who understands and listens to and cares about inclusion and community.” Because I cannot not patch a leaky roof. But I have always wondered what I might have grown up into, if I had learned STEM in an environment that was ready for me — without me having to fix it first.

Unlock challenge: raise $1024 for The Ada Initiative, support women in open tech/culture, and unlock more open-licensed “programming learning styles” material!

Last year, shop I wrote a post asking people to donate to the Ada Initiative and support women in open technology and culture. I said:

We change the world with millions of tiny patches… our world of open technology and culture is built one patch, one line, one edit at a time — and that’s precisely why it’s powerful. It brings billions of tiny, ordinary moments together to transform the world. If we teach it for our code, we can preach it for our giving. If you’d buy me a drink, or treat an open source newcomer to dinner, send that $3-$20 to the Ada Initiative tonight. –August 30, 2013

Why do we need to do this? Well, being a woman in open technology and culture is like riding a bike on a street made for cars, where rain and dirt get kicked into your face, and you are constantly, painfully aware that if you have any sort of collision with a car… the car will win. Yes, this is happening in our world, to our friends and to our colleagues; it’s happened to me personally more times than I care to remember. The farther you are from the straight white male difficulty setting, the rougher the terrain becomes.

And quite honestly, we’re busy. I’m busy. You’re busy. This isn’t our job — we have so many other things to do. I mean, we’re all:

  • remixing music
  • playing with code
  • writing science fiction
  • co-authoring open content articles
  • redesigning user interfaces
  • <insert your favorite open technology and culture activity here>

And guess what? There are so many people who want to join us. So many people who want to help us do all this work, but don’t, because they know that work — the good work — is likely to come with a lot of really, really awful stuff, like this sampling of incidents since last year (trigger warning: EVERYTHING).

The less time women spend dealing with that stuff, the more time they have to help us with our work. And the more people will want to help us with our work. I mean, would you want to accept a job description that included the item “must put up with demeaning harassment and sexual jokes at any time, with no warning, up to 40+ hours per week”?

Making our world a good environment for all sorts of people is, in fact, our job — or at least part of it. The folks at the Ada Initiative have made supporting women in open tech/culture their entire job — supporting it, supporting people who support it, and basically being the equivalent of code maintainers… except instead of code, the patches they’re watching and pushing and nudging are about diversity, inclusion, hospitality, and just plain ol’ recognition of the dignity of human beings.

They want to support you. With better conference environments, training workshops and materials, and really awesome stickers, among many other things. (Did you know that the Ada Initiative was one of the first woman-focused tech organizations to actually say the word “feminism”?)

So please, donate and support them, so they can support you — and me, and all of us — in supporting women in open tech/culture.

Now, my own contribution is a bit… sparse, financially. I’m a grad student earning less than $800 a month, and I’m waiting for my paycheck to come in so I can contribute just a few dollars — but every little bit helps. And there’s another way I can help out: I can bribe you, dear readers, to donate.

Remember that “active vs reflective” learning styles post I wrote in August? Well, there are 3 more: sensing/intuitive, visual/verbal, and global/sequential. I’ve got them all transcribed here and ready to go. And if we reach $1024 in donations to the Ada Initiative under the Learning Styles campaign within the next week, I will release them under a creative-commons license.

What’s more: the first 3 people who donate $128 or more to this campaign and email me their receipt will get a free 1-hour Skype call with me to discuss their personal programming learning styles, and will be featured as case studies on one of those three posts (I’ll link to your website and everything).

Donate to the “learning styles” campaign for The Ada Initiative now!

Call for ideas: help design a “Gender/Race/Class” class on “interrupting the discourse that perpetuates inequity”

Our “Gender/Race/Class in engineering education” class has an “open topic” period that I’ve volunteered to help design… which means I’m going to Ask The Internet for help. (Hi!)

Based on our class discussion just now, for sale we are interested in tackling this question: How do we interrupt the discourse that perpetuates inequity in engineering education? (Subquestions: who has access to this discourse as a listener? A speaker? What is that access based on — gender, recipe race, class… age? geography? language? disability? intersections of any subset of that? What strategies do we have for doing this dialogue-interrupting work in professional and personal contexts?)

The course will be Monday, November 18, which is 2 weeks from now. We’re mostly PhD students in engineering education (technical backgrounds, social science research interests, lots of future engineering professors who care deeply about teaching). We have 3 hours in class, plus the ability to ask people to read a reasonable amount (<100 pages, English) before class. I’d love to hear thoughts, especially half-baked ones, on:

  • “learning objective” suggestions — in other words, what do we want to learn during the course of the 3 hours? (Can be fact-based, skill-based, emotion-based, perspective-expanding-based…)
  • “assessment” suggestions — given those learning objectives, how will we tell (at the end of the 3 hours) whether we’ve learned them, and how well? Does not need to be a test; could be questions for reflection on our own, etc.
  • Reading suggestions — scholarly or not. (For instance, Alice Pawley has offered to let us read her CAREER proposal on feminist engineering — a short, highly competitive grant for junior scholars whose committee was probably not used to getting “feminist” proposals.)
  • Activity suggestions — discussions, games to play, short bits of theatre to act out and/or improvise upon, provocative question prompts, etc…

Potential inspiration: our guiding question/framing about “interrupting discourse” came from a discussion on “how do we talk to people about this?” and an interest in intersectionality, especially with disability/access. I’m personally curious about the history of opening these dialogues in STEM: who (tenured? white? male? western?) started the conversations about women in physics, minority races in computing, wheelchair-accessible chemistry labs, etc — and when, and how, and what were the responses?

Comment away! I will post readings (or reading notes, if readings are not freely available), discussion questions/guidelines, and a story of what happened in the class once we run it — basically, whatever I can do to make the experience we’re creating here available and reusable by more people.

If a broke grad student can do it, you can too: donate to @adainitiative and patch the open world to be better for EVERYONE.

TL;DR – if my work in open source has helped you in some way, disorder please donate to the Ada Initiative, viagra dosage which supports women in open technology and culture. Not convinced yet? Here’s why I donated.

There’s a world out there to patch. I love the universe of open technology and culture where I’ve built much of my career and friendships. It’s a wonderful world that can be wide and welcoming — but it also has horrific bug reports of sexual abuse and gender discrimination, salve along with many more that haven’t been reported out of fear and shame. I’ve lived a few not-so-good stories myself; some I’ve told, some I haven’t. What saddens me most, though, isn’t the bad stories that have happened; it’s the good ones that never will — stories of women and men working together to hack the universe in marvelous ways. If we want to see these stories happen, we’ve got to make a world where they can happen, a world where it’s safe for them to happen. Don’t WONTFIX that ticket; do something. When you care about something, you want to make it better.

We change the world with millions of tiny patches. I’m a grad student; money is tight, and my $64 contribution represents half a month of groceries. I was initially ashamed of my “tiny” contribution, even if it’s a nontrivial one for me. Then I remembered: our world of open technology and culture is built one patch, one line, one edit at a time — and that’s precisely why it’s powerful. It brings billions of tiny, ordinary moments together to transform the world. If we teach it for our code, we can preach it for our giving. If you’d buy me a drink, or treat an open source newcomer to dinner, send that $3-$20 to the Ada Initiative tonight.

Someone’s got to integrate these patches into a whole… and it’d be nice if they didn’t burn out in the process. Honestly? I support the Ada Initiative because it does this work so I don’t have to. I’m young and energetic, but I’m often wiped out just being a woman in open technology and culture. It’s not just physical and mental exhaustion; it’s emotional and psychological, which is worse. And being an activist is harder still. Do I agree with everything the Ada Initiative says or does? Nope. But it’s a job I want done, and I don’t want the job. This is why we hire maintainers for Free Software; we give them the gift of bandwidth so they can help us contribute more for a project with less effort by supporting and connecting our patches with the bigger picture. Val and Mary are good maintainers for feminism in our open universe — and I’d like more. After all, it’s a big world out there that we’ve got to work on.

The last day of their fund drive is tomorrow. (I’m coming late to the game; summer travel + school year start + RSI = no internet for Mel.) But it wasn’t too late for me to throw in my $64 patch this morning — and it’s not too late for you to contribute your patch today. If my work in open technology and culture has touched, helped, or inspired you in some way, please help me pay it forward and create a supportive, welcoming environment for everyone in the open world.

Tracking fellow FOSS-to-academia migrants

First: I’m working on a list of FOSS hackers who’ve gone back to school to study FOSS in some way; do you know of any? Please let me know in the comments. They needn’t be coders; designers, endocrinologist documenters, etc. are also totally welcome, as are contributors to open content and hardware projects — for instance, a very active Wikipedian who goes to graduate school to study the collaboration practices of Wikipedia.)

Now then.

Seb Benthall’s post about academic vs open culture reminded me that I’d like to track my fellow FOSS-to-academia migrants somewhere. Seb and myself are members of a fairly short tradition that includes folks like Martin Krafft (Debian developer to CS/Sociology PhD) and Mako Hill (Debian developer and Ubuntu hacker to interdisciplinary PhD student and Berkman Center researcher).

If you think about it, there’s no way the tradition can be anything like short. Undergraduate degrees tend to focus on “study to be able to do” for a broad area rather than a more focused “study of” a particular topic, so I’m mainly looking at grad students and those who’ve gotten their graduate degrees. To enter graduate school, you typically need an undergraduate degree — which means you’re likely at least in your early twenties. That’s how old the Free Software and Open Source movements are themselves.

It’s not that we’re the first generation of grad students to grow up in FOSS culture — that distinction belongs to people now in their mid-thirties to early forties, who were college-aged in the mid-90′s when the FOSS world was ramping up for the firs time. But we’re the first ones to enter grad school at a time when FOSS culture was widespread enough to be considered a legitimate topic of study by open-minded advisors; in a prior day, we might have studied CS, math, education, or any number of things with “proper” topics as our primary research focus, with open source remaining a devoted side hobby mostly separate from our “real academic work.”

It’s a good time and place in history to be. Plenty of opportunities to find and make — and we’re hackers, so we’re used to finding and making our own way through a chaotic world. Perfect.

1st draft of lit review on the open source way and education: please rip to shreds.

I finished my first lit review today. Or rather, more about I should say “I finished the first dot release of the pre-alpha version of my first lit review today,” because I look at this and know that it’s nowhere near where I want it. Then again, “where I want it to be” is at the start of my dissertation about… oh, 3-5 years from now. All things considered, it’s not bad for someone’s first real attempt at independently scouting out scholarly sources.

From the introduction:

This is a preliminary and extremely incomplete literature review surveying the current academic scholarship on open source and education. It can be summarized in three words: there’s not much. I’ll begin… by discussing what I am not looking at… I am not looking at the use of open source software in educational contexts… open source as an IT solution. Nor am I looking at open source with a focus on content licensing… open source as an information access solution.

Instead, I am concerned with an analysis of what sorts of practices and processes for learning are exhibited in open source communities themselves and how these practices might be made transferable back to the classroom. In other words, I see open source as a way of operating learning communities: radically cross-functional, collaboratively constructed realtime transparency.

Aaaaand here’s the whole dang thing, below. Why push now? Well, after a certain point, I decided to stop agonizing over it and release early and often because hey, maybe what I need are some other eyeballs to kick me out of the mental ruts I’ve gotten into. Also, I finished writing it and turned it in 20 minutes ago (which may explain why the quality of the writing degrades considerably in the last 3 paragraphs). It’s been a rough week. Month. Semester, really.

Literature review: the open source way and education (alpha)

Essentially, I spent my entire first semester of grad school finding that nobody’s really done research on my topic of choice (engineering education happening in open source communities) before – which is both awesome (because that means I get to do it) and depressing (because WHY AM I ALL BY MYSELF OUT HERE I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M DOING). And now I’m standing here unsure of what to do next; I want to read some of these more deeply, talk about them with people, have folks tell me where I’m wrong and why, get into debates over a bunch of these ideas, throw them off the wall, bounce them off other people’s heads…

And so I fling this out to you, my friends. Thoughts? I apologize that this is not in comic book form – it was a little harder to get away with that for a lit review… but I’ll keep trying.

Is there a lazyweb fix for the paradox of localization?

Via Sumana, about it a post by Amir Elisha Aharoni on the paradox of localization:

who don’t know English strongly prefer to use software in a language
they know… People who do know
English often prefer to use software in English even if it is available
in their native language. The two most frequent explanations for that
is that the translation is bad and that people who want to use computers
should learn English anyway. The problem is that for various reasons
lots of people will never learn English even if it would be mandatory in
schools and useful for business. They will have to suffer the bad
translations and will have no way to fix it.

So this is the paradox – to fix localization bugs, someone must
notice them, and to notice them, more people who know English must use
localized software, but people who know English rarely use localized
software… Even people
who know English well should use software in their language… especially
if it’s translated badly, because they are the only ones who can report
bugs in the translation or fix the bugs themselves…

I am glad to say that i convinced most people to whom i spoke about
it at Wikimania to at least try to use Firefox in their native language
and taught them where to report bugs about it. I also challenged them to
write at least one article in the Wikipedia in their own language, such
as Hindi, Telugu or Kannada – as useful as the English Wikipedia is to
the world, Telugu Wikipedia is much more useful who speak Telugu, but no

My comment,
summarized: can the software be hacked to make this easy for
multilingual users to contribute to? Imagine being asked to opt-in for occasionally
having the application start up in (or switch into) another language
you know — for instance, “every 25th time you log into this website,
you’ll see it in Hindi” — with a reminder shown during those
language-switching times thanking you for aiding with translation
quality and giving you a direct link to report translation problems?

Because sometimes the problem is just a little too much friction;
switching the language of an application takes 5 too many mouse-clicks
to be thoughtlessly easy, and the vast majority of users don’t wake up
in the morning and think “you know, I could contribute to the localization of the software on my computer!” The lazier people can be and still help you, the more likely they’ll be to do it.

Which applications, or which types of applications, would be easiest to do this with?

Please take the Ada Initiative’s 5-minute census

With a week to go before SIGCSE – the largest CS education conference in the world – begins, healthful my inbox is starting to fill with emails about corporate sessions, help enter-this-survey-to-win-this-fabulous-prize teasers, medications and other “industry attempts to talk with academics, insert shiny stuff here” messages. Is this… normal? Is this how companies and professors usually engage with each other? Good lord, how do people have conversations in all that noise? One of my biggest worries about the conference for myself is that I’ll be so overwhelmed by the bigness of it all that I won’t be able to step back and take time for the meaningful connections that I want to have. I’d rather have 5 excellent conversations than 500 spamlike rocket pitches, but I know that’s my own (somewhat introverted) preference; I’ve always been on the shy side and not really one for crowds.

I’ve found writing to be a good way to let me get those deep experiences while also sharing them with a much wider audience – and so today we kicked off a planning discussion on and TOS tag-teaming to cover SIGCSE.

I’d like to get a flood – nay, a tsunami, a malestroom – of content coming out of [SIGCSE] – stories that tell people who we are, what we do, and why we care so much about it.

We could use help with the following articles – anything from authors to take ‘em (we’ve got editors and artists and whatnot to help) to feedback and suggestions on what to cover. So for anyone who’s ever wondered what happens when over a thousand CS professors get together, we’d love some thoughts on:

  • Lay-of-the-land before the conference: What is SIGCSE like? I’d love to have someone who’s been to SIGCSE before write this; holler if you’re interested.
  • Which sessions should we cover? The schedule is huge – we obviously can’t cover everything, so we’re going to have to take requests. If you’d like a session covered for any reason (one you can’t make but would like to find out about, one you’re presenting and would love an article on), please holler – with the caveat that it’s going to have to become an article somehow, so we might have a tough time covering a panel on the benefits of NDAs, sorry. Also consider the HFOSS symposium while making these suggestions.
  • Who should we interview? I have a video camera and a sound recorder. Matt Jadud has a video camera and a sweet, sweet SLR. There’s a giant list of presenters, and even more attendees. Who do you know at SIGCSE with a great open source story we should tell? How can we find them?
  • Post-conference roundup: This is an easy one for a remotee – if you wished you were coming
    to SIGCSE but can’t make it this year, this would be a way to integrate
    yourself into the conference happenings from afar by synthesizing and summarizing everything that goes out during the conference, and poking authors there-in-person to go find out things for you.
  • Any other ideas?

Also of note: SIGCSE takes place in Raleigh next year, which is the location of Red Hat’s headquarters. I’d love to see the Teaching Open Source, Fedora, and Red Hat crowd collectively mastermind something really bloody spectacular for this. Open the floodgates for ideas – what should we do? Custom Fedora SIGCSE remixes, a FAD happening in parallel, a big “I wish students would help my open source project!” contact list, a gallery of FOSS student work, dancing pandas?
Passing on a message from the Ada Initiative, what is ed
a group doing what I personally believe to be incredibly important work on gender representation in free and open source software, sovaldi sale content, and culture – precisely the things the Fedora Project is working towards the rapid advancement of. The survey really does take less than 5 minutes; regardless of your gender, please give it a shot!

Take the Ada Initiative Census

The Ada Initiative is a newly-formed organisation which aims to support and promote women in open technology and culture. We’ve just launched our first annual census — a broad survey of open technology and culture participants — to find out more about what projects and communities people are involved in, and how they feel about women’s inclusion and representation in the field.

We use the term “open technology and culture” to refer to a wide range of activities and communities based around free/open licenses, and other forms of open, decentralised, and grassroots participation in technology and related fields. This includes:

Open source/free software
Open source hardware
Open geodata and maps
Open government
Open data
Open standards and formats
Open educational initiatives (open access journals, open source curricula, etc)
Open/decentralised social networking (including Diaspora, StatusNet, etc)
Creative Commons and free culture
Wikipedia and other wikis
Open crisis response and humanitarian projects
Barcamps and unconferences
Online/digital activism
Remix/mashup culture
Transformative works fandom, including fan fiction, fan art, and fan vidding
Maker/DIY community
Hacker spaces

If you’re involved in any of the above areas, we’d like to get to know who you are, what you’re working on, and your thoughts on how women are doing in your community. We welcome participation by people of any gender, although we are particularly interested in women’s responses.

The survey only takes about five minutes, and can be found at

What FOSS communities can look like from the outside

I found this mailing list conversation snippet to be very insightful, pharmacist and wanted to share it.

Scott: “Open to critique” isn’t quite the same as “responsive to critique”. From an outside perspective, visit it seems that frequently SugarLabs is just not listening to people who offer contrary opinions.  This is better than flaming them, information pills but maybe not as good as it could be. For an end-of-year report, I’d like to see instances enumerated where SugarLabs actually internalized some outside critique and responded in a positive way — some concrete change made to the UI, or Sugar, or to process.  That would be more convincing that simply stating, “we are now open to critique”.
Bernie: We’re definitely intimidating to non-technical people. At least, this is what I sensed at the Realness Summit. OLE also seems to be doing a better job at connecting with educators. I’m not completely sure what corrective actions should be. We might need to do some work on the  wiki, maybe add web forums, which non-geeks tend to prefer…

Scott: I suspect that the answer to this problem does not involve installing additional software.

Later in the day, Jeff and I were having this conversation on #teachingopensource.

Jeff: Is IRC really a barrier to entry?  maybe I have simply been using it too long, but it seems immediately recognizable to me. I think one barrier might be the attitudes that crop up.  Even with emoticons, sometimes it’s hard to discern intent.  Hard enough in email, but sometimes devastating in real time.

Mel: Actually, yes. I had a really, really hard time figuring out IRC. First, figuring out that it existed and I had to use it. Then how to get it, how to set the software up. Then what the heck networks and channels and whatnot were – and why channels? my IM paradigm was “you have a buddy list and you ping people individually.” So “chatrooms are the default!” wasn’t hard to understand once I realized it, but it took a while to realize because I wasn’t looking for it.

And then “oh man, who are all these people? I am nervous about pinging them, will they yell at me?” And then all the /commands I had to remember. It was so bewildering and terrifying and new and it was being used as a way to present new information to me at the same time, sort of like… taking your first calculus class in… Mandarin, if you’ve also just started studying Mandarin as a foreign language. You can’t concentrate much on the calculus because you’re going “zomg it’s in CHINESE.”

It’s hard to remember how hard things can be, especially when you’re surrounded by a community of people who are the ones who self-selected and made it past that hardness. By definition, if you’ve gotten into FOSS, the current participation mechanisms worked for you… so why fix them?

Because we want others to join us.

POSSE Worcester: Wednesday

The email I sent my team today as a “what did Mel do?” update:

00:18  * mchua has had a great day.
00:19 < mchua> When college professors start high-fiving each other across the classroom like excited kids because they got a button to work on a Sugar Activity, apoplectic and then head out for ice cream, tooth it is a Good Day.

I’m too behind/tired to be more verbose – turns out it’s difficult to simultaneously teach at and document a POSSE (probably due to that blasted 3 hours of driving per day – will hopefully do better next week). But betwen Friday noon and Sunday at 6 when the RIT one starts, I’ll spew logs from this one.

Theme: “Development”

Big idea: Sometimes, you’ve just got to dive in and work on the code… together.

Skill: Making contributions to an open source project “in the wild.” (In this case, the Measure Activity.)

Full logs:

Of the three, the notes for the last one are the most interesting – the notes for maddog’s talk are essentially a paraphrased (brief) transcript of his 1.5 hour presentation on “how FOSS teaches you twice.”