Email Template For Addressing Conference Gender Diversity

Someone I worked with had asked for recommendations when I noted the speaking lineup of a conference he was attending was exclusively men, and I figured I'd share the letter I came up with in case it is useful to others:

While I attended $CONFERENCE_NAME last weekend, I was disappointed to notice the oversights in your speaker line up leading to it being made up of nothing but men.  Perhaps your prioritization of people with their own books to sell led to inadvertent systematic discrimination, as you were reliant on the discriminatory publishing world and more generally on people without a significant non-work-related demands on their time (who are most likely to be either single men or men in non-egalitarian marriages.)  {Depending on your impression of the conference itself, something like: "Since I was also disappointed in how much of the conference devolved into the speakers plugging their own books, I am confident you could kill two birds with one stone by instead seeking out the most qualified speakers.” could fit here too.}

I wanted to convey that when trying to build a group from $COMPANY to attend this weekend, a woman who is normally excited to attend local conferences had no interest at all.  Without any women speaking, a code of conduct or even the barest token of effort towards diversity, there was no evidence that there would exist other women there or that the men involved see women as peers.  She expected that the weekend would, at best, be full of getting interrupted so men could explaining things she already understood, dudes hitting on her, men quizzing her about the alien experience of being "one of those", people assuming she was part of the conference organizing staff or from recruiting or some attendee’s wife, or simply ignoring her all together.  She also assumed that any complaints would be brushed off as disruptive to the existing exclusionary atmosphere that it appears the organizers have cultivated.

Going forward, if I see another line up of all men speaking in Boston, I will have to assume she’s right and you are actively working to run a conference to alienate women.  Since I’m not interested in that environment, this may be my last $CONFERENCE_NAME conference; I could instead have attended $OTHER_CONFERENCE_THAT_MADE_AN_EFFORT the week before where both I and the women I know would both have felt more welcome.

Now, the reasoning behind this approach.  I like trying to turn it into a contest between conferences, since the only eventual pressure to change will come through economic pressure.  It also circumvents the argument that it's not possible or there are no qualified women, without ever having to point out just how incredibly insulting that argument is.  Other conferences have worked hard to change the make up on their conventions: accepting speakers through blind proposals (rather than just inviting people they know of or their currently-non-diverse attendees recommend), advertising a code of conduct widely and enforcing it when it comes up, creating scholarships for women who want to attend but who’s companies won’t support it and seeking out and addressing feedback from women speaking and attending.  It’s not like this stuff is easy; it’s jut possible.

I did have one more recommendation for the guy I was talking with: 

If you want to be helpful while you are there, be your usual polite and outgoing and aware self and discuss the technical work of any women you do meet, especially listening to their ideas and learning about the work they are doing.  A good interaction or two can brighten up even the most awkward conference.

The Dyslexic Programmer

I am dyslexic, and these are my experiences.  They certainly won’t be universal, especially as there isn’t just one form of dyslexia [0].  To identify my strain of dyslexia, I read quite quickly (though only somewhat accurately) through pure pattern-recognition. I can look at, say, "word" and identify that the second letter is an ‘o’, but if I want to understand it as a concept I ignore the letters involved all together [1].  Essentially, I’ve memorized how each word in the English language looks as a complete entity. (I also, thankfully, have an excellent conceptual memory.) This approach, of knowing something is made up of individual parts but not needing to worry about what specifically those parts are unless absolutely necessary, extends to how I approach math, history, social sciences and fantasy world-building as well. 

I believe that this tendency to generalization is why I am able to jump between levels of abstraction quite easily.  The concept of emergence, and the specific cases of recursion and polymorphism, are obvious to me.  Everything in the universe is made up of component parts, interacting in ways that give rise to the meta-phenomenon we observe, like “matter” and “consciousness”, and I can keep that in mind without worrying particularly about what those components are.  It is odd to me when people consider things to be discrete, isolated wholes; it can be useful to talk about them that way, but I usually don’t actually believe it.

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How is Gender Studies hard?

Someone somewhere, of course, was mocking Gender Studies majors for taking an easy course because they couldn't hack liberal arts.  I made the point that the Gender Studies classes I took were significantly more difficult than my computer science classes.  Someone then asked me why I thought that was, and I came up with an answer:

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In Brief: Evolution

Evolution isn't about "good" or "bad".  It is simply a word for a specific emergent process. It describes all the things that happened that led to the current state of affairs.  Sometimes they happened for reasons, under specific and identifiable pressures, but other times just by accident. It gets way over-simplified, especially by people looking for answers, since evolution is bad at providing answers, or reasons, because it's a description of an emergent system and not a driving force.

The original building block of evolution were these two observations:
1. Does a trait make it likely you will die early or otherwise won't reproduce when someone else will, given current evolutionary pressures? Then a trait is likely to be expressed in very few members of a species.

2. Does it directly lead you to have more kids, given the current environmental pressures? Then a trait is likely to spread, being is expressed in a larger percentage of the following generation of a population that contain that trait. "Being able to digest milk when food is scarce" is a good and recent example. Note that even this doesn't imply a value judgement unless you think humans' value is based on reproduction (which some evolutionists do because they're wrong.) People who can't digest milk aren't defective. Indeed, environmental pressures can change and which traits are adaptive will change with them: now that we have better nutrition being able to process lactose may no longer be an evolutionary advantage.

It turns out that in addition to the two more obvious dynamics, there are a bunch of other cases too:

3. Is a trait situationally useful, sometimes helpful and sometimes not?  It's likely to show up in some of the population, but not most. (There is an interesting cluster of traits that occur with 8-15% prevalence in humans, including male pattern baldness and ADHD.)  This is similar to a mixed equilibrium in game theory.

4. Does the trait allow for on-the-fly adaptation?  As programmers, we know how powerful reconfiguration can be.  The human brain, for example, is highly plastic and can adapt to changing circumstances, and our muscles grow better at performing exactly the tasks we perform with them.  Specialization is "expensive", in that it leaves the organism vulnerable to changes in the environment; allowing for cultural, technological or physical adaptation during a lifetime is an easier way to get a similar effect.

5. It is a trait that was once useful or is useful for some people even if not for you, and is not actively harmful? It may stick around! Dimorphism is complicated to evolve and thus usually only occurs under pressure.  This is why women have a prostate and men have nipples. Once something has evolved, it takes pressure to make it go away entirely, which is why we go through a phase in utero when we develop proto-gills.

6. Is it fun/attractive/entertaining/not actively annoying? Then it may not contribute to inherent fitness, but it is likely to be selected for anyway, because evolution isn't a passive thing done to us. It is a dialectic process: the process shaped us, and we get to shape the process. Cultural tastes or norms can lead to evolutionary pressure just a surely as any other environmental factor (which is how the Hapsburg's lasted as long as they did: cultural power was more influential than any pressures against genetic disorders.)  This is similar to mechanism design in game theory: if we don't like the outcome of the game, change the game.

7. Is it genetically linked with something that is subject to any of the other positive dynamics?  Even if a trait itself is not useful or desirable or advantageous, it may share a common cause with something that is.  

8. Finally, does a trait have no reliable impact on reproductive success? Then it might happen anyway! This is called "genetic drift". Sometimes answer to "why?" is "eh, why not?"

Assuming that something is one of the first two may seem really cool, but when trying to impress your friends and intimidate your enemies always remember: a trait might just not be bad enough to be worth getting rid of.

Reading List Referenced at Usenix Talk

My Usenix talk this year uses various books I've drawn on for inspiration as backgrounds for my slides.  The goal of this was to share some of the broader world beyond what we usually look to as computer scientists.  Some of these books are accessible, while others are extremely dense.  I recommend picking things up and putting them down if they don't speak to you.  It's all about what is useful, helpful and challenging to you where ever you are right now.

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When Buying Computer Components

I'm doing a workshop on putting together computers in two hours, and rather than do hand outs I figured I'd toss the links up on my blog. When buying components for a computer, I usually read:

Ars Technica

If you are buying the components for a machine, they do systems guilds that are a useful report on the state-of-the-art each December-ish.  The one for 2012 is available here:

http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2012/12/ars-technica-system-guide-december-2012/


Video Card Benchmarks

They have performance statistics and a useful ranking of video cards by performance per price that I find particularly useful.  It is helpful to remember that many of these are relatively arbitrary, so if you have some specific game or application in mind it is useful to find reviews specifically for that application.

http://www.videocardbenchmark.net/gpu_value.html


Corsair

This is the easy way to find the RAM that goes with your motherboard.

http://www.corsair.com

 

Tom’s Hardware 

Has comparative reviews of various components, like hard drives, though I find their comparisons less easy-to-read than the video card benchmarks site.

http://www.tomshardware.com/

 

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Fractal Design Patterns

The difference between Architecture and Code blurs quickly when refactoring becomes sufficiently common, so the distinction made between various pattern languages never seemed especially helpful to me. Between Architecture and Service the line is firmer: this code is mine, that code is yours, here is the interface. At the same time, I've found that the design patterns that work when I'm writing methods and classes still apply when I'm working with services. The goal is still to increase cohesion and decrease coupling, even if often I have no control over half of the code.

Thus, the idea of a Fractal Design Patterns. Instead of the usual pattern description, which describes the pattern at a specific level of abstraction, a Fractal Pattern would illustrate it at multiple levels and try to get at the underlying principle.

For example, I'll take the algorithm-swapping-base-on-state that is described by the Strategy pattern.

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The Internet is Convincing Women Not To Study Computer Science

A summary from YodasEvilTwin on Slashdot:

"The internet is dominated by sexist men, which discourages women from getting involved in related fields."  

I add a bunch more caveats, references and empirical data, but that is a good summary of how I interpret the evidence.


Introduction

There is currently a responsibility-dodging contest between industry and academia over who is to blame for the declining enrollment of women in Computer Science and declining employment of women in software development. I hear people in industry bemoan the "empty pipeline", while academics maintain that women aren't entering their programs because of perceptions of the industry.  I have compiled some data that may help resolve the question by highlighting a third factor common to both: access to an Internet-based culture of computing.

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Assumptions Make Programming Possible

Scott McCloud, in Understanding Comics, uses a simple image to explain how people employ assumptions when reading comics:

I may have drawn an axe being raised in this example, but I'm not the one who let it drop or decided how hard the blow or who screamed or why.  That, dear reader, was your special crime, each of you committing it in your own style.

I argue that the same is true when reading code.  The difference, however, is that with executables we can check those assumptions against our invented reality.

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An Introduction to Services From This Coder's Perspective

First, there is the question of “what is a Service?”  

W3C defines a web service as:
a software system designed to support interoperable machine-to-machine interaction over a network.”[1]

They go on to specify some specific technologies mandated by this particular standard and the role a service plays:
“The purpose of a Web service is to provide some functionality on behalf of its owner -- a person or organization."
 
This definition describes the infrastructure, focusing on how we deploy services and what purpose they serve right now to MBAs.  It is as though they are defining a program as "a sequence of machine instructions that perform mathematical or logical operations on behalf of a computer operator”.  I want a definition that tells me how to address the technical questions that emerge and provides guidance on how we will be writing and employing services going forward.  My current personal definition is:
 
A Service is an Object bound at run-time by a networking protocol.

Note that I mean “object” here under Alan Kay’s definition [2] and not in the particular sense that the word is used any specific language like Java or C++.  Despite varying dynamics, all service frameworks encapsulate some combination of data and behavior (not necessarily *well*, of course, but when they fail it is usually clear from the pain that follows.)  They hide implementation details while fulfilling either implicit or explicit contracts in response to messages sent by other services.[3]

The interesting change from current Object-Oriented programming paradigms is that they also encapsulate the location they are executing and the provider of the object.  Because we bind to the specific implementation at runtime using a networking protocol of some kind, the object can be running on any machine, virtual or physical, anywhere reachable by that protocol.  I don’t think this fundamentally changes the paradigm any more than dynamically linked libraries did, but it is really, really cool.

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