Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Tue 16th Jan, 2007

Getting your hands on a child's laptop

Chris Blizzard's talk today about the OLPC covered the question that everyone from the FOSS world (apparently) asks: can I have one. It's very true that even if you got 50,000 people wanting an OLPC (or whatever the actual thing is called), that's peanuts to delivering 20 times that number to one nation alone. However, the 50,000 number is being bandied around - what if there was a website for people to register their interest? And they could say how many they wanted? The more that people spread the word, the more people might find more uses for them. Entire classes or schools in first-world countries could sign up, whereas they would currently be denied. That's got to be good, right? Things like PledgeBank make it easy to get a good feel for how many people are interested in doing something - why not do something like that for the OLPC and see what the real interest from the people is?

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The invisible macho danger

I worked out that there were 38 women and 12 men for the first session of the LinuxChix miniconf. In the question time, it came out that the FOSSPOS study (I've yet to find it on the intarweb) showed that FOSS and Linux has an order of magnitude fewer women compared to the rest of the IT industry. And yet, when I asked my question "why is this?" Val Henson pointed out to us that, even with that proportion of women in the room, all of the questions up to and including mine had been asked by men.

Ouch.

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Submitting patches and watching devices

Two more excellent talks at the LinuxChix miniconf - how to work on open source if you're not a programmer and how to understand PCI if you're not a hardware hacker. It was amusing to see that the small room the miniconf has has been constantly full, with people often having to sit on side tables or stand in order to watch. For the latter talk in particular, a huge contingent of guys turned up to listen and strained the capacity of a room that had been boosted with lots of extra chairs. Very cool.

One of the key elements that has come out of the LinuxChix miniconf (in my opinion) is that social networking is just as important as digital networking. Part of this is meeting and greeting, something that even if LCA was twice as big would still be just as awesome. Another part is the smoothing of feathers, the shaking of hands, the stroking of egos - the little things that sometimes you have to do to get patches accepted or problems resolved. One trick which Val Henson mentioned is to submit a patch with one or two obvious errors (like submitting it in the wrong format) - then the developers can feel all important and tell you you did it wrong, and you quietly submit the correct patch and everyone feels happy.

Logically, it shouldn't have to be this way. Open Source prides itself on the idea that anyone can modify, anyone can help. But this, as Sulamita Garcia (the first LinuxChix speaker) pointed out, is a fiction - the reality is flame wars, shouting matches, and sexist comments. Getting patches accepted can often be as much a knowing who to talk to as what format to submit it in. A woman going along to a LUG meeting for the first time can be, as Sulamita described it, akin to the scene in the spaghetti western where the stranger walks into the bar and everything stops. This must change if we're to be anywhere as equal and egalitarian as we claim to be.

And certainly for men it's sometimes a huge struggle. I think of myself as a feminist and consciously support equality and fairness, yet I still make the same mistakes as all the other guys I personally shrink away from. And even after this example, when you'd think I should have put a cork in my mouth, I was still putting my foot in instead.

At the last session of the LinuxChix miniconf, where we went to the library lawn to sit in the dappled sunlight and talked about how difficult it is to get a fair rate of pay. This followed on from Val Henson's talk on negotiation and knowing how to get what you deserve, which was excellent and (I feel) applied to the wider community of computing workers. Mary Gardiner organised us into small groups and specifically cautioned the men in the groups to not talk too much (which would have been a good idea even if it wasn't a LinuxChix miniconf). So we start introducing ourselves, and what do I do?

Go into a long and tedious ramble about the pains of one of my previous jobs.

Mary, the lady organising our group, gently interrupted me and moved on, and I realised my error. Andre Pang, who was also in the group, was much better than I at keeping quiet and letting the women[1] talk. I silently made the motions of putting a cork in my mouth and managed, I think, to restrain myself.

Why must my urge to speak and be heard fight with my desire to be fair and equal?

[1] - Women? Ladies? Girls? Females? Whatever term I choose, I hit the age-old problem of them having social connotations.

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