Greatest hits

I’ve been “publishing” various things on the Internet for 20 years (!!!) now. Here are some of my favorite pieces:

Ball lightning: the coolest thing you’ve never heard of: Ball lightning – glowing balls of light often associated with regular ol’ lightning – is super cool, real, and no one knows how it works yet! I read an entire textbook on the phenomenon of ball lightning while I was on vacation, and wrote this summary of it.

The ultimate physical limits of computation: Dr. Seth Lloyd, a physicist, estimated when Moore’s Law will end according to our current knowledge of physics (presumably incomplete). He also calculated the maximum possible bit operations per second, IO bandwidth, and other interesting properties of one kilo of matter in one liter of space (the “ultimate laptop”). I thought this was super amazing and interesting, so I wrote a summary of his paper aimed at your average computer programmer.

Suicide and society: Where does responsibility for preventing suicide lie?: When a famous person commits suicide, a lot of people who haven’t experienced major depression give bad advice on how to prevent suicide that ends up harming suicidal people more. I wrote this blog post to explain why it was harmful and what to do instead.

DEFCON: Why conference harassment matters: I saw Twitter recruiting at DEFCON, the world’s largest computer security conference, after I’d stopped attending because of the extensive sexual harassment and assault that goes on at that conference. I also first got interested in computer programming when I attended the third DEFCON conference as a teenager. I wrote this article to explain why harassment at conferences severely harms women.

The “rainbow chart” of cryptographic hash function lifetimes: Back around 2004, a cool trend in computer software was writing software that depended on cryptographic hash functions never being broken (specifically, SHA-1). In particular, an easy way to get a PhD was to take some existing piece of software and replace the addressing technique with an address generated by taking a cryptographic hash of the data being addressed. To demonstrate that cryptographic hash functions are human-made creations which will inevitably be broken with enough effort, I created a chart showing the lifetimes of cryptographic hash functions. Today with SHA-1-signed SSL certificates being actively deprecated, this seems obvious, but the chart is a fun snapshot of a particular time in computer science.

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More ways to fight white supremacy

At least three other people have joined me in donating $1000 to fight white supremacy: Leigh Honeywell, Katie Bechtold, and Alicia Gibb. They also suggested:

Baltimore Racial Justice Action is “an action-based organization grounded in collective analysis of structural racism and white privilege.” In addition to a supportive community and educational events, BRJA offers consulting and training to individuals and organizations that seek to become inclusive and equitable. Donate here. Contributions are tax-deductible.

Black Women’s Blueprint works “to develop a culture where women of African descent are fully empowered and where gender, race and other disparities are erased” through research, historical documentation, and movement-building. Follow @BlackWomensBP on Twitter, and donate here. Donations are tax-deductible and eligible for employer matching – you’ll need to get the match by looking up JustGive (EIN 94-3331010) in your employer’s matching system and designating the donation towards BWB.

My original suggestions:

Equal Justice Initiative: Working to reform the criminal justice system, challenge poverty and the legacy of racial segregation, educate the public, and create hope in marginalized communities in the United States. I gave $250 (click here to donate).

United States Representative John Conyers Jr.: For 25 years, he has introduced a bill in the House of Representatives every year to create a commission to study reparations for slavery in the United States. I gave $250 (click here to donate).

We The Protestors: Led by a team including Johnetta Elzie and Deray McKesson, this organization works to “fulfill the democratic promise of our union, establish true and lasting justice, accord dignity and standing to everyone, center the humanity of oppressed people, promote the brightest future for our children, and secure the blessings of freedom for all black lives” through supporting the on-going protest movements in the U.S. I gave $250 (scroll down to the tiny PayPal donate button at the bottom of this page).

The American Civil Liberties Association: Fights for voting rights in the courts across the country. The recent well-funded campaign to prevent Black Americans from voting shows how crucial this issue is. I gave $250 (click here to donate).

[Trigger warning: racist violence and sexual assault]

Finally, I want to speak personally about the link between misogyny and white supremacy that the Charleston killer brought into high relief with his statement, “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go.” Many more educated and well-spoken people than me have written about the long history in the United States of justifying the killing of Black men as “protecting” white women from sexual assault. Implicit in this theory is the assumption that access to white women’s sexuality is controlled by white men, a concept that frankly makes me nauseous. It’s also ridiculous at a personal level, since I am an example of the by far most common case of white sexual assault victim: all the people who sexually assaulted me or attempted to do so were – you guessed it – white men.

Destroying the idea that white women’s sexuality is owned and controlled by white men will remove one more prop in the system of racist violence by white people against Black people. White men: I reject your “protection” if it is based on the concept of owning and controlling access to my sexuality. Come back when you can view women as human beings.

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Ban boring mike-based Q&A sessions and use index cards instead

If you’ve ever been to a conference, you know the problem: A brilliant and engaging talk is coming to a close, and already a line of fanatic wild-eyed people (okay, mostly men) is forming at the audience microphone. Just by looking at them you know they will inevitably start their questions with, “This is more of a comment than a question, but…” Actually, you are grateful for the ones who are that self-aware, because most of them seem to genuinely believe that their barely disguised dominance play or naked self-promotion is an actual question that the rest of the audience would like to hear the answer to. So you scooch down lower in your seat and open your Twitter client so you can complain about how awful Q&A sessions inevitably are.

Fortunately, there is a way to prevent this situation entirely! Here is the formula:

  1. Throw away the audience microphones.
  2. Buy a pack of index cards.
  3. Hand out the cards to the audience before or during your talk.
  4. Ask people to write their questions on the cards and pass them to the end of the row.
  5. Collect the cards at the end of the talk.
  6. Flip through the cards and answer only good (or funny) questions.
  7. Optional: have an accomplice collect and screen the questions for you during the talk.

Better yet, if you are a conference organizer, buy enough index cards for every one of your talks and tell your speakers and volunteers to use them.

Why is the typical line-at-the-mike style of audience question so productive of bad questions? To start with, it gives the advantage to people who aren’t afraid to put themselves forward first and rush to the mike first. This means most or all of the questions are from people with relatively little self-doubt and a high opinion of themselves. Another draw for the self-centered overconfident type is the chance to be the center of attention while asking the question using the audience microphone. Then there is the lack of built-in limit on the time the purported question-asker is speaking. Finally, there is no way to screen the question for quality until the question has been fully asked (sometimes taking minutes). The end result is a system that practically invites self-centered, overconfident, boring, long-winded people to dominate it. (And you wonder why women almost never ask questions at your conference?)

By contrast, writing questions on index cards appeals more to quiet, thoughtful, self-effacing folks who are considerate of those around them. It allows you to screen the questions for quality. It limits the length of the question. It encourages actual genuine requests for clarification on the subject of your talk.

Get rid of line-at-the-mike style Q&A sessions. Replace them with index cards. Your conference attendees will thank you.

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Donating $1,000 to fight white supremacy

“Today, progressives are loath to invoke white supremacy as an explanation for anything.” – Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Case for Reparations

By midnight tonight, I will donate $1,000 to people and organizations fighting white supremacy.

Why am I doing this? Last night’s racist terrorist mass killing at a church in Charleston brought it home to me in a personal way: I am the poster child for benefiting from white supremacy. I’m the beneficiary of a massive worldwide colonization project spanning multiple centuries. Every day of my life I’ve gotten the benefit of the doubt, an extra pass, a bigger raise, because I was born into the dominant racial group in my country. $1,000 is a comically small amount of the money I’ve made from benefiting from racism in favor of white people. It’s time to give that money back to stop the murder and oppression of people of color, and Black people in the U.S. in particular.

If you have benefited from white supremacy, I invite you to join me in donating to these organizations:

Equal Justice Initiative: Working to reform the criminal justice system, challenge poverty and the legacy of racial segregation, educate the public, and create hope in marginalized communities in the United States. I gave $250 (click here to donate).

United States Representative John Conyers Jr.: For 25 years, he has introduced a bill in the House of Representatives every year to create a commission to study reparations for slavery in the United States. I gave $250 (click here to donate).

We The Protestors: Led by a team including Johnetta Elzie and Deray McKesson, this organization works to “fulfill the democratic promise of our union, establish true and lasting justice, accord dignity and standing to everyone, center the humanity of oppressed people, promote the brightest future for our children, and secure the blessings of freedom for all black lives” through supporting the on-going protest movements in the U.S. I gave $250 (scroll down to the tiny PayPal donate button at the bottom of this page).

The American Civil Liberties Association: Fights for voting rights in the courts across the country. The recent well-funded campaign to prevent Black Americans from voting shows how crucial this issue is. I gave $250 (click here to donate).

Thanks everyone for your suggestions, and for everyone who joined me in donating! Keep your work going: speak up when you see racism, continue to educate yourself on your own racism, and continue to support the people and organizations who can most effectively fight racism.

Update: At least three other people have joined me in donating $1000 to fight white supremacy: Leigh Honeywell, Katie Bechtold, and Alicia Gibb. They also suggested:

Baltimore Racial Justice Action is “an action-based organization grounded in collective analysis of structural racism and white privilege.” In addition to a supportive community and educational events, BRJA offers consulting and training to individuals and organizations that seek to become inclusive and equitable. Donate here. Contributions are tax-deductible.

Black Women’s Blueprint works “to develop a culture where women of African descent are fully empowered and where gender, race and other disparities are erased” through research, historical documentation, and movement-building. Follow @BlackWomensBP on Twitter, and donate here. Donations are tax-deductible and eligible for employer matching – you’ll need to get the match by looking up JustGive (EIN 94-3331010) in your employer’s matching system and designating the donation towards BWB.

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Starting your own feminist backchannel

If you’re a feminist with an online presence, you know how hard it is to have a public conversation with your friends without some rando sea-lioning in to the middle of your discussion with his very important man-sights. Maybe they are just explaining your joke to you, maybe they are tone policing, maybe they are sliding into your DMs, maybe they are just boring self-entitled narcissists. Whatever the case, you’d like to be able to have conversations with your friends on the regular without the constant background noise of entitled misogyny leaking in.

I have good news for you: you (yes, you!) can start your own personal feminist backchannel! A backchannel is a alternate conversation happening outside of the “mainstream” discussion, often commenting on or related to the main discussion. Backchannels are incredibly useful to marginalized groups who are looking to build community, mutually support each other, and share useful information for their survival and success. That’s one reason why backchannels are often maligned by the privileged group (unless it is a backchannel for the use of the privileged group, in which case it is “just normal, friends talking”).

When women ask for a women-only discussion group in a mixed gender group, sometimes men in the group get very upset, sometimes to the point of angry shouting and turning red. When I ask them why, they say things like, “Well, they will be talking about stuff and I won’t know what it is,” or “Will they be talking about men – will they be talking about ME?” In addition to the normal human desire to be nosy, they realize that if women (or any other marginalized group) are allowed to talk to each without being monitored by the privileged group, the privileged group might be in danger of losing some of its perks. (E.g., the ability to serially abuse women more easily because their previous victims weren’t able to warn their future victims.)

But the main reason to start your own feminist backchannel is: FUN.

Hey, you like making misandry jokes? So do a whole bunch of other women like you, and you can do it without worrying about a poorly timed “Not all men!” ruining your hilarious riff. Are you super interested in energy policy but most of your friends are bored by it? Start your own backchannel with the other 5 people interested in feminism and energy policy and have conversations you’ve never had outside your own head! Love programming AND sewing? So do literally hundreds of thousands of other people, and you probably know at least 10 of them.

Twitter in particular cries out for feminist backchannels, but I have sad news: group DMs lack the features needed to make a good backchannel. I’ve started or been part of many feminist backchannels in years past, and lately I’ve been surprised by being invited to several new feminist backchannels by people I don’t even know. I thought it was time for a step-by-step guide to starting and maintaining your own feminist backchannel, in the style of “Start your own b(r)and: Everything I know about starting collaborative, feminist publications” which I had fun co-writing with Amelia Greenhall.

Keep your feminist backchannel a secret

The first rule of Feminist Backchannel is: don’t talk about Feminist Backchannel.

Because your backchannel is probably not composed of macho egotistical competitive dudes, you really don’t talk about your feminist backchannel except to people you are inviting to join it. A key element of a successful backchannel is that you only invite people who are a good fit for the backchannel’s social style, which is only a small subset of your friends. But your friends will feel left out and rejected if they learn they haven’t been invited to your backchannel. The only way out of this dilemma is to keep your backchannel secret outside of its current members. (That’s part of why I’m writing this how-to guide, because the people who invited me to their backchannels can’t say anything about starting backchannels without making their uninvited friends feel sad.)

Choose your purpose and scope

You need a vision for your group beyond “People I like,” though that’s a good start! What style of social interaction do you want: warm and sincere, joking and absurdist, cutting sarcasm at all times, everyone pretends to be robots, everyone pretends to be cats? And what is in scope for conversation: technology, cats, the weather, RC cars, doing your nails, complaining about work? You have lots of friends with lots of different social styles, and many of them aren’t going to get along long-term in a backchannel. What is important here is that your group’s overall social style is seldom grating to the people who are in the group. That’s why it’s important to have spelled-out social norms (hey, perhaps even a code of conduct!) and clear rules on acceptable topics.

Find some co-founders

Life happens, and while you might think running a feminist backchannel is totally doable on your own, everyone will be happier if you have a co-founder or two. It helps to have someone to talk to about the scope, style, and membership of the channel, especially when you are considering inviting someone you don’t have a lot of experience with in a social context. Sometimes you are oblivious to a specific person’s most irritating personality faults but they are obvious to your co-founders. (It only takes one irritating person to torpedo a backchannel — keep reading for more about what to do when that happens.)

Choose your medium

I’ll be honest, the answer here is probably Slack. It’s the best private group chat solution I’ve ever seen, by a mile, and the user experience is warm and welcoming. You may also consider old-fashioned IRC, a Mailman mailing list, or a Google Group, but they all have major drawbacks around administration overhead and usability. Slack is free unless you want to keep more than 10,000 messages in your user-accessible history or have custom message retention policies (keep reading for why you might want this). Another advantage of Slack is that if you use it for work, you can login to multiple Slack instances at the same time in the app, so it’s hard to tell that you’re not working!

Be incredibly picky about who you invite

You do not have to invite everyone you kind of like or have something in common with. Especially in fields with relatively few women, we get used to not being picky about who we spend time with – the concept of being able to choose WHICH women in open source software I wanted to hang out with, based on compatible personalities or other interests, was an incredible luxury for me! Your feminist backchannel is going to be a little bit like working in a shared open-plan office with everyone you invite, so if there’s someone who rubs you a little the wrong way, or has opinions about activism that you don’t agree with, or tends towards infectious, unconsolable self-pity, feel free not to invite them. They can start their own feminist backchannel with people who have the same quirks and social styles.

Create and enforce rules about conduct

You should have explicit rules about how people act in your space. Since it’s your space, you get to make up arbitrary additional rules in addition to the usual base assumptions. You can make rules that everyone has to pretend to be a cat when they join the backchannel, or you can make a rule that no one can pretend to be a cat ever – whichever you prefer! The Geek Feminism community code of conduct is a good place to start.

Kick people out when necessary

A few people who don’t have a compatible social style with the group will ruin the entire group. It’s up to the backchannel co-founders, or their duly appointed representatives, to ask people to leave when they are negatively impacting the vibe. This is true even if they haven’t violated your formal code of conduct or done something “awful” enough. Just wishing someone wasn’t in the channel at a vague subconscious level is a good enough reason to ask them to leave. It’s tough to ask people to leave, especially when you like them in other contexts, but crucial to the survival of the group. Watch for when your favorite people start to drift away or go silent – it could be that they are too busy to take part at the moment, but they could also have decided to just leave your group instead of tell you that another member is making them unhappy.

Allow people to choose what topics of conversation they participate in

The conversation in your feminist backchannel is going to range over a wide variety of topics, some that bring up a lot of strong emotions, positive or negative, and some that are just plain boring to others. The best practice here is to split conversations into multiple channels of communication that allow people to choose what they want to participate in (this is easy in a Slack or private IRC server). Some suggested channels:

  • general: for everything that doesn’t go elsewhere
  • rants: for complaining
  • cute: for pictures of kittens, happy children, and flowers, and uplifting stories and things
  • news: to talk about current topics
  • advice: where people can ask for and give advice
  • triggers: place where people discuss commonly triggering topics

Any time you aren’t sure if the rest of the people in the general channel want to talk about a thing, describe what you’d like to talk about and ask if you should start a new channel. If everyone wants to talk about the subject in the general channel, you’ll find out, but most likely you’ll find that you have an enthusiastic subgroup that will excitedly join your new topic of conversation.

Accept the fleeting nature of backchannels

Like any other social group, backchannels don’t last forever. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a constant low-level rotation of old people leaving the backchannel and new people joining and it will stay fresh and interesting for many years. But in most cases, the life of a successful, healthy backchannel is measured in the single digits of years. Don’t be afraid to dissolve it if no one is enjoying themselves as much any more. It will probably give birth to several new slightly better backchannels.

Be aware of the potential for subpoenas

One possibility to be aware of is that if anyone who is part of your feminist backchannel is subpoenaed for a court case related to anything they discussed in the backchannel, and they have kept records of it, they may have to turn them over to the opposing side (probably awful people you detest). There are two ways to avoid having a bunch of lawyers poring over your chat records discussing your ex-partner’s annoying sex habits: have an explicit policy of not keeping the records, or don’t talk about things that might become the subject of court cases.

Unfortunately, this is a place where the free version of Slack doesn’t work well: They keep all of your messages but only let you access the most recent 10,000 of them. I am not a lawyer, but presumably this means Slack could be subpoenaed directly to get the messages that you can’t read.

Hey Slack folks! You have a great product. As a way to support women and marginalized folks of all sorts, I’d like to see Slack add an additional option to the free offering that allows people to choose to permanently delete messages that they can’t access themselves. That would be sweet!

How to join an existing feminist backchannel

Sometimes, the feminist backchannel you want to create already exists and is a good fit for you, and the founders just haven’t thought of asking you to join. Your best course of action in this case is the same as if the backchannel doesn’t already exist: Talk wistfully about wanting to start a backchannel with particular qualities with the people you would like to be part of that backchannel. If it already exists and you are compatible, you will probably get invited to join it. Otherwise, you’re already on your way to being the feminist backchannel you want to see in the world!

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More adventures in self-doxxing: my online dating profile

So, I’ve decided to start dating again. Dating anonymously online is neither possible nor desirable: even in the Bay Area, I’m the only kernel programmer turned professional feminist activist.

Online dating profiles are, of course, filled with wonderful juicy tidbits for internet harassers. All those sex-related questions, hurray! So, to save you all the thirty seconds it would take to find my OkCupid profile, here it is:

OkCupid profile

Why pay OkCupid to boost my profile when I can get a bunch of trolls to do it for free? :)

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How did you find your co-founder(s)?

A lot of my friends are starting new ventures, inspired in part by Amelia Greenhall’s excellent post on starting your own b(r)and. I helped write some sections, including the one on what to look for in a good co-founder. Now some folks are asking how they can find a co-founder for their feminist company idea.

I know exactly how I found my Ada Initiative co-founder, Mary Gardiner. First, I spent 10 years doing volunteer work for women in open source with other women in open source around the world. Then I sent this email to 5 of these women:

Subject: Moonshot: Getting paid for geek feminism

Hello world-wide open source feminist cabal,

I officially announced today that I’m leaving Red Hat on January 7th
to work on women in open source projects on my own time:

http://blog.valerieaurora.org/2010/12/09/leaving-red-hat/

I don’t have a job doing this. Yet. But pretty much the first thing
I thought of when I made this decision a month ago is, “How many of my
friends can I help get jobs doing this too?” Then I told myself that
I was being crazy[1] and went to work on the anti-harassment policy.

Now I’ve had a month to think about it and my feeling is that it may
be crazy[1] but I want to try anyway. I personally have three months to
work on this full-time starting in January. Maybe if we work together
it will be enough to bootstrap all of us up; maybe none of us will be
able to get a job and I’ll have to go crawling back to Red Hat.
Either way, I’ll have a great time! :)

You are on this cc: list because (a) I know you, (b) you have already
devoted a significant portion of your waking hours to women in open
source for several years. I would like to keep the discussion small
for now – large groups are anathema to brainstorming – but if there’s
anyone I’ve obviously missed please suggest them to me and I’ll
resend.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Write your geek feminist
CV/resume and reply-to-all with it within one week. This includes
things like blog posts, event organization, founding mailing lists,
buying people books, making bizarre on-line challenges – list it first
and we’ll worry about spinning it later.

I don’t know what the world-wide economic capacity for paid women in
open source activists is, but let’s find out together!

The very first person to reply was Mary, a PhD student and primary carer for an 11-month-old baby who lived across the Pacific Ocean from me and whom I’d met in person only twice before. Our only previous joint venture had failed miserably (the great Attempted LinuxChix Coup of 2007). Less than two months later, we were sitting on her parents’ porch in Orange, writing up budgets and discussing how to keep her PhD supervisor from having a fit when he found out she’d started a business. 4 years later, we are running a growing, healthy non-profit that’s changing the world. (Mary also has a PhD and a second child.)

We refer to this as the “moonshot” email and I’ve forwarded it to a few people over the years. What I want to know is, how did you find a co-founder? Leave a comment with your story!

[1] I was being both ableist and quite literal when I used the word “crazy” in this email; today I’d write it in less offensive and more accurate language.

Updated 2015-02-11 to fix broken footnote link

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