Finding food allergies and sensitivities

A little over five years ago, I stopped eating one food. About a month later, I suddenly realized that, for the first time in nearly seven years, I did not want to die. My history of untreatable suicidal depression, insomnia, and anxiety became just that: history. At the same time, a bunch of other little health problems cleared up (skin infections, weak fingernails, acne, etc.). I felt amazing!

It turns out I spent most of my life depressed and sick because I didn’t know I was allergic to wheat, which, as anyone with celiac disease can tell you, is omnipresent in the American food system. Over the next few years, I discovered more food allergies and sensitivities with symptoms ranging from “severe stomach pain” (guar gum) to “turn bright red and feel tired” (dairy). Eventually I learned that multiple food allergies was a common symptom of my rare genetic disease, hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (hEDS).

At first I thought my experience was a fluke, but now I’ve met dozens of other people who had similar major improvements in their health once they figured out their own food sensitivities. I am sharing how I found my food sensitivities in this post because, frankly, finding them is super hard! While most of my friends without hEDS have only one food sensitivity, we all struggled for years or decades to figure out the problem, only to have it disappear once we stopped eating the right foods.

Some of the reasons why finding food allergies is so hard:

  • Most doctors are dismissive of the idea that health problems can be caused by food sensitivities or allergies and will assure patients that their problem “can’t” be caused by diet.
  • Food allergies can be erroneously ruled out by inaccurate tests. For example, food allergy blood tests can only detect a subset of allergies, but are often taken as proof of no allergy.
  • Allergy tests can also have false positives if people are experiencing a lot of allergic reactions at once.
  • Some allergies are the result of a combination of different factors. For example, in oral allergy syndrome, people have allergic reactions to specific foods only when certain pollens are in the air.
  • The symptoms of a food sensitivity can be subtle. Many of us think all food allergies are life-threatening, like your friend with the nut allergy who has to carry an Epi-Pen everywhere. But if you have a milder allergy or sensitivity, the symptoms might be far subtler: maybe three or four small red dots on your chest that you mistake for pimples, or abdominal swelling that you dismiss as “just gas.”
  • If you eat the thing you’re allergic to on most days, you might never realize the connection between the food and the symptom, or that it is even a symptom, because you have the symptom all the time and that’s just “how you are.” If your allergy is related to a genetic predisposition, other members of your family may also “just be that way.”
  • If you have multiple food sensitivities, the symptoms of the other sensitivities might mask any relief you get from stopping eating just one of the foods.
  • Most of us eat a lot of processed foods, which not only have dozens of ingredients, but also contain trace amounts of common food allergens that aren’t even listed on the label.

My experience finding my wheat allergy illustrates many of these points. I have an unusually good doctor who had suspected for years that I had a wheat allergy and repeatedly urged me to try eating gluten-free for a month. But the first time I tried going gluten-free, nothing changed because… I was still eating wheat. For example, I didn’t know that most oatmeal has wheat flour mixed in it. Turns out, oatmeal is often made in the same factory as wheat flour, and the wheat flour floating in the air gets into the oatmeal. Also, I’d tested negative for the common genetic markers for celiac so I “knew” that small amounts of wheat couldn’t hurt me (wrong!), so I continued to eat soy sauce even though I knew it had wheat in it. At the end of the month, I told my doctor I clearly didn’t have a gluten allergy because nothing had changed—when I had eaten wheat almost every day of that month.

I tried going gluten-free again years later after having several friends with celiac disease who showed me what it took to eat 100% gluten-free. I also spent a lot of time on gluten-free websites self-educating myself on the American food system. This time it worked; I felt somewhat better within two weeks, and obviously better after one month. The most striking change was that I no longer had suicidal ideation for the first time in seven years. Once my body was healed up enough, I could tell when I’d eaten wheat by the return of small, immediate symptoms. The effects of my wheat allergy are so bad that I’ve only voluntarily eaten wheat once in the five years since I went completely gluten-free for a month—but until then, I had no idea I was allergic to wheat.

Signs you might also have an undiagnosed food allergy:

  • Skin problems (acne, blackheads, red spots, redness, scaly skin, oily skin, rashes, etc.)
  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Gastrointestinal problems (acid reflux, gas, IBS, diarrhea, constipation, etc.)
  • Joint pain
  • Muscle pain
  • Migraines or headaches
  • Asthma
  • Frequent colds and sinus infections

All of these symptoms can also be caused by other problems, but if you’ve been trying to treat the symptoms for years and having little success, it might be reasonable to experiment with just not eating some foods for a month. Talk to your doctor first, but so far I haven’t found any peer-reviewed research showing that, e.g., not eating wheat is harmful to the average person.

Some of these symptoms seem straightforwardly connected to food allergies (like anything involving the GI tract) but others are more mysterious. I have various theories about how all of these things are connected, supported to one degree or another by peer-reviewed medical research. Skin symptoms seem relatively straightforward: acne is hard to differentiate from hives, raised histamine levels clearly affect the skin, and skin pores are one method of excreting unwanted material from the body. On mental symptoms, my theory is that some food allergies harm the small intestines enough that your body has difficulty absorbing nutrients, like vitamins and fats, that are required for the healthy functioning of the brain. You may be eating a nutritious diet, but your body literally can’t digest what you eat. When it comes to asthma and colds, my theory is that the inflammation created by the food allergy makes the lining of the respiratory tract swollen and irritated, making it easier for germs to infect it. Also, food allergies can aggravate GERD, and the reflux can actually get into the lungs, causing asthma. These are my theories; all I know for sure is that for me and many other people I know, the symptoms listed above declined or disappeared when we eliminated certain foods from our diets.

So, how do you figure out if you have a food sensitivity? I’m going to describe three methods:

  1. Medical testing
  2. Eliminate one food at a time
  3. Eliminate all common allergens and reintroduce one-by-one

If your symptoms are severe and you’ve been trying to solve them for a long time, I’m going to recommend option 3 as the quickest route to feeling better.

Medical testing

Medical testing for food allergies is quite limited but if you have health insurance that covers these tests it can be an easy win. All food sensitivity tests I’ve researched have significant false negative rates (a false negative means the test says you don’t have a reaction to the food when in reality you do). Here are a few of the most common:

  • Celiac testing: Celiac disease is “multifactorial”—a combination of several genes and environment. The genetic testing can only say whether you have a known genetic predisposition to develop celiac disease. The other celiac tests can show that you have active celiac disease, but many people who don’t test positive still feel much better when they don’t eat wheat.
  • Skin test: This is a test where food extracts are applied to the skin (often in small cuts or pricks) and observed to see whether an allergic reaction in the skin results. This can find a food allergy, but not rule one out, as it is common for different tissues of the body to have different levels of allergic reaction to the same allergen. Your skin might not mind watermelon, but the inside of your throat might quite object.
  • Blood antibody tests: There are many different kinds of antibodies involved in food allergies, and current tests only measure a small subset of the possible antibodies. They also only work for foods you are currently being exposed to.

Skin and blood tests are also limited to a particular subset of foods, and you have to choose which ones to test for. You may not order the right test, or the test might not be available through your health care system, or the test for the food you are allergic to might not exist. When medical tests do find a food allergy, you can confirm the allergy by avoiding that food completely and then eating it again and observing your body’s reactions.

If you are lucky, medical testing will find your food sensitivity quickly, and your food sensitivity journey will be over. For lots of people, it’s not that easy. For me, I found one of my food sensitivities through a blood test (mustard seed), but I tested negative for all of my other food allergies.

Eliminate one food at a time

Another approach is to pick a specific food and eliminate it entirely from your diet and see how you feel. Sometimes you’ll have a suspicion or bad feeling about the food that you’re allergic to, based on unconscious associations between eating a particular food and feeling worse afterward. Often we ignore this unconscious dislike because as a society we praise people for having broad palates and for not being “picky eaters.” You may think, hey, bell peppers aren’t my favorite food, but they aren’t disgusting and I’m an adult, so I’ll eat them whenever they are served to me—when actually you don’t like them because they make you feel mildly sick for several days after you eat them.

The difficulties with the one-food-at-a-time approach include:

  • If you don’t find the food immediately, it may take years or decades to find it, since it takes several weeks to test each food.
  • If you have multiple food allergies, your reaction to the foods you are still eating may hide the relief you get from stopping just one food.
  • You may have a sensitivity to an entire class of foods, such as nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplant, etc.).
  • Some foods are common contaminants of processed foods—that is, they aren’t on the ingredient label, but they are present in the food due to contamination when they are processed in the same facility or cooked in the same kitchen.
  • Some foods are listed on the labels of processed foods but hidden under catch-all terms like “natural flavors” or “spices.”

While one-food-at-a-time technique eventually worked for my wheat allergy because it was so severe, it did not work the first time I tried it, due to contamination, and it did not work for my other allergies. For several years I had a rotating cast of foods I didn’t eat, on the theory that only one food was causing the problems: eggs, then dairy, then corn. I’d feel a little better than I did eating all foods, but I always assumed only one food was causing the problem, and as soon as I stopped eating a new food, I’d start eating the old food again, just because it is so hard to find something to eat otherwise.

One-food-at-a-time is a good choice when you have a list of a few top suspects for your food sensitivity and you have the time and resources to research how it might be hidden in your foods and make sure you’re truly eliminating it.

Eliminate all common allergens and reintroduce one-by-one

You can also try eliminating a big list of foods that often cause allergies and sensitivities all at once, waiting a month, and seeing if any of your symptoms improve. If they do, you then introduce the foods back one by one and see if your symptoms come back. This system has the advantages of feeling better quickly if the foods you are sensitive to are on the list, and then continuing to feel good except for the brief periods of time after you reintroduce those foods (as opposed to feeling bad until you find the food you are sensitive to, as in one-by-one elimination). It also works better when you have multiple food allergies, as the symptoms for one are less likely to mask the symptoms of the other if you eliminate them at the same time. The downside is that it’s really hard to eat for several months: you’ll have to relearn how to cook with a different and smaller set of ingredients and eating out will be really tough. Depending on how you currently eat and what grocery stores are near you, you may save a lot of money on food, or you may need to spend more money on food.

If you have really serious symptoms that are interfering with your life, or you have already tried eliminating one food at a time and felt a little better but not significantly better, this might be the right option for you. There are two well-documented diet plans you can try.

Autoimmune Paleo Diet

The word “paleo” probably reminds you of that annoying person lecturing other people about what to eat based on their personal fantasies about what people ate in prehistoric times. That’s super annoying and also not useful for tracking down food allergies. I’m talking about a different version of “paleo” here: the Autoimmune Paleo Diet is based on hundreds of peer-reviewed research papers on the effects of specific foods on modern-day humans. This version of “paleo” is about looking at the science and saying, “Hm, perhaps that food is harmful because we measured the way it harmed people in a scientific study.”

The Autoimmune Paleo diet (AIP diet) is the diet I tried when I was having mysterious stomach pain that prevented me from sleeping (that turned out to be guar gum). It is especially good for people whose symptoms are connected to autoimmune diseases, but it also works for many other common food allergies and sensitivities. In addition to eliminating possible harmful foods, it also recommends a lot of highly nutritious foods: bone broth, organ meats, high vitamin vegetables, etc. The goal is to give your body the nutrients it has been missing out on so it can rebuild your tissues. It also recommends sources of helpful bacteria to rebuild your gut flora. This diet comes with instructions on when and in what order to reintroduce foods.

The upside of this diet is that if you are suffering from any of dozens of problems, you’ll start feeling better pretty quickly. When I tried it, I went from being sleep-deprived due to stomach pain waking me up, to sleeping through the night in something like a week, which let me keep working my job when I thought I might have to take medical leave. You’ll also have a pretty clear idea of which foods were causing the problems if you follow the instructions on reintroducing foods.

The downside of this diet is that most people will have to relearn how to cook, buy new ingredients and cooking utensils, and have a lot of trouble eating at restaurants. If you share meals in a household, you will probably have to cook separate meals for yourself for a while (and maybe forever depending on what you learn). This diet involves eating a lot of animals; even if you are already comfortable doing that, it recommends eating parts of animals that many people in the U.S. think are gross. (This part isn’t necessarily crucial; for me, drinking high quality bone broth was the important part.)

I personally struggled a lot with the ethics of eating more animals. If I had my way, I would be vegan for environmental reasons, and eating animal products really grates on me. I came to this resolution for myself: I have a medical condition which requires me to eat a certain amount of animal products in order to be a healthy functioning member of society. Within those constraints, I make the most ethical choices possible. One aspect of this diet is that I often eat the parts of animals that end up being thrown away, such as bones. I also eat red meat very seldom, since it contributes to greenhouse warming more than pork or chicken or fish.

There is an extremely long and detailed book outlining all the research behind the AIP recommendations, but it takes forever to read and focuses on the theory more than the practice. I did the AIP diet using the Autoimmune Paleo Cookbook by Mickey Trescott, which has most of the information you would need to go through the entire process of finding your food sensitivities. I also did a couple of online consultations with Trescott to ask advice on tricky problems (e.g,. for a while I could eat while white rice no problem, but brown rice or rice flour made me sick). I also wrote a blog post about eating paleo while shopping (mostly) at Trader Joe’s.

Whole 30 with modifications

There is a lot of nonsense about “purification” and “detox” and “eating clean” around the Whole 30 program, and I object strongly to that kind of moralistic framing of food. If you can work around that judgmental cruft, you’ll find that Whole 30 is super useful for tracking down food allergies. This is because of the strong emphasis on eating mostly whole foods in the most literal sense: when you cook using food that hasn’t been processed, you can see with your eyes what is going into your body. When you cook with food that has been processed a lot, you literally can’t see what other foods are included in it, which makes it hard to track down food sensitivities. Whole 30 also already eliminates many common sources of food sensitivities, although I would suggest eliminating eggs, clarified butter, nightshades, and seeds as well.

The advantage of Whole 30 is that a lot of free resources and recipes are available online, and it doesn’t require buying a lot of new ingredients or cooking utensils. It doesn’t put any emphasis on eating animals or animal products (though in general it’s hard to eat enough calories on a vegetarian diet without grains or sugar so it will be a lot of work). The disadvantage is that it involves a lot of cooking and makes it hard to eat out. It also doesn’t include specific guidance on which foods to reintroduce when.

Whatever system you use, I recommend spending at least a month eating mostly “whole foods”: foods that are totally unprocessed and aren’t contaminated by other foods in a factory or a commercial kitchen. It will make narrowing down your food sensitivities much easier if you know what you are really eating.

Random useful stuff

FODMAPs: This is an acronym for a set of carbohydrates that are difficult or impossible for many people to digest. Instead, your gut flora digests them, producing gas, inflaming your gut, and overpopulating your gut with microorganisms. Sometimes this results in SIBO: small intestine bacteria overload, where bacteria invade the small intestine. Many people feel better when they reduce the quantity of FODMAPs they eat. Some people are much more sensitive to specific FODMAP, such as fructose. While this isn’t a food allergy, it is a food sensitivity, and fixing it will make it much easier to detect any other issues. It also can make a huge difference in your quality of life.

Probiotics: Having too little, too much, or the wrong kind of microorganisms in your GI tract can be both a symptom and a cause of food sensitivities. One form of this problemis the aforementioned SIBO, small intestine bacteria overload. The fix usually involves one or more of:

  • Taking probiotics (increasing “good” microorganisms)
  • Cutting down the food that “bad” microorganisms feed off
  • Antibiotics to kill off “bad” microorganisms

It takes month or years to change your gut flora, so keep at it! The payoff is so worth it.

Acidity: Some folks need to eat less acid-producing foods to be healthy. Some foods don’t seem acidic but the end result of digesting them is a higher level of acid. Sugar, salt, and grains are three examples of acid-producing foods that don’t seem acidic but will increase the acidity if your body.

Supplements and drugs: If you take any supplements or drugs, they may also be triggering food sensitivities, depending on their ingredients and how they were processed. Even switching brands of supplements can trigger new symptoms if the other ingredients change. I’m currently tracking down a sensitivity to one of my supplements using binary search: I stopped all the supplements; then when I stop having the symptoms, I reintroduce half my supplements; if I have the symptoms, I cut the supplements in half; if I don’t have symptoms, I add back half of the remaining supplements. Repeat until you find the specific supplement that is causing the problem. I’ve started keeping a diary of changes to my supplements and drugs, including manufacturer changes, so that I can track the source of sensitivities sooner.

Updated to add: Anti-allergy drugs and supplements: I take several things to reduce my allergic reactions to food. There are several steps in an allergic reaction, and I take something for each step. I also take higher than standard doses on some drugs because that’s the recommendation for people with hEDS and I feel better. Talk to your doctor to find what is right for you. My current list:

  • Mast cell stabilizer: sodium cromolyn (Gastrocrom)
  • H2 blocker: famotidine (Pepcid AC)
  • Anti-leukast: montelukast (Singulair)
  • Many things: quercetin

The drugs reduce my reactions when I do eat something I’m allergic to, sometimes to the point that I don’t mind eating them (like almonds) but I generally don’t eat them anyway.

That’s a lot of what I’ve learned about finding food sensitivities and allergies! I hope it helps you find any food sensitivities you may have with the minimum of time spent feeling awful.

Double Union is dead, long live Double Union!

As of today, I am certain Double Union is no longer a space that prioritizes people who identify as a woman in a way that is significant to them. This is because I have been permanently banned from Double Union for refusing to prioritize the inclusion of people who do not identify that way.

Some background: In 2013, I co-founded the feminist hackerspace Double Union. At that time, we envisioned a tiny space where the constant hurricane roar of sexism was damped down to a gentle breeze while we worked on our funky art and science projects. We decided to restrict membership to people who identified as a woman in a way that was significant to them for many reasons, one of which was to make sure we always prioritized that group of people.

This year, Double Union changed its membership criteria to “identifies as a woman or non-binary in a way that is significant to you.” To explain what happened next, I need to talk a little about gender and privilege and society.

As any trans person can tell you, the mere act of identifying in your own mind that you are a particular gender does not automatically result in society treating you as that gender–that’s one reason transitioning is so significant. Telling other people that you’re a man won’t make society at large treat you like one–that is, grant you male privilege–you’ll also have to look and act in certain stereotyped ways to get that male privilege from others. At the same time, because we define masculinity as fragile and easily destroyed, when someone publicly identifies as a woman–even partially–they pretty quickly lose most of any male privilege they previously had.

The problem for me personally with the change to the Double Union membership criteria is that some non-binary people are granted significant male privilege by society despite being non-binary, and that has repercussions for a group that, until recently, only included people with relatively little male privilege. It’s possible to be non-binary and receive more male privilege from society than someone who is a cis man–masculinity is complex and fragile. All non-binary people are the targets of transphobia and cis-sexism (the idea that your gender is determined by certain bodily features), but only some non-binary people are the primary targets of sexism (the systemic oppression of women).

After this change, an open question in my mind was: what happens when the interests of members who do identify as women in a way that is significant to them come into conflict with the interests of members who do not? Who will be prioritized?

Last week, I sent an email to the Double Union members list talking about how the Kavanaugh hearings reminded me of one reason why I want a space that, by default, does not include people with significant male privilege. I want a break from the constant background threat of violence–violence that will be covered up and swept under the rug because the person committing it has significant male privilege, the way Kavanaugh’s assault of Dr. Ford was swept under the rug. I talked about how Double Union was no longer that space, and asked if anyone else had experience dealing with this problem, specifically in a group only for members of a marginalized group that includes people who can pass as the privileged group.

The code of conduct committee let me know that I could not even discuss this topic on the members mailing list because it violated the code of conduct by making people who did not identify as women in a way that was significant to them to feel excluded and harmed. I told them I would not agree to this restriction. They banned me.

Whatever Double Union is now, it’s no longer an organization that prioritizes people who identify as a woman in a way that is significant to them. That’s fine; change happens and groups evolve. Double Union is now a place for women and all non-binary people and when the interests of those groups clash, they’ll probably continue to prioritize the inclusion of people who don’t identify as women in a way that is significant to them. I hope they will update the code of conduct to make this clearer; I certainly didn’t understand that my question broke the code of conduct, despite writing a good chunk of it.

Double Union is dead, long live Double Union! It was a fun experiment, and now it is a new, different experiment.


Post-script: Here are a few common criticisms, along with my response:

“You think non-binary people who present as masculine aren’t non-binary. ” Nope, I believe non-binary people are non-binary regardless of their presentation. I also observe that our society grants privileges to people based on a wide variety of signals, and someone’s gender identity is only one of those signals. I wish it weren’t so.

“Non-binary people are more oppressed on the basis of gender than women, all other things being equal. So when the interests of women and non-binary people conflict, we should prioritize non-binary people to fight oppression.” I definitely don’t agree with this. When it comes to gender, the less you are perceived as a woman, the better off you are, roughly. (“Woman” is the “marked” state of gender and “man” is the “unmarked” state–think of a cartoon character, unless it is “marked” female, it is assumed to be male, not female or non-binary.) Some but not all non-binary people experience more oppression than women, all other things being equal. Non-binary people who are granted a lot of male privilege are less likely to experience more oppression on the basis of gender than women.

“Even talking about non-binary people with significant male privilege reinforces the oppressive idea that those non-binary people are really male.” I don’t understand this. Some trans people can pass as cis; talking about that doesn’t reinforce transphobia. Some people of color can pass as white; talking about that doesn’t reinforce racism. This sounds similar to the idea that talking about oppression reinforces oppression, which I also disagree with.

“Non-binary people with significant male privilege don’t have the same experience as men because the privilege doesn’t match their gender identity, which can be oppressive to non-binary people.” I agree, it’s not the same experience and it can be oppressive. That doesn’t stop society from prioritizing their needs over those of people who identify as women in a way that is significant to them.

“All women’s groups should include all non-binary people.” I disagree. I think there are a lot of valid groupings of people along the lines of gender or features we currently associate with gender. I am in favor of groups only for trans women, people with uteruses, non-binary trans masculine people, people assigned female at birth, people questioning their gender, and people who identify as women in a way that is significant to them, to name just a few appropriate groupings.

“Some Double Union members are afraid of people with white privilege or cis privilege, but they don’t get to exclude all white or cis people. Therefore we should not exclude people because they have male privilege.” I don’t get this one; as far as I can tell the argument is that you can never eliminate differences in privilege between members of a marginalized group, so… you should never create a group that excludes people based on any element of identity? If one person is afraid… the group can’t have any boundaries at all? By this argument, Double Union should start including people of all genders. Personally, I’d rather put more effort into stopping racism and cis-sexism and other forms of oppression at Double Union, which is why I budgeted a significant fraction of our income for that when I was on the board of directors. I support groups for people at the intersection of oppressed groups, such as Black Girls Code. Double Union already has events only for members who are people of color and other marginalized groups; I want more of those events. My best guess for why this argument keeps coming up is that many people are socialized to think it is wrong for people who identify as women in a way that is significant to them to prioritize themselves as a group.

Hiring a facilitator for the Ally Skills Workshop

Frame Shift Consulting is getting so much business that I need another facilitator to help me teach Ally Skills Workshops! Short version: We are searching for a second part-time facilitator to help teach the popular Ally Skills Workshop at tech companies, primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area as well as around the world and online.

I’m especially interested in interviewing people who have some significant personal experience as a member of a marginalized group (person of color, queer, disabled, etc.). If that’s you and you’re even a little interested in the job, please consider spending 5 minutes slapping together an email with a link to your out-of-date typo-ridden résumeé. What’s the worst that could happen, you end up with a part-time gig being paid lots of money to teach people ally skills?

Here are the basic requirements:

  • Software experience, broadly defined (infosec, data science, testing, design, UX/UI, etc.)
  • Teaching experience, broadly defined (speaking at conferences, volunteer teaching, etc.)
  • Strong grasp of research and terminology around multiple axes of oppression
  • Residence in the San Francisco Bay Area
  • Work rights in the U.S.

If you’d like to learn more, including how to apply, check out the detailed job description.

Something is rotten in the Linux Foundation

When I agreed to talk about the management problems at the Linux Foundation to Noam Cohen, the reporter who wrote this story on Linux for the New Yorker, I expected to wait at least a year to see any significant change in the Linux community.

Instead, before the story was even published, the Linux project leader Linus Torvalds suddenly announced that he was temporarily stepping down from his leadership role. He also instituted a new code of conduct for the Linux kernel community after resisting years of requests for one.

I was (and am) astonished. So is everyone else. Now that I’ve read the New Yorker story, I am even more surprised–everything in it is public knowledge. Here’s why I don’t think the story explains why he stepped down.

Torvalds has been in charge of Linux for 27 years, and he’s been verbally abusive most of that time. I know, I personally spent more than 15 years struggling to change the Linux community for the better, first as a Linux kernel developer for more than 7 years, then as co-founder and executive director of a non-profit working to make things better for my fellow kernel developers. In 2016 I sent a letter to the Linux Foundation board of directors detailing pervasive mismanagement at the foundation. Nothing I or anyone else did changed the culture of Linux.

I finally realized why the Linux community was enduringly toxic and resistant to change: because Torvalds likes it that way, and he can inflict millions of dollars of losses on anyone who tries to stop him.

How? Well, if Torvalds’ employer, the Linux Foundation, pressures him, he can quit and they will lose millions of dollars in revenue, because paying Torvalds is the main reason sponsors give the foundation money. If a Linux Foundation sponsor tries to make Torvalds change, he can retaliate by refusing to integrate the sponsor’s code into the Linux kernel, forcing that sponsor to pay millions of dollars in software maintenance costs. If an individual Linux developer confronts Torvalds about his abusive behavior, their Linux career will end.

Torvalds also fostered a cult of personality whose central tenet is that Linux will fail if Torvalds is not its leader. In this system, Torvalds has little incentive to stop doing anything he enjoys, including verbally abusing other Linux developers.

My hope was that if a news story exposed this underlying power structure and showed how Linux Foundation sponsors such as Google, Intel, and HP are paying millions of dollars to fund toxic harassment of their own employees, the sponsors would act in concert to force some change, hopefully sometime in the next year. Instead, the usually intractable Torvalds abruptly stepped down before the story was even published.

I can’t think of anything I told Cohen that would result in anyone risking millions of dollars to confront Torvalds this quickly and forcefully. Maybe it’s a coincidence; when the New Yorker reached out for comment, Linux developers were also angry about another issue. It’s possible Torvalds took other developers’ feedback about his abusive behavior seriously for the first time–in 27 years. But the announcement seemed weirdly rushed even to the developers asking for change.

I don’t know what the real explanation is. I suspect the foundation’s board of directors doesn’t know either; a 22 person board is usually purely ceremonial. (Did you know that the larger a board is, the less likely it is to fire the CEO?)

But you know who probably does know the explanation? Senior former Linux Foundation employees, and with the recent high turnover rate at the foundation there are quite a few.

Here’s what I suggest: Linux Foundation sponsors should demand that the Linux Foundation release all former employees from their non-disparagement agreements, then interview them one-on-one, without anyone currently working at the foundation present. At a minimum, the sponsors should insist on seeing a complete list of ex-employee NDAs and all funds paid to them during and after their tenure. If current Linux Foundation management balks at doing even that, well, won’t that be interesting?

If you’d like to support people working to fix harmful workplace conditions, please donate to BetterBrave, which helps employees fight workplace harassment, including sexual harassment and discrimination. Thank you!

If you’re being abused at work, I hope you will keep meticulous documentation, pay attention to statutes of limitation, talk to a lawyer, and reach out to a reporter sooner rather than later. As the stories about Uber, CBS, and The Weinstein Company show, many boards of directors just rubber-stamp the abuses of the CEO and upper management until someone talks to a reporter. I’m also happy to listen to your story, confidentially.

Living in a collapsing democracy

The thing I did not expect was how helpless I would feel during the end of U.S. democracy. I read so many books and articles on what it is like living in a collapsing democracy, but I thought that since we all knew about how that worked now, we’d be able to stop it this time around.

I can’t stop it, and no one else seems to be able to either.

My last specific update on the growth of fascism in the U.S., back in January 2017, was a little hopeful. During the last year and a half, I was often encouraged and heartened by the role the courts played, opposing Trump’s various unconstitutional actions.

Then July 2018 happened.

After a series of horrifying Supreme Court decisions including upholding Trump’s Muslim travel ban, the supposedly moderate Justice Kennedy announced his retirement. The GOP made it abundantly clear they have been the party of power for power’s sake for at least a decade, maybe two, when they refused to authorize federal funding to improve election security while our voting systems are actively being attacked by Russia. Current polls show about a 75% chance the Democrats will take the House, and 25% that they’ll take the Senate – when the Democrats have +7 to +10 advantage on the generic ballot. The second largest political party in the U.S. and the one that currently controls all three branches of government is not just willing but eager to destroy our democracy as long as they can stay in power.

The most helpful book I read in this time is “How Democracies Die” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (short summary here). Short version: our only chance to retain a functioning democracy in the U.S. is for the Democrats to win the 2018 elections, both House and Senate (there’s a tiny chance a Republican senator or two will caucus with the Democrats to save U.S. democracy but I’m not holding my breath). All of the other routes—mass protests, general strikes, various forms of violence, any funny business around changing constitutions or votes or similar—will just end up with a strongman of one sort or another and the end of democracy in some other way.

The odds of U.S. democracy making it through the next year intact are low and dropping (33% seems optimistic to me). My personal decision is to work hard on winning the 2018 elections. I’ve already donated thousands of dollars to various swing elections, and I’m planning to do phone banking or other forms of volunteering for the same campaigns. I encourage others to do the same.

It seems awfully likely that the 2018 elections will be stolen one way or another, in addition to the already existing systemic biases in districting and representation that give the Democrats such an enormous disadvantage. The simplest way will be to use the technique that the Republicans are already using and that it appears Russia may have adopted as well: stop likely Democratic voters from voting, by purging the voter rolls, voter ID laws, or spreading lies and disinformation. I’ll be thrilled if the Democrats take the House and the Senate, but I am in no way planning on it.

During the rise of Nazi Germany, there was a period of time around 1933 or so when a lot of people who had studied history left Germany voluntarily, years before the really startling violence began. Hannah Arendt, author of “Eichmann in Jerusalem” and “Origins of Totalitarianism,” among many other works, was one of them. In 1932, she was imprisoned by the Gestapo for eight days, and in 1933 she left Germany for Switzerland and later France. In 1937, Germany stripped her of citizenship. She escaped an internment camp in France in 1940 and came to the U.S. in 1941, spending a total of 13 years as a stateless Jewish refugee before being granted U.S. citizenship in 1950.

Right now, my best guess is that 2019 will be our 1933. My passport expires in 2019. I’m renewing it next week.

Bryan Cantrill has been accused of verbal abuse by at least seven people

It sounds like Bryan Cantrill is thinking about organizing another computer conference. When he did that in 2016, I wrote a blog post about why I wouldn’t attend, because, based on my experience as Bryan’s former co-worker, I believed that Bryan Cantrill would probably say cruel and humiliating things to people who attended.

I understand that some people still supported Bryan and his conference after they read that post. After all, Bryan is so intelligent and funny and accomplished, and it’s a “he said, she said” situation, and if you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen, etc. etc.

What’s changed since then? Well, at least six other people spoke up publicly about their own experiences with Bryan, many of which seem worse than mine. Then #metoo happened and we learned how many people a powerful person can abuse before any of their victims speak up, and why they stay quiet: worry about their careers being destroyed, being bankrupted by a lawsuit, or being called a liar and worse. If you’re still supporting Bryan, I invite you to read this story about Jeffrey Tambor verbally abusing Jessica Walter on the set of Arrested Development, and re-examine why you are supporting someone who has been verbally abusive to so many people.

Here are six short quotes from other people speaking about their experiences with Bryan Cantrill:

Having been a Joyent ‘customer’ and working to porting an application to run on SmartOS was like being a personal punching bag for Bryan.”

I worked at Joyent from 2010 through 2013. Valerie’s experience comports with my own. This warning is brave and wise.”

All that you say is true, and if anything, toned down from reality. Bryan is a truly horrible human being.”

I know for sure Bryan’s behavior prevented or at the very least delayed other developers from reaching their potential in the kernel group. Unfortunately the lack of moral and ethical leadership in Solaris allowed this to go on for far too long.”

Sun was such a toxic environment for so many people and it is very brave of you to share your experience. After six years in this oppressive environment, my confidence was all but destroyed.”

Having known Bryan from the days of being a junior engineer…he has always been a narcissistic f_ck that proudly leaves a wake of destruction rising up on the carcasses of his perceived foes (real and imagined). His brilliance comes at too high of a cost.”

This is what six people are willing to say publicly about how Bryan treated them. If you think that isn’t a lot, please take the time to read more about #metoo and consider how Bryan’s position of power would discourage people from coming forward with their stories of verbal abuse. If you do believe that Bryan has abused these people, consider what message you are sending to others by continuing to follow him on social media or otherwise validating his behavior.


If you have been abused by Bryan, I have a request: please do not contact me to tell me your story privately, unless you want help making your story public in some way. I’m exhausted and it doesn’t do any good to tell me—I’m already convinced he’s awful. Here’s what I can say: There are dozens of you, and you have remarkably similar stories.

I’ll be heavily moderating comments on this post and in particular won’t approve anything criticizing victims of abuse for speaking up. If your comment gets stuck in the spam filter, please email me at valerie.aurora@gmail.com and I’ll post it for you.

Yesterday’s joke protest sign just became today’s reality

Tomorrow I’m going to a protest against the forcible separation of immigrant children from their families. When I started thinking about what sign to make, I remembered my sign for the first Women’s March protest, the day after Trump took office in January 2017. It said: “Trump hates kids and puppies… for real!!!

trump_hates_puppies
My  protest sign for the 2017 Women’s March

While I expected a lot of terrifying things to happen over the next few years, I never, never thought that Trump would deliberately tear thousands of children away from their families and put them in concentration camps. I knew he hated children; I didn’t know he hated children (specifically, brown children) so much that he’d hold them hostage to force Congress to pass his racist legislation. I did not expect him and his party to try to sell cages full of weeping little boys as future gang members. I did not expect 55% of Republican voters to support splitting up families and putting them in camps. I’m smiling at the cute dog in that photo; now the entire concept of that sign seems impossibly naive and inappropriate, much less my expression in that photo. I apologize for this sign and my joking attitude.

I remember being terrified during the months between Trump’s election and his inauguration. I couldn’t sleep; I put together a go-bag; I bought three weeks worth of food and water and stored them in the closet. I read a dozen books on fascism and failed democracies. I even built a spreadsheet tracking signs of fascism so I’d know when to leave the country.

I came up with the concept of that sign as a way to increase people’s disgust for Trump; what kind of pathetic low-life creep hates kids AND puppies? But I still didn’t get how bad things truly were; I thought Trump hated kids in the sense that he didn’t want any of them around him and wouldn’t lift a finger to help them. I didn’t understand that he—and many people in his administration—took actual pleasure in knowing they were building camps full of crying, desperate, terrified kids who may never be reunited with their parents. In January 2017, I thought I understood the evil of this administration and of a significant percentage of the people in this country; actually, I way underestimated it.

At that protest, several people asked me if Trump really hated puppies, but not one person asked me if Trump really hated kids. In retrospect, this seems ominous, not funny.

I’m going to think very carefully before creating any more “joke” protest signs. Today’s “joke” could easily be tomorrow’s reality.