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Lindsey Kuper

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"It's like a barrier broke down in my mind." [Aug. 17th, 2009|02:24 am]
Lindsey Kuper

Kirrily Robert, giving a keynote talk at OSCON 2009:

If someone's being an asshole, call him on his crap. If you're not sure if someone's being an asshole, here's a hint: If there is a naked lady up on the screen, someone is probably being an asshole.

Fuck yeah.1

I had the pleasure of meeting Kirrily at OSCON last year.2 If I had been at OSCON this year, I would have been on my feet and screaming my approval for the entirety of her talk. I'm surprised at how few bursts of applause I hear in the video. Why didn't the whole room clap for the Dreamwidth diversity statement? Why didn't the whole room burst into cheers and applause at the "it lost its forbidding mystique" quotation? "It lost its forbidding mystique" is precisely what open source is about.

Yes. Here, let's have the whole thing. This is Kirrily quoting an excerpt of one woman's response to a survey of female developers who were working on the Archive of Our Own open source project.

Deep down, I had always assumed coding required this kind of special aptitude, something that I just didn’t have and never would.3 It lost its forbidding mystique when I learned that people I had assumed to be super-coders (surely born with keyboard attached!) had only started training a year ago. People without any prior experience! Women! Like me! Jesus! It’s like a barrier broke down in my mind.

One of the most important ideals of open source is that everything is and should be hackable. Earlier today, I was thinking about a problem I was trying to figure out a couple months ago. It took me an embarrassingly long time to understand what was going on, because it hadn't occurred to me that one could write a program to process binary data just as well as one could write a program to process plain text, and, moreover, that there was absolutely no reason why one shouldn't do such a thing. In fact, my misunderstanding had been not so much technical as psychological. I was confused because I didn't really believe that the binary files I was dealing with were hackable, despite the fact that I had been attempting to preach the all-things-are-hackable gospel for years. When I suddenly realized that processing binary data was not only possible, but in fact utterly natural and unexceptional and just not different in any fundamental sense at all -- because plain text is, after all, just a special case of binary data -- I could see all the way down to the bottom for a glorious moment.

That moment of enlightenment, of barriers breaking down in the mind, is what I think hacking is about. It's why I think hackers hack. This woman captures it beautifully. When you hear people say stuff like that, you need to cheer out loud for it. Maybe the audience was nervous and keeping quiet because of the seriousness of the subject matter, but there's no reason why we shouldn't be loudly and boisterously showing our approval of the good stuff.

  1. For those who haven't been appalled by them already, Kirrily's "naked lady up on the screen" comment is most likely an allusion to this offensive conference presentation and this other offensive conference presentation. There was also this, which I honestly didn't find offensive so much as just extremely tacky.
  2. She had cool hair then, too.
  3. "I had always assumed coding required this kind of special aptitude" vividly reminds me of a comment from a discussion about low enrollment in computer science courses in Peter pmb's journal a year ago. The commenter wrote, "As an out-and-proud former liberal arts major I've never even come anywhere close to thinking that my education would suit me for either programming or CS. Many of the CS people I know have acted like it's a deity-given gift, to be able to program, and not a learned skill set. I'm trying to think if I've ever even heard anyone say that arts majors are capable of learning to program." That made me feel like breaking things. Instead, I just responded as clearly as I knew how: "Arts majors are capable of learning to program."

[User Picture]From: pmb
2009-08-17 09:02 am (UTC)
Thanks for linking to that presentation!
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[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2009-08-17 04:14 pm (UTC)
You're welcome!
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[User Picture]From: perligata
2009-08-17 09:05 am (UTC)
I love Kirrily so hard (and I met her at OSCON last year too -- shame I didn't meet you!)
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[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2009-08-17 04:24 pm (UTC)
Did you go this year? I wanted to so badly, but I was too busy and too poor, plus it kind of broke my heart that it wasn't in Portland.
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[User Picture]From: jes5199
2009-08-17 04:01 pm (UTC)
i used to have a slogan on this livejournal thing that said
"not difficult, just arcane"
which was trying to capture this feeling.
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[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2009-08-17 04:26 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I remember that! I thought you were trying to describe yourself.
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[User Picture]From: jes5199
2009-08-17 07:22 pm (UTC)
well, I'm a sucker for double meanings
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[User Picture]From: stereotype441
2009-08-18 12:42 am (UTC)
And here I was thinking you were being difficult.
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[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2009-08-17 08:01 pm (UTC)
Oof! Good point. 9 a.m. speaking engagements should be illegal. Now I'm even more impressed with your talk.
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[User Picture]From: pixelherder
2009-08-20 09:02 am (UTC)

Yeah, I remember having kind of a face-palm reaction when I read about those talks. I remember too being a bit stunned by many of the comments in the threads about it on Proggit and the like -- folks coming out in defense of it. One particular subthread that still sticks in my mind was someone explaining how they despise the idea of "professionalism" in programming. They all just struck me as a so tin-eared -- like they had no concept of how humor could be used appropriately in a technical context (i.e., how dry wit is usually even funnier while being less distracting). It's a completely different mindset on programming than I'm used to. And to be quite honest and stereotypical, it kind of made me glad that I identify mainly as a C++ programmer rather than something like a Ruby or a Flash programmer. The C++ community might not be flashy, but at least its members generally know how to behave like grownups.

Regarding programming ability, I really liked Anton Ego's monologue in Ratatouille, and I think it applies to programming just as much as to cooking:

The world is often unkind to new talents, new creations. The new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new; an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source... In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau's famous motto, "Anyone can cook". But I realize - only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.

That said, I do think that in some cases it can be good for beginners to realize when someone is much more experienced. I remember back in my days as a UC in the MathLAN, helping CS151 students debug their Scheme assignments. Some of them were shocked and felt a little foolish at how quickly I could spot their bugs and it would make them feel a little uneasy about their programming ability. Pointing out that I'd just been helping their classmates with the same assignment and that before that I'd helped their predecessors in previous years with the exact same assignment usually helped put them at ease. There's a fine line, I think, and minimizing the discrepancies in experience too much can be equally dangerous. (Experience -- not ability, though!)

Those slides where interesting, by the way. I particularly like the one about expanding rather than switching the pool of developers.

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[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2009-08-20 02:09 pm (UTC)
Yes, it's sad that "professionalism" has apparently become a bad word to some people. Professionalism doesn't mean you can't have fun!

I hesitate to make any blanket statements about, say, the Ruby community, because I know too many Ruby people as individuals. But one of my friends wrote something incisive in response to a blog post that David Heinemeier Hansson made a few days after the Golden Gate Ruby Conference. My friend said, "Part of what kills me about DHH's 'I've found that the fewer masks I try to wear, the better' line as justification for continuing to be an asshat is that his particular approach forces anyone who isn't like him to do exactly that." Precisely.

That said, I do think that in some cases it can be good for beginners to realize when someone is much more experienced.

I still struggle with this. The best teachers I've had have been the ones who never answered my questions immediately. Instead, they've asked me a question in response, or they've just let me stew for a while until I figure it out. I want to be a good teacher, too, but I'm nervous about not answering questions immediately, because what if the students think I don't know the answer? Eventually, as I get more confident, I hope I'll stop worrying about the students thinking I don't know my stuff.
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