blarg?

Inward

Nethack, the venerable console game, is almost 25 years old now, and new releases come out, irregularly, every few years. Keep that in mind for the moment.

A friend of mine who also has kids was a little shocked to find out that I’ve been playing Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood with Maya lately. You may well share his opinion that it’s not exactly a game someone a few months shy of two should be playing, and if I were playing it as intended you’d be right. But because it’s this beautiful, spacious open-world game, rich enough and flexible enough for us to wander around doing whatever we want, that’s what we do. As far as Maya’s concerned, AC:B is a boat and horsey game.

Maya likes to help me pilot gondolas around the canals, jump off of tall buildings to splash in the water and ride horses around the countryside. She points out the moon when she can see it in the sky, and when it sets we find a tall building to climb and watch the sun come up over the city. Her biggest complaint with the game so far is that horsies are OK, but she also wants to see cows, geese, the odd giraffe and, on some occasions, penguins. I’ve tried to convince her that penguins are neither geographically- nor period-accurate, but I don’t think she’s convinced; in the meantime Ubisoft, if you’re listening, that’s what you should really be working on. Old Macdonaldinio e il suo dell’allevamento bovino, e ai, e ai, o.

Get on that, guys.

It’s pretty great that so many games now are broad enough that if you’re looking for something different you really can wander off to the side of the story line and spend some time making your own fun. I love me some Renaissance-era Templar-Conspiracy parkour-and-stabby, don’t get me wrong, but it turns out I also like having my daughter navigate us around the countryside on her favorite horse and tell me that we’re done with the horsies and now it’s time for boats and swimming.

I’ve got to say, though, the better video games get, the sadder I get that they’ll never get open sourced. Open-world games have gotten so great, and Ubisoft in particular have done such a spectacular job with the Assassin’s Creed series. I would love to be able to repurpose those spaces for other things, whether they’re scavenger hunts, guided tours, maybe even different games entirely.

There’s no reason that you couldn’t have a gondola race, an art exhibition, an RC plane racing, any number of things. But like Rapture, the worlds of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, later incarnations of Hyrule, the Fable series, these are sprawling cities and wide-open spaces are essentially frozen in amber, perpetually the same. These worlds are stunningly detailed, lush and beautiful, and it’s really heartbreaking that they’ll never be anything more or other than they are.

While I’ve been working on this, it has already been done better here and here. But if you like, feel free to keep reading.

Pretending that rhetoric doesn’t involve a measure of culpability is a wonderfully convenient fiction, isn’t it? “I was just giving orders.”

When emotions are running hot and the situation is complicated, is any medium more perfectly suited to making things worse than Twitter? I think not. The point I tried, and largely failed, to make on Twitter yesterday wasn’t that Sarah Palin told Jared Loughner to shoot Congresswoman Giffords. She didn’t do that, clearly, didn’t buy him a gun or tell him who to point it at.

But, of course. I’ve talked about this before.

The distinction between “issuing an order that somebody be killed” and “fostering the rhetoric of violent reprisal, thinly-veiled threats and demonized opponents” may well be one you can rely on to keep you out of jail, but you shouldn’t pretend that it leaves you with clean hands and a clear conscience. You can’t talk about “death panels”, “FEMA concentration camps” and “Second Amendment remedies” and then pretend when it’s far too late that you didn’t at all mean what you very obviously meant the whole time.

Glenn Beck has fantasized on air about choking Michael Moore to death. G. Gordon Liddy has said, on his radio show, that when ATF agents knock on your door, you should shoot them in the head. Ann Coulter’s address to CPAC included the line that her “only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times building.” Sarah Palin’s PAC has painted crosshairs over the district of Congresswoman Giffords, among others. These aren’t people talking about video games or Fight Club, or any obvious fictions; these are real examples from real people who continue to be supported by their institutions and echoed by their colleagues. They have been legitimized and normalized by the institutions that support, fund and enable them, and the message is unambiguously that what they’ve said is perfectly acceptable.

That’s the space this happened in, where somebody with a tenuous grip on their sanity was told over and over again that these specific people were the enemy, that this is a war and that violence is acceptable. That’s the context. Is that the same as culpability? Of course not.

But the context matters. And the people who’ve done their best to shape and feed that context into the monster it is now understand that. The Glenn Becks and Michael Savages and Ann Coulters and Tea Partiers of the world have been extremely well-served by fostering violence, racism and fear, and tragedies like this one don’t exist in a void.

You Shouldn't Be Rapping

My little startup is moving along quite nicely, have I mentioned that? 2010 was a good year, and 2011 is looking extremely promising, in large part because of the awesome people I’m working with now and looking to hire. But I’d like to clear up one little thing about that; noted Seneca professor Dave Humphrey has recently observed about hiring college students:

But there’s at least one big problem, and it is perfectly reflected in a mail I got recently from a mid-sized tech company:

“…we normally only hire from universities, but might be open to a college student.”

This was followed by an invitation for me to come sing and dance for them, in order to prove our students were worth considering. I’ve done a lot of singing and dancing over the past five years and I’m starting to tire of the intellectual snobbery and education elitism that claims to want one thing, but interviews and hires for something else. Meanwhile, we’re shipping software. Meanwhile, we’re getting real shit done.

Incomprehensible. He even has the audacity to go on to argue that this is somehow a problem! And just I want to make it clear to businesses that operating in those niches in or near my own: this is not a problem at all for you. You should absolutely keep doing exactly what you’re doing. If you could just forget about college students outright, circular-file their resumes and ignore their emails, that would be great.

Trust me, future competitors, just keep doing that. I really appreciate it.

Rainy Day

Noted sex and technology blogger Violet Blue has written a bit here calling 2010 “The Year of Whining About Women In Tech”. In my erstwhile role as an obscenely overprivileged white man and freestanding meritocracy I’ve been giving this some thought recently. I feel that you should pay attention to my opinions on the subject. It’s pretty much what obscenely overprivileged white men do, you know? We just expect that, it’s kind of our thing. You should just go along with it; it’s not like you have a choice, right?

Everyone, every single one of you who have whined about women in tech this year are full of it until you can tell me one thing. And then, I will believe you are of a worthy cause. Like so many women in tech, I will no longer avoid attending your “women in tech” events. I will stop despising this cultural segregation for being female. I will stop hating your pro-women-in-tech posts that single us out, all cloaked in goodwill that always feels like it has a darker agenda.

Tell me why we should have more women in tech.

If you’re telling me we should, then tell me why we should. Why it is better. What benefits it brings to business, to profit, to innovation. To development. To leading companies and advising them.

I bet you can’t.

I’ve whined about women in technology this year, and I bet I can.

I don’t know about “better” or “profit” or “innovation” but I can definitely tell you why it matters to me, particularly with respect to the free and open-source software communities where I spend most of my time. The gender disparity there is wildly worse than it is in the private sector; the numbers I’ve seen suggest that while women make up slightly less than thirty percent of proprietary software development, in free and open-source software the number is maybe a twentieth that: 1.5%, give or take.

Look at the boards of prominent FOSS projects. No women sit on the Free Software Foundation’s board of directors, nor the Linux Foundation’s board. KDE e.V’s board has one woman, and GNOME’s board one. If anything, the number of female maintainers in Debian is probably lower than 1.5%. The figures don’t change much, no matter which FOSS organization you look at.

Or, if you prefer, listen to the horror stories female developers tell about sexist remarks or being asked out for dates. Look at the constant trolls on the mailing lists for female developers.

I’ve seen those emails, and if you think that’s not the case let me disabuse of that idea right away, because that’s the situation, for real; pervasive denigration and alienation of an entire demographic, resulting in communities that sit in their self-imposed isolation and call themselves meritocracies, that lack the self-awareness, honesty or introspection to wonder why everyone at the meetings, conferences and “camps” looks a lot like them or whether that might be a problem.

There is, of course, nowhere to file a bug on systemic cultural issues. But Ms. Blue’s question is: so what? There’s virtually no women involved in open-source software. Who cares, and why does that matter?

I can’t speak for everyone, but it does matter to me. Let me tell you what I believe about free software.

I’ve said this before; I believe free software is really important. In this shiny modern world of ours software makes decisions on our behalf, individually and collectively, and not being able to inspect or control those processes, to understand who they report to back to and how they interact with you and the rest of the world is fundamentally antidemocratic. Relying only on black boxes from vendors who may or may not have your best interests in mind means that real issues of justice and fairness and general human decency are being ignored or swept under the rug.

Brickwork

I think free software empowers us to be a free people, in short. Sure, that’s a gross oversimplification, blatant sloganeering and lots of other things, but as a view from 1000 feet goes it’s not bad.

But here’s the thing: what if I’m wrong about that?

What if all this idealism of mine is just so much bullshit, and the Free Software community really is nothing more than the poorly-socialized-boys club that it so often seems to be? You’d think that a group that prides itself on being open and meritocratic would be able to take a good hard look at its overwhelmingly white, almost 100% male self and respond with something other than the predictable macho posturing from self-diagnosed aspies jockeying for the alpha-chimp position, but that just doesn’t seem to be happening.

If anything, it’s getting worse.

I don’t want to be wrong about this. I really think free software is important, fundamentally important, to all of us. Not just the people developing it, but to the citizens of a just and functioning democracy. Free software is transparency, accountability, education and trust. But if we’re really trying to make the world a better place, then we should be trying our hardest to lower the barriers to participation and contribution, to bring more people on board. Today, right now, the technical barriers to participating in the Free Software community are as close to zero as they can ever be – you need an internet connection and a computer – but somehow a full half of our potential contributors have looked at the real cost of participating and said no, this is just not worth it.

That’s why I think women’s participation in technology, in Free and Open Source technology, is so important. Because however important I believe Free software to be, if participation, diversity and growth are a rough approximation of future relevance, then gentlemen, we are in a lot of trouble.